Easter Special: Nicholas Kristof interviews a Christian who doesn’t accept the tenets of Christianity

April 21, 2019 • 9:15 am

For a long time, New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof has been interviewing religious people, struggling to somehow buttress his Christianity.  He’s written a number of columns in which he asks religionists and church leaders if he, Kristof, is really a Christian (see here, here, and here), for, like any sensible person, he has doubts about the miracles that underlie Christianity, and about concepts like the efficacy of prayer, heaven, and hell. He wants to be a Christian but is having problems. I think he’d be better off as a secular humanist (he holds a number of appealing liberal views), and that would also save us from the spate of tedious columns about religion flowing from his pen.

And indeed, the people Kristof interviews, like former President Jimmy Carter, usually disavow any literal belief in the foundational tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection, but still consider themselves as Christians because somehow the whole fictional story resonates with them. But doesn’t there has to be some acceptance of Christian truths to call yourself a Christian rather than, say, a Muslim or Hindu? In this week’s column, Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, somehow manages to find her Christianity between the Scylla of the Resurrection and the Charybdis of the virgin birth, both of which she rejects.

Here’s what Jones doesn’t accept: the resurrection, the virgin birth, the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient god, heaven, hell (which has a “symbolic reality”, whatever that is). Here’s what she does accept: the crucifixion and the power of faith to tell her that there is a god and that that god is “vulnerable” (whatever that means).

Jones appears to reject things like the Resurrection because there’s no evidence for it, or it doesn’t make sense, but yet accepts other tenets of Christianity because her “faith” tells her what’s true. In the end, she calls for a reformation of Christianity—i.e., the religious underpinnings of Christianity—to effect social justice. (You can read the article to see that bit.)

Here’s where she accept the crucifixion (for which there’s no extra-Biblical evidence) but rejects the resurrection.

KRISTOF Happy Easter, Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.

JONES When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.

For me it’s impossible to tell the story of Easter without also telling the story of the cross. The crucifixion is a first-century lynching. It couldn’t be more pertinent to our world today.

What is it, Dr. Jones? Did the crucifixion really occur, but not the resurrection? If so, how do you know? And if you claim to know that the crucifixion took place, and the person nailed up was anything more than a non-divine apocalyptic Jewish preacher, are you kidding yourself, too? What, truly, was the nature of Jesus? And what is Easter about Is it all just a story? If so, why do you follow that story and run a big Christian seminary?

Sometimes I think that this mushy, cherry-picking theology is worse than Biblical literalism, because it’s infuriating the way that people like Jones twist and turn their words to buttress truth claims that don’t seem to be true. For example:

KRISTOF But without a physical resurrection, isn’t there a risk that we are left with just the crucifixion?

JONES Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs. The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me, the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?

Yes, that story is nuts, and I wonder if Jones tells her faculty and her flock (she’s a minister, too) that this foundational story of Christianity is “nuts” as well.  But then if somebody just got nailed up and was not resurrected, what is the vaunted “triumph of love”? The execution of a preacher isn’t a triumph of love, but hate. And if that’s the case, then what does she mean by saying “what happens on Easter”? Does she mean the celebration of a Resurrection that didn’t happen?

And since Jones doesn’t believe in the afterlife, what “hope” is she looking for? The improvement of humanity? If that’s the case, then secular humanism, particularly as discussed in Steve Pinker’s latest two books, gives us even more reason for hope: the historical progress of humanity that has depended not on religious superstition, but on humanism, science, and secular morality, traits that seem to be spreading.

Here’s where Jones avers that she knows the nature of God, though she doesn’t tell us how she knows, nor how she knows that there even is a God:

KRISTOF: You alluded to child abuse. So how do we reconcile an omnipotent, omniscient God with evil and suffering?

JONES At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object. But I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That’s not the God of Easter. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.

If God is beyond our knowing, then how does she know that God is vulnerable and “connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy”? Truly, if God really is beyond our knowing, then how does Jones know there is a God at all?

In this bit below, Jones says that her faith is stronger than truth, because she’d maintain it (and has maintained it) even if its truth claims were found to be false (my emphasis):

KRISTOF Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.

JONES For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.

