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Earl Doherty

Age of Reason Publications


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CHALLENGING THE VERDICT
A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ
[Excerpts from the book by Earl Doherty]

PART TWO: What Was the Nature of Jesus?

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Excerpt from
Chapter Seven: Jesus' View of Himself
A Cross-Examination of Dr. Ben Witherington III and "The Identity Evidence"

    You and Mr. Strobel then went on to discuss Jesus’ view of himself as presented in the Gospel of John. You acknowledged that the picture of Jesus in John is "somewhat interpreted" [138]—which I would call an understatement—but you both declared that Jesus himself would have had no problem in accepting the majestic Prologue to the Fourth Gospel as an accurate description of himself. There is, of course, no way of knowing what an itinerant preacher and miracle-worker would have thought about a description of himself as the pre-existent Word of God, present in heaven before creation and the agent of that creation. It defies imagination, both on the part of the Jew who might be so described, as well as on the part of the Jews who supposedly came up with such a bizarre ascription.
    But you have both failed to point out the most significant feature of this question. We touched on it in an earlier session, but perhaps the court would benefit from a little fuller discussion at this time. The language in the Prologue to the Gospel of John is nothing new, although its application to a human man certainly is. This concept of the Word, the secondary divine aspect who is an emanation of the primary God, serving as the medium through which creation has been effected and through whom God interacts with the world, is the language of Greek philosophy of the time. Indeed, it could be said to be the central religious concept of the Hellenistic age, that the ultimate God was known to and worked upon the world through an intermediary entity that can be styled "the Son."
    In contemporary Platonic philosophy, this entity was called the Logos: Greek for "word," though it encompasses a deeper wealth of meaning. In Hellenistic Judaism, as in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the Logos was adapted to Jewish thought and became the "son of God," God’s "first-born," an intermediary agent. Something similar already existed in more mainstream Jewish scribal thinking: the figure of personified Wisdom I mentioned earlier. She appears in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, a companion with God in heaven who brings knowledge of God and is also involved in the process of creation. She and the Greek Logos were melded in the most important document of Hellenistic Judaism still extant, the Wisdom of Solomon. It was probably written in Alexandria, though not by Philo. For the court’s instruction, I’ll read a few verses from it:

"She [referring to Wisdom] rises from the power of God, a pure effluence of the glory of the Almighty…She is the brightness that streams from everlasting light, the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness…She spans the world in power from end to end, and orders all things benignly…And with thee is Wisdom, who is familiar with thy works and was present at the making of the world by thee…"
    This sort of language and thinking is very similar to the Prologue of John’s Gospel and would indicate that such concepts were in the air of the time and became applied to Jesus by the fourth evangelist. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the initial part of the Prologue was originally a Logos/Wisdom hymn, perhaps within Hellenistic Judaism, unconnected with Christianity or any human figure, and was adapted to the Gospel of John by a later church redactor in the middle or late second century.
    Before going on, I would also point out to you and to the court, that this sort of language is to be found as well in several New Testament epistles, such as Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:2-3, where the divine Son is spoken of in the same cosmic terms we have seen applied to the Greek Logos and Jewish personified Wisdom. Even the genuine letters of Paul talk of Christ in this manner, as in 1 Corinthians 1:24 and 8:6. And yet in all these epistles, such a Son is not equated with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth or any other human man in recent history. I would suggest, therefore, that what we are seeing here is an early Christianity that believed in a heavenly Son and Christ who borrowed much from the philosophical thought of the time, but he was a Son who was not envisioned as having been on earth until the Gospels came along and placed him there.

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Excerpt from
Chapter Eight: Jesus' State of Mind
A Cross-Examination of Dr. Gary R. Collins and "The Psychological Evidence"

