A Brief, Non-Scholarly Review of “Jesus Before the Gospels”

I’m going to keep this relatively short. I’ve got a lot of other “life stuff” going on right now (including getting prepared for the MidAmerica Conference/Regional Assembly this weekend).

book coverI recently checked out and quickly read through Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. Like his other recent books, Jesus Before the Gospels is aimed at a lay audience. Ehrman makes sure to hold our hands as he explains some pretty challenging concepts including personal memory, collective memory, anthropological studies of oral cultures, and the complex ins-and-outs of early Christian views of Jesus.

If you’ve read almost any of Ehrman’s popular books, you won’t be surprised by what he does here. He takes a complicated topic, boils it down for easier consumption, and provides some nice personal bookends to balance things out (at the end of this book, for example, Ehrman devotes a chapter to contemplating the value of memory outside of historical study and how it is necessary for us to have rich, meaningful lives).

The one thing I really didn’t like about the book was that I wished it had followed through more on the promise of the title. Maybe I was just expecting more. When he got down to what Jesus was actually like before the Gospels, the content was surprisingly thin. Pretty much every critical scholar could have provided the same basic summary (give or take a few points). It seems especially lackluster when one compares this book with Jesus, Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus. Both of those books engage us with Bart’s specialty of textual criticism (trying to discern and explain the textual variants in the New Testament documents) but both also cover much of the same ground that Jesus Before the Gospels treads on. Yes, Bart subscribes to the now-mainstream view that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet who preached a coming Kingdom of God which would appear either in his lifetime or at least in the lifetime of his disciples. But I don’t feel that this book, despite its interesting premise, actually took the risk that it could have. Ehrman goes through great pains to describe how oral transmission actually works, and what the flaws of it are. Unfortunately the analysis in the end leaves us no further in our picture of the historical Jesus. Bart’s other books feature rich discussion and analysis of the actual texts (the canonical Gospels and Paul’s letters mainly) and this book seemed to be piggy-backing off of their success without offering much new insight to the question of who Jesus really was. So, in the end maybe I’m disappointed because it felt a bit like a bait and switch. I don’t know that this actually had to be an entire book. It could have been just fine as a long form article talking about oral transmission.

Still, despite my griping that the book couldn’t offer me more, part of me is still glad it is out there and that it is published in a format that will bring these ideas to a much larger audience than Bart’s blogs and formal debates.

Challenge to Conservative Apologetics and the “No Time for Legends” Argument

While this book doesn’t directly engage with popular lay apologetic books like Truth that Demands a Verdict or Mere Christianity, it is bound to disturb many fundamentalist Christians who have built their intellectual foundation on the ideas in such books. One of the key defenses of modern Christian apologetics is the idea that “there just wasn’t enough time for legends to develop” between the time that Jesus died and the time that the Gospels were published (at least a 30 year gap, but probably a bit longer according to mainstream, non-Evangelical, non-Fundamentalist views). Bart’s detailed description of how memory (including eyewitness recollection) can be distorted during very short time periods effectively undercuts this argument. One of the most fascinating parts of the book was the research showing how fickle our memories can be…even about things that we are sure happened and even about significant events (such as remembering where you were and what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell). The research shows that people are prone to making up details and visual images wholesale when a traumatic or newsworthy event occurs. Rather than being more reliable than our usual everyday memories, such “flashbulb” moments can actually cause people to simply be more insistent that it must have happened how they remembered it. This type of research can help us to explain how Donald Trump greatly exaggerated a news story with rumored reports of American Muslims cheering 9/11, and turned it into a memory of actually seeing thousands of American Muslims cheering on TV (that footage was never found). But, worryingly for Christian apologists, it can also explain how the beleaguered and disappointed disciples–who had just lost their teacher and friend–could actually become convinced that he did miraculous things or that they really did see a vision of him as a resurrected being after his death on a cross.

