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Jesus Was Real, and Mentally Abused by His Parents

“Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended? Or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”

– Christopher Hitchens, quoting David Hume[1]

So Mary and Joseph are betrothed, and Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. This is a dilemma. Did she commit adultery? This would, by Old Testament law, result in her being stoned to death.[2][3] Actually, lots of things resulted in being stoned to death in those days.[4] For Mary, this would clearly not be a good way to go. But of course, being pregnant, she was not in any position to claim she was still a virgin or faithful to Joseph. Or, was she?

Psychology has studied what has been coined—by Hitler no less—as “the big lie.”[5] The idea is that if you tell a big-enough lie, people will believe it based on the fact that nobody would lie about something that important or grandiose. Claiming that “God” or the “Holy Spirit” impregnated you, whether through a sexual act or not, would certainly constitute a very big lie. Claiming that you have achieved pregnancy without intercourse is also a similarly big lie.

These are especially grandiose considering that, at the time, blasphemy meant the death penalty.[6] Only a deranged person or someone with nothing to lose might venture to utter such a potentially life-ending idea as that “God” impregnated them.[7] It seems logical that Mary would likely fall under the “nothing to lose” category, as she could already face death for adultery and lying about her virginity.

Her claims of miraculous pregnancy through a deity quite arguably would not be believed today, even if DNA testing were not a factor. Thousands of years ago, however, in the midst of a bronze-age, illiterate, uneducated desert region of the Middle East, these are lies that could likely hold the attention of some. They certainly grabbed the attention of Joseph.

The New International Version of the Bible explains the situation as such: “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” – Matthew 1:18[8]

So she was pregnant, and it was somehow clear to both Joseph and Mary that it was the “Holy Spirit” which had impregnated Mary. How would Joseph have gotten this idea? It seems to follow that Mary quite probably planted it there. After all, Joseph understood this before he had his dream in which an angel visited him explaining the situation. This might lead a logical person to assume that Mary and Joseph had some kind of conversation about her being pregnant which included her fabrication of how it came to be.[9]

One almost has to feel bad for Joseph: faced with the stress of shame and possibly rage that his betrothed has been unfaithful, the prospect of divorcing the adulterous woman, and then the idea that the woman may have been impregnated by the god he worships. Could someone really cast away a person who claims to be a direct object of their god’s use? Would casting her away make him a heretic to his god’s will? What if she was lying? What if she wasn’t?

It seems reasonable to believe that someone, living in the time that they were, with a lack of education and likely a deeply religious culture, could succumb to the stress of their situation and experience a vivid dream, and then take it as truth or reality.[10] And he apparently did.

“But after he had considered this [divorce], an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21

So, with this idea in mind it is not wholly unbelievable to think that Joseph truly felt he had been visited by an angel.[11] The idea of the “Holy Spirit” impregnation probably originated in Joseph’s subconscious through his conversation with Mary. He may have remained skeptical hearing this claim, but seeing it materialize in a way that he felt was a revelation from his god likely allowed him to move forward without guilt or doubt.

As a side note, can you imagine how quickly Joseph might have been to join in stoning Mary to death had she given birth to a girl rather than a boy as the dream told him to expect? She probably had about a fifty-fifty chance of it being a male, though. Not bad in terms of betting.

It then follows that Mary would maintain—at all costs—her big lie, and Joseph would staunchly support her because his god revealed to him the plan. And how far would this go? Probably as far as filling young Jesus’ mind with this prospect, leading to his eventual persecution and murder for claiming to be the son of god.

We know from the study of human behavior and psychology that if you tell someone something long enough they may believe it eventually, especially if they have no proof or prior notions to the contrary. This would be particularly true in the case of an imaginative child.[12] We also know that given a position of power, even in a fictional role, it often leads to a self-perception of literally having this power. An example, controversial no doubt, is the Stanford Prison Experiment.[13]

And so young Jesus was raised with parents who likely told him, especially Joseph who must have felt proud to be chosen by his god to raise god’s son, that he was indeed the son of “God,” birthed by then-virgin Mary.[14] Even scripture shows that as a boy Jesus firmly believed he was doing his “father’s work.” This is seen in the gospel of Luke, when Joseph and Mary are distressed that they have lost track of their son. (They really are just prime examples of good parents, right?)

