Alpha Course 2: Who is Jesus?

I was unable to attend the third week of alpha, but I understand that the theme is “Who is Jesus?”. Alpha has a half-hour Nicky Gumbell video on this title, which is presumably what everyone else watched, so I caught up on that at home. (EDIT: Actually it was the same talk by Stephen Foster, with a different cake as a visual aid). I was very sorry to miss out on the group discussion which followed as I’m interested in how much people take this at face value and how much thought they give it.

There’s a lot I could say about the video, but I’ll concentrate on the main points which interested me.

First is the claim of evidence for Jesus outside of the Bible. In my view, whether or not the Bible is historical or fictional, or some combination of the two is a really important question. It’s something that the rest of the course and many of the subsequent claims depend. I guess that’s why it’s covered first.

One of my group helpfully posted a link on the Facebook group to Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ. As it happens, I’ve already read this book a few years ago as well as a critical review of it in the form of Earl Doherty’s Challenging the verdict. To be honest, even Strobel’s book alone made me less convinced of the historical accuracy of the Bible. Back when I counted myself as a Christian, I’d always assumed that the gospels were written very close to the time of the events, by Jesus’ disciples, but this is not the case. The earliest gospel is thought to be Mark, written around 60 CE – some 30 years after the events. Even assuming that it was written by someone who personally witnessed the events, the delay in writing would cause a lot of errors and uncertainty. I can’t accurately recall conversations from my wedding day, less than ten years ago. Anyone trying to think back 30 years would’ve had to be vague or embellish their memories with invented details.

Josephus and Tactitus are mentioned as historical sources from outside the Bible. Both of these are covered in reviews of Lee Strobel’s book, but it’s worth noting that even the carefully-picked scholars he interviewed have to admit that the writings of Josephus at least contained “interpolations” by Christian authors, while other scholars believe the passages to be inserted in their entirety.

That surprised me. Even the committed Christian scholars acknowledge that early Christians were not above doctoring historical documents to bolster the case for their religion. That’s a massive admission and one which, for me, totally invalidates Josephus’s writing as evidence of Jesus and casts doubt on others. Add these dubious writings with the surprising silence of many contemporary writers and a mythical Jesus seems more likely. I guess Gumbell and Foster must know all this, but they still present the passage from Josephus’s Antiquities as if it was strong evidence. It makes me wonder what else they’ve misrepresented.

Another interesting thing they mention the Liar Lunatic Lord trilemma. You only have to look as far as Wikipedia to see there’s a conspicuously-absent fourth option – Legend. This is the possibility that the New Testament’s account of Jesus was at least partly fictional, that words were put into his mouth by later writers or those who passed on the legend by word of mouth. I guess this omission comes from the Christian assumption that the Bible is historical rather than mythical, which part of the question this is trying to answer in the first place.

Finally, Stephen Foster states that Jesus was the first to tell people to love their enemies and that no one has improved on his moral teachings.

On the contrary, there are multiple examples from across the world, hundreds or thousands of years before Jesus, expressing the sentiment of loving one’s enemy. For example:

Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy.
– Akkadian Councils of Wisdom (from the ancient Babylonian civilization that existed two millennia before Jesus was born)

Admittedly I’m not a historian and I haven’t looked in detail at the age of these texts, but I think it’s at least plausible that they didn’t all get this idea from Jesus. I don’t know whether Nicky Gumbel and Stephen Foster are ignorant of these other writers or deliberately misleading people with these claims, but either way it casts doubt on what they’re saying. I think they both trained as barristers, so maybe they’d excuse themselves by saying that in fact no one had previously used the exact words “Love your enemies”. That’s still disingenuous in my book.

The next claim was that no one has ever improved on Jesus’ moral teachings. From some of what’s written in the Bible, Jesus could be said to be quite progressive for his day, but I think we can also say there are some serious omissions. Most people today would consider the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, animal welfare and the universal declaration of human rights as moral progress, but as far as I know you can’t find these ideas in the Gospels and in some cases could be said to flatly contradict the Bible. Otherwise you might have expected early Christians to endorse these ideas. There are also plenty of things Jesus said which more progressive Christians would disagree with, or at least have a hard time justifying.

I think it’s fair to say that most people could improve on this kind of morality.

All of which leaves me rather disappointed with the Alpha course’s official content. Still, I’m hugely enjoying the group discussions which follow.

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