Explore The Meaning of…Bitten Tongues

This last Wednesday I began attending a 10-session weekly Bible study course at the behest of my wife who wanted to involve my non-belief outlook and feedback. I’m going to give it one more shot, but if this first session is any indication of what the rest of it’s going to be like… *sigh*

The course is called Explore The Meaning of Life: The Alpha Course. by an English Anglican priest, Nicky Gumbel. Evidently, he’s taken this course, which has been around for decades, and turned it from being an introduction for new Christians into a study for people outside the faith looking to understand more about Christianity. (While I’m by far no expert, I can safely say that as a non-believer, I already know more about Christianity than I ever did as a believer and more than most of the life-long believers in the class.)

Here’s the nightly setup: provided food, then a video, then break into small groups (15-ish people each) for discussion. Let’s just say the food was OK and then it was downhill from there. Seriously, though, I went in with a positive attitude and hope for the best! I had reservations whether I’d feel comfortable speaking up at all, (aside from introducing myself, I didn’t), but I didn’t have much apprehension about the content. Until 2 minutes into the 30-minute video.

Interestingly, for a course designed to welcome and speak to the outsider, to open the whole thing up with Nicky explaining to a congregation that Jesus was real, he was the son of God, and he was resurrected and here’s all the proof of it — it doesn’t really set much of a tone for open questioning and investigation. The first thing Nicky talked about was being “an atheist” and then reading the New Testament one week his first year of college, and concluding “This is true!”

Really? This would be like if I read The Iliad one day and afterward said, “It’s true! I now believe in Zeus and Hera and Aeschylus!” His deciding the story of Jesus and the early church is true because he just read about it is less than compelling. But, of course, he didn’t stop there; and for the rest of the video, as he described the “evidence” for Jesus, I grit my teeth and desperately wanted to turn away like I do with “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (a highly ironic title), with empathetic embarrassment and shame mixed with disgust. His list of evidence…

“He Existed”
Nicky brings up the claim that Jesus existed because non-Christian writers mentioned him. So, he must have existed, right? He mentioned historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and in the companion book he includes Josephus. *sigh* Fish and barrels.

Here’s the problem: none of these guys were contemporaries of Jesus. Each of them were born after Jesus was killed. They had no 1st-hand experience of Jesus, the events that are described in the Gospels, nor his disciples. As “external evidence” for Jesus’ existence, they’re pretty flimsy.

Not only that, but what each of them had written regarding Jesus, was simply a comment or description about Christians. All this proves is that there were Christians in the 1st and 2nd centuries, that’s all. Well, we know there were Muslims within 200 years of when Mohammed was said to dictate the Quran and then fly to heaven on a horse, but their existence doesn’t prove Mohammed flew to heaven.

Now, the apologist will generally bring up the issue of historical certainty, and how can we actually know someone existed in the past as some kind of attempt at bolstering validity for Jesus while lowering the certainty of all other historical persons (…yeah, doesn’t make sense to me, either). In fact, this was even brought up in the small group discussion by someone with a degree in historical something-or-other. He used Harry Truman as an example, though most apologists use George Washington or Julius Caesar.

Here’s the deal for why we can say with certainty why some people existed, and have low levels of certainty and outright doubt about others, and anyone who professes scholarship in history should know this: our acceptance of historical persons is based on the amount of contemporary writings that exist which mention that person as well as the scope of context in which that person was mentioned. In the case of Julius Caesar, we have recorded decrees he made written down at the time he said them (not 50 to 150 years after such is the case with the gospels), we have writings from friends and family of Julius, we have writings from people who served under him, from his enemies, countless artifacts carved and sculpted with his likeness while he was alive, etc. ad nauseum. The amount and the variety of purpose of evidence we have for Julius Caesar are ponderous. On the other side of the scale, we have nothing written of, by, about Jesus while he was alive; we have 4 (if you include Pliny the Younger) non-Christians writing about Jesus’ followers starting around 30 or so years after his religion began; and then some narrative stories about Jesus written by believers beginning around 50 years after he lived. As far as historical material goes to prove Jesus existed, much less did and said the things he supposedly did, it’s pretty much entirely inconsequential at best and dismissible most likely.

