The Myth of Jesus

Excerpts from Writings by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1239, May 9, 2004, posted at

In light of the recent public stir over the movie "The Passion of the Christ" and the general promotion of religious fundamentalism in society, a newly formed revolutionary writers collective in Chicago studied the writings of RCP Chairman Bob Avakian on religion and selected excerpts for publication in the RW. The following passages on the myth of Jesus are from "Being Good Without God", excerpted from Communism and Religion--Part 2: Christianity, first printed in issue #914, July 6, 1997 of the RW, and "The Bible as Human Invention" on the inconsistencies of the "gospels" in the Bible, excerpted from Liberation Without Gods.

From Communism and Religion -- Part 2: Christianity, "Being Good Without God"

Now, an interesting point in relation to all this [taking on the Powers-That-Be Without God ed.]--and specifically in relation to the question of "can we get by without god," can we overturn the present world and make a better world--is what some people, including a number of Christian scholars, have characterized as the difference between Jesus and Paul in the Christian religion. The point of particular interest here--and I think there is something real and something of significance in this--is that at least some of these "liberation theology" people say that Jesus basically presents this way of living, this way of compassion, this way of sharing, this way of caring for the poor and oppressed, and that his emphasis is on actually making this a living thing -- living this out in this world. By contrast, some say--and there is some truth to this actually-- Paul came along and put into the Christian religion this whole insistence that the essence of this religion is salvation through the death -- and, more than that, the resurrection -- of Jesus.

According to Paul this is the whole point of what the Christian religion is about--it's about salvation in some other world by submitting ourselves to god. And Paul goes on to insist that it is necessary to submit to the powers-that- be in this world, because as he says at one point, the powers-that-be must be ordained by heaven or they couldn't be in power. In other words, we must accept the status quo in this world, since the point anyway is that only through believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and submitting ourselves to the god that made that possible, can humanity achieve salvation in the next world.

There is a certain truth to this distinction between Jesus and Paul as they come through in the Bible. But the problem with this is that it doesn't really accurately reflect the limitations of what Jesus did put forward and what Jesus actually says in an all-around sense. For example, if you look at the words that are directly attributed to Jesus in the Bible, despite all his talk about love and compassion and so on, Jesus does not call for abolishing poverty and oppression in this world but, as I pointed out in the pamphlet "Liberation Without Gods," the parables that Jesus uses, the terms in which he frames lessons about his theology, accept as given and do not question or condemn the prevailing oppressive and exploitative economic and social relations of his time and their expression in the political-ideological superstructure.

For example, to illustrate the relationship between god and people on earth, Jesus will use a parable about masters and slaves. Now obviously he's not saying that relation is bad, because he's using it to illustrate the relation between god and human beings. He's accepting this relation of masters and slaves among human beings as a given. He's certainly not saying it should be struggled against and overturned. So the best that can be said for Jesus and his teachings, and for the early Christians, insofar as they followed those teachings, is that they would leave the oppressive and exploitative relations among people intact, and within those confines they would attempt to give some relief to the poor and oppressed. They would not attempt to put forward a basis and a way to overthrow and uproot such relations.

And, without going into this in great detail, one thing that is worth noting is that, while Jesus proclaims these seemingly universal principles of love and compassion, when he gets around to it, he says: if you don't accept my way, you're gonna be in a lot of trouble, you will face a terrible fate, when the second coming comes -- there's going to be a lot of gnashing of teeth, and tearing of flesh, because people are gonna be condemned for eternity if they don't accept my religion. This is not somebody else talking--this is Jesus talking. This has contributed to, and provided a theological basis for, a lot of horrendous things that have gone on with various religious wars--wars which have been fought, in the final analysis, in pursuit of interests grounded in the underlying material conditions and relations of society but which have taken the form of religious conflicts. It has even contributed to a lot of doctrinal disputes and, more than disputes, mutual slaughter between rival Christian sects.

All this is ultimately bound up with the Christian religion--all the ways in which this religion is the expression of relations of oppression and exploitation, wars of conquest and plunder, and so on. And if you aren't willing to make the rupture with this religion, then this, all this , is the package you're obliged to take with this religion, whether you want to or not.

