Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Brief History of Intolerance in Cosmology and Jesus Mythicism

Answers in Genesis has a new article in their "journal" all about the discrimination that enemies of the Big Bang (allegedly) face. I was actually surprised to see that they advocated exploring alternative cosmologies which would actually harm Christianity if they were true (The Steady State Theory, which calls for an eternal Universe).

Anyway, I dug up an article by Richard Carrier which gives an honest evaluation of the evidence for and against the Big Bang. Carrier even concurs with AiG that there is some discrimination going on in Cosmology.

However, in the end Carrier concludes that the Big Bang is well supported by many lines of evidence and that the "evidence against" the Big Bang is very meager and unlikely to falsify every possible way the Big Bang may have taken place.

I found it interesting to read the beginning of Carrier's article, when he talked about how Cosmologists would not explain or defend the Big Bang Theory in detail, or would tell him that the evidence was too much for him to understand.

I found an interesting symmetry here between Carrier's experience with cosmologists and my experience with Jesus historicists. The JHers offer very meager evidence for their hypothesis (which can often have a very different interpretation than the one which they give it). For example, in one of John Shelby Spong's books he offers the fact that Jesus lived in Nazareth as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. He argues that a small rural area like Nazareth isn't the kind of place you would want your messiah to be born. So this fact is not to be expected if Jesus was invented. But is to be expected if Jesus really did exist and this really was his hometown.

I find this evidence very weak. I mean, plenty of heroes in the movies are born in small towns. The fact that someone grows up in such an ordinary place helps ordinary people relate to the hero. Besides, as Bart Ehrman has noted in Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (Pages 225-226), the gospel writers have a tendency to want to show that God takes the weak things of this world and transforms them into something greater.

It also reminded me of some of the past exchanges I have had with Dr. James McGrath. McGrath is a smart guy, no doubt, and obviously knows magnitudes more about Christian History than I do. But I found his argument for a historical Jesus to be weak. He argues that crucifixion was not expected of the messiah and that crucifixion was so shameful that no one would have made it up.

But a study of the Bible, as well as the culture of the time, seems to me to show both of these contentions wrong. First of all, I have a book called "All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible" and it (unwittingly) shows that almost all of the gospel stories are fashioned after Old Testament legends. Of course, the author argues that these are prophecies, but I find that suspicious in light of the fact that OT scriptures often appear to be taken out of context in the gospels ("Out of Egypt I have called my son" did not originally refer to Jesus).

At the beginning of Romans Paul says,

"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son..."

It looks very much as if the early Christians thought that Jesus life was either revealed by or to
be interpreted through Old Testament Scriptures. When we look at Psalm 22 we can easily see why the early Christians would have invented a crucifixion (and death) for Jesus: They thought it was in the scripture.

As for the alleged embarrassment of the crucifixion, it does not mean that it must be true. The worshippers of Attis believed that he died of castration (and this allegedly caused disgust to their fellow countrymen) but no one in their right mind would argue that Attis was real. See page 13 of this document.

McGrath has argued that Jesus was not a dying and rising god, but rather, a dying and rising messiah, but that won't cut it: It is very clear that the gospel stories were influenced by stories of Roman gods, and I cite primary sources for that here.

So, I'd like to see Dr. McGrath either admit that the argument from embarassment is wrong, or explain to me why I am wrong. Will he do it? Stay tuned.

18 comments:

SirMoogie said...

"I find this evidence very weak. I mean, plenty of heroes in the movies are born in small towns. The fact that someone grows up in such an ordinary place helps ordinary people relate to the hero."

Many, if not most, Japanese RPGs start with this set up. I guess Crono really does exist!

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for taking the time to interact with me. In the interest of keeping our discussion focused, let me ask one question to begin with. If the earliest Christians were drawing from Roman myths in constructing (rather than merely interpreting) Jesus, why would they do so when also trying to persuade Jews that this Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Perhaps it is simply my lack of imagination, but it is not at all clear to me that a figure modelled on Roman or other non-Jewish deities would have made an appealing Messiah to Palestinian Jews, and yet Jerusalem and/or Galilee seem to have been the regions in which the movement had its origins.

