Review of Gospels (ca. 110 CE)

Parts only

This page describes the individual parts of Gospels. The work as a whole is reviewed elsewhere.

Matthew (ca. 80–90 CEText)

This is the version where Jesus says “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:34). He continues: “Anyone who loves their father or mother [or] son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37), meaning that if you wish to join the apocalyptic cult of Jesus and stay in it, you should be ready to shun your parents and abandon your children: The people who love you most, who depend on you, and who are most likely to try to get you away from the cult.

The signs of the apocalypse are a bunch of generic bad stuff that happened all the time in the ancient world: “wars and rumors of wars”, “famines and earthquakes in various places” (24:5ff). Jesus promises that the world will end in the lifetime of some of those listening to him speak (16:28).

The scene of Jesus entering the city is comedic, parodying a common literary motif. In “Matthew”’s version of it, the leader even orders two donkeys to ride on (21:2), possibly at once, apparently because of a mistaken interpretation of “Zechariah”. This is also the gospel with a lot of zombies visiting Jerusalem (27:51f) and with a primitive notion of “eternal punishment” (25:46), later to be developed into Hell.

The Zoroastrian-inspired cosmic struggle between good and evil is apparent here, with “the devil” testing Jesus himself in the wilderness in chapter 4. Though it is called Satan (in a different scene), this god now has its own angels and an eternal fire (25:41), a further development from the prosecutor god in Job (ca. 550–200 BCE), and another step toward Hell.

In response to being tested, Jesus repeats Deuteronomy 6:16, condemning tests and showing the relevance of the Old Testament and its bad ideas. Indeed, Matthew’s Jesus is adamant that Mosaic law must be upheld in full, even more strictly than it is upheld by those who teach it at the temple (5:17ff). For instance, “sexual immorality” is the only grounds for divorce (19:9) and the most important thing in life is mindless love of Yahweh (22:37), i.e. loyalty.

In chapter 15, Jesus contradicts his own conservatism by saying that “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them”, reversing the old law to put an updated moral emphasis on social behaviour rather than private ickiness. Wealth is bad (19:24), countermanding the adulation of Solomon, but Yahweh gets the role of a wealthy man in multiple parables and you have to pay your taxes (22:21). Still, Jesus keeps quoting the Old Testament, making untenable interpretations (18:16, 22:31f). Some things he does for the stated purpose of fulfilling prophecy, i.e. scripturalism (the donkey ride into Jerusalem in chapter 21; 26:54; cf. the convoluted anecdote of 27:7ff).

When Jesus works magic he openly endorses the Tinkerbell effect. He says belief, rather than action or Yahweh, causes physical change (15:28, 17:20, 21:21f). Like the later Chinese “wizard-shaman” Zhang Xiu (died ca. 188–191 CE), Jesus consequently runs a health cult based on the idea that only sinful people get sick (9:2–7). Amusingly, as with the discounts for poor people in the Pentateuch, Jesus says there will always be poor people (26:11): He’s just not going to fix that problem for some reason, nor does he ask his cult to fix it. Poverty is still taken for granted in a world of magic. Compare the United Nations’ sustainable development goal #1: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.

Jesus’s parables are unimpressive as literature but they are generally less like riddles than their equivalents in the Old Testament. They’re more like colourful anecdotes. They read as if they got workshopped by preachers, unlike Judges with its bee hive in a lion, the most awful simile in the canon of Western literature. Sometimes, Jesus explains what he means, and sometimes the narrator adds a gloss instead (e.g. 17:13). The game of riddles and its dimension of social status and popular appeal is quite explicit (21:23ff).

Jesus’s statements about the end of the world are simple and should be taken at face value. The cult claimed that the end was imminent and therefore directly relevant to potential adherents, to the benefit of the cult as a religious organization. Consequently, the cult encouraged the interpretation of any bad stuff as a sign of the apocalypse. It turned out later that the world did not end in the first century CE. Therefore, by the standard of Deuteronomy 18, Jesus was a false prophet.

