Monday, August 16, 2010

What the Hell is Wrong with the New Testament?

Sometimes, it seems like the writers of the Gospels had a planning meeting to get the basic framework of their story, but each one of them had their own ideas about the details. For example, only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus being born.

In Luke, Mary learns that God knocked her up while she was asleep, and we have the whole familiar story, celebrated in song and Rankin-Bass animation, of Mary and Joseph going from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Emperor ordered a census.

Not that it makes any sense to disrupt the economy of your entire country and make everybody go back to the place they were born, just to count them for the tax rolls. Oh, and incidentally, there actually was a census of the people of that region historically, when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria. A decade later, and under a different Emperor. You know, potato, pot-ah-to.

And the story plays out in the usual way, with the shepherds watching their flocks by night (in the middle of winter, when the sheep would be penned up for warmth); and the angels led everybody to Bethlehem, and the camels and donkeys sang harmony as the little drummer boy wakes up the baby Jesus, since nothing is more soothing to an infant than banging a drum. And everybody is happy and cheerful.

But in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary turns up pregnant before Joseph marries her. So an angel comes to Joseph (not Mary) to tell him to chill the fuck out and marry the bitch, and Jesus is born. But then the whole family flees to Egypt to escape the soldiers of King Herod, who start sticking swords through all the male children in Bethlehem. After Herod dies (which happened in 4 BC, by the way), the baby Jesus is brought back to Nazareth four years before his birth, to fulfill a prophesy suspiciously absent from the Old Testament.

So that makes a lot of sense.

But what about that whole death scene Jesus got to play out? That's pretty well accepted, right? Not so much: compare the stories in Matthew (27:46-50), Mark (15:21-41), Luke (23:38-46) and John (19:25-30). It seems like their descriptions don't really match, do they? If nothing else, shouldn't they have gotten His last words right? Seems like an important detail. Did He say the traditional "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 and Matt 27:46), "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46), or simply "It is finished" (John 19:30)?

Most people seem to feel that a man's last words are important.

Oh, and while three quarters of the Gospels mention some variation of the temple veil being torn in half, only Matthew (a big fan of special effects) seemed to remember an earthquake taking place when Jesus "gave up the ghost."

Having sold out the Savior (or assisted Him in fulfilling His destiny, depending on who you ask), Judas either threw his thirty pieces of silver down in the temple and hanged himself (Matt. 27:5), or kept the money, bought a field, tripped on a stump, and burst open like a well-fed tick (Acts 1:18).

(You know, there's a warning I don't recall having heard a mother give: "Johnny! Don't run around like that! You might fall down, burst asunder and all your bowels will gush out!")

And that resurrection bit? The whole tomb opening? Well, we do have a basic story that they agree on (the framework I mentioned earlier), where some women go to see the tomb, there's angels involved, the tomb is empty, the womenfolk (just being helpless females, after all) go to tell the big strong male disciples, Jesus comes to see them, and everybody's happy.

But then, none of our writers can even agree whether it was sunrise or still dark when the women approached. Nor can they figure out who the women were: although they all agree on Mary Magdalene, three of them include "Mary, mother of James;" Mark adds Salome (a woman disciple that the Catholic church doesn't like to talk about), and Luke decided that there weren't nearly enough women, and threw in "Joanna... and the others with them." (Luke loved a good party.)

Once they got there, most of the writers have the rock already rolled aside, although Matthew once again wanted some Michael Bay-like special effects, so he had the angel coming down to roll the rock away, and the guards pissing themselves. John has Mary seeing an empty tomb and scampering off to bring back one of the menfolk. Depending on who you ask, there were either one or two angels involved (sometimes simply described as "men") and Jesus either did or didn't meet the women as they went back down the mountain.

(Interestingly, none of the accounts mention finding anything that sounds like the Shroud of Turin, although John specifically mentions seeing burial cloths - several strips of linen and a cloth that had been wrapped around his head, lying in the tomb [John 20:6-7]. But that's entirely secondary. Let's move on.)

