XFiles Friday: Embarrassing Jesus

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)

Geisler and Turek are trying to persuade us that the NT writers would never mislead us. This week’s argument: we can trust what they tell us because they included “embarrassing details and difficult sayings of Jesus.

The New Testament writers are also honest about Jesus. Not only do they record self-incriminating details about themselves, they also record embarrassing details about their leader Jesus, that seem to place him in a bad light…

This is certainly not a list of events and qualities the New Testament writers would choose if they were trying to depict Jesus as the perfect, sinless God-man. Nor are these qualities congruent with the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would come to free them from political oppression. … The best explanation for these embarrassing details is that they actually occurred, and the New Testament writers are telling the truth.

You might think from the above that the New Testament writers had actually confessed to seeing Jesus sin or otherwise behave in a way that contradicted the conclusion that he was the divine Son of God. Guess again!

Here is the list of “embarrassing details” that Geisler and Turek claim the NT writers would not and could not have made up.

Jesus:

  • is considered “out of his mind” by his mother and brothers (his own family) who come to seize him in order to take him home…
  • is not believed by his own brothers…
  • is thought to be a deceiver…
  • is deserted by many of his followers…
  • turns off “Jews who had believed in him”… to the point that they want to stone him
  • is called a “drunkard”…
  • is called “demon possessed”…
  • is called a “madman”…
  • has his feet wiped with the hair of a prostitute (an event that had the potential to be perceived as a sexual advance)…
  • is crucified by the Jews and Romans, despite the fact that “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”

Notice, none of these “embarrassing” details actually compromises Jesus’ personal integrity in any way. These are all things that other people do, not things that Jesus himself did wrong or fell short in. Geisler and Turek are acting like these stories of people insulting Jesus and persecuting Jesus and misunderstanding Jesus and so on are all stories that Christians wouldn’t tell unless they were true. After all, who ever heard of a Christian complaining about their faith and their God being persecuted by the unrighteous, eh?

The NT writers are trying to make Jesus look like a man unjustly mistreated, and Geisler and Turek try to perpetuate that image, even as they try to make it sound like the Bible records things that ought to embarrass Jesus. It’s something less than having your cake and eating it too, because if Jesus does have anything to be embarrassed about, then he’s not the “spotless Lamb” Christians make him out to be, and if he does not, then the Bible can’t have recorded any.

If Geisler and Turek had really wanted to argue that the Bible stories are an embarrassment to Jesus, they could have picked some examples that were much better suited to the stated goal, from Mark 11, for example. Christians have always assumed that, say, Jesus had previously obtained permission to “borrow” the donkey he rode into Jerusalem, but the text doesn’t actually record that this is true. Nor would anyone else have been regarded as being innocent of sin after violently driving people out of the temple, for whatever reason.

Geisler and Turek come close to citing an embarrassing incident when they mention his family trying to take him away. Exodus 20, as you may recall, contains a command to honor your father and mother, and subsequent commandments go so far as to recommend death by stoning for those who refuse to obey their parents. When Jesus’ mother tried to come get him, however, he used a typical Pharisaic sophistry to get out of his Mosaic obligations: he declared that “whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother,” even though he condemned others for using the very same sort of ploy.

But the fact is, the NT writers do not appear to have ever intentionally portrayed Jesus in any kind of genuinely embarrassing light, and G&T’s attempt to make it look like they did is disingenuous at best. They fare slightly better with the “difficult sayings” of Jesus, but here too the “difficulty” is largely imaginary (except where it is a possibly garbled account and/or obscure cultural reference).

[T]here are several difficult sayings attributed to Jesus that the New Testament writers would not have included if they were making up a story about Jesus being God. For example, according to the New Testament, Jesus:

  • declares, “The Father is greater than I”…
  • seems to predict incorrectly that he’s coming back to earth within a generation…
  • then says about his second coming, that no one knows the time, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son”…
  • seems to deny his deity by asking the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? … No one is good—except God alone”…
  • is seen cursing a fig tree for not having figs when it wasn’t even the season for figs…
  • seems unable to do miracles in his hometown, except to heal a few sick people.