“After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” – Luke 2:46

“‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” – Luke 2:49-50

It seems ironic that they apparently did not understand why little Jesus thought his “Father” would be found in the temple. It is as if they figured their indoctrination would not have had any effect. It also seems ironic that Jesus, one member of the “Holy Trinity,” son of the “Almighty God,” would need to attend church or listen and ask questions of scholars. Would the creator of the universe truly send a form of himself to earth without the knowledge that God surely must have? But this is a digression better suited for a different examination.

So Jesus would go through his life convincing others of the big lie his conception was based on because his earthly father truly believed it, and because he was raised to believe it. But what of his miracles, Christians might demand. What of the thousands of people who followed Jesus and witnessed his power? Even though there is little or no evidence to support that any miracle has ever happened—especially as historically long ago as during the time of Jesus’ life—let us examine this argument.[15]

According to scripture Jesus had a plethora of followers: twelve main, go-to guys, but also a number of others. Why would this many people follow someone who was a kook? He must have been the “Son of God” to have the numbers he did. Does it not seem possible that Jesus spread the rumor of himself as being the “Son of God”? Wouldn’t it make sense that these illiterate masses might follow or listen to Jesus purely out of interest, possibly for entertainment, or even for lack of anything better to do? There was no Internet to distract from one’s work, no Sunday ball games to watch on television, and no movable type by which to spread knowledge. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that people might have followed Jesus just to break the monotony of living when they did in the conditions they did.

Even for those among his followers who honestly believed his message, that Jesus was divine and a messiah, the earlier used “big lie” explanation can be similarly applied. Just because Jesus may have believed something himself, spread the rumor he believed, and got others to join in this belief, does not make his claim any truer than if he were the only one who believed it. Mathematical models for rumor mongering have actually been created; see Lukasz Debowski for example.[16] We could, if given the precise facts around Jesus’ following, likely quantify how the rumor of his relation to God spread and why it enthralled his followers. The mere idea, however, that he had followers, regardless of how few or many, does not make his allegations more plausible or believable.

But the miracles! Let us toy with the notion that some people may have actually believed they witnessed Jesus perform miracles. These instances could be explained by science and psychology as some form of self-deception of the witnesses, parlor tricks on Jesus’ part, natural occurrences, or some combination of these.

We must also remember that the more people who supposedly witnessed something, the less likely their accounts are to be true. For example, if one thousand people supposedly witness a man turn into a werewolf, how many of those thousand had a direct line of sight to the event? How many merely heard a wolf cry or saw an animal after the event had occurred? Unless something was to take place in an amphitheater or area designed to allow viewing by numerous witnesses, accounts should be taken with a grain of salt. Even in the case of an amphitheater or the like, skepticism is always encouraged when dealing with the improbable and unprovable.[17]

There is also, of course, the premise that people merely heard of Jesus’ miracles. The all-too-familiar “telephone game,” in which a message is passed along until it eventually is unrelated to the original message, comes to mind. Even people present at the time of said miracles, who did not witness it in their line of sight, may surely have had the message relayed from those at the front in some form or another.

This brings forth yet another problem. Anyone who did have line of sight to Jesus’ “miracles,” and did not merely learn of these through hearsay, is still subject to the eyewitness accountability issue. It has been shown that eyewitness accounts have incorrectly led to the conviction of a substantial number of people in America’s justice system. DNA testing and steadfast defense attorneys have emancipated a portion of those wrongly convicted on the sworn testimony of others who were mistaken. A prominent example is that of Ronald Cotton, whose accuser made a point to study the face of her rapist and then wrongly accused Ronald.[18]

But, of course, merely pointing out the possible fallacies in the miracle argument does not outright disprove that the miracles occurred. One can only use a reasonable approach to examine the miracles that Jesus supposedly conjured. Many could likely be explained by nature, such as the large catches of fish or quelling of the storm. Others, like turning water to wine, could be explained as more trickery.[19] After all, who is to say Jesus wasn’t above some sleight of hand to get others to believe what he honestly believed? Also, as a first miracle one might think that the “Son of God” would produce something a little more grandiose than providing alcohol at a wedding. If his father really created the entire universe and everything in it, water to wine, withering fig trees, and curing a handful of people seems pretty trivial.

