Irrespective of one’s experience as a law enforcement officer, it was my police department’s policy to have interested parties apply, test, and interview for specialized positions within the agency. At what turned out to be the midpoint of my career, I decided to submit my name for the tactical response team, our version of SWAT. During the interview process, I was given several hypothetical situations and was asked how, exactly, I would react. One such scenario supposed that I had arrived at the scene of an active shooter who had wounded, and pinned down, both a fellow officer and a civilian. “Who,” I was asked, “would you attempt to rescue first?” Although I was later told it was the incorrect response, I said that I would initially bring my coworker to safety and then return for the second victim. The interviewers, knowing full well there could be no true right or wrong answer, intimated that it would have been more appropriate to first extricate the civilian—the person I had sworn to serve and protect.
Post-interview, I was given the opportunity to justify my response. I explained that it was human nature to begin by rescuing the person with whom I was most familiar. It was someone I worked with, trained with, and most likely spent time with outside of work. By no means was I giving up on the other person; I was merely prioritizing. It was quite simply a fidelity issue, an act of loyalty. Saving a stranger reflects more than just a sense of duty, however. The philosopher Josiah Royce, in his book The Philosophy of Loyalty, claimed it is a devotion to a cause. “To Protect and Serve” may seem like an inconsequential phrase adorning most police cruisers, but to many officers it is significant. It is our cause.
Royce described loyalty as “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” The cause Royce refers to is not entirely impersonal. “It concerns other men,” he stated, “fellow-servants” also loyal to the cause. As wide-ranging as the cause can be, from love to patriotism, it boils down to simply being a guiding force: “The cause tells him what to do, and he does it … he is ready to live or to die as the cause directs.” But what if there is a leader, an esteemed person overseeing this cause? Royce hypothesized that while a loyal subject may love or respect that person, it is the cause that ultimately binds them together. Paul Woodruff, an ethicist, substituted the word cause with his own rendition of what drives loyalty. He described a loyalty based on virtue, a condition that foregoes personal obligations “in favor of obligations legitimized by law or religion.” He expounded on this definition by claiming that loyalty, as a virtuous trait, is “a willingness to support legitimate authority steadfastly, at risk to life and limb.”
It is based on this premise that I wish to demonstrate that the final actions of Jesus’s apostles prior to his death, as detailed in the New Testament, run counter to human nature. Because they are nonsensical, they are, more likely than not, pure fabrications.
While I am not a biblical scholar, I am degreed, I think critically, and I can make assumptions as astutely as any professor of religious studies!
In Bart Ehrman’s textbook A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, he unwittingly demonstrates just how much of biblical scholarship is based on conjecture. Throughout the book he uses phrases such as “Most scholars find this view entirely plausible,” “a theologian might say,” scholars “are persuaded,” and “it is conceivable.” These are hardly definitive statements. Rather they are indicative of a cult of very confused individuals attempting to make falsehood real.
Because of the inherent difficulty in admitting Jesus stories are fictitious, New Testament scholars have imagined fictitious sources, such as “Q,” to bolster their arguments. Most of the academics writing historical biographies of Jesus can only resort to speculation, and while they close ranks on anyone who hasn’t published in a scholarly journal, they certainly have no exclusivity on theorizing.
In the book How to Interpret History, Christian writer Ron Hayhurst unshackles non-theologians such as me, allowing us to explicate freely on the manifold flaws in the narratives of Jesus’s final days. “Our personal experience tends to frame how we view the composite of historical happenings in the world,” he wrote. “Our personal realities influence our beliefs, values, and attitudes toward life.” “Thus,” he continued, “historians may easily host interpretations based upon their personal life experiences.” As an atheist, and as someone who spent twenty-five years behind a badge deciphering truth from fabrication, I can cogitate on the supposed happenings in Jesus’s life as well as any so-called expert. To be clear, however, I am unwavering in my determination that the gospels are fictitious and a historical Jesus never existed.
