Saturday, May 14, 2005

Credulous theories about Jesus

Some writers who argue that Jesus did not exist will say that Christ’s story is “borrowed” from older stories in the Old Testament or, in a discredited variation which even skeptics have widely abandoned, that Christ's story is "borrowed" from pagan religions. Of course borrowing does happen between religions, but intellectually it's a serious claim, and there are certain standards for proving it. Not everything that looks similar -- especially to the untrained eye -- is borrowed. Let’s start with the claim that Jesus's story looks similar to Old Testament stories.

The basic problem with this approach is that the earliest Christians, when authoring the New Testament, tried to speak about Jesus in Old Testament terms because the Jewish scriptures gave them a way to understand him, to make sense of their experience with him. Hence Jesus does appear in many ways like an Old Testament prophet, though his distinctive qualities are obviously also highlighted. This does not mean that when Jesus is said to perform a miracle similar to one performed by Elijah, that Jesus did not really do something there, or worse, that nothing about what he really did can be found out, so thick is the theological craft around the event being documented. Denying that there was anything there -- you already know what I think of that. Denying that anything can be found out about the event, which is a popular position among skeptics, is in my opinion anti-intellectualism, if not laziness. All the sources for non-Biblical ancient history are late or more compromised by bias and other problems than is true for the New Testament, yet historians confidently meet these challenges and give us an outline of antiquity, fleshed out with strong suppositions about the ancients and what they did or thought; but to apply the standard here that is often applied to the Bible would mean saying essentially, "Sorry, we can't give you an outline of ancient history; it's better to be skeptical than to build history out of accounts that are late, meager and biased."

Those scholars searching for the historical Jesus acknowledge the problems inherent in their task, and they take on the long work required in ascertaining what the New Testament authors were trying to say (a difficult task for any modern mind, which means that skeptics as the most modern of all probably do find the work especially difficult; but there is still no excuse for arguing persistently that Paul did not speak of Christ as having a physical body, when in fact he speaks of a physical Christ so many times and so plainly that only a scholar could figure out a way not to see it). Once they understand the voices of the New Testament authors, these scholars then try to determine what events the New Testament's theological expression describes. Done well, it's a long and careful process. John Meier has already written three very large volumes, and his work seems to me only half-finished; he has not even yet come to the parables, to say nothing of the events surrounding Jesus' crucifixion. Other writers who are genuine scholars but who, like the Jesus Seminar, are very quick to say, "This saying was not said by Jesus," or "This deed was not done by him," are in my opinion not being disciplined enough.

The detective work involved in studying ancient texts as complex as the Bible is immensely attractive; when it attracts me, my spirit certainly takes nourishment from what I read, but it is my mind and my love of science that make me often prefer this sort of work to other, less intellectual ways of feeding my spirit; it is the same part of my mind that takes joy when I follow a historian's detective work into World War II or any other historical subject. Skeptics should love this work; but since their spirit is genuinely not at ease with the claims of the material, they literally do not do the work. They fall into what looks to me like obvious mental darkness or laziness about the Bible: they say, "Work's finished here; there's nothing more to see; leave it alone and let's get on with our lives"; or worse, they fall into conspiracy theories. This is the best explanation I have for why scholars who are wonderfully skeptical about conspiracy theories concerning modern subjects are so often facile, hostile or conspiratorially minded themselves, when it comes to religion or the Bible.

Michael Shermer's Skeptic Magazine is a wonderful publication, and I love what it does with many things, not least its debunking of claims that the Jewish scriptures reveal a Bible Code. Skeptics constantly debunk claims that sell themselves with the words "The Secret Origins of ..." Yet Skeptic Magazine promotes a book entitled, "The Secret Origins of the Bible." Not to judge a book by its title, but the origins of the Bible are not "secret" or "new", except perhaps to a readership that no longer studies the Bible -- which nowadays is a large population indeed.

Skeptic Magazine usually strangles conspiracy claims to the limit, but its review of The DaVinci Code does not actually investigate or judge, one way or another, Dan Brown's claim that the Roman Church purged the true version of Christianity successfully until the 20th century. The reviewer concludes only that "it does not matter whether" or not such a claim is true, and proceeds onward to end his review. Where is the intellectual endurance that I am so accustomed to seeing in the magazine?

On Penn & Teller's new cable show, Shermer has said that to read the stories of the Bible as true is to miss the point of the Bible. In comments he made about his own participation in a public debate concerning God's existence, he argues against trying to prove faith in God intellectually; he writes that trying to prove God's existence is an insult to belief and to science. His implication seems to be that faith is faith, and science is science. I see the point he's trying to make, but people disagree about what is knowable only through faith and not through science. If he means that I should not try to prove God's existence and should have faith, I agree that we should have strong faith, but obviously philosophical inquiries into God's existence are an intellectual exercise with a long tradition that anyone with the interest should try. Proofs of God should be affirmed or refuted; it is not right to say that they should never be attempted; this is anti-intellectual (and anti-religion at the same time).