Biblical expressions have coloured European languages so deeply that there are still-common Swedish figures of speech I would not have guessed were biblical. “The eleventh hour”, from chapter 20, is a prime example, used to allude to workers getting full pay for an hour’s toil. At the surface level of the allegory, it’s a great thing for them, albeit unfair to others and an incentive for timing a late arrival. The figure of speech is used in accordance with the interpretation of the allegory, where entering at the eleventh hour is the last chance you have not to be punished (in the afterlife). This sort of thing adds a curious dimension of entertainment to the text, also present in William Shakespeare.

The blood atonement stuff is pretty explicit. Jesus says of the wine, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” At his sham trial, “all the people” say “His blood is on us and on our children!” (27:25). In the latter scene, the blood of Jesus is “on” the Jewish community in the sense that they accept full responsibility for killing Jesus, not in the sense that they want or will receive the magic of blood atonement symbolised by the wine.

In reality, “all the people” would obviously not take responsibility upon themselves and upon their children for killing one of their own, when it’s the Romans who are doing the killing. The scene is a seed of anti-Semitic blood libel, where the Christian author of the passage turns the Jews into dramatic villains, with a lie. Many later Christians have believed “Matthew”’s lie. In The Black Death (2000), Dick Harrison quotes a 14th-century Konstanz canon named Heinrich von Diessenhoven, who wrote of his own participation in anti-Jewish pogroms. Following mass burnings of the innocent across Germany, von Diessenhoven witnessed Christians beating the smoking survivors to death, bashing their brains out.

Von Diessenhoven had a good understanding of The Gospels and reflected in his chronicle that the promise of Matthew 27:25 had been fulfilled. However, a conspiracy theory like that of blood libel will never be fulfilled. A century after Diessenhoven, Johannes Hinderbach and many others continued to kill Jews, based on the conspiracy theory seeded here. Perhaps Hinderbach would still have done that even if Matthew had been different. Perhaps he never cared if the blood libel that he promoted was based on real events or not, but either way, The Bible is still conducive to violence. Some still believe it, or claim to, despite lampshading of the unlikely nature of the story. The priests in the story mention how unreasonable it is for them to kill Jesus at Passover, a major holiday that requires a different kind of blood sacrifice. Knowing this would not happen in reality, the authors went with it anyway because they wanted Jesus to take the role of the holiday’s blood sacrifice. Likewise, they mention a mundane explanation for why Jesus’s body might have been taken from the tomb (28:13), amid all the special effects.

References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Epistles (ca. 110 CE), The Quran (632/650), Valis (1981), För guds skull (1989), “Accession” (1996), Metodboken — Bibel 2000 (1999).

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‣‣ The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964Moving picture, 137 minutes)

Seen in 2015.

The majority of the book, retold seriously with the tools of arthouse fiction film and a unibrow. Some details, such as why John the Baptist is killed, go unexplained in the film, as they do in the book.

Uncritical dramatization. I get the impression that Pasolini wanted to stay true to the text, changing just a few details here and there, which is vaguely impressive. Some of Matthew’s words, including 5:17 and 10:34, conveniently forgotten or wilfully misinterpreted by many Christians, make it into the script. Jesus’s magic and changes of heart (e.g. against Peter, against the poor fig tree) are as abrupt and nonsensical as in the text. The general setting is impressive in its poverty and aesthetic asceticism, but of course it isn’t historically correct. The Roman costumes are terrible, they use the traditional (incorrect) cross, and loiter inexplicably beneath it. There is no attempt to show others jockeying for position as the prophet foretold by Isaiah, the way Jesus does in the text.

Instead of social or historical realism, Pasolini adapts to his budget, using too few extras for the crowds of 4000–5000 to be fed via miracle, and merely tries to put a liberation-theological spin on events. Matthew does not mention Jesus smiling so lovingly at the children. I was hoping for the director to evoke a numinous mood or at least use his imagination to bring the bizarre story to life, but in this regard the film is an almost complete failure. In foregrounding the text and preserving its massive contradictions, it makes me think of little but biblical exegesis and the falsehood of the religion.

