Monday, January 10, 2011

Jesus NEVER said that... Did he?

I was raised in the United Church of Christ and confirmed into the Presbyterian church. Over this time, I liked a lot of the messages that I got about my heritage, my religion and this guy we called Jesus.

After confirmation, like many people, I went to college instead of church, but didn't really lose my interest or my "faith." As my life progressed, I met many people with many viewpoints-from the moderate to the extreme. I encountered King-James-Only-literalists who believed that God magically protects the words of that particular version of the Bible (but presumably not the little girls getting raped who pray for his help in stopping that crime.) I met liberation theologians who seemed to cast Jesus in a roll that was as non-confrontational as Ghandi but as revolutionary as Che Guevara. I met "gospel of wealth" types who drove Lexuses and Hummers to church on Sunday, but never through the eye of a needle. I met people with laugh-out-loud views on the Bible (okay I'll just say it-I mean Mormons and Snake Handlers.)

During all that time, I think my biggest struggle was, as with most young men in the church, the teachings on sex. I had a lot of gay friends who I didn't think deserved to burn in hell the way the Falwells of the world said they would. I liked nookie and wasn't ready to get married, but always from the back of my head the word "FORNICATION" shot as though I were being accused by a shakey-legged tent-revivalist from Alabama. So I began to try to resolve my issues with the faith.

I hadn't considered up until this point the actual role of the bible in my life. I had a couple of friends who were very fundamentalist in their views, telling me it was the ultimate authority on everything, that every word was protected from corruption, that it had only one author, God, who dictated it to numerous secretaries. I had Catholic friends who told me not to worry about the Bible either way because I was going to hell for not being Catholic.

I also was introduced at intervals to the ideas we would consider "Neo-Platonism." I knew a little about Biblical history in context and became fascinated with that world at some point after college. I have had a fascination with ancient cultures-Egypt, Rome, Macedonia, Persia, etc.-since early childhood, and ancient Israel really piqued my imagination. I read Goodspeed and Barthels on the history of the Bible and the world that contextualized it. I read the "Lost" Gospels, so I knew about some of the non-canonical stories floating around about Jesus, things like making clay birds fly and killing and raising his playmates in Nazareth, and came to understand (wrongly) like many people that the Gospel of Thomas was the source for a lot of Matthew and Luke.

I started in my mid thirties to suspect God wasn't quite what we'd always had him sold to us as, or maybe it was that Christianity wasn't quite what I thought it was, but nothing really manifested.

I prayed a simple prayer of thanks every night as a child ("Thank you God for the world so sweet..." and the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father , who art in Heaven...") every night of my adult life. I couldn't sleep unless I'd done so. I always included special pleas a the end including a plea to be blessed and kept well.

Then, at the age of 38, I developed some serious health problems that left me asking "Why me, God?" Scoff if you will at the cliché nature of the "why do bad things happen to good people" or "why is there suffering refrains." The sufferer cannot belittle the problems of his life by stepping back and getting academic.

So I went looking for God, and the obvious place to look was the Bible. It's the common denominator of the denominations. Even Catholics, who believe ultimately authority comes from apostolic succession (thus leading to the inescapable conclusion that God and Jesus wanted all those child molesters put in places of power over helpless children) have the scripture at the center of worship. (In fact, they have an expanded version of it.) I bought version after version of the Bible-NSV, KJV, Amplified, parallel gospels, the "Scholar's version," the KJV "Designed to be read as Living Literature" (meaning it had chapter and verse headings removed, used only one column per page and it didn't repeat itself in the places where material was repeated from previous books.)

I consulted the writings of all the "Popular Scholars" you see on the History Channel at Christmas and Easter, guys like John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, James Tabor, David Volpe, the Meyers, Shaye Cohen, James Strange... the list was endless, and included believers (the majority) and agnostics/atheists alike. I purchased or downloaded every documentary and lecture I could find on the subjects of Biblical history, Biblical archaeology and Biblical textual criticism. I would find answers.

What I determined is that the God I'd come to know and love was not in that Bible. I started to believe that the purpose of the Bible was man's attempt to blame his misbehavior on the diety.

The Old Testament read like a "Peanuts" cartoon, where the Jews were Charlie Brown hoping to kick the football of divine favor out of the hands of Lucy (played by Yaweh) and telling themselves "It will be different this time. He'll leave the football there long enough and we won't get enslaved by anyone this go-round." And Lucy always still managed to yank that football away. You can see them going from "we're being punished for not being Jewish enough" to "it must be because God's enemy is in charge right now and he'll make even the score eventually" in the space of about ten books.

