Steve Jones at Freethinking Faith writes of "Synoptic" Christianity versus "John" Christianity. Reading Steve's essays is always an occasion of sin for me, the sin being that of envy of his writing talents. He usefully summarizes some key differences between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus, which is sometimes described as God-centered versus Christ-centered faith.
Steve says he offers observations, not criticisms, about "John" Christians, which made me think: Fine, I'll provide the criticisms. But I quickly saw that Steve is right: Criticism isn't called for, at least not in the colloquial sense of attacking people personally. On the other hand, critique of the John Christians' view is entirely appropriate, and I propose to offer one here. I hope I do so in a spirit of charity — but to be truly charitable, one must face the facts. (In the same spirit of facing-the-facts charity, I hope others will correct me where I err.)
John Asks Us to Accept His Claims About the Creation and Jesus's Divinity Purely on His Say-So
In his Prologue, the author of John's Gospel, whoever he was, makes
sweeping, ipse-dixit factual claims (i) about how things supposedly happened at the
creation of the universe, and (ii) about Jesus's supposedly-divine
nature. By themselves, those claims are surely harmless enough; they
represent the author's struggle to make some sense of history, and of the powerful impact that Jesus had in it.
The problem is this: Not only the author, but John Christians down to the present day, urge us to act, to completely reorder our beliefs and our lives, on the basis of the author's unsupported factual claims. To illustrate how bizarre their position sounds, here's a parable:
Police: Hello, Police Department, duty sergeant speaking.
Citizen: Sergeant, this is John Doe over on Park Street. A little while ago I went outside to get the morning paper. My car window is smashed. It was fine last night when I parked it. There's a big rock and a lot of broken glass lying in the driveway right by the car.
Police: I'm sorry to hear that, sir. Do you have any idea who might have done it? .
Citizen: I know who did it: the teenager who lives up the block threw the rock at my windshield. I want him arrested and jailed.
Police: Were you there when it happened? Did you see him throw the rock?
Citizen: Well, no.
Police: Did you talk to anyone who was there, and who did see what happened?
Citizen: Uh ... no.
Police: So how do I know it happened the way you say it did?
Citizen: Trust me, I know; I'm certain he did it. You need to come out here and arrest him!
Will the police arrest the teenager on this basis? Not likely. At a minimum, they're going to insist on investigating further. And certainly no judge would ever send the teenager to jail just because John Doe is positive that the kid smashed his windshield.
The police sergeant may instinctively feel that Doe is right. That's fine. Indeed, to the extent that the sergeant's instinct about the teenager moves him to further investigation, it's a good thing.
But John Doe isn't asking for further investigation: He wants more-consequential action, namely for the police to arrest the teenager, right [bleep] now. The sergeant's only proper stance at this time is one of agnosticism (in the weak sense): he doesn't currently have enough information to warrant the action that's being requested. In legal terms, Doe's testimony "lacks foundation"; it therefore cannot be relied on to justify such a consequential decision as arresting the teenager.
(Recall, however, that life isn't a snapshot, it's a movie, and that all knowledge is provisional, subject to later change. Later on in the "movie," conceivably the police could come by additional information that corroborates John Doe's claim. In that case, the sergeant might well rethink his original decision not to arrest the teenager.)
Widespread Acceptance Doesn't Make Something True
Well, the Prologue of John is different, you say. For 2,000 years, billions of Christians have accepted the Prologue's factual assertions. That should count for something, at least.
True enough — so let's continue with the parable:
Citizen: You don't have to take my word for it about that teenager — I talked to all my neighbors just now. In fact, I've talked to everyone in town, and we're all certain he threw the rock.
Police: OK, now we may be getting somewhere. Did any of them actually see the kid do it?
Citizen: Not exactly ...
Police: Did any of them have, say, a home surveillance system that might have picked it up on videotape?
Citizen: I don't think so ...
Police: Are there any fingerprints on the car, or any other kind of traces or residue?
Citizen: Not that we can tell ...
Police: Is there any evidence — other than just y'all's hunch — that the kid is the one who threw the rock?
Citizen: Um ....
Without more, the police are not going to arrest the teenager, nor are the courts going to send him to jail. Why? Because there's no reasonable basis for confidence that John Doe and his neighbors really know what they're talking about.
