Last weekend, people all over the world celebrated Easter, a holiday which reminds us that we are all so very bad that a man had to be tortured and killed in our place…because apparently that’s what we deserved. Never mind if you think torture is wrong, or that the death penalty should be reserved for cop killers and mass murderers. Evidently from the Christian perspective you deserve far worse than that. You are so bad that the only way to bring justice for what you are is to torture you forever. Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen, for about 70 years’ worth of spiritual misdemeanors and thought crimes you need to be burned alive, night and day, with no relief for the next hundred billion years and then some. That’s the bad news. The good news of Easter is that while you would need hundreds of billions of years to work off the misdeeds of one short lifetime, this other guy vicariously wiped out the records of millions of people’s lifetimes over the course of twelve hours one Friday. Seems legit.
How do people come up with this stuff? I mean really. The utter ridiculousness of it all was lost on us because many of us learned these stories while we were still young enough to accept whatever we were told. It has often been said that if parents and churches waited until after children developed critical thinking skills to teach them their beliefs, most religions would die away in one generation. But at some level most Christians have learned to embrace absurdity, even counting irrationality as a sign of transcendent truth. I have heard it argued, for example, that the logical impossibility of the Trinity just goes to show that it must be true. They say people could never have come up with that doctrine because it makes no sense, so it must have come to us straight from God. Thus irrationality comes to occupy a central place in the Christian faith. If you think like this long enough, you become completely desensitized to cognitive dissonance and rhetorical incoherence. Logical inconsistency is no match for our desire to protect and defend what we already believe. But still we should ask: If this stuff wasn’t handed down to us on golden plates, how on earth do stories like this come into existence?
In the movie Big Fish, a young man about to become a father himself struggles to reconcile with his own estranged father who is now on his death bed. Because his father was always away on business, the young man had grown up not knowing him except through the grandiose stories he told at bedtime, at parties, and around campfires. Here at the end, more than anything else the young man wanted to know the truth behind all those stories, the man behind the mythology. The man he knew through all those tall tales was larger than life, and his inner journalist wanted to peel back the layers of legend to learn the truth about who his father really was. He soon discovered that after so many years of telling these stories, the old man himself had become unable to separate fact from fiction. As far as he was concerned, the past was in the past and these stories were all that was left of the life he had lived. He had come to view himself through the stories he told, so his son’s demand for something more only angered him. It wasn’t until his father’s final hours that the son began to learn how almost every story his father told had an element of truth in it. Some real historical event occurred, but in each case over the passage of time that kernel of truth became buried under layer after layer of embellishment until the father’s entire life had become an intricately woven “big fish story,” proverbial for its tendency to grow each time it gets retold for a bigger audience. This provides an excellent lens for viewing how the stories of the Bible came to be what they are today.
Some of the Bible May Have Really Happened
A rapidly growing number of atheists believe that Jesus never existed in real life. Because the stories we have of his life and teachings were written down many years after the time they were to have taken place, and because the anonymous authors of those accounts were likely not eyewitnesses to those events anyway, many people today question why we have to conclude they have any factual basis at all. It’s a legitimate question to ask. We don’t even have the original versions of those accounts today; we have copies of copies of copies of copies. The originals have long been lost and I doubt we’ll ever have them to examine for ourselves. Despite all this, it seems most reasonable to me that those stories began as accounts of something real and perhaps unspectactular but quickly grew to sparkle and shine through the collective imaginations of people desperate for something larger than life.
If you doubt a community’s ability to believe fabricated stories so uncritically, I urge you to spend a couple of weeks delving into the paranoid schizophrenic world of Alex Jones and his “truther” site, Infowars.com. Within a matter of one week these guys can take a school shooting or a plane crash and weave an elaborate conspiracy theory involving multiple intelligence agencies, top-secret acting guilds, international secret societies, and government officials reaching all the way to the top of the chain of command. They can expertly compile and present video evidence, enlisting the help of well-educated forensic professionals to bolster their case. Perhaps up to half of their multimillion-subscriber audience only listens in because of the entertainment value. But many people actually believe this paranoid nonsense. People are really good at lying to themselves, especially when they feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the powers that be. It seems to me that the earliest Christians fit that profile perfectly, and all subsequent historical records of this ancient Levantine faith were predicated on the testimonies of those original adherents.
