I recently promised to report back on any answers that I received, to the question that I posed towards my Christian friends. I had my first answer from Father Gerry O’Connor, a leading member of the Association of Catholic Priests. I’ve now had another answer, this time from a Roman Catholic theologian who invited me to discuss the issue over a coffee. He’s a published author and he’s also completing a PhD at the Mater Dei Institute. His thesis relates to the Second Vatican Council, so he is certainly very familiar with the current teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
As a quick reminder, the question I had asked was:
Is there any teaching of Jesus Christ, which is neither immoral nor a banal plagiarism of pre-existing messages?
I had suggested that all of the admirable teachings of Jesus were simple restatements of existing ethics, which would have been familiar to most people at the time. Furthermore, I also suggested that everything Jesus taught which was genuinely novel and original, was at the same time grossly immoral. As such, my hypothesis is that all of the moral teachings of Jesus are either totally unethical or else banal plagiarisms. Hardly the stuff of an omniscient and divine creator of the universe.
Since my theologian friend sent private messages in advance of our meeting, I won’t publish the details directly. However, I can certainly outline the content of his response, which I viewed as an improvement on the one from Father Gerry! I think it can be fairly presented in two parts:
Jesus didn’t say anything original and it’s not reasonable to expect that he would.
What was original about Jesus was not his words but rather his actions, in terms of sacrificing his life and then his subsequent resurrection.
The first point here is very much the same as the one offered by Father Gerry. The proposed narrative involves an omnipotent deity who creates an entire universe for the sole purpose of developing a relationship with humanity. He then decides to be born as a human and spend three years teaching us all about morality. Throughout this period, he is palpably incapable of offering a single original ethical idea. This is despite the fact that he is surrounded by people who are fully accepting of many odious behaviours, such as keeping slaves. In fact, as a result of his teaching, he left us a book that explicitly supports slavery again and again. For some reason that escapes me entirely, this narrative does not seem at all strange to my Christian friends.
In relation to the second point here, the monotonous rhythm of various stories involving mortal sacrifice and resurrection can be easily demonstrated without even leaving the period or the region. Jesus lived in the place and time leading up to the Jewish-Roman wars. The end of the First Jewish-Roman War in the year 66, culminated in the Siege of Masada, which involved 960 Jewish men deciding to surrender their own lives. This seems to be a mortal sacrifice that exceeds the one offered by Christianity, to the tune of 959. Any claim that the actions of Jesus were original because he offering his own life, appears to be exaggerated at best.
For resurrection stories to surpass that of Jesus, not only can we stay in the same region during the same period but we can in fact remain the same town on the same weekend. The gospels tell us that after Jesus died on the cross, many of the dead rose up out of their tombs and wandered around Jerusalem. While we are assured that significant numbers witnessed this invasion, there is no indication as to whether the zombies eventually staggered back to their tombs or if they simply collapsed into a pile of corpses on the street. Either way, any claim that the resurrection of Jesus was original, could be easily contested by many more of the undead than just Lazarus alone.
Perhaps though, what my theologian friend intended to convey, was that the combination of both ideas was original? That is, maybe the supreme wisdom of Jesus was that he both gave his own life and then took it back again? While this idea is hardly novel either, there is also the question as to whether or not such behaviour is moral. I’ll leave the great Jesus and Mo to consider that …
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International