26 July 2010

Fakery and propaganda in the bible

Back when I was in Sunday School, Mrs Hansen told us that the bible was true - every word. And we had to read it diligently, and believe it, because it was the Word of God. The problem, of course, is that every word in the bible is certainly *not* true; there are numerous contradictions, mistakes, ahistorical fabrications, spin efforts and blatant porkies, and any serious scholar of the biblical texts will tell you as much (although if they are in a post paid for by one of the churches, you may have to ply them with a few drinks first). But this is not really in debate - it is certainly the majority opinion amongst biblical scholars; your minister will not tell you this. Even though he *knows*.

But that is by the by; this post is just to highlight one that I rather like, because it is SO blatant, SO clearly fabricated, and is an excellent example of the sort of process that went into creating a gospel back in the late first century, when Jesus had already been dead for decades. The story is that of a donkey. Or maybe two donkeys. Well, really ONE donkey.

It's Palm Sunday; Jesus is about to make the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The author of Mark (not really Mark, of course - we do not know who wrote any of the gospels, not even Luke) takes up the story: [ASV, BibleGateway.com]

1 And when they draw nigh unto Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount of Olives, he sendeth two of his disciples,

2 and saith unto them, Go your way into the village that is over against you: and straightway as ye enter into it, ye shall find a colt tied, whereon no man ever yet sat; loose him, and bring him.

3 And if any one say unto you, Why do ye this? say ye, The Lord hath need of him; and straightway he will send him back hither.

4 And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door without in the open street; and they loose him.

5 And certain of them that stood there said unto them, What do ye, loosing the colt?

6 And they said unto them even as Jesus had said: and they let them go.

7 And they bring the colt unto Jesus, and cast on him their garments; and he sat upon him.

8 And many spread their garments upon the way; and others branches, which they had cut from the fields.

9 And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord:

10 Blessed is the kingdom that cometh, the kingdom of our father David: Hosanna in the highest.

OK, that's fairly straightforward. I wonder what the (again anonymous) author of Matthew has to say on the topic?

1 And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and came unto Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,

2 saying unto them, Go into the village that is over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.

3 And if any one say aught unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.

4 Now this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, Meek, and riding upon an ass, And upon a colt the foal of an ass.

6 And the disciples went, and did even as Jesus appointed them,

7 and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their garments; and he sat thereon.

8 And the most part of the multitude spread their garments in the way; and others cut branches from the trees, and spread them in the way.

9 And the multitudes that went before him, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

Interesting. Mark has a colt; Matthew has a colt and its mother. Contradiction? Well, if that's all there was to it, it would not be that impressive. Maybe Mark just didn't bother mentioning its mother. Maybe there were really two donkeys, but only the colt was important. However, that is not the interesting thing here. What IS interesting is that this is not Matthew's separate perspective - Matthew is working off the same TEXT as Mark - indeed, it is spectacularly obvious that when Matthew is writing his document, he has the book of Mark in front of him. He is COPYING it, and FIXING it where he thinks it is wrong.

However, if you flick back to Zechariah, you will see that it is *Matthew* who has not properly understood the prophecy; Zechariah only mentions ONE donkey, but repeats and emphasises the donkeyness of our donkey by a poetic technique known as parallelism - the Old Testament is full of it, and we do it in English too. It is similar to repetition for dramatic effect. But poor old silly Matthew thinks there are two donkeys, so he fixes Mark to make it look like the prophecy was fulfilled. Just like he fixed the "virgin birth" because he did not have a Hebrew bible to work from; just the Greek (which mistranslates "young woman" as "virgin").

Now, again, scholars have known this for donkeys' ages (sorry). But they didn't tell YOU that, for very obvious reasons. The thing is that the Gospel of Matthew is absolutely *riddled* with fixes like this, where the "real" story of Jesus (or at least the story that he had received - remember, the author had never met Jesus, and was writing at least 40 years after Jesus had died) didn't match some prophecy, or it lacked dramatic effect, so Matthew "sexed up" the document.

