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THINKING THROUGH THACKEREY’S THEORY THEISTICALLY

September 21, 2015

As presented in my previous post, Ken Thackerey’s The Christianity Myth is a very clever attempt to explain, based on atheistic assumptions, how Christianity started all those years ago. I promised to read it, and so here you are, Ken: my analysis of your arguments, and why your book failed to convince me.

THE APOSTLES

To begin with, you claim that the original apostles knew nothing of a resurrection; this had obviously never been part of the teaching of the “historical Jesus”. So why did they stay in Jerusalem? Why did they keep preaching Jesus as the Messiah?

On all counts, an executed Messiah was a failure, and if the disciples neither expected nor experienced a resurrection, there is no reason to believe they would have hung around for years in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ enemies held sway.

You acknowledge that the Jewish authorities persecuted the followers of Jesus – Paul was a persecutor before his conversion. So why would the disciples have stayed in Jerusalem? OK, maybe a few days, maybe a week or two, but after that? The obvious thing to do would be to go back home and forget all about Jesus; surely the foolishness of continuing to follow an executed Messiah would be worse than the embarrassment of going home and admitting they were wrong!

I would also question your explanation that Peter was living comfortably off tithes from his followers, for two reasons. 1) He wasn’t entitled to tithes; they were for the temple and the priests. 2) Even if he was claiming a leadership position that entitled him to financial support, how many would his followers have been? The Jesus movement can’t have garnered many followers, if all they had to offer was an executed prophet and a new moral code, coupled with persecution from the religious leaders. I think he would be lucky if he still had command of the 120 that Acts tells us were present on the day of Pentecost; and even so, there can’t have been much money to be had from that group!

You then suggest that when Peter was confronted with Paul’s experience he was quick to lie, just as he had been before when he denied Jesus. The problem is: how do you know he ever denied Jesus? You claim the gospels were all written long after Peter was dead, and even though they incorporated some stories about the “historical Jesus”, most of the content was made up.

The denial episode is actually one of the stronger pieces of evidence in favour of the reliability of the gospels. Nobody in their right mind would make up a pious story about the first Christian leader denying Jesus! But if it wasn’t made up, it goes back to the original disciples – in fact, back to Peter himself; who else would have known about it? And why would Peter admit it, if he hadn’t met the risen Jesus and been forgiven and restored – in short, if the whole story wasn’t true?

PETER AND PAUL

In your version of events, Paul suddenly appears in Jerusalem and excitedly tells Peter that Jesus is alive. Peter is taken aback, but quickly replies that yes, they had also seen Jesus risen. Then what? All the other disciples would have known that wasn’t true; so you have to assume that they all colluded with Peter to start propagating what they knew wasn’t true.

PAUL

You seem to agree with standard Christianity in saying Paul was persecuting the church, when he had an epileptic fit and had a “vision” of Jesus, which convinced him that Jesus was alive and calling him to preach to the Gentiles. I’m no psychologist, but I believe hallucinations generally support what you already believe (as in the case you quote as an obvious parallel), so it seems highly unlikely that Paul’s total change of belief could have stemmed from a subjective hallucination.

Even if we grant that Paul somehow had a hallucination that contradicted his strongly held convictions, where did the gospel inclusiveness come from? Paul was a Pharisee, and the idea that Gentiles could be saved without being circumcised and obeying the Law would have been utterly unthinkable to him (you state that that’s the disciples retained standard Jewish beliefs on this, so the “historical Jesus” clearly never said anything about it). Your scenario implies that a devout Pharisee was suddenly compelled to change his whole theology, purely based on an unexpected (and unwelcome) vision. To me, divine intervention actually seems a whole lot more credible…

THE GOSPELS AND ACTS

I find it quite hard to imagine that large numbers of pious church leaders, claiming to worship a divine Saviour who told his followers to be honest and trustworthy, would feel free to make up untrue stories about said Saviour. And if Jesus had never said the things about letting your yes be yes etc, why would anyone invent it – who would fabricate sayings that made their fabrications immoral?

I also don’t agree with your assessment of Acts. Much has been written about it, but it seems that as a fabrication, it’s quite strange: the “we” sections that suddenly become “they” and then “we” again, and the fact that it ends with Paul in prison in Rome, waiting to appear at the court of the emperor. Surely a fabrication would have been more consistent, and at least have included the imperial verdict!

There actually seems to be quite compelling evidence that Acts is historically reliable. The author includes administrative terms and titles that have been verified from other sources, and the switch between “we” and “they” passages suggests that he either used primary sources or was himself the primary source. The fact that the book ends with Paul in prison suggests that that was the point when he concluded the book – why else end on such a cliff hanger?

If that is the case, your whole construct falls apart – because we know (beyond reasonable doubt) that Acts and the Gospel of Luke were written by the same person, and Acts after the Gospel (see Luk 1:3 and Acts 1:1). If Acts was written while Paul was still alive, then so was the Gospel of Luke – not decades after all the main characters were dead, but while all (or at least most) were still alive, only a few decades after the Easter events.

