The Language of God: Truth Seekers

The Language of God, Chapter 11

By B.J. Marshall

Aside from summarizing the points he's made in previous chapters, Collins uses this final chapter as his last chance to be a Christian apologist, but he surprisingly leaves the door open for other options.

First, I feel compelled to highlight Collins' honesty. He states that, after twenty eight years as a believer, "the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God" (p.218). I appreciate the candor because it's sometimes difficult for theists to articulate the single best reason they have to believe in God. But here, Collins is explicitly drawing a line in the sand: The Moral Law is the single and best reason why he believes in God. Now, I'm not saying that he'd have plenty of other claims to fall back on if someone were to refute his A-game. But I appreciate him laying out what his A-game is.

In a subsection of this chapter entitled "What Kind of Faith?", Collins give us this gem:

Most of the world's great faiths share many truths, and probably they would not have survived had that not been so. Yet there are also interesting and important differences, and each person needs to seek out his own particular path to the truth" (p.219).

I'm not exactly sure what he means by "share many truths," since "truth" and "idea" could be interchangeable here given the lack of validating those "truths." Maybe multiple religions share the same truth that it's OK to beat your slave if that slave doesn't die after a day or two (Exodus 21). That these great faiths would not have survived for so long had they not been touching the "truth" is a textbook case of an Argument from Antiquity or Tradition. This argument basically says that the fact that an idea has been around for a long time implies that the idea is true. I have heard this often from acupuncturists: "It's been around for thousands of years, so it must have something going for it." However, the longevity of an idea does not necessarily correlate to its, to use a Stephen Colbert term, truthiness.

Many times in this book we've noted cases where naturalistic phenomena are completely explained, and yet Collins feels compelled to invoke God. I found it interesting that Collins states that each person needs to seek out his/her own particular path to the truth without invoking the caveat that one had better choose Jesus unless one wants to burn in Hell forever. Would Collins be cool with someone choosing a "path to the truth" that involves a deistic god that doesn't intervene in the world? Given that Collins' truth "can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul" (p.204), I suppose he'd have to. It reminds me of Shepherd Book's final words in Serenity: "I don't care what you believe in, just believe in it."

But, still, Jesus is where it's at. Collins says he spent considerable time discerning God's characteristics. God "must care about persons, or the argument about the Moral Law would not make much sense" (p.219). Collins seems here to have started as his conclusion - the Moral Law exists - and worked backwards from it to posit a premiss that he insists is true, that there is a God who cares about people. This is backwards logic: Affirming the Consequent. It may very well be the case that, if a God exists (p) then there would be a Moral Law (q). However, q could obtain through means other than p. So, by saying "q therefore p" is an inference that Collins makes to his, and his readers', detriment.

Anyway, now we have this God who cares about people. Well, God is way above us sinful humans, so Collins was having a really hard time bridging the gap to God. Enter Jesus. "As I read the actual account of His life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ's claims and their consequences began to sink in" (p.221). I think I only have space to touch briefly three problems this sentence poses: the accounts aren't actual, they're not from eyewitnesses, and the enormity of the claims count for nothing given the lack of extra-Biblical references.

Regarding actual accounts, I find the statement relating to four actual accounts as specious given that Matthew and Luke take 93% of their material verbatim from Mark, according to a presentation (Which Jesus?) by Jeremy Beahan of the Reasonable Doubts podcast.

Regarding eyewitnesses, Burton L. Mack, in "Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth" provides a timeline of the gospel authors based on the earliest manuscripts we have:

The testimony of eyewitnesses is on incredibly shaky ground. You've probably all seen this video of kids - some in white t-shirts and some in black t-shirts, passing basketballs to one another. You're told to count how many times some team bounces the ball. Meanwhile, a person in a gorilla suit walks in the middle, thumps its chest, and walks off. I attended an IT conference last year where this was done. The audience was then asked how many people saw a gorilla. Seriously, out of 1,500 well-educated IT professionals, a full third of them did NOT see the gorilla! Eyewitnesses can be amazingly fallible; "eyewitnesses" recounting their stories decades after the fact is just asking for fallibility.

Regarding the enormity of the claims, Collins also gives a quick reference to Josephus as among the "non-Christian historians of the first century" who bear witness to this Jesus guy. He doesn't say who the other non-Christian historians are, but Josephus' hat tip to Jesus is generally recognized as a Christian interpolation; a section in the Testimonium Flavianum reads like a Holy Bullet List of Christology: He was crucified, died, rose from the dead, appeared to them on the third day, "as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him". The lack of good, sound extra-biblical evidence for the enormity of the claims leaves me with the Bible to prove itself, which is illustrated nicely in this comic.

Collins references one scholar who said "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar" (p.224). Interesting, then, that a ton more information is written about Julius Caesar than Jesus (apart from the Bible, that is), and yet Caesar was considered a god after his death; sadly, I don't see anyone worshipping Caesar anymore. It is possible to separate the actual history of whether a person existed from claims that the person was, in fact, a god.

Collins concludes this chapter, and this book, with a final word. I will save this for my next, and last, post in this series.

Other posts in this series:

April 30, 2011, 10:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink6 comments

Book Review: The Heathen's Guide to World Religions

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Entertaining but plagued with inaccuracy.

William Hopper's The Heathen's Guide to World Religions is intended as a satirical survey of the world's major faiths, written from an atheist perspective with sarcasm, humor and irreverence aplenty. I hadn't heard of the author, but his biography at the back of the book says he's a former Catholic and one-time candidate for the priesthood who deconverted, traveled the world, and ultimately got an academic degree in world religions from Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.

There were plenty of places in this book that made me laugh (the section on Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, was hilarious). He also has some clever and telling observations, such as pointing out that the survival of Gnostic Christian gospels like the Nag Hammadi manuscripts - buried in the Egyptian desert for centuries, and discovered by chance by a Bedouin - is far more plausible evidence of divine intervention than the propagation of orthodox Christianity through secular force and theocracy. Another good observation is that, while the Jews never even came close to controlling all the territory that God allegedly promised to Abraham, the Muslims did conquer all that land and more besides, and ruled it undisputed for several centuries. Should they be considered the chosen people?

But those points, clever and amusing as they are, are overshadowed by two major criticisms I had after finishing this book.

First: Although this is a minor thing, there were spelling and typographical errors throughout the book, and it got to the point where it was a constant distraction. I winced at mentions of the "Garden of Gethsemani" or the "Dali Llama", but even those are forgivable. The one that really grated on my nerves was a reference to J.R.R. Tolkien's character "Golem" (burn the blasphemer!).