And when he says that the Bible should not be seen as containing true stories, well then what can I say? Biblical scholars searching for the historical Jesus will have nothing left to do. Indeed, by such a prescription, they should then believe in the Bible on faith alone -- which would force them into fundamentalism (though some may turn to atheism, since the Bible must now be accepted in its entirety or rejected in its entirety). Skeptics often admire believers who use reason and skepticism to challenge the church or call for reform, so they surely do not ask believers to stop using their minds; what is sad is that they seem to ask believers to check their minds at the door of the church building itself; to think and question when it challenges the faith, but to leave the mind unused when it comes to affirming the faith. The prohibition seems to be against using the mind in support of religion. That I cannot accept.

All this I've been prompted to say by the claim that parallels exist between the Old and New Testaments (a perfectly reasonable claim with perfect reasonable explanations, albeit ones that call on us to do work) . The claim of parallels with pagan myths is another story about which much could be said, but let me say something here about how skeptics lose their skepticism when it comes to religion.

The religious mindset is sometimes said to come from a human mind that evolved to see parallels and connections. God is the sum of those parallels of meaning that we read, per this theory, into the incidents of our lives. You have no argument from me if you want to identify exactly how, and how much, our human minds will form parallels if left to themselves. But for me, that is just where the work begins. No one has said that parallels or analogies are useless. To the contrary, they are necessary to science and to good thinking; even basic schooling asks us to write papers in which we take certain things and "compare and contrast." When we only compare and do not contrast, something really essential is missing; when we do not compare things except to contrast them, or do not compare them because they seem too far apart to have connections, then our minds are equally dark. Skeptics are masters at debunking false analogies and taking apart connections that are man-made or incidental; debunking a theory like the Bible Code is in essence nothing more than showing how connections can be found anywhere if we try hard enough. My debating partner Ryan has pointed out on this blog the problems with the analogies I tend to make, and I appreciate it; that's the essence of comparing and contrasting.

But now what about these parallels that some skeptics see between Christ and pagan myths? Well, those who feel no need to attack Christ's existence tend not to invoke the parallels, and such scholarship was abandoned by mainstream scholars, biblical and otherwise, long ago; biblical scholars have become steadily more secular and agnostic, but have made no return to the hypothesis of Christianity as a largely borrowed religion. A central reason is that so much of the ancient material about pagan myths appears well into the Christian era, when Christian scribes, ironically, began preserving Greco-Roman works -- and some of this ancient material compares and contrasts Christian beliefs with pagan myths. But by then you have the overwhelming likelihood that the pagan cults, which were very fluid and given to external borrowing, had borrowed from Christianity, not the other way around. To build anything on these supposed parallels should require a thorough-going investigation; at the very least it calls for a brief discussion of the issues. But you get no discussion of this by skeptics interested in erasing or obscuring Jesus' existence; no discussion of what the issues are, how opposing views can be reconciled, or whether some can be set aside; sometimes you don't even get a nod to these issues. The vast majority of modern sources used to document pagan parallels comes from the web, and has morphed from 19th-century speculations about the fragmentary archaeological record -- ie, Mithra looks somewhat similar to Christ-- into modern-day refinements stating explicitly, for instance, that Mithra rose from the dead three days after sharing a Last Supper with 12 disciples. There is no ancient source for that claim; but it is now being heard with increasing frequency in some modern circles where Christianity is rejected. To all appearances, old speculations from the 19th century have morphed in the telling into clear-cut pronouncements; have been gathered together by those seeking to gather anti-Christian material into a kind of readily accessed corpus; and are now flying around the world with unprecedented speed because of the World Wide Web. As Winston Churchill said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

All that aside, parallels from any ancient body of records should be treated with caution; they should not be made to carry more than they can bear. I made analogies between Jesus denial, Holocaust denial and the Moon Hoax, but I never claimed that these comparisons actually offered proof of Jesus' existence; that proof lies elsewhere, in the content of the Jesus question itself. My analogies highlighted certain things without proving anything. Sadly, analogies beween Christ and pagan figures are made sometimes not only to prove things, but to prove negatives: that Christ did not exist, or that Jesus' true story is unknowable. Such claims could only come from the Biblical text; only there, after a thorough search, could you say that more is not knowable; and then really the only thing you should say is that you yourself have not been able to find anything. When you are not a Biblical scholar, well, such an admission is very worthwhile indeed.

Further complicating these parallels is that Christians were expelled from the synagogue around 70 A.D. and a break was made between Christianity and Judaism, a religion that the Romans officially tolerated for being ancient. So Christians found themselves persecuted by Gentile authorities, and they attempted for that reason (among others) to highlight the common ground between the recently completed New Testament and pagan rites which the Romans respected -- so that Christians hopefully would not be seen as impious upstarts with a fringe, radical doctrine. It's also common knowledge, frankly, that early Christians respected Greco-Roman philosophy and keenly absorbed much of it in when they came to craft advanced theologies about Christ. Christian doctrine, and the Bible, state explicitly that all peoples everywhere have had similar ways of knowing God (see Romans 1.19-20 and 2.14-15). For this reason and others I've mentioned, we sometimes find early Church Fathers highlighting similarities between Jesus and pagan figures -- and it's on these few passages that much of the "parallels" are drawn by skeptics. As I said in my first post, the direct evidence about the pagan rites, and the experts on that evidence, are often not consulted, or are misrepresented. These are not, in any sense, worthy parallels for science-minded skeptics to champion.

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