There’s another study that throws doubt on your contention that the Gospels were written much later and far away from the events.1 The frequency of Jewish names that feature in the Gospels tally with what is known about name frequencies in first-century Palestine. The usage was quite different among Jews outside of Palestine. Compare it to writing a novel about Victorian England: how easy it would be to use names that actually weren’t very common in the 19th century, and miss out on common names that are no longer in use! So in order for the Gospels to be Gentile forgeries, we have to postulate that all the Gospel writers did some serious research into what names were common among Palestinian Jews some 50-100 years earlier…

There are many books and studies that contend better than I can do for the reliability of the Gospels and Acts – let me just conclude by saying that they contain an awful lot of stuff that it would be hard to imagine anybody making up, if they were trying to convince people to follow the dead Jesus just through human persuasion!

THE HOLY SPIRIT

Which brings me to my main problem with your theory. Your whole foundation is that there is no god, and therefore every detail that includes God must be legend, misinterpretation or plain fabrication. But I don’t think there is any way to explain the explosive spread of Christianity without taking the Holy Spirit into consideration. What power of persuasion would the message of a Jewish redeemer have to Gentiles, if it wasn’t accompanied by the power of the Spirit?

Paul keeps reminding his readers that they had already experienced the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit features prominently in all his letters. Seeing that you seem to accept some of his letters as genuine and that Paul is genuinely convinced himself of his new faith, I guess you have to assume that he was such a powerful character that people thought they experienced God when it was really just his powerful charisma. Yes, similar things happen in churches today – but that’s because people already believe in the preacher and are willing to be caught up in the “spirit” of the event. There would have been no such fertile ground for Paul among Gentiles, who generally despised Jews for their strict moral code and rigid monotheism. His gospel was not in itself congenial to the Gentile world!

No, as far as I can see, the description in Acts 2 of the coming of God’s Spirit, empowering the disciples and convicting thousands of the audience, makes more sense as an explanation of the rapid spread of Christianity, than any version which leaves out the Holy Spirit.

Leaving out the Holy Spirit also denies the experience of millions of subsequent followers of Jesus. When I was 14 I was a nominal Christian about to fall away, not really identifying as a Christian any more – until I had an encounter with God at a summer camp. Every summer thousands of young people still have similar experiences. Christians experience the presence of God in their lives in many different ways, but most of us can testify to the truth of what Paul writes in Rom 8:16: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. This is one reason why we’re not so easily swayed by arguments that presuppose that God doesn’t exist; we have personal experience to the contrary!

CONCLUSION

There are lots of other, minor points I could have discussed (e.g the Jerusalem council), but this is already far too long! I enjoyed engaging with your theory, but as you notice I still find your arguments lacking; I hope this rather long review has helped you (and any other readers) understand why. And any comments are of course welcome!

Notes

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From → Christianity, Faith, Jesus

7 Comments
  1. Hi

    Thanks for your interesting and detailed appraisal of The Christianity Myth. It was always a given, that we were never going to see eye to eye on this matter. Your world view assumes that the Gospels are historically accurate, and that they portray what actually happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, leaving aside the odd contradiction of course. My world view accepts that the Gospels are probably partially true, at least up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus, because they are based on the historical Jesus who was crucified in Jerusalem. However, my world view claims that all the Gospel material after the crucifixion of Jesus is pure fiction. It is just creative writing by true believers trying to fill in what they believe happened after the crucifixion. Of necessity, it is based entirely on what Paul told his early Christian communities, as summarized by Paul in 1-Corinthians 15: 3-9. This is why the whole thing is presented as a near invisible event noticed only by a handful of Jews, even though it allegedly happened in the middle of a Jerusalem teeming with people.

    Generally speaking I accept your different take on virtually every aspect of the book. It is more or less in line with conventional Christian thinking and as such it is to be expected. I’m not implying you are wrong in any way, just pointing out that we have different viewpoints and different interpretations. I would, however, like to take exception to your opening assumption that I approached things from an atheistic viewpoint. In actual fact it was quite the opposite. I was a regular church goer for many years [still am in fact] but I always had difficulty with all the supernatural stuff associated with Christianity, especially the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. I guess this meant I was a church-going agnostic rather than a proper Christian. To try and rectify this situation, some years ago I decided to investigate early Christianity in the hope that a better understanding of early Christianity would enable me to become a “proper” Christian.

    Unfortunately it didn’t work. Instead, a slightly informed church-going agnostic became a better informed church-going atheist [old habits die hard at my age]. I was prepared to accept a supernatural explanation if it turned out to be the only game in town, but logic dictated that a simpler, more pragmatic, non-supernatural explanation takes precedent. As you now know, my version of events involves just a simple hallucination on the road to Damascus and a simple lie told in Jerusalem, both of which are feasible, and when these two factors are combined together, they offer a simpler, more pragmatic explanation of events that is totally free of super-naturalism, yet fits all the known facts. I would even claim it fits them better.

