By Paul McGrane | September-December 2017 Issue
The Truth Seeker
This is an excerpt from The Christian Fallacy: The Real Truth about Jesus and the Early History of Christianity by Paul McGrane (RedDoor Publishing, 2017). Reprinted by permission from the publisher.
I Techniques and Approach
You may ask why we need yet another book about Christianity. After all, the British Library main catalogue lists nearly 20,000 volumes with ‘Jesus’ in the title and this must just scrape the surface of books that have Jesus and the Christian religion as their subject. Indeed, in recent decades, the number of books appearing has increased exponentially, and is now supported by an avalanche of self-publication and internet-based interest groups, all pursuing the subject of Christian belief from every conceivable angle. This is powerful testimony to the fact that in an age of scepticism and falling church attendance, people are as fascinated as ever by the story of Jesus and the origins of Christianity. The sceptical interest has also been fuelled in more recent times by the overt decision by certain atheist writers and thinkers—people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett—to come out of the closet and proclaim not just the case for atheism, but the proposition that mankind and civilisation would be better off if we abandoned belief in the supernatural entirely. For Western civilisation, based on Christianity since Constantine adopted it for the Roman Empire, the issue of belief in God is inextricably bound up with the parallel issue of belief in Christianity.
Surely then there can be nothing new to say after over two millennia of Christian belief, biblical interpretation, and theological enquiry? I have the temerity to think there is. The majority of books about Christianity are of course written by committed Christians of one variety or another—that is, their authors subscribe to the belief that Jesus was the ‘Son of God’, the divine intersecting with the human in a unique event of eternal significance to mankind. Whatever they have to say about Jesus in particular is written out of the paradigm promulgated by the Christian church: that Jesus was a Jew, born at or around the beginning of the Christian Era; that he began his ministry at about thirty years of age by being recognised and baptised by John the Baptist; that he was crucified three years after that, but that his new religion was spread to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) by his followers, chief of whom were Peter and Paul. However, for the last two centuries, an increasing proportion of writers about Jesus have taken, to some degree, a sceptical stance—sceptical certainly about his divine status, but more recently, sceptical about his actual existence as a historical figure. This book is written from such a point of view. I believe, along with very many people, that every part of the traditional story of Jesus is historically suspect. But for me, this purely negative assertion is not enough. The recent profusion of books attacking Christianity do little or nothing to explain how, nevertheless, the story of Jesus, enshrined in a religion called Christianity, came to dominate Western civilisation for 2000 years. The Gospels may be fiction—and I shall argue that they are—but their writers claimed to be conveying truth. Were they liars, or perhaps deluded, or were they themselves misled? What was really going on in the first half of the first century ad? It is to questions like these that this book seeks to find answers.
Christianity is a religion founded on assertions about historical events in the first century ad. But these assertions are largely without supporting evidence from outside the Bible and, in places, conflict with what we do know about what was actually happening at the time. This will surprise many. Christians are often taught by their leaders that their faith is supported by the findings of historians and archaeologists, and the media often run stories about new ‘evidence’—new archaeological finds, new manuscripts—that seem to bear out the historical truth of the Bible. But in all the key essentials, the idea that the story of Christianity has any basis in historical fact is misguided and wrong. For this reason, there is a plethora of theories to compete with the traditional Christian account, and an increasing supply of titles that offer alternative views—that for example, Jesus was a revolutionary, or a pagan philosopher, or even a magic mushroom. But the fact that Jesus can (arguably) be demonstrated plausibly to be so many very different things surely points to the truth: the stories about him in the Bible are drawn from and influenced by most if not all of these different versions and more, and that his composite nature results from fictional mythmaking rather than historical reality. As I shall show, the Jesus of the Gospels was invented by early Christian writers to give flesh-and-blood reality to a heavenly figure about whom they knew next to nothing.
Very few books offer a comprehensive and satisfying answer to the question: ‘Who exactly was Jesus and how does that relate to what Christians came to believe after his death?’ In this book I have set out to do just that. I will develop in the following pages a new paradigm—a new framework for understanding the origins of Christianity—that broadly accepts the validity of many of the various competing theories about Jesus, but which transcends them and takes the argument a step further into a wholly new and original understanding of how Christianity came about. Christianity as we know it emerged gradually from the ferment of messianic and apocalyptic Jewish religious sects that arose in the near East in the first century of the Christian era. It was originally a Jewish sect, differing from the others only in its distinctive beliefs about ‘Jesus Christ’. The original Jewish adherents of the sect were accepted by other Jews as Jewish, and continued to participate in the Jewish way of life. Many attempts have been made to identify the original Christian sect with other sects known from that time, particularly (following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century) with the Essene sect that is believed by a majority of scholars to be the source of most of those documents. But there is no reason why any such identification should turn out to be true—there were so many versions of Judaism at this time, the Christian sect could in principle be distinct and separate from all the others of which we have knowledge. To avoid prejudging this, or any other issue that will be the subject of this book, I have called the sect with which we are here concerned the ‘Jesus Movement’, because it was belief in the specialness of Jesus that set it apart from its rivals.
