I inevitably get dragged along to church from time to time by my devout Catholic wife, despite my best efforts to find an excuse not to accompany her. Going to church has always been a challenge. It is not just boredom that I contend with. There is a profound feeling that I’m being duped and taken to be a fool. I actually get offended.
Jesus loves you. Yep. Jesus saved us. Okay. Jesus died for our sins. Really?
Don’t get me wrong – I think Jesus was a brilliant man. The Roman historian Tacitus confirms that he existed, and I trust that parts of the New Testament reproduce his teachings quite accurately, taken from a hypothesised compendium of his sayings referred to as the ‘Q source’ that became lost in the sands of time.
But the stories of his birth and the adventures of his wanderings are not tales likely to have much historical basis. We only have the Bible to confirm that he was the son of God and did a pile of miraculous things.
Can we believe a text written by wide-eyed enthusiasts some years after the time of the main protagonist, most of whom did not even know the man?
I suspect they were keen to say anything to win over converts, and telling a bunch of wondrous fairy tales to a gullible populace certainly had pulling power. Unfortunately it is all talk and no proof.
A miracle involves saying or doing something that would normally be impossible. Despite the feats described, there is nothing in the bible that is itself miraculous. What would constitute a miracle, in my opinion, is if through divine inspiration the bible spoke of things that could not have been possibly known to the mortal scribes who compiled the scriptures, but which we might be able to confirm today.
Does the bible tell us, for example, how many moons encircle Saturn? Does it tell us about kangaroos and emus in Australia? Does it give an outline of the process of atomic fission? Does it state even one thing that was beyond the limited horizon that characterised their understanding at the time? The answer is no.
Not even Jesus had any insights about the workings of the universe that would confirm him as a man who could see beyond the knowledge of his time and location. His miracles are restricted to magic tricks, none of which can be demonstrated as having actually occurred (just as no present-day claims of miracles have ever be proven).
Jesus himself was undoubtedly a charismatic individual, who felt a religious zeal and intense social consciousness that made him a radical in his day. His reformist views on social justice, for example, were profoundly progressive. He was one of the few to appreciate that generosity should extend beyond one’s own tribe to embrace those considered alien (in his case, the Samaritans), and in this sense he was an early Humanist. He riled against those who mistreated the poor and destitute, and hence – I dare say it – he was something of an early Marxist.
For these reasons, I have the utmost respect and admiration for Jesus. Ethically speaking he was far ahead of his time.
But he was no Messiah.
The fortunes which would see Christianity prevail amongst the competing sects and emerge as the preeminent religion in the Holy Roman Empire would confirm Jesus as the undisputed Messiah in its historical record. But history is always written by the winners. In his day, many believed that the Messiah would return to fulfil the prophecies of the apocryphal literature, and Jesus was one of several candidates who was identified or who self-identified as the Messiah.
Jesus did not, however, personally fare too well from the Messiah tag. It got him crucified.
The bible claims, however, that the story ended well. Jesus rose from the dead, spent a few days in hell saving souls, then ascended to heaven to take his throne. The Messianic tradition, inherited from the Jews, demanded that the story end this way.
He’s up there now, looking over us, protecting those who profess their love for him. He’s also inside our hearts. In fact he is everywhere. You can close your eyes and feel his presence. You can pray to him when in need of comfort. You can look forward to an afterlife where (presuming you profess your devotion to him) you can join him in his heavenly kingdom.
Sure it’s a nice fairy tale. But this is not 1st century Palestine, and I stopped watching Disney movies some years ago.