This is an installment of my series of replies to an article by Dr. David Madison: a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, who has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. It’s called, “Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” (Debunking Christianity, 7-21-19). His words will be in blue below. Dr. Madison makes several “generic” digs at Jesus and Christianity, in the written portion (it details a series of 12 podcasts):
A challenge for Christians: If you’re so sure Jesus existed, then you have some explaining to do. A major frustration is that, while believers are indignant at all the talk about Jesus not existing, they don’t know the issues that fuel the skepticism—and are unwilling to inform themselves.
Yes, I’m up to the “challenge.” No problem at all. I’m not threatened or “scared” by this in the slightest. It’s what I do, as an apologist. The question is whether Dr. Madison is up to interacting with counter-critiques? Or will he act like the voluminous anti-theist atheist polemicist Bob Seidensticker?: who directly challenged me in one of his own comboxes to respond to his innumerable attack-pieces against Christianity and the Bible, and then courageously proceeded to utterly ignore my 35 specific critiques of his claims as of this writing. We shall soon see which course Dr. Madison will decide to take. Anyway, he also states in his post and combox:
[S]o many of the words of Jesus are genuinely shocking. These words aren’t proclaimed much from the pulpit, . . . Hence the folks in the pews have absorbed and adored an idealized Jesus. Christian apologists make their livings refiguring so many of the things Jesus supposedly said.
The gospels are riddled with contradictions and bad theology, and Jesus is so frequently depicted as a cult fanatic—because cult fanatics wrote the gospels. We see Jesus only through their theological filters. I just want to grab hold of Christian heads (standing behind them, with a hand on each ear) and force them to look straight ahead, unflinchingly, at the gospels, and then ask “Tell me what you see!” uncoached by apologist specialists, i.e., priests and pastors, who’ve had a lot of practice making bad texts look good. . . . I DO say, “Deal with the really bad stuff in the gospels.” Are you SURE you’ve not make a big mistake endorsing this particular Lord and Savior? That’s the whole point of this series of Flash Podcasts, because a helluva lot of Christians would agree, right away, that these quotes are bad news—if no one told then that they’ve been attributed to Jesus.
Of course, Dr. Madison — good anti-theist atheist that he is — takes the view that we are not at all sure whether Jesus in fact said anything recorded in the Gospels in the first place. I don’t play that game, because there is no end to it. It’s like trying to pin jello to the wall. The atheist always has their convenient out (when refuted in argument about some biblical text) that Jesus never said it anyway [wink wink and sly patronizing grin], and/or that the biblical text in question was simply added later by dishonest ultra-biased Christian partisans and propagandists. It’s a silly and ultimately intellectually dishonest game, and so I always refuse to play it with atheists or anyone else, because there is no way to “win” with such an absurdly stacked, purely subjective deck.
In my defense of biblical texts, I start with the assumption that the manuscripts we have are quite sufficient for us to know what is in the Bible (believe it or not). Going on from there, I simply defend particular [supposedly “difficult”] texts, and note with appropriate argumentation, that “here, the Bible teaches so-and-so,” etc. I deal with the texts as they exist. I don’t get into the endlessly arbitrary, subjective games that atheists and theologically liberal biblical skeptics play with the texts, in their self-serving textual criticism.
Dr. Madison himself (fortunately) grants my outlook in terms of practical “x vs. y” debate purposes: “For the sake of argument, I’m willing to say, okay, Jesus was real and, yes, we have gospels that tell the story.” And in the combox: “So, we can go along with their insistence that he did exist. We’ll play on their field, i.e., the gospels.”
Good! So we shall examine his cherry-picked texts and see whether his interpretations of them can stand up to scrutiny. He is issuing challenges, and I as an apologist will be dishing a bunch of my own right back to him. Two can play this game. I will be dealing honestly with his challenges. Will he return the favor, and engage in serious and substantive dialogue? Again, we’ll soon know what his reaction will be. A true dialogue is of a confident, inquisitive, “nothing to fear and everything to gain” back-and-forth and interactive nature, not merely “ships passing in the night” or what I call “mutual monologue.”
Dr. Madison calls his second podcast, “On Mark 16:16-18, on the five things baptized Christians ought to be able to do”. Here is the passage:
Mark 16:16-18 (RSV) “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues;  they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
He starts off by making the textual argument that Mark 16:9-20 is a disputed text. And indeed it is, among many Christians. That discussion is too complex and involved to delve into here, for my purposes of rebuttal. Catholics accept the “long ending”, and the many reasons we do are explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Gospel of St. Mark” (section: “State of text and integrity”).