Alexis said...

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.

-Justin Martir (100–165)

I do not think Jesus made an appealing messiah to Palestinian Jews overall. Only a small minority of Jews became Christians. The gentiles were the ones that took the religion and ran with it. Which is not surprising at all if one reads the above quote.

BTW, Justin Martir was born in Samaria of greek parents.

Homo Escapeons said...

I really appreciate all of the thought that goes into your postings. Your dedication to staying on point is commendable.

I still look at the Jesus story with the view that the early writers had to jazz up his street cred by introducing all of the mythology from the previous gods. If Paul and Constantine had not done there bit we wouldn't even be having this discussion..the story would have petered away.

The current Creationist stance is a woefully inadequate last ditch effort to keep the whole thing going. Reason and Science are finally starting to get some real traction with the younger generation and the modern world is on the road to abandoning all of the religious fables..especially those ridiculous notions about how it all began.
Once they lose that, the show is over, they know it, we know it.

Once again Thanks for all of your hard work. While I do try to tackle the cosmology wars once and a while I am much too easily sidetracked. That's why you're my go-to guy on this file.

James F. McGrath said...

Alexis, thanks for your comment. I presume, however, that you would not suggest that Christianity began with Justin Martyr or precisely in his time and context. There is no doubt that it spread to non-Jews, and that its shape was transformed (for "added street cred") in the process.

But if we accept (as it seems we ought to) that Paul was not making things up when he refers to others who were "reputed to be pillars" who led a church with a predominantly Jewish constituency, then it is much harder to envisage such a group inventing a Messiah patterned on sons of Jupiter.

AIGBusted said...

"I really appreciate all of the thought that goes into your postings. Your dedication to staying on point is commendable."

I know, lol. I started out talking out big bang cosmology and scientific discrimination, and end up talking about the historicity of Jesus Christ.

; )

AIGBusted said...

Hi James,

I feel like the question of whether Jesus was patterned after Greco-Roman gods (or demigods) is a completely separate question from why they would have done it. They obviously did do it, as I hoped my list of parallels (along with citations of the ancient documents which you can easily check on Perseus) would show that. So regardless of why they would have done it, they did do it. If we find a man's semen and signs of intrusion in a woman who is hysterical and claims to have been raped, we don't demand a motive before deciding he is guilty. Sorry for the graphic example but it is all I could think of.

Just imagine the rapist's brother protesting, "Why would this guy have done it? He has a dynamite wife!!" That would not get the guy off the hook.

Now that we've distinguished the questions, I would suggest that the Greco-Roman gods would have been all that the people of that time would have known (besides their own religion) so it is only natural that some influence leaks in, whether the people constructing the gospel knew so or not (and this applies whether the gospel is total myth or based on a real person).

To someone living in a Roman occupied Jewish land, the Roman gods would have followed a certain archetype (they all have a good but in common) and it seems only natural that someone beginning a new religion would build on this archetype whether they realized it or not.

Now, would Jewish people buy into something like Christianity which was heavily seasoned with paganism? Yes. Philo of Alexandria believed in "Platonic Judaism"

The Jewish encyclopedia seems to agree with me and provides a more in depth explanation of why Jews would have been attracted to Greco-Roman thought See here under 'Judaism and Hellenism').

Alexis said...

Justin Martyr (100–165)
This guy was born about the same time some of the gospels were being written. I would not dismiss him or say he was from another "age" so flatly.

My point is that cristianity was a really small minority position in the jewish population just because Jesus did not appeal or even came close to the jewish conception of messiah.

The reasons why Jesus did not fit the mold has already been presented.

James F. McGrath said...

I have to be honest, I think that the parallels you point to are a slim basis for concluding that Jesus was a purely invented figure. Were the birth narratives invented? Sure. But it wasn't just mythical figures that had such stories made up about them (one thinks, for instance, of Alexander the Great). Descending into Hades was presumably something most people who died were thought to have done, and so once again an examination of the details doesn't demonstrate direct borrowing. Indeed, in many instances you seem to be guilty of what Samuel Sandmel famously dubbed "parallelomania". Religions regularly come up with similar ideas, perhaps for reasons rooted in the human psyche, but often we find similarities even where direct borrowing is unlikely, if not indeed impossible.

