How Christianity Was Created

by James Wallace Harris, 2/26/20

I am a lifelong atheist, but I’m not the kind of atheist who goes around trying to convince folks that God does not exist. Religion serves an important function for many people, giving them belief, community, morality, and solace. For some strange reason, I’m an atheist that enjoys reading about the history of Christianity, The Bible, and Jesus. Countless books have been written on these subjects, but most have been theological. I have no interest in those books. What I like to read are books by historians trying to figure out what actually happened two thousand years ago. It’s a magnificent cold case, a tremendous scholarly puzzle.

One of my favorite authors writing about this history is Bart D. Ehrman. I’m currently listening to Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, one of his older books from 1999, but it recently came out on audio. Next month I’m looking forward to reading Ehrman’s new book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife when it comes out (3/31/20). But as of now, I’ve read:

For a historical figure that we know practically nothing about, Ehrman has found a great deal to write about. The fun of all this historical sleuthing is putting the clues together in various ways hoping for new insights. Most believers assume we know a whole lot about Jesus but from a scholar’s point of view, most of the common beliefs about Jesus are made up.

What Ehrman and other historical scholars are trying to do is figure out who Jesus was before he died. What we have are writings that began appearing decades after his death. The goal of all the research is to examine various written memories of Jesus to determine if anything remembered might be true of the actual person. People have been making up stuff about Jesus for two thousand years. The assumption is the oldest documents might have the best clues. That’s what Ehrman’s books are about, going over the old documents, again and again, comparing them against each other. Reading Ehrman also teaches us about the methodologies of historians and the limitations of memory and writing.

Ehrman mostly focuses on first-century documents, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, a few other documents, and their possible ur-texts we don’t have. For a period of about 20-30 years after Jesus died his followers collected his sayings. We assume they were only passed down orally at first. Eventually, they were written down, but we don’t have copies of those sayings. Later on, the gospel writers used those collections of sayings to create the four Gospels. However, the information in each varies. And the newest Gospel, John, reports a great deal of information not reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I tend to agree with many historians that ideas about Jesus first appearing in the Gospel of John were made up.

In the second and third centuries, many more gospels were written and scholars tend to discredit them for various reasons, but they do offer interesting clues. The assemblers of the New Testament also favored the oldest gospels as authentic and considered the newer gospels as heretical. But if we examine all the gospels, there are reasons to doubt all of them because we see that various followers had different agendas in composing their gospels, and none of their reasons seem related to the historical Jesus. Every gospel was written claiming who Jesus was and what he taught. They are all interpretations with a purpose that fit the times in which they were written.

Thus historians are left trying to figure out what Jesus actually said from things he didn’t write down himself, but was written down by many different people decades later. This is why we have so many different conceptions about Jesus. It’s like saying there are 1,000 different biographies of Jesus and one of them could be right. But there’s also a good chance they might all be wrong.

Ehrman and other historians assume it’s possible to deduce the truth. I’m not sure it is.

The Jesus Seminar took a different approach. It asked theologians and scholars to vote on every saying by Jesus hoping some kind of consensus might reveal the truth. But after 2,000 years, can we really expect to find the truth? If you want to know more of their results read The Five Gospels.

What is revealed from all this study is how Christianity began. Jesus’ followers made him divine and determined the scope of his divinity. Ideas about the afterlife, God, and Heaven were all invented long after Jesus died. There is no evidence that Jesus believed any of it. Christ and Christianity are what his followers invented.

What I wish Ehrman (or some other historian) would write is a chronology of how various Christian dogmas emerged, when, and if possible who created the idea first.

I tend to accept Ehrman’s theories about who the historical Jesus was and what he preached, but I think there’s still room to doubt we can even know that much. And I don’t know if it matters. I think we might be giving Jesus too much credit. Both believers and atheists like me want Jesus to be someone wonderful. And believers want Jesus to be someone who validates the truths they want to prove true. I guess I just want to know what the guy really said and how it got distorted.

There’s a good chance that almost everything we call Christianity was invented between 50-350 CE. We don’t really know when Jesus actually died, probably 30-36 CE. Paul started preaching in the 50s. He got to meet some of the disciples that knew Jesus, but we’re not sure how much he learned from them. Paul’s writings actually say very little about Jesus the man. They are about forming Christian communities.

We know the followers from about 33 CE to 60 CE collected the sayings of Jesus. Paul probably saw some of these collection of says, but maybe not, because he rarely quoted them. We have to assume some of these sayings might have accurately recorded Jesus’ speeches, but we can’t be sure. Probably for many years, they were only passed around via word-of-mouth, and we know how poorly that works. And we know how people love to embellish a good story.

What we do have are the four Gospels that were probably written around 66 CD to 110 CE. Mark is assumed to be the oldest (66-70 CD). Matthew and Luke next (85-90 CE) and finally John (90-110 CE). We don’t really know who their writers were. Scholars assume they were not any of the disciples. Each of the four claims to tell the story of Jesus, but they each tell a somewhat different story, sometimes with conflicting details and beliefs. Think of how many books or movies you’ve encountered about famous modern people. Even the most serious biographies, with mountains of hard evidence, are always challenged on some facts. We can’t create perfect biographies even when we have voice recordings and videotape.