Here is deepity piled upon deepity. What does it mean to say that love is stronger than life or death? I have no idea. Note the last two sentences where Jones tacitly admits that faith is belief that is independent of the evidence. And this prompts my question to Dr. Jones: “What, then, would convince you that Christianity was a lie?”

Truly, this modernist theology sickens me, for while it pretends to rest on empirical evidence, it rests on it only so far, and beyond that things are believed for which there is no evidence—indeed, counterevidence if you accept Victor Stenger’s claim that “absence of evidence is evidence for absence, if there should have been evidence.”

I’m getting ill trying to dissect this piece, so I’ll proffer just one more specimen of Sophisticated Theology®:

KRISTOF What happens when we die?

JONES don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife. People who behave well in this life only to achieve an afterlife, that’s a faith driven by a selfish motive: “I’m going to be good so God would reward me with a stick of candy called heaven?” For me, living a life of love is driven by the simple fact that love is true. And I’m absolutely certain that when we die, there is not a group of designated bad people sent to burn in hell. That does not exist. But hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world today in so many forms.

I’m not sure what she means by saying that “Love is true”, which seems to be another deepity. If love is true because it’s there and powerful, then so is hate. But besides that, note that Dr. Jones is “absolutely certain” that there is not a hell. How does she know? Well, maybe hell is just a “symbolic reality,” but you don’t need the symbol of hell to realize that treating people badly makes for a bad society. To call suffering “hell” in the Christian sense is to play with words and mislead people. In this sense—and in fact in every aspect of the watery Christianity that Jones espouses—her faith is unnecessary. In the end, it’s merely secular humanism tricked out with religious symbols to sell it to the Little People.

Happy Easter!

Serene Jones, professed Christian

55 thoughts on “Easter Special: Nicholas Kristof interviews a Christian who doesn’t accept the tenets of Christianity

  1. In many ways it’s heartening to see someone like Serene Jones following the modern fashion of ‘having it your way’.

    Not only do you get to choose your burger toppings, or the fillings in your sandwich, you also get to choose which political policies you favour rather than being obliged to back everything your Party stands for.

    Philosophy is all over the shop with finer and finer definitions trying to stem the collapse of a particular ‘school’.

    Best of all people are coming to realise that ‘one size doesn’t necessarily fit all’ and that some medicines work better for some rather than others.

    If picking only the ‘nice’ bits out of a sacred text in no longer unacceptable then the world will probably be a better place. More messy perhaps, but better.

    1. Hey, I quite like that! I have always vehemently rejected the accommodating style as BS, but that hasn’t got me anywhere; so maybe your more open-minded, what-the-hell approach may become mine. I mean, you’ll NEVER change people’s minds, so – what-the-hell . . .
      Thank you!

    2. I’m not sure that a world in which people play fast and lose with the ideas of truth, clarity, honesty, and consistency in order to pick out the “nice” bits will end up being a better world. Sounds more like the strategy Trump uses — though I guess it works for him, at least.

      1. I’d argue that priests, political leaders and criminals have always selected the ‘bits’ they wanted ordinary people to know.

        Some ordinary people have now caught on to this and are playing the same selective games. Which might go some way to explaining the recent spate of inaccurate polls.

        I’d agree that truth and clarity are desirable. But honesty and consistency? They are also desirable but there is a strong contextual influence… consistency in particular should be an observation, not an injunction.

  2. “JONES: At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object.”

    In this one sentence, Jones encapsulates the essence of Christianity and other religions. God is beyond our knowing, so what are seemingly bad things such as wars, diseases, and natural catastrophes are not really bad. God has a plan, mortals simply do not have the capacity to understand it. Just keep the faith that all will work out well in the end, whenever that may be. I call this viewpoint the universal cop-out because it provides the basis for justifying anything that happens without a need to explain how the events seems to contradict theology.

    It is also curious that while theologians and clerics say that God is unknowable, they have no trouble communicating to congregants from thousands of pulpits exactly what God wants. They seem to be blithely indifferent to the contradiction.

    Jones has constructed in her head a theological system that meets her psychological needs. As all such systems, it is irrational and perhaps pitiful. But, it gets her through the day. As long as she doesn’t try to foist her beliefs on me, I don’t really care what she believes.