The new paradigm set out in The Christian Fallacy provides a revised chronology for events in the first half of the first century ad; identifies who the key players really were at the time, including the historical figure of Jesus himself; and shows how the religion we call Christianity evolved from competing understandings of what the Jesus Movement was all about. Most important of all, I believe it provides an account of people and events that is not just intellectually plausible but also psychologically satisfying. So many other theories of who Jesus was fail that crucial test—they rely upon an acceptance that people would have behaved in a way that seems implausible in the real world of the first, or indeed any, century. Of course, it is hard—verging on impossible—for us today to recreate for ourselves the mindset of a Jew or Gentile living in first-century Palestine under Roman occupation. But these were human beings nonetheless, and their beliefs, motivations and actions should be broadly comprehensible to us; any interpretation of what happened then needs to convince by an overall coherence, consistency and, at the end of the day, a simple likelihood that this is what actually happened.
The new paradigm is also based on real research and mainstream sources and materials. It is emphatically not based on esoteric ideas, or some spectacular new discovery of documents, inscriptions or archaeological artefacts. It does not require the reader to become an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls or, indeed, on the Bible as a whole. It does not rely on arcane formulae, numerological calculations, celestial observations, parallels with other religions or esoteric associations with other cults. Nor is it the result of divine revelation, prophetic dreaming or deep psychological probing. As one might expect from a writer whose training is in literary criticism, it is simply based on detailed and, in some cases, radical critical re-examination of just a few key texts, trying to put aside two millennia of interpretation founded on expectations of divinely inspired harmony and coherence. The texts in question are some parts of the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, the apostle Paul’s letters, the prophecies of Zechariah in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. That’s it. Of course, I shall in passing draw much more widely on the Bible and other texts, but these are all incidental to my core argument. I think the answer has been staring us in the face all along. To find it, we just need to sweep aside 2000 years of credulous, uncritical interpretation; read the key texts afresh with an eye to who wrote them and with what agenda; and then ask ourselves what is the most likely explanation for it all.
In judging likelihoods, I have been often guided by two very straightforward ideas. The first is the relatively simple philosophical concept of Occam’s Razor. There are many different versions and expressions of this principle, but in essence, it states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the least assumptions is probably the right one. It cautions us that whenever we find ‘multiplied entities’ to explain something, the chances rise that the explanation is false. I am not suggesting that the Razor is infallible, nor am I denying that judgments about what is simple and what is complex will have a considerable degree of subjectivity. But all other things being equal, it is a matter of common observation that if an explanation of something requires one to believe a lot of unlikely things, it will probably turn out to be wrong. Any multiplication of entities probably indicates falsity. As we shall see, the New Testament is full of such multiplicities of events and people. The same names turn up again and again; the same incidents seem to be recounted twice; the same phrases recur. It is a central argument of this book that these multiplying entities disguise, either by intention or accident, a much simpler reality which has been obscured by the creation of layers of narrative that conveniently ‘explain’ some very inconvenient facts. On this basis of course, the traditional Christian interpretation fails Occam’s test because it makes the biggest assumption of all: that there is a God and that the Bible is His Word. But the Razor also works against a whole range of other paradigms that require identifications, correspondences and harmonisations that just multiply the assumptions.
I have also been guided by an early Victorian poet who had an unwavering commitment to the human critical faculty, and faced up to where that led—the existential crisis of faith that he and his generation were the first really to experience. Matthew Arnold provides the quotation at the start of this book:
Not deep the poet sees, but wide.
I am no poet but I do think that the truth about the real roots of Christianity lies not in esoteric theories or new discoveries, but in seeing the wood for the trees: no single element of my solution can be ‘proved’ beyond a shadow of a doubt, but taken as a whole, the paradigm offered in the following pages provides a better overall fit with what we know than any other. The reason why there are so many books about Jesus is because the evidence is so contradictory. Focus on any specific issue, and the scope for ‘deep’ disagreement is endless. But accept for the moment that the new paradigm is correct, and it will become apparent how it manages to be ‘wide’ enough to encompass all the more limited theories, and to provide a contextual framework in which they all then find their natural place. This new paradigm is the basis on which I invite the reader to judge this book.