    "[P]eople with psychological difficulties may have thinking disorders…We don’t see this in Jesus. He spoke clearly, powerfully and eloquently. He was brilliant and had absolutely amazing insights into human nature…He was loving but didn’t let his compassion immobilize him; he didn’t have a bloated ego, even though he was often surrounded by adoring crowds; he maintained balance despite an often demanding lifestyle; he cared deeply about people, including women and children…he responded to individuals based on where they were at and what they uniquely needed." [147]
    Dr. Collins, I don’t doubt that your testimonial is deeply felt, on a personal level. This has always been the appeal of the figure of Jesus. One extracts from the Gospels the picture one wants to see; one chooses selectively from the sayings and characteristics that are attributed to him and glosses over the objectionable. Millions have done that before you. But I suggest to you that the Gospels are a mixed and multifarious amalgamation. They reflect what is admirable and objectionable in us all, with extremes that are especially at home in emotional, sectarian settings, among groups who feel they have a new and powerful message to give to the world. That is the setting of the Gospels, which reflect the activities and preaching of such a group. Jesus is a figure who represents those activities and teachings. Perhaps an individual something like that did exist; or perhaps he is merely a symbol of certain reform and apocalyptic-minded trends of the first century that later came to be regarded as an historical person.
    But if one takes into account everything that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, it is clear your glowing testimonial goes too far and becomes a matter of wishful thinking, as my examples have pointed out. And what of the Fourth Gospel’s "I am the resurrection and the life," "I am the light of the world," "No one comes to the Father except through me," and so on? If this doesn’t demonstrate a "bloated ego" I don’t know what would. Of course, you would say that these claims were nothing but the truth, but you trap yourself in a thoroughly circular argument. You ask us to believe that Jesus was not crazy in order to have us accept the claims he makes about himself. And yet you declare that such things as the pronouncements in John are not a sign of insanity or megalomania because in fact they were true, something which is dependent on accepting that he was not crazy.
    I submit to the court that by any standard we would apply today, the collective attribution to Jesus of all the sayings in the Gospels would lead anyone to view such a man with the deepest suspicion.

Backing Claims with Miracles

    "Jesus didn’t just claim to be God—he backed it up with amazing feats of healing, with astounding demonstrations of power over nature, transcendent and unprecedented teaching, with divine insights into people, and ultimately with his own resurrection from the dead, which absolutely nobody else has been able to duplicate. So when Jesus claimed to be God, it wasn’t crazy. It was the truth." [148]
    Well, Dr. Collins, if we could be sure that Jesus really did all these things, it wouldn’t have mattered whether he was crazy or not. We’d pretty much have to believe that he had some connection with supernatural powers. But it would be rather naïve just to accept that the Gospel accounts provide us with indisputable historical facts. As I’ve pointed out before, if such feats were true, Jesus would have garnered far more attention than the record indicates he did.
    As for "transcendent and unprecedented teaching," that evaluation, too, is somewhat naïve and based on ignorance. Most of what is commendable in the teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels can be found in ethical expressions all over the ancient world, some of it as far back as the Confucian era in China. The early content of Q, containing some of the most prized teachings of Christianity such as "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek," bears remarkable similarity to the preaching of the Greek Cynic movement of the time. And beside those commendable elements in the Gospels one finds sentiments and declarations that can be quite reprehensible, some of which I have already pointed out to the court.
    I find it curious that you are concerned about applying the fullest extent of your professional judgement to the question of Jesus’ psychology, yet you fail to bring the same professionalism to the contradictions, primitive world-view and outlandish claims of the Gospels. When someone like Charles Templeton, as Mr. Strobel noted, puts forward possible explanations for the healing miracles based on modern science and our understanding of psychosomatic factors, you simply appeal to the Gospel accounts as precluding such things.
    "[H]e brought people back from the dead—and death is not a psychologically induced state! Plus you have all of his nature miracles—the calming of the sea, turning water into wine. They defy naturalistic answers." [149]
    They certainly do, but did they really happen? I noted Mr. Strobel’s expression of skepticism at that remark, a sentiment which was unfortunately short-lived. Yet today we live in a naturalistic universe, Dr. Collins. Science and rationality have established that all things are explainable through natural forces and function by natural laws, even if there is still some refinement of that knowledge to come. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the human mind in its long and slow progress out of a condition of fear of the unknown, of enslavement to non-existent forces, of misunderstanding the workings of the world we have grown up in. It is something we struggled long and mightily to achieve. And yet in the area of religious faith, rationality continues to be surrendered, science collapses; we turn out our light of reason and read our ancient primitive writings by the candlelight of superstition, exercising no more discretion upon their literal word than might a naïve, uneducated child.

