Jesus Against Christianity – By Nelson-Pallmeyer (Book Review)
By: Robert D Brinsmead
Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity, is a very good read, except that he repeats himself and keeps referring to the central point.
Some readers may find the repetition a bit tiring, but he masses the evidence to support his thesis. The story of the Bible is about punitive violence and saving violence. When God acts against evil, it is with violence – the Flood, the Exodus (those poor Egytians!) On the journey to the Promised Land, God is represented as killing about 30,000 of his own people for a variety of reasons, some as petty as people complaining about the menu. Perhaps the worst is the genocide incidents on entering the Promised Land. But even when the acts of God are saving Israel as in the Exodus, there is a lot of bloodshed and violence for those caught on the wrong side of all the bloody saving – as in the story of the Flood.
Then comes the story of the Exile. First Israel (the Ten Tribes) were overrun by the great empire of Assyria, and then Judah was razed by the armies of Babylon. According to the prophets, this was God putting his own people to the sword using the Assyrians and the Babylonians as his punitive instrument against his own people. This was large scale violence – villages and cities burned, people slain, women raped, children sold into slavery and whole populations carried off into captivity, slavery and families destroyed, appalling cruelty to children etc. It was punishment without discrimination (good and bad alike) and punishment out of all proportion to human wrongdoing. But the message of the prophets was stark and clear – this was God using the great powers of earth to punish the chosen people. This was carrying out the threats of Deuteronomy and other “sacred” passages – obey and reap promised blessings, disobey and reap all these curses that come in great handfuls.
If I could illustrate the point of the prophets, I would cite the “prophetic” words of Oral Roberts, Pat Robinson and Jerry Falwal saying that the horror of 9/11 was God using the Muslims to punish America for banishing prayer from the schools, for the abortion clinics and for tolerance of homosexuals. Anyhow, that was the prophetic explanation for the sufferings of Israel.
In the development of Apocalyptic in the Second Century BCE another interpretation of history is put forward. When the great Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes stared cutting out tongues and in the most despicable ways torturing those who refused to renounce Judaism (the more righteous the people the more they were gruesomely persecuted) it would no longer makes sense to say that God was using this wicked King to punish his people for breaking his law when it was clear that they were being punished for trying to strictly obey it. So the new theodicy had to say that this suffering was the work imposed on Israel by the wicked powers, represented as wild raving beasts, each succeeding one getting worse instead of better – but the righteous could be assured that this would continue for the time appointed when God would surely intervene to deliver his people and punish the evil powers. But all this was a totally different outlook than the one mediated by the prophets who confronted the Exile.
So the people of God had to wait patiently for the promised Messianic deliverer who would violently overthrow the evil powers and all evil doers and so save his people, etc etc, – but all this, of course, true to the Biblical theme of punitive violence and saving violence. When Jesus came, however, he rejected this violent Messianic hope and he rejected this violent Apocalyptic hope. He brought a startling new doctrine of a non violent God who called for a non violent ethic. Of loving enemies instead of violently punishing them. Of forgiving them instead of retaliation and getting even. Now if Jesus was not going to be violent Messiah bringing the great hope of Apocalyptic violence at his first coming, then there would have to be a second coming. Right?
So that this messiah would finally turn into the violent Messiah that even his closest friends really wanted.
Now when this non violent Messiah hung upon the cross, they came up with a stunning apocalyptic interpretation of this violent history – more stunning than the prophets declaring that this suffering inflicted by the great powers came on Israel because of its failure to keep the Law, more stunning than the Fundamentalist prophets saying that 9/11 was God punishing America for its ungodly ways. It was said that God used Rome (at the instigation of Jewish leaders) to kill Jesus in a great cosmic act to appease his anger against the sin of humanity. So that all who believed this can be saved from God’s anger expressed in the punishment of eternal hell – and the rest can go to hell. Look forward therefore for this non violent Messiah becoming extremely violent when he comes again, says Paul, in flaming fire to take vengeance on all them that obey not this gospel!!! OK, Ok, I have expressed it a bit bluntly even crudely to spell out what is a religion of violence and the projection of the worst of human violence onto God.
Pallmeyer has written a very disturbing book, but potentially a life-changing book. Bible believers will need a very strong stomach to read it.