    My version of events is not perfect, and of necessity, given the lack of reliable information, it involves a certain amount of speculation. It certainly won’t neatly dovetail into your version of events.We don’t entertain super-naturalism in any over facet of our human experience, and I fail to understand why some people are prepared to make exceptions where religion is concerned. Guess we all have different needs and different priorities.

    • Thanks Ken for your reply – and your correction of my mistake. I guess what I meant was that the final product presents the facts (and the many guesses!) from an atheist viewpoint. But you’re right, and I apologise for the misrepresentation. I actually find it quite intriguing that you still go to church… I don’t imagine I would, in your shoes!
      As you’ve seen, I don’t think your two events are particularly likely, although if I became convinced of atheism, I would probably accept your version as the most likely scenario!
      But I’d like to “take issue” with your final paragraph. I do entertain supernaturalism in every facet of my life, that’s part and parcel of following Jesus, and if God exists he is by definition involved in every aspect of my life. So I’m not “making exceptions where religion is concerned” – I’m only what you’d call “religious” because I believe in a supernatural God, who is a lot bigger than “religion”!

      • Hi David, a slight case of semantics maybe? I was alluding more to general acceptance of supernaturalism by the population at large. I accept what you say about accepting supernaturalism in every facet of your life as a Christian. That is more or less what I was trying to say, namely that exceptions are only made for religious purposes. Hope this makes more sense.

    • (I have to reply to your first comment, since WordPress doesn’t seem to allow an endless sequence of replies.)
      I still don’t quite see what you mean when you say that “exceptions are only made for religious purposes”. Isn’t part of the definition of “religion” that it deals with the supernatural – so anything supernatural automatically becomes “religious”? So it’s not a case of making exceptions; it just means that the supernatural is only invoked when dealing with the supernatural, which seems fairly reasonable. And as a Christian, the supernatural (i.e. God) is part of my everyday life, not just on Sundays.
      I would also like to point out (for the record) that I aimed to refute your theory on its own internal premises, not just because it contradicts my version of events (which I knew from the start!). I simply don’t find the hallucination idea – or rather, the idea that Paul would have radically revised everything he believed on the basis of a hallucinated Jesus – very plausible. It’s also very unlikely that people – including the disciples – would just have accepted the idea of a resurrection some six years afterwards, if Jesus himself had never mentioned it…

      • Hi David,

        When referring earlier to the supernatural, I had in mind things like immaculate conceptions, virgin births, resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven all of which are supernatural events. Believers are willing to accept these supernatural elements when it is part and parcel of their beliefs. They do not for the most part believe in, or accept, any other form of the supernatural that is outside of their religious beliefs.

        Paul had some form of audio/visual experience on the road to Damascus which led to his “conversion”. We do not know exactly what happened to him, nor do we know how long it took Paul to rationalise his experience and to conclude that Jesus was the son of God. All we know is that a zealous Pharisee, hell bent on persecuting Jesus’ followers, stopped persecuting them and then spent the rest of his life promoting Jesus as the son of God. Whatever happened to Paul convinced him that he had a personal encounter with Jesus. Divine encounter, or simple hallucination triggered by temporal lobe epilepsy? There would have been absolutely no difference as far as Paul was concerned.

        Your skepticism about the hallucination idea is understandable, but it suggests you have not fully appreciated the religious implications associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. 2000 years ago divine intervention would have been the standard explanation when confronted with something like this, which was totally beyond their comprehension. Today, however, we now understand these things better, and modern scientific medical knowledge offers a very rational, and very plausible explanation of what happened to Paul, but I appreciate, that as a Christian, you prefer to stick with the supernatural interpretation.

        We know very little about what people did or didn’t do, and what they thought or didn’t think, in that short 30-40 year period after the crucifixion. We only have the Gospel accounts telling us what the gospel authors said happened after the crucifixion, and even they don’t agree about the details. They believed Jesus was resurrected because Paul told them he was resurrected, but it was a case of creative writing and poetic licence as far as other post-crucifixion details were concerned. I accept you will never accept this, and as a Christian you will continue to believe the Gospel are factually correct and that’s your prerogative.

      • I don’t really have a problem with supernatural events other than the ones associated with Jesus; I just don’t believe they all originate from the God of the Bible. And yes, I see that a hallucination could convince Paul that Jesus actually was the Son of God, rather than an impostor; what I don’t see is how that would so radically change his whole theology into something radically different from what he had believed until then.

        Anyway, it’s an intriguing theory, well worth my time, even if it failed to convince me. Thanks for telling me about it!

      • Thanks for taking the time to read it and comment. Enjoyed our exchange.

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