Jesus as Exorcist

    In this regard, Dr. Collins, I started to raise something a moment ago. The Gospels contain testimony to one of the most blatant superstitions ever to trouble the mind, a belief in evil, inimical forces which actively seek to inflict harm and damnation upon human beings. The degree of psychological misery which this superstition has produced over the aeons, the amount of energy spent on seeking to mitigate that harm and circumvent that evil, is almost beyond imagining. Even in historical times, from sacrifice to the burning of witches, we have sought to cope with this unseen dimension of devils and demons perceived to swirl around us. Yet science has uncovered nothing which would lead us to believe that such forces exist. We are finally in a position to throw off that long and sorry bondage.
    But what is the primary factor that keeps it alive in the modern mind? Mr. Strobel asked you, "Jesus was an exorcist. He talked to demons and cast them out of the people they supposedly possessed. But is it really rational to believe that evil spirits are responsible for some illnesses and bizarre behavior?" [152]
    "From my theological beliefs, I accept that demons exist. We live in a society in which many people believe in angels. They know there are spiritual forces out there, and it’s not too hard to conclude that some might be malevolent. Where you see God working, sometimes those forces are more active, and that’s what was probably going on in the time of Jesus." [152]
    Well, you have only corroborated my previous observations, Dr. Collins. You accept that demons exist because your theological beliefs, based on the convictions of more primitive times and cultures, require them, not because modern science or rationality supports them. I know full well that many people do believe in angels, but there is no more evidence for their existence than for the existence of demons. Popular entertainment today may thrive on both, but they reflect the popular imagination, not demonstrable reality. Mr. Strobel asked whether you, as a psychologist, have ever seen clear evidence of the demonic?
    "I haven’t personally, but then I haven’t spent my whole career in clinical settings. My friends in clinical work have said that sometimes they have seen this, and these are not people who are inclined to see a demon behind every problem; they tend to be skeptical." [151]
    As to who these friends are or what they base their observations on, I can’t say, but you will forgive a bit of skepticism on my own part, as I am unaware of any clinical literature circulating throughout the profession which advocates a diagnosis or treatment based on demon possession.
    "To some degree, you find what you set out to find." [151]
    I couldn’t agree more, and particularly when the search is motivated by the necessity to find support for religious belief.
    "People who deny the existence of the supernatural will find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain a situation apart from the demonic. They’ll keep giving medication, keep drugging the person, but he or she doesn’t get better. There are cases that don’t respond to normal medical or psychiatric treatment." [151]
    No doubt there are. Medicine, psychiatry, just about every field of human endeavor, is imperfect, a work in progress. No doctor expects to find the proper diagnosis and cure for every case. But I’d hate to think that the only alternative on the table would be possession by demons. I suspect that not too many patients today would want to place themselves, or their loved ones, at the mercy of a medical philosophy like that. I certainly hope that my own doctor would try to find some ‘far-fetched’ way to avoid treating me on the basis of the supernatural.
    "What about the man who was possessed and Jesus sent the demons into the pigs and the pigs ran off the cliff? What’s going on if that was a psychosomatic situation? I think Jesus really did drive out demons, and I think some people do that today." [151]
    Demon-possessed pigs running off a cliff into a watery grave! I suppose uncritical acceptance of a bizarre account like that as literal fact makes possible the belief in just about anything found in ancient myth and purported history. Our critical faculties have been developed in us in order to exercise some discretion over what we are told, Dr. Collins. It is the presence of events like this in the Gospels which should lead those faculties to exercise the highest degree of caution, not to blindly appeal to them to support claims about modern science and medicine which run counter to everything we know through experience and reason.
    What does this episode represent in Mark? Probably something allegorical. Some have linked the reference to the demons’ name of "Legion" with Rome’s military, suggesting that the evangelist is making a veiled statement about the fate destined for Roman occupation of Palestine. Others have suggested it reflects Josephus’ account of the slaughter of Jews at Capernaum during the Jewish War.
    But whatever Mark’s inspiration, there is no doubt that his Jesus of Nazareth is one who believes in the existence of demons and their responsibility for sickness and mental disorder. Given the sacred stature which the Gospels came to acquire, it is not too much to say that this aspect of the Jesus picture, together with his pronouncements on Satan’s evil work in the world, condemned western society to centuries of continued belief in malevolent forces and demonic activity—and along with it, untold suffering for countless people who were deemed to be controlled by such forces.
    I can see why you would need to believe in the existence of demons, Dr. Collins. For if they do not exist, this would mean that in a literal acceptance of the Gospels the Son of God on earth was either ignorant of reality, or chose not to enlighten his contemporaries, indeed to deliberately mislead them. Neither casts him in a favorable light.
    And I must agree with an earlier remark you made. Belief in God is almost inevitably accompanied by a belief in evil spirit forces. In order to explain why the world suffers misfortune in the presence of a benevolent Deity, one must postulate a supernatural opposition to him, no matter what monstrous creations this may inflict upon our minds.

