Examining Jesus’ Passion through the Crucible of Doubt by Walter C. Uhler

by Walter C. Uhler
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
April 21, 2011

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No writer has had a greater impact on my life than Fyodor Dostoevsky – arguably the greatest of the world’s novelists and one of its most imposing defenders of Christianity. It was Dostoevsky who claimed, in a letter to N. D. Fonvizina in 1854, “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality, the truth were outside Christ, then I would prefer to remain with Christ rather than the truth.”

In that same letter, however, he also asserted “I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin.” To his credit, Dostoevsky never ceased testing his faith.

Predictably, Dostoevsky bristled when critics disparaged the religious obscurantism found in his last and, perhaps, greatest novel The Brothers Karamazov (and its classic within a classic, “The Grand Inquisitor”): “The scoundrels provoke me with an ignorant and retrograde faith in God. These asses could not even dream of such a powerful negation of God as is depicted in the Inquisitor and the preceding chapter, to which the entire novel serves as an answer. It is not as a fool or a fanatic that I believe in God.” [Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, by Joseph Frank, p. 713]

Elsewhere, Dostoevsky wrote: “Even in Europe, such a force of atheistic expression does not exist, nor did it ever. Therefore, it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and profess my faith in Him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.” [Ibid]

Under Dostoevsky’s influence, I have subjected my previously lukewarm Christian faith to the crucible of doubt. Thus, although I now take Christianity seriously, I refuse to believe like a fool, fanatic or child.

Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a religion of the Book. Serious Christians know that the followers of Jesus “remarkably quickly…seemed to question the idea that history was about to end.” Consequently, “they collected and preserved stories about the founder in a newly invented form of text, the codex (the modern book.)” [Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCullough, p. 9]

As will clearly be demonstrated below, only fools, fanatics or children believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Serious Christians know that “there is not a sentence concerning Jesus in the entire New Testament composed by anyone who ever had met the unwilling King of the Jews, unless (and it is unlikely) the General Epistle of James truly is by James his brother, rather than by one of James’s followers.” [Jesus and Yahweh, Harold Bloom, p. 19]

As New Testament scholar Burton Mack has written: “Scholars locate various writings of the New Testament at different times and places over a period of one hundred years, from the letters of Paul in the 50s of the first century, through the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in the 70s and 80s, the gospels of John and Luke around the turn of the second century, and so on to acts, letters, and other writings during the first half of the second century, some as late as 140 to 150 CE.” [Who Wrote the New Testament? p. 5]

The Gospels “were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by authors who did not know him, authors living in different countries who were writing in different times to different communities with different problems and concerns. The authors all wrote in Greek and they all used sources for the stories they narrate.” [The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p. 61]

Not one of the names assigned to the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – is necessarily accurate, because the earliest versions of these books were anonymously written. Those names were assigned subsequently by leaders within the Church.

(Similarly, Church leaders — such as Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 – decided which books merited inclusion in the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas wasn’t included, yet, according to Harold Bloom, “the Gnostic sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas ring more authentically to me than the entire range of utterances attributed to him in the Synoptic Gospels and the very late Gospel of John.”) [Bloom, pp.18-19]

Mark is generally considered to be the earliest of the Gospels. That’s significant because, as Bart Ehrman notes, “in general, historical sources closest to an event have a greater likelihood of being accurate than those of a further remove” [The New Testament, p. 216]

Nevertheless, “we do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament, or the first copies, or the copies of the first copies. What we have are copies made much later – in most cases hundreds of years later.” [Ibid, p. 12]

“Among the over 5,000 Greek copies of the New Testament that we have, no two of them are exactly alike.” [Ibid] Two of the earliest copies of the New Testament to survive — the codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus — date from the fourth century. Yet, neither of these earliest Bibles contains the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel.