He faked a prophecy: "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matthew did not realise that "NazarENE" had NOTHING to do with the small new town of NazarETH, but was a completely different term); he faked the angels at the tomb; he faked the *guard* of the tomb, he faked the earthquake and the dead rising and going into Jerusalem. He faked the post-resurrection appearances (the original, Mark, *never* mentioned any appearances of Jesus after his death - just an empty tomb).

But it is fascinating to see that part of the "Word of God" is a clumsy attempt to sex up another gospel that the author thought was deficient in a number of areas. Not only are the gospels NOT the "Word of God", it is clear that the authors *knew* this; they were perfectly aware that they were not writing "scripture", but marketing blurb. They were advertisers, and dishonest ones at that. And of course, there is no reason to suppose that what goes for Matthew does not also go for Luke and John (and Mark too, for that matter).

The whole basis for Theistic Christianity - crushed under the hooves of The Donkey That Broke The Gospel's Back.


  1. You betcha, Graham. Simple, incontrovertible, fatal. And no specific doctrinal issues involved.

    I have run across some truly laughable efforts by biblical inerrantists to get around this, but they all fail. They're pretty funny though.

  2. I actually wrote out a very long reply. And then Wilma clicked off the page before I could send it!

    So I wrote it again. And sent it. And it is lost in the interweb. It never arrived.

    So I settled for "that's it???"
    I've no problem with the addition or subtractions of donkeys by writers. Narrators had that sort of freedom (but not the freedom to make up a triumphal entry!)

    ("Inerrancy" means so many things to so many people, I'm not sure that the term helps. Most theological seminaries would label me an "inerrantist". Most fundamentalists would lynch me. Fun, fun, fun!)

  3. Hi Graham,

    Women, eh?!

    What gives you the confidence that a gospel writer could fabricate a donkey, but not (say) fabricate a post-resurrection account? Or fabricate a guard on the tomb? Or an angel rolling stones away? Or an earthquake?

    That is precisely what I am saying - Matthew *did* fabricate these things. But he did so in order to fix what he saw as a defect in Mark.

    That is why I think this is fatal to the naive view of biblical inerrancy, and it is also fatal to those apologists who continue to pretend that the resurrection (as an event) has ANY historical validity at all - it doesn't.

    And, as you know, I hold the view that it did not happen. Jesus died, and stayed dead.

  4. "Fabrication" is not how an ancient audience would have put it.The Gospels must be understood as written versions of an oral recitation the context of an orally dominated culture. Traditions are passed on orally typically through the medium of an oral performer reciting some aspect of the oral tradition before a community of listeners.
    James Dunn has produced a massive study ("Jesus Remembered") analysing numerous texts, and showing that the stability and flexibility of "informal controlled" oral transmission is present throughout the Gospels.

    Oral recitations, whether written or not, always presuppose a much broader tradition that is well-known to the listening audience. The audience was familiar with the tale, and if Matthew was adding a Donkey, they would ask why.

    (Although, I really can't see why Luke and Mark wouldn't leave a Donkey out. If Matthew understood the OT prophecy this way, why couldn't Jesus?)

  5. Graham, because "Matthew" was NOT dealing with an oral tradition, but a WRITTEN tradition, i.e. the Gospel of Mark. Which he edited to insert a donkey. Which he did because he (and perhaps his target audience too - none of these people, nor the author himself had ever seen Jesus in action) misunderstood the prophecy (just like he misunderstood *several* OT passages).

    So he stuck in a donkey, he upgraded the young man at the tomb to TWO angels, added a whole cock and bull story about the tomb guards (which later apologists have continued to embellish - Pilate's spare jobbing squaddies have been promoted to a special elite ninja unit by some enthusiastic fantasist Christians) AND (importantly) every single story about the *risen* Jesus.

    My point still remains: if you can't trust him over the donkey, you can't trust him over very much at all. Yes, I appreciate that some people have tried to create very inventive rationalisations of this issue, but they do not pass the bullshit test. Matthew is well dodgy.

  6. Er, a little bit of overstatement there Shane!

    "every single story about the *risen* Jesus."