    1. “God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object.”

      Note the bald contradiction:

      1. God is beyond knowing.
      2. God is not a being, etc.

      This obvious legerdemain may pass for thinking by a ‘Rev.’ in some New-Age Christian denominations, but goodness help us all when it earns a ‘Prof.’ or ‘Dr.’ and the presidency of a theological seminary.

    1. The world would be a different place. Maybe the first Christians were like her, but there’s always someone (I’m looking at you, Saint Paul) who takes it too far: Makes a fetish out of it, uses it to prove their superiority, thinks everyone has to believe like they do. People always seem to be looking for that way to make themselves special, whether it’s religion, the Keto diet, Crossfit, or some band.

      1. Here’s a question, are atheists in someway superior to Christians?

        If we accept that free will does not exist, then at best atheists have different luck than Christians.

        But you are right … as Joseph Campbell said, religion turns poetry into prose.

        And I fear that prose becomes dogma.

  3. Jones’ idea of religion will not bring in the followers or fill the coffers so what is the point. With no promise of the afterlife you have a loser idea and will likely not fill one church. I hear no caching.

  4. Imagine this as a conversation in a manor house from the 15th century during the Little Ice Age – telling everyone you don’t really think things happened literally like in the Bible but the story is appealing for some reason, or that they “don’t know!” what happens to anyone after they die. I cannot see that going well.

    1. Error – I meant 1500’s, perhaps peaking at 1600.

      And the manor house I mean as the pre-flu/chimney versions in feudal society – where all animals were in the same room.

  5. I read that yesterday and kept scratching my head…and started thinking that maybe the Ken Hamms of the world make more sense than this. At least their “thinking” is more consistent and straightforward and doesn’t have to be twisted like a pretzel.

  6. From what I’ve seen of him in interviews, Nicholas Kristof seems like a nice enough fella. And he comes down on the right side of most issues. But he strikes me, in both his writing and his thinking, as mainly mushy and lame.

    1. “But he [Kristof] strikes me, in both his writing and his thinking, as mainly mushy and lame.”

      My take exactly. His heart’s in the right place and I’m inclined to cut him some slack as a fellow Oregonian, but his thinking/writing almost always disappoints.

  7. For me it’s impossible to tell the story of Easter without also telling the story of the cross.

    I think everyone would agree with Dr. Jones, as everyone would agree that it is impossible to tall the story of the flood without the ark.

    I agree with CR above. I respect a Christian for whom Theology isn’t a buffet. At some point, if you take the ham, scallions, and peppers out, you aren’t eating a Western Omelette anymore.

    1. I respect people who can treat dogma as metaphor. That’s the beauty of theology it is a moving target.

      You can drown the out the ham, scallions and peppers with all sorts of ingredients is it still a Western Omelette?

      You yourself pointed to St Paul who added some of the ingredients to the Western Christian Omelette we have today.

      It is bad enough that Christians argue amongst themselves as to what is true Christianity. No need for non believers to define it for them.

      But I for one am happy to nudge Christianity to a less harmful dogma/metaphor.

    2. Jefferson, who didn’t claim to be a Christian, picked and chose the elements he believed in the New Testament. He accepted the philosophy, but not the miraculous stuff.

      If one reads the New Testament, it’s difficult to accept Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul as describing (believing) in the same Western Omelet.

      Throughout the history of Christianity and still, we have Christian religious sects breaking up over disagreements in dogma (Methodists and LBGT, for example). This has happened from the very beginning of Christianity. There are massive numbers of Christians who hold divergent beliefs. Always Always will.

  8. The deepities of the likes of Kristof and Jones explain why we do not consult such people about car repair, plumbing, bridge design, ship maintenance, dentistry, or other such matters. Remarkably, though, they are taken to be oracles on such things as world affairs, social organization, war/peace, and so on—as if such things occur somewhere other than the physical world.

    1. They’re consulted -and freely offer their views – on anything that has no measurable outcomes!! They pray for or predict – whatever – and when the opposite happens, there’s never any follow-up questions!!
      I really really wish people would stop consulting them!