As to his healing of the sick, expelling of demons, and raising of the dead, there are of course explanations and doubts. Imagine if you will that someone purported to work these same miracles today. What might your first thoughts include? Perhaps a word that has become overused on the internet these days: “fake.” Could he have had collaborators? Might he have begged, bribed, threatened, or truly convinced these people to work with him to complete these miracles? If someone claimed to raise a person from the dead today, what proof would be required? Can we verify that all those who were healed were truly sick to begin with?

And there are still people today who claim to work these miracles.[20]Christians, supposedly through the power of their god, are performing healing—even exorcisms. A humorous example is the Skype exorcist, Reverend Bob Larson, who apparently has exorcised over 20,000 demons.[21] Take a moment and reflect on how many demons he must be exorcising per day over how long a period of time to reach that number. Jesus’ miracles are small potatoes compared to Reverend Bob’s record.

And, of course, other religions have had prophets, deities, and followers who have supposedly worked miracles. Does this make the Christian messiah’s miracles less spectacular and original? Most certainly. But then nothing aside from the sheer number of followers really makes Christianity that special. Take, for example, the long contested and criticized virgin birth. Sadly, for Jesus anyway, his mother’s adultery and subsequent lie was not even original. There are at least a few dozen virgin birth stories across a plethora of different cultures and their religions.[22]

So what makes Jesus’ birth so different? The tragedy of it. One woman’s lie led to the breakdown of her husband who believed his hallucinatory dream that god had sent an angel to confirm his wife’s assertion that she hadn’t cheated. This led to the raising of a child by parents who filled his head with grandiose ideas of his apparent relation to the almighty creator god. He was told this to the point that he believed it and was willing to either trick thousands into sharing the view or honestly convinced them through his own lunacy. He was, in the end, brutally tortured and murdered over the course of a couple of days, all the while asking his “father” to forgive his murderers. That is either serious dedication to his role—or serious insanity as a result of a mentally abusive upbringing. The latter seems most reasonable.

All of this, of course, is merely hypothetical given the possibility that Jesus may not even have existed (though most scholars agree he did), and that much of his life, and the stories about it, are likely false or at least unverifiable.[23] Religion has a fantastic way of creating unfalsifiable stories. That is, ideas that cannot be disproven thanks to the way they were designed. Jesus’ life, from conception to death, is just one part of such an unfalsifiable hypothesis. [24]

* * *

This article is not meant to equate to any type of scholarly work. It is not scientific, pseudoscientific, or any other variation of quasi-academic work. This is merely one atheist’s cynical and satirical musings on the story of Mary’s virginity and the subsequent upbringing, life, and death of Jesus. It is offered as one possible alternative version of events to those often cited by Christians and Christian texts.

* * *

Mentioned in the text, in order of appearance:

[1] David Hume quote used by Christopher Hitchens during the latter’s debate with Al Sharpton: quote only or full debate.

[2] Regarding the death penalty mentioned for adultery: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife —with the wife of his neighbor —both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. If a man has sexual relations with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man has sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, both of them are to be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.” Leviticus 20:10-12

[3] It is also of relevance to mention that a woman who lied about her virginity was also subject to being killed: “If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” Deuteronomy 22:20-21

[4] Things that constituted the death penalty by the Old Testament can be found on this wiki.

[5] Adolf Hitler’s coining of the “Big Lie” verbiage is found in his book, Mein Kampf, from which the excerpt can be read at the Jewish Virtual Library or Wikipedia.

[6] Death penalty for blasphemy: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him.” Leviticus 24:14. “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.” Leviticus 24:16

[7] There may be some who venture to argue that claiming a god or gods impregnated you is not blasphemy, and that blasphemy is only defined as speaking against god. Those people are encouraged to explore the various definitions, especially relating to the Old Testament, on the web. Also, keep in mind that in a time where disobeying one’s parents could result in the death penalty, it would not be a stretch to presume that Mary was committing blasphemy by claiming god had impregnated her. Some could have easily construed her story as a lying and adulterous woman disgracing god’s name or virtue to cover up her sins. Or, that by her mere claim, she was insinuating that god was no better than any mortal who needs to use a human to produce life. These are just examples of the many possible ways someone in that time could have justified murdering Mary for blasphemy.

[8] All bible phrases quoted or referenced were taken from Bible Gateway using the New International Version provided.