This is not to say this proves the man, Jesus, didn’t exist at all! He may have, despite the fact there’s significant debate within Biblical scholarship whether he did or not (which counters one of the small group’s leader’s claim that no one questions Jesus’ existence). But there’s certainly no valid evidence proving he did. (In fact, it’s known that there were active Christian sects during the first few centuries, that did not believe Jesus ever existed in the flesh. It’s also theorized by respected Biblical scholars, that based on Paul’s writings, he himself was one who worshiped the spiritual conception of Jesus and did not believe him to have had a physical body. That doesn’t prove anything, but it does show that no, there are many, even Christians, who do doubt Jesus the man existed.)

There’s just as much external evidence that Jesus was based on Apollonius of Tyana as there is that Jesus himself existed.

“Evidence” within the New Testament.
And that’s the last time Nicky mentions any non-Biblical “evidence.” Well, no wonder considering how scant it is. For the rest of the video, all of his evidence was to be Biblical passages. Yeah. That’s like my quoting passages from The Iliad to prove the gods of Olympus, from The Quran to prove Mohammad, from Dianetics to prove Xenu. Think Nicky would accept my trying to prove Vishnu and Brahma exist by quoting passages from The Bhagavad Gita? Yeah, didn’t think so. But he sure seems to think quoting a religious text written by believers is a perfectly valid and reasonable source for impartial “evidence” for what Jesus is supposed to have said and did. (Don’t forget, all written down beginning no sooner than 50 years after the fact, and with contradictions among the stories themselves.)

“Teaching centered on self” as opposed to outward.
This was an interesting bit of evidence I’d never heard from an apologist before! Evidently, one of the ways we know Jesus was what he said he was, was because unlike all other preachers and rabbis and prophets even, Jesus put himself center-stage and taught about himself forging sins and being the way to heaven. Huh. Oh, yeah, that’s why I’d never heard an apologist use that argument before: it royally sucks and even William Lane Craig recognizes that. Heck, even banana-man Ray Comfort recognizes that!

First of all, 1st-century Judea was rife with messianic preachers claiming to be…messiahs. The Bible itself (that source of impartial and valid evidence for, itself, that it is) refers to other messianic false-prophets and teachers.

I wonder, if because Sun Yung Moon and David Koresh are self-focused messiahs who profess to be the way to God, if we should take them at their word?

“Evidence supporting what he said.”
Next, Nicky focused on Jesus’ teachings and works as evidence for his existence. Well, see above on why using quotes from a book to prove the claims of that book proves nothing more than that book at least exists.

But then he brought up one of my favorites: that Jesus’ actions were the fulfillment of prophesy! Yeah, that’s iron-clad evidence alright. This was brought up again in small group where someone said with great sincerity that it’s mind-boggling to believe that someone could do the same things as predicted centuries earlier and it not be miraculous! Oh boy, where to begin….

First, let’s take a second to remember that Hebrews, Judaism, the Torah which include the Hebraic histories and “prophesies” were not dead, gone, and missing. Jews knew the material that make up the Old Testament pretty well. Jesus, if he existed, was quite knowledgable of the OT material, the people he preached to were quite familiar, and the believers who came after and wrote the gospels were also, somewhat, familiar with the OT material. In fact, the errors in connecting Jesus with Jewish prophesy display their tenuous familiarity as filtered through the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts), at least. At the most cynical, but still entirely possible, the gospel authors would have had no problem at all writing Jesus as doing things that would appear to fulfill prophesy.

Which leads right to the fact that much of what is believed to be fulfillment of prophesy, isn’t. Some of it is just plain wrong, like being born of a virgin. That was never prophesied in the OT material. Isaiah wrote “of a young woman.” Hebrew has words to mean “virgin,” and they weren’t used. However, the Greek translation mistook it for “virgin” which is why the synoptic author of Matthew, in order to make Jesus fulfill what he thought was prophesy, had him born of a virgin. (Which isn’t surprising anyway, Matthew being steeped in Greek tradition, where anyone thought to be wise and important was said to be born of a virgin. Plato, Socrates…. The Mediterranean is lousy with virgin-born wise men.)

Some of the prophesy fulfillment is in conflict. For example, Matthew and Luke both try to fulfill the prophesy of being from the house of David by putting in Jesus’ lineage… but they supply conflicting lineages.