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Mark (ca. 68–70 CEText)

Read in 2019.

This is the oldest gospel, the source of Matthew and the rest. It doesn’t have the virgin birth. In the oldest manuscripts and other ancient textual witnesses, it ends with three named women visiting the tomb:

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

That is the end, to the last sentence. The resurrection is dimly rendered, not proven even in the context of the fiction. The young man’s identity is unknown, Jesus makes no appearance and the three women tell nobody.

Late ancient manuscripts of Mark take details from the other gospels and add them to the abrupt ending of this one: A forgery for consistency of spectacle. The relative simplicity and early date of Mark is what makes it interesting to read, but even in the earliest preserved version with the murky ending, the signs of bullshit are everywhere.

For example, “some men” bring a paralyzed friend to Jesus by lowering him down through a roof (2:4), a cartoonish spectacle. Jesus says that paralysis is caused by sin (2:5), which is not accurate: He blames the victim. Similarly, he says epilepsy is caused by demons (9:17ff). At one point Jesus takes a boat to Dalmanutha but stays just long enough on the far shore to complain that people want evidence of his claims (8:12), a sharp contrast against Yahweh’s visible support of Elijah in 1 Kings (ca. 620–530 BCE). Even when he cures the epileptic, Jesus airs the same grievance, complaining that people do not believe (9:19) in the absence of evidence. There is no stated reason why Yahweh fails to repeat Elijah’s spectacle to provide evidence, nor why Yahweh fails to repeat its trick of Numbers 11 to convince people by more direct communication.

As in Matthew, Jesus cannot work much magic in his hometown because the people there know him (6:5). This is almost a confession. It looks autobiographical: The author of Mark is probably relating a personal anecdote from his life as a preacher and faith healer. This job is basically that of a confidence man, travelling the country and pretending to do magic by gaining the confidence of his clients, doing a bit of cold reading and exercising the placebo effect. It is the job Jesus instructs 84 of his followers to do in Luke. Being a fraud and scamming people out of room and board is too tough on the conscience for most people. Those who do it well have a psychopathic streak, like Jim Jones. When you get to know such a person, you learn to recognize their tricks. You penetrate the disguise, as Jones’s followers did in Guyana, when Jones no longer had a steady influx of strangers to trick.

Simply put, it’s true that a faith healer or prophet would be poorly received in his hometown, because the people there know he’s pretending. This explains the observation that Jesus failed in his hometown, but it doesn’t explain why that observation was included in the book. If you’re a huckster, you want to make it seem like everybody likes your wares. You wouldn’t want to mention that your friends don’t trust you, so that you can only sell to strangers. Why then does the author of this passage make such a claim about Jesus? Superficially, the anecdote lends credence to the idea that Jesus was a real person, but it does so only by hinting that he was a fraud.

To explain this, I have to assume that the author and editors truly believed it is possible to do magic except with people who know you. This belief should be disturbing even to Christians. It becomes a pair of statements on the premises that govern magic in Abrahamic fantasy. First, magic requires both parties (benefactor and beneficiary) to have confidence. Second, any familiarity with the wizard hampers such confidence. The book offers no reason for why magic should work that way, nor does it follow James George Frazer in this detail. As axioms go, it’s ugly. It’s as if Tolkien had written that Gandalf can only cast his spells with strangers when they think he can cast spells; he can’t do it with the elves who’ve known him for a long time. No secular fantasy author would write such a thing because it clearly suggests the simpler explanation: Stage magic, confidence tricks, deception. Bullshit.

