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Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is the third in a series that you really need to read before engaging with this, otherwise you won’t have the first clue about which I am talking. See:

These were pieces where I detailed the dismissal of the more problematic portions of the Bible in favour of a more abstract and modern approach. I’ve been involved in a conversation with some friends of mine on Facebook who are essentially Christians. They have taken variously interesting positions countering both my previous two books (The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK] and is The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK]) without having read them and taking a pop at the reasoning for my forthcoming book in this trilogy, The Exodus: A Critical Examination of the Moses Story.

This piece is in reaction to some claims a theistic friend had been making, who had essentially accepted the Hebrew Bible (upon which the Christian Bible is built) as not particularly literal. Or, as Cynthia put it in the comments section to the first piece:

Anyway, I read the Hebrew Bible as an early collection of stories and documents from a people who were trying to figure out how to navigate the bigger forces in their lives. It starts with just trying to appease the local gods and get a local god protecting them, and then develops into a more abstract concept. A few key ideas emerge: the idea that one god may control everything, the idea that this god may want not only worship but also for humans to treat each other a certain way, and finally the idea that this god wasn’t just a national god but one that existed everywhere and that actually cared about people in other nations. As ideas get more abstract, we see a turning away from some older firms of worship like human sacrifice and fertility rituals, and more contemplation of how we really get see or fully understand this god.

Here are my responses to the claims of R in the last piece.

I can cherry-pick all the wonderful nice bits out of the Qu’ran and build myself up a wonderful moral framework built on Muslim theology, but it still never happened and I am ignoring all the horrible bits that in there as well. So all I’m doing is is artificially fortifying my already existing moral framework.

He really should go back and read the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, because without it there really is no New Testament and Jesus makes no sense. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible is absolutely packed full of moral abhorrence. It is a fascinating book, anthropologically speaking, but it has very little historical value and, as such, the theology is really interesting from an anthropological, regional and cultural scenario, but it has no historical purchase and thus hangs on nothing, having no foundation.

The point of saying that is that I really, really understand Marcion, for example, and his position that the supreme being of Jesus was utterly detached from the vindictive moral monster that was Yahweh. Yet you can’t really detach him because the theology, symbolism, and supposed historical events of Jesus’s life are so entangled with the Hebrew bible.

There is certainly a radical change of direction, as orchestrated by Paul and arguably created by him… But, again, if it didn’t really happen at all, then I’m not really sure what he’s talking about. He ends up constructing very complex theology out of thin air. (He “would say the essences are there in ancient traditions”.)

If I can show that Jesus didn’t suffer in the way he claims – i.e., that there is no historical basis to his suffering – on what epistemic rights does he have to make those theological claims? This is what I keep saying.

Honestly, my intuitive belief from years ago that the Old Testament was a thoroughly weak foundation to Christianity I’m really finding now is such a certainty. The whole Bible falls like a house of cards when you start looking at the Old Testament. Which, historical claims aside, is also a morally obscene document in very many places. But that obscenity disappears when you understand it as a truly anthropological document.

Again it goes back to this: the three pillars of the Nativity, the Resurrection, and Moses/Exodus – they never happened. We have no epistemic warrant for belief in any of those. Nada. So, on what basis is his entire theology built? I think Christians live in this insulated bubble built on a host of unquestioned assumptions. They need to do the outsider test for faith, as proposed by John Loftus (his book of the same title is excellent). Once you understand the fragility of the foundations, things quickly fall.

Jesus is built on the Torah. He was Jewish. His believers were Jewish. He is literally the new covenant to replace the old one, as according to his own words and those of the Gospel writers and Paul.

But there was no first covenant.

See the Torah for what it is, you’ll see the Gospels for what they are.

Such an approach as R’s is special pleading.

He tells me how wonderful it is that Jesus participated in the suffering amongst men, but when challenged, evades the issue – because the theological claim is a claim of a specific event in history that didn’t happen. Nativity, Resurrection, Exodus, Genesis, etc.: didn’t happen. If you are a liberal Christian who accepts much or all of this, then what?

There is no substantial man behind Moses. No evidence whatsoever. Only the biblical Exodus claims. Scholars are unsure whether he was made up from whole cloth, or there is some tiny kernel of truth. Either way, what the Torah says is a fictional construction in the vein of other such contemporaneous texts.

I mean, feel free to believe in Muhammad, or the figures of other epics.

Jesus? What can we know about the Jesus of history from the Gospels? Virtually nothing. If such a man did exist (I am 60/40 on this), then what we learn from the Gospels is so far removed from the historical kernel as to be myth.

Now, by all means, learn some good lessons from myth, but he must realise he is using secular morality and philosophy to extricate those claims from the pseudo-history in which they are embedded.

Or, more accurately, he is just doing secular philosophy. If he thinks those claims are contingent upon a belief in a god, well, more fool him, I guess.

So, for him I would ask: what are your main theological truths you take from the Bible? Are they contingent upon the belief in the historical facts in which they are contextualised? Thus, is the Bible really needed for those lessons?

He needs to answer these questions because they are crucial to establishing, epistemological and theologically how his worldview would work.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...