Review of New Testament (ca. 110 CE)

Parts only

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

Gospels (ca. 110 CEText)

Purportedly, accounts of Jesus’s life. These are written as if by his disciples and attributed to them.

The first three are so similar that a special adjective is used almost exclusively for them: The “synoptic” gospels.

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References here: Sortering av bibelböcker.

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‣‣ Life of Brian (1979Moving picture, 94 minutes)

Brian is born a short distance away from the cradle of the biblical Jesus and leads a parallel life. He’s involved with one of many movements of resistance against the theoretically oppressive Romans and is eventually taken to be a saviour because, in a moment of panic, he makes up an incomplete formula. However, as his mother persists, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

Greaser’s Palace (1972) was zany and superficially rebellious, putting a dubious Jesus figure in the Wild West, but there was very little thought behind it. Life of Brian was done right as an on-site parody of Christianity. The common theme here is unfounded idealism. Director Terry Jones has since repented, admitting that the view of the Roman empire expressed in this film was historically naïve, itself idealistic. It’s funny as hell nonetheless.

Several scenes bring the cultural environment of the New Testament to life better than any serious biblical epic. The scene where Brian falls in with a bunch of busker prophets often came to my mind as I was reading the books. You see such characters shaping the narrative of The Bible from time to time, including 2 Kings 9. Jeremiah was versed in this busker rhetoric, using sex and threats of apocalypse etc. to get attention. Nine blades, ladies and gentlemen. Nine blades.

References here: Acts (ca. 80–110 CE), History of the World: Part I (1981), Jesus of Montreal (1989), “Nero’s Sunken City” (2017).

fiction Monty Python moving picture parody

‣‣‣ “The Secret Life of Brian” (2007Moving picture, 48 minutes)

Seen in 2018.

A decent overview of the making and initial reception of the film.

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‣‣ The Passion of the Christ (2004Moving picture, 127 minutes)

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‣‣ Last Days of Jesus (2017Moving picture, 112 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

A speculative attempt to reconcile internal contradictions between the canonical gospels, partly by positing a Roman power struggle, partly by discarding the stated chronology.

Pop history. Near-useless hypotheses, poorly presented and poorly supported.

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Acts (ca. 80–110 CEText)

Read in 2019.

The early cult, called “the Way”, and its miracles. There’s some repetition from the Old Testament and a narrowing focus on the life of Paul, the earliest Christian proselytizer known to history. Starting his life as a Roman citizen named Saul, he claims never to have met Jesus in the flesh but he gives three versions of his vision of Jesus as a celestial being, a vision he receives on the road to Damascus.

The recap of the Old Testament emphasizes that Moses was beautiful (translations vary), trained in “Egyptian wisdom”, and powerful in his rhetoric (7:20–22), whereas in the Pentateuch, it was Aaron who did the talking and the Egyptians were disparaged.

The bulk of the speeches and sermons are addressed to Jewish audiences with Roman arbiters. Gradually, the Christians come to target the Romans themselves, among other non-Jews, because the cult of Jesus is increasingly heretical. Paradoxically, even with Gentile audiences, the proselytizers continue to argue for Jesus on the basis of fulfilling Jewish prophecy.

At one point, a Pharisee named Gamaliel compares the cult of Jesus to other recent cults: Theudas’s and Judas the Galileans’s, but not John the Baptist’s (5:36f). These things happen from time to time.

There is general agreement that Acts of the Apostles was written alongside Luke as a two-volume work of quasi-history by a single author. This probably started around 85 CE with revisions proceeding into the 2nd century.

This is the last great slog in The Bible, with scattered points of interest along the way. The general mood is of constant strength and triumph, like authoritarian propaganda. The congregations are always growing, jailed preachers magically go free, and the leaders continue to heal the sick and raise the dead, like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before Jesus.

The chronology is unclear throughout. There was not yet a calendar based on Jesus and the narrator does not refer to any of the ancient calendars that already existed. That would be a major mistake in a history, but this is fiction. Much of the material is made up and the cult believes the end of the world is nigh. It’s pretty typical apocalyptic cult business they’re up to, certainly nasty but there’s no clear sign in this particular narrative of internal terror, purity tests or obscurantism, as seen in the epistles.

Acts is a lot like “Nehemiah”. While it is told from the perspective of the cult, its distortion of reality is incomplete, allowing glimpses of a possible narrative beneath the impossible one. For example, at one point “the spirit” comes over the apostles and they begin to speak in tongues. This comes with visual effects, “tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3). The narrator then states that listeners of numerous nationalities can all hear their own languages being spoken.

It’s glossolalia, a term based on this very passage. It reappears later, with unknown prophecies delivered by the afflicted (19:6). In Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (1972), linguist William J. Samarin showed that Christians speaking in tongues use only sounds from the real languages they know. Glossolalia is not language, “because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives”. It is meaningless in the most literal sense of the word. The practice is not specific to Christian cults.