We can concede that the literary Jesus wandered Palestine performing dispassionate miracles. During this time, drawn by his alleged healing powers and his charismatic personality, he gathered twelve apostles who would blindly follow him. In Matthew 9:9, Jesus merely walked past Matthew, who was collecting taxes at the time, and said, “Follow me,” and Matthew complied. Others were illiterate fishermen who abandoned their trade. Some were relatives of Jesus, and still others apparently had nothing better to do—Nathanael was lounging under a tree—and others just, well, magically appear. The anonymous author of Matthew goes on to say that, after recruiting all twelve apostles, Jesus endowed them with an “authority over unclean spirits,” the ability to cast out demons, and the capacity to “cure every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 10:1).
The apostles themselves, despite having been afforded magical powers, proved lackadaisical in utilizing their newfound supernatural sway, at least until after Jesus’s resurrection. During the course of Jesus’s very short ministry, which lasted anywhere between eighteen months to three years, the disciples were, however, witness to a slew of miracles performed by their master. Jesus converted water into wine, restored the sight of blind people, calmed storms, reanimated the dead, walked on water, fed the multitudes—four-thousand to be exact—with seven loaves of bread and a single fish, and healed demoniacs. Additionally, he repeatedly preached tolerance, love, kindness, and eternal life in heaven. All one had to do was follow Jesus and love God with all one’s heart. It was unclear why many of the apostles chose to abandon their prior existences to follow Jesus, but it was quite evident why they would have remained loyal to him, his ministry, and his impoverished way of life. To be chosen as a member of this select group of evangelists, to bear witness to miracles, and to be subjected to a form of benevolent, uplifting philosophy most likely foreign to their world could be regarded as an honor unparalleled in their lifetimes. Jesus was unquestionably no ordinary man. So, why, shortly after his arrest, did the apostles abandon him?
In his book Human Nature: Opposing Viewpoints, Mark Ray Schmidt claims that we, as human observers, subconsciously form ideas and assumptions about our fellow earthlings’ conduct. Only when that behavior becomes exceedingly peculiar or bizarre do we ask ourselves why they acted in such a fashion. “This response,” Schmidt wrote, “is caused by a conflict between what is assumed to be normal, natural behavior for humans and the particular event which violates that expectation.” So the apostles, superstitious dolts that they were, having been chosen by a man of unmatched piety—a miracle worker, the Son of Man, the Messiah—and having spent months, if not years, as apprentices, preaching the word of God and having been given the ability to perform miracles themselves, gave a new meaning to an old phrase: “When the going gets tough, the apostles get going … as far away as they possibly can!” They abandoned Jesus in his time of need. Seems bizarre, does it not?
While Jesus never came right out and said that he was God, he did hint that he was the human equivalent of Yahweh with sayings such as “I and the Father are one” and “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Nathanael, the famously reposed apostle, conversely exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the son of God!” (John 1:47). So, while the divinity of Jesus is somewhat ambiguous to the reader of the gospels, the apostles surely knew they were in the midst of someone special—someone godlike. In John 6:64–71, Jesus, because of his double-talk and his figurative espousal of cannibalism, was abandoned by many of his adherents while in Capernaum. He turned to his apostles and asked if they, too, wished to go away. “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God,” Simon Peter answered. They remained because they revered their master. It is at this point in the myth that Jesus resorted to his extra-sensory perception. Apparently, Jesus foreknew who the deserters were in the crowd, as he also presciently predicted there was a devil among the apostles who would eventually betray him: Judas Iscariot. Later, Jesus also predicted Peter would deny him three times.
