Here’s the link to this article.
By David Madison, 04/28/23.
They just say NO to their Lord and Savior
When you’ve been nurtured on ideas since early childhood—they’re a source of comfort and derive from adults whom you trust—it can be hard to see that some of the ideas may be truly weird. This is especially true of the gospels, which remain, for far too many of the faithful, unexplored territory. There may be passing familiarity with gospel stories, based on texts read from the pulpit and heard in ritual. Of course, Christian children’s books have played a major role in making the best Jesus-script well-known, e.g., in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), and “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16, may or may not be Jesus-script: there was no punctuation in the Greek manuscripts.)
But outside of fundamentalist/evangelical circles, I suspect it’s not all that common for laypeople to really dig into the gospels. With so many other entertainment options these days—movies, TV, sports—picking up the Bible and actually studying the gospels carefully doesn’t hold strong appeal. There’s also this factor: it’s unsettling to discover the weird stuff that priests and preachers seldom mention from the pulpit. There’s quite a lot of weird stuff in the Jesus-script, which prompts even devout folks to admit, “No, that can’t be right.” But they seldom stand up and declare, “Well, I don’t agree with Jesus on this!” However, our understanding of life, and our knowledge of how the world works, leads to the suspicion that a lot of Jesus-script is just plain wrong.
[Previous article in this series are here: Number 1 Number 2 Number 3]
Mark, commonly accepted as the first gospel written, provides several examples.
In chapter 2 we find the famous story of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof, so that he could get access to miracle-working Jesus. Indeed, Jesus heals the man—no surprise that this story gets into children’s Bible books—but what he says doesn’t sound right at all: Jesus heals him by forgiving his sins. This angers the religious bureaucrats present, because they’re sure that only God can forgive sins. This Jesus-script is based on the assumption that disease is caused by sin (vv. 9-12):
“Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.’ And he stood up and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”
The author of Mark’s gospel was pressing his theology here, i.e., Jesus has authority, just as much as god does, to forgive sins. But how much damage has this text caused? We can be sure that many devout folks have been convinced that their sins have caused illness to themselves and loved ones. But pathologists who study paralysis know for sure that sin has nothing to do with it. Maybe the guy took a bad fall, or suffered from a genetic disease. No doctor who is trying to help a paralyzed patient will ask for a list of sins the person has committed—to figure out what went wrong. Superstitious thinkers of the ancient world would have blamed sin, but we know better. If modern readers think it through, they realize that this Jesus-script is wrong.
One of the strangest texts in Mark is 4:10-12:
“When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret [or mystery] of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, in order that ‘they may indeed look but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
What was Mark thinking? The parables are meant to prevent people from repenting? That makes no sense in the context of his own gospel: Jesus appeared to “preach the good news” about his god’s kingdom. Devout New Testament scholars have been struggling with this text for a long time. Verse 12 seems to be a quote from a sinister text, Isaiah 6:9-10, but we still are left to puzzle over why Mark chose to use it. Perhaps Mark was influenced by a desire to align the Christian cult with other mystery cults of the time, in which folks in the inner circle were privy to precious sacred secrets: “…to you has been given the secret/mystery…” I suspect that many Christians today would agree that this Jesus-script can’t be right.
Devout Christians have always cherished the parables, e.g. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Mustard Seed, precisely because they convey important lessons. Later in chapter 4 we find this text (vv. 33-34), which compounds the problem: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
“…he did not speak to them except in parables…” These words are contradicted massively by John’s gospel, in which Jesus doesn’t teach in parables at all.
This is another occasion, by the way, to point out that the popular Message Bible specialized in lying. This is how it renders Mark 4:10-12:
“He told them, ‘You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward a welcome awakening. These are people—Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing, Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word, Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.”
There is nothing whatever in these verses in Mark about “…creating readiness, nudging them toward a welcome awakening.” This is cringe-worthy theology designed to make Jesus look good.