Second: Spelling errors are annoying, but they can be overlooked. But there were other errors in this book that were far more serious. For instance, the author's inexplicable praise of Martin Luther:

I kinda liked Luther because the guy was just trying to figure things out... Luther was known for being amiable and easy-going (once he was free from the Catholics)... Luther had concentrated on divine grace and forgiveness... [p.109]

He must be referring to a different Martin Luther than the one I've read about, because that one wrote polemics like On the Jews and Their Lies which argued that all synagogues should be burned down, all copies of the Torah burned, and all Jews enslaved for forced labor. He wasn't any kinder to his Christian opponents either, writing, "Heretics are not to be disputed with, but to be condemned unheard, and whilst they perish by fire, the faithful ought to pursue the evil to its source, and bathe their hands in the blood of the Catholic bishops and of the Pope, who is a devil in disguise."

There were errors of commission as well as omission, such as when Hopper writes: "This whole story is found in The Hadith, a book of the life of Mohammed" [p.134]. No! The hadith are sayings in a collected oral tradition, not a book! (If I were a history teacher, I'd be reaching for my red pen right now.) Another one that made me cringe was when he said the territories conquered by Mohammed were known as the "Byzantine Empire" [p.142] - which was, of course, a Christian empire formed from the eastern remnants of Rome. There's also some ad hoc hypothesizing that's just bizarre, such as when Hopper asserts that Hasidic Judaism was copied from the beliefs of Hindu yogis [p.40]. He presents no evidence at all for this wild claim.

But maybe the biggest single blunder is in this excerpt:

The average person would say it's impossible to know what [Jesus] looked like because the Bible never told us. Well, the Bible never did lots of things. Again, we turn to Josephus to fill in the blanks. Here's what he had to say...

"At this time, too, there appeared a certain man of magical power, if it is permissible to call him man, whom certain Greeks called a son of God, but his disciples the true prophet... His nature and form were human; a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, small stature, three cubits high, hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose and meeting eyebrows.... and an undeveloped beard." [p.80]

Since I wrote a three-part essay on the historicity of Jesus and had never heard of this passage from any source, pro or con, I was rather surprised by this. I did some digging, and it turns out this quote originated with an eighth-century bishop, Andreas Hierosolymitanus, who attributed it to Josephus. But there's no passage even remotely like this in any of Josephus' surviving works, and none of the second- and third-century Christian apologists who cite Josephus extensively ever mention it. It's most likely a late fabrication - and what's really damning is that Hopper invites us to "read the original Josephus" to see this passage in context. Since it doesn't exist, this can only mean that he never looked up the primary source for himself, which is inexcusably sloppy scholarship. (He cites a book called The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist by Robert Eisler as his source.)

It really is unfortunate that this book had so many glaring errors, because it presents some genuinely interesting stories as well - such as its account of how Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, was implicated in a scam selling fraudulent "miracle wheat", or the bizarre affair of the Mormon "Salamander Letter". These are things I'd like to know more about, and I intend to look into them on my own, but I wouldn't trust this book to use as a reference.

October 14, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

Maybe Jesus Will Save Us After All

By Sarah Braasch

I think I destroyed someone's faith yesterday. Or, in truth, I think I may have struck the definitive blow. This doesn't bother me. Unlike what many atheists espouse, for fear of being labeled evangelical proselytizers of disbelief, I actively seek the de-conversion of humanity. I actively seek to destroy religion. Not spirituality, but organized religion. I believe that if we do not destroy it, it will destroy us.

And, when I say de-conversion I mean just that. I mean de-conversion, not conversion to an atheist creed or dogma or doctrine, because none exists. Atheism is simply the absence of faith. It is not a similarly blind faith in science or logic or reason or philosophy or individualism or liberal constitutional democracy or anything.

But, I admit, I am feeling some qualms since yesterday. I am struggling through some pangs of conscience since egging on a crisis of conscience.

In order to protect the innocent, I have altered all identifying characteristics.

Amina is a beautiful black French Muslim girl. She is a French citizen, but her family hails from Guinea in West Africa – a former French colony. She speaks Mandinka. She is Mandinka. She also speaks fluent French, decent Arabic, and very little English. She is very proud. She is very religious. She is also very sweet and loving. She would never wish to hurt anyone's feelings, but she does not hesitate to defend her faith, even from the mildest of chastisements. She does not wear the hijab or headscarf. She looks like a typical French teenager in her blue-jeans and t-shirts.

Amina was struggling with the burqa question. She supports women's rights, but she feels the possible ban in France as an attack on her religion and her culture. She doesn't want to think about Islam as inherently misogynistic. She still believes that Islam is God's (Allah's) final revelation to man. She still believes that the Quran is the infallible word of Allah. If Islam is inherently misogynistic, then that means that Allah hates her, because she is a woman. She cannot cope with the dissonance that this creates in her head. She asserts that women absolutely do freely choose to don both the niqab and the burqa as expressions of their love for Allah. She avers that women absolutely do freely choose to fulfill their God given roles as women in Islam according to the Quran.

She asked me what I thought about the potential burqa ban in France. I paused and sighed deeply. She said that it is a difficult question. I agreed.

I told her many things. I told her that I am an atheist. I told her that I abhor all religions as the sexual slavery of women and the psychological torture of children. I told her that I do not believe any of them to be true. I told her that I have read all of the so-called holy books, and that I was not convinced that any of them could have been divinely inspired or dictated. Not in the least. I told her that I think religion must be destroyed in order for humanity to survive.

She told me many things. She told me that she does not think that religion is the problem. She told me that she thinks men pervert and misapply and manipulate religion for their own aims, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes disingenuously.

We looked upon one another with the same vaguely supercilious, rather patronizing pity. We felt sorry for one another. I pitied her ignorance and inculcation, and she pitied my ignorance and inculcation. The difference being that I had escaped the iron grasp of a cult through years of struggle and effort. I could fully demonstrate my knowing choice to be free of dogma and superstition.

She told me that she had not read the Bible, but that when she reads the Quran, she knows that she is reading the words of Allah. She spoke of so many of the same arguments one hears by Christians defending the Bible. The alleged way-ahead-of-its-time science in the Quran, including something about salty seawater and fresh ground water, and something about the earth being round, and something about embryology. She spoke of the evil and dissolution of the surrounding societies during Mohammed's time and how Mohammed introduced an as yet unheard of morality. And, she spoke of women's rights. She told me that the Quran lists right after right for women. She told me about the entire chapter on Mary, the mother of Jesus. She told me that men pervert the message of the Quran, but that the Quran itself is perfect.

Needless to say, I was hardly won over by these arguments.

And, even after having told me that she had never read the Bible, she began to compare the Quran to the Bible and disparage the biblical text. Of course, this is neither here nor there to me, as I find both texts equally unconvincing.

She told me that the Bible contradicts itself and is incoherent. I agreed. She then told me that the Quran has a single, singular and coherent message from beginning to end. I was silent.

She told me that the Bible was written and assembled by the clergy. This is why there are so many perversions and errors and mistranslations of God's intended revelation. She told me that there is no clergy in Islam to muddy the waters of the direct conduit between Allah and man, as, originally, there were no intermediaries between Allah and Mohammed (save Gabriel). She proudly proclaimed Mohammed's illiteracy as ostensible proof of the Quran's greater authenticity.

