Jimmy Carter, now a rheumy-eyed nonagenarian, has been teaching Sunday school for more than three decades at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, GA. Silver-haired and mellow-voiced, he smiles benevolently on worshipers, who are overwhelmingly adults. Speaking with his trademark southern lilt, Carter has the air of Jung’s Wise Old Man. A novelist following in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling might incarnate him as a wizard.
Even when Carter was undergoing radiation therapy for brain cancer in 2015, he summoned the wherewithal to go on teaching his weekend Bible class. Who wouldn’t admire the former president, still serving the public long after his life as a politician has ended, giving off a saintly calm even an atheist could envy? Well, maybe Mitch McConnell and his Republican cronies. And me. Sort of. Because the institution Carter is supporting borders on insidious.
I live a long way from Georgia, and I’ve never sat for a single session of Sunday school, but I heard about Carter’s dedication to his faith on public radio. I often listen to NPR while cooking or doing the dishes. Some of the interviews and ear-only documentaries are so good I look around for more things to clean (or cook). One full-sink afternoon I was listening to an interview with Christian novelist Christopher Buckley, and Buckley began discussing one of the more famous pre-Crucifixion incidents in the New Testament: the story of Jesus and the adulteress, found only in John (8:1–9). It was clear from the way Buckley and host Leonard Lopate were talking that neither of them doubted for a second that they were discussing an event witnessed by one of Jesus’s apostles.
About seven years earlier, The New Yorker published an essay by Adam Gopnik called “What Did Jesus Do?”. The piece is mostly Gopnik mildly condescending to anyone who suspects Mary never gave birth to Jesus — virginally or in any other way. Who suspects that he is an entirely mythical figure. The last hold-out, he implies, is Earl Doherty, who defends the Mythicist position “on his Web site with grace and tenacity.” Gopnik, like Buckley, is enthralled by the story of Jesus and the adulteress: “Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature,” he croons, “than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself.”
I’m not much interested in sifting through musty library stacks for a more miraculous scene out of the distant past, mainly because I know this much-celebrated moment of Solomon-like wisdom is as fictional as the escape of Odysseus and his men from the cave of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, perhaps the most notoriously bad host in all of ancient literature. Here is New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on the authenticity of John 8:1–9:
The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable: this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.
The story, moving as it is, is a scribal insertion that doesn’t appear until the fifth century AD. This is not merely Ehrman’s view; it is the consensus among New Testament scholars.
Not long after Lopate’s interview with Buckley, I happened to be watching PBS and saw Rafael Pi Roman seated comfortably at a circular, glass table across from Father James Martin. The two were discussing the latter’s book, which was nearly two years old, and the interview originally had aired in April, some seven months earlier. The book had been pitched as containing “the latest biblical scholarship,” but Pi Roman didn’t have a single critical question for Father Martin, who merely parroted the conventional, Catholic view that everything in the Gospels, miracles and all, is an actual event no different from any other historical occurrence. “The Gospels,” Father Martin insisted, “make zero sense without the miracles.” He seemed entirely unaware that a growing number of scholars find that the Gospels don’t make any sense with them either — at least not as history.
Public radio and PBS, which should be elucidating these topics, are in effect proselytizing instead. They’re taking over for Sunday school teachers, who offer as factual the idea that all of humanity came from Adam and Eve, was drowned nearly to the last in a watery purge, and was only rebooted thanks to the maritime and reproductive efforts of Noah and his family — among other dubious myths. But instead of children, the audience is composed of credulous adults. It almost seems fitting that these Sunday mornings, highlighting the highly improbable and outright impossible, are followed by Monday mornings, which generally bring with them the mundane realities of work or secular school.
In Jesus Interrupted Ehrman laments that “not only are most Americans (increasingly) ignorant of the contents of the Bible, but they are also almost completely in the dark about what scholars have been saying about the Bible for the past two centuries.” While I don’t think it remotely likely that Christians would give up church based on a few scholarly critiques of the Bible, scholars can at least help them understand what they believe — a kind of “informed consent” for faith. Ehrman and other scholars already disproved the idea that Bible is the “inerrant word of God,” simply by debunking the story of Jesus and the adulteress, but the problem goes much deeper.