I'm just curious whether you think that the story of Moses borrowed from the story of Romulus, or vice versa, given the similarities one finds there as well.

SirMoogie said...

Dr. McGrath,

Being an expert in biblical history I thought I'd ask a question AIGBusted was unable to answer the other day. Has any historical figure, except Jesus, been established as existing among historians using the criterion of embarrassment alone? Is the criterion of embarrassment the only justification you have for a historical Jesus, if not, what else do you use to justify a historical Jesus? Finally, what do you mean by the term "historical Jesus" (i.e., who was this person, was his/her name "Jesus", where were they born, what did they do)?

Hambydammit said...

Has any historical figure, except Jesus, been established as existing among historians using the criterion of embarrassment alone?

I seem to recall asking Dr. McGrath a very similar question and not getting an answer.

James F. McGrath said...

I've responded to the question over at the more recent post. To sum it up here too, the "criterion of embarrassment" is simply a tool for assessing evidence. I doubt anyone has ever undertaken a historical investigation using only this tool. But since, in essence, it is the "Why would anyone make this up?" argument, it is particularly useful when assessing precisely the claim that someone would have not simply invented stories about Jesus, but invented the figure of Jesus entirely from scratch.

Michael said...

First it was the name of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate found in a monument in Caesarea, Israel, in 1961.

Then came the discovery in 1990 in Jerusalem of an ossuary, a burial box for bones, bearing the name of Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus. Just recently it appears the most spectacular of all archaeological finds relating to Jesus has surfaced.

Another ossuary has come to light, this one bearing the names of Jesus, James and Joseph, three of the most prominent people in the New Testament. The ancient Aramaic words inscribed on the limestone box state that it belonged to "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

In late October André Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions and professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, announced the discovery of the stone container with the extraordinary script. An Israeli collector, Oded Golan, had purchased the box from an Arab antiquities dealer more than a decade ago. Mr. Golan had not thought the artifact important until Professor Lemaire examined it. In fact, although Mr. Golan had read the inscription, he hadn't connected it with the biblical Jesus.

The dealer told Mr. Golan that the box had come from a burial site in southern Jerusalem where a bulldozer had accidentally uncovered a site containing tombs and bone boxes dating to the time of Jesus and James.

Much to the disappointment of archaeologists and scholars, the box was not excavated by a trained archaeologist from the spot where it had rested for the last 2,000 years. Instead it was surreptitiously removed and sold on the antiquities market (as is the case with a high percentage of archaeological finds in the Holy Land). Regrettably, this prevents the examination of the box in its proper archaeological context and the elimination of any possibility of fraud.

you can read more at:
http://www.ucgstp.org/lit/gn/gn044/proof.html

Hambydammit said...

Dr. McGrath, there still seems to be a disconnect in your embarrassment argument, and I'd like to clear up a misunderstanding.

You seem to feel that I am a mythicist. I am not. I am an agnostic, and I feel that agnosticism is sometimes the only justifiable answer when there is not enough evidence one way or another. So I am not arguing that the invalidity of your embarrassment argument proves mythicism. I'm arguing that it doesn't prove anything at all.

Now, as for the disconnect, you say, "I doubt anyone has ever undertaken a historical investigation using only this tool. But since, in essence, it is the "Why would anyone make this up?" argument, it is particularly useful ..." But doesn't this commit the same fallacy I just tried to dissuade you from? There aren't just two options. It isn't "Jesus was historical" or "Jesus was completely made up." As I've mentioned many times on my own blog, there are nearly as many versions of a historical Jesus as there are claims that he existed. This points to numerous possible people that might have lived, but it doesn't prove that any one of them is true, or even likely, or for that matter, it doesn't prove that he wasn't completely made up! You keep talking about embarrassment as a tool, and yet there are tons of mythic figures who suffer embarrassing ends. So... here's where you need to connect the dots (in my opinion). Since there are plenty of examples of embarrassing ends to mythical figures, what is your rationale for giving the Jews a free pass from these precedents and concluding that they, in particular, could never have invented an embarrassing situation for a god?