Paul essentially created Christianity in the 50s CE. What he preached was often disputed by Peter and the other disciples, but because Paul was so good at spreading his version of the word explains how he got the Christianity snowball rolling. Whoever wrote the Gospel of John created many now cherished beliefs for the emerging religion. Starting in the second and third centuries new theology was added by other writers who we know their names and have some of their writings.

I feel I have read enough on Jesus. I’ve given up on ever knowing who he was and what he taught. There’s just too much speculation. My rough idea after reading all these books is Jesus was probably a very interesting guy who taught something, probably something very unorthodox, probably utopian, and he got himself killed for it. His followers, who passionately believed in him were thrown into despair because they didn’t want to give up on his wonderful vision of how things could be. They came up with the resurrection as a way to keep the dream alive. All the stories about the post-crucifixion were invented to put a positive spin on the inconvenient truth that Jesus was wrong about the Kingdom of Heaven appearing on Earth in his lifetime. They used his memory to preach what they wanted. To sell their ideas they promised potential believers they would gain everlasting life. To gain converts, they made Jesus into a divine being. Then people who had never known Jesus, the gospel writers, started making up even better stories. The stories became so good, so convincing, that it converted most of the Roman world in a few hundred years.

I expect Ehrman’s new book, Heaven and Hell will cover that development. I also assume all the core beliefs of the various forms of Christianity in the last two thousand years are really driven about hopes of an afterlife. Donald Trump has clearly proved that Christianity is not about specific moral beliefs or spiritual discipline. What Christians believe today is too diverse to define them by a specific list of creeds. Basically, what ties modern Christians together is a vague belief in vague God and a hope of an existence after death.

The real Jesus apparently didn’t think of himself as the Son of God, but the Son of Man. He advocated that followers share their belongings, to even live together communally until God created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, which would happen in his lifetime. He apparently preached about compassion and how people should treat each other. It appears Jesus had very liberal views. Modern Christians are mostly conservative, so it’s hard to reconcile their beliefs with anything Jesus actually taught. Modern Christians are really disciples of Paul and the writer of The Gospel of John, and second-century theologians.

What I learned from reading all these books on Jesus is whatever he taught can only be discerned from those collections of sayings that existed before the gospels were written, unfortunately we don’t have copies. Some of those sayings are mixed in with the gospels, but we don’t know which. Even then, there are plenty of reasons to doubt anything attributed to Jesus after his death. Can you prove anything anyone said to you twenty years ago was verbatim and what they did was exactly how you say it happened?



How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

There once was a guy named Jesus.  He sounded like a pretty cool guy if you believed some of the savings he was supposed to have said.  Then his followers made him into God, and people became more interested in what was said about him, rather than what he said.  That’s too bad.  Bart D. Ehrman, has written a book that explains how Jesus became God after he died, and then became God while he was alive, and then became God before he was born, and then became God before any of us were born.  Ehrman’s book could have also been called When Jesus Became God, and to a very minor degree, it could have been called Why Jesus Became God.

I would have entitled it, Too Bad Jesus Became God.

How Jesus Became God

How Jesus Became God is a history book.  It’s not about theology, but many readers will find it undermines their beliefs.  To be fair, Ehrman bends over backwards, constantly explaining how and why he’s writing history, wanting to avoiding any theological implications.  We’ll never know the theological truth in this life, but we can get ever closer to the historical truth.  By summarizing how the followers of Jesus changed their opinions about the man they worshipped in the decades and early centuries after his death, we don’t learn anything new about Jesus, but a whole lot about the history of Christianity.  Because Jesus left no primary sources about what he believed, we can never know anything about the man, all we can know is what other people thought about him long after he died.

I’m afraid when the faithful read this book they will bring their beliefs to the reading and that will distort what Ehrman has to say.  Ehrman  stands outside of Christian faith and ask the question:  How did Jesus become God?  He is a historian, so he makes no assumption whether Jesus is actually God or not, but analyzes what we know about early Christians to decide how they made Jesus into a God.  Ehrman uses textual analysis to date each idea about Jesus that emerged after his death, and to pick through the paltry facts like a CSI detective hoping to find additional clues.  Ehrman tries to answer two main questions.  First, did Jesus think of himself as God or divine?  Second, studying the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts, Ehrman asks, when did his believers think Jesus became God – at his resurrection, his Baptism, his conception, or from the beginning of all time?

Bart D. Ehrman introduces his book at Huffington Post.  It’s a good summary to read if you’re thinking about buying the book.  He opens with:

Jesus was a lower-class preacher from Galilee, who, in good apocalyptic fashion, proclaimed that the end of history as he knew it was going to come to a crashing end, within his own generation. God was soon to intervene in the course of worldly affairs to overthrow the forces of evil and set up a utopian kingdom on earth. And he would be the king.