From Liberation Without Gods

As a more general point, and as a transition to examples from the New Testament, it should be noted that Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic versions of (what Christians call) the Old Testament are not all the same-- they don't have all the same books. Which version, then, is correct--which are we to believe is the actual divinely revealed Word? Are the books present in some versions and not in others really part of this Word or not? If they're not, why are they in some versions? If they are, why are they not in other versions? Once you start facing questions like this, you get into a real ball of confusion, and you begin to unravel the very notion that all (or any) of these is the divinely revealed Word of the One All-Knowing, All-Seeing, And All-Powerful God.

Along the same lines, turning directly to the New Testament, why are there four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)? Why are there four versions of the life and death and resurrection of the one Jesus--why is this told in four different accounts instead of the One, Whole, Revealed Gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? It would be one thing if the different gospels all told the same story, or merely different parts of the same whole story. But the fact is that, besides making errors and misstatements of fact generally, the different gospels contradict each other--and on important matters too. Let's look at a few examples from the New Testament then.

To establish that Jesus was of the line of David was important to link the Old Testament with the New and to establish that Jesus was indeed the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. This was especially important for the author of Matthew, whose gospel is the most in keeping with Jewish tradition of all the gospels. But the effort to establish this lineage forced Matthew into some tortured accounts of ancestry. Asimov* points out that, for some reason, the number 14 is important for Matthew in listing these genealogies. And "Matthew here lists fourteen kings who reigned after David, but in achieving what is to him a magic number of fourteen, he omits several" (Asimov:776). Thus, in fact, Matthew's whole magical genealogical formula is flawed: "So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations" (Matthew 1:17). It is obvious, once again, that an all-knowing, all-seeing god would not have made errors of this kind--leaving out kings in order to keep the magical formula of 14-14-14. Furthermore, Luke's account of these genealogies differs significantly from Matthew's, specifically after David (see Luke 3:23--and following). More generally, the claim that Jesus was descended from David, and that he fulfilled other Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, is extremely tortured and has an extremely shaky foundation (more on this later).

But before leaving this question of genealogies, it should be pointed out that the line of descent is traced through David down to Joseph , Jesus's father. Yet, as everyone knows who has heard the story of Jesus, his was supposedly a virgin birth--Joseph's seed had nothing whatever to do with it--this is a most essential point of Christian doctrine. So steeped in male chauvinism and patriarchy is the Bible that despite this virgin birth, the blood lines must still be traced to the father! (See Matthew 1:16, and Luke 3:23--on this Matthew and Luke agree!)

Matthew makes a mistake in citing scripture from the Old Testament. Matthew refers to a prophecy by Jeremiah (Jeremy), when in fact the correct reference (concerning thirty pieces of silver) is to a passage not in Jeremiah but in Zechariah (see Matthew 27:9 and Zechariah 11:13, and Asimov: 887-88). You would think that a real god, especially an all-seeing, all-knowing one, would not misquote his own holy scripture--that the revealed Word of the One True God would not contain such obvious discrepancies. Further, there are decrepancies in the Bible about how Judas (of the thirty pieces of silver) died: Matthew says he hanged himself, while Acts says he fell down and killed himself in a field he bought with the money he got for betraying Jesus (see Matthew 27:5 vs. Acts 1:18). Surely, an all- knowing, all-seeing god could keep it straight on something like this--how died the betrayer of god's only begotten son!

Matthew and Luke have different versions of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem yet grew in Nazareth (and was known as Jesus of Nazareth). They both faced the same dilemma: It was generally believed, by Jewish religious scholars anyway, that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem (this was based on a prophecy in Micah 5:2). According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem but then moved to Nazareth shortly after Jesus's birth--or at least Matthew never says anything about Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem (see Matthew, chapter 2). But as everyone knows who has ever been in or seen a Christmas pageant, Luke tells another story: In Luke, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem in accordance with the order of the Emperor Augustus that everyone in the Roman Empire must register in his home town for a tax census (see Luke, chapter 2). It would seem rather obvious that Luke's story is tortured and almost certainly untrue. There is no record of the Romans having carried out such a census. Asimov offers a number of arguments for why the Biblical story of this census is highly unlikely (see Asimov: 929). And even if one could imagine a census being taken like this, it seems very unlikely that Mary would make such a trip--she was, after all, very pregnant with Jesus at the time. No, this story in Luke is yet another example of fanciful invention to make it seem that things are fulfilling prophecy and generally to strengthen the sense of divine mystery and divine purpose. But a real divinity--the One True God, if it existed--would not get caught up in such contradictions between one scripture and another in describing the same event and would not have to resort to rather obvious invention to make things fit.

