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The Justified Lie by the Johannine Jesus in its Greco-Roman-Jewish Context


(2nd ed., 2022)

“Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. (John 7:8-10)

Introduction
Background Framework of Greco-Roman-Jewish Contexts of Deception
Jesus’ Lie in John 7:8-10
     Tyler Smith’s “Deception in the Speech Profile of the Johannine Jesus (John 7.1-10)”
     Adele Reinhartz’s “The Lyin’ King? Deception and Christology in the Gospel of John”
     Dennis MacDonald’s The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides
     Is there Compelling Evidence that Jesus was Raised from the Dead?
     The Christology of Jesus
Conclusion

Introduction

There has been some significant pushback lately in the scholarship against the (sometimes apologetic) interpretation that Jesus was in fact not lying to his family in John 7:8-10. This essay builds on work on the Gospel of John by Tyler Smith, Adele Reinhartz, and Dennis MacDonald to build the case that Jesus was in fact portrayed as lying in John 7:8-10, and to determine what hermeneutic implications this entails. In the conclusion of this essay I will include some very recent insights of Hugo Méndez/Candida Moss on the Gospel of John as forgery to fully round out the picture. The present article follows Smith as he shows that Jesus’ lie in John actually conforms to a larger theme in John: that of Jesus appearing in a deceptive and confusing register/manner among the unbelieving Jews, and in a more profound, truthful register to the faithful. Next, Reinhartz will be shown to be arguing that the key to the Gospel of John is that Jesus is demonstrating his high Christology, and that Jesus as a liar fits in with that theme (that of Jesus not being subject to ethical norms because of his high status). “Christology” refers to how mortal (low Christology) versus how divine (high Christology) Jesus is being portrayed, as well as the extent to which Christ fulfilled the Old Testament expectations for a messiah. Next, I will look at MacDonald’s argument that the Gospel of John is in part a literary “mimesis typology” (the meaning of which I will explain shortly) of Euripides’ Bacchae, and draw out certain implications of this that MacDonald seems to have missed—namely, in relation to the character Cadmus’ advice regarding Dionysus that “Even if this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you think, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him to be the son of Semele, for this will make it seem she is the mother of a God, and will confer honor on all our race” (lines 332-336). All of this aims at showing that Jesus’ lie in John 7:8 is demonstrating a lie that makes faith possible, where Jesus’ lie to his brothers makes it possible for him to secretly go to the crowd and bring some of them to faith. Secular people have long encountered what they see as pious frauds, ranging from faith healers on television to Joseph Smith and his witnesses claiming to have found golden plate from Heaven.[1] I will show what a secular explanation of this means for Jesus’ lie in the Gospel of John, the connection between lying and faith in the Gospel attributed to John. First, though, I will provide context regarding the nature of lying and deception in the ancient intellectual/religious world.

Background Framework of Greco-Roman-Jewish Contexts of Deception

It is well known that lies and deception were generally frowned upon in the ancient world, as they are today, but justified deception and lying was still very much part of the zeitgeist. We see, as Bart Ehrman documented in Forgery and Counterforgery, how much deceptive document production was going on. And in fact, David Konstan points out that even the Stoics, those stern sages, approved of lying when it was beneficial to the community, for example, when a hostage deceives the enemy (Quintilian, Education of an Orator Bk. 12, Ch. 1, §38). Similarly, in the Analects, Confucius indicates:

The Governor of She said to Confucius, ‘In our village we have an example of a straight person. When the father stole a sheep, the son gave evidence against him.’ Confucius answered, ‘In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. In such behaviour is straightness to be found as a matter of course.’ (13.18)

It is not surprising, then, that we see many instances of justified deception (even though lying was generally frowned upon) in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, the list of biblical contradictions about whether or not lying is acceptable from The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible begins with verses indicating that there is nothing wrong with lying:

  1. God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the pharaoh (Exodus 1:18-20).
  2. Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies (Joshua 2:4-6; James 2:25).
  3. David lied to Ahimelech when he said that he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything that David did—with the single exception of the matter of Uriah (1 Samuel 21:2).
  4. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die (2 Kings 8:8-10).
  5. In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias” (Tobit 5:13-18).
  6. Jesus apparently lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but then went “in secret” (John 7:8-10).
  7. Even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets (1 Kings 22:21-22).

I will explore this Jewish/Christian context of deception later in Reinhartz’s work.

This pattern proceeded even into later times. For instance, Abdullah Al-Araby has shown many incidences of deception in the life of Mohammed. He often lied and instructed his followers to do the same. Mohammed rationalized that the prospect of success in missions to extend Islam’s influence overrode Allah’s initial prohibitions against lying.[2]

We also see this in ancient political craft, such as the noble lies in Plato’s Republic and his Laws. Further, Edward Gibbon explains the ancient Roman understanding of religion and its political usefulness at that time in the Roman context: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful” (1776, p. 46). Similarly, regarding the ruling class seeing religion as “useful,” for example, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek) was cleverly instituted as a Greco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was strategically introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. There may be some truth to what Karl Marx said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx, 1843/1963, pp. 43-44).

Plato presented the noble lie (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos, literally—”a lie or wrong opinion about origin”) in a fictional tale, wherein Socrates provides the origin of the three social classes who compose the republic proposed by Plato; Socrates speaks of a socially stratified society, wherein the populace are told “a sort of Phoenician tale.” Christopher Gill comments that “the whole process of (revised) story telling envisaged in the first phase of Plato’s education program consists of lies, though they are lies which are functionally adapted to implant the kind of dispositions and practices that are the basis for [noble ideas in the psyche]” (1993, p. 69). Gill then notes that the ancients clearly understood the usefulness of tall tales:

Although the fictionality involved in the fictionalization of Socrates’ conversations is distinct from that in the Platonic myths, it is clear that this fictionality could also be analyzed in terms drawn from the “Republic,” such as that of the Noble Lie, the verbal falsehood designed to propagate the process of acquiring ‘truth in the psyche,’ or of ‘making the false as like the true as possible so as to make it useful.’ (Gill, 1993, p. 69)

So, what we are seeing here with the ancients is not just a pattern of lying, but of noble lies or pious frauds: justified deception.

Russell Gmirkin points out that Plato’s Laws advocated promoting local temples (Laws 5.738c-d), priesthoods (Laws 6.759a-b), and traditional religious customs (Laws 6.759c-d; 8.828a-c) in order to promote the illusion of an ancient and divine authority for their laws (Laws 7.798a-b) (Gmirkin, 2018). And there are also Roman parallels to this.[3]

Gill says that in ancient works we need to pay attention not just to what is being said, but to why it is being said. Hence, regarding Plato, Gill writes:

When Phaedrus points out that Socrates has made up the ‘Egyptian’ legend he tells, Socrates replies, tartly, that what matters is not the source of such a story, but the truth or falsity of the idea it conveys (275 b-c). This is, in effect, to concede the falsity of the story as historical narrative, a point also signalled at the start of the story. (Gill, 1993, p. 58)

Seneca also said that all historians were liars. So, it was known in antiquity that pious fictions would be promoted as truths if they were beneficial for society, or simply because the author felt justified in taking liberties. Robert Wood reasons that “Seneca’s ironic assumption that historians are all liars is a response, presumably, not only to their economies or extravagances with the truth but to their very assertions of truthfulness, their claim to be writing history at all” (Wood, 1993, p. xv).

T. P. Wiseman illustrates how Lucian (De Historia Conscribenda 7) and Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 20.154-155) complained about the outrageous biographies of such figures as Nero, which had little historical verisimilitude to them. Lucian felt that the historian needed to avoid panegyric (tribute) and muthoi (tales) (Wiseman, 1993, p. 127). Similarly, E. L. Bowie points out that Hesiod in Works and Days seems to have invented having a brother for himself in the midst of an otherwise truthful account, a deception his audience would have been aware of! (Bowie, 1993, p. 23)

Bowie also points out, regarding the hexameter didactic epic form of ancient Greece, that the Muses who met Hesiod on Helicon (in a meeting that Hesiod’s contemporaries hardly would have regarded as the narrative of a historical event) notoriously claimed to be purveyors of both truth and falsehoods (pseudea) that are ‘like what is real’ (etumoisin homoia)—just the phrase used by Homer of Odysseus’ lies to Penelope at Odyssey 19.203: “Field-dwelling shepherds, evil disgraces, mere bellies, we know how to say many falsehoods that are like the truth (etumoisin), and we know, when we wish, how to voice what is true (alethea), ‘Hesiod, Theogony, 26-28‘” (Bowie, 1993, p. 19). Odyssey 19.203, which I referred to above where Homer characterizes Odysseus, says “he said [or made] many falsehoods in his tale like what is true” (Bowie, 1993, p. 18).

So as we can see, though generally frowned upon, justified lying and deception were very much an issue in the ancient world, including in the Judeo-Christian scripture tradition, as I outlined above. So we certainly have a prima facie case that John 7:8-10 “could” be interpreted in this way. I will now move on to Tyler Smith, Reinhartz, and MacDonald, and try to show why interpreting Jesus as lying to his family in this way is the best explanatory model of the text.

Jesus’ Lie in John 7:8-10

In the Fourth Gospel, the author usually identified as John writes:

“Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. (John 7:8-10)

Tyler Smith’s “Deception in the Speech Profile of the Johannine Jesus (John 7.1-10)”

So, we apparently have here, and in no other Gospel, an example of Jesus blatantly lying. This is quite interesting because it immediately raises the question: why would John have included such a thing? This has been a hermeneutic issue since ancient times. There are, as Smith points out, apparent scribal changes to John’s Gospel changing “not (ouk)” to “not yet (oupo),” thereby eliminating the lie by having Jesus say that he is not going up to the feast “yet” (Smith, 2017, p. 3). This avoids the absurdity of Jesus calling for truth but acting as a liar, and does have attestation in ancient manuscripts. However, Smith says that this seems to be a weak argument and that “not” seems to be the original reading (Smith, 2017, p. 3). If “not yet” was original, this means early scribes would have changed John’s text to make Jesus a liar, which doesn’t really make sense. And Smith (and as I’ll show later, Reinhartz) makes a compelling argument that Jesus being a liar is exactly what we would expect to see given themes in John (Smith, 2017, pp. 13-19). So, for instance, Chrys C. Caragounis defends the oupo reading because he thinks ouk seems to render the text absurd, for why would John be presenting Jesus as a liar? (Caragounis, 1998). Smith seems to have a good answer for this.

