Donald Andrew Henson II

The God Who Wasn’t There

In Blogging the New Testament, New Atheism, Religion and Society on September 10, 2012 at 12:27 am

I’ve just spent the last hour watching the documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. I had watched part of Loose Change on Netflix, and this was one of several films that appeared in my ‘recommended’ queue. (Loose Change, by the way, is very watchable, but you only have to do a brief ‘net search to see that much of it has been debunked. It’s somehow deliciously diabolical to think that 9/11 was all just a huge conspiracy, but the gross mismanagement of the our country during the Bush administration ought to be proof enough that the same team wouldn’t have been capable of such a devious plot). If you’re interested in watching it, you can check it out on Netflix or watch the YouTube version – not sure if it’s legally posted.

While the director and narrator, Brian Flemming raises a few interesting points, this is pretty much a rehash of ideas critical of Christianity that have been floating around for some time. Anyone who’s ever taken a comparative religion or literature class, or who has read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces will be familiar with many of his ideas. Flemming sometimes comes across exactly as his former school superintendent – who appears in the film – would like to portray him; as an adult who is still angry about wrongs committed against him as a kid. I’m pretty sure that Mr. Flemming is preaching to the atheist choir, as his message and methodology are unlikely to convince anyone who isn’t already on his side.

The first ten minutes or so of the film tells the story of Jesus, illustrating it with clips from old films. The intent of this seems to be to make the story appear as ridiculous as possible. However, he uses a pretty neat video trick to make an important point, one that I had never considered before – and I once thought myself a student of the New Testament. He places all the stories he’s just shown on a sort of grid, then crosses out all the ones that the Apostle Paul seems to have not known about – almost all of them.

Jesus died somewhere around 33 AD, and the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Since the Gospel of Mark makes reference to its destruction, it must have been written after 70 AD, and since the other gospels appear have used Mark as a source document, that means that there are about 40 years of silence between Jesus’ death and the writings that describe his life – except, of course, for the writings of Paul.

But therein lies the problem – of the two dozen or so stories about Christ’s life that every modern Christian is familiar with, Paul seems to know about only two or three. In all of his writings, he never mentions the shepherds of Luke 2 who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple – or most of the other events described in the gospels. In fact, according to Flemming, the only well-known events in Jesus’ life that Paul does refer to are his death, his resurrection, and apocalyptic events surrounding his return.

Flemming’s argument here is that Jesus was mythological, not historical. Paul’s writings are the oldest in the New Testament, pre-dating the gospels, and Paul doesn’t seem to know anything about the historical person who was his contemporary, not even by hearsay. My immediate response to this insight was to look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “Neither did I judge myself as knowing anything among you, except Yeshua The Messiah, even him as he was crucified…” in an entirely new light.

The argument seems to go something like this: in the 1st century AD, there were many stories circulating that were similar to the Jesus story, and pretty much everyone knew they were just allegories or myths. Paul must have erroneously believed the Jesus stories were true, or else he used them to advance a set of doctrines to which he adhered, or he simply made up the whole idea himself. After Paul’s death, the writers of the gospels felt the need to fill in a ‘history’ for the person of Jesus, in order to advance their cause.

Cover of "The God Who Wasn't There"

The God Who Wasn’t There

This Christ Myth Theory, as it’s known, is interesting. I was already aware of the fact that many other religions and myths contemporary to Christ had made many of the same claims – the virgin birth and atoning death included. But I had never given much thought or research to the fact that Paul himself was ignorant of many of the facts of Jesus life. Even when I was a fundamentalist Christian, I had a real problem with the explanation that Satan had created other myths which replicated facts about Jesus in order to lead many astray – especially since some of the so-called Satanic versions pre-dated the real one by sometimes thousands of years. The idea gives way too much prescience to Satan. I still find it difficult, however, to discount the existence of a historical person named Jesus who preached for a few years in Galilee and Judea.

Of course, if you believe Mark’s reference to the temple’s destruction is a prophecy, you can date it immediately after Jesus’ death, and part of the problem goes away. This does not, however, explain why Paul makes so little mention of the events of Jesus’ life.

