Can you explain away Christianity?

Two posts which are somewhat related – two questions for you to think about.

Let’s set it up:

Let’s say that Christianity is an imagined community from the ground up. No Resurrection of a political Jesus. No miracles. No signs and wonders. No fulfillment of prophecies. Let’s say that the earliest written accounts of this myth called  the Son of God, Jesus, was made by a disenchanted Pharisee who took up the rallying cry of a dead Jew. Let’s just say that the biblical accounts of the Resurrection of Christ and the beginning of the Church from Pentecost onward is little more than children’s fairy tales, told to urge rebellion against Nero.

But, we have to answer the history provide for in the Talmud and in other secular sources. Further, while we may discount the miracles of Acts, let’s say we take for a moment the life of Paul – that disenchanted, no good, Pharisee. He preached a risen Christ 30 years after it was said to have happened. He was there, after all, then Stephen had his life exercised from him for speaking in that name of Jesus Christ. He must have known that Jesus was alive and well or dead and buried.

Yet, something happened to that Pharisee where he not only took up the banner of that dead rebel, but began to move it away from the Jewish roots to a combined system of Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Bond and Free. And others joined him.

Of course, he met only a few of the close followers of the dead man. Surely, he would have not mistaken their deep seated ‘he is still with us’ mythology for an actual account of the Resurrection – not enough to rehearse it to a physician.

How can we explain away Christianity if there was a sudden explosion of this new myth which not only saw people willing die – those people that had heard the message of the rebellion from others – but also the closest followers of the decaying man? And what about this Paul fellow? He died too. He killed to prevent the message from being spread. Then he died to spread it.

We can explain away a few hundred people believing a man is a god or a lord, but can we explain thousands to tens of thousands of people who heard the message, who turned from killing to dying for it?

Here are those two articles –

So we are left with options. Either take the NT as it is, more or less; accept an historical analysis that raises more questions than it answers; . . . . or or or . . . .


Assuming its true, He’s God. He offers you a life that is radically different; he offers you the opportunity to live forever; he offers you the ability to live to the fullest imaginable extent, IF you buy into his presentation, assuming he really is who he says he is.

We hear an awfully lot about what the message of Christ cannot be true, why He was a really a political rebel, and ever increasing attacks upon our faith – yet, even if you take away the Scriptures, how can you explain away Christianity?

You Might Also Like

44 Replies to “Can you explain away Christianity?”

  1. Why would “explaining away” Christianity be any more an issue than “explaining away” Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism? Freethinking?

  2. Your references to Paul and Stephen are simply references to stories written long after the supposed events happened. They are just stories, based on other similar stories in the gospels, in the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha. Myths to give narrative explanations of origins of religions or nations always come along long after the religion or nation or practice has been well under way for some time. That’s just a truism of the process and reason for myth-making.

  3. Nice I’ve stimulated at least a wee bit of challenge in someone, thanks 🙂  — I simply write, though, to share my interests and reading with others at a similar place to me — a thorough requestioning of the old faith on their way out of the fold. Note trying to be provocative or anything. Just sharing what to me are critical thoughts with like-minded folks.

  4. I hadn’t noticed this thread.  There are a few ways to explain it away.

    Classical mythicist view.  Miracles and myth stories existed for centuries before the historical events.  That is a proto-Christian religion develops and the history attaches to it later (Arthur Drews, Acharya S…)
    Modern mythicist.  Miracles and myth stories are evolving as semi-recent historical fictions attach to them (Earl Doherty, Robert Price…)
    New School.  There is a broad philosophical movement within Judaism which is attaching itself to both historical myth and elements of quasi-historical myth.  (Birger Pearson, John Turner, me)
    Modern scholarly.  Some limited historical story which accretes myth quickly.  (Morton Smith, A.N. Wilson…)
    Classical scholarly.  Early Christianity takes a turn almost immediately after the death of Jesus but the Christianity of Paul spreads among the God fearers and reconciliation doesn’t happen until the 2nd century.
    If you want to do an extended dialogue on this I’d be happy to do this.  It won’t go fast though.   And a lot of it is very speculative.  We have terrible records of 1st century Christianity so it is a very difficult reconstruction from 2nd and 3rd century sources.  But there has been substantial progress in the last 150 years.