The New Testament is no better-a mishmash of biographies with different viewpoints and out and out contradictions, letters from a guy who never met Jesus before the crucifixion, letters from other guys pretending to be that guy 200 or so years after he'd died, sermons that got mislabeled as letters and more letters from people who had names like the names in the lists of apostles. These letters, mind you, in no way present any continuous or consistent viewpoints on almost any subject. In the early ones, women are seen as equal partners. Later, they are to be kept barefoot, pregnant and silent. The letter writers' views on how you go to heaven are at odds with what Jesus says about it.

Most shocking to me was what I didn't find in the Bible. It turns out that no where is it even hinted at that when you die, your "soul" splits off from your body and goes to heaven. What it says about the "resurrection" is quite different. Jesus sometimes claims he isn't God (or even a decent human being.) He doesn't know that to get to heaven all you have to do is believe he died and was resurrected. He doesn't know when the end of the world will be exactly, but he guarantees people who hear his words will be alive to hear it (incidentally, if anyone knows any 2000-year-old Palestinians present at the Sermon on the Mount, I'd give a chunk of my brain to meat them.) Jesus never breathes a word about homosexuality. He never says to anyone that it's better to settle down and have kids than to remain a bachelor. Mary Magdalene is never identified as a prostitute. We don't know who all the 12 disciples were.

When I really got into it, the text revealed itself to be highly flawed. Judas seems to have died in two different ways. Jesus is said to have died on two different days, and his attitude towards his death varies from telling to telling so much that he appears to be schizoid. Joseph and Mary are said to have been in Bethlehem for two different reasons, and Jesus' lineage is given twice, both times to prove he descended from the line of David, but the order and number and names of his ancestors are completely at odds with one another. Paul tells the story of his conversion like a big-fish story, adding more and more details each time that don't appear to be consistent with the previous tellings, and he doesn't appear to know more than two or three of the things Jesus taught. If this was dictated to multiple people by a deity, it was a highly forgetful deity.

Despite all this, I remain a believer. Maybe that's not right-it's more that I'm highly suspicious that there is a God, but I know for damn sure it's not the one(s) described in the pages of that book. And possibly surprisingly after all I've said here, I still believe the Holy Bible in all its forms is the greatest book ever written (followed closely by "The Satanic Verses" by Salmon Rushdie. The irony there is only apparent, not real.)

So to amuse myself and put that hobby to good use, I've decided to write this blog. I'm not here to win converts to the faith, obviously. Neither would I wish-EVER-to try to convince someone that their faith tradition is flawed and that they are wrong to belong to it. All I hope to do is to point out some of the more surprising aspects of the scripture, things that are misunderstood, ignored, avoided, explained away or just plain lied about by the orthodox faiths, and to muse about them in a snarky, hopefully funny way.

Please note the following intentions:
First, though the blog is called $#*! that Jesus Said, I have no intention of limiting myself to the words that Jesus uttered. The prophets, "Moses," Paul and the authors of the other epistles all had some memorable lines.
Second, everyone is encouraged to leave whatever comments they like. I have no intention of ever responding to even one of them. If you go trolling here, it won't be my strings you're pulling. I will however remove patently offensive content as soon as I identify it.
Third, I don't intend to set a schedule of any kind for myself. I don't want to get a certain number of posts in before the end of the year, or to commit to an entry a week or anything like that.
Fourth, if you have a suggestion for an entry, I won't commit to giving you credit if you email it to me. But go ahead and email it to me.

To paraphrase Paul, ("I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet,") I am neither a historian or the son of a historian. (Okay, technically my dad's degree is in History, but he works for an Ag Services company, so I can comfortably say that. Don't get me wrong-the man is brilliant and still has an interest in history, as well as several other intellectual pursuits.) I'm not a professional scholar in other words, nor do I have very much formal schooling in this. (I am however an ordained Reverend in one of those churches you used to get your ordination from out of the back of magazines. As far as seminary goes, I can only claim to have attended the same one as St. Paul himself-which is to say, none, ever.) So take what I write with a grain of salt.

I probably do have a "point" to make, an axe to grind with my own traditions. I kind of feel like I got the sleazy used car salesman speeches for my whole life, so in a way, this is taking them to court. Still, I won't be dishonest about the scripture. I'll try to recognize and (to an extent) respect the views of "believers" as well as scholars and out-and-out atheists alike.

But mostly, I just want to surprise you with a lot of things you probably have read, but didn't realize you knew.

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