This claim has always left me perplexed. First of all, there is most assuredly a clergy class in Islam. It just isn't referred to as such. (Much in the same way that Muslims do in fact worship Mohammed; they just say that they don't.) In fact I have seen very little evidence of the vaunted ijtihad in Islam, which is individual study and reflection and interpretation. In my opinion, Islamic scholars have a stranglehold on Quranic exegesis and doctrinal interpretation, including the hadiths, Sharia and issuing fatwas. Second of all, the fact that the Quran is allegedly the secondhand account of a series of direct revelations to an illiterate peasant doesn't seem to be much of an improvement over the Bible's divinely inspired theory.

But, I agreed with her arguments regarding the Bible. I saw an opening. I lambasted the Bible and Christianity mercilessly and, in particular, the divinity of Jesus.

I told her that the Bible is ridiculous. She nodded fervently. I told her that the Bible contradicts itself relentlessly. She nodded and smiled assiduously. I told her that the Bible excludes many apocryphal texts, which were left out for this or that reason by men. She nodded and smirked avidly. I told her that the Bible was obviously written by and for men in the pursuit of their earthly preoccupations, namely conquering lands and raping and enslaving women. She nodded forcefully. She beamed. I understood.

I moved on to Jesus. I spoke of the seemingly limitless number of almost identical Sun God myths floating around the Mediterranean and the Middle East for thousands of years before Jesus Christ showed up. She concurred. I spoke of all of the ways in which Jesus' story matches these other Sun God tales of virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection. She agreed.

I rattled on about the Nicene Creed and the Council of Nicaea and Constantine and the Roman Empire. I spoke of Constantine's desire to unify his empire under a single Christian creed. I spoke of how the divinity of Jesus was brought to a vote at the Council of Nicaea, along with other doctrinal elements of this new religion. And she nodded approvingly and encouraged me.

I spoke about how the gospels were written at the very least 3 or 4 decades after the supposed death of Jesus Christ. How they conflict with one another. How they are plagiarisms of one another. I spoke about how Paul and the other earlier, but still not contemporaneous, biblical authors, wrote not of an earthly man who had been born, lived, performed miracles, preached, and died, but of the same Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Sun God as heavenly archetype as everyone else had done.

Then, I hit her with the punch line. Given all of this information, all of these facts, many, not all, but many scholars do not believe that there is any evidence at all that anyone by the name of Jesus, as described in the Christian Bible, ever existed. Jesus was an archetype. He was an amalgamation of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Sun God myths. Not a single contemporaneous historian ever speaks a word about anyone named Jesus who even comes close to matching the Jesus in the Christian Bible. First century Palestine is a very well documented era and geographic location. Had someone actually been walking around performing miracles, causing turmoil for the Jewish and Roman leadership, been crucified, and, finally, been resurrected, in front of eyewitnesses, someone would have recorded it. Someone. Anyone. But, no one ever did. He never existed at all. No man. No rabbi. No preacher. No traveling salesman. No prophet. No farmer. No leader. There was no Jesus. No one at all.

Her beautiful, proud eyes that had flickered with the fire of her religious conviction fell into a momentary downward glance as she grappled with a fleeting spasm of doubt. I read the doubt on her face, clear as day.

She caught herself after just a moment, just as she was about to fall off the edge of her flat earth. One of her flailing hands caught a shrub, and she was able to pull herself back up to a more secure footing. She became an automaton. She fell back into her rote, prepared spiel. She said, "Me, I believe that he existed. But, he was just a man. I do not believe that he was the Son of God. He was a great teacher."

But the hairline crack of doubt remained in the slight, barely visible furrow of her brow.

I decided to lessen some of her pain. I explained to her that, for the most part, the scholars who believe that there might have been an actual Jesus believe so for a single reason. This reason is the great labors and pains taken to match Jesus' personal history with the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. If there hadn't been an actual Jesus, there would not have been any need to go to such arduous lengths to get him to Bethlehem, for instance, and into the house of David.

I suddenly felt a spasm of guilt. What had I done? Had I tricked her? I knew what I was doing. I had manipulated her. I argued my point in such a way as to lure her into a boxed-in corner. I wasn't upset, because I had caused her to doubt her faith. On the contrary, that was a victory. But, I was upset, because of my methods. I felt slimy and smarmy and unctuous. I felt like a Jehovah's Witness. I was reminded of all of my childhood witnessing tricks of the trade – the specious and disingenuous arguments, the rhetoric gymnastics of semantics and semiotics, the fatuous and fallacious non-logic. I was a little bit disgusted with myself.

But, I hadn't said anything untrue. My only sin was the fact that I knew where my argument was heading, and she did not. Predestination in microcosm. I think I just empathized with her emotional pain. I know it. I knew it. Leaving one's faith can feel like tearing one's self in two.

Then, something occurred to me, which I am sure is no great revelation to anyone else, but it was a tremendous personal revelation.

Jesus is the key. Jesus is the key to destroying the three great monotheisms. Judaism is out of luck. The Messianic ship has sailed. No one in their right mind could ever be made to believe that someone yet to come is the Messiah. Anyone from here on out claiming to be the Anointed One will be sent straight to the loony bin. Unless, of course, some as yet unknown alien civilization attempts to take advantage of our credulity and shows up in a space ship more advanced than our wildest sci-fi fantasies. Islam is a very poorly cobbled together plagiarism of both Judaism and Christianity. Despite their seeming antipathy for one another, Islam is wholly reliant upon the other two. Islam is discredited the second that either or both Christianity and Judaism are discredited. Jesus' existence is the easiest to discredit. There isn't a shred of evidence that he ever existed at all, while there is a mountain of evidence that he was merely a knock off Egyptian Osiris. While Mohammed may have been a bloodthirsty pedophile warlord, he was also an actual flesh and blood human being who managed to hold sway over the minds of thousands upon thousands of credulous souls. But Jesus probably didn't exist at all. Muslims want desperately to concur with all of the criticisms of Jesus, every single one, right up to the point where you say that he didn't exist at all, not even as a lowly man. And, the Quran lives and dies with Jesus. Every word of the Quran is supposedly the infallible word of Allah. The Quran is all about Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Thank you Jesus.

October 28, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink125 comments

Book Review: UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

If you've been around the atheist blogosphere, you probably know the name Christopher Hallquist, author of the blog The Uncredible Hallq (I've always wondered, does he get more skeptical when he gets angry?).

Well, it seems he's come into his own, because last month in the mail I got a copy of his new book, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, which was published earlier this year by Reasonable Press. Here follows a short summary of the book and my review.

The book begins with a brief history of skepticism, from the Roman con-artist Alexander and his nemesis the satirist Lucian, to Franz Mesmer and the spiritualism craze of the 18th century, complete with mediums who could levitate, summon ghosts on command, or communicate using psychic powers. Since most of us rightly consider these claims to be dubious, Hallquist argues, we should apply David Hume's criteria for judging miracle tales and conclude that the Christian resurrection story, which is much longer ago and even less well documented, is even less likely to be true.

