Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Paul the Apostle’

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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What is Prophecy? Part One

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on June 3, 2012 at 4:21 am
Prophet Micha

Prophet Micha

A few days ago, I ended my post commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5 with the following paragraph:

(Paul) ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

In the Pentecostal / Charismatic churches that I grew up in, ‘prophecy’ went something like this: we’d be worshiping God as a group, sometimes through spiritual songs, sometimes just everyone lifting their hands up towards heaven, praying softly. In either event, the emotional level would be very high – some folks might be crying or so involved in prayer as to seem in a trance. There would be a sudden stillness in the group, as if everyone suddenly expected something to happen. The musicians might even ‘sense’ that they should stop playing.

Then, one of two things would happen; someone would speak in tongues, publicly, meant for all to hear, and we’d all wait for someone to interpret the ‘message’ that had been given, or someone would prophecy directly, in English. These spiritual utterances, if you will, were usually fairly general exhortations that made generous use of known scriptural verses. However, sometimes they would include more local or personal instructions, aimed at the group or an individual within the group. This was my understanding of what the New Testament writers meant when they spoke of prophecy – speaking the mind of God to others. Pentecostal / Charismatic folk feel this kind of practice is what occurred in the 1st century church, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 14 and other locations in the NT.

My concern has always been – even as a sincere believer – how Christians are to determine what is truly of God, and what comes from the spirit of the prophet. People can get excited, make mistakes, have a particular point of view they see things through, etc. How can we be sure that people are really speaking for God?

If you’ve been reading the comments on my site, you’ve seen that one sincere Christian, Lindsay Harold, feels she has a good system for separating good prophecy from bad. In short, she thinks good prophecies meet three important criteria:

  • they cannot contradict the scripture
  • they must be rational and sensible
  • they cannot contain new revelation

I think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed to have some good thoughts behind them, but that her answers really only opened up more questions. My reply addressed her main points in the following way:

  1. Since there are thousands of Christian denominations, all preaching different interpretations of the scripture on Sunday morning, there is no true consensus on what the scripture says; therefore in can be difficult to determine what might contradict the scripture.
  2. The life of faith is not always rational and sensible. Religious people believe in things that cannot be perceived with the five senses or proven through empirical evidence. In the Bible, God has often asked people to do illogical things. He asked Abraham to kill his son, for example. He asked the leper, Namaan, to bathe in the River Jordan if as a cure for his leprosy.
  3. Stipulating that prophets could not reveal anything new about God than had already been revealed seemed to render the gift of prophecy useless – it equates prophecy with quoting scripture. In addition, it would seem to suggest that any denomination outside the Catholic church was in error, for all Protestant sects claim in one way or another that they have a new revelation from God that has been ignored by other denominations before them.

Notice I’m not saying she’s wrong – on the surface, I think any believer could agree with what she writes. I’m just saying there are problems that her answers do not address.

Lindsay responded with a lengthy explanation. I admire the fact that her positions are thoughtful – not like that woman I saw on CNN the other day. But I’m still not really persuaded by her arguments. Below is a ‘conversation’ of sorts about prophecy – her comments are in italics.

I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God.

I was a fervent believer for two decades. I taught the adult Sunday school class in my church, including the letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to tell another reflective believer that they misunderstood something in the New Testament; I would have acknowledged that we had a different understanding of God’s word, but I never would have said that they didn’t understand what they read.

This goes back to my original point, which I affirm to be a valid one – American Christianity is highly individualistic in nature. There are nearly as many interpretations of scripture as there are believers; certainly any honest Christian would have to admit that each individual congregation tends to worship God and interpret scripture in a slightly different way.

In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people.

I don’t want to give too much veneration to Old Testament prophets. Let’s first of all assume that the OT is really God’s word – that is was written when it claims it was written, by whom it claims it was written by, etc. – all dubious claims in the light of modern scholarship. But for the sake of argument, lets assume it is what it says it is. There are a lot of ‘prophecies’ that involve murder, genocide, rape, bigamy, and other heinous crimes that would land a man in jail if he followed them. How can we call a man a prophet when he uses his supernatural connections to summon bears out of the woods to kill children – just because they taunted him by calling him ‘old baldy‘?