Thus, according to the Gospel of Mark in these two Bibles, Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James) and Salome arrive at Jesus’s tomb only to find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty and a young man clothed in a long white garment, who tells them that Jesus of Nazareth ‘is risen” and instructs them to go and tell the disciples and Peter. But, inexplicably, Mark’s Gospel ends at 16:8: “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

This is troubling for two reasons. First, Mark is the oldest and presumably the most accurate of the Gospels. Second, as John Dominic Crossan has observed: “If they told nobody, how did Mark, unless ‘he’ was one of them, know about it?” [The Birth of Christianity, p. 557]

Now compare Mark 16:8 with Matthew 28:8: “and they departed quickly from the sepulcher with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.” Moreover, Mark’s “young man” (16:5) becomes an “angel” in Matthew 28:2, 5. Who are we to believe?

John Dominic Crossan — “generally acknowledged to be the premier historical Jesus scholar in the world” – believes neither Mark nor Matthew. “First, Mark created both the women’s discovery of the empty tomb and the burial story needed in preparation for it. Second, Matthew created the story of the apparition of Jesus to the women to change Mark’s negative ending into a more positive one. John copied that vision from Matthew.” [Ibid, p. 552]

The question of who to believe also arises when one examines the different ways Mark and Luke describe Jesus’ state of mind during his crucifixion. In Mark 15: 34, Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” However, in Luke 23:46, Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Thus, as Bart Ehrman has observed: “These differences are significant and should not be downplayed, as if Mark and Luke were portraying Jesus in precisely the same way. When modern readers act as if they were, for example, by thinking that Jesus said all of these things on the cross, some of them recorded by Mark and others by Luke, they take neither account seriously, but rather create their own account, in which Jesus is presented as all things at one and the same time.” [ The New Testament, p. 126]

Another problem with the Passion narratives concerns the exact time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Bart Ehrman describes the contradiction as follows: “In Mark, Jesus eats the Passover meal (Thursday night) and is crucified the following morning. In John, Jesus does not eat the Passover meal but is crucified on the day before the Passover meal was to be eaten. Moreover, in Mark, Jesus is nailed to the cross at nine in the morning; in John, he is not condemned until noon, and then taken out and crucified.” [Jesus, Interrupted, p. 27]

Ehrman states the obvious when he concludes, “It is impossible that both Mark’s and John’s accounts are historically accurate, since they contradict each other on the question of when Jesus died.” [Ibid. p. 29]

As a final example of the problems associated with Jesus’ Passion, consider John 18:28 – 19:16. “If Jesus and Pilate were alone at the trial…and Jesus was immediately executed, who told the Fourth Evangelist what Jesus actually said?” [The New Testament, p. 59]

Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that each of the Gospels suffers from credibility problems.

Nevertheless, beyond demolishing any claim that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, the credibility problems examined above still do little to disprove the claims that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. And that remains the case even after one acknowledges that “a book of good news is not the same as straightforward reported news.” [MacCullough, p. 78] and that “nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection,” [Ibid, p. 94], just a description of its effects.

Moreover, the New Testament is “true” in the sense that it has had meaning and significance for countless Christians over the ages. As the Danish Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, put it: “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” [Concluding Unscientific Poscript, 1846]

Nevertheless, to those of us possessed by reason, the failure to disprove the biblical claims about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection hardly proves they occurred. After all, there’s the matter of the “Sayings Gospel Q,”

“Q is from the German word Quelle, meaning ‘source.’ The text got that name when scholars discovered that both Matthew and Luke had used a collection of the sayings of Jesus as one of the ‘sources’ for their gospels” [Mack, p. 47]

According to Burton Mack, Q “documents the history of a single group of Jesus people for a period of about fifty years from the time of Jesus in the 20s until after the Roman-Jewish war in the 70s…They did not need to imagine Jesus in the role of a god or tell stories about his resurrection from the dead in order to honor him as a teacher. [Ibid]

Much of the material that Matthew uses for his Sermon on the Mount was taken from Q. As Bart Ehrman points out, “the sermon is thus largely about life in the kingdom of heaven, which… was the main emphasis of Jesus’ teaching.” [The New Testament, p. 101]

But, “this kingdom of heaven does not refer to the place people go to when they die. Rather it refers to God’s presence on earth, a kingdom that he will bring at the end of this age by overpowering the forces of evil.” [Ibid]

Thus, the evidence in Q raises questions about what prompted Paul and the authors of the Gospels to transform Jesus from a teacher, sage and prophet – concerned about the kingdom of heaven on earth — into the Christ and our Savior.