Protestants are divided on the issue, as they are on many issues. But (for what it’s worth) a solid and extensive case for inclusion of 16:9-20 was made by Protestant Dave Miller (“Is Mark 16:9-20 Inspired?,” Apologetics Press, 2005 [link] ).
That said, the gist of this podcast is to contend that the long ending of Mark 16 is strange and “weird” and “bizarre” (especially the bit about serpents) and doesn’t sound like what Jesus would say. He says “someone invented verses 19-20” [I’m pretty sure he meant “9-20”] as a result of “creative imagination”: a piece of “religious fantasy literature.”The five things Christians are supposed to be able to do are not “good religion”: so we are told. Dr. Madison suggests things like “love your enemies, love your neighbors . . . forgive 70 x 70” as more appropriate utterances for Jesus to express right before His ascension (as “much better religion”). Well, I suppose atheists would have all sorts of advice to Jesus as to what He ought to teach, and how and when. That’s neither here nor there. But Dr. Madison makes this argument as part of his skepticism regarding whether these things were said by Jesus at all. And we shall consider them each in turn.
Dr. Madison opines that “there was a heavy cult flavor to early Christianity, especially that line about, ‘if you do not believe, you will be condemned’: that’s typical cult playbook stuff.” If he is trying to insinuate that Jesus wouldn’t have said that, and it was simply added by overzealous, fanatical, “cultlike” adherents, he’s wrong:
John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
John 6:40 For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
John 10:28 and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
Dave Miller (see his cited article above) contends that there is nothing in the long ending that is unique and not found elsewhere in Scripture:
Most, if not all, scholars who have examined the subject concede that the truths presented in the verses are historically authentic—even if they reject the genuineness of the verses as being originally part of Mark’s account. The verses contain no teaching of significance that is not taught elsewhere. Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to Mary is verified elsewhere (Luke 8:2; John 20:1-18), as is His appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:35), and His appearance to the eleven apostles (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). The “Great Commission” is presented by two of the other three gospel writers (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-48), and Luke verifies the ascension twice (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). The promise of the signs that were to accompany the apostles’ activities is hinted at by Matthew (28:20), noted by the Hebrews writer (2:3-4), explained in greater detail by John (chapters 14-16; cf. 14:12), and demonstrated by the events of the book of Acts . . .
Here are the five things “baptized Christians ought to be able to do” (right from the passage):
1) they will cast out demons;
2) they will speak in new tongues;
3) they will pick up serpents,
4) and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them;
5) they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.
First of all, note that this is a proverbial-type statement, meaning that it doesn’t follow that every Christian believer “ought” to be able to do any of these things at any time, at will. Proverbs are generalized statements, that allow many exceptions. So Jesus is saying, “these signs will accompany those who believe”; that is, “among Christians [not every single one, for all time] you will see all of this sort of phenomena, or signs.” I’ve written at length about the biblical view of healing, and to some extent, also about the related issue of how not all prayers are answered.
But (this is what many — including the snake-handling fools — don’t get): signs were never to be considered normative among Christians. In fact, Jesus was scathingly critical of those who sought signs for their own sake (e.g., “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign”: Mt 12:39; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”: Jn 20:29).
That understood, the writer of Hebrews proclaims: “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles” (2:4). And Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (Jn 14:12). Thus, Jesus told His disciples: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Mt 10:8). Thus, we can find examples of all of the five things above among Christians:
1) casting out demons (Mk 3:15; 6:13; Lk 9:1; 10:17, 20; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 16:16-18; 19:12)
2) speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4-11)
3) contact with serpents, unharmed (Lk 10:19; Acts 28:1-6)
4) unharmed by poison (Lk 10:19)
5) healing the sick, including raising the dead (Mk 6:13; Lk 9:1-2; Acts 3:6-9; 5:15-16; 8:7; 9:34-40; 19:12; 28:8)
Conclusion: there is nothing novel or new in Mark 16 that cannot be found elsewhere. It’s completely consistent with Jesus’ teachings and actions, and those of His disciples. That’s why even those Bible scholars who think it is not an authentic biblical text concede that it preserved a portion of authentic tradition, from Jesus. In other words, it was the very opposite of “creative imagination” and “religious fantasy literature.”
Hence, Dr. Madison’s second claim fails.
Photo credit: Saint Paul Shipwrecked on Malta (1630) [note the snake on his hand], by Laurent de La Hyre (1606-1656) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]