To be honest with you though, the question of the historicity of the gospels has become kinda boring to me at this point. I spent many years as a hack apologist myself and now I find myself in the occasional conversation with several old-me’s wanting to rehash the same worn out topics again and again and again. What I was not able to see all those years ago, and what they cannot themselves see today, is that belief in the reliability of the gospels was prior for them before they ever set out to test it. Those presentations of “the facts” which support their prior belief will always be more convincing to them than the alternative, so really we are all wasting our time on this matter. “Oh, you say you want to debate the historicity of the resurrection or the reliability of the gospels? Can’t I just throw myself down a steep hill? It’s faster.” Frankly, I’d like to step back and consider the Bible as a whole, asking more broadly: What do we have good reason to believe really happened amidst all those tall tales and big fish stories? Let’s start at the beginning. Perhaps unpacking the earlier stories on which the Christian tradition was built can help us evaluate the stories surrounding the life of Jesus.
So What’s the Real Story?
Historically speaking, the Hebrew people first appeared sometime in the 13th century B.C. in small villages throughout Canaan. In time, stories developed of a much older history involving an originally childless patriarch whose many descendants became slaves in Egypt numbering well over a million people (the Bible claims there were 600,000 men, many of whom would be married with multiple children). We now know that Egypt only had about 2-3 million people around that time, which is one of the reasons we know the story of their sudden dramatic departure is a fabrication. A sudden loss of up to half of a country’s population, specifically the bulk of the labor force, plus the loss of an entire army would totally shut down a country for quite some time. It would be impossible to completely remove the record of their presence or their dramatic exit from the annals of Egypt’s history. But as we have it, there is virtually no evidence at all that any groups of Hebrews ever occupied parts of ancient Egypt, save for maybe six or seven vaguely Semitic names recorded on a wall somewhere. We have scoured the locations where the Israelites were supposed to have dwelt on their way to Canaan and have found nothing in over a century of digging. We have even examined the appropriate archeological layers of cities where they eventually did live only to discover that they just weren’t there anywhere near as early as the Bible says they were.
All our historical hunting has revealed to us that there was no mass exodus from Egypt, no wilderness wandering of a million-plus people, and no forceful conquest of Canaanite villages (no walls of Jericho came a-tumblin’ down). Even the later golden years of the great kingdoms of David and Solomon are nearly impossible to detect because they were so much smaller and less consequential than we were led to believe. As they do with Jesus, many question whether an historical David or Solomon ever lived. It seems most likely that they did live, but they were backwater tribal heads whose real-life empires have been greatly exaggerated over centuries of recounting. Each time the stories got told, the numbers grew bigger and bigger, and as with all convincing tales, their specificity lent a credibility which was unmerited by the facts. The turn of the spade has revealed that reality was nothing like the tall tales. A kernel of truth was there, yes, but buried under many layers of embellishment over centuries of retelling the tales from grandfather to granddaughter and so on. This is the foundational story for the formation of the people of Israel. It’s a compelling story. But like the birth narrative of the young man in Big Fish, it just didn’t happen at all the way they said it did. To some people that doesn’t matter. To people like me, it does.
This to me provides an insight into how we can view the foundational stories for the Christian religion as well. To my mind, the most natural way to interpret those stories is to suspect that portions of those stories really happened, but that over time they became buried under layers of embellishment, filling in the details and multiplying numbers until the stories became larger than life. There probably really was a guy who ditched his professional trade to take up full-time itinerant preaching, much to his family’s chagrin. He was an eloquent speaker with a knack for amassing followers, and like many in his day, he performed “signs and wonders” to validate his authority as a divinely appointed representative. He seemed genuinely convinced that he would soon witness some kind of deliverance from Roman oppression—he erroneously claimed it would even happen during the lifetime of his original audience. In reality, he couldn’t have been more wrong. First he was killed for speaking of a rival kingdom to that of Rome, and then just a few short years later the Romans marched on all of Jerusalem, destroying the apparatus at the heart of their religion and scattering the Jews across the empire. You might think that this would spell doom for the Christian faith but any good student of religion knows that failed prophecies rarely ever decimate the belief system that produced them. Everything just gets reinterpreted and repackaged so that when the next generation of believers comes along, they are completely unaware of how totally the last iteration of their faith failed the people who adhered to it.
The son in Big Fish wanted the unvarnished truth, sans embellishment. It wasn’t as interesting as the fanciful stories his father told, but he craved reality, not entertainment. He was trying to reconstruct his own history, and fabricated fables didn’t serve that purpose well. Sometimes the boring truth gets lost completely because everyone who knows it has either died off or has parted ways with the rest of the group. Only the most interesting version survives the natural selection of the storytelling process. That’s how great stories evolve. What you end up with is something like a caricature of the truth rather than a complete fabrication. Those sell well, so they tend to take on a life of their own. But if you’re like me, you learn to “smell” exaggeration. You cultivate a habit of fact-checking, corroborating evidence, comparing stories, and whittling down the fables to the facts. This to me is the only way to live. Some people don’t seem to need this. Some even look down on people like me for rejecting their tall tales, like it’s a flaw in our character. With each passing year, I’m caring less and less what they think.