And some prophesy fulfillment is simply twisted and shoehorned to make fit. For example, being named “Immanuel.” Jesus wasn’t named Immanuel, he was named Yeshua. But Christians, desperate to make Jesus fulfill prophesy, decided “Immanuel” was a reference to the Hebraic meaning of “God with us.” (Holy kharp! Typing that, I just recalled the Nazi slogan which was engraved on SS belt buckles, “Gott mit eins uns,” which meant “God with us.” Ick.) Anyway, the problem is, Immanuel is a proper name, as is Yeshua. The fact that it has a meaning that could be applied is irrelevant. Yeshua has a meaning (“salvation”), David has a meaning (“beloved by God”), all Hebrew names have meanings. If Isaiah had said he’d be named David, Christians would exclaim, “Jesus, David: beloved by God!” instead of “Jesus, Immanuel, God with us!” It’s a shoehorn.

Then there’s prophesies that weren’t fulfilled. Isaiah and Ezekiel, where most of the prophesies come from claim the messiah would destroy Judah, would reestablish the Sanhedrin (which, if I recall, is the priesthood that would rule over all Israel), would destroy all weapons and establish peace throughout the world… after bringing all the Jews back to Israel, where all the world would look to for guidance. In his lifetime! None of that has happened, last I checked. The best that Christians can do is to claim “Oh, well, Jesus will do all that…when he comes back! Yeah, that’s the ticket. So, we’ll count those as fulfilled in advance.” Look up “special pleading” in a list of logical fallacies.

Finally, Jesus is a pretty poor partial fulfillment of prophesies… that weren’t even all about the coming of a savior anyway! Most of Isaiah, for example, was describing what the nation of Israel would do and not what some guy would do. But Christians have done some interesting mental gymnastics to make prophesies about the actions of Israel into the actions of a man. Plus, some of the supposed prophesies aren’t even prophesies at all but were present-tense descriptions of existing signs and not foretelling of future events at all (like the maiden/virgin one).

“Evidence for the resurrection.”
Ah, another oldie but… yeah. The empty tomb (which, as Nicky pointed out, wasn’t exactly empty: it had the burial clothes discarded like a butterfly’s chrysalis). Of course he failed to mention that all four gospels are in conflict with each other about what else was found there: a man, two men, a man and boy, angels; and even if the tomb was found open or closed! Meh, minor details. The important thing is that the tomb had no body, right? And we know this because… four religious texts, copying from each other, written 50 to 150 years after the fact, by non-eyewitnesses, and nothing else, tell us this. I’m sorry, but before you go daring us to find some non-miracle explanation for an empty tomb, you kinda need to give us better reason to believe there even was a tomb at all in the first place, much more that it was empty. Something about carts and horses is coming to mind.

Nicky then mentioned, as more evidence, Jesus’ post-resurrection presence with the disciples. How could all of these people have seen him if it didn’t happen? Well, first of all, see above for what I said about the source of this event in the first place. Religious texts, non-witness authors, generations after the event, yaddah yaddah. And even if it could be verified that 500 people saw him, (a) it might not have been Jesus at all they saw, or (b) there are many examples, including in recent times, of mass hallucinations and mass hysteria.

And then Nicky uses the birth and growth of Christian church as evidence that Jesus existed. Huh, I guess that means that since Islam exploded in the hundred years after Mohammed, that proves the claims of The Quran? In just the last 50 years, Scientology has flourished, does that prove Xenu and thetans are real? Hey, Hindu is the oldest still existing religion, shouldn’t that give some validity to its claims being real?

Many apologists use the rise of the Christian religion, so quickly and with people willing to die for their belief, as incontrovertible proof of the Biblical claims. Yeah… no. It’s not hard to find many, many, examples of individuals and entire groups of people willing to die for what they believe: David Koresh’s people, Jonestown, the people who thought the spaceship following Halley’s Comet would pick up their post-suicided spirits, etc. People willing to die for what they believe is proof of nothing, sorry. And quickly spreading religion? Look at the Moonies. How about that guy a hundred years ago who predicted rapture…and it didn’t come. He predicted it again…and it didn’t come. But his followers still followed and believed, and now we have the 7th Day Adventists.