There are some great nuggets of information in here, particularly Hallquist's account of an e-mail conversation with Craig Blomberg, one of the experts interviewed in Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Blomberg complains that Strobel's book "heavily paraphrased" [p.50] and oversimplified their actual conversation, and that he ultimately gave up on trying to correct all the inaccuracies that Strobel introduced. There follow discussions of textual evolution in the New Testament, of the way legends tend to grow and mutate in the retelling, and the general lack of skepticism or a tradition of critical inquiry in the ancient world. Another bit I particularly liked: to drive the point home, Hallquist quotes a Christian magician, Andre Kole, who defends the historicity of Jesus' miracles even while complaining that people tend to misremember his shows and believe he performed far more impressive tricks than he actually did! [p.75]

Building on this argument, Hallquist argues that Jesus may have been similar to a modern faith healer, performing "miracles" that relied mainly on the placebo effect and his devotees' faith in him. These stories then grew in the telling, becoming far more impressive than they originally were.

As for the alleged resurrection and post-death experiences, Hallquist notes that even the Gospels portray the risen Jesus as a strangely ethereal phenomenon, appearing and disappearing without warning depending on who seems to be looking, and often describes his glorified body in mystical, visionary terms. He discusses the modern parallel of UFO abductions, pointing out their similar dreamlike and hallucinatory qualities, and brings up the nice point that stress - such as at the death of a loved one - can make such visions more likely to occur. The closing chapters ably dismantle some common apologist arguments relating to biblical prophecy, the Shroud of Turin, and religious attitudes toward skepticism and doubt.

Having finished the book, I have just two complaints, one small, one large. First, the minor: There were a lot of typos in this book - grammatical missteps, missing letters, missing words or incorrect punctuation. On average, I counted one such every few pages at least. It obviously doesn't detract from the soundness of the arguments, but it was distracting. I imagine Reasonable Press, a fairly small printing house by the look of it, doesn't have a great deal of money to invest in proofreading, but still.

Second: The one hypothesis that this book doesn't consider, and that I found conspicuous by its absence, was that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure who was gradually "historicized" into a real human being. All the arguments Hallquist presents about legendary development, exaggeration of rumors and the like would apply equally well, maybe even better, to this hypothesis. This is an alternative that I think deserves serious consideration, and if there's a future edition, perhaps it will address it.

With those caveats, this is a short, smart book, one that's worth your while to pick up and read. Most of the skeptical material on Jesus' resurrection was not new to me, but if you haven't read extensively on the topic, it's a useful and fairly comprehensive primer on how an atheist can best respond to these apologetic claims. What I personally found most illuminating was actually the background material - the mediums and spiritualists of past eras who claimed supernatural powers, and the skeptics, like Harry Houdini, who took them on. This is material that I think will be new to most readers, and there are some powerful lessons to draw on here. Hallquist cleverly points out that plenty of spiritualist "miracles", like the alleged levitation of one D.D. Home (which was supported by three signed eyewitness testimonies) are backed by evidence as good as or better than the evidence for anything in the Bible.

October 5, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink11 comments

Paul's Resurrection Creed

In the book of First Corinthians, there's a passage that's frequently cited by Christian apologists:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

—1 Corinthians 15:3-8

It's often been observed that Paul's epistles have virtually nothing to say about a historical Jesus, but this passage is one of the few points of apparent contact between his letters and the gospels. As such, it's frequently cited by Christian apologists seeking to build a historical narrative of the events of the New Testament.

But there are some anomalies about this passage that don't fit with the traditional view of New Testament historicity. This post will examine some of them.

First of all, the way Paul describes the disciples is strange. He refers to Cephas (Peter) as if he was not among them. But more interestingly, he refers to "the twelve" - a description that would have been plainly inaccurate at this point, because Judas committed suicide before the resurrection (Matthew 27:3), and his replacement, Matthias, was not chosen until after the ascension (Acts 1:26).

Next is that Paul writes that Jesus was seen by "the twelve", and then two lines later, by "all the apostles". Unless he meant something different than what Christians commonly mean by "the apostles", this would have been redundant. It seems as if Paul considered those two to be different groups of people.

There is yet a third point of discontinuity between this passage and the gospels, and that is that this passage contains an omission. This verse has been treated in the Christian community as a primitive creed, reciting the list of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. But then, why doesn't it mention the women - especially Mary Magdalene - whom Mark, Matthew and John all agree met the resurrected Jesus before any of his male disciples saw him?

Historian Earl Doherty makes this point in his book Challenging the Verdict:

If it is claimed that an empty tomb story, presumably accompanied by Gospel appearance traditions, goes back to a time that was earlier than Paul, how could such stories be circulating at the same time as this 1 Corinthians creed, when the two would have been mutually incompatible, contradicting each other as to who had seen the risen Christ? Wouldn't that have occasioned an outcry from those who would condemn the creed as inaccurate, since it left out the women entirely and declared Peter to be the first to see Jesus? And even if no earlier version of Mark's story existed at the same time, this purported creed would have been circulating at a time when there would have been a lot of people who could point out its inaccuracy. Where are the women in this creed? That's the cry that would have been raised.

In all three of these points, Paul's resurrection creed is out of kilter. It will not come into focus; it resists harmonization with the gospel accounts in subtle but important ways, hinting that the orthodox picture of Christianity's origins is inaccurate.

Despite these inconsistencies, this passage is often cited by apologists for one major reason - Paul's claim of the five hundred witnesses. They treat this as if it were a major piece of evidence in favor of the resurrection, but it is nothing of the kind.

We do not have five hundred separate, notarized accounts. What we have is one person, Paul, who says that five hundred anonymous people saw Jesus, giving no further details about their identities or the circumstances of the seeing. By itself, this is not strong evidence, just as it would not be strong evidence if I gave you a piece of paper that said, "One thousand people saw me do a miracle." This is not independent corroboration; it does not have enough detail for outsiders either contemporary or ancient to verify for themselves. And, of course, these alleged 500 witnesses are never mentioned again in Paul or anywhere else in early Christian literature.

One final point about this passage that Christians often overlook is that Paul lists his own "seeing" (Greek ophthe) of Jesus alongside all the others, drawing no distinction among them. But Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, either before the resurrection or after it. His only experience of Jesus, according to both Acts and his own letters, was a purely spiritual, visionary one. But since he describes it in the same terms as all the others, this implies that those others - the five hundred witnesses included - were also purely visionary, not an encounter in flesh. Earl Doherty again:

In a study of the meaning of "ophthe" here, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being "in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception." In other words, the "seeing" may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. Rather, it may simply be "an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself... they experienced his presence."