If the New Testament writers wanted to prove to everyone that Jesus was God, then why did they leave in these difficult sayings that seem to argue against his deity?

Boy, there’s a question with an obvious answer. Notice how often Geisler and Turek use the phrase “seems to” in order to avoid the conclusion that the Bible contradicts the deity of Jesus. Obviously, Geisler and Turek do not believe that the passages cited mean that Jesus is not God. Assuming that the NT writers did believe in the deity of Jesus, there is no reason to believe that they would think these passages were a contradiction of his deity either. If the passages don’t contradict the deity of Christ, however, then their belief in Jesus’ deity would give them no reason to omit the “difficult” passages.

Of course, it’s far from certain that the New Testament writers were Trinitarians—arguments about whether or not Jesus was truly God continued for centuries, in part because of ambiguous statements like those cited by Geisler and Turek. History books are written by the winners, so G&T can get away with the assumption that the NT writers must have been on the winning side too. But it ‘taint necessarily so just because they get away with it.

Notice too that Geisler and Turek inexplicably move the cursing of the fig tree to the “difficult sayings” section rather than the “embarrassing details” section. It’s an embarrassing story because (a) God the Son ought to have known there wouldn’t be any figs, and (b) it’s hardly fair to curse a tree for simply obeying the natural laws that govern fruiting.

Christians try and rescue their Lord from this faux pas by claiming that Jesus’ fit of pique was really a symbolic act of prophetic significance, usually understood as foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem. At that point, however, it ceases to be an “embarrassment” or “difficult saying,” and instead becomes an esoteric, insider boast of Jesus’ divine insight and authority—exactly the sort of thing someone would say if they were trying to encourage the faithful to believe in the deity of Jesus.

As usual, Geisler and Turek try and make it sound like the Gospel can only be either 100% lie or 100% truth.

While there are reasonable explanations for these difficult sayings, it doesn’t make sense that the New Testament writers would leave them in if they were trying to pass off a lie as the truth. (In fact, it doesn’t make sense that they would make up a character anything like Jesus. A weak and dying Messiah—a sacrificial lamb—is the very antithesis of a man-made hero.)

It’s not that it wouldn’t make sense for the NT writers to tell untrue stories about Jesus, it’s that Geisler and Turek simply aren’t interested in exploring any of the ways in which common psychological forces (superstition, gullibility, denial) could motivate people to take grains of truth and distort them into a soul-satisfying myth that, regrettably, does not accurately record what really happened. Nor do they give proper credit to other weak and dying heroes of the ancient mythos (e.g. Prometheus, Mithras, or even Persephone).

Geisler and Turek would like to think that “the best explanation is that the New Testament writers were not playing fast and loose with the facts but were extremely accurate in recording exactly what Jesus said and did,” but they fail to account for the fact that these “extremely accurate” accounts don’t always agree with one another. You may argue that eyewitnesses do sometimes give conflicting accounts of actual events, but this does not mean all of the conflicting accounts are “extremely accurate.” On the contrary, the conflicting details tell us that, whatever the original event may have been, the conflicting testimony is not as accurate as the witnesses believe.

Geisler and Turek’s argument leaves them in a rather embarrassing situation themselves. If the passages they cite are not genuine problems for Christianity, then there’s no problem with the NT writers including them, and point number 2 on G&T’s “Top Ten” list is nothing but smoke and mirrors. If the passages they cite are genuine problems for the Gospel, however, then they’ve conceded that the Gospel has genuine problems, and at best they’ve proven that the NT writers are being honest about the flaws!