Smith mounts an argument against the occasionally apologetic idea that Jesus was not lying to his brothers and then going up to the feast in private. Rather, Smith contends that this explicit lie is completely in character with a systematically and intentionally deceptive/confusing Jesus in the Gospel of John for those Jews who hear him in a mundane register rather than the profound register.[4] We see a two-register Jesus for Smith, sometimes in the profound spiritual register, sometimes in the mundane register.[5] To the Jews who hear him in the mundane register, all is deception and confusion. For Smith this is apparently grounded in an anti-Jewish flavor[6]. It should be noted, though, that Stewart Penwell has recently presented a somewhat more nuanced presentation of John’s negative portrayal of the Jews. Penwell shows how John’s view of the Jews (and Samaritans) is meant to establish a new transethnic people with new patterns of practices and categories for the “children of God” (1:12; 11:52) (Penwell, 2019). This is fully compatible with the argument being developed here, where John is inventing a “superhero-like” Jesus to entice and lure people away from their old ways, in fact overcoming their old beliefs and habits with his divine drug-like luster. There was an inherent difficulty for the early Christians proselytizing because, as Paul said, Christ crucified was a stumbling block for the Jews and a foolishness for the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). John’s ultra-Christology Jesus was perhaps an attempt at overcoming that gulf.

It would have been interesting for Smith to address what seems to be a parallel of Jesus’ lie in John and Jesus intentionally confusing people in the Gospel of Mark, the idea that Jesus was being intentionally deceiving in the way that he addressed the crowd in Mark. Hence, in Mark we read: “And He told them, ‘The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, so that, they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven'” (Mark 4:11). How might John be using Mark here?

In the ancient world, there were common processes whereby earlier literary texts were used as typology or models to invent new imitation stories, one purpose of which was to show that the imitation was thought superior to the original. So, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus imitates the story of Moses on numerous points, and so portrays Jesus as the new and greater Moses—from a Jewish point of view what would be understood as a kind of “haggadic midrash.” We see similar literary techniques in Latin literature called imitatio, and in Greek literature called mimesis. Perhaps the structure of the Gospel of John that exploits the deception/confusion theme of Jesus among the unhearing Jews is a kind of haggadic mimesis/midrash or typology exploring this theme from Mark 4:11, akin to the way that Daniel Boyarin argues that John’s prologue reflects exegetical work (which Boyarin characterizes as “midrash”).[7] I will explore Boyarin’s idea regarding the incarnation further in relation to MacDonald and the lie, but first I want to emphasize another interpretation of the lie of Jesus to his family in John in relation to Christology from Reinhartz.

Adele Reinhartz’s “The Lyin’ King? Deception and Christology in the Gospel of John”

Reinhartz traces the meaning of the lie in John specifically to the extremely high Christology of Jesus in John. In early works, she points out, by responding curtly to his mother in John 2:4, and by delaying his visit to the dying Lazarus (11:4-6), John’s Jesus violates the norms for ethical behavior as they would have been understood by both ancient Jewish and gentile audiences. That he is allowed to do this shows that he is greater, beyond the rules of average humans.

Above I gave examples of justified lies in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Reinhartz more fully argues that Jesus’ use of deception puts him in line with other Jewish heroes who do the same.[8] Important for my purposes here (see note 8), Reinhartz says that it is the lie Jesus tells that is going to be the key to reaching the crowd and successfully selling his message to them. So, the lie is connected with people coming to faith. I will consider the implications of this in the next section on MacDonald.

Reinhartz suggests it is not simply truth, but Christological issues that guide John’s portrayal of Jesus. She writes:

God is true; as his son, Jesus, is also true; the truth to which Jesus points is the truth that he is his God’s Son and has come to the world to bring people to faith in himself as God’s Son and thereby sanctify them in God’s truth. In this broad context, Jesus’s deception of his brothers is not even a blip on the radar screen. (2017, pp. 163-164)

To more fully flesh out what Reinhartz’ position seems to imply here, it should be noted that the Greek word for truth “A-letheia”—with the alpha privative—is said in many senses, and can suggest “dis-closing,” “un-hidden,” “correct,” “honest,” and “exemplary,” as in “true friend,” and essential as in “the great truths of the human condition” (Plotinus speaks of ‘truly real’ (i.e., alethos on) [III.7.6., 33 f.], for instance); and the author of John seems to be playing with all of these senses. ‘Truth’ in the usual sense primarily means being “in-truth” of the “un-hidden,” in the sense that something hidden has been brought to light and cannot be unseen. Consider the example of the hidden gestalt image that is initially hidden, but then discloses itself; or how Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis of slave morality changes the way that you see/experience ancient Christian values such as meekness and poverty. Keeping this in mind, we can see that Jesus’ lie in John is not simply being viewed by the author in ethical terms, but rather specifics of behavior are being subordinated to issues of demonstrating very high Christology. In this regard, Jesus is “The Truth,” even when he is not being truthful. Everything he does “dis-closes (a-letheia)” his massively high Christology.[9] Reinhartz suggests that by having Jesus violating ethical norms, such as in lying, this goes to reinforce just how high a Christology is at issue with Jesus here, because such a Jesus is not subject to ethical norms and conventions like the rest of us.[10]

But the question arises: why it is so important for the author of the Gospel of John to emphasize such a high-Christology Jesus? It may, of course, just be legendary development of Jesus as we get to the last of the four Gospels, which probably plays a part. On the other hand, I would like to argue that it would certainly astound potential converts to hear of such a superhero. And the issue of belief was very important to the author of John. I will now consider this in relation to MacDonald’s book The Dionysian Gospel on the Fourth Gospel.

The issue of belief was clearly important to the author of John. Another level to the meaning of Jesus’ justified lying in the Gospel of John arises where Jesus’ lie leads to him causing faith in some of the crowd, which might be a self-referential “apologia” or defense by the author to the inner-circle reader who knew that Jesus didn’t really reflect such as massively high Christology, but who also knew that it was important to present Jesus in this high manner. Maybe the author of John wanted to astound the audiences with a super-Christology Jesus in hopes of getting them to believe. Perhaps in the time of the author of John’s Gospel it was hard to get people to believe because it was so far removed in time from the events of Jesus’ life and those who knew him. Hence the Gospel of John emphasizes “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe'” (20:29). The question of what causes or allows belief seems essential to the Gospel of John. And as I argue below, it seems directly related to John’s Gospel imitating the portrayal of Dionysus by Euripides.[11]

Dennis MacDonald’s The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides

I would like to preface this section with the last words of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo: “Have I been understood?? Dionysus against the crucified one…” (1895/2005, p. 152). This can be more fully explored with MacDonald’s 2017 analysis of the Gospel of John, The Dionysian Gospel, which uses typological analysis that frames John’s Gospel in exegetical mimesis according to the model of Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae. Smith mentions in his online Review of Biblical Literature review of MacDonald’s book that given “Bacchic themes in the Fourth Gospel…. motific comparisons are worth consideration whether or not one agrees with MacDonald that they were first set out by intention in a Dionysian gospel that can now be recovered and studied” (Smith, 2018, p. E4).

Smith provides a helpful, concise summary of MacDonald’s work on the parallels between Jesus and the Dionysus of Euripides. He writes:

Just as in John the heavenly Logos assumes a human body, so “Dionysus declared that he ‘changed into this mortal /appearance’ (53) in order to reveal his power to unbelieving Thebans and to punish Pentheus, their king” (30-31). Just as in John Jesus is identified by many names and titles (Logos, light, the one-of-a-kind God, the chosen one of God, king of Israel, Messiah, son of Joseph, rabbi, son of man), so also “Dionysus was notorious for his multiple titles,” including Bacchus, Bromios, Iacchos, Dithyrambos, ‘the god’, and ‘the child of Zeus'” (39). Just as Jesus’s first miracle in John is to change water into wine, “Euripides twice mentions the god’s miraculous production of wine in the Bacchae” (41). If Jesus purifies the temple, his father’s house in John 2, this “resembles Dionysus’s intention to vindicate his mother in the place of his birth” (46). Where the Johannine Jesus heals an old cripple so that he can walk again, “early in the Bacchae two old men, Cadmus and Tiresias, gain the strength to dance with the worshipping women in the wild” (47). There juvenation of Cadmus is also comparable to Jesus’s making it possible for Nicodemus, who is old, to be born anew (48-49). Just as the Baptist insists that “it is necessary that he [Jesus] increase” (3:30), so Cadmus witnesses to Dionysus that “it is now necessary- with respect to the child of my daughter, / Dionysus, a god manifest to people- / to increase 181-183). This parallel is all the more striking in view of the fact that “the combination of these two words in the New Testament; it never appears in the LXX” (50). MacDonald draws a dozen or so further parallels between the two texts. The most important of these are the “true vine” discourse and parallels between Jesus and Dionysus in terms of their respective arrests and trials, where the arresting parties are oblivious to their own ironic states of powerlessness in the confrontation. (Smith, 2018, pp. E2-E3)

Given Smith’s list of MacDonald’s parallels, one possible parallel between the Fourth Gospel and the Bacchae that MacDonald fails to mention is when Cadmus says “Even if this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you think, still say that he is. Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him to be the son of Semele, for this will make it seem she is the mother of a God, and will confer honor on all our race” (Euripides, Bacchae, lines 332-336). Note the apparent connection of this quote with the lie of Jesus to his brothers in the Gospel of John that allows Jesus to preach to the crowd and causes faith. The lie of Cadmus is meant to impart high status to Dionysus, just as the lie of Jesus breaking social/ethical norms shows Jesus’ high Christology in that he exists beyond the ethical. Also, notice Cadmus’ emphasis of the importance of people needing to be tricked into seeing Dionysus as more than just a man, and what goods would result if people believed this. This would certainly fit as part of the explanation (besides legendary development) for the emphasis on extremely high Christology in the Gospel of John. In fact, this Euripides quote may have prompted the discussion of noble lies in Plato’s Republic and Laws—and could have influenced the Gospel of John in terms of inventing material about a super-Christology Jesus to astound potential converts. This might be what lays behind John introducing “The Word becomes flesh” (1:14) into the Christian theological tradition, along with MacDonald’s/Smith’s point in the above that “Just as in John the heavenly Logos assumes a human body, so Dionysus declared that he ‘changed into this mortal /appearance’ (53)” (Smith, 2018, p. E2).