Matthew presents another reference to the Old Testament that actually throws the whole story of Jesus's resurrection from the dead into serious doubt. In Matthew 12:40 Jesus is quoted as saying that just as Jonah (Jonas) was "three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." This is supposed to be Jesus's prophecy concerning his own death and resurrection. But the fact is that Jesus was not dead for three days and three nights: Jesus's crucifixion was on a Friday, and he rose from the dead on Sunday, we are told. Only two nights, not three. How could god's holy scripture get something as simple as this wrong--especially when it is god's "only begotten son" himself who is speaking? This might be nitpicking, if we were talking about human beings, who make mistakes--little ones and big ones--but not when we are talking about a god that, by definition, would not and could not make mistakes of any kind.

In Acts 2:5 we are told that, in the days of the first apostles, "there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven." Now, obviously, there were not Jews in Jerusalem then who had come from areas like (what we now call) the Americas, or Australia--there were no Jews living there. Once again (even if we allow for a certain exaggeration and "poetic license" in this divinely revealed Word here), this reference to "every nation under heaven" is still a reflection of the limited experience and knowledge of the actual--human--authors of the New Testament. These authors viewed the areas they were familiar with, or had heard of, as making up the whole earth and "all the nations under heaven." Again, this might be nitpicking if we were not dealing with a book that denies it is the work of human beings and insists it is the revealed Word of the all- knowing, all-seeing god, who after all would have known about other "nations under heaven" beyond those known to the actual authors of Acts.

The gospels disagree on a very important point: Matthew specifically has Jesus say that John the Baptist is the returned prophet Elijah (Elias)--according to the teachers of the Jewish law, Matthew says, Elijah would have to return as the forerunner for the Messiah (see Matthew 17:10-13). But in the gospel according to John, John the Baptist himself says in no uncertain terms that he is not the returned Elijah--and his honesty and forthrightness in this is praised in this gospel (see John 1:19-21). Well, which is it? Perhaps this discrepancy between the gospels is explained by the fact that the author of John is less concerned with tying in Jesus's divinity with Old Testament prophecies and more concerned with raising Jesus to a level far above others, even people like John the Baptist. But in any case, if the gospels were the revealed Word of god, they would be consistent on something so basic and important as whether or not John the Baptist was the returned prophet Elijah. The son of god, Jesus, would not make the mistake of saying John the Baptist was the returned prophet Elijah if indeed he was not.

Another very serious discrepancy: The gospels are not all in agreement on what Jesus said at the moment just before he died on the cross. According to Matthew, just before Jesus died he cried out the sorrowful, despairing words: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Mark has Jesus saying the same thing (Mark 15:34). But Luke and John do not have Jesus say this. In Luke, Jesus does utter the words: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). John presents Jesus as even more lofty and exalted at the hour of his death--even having Jesus carry his own cross, while in other gospels someone else carried it for him (see John 19:17 vs. Matthew 27:32). Further, in Matthew and Mark the thieves who were crucified with Jesus mocked and reviled him (see Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32). But in Luke one of the thieves asked Jesus to remember him favorably "when thou comest into thy kingdom," to which Jesus answered: "Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Further, the gospels don't all agree on what exactly happened after Jesus rose from the dead--whom he saw (and was seen by), and in what order; whom he talked with and what was said; how long Jesus remained on earth before ascending to heaven; and so on. (Compare the final chapters of the four different gospels to see these discrepancies.)

Most important of all, Jesus says, in very plain terms, that the Second Coming will happen during the lifetime of the generation that was alive with him. There can be no doubt he said this--nor, of course, any doubt that it did not happen then, or since. In Matthew 16:28 Jesus says straight out: "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." And this promise is repeated elsewhere in the gospels (see, for example, Matthew 24:34 and Mark 13:30). But this was not spoken "verily"--it was not the truth, and for the simple yet profound reason I have been repeatedly emphasizing: The Bible is not the revealed Word of the One True God but the product of human invention and imagination.


* Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Two Volumes in One

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