II Jesus and Paul
The subjects of this book have preoccupied me (on and off) for the last forty years. Who exactly was the historical Jesus? What did he believe and teach? How does this relate to the actions and teachings of the early disciples and apostles who together laid the foundations for Christian belief as we know it today? For me, the traditional Christian answers to these questions are unsustainable; the Christian narrative, as set out in the Bible and subsequently mediated by Church doctrines, is simply unbelievable. I say this, not because of the supernatural elements, although many readers may feel this is enough, but because even putting rational scepticism to one side, the Bible itself is too full of internal inconsistencies (which we shall look at later) to be accepted as in any real sense, the ‘Word of God’. This is hardly a new perception. Theologians have wrestled with all the inconsistencies since the earliest days of the Church. However, in doing so, they have been constrained by their belief in what is known as ‘scriptural inerrancy’—the upfront conviction that as the Word of God, Scripture is infallible and therefore by definition cannot be mistaken, inaccurate or contradictory. God is perfect and therefore, His Holy Word must be perfect, too. If Scripture appears imperfect, the mistake derives from man’s imperfect understanding.
I do not start from this perspective, which requires a step of faith I see no reason to take. Just because the Bible (or to be more precise, the Christian Church, based on one or two of the individual documents that comprise the Bible) claims to represent the Word of God is no reason to accept that it does so. The world is full of other holy texts making similar claims, so why believe just this one? By not making that step of faith, one is free to seek explanations, unfettered by a need to find unerring consistency or conformity with other sources of historical knowledge. And so, what the Christian Church regards as seeking the truth through harmonisation of inconsistencies, and explication of errors, I regard as so much special pleading for what in my opinion is the long lost cause of ‘scriptural inerrancy’. What the Church regards as fulfilled prophecy from the Old Testament, I regard as New Testament fictionalising based on texts wrenched out of context. Christian apologists have had two millennia in which to smooth away all the difficulties, and the faith of millions today, if not based purely on faith in the teachings of one church or another, is based on these explanations. For me, this is all incredible at best and dishonest at worst. I am not alone of course. As I will show in this book, there have been many scholars over the past couple of centuries at least who, looking at the evidence with an open mind and a rational outlook, have reached a similar sceptical view. Most such sceptical scholars are reasonably united in the belief that whoever and whatever Jesus was (or wasn’t), he did not actually found the religion we know today as Christianity.
Opinions vary widely about exactly what Jesus taught, but it does seem very clear that early Christianity, as an organised religion, was founded not by Jesus but after his death by others, based particularly on the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul’s theology seems to have originated with visions he claimed to have had, initially at the time of his conversion and on an unknown number of occasions subsequently. These led him to believe that someone he calls ‘Jesus’, or ‘the Lord’, has become a human sacrifice acceptable to God for the remission of the sins (i.e. ‘salvation’) of all those that believe in him. It is a matter of theological debate as to the degree to which Paul saw Jesus as divine and how this divinity related to God: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost)—was developed by the Church over succeeding centuries. But Paul taught that the remission of sins of all believers was freely available to all that placed their faith in Jesus, Jew and Gentile alike and that, as a result, God was offering a new covenant with mankind that replaced the need for man to follow any prescribed code of conduct. In fact, Paul does seem to say that faith in Jesus is the only thing necessary for salvation—that there is nothing that man can do to affect things. This point—the dichotomy between the ‘works’ of man, and ‘faith’ in Jesus alone—became very rapidly the key point of theological debate for the early Church; it was more than any other, the issue on which the Reformation turned. And so it remains to this day.
The implications of salvation by faith alone are various:
- If man can have no effect on his future eternal fate by his own efforts, what is the implication for individual free will? A God who is omniscient must have known at the beginning of time who would be ‘saved’ and who wouldn’t be; in some sense at least therefore, He must have ‘predestined’ some people to eternal damnation about which they could do nothing at all. Acceptance of this idea characterises many extreme Protestant sects to this day. For them, salvation from this terrible fate lies in strict adherence to their own theological interpretation of the Bible.
- A less extreme view of the matter is that free will does exist, but ‘predestination’ is also somehow true. C. S. Lewis called this an ‘antinomy’. The reconciliation of this antinomy is beyond our human understanding, but we can trust that God has it all sorted out. This somewhat muddled compromise characterises most mainstream Protestant groups, including, for example, the Anglican Church.
