Not a Fan of Jesus

Not a Fan of Jesus October 7, 2013

jesuses02I’m gonna come right out and say it:
I’m not a big fan of Jesus.

I know it’s hip and cool say you don’t like the church but you love Jesus, except I always feel the need to ask: Which Jesus do you mean? How do you determine what he was/is like? I see two basic ways to answer this question. One, you can take the Bible at face value and decide that whatever it says about him must be true, no matter how self-contradictory it seems to be.

Or two, you can decide that the Bible contains a mixture of wheat and chaff, and set out to determine for yourself which Jesus stories are legit. In all honesty, I see problems with both approaches. I’ll begin with the assumption that he really said all the things the Bible says he said and explain why any healthy person should reject this character without losing much sleep.

If we take the Bible at face value, then Jesus did not “focus on the family.” In fact, Jesus was against his followers prioritizing family life, and he modeled this very thing in his own life. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate [his] father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,” he told his listeners, “such a person cannot be my disciple.”

In one gospel, he prefaced this announcement by saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Hoping to put a positive spin on these unsavory words, people today warn that we must view these exhortations as peculiar to their context, as if they only applied to people forced to forsake a competing religion in order to follow Jesus.

But there are at least three reasons why these statements cannot be explained away so easily. First, if we can believe Jesus’ words when he said he didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, then it won’t do to call Judaism a competing religion. That was the religion of his original audience. Second, we see a bit more what he meant when a couple of his disciples informed him that certain family obligations limited their availability for travel with him. He scolded them, saying, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” and “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” He made it clear on multiple occasions that ministry takes priority over family, and that anyone who couldn’t handle that didn’t belong in his company.

If these first two reasons don’t drive the point home, then consider the third: When he spoke of those whom you should “hate” for his sake, he included wife and children in his list. That’s significant because in a patriarchal society like the one in which he lived, the man is the head of the household, which means that he determines the religious loyalties of the family. This isn’t like telling a young adult that he may have to endure his parents’ rejection for forsaking the religion of his upbringing (besides, see reason #1).

This is telling a man that following Jesus requires prioritizing loyalty to him over loyalty to his family (notice it wasn’t addressed to women, telling them to “hate” their husbands, for such would have been unthinkable). Evidently Jesus envisioned scenarios in which a man must choose between devotion to him and devotion to family. “No way!” people often tell me, “Jesus would never put us in such a position!” Then why did he even say this at all? It seems to me that the Bible says otherwise.

What’s more, he modeled this principle in his own life as well. Once when his mother and brothers sought an audience with him, he responded rather callously that his real mother and brothers weren’t those related by blood, but “those who do the will of my father in heaven.” I see a consistent pattern here.

His followers seem to have gotten the point. After Jesus, the most influential figure in Christian history was the apostle Paul, who like Jesus preferred the single life. Paul echoed Jesus’ disdain for family obligations when he argued the following:

“From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not…I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided…I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32-35).

Like Jesus, Paul saw the inherent conflict of interest between family life and ministry, and he preferred that people avoid family entanglements if at all possible. Devotion to Jesus means putting ministry above family.

Lest we think Paul was alone in taking Jesus’ words to heart, consider again Maggie’s Story from the other day. When Maggie lost her faith, her husband consulted a Christian marriage therapist who at one point recommended a book which suggests separation or divorce as an evangelistic tool to “win back” the heart of the apostate spouse. Believe it or not, both Josh and his therapist would bristle at the fundamentalist label. They consider themselves evangelicals, which goes to show how indistinguishable these two camps are at their core (please note I am speaking of the American variety of evangelicalism, not the European blend).

Both groups are simply “following Jesus” and are taking the Bible as their final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice. The ideological world they both inhabit sees faith and non-faith as incompatible enemies. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” Or as Paul put it , “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for…what fellowship has light with darkness?”

This is the direction you must go if you subscribe to biblical inerrancy. It produces a relational model which is exclusionary, even to the dividing of the family unit for Jesus’ sake. Incidentally, this turns my stomach.

If we take the Bible at face value, we learn that we are not only to “hate” our families, we are also to hate ourselves. Jesus says so in the same passage, quoted above, in which he tells us to place devotion to him above devotion to our families. Jesus goes on to say in the next verse that you cannot be his follower unless you, too, embrace your own personal crucifixion. Danger, Will Robinson!

