Christians should stop using Jesus’ name in vain

You get a better sense of Christian history from the tomb of one gnostic monk in Egypt than from every living Christian. This lowly monk is trying to tell us something. Nag Hammadi

One reason it can be hard to talk about religion or politics is that people identify with some institution — the Democratic Party or Christianity, for example. If you criticize these entities, as I tend to do frequently, the other party in the dialogue takes this criticism personally. You say the Democratic Party sucks. I’m a Democrat. Therefore, you say I suck. The same dynamic applies to religion.

However, what I mean to say is that you can advance your core beliefs — in justice, in fairness, in empathy for others — better by ceasing to be a Christian or a Democrat, or at least modifying your relationship to these institutions. You can of course disagree and remain rather uncritically a member of the religion or political party but you should, I would hope, decide to maintain your present stance after hearing me out, not by ignoring my criticism of your institutions. If you remain faithful to the party or the religion even if the religion or the party is not in line with your core beliefs, then you are making a mistake, or your membership in your institutions may not be about any important ethical stance at all.

Here in this essay I want to convey the following: Christians have no reason to claim Jesus as their property. Christians tend to intentionally ignore the available evidence about who Jesus was. Christians as a group have made no effort to correct the errors of their past or revise their religion such that is conforms to something that might make sense to Jesus or to his followers. Also, there is almost nothing moral about Christianity.

Just about everything every Christian I have ever met personally or encountered in literature or media — including theologians with Ph.D.s and ordained ministers — is wholly and entirely wrong or deceptive about Jesus, the Bible, and the history of the church. The truth about these subjects is easily available in the fields of archaeology, literary criticism, historical research, and even in some cases genetic analysis of populations. I have heard that there are theologians deep in the Vatican or somewhere who are fully Christian but also fully at peace with the best available truth about their religion, but I have not met or found any writing by these people.

I actually think you could save something of Christianity by being honest about the Bible, Jesus, the Hebrew Bible, the history of the church, etc. The honest course is an uphill struggle and the congregation would have to do a 180-degree turn. So, to the extent that honest theologians exist, they are tucked away where no one can find them. Better just keep on with our keeping on, Christians assume, since we’re the world’s biggest religion… nevermind that we’re not being the least bit honest.

Here are some honest truths about the ministry of Jesus, the message, and what is and is not possible as a “follower of Jesus.”

Likely, a guy named Jesus did, in fact, live in what is today Israel/Palestine, born and raised in Nazareth, in the First Century AD. He did preach some kind of message, maybe for one year, maybe for three, quite likely did use the phrase “son of man” at least once and died by crucifixion. He may have been baptized by John the Baptist, who was another real historical figure. And that’s all we can really know.

Why do I say he existed? One, by the standards of the ancient history, Jesus is pretty well attested. As to the sources, it extremely rare to have any figure from ancient history with multiple attestations (the four canonical gospels plus many non-canonical works). If this amount of textual evidence is not sufficient to establish some sort of historical reality, we would likely have to dismiss vast swaths of ancient history, including Aristotle, Mohammed, dozens of Roman emperors, etc.

Why do I say that the only likely reliable facts are that Jesus was from Nazareth, died by crucifixion, plus maybe a this strange “son of man” thing? These are the only facts that don’t fit the narrative that someone at the time and place would make up about a wise, philosopher.

Think of it like this: we know that the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree was made up by Mason Locke Weems, one of Washington’s first biographers. Why did Weems make up this story? Well, at the time most people had an idea of fixed character. In the general idea of fixed character, you didn’t “develop” from childhood so much as express the person you were always destined to become. Rousseau’s Confessions challenged this idea in 1769, but by 1800 in America, Rosseau’s developmental model still would not have been the dominant idea of human character.

So if George Washington’s character was more or less fixed through his entire life, there should have been some expression of this character when he was young, say six years old. Maybe he would have been exceptionally honest about normal childish naughtiness. Maybe be cut down a cherry tree and then confessed. Yes, he would have done something like that. That’s how the myth was born: using the template of the time, fixed character, the biographer invented a story that should have been true.