We can start by bearing in mind that we don’t have an original manuscript of a single book of the Bible. All we have are copies, some of which were written centuries later than the events they allegedly report on. None of the Gospels is signed, and no one took credit for writing them. They were all circulated anonymously and only later given the names we now know them by. Even Saint Origen, writing in the 3rd century AD, was deeply disturbed by the implications, noting in his Commentary on Matthew:
It is an undeniable fact today that there is a great deal of diversity among the manuscripts, either because of the carelessness of the scribes or the perverse audacity of their superiors in adulterating the text, or again to the fact that among us are clergy who add or delete as they see fit, deeming themselves correctors.
Perhaps more alarming is the fact that, of the 27 books of the New Testament, as many as half are forgeries (it depends on who’s counting; Ehrman tallies 11). How can a third — by a conservative estimate— of any “holy” book be counterfeit?
The percentage is even higher for Paul’s letters: Six of 13 have been ruled likely fakes. For example, word analysis of 1Timothy shows that more than one-third (306) of the words don’t appear in the genuine Pauline letters. Of those 306 words, 175 do not appear anywhere else in New Testament at all, but 211 are common in works of Christian writers of the second century AD (Paul’s letters were written in the first half of the first century AD). If you want to go on insisting Paul actually wrote this letter, you are, as Mark Twain put it, believing in something you know isn’t true.
So, far from being the inerrant word of God, quite a chunk of the New Testament isn’t even the word, inerrant or otherwise, of the men who supposedly wrote it.
The story of the Gerasene Demoniac, found in all three Synoptics, is worth a close-up since it unpacks in rather unusual ways. As the Gospels tell it, an unfortunate man is possessed by a multitude of demons who immediately recognize Jesus’s divinity and plead to be cast into a nearby herd of 2,000 pigs. Rather an odd request but Jesus is game. The unlucky swine stampede off a cliff into the sea where they drown. Father Martin, as it happens, mentions this incident in his PBS interview and nearly falls out of his chair so overwhelmed is he recalling his visit to the “place” where this really “happened.”
Even if one were to ask a few simple questions, this gospel narrative begins to crumble. What, for example, are swineherds doing with 2,000 pigs in a nation that abhors pork? Well, maybe they were Greek. But then why don’t they demand reparation? Even today 2,000 pigs would fetch a fat sum; back then it would have been a kingly endowment. Yet all the newly impoverished swineherds do is ask Jesus to take his magic show on the road.
More problematic is where the pigs could have drowned. Gerasa, where Mark says this happened, is nowhere near a large body of water; the Sea of Galilee is 31 miles away. Father Martin makes much of the fact that tombs are really there in Gerasa, “just as the Gospel says” but completely ignores the missing sea and the equally absent cliff overlooking it. Matthew, realizing Mark’s mistake (Mark makes a number of geographical errors), changes the town to Gadara, but that’s still more than six miles from the Sea of Galilee. Moreover, Father Martin ignores Matthew’s correction (Luke also writes Gadara), ignores the discrepancy among the Gospels, and ignores the fact that had this incident happened in Gerasa or Gadara, the sprinting pigs would have been a dust cloud on the horizon while Jesus and his entourage squinted after them.
The story becomes more interesting and makes much more sense when we bear in mind that the pig was an animal sacred to Demeter, goddess of grain and chief deity of the Eleusian Mysteries, the most famous of the Greek Mystery cults. (For a century or two, the Mystery cults were Christianity’s stiffest competition.) If we also recall that Demeter’s daughter Persephone was worshiped at the Eleusian Mysteries, the myth relaying Persephone’s kidnapping by Hades, as documented in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, provides the key to understanding this gospel story: “At the moment that Pluto carried off Proserpine [Frazer uses the Roman names] a swineherd called Euboleus was herding his swine on the spot, and his herd was engulfed in the chasm down which Pluto vanished with Proserpine. Accordingly, at the Thesmophoria [a women-only religious festival] pigs were annually thrown into caverns in order to commemorate the disappearance of the swine of Euboleus.”
