Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior

It’s a week after Easter, so here is one final post on the theme of resurrection.

History records many dying-and-rising saviors. Examples from the Ancient Near East that preceded the Jesus story include Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal. Here is a brief introduction.

Tammuz was the Sumerian god of food and vegetation and dates from c. 2000 BCE. His death was celebrated every spring. One version of the story has him living in the underworld for six months each year, alternating with his sister.

Osirus was killed by his brother Set and cut into many pieces and scattered. His wife Isis gathered the pieces together, and he was reincarnated as the Egyptian god of the underworld and judge of the dead. He was worshipped well before 2000 BCE.

Dionysus (known as Bacchus in Roman mythology) was the Greek god of wine and dates to the 1200s BCE. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Dionysus was killed and then brought back to life.

Adonis (from 600 BCE) is a Greek god who was killed and then returned to life by Zeus.

Attis (from 1200 BCE) is a vegetation god from central Asia Minor, brought back to life by his lover Cybele.

In Canaanite religion, Baal (Baʿal) was part of a cycle of life and death. Baal and Mot are sons of the supreme god El (yes, one of the names of the Jewish god). When El favored the death god Mot over Baal, the heat of the summer took over and Baal died. He was resurrected when his sister-wife kills Mot.

All these gods:

  • came from regions that were close enough to the crossroads of Israel (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor) for the ideas to have plausibly made it there,
  • were worshipped well before the time of Jesus, and
  • were of the dying-and-rising sort.

This is strong evidence that the gospel writers knew of (and could have been influenced by) resurrecting god stories from other cultures.

Is it possible that Judea at this time was a backwater, and the people were unaware of the ideas from the wider world? That seems unlikely. The book of 2 Maccabees, written in c. 124 BCE, laments at how Hellenized the country was becoming. It says that the new high priest installed by Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes “at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.” He “introduced new customs contrary to the Law” and “induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat.” The book complains about “an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways” and the youth “putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.”

In fact, the gospels themselves report that the idea of dying and rising again was a familiar concept. Jesus in the early days of his ministry was thought to be a risen prophet.

King Herod heard of [the ministry of Jesus], for His name had become well known; and people were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.” But others were saying, “He is Elijah.” And others were saying, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!” (Mark 6:14–16)

One Christian website does a thorough job attacking poorly evidenced parallels between Jesus and these prior gods. For example, was Dionysus really born to a virgin on December 25? Did Mithras really have 12 disciples? Was Krishna’s birth heralded by a star in the east? The author offers $1000 to anyone who can prove that any of these gods’ lists of parallels are actually true.

I’ll agree that there are strained parallels. One early work that has been criticized for too many claims and too little evidence is The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves (1875). The recent “Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ” by Acharya S also seems to be reaching, in my opinion.

I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on these many issues, so let’s grant the complaints and dismiss the many unsupportable specific parallels. What’s left is what really matters: that the Jesus story arose in a culture suffused with the idea of dying and rising saviors.

Apologists raise other objections.

Many of these gods actually came after Jesus. That’s why the list above only includes dying-and-rising gods who are well-known to have preceded Jesus. There are many more such gods—Mithras, Horus, Krishna, Persephone, and others—that don’t seem to fit as well. In fact, Wikipedia lists life-death-rebirth deities from twenty religions worldwide, but I’ve tried to list above the six most relevant examples.

But Jesus really existed! He’s a figure from history, unlike those other gods. Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re left with the Caesar Augustus from history. But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.

Most of those gods were used to explain the cycles of the seasons. Jesus isn’t like them. Christianity is different from all the other religions, just like any religion. If Christianity weren’t different from one of the earlier religions, you’d call it by the name of that religion.

In another post I explore the Dionysus myth more fully to show the parallels with the Jesus story. That post also notes how Justin Martyr (100–165 CE) not only admitted to the similarities but argued that the devil put them in history to fool us.

Okay, they’re all myths, but the Jesus story is true myth. This was the approach of C.S. Lewis, who said, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened, and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s Myth where the others are men’s myths.”