It didn’t happen. Instead of being involved with the destruction of God’s enemies, Jesus was unceremoniously crushed by them: arrested, tried, humiliated, tortured, and publicly executed.  And yet, remarkably, soon afterwards his followers began to say that — despite all evidence to the contrary — Jesus really was the messiah sent from God. More than that, he was actually a divine being, not a mere human. And not just any divine being. He was the Creator of the universe. After long debates among themselves they decided that he was not secondary to the one God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty himself. On the contrary, he was fully equal with God; he had always existed for eternity with God; he was of the same essence as God; he was a member of the Trinity.

How did that happen? How did we get from a Jewish apocalyptic preacher — who ended up on the wrong side of the law and was crucified for his efforts — to the Creator of all things and All-powerful Lord? How did Jesus become God?

To Christians, Jesus is God, but to historians, Jesus is no different from any human in history.  Ehrman is studying the theologians and not the theology.  If you are willing to take How Jesus Became God as a purely history book it’s quite fascinating and illuminating about the early development of Western civilization.  If you are a believer, this book could be painful because it treats Christianity no different from pagan mythology that also existed in the first centuries of the common era.

I hope this won’t be insulting to Christians, but most of the ones I know aren’t very intellectual about their theology.  Most, just want to believe in God, an afterlife, heaven, and the promise they will meet their dead kin and friends again.  How that happens is inconsequential to them.  That’s why modern Christianity is based on faith and belief.  Reading How Jesus Became God will show there is a complex history of theology to how belief in believing evolved.  Ehrman makes an excellent case that while Jesus was alive, and even just after he died, Christians believed you had to do good deeds to get into heaven, and that Jesus did not think of himself as divine.  It took decades, centuries even, to evolve the theology that Jesus was Christ who existed since the beginning of time as God and believing in him will earn you eternal life in heaven.

This book is about how the followers of Jesus went from thinking of Jesus as a human being to thinking of him as the Trinity.  Ehrman documents this from what we know from history.  Unfortunately, most of what we know comes from The New Testament, Apocrypha writings, and Gnostic texts.  Ehrman’s history is really close textual readings because we have few outside sources about these events.  Christians might appreciate Ehrman’s careful delineations between the writings of Paul, the four Gospels, and Acts.  What it comes down to is Paul, and the writers of the four gospels had different ideas on when Jesus became God – resurrection, Baptism, conception or the beginning of time.  Then the early church fathers argued over these concepts for centuries.

That might seem like meaningless quibbling to most believers, but it does explain why the four Gospels differ.  The Gospel of Mark doesn’t include the story of the virgin birth, but that’s because it suggests that Jesus became divine at the resurrection.  The writers of Matthew and Luke seem to imply Jesus became divine at Baptism or conception.  To have Jesus become divine at conception you need the virgin birth tale.  The author of John recreates the ontology of Genesis to put Jesus as God back at the beginning of time.

Now I’m an atheist, but I find all of this fascinating.  And I might have a different take on Ehrman’s book, but since I’m not widely read in Christian history, I don’t know how common my questions are.  Jesus and his disciples were lower class folk, who were probably illiterate and spoke Aramaic and Hebrew.  The writers of the Gospels were educated, literate, and spoke and wrote Greek.  I’m wondering if they knew about Greek philosophy and if their theology is a mixture of Hebrew mythology, stories about Jesus, and Greek philosophy.  Is The New Testament a cold front of religion meeting the warm front of philosophy?

By the way, we’re leaving Ehrman and moving into my own ideas.  I’m into science, but science wasn’t invented yet.  At the time of evolution of The New Testament people had very few tools to understand reality.  The first, and oldest tool is religion.  Religion basically says “God did it” to any question about the mystery of reality.  Why is there thunder?  It’s a god.  How did the universe start?  God created it.  In terms of understanding the truth, religion offers no validity or real answers.  It’s all speculation and wild ideas.

Then came philosophy.  Philosophy assumes humans can figure out how things work.  Philosophy starts observing reality for clues, but all too often it comes up with bizarre theories for answers, and eventually these are contrived into elaborate beliefs.  Because philosophy uses logic and rhetoric, it gives the impression that it’s intellectually superior to religion, even though most of its answers about reality are hardly better than religion.  However, logic is sexy, so believers prefer philosophical answers over the dictates of religion, which is basically, “God did it.”  Paul is the Plato of Christianity, and Jesus is his Socrates.  And the guy who wrote The Gospel of John is out there, way out there, both mystical and philosophical, like one of the Pythagoreans.

From my perspective, Paul is the real creator of Christianity, but he lost control of his religion to the later writers of The New Testament.  What Ehrman’s book does is try to chronicle how these later writers change the scope of Christian theology.  Even more fascinating is the Gnostic gospels, which appear to try to take Christianity in even stranger directions.  What became Orthodox Christianity in the first four centuries of the common era is what worked best at selling a belief that took hold of the Western world for the next sixteen centuries.

Modern day believers of Christianity believe because they hear a few ideas in childhood that are so powerful it overwhelms all their thinking.  What Ehrman’s book attempts to do is explain how these memes got created.  Many other writers of Christian history attempt to do this too, but Ehrman seems to be particularly good at it, with clear writing, sensible logic and a humble attitude.  Ehrman has written a series of books that reflect a lifetime of careful research that explain how and why The New Testament was written.  He’s very knowledgeable about The Old Testament, but The New Testament is his specialty, his life’s work.