Jesus Before the Gospels does explicitly debunk the related idea that ancient oral cultures would accurately preserve a famous teacher’s words and deeds. I haven’t seen this tactic used as much, but it’s common enough that it is worth bringing up (and part of that may be my own ex-Evangelical bias…certainly Catholic and Orthodox tradition stress the importance of oral transmission much more). Some people have the idea that early Christians sharing the Gospel and sharing stories about Jesus (from friends of friends of friends of friends…etc) would not be problematic if it occurred during the time when living eyewitnesses were around to consult with. Surely, anyone in the community would chastise and correct those who corrupted the truth, even if it was only accidental. Thus the “chain” of transmission was safe until the Gospel writers could actually record these transmissions. Maybe the traditions weren’t word-for-word, but they were close enough…right? Ehrman uses a variety of tools to debunk this rosy-eyed view of the past and demonstrates that this is actually a completely wrong view of how oral cultures function when we take the time to examine them carefully.

Your Mileage May Vary

Many liberal Christians and skeptics are bound to enjoy this latest entry by Dr. Ehrman. It’s not dull. There is plenty of wit and the content is presented in a way that makes it easy to digest. Still, for those who have already read several of his other popular books, they may find this one a bit repetitive. Maybe if I feel that way, it means it’s time to “graduate” to something harder and more complex. I can hardly fault a teacher for doing too good of a job in making his previous lessons stick.

For conservative Christians seeking an intellectual challenge from the opposing side, I promise you will not be let down. Ehrman will give you plenty of challenges, plenty of moments where you feel that he hasn’t sufficiently considered all of the possible ways for traditional religious ideas about Jesus to still somehow be true, despite the appearance of irreconcilable accounts. I’m sure you will enjoy thinking of counters to his viewpoint and writing blog posts pointing out all of the stuff he “left out” or down-played in his analysis of the Gospels. And given Bart’s current profile, you will have no shortage of professional and lay apologists eager to bolster your skepticism of the skeptic.

I do have a word of caution for the truly curious and devout. Dwelling on some of these topics, which touch on some of the central ideas of your faith, may prove unnerving and difficult. Not just on an intellectual level (getting used to a new idea) but also on a personal level as you grapple with what the Bible should mean to you personally. Trying to square the traditional Protestant ideas of Biblical inspiration and infallibility with modern ideas on memory, could put you into a difficult position.

Bart Ehrman on the Fear of Hell

What do we think of humans who torture others for, say, three hours? We think they are among the lowest life-forms in the universe. Do you mean God is worse than that? Trillions of times worse? That he is gazillions times worse than the most malicious and evil Nazi the world has ever seen? I simply don’t believe it. And if someone does believe it, well, I think it would be interesting to explore why people would believe that a good God was at heart totally evil. (I know that people who believe in eternal punishment would say that God is not evil but “just.” But “justice” means, among other things, devising punishments that fit the crimes. We don’t torture people for months for robbery. Surely God is better than us, not worse. Quadrillions of years of torture in exchange for, say, ten years of disbelief is by any standard incommensurate. I just don’t believe it’s true.)…(read the rest)

~ Bart Ehrman, in a recent blog post

Related posts: Neil Carter Explains “Hell 2.0”, Afterlife Reflection

Doubting Libertarianism

I’ve identified as a libertarian of one sort or another since about 2007 when I became enthralled with Dr. Ron Paul and his long-shot bid to become the Republican nominee for President. Dr. Paul advertised himself as a strict Constitutionalist. He was also known for being a two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate. I say this not to bore you with minor details, but to impress upon you that being a libertarian has been a label I’ve carried for quite a few years now. While I’ve shifted in terms of exactly what tribe I fit into within “liberty movement” the basis of my libertarian zeal was born when I was a college freshman, eagerly devouring every word that I saw Dr. Paul speak in countless YouTube videos. He seemed like quite the radical to me at the  time, someone who always spoke his mind and who bucked “the establishment” in major ways. I gave up my rosy-eyed view of the good doctor quite a few years back, but I won’t deny that he had a major effect on my political consciousness.

My emerging libertarian views ended up combining with my fundamentalist religious beliefs in some interesting ways. For a long time I really wanted to reconcile my religious beliefs that homosexuality and abortion were heinous sins with my libertarian principles and a desire for an extremely limited government. Eventually I crossed over into being an anarchist, which I felt was both more consistent with libertarian views and which fit into my new belief that Christians should oppose all wars and all uses of force. I was a Christian pacifist and though I stayed within non-pacifist churches, my personal views were quite radical and opposed to the status quo. I came to the view that Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with the state, since the state relied on coercion (violence) and this must be antithetical to the ethics that Jesus proclaimed in the Beatitudes and other parts of the Bible.

