Reading the Bible, Part 9
The gospels are done. Jesus is gone. What’s next?
It was Sunday morning. A king and a Roman official were talking. Suddenly a large white stone crashed through the wall! A man stepped through the hole, flanked by eleven followers. “Jesus Christ!” said Herod. “The Nazarene?” said Pilate, “No, we killed him!” Jesus showed them the holes on his hands from where he was nailed to the cross. “You did. I came back.” “Blasphemy!” said Herod. “Stone him!” Thousands of Jews appeared and threw stones at Jesus. They all bounced away harmlessly. Jesus flew up into the sky. “I told you I was the son of God!” He threw down handfuls of chocolate bunnies. “Happy Easter, everybody!”
Okay, that did not happen at all. What a missed opportunity, right? That would have been awesome. Jesus never did much else in human form. His followers continued to spread his message though. Paul and Barnabas healed a lame man and a lot of people thought they were the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. At one point Paul’s preaching was disrupted by a rioting crowd that for hours shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The crowd was only quieted by a clerk that said “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash.” That day, people considered Greek myths to be undeniable. Today, everyone knows they are ridiculous. Today, people consider Christian myths to be undeniable. One day, everyone will know they are ridiculous.
I read somewhere that John the Baptist was a monopoly and Jesus was a franchise. After John died, his monopoly ended. Since Jesus died, there have been thousands of franchises in his name. And guess what? You can start a franchise too! The only requirements are to say that Jesus was great and to convince people to believe whatever else you believe. Benefits of owning a Jesus franchise include 1) a creation story that predates recorded history so you can pretend that God created everything how you wanted it, 2) infallibility for you because you’re doing what God’s son wants you to do, 3) an inspirational martyr for everyone to rally behind, 4) a selection of quotes and parables that can be interpreted however you like, and 5) instant forgiveness for anything you do.
Basically, everyone decides what they want to happen and then they either conform to others or split apart. The first two examples of this are in Acts 15. Some Christians from Judea were preaching that Christians must obey the customs taught by Moses. Paul and Barnabas disagreed and thought that would hurt their chances of gaining converts. There was a council of apostles and elders that decided that believers were not required to be circumcised, but they were required to abstain from improperly-prepared meat. Is that what Jesus wanted? Who knows? The council noted that it seemed good to the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit was a real thing, it would have supplied the correct answers in the first place.
Then Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement and split up and each went their separate ways preaching whatever they wanted. The councils and divisions continued over the centuries. How much division has there been? Take a look at this nice chart here. The bottom and center represent ancient religions from the beginning of known history to Jesus’s time. The lines outward show divisions of religions to the present day. Christianity is represented by the red lines covering the right half of the chart.
What caused the divisions? Around the year 320 the topic was Arianism, the idea that Jesus was created by God and therefore less than God. Around the year 430 the topic was Nestorianism, the idea that Jesus’s human side was separate from his godly side. Both ideas (which seem unknowable and irrelevant to me) were shot down by Roman emperors and bishops. The latter topic caused a division between Eastern and Western churches. The division turned into a permanent schism around 1054 over cultural differences, disagreement about the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, and more petty nonsense about how identical God and Jesus are. There was even a schism within Roman Catholicism from 1378-1416 where there were two or three popes at one time. I recommend that you research these topics. Try to keep count of how often Christian doctrine is shaped according what Jesus wants and how often it is shaped according to individual interpretations, emperors’ wishes, other politically powerful peoples’ wishes, money, invasions, cultural differences, etc.
The divisions exploded in the 1500’s due to the works of people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and King Henry VIII. The divisive topics included money and corruption in the Catholic Church, the supremacy of scripture versus church leaders, the necessity of faith versus deeds, predestination, and whether a certain king could get a new wife. Out of these divisions, there came along a group called the Baptists who believed that only competent believers (i.e. not little children) should be baptized and they should do it by complete immersion in water. Then some migrated from Europe to North America and a group of Baptists split from others based on how slaveholders were treated. The pro-slavery group called themselves the Southern Baptist Convention. I was born into a church of that group. After a conservative vs. moderate split, my parents’ church joined a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991. From a certain perspective, you could say that my parents’ religion is younger than I am.
Of course, everything I just described is a vast oversimplification of thousands of years of sincere beliefs and debates among billions of people. But the point is that religion is not shaped by divine will; it is shaped by culture and human preferences, as seen by the many splits above. It’s happened at least twice in my own family. My parents were reared in Free Will Baptist churches but when they moved cities they chose a Southern Baptist church. Why? Did they change their beliefs? Did they sit down and evaluate the differences? (To the best of my knowledge, the differences are whether or not salvation can be forfeited and something about a foot washing ceremony.) No, they just liked the preacher and people. Similarly, my brother’s wife changed from Methodist to Baptist when she joined the family. Why? Did she change her beliefs? Did she sit down and evaluate the differences? No, she liked how preachers can stay for decades in Baptist churches, whereas they are assigned for 1-5 years in Methodist churches.
Feel free to start your own Jesus franchise. Paul and Joseph Smith did. They never even met Jesus and they have millions of followers. Just pretend that you had a vision, that’s good enough. There’s no concern about intellectual laziness. Virtually nothing matters beyond saying that Jesus is great and he absolves you from everything you do wrong as long as you want it. That's really simple and easy. No wonder that billions have liked it. Maybe I should try it.