Criticism of Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure of Christianity. Christians believe that he was (and still is) divine, while Islam considers him to have been a prophet, messenger and the Messiah. Since the time in which he is said to have lived, a number of noted individuals have criticised Jesus, some of whom were themselves Christians.
Early critics of Jesus and Christianity included Celsus in the second century and Porphyry in the third. In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche was highly critical of Jesus, whose teachings he considered to be “anti-nature” in their treatment of topics such as sexuality. More contemporary notable critics of Jesus include Ayn Rand, Hector Avalos, Sita Ram Goel, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, and Dayananda Saraswati.
Criticism by Jesus’ contemporaries
Pharisees and scribes
The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his disciples for not observing Mosaic Law. They criticized his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. (The religious leaders engaged in ceremonial cleansing like washing up to the elbow and baptizing the cups and plates before eating food in them—Mark 7:1-23, Matthew 15:1-20.) Jesus is also criticized for eating with the publicans (Mark 2:15). The Pharisees also criticized Jesus’ disciples for gathering grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–3:6).
Magic and exorcism
In the latter half of the first century and into the second century, Jewish and pagan opponents of Christianity argued that the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus and his followers were the result of magic.
Criticism by theme
Avery Robert Dulles held the opinion that “Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution”, and believes that the writers of the New Testament did not oppose slavery either. In his paper published in Evangelical Quarterly, Kevin Giles notes that Jesus often encountered slavery, “but not one word of criticism did the Lord utter against slavery.” Giles points to this fact as being used as an argument that Jesus approved of slavery. In certain major non-English translations, the first statement in the first sermon of Jesus (Luke 4:18), is a call to free the slaves: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the slaves from war,…” (see Cornilescu translation).
Celsus, 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Early Christianity, mounts a wide criticism against Jesus as the founder of the Christian faith. He discounts or disparages Jesus’ ancestry, conception, birth, childhood, ministry, death, resurrection, and continuing influence. According to Celsus, Jesus’ ancestors came from a Jewish village. His mother was a poor country girl who earned her living by spinning cloth. He worked his miracles by sorcery and was a small, homely man. This Rabbi Jesus kept all Jewish customs, including sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. He gathered only a few followers and taught them his worst habits, including begging for money. These disciples, amounting to “ten boatmen and a couple of tax collectors” were not respectable. The reports of his resurrection came from a hysterical female, and belief in the resurrection was the result of Jesus’ sorcery and the crazed thinking of his followers, all for the purpose of impressing others and increasing the chance for others to become beggars.
According to Celsus, Jesus was the inspiration for skulking rebels who deserve persecution.
Celsus stated that Jesus was the bastard child of the Roman soldier Panthera or Pantera. These charges of illegitimacy are the earliest datable statement of the Jewish charge that Jesus was conceived as the result of adultery (see Jesus in the Talmud) and that his true father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. Panthera was a common name among Roman soldiers of that period. The name has some similarity to the Greek adjective parthenos, meaning “virgin”. The tomb of a Roman soldier named Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, found in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, is taken by some scholars to refer to the Pantera named by Celsus.
According to Celsus, Jesus had no standing in the Hebrew Bible prophecies and talk of his resurrection was foolishness.
Porphyry of Tyre
The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry of Tyre (c. 232–c. 304) authored the 15 volume treatise Against the Christians, proscribed by the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius II, of which only fragments now survive and were collected by Adolf von Harnack. Selected fragments were published in English translation by J. Stevenson in 1957, of which the following is one example:
Even supposing some Greeks are so foolish as to think that the gods dwell in the statues, even that would be a much purer concept (of religion) than to admit that the Divine Power should descend into the womb of the Virgin Mary, that it became an embryo, and after birth was wrapped in rags, soiled with blood and bile, and even worse.
However Nietzsche did not demur of Jesus, saying he was the “only one true Christian”. He presented a Christ whose own inner life consisted of “blessedness in peace, in gentleness, in the inability for enmity”. There is much criticism by Nietzsche of the organized institution of Christianity and its class of priests. Christ’s evangelism consisted of the good news that the kingdom of God is within you. “What are the ‘glad tidings’? True life, eternal life is found—it is not promised, it is here, it is within you: as life lived in love…. ‘Sin’, every kind of distancing relationship between God and man, is abolished – precisely this is the ‘glad tidings’. The ‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites….”