  5. I don’t understand what you mean by “explaining away”. My interest is in “explaining”, not “explaining away”. I enjoy studying origins, history. What’s with this “explaining away” stuff?
    As for your claim that many people died for the stories of the gospels and Acts, what is the evidence for this, and when? Besides, many equally are willing to die for the Hebrew scriptures and the Koran. Many are willing to die for many very noble causes, and some are willing to die for ignoble ones being deceived. Willingness to die for something proves nothing about the veracity of the source. Besides, the earliest accounts we have of Church Fathers about martyrdoms are to a large extent complaints that rival Christian factions (who did not believe the gospel narratives as they did, and rejected Acts) were being martyred as “false” martyrs for a “false faith”.
    But any academic strudy of mythmaking will tell you in the 101 class that myths are created to explain an existing practice or belief or state of affairs. They are the afterthoughts. We see this repeatedly throughout ancient history and in modern societies too. A new city is built, a new custom or ritual has been underway, and the communites will soon created mythical stories, sometimes building on historical persons, and giving them god-like roles, to create an authenticating narrative to support what they do.
    I can see hypothesize several very plausible scenarios for the development of Christianity as one of the several responses of the Jews to the fall of the temple in 70 c.e.
    (unable to reply next to your ‘leave a reply’ buttons

  6. By the way, I quite like the look of the elderly Hindu lady in your page here. I see thousands of such every week here where I live, along with their Indian, Tamil and Malay menfolk. They are some of the loveliest and gentlest people I know, and I love watching their camaraderie. We also have here in Singapore many more Buddhists and Taosts, and many Moslems too. K love these people. They are some of the gentlest and kindest I have met. Christians, in so many more cases, however, appear to be a somewhat tense and defensive minority, feeling some obligation to be against this world of darkness and trying to change it all, and seeing themselves as the sole lights. They are an unhappy mix in an otherwise peaceful and well integrated community, to a large extent, at least from the Christians I know personally here.

  7. Among the earliest of Christian martyrs were those who believed the God of the Old Testament was a spiriritually blinded creator god of this world, the ten commandments, and the Jews — while they, the Christians, were dying for their allegiance to a higher god who sent his son. (The Marcionites — from early to mid second century). They rejected the gospels as we know them.
    But as for persecutions, we have very little evidence indeed from earliest times. The Neronian persecution after the Fire of Rome was almost certainly a very late Christian interopolators figment of imagination. Not a single secular or Christian source knows a thing of this passage in Tacitus until very late indeed. This is an extremely odd “oversight” given the numbers of opportunities Christians had to advertize their persecution moments.
    The strories of persecutions in Acts are not supported by historical evidence. Indeed historical evidence as we do have suggests there was no real parting between Jews and Christians until around the 90’s c.e.
    Pliny mentions sporadic persecutions but nothing consistent and ongoing, and not for being Christian so much as for stubbornly refusing to demonstrated their due reverence to the State authority.
    The evidence is simply lackging until we get into very late records, some of which retroject persecutions into earlier times for which we have no contemporary evidence at all. So the accounts must remain suspect in historical terms according to normal historical enquiry. It became self-serving propaganda for later Christians to boast of their past heritage of persecutions.
    People die for all sorts of reasons. Many Africans in recent times have died believing in faith in their shamans that they would not die if they fought against enemies with bullets. Mormons and JW’s have been ready to die for their faiths also in recent times. People will die for their faith if their faith is such an integral part of their identity, that to live is to deny their identities. It proves nothing about the truth or otherwise of what they are dying for. Pagans also were sometimes martyred for their faith, such as Dionysiacs in ancient Rome. That proves nothing about the claims or reality of the god Dionysus.
    People’s lives are identified with something, something gives their lives meaning, (whether it is Christianity or any other religion or philosophy) and not all, but many will rather die than give that up. It will even give their death meaning.
    In Roman times many philosophers were followed as quasi-religious figures. There is a famous story of one emperor testing the character of one by threatening to execute him if he did not give up his philosophical practices, and when the philosopher refused, preferring (like Socrates) to die rather than live what to him would be a lie, was rewarded for his sincerity instead. But philosophers were not all so lucky, and some, such as Socrates himself, chose death to abide by their principles rather than life and live against their principles.
    There are many among us like that when put to the test.  It’s about how important personal integrity is to us — and sometimes peer pressure, too. (Some would rather die than face the disgrace of failure by returning to their meaningful group alive.) It matters not what the religious or philosophical belief is, but  the meaning given to the believer.