After deconverting I remained an anarchist, I just dropped the religious fervor and the pacifism that I had before. I no longer evangelized for “God’s Kingdom” but I did still have a deep level of distrust towards “the State.”

I take my views pretty seriously. Maybe too seriously sometime. I’d like more time to reflect on some of the harder questions involved in this topic. I don’t think there’s an easy way to “debunk” libertarianism since the term itself now really stands for a whole umbrella of related philosophies and political stances, some of which are at direct odds with each other (pair an “anarcho-capitalist” with an “anarcho-communist” and expect some fireworks). For every “head” of a libertarian argument you cut off, two more might grow in its place to remind you of some twist that you have overlooked or of some new way of formulating this worldview. I myself am often an over-analyzer, and I will try to seek out every logical loophole. But not every rabbit trail is worth following given the limited time we have.

This post then won’t be an attempt to once and for all “debunk” libertarianism. In fact, in many ways I still have a warm spot in my heart for the liberty movement, warts and all. Instead what I’ll be doing is highlighting what I see as a few “trunk” issues that inform a libertarian/anarchist worldview, and how my doubting of certain libertarian positions has led me to a different path. (note, from here on out the terms “libertarian” and “anarchist” will be used interchangeably as synonymous terms)

Understanding Individualism

A key component of the libertarianism I embraced was individualism. I looked to greats like Henry David Thoreau and other classic American writers to inform my view that the individual was what primarily mattered. In a sense this ideal already permeates our culture. We don’t really publicly question whether the individual matters…it’s assumed now that we all agree on this. You can’t just arbitrarily stomp on individual freedom and expect people in our culture to be OK with that (though sometimes we have blinders when we don’t recognize that others are similar to us and we discriminate based on gender, race, sexuality or other factors not relevant to holding rights). Individualist anarchism entails taking this concept further and making the individual freedom to choose and act however one desires a primary (if not the primary) value. Under this worldview no infringement on individual rights can be justified unless the individual forfeits those rights by using outright physical violence or by fraud (violating a legal contract). This ethical principle is sometimes referred to in libertarian-speak as the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle). Even within the liberty movement there is criticism of the NAP and how it plays out in real life scenarios. The NAP is really a bare-bones idea that doesn’t tell you much in itself, but if you talk to almost any libertarian online it will come up again and again either as an explicit or implicit premise.

Once you understand how libertarians conceive of the NAP as a sort of bedrock ethical stance, it can be easier to see why they make claims like “taxation is theft” and “the State is nothing but a criminal gang.” In their mind, these are not hyperbole, but statements of brute fact. Often when you talk to libertarians (and I was guilty of this myself) they will try to get away from the specifics of how a certain government works and they will strip everything down to simple comparisons. The end goal of those comparisons (such as comparing tax-collectors to muggers or pick-pockets) is to de-legitimize government and to show that we morally ought to oppose all governments, even the relatively “good” ones. For a libertarian no government can ultimately be good due to their continued denial of the NAP by collecting taxes and by enforcing regulations against peaceful people (almost any state regulation can count as an aggression or unjust imposition in this worldview).

Is Taxation Really Theft?

An issue I’ve been re-evaluating this year is the notion of government services and whether taxing people to provide a service actually constitutes theft. I’ve come to the conclusion that while this idea of “taxation is theft” does have some intuitive appeal, it can lead to some absurdities, especially in the light of our present social-political environment. For example: is it theft to tax someone making $100,000 a year to pay for public roads that they also benefit from? Is it theft for the state to require that this person contributes to the “common good” (a phrase I know libertarians often object to) by supporting state police forces and state courts which are given special monopoly status in our society? Is it theft or aggression for the state to tax someone wealthy who has far more than they need to survive and be comfortable, so that the money can be redistributed to someone indigent and who would otherwise suffer from malnutrition or preventable disease? Yes, private charities can play a role in that last dilemma. There is a long and wonderful tradition of private charity fulfilling many needs. But the truth is that due to a variety of factors, private charity is not sufficient to meet every need and some people would only give a pittance of their fortune were it up to them (leaving generous people more burdened to deal with the evils of poverty). Is it really theft to tax a rich person? This, in my view, is a problem for the NAP and for most forms of libertarian ideology which must ultimately concede that whatever property you have worked for or inherited is rightfully yours (this may not mean it is always practically yours). Even more radical left-leaning anarchists seem to embrace this ideal, though they must face the additional hurdle of explaining how they square it with a fervent desire for a much more even distribution of wealth. I could go much further into the ins and outs of this debate, but I just wanted to put the basic problem out there. My view has definitely shifted in a major way from “taxation is theft” to “some taxation is definitely justified.” I can no longer say that I would object to a millionaire–or even someone making a comfortable salary of say $50,000 with no dependents–from contributing to the welfare of others.

