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’s fifth podcast of twelve is entitled: “On Mark 10:29-30, on Jesus’ promise of a hundred-fold return if people give up families and houses.” Here is that passage:
Mark 10:29-30 (RSV) Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,  who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
All the Gospel writers were propagandists for the early Jesus cult. They wanted followers who would be loyal to nothing but the cult. Not even family should matter. . . . This is what cult fanatics do and say. They make outrageous promises . . . Christianity has specialized in this deception, as has so many other cults throughout the ages. . . . This Jesus quote is utterly mindless . . . Now Jesus enthusiasts, Jesus defenders may say that this is just exaggeration to make a point. But it falls into the pattern of cult leaders making wild promises to sucker people in. This is religion at its worst: right there in the Gospel.
Protestant apologist Glenn Miller responds to this sort of charge in his article, “Jesus versus Family Values?” (1994):
- This is not an ‘updated’ set at all…the OT is replete with similar passages in which one’s commitment to God must supercede all other relationships (so Deut 13, where family entices someone to violate the covenant with Yahweh, or I Samuel 2, where the priest Eli is judged by God for ‘honoring his sons more than Me’–with the attendant de-moralization of the nation). If one’s relationship with God is the primal and ultimate relationship in one’s existence, then from the relationship will develop the strength, commitment, and wisdom to grow healthy relationships with family…the biblical witness is consistent in this throughout…
- Also, in the times of Jesus, as he is inaugurating the New Covenant, there were some calls to radical forms of discipleship. The apostles were called to ‘abnormal service’, but were never free to neglect their responsibilities to their families…For example, Peter brought Jesus to his sick mother-in-law (Matt 8) and most of the apostles traveled with their wives during their itinerant ministries (I Cor 9.5)…if someone had to ‘leave’ it was typically due to radical disagreement over basic values–but we are not given the option of not providing for the needs of those left behind.
- In some cases, people whose lives were touched by Jesus wanted to leave family and travel with him, but he instructed them to go back and minister to their families (e.g. Mrk 5.19)
- But for all these qualifications, it still must be maintained that God must form the core priority over all priorities (for the balance and strength needed to be able to meet all priorities)
Catholics would say that this refers to what we call the “evangelical counsels.” Jesus is not making this scenario mandatory for all followers. He simply cites the fact regarding certain highly devoted Christians: “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake.” Parallel verse Luke 18:29 phrases it as “there is no man who has left” while the corresponding Matthew 19:29 reads “every one who has left”. This is the language of voluntary heroic renunciation, not universal requirement. It’s a vast difference. And it demolishes Dr. Madison’s present insinuation.
And that puts the lie to the derogatory references to Christianity as a “cult” repeatedly made by Dr. Madison in his podcasts. If the intention of either a real Jesus or the supposed evangelist-“propagandists” for an imaginary “Jesus” was to require this extreme sacrificial renunciation of everyone, then the text would have plainly stated and required that. What would have prevented a bunch of lying deceivers from doing that?
But it doesn’t, and one should note also that Jesus said this in direct response to his leading disciple, Peter, having said, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” He didn’t completely forsake his entire family, because Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15). To hear Dr. Madison tell it, Jesus should have said, “why do you mention and bring Me to your sick mother-in-law? Did I not tell you to hate your families and utterly forget about them [see my first reply], in order to follow Me?” But He didn’t do that, did He? He healed her.
And this is consistent with other passages having to do with the evangelical counsels (see a great explanation in the Catholic Encyclopedia). For example, Jesus said:
Matthew 19:9-12 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”  The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.”  But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
The Apostle Paul teaches the same thing: marriage is the usual norm, but in some cases, it is good to sacrifice good and holy marriage for the sake of Christian service:
1 Corinthians 7:2 But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
1 Corinthians 7:9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:28 But if you marry, you do not sin, . . .
1 Corinthians 7:36 If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin.
1 Corinthians 7:38 So that he who marries his betrothed does well; . . .
1 Corinthians 9:5 Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles . . . ?
Voluntary and Heroic Celibacy
1 Corinthians 7:7-8 I wish that all were as I myself am [single / celibate]. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.
1 Corinthians 7:32, 35 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; . . .  I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:38 . . . he who refrains from marriage will do better.
1 Corinthians 9:15 . . . I have made no use of any of these rights . . .
Freedom to Follow One’s Own Life Choices and Callings
1 Corinthians 7:17 Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. . . .
This is the furthest thing from mandatory requirements, forcing every Christian to give up the pleasures of family and married life. To find that, one must look to the ancient Gnostics, who taught that sex was literally evil. That has never been mainstream Christian (and especially not Catholic) teaching. One could note fringe sects like the Shakers, who required celibacy of all members. Of course, that was a view destined to render them extinct, as they pretty much are today. At its height in the mid-19th century, it only had 6,000 adherents. Today there is exactly one remaining community in Maine. It has two members.
Dr. Madison seems to think that Mark and Luke came up with this tyrannical requirement that every Christian ought to utterly forsake his or her family. That would (if it had ever actually obtained) have reduced Christianity to the status of the tiny Shaker sect, which is historically ridiculous, just as this entire podcast and what it insinuates is beyond ludicrous.
Photo credit: The Healing of Peter’s Mother-in-law, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]