This should make red flags appear for us right away. No one preaching an antagonistic relationship with the self should be followed by other people. That’s a recipe for mental imbalance. I’m convinced that if we hadn’t all learned this way of thinking at such a young age, most of us would have never embraced it. I’ve already written about this aspect of the biblical mentality, so I won’t go into further detail here.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it since it comes up in this very same passage. “Dying to self” features so centrally in Jesus’ teachings that it cannot be brushed aside by anyone claiming to adhere to a biblical portrait of the man and his ministry. This portrait of Jesus—and of what it looks like to “follow” him—divides families over differences of belief and teaches us to take a very low view of ourselves as well, seeing ourselves as things to be neglected, forsaken, and even “crucified” in some way for Jesus’ sake. Taken at face value, this is the Jesus which the Bible presents to us today. As I said, I am not a fan.

But perhaps the Bible gets it wrong sometimes. Perhaps some of the things the Bible says Jesus said and did were made up by people later on. Perhaps his followers put words in his mouth, making him a mouthpiece for their own biases. That’s certainly an option. Frankly, considering all the internal inconsistencies within the story of Jesus’ ministry, this option seems the most likely to be true. It also would be the only way that I could find any way to like the historical Jesus (and yes, unlike many of my skeptic friends, I’m convinced the man really existed).

As often as I’ve denounced the notion of eternal conscious torment, no one is more responsible for passing this concept along to us today than Jesus himself. The Bible portrays him speaking more words about this horrific idea than anyone else, which is a real problem for anyone seeking to present him as a loving, merciful person. Some have argued that Jesus was only co-opting a concept which was popular in his day in order to make certain points. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate that for most of church history, Jesus’ followers have totally missed that detail.

If we weren’t supposed to believe he was really teaching such a place exists, perhaps God could have made his communications about that a bit more clear. Just sayin’.

If we do like Thomas Jefferson and remove all of the unsavory elements of the stories about Jesus, removing also the stories of levitation, tissue regeneration, dinner multiplication, and miraculous resuscitation, what we are left with is a man who said some pretty good stuff. To whatever extent his teachings track with modern secular humanism, I’d have to say Jesus was right on the money.

Perhaps he was even ahead of his time (not including the golden rule, which predated both Jesus and Judaism by at least a thousand years). But I have yet to hear anything from this version of Jesus which can’t be extracted from most other world religions. To be honest, I’ll take the words of Robert Ingersoll over the words of Jesus anyday, for there isn’t a thing the latter said which wasn’t said better by the former—and without all the business about self-crucifixion to weed through in the process.

So why is it again we’re supposed to love Jesus?

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  • When I look back on my former life as a believer, I now realize what an abhorrent ethical philosophy Jesus espoused and what a negative impact it had both on my life and my mental state. Personally, I know all too well that Jesus’ philosophy of personal crucifixion was “a recipe for mental imbalance.” Perhaps you’ve seen the recent study about the link between spirituality and depression. I don’t doubt it:

    For me, educating myself out of Christianity also freed me from a state of self loathing that the belief itself created. Eventually, I realized that Christianity was the poison the masquerading as the cure. After over two decades of bondage, I was free to live my life and deal with reality on its own terms—rather than let my entire sense of hope and worth shackled to a divine entity.

    There is at least one of Jesus’ teachings that I agree with: “The truth will set you free.”

  • Great post!

    The figure of Jesus portrayed in the Bible reminds me of other heroic figures from mythology (men, gods and god-men). His mythology, however, seems to be more convoluted / disjointed than some others. I think that the Greek myths may just have had more time to evolve and mature before they were written down.

  • I’d definitely like to hear more about why “unlike many of my skeptic friends, I’m convinced the man really existed.” What has convinced you? It seems the historic “evidence” is pretty sketchy. Also, I think you’re question, above, is cogent: “Which Jesus” existed?

    I really enjoy your posts. They provide a breath of fresh air!

  • Lee

    I wish the historicity was a little cleaner. I’ve read good stuff from both sides, but as Neil mentions above…I’ not sure it really matters. If you don’t believe he was the son of God, there are preferable modern teachers that in my opinion simply supersede him.

  • Absolutely – it doesn’t matter to me whether he existed or not. (I was merely interested in what was so convincing that Neil thought that he was a real person.)