    No. 1 Corinthians refers to traditions of appearances (some of which do not appear in the Gospels. So the Gospel writers did not create them all!)

    "Matthew" was NOT dealing with an oral tradition, but a WRITTEN tradition, i.e. the Gospel of Mark."

    It isn't an either/or situation. Mark was a record of oral tradition, as much as "Q" was. They were meant to be read aloud, much as "James" is a written record of a homily.

    But Matthew also had access to Oral Tradition (eg. the healing of the Centurion's Servant is more likely an oral tradition known to Luke and Matthew than part of Q, given the variation in wording). More importantly his *auidence* had access to oral traditions.

    The idea that oral performances stopped once Gospels were written down is simply false.

    Again, Dunn's "Jesus Remembered" is important. A focus on literary transmission has led scholars to ignore the fact that the Gospel traditions arose in an oral culture, which shaped the way the stories of Jesus were told, passed on, and eventually recorded.

    "if you can't trust him over the donkey, you can't trust him over very much at all."

    That's a very weak point. First of all, it's not clear that we can't trust him on he donkey. But even if we couldn't - so what? Josephus consistently underplays the role of the aristocrats in the Jewish revolt. Yet scholars mine "The Jewish War" and "The Antiquities" for solid information.

    In other words, getting the Donkeys wrong doesn't mean that there was no Triumphal Entry. Getting a witness wrong doesn't mean that there was a body in the tomb.

    (Although I think the objections to the guard are overstated.)


  7. Hi Graham,

    1 Corinthians refers to traditions of appearances (some of which do not appear in the Gospels. So the Gospel writers did not create them all!)

    Of course - all those "appearances" would be "visions", not physical, and they suffer from exactly the same problems as our (later) gospellers.

    Matthew also had access to Oral Tradition

    Oh undoubtedly. Nowadays we call that "hearsay". But my point with the donkey remains - THAT is documentary, and if he is doing that to a document, it clarifies precisely why his story is embellished in other aspects in the "oral history".

    More importantly his *auidence* had access to oral traditions.

    Indeed. Hearsay.

    The idea that oral performances stopped once Gospels were written down is simply false.

    And if you can point out where I said that, I would gladly retract. And still you cannot address the central point, that the gospels were altered to fit the *beliefs* that were being imposed upon them. THAT is what Matthew clearly demonstrates.

    Again, Dunn's "Jesus Remembered" is important.

    No it is not. Specifically, it does not address the core issue that matters of fact were altered by the gospellers *even in documents* to sex-up their dossiers. Dunn is entirely irrelevant to this point.

    Josephus consistently underplays the role of the aristocrats in the Jewish revolt. Yet scholars mine "The Jewish War" and "The Antiquities" for solid information.

    Yes, but we treat it sceptically. We would not believe Josephus if he told us that Vespasian rose from the dead, and historians do not believe Matthew when he claims Jesus rose from the dead.

    In other words, getting the Donkeys wrong doesn't mean that there was no Triumphal Entry. Getting a witness wrong doesn't mean that there was a body in the tomb.

    Which has NEVER been my point. My point is that the gospels are flawed, and you admit this. Good. However, some people continue to assert that there is good historical evidence to suggest that Jesus the Nazarene *actually* rose from the dead. This is complete nonsense. The historical evidence gleaned from the bible (and that's the only source we have, written decades later) suggests that the initial belief in the resurrection was based around a missing body and garbled reports of "visions", and the actual stories of a "real" risen Jesus, and an ascension, only came much later, as the in-group shibboleths solidified.

    (Although I think the objections to the guard are overstated.)

    Oh, there *could* have been a guard - it's just that we have no reliable evidence for it.

    So as you can see, none of your points alter the simple fact that Mark's gospel was sexed up by whoever wrote Matthew.

    This isn't hard to work out. People make up crazy stories all the time, and can even get lots of people to believe them.

  8. I'll bet my last doughnut that you haven't read Dunn's book (-;

    I have to stop popping down for midnight snacks --- bad for the waistline!