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Excerpt from
Chapter Nine: Jesus as God the Son
A Cross-Examination of Dr. Donald A. Carson and "The Profile Evidence"

A Hellish Question

    But now, if it please the court, I would like to address a question which Mr. Strobel brought up for Dr. Carson’s comment, something lying outside the area of Jesus’ nature, though affecting his "gentle and compassionate character." [164] This is a subject which seems to be very dear to the believer’s heart, but I’ll spare the court any speculation on the psychological reasons why this might be so. Mr. Strobel posed it this way: "The Bible says that the Father is loving. The New Testament affirms the same about Jesus. But can they really be loving while at the same time sending people to hell?" [164] Mr. Strobel quoted Charles Templeton: "How could a loving Heavenly Father create an endless hell and, over the centuries, consign millions of people to it because they do not or cannot or will not accept certain religious beliefs?" [164]
    "First of all, I’m not sure that God simply casts people into hell because they don’t accept certain beliefs." [164]
    Well, whoever added the false ending to Mark certainly believed it, as he says in 16:16. But if you’re right, one might wish that God had so informed many generations of his believers who did in fact condemn as damned many of their fellow human beings, even inflicting war and death on them, for supposedly incorrect beliefs. But let me raise a related idea, Dr. Carson. I am going to assume that you would agree that no punishment should be set whose existence is not revealed. In other words, it would seem rather unfair that hell should be the consequence of human beings’ improper actions, if they have never been told about that consequence. Mr. Strobel remarked that "Jesus teaches more about hell than anyone in the entire Bible." [164] Well, I think it might be accurate to say that no one in the bible before Jesus teaches about hell at all, at least not as Christians have come to envision it.
    In the Old Testament, Sheol is a gloomy underworld where the spirits of the dead go, similar to the Hades of Greek mythology. It was not originally regarded as a place of suffering specifically for the wicked. Toward the latter part of the pre-Christian period, in writings like Daniel and other apocalyptic expressions, the concept of a heaven for the righteous and a netherworld for the evil starts to emerge in Judaism. But it is only with Christianity that hell becomes a place of unending pain and torment. Thus if God is going to be fair about the matter, it would seem that only impenitent Christians, along with some apocalyptically minded Jews, can have been consigned to such a hell. The rest of humanity had no way of knowing it even existed.
    But I believe you had another way of looking at this whole question, Dr. Carson.
    "Picture God in the beginning of creation with a man and woman made in his image. They wake up in the morning and think about God. They love him truly. They delight to do what he wants; it’s their whole pleasure. They’re rightly related to him and they’re rightly related to each other. Then, with the entrance of sin and rebellion into the world, these image bearers begin to think that they are at the center of the universe. Not literally, but that’s the way they think. And that’s the way we think. All the things we call ‘social pathologies’—war, rape, bitterness, nurtured envies, secret jealousies, pride, inferiority complexes—are bound up in the first instance with the fact that we’re not rightly related with God. The consequence is that people get hurt. From God’s perspective, that is shockingly disgusting. So what should God do about it?…Wouldn’t we be shocked if we thought God didn’t have moral judgments on such matters?" [164-5]
    The true question is, Dr. Carson, should we not be shocked by the consequences which God has decided upon as a result of those moral judgments? Should we not expect a just Deity to fashion a punishment fitting the crime? Unending torture and despair would hardly seem to conform to such a principle. And let’s take a closer look at those ‘crimes’ you have enumerated. They are a curious mixture. Pride beside rape. Envy ranked with war. You’ve also created a subtle subtext beneath them. "Right relationship" with God is the moral standard, "rebellion" against him the cardinal sin. God, in your mind, seems to punish for disobedience to himself, not because the sins themselves are inherently and objectively judged to be undesirable.
    What, after all, was Adam and Eve’s purported ‘sin’? Eating fruit, even a forbidden one, hardly sinks to the depths of depravity. Rather, this mythical story follows your own preoccupation: disobedience of God’s commandment. Pride? What, indeed, is undesirable about pride? What is so immoral about feeling that we are at the center of the universe—though not literally, as you point out—if by those concepts we mean that we are proud of having reached our present point of evolution and achievement, proud of our abilities and acquired wisdom, even if these are still imperfect? Your implication seems to be that the proper psychological stance for human beings is an attitude of abject inferiority and sinfulness, along with subservience to a Deity who prescribes every feeling and action, and needs undivided attention.
    "[A]ll these divine image bearers shaking their puny fists at his face and singing with Frank Sinatra, ‘I did it my way.’ That’s the real nature of sin." [165]
    You’re only confirming my point—
    "Having said that, hell is not a place where people are consigned because they were pretty good blokes but just didn’t believe the right stuff. They’re consigned there, first and foremost because they defy their Maker and want to be at the center of the universe. Hell is not filled with people who have already repented, only God isn’t gentle enough or good enough to let them out. It’s filled with people who, for all eternity, still want to be at the center of the universe and who persist in their God-defying rebellion." [165]