  • Thinker1121

    Neil, have you ever read Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong? I’m curious what you think about their theologies and the work of the Jesus Seminar in textual criticism. Granted they have their own liberal agenda, but I think they make a compelling case that Jesus was basically a textbook liberal, driven primarily by compassion for the downtrodden – and that the mythology that rose up around him was constructed to make theological points in a primarily Jewish context, not historical points. For example, to say that Jesus was born of a virgin was not to make a supernatural biological claim proving his divinity. “Born of a virgin” was a political title reserved for Caesar. All the Roman Emperors were born of virgins. But you could only make that statement about Caesar, so saying it about Jesus was treason. It’d be like a 1930’s German citizen wearing a t-shirt that says “Jesus is my Fuhrer.” He’s not literally the Fuhrer…it’s a political statement that explicitly rejects the doctrines of Hitler. So when the debate turns to whether Jesus was literally born of a virgin, it winds up missing the whole point, which is to say, what is it about Jesus that caused people to risk treason by giving him that important title?

    At any rate, this is Borg and Spong’s interpretation.

  • bonnie

    “If anyone comes to me and does not hate [his] father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,” he told his listeners, “such a person cannot be my disciple.” In one gospel, he prefaced this announcement by saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

    I find that religion is harmful to family life. I’m not sure about other faiths but I know the Mormon faith says it must come before family and cites scriptures like this one to justify. Growing up my parents were constantly gone fulfilling church obligations. Actually, I went to visit them last weekend and they were still mostly gone doing church things. Their religion took priority over the fact that their daughter and grandchildren were visiting. Afterward they had the nerve to send me an email telling me I was doing a pretty good job raising their grand kids but they would never have morals without religion in their lives……..Well, at least they’ll have a mom.

    I feel very strongly about families being loyal and united regardless of religious, political, or lgbt preferences. I think Christians should check where they’re pointing the finger when they speak about the weakening of families in America.

  • I think there is a third option – understand the New Testament as the best historical scholars see it. If you get a consensus of the most respected believers and non-believers, you get a lowest common denominator viewpoint that is pretty solid historically, which is a good start. Then you can build your own ideas on a good foundation.

  • And who are these “best historical scholars”?

  • Good question. unkle’s statement needs to be fleshed out a bit more. The two options I presented were that either the Bible accurately presents what Jesus said and did, or else some selectivity must occur. What is the third option? And what consensus is there among believers and non-believers regarding Jesus?

  • Lee
  • Forgive me if I’m initially skeptical of the thesis that Romans invented the story of Jesus.

  • Lee

    Ha! As you should be, just thought it was relevant and interesting. Makes a lot of sense, book is in my queue, I’ll let you know is its worth the hype…

  • Lee

    Meant to post link to the book Caesar’s Messiah by Atwill, but the covertmessiah program is based on the theses in that book and similar others…

  • “And who are these “best historical scholars”?”

    Hi Mike. Many people (both believers and non-believers) read to reinforce their beliefs or extend their knowledge, which is OK, but if we want to come to an unbiased view, I think we need to do two things:

    1. None of us knows everything, so we need to canvass what others are saying. Build our view on the most respected experts, not on fringe people. It is possible to find who is most respected by their peers.

    2. Recognise that the topic of Jesus is divisive, and we all probably have biases. Therefore read both sceptics/minimalists and less sceptical/maximalists, both believers and unbelievers. This range of scholars will give a good assessment of what we can safely conclude from historical evidence.

    Using these approaches, I suggest the following scholars are among the most respected and cover a broad range:

    Sceptical and non-christian: EP Sanders, Geza Vermes, Bart Ehrman (an agnostic, a Jew and an “atheist-leaning agnostic”);

    Less sceptical and non-christian: Michael Grant, Maurice Casey (both atheist-agnostic)’

    Less sceptical and christian: NT Wright, Richard Baulkham, Craig Evans.

    Obviously there would be others, but these are the ones I have read and know to be among the most respected. Hope that helps.

  • “What is the third option?”

    I thought your two options were to take the Bible at face value, or, like Jefferson, remove the “unsavory elements”. My third option was to not make either of those somewhat arbitrary choices, and see what the best scholars conclude.

    “And what consensus is there among believers and non-believers regarding Jesus?”

    EP Sanders, just about the most respected NT scholar of the past 30 years, and cautiously sceptical, wrote in The Historical Figure of Jesus, p10-11

    “I shall first offer a list of statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career. (A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.)

    Jesus was born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great;

    he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;

    he was baptised by John the Baptist;

    he called disciples;

    he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);

    he preached ‘the kingdom of God’;

    about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;

    he created a disturbance in the Temple area;

    he had a final meal with the disciples;

    he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;

    he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.”