  9. I've read one of his articles. It misses the point. The issue is not that *some* stories might be more or less accurate, but whether the stories of miracles and resurrections have any historical basis. And they don't. The bible is a multilayered worked-over gather-up. The donkey is one great example that proves that.

  10. Holy Moley. Gee Wizz. Gonny and flip... now I'm going to have to read all this.

    "Fakery and Propaganda in the bible"?

    Well, won't you pardon me for having an Eeyore moment!!

    BTW Has this donkey derby switched venues?


  11. OK, OK... I've only scanned it; I'll read the post, I will, I will, but I noticed this, "so Matthew "sexed up" the document."

    Would that mean that there are donkeys of mass destruction hidden somewhere in the Middle East?

    And, I hate to ask, but how many donkeys does Zecky mention?

    I mean, did he say that the donkey/colt had a mum?

    But, of course, what we really need to discuss is what the writers were doing and whether or not they were faking and what the actual arguments for fakery are and what you think was going on to cause such 'fakery'?


  12. You might argue that Matthew latched on to a false oral tradition. But what you can't say is that he read Mark and decided to add a bit. The idea that he could only access the story of the Triumphal Entry through what he read in Mark is unfounded. You would need to have a substantial argument at hand nowadays to make that kind of claim.

    BTW It's the whole notion of "multiple layers" that Dunn has (quite successfully) challenged.
    Oral Traditions are unlike literary traditions. You don't have a "first" telling of the Good Samaritan or the Lord's Prayer. There would have been numerous ways to tell the same material *from the beginning*.

    So Jesus would have told the same parable in different ways, and so would the tradents that followed. The same goes for narratives. There would not have been one way of telling the Triumphal Entry from the beginning. But from the beginning certain parts of the tradition would necessarily have been included.

  13. Shungy, if Mrs. Hansen were alive she would fetch ye a good slap, take away your 'stumps' and tell you to stop being an 'ass'! ;o)

  14. Hi Ric :-)
    I'd have to slap her back. Problem is that she taught me (and several of our mates) *too* well, and I'm not the only one of our Sunday School crowd to have realised that when you scratch beneath the surface, the bible is so much more interesting than the boring "inerrant" cobblers the Calvinists have served up.

    Sola Scriptura is a very dangerous doctrine for people who want to remain believers - best to just let the bible study guides take you through it by the hand, rather than trying to tackle it yourself, or to apply a bit of critical scholarship. Definitely don't do that. Don't study Ancient Near Eastern archaeology. Don't study Egyptology. Don't study biology. Or comparative religion. Or Islam or Judaism. But whatever you do, *don't* study the bible!


  15. Jimbo,

    I have to say I've gotten very bored of *critical* scholarship over the years of trudging my way through seminary. It seems so arbitrary at times, and bizarre! More like, 'Let's eat a late night burrito and see what we can dream up!'

    One such *cure* I found to that nonesense was this wee book. Frederick C. Crews 'The Pooh Perplex' was first written over 45 years ago, but a few years ago the University of Chicago Press put out a new edition, which contains a new preface by the author.

    In this book (not written by an evangelical Christian, but which has proved to be good medicine when first encountering various biblical criticisms!) Crews carefully, sarcastically, and humorously “proves” that the Winnie the Pooh stories actually have multiple authors. A shocker of a thought to those Canadians who love A.A Milne! There could hardly be a more enjoyable send-up and devastating critique of many kinds of biblical criticism, not to mention an expose of the arbitrariness of any such studies’ “assured results.”

    The full subtitle is: In Which It is Discovered that the True Meaning of the Pooh Stories is Not as Simple as is Usually Believed, but for Proper Elucidation Requires the Combined Efforts of Several Academicians of Varying Critical Persuasions.

    It's a ripper! The sequel is called 'Postmodern Pooh,' although I think you and I both know that we have used that phrase elsewhere for other reasons! ;o)

    Blessings on you and yours!