It’s common knowledge that Judas famously betrayed Jesus, revealing his location in the Garden of Gethsemane to the Sanhedrin. With a mere peck on the cheek, Jesus’s fate was sealed, and Judas was thirty pieces of silver richer. Despite an attempt by the gospel authors to explain Judas’s behavior by using the Flip Wilson defense—“The devil made me do it”—one cannot ignore the fact that Matthew’s ghostwriter clumsily tried to weave Jesus’s biography out of threads from the Old Testament. By utilizing obscure Bible verses, the gospel authors (especially “Matthew”) endeavored to give the impression that somehow Old Testament writings foreshadowed the words and deeds of Jesus and his followers. This is not oral tradition, nor is it history. This is a blatant case of the author of Matthew, most conspicuously, perusing the Old Testament to find anything he could transpose into the New Testament to create the appearance of Jesus fulfilling a prophecy that isn’t even really prophetic.
The Judas story is an indirect link to Zechariah 11:12–13, an unrelated story about a payment of thirty pieces of silver to the book’s namesake. Zechariah subsequently tossed the coins to the potter “in the house of the Lord.” Matthew painstakingly made use of the thirty pieces of silver, and the potter, to craft a story that had Judas becoming remorseful, returning the coins to the priests, and they in turn used the “blood money” to buy a potter’s field. Try as they may, biblical scholars could never convince me that this story is anything but fictitious. But, folklore aside, the story still conflicts with human nature. Just what aspect of Jesus’s life would make a trusted disciple accept a pittance for the life of the Son of God? Was it the miracles he despised? Was it Jesus himself? Was it Jesus’s teachings? We’ll never know for sure.
Theologians will want you to believe that the Bible plays out like there is a certain supernatural prescience taking place; whether it is God, Jesus, or a prophet, the authors want the reader to believe the characters in their stories can somehow forecast the future. Jesus had to pick Judas, they may say, to fulfill prophecy. But Judas wouldn’t know this, and unless he was hypnotized, it’s doubtful he would suddenly become a traitorous wretch for a modicum of a precious metal. Thirty pieces of silver, under Levitical Law, was the price the owner of a bull would pay to a slaveholder if said bull were to gore said slave owner’s human chattel. In today’s money, it would be equal to anywhere from $65 to $300.
Loyalty is a powerful force. It should never be underestimated. The New Testament authors, so woefully unfamiliar with this human trait, fully expected the reader to dismiss Judas’s behavior as normal. The late professor of moral philosophy at Dartmouth College, Bernard Gert, would probably have had something to say about that. “Loyalty,” he theorized, “requires an individual to be willing to make some significant personal sacrifices to avoid causing harm to the group or to prevent or relieve harm suffered by members of the group.” Judas’s behavior was the antithesis of loyalty as defined by Gert. Greed, one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins, defiled Judas’s character and obliterated his allegiance to the cause. His disloyalty went beyond the pale and was utterly nonsensical. If he was unhappy, all he had to do was walk away.
Have you ever had a friend or a supervisor who you would follow to the ends of the earth? Someone who offered mutual respect and valued opinions other than his or her own? It would seem that Peter and Jesus, despite being student and teacher, had such a relationship. Jesus confidently stated that he would build his church upon Peter, even though churches probably weren’t in existence at the time. So, near the end of Jesus’s first life, after being informed by Jesus himself that all the apostles would abandon him, Peter spoke up: “I will never desert you.” Being the soothsayer that he was, Jesus predictively explained to Peter, in remarkable detail, that “before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter responded in a manner one would expect from the follower of an aspiring deity, stating, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:33–35).
As events transpired in Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Peter suddenly became unfaithful to Jesus, and indeed denied ever knowing him the requisite three times. This is also confounding. Why would Peter fulfill Jesus’s prophecy, particularly when it has no real intrinsic meaning? Is it merely to display Jesus’s power to foretell the future? Was Peter under some type of hypnosis? This was a blatant display of disloyalty, and, quite frankly, it reeks of immorality—the inverse of Woodruff’s virtue.