Those who suspect that “mass delusion” or “some colossal act of wishful thinking” was driving that transformation, have the equally fantastic cult of the Virgin Mary as their exhibit number one.

When Greek-speaking Jews decided to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the result was a second century BCE version known as the Septuagint. Unfortunately, in the course of translating the words of the prophet Isaiah into Greek, the translator mistakenly translated the Hebrew word “alma,” which means ‘young woman” into the Greek word “parthenos,” which means virgin.

Thus, whereas Isaiah’s original Hebrew talks about a young woman conceiving and bearing a son, the Septuagint’s Isaiah writes: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” [MacCullough, p. 81]

As Professor MacCullough observes, “the tangle of preoccupations with Mary’s virginity centers on Matthew’s quotation from the Greek version of the words of the prophet Isaiah…This Christian use of the Septuagint was either cause or result of changing perspectives on Jesus, which emerged out of what is likely to have been a cacophony of opinions and assertions among his first followers.” [Ibid]

Although the cult of Virgin Mary grew quickly in the Syrian Church, it gained widespread traction and increased popularity as the Church attempted to stamp out the heresy of Arianism. To that end, the Council of Nicaea (in 325) decreed that “the Son was ‘of one substance’ (homoousios) with the Father,” even though “homoousios” is not mentioned once in the New Testament. To buttress the council’s decree, Mary was now acclaimed to be “Theotokos,” or Bearer of God, rather than “Anthropotokos,” Bearer of a Human.

As professor MacCullough concludes: “Devotion to Mary was now becoming prominent throughout the Roman Empire: for the Nicene settlement of doctrine encouraged it, as a way of safeguarding Christ’s divinity against Arianism.” [p. 225]

Thus, an entire cult emerged from a mistranslation put to good use by the Church. It’s a lesson to keep in mind when subjecting Jesus’ Passion to the crucible of doubt.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also served as President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).

from the archives:

St. Peter (2005)

The Evidence for the Existence of Jesus

The Jewish Foundation of Christianity


5 thoughts on “Examining Jesus’ Passion through the Crucible of Doubt by Walter C. Uhler

  1. lever , it is not enough to know the core of the teachings of jesus . one must actually know jesus . for he is not dead . he was raised from the dead. i know . i have had friendly interfaith dialogue with Muslims for years . and it is an insult to them to compare the claims of God incarnate in Christ to Muhammed. if you wish to insult Islam you did a pretty good job . i don’t wish to insult them , because some of my fav writers are Muslim ; Abdul Aziz , Rumi , Hafiz. ..Averoees , Avicenna …etc

    you talk of an abundance of proof. well , i will tell you that for over 3 decades Jesus keeps changing my life , despite my stubbornness. that is an abundance of proof . what is your proof against it ? philosophically you cannot posit a negative , or advance a null set. no one can .

    one must understand that there is more truth in one childlike act and blind faith in Christ than in all of the self righteous unbelief against Him . Christ has all power in heaven and on earth because he died for us and was raised from the dead.

    let us have no illusions , and let us all be forewarned lest we end up like Satan in Milton’s ”Paradise Lost” when Satan says ”better to reign on earth than to serve God in heaven ”.

  2. rocket writes “Christ has been raised from the dead. i am an eyewitness to this and have been for 36 years” How could you be an “eyewitness” to an event that supposedly happened almost two thousand years ago? As Diarmaid MacCullough writes in his massive study, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection,”

    Don’t you mean, instead, that you’re a believer in this objective uncertainty?

