Prophets or Profits?

Last updated 2013/01/06
In the first century of the Common Era, there appeared at the eastern end of the Mediterranean a remarkable religious leader who taught the worship of one true God and declared that religion meant not the sacrifice of beasts but the practice of charity and piety and the shunning of hatred and enmity. He was said to have worked miracles of goodness, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead. His exemplary life led some of his followers to claim he was the son of God, though he called himself the son of a man. Accused of sedition against Rome, he was arrested. After his death, his disciples claimed he had risen from the dead, appeared to them alive, and then ascended into heaven. Who was this teacher and wonder-worker? His name was Apollonius of Tyana; he died about 98 A.D., and his story may be read in Flavius Philostratus's Life Of Apollonius.
Readers who too hastily assumed the preceding described Apollonius's slightly earlier contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth, may be forgiven their error if they will reflect how readily the human imagination embroiders the careers of notable figures of the past...
Randell Helms, Gospel Fictions

So who was this "Jesus" character? Was he the Jesus portrayed in the Official Version of Orthodox Western Christianity? I doubt it. Did he ever exist at all? Probably, in the form of Some Guy™ who ended up with the role after the fact. We'll never know for sure exactly what happened, but we do know that at some point in the early first century there were a variety of groups claiming him as a founder/leader/guru/etc. The process of creating Christian mythology took over, forever obscuring the historicity of Some Guy™, leaving us with a divine being who walked on water and ate with tax collectors.

Here's a "quick" rundown by author in order of publication (sort-of—I'm still working that out) of some scriptural criticism I've read. It's mostly non-secular and it'll help if you paid attention in Sunday School. Read the Amazon descriptions for even more info and note the inevitable negative comments...

Note: I have used the Amazon listings for all these books but many of them are available at the Skeptic bookstore at the same price or less. They sometimes have a hardback for the price of a paperback. Be sure to check before you buy.

Also, all of James Randi's books are now available in electronic form.

Burton L. Mack

Summary: Matthew and Luke are partially based on an earlier, lost document referred to as "Q" (quelle, German for "source"). Mack demonstrates how this earlier document evolved throughout the early first century. This gives unexpected insight into the evolution proto-Christianity (note that the gnostic Gospel of Thomas also uses Q as a source, providing us with even more evidence of its prior existence).

Mack details how the early "Christians" (a term that hadn't even been invented yet) were actually disparate groups with a wide variety of beliefs and, most importantly, hadn't thought of most of what passes for Orthodox Christianity yet in the first and second centuries. He also goes into a lot of the mythological basis of the New Testament. A bit long but a really good overview of how nothing was the way Orthodox Christians today view the first couple of centuries.

I finally got a used copy at a decent price. Mack details how the Orthodox myths of Christianity evolved over time and how they interrelate with Western culture, right up to the present day in the United States. More philosophical in tone than the other books listed here.

Randell McCraw Helms
His books are short, sweet, and to the point...

Helms make the essential point that the gospels are largely contrived out of Old Testament crypto-prophecy. Christian interpretation of the "Old" Testament is based on the notion that the Hebrew scriptures contain hidden prophecies about Jesus. The authors of the four canonical gospels had a no direct information about what Jesus may actually have said or done, just what had been passed down. Note that Paul's writings don't contain much in the way of history, either.

Thus the gospels were written based on material from Q, oral history, and this peculiar technique of teasing out "prophecies". They literally made up most of what Jesus "said and did" based on this "understanding" of existing scripture. IOW, "I found this verse in Psalms that sounds like something Jesus would have said so I'll have him say that in my book." And the story of Jesus evolved across the arc of subsequent gospels as new "prophecies" were "discovered". The process of creating the Orthodox Version was well underway.

Note that the author of Luke also wrote Acts, parts of which contradict Paul's own accounts. Funny about that.

An overview of who the gospel authors might have been, where they lived and how their school of thought influenced the fiction they wrote about Jesus. Nicely complements the previous book. Out of print but you can get it used. UPDATE: the Skeptic Bookstore has it.