I’ll be totally honest and admit that part of what has tipped the scales for me on this issue has been my own experience. I have benefited from government welfare and redistribution (tax ‘refunds’ above what I paid in) for years. I have been able to enjoy clean, modern hospital births for three children without having to pay any expense thanks to MinnesotaCare and BadgerCare. I know many other people who are very hard workers who receive government assistance for healthcare, food and other necessities and who would have a very hard time making up those needs if they had to rely purely on private charity.

Avoiding the Slippery Slope

As a libertarian I was very prone to slippery-slope fallacies. I know I wasn’t alone in this, but I’ll keep the finger pointed on myself here. In the context of political arguments, the slippery slope fallacy goes something like this: “Here’s something that may or may not be OK for the government to do. It has pros and cons. BUT, if we let the government do this thing, then it will almost surely lead to them doing something that we can all agree is terrible. Therefore, we should be careful and err on the side of caution and not let the government do that first thing.”

If you’ve ever seen the tasteless “Hitler loved gun control” meme then you’ve seen this fallacy. Some people really believe that intense regulation of firearms or broad restrictions on gun ownership will lead to citizens being trapped in a totalitarian society. And some people will post that meme anyways, even if they aren’t 100% committed to such a prediction, since it has a certain blunt rhetorical force that can be difficult to respond to (“How can you be for gun control? Don’t you know that Hitler was for gun control and that’s how he was able to kill the Jews!?”). The first casualties of a slippery slope appeal are often the inconvenient facts that would confound an overly negative assessment (facts such as looking at all of the governments that have almost totally banned handgun ownership and yet haven’t sent a huge portion of their populace to prison camps or gas chambers or also the fact that the actual historical record on Hitler and gun control isn’t as black and white as many Internet memes suggest).

As a libertarian I was very prone to thinking that any government intervention, no matter how benign initially, would always lead to worse results. Things would start good but slide quickly into disaster. Higher corporate taxes? You’re going to kill American industry and force companies overseas. More inflation from the Fed? You’re going to enslave us all to wealthy bankers and create hyperinflation for sure. Regulations on lead paint in houses? This nanny-state meddling will turn us all into helpless babies, unable to properly weigh the pros and cons of our own actions.

I now see that my thinking on a wide range of issues often fell into the slippery slope category. I was able to sustain naive views by doing what I did when I was a Christian and simply ignoring or downplaying contrary details. Usually this could be done in a fairly automatic, unconscious way. But, as a skeptic, this is the kind of thinking I just don’t want to tolerate in myself. There are societies taxed far more heavily than America which haven’t devolved into Stalinist dictatorships or veered off a fiscal cliff. There are safety regulations that are based on such firm scientific footing that to ignore them in our daily lives would be willful ignorance and neglect and would expose people to unnecessary risks (I don’t need the “freedom” to ignore experts and risk my four-year old’s life by having her ride on my lap in the car instead of sitting in an age appropriate, government-approved car seat).

I now think that government institutions are capable of producing some good outcomes. This doesn’t mean I think government and the written laws must always compel our loyalty (I’m not interested in swinging to that extreme) but it does mean that I think there is a place for some sort of social contract and a place for using government as a tool to achieve real goods in society–goods that might be much more difficult to achieve through private means alone (less income inequality, less poverty, shared roads, shared protection from violent crime, protecting the environment, shared property law etc). A libertarian society would seek to achieve many of these same goods but would want to do this in a purely voluntary way, without recourse to the power of taxation or monopoly. As far as that goes in theoretical terms I can’t say I’m strictly opposed. Maybe some future Libertopia will show us the way to a better society. That “Galt’s Gulch” just doesn’t exist now. While I was a libertarian I watched several attempts to create such a libertarian enclave go up in metaphorical flames. If that’s your passion, go for it. I’m just not convinced right now that creating Libertopia (a society where the vast majority abide by libertarian principles) is the best path forward or the only morally acceptable option.

