Our post today – Easter Sunday, 2012 – is the next in our series of essays on the invention and early history of Christianity, following A man named Jesus or something like that (September 23, 2011); The invention of Christianity (October 28, 2011); Tread on me: the making of Christian morality (December 22, 2011); St.Paul: portrait of a sick genius (January 7, 2012); Pauline Christianity: a mystical salad (February 26, 2012).
This essay is about the gospels. Christians often say that atheists don’t know much about Christianity and don’t read the bible. In our case they are wrong.
The gospel stories of Jesus’s life – almost everything they tell about the man whom St. Paul deified except the manner of his death – are fictions of laughable transparency.
All religions need their myths, usually set in a distant past. The gospel-writers had to invent historical facts of their own era. In other words, to spin tendentious lies, addressed to gullibility and ignorance, around events within living memory.
Their stories had to achieve three main ends: to prove that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah; to establish that he was the divine Son of God; and to shift the blame for his execution from the Romans to the Jews.
Paul converted dozens, or hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand to his new religion, Christianity. The Romans classed them as a Jewish sect. After 70 CE when the uprising in Judea was crushed and the Temple destroyed by Titus, the Christians felt an urgent need to put not just distance but implacable enmity between themselves and the Jews. Titus’s triumphal parade through Rome, with his loot from the Temple and his Jewish captives, was probably the event that prompted “Mark”, a man or group of Christians living in Rome, to set about composing, in haste and fear, an account of Jesus’s life and teaching that would dissociate Christianity from Judaism and distinguish the Christians from the Jews.
Mark’s was the first gospel, started some twenty years after Paul had begun to preach. Matthew’s and then Luke’s followed, about ten and fifteen years later, taking much of their material from Mark.  Over the next hundred years they were all subjected to revision and interpolation. They are supremely malicious documents, grounding the myths of the new religion in the false inculpation of the race to which the man had belonged whom the authors worshiped as their god. That the Christians felt this to be an existential necessity may explain, but hardly excuse, the immorality of their ploy: making a ransom bid for their own security at the expense of the Jews. Nothing more thoroughly exposes the shallowness of the Christian commitment to love, than this demonizing of the people out of whose religion theirs was born. When it came to ferocious denunciation, the acolytes of the new God of Love were a match for the prophets of the old God of Vengeance. The hatred would be sustained throughout the history of Christianity.
St. Paul wanted the Church to repudiate the Jewish scriptures, insisting that the Law had been superseded by the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But the Church fathers found it impossible to relinquish them as the pre-history of Christianity. They found they could not, after all, do without the old moral law. And they needed the prophecies in order to claim the title of Messiah for their Christ.
The life they made up for Jesus fulfilled all relevant prophecies. An example of how they worked this is the story of the Birth. Although one of the few things known about the crucified man is that he had lived in Nazareth in the Galilee, Matthew and Luke assert that he was born in Bethlehem, and Luke spins a tale to explain how it happened, so as to fulfill a prophesy in the Book of Micah . He explains that Augustus Caesar ordered a census to be taken throughout the empire, and the rules of the census required every head of a household to return to the place of his birth for the period being surveyed.  This is patent nonsense. The whole point of a census is for the ruling authority to know where its subjects are and what is their standing at a particular moment. Re-arranging everything, having families travel hither and thither, scurrying about all over an empire before they provide information, would defeat the purpose. But Luke alleges such a rule, has the husband of Jesus’s mother be a native of Bethlehem, and so has him return there with his pregnant wife. On the night they arrive Jesus is born. Prophecy fulfilled.
To shift the blame for the crucifixion from the Romans who did the deed to the Jews who did not, the story tellers have the High Priest find Jesus guilty of blasphemy for not denying that he called himself the king of the Jews (though if he had called himself that it would not have been blasphemous) and hand him over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, to be executed for it.  The procurator is made extremely reluctant to condemn him to death, but “the Jews” insist that he must be crucified. Matthew even has a crowd of Jews – speaking for all Jews, it is implied – vow to bear the guilt of his execution forever: “his blood be upon us and our children”.  (There lies the root of the Holocaust.)
In particular, those Jews who had been the companions of the executed man had to be discredited. They were still annoyingly hanging about after his death, holding on to their belief that he was the Messiah (but not divine), and that he would return to complete his political mission. They formed a sect among many sects within Judaism.  Nothing they believed was considered blasphemous – which a belief in the divinity of Jesus would have been. Although they were dispersed after the fall of the Temple, ceased to proselytize (as the Jews did generally), and so became less of a living threat to Christian credibility, explanation was still needed for the Christian record as to why they had not recognized Jesus as God in his lifetime. So the writers of the gospels show them to have been too stupid to understand what Jesus revealed to them – without apparently considering why Jesus chose disciples who were such dunces, setting himself up to be frustrated and let down time after time by their incomprehension, cowardice and treachery. 