Dayananda Saraswati, a 19th-century philosopher and the founder of Arya Samaj, in his book Satyarth Prakash, criticized Christianity and described Jesus as a “great thing in a country of uneducated savages”:
“All Christian missionaries say that Jesus was a very calm and peace-loving person. But in reality he was a hot-tempered person destitute of knowledge and who behaved like a wild savage. This shows that Jesus was neither the son of God, nor had he any miraculous powers. He did not possess the power to forgive sins. The righteous people do not stand in need of any mediator like Jesus. Jesus came to spread discord which is going on everywhere in the world. Therefore, it is evident that the hoax of Christ’s being the Son of God, the knower of the past and the future, the forgiver of sin, has been set up falsely by his disciples. In reality, he was a very ordinary ignorant man, neither learned nor a yogi.”
Saraswati asserted that Jesus wasn’t an enlightened man either, and that if Jesus was a son of God, God would have saved him at the time of his death, and he wouldn’t have suffered from severe mental and physical pain at last moments.
Noting that the Bible writes that women held the feet of Jesus and worshiped him, he questions:
“Was it the same body which had been buried? Now that body had been buried for three days, we should like to know why did it not decompose?”
See also: Bertrand Russell
In the 1927 essay Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell pointed to parts of the gospel where Jesus is saying that his second coming will occur in the lifetime of some of his listeners (Luke 9:27). He concludes from this that Jesus’ prediction was incorrect and thus that Jesus was “not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise”.
Though Russell believed Jesus ‘had a very high degree of moral goodness’, he also felt there were some notable flaws in his character. In his essay he wrote:
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation.
Russell also expresses doubt over the historical existence of Jesus and questions the morality of religion: “I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”
Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand denounced the altruist recipe that Jesus passed down to his pupils, and with it the idea of vicarious redemption. She thought that not even Christians, who think of Jesus in the highest possible terms, shouldn’t feel outraged by the notion of sacrificing virtue to vice. Not surprisingly, her understanding of love as a consequence of the rational mind looking after embodied values attributes evil to the ideas Jesus is most famous for. Consider the following excerpt from a 1959 interview conducted by Mike Wallace:
Wallace: Christ, every important moral leader in man’s history, has taught us that we should love one another. Why then is this kind of love in your mind immoral?
Rand: It is immoral if it is a love placed above oneself. It is more than immoral, it’s impossible. Because when you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately. That is to love people without any standard. To love them regardless of whether they have any value or virtue, you are asked to love nobody.
Notwithstanding disagreements over the value of faith and the existence of an afterlife, Rand saw Jesus’ insistence on procuring the eternal happiness of individuals as confirmation of the moral confusion and inconsistency in which much of religious ethics operates, including Christian altruism.
In For the New Intellectual, Rand further accuses Judeo-Christian tenets such as the doctrine of original sin for their conspicuous immorality. “The evils for which they damn him [man] are reason, morality, creativeness, joy — all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn. They call it a morality of mercy and a doctrine of love for man.” And proceeds to charge religious leaders with fostering a death cult: “No, they say, they do not preach that man is evil, the evil is only that alien object: his body. No, they say, they do not wish to kill him, they only wish to make him lose his body.”
Sita Ram Goel
Historian and Hindu activist Sita Ram Goel accused Jesus of being the intellectual author behind Western imperialism and the Holocaust. Goel further writes that Jesus “is no more than an artifice for legitimizing wanton imperialist aggression. He does not symbolize spiritual power or moral uprightness.”
He made his case based on the gospels, which he thought cast too dark a shadow on unconverted Jews (see for instance John 8:38-47). From there he drew parallels between Jesus and Adolf Hitler, the latter of whom was, in Goel’s words, the first to “completely grasp the verdict passed on the Jews by the Jesus of the gospels”.
Ram Goel also ridiculed what he termed “the cult of the disentangled Christ”, whereby Christian revisionism attempts to salvage the figure of Jesus from the atrocious historical outcomes he inspired — and only from the bad ones — as though missionary proselytism and Western expansionism were to be perceived in the separate as mere coincidence.
See also: God Is Not Great
Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, one of the leading exponents in the “New Atheism” movement, was extremely critical of Jesus, Christianity and any religion in general. Regarding Jesus’ teachings on hell, Hitchens wrote:
“The god of Moses would call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.”
Hitchens also felt that a divine Jesus would be the more morally problematic by virtue of the problem of evil, asking:
“If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?”