 

Hopefully you enjoyed this peek into my head. There’s plenty more to say but I’m well past 2000 words so I should probably stop here.

No Turning Back

A while back I had to come to peace with the fact that while my ugly breakup with Christianity was complete and I was never going back, a lot of people who I love and value still wanted us to get back together.

I’m no longer emotional about this desire that other people have. It probably helps that people have been loving enough (or simply polite enough) to give me space to process things and to form a new identity. But, I do remember what it was like to be a Bible-believing Christian, and so I understand that what seems “over and done with” for me, could still be a fresh, open question (a tender scar, if you will) for those who hold out hope that something will change my mind or connect my spirit back to God. I understand that they may not see my intellectual reasons as being the primary drive for leaving the faith, but may believe that a hardened heart is at fault. I don’t envy people in such a position. I know it can be hard to see a loved one repeatedly make bad choices, and from their perspective I’m making the worst possible choice by rejecting their god (whatever my motives are).

If you are one of those close friends or family members please know that I love you. I also want you to know that I have no agenda to convince you to completely reject Christianity like I did. Yes, there are books and video tutorials on how to instill doubt in people’s minds and turn them into atheists. For a variety of reasons, I’m simply not interested in such a project. On the other hand, if you do want to work through a specific objection that I have with Christianity and teach me where I’ve gone wrong, you can expect me to be forthright in such a dialogue and to present my case as clearly as possible. But that will only occur if both sides decide that such a conversation is mutually beneficial and enjoyable. I won’t be prying open the door. I don’t think that you are stupid. We disagree on some pretty major topics. I am quite strongly convinced of some of my views which contradict traditional Christianity and the Bible. But, that doesn’t mean that I view you as less intelligent simply because we have come to different conclusions. People are complicated beings with a mixture of biases, personal experiences, and peculiar “facts” which may clash with the biases, personal experiences and “facts” which are believed in just as strongly by people who are also sincere and educated.

I think I’ve said enough for today, but I just wanted to get that off of my chest. Peace and Freedom.

winding road


photo credit: Jon Ottoson

My 2015 Year in Review

2015 has been a great year and also a very challenging year for me.

I’m going to recap some personal highs and lows here, and also briefly review my longer posts that I published this year.

Personal Events

Caroline and I celebrated our 7 year anniversary in January. We’re both excited to mark our 8 year anniversary in a few weeks. Our relationship definitely doesn’t look the same as when we were both starry-eyed college students, but it has grown into something deep and wonderful.

We welcomed Emerson Tobias Hood into the world. As of this post he is nearly 7 months old and doing very well on a diet of breast-milk, formula and solid foods. He loves to scoot around on his back. He is a joy to all of us.

Our older children, Kenny and Serenity, entered public school for the first time. Serenity started Pre-K and Kenny started Kindergarten. It’s been amazing to watch them grow and expand their minds so much this year. Kenny has become a very eager young reader. Serenity has kept on dancing (she loves to move around) and is working hard on her scissor skills (apparently we don’t often let our kids use them very often).

In April I was officially hired on by the company I had been doing seasonal (temp) work for. This year I have really improved a lot in my customer service skills since I started taking customer calls back in the fall of 2014. I’m still working at home and enjoying the convenience of an extremely short commute. Many of you are aware that I did freelance website hosting and design work on the side as well. Due to the demands of my full-time job I decided to bring that part of my professional life to a close.

On a very sad note, this year marks the passing of Bob Turney, Caroline’s father. We have missed Bob since his sudden death in October (probably due to a heart attack).

I haven’t written a ton on this blog in 2015. Some things that impacted me were left unsaid here, but still I hope you can see a snap-shot of my intellectual and emotional life in the posts listed below (list doesn’t include every single post, just the long-form entries). Here’s to more Peace and more Freedom in 2016. Happy New Year!