Most Christians aren’t interested in an intellectual history of their faith.  Their religion gives them a wonderful sense of community, beliefs that comfort them in life, and faith that assures them they won’t die, so they know they will meet their departed loved ones in the next life.  However, there are Christians, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists who are profoundly interested in the intellectually validity of their beliefs and will go to extremes to validate their faith.  Ehrman’s book will cause these people problems.  This gets back to my point about philosophy.  Philosophy appears to reveal the truth, but it doesn’t.  Science is the only system we’ve invented yet that reveals consistencies in reality that we can accept as being true.  What we’re experiencing now is the cold front of philosophy banging into the warm front of science.

What Ehrman brings to the table is history, a discipline that is far more consistent than philosophy, but still not science.  The fundamental faithful are strong adherents of philosophy, which includes rhetoric and logic.  They are confident these tools reveal the truth of reality.  But science is showing them that their philosophy is a very poor tool for understanding the truth of this reality.

What Ehrman has accidently taught me is fundamentalists love philosophy because The New Testament is a product of philosophy, and not religion.  The Old Testament was pure religion.  The New Testament is a hybrid of religion and philosophy, with the later writers of The New Testament being the most philosophical.

And it’s not that philosophy can’t be a useful tool, but it’s only useful if it incorporates the rigors of science.  Science depends on logic, and to a degree rhetoric, but is actually about consistency of observations.   Science, for the most part, can’t be used to verify theology, because most theology involves the metaphysical, which can’t be observed, tested, and is not falsifiable.

Christianity met up with Greek philosophy again when it kicked the Muslims out of Spain.  But that’s not part of Ehrman’s book.  I’ve always thought that was Christianity’s first encounter with Greek philosophy, but now I’m thinking different.  The New Testament writers were the first influence of Greek philosophers on Christianity, they just didn’t mention their educational background.

It would be fantastic to have a time machine and track down the real Jesus and give him a copy of The New Testament and How Jesus Became God.  I get the feeling he’d probably read them and say, “Hey, these stories are about a guy with my name,” and never notice they were about him.

I’m am reminded of stuff I’ve read by Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright, especially in A History of God and The Evolution of God.  The God of The Bible has gone though quite a lot of changes himself.  He’s a combination of several gods that slowly evolved over a very long period of time.  Each time one people would conquer another people, their gods would merge, or one would supplant the other.  To me, Jesus became God because Christianity supplanted older religions and had to incorporate or bury older deities, creeds, traditions, etc.  Jesus essentially becomes the new God that usurps the Jewish God of The Old Testament, in the same way Yahweh supplanted earlier gods like El, Asherah and Baal.

The early Christians had to do this to succeed and thrive, and boy did they thrive.  But it sure is sad that they lost Jesus along the way.  It would be interesting to compare the revisionists techniques in the Quran and The Book of Mormon to see how they try to supplant Christian theology.

I wish Jesus had written down his ideas like Plato.  To me, humans are interesting, gods are not.

JWH – 7/8/14

Forgotten Science Fiction: The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

Every year thousands of SF and fantasy books get published, but few are reviewed, not many more become popular, and damn few get remembered.  Ten years out, most books are out-of-print and forgotten.  How many books can you remember from 2002?  And if we’re talking fifty years down the timeline, well it’s almost a miracle for a book that old to still be read, much less remembered and loved.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, in my teens, and like most people reading their first hundred SF titles, they all seemed so damn far out!  Now decades later, I doubt my memories of those first impressions.  So, when I have a little extra reading time, I order a book from ABE Books based on those dying memories and reread it.  I’ve now reread many of my teenage classics and a majority of them don’t hold up.

Most memories are fleeting, and my memory of The Last Starship From Earth was next to nothing.  All I remembered was a favorable impact.  Just a lingering sense of it being a standout read for 1968 or 1969.  To test that memory I recently bought and reread The Last Starship From Earth.  Sad to say, it was a discard from the Columbus Public Library, a common practice for books that don’t get checked out.  Not a good sign.  The last English reprint of this novel was in 1978.  It’s last edition was in French, in 1995.


The Review

The Last Starship From Earth is a dystopian novel set in 1968 and 1969, but not the 1968 and 1969 that I remember, or lived through.  In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome.  He was the Messiah that people expected.  The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world.  People marry and mate because of their genes, sort of like the film Gattaca, and the hero of our story is Haldane IV, M-5, 138270, 3/10/46, a math student of great promise, being the fourth in line of great mathematicians.  Unfortunately Haldane gets the hots for Helix, a mere poet.  By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane concocts a ruse to justify more meetings with Helix by studying Fairweather I, a 19th century mathematician who also wrote poetry.  Much of the first half of the book deals with pseudo-academic studies from this alternate history.  Boyd is creative in his steady flow of ideas and concepts, but there’s little emotion in the story.  It’s somewhat Heinlein-esque, in it’s attitude and world building, but lacks the charm of Heinlein’s best prose.

Now, this quick summary is enticing, and I would like to report that The Last Starship From Earth is a forgotten classic, unfortunately, that’s probably not true.  I enjoyed the book, but only as a quick read.