If a “violent wind came from heaven” and a bunch of burning men began speaking intelligibly in a universal language, no witness would make fun of them and call them drunk. Without thinking, the narrator still has some people reacting as real people do to real glossolalia: They make fun of the apostles and call them drunk (2:13). I am continually fascinated by this naïveté. Necessarily ignorant of linguistics, the narrator affirms that a miracle has occurred even as his own observation of ridicule undermines his gullible interpretation. It is another failure of the imagination, made all the more glaring by Peter’s symptomatic defence: “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” (2:15). That line would have worked fine in Life of Brian (1979).

Similarly, while Saul-Paul receives his vision on the road to Damascus, everyone with him can hear Jesus, but only Saul-Paul can see Jesus (9:7), and the sight is literally blinding, like staring into the sun. Yahweh must then badger a Christian to go and complete Saul-Paul’s conversion (9:15) because it’s inelegant and implausible to all involved. An angel physically strikes Peter just to wake him up (12:7), and after that, Peter is still so groggy that he doesn’t understand he’s escaping from a prison (12:9). Later, Paul is imprisoned because he drives out a spirit who praises him (16:16–19). He does this because he is annoyed by the spirit, not to save the woman it possesses. Her owners are angry because they were using the spirit to predict the future; evidently it couldn’t warn them. Later still, a young man falls out of a window because he’s bored to sleep by Paul’s sermon, so Paul “resurrects” the man, apparently without healing his broken leg. In other healing scenes, the patient walks away, but in this one, other people have to take the young man home (20:12). This is all darkly funny, but it’s not good fiction.

As ever, the writing is low on internal causality. Peter states that Jesus was handed over to the Israelites “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death”. As described here and in the gospels, that drama has a good number of parties, all of them ambiguously under Yahweh’s control, even in the killing of Jesus. The Christians obviously believe there are villains, but they still haven’t decided on the etiology.

Persecuted by the Sanhedrin after Jesus’s death, the Christians rejoice “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace” (5:41). They simply double down, interpreting any resistance or contrary evidence as confirmation of what they want. This is an example of a viral memetic system that excludes the possibility of correction. The Christians have taken the worst aspect of Judaism: The aspect that caused Yahwist leaders to attribute the defeat of Judah to Yahweh and double down on its worship of this imaginary perpetrator.

Gamaliel expresses the same attitude: He says there’s no point suppressing a religious cult because you cannot know whether Yahweh runs the cult or not (5:38f). He’s devious, that Yahweh. It’s the extreme amoral fatalism and incuriousness of the Old Testament. As with Balaam and his talking donkey, the narrators are not concerned with freedom of thought or action, nor philosophy. It’s all about being on the winning team.

On the topic of philosophy, the narrator mentions proof a couple of times, but only in the context of winning a debate (e.g. 9:22). It’s the same concept of wisdom as in 2 Chronicles 9:2, i.e. if you seem confident and you sound good, you are perceived as wise. If you win a debate that way, you have “proven” your point. As for the actual Old Testament quotes offered in debates, these are variously vague and unflattering. For instance, Paul quotes Psalms 2:7, which is more applicable to Luke Skywalker than to any of the Jesus myths. If you look at Psalms 2 in its entirety, it promises anger and fear, not Paul’s “good news” (13:32f). Calling it proof is pure error.

To be fair, Acts does have The Bible’s strongest attempt at philosophy. It’s Paul’s presentation at the Areopagus in Athens. Talking to Greeks, he uses a structured argument. Specifically, he says Yahweh “is not served by human hands” because it doesn’t need them, having made everything (17:25). That’s a strong start, an actual syllogism. It’s a syllogism with false propositions and a false conclusion, and of course Paul is actually calling for humans to serve Yahweh in spite of his own argument. It’s foolish, but it’s a triumph by biblical standards!

Paul then explains to the Greeks that history is predetermined because Yahweh wants people to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (17:27). This is a sharp turn for the worse, in terms of logic. There is no reason to believe that history is predetermined, there is no logical relationship between history being predetermined and people “finding” Yahweh, there is no implied reason why Yahweh would want to be found, the idea that finding Yahweh should be difficult is contradicted by the very statement of the argument, and so on. The argument breaks down completely, and so we’re back to the usual standard. The Greeks sneer (17:32) and I can’t blame them.

Like the non-Christian Jews before them, the Christians express wilful ignorance in saying that “gods made by human hands are no gods at all” (19:26). Curiously, instead of manufacturing Christian “icon” idols and pretty churches as they would soon be doing, the craftsmen of Ephesus feel threatened and conspire against the cult. An ordinary clerk manages to prevent a lynching by appealing to the rule of law (19:36ff), which is a beautiful illustration of the enormous importance of secular authorities and institutions in reducing the harm of religion.

Similarly, Romans save Paul in Jerusalem by just doing their jobs maintaining public order (21:32). Compare the Old Testament, where no such authorities exist and tens of thousands are murdered over their accent (per Judges 12). Compare also Paul’s own behaviour, which can best be described as trolling or shitposting. He deliberately pits the factions of Judaism against one another instead of arguing his case (23:6).