Blog Entries in 2015

January 2015

Brief Thoughts on Taoism – I summarized my thoughts on an ancient Eastern philosophical and religious tradition. I especially enjoyed reading Chuang-Tzu (considered one of the canonical texts of classical Taoism) and plan to re-read it sometime in 2016.

February 2015

I am Pro-Choice – I explained my new stance on the contentious issue of abortion and reproductive rights. I was previously pro-life as a Christian and felt it necessary to reconsider that stance after deconverting. While this particular view of mine has changed, I believe it is actually more consistent with my individualist anarchist (aka ‘libertarian’) inclinations which have been part of my views for quite some time now.

Liar, Lunatic, Lord…or Legend? – In this post I examine a very common apologetic argument in favor of Jesus’s divinity and briefly review some of the books written by New Testament scholars which I have found useful in better understanding the historical Jesus.

March 2015

Thy Kingdom Come – What did Jesus mean when he stated that he would come back in “this generation”? I quote a lot of scripture and present my own thoughts on a passage that has been giving believers headaches for millenia.

April 2015

Finding Myself – A hopeful and reflective spring-time post. Just a simple journal entry of sorts expressing some of my newfound confidence “post-faith.”

Reflecting on the 7th Principle – In this post I dig into (in a kind of meditative, spiritual way) one of the guiding principles of Unitarian Universalism. I’ll just quote my conclusion as a summary here: “What the 7th Principle teaches me is that we should value the natural world, not because we have been designated as its overseers, but because we humans are part of nature too.”

May 2015

Is John the Baptist Elijah? – If the first-century equivalent to cosplaying counts…then the answer is yes. This was planned to be part of a longer series dissecting some of the major prophecies used by Christian apologists to attempt to show that Jesus (and only Jesus) uniquely fulfills Old Testament prophecy. Alas, I must admit that I got a bit burned out after trying to hash out the issue of prophecy with a Christian friend. I wasn’t certain that further effort on this topic would really move our conversation forward. If I have enough motivation and time I may pick up the topic again in 2016 and provide analysis of questions like “Who is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53?”, “Does the prediction of the ‘virgin birth’ of Immanuel properly apply to Jesus?” and possibly the broader question of the usefulness of prophecy in establishing truth claims in the first place (what are the limits of such an apologetic). We’ll see.

June 2015

Father’s Day Reflection – I talk about my relationship with my father, my father-in-law Bob, and about the kind of parent that I want to be for my children.

August 2015

Afterlife Reflection – I used to fear hell and now I don’t (either the classic hell or the nicer “Hell 2.0” that is more like a very long time-out). Another upbeat reflection on how my views have changed since deconverting.

October 2016

Explaining Deconversion – Many concerned believers have asked me about the immediate circumstances of my deconversion and what exactly it was that I think tipped me over the edge from faithful Christian to doubting skeptic in such a short time period. For several reasons I’ve often dodged the question in the past or given just a partial, unsatisfying answer. Part of me was afraid that by opening up about some of the emotional issues related to deconversion it would be easy for Christians to dismiss and the sincere intellectual objections which I now hold and that I feel stand independent of my personal history (or that they would use those emotional issues as some sort of crude wedge to open a door for re-evangelizing me). After being inspired by one of my favorite ex-Christian bloggers, I think I finally found the right words for those believers who are still curious and really want to know how it happened. A brief note on this entry: I don’t think that the specific events that led to my deconversion are the most relevant factor. The fact that I was raised to assume Christianity was true and that I built up faulty defenses of my religion are the most relevant factors. If things hadn’t happened exactly as they did, that wouldn’t rule out me losing my faith by some other chain of events (in fact, what happened to me actually wasn’t uncommon and I know many people who have gone through worse and only ended up more religiously devout in the end, which might suggest I was already “primed” to deconvert due to other factors). No matter the initial cause, once I determined to expose my beliefs to more rigorous cross-examination, all of the same problems of Christianity would be there waiting for me. For myself the change happened suddenly, but I could easily imagine other scenarios where I–like many other zealous believers–would have experienced a “slow fade.”

 

christams family photo
family photo-shoot, Christmas 2015