Surfing the web I’ve found few other reviews of this novel, and although I’ve found people who claim it’s their favorite book, I also found people that thought it ho-hum.  Now, I’ve got to admit it has a humdinger of an ending, almost as startling as the film The Sixth Sense, but I’m not sure this last minute thrill pays for the reading the whole book.

I found the love affair of Haldane and Helix no more believable than Romeo and Juliet and far less exciting.  John Boyd does write well, but the plot is mostly intellectual, about the dystopian society, and its complications.  The book is only 182 pages, and the whole tale feels rushed.  Boyd staked out a solid gold claim but never mined it.

Analysis with Spoilers

The trouble with many SF novels, especially those written back in the 1950s and 1960s, was they were written very fast, and they were about ideas and not characters.  John Boyd has actually written a very ambitious novel by creating an alternative history of Jesus, but he never fleshes it out, and most of the story is a setup for the surprised ending.  The scope of the book is epic, the line by line writing reasonably entertaining, but the overall feel of the book is thin.

Haldane and Helix are discovered, and the middle part of the book is a trial that allows Boyd to work out the politics and legal system of this alternative reality, however, like the rest of this book, it’s rushed.  It’s padding.  That’s its downfall.  He has a big ending but it’s way bigger than the story.  To pad the story even more Haldane is sentence to exile on Pluto, which is called Hell.  There he meets Fairweather I and is reunited with Helix, who happens to be Fairweather’s granddaughter.  Fairweather needed a mathematician for his time machine, and Helix was sent to Earth to engineer the exile of a mathematician to pilot an experimental time machine.  In a very short time Fairweather makes Haldane immortal, tells him his new name is Judas Iscariot, and his mission is to go back in time to kill Christ.

Now if Boyd had spent a couple hundred pages recreating the Biblical world and shown how Haldane tracks down Jesus, we would have had a much better story.  But all of this was summed up in a short epilogue.  We are told Haldane captures Jesus and puts him in the time machine and sends him back, and the rest of the epilogue is about how he has relived the two thousand years to return to his own time and meet a girl that’s an awful lot like Helix, living in a future that’s much more like ours.  But did Haldane let Jesus die on the cross, or does he just disappear him from history?  Unless Haldane at least engineers a dying on the cross scene for history, we should not expect this timeline to be ours.

How do you plot a riveting novel with great characters based on the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and the world became very different?  How do you tell the story twice?  Boyd really grabs a tiger by the tail and yells, “Look at me!”  And I think, “Cool!  Far out man!  But what are you going to do with him?”  He’s got to do more than just swing it around.  I’ll give Boyd a solid C for his world building, but they are only tantalizing sketches.

I really like this ending, but is it good enough to make The Last Starship From Earth a classic SF novel worth reading today?  I’ve linked several references to this book on the net and even though I can find fans of the book, I can find more people who think it sucks.  You’d think  Boyd Bradfield Upchurch, John Boyd’s real name, if he’s still alive, would arrange for his books to be reprinted as ebooks.  That certainly would make it easier for more readers to decide if The Last Starship From Earth is worth reading.

I’m afraid Boyd falls far short of classic standing.  The Last Starship from Earth is a good novel for science fiction historians to read, but it needed to be four or five times longer, more the size of Dune, to get the job done that Boyd outlined.  However, I’m not sure how he could have pulled off this big ambitious idea.

And is Boyd saying our history is the better timeline?  Why is his first timeline all that evil?  Is the freedom to fuck whoever you want the perfect ideal worth rewriting all of history?  Isn’t the more interesting story about a world where the promise of salvation and eternal life never happened?  Isn’t Boyd’s surprise ending really a cheat?

Time travel machines often ruins more stories than they’ve ever help.

Boyd has a three part story.  Life on Earth in an alternate timeline, life on Pluto, life on Earth in another timeline.  The story really isn’t about genetic breeding of humans like we see in Gattaca, or in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon or Huxley’s Brave New World.  It’s about an oppressive government.  But does it deserve to be wiped out by time travel?

Here’s the thing, our 1968 was a horrible time for America, but should we send a man back in time to wipe it out?  Boyd wasn’t writing a protest novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Nor did he write a novel that truly explored a timeline with a different Christ, which would have been ambitious enough.

Would The Last Starship From Earth been a better novel is it hadn’t used the time machine gimmick?  Not as it stands, but it potentially could have been.  I believe it’s a grave mistake for any alternate history novel is have a do-over.  Time travel is really a very dangerous concept to use in fiction.  Time travel is very hard to pull off.  The beauty of an alternative history novel is the alternative history.  Don’t add time travel.  This would take away Boyd’s surprise ending, but it would have meant he would have been forced to write a better novel.

I felt cheated when Helix shows up so easily on Pluto, in what at first appears to be a happy romantic ending, but then we’re thrown for another loop.  Haldane loses her again, only to find her again 2,000 years later.  Oh come on man, this horny-at-first-sight love isn’t believable.  Weren’t there no math babes for Haldane?  This really is a case of what you can’t have makes the heart grow fonder.  And neither Haldane nor Helix are all that interesting – if you want a great love story you have to have great lovers.