When all things are considered, Paul's resurrection creed fits better into the mythicist model of Christian origins: the theory that Jesus was not a historical human being, but an spiritual savior whose death and resurrection were purely a matter of faith. These "seeings" of him by Paul and other early Christians were mystical, visionary experiences which they interpreted as confirmations of that belief. The gospel details - Judas' suicide, the women at the tomb, the identification of "the apostles" with "the twelve" (possibly these were originally two separate groups of early church elders) - came later, as details were added to this mythical tale to give it a veneer of history.

March 11, 2009, 6:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink31 comments

Answering Lee Strobel's Questions for Atheists

Friendly Atheist has posted the third part of a dialogue with Christian apologist Lee Strobel. In it, Strobel poses questions that he thinks would be the most effective at planting seeds of faith in an atheist's mind. In this post, I'll answer those questions. I've written on some of these issues at greater length in the past, and I'll also provide links to those essays where appropriate.

Historian Gary Habermas: "Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus' resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself."

These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus' half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These "minimal facts" are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn't have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

Ebon Musings: Choking on the Camel

Even if we grant that dubious 75% figure, what Habermas fails to acknowledge is that most of the scholars who study the historicity of Jesus are Christians, and are unlikely to produce conclusions that deviate from orthodoxy, even if - as in this case - those conclusions are supported by no evidence outside the biblical record itself. Habermas' alleged "historical facts" are just the tenets of Christian belief presented in a facade of neutrality.

As such, I don't intend to begin by making the concessions he would prefer. I maintain that of his five facts, (1) is recorded primarily in the Bible, and only secondarily, and spottily, in some documents written decades later. (2) is mostly correct, so long as we remove the question-begging assumption that the first Christians were disciples personally chosen by Jesus. (3) and (4) derive from no evidence I know of outside the Book of Acts, which was written for apologetic purposes and which Habermas has naively accepted as historical truth (see below). (5), again, is just a derivation from the creeds of Christian orthodoxy, not from any historical documents which suggest that first-century non-Christians acknowledged this.

For a comprehensive natural explanation, I propose this alternative: The first Christians believed that Jesus was a savior deity, similar to those of other mystery religions of the time, whose sacrificial death and resurrection was a sacred mystery that took place in a higher, heavenly plane and was revealed to believers through visions and revelations. Allegorical documents like the Gospels set the activities of this mythological figure in recent history for teaching purposes. Over time, through war and disruption, the original purpose of these writings was forgotten. This explanation neatly accounts for most of the available facts, including the vague and fragmentary references to Jesus in early historical documents that gradually become more concrete, the lack of reference in the epistles to a human life and career of Jesus, and the first Christians' apparent lack of interest in sacred relics or holy places of their religion.

Philosopher Paul Copan: "Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Fine-Tuning Argument

I take strong exception to the claim that the universe is "remarkably finely tuned for life". On the contrary, simple observation suggests that the universe is not well suited to life such as ours. When we consider the entire volume of the cosmos, we see that 99.999999... percent is cold, hard vacuum with a temperature of 3K. Within the galaxies, most of the interstellar medium is flooded with radiation. Most of the planets we've discovered are either freezing cold or boiling hot, unsuitable for life. In fact, in all the vastness of the cosmos, we only know one place where life can thrive - our own world - and even there, it's restricted to a relatively narrow range of habitable zones and climates. A universe "finely tuned" for life should produce it abundantly; but in fact, life is confined to a single, infinitesimally small and fragile corner. This strongly suggests that life, far from being the intended purpose of the universe, was an unintended side product arising from a confluence of rare and unlikely circumstances.

And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don't such 'injustices' or 'evils' seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

Absolutely not! The injustices and evils that we perceive are not intrinsic properties of the universe, but qualities of human perception. We evaluate natural phenomena based on whether they have a harmful or beneficial effect for us. Often those effects are harmful, but this doesn't imply that the universe has deviated from an original plan of goodness - that belief is a product of Christian presuppositions - only that natural phenomena occur randomly and don't take human needs into account. In reality, the randomness and amorality of nature is a much stronger argument for atheism than it is for theism.

Talk show host Frank Pastore: "Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source."

Ebon Musings: Pay No Attention to the Deity Behind the Curtain

Pastore is asking for a full account of the current state of several entire scientific disciplines - cosmology, abiogenesis, and the evolution of the conscious mind. This is more than I'll attempt to explain or even summarize in this space, but I do have one shorter observation. If Pastore's question is meant to raise doubts in atheists, it can only be an example of the "God of the Gaps": the belief that anything not currently known must be miraculous.

The fallacy is a glaringly obvious one. Throughout human history, countless natural phenomena that were not understood were attributed to divine action: mental illness, contagious disease, the seasons, weather, fertility, life and death, and many more. Without exception, these supernatural explanations have receded and been replaced by natural ones as our knowledge grows. Pastore is just applying this tactic to the issues where we don't yet know the full answers, trusting that this time the gaps will remain impenetrable, and expecting that supernatural answers should be accepted despite their repeated past failures. But if we go by track record, we should all admit that the more likely answer is that these phenomena will turn out to be natural ones as well.

Historian Mike Licona: "Irrespective of one's worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?"

Yes, I do occasionally experience doubt, as I've written about before. That's a necessary consequence of having an open mind. But what I generally find gives me the most uncertainty is unfamiliarity. I'm not the kind of person who can dismiss a claim out of hand without looking into it, and claims I've never heard before usually give me a moment's pause for that reason. But so far they've all failed to pan out, and the more I learn about most religious and supernatural claims, the less plausible they seem.

Author Greg Koukl: "Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?"

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Cosmological Argument

Atheists are not committed to believing that "everything came from nothing". Koukl's alleged dichotomy overlooks a third alternative: that we simply do not know the ultimate origins of the universe at present, and that we can accept this as our answer for the time being until more evidence is discovered. As with Pastore's question, Koukl assumes that a supernatural explanation, even one with no evidence in its favor, "wins" by default if a natural explanation is not currently known - this despite the well-established pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones over time.

I didn't email Alvin Plantinga, considered by many to be among the greatest philosophers of modern times. But based on his assertion that naturalism is self-defeating, we could formulate this question (thanks to William Lane Craig for some of the concise wording): If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)

Daylight Atheism: Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?

The fallacy of this argument is its assumption that "survival" and "truth" are two different objectives, such that they could be selected for independently of each other. But it should be obvious that, all else being equal, greater accuracy in perceiving the world will always be a survival advantage. Granted, evolution can and does take shortcuts, producing well-known psychological fallacies like the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena, and many people have been misled in this way. But even here we are not helpless. By using cognitive prostheses like science, we can compensate for our mental shortcomings and learn to view the world still more accurately.

By contrast, a theist who believes that God has designed our cognitive faculties to be accurate is faced with the embarrassment of explaining why there are so many conflicting and incompatible religions. How is this so, if we are designed to perceive the world accurately? Why is there so much confusion, ignorance and error among humans when it comes to determining what the true faith is?

For me, when viewing all Strobel's questions, what stands out about them is their ordinariness. I concur with Greta Christina that these arguments, far from being anything new or unusual, are no different - and no more difficult to defeat - than those of the run-of-the-mill amateur apologists that most atheists encounter on a routine basis. That's not surprising, of course, since most of those people take their cues from the leading apologists.