- The Catholic Church as a whole, however, has never really accepted predestination, at least without severe qualification. It solves the problem through a range of ideas—notably the existence of purgatory where sins can be expiated over time, and an ordained priesthood who mediate between man’s sinful behaviour and the provision of God’s mercy made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus. These ideas are not to be found in Paul’s writings (or, arguably, anywhere else in the Bible) but were developed over the first few centuries ad, and are the reason why Paul’s theology is less prominent in Catholic dogma than in Protestant.
- For others, the key point is that Jesus has freed mankind from all external ‘laws’ and man is therefore now free to live according to his conscience—or the internal guidance of God within the individual believer. This manifested itself from the beginning in the plethora of ‘Gnostic’ sects that arose and flourished from the second century ad onwards. We shall look more closely at these later. In the modern era, the Quaker movement is probably the best example of this line of thinking.
We shall see that this ‘faith/work’ dichotomy has its roots in the more parochial concerns of the early Jesus Movement, but Paul’s interpretation of it lies at the heart of all these later developments in Christianity. It is an extraordinary fact that if one is looking for a clear statement of Christian theology on this matter—or indeed any other—one would be hard put to find it in any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It was Paul who developed the theology of Christianity in his letters to various early Churches, and it is to Paul that theologians look for answers to the key issues of Christianity as an organised religion. This is downplayed to some extent by all versions of Christianity, although especially by the Catholic Church, which likes to explain away those of Paul’s teachings that seem to contradict Church teachings. Paul is more prominent in Protestant theology; in many ways, Paul was rediscovered by the leaders of the Reformation. Nevertheless, he is still traditionally regarded by ‘reformed’ churches as simply explaining and promulgating what Jesus originally taught. And if this book is to grapple with the puzzle of the historical Jesus, it must inevitably therefore also deal with similar questions about Paul—who he was and what he taught.
Those who, like me, reject the standard Christian narrative broadly take one of two views about Jesus himself. One view, and probably the most prevalent among those who have no active Christian faith but have never delved into the evidence, is that Jesus was an historical person, but that he was not the ‘Son of God’. In this view, Jesus is seen as variously, a Teacher, a Prophet, a ‘Good Man’, a Rebel, a Revolutionary, a Pharisaic Rabbi, an earthly Messiah. There are many scholarly and popular accounts of Jesus that champion one or another of these pictures of him. On this view, the Christian religion as we now know it was created after Jesus’ death by the apostle Paul, from personal ‘visions’ and ‘transports’ that he experienced over a number of years, which he combined with Old Testament passages, and ideas from classical philosophy and the various Mystery Religions popular in the Roman Empire at the time.
A major problem for me with all these sceptical ‘Jesus as mortal man’ theories is that they fly in the face of human psychology. They require that Paul should have promulgated the idea of Jesus as Son of God, against overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t. The Gospels mention Jesus having brothers and sisters. The Catholic Church regards these as ‘cousins’, which seems to me to be a classic piece of ‘harmonisation’. But even accepting this, Paul undoubtedly knew and met with members of Jesus’ family and others that would have known Jesus from childhood. He must have explained to them his visions of Jesus as Son of God, who died for the remission of the sins of all that believe in Him. I just cannot conceive the circumstances in which this would not have led to derision from people who knew the mortal Jesus well. How could Paul have sustained his own self-belief, let alone convince others, in the face of such firsthand denial? If Jesus lived and had family and friends in the first century, and if he was a mere human, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul was dishonest; that he knew his religion to be nonsense (because everyone told him it was) but promulgated it nevertheless. And this leads then to the inevitable idea that his motives must have been material—either power or money, or both.
However, there is also a second view about Jesus, probably less popular but growing in its adherents as rational enquiry into scriptural texts continues, and as more ancient texts are discovered, that far from being a mortal man, Jesus in fact never actually existed. In this view, Jesus was a mythical character, a Jewish equivalent to the many other gods of the ancient world who were said to have died and been reborn, for the benefit of nature and mankind. This mythical view has the advantage of exonerating Paul. It implies that Paul was essentially honest about the visions he saw and what he came to believe as a result; he may have been delusional or even psychotic, but in matters of faith, when he said he ‘did not lie’, he was being truthful to his subjective experience, and no one could challenge or question his right to that experience.