The powerful driving motive in Gattaca is that Vincent wants to go into space.  He wants to prove that he’s as good any genetically selected human.  The driving force of The Last Starship from Earth is Haldane wants to screw Helix.  Boyd doesn’t make it believable why his world outlaws sex, nor does he make it believable that Haldane and Helix are in big time love.  Hell, even the prosecutors of the story wink at him, and say why didn’t you use a condom and just screw her, implying this world does overlooks recreational sex, just not casual genetic mixing.  But then Boyd never explains why his world requires genetic  fidelity to specialties like mathematics and poetry.   In Gattaca we have the justification that their world doesn’t want naturals to pass on bad traits, but in Boyd’s world there is no reason to breed pure bred mathematicians.  Also, how many math geniuses does one world need?

John Boyd wrote just enough alternate history world-building to set up his surprise ending.  In essence The Last Starship From Earth is a O’Henry type story, and we now use those type stories as examples as how not to write a story.  However, The Last Starship From Earth suggests two possible storylines I’d love to read.  First, I’d love to read an alternate history where Christ was the Messiah that everyone was expecting.  Second, I’d love to read a time travel story about people having to learn what it takes to live in ancient Israel and track down Jesus.  Both would require a tremendous knowledge of real history.

JWH –5/28/12

Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

I believe The Bible can be a very dangerous book.  For most people The Bible is a book they read occasionally, and use it for inspiration to be a good person.  There are better books to teach ethics but we can overlook that like we can overlook casual drinking, a minor indulgence.  I use the drug metaphor very intentionally, because I believe The Bible alters people’s mind and how they see reality.  Because some people take The Bible too far, into cocaine, heroin and LSD levels of use, and they become addicted, deluded and cut themselves off from reality.

The Bible can be like a computer virus that infects the minds of those who read it.  This is true of any religious literature.  The Bible does not describe reality. The Bible can not predict the future.  And most important, The Bible does not describe God (if there is a creator), at best The Bible presents very ancient theories about God.  In terms of philosophical theology, it is very important to separate the concept of God from any description about God.  Holy books captures how people thought thousands of years ago and that’s a huge danger because people minds become paralyzed by seeking closure on mysteries that will never be solved.  It’s mental quicksand.

The reason why I call myself an atheist is because I’ve never heard a definition of God that I could accept.  If there is a God he is unknowable in the same way that a bacteria in our blood can never know who we are.  People want a personal God, and that’s understandable, because life is scary and we’d love to have a spiritual parent to protect us.  But that’s a dangerous desire because it causes people to avoid real sources of strength, other people and ourselves.

There are many reasons why people seek religion and embrace holy books:

  • They want answers about reality (knowledge)
  • They want to know how life began (ontology)
  • They want a history and genealogy
  • They want instructions on how to be a good person (ethics)
  • They want to worship and be thankful (appreciation of life)
  • They want rules for equal justice for all people (law and order)
  • They want to know the future (prophecy)
  • They want a promise of protection (security)
  • They want an afterlife 

The reason why holy books like The Bible are so dangerous and powerful is our minds are extremely powerful.  Holy books transmit powerful memes.  All books do, but holy books come with extra-strength memes.  The concept of God is a meme.  Once an idea is let lose in culture it’s very hard, if not impossible to erase.  What happens instead is people alter memes.  Think of a virus mutating.  If you study just The Bible you’ll actually come up with dozens, if not hundreds of meme variations for the original meme for God, which was created thousands of years before the Jews existed.  There is no one God in The Bible.  There is no one Jesus, which brings us to the book Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman.


Many people divide the world into the secular and the divine.  Believers in divine knowledge think its more important than down to Earth knowledge.  That’s an illusion.  The divine is a meme too.  Beliefs are more powerful than reality.  In fact, all we have is beliefs.  What we want is to keep beliefs that validate reality and jettison fantasies, but religious beliefs can’t be validated, but how you got them can.  That’s what Bart D. Ehrman is doing in his writing.

For example, do you believe that Jesus is a divine being?  Who gave you that idea?  How old were you?  Why did you believe them?  Where did they get the idea?  What Ehrman is doing in Jesus, Interrupted is working on a cold case that goes back 1900 years.  Where did the origin of the meme that Jesus was divine come from?  He calls this research a historical approach to Bible study. 

Jesus, Interrupted is a significant book on many levels, but proving that will be difficult because what he says challenges people’s beliefs.  Bart D. Ehrman is most famous for his book Misquoting Jesus, but this newer book is even more exciting to read, that is, if you find history and academic research exciting.  Ehrman claims he is not trying to be sensational with his books on The Bible, and claims he is only relating what any mainstream seminary teaches.  Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He started out as an evangelical Christian but after many years of studying The Bible became an agnostic.  Since I’m an atheist, reviewing a book about The New Testament written by an agnostic will be hard to convince Christians the value of reading Jesus, Interrupted.