  9. She has hermetically sealed off her critical thinking so that she can prop up a simulacrum of faith without it really being faith. She appears to be an agnostic, although I see no hint that she even realizes it.

  10. I am a mushy, vaguely ‘spiritual’, half Buddhist / Unitarian Christian myself. My reasoning is that religions of various stripes do point to something, although our knowledge of how exactly that works is so limited that all we can do is look at various paths to see similarities between them or take a “this works but I don’t know why” approach.

      1. Right, but I think they point to some specific aspect of the universe. Early alchemists, for example, might have discovered interesting properties of chemicals during their work and said “Hey, no gold yet, but something is going on” – that something would be specific to chemistry, in that particular case. I think religion taps into something, it would just be difficult, with our current lexicon, to say what, exactly.

  11. I don’t believe for a second that Serene Jones loves people and God as much as she says she does. How can you be the president of a seminary if you love people? If you really loved them, you would respect them. And she clearly doesn’t. How responsible and loving is -being in a position of authority- to say to young people that you are “absolutely certain” of things that nobody knows? That’s the opposite of love and respect for others.

  12. “Sometimes I think that this mushy, cherry-picking theology is worse than Biblical literalism. . . .”

    Amen to that! This kind of so-called “Christian theology” is worse than throwing out the baby with the bathwater; it’s throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.

  13. I would describe beliefs like those of Serene Jones as “Cheshire Cat Christianity.” Everything has disappeared except the teachings of love, justice and mercy.

    I can live with that. But, as someone has already said, it won’t put butts in the pews. (Not that that is a good thing.)

  14. I am reminded of the late David Jenkins, the Anglican Bishop of Durham in the 1980s. He openly voiced doubts about the resurrection and the virgin birth, a very surprising position for a leading bishop of the Church of England to take.

  15. A recent conversation with a family member 30 years younger than myself:

    Me: What are your deepest beliefs?
    CP: I’m a Buddhist.
    ME: Theravada or Mahayana?
    CP: Huh?
    Me: Well, are you a member of a temple?
    CP: No.
    ME: Do you read the texts?
    CP: No.
    ME: Do you meditate?
    CP: No.
    ME: Do you believe in reincarnation?
    CP: No. But I’d come back as a butterfly.
    ME: Seeking nirvana?
    CP: No.
    ME: Well, what is it then?
    CP: Buddhism is about being kind and loving.

  16. Dr. Jones is in deep Christian dodo…
    Ask said in the KJV

    1 Corinthians 15:17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.

  17. I believe in the crucifixion. I think it was more likely than not that an apocalyptic Jewish preacher from the Galilee named Yeshuah existed and was at least in part the inspiration for the Jesus movement, a Jewish sect that morphed into xianity. I also believe that he was most likely executed by the Romans. Romans did that to troublemakers.

    If you look at the two sides of did Jesus exist argument, I go with Bart Ehrman who says it was almost certain that Jesus existed. So let us say a 90% probability. Richard Carrier who says that there was no physical Jesus still puts the probability at 1 in 3 of a physical Jesus. I am about 60% that there was a physical Jesus. Basically, the xians had to overcome the embarrassment of their savior being killed by the Romans. If he did not physically exist, they never would have mentioned it.

    Of course, none of this has anything to do with the existence of an all powerful and all knowing supreme being. Or morality. Or salvation. Or anything other than some weird history.

    1. Ehrman relies almost exclusively now on circular reasoning and argument by assertion.

      Carrier is a crackpot who misapplies Bayes Theorem, which is in any case a GIGO formula, and Carrier’s input is definitely garbage.

      Basically, the xians had to overcome the embarrassment of their savior being killed by the Romans. If he did not physically exist, they never would have mentioned it.

      This is known as the Criterion of Embarrassment. It is an exceedingly flimsy tool, which is nevertheless heavily relied upon in biblical studies, as they got little else.

      Solid evidence exists of a 1st century Christ cult that believed in a purely divine Christ having been sacrificed in the heavens in a time-out-of-time past. The concept of an earthly Jesus Christ crucified at a specific time and place does not appear until well into the 2nd century.

  18. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.