To make matters worse, Mark’s version of Jesus snubs his biological family when they try to intervene in his cult (3:31ff). That’s a classic cult move. Again, it sounds autobiographical, as if it happened to the author as an acolyte and not to the leader. As far as I know, the traditional Christian explanation for these anecdotes is to claim that people are blinded by “worldly” experience, and especially by familiarity, to such an extent that omnipotent divine grace is shut out. These are false claims, resting on the Old Testament idea that the world is bad. In reality, an expert is familiar with their subject and likely to have a fairly accurate idea of its properties.

On a related note, Jesus has a mana bar, a store of magic points as in a role-playing game, and he can feel it when somebody drains the store (5:30). This, too, is a statement on the supernatural premises of the narrative. The anecdote of a woman healing herself by touching Jesus without his consent shows that, while both parties may need faith and touch may be important for some totally unexamined reason, the benefactor doesn’t need to know what’s going on. Indeed, nominal god Jesus doesn’t know who sapped his mana. Again, this is an ugly axiom. Secular authors don’t usually set things up this way, but game designers often do.

As in Matthew, Jesus is careful not to say what he really means (4:10f), the same contempt Yahweh had for Moses’s successors. Only with his disciples, Jesus explains himself (4:34), a conceit that was meant to encourage the reader to seek gnosis by ascending through the ranks of the cult. When he raises the dead, he doesn’t let the public see it (5:40) or hear about it (5:43), and he orders demons not to reveal his secret identity. The story of Legion the demon parallels the scapegoat, ending in a blood sacrifice of sorts (5:13).

It’s not all bad. Jesus rejects the notion that some foods are spiritually unclean. That’s a positive change, even if it’s only 0.1% of the bad ideas in the Old Testament. By a funny coincidence, his explanation is compatible with the science-based rejection of an alkaline diet and many other pseudoscientific fad diets: “it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach” (7:19), so it won’t affect your blood pH or whatever it is you’re trying to do to yourself. Unfortunately, in his rhetorical parallelism, Jesus claims that evil comes from inside of people (7:23), which is both a contradiction of the author’s belief in Satan and an extension of the hateful Old Testament tenet that people are basically evil.

Being typical in this version of events, Jesus’s cult defends itself with violence (14:47) and without magical healing. When this fails, Jesus claims that being arrested serves his agenda, which is a reasonable thing for a cult leader to say in that circumstance (“Thanks for proving me correct, officer”). In the same scene, a young man escapes the posse coming to arrest him by dropping the only garment he was wearing and running off naked (14:52); another bit of comic relief to lighten up the story of divine suicide, like the paralyzed man lowered through a hole in the roof to get past a crowd.

References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, The Quran (632/650), Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

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Luke (ca. 80–110 CEText)

Read in 2019.

Heavy repetition from Mark, except the activities most typical of fraud (much of chapters 6 and 7). The main additions suggest a continuity of office between Jesus and the apostles, something that became more relevant to the early church as the decades went by and it became clear that the promised apocalypse was not happening. Luke also fleshes out the biography of Jesus with several anecdotes about his childhood, part of a general improvement upon the narrative as fiction. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus massively contradicts Matthew’s; they’re separate spin-offs.

This is the longest, most elaborate gospel and the longest book in the New Testament. It’s even got a foreword. It is the last of the three “synoptic” gospels and should properly be followed by Acts.

First off, there’s tassels (8:46), so that’s good. Several plot points, including the relationship between Herod and Herodias, are presented more clearly, which makes this version marginally easier to enjoy as fiction. Still, there’s some clumsy rhetoric (10:15) and internal contradiction, e.g. “whoever is not against you is for you” (9:50) and “[w]hoever is not with me is against me” (11:23).

Luke works to grant authority to the church, putting heavier emphasis on secret knowledge (gnosis) and special powers given to the apostles (9:1) and to 72 other men. Even they are afraid to ask Jesus what he means, apparently by supernatural intervention (9:45). Jesus suddenly praises Yahweh for hiding the truth from the wise (10:21). Terrible ideas like trampling on snakes and scorpions (10:19) have inspired fools like George Went Hensley to found Christian snake cults in the hopes of attaining this gnosis.

