Here we go again. In his article “War and the Religious State” (Free Inquiry, February/March 2015), Steve Sklar casually acknowledged what everyone knows—or what most people think they know: “Christianity, for all its flaws, does have the positive characteristic that its alleged founder ‘was not violent.’”
It’s repeated ad nauseam: Jesus Christ was the “Prince of Peace.” Maybe he failed to denounce slavery and other primitive practices, but at least he called for brotherly love among all peoples. Therefore, the argument goes, he serves as a useful role model for all humanity, even non-Christians. Children are taught to be like Christ. Major civil rights movements have operated on the presumption that the son of God who is God desired tolerant harmony for humanity. And of course Christianity, despite its sometimes errant ways, is at its glorious core a religion of peace.
If you believe that, then I have a bridge connecting lower Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights to sell you. It is no accident that most—but not all—Christians promote this belief. Christian moderates and liberals buy into it most of all. What is amazing is that the myth of the Jesus who not only loves but promotes peace is so deeply entrenched that even leading atheists—who really should know better—embrace it. When liberal born-again Jimmy Carter was on Real Time with Bill Maher, he asked his host, that notorious atheist, if they could at least agree that Christ was all for peace. Maher—who says he has read the Bible—has long said just that, so he happily agreed with the pleased former president.
The problem with the Jesus-of-the-Gospels-was-a-nice-guy thesis is that it is patently false.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that the character of Jesus said both that he was not in favor of peace and committed an act just about everyone knows about that was not at all nice. That Jesus Christ could go mean mad and be proud of it while acting as a coward is right there in a very famous story found in all four Gospels. Take a few moments and try to remember the yarn about the violent Jesus committing a hate crime.
Still can’t think of the tale? Here goes, from John 2:15: “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” All Gospels agree on the basic story of a violent Jesus at the Temple. Only John mentions a whip, but because (as we all know) the Testaments are all the word of God, Jesus must have fashioned the cruel device; the other Gospels just don’t get around to mentioning it. If that’s what the Good Book says then it must be true, no?
Please note the following items, based on what the Good Book says.
The violence was unprovoked. The money changers were not attacking patrons of the Temple to get their money. They were conducting peaceful business that, even if corrupt in some manner, was officially legal and sanctified by the religious authorities.
The act was premeditated. Jesus did not suddenly get angry upon seeing what the money changers were doing, lose his cool, and go over the top in a moment of righteous passion. No, he observed the scene, got ticked off, took the time to construct a weapon, and only then attacked. He steamed and schemed to be violent.
The violence was apparently serious. You don’t make and wield a whip just to overturn tables. Tables you can just push over. A whip is for inspiring fear and for inflicting pain upon humans and animals.
Jesus apparently committed animal abuse. John 2:15 does not make it entirely clear what Jesus whipped, but it appears he stampeded the livestock by whipping them.
It was a surprise attack. The man of perfect morality did not warn his victims, who must have been defenseless and terrified.
Jesus was a coward. The greatest man of all time, the son of God, attacked hapless, unarmed civilians and animals without warning, then fled the scene. There’s a term for such a lout—a jerk.
Jesus Christ committed a hate crime. Suppose someone today attacked people without warning with a nonlethal but frightening weapon as they conducted business, shady or legitimate, at a place of worship. Suppose that this onslaught was mounted not for the purposes of theft but to make a sociopolitical point. It would almost surely be classified and prosecuted as a hate crime.
The Prince of Peace did not come close to acting as a true man of peace. Jesus failed to do what real men and women of peace such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. did. He didn’t send a letter or petition of concern to the Temple or other pertinent authorities. He didn’t carry a sign saying “Down with the Money Changers”—or yell out words to that effect, considering that most people of the time were illiterate. He didn’t have his entourage stage such a demonstration. He didn’t conduct a sit-down protest. Granted, nonviolent tactics such as these originated centuries after the supposed time of Christ. But if he’s the son of God, wouldn’t they have occurred to him?
But that’s not all the evidence that Jesus was a less than peace-loving guy. Consider Luke 22:35–38: “Then Jesus asked them, ‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That is enough,’ he replied.”
Come on now. Jesus, the supposed man of peace, orders his entourage to acquire swords—the AK-47s of their time? In those days, large, edged weapons were big-ticket, high-tech items. In comparison, they were far more expensive than a mass-produced automatic rifle is today (a point that also challenges the common notion that the “Jesus gang” was impoverished). What peaceful group goes yonder and about packing flesh-slicing heat? How can Christians claim that the Jesus character was pacific when his followers carried lethal implements that he commanded them to acquire?
And how much longer will we atheists and seculars let them get away with this?
This brings us to another piece of Christian ethical sleight-of-hand to which nontheists have objected far too little over the years. As Jesus is about to be arrested—logically enough, in part, for his unprovoked weapon-wielding and his cowardly hate crime at the temple—some in his posse drew their swords to protect their leader. For his part, Peter cut off the ear of the servant (possibly a slave) of the high priest. But then the peaceful Jesus, seeing his disciple’s errancy, berates Peter and magically heals the poor servant, showing that he truly is the Prince of Peace. Say what? The servant would not have lost his ear in the first place if Jesus had forbidden the members of his cabal lethal weaponry. Using a case where Jesus merely stopped behavior for which he was ultimately responsible as an example of exemplary moral conduct is hypocrisy of the most egregious flavor. Surely it is the duty of rationalists to condemn ethical perfidy of this order.