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has expressed ambivalent views on Jesus’ teachings. He argues that while Jesus may have been an insightful spiritual master of compassion at times, he also taught his followers to fulfill the barbaric law of the Old Testament, and gave his followers specifics on how to execute heretics. To Harris, Jesus’ unresolved frustration and hatred of non-Christians runs contrary to the imagination of contemporary religious moderates, and actually lends honesty to more fundamentalist interpretations of salvation and hell. He wrote:
In addition to demanding that we fulfill every “jot” and “tittle” of Old Testament Law, Jesus seems to have suggested, in John 15:6, further refinements to the practice of killing heretics and unbelievers: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” Whether we want to interpret Jesus metaphorically is, of course, our business. The problem with scripture, however, is that many of its possible interpretations (including most of the literal ones) can be used to justify attrocities in defense of the faith.
To the same end of exposing Jesus in relation to the doctrine of hell, Harris quotes Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, which ends with the nobleman character saying:
“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.”
Which is taken to be a self-portrait of Jesus and his own eschatological views.
Hector Avalos is perhaps the first openly atheist biblical scholar to write a systematic critique of the ethics of Jesus in his book, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Koowon Kim, an associate professor in the Old Testament at Reformed Graduate University in South Korea remarks in his review of The Bad Jesus: “Whether or not one agrees with the author’s conclusions, this book is the first systematic challenge to New Testament ethics by an atheist scholar firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible and its ancient Near Eastern context and well-versed in New Testament and Early Christianity.”
In a review in Bilbilcal Theology Bulletin, Sarah Rollens, a New Testament scholar at Rhodes College, remarks: “Hector Avalos aims not only to convince us that many portrayals of Jesus based on New Testament texts are morally or ethically problematic, but also to demonstrate how scholars have engaged in questionable distortions to minimize, explain away, or otherwise ignore any textual evidence that might not comport with modern ethical standards.”
Criticism by other religions
Criticism in Judaism
Main article: Judaism’s view of Jesus
Judaism, which includes Orthodox Judaism, Haredi Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, Karaite Judaism, and Samaritan Judaism, entirely rejects the idea of Jesus being a god, a person of a Trinity, or a mediator to God who has a special relationship with Him that somehow makes Jesus “divine”. Moreover, it is Avodah Zarah (“foreign worship”, which means idolatry) to regard or worship a human being as God; in Judaism, as well as in Islam, God is only One, totally transcendent, and cannot be human (Exodus 20:1–19, Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–32).
Judaism also holds that Jesus couldn’t be the Jewish Messiah, arguing that he had not fulfilled any of the Messianic prophecies foretold in the Tanakh, nor did he embody the personal qualifications of the Messiah foretold by the Prophets. According to Jewish tradition, there were no more prophets after Malachi, who lived centuries before Jesus and delivered his prophecies about 420 BCE. Thus Judaism is critical of Jesus’ own claims and allusions about his alleged messiahship and his identification as the “son of God”, as presented in the New Testament, and considers Jesus to be just one of many individuals who claimed to be the Messiah, but didn’t fulfill any of the Messianic prophecies; therefore, they were all impostors.
The Mishneh Torah, one of the most authoritative works of Jewish law, written by Moses Maimonides, provides the last established consensus view of the Jewish community, in Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10–12 that Jesus is a “stumbling block” who makes “the majority of the world err to serve a divinity besides God”.
Even Jesus the Nazarene who imagined that he would be Messiah and was killed by the court, was already prophesied by Daniel. So that it was said, “And the members of the outlaws of your nation would be carried to make a (prophetic) vision stand. And they stumbled.”[Dan. 11:14] Because, is there a greater stumbling-block than this one? So that all of the prophets spoke that the Messiah redeems Israel, and saves them, and gathers their banished ones, and strengthens their commandments. And this one caused (nations) to destroy Israel by sword, and to scatter their remnant, and to humiliate them, and to exchange the Torah, and to make the majority of the world err to serve a divinity besides God. However, the thoughts of the Creator of the world — there is no force in a human to attain them because our ways are not God’s ways, and our thoughts not God’s thoughts. And all these things of Jesus the Nazarene, and of (Muhammad) the Ishmaelitewho stood after him — there is no (purpose) but to straighten out the way for the King Messiah, and to restore all the world to serve God together. So that it is said, “Because then I will turn toward the nations (giving them) a clear lip, to call all of them in the name of God and to serve God (shoulder to shoulder as) one shoulder.”[Zeph. 3:9] Look how all the world already becomes full of the things of the Messiah, and the things of the Torah, and the things of the commandments! And these things spread among the far islands and among the many nations uncircumcised of heart.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia