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Did Jesus Really Change the World?

A reply to Pastor John Ortberg

I’m sorry I missed the original publication on 8/13/2012 of “Six Surprising Ways Jesus Changed the World” by Pastor John Ortberg of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. But the arguments are old ones, they haven't gotten any better in three months and they deserve a thorough debunking. Again.

Did Jesus really change the world?

Leaving aside the paucity of evidence that the biblical Jesus actually existed in the flesh – “Christianity was the ultimate product of religious syncretism in the ancient world. Its emergence owed nothing to a holy carpenter. There were many Jesuses but the fable was a cultural construct,” says Ken Humphries – (I refer you for details to the website Jesus Never – is there any truth at all to the claims in this article?

I’m not sure we can say these six ways Jesus supposedly changed the world can be called “surprising.” Christian apologists have been making similar claims for a couple of centuries, at least. Since a lot of scrap metal can be laid at the water-walking feet of Gentle Jesus, it is useful to look at the historical record of his impact, rather than the Sunday school mythology Pastor Ortberg is teaching.

Children. “In the ancient world children were routinely left to die of exposure,” writes Pastor Ortberg. But “Jesus’ treatment of and teachings about children led to the forbidding of such practices, as well as orphanages and godparents.”

Wrong on both counts. First let’s consider motives: Christian opposition to exposure was less about humane sentiment and more about concern for the infant’s “soul.” In fact, there has been a considerable exaggeration about the Roman practice, which was carried out privately and not as state policy. Under Stoic-Epicurean influence the pagans themselves effected a good deal of reform before Christianity obtained any influence. Infanticide was classed as murder by the Stoic lawyers (including Paulus in the 3rd century) and the Antonine Emperors. Even church father Tertullian admits that emperors condemned the practice. Much has been made of the Christian emperor Constantine, but he allowed the poor to sell their children into slavery. By the second century, there were many pagan orphanages and institutions for children – more so, indeed, than until modern times! When the Empire collapsed, the Church made no effort to replace these pagan institutions until the 17th century – and child labor laws were absent until the 19th century. Jesus has no boasting rights this late in history!

Education. “Love of learning led to monasteries, which became the cradle of academic guilds,” claims Pastor Ortberg, moving on to claim “the notion that God does not want any child ignorant. The ancient world loved education but tended to reserve it for the elite….”

Even Augustine of Hippo noted the free pagan schools in the smallest towns in North Africa, so education of the freeborn masses (not just the elite) was widespread under the Roman Empire. On the contrary, the Church fathers, considered education unnecessary: “After Jesus Christ,” said Tertullian, “all curiosity is superfluous.” As with orphanages, when the Empire collapsed, the Church made no effort to replace these pagan institutions. Indeed, the notion that the Churches promoted education for any but the elite until modern times is a lie. In medieval Europe 90%-95% were serfs (that is, slaves without the benefits) and, apart from priests and monks, had no access to education. The monasteries were, or quickly became, schools of vice rather than centers of learning. The majority of monks were lazy, sensual, and indifferent to culture. The fiction that monks preserved classical (that is, “devil-inspired” pagan) literature, is not only laughable on its face, but debunked by serious historians. As for general literacy, at the height of Catholic culture, the thirteenth century, not one of the thousands of monks in the Abbey of St. Gall, one of the greatest in Europe, could read or write.

I could argue that the Index of Prohibited Books puts the lie to the whole education argument.

Compassion. “Jesus had a universal concern for those who suffered that transcended the rules of the ancient world,” says Pastor Ortberg. He goes on to say, “today, hospitals have names like ‘Good Samaritan,’ ‘Good Shepherd,’ or ‘Saint Anthony.’ They were the world’s first voluntary, charitable institutions.”

Actually, no, they were not – if by “ancient world” you mean the 3rd century BCE, in which Indian Emperor Ashoka made generous provision for the ailing poor; or the hospitals in ancient Mexico. But if you think of ancient Greece and Rome you have to count the temples of Asclepius, where the sick poor went for treatment. That is, until the “triumph” of Jesus led to the closure of these temples – for which there was no replacement for centuries.