Clearly, the disciples may have been pretending that they’d been seeing Jesus’ ghost, and in fact were being accused of stealing the body for just that reason:

…telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.'” (Matthew 28:13).

And, in fact, we know that body-stealing was at least a minor issue for the Romans at the time, as we can glean from The Nazareth Inscription:

Edict of Caesar

It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person, I order that a judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker. (Billington, 2005)

Some counterapologists currently try to argue against the empty tomb with the idea that Christian opponents weren’t saying in Mark or Paul that the disciples stole the body, as with the claim in Matthew, so the tomb was not previously envisioned as empty. This is not a strong response because the more straightforward answer is that Mark didn’t include the objection of opponents that he had no answer for; an answer to a good objection would have to await Matthew creatively inserting guards at the tomb. Paul clearly says that Jesus was buried before he rose.

Were there guards at the tomb? Mark states that Jesus was executed as a common criminal and given a dishonorable burial, so if this is accurate, then the elite probably didn’t bother with guards at the tomb.

For those unfamiliar with the Nazareth Inscription controversy, some apologists have argued that the order was given specifically because Jesus’ body was found missing and that this was causing problems for the ruling class due to people worshipping Jesus and snubbing Caesar. In fact, the inscription probably belongs from anywhere between 50 BCE to 50 CE, and there is no reason to think that it has anything to do with Nazareth or Jesus. But it is regarded as important because it states that the Edict of Caeser decrees:

[I]f anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, … I order that a judicial tribunal be created, …. [and] I wish that [any violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker. (Billington, 2005)

This was enough of a problem in those days that Caesar had to issue an order attempting to deal with it. (As New Testament scholar James McGrath writes on his blog, “The fact that people tamper with tombs is the basis of the details unique to the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the resurrection.”) So what we can glean from this is that the trump card of Christian apologists like Mike Licona and William Lane Craig—the empty tomb—has a perfectly reasonable explanation with straightforward historical analogy: the disciples stole the body.

Historical reasoning is mathematical, dealing in probabilities regarding the likelihood that events occurred, like the likelihood that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. So, for instance, if we have a known issue of bodies being stolen from graves for nefarious reasons, as per the Nazareth Inscription, then it makes it more likely that this is what happened in the case of Jesus, and makes less likely the already very improbable supernatural explanation that the Christian God did it. As Ehrman said in his debate with William Lane Craig, even if we have no obvious natural explanation for the empty tomb, “some” naturalistic explanation is inherently more probable than supposing a supernatural one.[12] As Bertrand Russell pointed out, if we are simply invoking the supernatural to explain an event like the empty tomb without any real reason for doing so, then supposing that the Christian God did it is just as likely as supposing that an invisible leprechaun or Zeus did it. That’s Ehrman’s point in the video—that Craig’s interpretation is theological, rather than historical, because that interpretation only makes probabilistic sense if you already believe in the Christian God. The present essay locates the Christian inception firmly with an ancient context of deception, and so makes the stolen body hypothesis all the more reasonable because of it.

Is there Compelling Evidence that Jesus was Raised from the Dead?

On YouTube, apologist Mike Licona shared a short 3-minute video arguing that Jesus rose from the dead. At issue here is the earliest account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in the creed/poetry that Paul apparently quotes and expands on, which says:

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

This creed is often cited by apologists as being too early to involve legendary material, though even a cursory examination shows such apologetic claims to be false. Why is this a problem? The New Testament thinkers were in the habit of inventing material about Jesus by copying Old Testament scriptures. So, for instance, Mark copies material from the story of Elijah to present John the Baptist as the new and greater Elijah. Likewise, Matthew’s story about Jesus recapitulates the story of Moses to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses. That is what the above “Corinthian Creed/poetry” that Paul is quoting seems to be doing with the Old Testament story of Jonah and the huge fish. In Matthew, regarding the resurrection we read:

The Sign of Jonah

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40)

The three days can be understood in this way:

But what are we to make of the phrase “three days and three nights”? Was Jesus saying that He would be dead for three full 24-hour periods before He would rise from the dead? It does not appear so. The phrase “three days and three nights” need not refer to a literal 72-hour period. Rather, according to the Hebrew reckoning of time, the days could refer to three days in part or in whole. Jesus was probably crucified on a Friday (Mark 15:42). According to the standard reckoning, Jesus died at about 3:00 PM (Matthew 27:46) on Friday (day 1). He remained dead for all of Saturday (day 2) and rose from the dead early on Sunday morning (day 3). Attempts to place Jesus’ death on Wednesday to accommodate a literal 72-hour period are probably unnecessary once we take into account the Hebrew method of reckoning of each day as beginning at sundown. So it seems that the expression “three days and three nights” was used as a figure of speech meant to signify any part of three days. (“What is the Sign of Jonah?” GotQuestions.org)

So, far from being historical, the Easter resurrection claims in the Corinthian Creed quoted by Paul (of Jesus being raised on the third day) are theologically charged to proclaim Jesus to be the new and greater Jonah, and so are much more likely reflective of hallucinations or lies inspired by the story of Jonah than of evidence of the historicity of a ghost/zombie Jesus. In attempting to propagandize the Corinthian Creed, whoever wrote it drove any historical credibility right out of it. Definitively, the statement Paul quotes of “and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” as our oldest testimony to the Easter resurrection event in the Corinthian Creed is a genuine scandal at the heart of historical Christianity.

Similarly, the cross and its beams/planks/logs have a completely theological sense in the New Testament. When we think of the wooden cross in Mark, we think of the easily enraged crowd, the corrupt religious elite, and an indifferent-to-justice Pilate. When these people saw Jesus on the beams of the cross as a criminal, what they should have been seeing is their own deep-rooted flaws for executing him. Matthew and Luke express this sentiment in the following way, invoking the image of the wooden beam/plank/log, making us think of the cross:

  • 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)
  • 37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” 39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:37-42)

Perhaps the issue here is not in seeing the criminal Jesus hung on the beams of the cross, but the people seeing the beam in their own eyes. The one who attempts to regulate his brother often displays the greater blindness and hypocrisy. A proverb of this sort was familiar to the Jews, and appears in numerous other cultures, too, such as in the Latin proverb of later Roman days referenced by Athenagoras of Athens, meretrix pudicam (generally translated as “the harlot rebuketh the chaste”).

Of course, if I had gone to my father’s grave and found it empty, and then thought that I saw him, I wouldn’t conclude from this that God had raised my father from the dead since there are any number of other explanations. A friend’s mother had “heard” her husband in the house after he died, for instance, as it is commonplace for the mind to hallucinate all manner of experiential oddities when one is in bereavement.

It’s not at all clear that the resurrection “appearance” reports referred to anything visible, as opposed to an inner mystical experience, since “see” can be used metaphorically in the New Testament. Thus, we read: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).

Carrier comments:

Paul says apostles saw Jesus “inside” themselves (Gal. 1:16), in “revelations,” visions, not, he specifically says, “with flesh and blood” as depicted in the Gospels (Gal. 1:11-12). And his experience was the same as everyone else’s, excepting only in being last in order (1 Cor. 15:3-8; 1 Cor. 9:1; see OHJ, Ch. 11.4).

In any case, we can imagine the distraught Cephas/Peter experiencing a weird hallucinatory event, and his hysteria/experience spreading to the rest of the grieving disciples. Similarly, the experiences of the disciples could have primed the 500 to experience what they did, like the children’s prediction resulted in the mass hysteria of the Fatima sky miracle/hallucination:

The Miracle of the Sun (Portuguese: Milagre do Sol), also known as the Miracle of Fàtima, is a series of events reported to have occurred miraculously on 13 October 1917, attended by a large crowd who had gathered in Fàtima, Portugal, in response to a prophecy made by three shepherd children, Lùcia Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Marto. The prophecy was that the Virgin Mary (referred to as Our Lady of Fàtima), would appear and perform miracles on that date. Newspapers published testimony from witnesses who said that they had seen extraordinary solar activity, such as the Sun appearing to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the Earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes. (Wikipedia)

As for Paul, there’s no reason to suppose that there is anything miraculous in his experience of Jesus, for Paul was certainly prone to weird experiences. He also may have been under cognitive stress because he was persecuting a movement which included Paul’s family members as prominent figures.

It’s also not clear that Paul envisioned an empty tomb scenario since he doesn’t mention one. Some readers propose that Paul envisions the old body being left behind for a new resurrection body. The empty tomb story may have been a later apologetic invention dreamed up to counter opponents who were saying that the disciples were just hallucinating out of grief: Jesus is given a dishonorable burial in Mark, but surprise, the last becomes first, and he escapes the tomb!

As I argued above, a case can also be made that the disciples stole the body and invented the appearance stories to continue the movement, for such cults often died out with the death of the leader.

So the postmortem appearance stories about Jesus can be explained in a completely mundane way, and thus there is no reason to invoke the inherently less plausible supernatural explanation that God raised Jesus from the dead.

