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: They have their God “die”; really, literally, “die” – only to rise again bodily three days later. They have him quote lines from Psalm 22 of the Jewish bible when he is nailed to the cross, crying out to a deity that is clearly not himself: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” They have him helplessly suffer the agony of crucifixion though they maintain that their God is omnipotent.
Perhaps the most important contradiction, since it has given rise to millennia of controversy, is between a statement attributed to the protagonist in the document putatively written by “Matthew”, and various statements in letters attributed to “Paul”. The first has Jesus declare that the law will never be abrogated or superseded; the others say the law is dead and has been superseded.
Matthew 5:8: “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
Whereas Paul, in Letter to the Romans (6:14): “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace”; and (7:1-14): “Ye … are become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto motions of sins which were by the law, were at work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of the spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.”
The epistles of Paul are an important part of the book that the Christians compiled towards the end of the second century as their bible, calling it the New Testament. It consists (though not in this order) of Paul’s letters, and letters ascribed to Paul but not (scholars believe) written by him, collectively titled “The Epistles of St. Paul”; a narrative about Paul’s journeys as a preacher of the new religion by a putative companion of his, a doctor named Luke, titled “Acts of the Apostles”; a dramatic and terrifying apocalypse called Revelation ascribed to an author named John; and four accounts, of what Jesus said and did and what happened to him, three of them very similar plus one identifying Jesus with the “Logos” that emanated from the Godhead in Greek philosophy. These four books are called the gospels. The three “synoptic” gospels, ascribed to named authors but obviously the work of several hands, are concerned with the life of Jesus, in which Paul seems to have had very little interest. The gospel stories were composed decades after the death of Jesus. The narrators did not share Paul’s wish to discard the law, and the works of fiction which the Church dubbed the “Old Testament”. Judaism, they found, was not easily got rid of. They felt compelled to fit the stories of the earthly life of their Christ to Messianic prophesies in the Jewish scriptures. For instance, to say that he was born of a virgin because the prophet Isaiah had said that a virgin (though maybe Isaiah just meant “a young woman”) would give birth to a son whom she would call “God with us”. And he had to be born in Bethlehem because in the book of Micah it was written that out of Bethlehem “shall he come forth … that is to be ruler in Israel”. But they had a problem to overcome in that it was an already accepted part of the story that Jesus’s home was Nazareth in the Galilee; so they invented a tale that the Emperor Augustus had ordered every head of a household in the Roman empire to return to the place of his birth to be counted in a census, so Jesus’s father, Joseph (who was not really his father in their stories because, they believed, God was) had to journey to Bethlehem, which, the gospelers said, was his native town. It would have been an absurd census, since a census is always intended to be a snapshot of how a population is actually situated at a particular historical moment, and such a purpose-defeating requirement was never made by any ruler, Roman or otherwise, as far as any historian has been able to discover. But that this might be implausible did not trouble the gospelers. It was more important to them that their readers should believe without question that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah than that they might doubt the (far more easily verified) assertion that Augustus had sent out such an order.
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.
Jillian Becker August 21, 2016