    Sanders concludes:

    “Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”

    Now he is at the sceptical end of the consensus, so that gives us something like a minimalist or lowest common denominator set of “facts”. If we go to the other end of the consensus, basing our views on Michael Grant, maurice Casey and NT Wright (plus a few other comments of Danders’), we can get a few further “facts”:

    he preached repentance, forgiveness and the coming of the kingdom of God in rural and small-town Galilee;

    he was known in his day as a healer and exorcist (Casey says he was a folk healer);

    Jesus predicted his death and resurrection and he believed his death would be redemptive;

    Jesus’ tomb was really empty and his disciples “saw” him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death.

    (Most of those “facts” come from Maurice Casey, but Michael Grant says similar (neither are christians, nor believe in either his divinity or his resurrection) and the christian NT Wright would go even further.)

    So that outlines the conclusions of the best scholars as best as I can summarise it.


  • mikespeir

    Thanks for the respectful response. Frankly, I was just trying to draw attention to the fact that one man’s expert is another man’s kook. An “authority” is a guy with a doctorate and who agrees with us. Cranks with PhDs are virtually a dime a dozen. I’m sure we could both point to a certain bona fide physics PhD who will argue that the Sun circles the Earth.

    But your response is good. I would recommend it.

  • Thanks so much!

  • Ron

    Why did you place the word facts in quotes? And how does scholarly consensus equate to fact?

    Furthermore, what tangible physical evidence is there in support of the claims for a historical Jesus? Are there any legal documents attesting to his birth, arrest, trial, execution and death?

  • Hi Ron, I used inverted commas because people use different definitions of the word “facts”. A historical sceptic might say we can know nothing about the past, though most of us wouldn’t say that. Some people might say the only facts are scientific facts.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ” tangible physical evidence”. What tangible physical evidence is there for Hannibal? Would a statue be more reliable evidence than a document?

    I have simply reported what historians say, and they know their business better than anyone else. Do you think they have got it wrong?

  • mikespeir

    That’s defensible so long as you’re not insisting that anyone must accept certain “facts” on pain of varying forms and degrees of unpleasantness, a nasty trait that has characterized the Church since early on.

  • I am not in a position to threaten anybody, nor do I believe in it! I think that sort of nastiness started when Constantine made a takeover bid for the church, possibly the worst choice the church ever made.

  • mikespeir

    No, it started much earlier than that:

    He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. Mark 16:16

    He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. John 3: 36

    And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9

    Just a few examples.

  • Hi Mike,

    Mark 16:16 isn’t in most Bibles any more as it is believed not to be original. But of course the other quotes are there, and others like them. I cannot do anything about that, they are not my statements and I won’t be doing anything to hurt or punish anyone.

    Nor do I think any of these statements insist anyone accept them, the choice is yours and mine. But they do warn of unattractive consequences for those who don’t believe or obey, and I can’t do anything about that either. I believe the conventional teaching on hell as everlasting punishment is not what the Bible actually teaches (e.g. in the Thessalonians passage, everlasting should be translated eternal, and the meaning is not “forever”, but “in the age to come”, which changes the meaning considerably) but the passage still says people not responding as they ought will miss out on life.

    I would be sorry if that was the case, but I can’t change what is written. If you are offended by that, I am also sorry, but I can’t make it different. And you presumably don’t believe that is true anyway.

    My comments above were based on the assessment of scholars, and that is still something we should all be able to accept as reasonably probable.

  • mikespeir

    You’re right. I don’t believe any of it is true. However, the Church as a whole has believed it is true and has acted accordingly whenever it has gotten the chance. (Who could have guessed that “he [who] beareth not the sword in vain” might one day be a Christian king?) Many “scholars” have participated in that and likely would again given the chance.

  • Hi, “Many scholars”? I think you are drawing a rather long bow there, and getting far away from the topic of this post. I think I’ll decline to engage on that one for now! :)

  • mikespeir

    Let me know when you’re ready to engage.

  • Why?

  • mikespeir

    Okay, don’t tell me. Keep it a secret. ;-)

  • OK. I thought you may have had a reason or purpose, so I asked about it.

  • Ron


    At the risk of sounding pedantic, a “fact” is defined as something which actually exists, or knowledge based upon something which has been demonstrated to exist. Claims unsubstantiated by evidence do not constitute facts.

