Have you ever wondered where the gospels came from? Here’s your answer, compiled from Bart Ehrman (for the telephone game) and too many atheist Internet sources to list. (Yes, this is satire.)
Back in the Bronze Age the world was naive. People knew nothing of the sciences of reproduction, decay, entropy, metabolism, genetics–and therefore they didn’t know that babies are never born to virgins, and men who die never rise from the dead.
One of those naive tribes was the Jews, living under subjugation to Rome, who kept their emotional balance through the crazy conception of a coming Messiah who would lead them in a successful uprising against Rome. Messiahs came and messiahs went. One of them was Jesus. We don’t know much about Jesus, especially whether he ever actually existed; all we know is that whether he existed or not he founded the movement that has expanded more consistently than any other for 2,000 years.
This Jesus was like all the other messiahs, such as … such as … oh, you can look up their names, but what does it matter? All you need to know is they were all the same. They came, they preached, they gathered a following, they died. The only difference is that after Jesus died, his followers took his life story a whole different direction. Maybe they were extra bummed when he died.
But wait, excuse me, the proper term is, maybe they were really struggling with the need to reduce their cognitive dissonance over his death. Not only is this terminology more accurate; not only does it support our self-image of being scientifically superior; it also highlights their pathology, for truly they must have been nut jobs.
What this crowd of crazies did was nevertheless brilliant. First they persuaded their most vicious opponent, Saul, to join them in spreading the message of Jesus. What a master-stroke! He had to resolve some personal embarrassment over changing his mind so drastically, but he worked that out by graciously volunteering a story of Jesus (who was already dead) appearing to him on a roadside to persuade him to convert. That settled that!
Then they worked on the story. Jesus had disappointed them. He committed the conquering hero’s greatest sin: he got himself executed by the people he had set out to conquer. What to do… what to do? I know! We’ll make up a story that he rose from the dead!
This was no great feat of imagination for his followers. All they had to do was borrow a handy nearby resurrecting-god story. The one they relied most on was Mithras, a mystery religion that conveniently appeared on the scene about a century or two after they borrowed from it.
Let’s not forget, though, that in order for this Jesus to have risen from the dead, he had to have been God in the flesh, and in order for that to happen he had to have been born “of the Holy Spirit” through a virgin. That was an easy addition: they weren’t very scientific, and they didn’t know that would have taken a miracle.
The big problem they might have faced with that was that, being Jews, the most thoroughly committed monotheists to walk the earth up to that point, they didn’t have much of a literary heritage of any God being born and walking the earth. That proved to be a small obstacle, since their polytheistic neighbors had stories of a sort they could borrow from, and hey, the Jews of that era never doubted it was okay to borrow religious ideas from their polytheistic neighbors, right?
Then they let the stories circulate all around the Mediterranean in a telephone-game process that was certain to corrupt the stories. And boy, were those stories corrupted! They ended up being the tale of a man who was the most powerful person ever imagined to walk the earth. No one like Jesus ever lived; no one with power like his was ever even invented in fiction! They said he created the world! How unscientific.
But that’s not all this multi-continent, multi-culture, multi-language telephone game did to corrupt the story of Jesus. It also produced a character who was consistently and perfectly self-sacrificial and other-centered.
Again we see the influence of borrowing: in creating this amazingly powerful character who never used his extraordinary powers for his own benefit, but only for the good of others, these early telephone-gamers clearly must have been borrowing themes from other literature. How could they have come up with that kind of ethical perfection any other way? Unfortunately we’re not quite able to track down the literature they borrowed yet, since so far it has hasn’t been written. Even now, 20 centuries later, there never has been any other compelling character in all literary history who combined such extraordinary power with such completely self-sacrificial other-centeredness.
So maybe they just came up with it their own way. Such is the wisdom of the telephone game being played by people who are really bummed out that their messiah died.
Anyway, the stories circulated back to the western Mediterranean where four different authors compiled them, sometimes borrowing from each other, sometimes using other sources, into four accounts that are obviously contradictory because they have different perspectives on how many angels there were at Jesus’ tomb. Never mind that they all agree perfectly, without exception, on Jesus being perfectly powerful and perfectly other-oriented. He may be the only such a character has ever been produced with such perfection in literary history, and he was rendered perfectly that way in all four Gospels, but that’s a minor detail compared to how many angels there were.
They wrote down those four different renditions, and then systematically destroyed all the other written versions so successfully that no trace remain of any of those other first-century gospels, either in textual evidence or in quotations from other first- or second-century writers.
They carried out all this invention, subterfuge, and evidence-destruction just to make sure that they could tell a consistent tale of an ethically perfect leader they thought everyone should follow.