The teachings of the cult are unclear. It’s communist (e.g. 4:32ff) in the naïve manner Aristophanes satirized in The Assemblywomen (391 BCE). I can picture this really happening with an immanent eschaton, sub-Dunbar congregations and frequent appeals to the poor and meek as superior to the rich. Communism isn’t presented as a tenet of the church, but Peter does state that a (specific) man who keeps personal property is controlled by Satan (5:3). Yahweh kills this man and his wife for the crime of property. By unstated implication, any Christian who gives less than their complete savings to the church will die on the spot.

Much else about the cult is similarly unstated. At one point the cult leaders come up with ground rules that extremely few Christians today would be able to recite or relate to. They are: “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (15:20, again in 15:29). That’s it. According to Acts, those are the only rules worth keeping. It’s not clear what’s happening with the genital mutilation, the holidays, the commandments, the ethnic cleansings or the religious intolerance. There is no snappy statement of the creed yet so the apostles just go with a variation on the old blood magic and sexual neuroses.

The apostles give a reason for relaxing the rules: “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). This means “let’s adapt our beliefs to maximize the rate of growth”. The converts seem to be donating everything they have to the church. That may have something to do with the leaders’ flexibility.

While the rules are relaxing, a lot of the other bullshit is dragged into the new religion. The cult itself claims to be non-violent, but it burns books with someone from Antiques Roadshow on hand to estimate their value (19:19). The narrator mentions that Judas “fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (1:18) as punishment for fulfilling his divine purpose. Similarly, “because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (12:23), presumably in that order. The narrator also recounts the genocidal atrocities of the Old Testament (13:19) as acts of Yahweh. The new faith neither excludes nor condemns these horrors. It embraces them. For better or worse, there’s no porn, but that’s the biggest difference between this and the Old Testament fantasies.

References here: New Testament (ca. 110 CE), Reasons to invent Jesus, Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, 1 Corinthians (ca. 56 CE), Romans (ca. 57 CE), Luke (ca. 80–110 CE), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).

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Epistles (ca. 110 CEText)

Read in 2019.

Mainly advice to early Christian congregations in the form of letters. Some real, some fake.

The more genuine letters are radically different from all the other texts in The Bible. For instance, while Paul’s philosophical arguments are never convincing, at least he is engaging in an argument, openly stating a fairly clear interpretation of events, reasoning about it and trying to convince somebody that he is right. As Paul puts it, “we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand” (2 Corinthians 1:13) and “our message to you is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’” (1:18, later paraphrased in Matthew), i.e. not ambiguous. He made an effort to communicate, which is unusual in The Bible. He is manipulative, cultivating and using cognitive dissonance to keep people confined in an apocalyptic cult, but it’s still a step up.

There are no riddles here, no porn, no cobbled-together narrative to sanction genocide or rape, and only the fake letters put new words into the mouths of dead authorities, though a lot of the Old Testament quotes are ridiculous sensus plenior readings. As a result, the letters are generally more readable than the fiction that permeates every other part of The Bible. Internal contradictions, magic and non sequiturs are on the level you would expect from the more literate leaders of a Roman mystery cult, and the writers are unanimous in support of slavery.

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References here: Sortering av bibelböcker, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964), Crazy Rich Asians (2018).

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Revelation (ca. 95 CEText)

The end of the world, more or less.

Psychedelic prophecy. An update in the vein of the second half of “Daniel”. Some parts are quite evocative, certainly better than Ezekiel, but almost everything is anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, with just a few extra eyes and such. The worst parts are riddles in the style of the Old Testament.

One of the most famous riddles has been cracked: The numbers 616 and 666, used in different codices as the “Number of the Beast”, are isopsephistic or, more likely, gematric hashes of the name and title “Nero Caesar”, a known asshole who persecuted the cult. Hashed to numbers with apparently standard gematria (I would not know how standard), the Greek version of the phrase maps to Hebrew as “Nron Qsr”, which yields the number 666. The Latin version of the name maps to Hebrew as “Nro Qsr”, for 616, each “n” being worth 50. This would be why the text says “Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man” (13:18), or in other words: “Here’s a riddle for you: Can you figure out this guy’s name from a hash of it?” It seems like a reasonable explanation, but a concealed attack on a simple politician degrades the fantasy.

Near the end, the author makes The Bible’s final attempt—in order of presentation—to reduce the number of gods it claims are real: Satan, the devil and Gilgamesh’s snake are now said to be identical (20:2). Alas, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Satan neither crawls nor eats dirt, as the snake was cursed to do in Genesis. With this last failed update for the second century CE, the biblical snake swallows its own tail, a closed loop too slowly receding into history.

References here: Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE), Sortering av bibelböcker, Som en ateist läser bibeln, Paradise Lost (1667/1674), Come and See (1985), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Blame (2003), Devilman: Crybaby (2018).

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