    The type of tangible physical evidence requested was already given: legal documents attesting to Jesus’ birth, arrest, trial, execution and death. Other historical artifacts would include: a census copy bearing Joseph’s name, portraits or drawings of Jesus, his personal writings, contemporaneous accounts of his life and ministry, the exact locations of his birth and burial, a bill of sale for a burial chamber made out to one ‘Joseph of Arimathea’, etc.

    Can the scholars provide any of these things?

  • mikespeir

    And my mistake was to assume that by “I’ll decline to engage on that one for now” you meant to come back and engage later.

  • OK, sorry. I didn’t mean to infer anything either way. I am willing to discuss all sorts of things if people want to and I can see some value in it. I thought the original post said some interesting things on which I had something to offer, But I am a little more wary of getting into a discussion that jumps off onto all manner of other things without a lot of purpose. I thought your “many scholars” comment was not promising. So I was trying to see what you had in mind before I “engaged”. (I was also responding to what I thought was a slightly tongue in cheek comment from you.) Peace.

  • a “fact” is defined as something which actually exists, or knowledge based upon something which has been demonstrated to exist. Claims unsubstantiated by evidence do not constitute facts.

    Hi Ron, I think this is an interesting matter. Facts are different in different disciplines. In mathematics, a fact is 100% provable. In science, it is generally something like provable within 95% confidence limits. In law, a jury finds a defendant factually guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”.

    So in history, we have to define “fact” in a way appropriate to historical study. Now we could be historical sceptics and argue that because we cannot do repeatable observations, we cannot know anything from the past, but that would also mean we couldn’t establish facts in many court cases, and in many aspects of evolutionary science. And we could deny the Holocaust.

    I think it is safest to go with the experts on this. So when the esteemed scholar EP Sanders says certain things are “almost beyond dispute”, we should trust him, since most other historians agree.

    The type of tangible physical evidence requested was already given: legal documents attesting to Jesus’ birth, arrest, trial, execution and death. Other historical artifacts would include: a census copy bearing Joseph’s name, portraits or drawings of Jesus, his personal writings, contemporaneous accounts of his life and ministry, the exact locations of his birth and burial, a bill of sale for a burial chamber made out to one ‘Joseph of Arimathea’, etc.

    The reference to Jesus in Tacitus would probably have come from imperial records, so that is about as close as we get to what you are asking for. But why would a birth certificate document or whatever be any better than what we have, documentary attestation? Having done quite bit of family history and found even in recent times such documentation can be sadly wrong, why would any of the documentation you suggest be reliable? And the documentary evidences we have for Jesus are closer to his life and better attested than most historical records at the time?

    So I think we have a clear choice. Treat the history of Jesus the same way we do any other history (which is what historians do) or use a different definition of fact for historical study and wipe out large chunks of history as we know it. What do you think about that?

  • mikespeir

    I don’t think you could impose a religious obligation on anyone based on that kind of “fact.”

  • Hi Mike, I wonder what makes you think I want to impose a religious obligation, or anything else, on anyone? But perhaps, I am reading you too literally.

    I think the historical “facts” about Jesus offer an opportunity for each of us. Those who welcome that opportunity will (I believe) find truth and goodness there, but those who don’t welcome it are quite free to choose otherwise.

  • mikespeir

    So, are you saying we don’t have an obligation to share your religious predilections? Your purpose here would only be to acquaint us with an opportunity that you think could be to our advantage while not placing any incumbency on us? You do realize that some of us here have already availed ourselves of that opportunity and found it wanting, right?

  • Hi Mike, I first posted here to offer a middle road between the two alternatives in the post, because I have done some reading on that topic. I didn’t actually plan saying any more (and you’ll recall I have been somewhat reticent), but since you seemed to want to ask me questions, I have tried to answer them. I don’t really know anyone here, or even know there is a defined community, so I have no preconceived opinion on what you all believe or have done in your lives. If you want to know more, please feel free to ask; if you don’t, then you are not under any compulsion. But whichever way you go, I have appreciated your courtesy.

  • I’ve been uneasy with Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, snobby to a Syrian woman, cursing a spring tree for not having figs, and then there is the popular myth of Jesus with all the children of the world gathered around him. Where did that come from? A rabbi of that time especially an apocalyptical preacher wouldn’t be mussing the hair of gentile children let alone let those little unclean things sit on his lap.

  • It was great to finally read something like this. I feel the same way about paul, I think he sounded like a total arsehole.