Here’s a little story: Not quite 200 years ago, a man who was a known criminal and con artist, claimed to have used magic glasses to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics into a revealed holy book from God. He convinced people to follow him, despite the fact 1. he was a con man, 2. he could not provide evidence of said glasses and hieroglyphics. These people were persecuted, abused, their practice made illegal, and some were even killed! But they still believed and followed this former con man with the magic glasses. Even after he himself was murdered. Then a latter-day Moses of sorts, led these people, growing in number, out west to their own desert and dead sea.

I’m sure you recognize I’m talking about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the Mormons. Here is an example where a crook and liar is able to form a religion in his own lifetime, people are willing to die for a belief in what magic glasses revealed, and before 200 years have passed, they’ve become a major world religion with over 12 million followers.

Then, Nicky actually used C.S. Lewis’ trilemma rationale. He didn’t attribute it to Lewis, but maybe that’s just as well. Basically, it goes like this: There are only three options: Jesus was a liar and thus an evil man full of nonsense, or he was insane and full of nonsense, or he was exactly what he said he was and thus everything he said is true.

Oy vey! Again, where to begin. First of all, it’s a minor point, but even if he were a liar or insane, it doesn’t mean everything he said was wrong or evil! If Hitler said, “Ice cream is tasty and the sky is blue,” just because he was both evil and insane, would he be wrong about those things?

But more importantly, Nicky left out two more perfectly reasonable options (a pentalemma?) One is that Jesus was delusional about who he thought he was, but not insane (there’s a difference, you know). Take the Pope. (Please!) I have no doubt he, as well as the Pope before him, fully believes he’s God’s one true emissary on Earth. Does that make him insane? I believe the Dali Lama truly believes he’s… whatever holy representative and all-wise avatar the Dali Lama is supposed to be, just as every Dali Lama before him. Does that make him insane and entirely nonsensical?

And then there’s the excluded, and most likely, fifth option: Jesus, at least as depicted in the gospels, didn’t exist at all and what he’s ascribed as having said is made up. By sincere, and earnest people, no doubt! Not charlatans and crooks. But at least mostly fabricated, none the less.

This option is highly supported by The Jesus Seminar — a collection of Biblical and historical scholars from all faiths and traditions, who set out to thoroughly research the gospels and then come to a consensus over how much of what Jesus is said to done and said was probable, unlikely, and fabricated. Their findings? Only 16% of what Jesus said is possibly authentic, the rest came from essentially The Telephone Game of oral recounting before being written down, with origins from many cultural sources of the time and place.

In any case, he uses this trilemma (at least he didn’t stoop to using Pascal’s Wager! If he had, I likely would have audibly groaned. I almost did with the trilemma as it was), to point out how wonderful and wise and inspired and divine Jesus’ teachings were. So much so, that their innate wisdom is proof itself that Jesus must have existed and said those things. Yeah, that was one of my big beliefs when I was a believer as well — Jesus’ teachings are so wise they could only come from God-inspiration at the very least. Until I actually started paying attention and stopped using cognitive bias to excuse the warts and flaws.

Here’s a divinely inspired and all-wise guru who speaks in such obscure ways that he’s constantly belittling and insulting his own disciples as “fools.” He petulantly killed a fig tree because it had no fruit for him… out of season. He actively ignored and even disavowed his own family who came to see him, concerned about his preaching (which, by the way, if you were visited by an angel and impregnated by the Holy Spirit and raised a child who could debate with the Pharisees, would you by that point really be concerned about your son’s career choice? Just wondering.) He told his followers that unless they gave up their families, they could not follow him (yeah, that doesn’t sound at all cult-ish). He proclaimed that he came not to bring peace, but to bring the sword (so much for that living-by/dying-by thing). He said he came to set daughter against mother, son against father (ah, family values)! And, he taught the slave how to be a good slave, missing a golden opportunity to, I dunno, maybe say something wise and unexpected about how owning people as property was pretty crappy. “But, Jesus, slavery is culturally appropriate to our time and place in the world! What you’re saying about slavery being evil is oddly moral and beyond our worldly outlook!” “Hey, I’m the Son of God. I can can decree surprisingly different moral attitudes that run counter to your limited human understanding for your culture. Who says I have to teach morality that is curiously apropos for this specific time and place and would be rejected in 1800 years and grossly immoral?” Oh. Oops.