Let’s not forget that Jesus-the-Compassionate believed insanity is caused by demon possession, mocked traditional family values, was misogynistic, puritanical and hated critical thinking. Jesus had not one word of guidance on the great problems of the world because be believed that the world is coming to an end. The United States is awash in selfishness, violence and materialism for its own sake. Indeed, in American society, compassion and charity are not indicators of moral goodness: money is. And if the recent Republican candidates for President and Vice President were any indicator, the “social gospel” of Jesus, like Jesus himself, does not exist.

Humility. Writes Pastor Ortberg: “Jesus’ life as a foot-washing servant would eventually lead to the adoption of humility as a widely admired virtue.”

This one is not easy to take seriously. The pagans were correct: humility is a questionable value. But have Jesus apologists forgotten Matthew 10.34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”? Or Luke 14.26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple”? Or Mark 9.43,47: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched ... And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire”? No humility there!

And let’s not forget these less-than-humble servants of Jesus: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy James Hargis, Lonnie Frisbee, Bob Moorehead, Ted Haggard, George Alan Rekers and so many others.

Forgiveness. “In the ancient world, virtue meant rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies,” writes Pastor Ortberg. “An alternative idea came from Galilee: what is best in life is to love your enemies, and see them reconciled to you.”

Pastor Ortberg must have forgotten Mark 3:29: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit has no forgiveness forever, but is guilty of everlasting sin.” And, oh, the small matter of hell in the Christian doctrine is such a fine example of forgiveness!

In practice, Christians have not been conspicuous for loving their enemies. The horribly inventive tortures of the Inquisition are one example; the pogroms against Jews another; the extermination of witches, Huguenots (and, oh, the Manicheans, Arians, Waldensians, Albigensians, Cathars, Beguines, Bogomils, Beghards, Lollards, Moors, Hussites and other religious dissenters) still another.

By the way, Hannah Arendt was born in 1906, so she turned 14 in the year women finally got the vote in the U.S. I wonder if she forgave the Christian churches for 144 years of silence over woman suffrage or for 2,000 years of female subjugation under her loving Jesus.

Humanitarian Reform. Perhaps the statement of Paul may be the “first statement of egalitarianism in human literature.” In reality it was aspirational rather that actual. But is Pastor Ortberg seriously floating the much-debunked argument about the Christian attitude toward slavery?

Nowhere in the Bible is slavery even remotely condemned as a profound evil. For eight hundred years no Christian leader condemned slavery. No Pope decreed against slavery until the 20th century. Indeed, books opposing slavery were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. Arab-Muslim dealers sold slaves to eager Spanish and Portuguese buyers. It was, however, the European Christians who turned the trade into a race-based evil, as it was harder for dark-skinned people to blend into predominantly light-skinned societies. The most famous British slave trader, John Hawkins, who was knighted for his success, had one of his slaving ships dubbed Jesus. The American Baptist, Methodist and Anglican churches owned a total of 600,000 slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation.

Or, as one historian put it, “9 million Africans were torn from their homes, shipped in appalling conditions to a foreign land, and treated brutally for centuries, before the churches found their voice – after a thousand years of silence – prompted, as always, by those with less respect for the revealed word of God. In fact, Christians were more concerned with saving souls than freeing bodies, and in took the rise of Rationalism and Freethought, and the gradual realization that without a social policy the churches would become irrelevant, to elicit action.”

When civilization turned against slavery at last – in Britain in 1833; in the US in 1865 (in response to which, the Holy Office in Rome issued a statement in support of slavery) – it was with the guidance of thinkers like Paine and Franklin and John Locke. It is a wonder that the Bible caught no condemnation for the other evils it supports: genocide, the torture of prisoners, the burning of prostitutes, the raping of women prisoners in wartime, the killing of those worshiping different gods, and so on.

No matter the apologetics, Christians still have to explain why it took the followers of Jesus 2,000 years to ban a practice even the ancient Romans knew was immoral.

Did Jesus really change the world? I don’t know what others may think of the good Pastor’s factually challenged account of the contributions to civilization of the mythical Galilean, but I think they are bunk!

To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Did Jesus Change The World.

One comment on “Did Jesus Really Change the World?”

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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