At this point, it’s worth remembering that the point of this book is supposed to be that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian. Their argument is that God must exist because man doesn’t understand how the universe got here, God can’t show up in real life because that would “rape” our free will (somehow), God must therefore give us a Book that we can accept or reject, and the Bible must be that book because we can trust that the writers were telling the truth when they say God did all the things He can’t do because that would rape our volition. And the problems, difficulties, and embarrassments that show up in these stories only prove that we can trust these writers, because if they were making it all up there wouldn’t be such contradictions in their stories.

Meanwhile, back on this planet, our experience is that difficulties and inconsistencies show up in false stories, not because the authors are unusually honest, but because only the real truth is perfectly self-consistent, and difficulties are inevitable in any made-up or distorted tale. We would expect an invented and/or garbled account to have at least the sort of inconsistencies and problems Geisler and Turek cite, just because there’s no way to make an untrue story perfectly consistent with itself and with the real world. Christians deserve credit for their cleverness in thinking up ways to use these inconsistencies as though they were evidence in favor of their version of things, but that’s not the same as being right.

 
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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Embarrassing Jesus”

  1. Jayman Says:

    I haven’t read the book but it appears that Geisler and Turek are invoking the criterion of embarrassment: that which embarrasses the author or hinders or thwarts his goals is not something he made up and is more than likely true. This is a sound approach for historians to take. But it seems that either Geisler and Turek or yourself have misunderstood the criterion for you seem to be under the impression that it is Jesus who is being embarrassed. He very well may have been embarrassed at times but that is not really important to the criterion.

    You state that the NT writers do not describe Jesus as doing anything to contradict the claim that he was the Son of God. While the Christian authors of these documents would agree with you in that regard, other ancient people would not. For example, on the basis of Deuteronomy 21:23 many ancient Jews would believe that Jesus was under God’s curse and thus could not have been the Son of God.

    You then state that none of the embarrassing details compromise Jesus’ personal integrity. This may be true but those stories would raise red flags in a listener’s mind. If Jesus was so righteous why was he killed for a criminal offense? If Jesus was so wise why did his family think he was crazy? If someone is going to make up a story they make up a story that does not require them to explain such things. Thus you’re wrong when you assert, “If the passages they cite are not genuine problems for Christianity, then there’s no problem with the NT writers including them.” The point is that they included stories that could be (and were) perceived as problematic. A myth-maker would not bother to do that.

    We see this fact in action in 1 Corinthians 1:23 where Paul says that preaching Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. It makes no sense to believe that he (or some other Christian) created a fictitious tale of crucifixion to hinder his own missionary goals. It makes far more sense to believe that Paul knew Jesus was crucified and that he did the best he could in spreading Christianity despite the difficulties the crucifixion created.

    Though not pertinent to the criterion of embarrassment, you make a false statement when you say, “if Jesus does have anything to be embarrassed about, then he’s not the ‘spotless Lamb’ Christians make him out to be.” I imagine that the vast majority of people would be quite embarrassed if they, though innocent of any crime, were publicly crucified. Embarrassment is not solely the result of one’s moral failing.

    Admittedly the criterion of embarrassment does not (in itself) prove Christianity true. But it does prove that the evangelists had respect for the historical facts.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Thanks for writing, Jayman, you make some good points. My argument is not so much that we ought to assume that everything the NT writers say is false. The crucifixion of Jesus, for example, is likely to be true, and the resurrection story is likely to be the same kind of psychological denial that leads some people to insist that Elvis isn’t really dead. So yes, I certainly agree with the proper usage of the criterion of embarrassment.

    The argument I’m specifically trying to refute is the notion that we ought to trust the NT writers, carte blanche because of these “Top Ten” reasons like the argument that they included embarrassing and/or difficult details in their story of Jesus. Geisler and Turek are trying to create an argument in which the only issue is the credibility of the writers, and the only question is whether or not they’re 100% truthful or 100% honest. My counter is that they’re partly truthful, but are writing with a bias and an agenda, and you need to look at the specific claims they make on a case-by-case basis.