The connection, however, is incomplete. In The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (citing scholars Walter Burkert and Jane Harrison) point out that “As part of the purification ceremony before initiation [to the Eleusian Mysteries], some 2,000 initiates all bathed in the sea with young pigs.” The idea, apparently, was that the impurities of the bathers would be taken on by the unsuspecting animals. “[T]he pigs . . . were then sacrificed . . . by being chased over a chasm.”
The cliff and the sea in the gospel accounts echo the chasm of Hades (and the chasm they were ritually tossed or chased into) as well as the briny purification rite. Applying Occam’s razor, we have to ask: Is it more likely that Mark, writing in Greek, included an allegory to try to win over converts from the Mysteries Greek, or that Jesus pulled 2,000 demons out of a single man (wasn’t it crowded in there?), granted their wish to inhabit hogs, and the hogs then lemminged over a nonexistent cliff into a missing body of water?
Interestingly enough, Father Martin explicitly denies the idea the Gospels are in any way allegorical and insists they are history. Saint Origen, who outranks Father Martin, wasn’t so easily taken in. In Contra Celsum, written more than a millennium ago, he asks: What man is found to be such an idiot as to believe that God planted trees in Paradise, in Eden, like a gardener? Every man must understand these things as images under which a hidden meaning lies concealed. Unfortunately, despite the advent of space exploration, quantum mechanics, the Hubble Telescope, and staggering advances in our understanding of the nature and origins of the universe, there are still plenty of Father Martins around.
At this point, I can imagine Lopate or Pi Roman asking, Well, what’s the harm in humoring the Father Martins? The harm is planet-imperiling. Years ago I picked up a book by Rush Limbaugh in a supermarket and put it down after I read his solution to our destruction of the environment: God will take care of it. Fact-checking memory, I sifted the ’Net for a good 30 seconds before I found Rush’s views on climate change neatly encapsulated: “It is my devout belief in God that gives me every bit of confidence that man is not, and furthermore cannot, destroy the climate.” And Rush’s listeners, like the Gerasene man’s demons, are legion.
In episode one of Years of Living Dangerously, a serial documentary about climate change, actor Don Cheadle asks a woman what might be causing a three-year drought in the Plainview, TX area. Her “only” thought is that “it’s biblical.” He asks another Plainview resident what he thinks, and his answer is even better: “There’s only one man who knows how much rain we’re gonna get, and that’s God, and he’s not a scientist, so I’m not putting much faith in what they [scientists] say.” (Irony not mine.) Cheadle sums up by pointing out “believing the drought is God’s will . . . is common here.” We can probably extrapolate from Cheadle’s experience that there are millions of equally devout Christians, particularly in the Bible belt, who are just as happy to ignore climate change while they pray for the Rapture to whisk them off to a place where carbon emissions don’t matter.
Some years ago Noam Chomsky pointed out that
. . . recent polls show that about a quarter of Republicans think that [Obama] may be Antichrist. That is tied up with the fundamentalist, religious tales about Armageddon, Antichrist and Jesus having a battle, and the saved souls rise to heaven maybe in our lifetimes. These are big things in the United States. That’s where the Republican base is now.
Jimmy Carter, however well-intentioned, is contributing to this mindset every Sunday at Maranatha Baptist Church. If Christianity were a political system, like communism, and the state, rather than the church, subjected children to this sort of propaganda — with or without tales of Lenin rising from his tomb in Red Square — brainwashing, not unjustifiably, would likely be a common accusation.
Myths, when understood properly, are fascinating. My shelves are near to buckling with the oversized, religion-related tomes I’ve acquired and read over the years. Myths, as Christopher Hitchens repeatedly pointed out, are our oldest attempts at explaining the universe. Freud considered myths public dreams (and dreams private myths). The Talmud advises, wisely it seems to me, that an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter. Myths, then, are letters sent thousands of years ago — to all of us. They are psychological artifacts, and just as we can roam the ruins of ancient cities, study the art, architecture, and monuments found there and learn something about their builders, so too we can pore over myths and discover a great deal about the minds that engendered them — as well as about ourselves.
So by all means let us read, analyze, discuss, and enjoy myths as cultural fictions, as thought fingerprints that waited thousands of years to be lifted. But just as parents eventually break the bad news about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to their children, it’s time responsible news outlets, such as PBS and NPR, did the same for adults. Let’s call it Monday school.•