The Christology of Jesus

Perhaps “the Word becoming flesh” of John’s Gospel is in fact a response to the apparently adoptionistic views being put forth by the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus was just a man who later had divine status conveyed upon him by God. Adoptionism is a Christian nontrinitarian theological doctrine that holds that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at his baptism, his resurrection, or his ascension.

In Mark, Jesus identifies himself with the type “fallible human prophet.” So, Mark writes: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (Mark 6:4-5) Mark seems to really emphasize the humanity of Jesus, something that we do not see in John. So, we read a very human portrayal of emotion: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). Similarly, Jesus’ impotence over the power/will of the crowd is portrayed: “He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him” (Mark 3:9).

One of the biggest indicators of Jesus’ humanity in Mark is seen in the terrified, desperate Gethsemane prayer where Jesus’ begs God to alter His plan so that Jesus wouldn’t have to suffer terribly. In fact, the Gethsemane prayer in Mark may indicate, as Robert Price has suggested, an early tradition where Jesus didn’t think that he was just going to suffer for a little bit and then be gloriously resurrected (Price, 2011, p. 223).

Exploring this question, Mark foreshadows the Resurrection in his Gospel, but the historical Jesus seemed to have no knowledge of his imminent resurrection after three days, since if Jesus did know, the desperation of the prayer in Gethsemane would seem to make no sense. Would not a Jesus expecting his immediate resurrection simply grin and bear his suffering, knowing that glory is soon to follow? Similarly, if the disciples expected Jesus to be killed and immediately raised, why would they clash with the arresting party with the slave’s ear being cut off, and then simply flee and disperse and return to their daily lives with no effort to see Jesus again?[13]

Consider that scholars like Ehrman and Dale Allison cite the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus (and John the Baptist) to point to Jesus’ belief that Jesus thought that the kingdom of God was imminent, since the reasoning (partially) is that the writers wouldn’t simply have included what would have been falsified apocalyptic rants (although the Hebrew scriptures do include examples of known-to-be-false prophesies). Paul was clearly apocalyptic, too (e.g., Christ as first fruits of the general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age in 1 Corinthians 15:20); but I wonder whether this apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus only really developed post-Easter among Christians who felt that the last days were in fact begun and had started with Jesus’ resurrection. (For example, reflect on the Corinthian Creed Paul is quoting in reference to the first appearances of the postmortem Jesus to Cephas and the 12. In particular, note the connection between Paul with the resurrected Jesus as first fruits of the resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age, and Matthew with the mass resurrection following Jesus’ death.)

Perhaps “the resurrected first fruits of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age” is how the original Christians like Cephas and Paul interpreted the experiences that they were having of what they thought was the risen Christ? And then perhaps later writers like Mark picked up on this theme and, in places, retrodicted this apocalyptic framework onto his sources’ portraits of Jesus because it was simply assumed that the historical Jesus must have made apocalyptic pronouncements?

For instance, an expected soon-to-be-fully-realized Kingdom of God and resurrection of Jesus seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ last words on the cross: “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) This is true whether the words are emphasizing the fact that Jesus felt abandoned by God, or that Jesus felt rejected because God turned away from the sins of humanity that Jesus had taken on. The last words of a Jesus who expected a speedy resurrection would probably reflect the calmness and resolve of what is recorded in Luke or John. Calm and resolve is not the sense we get from Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ last words.[14] James G. D. Dunn argues for the historicity of Jesus’ words as meaning abandonment (2003, pp. 779-781). This would have been embarrassing for the early Church to preserve, as it seemingly was for Luke and John. (I think Mark Goodacre is right that John knew the synoptics.[15]) If we bracket or put aside the critique I offered of Price in note 13 for a moment, I still think that it’s interesting to follow Price’s thought path here. So, following Price, the historical Jesus, somewhat hidden and somewhat preserved in Mark, may have gone to the cross believing that his Gethsemane prayer would be answered and that God would intervene in history and miraculously send Elijah to rescue him (Mark 15:34-36), but then ultimately realized that God would not come and had abandoned him to his terrible fate. Price raises the issue that the desperate prayer in Gethsemane may have originally been envisioned as being granted (compare Hebrews 5:7, where Jesus’ prayers were “heard”) (Price, 2011, p. 223). Jesus may have thought/been portrayed as thinking that the willingness of Jesus to die, like that of Isaac, is what answers future Israel’s sins, not his actual death.

Perhaps the historical Jesus thought that a Swoon-like situation (where Jesus only seemed to die on the cross, but really lived) was in play with him being rescued from the cross, only God would send Elijah to rescue him instead of his disciples (as the crowd heard Jesus crying out for Elijah from the cross). Ironically, Mark seems to use imagery that is certainly compatible with a “seeming death,” such as the odorous/drugged liquid being offered to Jesus, which could have knocked him unconscious and make it seem like he died, hence facilitating him being taken down from the cross prematurely (Price, 2011, p. 223). And, in fact, Pilate is perplexed as to why Jesus expired so quickly.[16]

But does Mark really have a low-Christology Jesus? Some have suggested that the Danielic[17] Son of Man imagery in Mark is suggestive of a high-Christology view that Jesus had of himself, and is historical because it is identified as one of the reasons Jesus got arrested. I see the Danielic Son of Man traits in Mark[18], but I still have reason to relate it to adoptionism. I think it can be related through imagery and typology. Paul, for instance, identifies Jesus as the Rock of the Hebrew scriptures (1 Corinthians 10:1-4), though not literally. Similarly, Matthew identifies Jesus as the new and greater Moses, such that Jesus is everything that Moses was and more. And typology is an important theme in Mark, too. For instance, Mark portrays John the Baptist as an Elijah type, and Jesus as an Elisha type[19]. So, God adopts the fallible human prophet Jesus and exalts him to a status as a New and Greater Son of Man: Jesus is everything the Son of Man in Daniel was, but even greater because of his principle role as Son of Man: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He is greater than the Son of Man in Daniel because his essence is to give up his life for the many. So, perhaps this is a way to keep an adoptionistic Jesus as Son of Man, and yet not posit him as preexistent. The Gospel of John seems to want to correct this in Mark by explicitly saying that Jesus as Son of Man was preexistent (John 3:13; 6:62).

So, with Mark invoking the Danielic Son of Man imagery when Jesus is describing himself, does this necessarily mean that Jesus thought that he literally was the Danielic Son of Man, or could the imagery just be poetic, like Paul’s typological identification of the rock with Christ? Recall earlier where it was suggested that John was imitating and expanding on Mark 4:11, which was saying that Jesus was speaking in such a way that people were not understanding him. Often the point of typology (as with imitatio/mimesis) is to show that the imitation is greater than the model. So, Matthew presents Jesus as the new and greater Moses. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is Moses. Similarly, Mark invoking Danielic Son of Man imagery doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus is the Son of Man identified in Daniel. Regarding this, McGrath argues that the figure in Daniel 7 could be understood as a second deity, a symbol of the people of God, an angel (perhaps the celestial power that stands for the Israelites), or the Davidic Messiah. All of those interpretations and others existed and continue to have their proponents. And so, McGrath asks, the question is what we think Mark meant in using the text. It may be that the figure has divine attributes, but they are ones that are bestowed by the supreme God. And so McGrath doesn’t think there is a way of reading Daniel 7 on the lips of Jesus, whether one understands the reference to have been to himself or to another figure, as positing binitarianism.[20] But an even more fundamental issue, as Ehrman points out, is tracing back the Son of Man sayings in Mark to the historical Jesus. Ehrman has an interesting blog post about when we might be able to trace the Son of Man sayings back to the historical Jesus, when not, and when identifying the Son of Man as a coming cosmic judge Jesus means to refer to an entity other than himself.[21]

On a related issue, we sometimes see what looks like claims of high Christology in Paul’s authentic letters (by Ehrman in How Jesus Became God, for instance), but these are perhaps overstated. Paul says that Jesus is from the seed of David, for instance. McGrath points out that Philippians 2 does not say that Jesus was equal to God, but that he didn’t grasp at equality with God. The divine name is also explicitly said to be something that God bestows on Jesus when exalting him to a status that he neither previously held nor grasped at (McGrath, 2010).

Conclusion

A key to understanding the New Testament is that God had destroyed humanity once with the flood because they were evil, and with the second attempt God’s chosen people were under the imperial Roman thumb. The God of the Bible is reported to have done such a poor job in creating mankind that not only did He have to wipe out evil humanity with the flood, the end result of the second attempt was that God’s chosen Jewish people were inescapably under the Roman imperial thumb. In a world of pestilence, famine, natural disaster, sin, etc.—which is to say a world so obviously not the effect of a benevolent, wise creator—the ancient Gnostic Christians proposed that the world was created by an evil or stupid demiurge, not the true God. But there was hope. In Gnosticism, the Divine Spark is described as the fragmented portion of the divine that resides within each human being; it is the light contained in each individual, the potential of their illumination. Gnostics believe the purpose of life is to illuminate the spark through a process called “gnosis,” the Greek word for “knowledge.” The divine spark is a kind of gnosis or knowledge that Jesus was a catalyst to awaken. And so lacking knowledge, such as a dog with the intellect of a 2-year-old child or certain mentally challenged people, they can’t be held accountable for their actions. Similarly, the capacity for evil is our distinctly human freedom, since a dog can be bad, but not evil. As Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling pointed out, only a human can sink below an animal in terms of depravity.

In Gnosticism, the divine spark is the portion of the true God that resides within each human being. The purpose of life is to enable the Divine Spark to be released from its captivity in matter and reestablish its connection with, or simply return to, God, who is perceived as being the source of the Divine Light. In the Gnostic Christian tradition, Christ is seen as a wholly divine being that has taken human form in order to lead humanity back to the Light. Jesus was the truth (a-letheia), the one who dis-closes. For instance, the disciples knew the Hebrew scripture, but Jesus un-hid or “opened up” the scripture for them to see that it foreshadowed him:

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49).

