Saturday, June 4, 2011

Liar, Lunatic, Lord... or Legend?

Many Christians are huge fans of C.S. Lewis’ (Chronicles of Narnia) “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma as a demonstration of Jesus’ divinity. I’m actually in the middle of an email exchange with Marc from the blog Bad Catholic, who used this to attempt to justify his own belief that Jesus was the son of God and performed miracles, so I’d like to post the excerpt from our conversation that addresses this topic so that you can read it for yourself. The following is taken verbatim from our emails, with the order of arranged so it’s each topic is paired with its response. Marc is in green and I am in red.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God because he said so. In saying so, there were three possibilities. 1. He might have been lying. 2. He might have been crazy. 3. He might have been telling the truth. 

I can tell you’ve read C.S. Lewis because you’ve posed to me the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord trilemma. However, I’d like to suggest a fourth option: Legend. I’m not saying that the story of Jesus is 100% made up, but there is good reason to doubt much of it.

First off, it was not written by anyone who was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. Paul didn’t write until at least 48 A.D. and never claimed to have met Jesus (excluding his road to Damascus encounter). Mark was written around 70 A.D.; Matthew and Luke around 80-90 A.D.; and John around 90-100 A.D. Given that the average lifespan for common people in this time and place meant you were very old if you got to live to be 40, it seems unlikely that any of the gospels were written by any of Jesus’ disciples, much less anyone who was even alive at the same time as him. Anything written that isn’t included in the Bible was written by someone who was born at the tail end of Jesus’ life or after Jesus was dead, which means there’s no way they could have ever met Jesus either, not to mention the fact that nearly all of them almost exclusively talk about Christians, not Jesus (except for the writings of Josephus, which contains about a paragraph about Jesus, of which the authenticity is very much in doubt; nonetheless Josephus wasn’t born until 37 A.D.)

Essentially what this means is we have to take the word of the four gospels and hope they’re accurate in order to figure out what Jesus said and did, and this gets us in to serious trouble. For one, there are some serious discrepancies between the gospels about events that took place within them and I will give you two examples.

What day was Jesus crucified on?

According to Mark, Jesus was arrested and crucified on the day of the Passover, because the previous day was the Day of Preparation for the Passover (Mark 14:12), which means that night was the Passover meal (According to Jewish tradition a new day starts at sundown). The meal where Jesus famously says, “This is my body… This is my blood,” is referred to as the Passover meal (Mark 14:16). Jesus is arrested and crucified the next morning (still Passover) at about 9:00 am (Mark 15:1-25).

According to John, the meal they eat (The Last Supper) is not described as a Passover meal at all. Jesus never asks them to prepare the Passover meal and never says “This is my body… This is my blood,” but he is betrayed, goes to jail and goes before Pilate the next day. It’s very clear that the day he goes before Pilate (the day he is to be crucified) is the Day of Preparation for the Passover (John 19:14).

It is impossible for Jesus to have been crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover and on the Passover itself, so one of them has to be inaccurate. According to a lot of historians, it is very possible that the account in John was altered to make Jesus a “sacrificial lamb” since that day was the day lambs were sacrificed in the temple for Passover. If this is correct, then we have to deal with people who have theological agendas they want to make Jesus fit in to, rather than simply recording history.

When was Jesus born?

According to Matthew, Jesus’ birth occurred during the reign of King Herod, which can be dated to 37-4 B.C. Let’s just say 4 B.C. just so we have a set date.

According to Luke, Jesus’ birth was during the rule of the governor Quirinius. This is dated to 6 or 7 A.D. These two eras did not overlap by approximately ten years. (This is not to mention the census spoken of has no historical evidence, and is a ridiculous way to conduct a census, but I won’t go in to that unless you’d like me to next time)

I think I have established that we have very good reason to doubt the reliability of the gospel accounts, even for mundane things like when Jesus was born or what day was he crucified. If we can’t be sure about the accuracy of those events, how can we be sure about the accuracy of the accounts of miracles?