Luke’s scorpion-trampling Jesus is a bit of a macho primitivist. He fails to maintain basic personal hygiene because he believes that giving to the poor is an adequate substitute for washing your hands before you eat (11:38ff). Clearly, there has been little progress since the Pentateuch’s conflation of all impurities. Similarly, Jesus encourages his disciples to live like wild animals, without worrying about food or clothing (12:22). Once again, even as he provides this apparent solution to the problem of poverty, the author undercuts his own point by encouraging his disciples to give their possessions to the poor. By Jesus’s own logic, the poor shouldn’t need possessions either, but here they remain a fixture of life: A special category, as in the Pentateuch.

As usual, Yahweh is likened to a rich master with many servants, the opposite of a poor person. More curiously, Jesus says that if this master returns from a wedding and finds his servants ready, the master will serve the servants instead of the other way around (12:37). Not likely. In another parable, Yahweh won’t open the door of its house even if people pound on the door in need (13:25). Also curiously, the end of the world is likened to a burglar, with Christians cast as the owner of a house, seeking to protect that house from the burglar (12:39); this bizarre parable, which puts Yahweh in the role of the burglar, is supposed to explain why no precise date is given for the apocalypse. Instead, Jesus actively encourages his disciples to speculate for themselves about the eschaton, with another poor parable, this one about criminal justice (12:57f).

Christians like to point to the “good Samaritan” (10:25ff) as a better alternative to all these bad parables. It purports to define the Old Testament’s ambiguous “neighbour”, doing so only by circular logic: You should be kind to anybody to whom you are kind. There is a strong ethnic footnote: Jesus’s Jews and the parable’s Samaritan were, at the time, so close together in genetics, culture and religious beliefs that the distinction between them would have seemed petty to anybody not from the region. If the writer had meant that all people are neighbours, he would have written that instead.

Similarly, the parable of the “prodigal son” (15:11–31) is undermined by the reasoning of the titular son: After betraying his family and spending their money, he returns not because he feels ashamed but because he is starving. The asshole reckons that he will live more comfortably on the family farm, and he’s right. He never shows empathy for the victims of his own actions. This stuff drags down the entertainment value, to say nothing of the use value.

The nasty cult overtones are preserved. At one point, Jesus says to his followers “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (14:26). Similarly, Jesus says he’s “come to bring fire on the earth” and division, not unity (12:49ff). Jesus also rejects all requests for evidence. In an anecdote that lays out a blueprint for eternal reward and punishment after death—what would later become Heaven and Hell—he asserts that “Moses and the Prophets” are more convincing than a miracle would be (16:31).

Ironically, Jesus uses resurrection as his example of a miracle less convincing than the Old Testament. He thereby condemns the gospels as poor propaganda for his own cult. Luke then devotes an entire chapter to post-resurrection shenanigans, and two verses to Jesus eating a piece of fish (24:42f). This, at last, purports to be evidence that he has risen in the flesh. It’s not.

References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, Acts (ca. 80–110 CE), “To Offer Brave Assistance” (1862/1863), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Stalker (1979), “Samaritan Snare” (1989), The Book of Eli (2010).

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John (ca. 90–110 CEText)

Read in 2019.

This version opens with a remake of Genesis 1 and has Jesus using a whip to drive the money changers out of the temple (2:15). Here it’s Peter/Petrus, the mythical founder of the Catholic church, who personally attacks a servant of the temple with a sword and hacks off the man’s ear (18:10). It’s got Lazarus raised from the dead after four days and is the most common place for the famous pericope adulterae forgery where Jesus, having scribbled in the dirt for a while, tells “any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (7:53–8:11). There’s no virgin birth, no childhood and relatively few outright supernatural tricks, but there’s a hand-waving reference to Jesus having had enough other adventures to fill the whole world with books (21:25).