The term Prince of Peace stems from the Jewish Testaments, in which the coming Messiah would revive the fortunes of the Jewish nation and would—after crushing the opponents of the Israelites—impose a peace of ethnic-religious uniformity. It bears no resemblance to the modern concept of peace, in which peoples of diverse beliefs agree to get along with one another. Though Jesus did not succeed in imposing such a coercive peace during his earthly life, Christian doctrine still presumes that he will impose it when he supposedly returns at the end of days.
What is as fascinating as it is usually—though by no means always—ignored is that the biblical Jesus himself denied being the Prince of Peace. It’s right there in plain English, translated from the classical Greek. Twice. According to Matthew 10:34–36, 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. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” And in Luke 12:49, 51–53, Jesus says, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and I wish it were already kindled! . . . Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
So if there was a Jesus, and if the Gospels give a reasonably accurate account of his opinions, then he did not claim to be a man of peace. Nor did he promote peace—quite the opposite. Christians, especially moderates and liberals, try to explain away the above passages as being warnings that Jesus’s teachings would, alas, turn people including family members against one another. At best, that shows that the Christian message is inherently divisive—it is core Christian doctrine that all must adhere to the one plan and that those who fail to do so are outsiders, doomed to a less-than-ideal afterlife. That is a recipe for conflict—and conflict is, of course, something in which Christians have again, and again, and again engaged through history.
As I noted in the first paragraph, not all Christians view Jesus as a man of peace and tolerance. A small but significant minority of Bible-knowledgeable, hard-nosed right-wingers take what the Bible says seriously. Secularists often assume that those on the religious Right always get things wrong. But that is not always true. Because the Christ character denies being peaceful and carries out acts of violence—and because the Bible is, of course, the perfect word of the one creator—archconservative Christians logically see the biblical Jesus as a hard-liner who brooked no dissent and who came to Earth to prepare those willing to comply with his message for the peace of total compliance that would come with his return and his earthly kingdom.
Given that these things are true of Jesus, it seems impossible to accept him as any sort of moral role model. Nor is it possible for the religion he initiated to be truly pacific and ethical.
Instead, Jesus is a gravely defective person upon whom to base one’s life. For a better idea as to why this is so, consult The Quest Study Bible (New International Version). It is one of those Bibles with the little notes in the margins that usually strive to explain away awkward passages. When it comes to the assault on the Temple—excuse me, the Clearing of the Temple, as it is euphemistically labeled—Quest Study Bible editors cite the attack as an example of why what they euphemistically call “anger” is sometimes the right response. Since the anger is expressed as violence, the excusers are actually endorsing and enabling unprovoked violence as a legitimate way of dealing with problems that do not otherwise involve violence, not even defensive violence. As we seculars well know—and even some believers acknowledge—the Bible is a hazardous bag of mixed morality, full of the kind of internally conflicted ethics that too often portends bad results.
The importance to Christianity of denying that Jesus did anything wrong at the Temple cannot be overemphasized. In Christian doctrine, Jesus is the one perfect and sinless man. To acknowledge that he committed a criminal, immoral act would do serious damage to core Christian dogma, as well as to the image that the faith tries to foster of being profoundly peace-based. If it becomes widely acknowledged that Christ was a seriously violent person, then a good chunk of the Christian edifice comes crashing down.
The take-home message for Free Inquiry readers is: Never, ever—ever—repeat the commonplace Christian sanitizing lie that the Jesus of the Gospels was a man of peace. Instead, it should be a major goal of our movement to promote the truth, to expose the obvious fact that the biblical Jesus was a violent figure and that the religion bearing his name is correspondingly inherently morally defective. Not to mention dangerous!
The attack of Jesus at the Temple has not only ethical implications; it adds to the evidence that the Gospels are seriously fraudulent. In the first three (synoptic) Gospels, Jesus commits this hate crime near the end, the day after arriving in Jerusalem and a few days before his execution. But in John, the assault occurs near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, years before he returns to Jerusalem and gets himself killed. Even notorious apologists for a perfect Bible such as Archer Gleason are hard-pressed to explain away this massive faux pas. Some suggest Christ committed the attack twice, in which case the argument for a peaceful Jesus is further refuted.
Another issue is more subtle. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus is not arrested until five days after his terror act at the Temple. Not only that, but the day after committing the assault, Jesus returns to the great Temple to hobnob with the wayward priests. That’s odd, to say the least. If a person committed a spectacular act of violence that directly challenged the established alliance of Roman and Jewish authorities, it is hardly likely that they would have let the fellow wander the Jewish capital, much less return to the scene of the crime, without ordering his immediate capture. That the first three Gospels describe Jesus roaming—even dissing the temple priests—well after his challenge to the legitimacy of the Roman-backed system is good evidence that the story has been at least partly concocted for effect. That in John Jesus commits the crime and is then allowed to minister in the region for three years is an even greater stretch of credulity.
One final item: assume that Jesus really did heal the ear of the servant that Peter had cut off. That would have meant instantly reattaching or regrowing the entire organ, apparently with little or no evidence of trauma. Even basic ear reattachment was way beyond the medicine of the time, just as instantaneous healing is beyond ours. If such a thing had actually happened, would not those arresting Jesus have been amazed, even stunned—so much so that they would have balked at arresting a being of such fantastic power and perhaps fled the scene? At the very least, would they not have told their families, friends, and even the authorities about the extraordinary cure Jesus had worked? How come this mind-boggling event is never mentioned at Jesus’s trial? Could it be because it is another biblical throwaway concoction that, having served its brief propaganda purpose, was tossed aside because it logically contradicted the subsequent Passion story that the whole, global superstition was to be centered upon?
Oh, but that would be blasphemy.