Similarly, Jesus’ death awoke what Paul called the Law written on people’s hearts, the Divine Spark of the later Gnostics, by dis-closing their hidden vileness to them. Bart Ehrman comments:

It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith. What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins. It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It’s extremely important for Luke. But not as an atonement. Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent). Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. (Ehrman, 2017)

So, in Luke, as in Mark, we have the soldier at the cross claiming in realization, “Truly this was God’s son / an innocent man.”

The God of the Bible was certainly prone to bad judgment. Even on a simple level, consider that in the story of Noah, He had so poorly designed human beings that he had to wipe them all out with a flood and start over from square one. Along these lines we read:

God ‘regretting’ his decisions: Two times the Bible says that God regretted something he had done in the past (Genesis 6:6-7; 1 Samuel 15:11). And in at least 15 places the Bible says he regretted, or that he might regret, something he was about to do in the future (Exodus 32:12-14; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalms 106:45; Jeremiah 4:28; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2). (desiringGod.org)

Conservative Christians argue Jesus had to die because a just God couldn’t simply forgive sins but had to punish them. But would such a “righteous punisher” God not also be unable to forgive Himself for His own sins of depraved indifference and recklessness in creation and influence, so that in the absence of his ability to execute himself, he underwent the horror of planning and watching his only beloved Son receive the worst possible torture and execution as the punishment God Himself deserved?

What was God guilty of? God is supposedly as revulsed by sin as anyone would be if offered garbage to eat. But not only is man not disgusted by sin in this way, he inclines toward it.

Edouard Tahmizian argues:

[T]he reason Adam and Eve were able to sin is because they were created with an inclination to sin by God, an inclination that simply needed the right stimulus (the tree of knowledge) to become actualized (so that Adam and Eve could experience temptation to sin)…. This would, beyond a doubt, make God the final cause of Adam and Eve’s sin. For if God originally created them as morally perfect beings, they would not have been able to feel a motivation to sin (or experience temptation). They would, instead, have only been motivated to choose what was right, which would mean that good is all that they would have been able to have chosen.

In a created world that is so obviously not a responsibly and carefully thought-out creation (with earthquakes, floods, disease, hunger, and sin), no one more deserves to be held accountable than God for depraved indifference murder. And, in fact, the story of Jesus was meant to begin to undo this horror by being a catalyst to awaken the Inner Law written on people’s hearts (Romans 2:15) to begin to fight back against the influence of Satan. The need to dis-cover this inner light, cultivate it, and get “righteousness supercharged” by welcoming the angelic possession of “Christ in you” is why Jesus says that through him is the only way to salvation—that is, the only way to have a chance against the temptations of Satan.

In the Jewish tradition, the question of evil is not just about personal failings, but overcoming the temptations of Satan. This is even true for God, who said that Satan “caused” him to move against Job, which He wouldn’t otherwise have done simply on His own:

3 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” (Job 2:3)

To recapitulate, God showed supreme recklessness and poor judgment in allowing earthquakes, floods, famine, pestilence, sin, etc. God did such a poor job creating and managing that things just got worse and worse until He had to wipe away evil humanity with a flood, but despite this, eventually evil Rome still rose up to take over the world and put the Jews under its imperial thumb. The solution was to have Jesus, the specially chosen son of God, undergo a horrific unjust torture and execution to awaken people to their hidden vile nature as a catalyst for repentance (“Truly this was God’s son / an innocent man.”) The innocent Son Jesus had to suffer to reverse the sins of the Father. God, who was the most guilty of all for the monstrosity that the law today calls depraved indifference murder, could not pass judgment and execute Himself for his crimes (God can’t die), so he had to do the next best thing and plan the execution of his beloved Son. In this way, God suffered a pain worse than the death he could not suffer: he had to plan the horrific death of his only beloved Son. There was a higher principle than God, that of Justice, that dictated the Son had to be punished for the sins of the Father. Similarly, in Euripides we read:

The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. (Euripides Phrixus, fragment 970)

Guiltless Jesus had to restore humanity to holiness that righted God’s foolish error of neglecting to make man as revulsed by Sin as man is at eating garbage, and who in fact is tempted/leaning toward Sin. The mistake in the creation of the inclination toward sin had compounded and compounded generation upon generation. Horace said:

Guiltless, you will pay for your ancestors’ failure,
Roman, until you rebuild the temples
and fallen shrines of the gods and
the statues filthy with black smoke.
Because you consider yourself lesser than the gods, you hold power:
Derive every beginning from this, and to this each ending:
Negelcted gods gave many misfortunes
to mournful Hesperia. (Horace, Odes 3.6)

In the Jewish tradition a major theme is innocent children being punished by God for the sins of the father. For instance, we read:

5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me (Exodus 20:5)

‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.’ (Numbers 14:18)

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:9-10)

17 Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. 18 You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the Lord of hosts. (Jeremiah 32:17-18)

It’s interesting that everyone knows that God is the Father and Jesus is the only begotten son of the Father, but misses the double imagery. Mark says that when Jesus died, darkness covered the whole land, which seems to suggest the pain of the Father at the success of his plan for the beloved Son to suffer and die horrifically.

This interpretation of God as evil/stupid is related to what we find in the ancient Gnostic interpretation of Christianity. What did the Gnostics teach? One source explains:

In the arch-dualist ideology of the various Gnostic systems, the material universe is evil, while the non-material world is good. According to some strains of Gnosticism, the demiurge is malevolent, as it is linked to the material world. In others, including the teaching of Valentinus, the demiurge is simply ignorant or misguided. Gnosticism attributed falsehood or evil to the concept of the Demiurge or creator, though in some Gnostic traditions the creator is from a fallen, ignorant, or lesser—rather than evil—perspective, such as that of Valentinius. Whereas Plato’s Demiurge is good wishing good on his creation, Gnosticism contends that the Demiurge is not only the originator of evil but is evil as well…. The demiurge (Greek demiurgos, “craftsman”) is the being who created the world in Gnosticism. The Gnostics identified him with the god of the Old Testament. The Gnostic scriptures portray him as ignorant, malicious, and utterly inferior to the true God who sent Christ to earth to save humankind from the demiurge’s evil world.

So, in agreement with this ancient Gnostic interpretation of Christianity, the interpretation being put forth is that God sent Jesus to awaken the divine Law written on our hearts through dis-closing (“a-letheia,” truth) our hidden vileness so as to inspire repentance. This Law written on our hearts that Paul describes (Romans 2:15) is what the Gnostics called the divine spark. Ecclesiastes 3:11 declares that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” In Luke 17:21, Jesus proclaims, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

The dual function of the cross was this awakening as a path to redemption for humans, as well as God punishing himself for the mess that he created. God planned the horrific torture and execution of his beloved Son because God was eternal and hence unable to torture and execute Himself for the monstrous world that he created. In the terrible death of his beloved son Jesus, God the Father experienced an event worse than death—as any father would at the death of their beloved son.

When the people realized what they had done to God’s chosen one, Jesus, this was the catalyst for the Divine Spark within to awaken and inspire repentance (“Truly this was the son of God / an Innocent man”: Mark 15:30, Luke 23:47). Christ is understood as fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah:

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

John Dominic Crossan suggests that the first Christians had a model of Peace through Justice, in contrast with the Peace through Victory model of the Romans (2007, p. 28). This is interesting because the idea of a euaggelion or “gospel” has its roots in Roman propaganda material.[22] In Mark, Jesus is portrayed as initially needing to preach his message in such a way that it didn’t bring the wrath of the Romans and the Jewish elite. So, Mark 4:11 mentioned above may indeed have been the way that Jesus actually taught with enticing and mysterious parables so as avoid announcing the real message to the world while luring people in like fish before giving them the real message. Mark concludes with the soldier proclaiming Jesus to be the son of God and snubbing Caesar. Similarly, the case of Jesus’ lie to his family in the Gospel of John that allows him to preach to the crowd and create belief may have been a wink by the author of John to the inner-circle reader that he was presenting a ridiculously high-Christology Jesus to astound and sell the message in a time of waning conversion rates, which had resulted from increasing distance from the time that Jesus lived and the people who knew him lived, and from the difficulties of proselytizing in those times given volatile relations with the Jews.

It is a minority position that Jesus was thought of by Paul, Mark, Matthew, or Luke as God, and he certainly was not thought of in terms of the Trinity by them. Passages that seem to point in this direction are probably figurative or exaggerations for effect (like the extremist Jesus passages: Jesus saying that faith can move a mountain in Mark 11:23, that you could only follow Jesus if you hate your family in Luke 14:26, that you need to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor in Matthew 19:21, and so on).

For instance, Ehrman believes that Paul thought that Jesus was a great angel (though McGrath contrarily points out that it may be that Jesus was not thought divine by Paul, who said that God gave Jesus the divine name after the crucifixion/resurrection, instead of always having had it). And yet Ehrman says:

In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus never says he is God. He does talk about himself as the Son of Man; he says he must be killed and raised from the dead; and he admits he is the messiah. But the vast bulk of his teaching in these Gospels is not about himself at all. It is about God, the coming Kingdom of God, and the way to live in preparation for it. (Ehrman, 2018)

In contrast with the the synoptic Gospels, Ehrman says of the Gospel of John:

In John Jesus teaches almost entirely about himself: who he is, his relation to the Father, how he has come into the world from heaven above to convey the truth that can bring eternal life. And he makes some remarkable claims about himself. These claims are found in John and nowhere else. For example, to the Jews who do not believe in him, Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Abraham lived 1800 years earlier, and Jesus is claiming to have existed before that. Even more than that, he claims for himself the name of God, “I am” (see Exodus 3:13-14). His Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying. They pick up stones to execute him for blasphemy. Two chapters later, he does it again, claiming “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Once again they break out the stones. Later, to his disciples, he says “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). These teachings of Jesus that he is a divine correlate with what John says elsewhere, as we have seen in the Prologue “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). And in the ending, when Thomas confesses that Jesus is “My Lord and my God” (20:28) For John, Jesus is obviously God, and he says he is (not God the Father but … equal with God?). Why do you suppose these sayings are not in the earlier Gospels? If Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew that Jesus had said such things, wouldn’t they want to tell their readers? It’s worth thinking about. (Ehrman, 2018)

Ehrman makes some compelling points about the unique Christology of Jesus in John and whether he thought himself divine/God. However, in the Gospel of John a lot of emphasis is made of Jesus’ prayer life, and it makes no sense that Jesus would be praying to himself if Jesus thought that he was God:

  1. I think in the Gospel of John Jesus presents himself as being subordinate to God. We read: “So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me'” (John 11:41-42).
  2. Jesus says it is God’s name, not Jesus’ name, that is to be glorified by his mission. We read: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father save me from this hour’? No it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27-28).