The gospel of John is striking mainly because of its profound influence on US screenwriting techniques. It opens like a 1990s high-concept movie trailer: “In a world... was the Word.” Like Mark, it treats Jesus like a fully formed character, thrown straight into a drama so predictable that the narrator frequently foreshadows and spells out its conclusion (e.g. 2:22, 3:24) as known beforehand (6:64, 6:70, 13:19), giving Jesus plot armour (8:20). Therefore Jesus is here called “the lamb of god” from the beginning, referring to animal sacrifice.

Indeed, the human sacrifice gambit is especially clear in this version, verse 3:16 being roughly the second most famous in The Bible. Chapter 6 spells out the absorption of Jesus’s power by those who eat his corpse. Jesus’s first trick is turning water into wine, and both blood and water flow from the wound in his side: Both of these set pieces allude to the Eucharist in the manner of film-school visual symbolism 101. The writer also uses callbacks—such as 3:34 where the divine word reappears—to reinforce the sense of a tight and closed dramatic structure, a literal tradition wholly unlike biography. In addition, the whip-cracking Jesus of John is more personally violent than the sword-bringing Jesus of Matthew or the macho primitivist Jesus of Luke.

As a result, the tone of John is shockingly similar to formulaic US TV drama, especially the apocalyptic time-travel shows: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008) for example, or 12 Monkeys (2015). It has the same glossiness, the same confrontational action sequences, the same star myopia, the same contempt for facts and reason, the same creepy obsession with unjustifiable faith that confuses author fiat with evidence.

Given all this drama, with sharper scripting and a sympathetic main character, John could have been an entertaining read in its own right. Unfortunately, several conversations fail to make their points, merely harming the pace (e.g. 6:26–42, 8:21–41, 9:11–41). Jesus is still a jerk (e.g. 3:10, 4:15ff, 6:6, 6:61f, 12:25f, 15:14) and prefigures Jim Jones’s murder by poison (4:13f). There’s a fair bit of jarring discontinuity, like the invalid who is personally cured by Jesus without being able to identify him (5:13), or the disciples misunderstanding Jesus’s identification of Judas as the traitor (13:27–29). At one point Jesus speaks directly to Yahweh “for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (11:42), as if merely addressing the god should be more convincing than the resurrection of Lazarus. The pericope adulterae forgery comes within an inch of formulating a useful life lesson in an insightful way, by repeating Proverbs 20:9 and similar sentiments in centuries-old secular wisdom literature. When it was smuggled into the text, it was a cliché, not an invention.

Unlike the other three canonical gospels, this one refers to Jews as an out-group, clearly distinct from the narrator’s own group, while still treating Jesus himself as a Jew (4:20). Editing out the character’s upbringing enhances the effect. In the same way that “Ezra” has Jews as just one of the peoples worshipping Yahweh, John has Christians and Jews worshipping Yahweh separately. This indicates the book was written after the two faiths were separated and the Christian leaders had all left Judea to write about Jesus in Greek, with little hope of swaying their countrymen. That being said, John still holds Moses in high regard and still tries to glorify Jesus by pretending the Old Testament referred to him. Jesus even imitates the whole Mesopotamian gods-making-people-out-of-clay thing when he mixes spit into dirt to make a disgusting mud to put on bad eyes (9:6).

Aside from casting the Jews as an out-group, the authors are also wary of the Romans. John has the villainous Sanhedrin conspire against Jesus with the stated argument that “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (11:48), a non sequitur. The Romans suppressed frequent Jewish rebellions, but they were not doing so on the suspicion that Judaism was the true religion or that its messiah had arrived, nor was Jesus claiming to be a king, a contradiction treated in “Hebrews” (ca. 80–90 CE). I suppose the authors were fumbling to disparage an enemy that had grown more relevant than the temple in the generations following the inception of the cult. The physical temple (“Second Temple”) was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, but of course the authors fail to mention this.