    Well, Dr. Carson, I would very much doubt that people subjected to the torments you envision in hell are in any state to persist in feeling rebellious or wanting to be the center of the universe. Once again, your focus is upon the specter of the independent mind, the proud human being who does not regard himself as an incorrigible sinner—as though you think this attitude is the greatest of evils. No one would deny that rape, war, perhaps even envy, are some of the behaviors we should try to discourage; some even need to be punished. But we lose sight of the reasons why this is so, reasons founded in rationality and the common good, when one becomes obsessed, as you seem to be, by the concept of defying the Deity. And that Deity, by the way, has always been portrayed in Christian theology as including improper belief in the long catalogue of hell-deserving sin.
    That’s the fundamental problem. When morality is only allowed to be based on divine fiat, rather than reason and human wisdom, such a fiat becomes whatever God’s self-declared representatives claim it is, often based on ancient writings that are woefully obsolete. This opens the door to all sorts of injustices and impediments to progress.
    "[W]hat seems to bother people the most is the idea that God will torment people for eternity. That seems vicious, doesn’t it?" [165]
    An honest observation, Mr. Strobel. Infinite punishment for a finite sin hardly seems just. And not even Dr. Carson, I am sure, would declare that defiance of God is somehow an infinite sin.
    "[T]he Bible says that there are different degrees of punishment, so I’m not sure that it’s the same level of intensity for all people." [165]
    I’m sure that will make hell’s residents who are on the lower end of the punishment spectrum feel better, Dr. Carson, although I don’t know which biblical passages you have in mind. However, let’s carry Mr. Strobel’s comment a step or two further. He raised the question of the "eternal" nature of deity. That goes along with the "infinite," a quality and capacity always attached to the characteristics of God. As Mr. Strobel points out, God is loving. He is merciful. Does he not possess these features to an infinite degree? If not, then he is by definition imperfect. But is infinite love, infinite mercy, not to mention infinite forgiveness, compatible with the concept of hell? It might be compatible with infinite cruelty, or viciousness, as Mr. Strobel puts it, but shouldn’t God’s positive qualities override any negative ones?
    And what of God’s infinite sensitivity? Are there many human beings who can stand the sight of other human beings in extreme pain? What if these were their children, their loved ones? What attribute gives God the capacity to witness, for an eternity, the sight of millions of his creatures suffering in unspeakable torment?
    If the court will bear with me, I note that neither one of you has put forward one of the common justifications for the extreme nature of hell. It is often said that the ultimate punishment is nothing less than what is deserved by those who have rejected the ultimate sacrifice for their sins, namely Jesus’ crucifixion, the very death of the Son of God. But who shall we say chose such a manner of redemption? Some force, some moral standard, outside God himself? I doubt you would subscribe to such a position, Dr. Carson. God must have been the one who made that choice. But why did he require such an ultimate sacrifice in order to forgive humanity its sins? Is there not, indeed, some logical if not moral contradiction in ‘redeeming’ men of sins like murder through an act of murder on their part? Why did he not embody the act of redemption in something more exemplary, perhaps by having Jesus perform a few thousand hours of community service? What a moral example that would have set.
    Of course, what we really have in the Christian salvation system is a primitive outlook which goes back into prehistoric times: the idea that communion with gods, whether to entreat or placate them, is effected through blood sacrifice, which originally included that of humans. To achieve that communion, God’s Temple in Jerusalem was witness to the slaughter of millions of animals over the centuries before 70 CE. Pagan practice was not far behind. No one today, and that includes Christians, would any longer support such practices, for any purpose. And yet the principle of blood sacrifice lies at the heart of the Christian salvation system in the myth of the crucifixion, and it continues to be vigorously defended in that context. Not, of course, by standards of rationality or current human wisdom, but solely on account of that enslavement to ancient writings and ancient belief systems I have just mentioned. It is perhaps a prime example, Dr. Carson, of why we need to let it all go.
    "One of the things that the Bible does insist is that in the end not only will justice be done, but justice will be seen to be done, so that every mouth will be stopped." [165]
    "In other words, at the time of judgment there is nobody in the world who will walk away from that experience saying that they have been treated unfairly by God. Everyone will recognize the fundamental justice in the way God judges them and the world." [165-6]
    Well, I daresay that’s a good dose of wishful thinking on the part of the biblical writers. And I hope, Mr. Strobel, Dr. Carson, that you can recognize that you have once again abdicated your own powers of reason and judgment. When faced with contradictory concepts, with ideas that would contravene your own standards in just about every other field of thought and behavior in the world you move in, you nevertheless close your minds to the dilemma and fall back on blind faith, trusting in the words of a set of ancient writings which themselves have been the product of those contradictions and primitive standards. And the most responsible for perpetuating them.