But for the same reason, it's meaningful because this should give us confidence - confidence that we truly can stand up to the superstars of modern apologetics and answer the best that they have to offer. It's not even difficult. Any reasonably well-versed atheist should be able to shoot down these arguments without a problem. If this is truly the best they have to offer, then we can be all but certain that the evidentiary base of Christianity does not have anywhere near the depth or breadth that would justify an atheist's conversion.

February 2, 2009, 7:56 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink65 comments

Jesus Never Laughed

In The Case for Christ, evangelical psychologist (and demon-believer) Dr. Gary Collins rendered this appraisal of the mental health of Jesus:

"We don't see psychological difficulties in Jesus. He spoke clearly, powerfully and eloquently. He was brilliant and had absolutely amazing insights into human nature. He was loving but didn't let his compassion immobilize him; he didn't have a bloated ego, even though he was often surrounded by adoring crowds; he maintained balance despite an often demanding lifestyle; he cared deeply about people; he responded to individuals based on where they were at and what they uniquely needed.

...[D]isturbed individuals frequently show inappropriate depression, or they might be vehemently angry, or perhaps they’re plagued with anxiety. But look at Jesus: he never demonstrated inappropriate emotions."

One might suspect this verdict was delivered with less than full clinical objectivity. But I have a question for Dr. Collins: If Jesus was the epitome of mental health, experiencing all the natural and appropriate emotions that are ours, then I have a question: Where in the Bible does he laugh?

There's no shortage of wrath in the New Testament, no lack of righteousness or judgment or even sorrow. But is there even a single instance of laughter - of genuine, spontaneous mirth, the kind that every child experiences?

Doing a search for "laugh" or "laughter" and its likely synonyms, I found only one reference in the gospels, and it goes to establish rather the reverse point:

Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh... Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

—Luke 6:21-25

Not only does Jesus never laugh, it seems, but he condemns those who do, claiming that sorrow and misery will be theirs in the hereafter. And it's not just the New Testament, but the Bible in general that continues this theme. Widening the search, we find a few references to God laughing in the Old Testament, but these are not laughs of merriment. Here are some examples:

But thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision.

—Psalms 59:8

I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh.

—Proverbs 1:26

and also:

Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.

—Ecclesiastes 7:3

Doing a Web search, I found that I'm not the only one who's noticed this. Several Christian sites also note the lack of laughter in the Bible:

Not surprisingly, it is exactly in the same context as all the other scriptures that record God laughing. Never in joy, never during worship, never in mirth, never to be amused, only in derision against His enemies. He is not frivolous in his laughter, nor is He out of control. He laughs in judgment... It is a fearful thing to be the object of God's laughter, or to take His laughter out of context. (source)

I had searched the scriptures to find any biblical precedent for "holy" laughter and there was none. To my amazement, I had discovered that there were surprisingly few references in the Bible to any kind of laughter, period. (source)

Thus, the Bible takes a dim view of mirth or laughter, showing much laughter as having its roots in scorn or folly. (source)

All these sites display the narrow, pinched worldview of the fundamentalist. Laughter is neither frivolous nor sinful. It's an intrinsic part of human nature, a healthy way of expressing merriment and joy, and an appropriate response to the ironies and absurdities that are inherent in the world. It is the natural alchemy that transforms sorrow into happiness. Our lives would be flat and empty without the rich emotional color it gives them.

But the Bible, like most religious dogmatists, treats laughter as an unworthy subject. It's not difficult to see why: in the cramped and rigidly proscribed world of fundamentalism, there is no room for irony, no room for taking either their own doctrines or the beliefs of others with any sort of light-heartedness. To laugh at something is to admit the existence of more than one way to view it, and that thought is anathema to the religious worldview that sees only in black and white. Of course, it's not just Christian fundamentalists who feel this way; Ezra Levant helpfully provides an example of the same sentiment from the Ayatollah Khomeini:

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.

But we atheists can laugh. Not just at the follies and absurdities of religion, which are not in short supply, but at ourselves as well. The battles we face are serious, true, but as soon as we take them so seriously that we can no longer laugh, we have crossed the line from impassioned activism into dangerous self-righteousness.

November 10, 2008, 9:26 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink115 comments

Strange and Curious Sects: John Frum

Today I'm inaugurating a new series on Daylight Atheism, Strange and Curious Sects. The follies and fallacies of larger, mainstream religions are well known; this series will examine some of the smaller and lesser-known splinter groups, cults, and sects, both past and present, that are part of the vast diversity of religions imagined by human beings. By examining these frequently unique and bizarre belief systems, I find, we stand to gain a clearer perspective on various aspects of the larger and more influential faiths.

This installment will focus on the strange sect of John Frum. This religion, indigenous to the remote South Pacific island of Tanna, is one of the "cargo cults". Cargo cult religions sprang up across the Pacific during World War II, when thousands of American troops set up bases and airstrips on remote islands that previously had little or no external contact. The indigenous people of these islands, who lived in simple subsistence cultures, were amazed by the strange visitors and the technologies and gifts they brought: steel tools, canned food and chocolate bars, cigarettes, radios, motorcycles, airplanes, firearms, and many more novelties unlike anything in their experience. But when the war ended and the troops left, they took their cargo with them. The islanders, in many societies, responded by forming religions that mimic the American installations - down to carving "airstrips" out of the jungle, complete with bamboo control towers and mock planes made of straw - hoping to summon the strange visitors and their wonderful cargo back by sympathetic magic. It sounds almost too strange to be true, but the cargo cults have been widely studied and reported on. With time, many of them have faded; but on Tanna, the cult of John Frum survives to this day.

In the morning heat on a tropical island halfway across the world from the United States, several dark-skinned men — clad in what look to be U.S. Army uniforms — appear on a mound overlooking a bamboo-hut village. One reverently carries Old Glory, precisely folded to reveal only the stars. On the command of a bearded "drill sergeant," the flag is raised on a pole hacked from a tall tree trunk. As the huge banner billows in the wind, hundreds of watching villagers clap and cheer.

...Some 40 barefoot "G.I.'s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo "rifles" on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters "USA," painted in red on their bare chests and backs.

..."John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him," a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. "Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things."

John Frum's cult is a recognizable microcosm of larger religions, right down to the miracles:

...Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult's most important leaders, Prophet Fred — who, he adds proudly, "raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago."

as well as the revelatory visions and belief in answered prayer:

"Have you ever seen him?"

"Yes, John comes very often from Yasur [the local volcano] to advise me, or I go there to speak with John."

"What does he look like?"

"An American!"

and even the dissension and factioning into sects:

When I mention Prophet Fred, anger flares in Chief Isaac's eyes. "He's a devil," he snarls. "I won't talk about him."