I don’t ever expect Christians to give up their faith.  I figure most will ignore this book, but I expect others will combine the knowledge that Ehrman provides with their faith and create a new synthesis.  Whether this leads to a new reformation is another issue, but in cruising around the net trying to find reactions to Ehrman I was surprise by some reactions of the faithful.  Some reviewers say Ehrman goes too far, others just dismiss him, but others have jumped in and started their own analysis using his historical approach to test and validate Ehrman’s ideas.

Ehrman says many times in his book that he has no wish to destroy anyone’s faith, but anyone with a deep faith in The Bible being the absolute word of God will be tested by Ehrman’s books.  Ehrman started out as a person believing God inspired The Bible and it had no errors, but his desire to study it deeply and thoroughly led him to believe that it is the work of men, chock full of errors, forgeries, and contradictions.  I think anyone examining the historical evidence will also conclude that men wrote The Bible without guidence from God.

The next logical step in theology is to ask how God might inspire men to write about the metaphysical.  I don’t believe in the divine, but most people do.  I expect them to keep looking for the doorway between the physical world and the spiritual world.  And that’s okay.  Religion is deeper than memes, and I expect humans to always invent new and better religions.  Some atheists want to throw off religion and God, but that’s like being a vegetarian wanting the rest of the world to give up eating meat.  Evolution is a nasty word to the righteous, but everything evolves.

So why should agnostics and atheists even concern themselves with this book?  Ehrman still believes The Bible is the greatest book ever written and still provides inspiration.  For me, I want to understand Christians and how they evolved in history.  Jesus, Interrupted is a quick survey of the first four hundred years of Christianity and how The New Testament was written.  I think it explains why we have hundreds of different Christian faiths, and it also explains part of the psychology of conservatives and liberals, something Ehrman wasn’t intending.

Ehrman says most people study The Bible devotionally, but for the last two hundred years scholars have applied a historical approach to understanding it.  Ehrman also says most people only read The Bible randomly, just studying a few lines here and there.  Even if you read it vertically, from top to bottom, Ehrman believes you will miss much of what’s in The Bible.  He recommends studying it horizontally, comparing one gospel against another, or how one incident is depicted by multiple writers.  Jesus, Interrupted focuses almost exclusively on The New Testament except where gospel writers claim events were foretold in The Old Testament.

When you study the gospels this way you quickly see they conflict.  And not in minor narrative details, but in great theological differences.  In fact, much of what Christians believe today does not come from The New Testament at all, but from later theologians.  What many Christians might be shocked at is the gospels were not written by the disciples that knew Jesus, but educated people writing decades later, living in another country, speaking a different language than what Jesus and his apostles spoke.

The reason why there are so many conflicting stories in The Bible is because it was written by many different people, each with their own agenda.  I cannot do justice to the vast research the Ehrman puts into his book, so don’t trust me, and read Jesus, Interrupted for yourself.  Then read reviews by people who oppose Ehrman, and there are plenty.  Interpreting The Bible is a academic black hole that I want to avoid, but I do think it’s possible to study The Bible without falling into its gravity well.

I think there will be many different audience reactions for this book.

  • Atheists will get a good overview of Christianity, but also find intellectual support that The Bible is not a divine communication to the human race.  If they have any residual guilt about religion from early Sunday School programming, this book will help deprogram those feelings.  I found the book a fascinating history, explaining much of Western culture in a surprising way.  It was a real page turner for me.
  • Liberal Christians will expand their theological foundation and maybe invent a new synthesis.  Ehrman explains how new theological concepts developed in the first few centuries of the common era shaped The New Testament, but Christian evolution did not stop there.  Christianity is always evolving and diverging, and modern Christianity has little resemblance to Jesus and his times.  I think Ehrman’s book should have been called The Evolution of Christ.  I think books like this, using historical studies to examine spiritual doctrine, will inspire some folks to invent new theological memes.
  • Conservative Christians can choose to ignore the book, or counter it.  I think Christians constantly redefine and reinvent God.  God is a mutating meme.  Creationism and Intelligent Design are fundamentalist adaptations to their philosophy from reacting to science.  I expect similar ideas generated from reacting to historical studies of The Bible.  Theological evolution does not have to be logical, for example, look at the doctrine of the Trinity.  Essentially, a monotheistic religion accidently reinventing polytheism while trying to rationalize how a human could be the one and only God.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of this theology – it’s a deadly serious pursuit by some folk to grapple with reality, but my point is religion doesn’t stand still, it’s constantly being reinvented to jive with current knowledge.
  • Believers from other religions will find a concise overview of The New Testament that might quickly explain the diversity of Christian faiths and sects.

Everyone feels like they are an expert on The Bible, even if they’ve only read a few passages.  I think the historical studies of The Bible will up the ante for anyone getting into the game.  Ehrman claims that most mainline ministers know what’s in this book already, but they seldom preach this knowledge to their parishioners.  I don’t know if that matters. 

Most people only want simple answers.  They are happy with a very few concepts to embrace.  There is a God.  There is a heaven.  Believing in Jesus is the way to heaven.  Period.  No more study.  This covers all the bases for this life and the next.  As long as these believers stay out of politics I don’t want to challenge their beliefs.  Don’t read this book. 