It is in John’s gospel that Jesus most insistently declares that he is the Son of God, and he is made to be in constant bitter conflict with “the Jews”. This gospel was written at the earliest near the end of the first century and more probably in the second century. It is a mystical disquisition consisting largely of tales of miracles, denigration of the Jews, and tendentious discourses bearing on controversy within the Church. John’s Jesus is a long-winded bore, repetitively explaining that he could only perform his miracles because God the Father gave him the power; an indication that Christian theologians must have been arguing about whether Jesus, being God, was omnipotent while he was on earth. It is one of the many questions that the extra-absurd theology of Christianity inevitably gave rise to and cannot be answered.
The gospels were written to solve problems, not to record facts. As difficulties were perceived they were dealt with. The popular cult of John the Baptist was a stumbling block to the followers of Jesus, so a story was devised in which John baptizes Jesus and recognizes him as one who is far above him. This is so important to Mark that he begins his story with it.  The wide appeal of Zoroastrianism in the eastern Roman Empire had to be similarly appeased, so three Zoroastrian priests, or Magi, travel from the East to pay homage to the newborn Jesus.  To prove that Jesus had divine powers – whether his own or worked through him by “the Father” – he had to perform miracles: so in the stories he calms tumultuous seas, heals the sick, cures blindness and deafness, raises the dead, casts out evil spirits, works success with getting food, feeds multitudes – the usual sort of miracles found in the legends of numerous magicians. 
The gospels had to say what the fictitious Jesus taught. The writers cannot be blamed for creating a God-man who said nothing original or profound, since they themselves were not specially gifted men. They were not highly educated: they wrote in demotic Greek. The transparency of their contrivances suggests that they were not even very intelligent. To invent a great thinker one has to be a great thinker, and none of them was.
They lifted some of his wisdom from the rabbinical stock: gnomic wise-saws and injunctions against showing off your virtue and piety.  Much was adapted or freshly composed to promote the Pauline Christian values of self-abnegation, meekness, other-worldliness, poverty, continence, the glorification of suffering. Revisions presented in the form “You have heard it said … but I say unto you…”, were to establish that the new religion of Jesus Christ was doctrinally different from the old, superseded it, and was morally superiority to it.
New was the creation of Hell. Again one notices the hypocrisy of a religion that preaches forgiveness, love, and mercy, yet invents an eternal punishment of unremitting agony for those whom Christ rejects.
But rejects on what grounds? The gospels have Jesus teach tolerance of evil; not only must you appease evil by passively enduring persecution and practicing forgiveness, you must permit it by abandoning moral judgment and putting up no resistance to it. Forgive, judge not, and “Resist not evil.” 
Among Jesus’s messages, there are sayings that go against the drift and purposes of the gospel-writers. These may well have been words spoken by the real man, remembered and repeated by word of mouth, and well enough known to the converts that their omission could have roused doubt over the authenticity of everything the writers claimed to be recording about Jesus. They include a firm statement that the Law will never be superseded: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled”  And he orders his followers not to preach to the Gentiles but only to “the lost sheep of Israel”.  Yet that is the very thing Paul did: preach to the Gentiles. And what he preached was that the Law was obsolete.
And there is this: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”  It is one of the few hints in the gospels that all was not peaceful in Judea in Jesus’s lifetime. Another sign is the presence of at least one dagger-wielding Zealot among Jesus Christ’s own followers.  It is notable that this rebel, Judas Iscariot (Judah the dagger-man), is the same character who is made to betray Jesus to the Romans, so that his evil violence contrasts with Jesus’s implied peacefulness. Judas Iscariot may well have been one of the real Jesus’s band. Behind the fictional teacher, preacher, healer, miracle worker and God, a shadowy figure of no use to Christianity can be glimpsed: a man who claimed his mission was not to send peace but a sword.
This shadowy figure had a cause to fight for. It could only have been the liberation of his people from Roman rule, which was the task of the Messiah. He came to believe that that was who he was, that he would free Judea and be crowned king. The defeat of the Romans would happen by means of a miracle, worked by his God through him. He had only to pray, take certain ritual actions, and the Romans would go. How? Sicken and die, or convert en masse to Judaism, or sail away, or vanish into the air perhaps? This was no common religious fanaticism. It was insane delusion.
What sort of man can believe such a thing? A madman.
In the Christian story, Jesus tells his disciples to arm themselves; if necessary, to sell a garment and use the money to buy a sword.  Only two of them do it. They all go with him to the foot of the Mount of Olives. He prays fervently.  What next?