I think that in this regard, Jesus’ prayer life in the Gospel of John provides a window into what John thought of his Christology. Jesus in his prayers is in petition and supplication before God, not equal with God. The big takeaway, then, is that the Gospel Jesus was prone to exaggeration, and the Gospel of John takes this theme to an extreme, having Jesus present himself as God, clearly for proselytizing reasons, since despite this we can detect in the Gospel of John traces of the historical Jesus that do not reflect a Jesus-as-God model, such as Jesus’ prayer life. This all fits perfectly with the thesis of this essay and the noble lie in the Gospel of John—that John was making stuff up to wow potential converts and sell the religion. Small wonder that the Gospel of John is most believers’ favorite Gospel, and the one that new Christians are pointed toward to read first!

Jesus’ striking lie to his family in the Gospel of John is particularly important if we keep in mind, as Méndez and Moss recently argue, that the Gospel of John could be a forgery, since forgery is a kind of deception and lying, and, though frowned upon, was quite common historically, as Ehrman documents in Forgery and Counterforgery. So, Moss says:

The Gospel presents itself as the work of an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ ministry and death. It doesn’t say it was written by John but instead states that it is the work of a “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who “testifies” to what he has seen (1:14; 19:35; 21:24). Eyewitness testimony here is an important point in the Gospel. It is because the one who wrote the Gospel had seen these things happen and written them down that “we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). (Moss, 2020)

The author of the Fourth Gospel inventing the part about it being written by one of Jesus’ disciples can simply be a small part of him inventing things to create a rich environment to cause faith.[23] But it can still go beyond being a justified/noble lie and rise to be being pious fraud, since the liars may have believed that they were promoting God’s will with the forgery/lie. After all, as noted above, in the Judeo-Christian scripture tradition even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of His prophets (1 Kings 22:21-22). As a result, it would probably be “un-nuanced” to simply label forgers/liars as unethical, for they probably thought that they were following God’s will by breaking social/ethical norms. And, if there was justified lying going on, it’s hard to say how far into the early Jesus movement it went.[24]

There is some confusion over what the Gospel authors are trying to convey because the literary form of their writing is not initially clear. Mark’s gospel, for instance, is neither simple historical biography, as conservative Christians hold, nor the placing of a celestial deity into a historical narrative (Euhemerization), as mythicists hold at the other end of the spectrum.

So, what is a gospel? It literally means “the good news.” How is this to be understood? Historically, as Mark would have understood the term, “gospel” meant propaganda. As Price points out, the beginning of Mark’s gospel has a “reproduction of a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda and his setting it beside a tailored scripture quote. ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God’ closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE)” (Price, 2005). Price continues, quoting Randel Helms:

Whereas … Providence … has … brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar … who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior …; and whereas … the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.(Helms, 1989, p. 24)

One way to consider the New Testament is through the lens of propaganda and counterpropaganda. For instance, Michael P. Theophilos recently shared this free-share graphic on Twitter:

coinage
Theophilos comments: "Greek inscriptions on coinage contribute to lexicography. New Testament use of the word ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ (saviour) is an attempt to undermine an array of political propaganda within the Greco-Roman world (Lk 2:11; Acts 13:23; Phil 3:20 etc)."

Let us consider an example of how Mark propagandizes the life of Jesus. We can see how Mark theologizes a relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus to be understood as a recapitulation (mimesis) showing a more important union than that of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. So, Mark points out: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (à la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6; II Kings 1:8). He then says that John ate locusts and wild honey, the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Price comments:

In view of parallels elsewhere between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some (Miller, p. 48) also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.

The two key pieces of textual evidence that are usually appealed to in order to suggest that John the Baptist really knew Jesus are: (1) that it would be embarrassing for the early Church to simply invent that Jesus went to John for forgiveness or purification baptism; and (2) that they wouldn’t have invented the detail that John doubted that Jesus was the chosen one from prison. These two points are highly problematic. On the one hand, as I said above, we seem to need to understand the baptism as a repetition of Elijah/Elisha, where Jesus is to be understood as the one who will complete what John started, as a person greater than John and improving on what John was doing. And this is exactly what Mark has John the Baptist say: “He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit'” (Mark 1:7). As to the detail in Matthew and Luke of John questioning (from prison) who Jesus was, this was clearly a point about evangelizing that in order to successfully proselytize, the potential Christian must be wowed with tales of the wonders that Jesus performed, since even John the Baptist had to be convinced:

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

We see the same point being made in the Gospel of John (John 20:31).

So, what is at issue here is neither primarily historical nor mythical, but propagandizing. We can see how this would have appeared to the ancient listener used to the literary flattery/propaganda about Augustus. For example, we read from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book XV, lines 843-870:

Seeing his son’s [Augustus] good works, Caesar [Julius] acknowledges they are greater than his own and delights at being surpassed by him. Though the son forbids his own actions being honoured above his father’s, nevertheless fame, free and obedient to no one’s orders, exalts him, despite himself, and denies him in this one thing…. Jupiter commands the heavenly citadels, and the kingdoms of the threefold universe. Earth is ruled by Augustus. Each is a father and a master. You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetime, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers! (Ovid, 8 CE/2000)

And we read from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Time and again you’ve heard his coming promised-Caesar Augustus! Son of a god [Julius Caesar], he will bring back the Age of Gold to the Latian fields where Saturn once held sway, expand his empire past Garamants [North African tribe] and the Indians to a land beyond the stars, beyond the wheel of the year, the course of the sun itself, where Atlas bears the skies and turns on his shoulder the heavens studded with flaming stars. Even now the Caspian and Maeotic kingdoms quake at his coming, oracles sound the alarm and the seven mouths of the Nile churn with fear. Not even Hercules himself could cross such a vast expanse of earth… (Virgil, 19 BCE/2010, p. 208)

Clearly, since there is no mention of John the Baptist in Paul, the Gospels are terrible evidence on which to base the claim that Jesus knew John the Baptist, let alone that John baptized him. What seems more likely is that the followers of Jesus were trying to say that they were even better than the great followers of John, although the truth of this is lost to history. But neither should we say that, because Mark’s gospel is largely generated out of scriptural allusions, Jesus didn’t exist; often the particular story unit (pericope) is a poor fit with the Hebrew scriptures that it is referring to, so its author probably started with historical detail rather than the other way around.

I don’t think that Price is making an exclusively mythicist point below, but rather a form-critical one—that we might have to bracket historical claims about information that has a theological overlay because the early Church would have had reason to invent it. Hence, Price argues in an open letter published online:

There is no “secular” biographical information about Jesus. Even the seeming “facts” irrelevant to faith dissolve upon scrutiny. Did he live in Nazareth? Or was that a tendentious reinterpretation of the earlier notion he had been thought a member of the Nazorean sect? Did he work some years as a carpenter? Or does that story not rather reflect the crowd’s pegging him as an expert in scripture, a la the Rabbinic proverb, “Not even a carpenter, or a carpenter’s son could solve this one!”? Was his father named Joseph, or is that an historicization of his earlier designation as the Galilean Messiah, Messiah ben Joseph? On and on it goes, and when we are done, there is nothing left of Jesus that does not appear to serve all too clearly the interests of faith, the faith even of rival, hence contradictory, factions among the early Christians…. I referred to the central axiom of form criticism: that nothing would have been passed down in the tradition unless it was useful to prove some point, to provide some precedent. I am sorry to say that this axiom cancels out another, the Criterion of Dissimilarity: the closer a Jesus-saying seems to match the practice or teaching of the early Church, the greater likelihood that it stems from the latter and has been placed fictively into the speech or life of Jesus merely to secure its authority. Put the two principles together and observe how one consumes the other without remainder: all pericopae of the Jesus tradition owe their survival to the fact that they were useful. On the assumption that Christians saw some usefulness to them, we can posit a Sitz-im-Leben Kirche for each one. And that means it is redundant to posit a pre-Christian Sitz-im-Leben Jesu context. None of it need go back to Jesus. Additionally, we can demonstrate that every hortatory saying is so closely paralleled in contemporary Rabbinic or Hellenistic lore that there is no particular reason to be sure this or that saying originated with Jesus. Such words commonly passed from one famous name to another, especially in Jewish circles, as Jacob Neusner has shown. Jesus might have said it, sure, but then he was just one more voice in the general choir. Is that what we want to know about him? And, as Bultmann observed, who remembers the great man quoting somebody else?

I am certainly not a mythicist, as I think that mythicism simply does not fit the evidence (as I have argued repeatedly). But I do think that we need to put out of play the question of whether Jesus knew John the Baptist; for while Jesus might have known him, the way the narrative is presented to us makes it impossible to know—as it has a thoroughly propagandizing function. And in any case, an actual existing historical Jesus in no way proves the truth of Christianity any more than a historical Muhammad makes more likely the truth of Islam, or a historical Abraham or Moses supports Judaism.