These predictions of unfaithfulness, as pointless as they seem, may simply be unsophisticated prose designed by the gospel writers to invoke sympathy for Jesus or to demonstrate once again his god-like abilities. These predictions, it appears, are easily effectuated in the fictional realm; just write the prognostication as being delivered by Jesus and make it come true a few paragraphs later. Problems arise, however, when Jesus makes prophecy that exceeds the imaginary world of the Bible, such as when he tells his minions that some will not “taste death” before the apocalypse arrives. Two-thousand years later, we are still waiting. Peter fell victim to this prophetic mind-control, and as Jesus predicted, he proved to be spineless and disloyal. To his credit, Peter did at least follow Jesus after the arrest to the home of Caiaphas, the high priest.
Due to the gospels being contradictory and disharmonious, the stories vary, as do Jesus’s words and actions. In John, which is a non-synoptic gospel, the author again portrayed Jesus as a soothsayer, apprising the apostles that they will “scatter” after his arrest (16:32), which is a clarification of Matthew’s version. In Matthew 26:31, Jesus states, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written.” The “for it is written” is the crux of the problem. Again, the fabulator known as Matthew has resorted to cherry-picking the Old Testament. On this occasion, he again references Zechariah. It was Zechariah 13:7 that Matthew, John, and even Mark are referencing: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, (and I will turn my hand against the little ones).” So, the miraculous powers of Jesus in fulfilling purported prophecies, by having an author read a story written hundreds of years prior and then proceed to write that Jesus did or said the same thing, can only be classified in the “lame” file.
Such use of unrelated lines from a so-called Old Testament prophet, maladroitly constructed to prove Jesus was really sent from God, certainly bolsters my case that aside from a few historic tidbits, the Jesus story is preposterous.
In human terms, behavior is not dependent on fulfilling scripture. Nor do people live out their lives trying to bring prophecy to fruition. When Matthew’s author wrote “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled,” he is not referring to the followers of an elected official, a commanding officer in the military, or even one’s relatives; he is talking about Jesus Christ, the son of God. If we believe the determination of the Nicene Council, this may even have been God himself. All inclinations to protect Jesus disappeared. The apostles had no interest in where Jesus was going or what was going to happen to him. No one except Peter put up a fight.
Again, Royce would side with me. “Loyalty,” he conjectured, “discounts death, for it is from the start a readiness to die for the cause.” The apostles were notoriously thick-headed. They understood little of what Jesus told them. They were illiterate. Why would they suddenly consummate Jesus’s notion that they would flee to leave him alone to be tortured and crucified? Heck, they all allegedly died brutal deaths anyway; they really had nothing to lose. Where was their loyalty to the cause?
If human nature had prevailed, conceptualizing the apostles with the mindset of a police officer, whose cause is to protect and serve, it would have been their duty to protect the life of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus could have brought world peace or disencumbered the world of famine and disease. It is difficult to perceive anybody abandoning their loyalty to a man who epitomizes the Great Man theory of leadership studies. Throw in miracles and eternal salvation, and it appears that all the ingredients were there for Jesus to be someone whose life was worth sacrificing one’s own for. Years ago, my neighbor John went inside his burning home to save his dog. They both died. He gave his life for a canine companion for whom he displayed undaunted loyalty. We’ve all been taught to never re-enter a burning building; nothing inside that house is worth your life. The exception, of course, being a human life. Loyalty discounts death.
The explanations for the mass exodus from Jesus’s side are as ineffectual as the story itself. Billy Graham, the recently deceased evangelist, when asked why the apostles absconded after the arrest of Jesus, replied with a multilayered response. “One reason,” he stated, “is because they didn’t understand what He was saying.” They were “frightened,” not only for Jesus but also for themselves and their future. This seems to be the consensus among commentators: the apostles feared for their own safety. Graham also claimed that the apostles abandoned Jesus because “they were overwhelmed with disappointment.” Others believe that cowardice and faithlessness are due to the fall, mere frailties of human nature. Still others believe that for prophecy to be realized, Jesus had to suffer alone. Maybe, in the end, the apostles didn’t feel Jesus was worth following any longer. He wasn’t quite the Messiah he made himself out to be. It was fun while it lasted, but it was time to return to reality. The cause was no longer deserving of their loyalty.