  16. I think R. T France (Anglican) has useful comments here on this issue. And, no, he is NOT an inerrantist! :o)

    'In the other 3 Gospels only one animal is mentioned, a 'foal' in Mark and Luke and a 'small donkey' in John - and John's version of the Zechariah quotation is a abbreviated to mention only one animal. Matthew has explicitly mentioned two in both the instructions to the disciples (v. 2) and the Zechariah quotation (v. 5), and now two animals are brought to Jesus and prepared for riding, probably by the disciples' using their own cloaks as saddle cloths. Assuming that he rode on only one animal, the presence of the other is probably best explained at the narrative level by the comment of Mark and Luke that the 'foal' had not been ridden before, so that it's mothers presence would help it to cope with the new experience (and the frightening noise of the crowd); the festive occasion required that the mother, even though not ridden, should also be given a saddle cloth. But it is not typical of Matthew to add circumstantial detail to his narrative without a purpose, and it seems likely that, aware that two animals had been present, he nejoyed the fact that the wording of Zechariah's oracle can be read as including both mother and foal, and so mentioned them both. That is not to say, as some have suggested, that Matthew simply invented a second animal because his wodden reading of the Hebrew parallelism told him that it was needed. The author of this Gospel was not ignorant of OT idiom, and surely would have recognized the parallelism when he saw it. His mention of the second donkey is due rather to a typically Jewish interst in the 'form' of the text, so that even though he knew it referred to only one animal, its wording nonetheless lent itself to the mention of the other. This is not, therefore, another exampe of Matthew's 'doubling' of characters in the stories (as in 8:28-34 and 20:29-34); if the suggestion that those doublings were connected with the need for 'two or three witnesses' has any merit, it could not apply here: the donkeys are not witnesses to anything. In those cases there was no OT text underlying the story, but here there is, and its expansive poetic wording has given Matthew scope for adding a further creative twist to his concept of 'fulfillment.''


  17. Wish fulfilment, more like, Ric! :-)

    So exactly what part of the argument do you think that counters? Remember, this argument is NOT based on anything other than the bible texts; it does not presuppose that the bible IS flawed (although it does *demonstrate* that). It does not depend on whether there "really" was one donkey, two, three, or a million.

    To re-state, briefly, the anonymous editor/redactor responsible for "Matthew" DID tart up the text of Mark in order to *force* (not "suggest") a reading of the text that agreed with an incorrect reading of Zechariah.

    I fully accept that many Jews of the time were similarly mistaken, hence my Romeo reference. Jews did not speak Hebrew in C1CE - they spoke Aramaic. To them, Hebrew was like Chaucer's English, never mind Shakespeare's. Our Matthean scribe only had the Septuagint and a few half-remembered soundbites to go on - quite contrary to the fantasies of apologists, he was no scholar.

    But that is by the by for this argument. This argument is all about sexing up the gospel. And that is precisely what the Matthean scribe did - if you view Matt & Mark alongside each other, it is spectacularly obvious, and it is a bit disappointing to see good people display such a cavalier disregard for history and for the information that is actually in the bible itself! :-)

    Careful with that book now!

  18. Oopps, I thought I had addressed the issue with the France quote!? I thought he effectively said there is no 'sexing' up of the Matthean text, rather it was a 'purposeful addition' for the audience he was writing to. [ Just like Mark used material that would be useful to his audience.] Sexing up? I think that that's a 21st century anachronism on your part. It defintely doesn't seem to be a problem for Christianity or, in particular, sane Gospel scholars. The Kingdom continues to chug along quite nicely!

    I have to disagree with you that Matthew was no scholar. If he wasn't a scholar, he was very bright! The structure of the book alone shoots that in the head!

    I will preach through that book on day - and I'll dedicate it to you! :o) I'll send you the MP3s and torture you with the Gospel! :o) And I'll be very careful with the text, I can assure you! ;o) Thanks for the challenges to think more and for being my 'Christian' Atheist friend!

    Blessings on you and your wee family!

    Signing off now!


    P.S - Matthew 5-7 contains some wonderful material for you to incorporate into your ethical Christian Atheism!

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