  8. And those later persecutions had a very clear motive — by the latter second century and onwards Christianity was becoming a force strong enough to threaten the unity of the empire, and many church leaders were wielding political influence in ways that attracted mass persecutions. Naturally the Christians would promote these as martyrdoms for thier faith with no suggestion of the varying point of view of the State authorities. Bloody riots and progroms were sometimes carried out by pagans against Christians and Christians against pagans. We have seen similar things in parts of Indonesia in recent years, but the precarious context in 3rd century Rome in particular made them as much political as religious in impact and motivation.

  9. Hi .  OK well now the answers to the questions from the classic scholarly school:
    1)  The pre-Pauline Christians aren’t believes in Jesus but believers in the teachings of Jesus.  Like what you see with Ebionites.
    2)  The minimal historical information you find in a variety of sources: Josephus (edited), Tacitus… is essentially true.  The legends did mostly happen
    3)  Paul shifts the focus among god fearers to a belief in a sect as taught by Jesus to a sect about Jesus.  Paul’s jesus is however essentially ahistorical (as demonstrated by the complete disinterest in the life of the actual Jesus).
    4)  Among Paul’s sect (Christians) the stories about the historical Jesus get recast into the Pauline motif.  This is what explains the development of the Gospel.  It is at this point you have the historical Jesus and the theological Jesus merging in a meaningful way.  At the same tine Judea is destroyed in the 69-73 war so the original sect is mostly destroyed.
    5)  The Pauline sect is rejected by Judaism and moves further away from it.  The gospel stories having Jesus rejected by the Jewish community reflect this.
    So in the classic view people aren’t “dying” for a belief in Jesus until well into the 2nd century and the Jesus they are dying for is not the historical figure.   Those that die in the 1st century die because they are parts of sects in rebellion and believe in the teachings of Jesus.

  10. Polycarp —
    Well I’d be happy to stay in character and address any specific from the above.
    OTOH, I don’t disagree that it is a questionable theory.  I ended up in the New School because I felt the evidence for the classical scholarly position was too weak.  In particular if this theory were true you would expect to see the debates in early Christianity be about the divinity of Jesus while what you really see are debates about his humanity.  There are no first century of early 2nd century authors who assert a fully human Jesus as being related to Christianity.

  11. The ideas of the New School came from Walter Bauer (of the Bauer lexicon). Essentially the idea is to step outside the later apologists for how Christianity evolved and reconstruct it entirely without assumptions.  So for example no distinction is made between literature that later came to be seen as heretical and literature that later came to be seen as orthodox except for those the people of that time period are making themselves; i.e. no reading the future back into the past.   The modern proponents are people like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrmann, Birger Pearson; Karen King, John Turner…
    1)  If you allow for  Orthodoxy emerged from heresy, you can put together a time line consistent with the literature.  Generally you see a variety of heretical views first and then an orthodox response which becomes dominant.  The idea that there was a pre-existing orthodoxy that people diverged from is propaganda.
    This plays out in the small and the large.  So here are 3 progressions all sort of matched up (1 goes 1 for all 3…) So for orthodox Christianity would argue fora progression of:

    Hasidean Judaism
    Palestinian Judaism
    Jewish Christianity
    Orthodox Christianity
    Christian Gnosticism
    Classical Liberal Christianity would argue for:

    Hasidean Judaism
    Pharisaic and/or Essene Judaism
    Jewish Christianity
    Pauline Christianity
    Orthodox Christianity & Christian Gnosticism

    While the New School would tend to have a progression like:

    Hellenized Judaism
    Hellenistic Judaism
    Gnosticising Jews
    Christian Gnosticism
    Orthodox Christianity

    2)  Because Christianity emerged from a collection of sects geography really matters.  Sects evolve in different places and later join the Christian movement.  What you see in Palestine is not what you are going to see in Asia minor is not what you are going to see Alexandria.  You have to work case separately.
    3)  You see proto-Christian themes as early as the end of the Maccabean wars (163 BCE).  The literature develops organically responding to political events.
    4) Christianity emerged from fringe Judaism not mainstream Judaism.
    I can keep going but this is the basic drift.  I’m thinking a wikipedia article might be the best way to do this.  It is funny but nobody has written a “new school” article yet.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.