Another interesting idea is Flemming’s dismissal of moderate Christianity. He sees Holy Wars and the Inquisition as very much in line with the teachings of the Bible, not dangerous aberrations. If one’s immortal soul is in danger – what is there to be moderate about? Unfortunately, he may have a point – which means this blog would be an exercise in futility. A few snippets of an interview with Sam Harris really drives this point home.

A final argument he makes touches on the religious education of children. Religious schools indoctrinate children according to the wishes of their parents – but is this the right thing to do? Children have not yet been schooled in critical thought, and aren’t likely to say to themselves ‘hmm, well that’s one theory’ when presented a viewpoint from an authoritarian figure. And there’s the fear factor as well – question what your teacher is saying, and you might just end up in hell.

I’m intrigued by the assertion that Paul may have been completely unfamiliar with the events of Jesus’ life, and I intend to scour his writings to see if I come to the same conclusion. I don’t think anyone who believes in Jesus will stop doing so due to this film, nor do I think non-Christians will learn much that they didn’t already know. And the final scene of the film is simply juvenile. But, The God Who Wasn’t There is an interesting way to spend an hour.

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  2. Two thoughts about this. There were not three kings in the birth narrative. And there is no writing that I am aware of other than the New Testament that claims a virgin birth. There are people that state it, but no actual references seem to exist.

    P.S. I am not a Christian. I just like facts.

  3. Well, you are right about the number of kings not necessarily being three – there were three gifts and tradition has held three Magi – not really kings at all but astrologers. But it isn’t only the number that Paul is unfamiliar with – he’s unfamiliar with the entire story apparently. Debating the number is missing the main point – Paul does not seem to be aware of much of what the Gospels report.

    However, your awareness needs to be expanded concerning virgin birth stories. Egyptian, Sumerian, Persian, Hindu – so many cultures in antiquity had their virgin birth stories, and so many of those cultures met in what today is known as Israel / Palestine. Mithras, a very strong contemporary competitor of Christianity, was also born of a virgin.

    Again, I’m just stating the ideas of the movie, not necessarily my own. But it is true that we sometimes think Bible stories are unique, when they are often re-tellings of what would have been familiar themes at that time.

    • I’ve actually done some research on this subject, after watching the movie. I am also interested in truth, and I have not found one reputable source stating a virgin birth from pagan gods. I have looked, and I have found websites that state this, but no sources. And most of them twist facts, ie the god (I don’t remember which) that was carved out of stone being a, “virgin” birth.

  4. I’ve only heard of Horus, Mithras, Krishna, Dionysus, and Quetzacoatl, but I’m sure there are others. Just about any miracle you’ve ever heard of has been repeated numerous times in one Hindu story or another. I don’t know what you consider to be reputable sources – these are the stories that come up in pretty much any comparative religion class you might take at a university. I’d say reputable means that history shows these stories were prevalent in many cultures and at different historical time periods.

    Again, I’m not trying to support the ideas in the movie – just be aware that even the church itself has been debating the validity of the virgin birth story almost since it was first recorded.

    • Not to get too hung up on the virgin birth part of this, because there are plenty of other similarities between the Jesus story and other deities, but there’s nothing I can find anywhere to support these claims of virgin birth for these gods. Horus was born to Isis after she resurrected her murdered husband to impregnate her (in some versions, his penis had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a fish so she fashioned a golden phallus to help get the job done). Mithras was born from a rock. Krishna was born by mental transmission of Vasudena into Devaki’s womb, but she was not a virgin (she already had 7 children before Krishna). Dionysus was conceived when Zeus had a physical affair with the mortal woman Semele, who burst into flames when Zeus revealed himself to her, so Zeus sewed the fetus into his thigh and later bore Dionysus himself. Quetzalcoatl’s mother, the earth goddess Gaea, was seduced by the god Mixcoatl, and he had a twin brother, Xolotl. All of these scenarios, including that of Jesus’ conception, are absolutely absurd scientifically. I’m just saying it’s disingenuous to dispute the validity of the Jesus story with false claims. Just like the argument about so many gods being born on December 25 makes no sense because the bible never gives a date, and rather points to spring since the shepherds were maintaining their flock (and it is widely understood that December 25 was chosen in the fourth century by the church to eclipse the pagan Roman celebration of Mithras birth).

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