What is interesting to me about the first Christians, as far as all of this is concerned, is that they emerged during a time when imperial Rome allowed its various nations to keep their native religions, but the conquered people had to worship Caesar as well. Now the Christians wouldn’t worship Caesar, so they would have seen all of the direct and indirect “emperor propaganda” for what it was: invention and exaggeration for effect. Small wonder that they adopted the same useful technique in order to win converts. Matthew invents narrative materials to pay homage to Moses and present Jesus as his religious successor—the new and greater Moses. Similarly, Mark paints the story of Jesus and John the Baptist in the color of Elijah/Elisha to make the point that Jesus succeeded where the great John the Baptist failed, where Jesus’ humiliating death accomplished everything, while John’s humiliating death accomplished nothing. I explore the meaning of Jesus death in my next Secular Web article, “A Critique of the Penal Substitution Model of the Cross.” Clearly, the issue is a propagandic one intended to show Jesus and his followers as engaged in the same pious work as John the Baptist and his followers, but superior to them (e.g., the Christians being superior to the group of John’s followers that would become the Mandaeans).

Notes

[1] Joseph Smith said that he found the plates on September 22, 1823, on a hill near his home in Manchester, New York, after the angel Moroni directed him to a buried stone box. Witnesses confirmed his finding.

[2] See “Lying in Islam” (n.d.) by Abdullah Al Araby on the Islam Review website.

[3] Regarding Numa Pompilius, Livy wrote:

And fearing lest relief from anxiety on the score of foreign perils might lead men who had hitherto been held back by fear of their enemies and by military discipline into extravagance and idleness, he (Numa) thought the very first thing to do, as being the most efficacious with a populace which was ignorant and, in those early days, uncivilized, was to imbue them with the fear of Heaven. As he could not instil this into their hearts without inventing some marvellous story, he pretended to have nocturnal meetings with the goddess Egeria, and that hers was the advice which guided him in the establishment of rites most approved by the gods, and in the appointment of special priests for the service of each. (Livy 1:19)

Also, Plutarch suggests that Numa played on superstition to give himself an aura of awe and divine allure, in order to cultivate more gentle behaviors among the warlike early Romans, such as honoring the gods, abiding by law, behaving humanely to enemies, and living proper, respectable lives. See Plutarch, “The Parallel Lives, Numa Pompilius” §VIII.

[4] For Smith “the Johannine Jesus characteristically speaks in a manner that invites misunderstanding and that telling his brothers ἐγὼ οὐκ ἀναβαίνω εἰς τὴν ἑορτὴν ταύτην [Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.] is typical rather than exceptional with respect to this manner of speaking” (2017, p. 16). Smith continues:

In further support of this reading, it is worth noting that, shortly after Jesus misleads his brothers about his intention to go up to the feast, the evangelist has the crowds in Jerusalem wonder whether Jesus is ‘a good man’ or is ‘deceiving the crowds’ (7.12). The proximity of this schismatic question to the gospel’s clearest-cut instance of Jesus practicing deception is telling. For characters whose primary frame of reference is the mundane, Jesus appears as a deceiver. This does not rule out the conclusion that Jesus is also a ‘good man.’ From the evangelist’s perspective, a perspective the reader is invited to share, not only is Jesus not a ‘deceiver’, he is the truth-teller par excellence. (2017, p. 18)

[5] Smith comments:

Taking the gospel in narrative terms, however, and without imputing extra-Johannine benevolent intentions to the Johannine Jesus qua literary character, the more compelling way of reading this pattern involves letting deception and misdirection be parts of his characteristic speech profile on the mundane register, in the eyes and ears of those unable or unwilling to grasp Jesus’ pro-found truth-telling…. Far from scrupulously avoiding the misleading of his conversation partners, the Johannine Jesus makes a habit out of it, often with the help of ambiguous double-signifiers. (2017, p. 18)

[6] Smith interprets the Gospel of John as maintaining that:

‘The Jews’ are from the devil, who stands outside the truth, who is ‘a liar and the father of lies.’ Jesus links where one is ‘from’ with the ability or inability to ‘hear’ his words. Like ‘the Jews’ throughout chs. 7 and 8—a group to which the brothers may now be assimilated, having preceded Jesus to Jerusalem—the brothers cannot ‘hear’ his words in a profound register connected with his ascension and glorification because in the evangelist’s view they are not ‘of God’ (cf. 8.47). Consequently, they do not believe (7.5) and are deceived—not only in the immediate moment captured by Jn 7.8, but in a cosmic and eternal sense as well. They are, from the evangelist’s perspective, properly the property of the prince of this world (cf. 14.30), the father of lies (8.44). This is a troubling reading, but also instructive if it helps us better appreciate the range of early Christian narrative portraits of Jesus. (2017, p. 19)

[7] Boyarin says: “[T]he Fourth Gospel is not a new departure in the history of Judaism in its use of Logos theology, but only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology. John 1.1-5 is not a hymn, but a midrash, that is, it is not a poem but a homily on Genesis 1.1-5” (2011, p. 549).

[8] Reinhartz comments:

In this regard, the Johannine narrator resembles his counterparts in the Jewish Scriptures. The Tanak recounts several incidents in which lying played a central and, in some cases, positive role for the fate of Israel. Abram, later Abraham, lied twice when he claimed that Sarah was his sister and not his wife (Genesis 12 and 20). Isaac similarly lied about Rebecca (Gen 26:6-11); and he in turn was deceived in his old age when his younger son Jacob claimed to be his older twin, Esau (Gen 27:1-38). In the Exodus narrative, Moses lied to Pharaoh about the true purpose of their exodus (Exod 10:7-11). In Joshua 2, the prostitute Rahab lied to the messengers of the king of Jericho in order to protect the two Israelites whom she was hiding (2:1-5). These biblical stories have two points in common: The person being deceived is labeled “bad” within the narrative; and the deceit is necessary for the survival of an important character or to move a divinely approved project forward. These same points are true in John 7. The brothers are on the side of Jesus’s enemies; the deceit allows Jesus to make his way to Jerusalem in secret. This may have had the advantage of avoiding detection by the Jews who were aiming to kill him, but it also—contradictorily—provided an opportunity for Jesus to speak to the crowds at the temple, at least some of whom were receptive to the message. (2017, p. 159)

[9] Reinhartz explains:

Although Jesus goes up to the festival secretly, he speaks openly to the crowds after he arrives. By deceiving his brothers, John’s Jesus draws attention to the christological controversy that took place at the feast, and underscores the truth: that he fulfills all Jewish messianic criteria, including that of the hidden messiah. In doing so, he not only conveys but also constitutes the most important truth of all: that he is the divine Word sent into the world to save the world (3:16) from the “ruler of this world” (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Far from leading the people astray, he is leading them to God, as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). If we allow ourselves to get distracted by the ethical question, that is, if we focus on explaining away the lie, we risk missing the main point: that the Gospel of John is entirely, and exclusively, interested in Christology. Jesus’s actions, whether “good” (as in the healing stories) or “bad” (rudeness in 2:4, lying in 7:8, failing his friend in 11:5-6), are not intended to model behavior for others to follow. Rather, for John, everything he does is meant to demonstrate his glory and draw attention to his christological identity. By healing the lame man, Jesus demonstrates that he is the Son of God: he works on the Sabbath just like his father does (5:17). By healing the man born blind, Jesus allows the works of God to be “revealed in him” (9:3). For this author, Christology is primary, all other considerations, including ethics, are secondary, or rather, they are important only insofar as they contribute to the main christological claim: that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. By having Jesus violate the norms of ethical behavior—not only our norms but also ancient norms—the Gospel makes this point crystal clear. (2017, p. 169)

[10] We must have a linguistic approach that goes beyond dogmatic etymology. Should we determine the meaning of aletheia in John by simply going to the Septuagint or looking at usages using the familiar lens? For instance, when John’s Jesus says “I am the way, truth (ἀλήθεια), and life,” does truth here mean “really correct” or “really honest?” There is such rich imagery or “re-vealing” in the Gospels. It seems only natural to connect this to “dis-closing” with a-letheia.

[11] In a section titled “Water into Wine (2:1-11),” Price writes that it begins with typology:

Though the central feature of this miracle story, the transformation of one liquid into another, no doubt comes from the lore of Dionysus, the basic outline of the story owes much to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX (Helms, 1989, p. 86). The widow of Zarephath, whose son has just died, upbraids the prophet: “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” (Ti emoi kai soi, 17:18). John has transferred this brusque address to the mouth of Jesus, rebuking his mother (2:4, Ti emoi kai soi, gunai). Jesus and Elijah both tell people in need of provisions to take empty pitchers (udria in 1 Kings 17:12, udriai in John 2:6-7), from which sustenance miraculously emerges. And just as this feat causes the woman to declare her faith in Elijah (“I know that you are a man of God,” v. 24), so does Jesus’ wine miracle cause his disciples to put their faith in him (v. 11). (Price, 2005, p. 570)

Consider also the doubting Thomas pericope, and also the claim in the Gospel of John that the things written were done to cause belief: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

[12] See Ehrman’s debate with William Lane Craig, especially time index 1:13:37 onward.

[13] In the blog post “The Case of the Severed Ear,” McGrath suggests that this account reflects an event that did happen, in that early Christians would hardly have invented a story portraying themselves as violent (McGrath, 2014).

[14] If Jesus simply “expected” a short period of atoning suffering to be followed by a speedy resurrection where he is glorified beyond all others, it would make sense for Jesus’ last words to be one of resoluteness and purpose. And this is indeed what we see in later works like the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John regarding Jesus’ last words:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Verily, I say unto you today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.
  3. Luke 23:46: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.
  4. John 19:30: It is finished.