In Mark 10:29-30 we find Jesus-script that makes even less sense than the claim in Mark 4 about the purpose of parables:
“Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’”
This qualifies as cult babble! We see a religious hero who considers it routine that his followers will leave their possessions and families “for his sake,” and for the sake of his message. Cult fanatics throughout history have urged the same level of loyalty and commitment. But here in this Jesus-script a huge reward is promised: you’ll get all your stuff back—families and possessions—a hundredfold! What can that possibly mean? How can anyone get their families back, a hundred times over? Maybe it’s just a metaphor? That excuse might be used today, but how was it understood in Mark’s time? Even the devout who think about this carefully, would have to grant that this Jesus-script should just be ignored. Notice that the promise of eternal life was tacked on as well, which is a classic gimmick of cult leaders.
At Mark 10:30 we find another text that should set off alarms: “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Those of us who grew up in the church are so used to hearing these words. But who does that? Most of the Christians I know have full, busy lives, their energies devoted to their families, jobs, hobbies, sports, etc. By no means is “all their, mind, soul, strength” focused on loving God. If held accountable to this text, they would admit that they don’t measure up, that this is Jesus-script that sounds nice—but doesn’t apply to how they actually live. Of course, there are Christians who aim for this, by becoming priests and nuns, joining various holy orders—to “devote their lives” to their god. But this all–all–all–all level of commitment is a mark of cult mentality.
In an article published here in 2018, titled, Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot, I discuss the major deficiencies of Mark’s gospel.
I want to mention two examples of Jesus-script in Matthew that do not fit well with how Christians get along in the world. Both of them are in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew 5:17-19, the author appears to resist Paul’s downgrading of the importance of Old Testament law. There is a lot in this ancient version of scripture that Christians find distasteful and even abhorrent, hence their common way of dodging the older “word of God”: “…but that’s in the Old Testament…the New Testament, focused on Jesus, has moved beyond that.” But this Jesus-script in Matthew won’t allow this excuse:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
There is somewhat similar Jesus-script in Luke 16:16-17, but this only adds confusion: “The Law and the Prophets were until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is being proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”
It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the gospel writers invented Jesus-script as they saw fit, but so many contemporary Christians tend to reject “words of Jesus” aimed at preserving/honoring the archaic laws found in the Old Testament.
In Matthew 6:25-33, we find an eloquent text that fails utterly in its description of human existence. It’s too long to include here, but these are the highlights: don’t worry about getting enough food and drink—just look at birds: God feeds them. Don’t worry about clothing—just look at how beautiful lilies are; that’s God’s handiwork: so God will provide you with clothes. The conclusion: “…seek first the kingdom of God…and all these things will be given to you as well.” (6:33)
Many thousands of humans starve to death every day. Is that because they’re not seeking the kingdom? But aside from that stark reality, how many contemporary Christians don’t get up and go to work, to make sure their families have enough food and clothing? “Let’s just seek the kingdom, and everything will fall into place.” And, by the way, I know devout churchgoers who care very much about fashion trends and their wardrobes. There is no way at all that they identify with this Jesus-script in Matthew 6:25-33. Here the author urges his readers to be overwhelmingly focused on “the kingdom.” This is script written by a gospel author who was sure that the kingdom—with Jesus arriving on the clouds—was about to happen. So indeed, why worry about food and clothing? That’s not how most of the faithful manage their lives today.
Of course, preachers, priests, and apologists do their very best to make Jesus-script look good. All of these texts must be given a positive spin, to keep Jesus, Lord and Savior intact. But they can never be clever enough to disguise the plain meaning of the texts. They specialize in game-playing. Earlier this month, on this blog, John Loftus summed up this game perfectly:
“Unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, Christians take it literally until such time as the literal interpretation becomes indefensible. Then they find some other meaning, no matter how strange. In other words, it says what it says until refuted by reason, morality, and/or science, then it says something other than what it says.”
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.