If you haven’t seen The God Who Wasn’t There yet, you should. The DVD just arrived on my doorstep over Thanksgiving.
As the title implies, it’s a documentary that explores the notion that Jesus Christ never existed, and that religion — particularly extremist Christianity — is doing this country and the world more harm than good.
Overall, I really liked it. Enough to buy the . Although short, it’s well-paced, raises a lot of questions that need to be asked, and opens up a dialog on the role of Christianity in American culture. It’s also clearly a personal movie for director Brian Flemming.
My favorite part was on the origin of the New Testament, the source of the Jesus story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last nearly long enough. It ignores whole swathes of biblical history, including much about the four gospels, and notes merely that Mark’s was the first gospel, written no earlier than 70 AD, and that the other three copied from here.
Between 33 and 70 AD, there’s Paul, but he seems unaware of any part of Jesus’ life other than the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. And everything, including the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, miracles, raising the dead, betrayal for 30 pieces of silver, bread and wine representing flesh and blood, crucifixion, and resurrection, has also been attributed to other mythical figures, such as Dionysus, Osiris, and Oedipus.
This part isn’t controversial, either. The movie quotes Justin Martyr’s First Apology:
When we say that Jesus Christ as produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter.
It gets to the point where saying that those guys are myths but Jesus is real is like walking into a comic store and saying that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. are just stories, but Green Lantern really exists. Justin offers this rationalization:
For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and travelled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, `strong as a giant to run his race,’ has been in like manner imitated? And when he [the devil] brings forward Aesculapius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?
That’s like saying that the CIA planted conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, Roswell, etc. in advance, to discredit the 9/11 conspiracy theories. But note that Justin acknowledges that these mythic attributes already existed before Jesus (otherwise, why invent such a ridiculous explanation?).
The closer you look, the more Jesus seems to evaporate.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of instances of shoddy scholarship. One part quotes Luke 19:27,
But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.
The movie attributes this to Jesus, which is technically correct, except that it comes from the parable of the ten minas: Luke is quoting Jesus quoting the king in the story. While the king in the parable does seem to represent Jesus, it seems a stretch to infer that Jesus was calling for the execution of everyone who wouldn’t follow him.
The movie also quotes Hebrews 8:4 as:
If Jesus had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest.
This is presented in support of the claim that Paul (n??? Saul of Tarsus) didn’t believe in an actual human Jesus walking around Jerusalem, but rather thought that the crucifixion took place in some faraway mythical realm.
Unfortunately, every translation I’ve looked at has “If Jesus were on earth” or some variation thereupon, rather than “If Jesus had been on earth.” So why did they choose this translation, which is fundamentally different from every other one out there?
The movie doesn’t address this, but it’s mentioned on one of the commentary tracks. The claim is that the original text can be translated either way, but “had been” would mean that Paul didn’t believe in a literal Jesus, and that clearly can’t be the case, can it? This could be a systematic, though quite understandable, case of translator’s bias. So maybe this guy’s onto something?
But on the same commentary track, Earl Doherty, the guy putting forth this hypothesis admits that he doesn’t have any formal degrees in relevant disciplines, and that he’s outside of the mainstream. To top it off, he compares himself to Alfred Wegener, who came up with the notion of continental drift. Unfortunately for him, comparing oneself to Wegener, Georges Lemaître, or Galileo is one of the signs of kookdom. If he’s right, why hasn’t he been able to convince other scholars? I’m not going to dismiss this hypothesis outright, but color me highly skeptical.
The film also discusses the social consequences of religious belief: what does it mean when Jesus Christ Superstar (the singing Jesus) grossed $13 million, The Last Temptation of Christ (the horny Jesus) grossed $8 million, but The Passion of the Christ (the bloody Jesus) is at $370 million and counting? Is Christianity really a religion of peace, like Islam?
If someone says that they were abducted and anally probed by aliens, or that the CIA is broadcasting mind-control instructions to their fillings, we generally think they’re crazy. But if someone believes that someone was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, caused fig trees to wither, and came back after being dead for three days, we give them a pass. For some reason, “crazy” is bad, but “faith” is okay.
If a medical student started spouting “new theories” about how to treat people, but never offered any empirical evidence, that person would be laughed out of medical school, and with good cause. But if someone who believes, with just as much evidence, that people will rise bodily into the sky and that the dead will rise from their graves wants to teach impressionable young children that it is absolutely vital to believe these things, then that’s okay for some reason.
At times, the movie descends into gratuitous Christian-bashing, as when he condemns moderate Christianity:
If the Bible is right, aren’t the stakes as high as they can be? … What the hell is moderate Christianity? Jesus was only sort of the son of God? He only somewhat rose from the dead? Your eternal soul is at stake, but you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it?
And the interview with the director of Village Christian Schools was clumsy and at times childish.
The DVD also includes two commentary tracks, including a phone interview with Richard Dawkins and one with the Raving Atheist. It also includes “Explore the Myth”, a slide show with web links that serves as an endnote section (this section also denounces Kersey Graves’s The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors).
So yes, there’s a lot that can be criticized. I, for one, would have preferred a longer film, with more and better scholarship. Perhaps invite a few Christian apologists to make a scholarly case for the existence of a historical Jesus, just to keep everyone honest. Tone down some of the anti-Christian rhetoric.
But all in all, pretty good. If nothing else, it can help to open up a dialog about religion and its role in American society.
Oh, and Front 242 / Birmingham 6 / industrial music fans might enjoy the footage of James Robison saying,
I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet! It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America!