Doubting Thomas. It seems that Thomas the Twin often gets a bad rap. He is set up as an easy punching bag in this Gospel reading. How could he not believe the disciples when they told him Jesus dropped in? I wonder if they had April Fool’s Day back then. It seems like a pretty good set up. Perhaps Thomas drew the short straw and was sent out for supplies while the disciples were holed up in the safe house; or perhaps he was out collecting news from the community. Whatever the reason, he comes back and the disciples tell them the risen Christ has come to them. Surely they are pulling his leg, he’s not going to fall for that one. Unless he sees it for himself, he will not believe.
Surely we would have responded with similar disbelief, for doubt is an essential ingredient in the divine mystery of faith. The human mind cannot possibly perceive things the way God perceives so doubt is even a necessity of the human condition. I would even venture to say that doubt is healthy. It challenges us, it stretches us. When we learn to rest in Divine uncertainty, we come to a deeper understanding about what faith is and isn’t. Which raises the question, what is the difference between faith and belief? Briefly, I would say that belief is a conscious choice, while faith is a gift from Heaven that exists whether we acknowledge it or not.
This past Easter Monday, after the hectic pace of Holy Week had settled down, my family and I were looking for an excuse to get out of the house. We decided to go to Chapter’s to get Lumi a new book, we settled on the original Wizard of Oz.
As we headed to the check out, I noticed the new Macleans magazine by the cashiers. “Did Jesus really exist? The science is in: New memory research is casting doubt on the few things we thought we knew about Jesus. Now a growing number of experts think he didn’t exist at all.” I don’t usually buy magazines, but this time I felt compelled. It seems that every year around this time we find Jesus on the cover of another magazine, with a controversial title, looking to stir the pot, hoping to sell copies.
You know, those of us who go to church and what not, we have particular impressions about what church is, what Christianity is, who Jesus is/was. We engage in these questions on a regular basis. We spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, living out what we think it all means and so on. These are all good things. Still, I was drawn to this magazine in part to see what the secular world was saying about Jesus now.
I was curious to see what kind of impressions this mainstream magazine was putting out there. Every once in a while, it is healthy to look outside of ourselves, outside of our community, look beyond our assumptions and comfort zone and see what others think of these questions. Others with very different ideas and motivations for looking at the same questions. This interaction with the other helps us to better understand who we really are, it helps give us more perspective and a richer sense of identity. We need not fear those that are different from us. My good friend Aristotle is known to have said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
And with that in mind, allow me to give you a synopsis of the article, which is based off of the work of two Authors.
Firstly is New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, who in his book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Saviour, explores the frailty of human memory which serves to undermine the factual basis, or literal quality of the the Gospels and Jesus’ ministry. According to Ehrman, every act of oral transmission is an act of creation. We are all familiar with broken telephone, where one person says something to another who passes it to another. By the end of the chain the message is usually very different than the beginning.
The broken telephone effect, some argue, would have made it impossible to control the contents of stories about Jesus. Tests showed the more a story was repeated the more it changed, and eye witnesses were the least reliable. False memories are easily implanted. Group memories were the worst, with dominant members interjecting their version, which became part of the collective memory, showing that memory is social as well as individual.
Still, Ehrman’s position is that while the Gospels may not be entirely accurate in detail, they do capture the gist of events that actually happened; comprised of a mix of fact and metaphor.
Richard Carrier, on the other hand, in his work, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt questions the existence of Jesus altogether. Carrier is referred to as a Mythicist, someone of the opinion that Christianity itself is purely a man-made myth. And that the reason Biblical historians cannot find even the outline of a historical Jesus, is that there is nothing to find: Jesus Christ never lived at all.”
Citing the lack of detail in Paul’s letters about Jesus’ ministry, Carrier muses aloud that “if Christians couldn’t have cared less about the details of Jesus’ life and ministry, they wouldn’t have preserved them, and the evangelists would have been forced to make up everything.” Dispelling the Gospel as a mix of fact and metaphor paradigm.
Most people agree that the Gospels were written within certain contexts, speaking to certain issues faced by their community, the corruption of the temple practices for example. Most agree too that there were many different groups and viewpoints in first century Palestine.
Carrier argues that through apocalyptic math and study of the Scriptures, one dissenting group, led by Peter made the whole thing up, and that the tendencies of human memory experiments predict that falsities were “factualized” to attract followers.
Certainly, these are provocative arguments; and certainly they are not arguments which belong exclusively out there. They represent a vital contribution to the conversations we need to be having within these very walls, in this sanctuary, the fellowship hall, the parking lot.
But I would like to raise a few observations about this article to add to the conversation.
Firstly, in today’s instant gratification society we don’t need to remember as much as people used to, we can simply google everything, airplane crash example. Another example would be calculators, how many people still do long division?
It is my view that the memories of people in oral cultures of the ancient world were much more developed than today, and so memory tests using modern day humans is a flawed exercise.
In addition, our memories have been bombarded by so many images in the information age that we often fuse images together, Donald Trump likes to mix dancing Muslims and 9/11.
Thirdly, the memory tests did not account for the seriousness of the information that needed to be retained. I remember playing broken telephone as a child, where people would purposely twist the story just for a laugh. The stakes are much higher when persecution, torture and death are on the line. I suspect that on matters of such gravity, people will tend to be much more accurate than in harmless controlled memory tests of the 21st century.
Lastly, I would say that there are some things that every single person believes are true without any evidence. Carrier cites an absence of evidence to make his argument, yet his own argument is purely speculative, replete with its own lack of evidence.
To claim that early Christians didn’t care enough to write things down is baseless and false. Clearly people cared, and they still care. Even if we were to reduce the Gospels to pure fairy tale, they exist, and they tell us many profound lessons about existential truths. It is that truth where we find God still alive in the text. Sometimes, in the rush to point out what is wrong, we often forget to acknowledge what is right. Like how many things have to go right just to exist?
The Gospels are all we have, and we must count them as evidence, however highly or lowly historians, theologians or others evaluate their authenticity. The great thing about this article, however, is that it raises good questions that help us better understand ourselves.
We the church, are not so much in the fact-finding business, or the memory business. We are in the meaning-making business. We take these Gospel stories and sift them for wisdom and knowledge, we ask how they relate to our lives. We realize that as wonderful as the human being is, we have limits, we do not get the last word. We look for God and we bathe in God’s mystery. We strive to differentiate between faith in God and faith in human capacity knowing that the Gospel stories are not verbatim transcriptions. Doubt does not undermine faith, rather it is an essential, vibrant component of the faith journey. Our scriptures are a broken collection of stories, written by broken people, for a broken audience. It is in that very brokenness where God meets us, just as Thomas the Twin discovered long ago.