If all we had to go on for the life story of George Washington were accounts told from memory many years after his death — no written records from when he was actually alive — we would have many more cherry tree stories and far fewer real incidents. We would then have to weed through the stories that made sense given the kind of story people thought we should tell from the details that don’t really make sense in the story of a great man with a great fixed character on his inevitable rise to greatness. Stories that fit the mold and stories that don’t: the less the story fits, the more likely to be true. Any counter-narrative is probably simply unavoidably true, something everyone knew to be true. Some facts are so clear that you can not alter them in your account, even 40 years after the man’s death. In the case of Washingon, the fact that he owned slaves, for example, would have slipped through, or that he got the wealth that allowed him to not work and pursue his political career came from his wife. Had he married a poorer wife, perhaps he would not be George Washington, character be damned.

If we try this story-separation technique with Jesus, we can see that the story about him being born in Bethlehem is likely not true but the references to his childhood in Nazareth are very likely true. The fact that Jesus is from Nazareth is one of the most important details suggesting he must have actually been a real, historical figure. Why? Because Nazareth is a podunk, nowhere, shabby little village with no significance that it was never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The only reason to include the detail of the name of the town is that it must have been true and everyone knew it was true. The accounts of his birth in Bethlehem in the gospels of Luke and Mathew contradict each other, are not logical, include impossible references to events such as a “census” or that Joseph was in the family line of David. There is a compelling reason theologically for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. You could make up a story about someone being born in Bethlehem if he then moves back to Nazareth because there is no way to find out where he was actually born some 60 or 70 years later.

Same deal with the crucifixion: that must have happened because there is no compelling reason either in Jewish or Greco-Roman tradition to end the life of a wise teacher by execution by the state. The “son of man” meme might count as a real teaching by Jesus because it doesn’t fit with the theology of any of the gospels. What he actually said or meant is hard to discern but he almost certainly was not talking about himself when he said this son of man was going to come down from the sky on a cloud. The whole “second coming” doctrine was invented as a way to make sense of the fact that Jesus did not, probably, claim to be the begotten son of God.

While the gospel accounts are formulaic and follow literary conventions of the day, there are elements of the story that go against both Greco-Roman and Jewish tradition that likely mean there were real facts that could not be inserted into a standard narrative. All the non-conforming elements of the Jesus story are likely true, while all the parts of the story that conform to what people at the time thought a mystical philosophy should do and say or what people thought Jewish prophecies predicted the Messiah would do or say are likely invented.

Much of the accounts of the gospels is similar to other ancient stories of wise men, such as Apollonius of Tyana. The general ambience or vibe around Jesus is similar to other moral philosophers of the Greco-Roman world, such as Dio of Prusa or Epictetus.

So, from Jesus himself, we get very little, maybe nothing more than his place of birth, the fact of some kind of ministry, and death by crucifixion. He was preaching an innocuous or uncontroversial message of moral uplift, he likely would not have been executed. He was almost certainly a native speaker of Aramaic from a humble background. The rest is really speculation.

We do have the books of the New Testament. The books of the Bible tell us what his followers believed 30 to maybe 200 years after he died. We know that some of the books are forgeries that should not be in the bible. We know that Paul of Tarsis, whoever wrote the gospel of Mathew, and the writer of the Gospel of Mark, agreed on almost nothing.

The Gospel of Mark is consistent with a gnostic point of view. There is no story of Jesus’ miraculous birth because none of that matters to this writer, who we can call Mark, although no name of a writer is included in the text itself. In Mark, Jesus is just a man, when he was baptized by John the Baptist, the spirit of the divine, the spark enters his body. “The Spirit descending on him like a dove.” True, God, or the spirit, says that Jesus is his son, but many in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible are “sons” of God and this doesn’t necessarily make Jesus himself divine or Godlike. Jesus then preaches for one year and on the cross, the spirit or spark leaves his body, at which point he says, “Why have you forsaken me?” The spark leaves.

The Gospel of Mathew is consistent with an Ebionite understanding of Jesus, such that you have to be Jewish to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus is the “son of David” — sent to the Jews alone. In this Gospel, Jesus fulfils but does not destroy, the law of the Jews.

So, depending on which part of the New Testament you chose to believe, you can be a Christian, or a follower of Jesus, only by circumcising your boys, keeping Kosher, and not eating with Gentiles or by believing that a spirit from another realm entered the body of a teacher for a year and that he imparted some wisdom or somehow revealed the existence of another world beyond this one while the spirit was in his human body.

I could go on and discuss the religions of the Gospel of John or the letters of Paul as these writers promote pretty much completely different religions to the ones advocated by Mark or Matthew. In short, we have almost no reliable information on Jesus but we do know that first two or three generation of his followers agreed on absolutely nothing about the meaning or substance of his life and teaching.