...two years ago, Prophet Fred's rivalry with Chief Isaac exploded. More than 400 young men from the competing camps clashed with axes, bows and arrows and slingshots, burning down a thatched church and several houses. Twenty-five men were seriously injured.

When the reporter raises the obvious point that, several decades after the war, John Frum and his cargo have not made their promised return, the chief has an unanswerable reply:

"John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come," I point out. "So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?"

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth," he says, "and you haven't given up hope."

So who is this mysterious American, John Frum? Why did he, out of all the soldiers, inspire the natives' reverence? Was he a commander of some renown who particularly impressed them? The answer, it turns out, may be more complicated.

In the early 20th century, Scotch Presbyterian missionaries came to Tanna and took over by force, establishing their own government and banning traditional cultural practices such as dancing and the drinking of the intoxicant kava. They also forbade work or play on Sundays and began the forcible conversion of the natives to Christianity. For several decades the islanders struggled under the burden of colonial rule.

Then, in the 1930s, John Frum first appeared. According to the islanders' traditions, he told them he had come to liberate them from their oppressive foreign rulers. Fired to devotion by their strange messiah, the people of Tanna joined the new religion en masse, revolting against the colonialists and throwing their missionary-provided clothing and goods into the sea. The following year, 1941, saw the arrival of American troops in the Pacific theater. Their presence provided a measure of stability, as well as the aforementioned cargo, and it seems to be then that John Frum began to be specifically identified as an American.

It's uncertain whether John Frum was a real person, or even whether he was based on a real person. No American soldier by that name is known, and while the islanders call him an American and a white man, they also speak of him as a "spirit" or use other mystical terms. One intriguing theory is that "frum" is the pronunciation of "broom" in the local pidgin, making "John Broom" the one who would "sweep" the hated colonial rulers off the island. An alternative theory holds that his name is a mispronunciation of "John from (America)". But whether he was person or myth, the islanders still fervently believe in him. Every year they celebrate February 15 as John Frum Day, which they believe will be the date of his promised return.

Each Friday afternoon, hundreds of believers stream across the ash plain below Yasur, coming to Lamaraka from villages all over Tanna. After the sun goes down and the men have drunk kava, the congregation gathers in and around an open hut on the ceremonial ground. As light from kerosene lamps flickers across their faces, they strum guitars and homemade ukuleles, singing hymns of John Frum's prophecies and the struggles of the cult's martyrs. Many carry the same plea: "We're waiting in our village for you, John. When are you coming with all the cargo you promised us?"

In many respects, John Frum's cult bears a striking similarity to mythicist theories about what the origin of Christianity would have looked like: a supernatural messiah, invented to serve the needs of an oppressed group of humans, who gradually acquired the characteristics of a recently living human being. The messiah is given a symbolic name (Jesus, or Yeshua, is Aramaic for "Yahweh saves"), works miracles among the people, then disappears after promising to return in the near future to establish an earthly kingdom.

And, in contradiction to those Christian apologists who claim that historians of the time would have investigated and refuted the cult's claims if they were not true: in 1943, the U.S. government sent the USS Echo and its commander, Maj. Samuel Patten, back to the island to tell the people that John Frum had no connection to them. This apparently had no effect on the growth of the cult. The obvious ridiculousness of the cargo-cult belief gives us confidence that this particular faith is not true, but aside from the intrusion of a far more technologically advanced culture which altered things somewhat, the cult of John Frum is an insight into how some major modern religions might have gotten a similar start.

Other posts in this series:

February 13, 2008, 8:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments

The Rise and Fall of the James Ossuary

In October 2002, a dramatic find exploded onto the scene in the field of Biblical archaeology. At a Washington press conference, Hershel Shanks, editor and publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review, presented a large audience with what he called "the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus." The find was an ossuary - a stone box used in the ancient world to bury the bones of a deceased person - with an Aramaic inscription reading, "Yaakov bar Yoseph, Achui de Yeshua", which in English is, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The announcement caused a media sensation. In the following days, reports appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Experts and would-be experts of every stripe pronounced the ossuary completely genuine, and completely fraudulent. Complex mathematical calculations were invoked regarding the probability of finding three such names together by chance. Long arguments were waged about the authenticity of the ossuary script. The implications for the mythicist view of the origins of Christianity were profound.

And yet, by the summer of 2003, the whole story had come apart at the seams. The James Ossuary stood revealed as a modern forgery, and the prestigious scholars who had supported it were publicly embarrassed. The media lost interest, the story sank from view, and the Israeli antiquities dealer who first brought it to light was facing indictment. What brought about the dramatic fall of the James Ossuary?

Despite the James Ossuary's lacking any known provenance or history, the defenders of authenticity seemed to hold sway for the first few months. The ossuary was displayed to much fanfare at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Semitic epigrapher Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne pronounced it undeniably genuine. Together with Hershel Shanks and Oded Golan, the 51-year-old Israeli engineer and antiquities trader who had owned the ossuary, Lemaire strongly defended the ossuary against early critics, questioning the qualifications and experience of those who, unlike him, suspected a modern fraud. Other experts in Semitic epigraphy, including Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins, and Joseph Fitzmyer of the Catholic University, also pronounced it genuine. Amnon Rosenfeld and Shimon Ilani of the Geological Survey of Israel carried out microscopic tests that confirmed the ossuary was a genuine ancient artifact, its stone covered by a patina of the type known to form over centuries in rock-cut burial chambers.

The next chapter of the story came in January 2003, when there was another amazing find: the so-called Jehoash Inscription, rumored to have been discovered during building activity on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The stone slab had an inscription supposedly written by King Jehoash of Judah, detailing some repairs he undertook to the First Temple (as echoed in 2 Kings 12). Even more sensational, the stone was found to be covered with microscopic gold globules - evidence, some claimed, of the intense fire that destroyed the Temple during the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

This find, too, had an explosive impact. Right-wing Israeli groups promptly claimed the Jehoash Inscription was a sign from God that it was time to rebuild the Temple, while Muslims warned that any attempt to damage the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which now stands on the site) would provoke a holy war.

But this time, the skeptical voices were louder. The world-renowned Semitic epigrapher Frank Moore Cross pronounced the inscription a crude forgery, combining letter forms from several different historic periods. And though the tablet's owner tried to remain anonymous, the Israeli media soon discovered that it was none other than Oded Golan. What were the odds of a single, amateur antiquities collector just happening to own two unique and priceless artifacts dramatically confirming different parts of the Bible?

Soon, more news surfaced. The Israeli Antiquities Authority had been investigating a rumored plot to defraud a wealthy collector by selling him forged artifacts, and their investigation had led them to the Jehoash Inscription and from there to Oded Golan. In March, the police raided a storehouse owned by Golan and discovered damning evidence: engraving tools, labeled bags of soil from across Israel, and numerous forged artifacts in various stages of production. A clear consensus soon arose that the Jehoash Inscription was a forgery, containing numerous grammatical mistakes and crudely combining letter forms from different historical periods. More, the tablet itself was made of a metamorphic stone common in Cyprus and points west, not in the local region.