Take what’s considered to be his most wise, divine teaching of all, the Sermon on the Mount. We’re conditioned to instantly think of it as the best sermon that’s ever been preached, that all else look up to. Until you really look at it. The Sermon on the Mount is really nothing more than a slapdash collection of aphorisms and platitudes, of observations and teachings that are pretty banal and common. It’s sloppily put together and far more mundane and less interesting than literally every non-divine earthly pastor I’ve sat in a pew in front of. There’s really nothing in the Sermon that transcends the ordinary, isn’t found in most every religion and culture, nor jumps out as, “Wow, that couldn’t have come from anywhere except the wisdom of God!” Some of it’s even downright bad advice altogether.

The Iron Chariots Wiki has a fascinating analysis of the Sermon that will really open your eyes. …if you daaaarre! Boo.

Bottom line: ol’ Nicky, while a nice enough seeming guy, had absolutely no compelling or meaningful evidence for his belief. It was a painful excursion through a land of irrational thought and fallacies. I couldn’t wait for it to end so I could get to the small group.

Then there was the small group.

OK, first of all, they’re a nice enough group, but I get the sense that I would much rather be in either of the other two groups. My group feels exactly like what I perceive this course to be about: a means to believers to reinforce each other, and return to group-think if you’ve questions or doubts. It’s not really interested in honest inquiry or challenge. (Did I mention the very first thing on the very first night was a video of a man in assumed authority telling you why Jesus and his claims are all real, with “proof” no less?) To help solidify this perception was one lady who described a “spiritual” encounter and very, very emphatically told us all that no one, no one, will ever be able to convince her that it wasn’t what she believes it was. Yeah, that’s intellectually honest. Even I have many suggestions of ways in which what I believe to be true could be disproven. I’m willing to be disproven! But you better have something better to offer than trilemmas and near-angry declarations of “what I believe, is true, and you can’t convince me otherwise!”

And then there was the lady who was upset that her son, who she signed up to go with her, didn’t come. Because he obviously needs some straight-and-narrow religion in his life. He evidently attends the local Unitarian Universalist church, which, if you don’t know, is a gay-friendly all-belief-welcoming quasi-spiritual religionish church. This lady went once and to her eyes their gay-friendly quality was the core of what they were and appeared to have an agenda of pushing gayness on the attendants. I’m not kidding. I so wanted to tell her, “Well, gay people have to have some church to go to where they’re actually welcome.”

Anyway, I think either of the other two groups would be better for me because one is headed by a guy who seems very intellectually honest and open-minded, and the other by a guy who in Sunday School I once attended stood up for the Founding Fathers as being mostly deists. He earned huge props in my book for that. Plus, this interesting event:

After we’d all pretty much eaten, an associate pastor who was not one of the “trained” Alpha Course leaders, gave a welcome to us. Before she handed it over to the Alpha Course leader, she lead us in a prayer. The Founding Father guy leader was sitting next to me, and I heard him under his breath go, “No no no no…” and then huff. Then the open-minded leader guy introduced the course and showed the video, and before he broke us off into groups did not do any kind of prayer or anything. Well, OK, not doing something doesn’t prove anything. 🙂 But I get the sense that despite the first video of the first night (sheesh! Really?), they’re taking seriously the mandate that Alpha Course should be welcoming to believers and non-Christians alike.

So, anyway, my group. There’s one young woman in there that has significant doubts and troubles believing, but she’s going in wanting to be convinced to believe. Otherwise, the group is pretty much a support group for believers who want to find more encouragement to feel justified in what they already believe. It’s not exactly a place friendly to my counters and challenges. Everything I’ve written above went through my head as I sat silent through the video and the group — can you imagine what kind of reception any of the above would be met by no matter how kindly, gentle, and obsequious I expressed it? Especially by people who state outright how impossible it is to change their mind or who conflate a gay-friendly church with one advocating and encouraging homoshex’ality?

Well, I’ll give it another go and see what happens. See if maybe I’m directly invited at some point to share a thought or opinion. Goodness knows I’m not miserly with my opinions on blogs and Facebook, where it’s a completely open and pluralist environment, and reading them is entirely voluntary. But I’m not looking to argue, berate, insult, demean (even accidentally) people in their “home” where they’re expecting belief-reinforcement. So, I’ll bite my tongue a bit more and see what happens. Joy.