Forty. That’s how many years had passed after Jesus’ death before the first gospel was written. A time span even Evangelical scholars agree on. By that time, Jesus had been dead longer than he’d been alive. Looking backward from two thousand years, it’s easy to compress the time because it’s a relatively short period given the ensuing centuries. But forty years is forty years—even longer, in a sense. In our present age we can look back forty years and have some degree of confidence about statements of fact due to the preponderance of mass media and primary materials produced at the time of the event—neither of which existed at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. (As the musical Jesus Christ Superstar put it, “Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”) It would be another seventeen hundred years before the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution began to teach us verifiable principles and controls as a way to get at truth and overcome the flaws of our natural inclinations. In contrast, Christianity arose among a group of superstitious, illiterate people living on the edge of a desert who had few checks on their thinking.
Meanwhile, ready-made resurrection myths at hand (Attis, Horus, Osiris), common as “boy meets girl” stories, lay within reach ready to yoke to the growing Jesus myth. Tellingly, the resurrection account is missing from the oldest manuscripts of the oldest gospel, Mark. And, also tellingly, Christianity didn’t take hold in people’s imagination until it had moved far away from where it started. Start talking about an empty tomb at the time, and you’d hear, “Where’d you say that tomb was? My friend’s uncle owns that tomb. Nobody walked out of there.” But head up to Collossae or Ephesus several hundred miles away, even farther to Corinth, Thessalonica, or Philippi, and eventually way up there to Rome, and you can say anything you want about what happened back there. Nobody can say otherwise. As the historian Edward Gibbon pointed out so tongue-in-cheekily, in Palestine itself there was zero interest in this supposed miracle worker who supposedly rose from the dead. Or you can take the Christian view that there’s a huge conspiracy of silence going on, that the Jews were embarrassed by Jesus, “an offense, a scandal,” as the New Testament calls it. He’s made their religion look bad, made them look bad for not recognizing him as their messiah. Embarrassed or no, they wouldn’t have been able to hide the truth from those living at that time in that place. But Christianity didn’t develop in Palestine, it developed largely in Rome.
Now you’ve got Paul falling off his horse, having a vision of Jesus, and deciding he’s an expert on this man he’s never met. So, for example, we inherit Paul’s antipathy toward homosexuals, something Jesus apparently never spoke of, and hear him weighing in on other crucial ideas that Jesus somehow skipped, such as the appropriate length for a man’s hair, or whether a woman’s head should be covered. Any problem with this approach gets glossed over with the idea that the Holy Spirit was providing Paul with some kind of private tutorial. Holy Spirit, third member of the Trinity. Trinity. God is one but three. A notion not found in the Bible.
And let’s not even get started about how none of the original manuscripts exist, how even the merest fragments of the oldest surviving manuscripts date from several hundred years after the events they presume to cover. Gordon-Conwell’s doctrinal statement on Scripture: “The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error. They constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice.” “Originally,” eh? That’s convenient. They’re off the hook. Most of the New Testament documents that survive are copies of copies of copies, progressively showing hundreds of alterations to the wording, often reflecting the theological leanings of those doing the copying. Shaping doctrine. Check out Bart Ehrman’s books for the nitty-gritty.
As every good Evangelical knows, the word “sin” comes from a Greek word that means “to miss the mark”—really, “to miss the bull’s eye.” But at least one was aiming at something, actually picked up the bow and let the arrow fly. How did we get from the most common of experiences, falling short of perfection, to the idea that somehow this shows we are all brought into this world separated from God and in need of mediation from Jesus—excuse me, Christ? Great strategy. Create a problem to which Jesus, excuse me, Christ, excuse me, Jesus Christ, is the solution.