The stage was now set for a detailed reappraisal of the James Ossuary. This time, several clues were discovered that had previously been overlooked.

The rock surface of the ossuary was covered in two coatings: a thin veneer of rock varnish - clay and minerals cemented to the stone, deposited by algae and bacteria over long time periods - and a crusty layer of patina formed by natural chemical reactions. Three weathered rosettes carved into one side of the ossuary lay underneath both of these layers. But the inscription naming James was cut through these layers.

There was more. A chalky composite material, nicknamed the "James Bond", was bonded into the carvings that formed the letters of the inscription, but nowhere else on the ossuary's surface. In a damp cave, calcite precipitates and crystallizes on the surface of ancient stone, forming a chalky coating of patina. But the James Bond, under microscopic investigation, was found to contain marine microfossils called coccoliths. This chalk did not originate in a cave, but in the sea. More, an oxygen isotope analysis showed that the calcite had precipitated out of heated water - about 120 degrees Fahrenheit - not the cool temperatures one would expect in a subterranean environment.

The conclusion was obvious. The forger had taken an authentic ancient ossuary, carved with rosettes on one side and blank on the other. He had carved the James inscription through the varnish and patina, probably copying the letter forms from an archaeological catalog. Then he had dissolved powdered chalk in hot water and painted it onto the carvings, trying to recreate the natural patina.

In June 2003, the Geological Survey of Israel and the Israeli Antiquities Authority officially concluded that both the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription were frauds. Frank Moore Cross also changed his mind, pronouncing the ossuary a forgery. The ossuary's initial defenders, Shanks and Lemaire, reacted angrily, maintaining their belief in authenticity and claiming that the IAA and their other adversaries were motivated by personal bias, but much of their support had evaporated. Today, a few apologist holdouts continue to insist on authenticity, but most experts in the field seem ready to forget the whole embarrassing affair.

In a coda to this story, the Israeli authorities in December 2004 indicted Oded Golan, along with three other men, on charges of running a forgery ring. (Another item said to be forged and attributed to Golan in the indictment is an ivory pomegranate that was claimed to be the only surviving relic of Solomon's Temple.) As far as I'm aware, no motive has been alleged other than monetary gain. Golan's trial has not yet concluded.

If there's any lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of the James Ossuary, it's that we can no longer trust artifacts of unknown provenance. It's become too easy to put together a convincing forgery, and there are too many motives for someone to do so. From now on, we must be skeptical of the authenticity of any artifact that surfaces out of nowhere in the hands of a private collector - especially artifacts that seem to bear some important corroboration of the Bible or any other story that anyone has a vested interest in proving true. The only artifacts we should accept as genuine are those that turn up in situ in the course of legitimate archaeological investigation. Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren say it best in their article "Faking Biblical History" in the September 2003 issue of Archaeology:

The very serious question of the historicity of the Bible - with all its powerful implications for religious belief and identity - is not the sort of thing to be decided by staged public presentations of isolated artifacts from dubious sources. It is only by adopting a strict and uncompromising standard of evidence and rejecting temptation to simplistically trumpet a headline-grabbing relic or promote a high-visibility museum exhibition that our understanding of the Bible - and indeed all of the human past - will be advanced.

December 3, 2007, 8:23 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink15 comments

Unravelled Threads

One of the hallmarks of a well-tested scientific theory is that it is supported by numerous, independent lines of evidence. We have the greatest confidence that a theory is true when results from completely different fields of science, which have no obvious reason to agree, all converge in support of the same conclusion, like threads weaving together to form a unified tapestry. This coming together of evidence was called consilience by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in his book of the same name.

One of the great success stories of science, the theory of continental drift, bears witness to how this process operates. Continental drift is backed up by independent lines of evidence: rock strata that match up across continents, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; fossils of unusual species that exist in only a few, widely separated places; and magnetic striping in the ocean crust which indicates that the seafloor has been steadily spreading over time. All these unrelated lines of evidence independently converge to support the same conclusion.

This sort of evidentiary consilience is notably absent when we examine religious scriptures such as the Bible. Far from possessing independent lines of evidence that converge on the same conclusion, these texts contain numerous fantastic stories that are uncorroborated by history or even by other retellings of the story elsewhere in the book. Instead of weaving a coherent tapestry, these threads unravel into a tangled, confused mess.

Consider the story of Herod and the slaughter of the infants. This tale is recounted in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. In it, the tyrant Herod orders all the infants of Bethlehem to be slaughtered in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus, whose parents were forewarned and fled with their son to Egypt.

This tall tale finds no corroboration even within the pages of the Bible. The epistles never speak of it, and Mark and John have no nativity stories. Luke does, but his version is completely different. In Luke's story, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, following which his parents return with him to Nazareth (2:39). No mention is made of Herod's slaughter or an intervening flight to Egypt. The historian Josephus, who chronicled the historically bloodthirsty reign of Herod in detail, also never mentions it.

An even wilder story can be found in Matthew 27. In this story, after Jesus dies on the cross, there is a mass resurrection witnessed by apparently nearly the entire city of Jerusalem:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Needless to say, there is no historical record of such an astonishing event, and no other book in the Bible so much as mentions it - a stunning omission, considering this easily qualifies as the most spectacular miracle of the New Testament. Yet if we are to believe Christian apologists who say that every word of the Bible is true, this mass resurrection really did happen, and then sank into obscurity without a ripple and was forgotten. Not a single person who witnessed it felt compelled to write it down or make any record. Nor does any Christian evangelist of the first several centuries ever refer to it in their preaching.

If this had really happened, it would have been a catalyst for mass conversions throughout the Ancient Near East and would have been recounted far and wide. It would have been remembered like no other event in human history has ever been remembered. An undoubtable, verifiable miracle of the highest order, one whose recipients could personally testify about it! And yet, the silence of the historical record is deafening. This is one case where the argument from silence absolutely is valid, and the only rational conclusion to draw is that this biblical story is pure fiction and that the events it describes never happened.

The question of how the apostles died is another notable example of unravelled biblical threads. Apparently, to judge from the historical record, the original twelve Christians handpicked by Jesus himself all vanished into mystery and obscurity within a few years, with no reliable evidence surviving to show how any of them died or even what they did during their lives. All we have today are a handful of wild, apocryphal, and often mutually contradictory tall tales.

Indeed, the story of Jesus himself could be considered the greatest unravelled thread of all. Far from enjoying a consilience of historical evidence, the formative years of Christianity are dim and confused and almost completely lacking in extra-biblical verification. Substantial evidence suggests that there may not have been a historical human being at the root of this religion at all, but rather belief in a mythological figure which only gradually, and after many twists and turns, developed into belief in a recent human individual. Although the early defenders of orthodoxy did much to rewrite church history to fit their own newly developed conception, they could not hide the fact that this story is still lacking in points of empirical contact with the external world.

September 12, 2007, 7:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink28 comments

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