(Besides, if widespread acceptance guaranteed that something was true, we'd be asking whether we should all be Roman Catholics, or Muslims, or Hindus, or something else.)
The Other Evidence Isn't Probative
"John" Christians usually point also to other evidence which, they say, establishes the truth of their claims about Jesus. But it's far from clear that the evidence supports their claims. Other explanations are at least as plausible. For example:
• Contention: "Jesus was raised from the dead, so he must have been God." The Apostles apparently had a different view. Go re-read the first few chapters of the Book of Acts, particularly the speeches Peter made in the earliest days of the church. Peter and the other apostles preached that Jesus's raising was confirmation, not that he was God, but that he was the maschiach (messiah) — the long-awaited Anointed One, the warrior-king appointed by God, who would return from heaven any day now to vanquish Israel's foes, usher in the reign of God over the world, and restore Israel to its rightful place in God's service. Also, Jesus wasn't the only person reported in the Bible to have been raised from the dead; there was also Lazarus, to name one, and I know of no one who has ever asserted that Lazarus was God. So Jesus's having been raised from the dead, in itself, wouldn't even begin to establish that he was God.
• Contention: "Jesus himself said he was God." C.S. Lewis famously said that, having made the claims he did, Jesus was either liar, lunatic, or Lord. But there's ample reason to be agnostic about whether Jesus really made these claims.
The Gospel of John does indeed assert that Jesus implicitly identified himself with God. It sets out long quotations of speeches in which he supposedly did this.
Problem: The Passage of Time. One problem with John's claims about what Jesus supposedly said is the long time that elapsed before the Fourth Gospel was written. Scholars generally think that John's Gospel was written some 50 to 60 years after the fact. (Some argue for an even-earlier date, some for an even-later one.) That passage of time presents a real problem, because we know that memory can be a very tricky thing. For example:
- People often tend to perceive events in ways that fit with their other experiences and biases. As time passes, they tend to remember them in much the same way.
- People tend to disregard facts that don't fit in with their own views.
- Memories can be displaced by wishful thinking: People can remember events in the way they wish they had occurred, not necessarily the way they really happened.
- Stories often mutate, sometimes in the very first telling.
These phenomena are so well-known to psychologists (especially including those practical psychologists known as litigation counsel) as to be virtually beyond dispute. These phenomena alone give us reason to wonder whether the author of John accurately reported what Jesus said, as opposed to what the author thought, or even wished, Jesus had said.
Problem: Possible Author Bias. In assessing the Fourth Gospel's claims about what Jesus supposedly said, we must deal with questions of possible author bias. The author seems to go out of his way to puff up the alleged high standing of "the disciple whom Jesus loved," almost as if he was anxious about whether his readers would take him seriously. His efforts being to mind the Synoptic Gospels' accounts of how John and his brother pleaded to be put at Jesus's right and left hand when he came into his kingdom; even their mother got into the act. The Fourth Gospel's author also gets in some not-so-subtle jabs at Peter and Thomas, both of whom are portrayed almost as rivals of the belove disciple. All this raises obvious questions whether the author of John was truly telling it like it was, or whether his tale might have been influenced by an agenda to advance, an axe to grind, or even a score to settle.
Problem: Inconsistency with Other Accounts. It's noteworthy that John's accounts of Jesus's speeches are significantly "out of synch" with the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, and that the Fourth Gospel doesn't even mention the Synoptics.
Suppose that one of General Eisenhower's young aides during the D-Day invasion were to write a biography of Eisenhower today. In his account, the now-elderly aide includes long quotations of things Eisenhower supposedly said more than 60 years ago. These quotations are markedly different from anything attributed to Ike in his other extant biographies; the now-elderly aide's version doesn't even mention these other accounts. The aide's biography, by the way, repeatedly claims that he, the aide, was Ike's favorite, and also gets in some jabs at Walter Bedell Smith, Ike's chief of staff.
On these facts, it would be unreasonable for us to take the aide's word for it concerning what Eisenhower supposedly said. So, too, would it be unreasonable for us to take John's word for it concerning what Jesus supposedly said.
Conclusion: Respectful Agnosticism is the Proper Stance About Jesus's Supposed Claims of Divinity. If we face these facts — as we must — we come to an unavoidable conclusion: Concerning whether Jesus claimed to be divine, the proper stance is one of respectful agnosticism. Specifically, we don't know enough to justify relying on those alleged claims in making any decisions of consequence. Before doing so, we would first want more than a little assurance that the "transcripts" in the Gospel of John had been safeguarded somehow against the ubiquitous human failings discussed above. We have no such assurance.