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Excerpt from
Chapter Ten: Jesus as Fulfillment of Prophecy
A Cross-Examination of Mr. Louis Lapides and "The Fingerprint Evidence"

    The prophecy in 2 Samuel 7:16, a promise by God that David’s kingdom and throne would last forever—something that was shortly to be rendered literally inaccurate—was the foundation on which later prophets promised that a descendant of David would regain the kingship and restore Israel to its reputed ancient splendor. One of those promises was found in Jeremiah 23:5-6, a messianic passage Christians regularly appeal to. It runs like this in the RSV:

"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.’ "
    Strictly speaking, nothing in this prophecy came true, and certainly not as reflected in Jesus’ own career. But the point is, such ‘prophecies’ were concerned with the idea of a renewed monarchy, the hoped-for restoration of the kingship in the hereditary line of David. They were the fanciful future mythology of a people conquered by one empire after another, desperate to be freed from their yoke. Similar promises are found in passages like Isaiah 11, Ezekiel 34:23 and Psalm 89:3-4. There is not the slightest suggestion that this king would be the divine Son of God, or fill the role of Savior of the world. If this is to be regarded as God’s prophecy upon which the Jews were to understand and ultimately embrace his salvation intentions, Jews other than Mr. Lapides are perhaps to be forgiven for missing the point.
    I already called the court’s attention, in earlier cross-examination of Dr. Ben Witherington, to Jeremiah 31:31-4, which describes God’s plan for his people. It’s worth taking another look at, with a few further observations. Let’s try a different translation of it:
"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more." [RSV]
    This is one of the most prominent and direct forecasts of the future made by a biblical prophet, one involving the fundamental idea of a new covenant to replace the old. Yet it contains not a glimmer of a Messiah or a Son of God, one who would himself establish the new covenant. If God is not to be accused of being inconsistent or even of misleading his own people, how can this statement of his plans for the future not contain his Son? If salvation is eventually to be dependent on knowing and believing in Jesus, why is God’s forecast of his future requirements limited to knowing the Lord, meaning himself? If Jesus’ sacrificial death would be required to forgive sins, why does God’s reference to the cancellation of sins make no mention of it?