No agreement on the meaning of following Jesus continued until Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome in 306 AD. At that time, there were many gnostic Christians, Arian, Nestorians, Jewish Chistians and proto-orthodox Christians. None of the matters evident in the New Testament and other writings from the first two hundred years after the death of Jesus had been settled in the least, and new controversies had arisen.

Why did the version of Christianity we have now beat out the other versions? Why do have the Trinity, and all the other elements of the Nicene creed, and not the religion of the Gnostics, Ebionites, Valentians, Arians, Nestorians or any of the others? Why did Christianity triumph over paganism? Why did this small religion become the dominant force in the Roman empire?

Why? Because the emperor decided to make it so. Raw power, force, murder, intimidation, money and ruthlessness settled the arguments between Christian factions and killed off competing non-Christian religions.

Christianity did not rise from obscurity to prominence because it was in any way superior to the cults of Isis, Mithras, the Sun God, the Syrian Goddess, Osiris, Demeter, or any other Greco-Roman/Jewish cult. While Christianity (many competing forms of following Jesus) may have been appealing to a sector of the urban population intrinsically, this niche market would never have gone big time without the state, that is the emperor, backing the religion up.

How do we know the role of the Roman state was key? First, compare the areas under the Romans to the areas outside of the control of a Christian ruler. Persian empire next door to Rome: maybe 5–10% of the population was Christian in 300 AD. No Christian king came to power. When the Muslims conquered the Kingdom in 651, there was still a minority of Christians, with many different competing sects, still around 10%. Armenia had a Christian king and Armenia became almost 100% Christian, same as Rome, only, not Catholic. Ethiopia: Christian king, Christian population. Arabia: no Christian king, small Christian minority.

The emperors of Rome imposed one doctrine on the warring factions of Christians. The Nicene Creed, 325 AD, speaks of Jesus as “begotten, not made” because some people didn’t believe he was “begotten” but just a man with the spirit of another realm within. “In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” For every item on the list, someone out there was saying the opposite.

The debate was ended not through debate or some kind of research project to find out which version was true, an experiment on the nature of God. One side had an army and judges and money and just beat the other down. In fact, the gnostic view is somewhat more coherent and rational on some level. The Jewish Christian view makes sense in the fact that Jesus and Paul were both born Jewish, lived their entire lives as Jews and died thinking they were a branch of Israel.

The orthodox consensus only won out because it whopped the others into submission with raw power. Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox: they all trace their roots back to this power play. None of the current sects of Christianity, except maybe the Quakers or Unitarians, have really moved far enough away from the Nicene Creed hammering of dissent to not need to revisit the issue and make peace with their histories.

So, you know almost nothing about Jesus as a matter of fact. You pick and chose your interpretations of the surviving literature to ignore alternative intrepreations of the meaning of his teaching and life. You killed off those who disagree. You burned their books.

The people who said that he was just a man, or said that all followers of Jesus have to keep kosher, were killed and their writings systematically destroyed by the Roman state and the Catholic church. Jesus might have been a gnostic, or Jewish Christian. He may never have claimed to be divine. The evidence that Jesus would have hated Christianity is there in the New Testament if you want to see it.

What makes anyone think that any branch of Christianity now on the planet in any way has even the slightest connection to the life and teaching of Jesus? I mean, you, church, burned the books that would have established the truth. Seems like the church is hiding the truth.

In my opinion, the church, meaning all of Christianity, is making a mistake. If you want to see something inspirational and compelling, however, something that says something very basic about human community, just look at the process of picking the books for the New Testament. If you fess up to how little you know, tell the truth about how this book, the Bible, came to be, you can learn a lot about how to be human in a community and, maybe, through a community to find some transcendence.

Here is the Christian response: naw, the Nicene Creed’s been working since 325 AD and we’ll just saddle up to the state and the mainstream culture and ride this one for all it’s worth. We got Jesus.

So, I could make a case that the messy process of canon and church formation, with and without the state, was beautiful. But, fuck it, I won’t bother. Christians, thinking the Epistle to the Hebrews is an epistle to the Hebrews, can keep on with their keeping on and miss the best part of their whole potentially cool but actually not cool religion.

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Will Pflaum

Will Pflaum

Projects: The Fade Out, Juba, Under Two Maples, Dog Stories, MOGE, Bugs, Pound Flesh, Funky Record, Mutherplucker, Phlogiston, sunshineonthehudson