No use confusing the simple faithful by trying to explain that heaven is a theological invention that came well after Jesus.  Nor should we cloud the water by proving the God of Moses is not the God of Paul, even though some modern apocalyptical Christians want to bring back an Old Testament genocidal God.

Ehrman proves The Bible can be a black hole of academic study, but it’s also an endless engine that justifies hatred and intolerance.  Ehrman illustrates this with a quick lesson in how Christianity created anti-Semitism.  And I certainly wanted to read more about the development of the Orthodox Church at the expense of heretical sects.

Jesus, Interrupted is an important book beyond Bible studies because it explains so much modern psychology.  Rush Limbaugh is not just a conservative Republican, but an apostle of orthodoxy attacking the heretical liberals.  What Ehrman shows is Swift Boating a technique well illustrated in The New TestamentJesus, Interrupted unintentionally shows a relationship between the Bible belt and conservative thinking and behavior.  If someone like Lee Atwater had lived in the first century he might have written a gospel to get his point across.

Liberals who want to understand why conservatives are the way they are should study Jesus, Interrupted carefully.  I always assumed Republicans got their rhetorical skills from the Greeks, but that is only half-right, and they might have studied classical Greeks, but they also learned rhetoric from the Greek speaking writers of  the New Testament.            

JWH – 6/8/10

Does Jesus Matter?

When I became an atheist at 13 I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about who Jesus was anymore, and I could stop reading The Bible.  Around age 55, I returned to reading The Bible, to understand its place in history and to find out why so many people claimed it was so significant.  I’m still not religious, or even spiritual, but The Bible is like the world’s hardest jigsaw puzzle, you start to put a few pieces together and you get hooked.

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes the latest crop of books about Jesus in, “What Did Jesus Do?”  I highly recommend you taking the time to read this essay.

Gopnik claims ten books came out about Jesus in just one month.  I always figured Jesus was a real historical person, that we have very little actual evidence about him, and that there is a difference between Jesus the philosopher and Christ, the deity with infinite aspects.  I might be right or wrong about all points.  In fact, there are so many interpretations of who Jesus the real person was that I have to wonder if I shouldn’t write him off as unknowable.

The trouble is about 2 billion people want to define reality by their interpretation of Jesus.  Would reading all of these books that Adam Gopnik surveys put enough puzzle pieces together to produce a consistent view?  No, you won’t get a conclusive answer to who was the historical Jesus, but your sense of history and reality would be greatly expanded.  Here are links to some of the books he reviewed, and some others I ran across.

And there is no end in sight.  I put “Jesus” in the search box at Amazon, and then set the order to date, and there were over twenty pages of books scheduled to be published.  So I have to ask, should I even study a subject that produces so many opinions?

I know the faithful will say Jesus is someone I should study forever, but I don’t think that’s true.  He either had a definite message or he didn’t.  I also know the faithful will claim the definitive message is found by reading The Bible, but that’s also not true, because of the zillions of books trying to interpret The Bible.

And why try to understand Jesus and not all the other religious figures who have thousands of books written about them?  I do know from the many books I’ve already read, that the more one studies Jesus, the more one tries to understand him in a historical and political context and not as a metaphysical being.

In other words, if we can get a clear picture of the time in which he lived, it reveals much about what he supposedly said.  Studying history is fascinating, but why spend so much time on one person in one tiny portion of the globe for one very short period of time?  Wouldn’t it be more important, and even more spiritual, to study now?  Let’s assume Jesus was an astute observer of life, and his message was different from the teachers of his time, because he was revolutionary, choosing not to look backwards. 

All religions eventually come up with the golden rule.  The basic direction of religion is to inspire people to be better people.  Do we really need to know about people and their problems 2,000 years ago, when we have plenty of people and problems now?  My guess is people would be more Christian if they forget the past and just worked and studied in the present to improve their own lives and help other people around them.

The only real reason to study Jesus is to study biblical history and that eventually leads to studying ancient politics and sociology.  I think the reason why there is so much scholarship on the historical Jesus is because his life is such a delicious mystery.  And if you study biblical times you’ll eventually migrate into classical studies and the study of prehistory.  It’s a deep well to fall into.  Obsessive scholars even take up ancient Greek and Latin.  Eventually these studies turn into the psychoanalysis of the western mind.  Look what happened to Bart D. Ehrman.  He started off as a Evangelical Christian and now he’s almost a  pure historian.

I’m not the kind of atheist that wants to convert the faithful to the scientific worldview.  I don’t want to argue The Bible with others.  I can live with an indifferent reality, but most people need the comfort of answers, even if they are fantasies.   I wish the religious wouldn’t kill each other, or go on jihads and crusades, but I can’t do much about that.  Attacking their beliefs doesn’t do much good.  I do think I contemplate many of the same concepts Jesus is said to have meditated on, and seek many of his same goals, but I just don’t believe any of the stories written about him after he died. 

I’m willing to accept Jesus as a philosopher, say like Plato.  But does he matter?  Not to me.  But then neither does Plato.  In terms of leading a good life one only needs to endlessly explore the golden rule.  The study of history is like the study of science, it is meant to explore the nature of reality.  In this content Jesus is the most famous person in history, and understanding why does matter.

JWH – 5/25/10

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