Forecasting the Life of Jesus

    Mr. Lapides and others often appeal to several dozen passages scattered throughout the Old Testament which allegedly forecast various features of the life and role of Jesus. A favorite is Zechariah 12:10, and we can use this to illustrate how modern critical scholars have cast off the confessional presumptions of the past and perceive that such passages applied to the circumstances and expectations of the prophet’s own time, not to some figure of the distant future. That verse in Zechariah runs like this:

"(And on that day) I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born." [RSV]
    Critical scholars are largely agreed that this passage alludes to something now lost to us, in that the rulers in Jerusalem, on the Day of the Lord ("that day"), will feel pity for one they have previously persecuted and "stabbed/pierced"—probably a prophet—someone whom they shall grieve over, as though a first-born son. Taken within its context in the prophetic book, it is clear that the writer is not speaking of first century Palestine and the Gospel story, but rather of the longstanding prophetic tradition about the coming Day of the Lord—which each prophet expected soon—when God himself would bring about the restoration of Israel and judge the nations. The things which the prophet speaks of as destined to happen do not in any way suggest the Gospel setting and expectations arising from Jesus.
    The same principle is true of another passage Christians regularly point to, Isaiah 7:14, as a prophecy of the virgin birth:
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son, and will call him Immanuel." [NEB]
    When read in its context, this can be seen as relating to the circumstances of the prophet’s time, the 8th century BCE. The young woman (the Hebrew original does not require the translation "virgin") is now with child. The passage goes on to say that before this child has grown up, certain things will happen. The context contains no elements, shows no knowledge, of a future Gospel Jesus.
    This ‘atomistic’ treatment of scripture, this lifting out of individual verses and even phrases with no thought to their context, is a practice indulged in by religious interpreters of past and present ages. It has been exposed for what it is by modern scholarship and been replaced by proper historical and scientific investigation of those texts. Mr. Lapides’ "epiphany" in finding Jesus in the Jewish scriptures has long since been discredited.
    Pierced hands and feet in Psalm 22:16? Perhaps in the Septuagint, which early Christians almost universally used, but not in the Hebrew original. The latter has been translated "hacked off, or mauled—the Hebrew has "like a lion"—my hands and my feet." Micah 5:2 foretelling Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem? Rather, it foretold the birthplace of a future governor for Israel whose roots were ancient and who would rule in peace. Nothing in this passage suggests a divine figure, much less a universal Savior or the Son of God. It is virtually certain that Matthew and Luke set their birth stories for Jesus in Bethlehem precisely because of this ‘prophecy’ in Micah.
    Here we have the secret to understanding the extensive links between the Gospel story and a wide assortment of scriptural passages. One wonders if it has crossed Mr. Strobel’s mind, or the minds of other conservative apologists, that those links exist because the evangelists constructed their story by drawing on scriptural elements, in the process known as midrash. This would be the better explanation for why those prophetic elements are so fragmented, so scattered throughout the writings, so incompatible in the use made of them with their actual Old Testament contexts.
    Thus Psalm 22:18, "they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots," is a graphic element of the crucifixion scene, not because it prophesied such an event, but because Mark took the verse and worked it into his story. The Psalms are a set of poems written at various times under various circumstances in post-Exilic Israel. Their authors are hardly to be regarded as burying cryptic prophecies of minute future details of Jesus’ life within these intimate expressions penned in response to personal experiences and current affairs. Many of them express some kind of distress and sense of persecution, including betrayal. Passages like Psalm 41:9, "Even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, has lifted up his heel against me," or Psalm 109:2-3, "For wicked men heap calumnies upon me; they have lied to my face and ringed me round with words of hate," provided some of the inspiration for Mark’s creation of the figure of the betrayer Judas, or his picture of the Jewish leaders conspiring against Jesus and producing false witnesses.
    . . . .
    And should there not, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, be something else brought to the consideration of this question? Did it not occur to Mr. Lapides to wonder why God would operate in this manner? Was the omnipotent creator of the universe playing with his creatures? To imbed in a motley collection of writings little bits and pieces of data about the future life of his Son on earth, obscured by their contexts, trivialized by their brevity, open to contradiction by their own inconsistencies, and then to expect that all people would divine and recognize a future Jesus figure who turned out to be a dramatic departure from the established expectations set up by many of those alleged prophecies? Such behavior on the part of the Deity would seem bizarre by any standard. When it is claimed that this procedure was God’s way of providing the means by which human beings could anticipate and believe in Jesus and thereby gain eternal salvation, the idea becomes positively outrageous. There is perhaps little wonder that few Jews have followed in Mr. Lapides’ footsteps.

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To: Part Three: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?


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