Even if it was eyewitness testimony and we knew who the authors were, eyewitness testimony isn’t always reliable. If it was we would never need to have a trial for a crime that had at least one witness, but this isn’t the case for many reasons. People can misremember things; misinterpret the initial event, or even lie about what they experienced. The unreliability of a testimony increases the further removed it was from the original event, in this case it is 30-70 years removed, and at least 2 people removed from the people who actually knew Jesus. Think of the children’s game of Telephone. Now imagine that the game was played over the course of 50 years. Do you think it would be likely the final version of the story would be historically reliable? No, probably not. This means that Legend is a perfectly valid option because, like Beowulf, he was quite possibly a historical figure, but over time mythic elements were added to the story for cultural and religious reasons.

I do not believe him to be a liar because he gained absolutely nothing from it, in fact, he was killed for it. No man dies for a lie. Unless he is (2) crazy and honestly believes himself the Son of God, when in fact, he is yer average carpenter. 

Was Jesus a Liar and/or “Crazy”?

You also said that no one would die for a lie, this is also not true. I think you would probably agree that the terrorists who hijacked the planes on 9/11 died for a lie. They probably weren’t crazy, and they probably didn’t just put on a show of belief. I think they sincerely believed that when they died they would greet Allah in Paradise along with 72 virgins. I’m sure you think at least to some degree the doctrines of Islam are false/lies, however these people were willing to die for them. I’m not sure if deluded or just honestly mistaken/mislead falls under any of those categories, but I think it certainly is a valid consideration because these people died for something that most people consider untrue. That being said, I would think it is certainly possible, if the gospel accounts are loosely accurate about the non-miraculous events of Jesus life, then Jesus was raised to believe he was the messiah or the son of God. This kind of reinforcement would allow him (and the people around him) to believe something that was false (a lie), and because he believed it with certainty he was willing to die for it. That also being said there are actually a lot of cases where people will intentionally falsely confess to crimes, including murder (which they could be sentenced to death for), one of the more famous cases of this was with the Lindbergh baby.

But I do not believe the Christ crazy because he is logical, lucid, reasonable and rational - and often genius - throughout the Gospels. There is no suggestion of craziness.

Was Jesus a genius?

I would also like to say that while Jesus said some things that were good, he also said and did some things that seem rather irrational and unwise things. I’ve provided a list of some of the things I think someone who was the son of God probably wouldn’t say:

·         Luke 14:26 – I think regardless of the footnote it’s still a vicious and pretty much selfish thing to say, and I would never expect that from a god.
·         Matthew 12:30; Luke 12:51-53 – These are incredibly divisive and crude things to say if you ask me. I don’t know how a loving god (I always heard God is love when I attended church) would ever say anything that resembled something like that.
·         John 2:14-15 – While I can understand Jesus being upset about the people coming in to the temple to do their business, I think it was a complete overreaction to go and build his own weapon to chase out- and potentially torture- those men. I don’t think the son of God would do that.

I have more qualms with the words and deeds of Jesus but I think a perfect, loving god shouldn’t have even the aforementioned on his record.

And thus I believe his claim to be true. Why do you believe his claim to be false?

However, while all of these I think help my case, they are not the primary reason I don’t accept the claims of miracles made by the Bible. The reason is I don’t think simply testimony is ever good enough evidence to accept that a divine violation of the laws of nature has occurred. I think it is always more likely that those who are reporting to have seen a miracle are either mistaken or lying. Being mistaken doesn’t mean they are stupid, but like I said before, people can misinterpret events, (for example, our brains give us optical illusions) and at this point in time where nearly everyone on the planet is far more educated than any person who lived 2000 years ago ever was, we do not experience miracles. If people tell us they experienced a miracle, most people are skeptical of it, especially if it is of a rival religion. It’s just a matter of fact that the odds that a miracle actually occurred are so heavily stacked against it that we pretty much are never justified in accepting one. (Though I can think of a couple of examples that could conceivably be convincing, I just don’t think written testimony is one of them).

I devoted a full episode of the podcast I help do (the Mental Masturbation Podcast) to the whole issue of whether or not Jesus existed which you can download here, or listen to below.

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