Taking as a starting point the fairly certain fact that Jesus was executed as a rebel leader, and reasoning plausibly as to what might have led up to that event, this was the probable sequence of events: Jesus sends one of his band to raise alarm – by reporting a disturbance, perhaps – and bring a contingent of the enemy to the chosen place. He and the rest of the band wait, convinced that when the Romans come they will need only the two swords they have , a blow or two will be struck, and God will do the rest. 
The Roman guards approach. Those of the Jesus band who have swords strike at random, and that’s enough of the rough stuff. The moment has arrived. The miracle must happen now!
But no miracle happens. Jesus is disappointed, but is sure it will yet happen, because he is insane. And he goes on expecting it until he is nailed to a cross as a rebel leader.  Only when he is nearly dead he despairs and asks his God why he has forsaken him – quoting Psalm 22, being a Pharisee well versed in the Jewish scriptures. 
His disciples must also have been insane to believe he would bring off the miraculous liberation. Irrationally if not insanely, they went on believing he would yet make it happen even after he had been executed. If they had not, Paul would probably not have heard of him, and the history of the last 2,000 years would have been entirely different.
Jillian Becker April 8, 2012
 Many (mostly German) scholars say that the information in Mark (the first gospel), and so in Matthew and Luke, derived from a lost source they label “Q”. It stands for “Quelle”, the German for “source”. There is no evidence that “Q” existed, and whether it did or not makes no difference to what is known: that, following Paul’s preaching about a Savior-God who lived for a while on earth as a man, a number of people wrote stories about his life.
 Micah 5:2.
 Luke 2:1-6. A census was ordered in 6 CE, when Quirinius, the governor of Syria mentioned by Luke, was appointed. It was in preparation for imposing new taxes, and marked the beginning of the Zealots’ rebellion in Judea against direct Roman rule. It did not require people to give their information from the place where they were born.
 Matth 26:59-66
 Matth 27: 11-25
 Jesus’s brother James – according to both St. Paul and Josephus – was the leader of this Jewish sect after Jesus’s crucifixion. He believed what Jesus had believed, and far from being accused of blasphemy, he was held in high esteem and prayed often in the Temple. The sect, known as the Nazarenes or Ebionites, was still in existence in the fourth century.
 Luke 20:2-8, 22:45, 24:13-27; Matth 26:40-50; Mark 14: 66-72; John 8:27-28, 12:37-40
 Mark 1:4-11
 Matth 2:1-2
 See for instance The Myth of the Magus by E.M Butler Cambridge Univ. Press 1948, which traces the repeated pattern of the Magician figure – among whom he includes Christ – from ancient to modern times. Among the most frequently related magical or “miraculous” deeds of the hero/sage/god/magus are: calming tumultuous seas; healing disease and curing blindness/deafness; raising the dead; casting out evil spirits; success with hunting and fishing; feeding multitudes.
 Most of the teaching of the biblical Jesus summed up in this essay is to be found in Matth 5,6,7
 Matth 5:39. Yet according to a parable in Matth 22, a man is rightly cast into outer darkness for not being properly dressed when he has been rounded up in a random crowd and made to attend a wedding. And in Matth 5:22 Jesus says that if you call your brother a fool you will be in danger of hell fire.
 Matth 5:18
 Matth 10:5-6
 Matth 10:34
 See note 3. According to Hyam Maccoby in Revolution in Judea, Ocean Books London 1973 page 159, no fewer than five of Jesus’s closest followers named in the gospels were probably real men and Zealots: Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot, James and John known as Boanerges (“sons of thunder”), and Simon known as Barjonah [“outlaw” or “rebel”]. The last is the Simon whom Matthew (16:18) has Jesus rename Peter, meaning “rock”, because he says he is the rock on whom he will build his church.
 Luke 22:36
 Luke 22:44 “He prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were drops of blood falling to the ground.”
 Luke 22.23
 Hyam Maccoby, in Revolution in Judea, also theorizes that the real Jesus expected God to work a miracle through him that night to liberate the Jews from Roman rule, but does not believe that he was mad. He believes he was accepted by many Jews as their king, that a coronation was enacted, he was ceremonially anointed, and was hailed as king by a vast crowd when he rode into Jerusalem. But if that had happened, Josephus would surely have written about it, as he wrote about other leaders who were believed by large numbers of people to be the Messiah, each in his turn.
 Matth 27:35-37. The inscription on the cross “King of the Jews’’ was an explanation of why he was executed: for attempting to overthrow the Roman government of Judea, for which crucifixion was the prescribed penalty.
 Matth 27:46