[9] It is interesting to note that even theist accounts, or at least this one, seem to come to a similar conclusion that Mary must have told Joseph and that Joseph was likely deeply troubled by this proposition. This theistic article ponders the following: “Did Mary tell Joseph of the miraculous conception? Did he find her story hard to believe even though he loved her deeply? Or did he accept it readily? Was his decision to break the engagement because he doubted her word, or was it because he considered himself unworthy to marry the mother of the Messiah, or was it because he thought Mary would have to raise the child in the Temple? His motive is not absolutely certain.”

[10] The same previously cited theist article attempts to analyze the possible events surrounding Joseph’s troubles. In this speculation, the idea of Joseph’s dream being false is considered only for a micro-second before strong evidence is produced to the contrary, “Could it have been a dream inspired by wishful thinking, or was this really a message from God? We have no doubt that it was from God, for Scripture plainly says so.” Scripture plainly says so. Thanks for clearing that up for us. It is written, therefore it must be true; infallible logic.

[11] Anyone curious to learn more about the effects of dreams and dreaming is encouraged to read the following article which delves deeply into why people might consider dreams as being true, including religious reasons: Morewedge, C. K., & Norton, M. I. (2009). When dreaming is believing: The (motivated) interpretation of dreams. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 249.

[12] In an article examining parents telling children of Santa Claus, the imagination of children is discussed, “Very young children live in an imaginary world, and that world is reality for them. ‘Little kids think there actually might be a monster in their closet or a dragon under their bed,’ says Douglas Kramer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. ‘It seems real to them, so it’s got to be real.'”

[13] In the Stanford Prison Experiment, some participants who were playing the “prison guards” fell into their roles in such a grotesque way that they abused the imaginative power they had. They began to honestly see themselves as superior and powerful over their “prisoner” counterparts. This is merely one example of power and self-perception going to extremes, though not as extreme as claiming to be the son of god sent to save mankind.

[14] As far as the idea that young Jesus was indoctrinated by his parents, Richard Dawkins and others have mentioned before that children are not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., but rather children of Christian, Jewish, Muslim parents. Though this is nothing more than a statement, it points out a reasonable idea about children: they are far too young to make up their minds about politics, economics, religion, the origins of the universe, or the meaning of life. One can only imagine the implications of endlessly telling a child that they are literally the son of a god.

[15] When it comes to Jesus’ miracles, feats supposedly performed by his followers today, and supernatural manifestations as “proof” or evidence of the existence of a god, Joe Nickell’s, Ph.D., article on “Examining Miracle Claims” is worth a look.

[16] This news article mentions Lukasz Debowski’s mathematical model as well as other scholars who are studying myth and rumor and the psychology behind it. The idea behind citing this is to show that research is being done about myths, rumors, and the like which could be used in a more scholarly article to examine how and why Jesus had followers.

[17] The unreliability of eyewitness testimony is examined by the American Psychological Association in a 2006 article. Distance from the event or person being witnessed can severely affect accuracy of what was perceived, as the article discusses.

[18] Ronald Cotton was mentioned as an example of how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. His story is truly tragic and there are sadly many like it. His case, along with others, is documented at Innocence Project.

[19] The history of illusionists, magicians, and tricksters is briefly explained on this page. Those interested in modern day “trickery” can look to Criss Angel and how easily he has duped large numbers of people.

[20] There are many documented accounts of “healing,” or claims to possess powers to do so, by followers of various religions in the name of their god: in Jesus’ name, in Allah’s name, and of course Pagan healing.

[21] Rev. Bob Larson has performed over 20,000 exorcisms as noted in this CNN interview. It is also interesting to note that Rev. Larson only charges a $295 “suggested donation” per exorcism. What a savings!

[22] Other religious virgin births are listed at this wiki page. Clearly, this was not an idea solely used or first conceived, no pun intended, by Christianity.

[23] It is relevant, to those interested in evidence and understanding, that the gospels about Jesus’ life were not written until well after he was dead and the events of his life had transpired. There is no precise date or generally agreed upon year in which they were written. A timeframe is often used ranging from 40 A.D. to 140 A.D., which creates further doubts concerning accuracy.

[24] this page better explains unfalsifiable hypothesis and unfalsifiability.