Lindsay’s post is lengthy – and thank God she differentiates NT from OT prophecy. Since it’s 4am – let me stop here for now and continue this conversation tomorrow or the day after.

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1 Thessalonians 5

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 29, 2012 at 12:30 am
Thessaloniki Film Festival

Thessaloniki (Photo credit: Recovering Vagabond)

Read 1 Thessalonians 5 here.

In my previous post, I maintained that Paul’s views on the Kingdom of God may have evolved over time – originally, Christ’s followers appeared to have believed that his return was imminent – meaning measured in months, not years. There wasn’t much need to develop an opinion on what might become of someone who converted to Christianity and then died of old age before Jesus’ return. As the years rolled by and people began to die off, the need arose. I suspect that Paul meditated / prayed /thought it over, and decided that Jesus’ resurrection was a precursor to that of believers – the ‘first fruits’ doctrine that he develops later in his letter to the Corinthians.

Conservative Bible commentaries seem to abhor the idea that Paul may have developed this doctrine later, as the situation arose. Most seem to explain 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 by saying that Paul was simply telling the Thessalonians something he had neglected to mention to them before. I find this implausible. To teach a resurrected Christ without mentioning the promise of resurrection to deceased believers just doesn’t seem likely.

It seems much more likely to me that his central message for two decades had been Christ’s immediate return to set up a kingdom. I think the part about the dead in Christ rising first was something he came up with as the situation changed. This is not to say he made it up necessarily; if you’re a believer, you might think that he simply received further enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure why many commentary writers feel the need to insist that he had simply neglected to inform his flock of so critical a piece of information.

In chapter 5, Paul again returns to the topic of the return of Christ, and the sparing of believers from the coming wrath. It seems to me that it is a topic never far from his mind as the wrote this letter. He tells them to forget about trying to predict the exact time or day when Jesus would be coming back; it wasn’t something that was possible to do. This hasn’t deterred many of his followers from trying to do so over the centuries. Seems the last guy to do so was sometime within the last year or so.

Basically, Jesus is going to sneak up on everyone – just when they think things are going pretty well, he’ll return. However, Christians are not to be caught unaware, for they are to live their lives in a constant state of preparedness for his return. He may not come back tomorrow, but believers should live as if he will.

Again, I would take issue with those who might neglect their civic duty in a democratic government due to their belief that Jesus is going to come back and fix everything. I believe the problems that we face as Americans are quite fixable, so long as everyone is truly interested in fixing them. If a large proportion of the population feel that the purpose of government is to prepare for Jesus’ return – not to try and create a better society – then America suffers due to their belief. Even if you think Jesus is coming back, you shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. What if he waits another 2000 years?

I’ve found several things in this letter that I think do potential harm to American democracy, but finally, here at the end, is some advice that, if taken, would actually improve it.

Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Imagine if we always strove to do what is good for each other and everyone else – what a brilliant democracy we would have. Why is it that we seem to be only looking at what’s best for us personally, or what fits into our particular worldview, instead of what would be good for America? Paul’s admonition to be positive is also not bad advice, as long as we don’t insist that problems don’t exist.

He ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

I actually had one believer tell me, just today, that when she was unsure whether the ‘voice’ she heard in her mind was God or just her own, she might ask God to give her a sign – through her dog, if I understood her correctly. Pardon me if I sound dismissive, but in a democracy, I’d rather folks use the mind God gave them to make important decisions, and not seek out canine oracles. But I guess if  in the Old Testament, God spoke to Balaam through an ass, he must speak through dumb-asses today.

And finally, I don’t know what a holy kiss is – but I’m glad that’s one custom of the early church that didn’t make it to the 21st century.