    What someone found evidence that the Calvary scene in the Gospels was cribbed from a memoir written c. AD 100?

    And when I was sent by Titus Caesar … to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp, as I came back, I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.

    — Titus Flavius Josephus, Vita

  19. There has been an Easter tradition for longer than I care to remember of the papers interviewing various high heidjuns in various churches about what they actually believe, until one of them lets slip that they don’t actually believe some tenet of the faith – there is always one disbeliever, in at least one tenet.
    The offending cleric is then crucified over several days in the press, then over a few months goes through enough stress-inducing vilification that either they or their family can’t take it any more, retire, and the merry-go-round of clerical appointments moves on a notch, like the cylinder in traditional Russian Roulette.
    I suppose it’s one way of speeding up the promotion treadmill. The army has wars to encourage promotions. The navy has reefs to wreck reputations upon. The church has crucifixons. But you’ve got to ask, eventually, isn’t there a more efficient way to manage the HR problems of the church?

    Maybe I don’t understand this religion thing?

  20. Oh, an Easter special came across my timeline yesterday.
    Why are floppy discs like Jesus?


    Well, it made me laugh.

  21. When I read these fuzzy pleadings from a tepid Christian apologist like Serene Jones, I can’t help thinking of an adult telling spooky stories to a group of young children around a campfire. “…and despite the attack by the wolf pack, the children lived happily ever after”. With so many unthinking believers in our midst, these halfhearted preachers concoct vague, convoluted excuses to sound reassuring. They take it as their social obligation to lie circuitously.

  22. Speaking of Easter Sunday and religious experience (aren’t we?), just got back from seeing Amazing Grace — the documentary footage of the live gospel album Aretha Franklin recorded with the Southern California Community Choir over two nights at the Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Shot in 1972 by acclaimed filmmaker Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor), but, due to various technical problems and legal entanglements, never released until a week or two ago.

    Can’t say it brought me any nearer, my God, to thee, but it’s about as close to a numinous experience as this old-fart atheist is ever like ta get.

    Sat in the theater through most of it bawlin’ like a goddamn baby. See it if you can.

    1. Haven’t seen the film and probably won’t, though not because it features Aretha Franklin singing Gospel. On the contrary, as you say, that’s the whole reason to do so. But here’s why I expect I’ll stay home.

      Do you suppose that Franklin, or anyone in the choir, had the faintest idea who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’? Well, it was a guy named John Newton, a British sea-captain and slave-trader on the Middle Passage in the mid-late 18th century. His journals show his barbarity, typical of the ‘profession,’ and his implicit refusal to see his captives as anything more than chattel headed for the Caribbean to be sold at a fine profit.

      Yes, he ostensibly gave slaving up, became an Anglican cleric and wrote his hymn, ‘Amazing Grace:’ ‘saved a wretch like me.’ Sure it did! ‘I once was lost/ But now I’m found.’ Splendid! But what about the men and women who jumped overboard to swim back to Africa? They weren’t ‘saved’ even in the Christian, let alone the literal, sense, though Newtown had his crew try hard (but futilely) to find and fetch them out of the Atlantic. After all, they were ‘goods.’

      Can’t stand to hear the hymn since I’ve learned about Mr. John Newton.

      1. Jeez, man, it’s one song out of dozens the First Lady of Soul sings in the movie, and a beautiful tune at that. Plus, I’m pretty sure John newton isn’t collecting any royalties out of the price of a ticket.

        This is precisely why I maintain a strict church-state-style wall of separation between politics and art, between religious sentiment and aesthetics.

  23. You know, reading Jones’ replies and her descriptions of the “God of Easter” — with her focus continuously hopping from mystery to vulnerability to the truth of love — it occurs to me that she might actually be worshiping the Easter Bunny.

    If she figures out she is worshiping the Easter Bunny, I bet she could make that sound just as fuzzy and cute.

  24. I think being a secular humanist is a step too far for most people, possibly because it leaves no deity to petition for help, or possibly because, if there is no god, then we have to take 100% responsibility for ourselves. Both of those things are scary. As an atheist, I can say that the view from the other side is wonderful, but each person has to take the up hill path for themselves. There is no easy, second hand way to get there.