Even as they simplify Jesus’s teachings to the single phrase “Love each other” (15:17), a command that cannot be obeyed at will, the authors persist in the Old Testament’s purposeful avoidance of plain speech (16:25) and general contempt for life and the real world. Jesus explains to his disciples that they will be hated because he’s chosen them (15:19), not because the young cult preached a horrifying religion of blood sacrifice, eternal punishment and apocalypse that tore people from their livelihoods and families. Jesus also says he’s “overcome” the world, defeating it (16:33), a sure sign of a warped self-image.

In one tantalizing moment, it looks as if one of the authors of John might engage in philosophy. Questioning Jesus, Pilate says “What is truth?”, or “Quid est veritas?” (18:38). Unfortunately, the question seems to be asked rhetorically and in jest, the same way most people ask it nowadays to preclude discussion. The question is not answered in the same scene, but earlier, Jesus defines Yahweh’s word as the truth (17:17). That’s an appeal to authority, another classic cult move. Later, the narrative handles the issue of truth very differently. There is a witness to blood and water leaving Jesus’s corpse: “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (19:35).

This sudden mention of an eyewitness implies that the events of the narrative have left some trace in a shared world and could be confirmed by an independent inquiry, if indeed they are true. Superficially, the narrator seems to encourage the critical reader’s desire for corroboration “so that you also may believe”. Belief, then, would not be a matter of faith. It would not be necessary to trust the cult leader’s definition of his word as the truth. In short, here’s a nod to crude empiricism. However, the witness is not even named! Mythology calls him Longinus, but John does not. Similarly, the narrator himself is not named, the narrator feels the need to assert that the “testimony is true” without so much as an affirmation of having witnessed it himself, there is no affidavit, there are no other written testaments to the event even in the other gospels, and the chronology is as unclear as would be expected from fiction written by a later generation. See The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835/1840) for a detailed Christian deconstruction.

It is as if Melville’s Ishmael had paused to assert that some unnamed sailor on another ship has testified to Ishmael that Ahab really existed, with no other regard for verification throughout Moby-Dick (1851). It’s a ludicrous rhetorical device but it raises the possibility that a more intelligent early Christian could have written a consistently faux-empiricist gospel, naming witnesses throughout and including fake affidavits. That would have been interesting. The narrator does use the device a second time, about himself (21:24), which is even less convincing.

On the subject of evidence, John gets gruesome with Jesus’s death and resurrection. There are not one but two whole chapters of post-resurrection shenanigans. Where Luke just has Jesus eating a piece of fish, John has him instructing “doubting” Thomas to touch his unhealed wounds (20:27) in one of three post-resurrection encores. Instead of endorsing Moses, even as he encourages belief on the basis of physical evidence, Jesus says he prefers people who believe without evidence (20:29). This was written for an audience that would never see miracles, by a fraud who hadn’t seen them either. Though the characters are less prone to murder, the intent is every bit as foul as with Elijah’s contest in 1 Kings.

The gospel ends with another callback, and a twist, revealing that a mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved” is the one who wrote the text (21:24). Later mythology gave him the name “John”. This is interesting in many ways: The callback is to a scene where the special disciple rests on Jesus’s chest, as in a glamorous queerbaiting Hollywood flashback. The afterword characterizes the narrator, inserting him into the drama, which is a good literary device. It’s been suggested that the later chapters of the gospel had an author separate from the earlier chapters, which would make the appropriation of the mysterious character all the more clever and impressive. As expected, the authors jockey for position against other cultists, using the conceit of Jesus’s particular love to lend additional weight to their version of events. To boost this effort, and perhaps to explain why the gospel was written some 55 to 75 years after Jesus supposedly lived, Jesus ambiguously reserves the right to extend the narrator’s life by supernatural means (21:22).

It’s not quite The Usual Suspects (1995) but the twist ending reinforces my impression that Hollywood’s particular brand of glamour and wishful thinking derive more strongly from John than from any other part of The Bible. This is not a good thing.

References here: Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, The Quran (632/650), The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835/1840), Anna Karenina (1873), A Man Escaped (1956), The Book of Eli (2010), “Bacchus Uncovered: Ancient God of Ecstasy” (2018).

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