In the matter of religion, the one unpardonable sin is unbelief or scepticism. In the matter of science, as the great Huxley once said, the one unpardonable sin is blind, unquestioning faith. Be like the scholars in the Middle Ages and accept how may teeth a horse has according to the authority of Aristotle, and never never look into the horse’s mouth for yourself to count the teeth – God might strike you dead for your unbelief! Humans never make progress unless some sceptic is brazen and stupid enough to call an existing paradigm into question. When an hypothesis is advanced in science, gathering 100 evidences of why it is true does not prove it because just one contrary fact can destroy an hypothesis. What one does is try to disprove the hypothesis. If that cannot be done, it finally becomes an accepted theory. So science advances by scepticism, or by questioning things. “Take no one’s word for it…” (Royal Society motto written in Latin) Damn, why did I spend so many years accepting things on the basis of what I thought the Bible says.
There are 30,000 Christian denominations or interpretations of the Bible. It would have to be some book to spawn so many diverse interpretations. The rules about playing cricket are so straight forward that there never could be 30,000 different ways to play cricket. Why did God write such a confusing rule book? Why not just accept the Pope’s interpretation of the book and leave it at that? Religion is a matter of accepting without further question some source of authority. Sounds like I am not very religious.
Yes, this pinpoints the real issue in the recovery of the historical Jesus over against the Christ myth. Jesus is consistently nonviolent in ethics and theology (ethics based on the nonviolence of God). There is no doubt about it, the Christ myth is an expression of apocalyptic violence.
We need to understand clearly that the atonement doctrine is an apocalyptic interpretation of the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus. Let me illustrate the difference between history and its interpretation. That the Babylonian power overthrew Judah, burned its sanctuary and carried many of its people captive is an historical event, and for that matter quite verifiable in history. Now the interpretation of the prophet Jeremiah is that in this event God was using the sword of the king of Babylon to punish the Jews for its disobedience to the law. That is an interpretation of the historical event, and it involved seeing something behind the event that one could only see by means other than ordinary observation. Then there was the 9/11 event of Muslim terrorists flying hijacked aircraft into the NY Trade Centre. That was an observable historical event. But then some Evangelical Christians “prophetically” interpret it as God’s act of punishing America for its ungodly ways. I am not suggesting that because Jeremiah interprets the Exile as divine punishment or that the Jerry Falwell’s saying that in the 9/11 event was divine punishment is wrong simply because it is an interpretation. The only thing one should do is consider that interpretation to see whether it is based on some sound principles of reasoning and evidence. Is it an interpretation of the historical event that will stand the test of scrutiny and sound reasoning?
The same thing has to be said about the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus. From outward observation the only thing one could see at Calvary is that the Romans had executed Jesus, perhaps at the instigation of Jewish authorities. When one reads the early preaching about this in the book of Acts, there is nothing said about this event being a sacrificial offering for the sins of the world. In his first two sermons Peter (Acts 2 and 3) is represented as telling his hearers that Jesus was an innocent man who was brutally murdered and that some people need to repent for the part they played in this martyrdom. Nothing is said, not the slightest suggestion, that this was an atonement to propitiate the wrath of God on account of human sin. Those theories were to be developed later, and for that matter, the author of Luke/Acts, which is the largest single body of NT writing, does not put forward any theology of atonement. And the whole movement of Jewish Christianity for that matter, which included Peter and all the leaders of the first church at Jerusalem, had no theology of atonement. That came with the development of Pauline/Gentile Christianity just as a corollary of that, it was Gentile Christianity that developed the teaching of a virgin birth (If Jesus’ death was to be understood as a sacrificial sin offering, then the sacrifice had to of sufficient value to surpass the well-known child sacrifices of the ancient world. And then the person of this mthical Christ needed not only to be a virgin born sinless being, but then he would have to take on divine properties so that his offering could bridge the supposed infinite gulf and infinite punishment demanded of human sin.)
So it was not the theories of Jesus’ virgin birth and then his absolute divinity that led to the doctrine of a bloody atonement on the cross, but the other way around. Paul never fully developed the implications of his Christ myth, for its full development took about 400 years. When it was finally “settled” by the church at the Council of Chalcedon, it was not long before it was being decreed by church/state authorities that anyone who thought contrary to this should be put to death.
In short, the theory of Christ’s atoning death was an apocalyptic interpretation of an historical event, suggesting a hidden meaning of that event not evident to ordinary observation. And true to the nature of all apocalyptic events, it was a display of God’s end-time violence. The resurrection was seen as the arrival of the end-time resurrection and it was expected that it was like the begining of the general resurrection at the end of the world. In other words, the NT breathes the conviction that it was standing on the breaking of the end of the world. Proved to be Messiah by resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:2), this Messiah would soon be revealed from heaven with unprecedented vengeance and violence.
Whereas Jesus was consistently nonviolent, the Christ of Paul in both his death event and his coming again is the Messiah of divine violence.