Growing up as a Christian, there was one hero figure in my imagination who stood above all others, even above my parents. I didn’t have quite as distinctive a picture of him as I did of my father who helped me string wire on the roof for ham radio antennas or my mother who managed a photography studio, but somehow he was still better than they were. For the most part, I believed this.
Jesus was, you see, utterly perfect. He was so amazing and special that it really isn’t even appropriate to refer to him as a person, even though he walked the earth for some thirty years in human form, performing amazing feats and never succumbing to any of the sins that endlessly plague all of us mere mortals.
I was told that, having risen from the dead up to heaven to be with God (an even less clearly defined hero figure), Jesus looked down at us all the time and sat with us during church services. “Where two or three are gathered in his name,” there he’d be.1 And of course we were constantly telling each other that our sins were forgiven in his “name and precious blood.”
There was no room for any human failings in “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the innocent unblemished Lamb who offered himself as a final, perfect sacrifice on our behalf. The preachers never tired of reminding us how frequently and miserably we all sin, but not so with Jesus. He never did, not even once. If he had sinned, the implication went and was sometimes even expressed out loud, then all that forgiveness we were doing in his name and blood just wouldn’t work.
It took the sharp eye of a young friend who’d left the church while I was still in it to make me aware of any problems with this narrative. He pointed out that Matthew 5:22 has Jesus teaching, “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire,” and yet Jesus himself calls people fools in Matthew 23.2
I came across other examples of behavior that didn’t seem particularly Jesus-like as I tiptoed warily into reading what skeptics had to say and–for the first time with clear eyes–the Bible itself. One of those skeptics, Valerie Tarico, pointed out how Jesus’ behavior could seem downright bigoted. In her book Trusting Doubt, she recalled how
a Canaanite woman, a non-Jew, calls out, begging Jesus to heal her daughter, who is possessed by demons. “Lord, Son of David,” she calls him. But he ignores her. Finally, his disciples get sick of her following them and shouting, and they ask him to send her away.
Then “Jesus tells her he was sent only to the lost children of Israel. She keeps begging.” In the end, Jesus heals her daughter, but not before enduring a degrading conversation with him. She “came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said.”
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matt. 15:25-28).
This did not impress Dr. Tarico:
If the image doesn’t bother you, try to imagine an American slave or a South African Black having to do and say the same things to get health care for her child. “Please, sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 3
Something troubling I came across in my own Bible reading was Jesus telling a bald-faced lie. In John 18:20, he said to the high priest, “I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (emphasis added). But, according to Mark 4:34, Jesus expounded on the meaning of his parables “when they were alone.”
In fact, all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give an example of Jesus doing the secret teaching he explicitly claimed he’d never done. It happened after Jesus told the crowd the parable of the sower, “when he was alone” with the disciples (Mark 4:10). They asked him about the parable.
Did Jesus say, “What’s wrong with you guys? Can’t you understand plain Aramaic?” Nope. He told them they were being let in on the mysteries (mystery, singular, in Mark) of the Kingdom that were being kept hidden from the unwashed masses (Mark 4:11; Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10).4 He then proceeded to explain the parable to them–and them alone.
It’s a pretty bad situation for those who believe the 66 books of the Bible make up the inerrant Word of God with no contradictions. If both John and the Synoptics are telling the truth about what happened, then Jesus did not.5
So Jesus became something of a disappointment, though I could’ve lived with a slightly sub-par savior if church doctrine cut him any slack. (Alas, it doesn’t.) And a careful reading of the Old Testament left me utterly repulsed by the shitty attitude and horrible actions of our Father which art in heaven. He is, to quote Richard Dawkins’s memorable one-liner,
jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.6
This really is no exaggeration. Read the bloodstained pages in the first half of your Bibles and you will soon see how devastatingly true it is.
Having long since absorbed the shock of these realizations about both Father and Son, I was delighted to have my little publishing company Tellectual Press take on Robert M. Price’s new book, Blaming Jesus for Jehovah. In it, he presents a grave and devastating conflict for Christianity: “the sheer logical impossibility that God and Jesus, as defined by the Christian creeds, could have commanded and taught the hateful things the Bible says they commanded and taught, and still be loving, just, forgiving, and merciful.” 7
The book begins with a Foreword that was kindly provided by Dr. Tarico. She cites Dawkins’s description of the “malevolent bully” and observes that “trying to separate Old Testament from New–trying to separate Jesus from Jehovah–doesn’t solve the problem.” In fact, she says, “it is impossible,” because “Jesus himself won’t let us.” 8
Bob makes that clear right away in the first chapter, entitled “The Son Who Is the Father.” He cites several passages in Matthew and John where Jesus claims a special relation to his Father in heaven and speaks about “‘inside information’ concerning his divine Father and his celestial realm.” 9 Jesus knows all about God, Bob says, “because he has intimate familial knowledge, ‘a chip off the old block.’” I especially like the way Dan Barker put it in a recent interview: Jesus isn’t just “a chip off the old block”; he is the block.10
That, of course, refers to the doctrine of the Trinity, a weird theological superposition of three distinct persons of God into a single divine entity. Bob devotes a few pages to what present-day Christians think the Trinity is (but is not) and concludes with the observation that, according to that doctrine, “Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same God.” 11 And even without it, there’s plenty in the Gospels to put responsibility for all those Old Testament atrocities on Jesus as Jehovah Junior.
