Today we post on our Pages (find the category in our margin) Jillian Becker’s review of The New Testament.
Here is part of it:
The New Testament is a work of fiction, based on the life, death, and oral teaching of a Jewish hasid (pious man) who, according to its chronicles, lived between the reigns of the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius.
Almost all its contents were originally composed in a demotic Greek known as koine, but it has been translated into most other languages. (Quotations in this review are taken from the King James authorized version.)
A compilation of writings by many authors, only one of whom is identifiable with any certainty, and all of whom were long dead when the anthology was first published in the late 2nd. century C.E., it is a tendentious production, its chief purpose being to support the contention of the Catholic Church that the pious man it names “Jesus”, was “God” incarnated as a human being.
Although the collection is purported to be a factual record, the documents were not selected for their quality of research, accuracy of reportage, or their credibility, but to serve this purpose. So the book is full of contradictions, and transparent distortions of known history. The strain this puts on a critical reader’s credulity is such that he must soon realize how impossible it is to distinguish any facts it might contain from the mass of obvious fabrications, though some of the contradictions give hints of truths covered up, and plausible guesses have been made by historians as to what might actually have been done and said by the characters whose existence is recorded. Some historians have used this useful formula: if a passage goes against the manifest purpose of the authors and compilers, its retention in the narrative might be because it was too well known to be omitted, and so has a higher probability of being an authentic quotation or recollection.
It would be a tedious task (and would take volumes, as it has) to point out all the contradictions, inconsistencies, and multitudinous implausibilities in the assembled documents; but some are so egregious that they may easily be spotted by an attentive reader, and few could escape a skeptic’s cold eye. … [A few examples are given.]
The Catholic Church made and published the book when it did because one of its many rival Christian Churches – led by Marcion, a rich ship-owner with a following possibly equal in size to its own – had gathered documents written in the late first and early second centuries – ten “letters of Paul” and most of the gospel of Luke – and published them in or about 140 C.E. as a testament of the faith. The Catholic Church regarded the Church of Marcion as heretical, but understood how powerful the existence of such a testament could be, and so produced its own orthodox version: the same “letters of Paul” and all four gospels at first, and a little later, around 200 C.E., more of the letters written by Paul or attributed to him, and the Acts of the Apostles, and an “Apocalypse of Peter”. It wasn’t until 367 C.E. that the twenty-seven “books” of The New Testament were recorded by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, as being as they are now, in the same order – which is not the order in which they were produced.
Marcion was a devotee of Paul, the originating author of Christianity, and like the antinomian Paul he wanted the Jewish scriptures – containing the Law which the coming of the Christ, in their conviction, had superseded – to be consigned to oblivion, and any connection between Christianity and Judaism to be buried. But the fathers of the Catholic Church came to realize that their religion could not do without that much older compilation of fictions, the Jewish bible; could not do without the moral law that it contained, which they separated from its ritualistic observances; and as Jesus was their “Christ” – that word being the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” – they needed the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming.
But Jesus, they believed, was much more than the Jewish idea of the Messiah. He was what Paul had said he was: the immortal “Son of God” born as a man “to save mankind from sin and death”. That was and is Christian doctrine. The Jews believed their Messiah would be a mortal man of great power, an anointed king who would free them from foreign subjugation and restore them, “the Children of Israel”, to independence and glory as in the days of David and Solomon. Jesus was obviously not their Messiah since he had come and gone without their being freed from Roman rule; and far from being restored to independence and glory, they lost their country, were scattered over the known world, and forever thereafter cruelly persecuted by all and sundry – especially the Christians.
How does The New Testament characterize God Incarnate as a teacher and preacher? Its portrait of Jesus places him on the sentimental side of rabbinic tradition. He is given nothing to say that was new except a mystical statement that bread is his body and wine his blood (a harking back to paganism that occurred to St. Paul as a revelation). He tells, as was the rabbinic way, fables with moral messages. Some of the messages are unintelligible (Matthew 20:16,, “So the last shall be first and the first last.”; Matthew 13:12, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”. ) He utters no profundities – nothing comparable to numerous utterances of the Stoics, for instance – and falls far short of the intellectual stature of such rabbinic thinkers as his near contemporary Hillel and the second century Akiba. (Hillel was the gentle carpenter rabbi who turned the idealistic Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you”, into the far more practical rule not to do anything to any one else that you would not want done to you. That, he said, was the whole essence of the Law. Akiba’s insistence on free will – that you are always free to choose between good and evil – is a direct contradiction of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.) But Jesus’s lack of profundity is not surprising. His authors were not men with great gifts of the mind, and they could not endow him with a genius that they themselves did not possess.
To the extent that Jesus is made to vary traditional Jewish moral teaching it is to shift its stress. Where the most important value in Judaism was justice (or “righteousness”), in Christianity it is love. The mission of mankind was changed from the necessary moral task of trying to be just to all equally, to the impossibly idealistic one to love all equally. The change softened and sentimentalized the theistic idea. This was a God who suffered; a God in the form, for a time, of a dependent infant; a God who forgave without limit. Most of the authors wanted to present him as a preacher of peace, though this aim is undermined by his saying (Matthew 10:34) “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” – one of the statements that may be genuine precisely because it does not accord with the intentions of the Church. And one of the great inconsistencies of the new doctrine is that this forgiving, pacific, loving, merciful God, contrasting himself to the vengeful God of the Jews, will yet be the ultimate judge of everyman, and condemn sinners to the eternal anguish of a Hell more terrible than anything Judaism had envisaged.
All in all, there is little to recommend this book in itself: it testifies to absurdities; much of it (especially the Epistles and The Acts) is pedantic and tedious; it prescribes behavior contrary to human nature and yet declares failure punishable by an eternity of agony; and it provides no important insights. It lacks, or has very little good poetry (just one chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is a fine poem, and certainly not written by the pedantic St. Paul to whom it is ascribed!), the quantity and excellence of which is the redeeming feature of the so-called Old Testament. Its most impressive part, if judged as a work of literature, is Revelation, which seems to have been inspired directly by the vivid fantasies of the Old Testament’s book of Daniel.
But – mirabile dictu – it has had, and continues to have, an immense effect in the real world. Millions still believe its narratives to be true and its teaching to be superlatively good. Untold numbers have died in the last nineteen hundred years defending interpretations of its messages. It has contributed importantly to the culture of the West, and not only the West. Whether its contribution has been more enriching than detrimental remains a matter of controversy, but either way it cannot be ignored, and should be read by all who would count themselves educated.
But then again, you hardly need to read it if you live in the Western world. You cannot easily escape it. It is with us whether we like it or not.