    • Walter , thank you for your response.

      but to put it in a nutshell , when one says that they are an eyewitness testimony of an event to an alleged resurrection , it may not be a literal ”i saw Christ risen in bodily form ” thing. as the Apostles claimed over and over. for them it was.

      in my case i did see him dying on the cross for me . that was visual . when i said yes after all the years of fighting it , then i was enveloped in a bright light and re-born . here we begin to move into the writings of the great mystics. however, the” objective uncertainty” that Kierkegaard refers to is that we are dealing with a faith proposition rather than empirical evidence . this statement in his book ”concerning unscientific postscript” must be taken into account with him and Nietzsche’s dissent against the Hegelian synthesizers of their day .

      now granted , Nietzsche ended up with a different conclusion , but they both insisted on ”existence is a matter that relates to the individual , not axioms or systems”.

      and might i add , that i do agree with you that the new testament can be critical in the area of inspiration even if one doubts its accuracy . to question it i think is the wrong question . the question should never be is it accurate or not , but rather ”does it inspire me”? does it answer the literary quandary ”what does it mean to be human ”? in my view the answer is yes to both of these.

      but Kierkegaard warns us –”it is a fearful thing for a man to be alone with the New Testament ”. to this we must take this warning seriously . ..as we read in ”Crime and punishment ” , when Sonya reads about the resurrection of Lazareth and the amazing effect it had upon Raskolnikov who had been trying to rationalize not only murder but self superiority . oh , that on this Good Friday that we could see as he saw on that day and be converted to his ”heavenly Siberia”.

  3. 1.Concerning the virgin birth of Christ ( Logospermotokos ) …Theotokos is critical over Christotokos , because Christ took upon himself ALL prerogatives of deity , forgiving sins , and receiving worship .The is why he was a threat and killed. it is also very important Christiologically , but also sociologically , as in regards to sending a signal to the existent age that God by passed the entire Patriarchy of the day to come into the world . this ”theology of inversion” is crucial to understand the mindset of God’s kingdom in the egalitarian sense. To state the Matthew account and ignore in this article the Lukan account is lopsided . for all we know Luke or the Lukan community that wrote his gospel could have got it directly from Mary herself . it is not far from inconceivable given the exitent communitys and Christ cults under the roman empire.

    2. Bart Ehrman –”Forged” , his new book . let us deal with that. it is not what Ehrman states that is important but what he does not state. what he misses , though he agrees with the consensus of scholars today , is that the 7 epistles of St. Paul are valid and are enough to build an orthodox and orthopraxis influence on the 4 gospels that are an accurate representation of the early Jesus movement. Mark Nanos ”the mystery of the Romans” deals with this quite well. Paul was a verifiable known quantity , and so were those 7 epistles. ignoring the interpolation of Josephus , and relying on the big 7 of Paul , along with Tacitus, Suetonus , and Pliny’s writings on the early church along with the crucifixion account Tacitus) , and the extant writings of that Martin Hengel uses in his recent book ”Crucifixion ” , is enough to take this movement out of the realm of fiction .

    3. Concerning Kierkegaard — the objective uncertainty he refers to must be juxtaposed to the objective certainty that the Hegleians were using at the time discover the driving force of history and correct it . What K was getting at was that faith is the ultimate passion not doubt. one must doubt the so called objectivity before one . not doubt ones faith . you present a crucible of doubt. but the great doubt is going thru a crucible of faith and coming out the other side by the infused grace of the Spirit of God . a naturalist cannot do this . Frued’s ”wish thinking ” , Fuerbach’s ”projection ”, and Adler’s ”fictional finalism ” , all leveled at believers can be leveled at the naturalist who in reality is a non believer parading as someone that is not naive . why ? because it is the nature of unbelief to have wish thinking that they wont be held accountable to a God at the hour of their death . it is mere projection to say that one has total objectivity and say that there is no God . and it is a fictional finalism to hope that death is the end .

    in conclusion : one must really become a child to enter into the kingdom of heaven now and in the future. and be made to look like a naive fool in front of other intelligent men . the man with the courage believes no matter what. doubters are always cowards. Christ has been raised from the dead. i am an eyewitness to this and have been for 36 years. and no amount of pseudo intelligence and naysaying will sway me .

    • so you are saying we have to follow blindly (just like a child) even though there is abundance of proof lying in front of us. It is the same as being an ignorant and more like a COWARD who cannot handle the truth.

      Try searching what is the core of Jesus teaching and one will find what is the truth.

      And to be honest, the core teaching of Jesus is alike the teaching of Muhammad i.e Islam and that is there is only one God and they are just the messenger of God. As simple as that, yet it is difficult for Christian community to fathom.

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