But this is exactly what we don’t see in Mark. Rather, the last words on the cross of Mark’s Jesus seem to be infused with the fear and desperation that Mark indicated Jesus had earlier expressed with the terrified Gethsemane prayer. So, the seemingly desperate and perplexed last words of Mark’s Jesus on the cross are an appropriation of scripture that Jesus is applying to his own situation:

  1. Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Mark seems to have inherited a tradition of the terrified Gethsemane prayer and Jesus’ desperate final words from the cross where Jesus didn’t expect that he would be immediately resurrected after a little bit of suffering, Mark’s portrayal being something Luke and John seem to have changed with their portrayal of the last words of Jesus. As I mention later in the essay, Dunn argues for the historicity of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ last words because it would have been embarassing for the early Church to include.

Mark does foreshadow the Resurrection in his writing, but there does seem to be a desperate historical Jesus tradition preserved in Mark where Jesus was unaware of such “theological atonement/resurrection overlay.” It makes little sense that Mark has the disciples attack the arresting party, and all flee, simply returning to their homes, oblivious that Jesus will return, if they thought Jesus would be immediately resurrected (or suffer an atoning death, for that matter). Price offers the point that I mention later, that given the terrified Gesthemane pericope, Jesus seemed to have thought that it was his willingness to die, like Isaac’s, that would answer for future Israel’s sin, not an actual death. Price’s skepticism may have in fact not gone far enough, and that even the desperate Gethsemane prayer may have been invented at some point in the history of Jesus’ crucifixion story development to give some connection between the historical Jesus and some manner of the later atonement/resurrection theology, since there seems to be no hint of this in the original Jesus movement. (We know Mark’s crucifixion narrative has a rich literary history, such as being patterned on Psalm 22 and perhaps Isaiah 53.) After all, there would have been no one to have heard/been aware of the desperate Gesthemane prayer in Jesus’ alone time with God, so it is questionable that there is any historical truth to this pericope, as embrassing as Jesus begging God to spare him might have been to the early Church.

Perhaps atonement (either a real atoning death, or just an atoning willingness to die, like Isaac’s) and resurrection theology weren’t even on the radar of the historical Jesus movement when Jesus ran afoul (for whatever reason) of the Roman-loving Jewish elite/temple, and atonement and resurrection theology were only developed post-Easter, whether the Easter experiences were hallucinations that the followers were trying to give sense to (which we have as tales of visions to Peter and the 12 encapsulated in the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed (1 Corinthians 15:3-5, not simply dogmatically adopting the theologized Gospel appearance versions), or “lies” meant to continue and give force to the movement after Jesus’ demise. In Mark, the disciples attacking the arresting party and fleeing home as though the whole movement was over and defeated makes little sense if they, or Jesus, “expected” a quick atoning death and glorious resurrection.

[15] See Mark Goodacre’s two-and-a-half minute YouTube video for the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins titled “John and the Synoptics.”

[16] Matthew says that a related explanation—that the body was stolen from the tomb—was old and popular even in his time (Matthew 28:13).

[17] Daniel writes: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).

[18] For example, in Mark 10:32-34, 8:31-38, 10:35-45, 8:38-9:1, and 14:62.

[19] John Shelby Spong comments that Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ; as it is written in the prophets” (2011, p. 300). Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (à la Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6; 2 Kings 1:8). He then says John ate locusts and wild honey, the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Price adds: “In view of parallels elsewhere between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some (Miller, p. 48) also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior” (Price, 2005, p. 536).

[20] For instance, see McGrath’s blog posts “Adoptionist Christology” (July 5, 2019) and “Reading the Gospel of Mark (and its Christology) in Context” (January 25, 2019).

[21] See Ehrman’s blog post “Jesus and the Son of Man” (January 21, 2016).

[22] Helms points out that “[t]he beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (1989, p. 24) closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE):

Whereas … Providence … has … brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar … who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior …, and whereas … the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth. (Helms, 1989, p. 24)

[23] There is currently a debate in Johannine scholarship about whether or not the Beloved Disciple or The Elder referred to by the Gospel of John were historical people. Weighing the evidence, Méndez concludes that they probably did not exist. Méndez writes:

I have found the arguments of Ismo Dunderberg and Harry Attridge that the Beloved Disciple is probably some sort of literary device compelling. I have also been persuaded by David Litwa’s comparisons of the Beloved Disciple to invented eyewitnesses in ancient literature. As I see it, the most damning evidence against the disciple’s existence is the fact that “every Synoptic parallel that could corroborate [the disciple’s] presence at a given moment in Jesus’ life does not—not the Synoptic crucifixion scenes (cf. Mk 15.40-41; Mt. 27.55-56; Jn 19.26-27) nor Luke’s description of Peter’s visit to the tomb (Lk. 24.12; cf. Jn 20.2-10)” (363). I also find the artificial and idealized texture of the disciple highly suspicious. These issues cannot be dismissed easily. (Méndez, 2020b).

[24] Richard Carrier comments:

Of course [Gary] Habermas tries to sell [Lee] Strobel on the tired apologetic line that ‘no one dies for a lie.’ Surely not, ‘if they knew it was a hoax,’ we hear said. This is a classic straw man. And as such, another lie. It’s one thing to ask how likely it is the resurrection appearance claims were a hoax. It’s altogether another to ask how likely it is they were like every other divine appearance experience in the whole history of all religions since the dawn of time: a mystical inner vision. Just as Paul tells us. Our only eyewitness source. Of course, a case can be made for the apostles dying even for a hoax: all they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for. Even godless Marxists voluntarily died by the millions for such a motive. So the notion that no one would, is simply false. (Carrier, 2017)

The possible lie devised by the apostles about having visions of the risen Jesus actually has its origins in Nietzsche, too:

Paul simply shifted the emphasis of this whole being, putting it behind this being, into the lie of Jesus’ ‘resurrection’. Basically, he had no use whatsoever for the life of the redeemer—he needed the death on the cross and something else besides… [“and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain”—1 Corinthians 15:14] To take this Paul (whose homeland was the centre of the Stoic enlightenment) at his word when he takes a hallucination and dresses it up as a proof that the redeemer still lives, or even to accept that he had this hallucination in the first place, would be a true niaiserie [stupidity] on the part of a psychologist: Paul wanted the end, and consequently he wanted the means to it as well… What he did not believe himself was believed by the idiots he threw his doctrines to. (Nietzsche, 1895/2005, p. 39)

References

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Bowie, E. L. (1993). “Lies, Fiction and Slander in Early Greek Poetry.” In Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (pp. 1-37), ed. Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press.

Boyarin, Daniel. (2011). “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament (pp. 546-549), ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Caragounis, Chrys C. (1998). “Jesus, His Brothers and the Journey to the Feast (John 7:8-10).” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok Vol. 63: 177-187.

Carrier, Richard. (2017, April 15). “The Case for Christ: The Movie!Richard Carrier Blogs. <https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12263>

Chellew, Candace. (2004, May 1). “Peace Through Justice: Reflections on a Lecture by John Dominic Crossan.” Whosoever website. <https://whosoever.org/peace-through-justice-reflections-on-a-lecture-by-john-dominic-crossan/>

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Crossan, John Dominic. (2007). God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Dunn, James G. D. (2003). Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Ehrman, Bart. (2017, September 24). “Did Luke Have a Doctrine of the Atonement?The Bart Ehrman Blog. <https://ehrmanblog.org/did-luke-have-a-doctrine-of-the-atonement-mailbag-september-24-2017/>

Ehrman, Bart. (2018, October 26). “Did Jesus Call Himself God?The Bart Ehrman Blog. <https://ehrmanblog.org/did-jesus-call-himself-god/>

Gibbon, Edward. (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1. London, UK: W. Strahan & T. Cadell.

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Gmirkin, Russell. (2018, October). “A Response to Stéphanie Anthonioz, ‘Review of Russell E. Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible‘.” The Bible and Interpretation website. <https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/response-stephanie-anthonioz-review-russell-e-gmirkin-plato-and-creation-hebrew-bible>.

Helms, Randel. (1989). Gospel Fictions. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

MacDonald, Dennis. (2017). The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

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McGrath, James F. (2010). The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

McGrath, James F. (2014, September 20). “The Case of the Severed Ear.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath. <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2014/09/the-case-of-the-severed-ear.html>.

Méndez, Hugo. (2020a). “Did the Johannine Community Exist?Journal for the Study of the New Testament Vol. 42, No. 3 (March 2): 350-374.

Méndez, Hugo. (2020b). “The Elusive Contexts of the Johannine Literature.” The Bible and Interpretation website. <https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/elusive-contexts-johannine-literature>.

Moss, Candida. (2020, March 8). “Everyone’s Favorite Gospel is a Forgery.” The Daily Beast. <https://www.thedailybeast.com/everyones-favorite-gospel-the-gospel-of-john-is-a-forgery-according-to-new-research>.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2005). The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Trans. Judith Norman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Originally published in 1895.)

Ovid. (2000). Metamorphoses. Trans. Anthony S. Kline. Charlottesville, VA: Electronic Text Center. <https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm>. (Original reached final form c. 19 BCE.)

Penwell, Stewart. (2019). Jesus the Samaritan: Ethnic Labeling in the Gospel of John. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Price, Robert M. (2005). “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash.” In Encyclopaedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism (Vol. 1, pp. 534-573), ed. Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Price, Robert M. (2011). “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle.” In The End of Christianity (pp. 219-232), ed. John Loftus. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Reinhartz, Adele. (2017). “The Lyin’ King? Deception and Christology in the Gospel of John.” In Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (pp. 153-169), ed. Christopher W. Skinner and Sherri Brown. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Smith, Tyler. (2017). “Deception in the Speech Profile of the Johannine Jesus (John 7.1-10).” Journal for the Study of the New Testament Vol. 40, No. 2 (October 30): 169-191.

Smith, Tyler. (2018). “[Review of the book The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides, by Dennis R. MacDonald].” Review of Biblical Literature (December 27): E1-E4.

Spong, John Shelby. (2011). Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. New York, NY: HarperOne.

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Wiseman, T. P. (1993). “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity.” In Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (pp. 122-146), ed. Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press.

Wood, Robert. (1993). “Prologue.” In Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (p. xv), ed. Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press.


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