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By David Madison, 04/07/2023.
They just say NO to their lord and savior
Most of the Old Testament is ignored today by churchgoers: trying to plough through the books of Numbers or Leviticus, Jeremiah or Ezekiel is too much of a struggle. When they turn to the New Testament, the gospels probably get most of their attention—though that is limited too—while the letters of the apostle Paul are also too much of a struggle. Of course, there are famous texts from these letters that are favorites, e.g., “love is patient, love is kind” (I Cor.13:4)—which is Paul in a good mood. So much of the time he is a bully, lashing out, scolding, savoring the wrath of his god.
Reading his letters is actually depressing. He is the typical cult fanatic, so sure that being possessed by Jesus (as he imagined him) is a good thing, and that Jesus would arrive from heaven “any day now” to set things right. It seems he was a tortured soul, and his interest in sex was close to zero; he projected this as an ideal for followers. “And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). He felt it was best for a man not to touch a woman (I Cor. 7:1), but if it can’t be helped, go ahead. However, since Jesus was about to arrive from heaven, it was best to remain pure: “…the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (I Cor. 7:29).
[Previous articles in this series: Number 1 Number 2]
When the gospel writers came along later, it’s probable they were influenced by Paul’s thinking. Hence we find Jesus-script about sexuality that many of the devout today would hesitate to endorse. There are actually quite a few of them; here are four.
Anyone whose interest in sex is higher than Paul’s knows that arousal happens; it’s a natural thing, built into humans by evolution—well, for those who don’t believe in evolution, it’s still very real. The advocates for the early Jesus cult, i.e., those who wrote the gospels, wanted to keep a lid on it; hence this Jesus script: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
Equating arousal with adultery?This falls into a category of Jesus sayings that can be identified as Bad Advice and Bad Theology (see all the categories here). If Christians heard this from anyone else—in any other context—they would dismiss it entirely. It’s dumb, sophomoric, not at all what one would expect of a great moral teacher. This text has also probably played a role in making people feel guilty about their sexual feelings.
Some guilt would be a good idea, of course. Why didn’t Jesus say something like, “Clergy who lust after and rape children shall never enter the kingdom of heaven”? It’s become so common to see outrageous headlines, e.g., just this week: Maryland AG report into Archdiocese of Baltimore alleges 150 Catholic clergy members and others abused more than 600 children. Here’s a quote:“From the 1940s through 2002, over a hundred priests and other Archdiocese personnel engaged in horrific and repeated abuse of the most vulnerable children in their communities while Archdiocese leadership looked the other way. Time and again, members of the Church’s hierarchy resolutely refused to acknowledge allegations of child sexual abuse for as long as possible.”
The apostle Paul was dead wrong about sexual feelings being crucified when you “belong to Christ.”
It is quite common for Christians to ignore Jesus-script about divorce. In one of his confrontations with the Pharisees, he said:
“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Who needed to have it explained that there was a reason for the male-and-female arrangement? Becoming “one flesh” is an obvious outcome. But then this Jesus-script wanders into truly bad theology: “…what God has joined together.” If you go along with the view that a god created the arrangement, yes, this was God’s scheme. But this script seems to imply that all marriages have been arranged by this god—he has done the joining together, which is why divorce is forbidden: you’re breaking up a divinely ordained union. There are a couple of things really wrong about this: (1) that a god meddles in intimate human affairs, he micromanages. This is totalitarian monotheism—another way for clergy/theologians to enhance the guilt-factor in religion: if you get a divorce, you’re suggesting that god made a mistake; (2) think of all the bad marriages you know of in your experience, done for so many wrong reasons. Multiply that by the number of horrible marriages throughout human history.
God must have made a lot of mistakes. “…what God has joined together, let no one separate” is bad theology—not what we would expect of a great moral teacher.
And it gets worse: “He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” Matthew 19:8-9).
There can be many reasons for divorce, and it’s not all that smart to suggest that being hard-hearted is the main reason. Had Jesus done a lot of research, to be able to announce that “from the beginning it was not so”? How would be know that? Then this additional silliness: if a divorced person marries someone else, that’s adultery. It’s even worse adultery if a man marries a divorced woman. How much damage has been caused by this teaching, especially in terms to increasing guilt? By the way, Matthew’s line “except for sexual immorality” is missing from the text that he copied from Mark. He wanted to soften the harsh teaching.
Do contemporary Christians pay much attention to such Jesus-script? This quote is from a 2014 study published by Baylor University: “Despite their strong pro-family values, evangelical Christians have higher than average divorce rates—in fact, being more likely to be divorced than Americans who claim no religion…”
And this is from a 2015 survey by the Pew Research center: “Among Catholics who have ever been married, roughly one-third (34%) have experienced a divorce.” That’s especially a scandal since marriage is one of the sacraments in the Catholic church. Major games are played as well: I know a Catholic man who paid big money to have his twenty-year marriage—that resulted in three children—annulled, to avoid admitting that a divorce had been involved. Too bad Jesus didn’t mention annulment when he preached about divorce!
So many Christians seem to be okay with ignoring Jesus-script on divorce.
Right after Jesus equates arousal with adultery, he recommends self-mutilation:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30, with the same warning repeated in Matthew 18:8-9).
Although the clergy will rush to assure the devout that this is metaphor, we have to wonder why a great moral teacher would have chosen such grotesque imagery. Again, this has too much the flavor of cult fanaticism, which we have come to expect of the gospel writers who created the Jesus-script.
Robert Conner, in his book, The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of Last Days, notes that “Jesus’ command to mutilate oneself hardly stops with an eye, hand or foot however” (p. 55), and he quotes Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Jesus fails to qualify as a great moral teacher if he recommends self-castration: “Let anyone accept this who can.” Conner is right: “Surely no rational man would think himself spiritually elevated because he had removed his own testicles! That reaction would be true if we were talking about rational people, but we aren’t. We’re talking about early Christians” (p. 56).
Conner quotes from an article by Daniel F. Caner: “…sources from the fourth century indicate that by then self-castration had become a real problem in the nascent Church…by which time an ascetic movement that included not merely renunciation of marriage but also extreme forms of self-mortification had become influential and widespread in Christian communities” (p. 56).
Matthew 19:12 is most certainly Jesus-script that is universally ignored. Conner also notes that several modern translations obscure the meaning to the Greek text (see p. 55), but the top prize for deception goes to The Message Bible:
“But Jesus said, ‘Not everyone is mature enough to live a married life. It requires a certain aptitude and grace. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Some, from birth seemingly, never give marriage a thought. Others never get asked—or accepted. And some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons. But if you’re capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it.’”
This is not even paraphrase; it’s the pushing of theology favored by those claiming to be translators. Bluntly stated: it’s lying.
Churchgoers who take the time to think about these texts can appreciate that they are out of sync with the way the devout today deal with arousal and divorce—and no one gives serious thought to self-mutilation. It doesn’t help that the metaphor is so grotesque. Even the devout may wonder—despite the words printed in red—if Jesus really did say these things. They should embrace the concept of Jesus-script, that is, these sayings were invented by the gospel writers as they created their Jesus tales. But then the devout face another awkward reality: we have no way of knowing the authentic words of Jesus. Indeed, are there any at all in the gospels? New Testament scholars have known for a long time that there is no way to verify any of the words of Jesus we find in the gospels—because these documents are decades removed from the time of Jesus.
Maybe the devout are fine with “taking it on faith” that Jesus actually uttered the words that are so tough to take seriously, but then they have to admit that they just say NO to their lord and savior. Of course, they don’t say it out loud.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.