Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

R.G. Price: The bible isn’t what Christians think it is

Vol. 36 No. 01 Jan/Feb 2019
Bookworms                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

By R.G. Price

The bible is, in my opinion, the single most fascinating collection of writings known to humankind. What makes the bible so fascinating isn’t simply the writings themselves, but how those writings have been interpreted and understood over the generations. The bible is arguably both the most highly studied and highly misunderstood collection of literature ever produced.

It is, of course, popular for critics of Christianity to criticize the bible itself, but I feel that this criticism is misdirected and largely unfair to the original authors. You see, almost none of the writings in the bible were written with the intention of being interpreted the way that Christians have interpreted them, with the exception of perhaps a handful of the latest letters in the New Testament. Criticizing the bible is like criticizing ancient Greek mythology. It is, in many ways, highly unfair to the people who produced the writings in their time and place. The problem isn’t with the bible itself, but rather the Christian interpretation of its writings.

Indeed, the bible actually contains some of the most compelling evidence against the beliefs of Christianity. The latest generation of biblical scholarship is revealing that major Christian assumptions about how and why various texts of the bible were written are fundamentally wrong. Christianity as we know it really emerged in the second century as Romans came into contact with the so-called “gospel” stories. It has become clear that it was really the gospels themselves that led to the spread and adoption of Christianity. Prior to the writing of the gospels, “Christianity” was a tiny insignificant cult that would likely have died out in a very short period of time. It was the gospel stories that enamored audiences and convinced many Roman elites of the “divinity” of Jesus and “truth” of Jewish scriptures.

But where did these gospels come from? Who wrote them? Why were they written? It turns out that the Romans who founded the Christian religion had no idea where these writings came from. They completely misunderstood them, and essentially developed a religion based on the misinterpretation of a fictional story. That same misunderstanding also led them to fundamentally misunderstand the nature and origin of the Jewish scriptures, as well. This misunderstanding, of course, has fundamentally shaped Western civilization. But the problem lies in the Christian interpretation of these writings.

Recent scholarship provides compelling evidence that the story that launched Christianity — the Gospel of Mark — is entirely fictional. The person who wrote the story knew full well that nothing in the story was literally true and had no intention of trying to convince anyone that it was true. How can we know this? What modern textual analysis reveals is that virtually every passage in the Gospel of Mark is a literary allusion to other texts. 

Based on Paul

It is clear that the Jesus character in the Gospel of Mark is actually based on the writings by the apostle Paul. It is clear that whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark had read the letters of Paul and used Paul’s teachings for his Jesus character. In addition, the major plotline of the story follows the story of Elijah and Elisha from 1 and 2 Kings of the Jewish scriptures. Virtually every scene in the Gospel of Mark is developed from literary references to either the letters of Paul or to the Jewish scriptures, including the walking on water scene, the cleansing of the temple and the crucifixion itself.

It appears that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story that was written in reaction to the First Jewish-Roman War that resulted in the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Growing evidence that the Gospel of Mark is an invented story based on literary references overturns centuries of mainstream biblical scholarship that saw the gospels as a record of some “oral tradition.” The idea that the gospels are records of an oral tradition that stretches back to the life of Jesus is still widespread, but that was always just a supposition, a hypothesis. The hypothesis of “oral traditions” is now disproved by solid evidence of literary dependency.

Once we recognize that the Gospel of Mark is a fictional story based on literary references, the whole Christian house of cards comes tumbling down. This is because all biographies of Jesus, the other gospels and later writings are clearly dependent on the Gospel of Mark. What has become clear is that many of the literary references employed by the author of Mark were copied into the other gospels and became the inspiration for the idea that Jesus was proven to have fulfilled prophecies. 

When we look at the case for Christianity made by Christian scholars in the second through fourth centuries, we see that the primary evidence that convinced them of the “truth” of the religion was the relationship between passages in the gospels and passages in the Jewish scriptures.  They interpreted these relationships as evidence of “prophecy fulfillment.” Roman elites believed heavily in prophecy at this time, and thus were convinced not only that Jesus was “proven” to be divine, but that the Jewish scriptures were proven to be divine as well, due to the fact that they had so “accurately predicted” the life and deeds of Jesus. They thought that this was all substantiated by the fact that the gospels were four “independent” accounts of Jesus’s life. As it turns out, modern scholarship shows that what we really have is a fictional story and three moderately altered copies of it.

Evidence of fiction

Ironically, what Christians believed was evidence of divinity is actually evidence of fictionality. The literary relationships between the gospels and the Jewish scriptures are the key evidence that disprove the historical veracity of the gospel narrative. But it goes beyond just the gospels. Critical analysis of biblical texts shows that the Christian understanding of virtually all of them is totally wrong. The letters of Paul, James, Jude and Hebrews in the New Testament all provide evidence that the Jesus being worshipped prior to the writing of the gospels was a spiritual being, not a person. Furthermore, “Old Testament” scholarship now shows that the works of the Old Testament were written long after Christians believed they were and are largely just as fanciful as the works of Greek and Roman mythology.

This understanding of biblical origins is not yet mainstream, but I believe it’s inevitable that it will eventually be, because the evidence supporting it is so substantial. Mainstream biblical scholarship today is still clinging to assumptions that have been largely disproved. Christianity is a religion that is fundamentally based on a specific interpretation of a specific collection of documents. The role of mainstream biblical scholarship has been largely to defend the fundamental Christian interpretation of those documents. But this isn’t a matter of faith, and it isn’t a nebulous question that is impossible to answer. Who, when, why and how these documents were written are questions that can be answered, and they are being answered. Growing evidence shows that the answers to those questions are at odds with foundational Christian assumptions.

I have faith that the evidence will win out, and when it does, it will shake the foundations of Christianity like nothing has before.

FFRF Member R.G. Price is a data analyst from Colorado and author of the recently published book Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.