(Two related points: First, there are those who claim that the Holy Spirit has guaranteed the scriptural writings against material error. They have the same lack-of-foundation problem that the John Christians do about the Prologue: we have no reason to to accept their claim purely on their say-so. Second, even if Jesus had indeed claimed to be divine, that wouldn't establish that he was, nor would the stories of his miracle-working, nor even the stories of his having been raised from the dead. When it comes to making decisions of consequence, here again the proper stance about Jesus's alleged divinity is a respectful agnosticism.)
• Contention: "Jesus fulfilled many prophecies of the Old Testament." This doesn't really relate so much to the Gospel of John per se, but it's frequently asserted by John Christians. My response: It's apparent that some folks in the early church combed through the Hebrew Bible looking for potentially-useful prophecies. They quoted some of them grossly out of context, and then trumpeted the purported "fulfillment" of the prophecies in Jesus. To be blunt, these folks did a really lousy job. This is easily demonstrated by simply checking their quotations against the actual text of prophecies they cite. If a high school or college student were to do such a poor job in writing a research paper, the instructor would give the paper a failing grade; if a lawyer were to write a legal brief like that, opposing counsel's response would rip the brief to shreds.
For example: Matthew 2 asserts that the Holy Family fled to Egypt in order to fulfill what was prophesied in Hosea 11.1: "out of Egypt I have called my son." In the actual passage in Hosea, however, the son is clearly not a savior, nor even a mashiach, but a metaphor for Israel during the Exodus. (Moreover, the fact that no other gospel mentions the flight to Egypt, along with other questionable passages, raises the suspicion that the author of Matthew was not above "adjusting" the historical account to fit his agenda.)
Another example: According to Acts, Peter argued that in Psalm 16.8-11, David supposedly foretold God’s rescue of the mashiach from the grave — and since God had just raised Jesus from the dead, it stood to reason that Jesus must have been the one of whom David spoke (Acts 2.24–31). Unfortunately, Peter’s argument is pretty off the wall: Even a cursory reading of the whole psalm shows that it doesn't predict that God will rescue a future Anointed One, but instead that he will protect the psalmist himself.
Still another example: In Acts 8.32-25, Philip seems to tell the Ethiopian eunuch that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was a foretelling of Jesus. But a plain reading of that chapter of Isaiah in the context of the surrounding chapters (49 through 54) suggests that the suffering servant is a metaphor for Israel, conquered and exiled in Babylonian captivity, or possibly even Isaiah's author himself, mistreated and scorned by his countrymen.
Bottom-line: It's very difficult to put any stock in the John Christians' claim that Jesus's life and death fulfilled prophecies of the Hebrew Bible.
• Contention: "Nearly all the Apostles died for their beliefs, and no one would knowingly die for a lie." The quick response is: This proves nothing: throughout history, people have have been willing to die for things they believed to be true; we see that even today in Islamist suicide bombers.
The More Consequential the Decision, the More Confident We Want to Be About the Supporting Evidence
The more important the consequences of a proposed decision, the more confident we want to be that we have correctly assessed the situation. EXAMPLE: Suppose my doctor says I have a cold and that I should rest and drink lots of liquids. I'll act on his advice without a second thought. But now suppose he says I have cancer, and that I need to have my colon removed and to wear a colostomy bag the rest of my life. That's a different matter entirely. Before I turn myself over to the surgeons, I'm going to want to know a lot more about how the doctor reached his conclusion, and I'm also probably going to want a second opinion.
(This eminently-reasonable epistemological prudence goes back at least as far as Torah, which prohibited putting anyone to death except on the testimony of not just one, but two witnesses; see Deut. 17.6, 19.15 and Num. 35.30.)
It's difficult to think of a life decision more consequential than that taken by the John Christians, that of proclaiming that Jesus was the Creator of the universe, made man. Before deciding to make such a proclamation ourselves, we should first make sure we're very, very confident about our assessment of the situation.
Unfortunately, the evidence cited by the John Christians simply doesn't inspire that kind of confidence. And so, like Steve Jones, I can't be a John Christian.