Hambydammit said...

Heh... in fact, I just found this quote snippet from Richard Carrier on his blog: "... the right and complete answer could be that the
evidence is inadequate to establish or refute the historicity of Jesus."

It seems that the Jesus historicists are the ones making a strong claim of Jesus' likelihood these days. That would seem to demand more than rhetorical style argument, or so it seems to me.

James F. McGrath said...

Hambydammit, I don't think I'm saying something different. I was addressing the mythicist position, and I think that as long as it remains inherently unlikely that a Jewish messianic movement would invent a crucified Messiah completely from scratch, the balance of probability is in favor of there having been a crucified individual that the early Christian movement nonetheless remained persuaded was the Messiah.

That point doesn't take us to a full-blown portrait of the individual. The material that is of probable authenticity can be configured in a whole range of different ways, and there are at least as many creative ways to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

I think the biggest problem, once again, is that the earliest Christians were not inventing a god. They were inventing a Messiah. A lunar or fertility deity whose dying and rising mirrors the waning and waxing of the moon or the cycle of the seasons makes perfect sense. Inventing a crucified anointed restorer of the Davidic kingship and the Jewish nation makes far less sense, in my opinion.

On the development of Christology and the notion of Jesus' divinity, I'd recommend books like Dunn's Christology in the Making or Brown's Introduction to New Testament Christology.

Hambydammit said...

as long as it remains inherently unlikely that a Jewish messianic movement would invent a crucified Messiah completely from scratch, the balance of probability is in favor of there having been a crucified individual that the early Christian movement nonetheless remained persuaded was the Messiah.

But that's just what I'm trying to argue against. That a Jesus myth would likely not have been invented from scratch does not lead to a crucified savior. It leads to... something historical.

That point doesn't take us to a full-blown portrait of the individual.

James, I think our biggest bone of contention is that I don't see any reason for us to assume it leads to a crucified preacher. Logically, it doesn't, and I see plenty of equally plausible explanations, so I really do think all we can say is that something happened which led to the formation of Christianity. What I think you're not getting, or maybe I'm not expressing well, is that mythicism doesn't assert that Jesus was "invented from scratch." It asserts that he was viewed as heavenly, not earthly. So, according to your own reasoning, mythicism is still on the table. In other words, a Hellenistic style deity that became bastardized as an earthly deity is well within the scope of possibility and falls well within the bounds of "not invented from scratch." Jesus is certainly an amalgam of Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, and various "prophetic" passages from the Psalms and Isaiah. That is most certainly not "invented from scratch."

I think the biggest problem, once again, is that the earliest Christians were not inventing a god. They were inventing a Messiah. A lunar or fertility deity whose dying and rising mirrors the waning and waxing of the moon or the cycle of the seasons makes perfect sense. Inventing a crucified anointed restorer of the Davidic kingship and the Jewish nation makes far less sense, in my opinion.

Only if you assume that's what people were doing at the time. In other words, if the symbolism of the promised anointed heir of David was something that came after the myth had picked up some steam, it makes good sense. Sure, if you write a book about a savior who is alive right now, everybody can look around and say, "See, he's not there." But if you write something about someone who lived a few decades ago... it becomes a lot fuzzier. It's simply not that difficult to imagine a Greco-Roman style deity becoming bastardized as an earthly figure after a couple of decades.

Again, I must stress that I'm not pressing for this as being the most likely answer. I'm saying that without more than "embarrassment" and "why would they make this up?" there isn't a strong enough case to lean the discussion either way.

On the development of Christology and the notion of Jesus' divinity, I'd recommend books like Dunn's Christology in the Making or Brown's Introduction to New Testament Christology.

I have not read either, and will keep my eyes open for them.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for the lengthy reply. I didn't think I said a "crucified savior", but presumably a crucified individual would count as "something historical"?

I suppose that the Psalms of Solomon ought to be mentioned, as they seem to date from the period before the rise of Christianity and indicate the sort of outlook I alluded to. Discussion of their date can be found online here, here, here and here.