Then, depending on who you ask, Jesus alternately appeared to either a bunch of people at once, or just one or two at a time, over a period possibly as long as 40 days, and he possibly caused other miracles (including a huge catch of fish - John 21:5-11 - because nobody ever catches a lot of fish without a miracle).

But remember, this is all the inerrant word of God. Every bit is perfect and correct in every detail.



swordfish1543 said...

have you read any of bart ehrman's books? - if not, i recommend 'em (2 'popular', several 'scholarly')

Nameless Cynic said...

Haven't yet. It's one of those things I keep planning on doing, but never manage to get around to.

Nance said...

Those three kings of the orient weren't traveling together in the dead of winter, either. Since when could three kings (especially if they weren't really King-kings, but just Middle Eastern tribal chiefs) agree on anything, much less get along well enough for an extended road trip?

As for all those different oral traditions comprising the inerrant word of God? This is God we're talkin' smack about, here; you know his reality is large enough to encompass all those stories happening simultaneously at three different points in an infinite universe. And, when he got around to it, he inspired and empowered three fractious storytellers on this planet in this galaxy to employ three different (probably) scribes to record their versions in Greek (probably) at various times(probably).

Oh, and, if anybody else tried to write anything down...say, Mary, or Judas, or Thomas, or anybody..., he saw to it that their scrolls would be thrown into a cave in the middle of nowhere and stay lost just long enough.

Oh, wait. He had to make sure those written versions got translated multiple times and copied countless more times. And assign the heretic Marcion of Sinope and some other movers and shakers to hammer out what got in and what didn't (they must not have been able to agree on one version, so they just threw in three) so they could eventually be published in the New American Version of the Bible via the King Jamesian double-speak that nobody can understand, just so Tilly Tea Party could be RIGHT, GODDAMN IT. Come on.

Nameless Cynic said...

Aw, c'mon, Nance. They might not even have been tribal chiefs, just astrologers. Depends on who you ask.

And don't forget. As you said, "this is God we're talking about." He could have just caused the people He disagreed with (or, I guess, who disagreed with Him) to not exist. I mean, yeah, then He would have had to rewrite the story so those people didn't matter anymore, but, really, He's God. So why would that have been a problem?

And, really, about those pesky "lost gospels"... wouldn't it have been simple just to fill the cave with magma for just a second? Cleared the whole mess up, right?

Funny that He didn't think of that. Huh, I guess "omniscience" used to mean so much more than it does today.

Or less. Your choice.

Nance said...

But God got busy slapping Saul of Tarsus upside the head with a temporal lobe seizure so bad he forgot his name and giving him a new job as the Rick Warren/Energizer Bunny of all Greece, so no time for volcanoes or rewrites. The Omnipotence Plug-in was starting to fritz out, too, so he'd had to learn to delegate. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It's just always somethin'.

Hey, I think I know who wound up with the Rewrite Franchise: Rupert Murdoch.

Nameless Cynic said...

You know, I think there's an app for that...

Anonymous said...

Ecclesiastes 10:2 (NIV): The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.

Nameless Cynic said...

Indeed. However:

The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself. Proverbs 11:25

The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful. Isaiah 32:5

The instruments also of the churl are evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand. Isaiah 32:7-8

The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself. Proverbs 11:25

The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful. Isaiah 32:5

(As always, KJV)

Anonymous said...

"The liberal soul shall be made fat"

And we all know what the Bible speaks of gluttony.

"...the needy speaketh right"

'nuff said, thank you.

Anonymous said...

You repeated yourself there a couple of times.

Nameless Cynic said...

Oops. Yup. Did, in fact, repeat myself. That's what happens when you try to sort it to make more sense and don't check your work, I guess.

Shouldn't truncate it in order to change its meaning. That's a sin.

he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right.

As for "shall be made fat," that's just KJV-speak for "prosper." (Except that I am putting on a few pounds as I get older... hmmm...)