  25. The observation about the lack of extra-Biblical evidence for the crucifiction is both odd and false. It is odd because the New Testament is not one thing, it is a collection of sources assembled at a later time. It is like a creationist saying there is no evidence of evolution beyond what is in the text books. It is false because there are non-canonical gospels which mention it but which were not included into the New Testament in the fourth century. The Gospel Of Peter is one such, as is the Gospel of Judas. There are more.

    1. Sorry but your comment is both odd and wrong. There is evidence in all the journals, in the museums, and many places that are not in the textbooks. Also, the gospels are all part of a mythology that borrows from each other, and so your saying that the non-canonical gospels given evidence for the crucifixion is no evidence at all.

      1. I have thought of a bette analogy. What would you think of the argument there is no evidence for the existence of Spartacus outside the Loeb Classical Library? Not much I expect, since the LCL is not a single book, it is a collection of most books we have from antiquity. Similarly, the Bible is not a single source, it is a collection of sources, widely disparate.

    2. KW: “crucifiction.” From your content, hard to say if this is a typo or a pun. But in any case I am SO stealing it.

  26. Perhaps I have not been clear. I am an atheist. But your observation about extra biblical evidence has two problems. First, even if it were true it would not mean much, because the Bible is not one source. It is many sources, collected, some of which are independent (Paul for example). That is the point of my analogy to textbooks. The creationist’s argument would be bad even if it were true.

    Are you claiming now that there are no non-canonical sources for the crucifiction? There are, I have cited two. You might not like the evidence, but it exists and it refutes your statement.

    1. Not even close. The canonical and non-canonical sources are accounts written separately, but were drawn from the same milieu of rumors. Much like an urban legend which you hear from your pal from work, and then later from your weird uncle. That only means that the story has been laterally spread through many mouths over many years.
      What is being asked for is a shred of corroboration from sources like the Romans, or from the priesthood.

    2. First off, let’s please, please get the spelling right: it’s “crucifixion”, with an “x”, which means “stuck on a cross”. “Crucifiction” with a “c” is just too ripe for mockery, and we’re all very polite at this website!

      Now then.

      The canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels are most certainly not independent sources. Even a decent edition of the Bible will admit this (albeit in guarded language) in the introductions to the various gospels.

      Church tradition notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that the gospel of Mark was written first and then other gospels and gospel-like texts were composed to correct Mark’s errors and take his rather bare-bones story in different directions. We are confident about this because, if you care to check, about 90% Mark is pretty much copy-pasted in Matthew, with the addition of a lot of new material such as the virgin birth, the Sermon on the Mount, and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. That means that Mark had been written and circulated at some point before the author of Matthew reworked it for his own readership. The author of Luke, no doubt inspired by Matthew’s originality, used about half of Mark and took the story in a somewhat different direction. The gospel of John is a more difficult matter, since in that one Jesus is portrayed in a completely different way, but it still follows the general outline of Mark. The gospels are not independent sources.

      I dismiss the conjectural “Quelle” document as independent evidence for an historical Jesus, seeing as how it doesn’t exist. I also dismiss the epistles of Paul, which portray Jesus as some kind of celestial being and add nothing to the search for him as a human.

      So the life story of Jesus is entirely rooted in the gospel of Mark, and we must ask, who wrote Mark, and for that matter, when, why, and even, for what readership? Nobody knows! One thing is sure: it is a clever and sophisticated literary creation. It retells Old Testament stories following the outline of Homer’s Odyssey, cleverly weaving sources as diverse as astrology and ancient Greek adventure novels. Is it also based on historical fact? It could be, but we have no reason to think so. In fact, being loaded with improbable events, symbolic proper names, and impossibilities like the miracles, exorcisms, and magical healings, it seems actually to have been intended as allegory and not to be read as literal history.

      It would really help us to separate theological allegory from historical fact if we had some solid independent verification. We have none. I’d like to see the excavations in Herculaneum turn up a letter from a Roman solider, stationed in Jerusalem in the year 33, that started “You’ll never believe what happened at work today!”. But alas, we have only Christians writing about Christian beliefs, and from even later, non-Christians writing about Christian beliefs.

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