In this book I shall argue that there was an historical figure called Jesus, but he lived so long before the Christian era that early Christians felt themselves able to make up stories about him. And I shall show how the demonisation of Paul in some quarters results from an erroneous chronology of events, combined with a resulting confusion between Paul and a character called Simon Magus. Many people regard books such as this as pointless. Ironically, this view can be held by both sceptics and traditional believers alike. On the one hand, believers argue that it is all beside the point. Whoever or whatever Jesus was is unimportant; it is the Jesus of faith that matters—the Jesus that teaches us how to live and gives us the promise of everlasting life. Yet Christianity makes the unique claim that Jesus was not only God but that he walked amongst us and died a grisly death for us. It is founded on this historical claim, and must surely therefore be open to rational, historical enquiry. On the other hand, sceptics who take the extreme view, argue that we can never know the truth of these things, they all happened so long ago, and the evidence we have is so fragmentary, contradictory and compromised by bias and forgery, that it is useless to try. Yet, in my view, the Bible is actually full of clues to the puzzle of the historical Jesus. Those clues alone can never produce historical certainty but we can search for a hypothesis that best fits the evidence and clues that we have.
To do this we need to treat all the evidence on an equal basis. Each document (irrespective of whether it has been sanctioned as part of the Bible or not) must be examined in the same way, using basic textual critical techniques. In particular, this means that we must wherever possible identify for each text who wrote it and, more important, why—identify that is, what political, personal and religious biases influenced the original writer and, equally important, may also have influenced subsequent editors—we can never assume that what we read today is precisely what the original author or authors wrote. In my view this requires careful textual study, but also a broad grasp of historical context. There is so much in the written record that is inconsistent and contradictory that unless one stands back to see the whole picture, one can too easily be drawn into seductive error. The history of post-Reformation, sectarian Christianity shows how easy it is to go down that path. The smallest textual ambiguity can lead to schism and eventually a proliferation of sects, each conveniently overlooking the interpretation that other sects regard as fundamental. We must examine the relevant details and then step back and grasp the whole. Given the inconsistencies and ambiguities, no overall interpretation will fit every detail. But some will feel more reasonable, coherent and likely than others.
This book will offer a new paradigm for the foundation of Christianity. It will trace how longstanding Jewish ideas about God and His interactions with humanity underwent unparalleled distortion during the upheavals in Palestine in the first century ad, to emerge unrecognisable as the Christian religion. Jewish concepts of the historic role of the Jewish people as the priestly nation to the world somehow emerged as a religion in which the Jews had no role at all. Related beliefs about how the world would end, and the prophetic and messianic figures that would herald those events, emerged as the novel concept of a Son of God whose death redeems the world. And I shall argue that we can trace almost exactly how this happened from texts that survive from those times—not obscure, recently discovered manuscripts of ambiguous meaning, but mainstream texts that survive in the very Bibles that adorn bookshelves in virtually every home in Western civilisation.
The problem is that it is very hard indeed to read those texts outside the dominant Christian paradigm. The simplest words trip us up. We see words and phrases like ‘Christ’, ‘Lord’ or ‘Lamb of God’ and we interpret their meanings in ways that the Jews who wrote them would find extraordinarily perverse. As we shall also see, those Jews were themselves capable of bizarre and perverse interpretations of their own, and their propensity to do so perhaps created the environment within which later Christian distortions became possible. But if we can step outside the dominant Christian paradigm and look on these texts with fresh eyes and an unbiased, rational perspective, we shall see that, quite amazingly, the historical truth can be recovered, and that truth will indeed set us free.
 Particularly following publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. For full details of this and all works referred to in footnotes, please see the Select Bibliography at the end of this book.
 There are a multitude of works taking this line—notably Eisenman’s James, the Brother of Jesus.
 Notably T. Freke and P. Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries.
 Notoriously, John Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.
 i.e. relating to the ‘End of Days’.
 From ‘Resignation’, 1849.
 Indeed, I could make the same claim of infallibility for The Christian Fallacy—but that of course would be ludicrous …
 The degree to which God’s foreknowledge implies predestination was the key issue between Lutheran Churches and Calvinist Reformed Churches, but such distinctions between extreme Protestant sects need not concern us here.
 I am reminded of the wonderful scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which Brian’s mother, exasperated by the crowds clamouring after her son, declaims from her balcony: ‘He’s not the Messiah; he’s just a very naughty boy!’
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) October 27, 2017
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) October 27, 2017
Christianity is False and Immoral. (Christopher Hitchens)
Richard Dawkins & Daniel Dennett. Oxford, 9 May 2012
Bart Ehrman & Robert Price Debate – Did Jesus Exist
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