The sad thing is how their followers relaxed on this mission destroying contrary evidence in the second century, so that other, later gospels could be written. These other gospels obviously made things up, which proves that the first-century versions were made up, too.
And now you know where the gospels came from–according to Bart Ehrman and members of the atheist Internet. Let us all give them thanks for explaining it in terms that are so much more believable than the Christian version!
Obligatory note for the humor-impaired: the satire genre does not require full academic documentation. I know that Bart Ehrman, who believes in the telephone game theory, does not doubt that Jesus existed. I took a few other liberties of the sort that are generally considered acceptable in satire. Everything in this piece can be found in one form or another on the atheist Internet. If you find the whole story unbelievable, then you’ve caught the point of it.
Update October 8: I’ve posted a version of this with representative sources showing where the ideas came from.
I realize that this is satire. I also think that it is not useful in any way. Finding some particular person who believes all of these things would not be easy, as opposed to particular people who believe this or that thing from them.
The basic effect is that you are making fun of honest people who have a basically reasonable idea of what might have happened, whether it is correct or not, by making it appear that they are not honest or that their ideas are completely unreasonable, when they are not.
People can do the same thing with Christianity, and they do. It is not nice, productive, or honest on the part of either side.
I think you have entirely too pessimistic a view of what it would take to find people who believe most of this to be true.
If the honest people of whom you speak had a basically reasonable idea of what might have happened, it would not have been so easy to satirize it.
Yes, they do. That’s why Tom wrote this. Did you mean Christians do the same thing to other people. If so, please enlighten us where and what those Christians say.
Can you give us an example of which of their ideas are reasonable?
Apologies. My first question to you is a bit convoluted. What I meant to ask is if Christians make up unreasonable stories about what other people believe.
Useless: Don’t underestimate yourself.
I was just reading Erhman’s account of how the Jesus story emerged yesterday afternoon, though. It is quite impossible. There are dozens of reasons for why it is impossible internal to the gospels. But here’s a simple one: when checked (Richard Bauckham), it turns out names in the gospels perfectly match the actual frequency of names found in 1st Century Palestinian ossuaries, etc. If the gospels were produced across many cultures, over many generations of telephone gaming, and then first written down “say by Mark in Rome,” the names of minor characters would be the first thing to get garbled.
As I said, that’s one one dozens of reasons why Ehrman is wrong. Tom gives a few others, above.
Then answered one of the guild of New Testament studies, and said unto him, Master, thus saying thou reproachest us also.
How so, Jon?
I’ve posted a version of this now with representative sources showing where the ideas came from.
Is there anything in your list that didn’t turn up first in The Jesus Seminar, if not the more general academic literature?
Bart Ehrman is, after all, part of the guild, and is only really out on a limb because he brings everything together in one convenient passage. Until I noticed your reference to atheists, I thought you might have been alluding to Sean Freyne or Dominic Crossan.
Jon: You’re right that the Jesus Seminar made many of the mistakes that Bart Erhman repeats. I describe 12 systematic errors that they commit (Funk, Borg, Mack, and Crossan in particular), and that ruin their scholarship, in Why the Jesus Seminar can’t find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. But I wouldn’t conflate those folks with “the guild.” Or if so, it’s in sorry shape.
But there are also Wright, Witherington, Dodd, France, Evans, Blomberg, and scores of other excellent scholars who tend, IMO, to be more reasonable in their historical reasoning.
The other question I have is in what sense it matters. The material here is either on the mark or off (or somewhere in between) regardless of who developed it or is cited as its source. Or at least, my intent was to write it so that its accuracy and effect wouldn’t depend on its source.
If my satire is on the mark with respect to others besides Internet atheists, then it’s on the mark. If it’s off the mark, then it’s off the mark with everyone. (It’s not intended to be on the mark for people who don’t promote the skeptical positions I refer to here.)
Still it’s satire. It’s not tightly argued. The boundaries of its points are bound to be sloppier than with a carefully argued presentation. That’s both a feature and a flaw of the genre. My hope is that most readers would understand how satire differs from closely reasoned argumentation.
Absolutely granted – my polemic was no more all-inclusive than Tom’s on atheists.
Perhaps in my mind too was that in Jesus’s time there may well have been godly lawyers who agreed with Jesus’s assessment, but their self-appointed spokesman talked as if only his position represented “the assured results of rabbinic scholarship.”
As an outsider (retired physician rather than working academic) my antennae go up at the mindset of a “guild”. Phrases like “consensus position”, “closed ranks” and “restrictive practices” come to mind:
But then I suppose there are people who feel the same about words like “profession”!