Remember, Jesus explicitly declined to nullify the Old Testament or distance himself from what it describes his Father doing. Bob dismisses the view of many Christians “that the New Testament either exonerates the God of the Old or just plain renders him irrelevant,” which he finds a strange thing to think for those who “profess to believe that both Testaments are the inspired Word of God.” His
considered guess is that they are thinking of the Pauline notion that Christ and his gospel have superseded the Torah, the Old Testament Law. But that is quite a different matter. Paul says that the ceremonial provisions of Judaism (circumcision, kosher laws, holy days, etc.) are no longer binding since their proper purpose has been fulfilled as of the coming of Christ (Col. 2:16-17; Gal. 2:15-21; Rom. 10:4). But that has nothing to do with genocide, as if something so morally repugnant could be proper in the Old Testament dispensation but not in the New.
But, hey, who wants to look too closely? If you’re looking for an excuse to sweep Old Testament atrocities under the rug, any old broom will do.12
After spending a chapter (“Artists’ Conceptions of Jesus”) acknowledging some good stuff about Jesus, Bob goes on to summarize some of those atrocities. We are rightly horrified by the grotesque savagery of ISIS, yet
the Christian holy scripture, the Bible, explicitly ascribes the very same moral crimes to God. Islamic Caliphate killers don’t even need the Koran. There are hundreds of passages in the Holy Bible which would be more than enough to inspire their horrors. These are strong words, I know. I hate to have to write them. I hope you will have the courage to read them. It comes down to a question of your own integrity. I hope you will see that.13
Any torture that the sick minds of ISIS fanatics can cook up is, of course, a mere pinprick compared to the novel bit of nastiness introduced in the New Testament: eternal condemnation in the agonizing fires of hell. Bob gives that horror the full attention it deserves. In a couple of ample chapters, he covers the various theological attempts to justify unlimited punishment for limited humans and reveals the absurdity of the whole idea of blood atonement.
And there is more: The failure of Jesus’ prophecy about his imminent return, the failure of the Bible to provide a consistent and reliable story about him, and the problems with expecting ant-like humans to heed the warnings of an omniscient God who knows they’ll screw up regardless. This book has a lot of good stuff packed into its 166 or so pages, and I’m very proud to have been a part of its publication.
There is one issue I scratched my head about while editing the book, which bears mentioning. Bob is well known as a skeptic about the existence of any actual person behind the Bible character of Jesus.14 Here’s how he put it to me in a recent phone conversation:
I think there was no Historical Jesus and the Jesus story is almost entirely based on rewriting Old Testament passages. But another likely influence was the dying and rising God myths in the Mediterranean world and also ancient Israelite religion.
In Blaming Jesus for Jehovah, however, Bob treats the existence of Jesus as a given. I asked him about that, particularly where he calls the doctrine of Original Sin “a matter of reverse engineering” by early Christians who “had to deal with the death of Jesus somehow.” 15
He was executed as a criminal, but they believed he wasn’t one. So if he didn’t die for any sins of his own, and his death couldn’t have been a meaningless tragedy, whose sins did he die for? Must have been everybody else’s! 16
Well, I asked, if you think there wasn’t any such person who actually lived or died, why would those early Christians have been troubled by his death? His answer was that
those who wrote our New Testament documents were not mythicists. They believed there was a Historical Jesus martyred at the hands of Rome, who died innocently. They had the problem of explaining how this could happen.
He dates the earliest Gospel, Mark, at possibly 70-80 years after the reported events, but more likely a full century afterwards. Those early Christians were thinking and writing a couple of generations removed from the event they imagined had happened. That’s plenty of time for a whole myth about a messianic savior to have developed–a “major theological adjustment” to Second Temple Judaism following the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Romans.
With this book, Bob wanted to avoid the whole controversy of the Historical Jesus vs. the Christ Myth Theory by simply accepting the Bible’s assertions about Jesus at face value. It’s a “look through the lens of mainstream criticism,” as he put it. Even so, it’s still quite a critical and much-needed look, at the superhero figurehead of the world’s largest religion whose flaws thus far have remained largely off-limits to scrutiny.
Matt. 18:20. It should be added, however, that the only qualified gatherings for his attendance were those of my own church’s few hundred congregations around the world. He skipped all the untold thousands of other ones because they weren’t part of “God’s Kingdom.” ↩
“Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?” (Matt. 23:17-19). ↩
The Revised Standard Version translates the word as “secrets” (secret, singular, in Mark), which makes the problem even more apparent. Both the KJV and NASB use the term “mysteries” (and “mystery”). ↩
These four paragraphs, the footnote above, and the rest of this one are adapted from my first book, An Examination of the Pearl, Section 7.1 (“The Gospels”). Robert M. Price told me in 2011 that he believes this to be a case of an intentional contradiction between John and the Synoptics. The writer of John “rejects the esotericism of Mark and changes the story,” which he also did to avoid the “unseemly” stories of Jesus not carrying his own cross and not wanting to go through with his suffering. “For John, there was no private teaching in the Markan, Gnostic sense.” (Gnosis was secret spiritual knowledge not shared with everybody else.) “Everything is public, though some do not hear because they are not of his flock. Thus within John’s retold narrative Jesus is telling the truth.” ↩
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). ↩
Robert M. Price, Blaming Jesus for Jehovah: Reconsidering the Righteousness of Christianity (Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 19. ↩
Price (Tarico Foreword) at p. 8. ↩
Price at p. 29. ↩
Price at p. 38. ↩
Price at p. 65. ↩
Price at p. 55. ↩
Price at p. 95. ↩