This time Helms focuses on some of the flaming contradictions in the Bible. It's hardly comprehensive but it makes the point quite well. It's out of print and they want a fortune for it used on Amazon but fortunately you can get it at a bargain basement price at the link above. They also have it in hardback (first edition). Excellent value.

Bart Ehrman
Biblical scholar and former evangelical Christian turned aetheist-leaning agnostic. Here are some of his more accessible books, written for the layman...

Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend

Ehrman traces how the traditions concerning these major Biblical characters has changed over time as the Orthodox Version itself evolved.

Ehrman deftly illustrates how copying errors and both accidental and deliberate changes are commonplace in extant Biblical texts and how they evolved over time. If anyone tells you this never happened, could not have happened, show them this book. It's devastating. The KJV is based on a pile of such errors and mistranslations.

The first century gospel authors were sure that the Second Coming was going to be any day now and had Jesus prophesy to that effect. Of course, it didn't happen, and "scholars" have been trying to explain it away ever since. This one's a bit more dense—I'd recommend it to the advanced reader.

A complement to the Helms book above. Ehrman shows more of the twisted logic necessary to explain away the discrepancies in the first century writings and the curious lack of discussion about it in our nation's churches. He also relates the effect that facing these problems has on gung-ho freshmen seminary students. Very enjoyable.

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer

Perhaps the best possible question and the reason Ehrman ultimately lost his faith. I've just finished reading it and I have to admit that I was surprised by it. Ehrman pulls off the trick of bringing fresh perspective and elucidation to an old topic. Highly recommended.

Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

Excellent. Ehrman comes right out and says it: the Bible is fully of sheer forgeries, i.e., the work of liars. This is the most entertaining overview of the subject yet. Ehrman destroy the oft' used apologists' myth that "people didn't care about authenticity or plagiarism in them days". Actually, they did and we have their ancient opinions in writing. There's a glowing review of this book by Tim Callahan (see below) here.

Tim Callahan
His books are longer but very readable and different from the above...

Covers the ground really well. The Bible is chock-full of failed prophecy. Very embarrassing. Get a used copy. Or buy it from the Skeptics Society here.

The Secret Origins of the Bible (paperback—here's a brand new hardback copy at a much better price)

This is one of my absolute favorites. Callahan shows how the Bible (he spends most of his time on the Old Testament) was cobbled together from mythology borrowed from foreign sources, duplicate internal sources that don't agree with each other but were mixed together anyway and lots of redaction. Whatever historical basis the stories of the Old Testament may have had comes sharply into question. A real eye-opener for the uninitiated.

Richard Abanes
Evangelical Christian apologist who's a bit skeptical about prophecy...

You'd never realize an evangelical Christian wrote this. Abanes tears into popular End Times prophecy with a vengeance. Hal Lindsey, one of the best-selling authors of the Seventies, really gets raked over the coals for the silent watering-down of his "prophecy" throughout subsequent re-printings of The Late, Great Planet Earth. Pat Robertson, Jack van Impe, Oral Roberts and other television evangelists are not spared. For additional laughs, Abanes includes sections on secular prophecy by Clinton-era militia types (who are back now because of Obama) and other assorted goofballs. Written in the mid-nineties, this book is especially enjoyable since none of the many turn-of-the-Millenium prognostications listed turned out to be true—surprise.  This one's really good. Goes well with Callahan's prophecy book and you can get a used copy cheap.

James "The Amazing" Randi

Randi is a self-described angry man, and I can see why. A blistering exposé of the whole evangelical racket, this book details exactly how the scams are done. People die after being told the Holy Spirit has cured them, who would have thought? Somewhat old now but totally relevant as the current generation of charlatans are playing the exact same con game. Benny Hinn is only the latest in a long tradition.

One caveat—the text appears to have been digitized from the hardcover edition and looks a bit pixelated. I found a copy of Randi's report on the Peter Popoff scam here. Excellent.

The authoritative takedown of Nostradamus' so-called "prophecies" and their brain-addled fans. Everything you've heard is total bullshit. The detailed biography of Nostradamus and the political machinations of his time are quite interesting as well. Superb.

Sadly, the digitized type is even worse in this book. But I survived it.

There's a list of all my books reviews here.

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