I posed to atheist philosopher Richard Carrier the question: Why did the apostles abandon Jesus in his time of need? His reply was both astute and concise:
The whole message of the gospel is reversal of expectation (“the least shall be first”) and irony (the wrong Simon carries the cross). The trope established in Paul is that Jesus was totally abandoned, meaning cosmically, so the story had to happen literally. This sets up the irony and reversal of expectation that the lowlier women are first to discover he is risen.
A literary ruse that more theologically centered scholars view as an allegorical: we all occasionally have a crisis of faith, leaving Jesus behind, but like the apostles, we all return.
Consider for a moment the actions of an actual person, someone who never met Jesus but was loyal to the cause of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. Origen (185–254 CE) was the son of Leonides, who allegedly died a martyr in 202 CE. Wanting to emulate his father, Origen, too, wished to give his life for the cause. Legend has it that his mother hid his clothing so that he would be unable to leave the house. Young Origen wasn’t going to have any of this motherly attentiveness, so he took matters into his own hands. Geza Vermes explains: “In a mad enthusiasm, at the age of eighteen he castrated himself, taking literally the hyperbolic counsel of Jesus that his followers should make themselves eunuchs.” In Lyon, France, in 177 CE, Eusebius told of another Christian who gave his life for the Lord. Although manifold Christians were tortured and killed in Lyon, one martyr is prominent: Sanctus. When put on trial for atheism in front of a pagan crowd, he responded to all questions with a simple phrase, “I am a Christian.” When red-hot plates were held against “the tenderest” parts of his body, Sanctus gave the same response. He never denied Christ, nor did he run away.
In 203 CE, Vibia Perpetua was arrested in Carthage after Emperor Severus forbade the conversion to Christianity. Refusing to deny her Christian faith, Perpetua and her fellow martyrs were first placed in the arena with wild beasts, where she was gored but not killed. She met her end when she was subjected to a not-so-well-placed sword to the throat. Even Giordano Bruno, the Dominican friar who was arrested by the Catholic Inquisition for heresy in 1600, remained loyal to his cause. His charges were multifaceted, ranging from the most commonly cited, that he affirmed heliocentricity, to the more uncommon such as his hypotheses that Jesus sinned and that Adam and Eve weren’t the first to inhabit the planet. Given forty days to retract his beliefs, Bruno refused and was consequently burned at the stake.
“The loyal, and they alone, know the one great good of suffering, of ignorance, of finitude, of loss, of defeat—and that is just the good of loyalty, so long as the cause itself can be viewed as indeed a living whole,” Josiah Royce wrote. The apostles not only demonstrated their lack of loyalty, they appear to be the ultimate traitorous scoundrels. If Jesus were real and the stories weren’t purely fiction, even I, as a militant atheist, would not have partaken in any of the apostles’ actions. Flaunting such depraved behavior in a religious text is in itself sinful. Accepting a bribe for someone’s life, denying a friendship, and abandoning a friend in his time of need are counter to my ethical upbringing. As a retired police officer, far from being an apostle of God, I consider such behavior heinous, craven, and incongruous with human nature. My duty to protect and serve, to risk my life for a cause, my loyalty to my profession, my coworkers, and to the public I served, guided my life. To surmise even for a moment that Jesus’s devotees would desert the man they called “Master” for no good reason other than to fulfill a nonexistent prophecy is unequivocally ludicrous. Loyalty simply doesn’t dissolve to invigorate a literary contrivance, unless of course the authors of such texts were not the alleged apostles, which we know is true. Such fantastical writings would be better attributed to sibling philologists best known for their fairy tales: Jakob and Wilhelm, who bore the surname Grimm, rather than the brothers of the Lord.