So you admit that the Jesus story indeed has many characteristics of mythology but demand that I just trust you that it’s true? Sorry, I need more evidence than that.

And the throw-in-the-towel argument:

Just because Christianity developed in a culture that knew of other resurrecting gods doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t the real thing. Granted. But “you haven’t proven the gospel story false” isn’t much of an argument. Those who seek the truth know that proof is impossible and try instead to find where the evidence points.

And here’s where the evidence doesn’t point: that humans worldwide invent dying-and-rising saviors (except in the Jesus case, ’cause that one was real!).

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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The Moon Isn’t Made of Green Cheese … Is It?

A moon made of cheese is cut, and a wedge is pulled awayEaster has recently passed, and I’d like to rerun a post on the resurrection.

In a fable going back centuries within various cultures, a simpleton sees the reflection of the full moon in water and imagines that it’s a wheel of green (that is, young) cheese. It’s a tale that we often pass on to our children and that we discard with time, like belief in the Easter Bunny.

But how do you know that the moon isn’t made of green cheese?

Physicist Sean M. Carroll addressed this question recently. After a few moments exploring physical issues like the moon’s mass, volume, and density and the (dissimilar) density of cheese, he gave this frank broadside:

The answer is that it’s absurd to think the moon is made of green cheese.

He goes on to say that we understand how the planets were formed and how the solar system works. There simply is no reason to suppose that the moon is made of green cheese and plenty of reasons to suppose that it’s not.

This is not a proof, there is no metaphysical proof, like you can prove a statement in logic or math that the moon is not made of green cheese. But science nevertheless passes judgments on claims based on how well they fit in with the rest of our theoretical understanding.

Bringing this thinking into the domain of this blog, how do we know that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead? The answer is the same: it’s absurd to think that Jesus was raised from the dead.

  • We know how death works. We see it in plants and animals, and we know that when they’re gone, they’re just gone. Rats don’t have souls. Zebras don’t go to heaven. There’s no reason to suppose that it works any differently for our favorite animal, Homo sapiens, and plenty of reasons to suppose that it works the same.
  • We know about ancient manuscripts. Lots of cultures wrote their ancient myths, and many of these are older than the books of the Old Testament: Gilgamesh (Sumerian), Enûma Eliš (Babylonian), Ramayana (Hindu), Iliad (Greek), Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), Popol Vuh (Mayan), and so on. For whatever reason, people write miracle stories, and we have a large and well-populated bin labeled “Mythology” in which to put stories like those in the Bible.
  • We know about how stories and legends grow with time. We may have heard of Charles Darwin’s deathbed conversion to Christianity (false). Or that a decent fraction of Americans thought that President Obama is a Muslim. Or that aliens crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico. Or that a new star appeared in the night sky with the birth of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. In our own time, urban legends so neatly fit a standard pattern, that simple rules help identify them.
  • We know that humans invent religions. There are 42,000 denominations of Christianity alone, for example, and uncountably many versions of the myriad religions invented through history.

Natural explanations are sufficient to explain Christianity.

Might the moon actually be made of cheese? Science doesn’t make unconditional statements, but we can assume the contrary with about as much confidence as we have in any scientific statement.

Might Jesus have been raised from the dead? Sure, it’s possible, but that’s not where the facts point. Aside from satisfying a preconception, why imagine that this is the case?

Photo credit: TV Tropes

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Shroud of Turin: An Easter Miracle?

Christian apologetics and atheismThe Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot-long linen cloth with the faint image of a man. Imagine the cloth going from feet to head along a man’s back, then folding over the head to continue back to the feet.

Many Christians think that it is the burial shroud of Jesus and that the supernatural energy of resurrecting his dead body burned an image into the cloth. It first appears in history in 1390 in France and was moved to Turin, Italy in 1578. Fire and water damage from 1532 are visible on the shroud.

Proponents argue that marks from Jesus’s last hours are on the figure—the nail wounds, the scourgings, and the cuts from the crown of throns—but is this the real burial shroud of Jesus?

The first problem is scriptural. This doesn’t match the story of the empty tomb from the Bible.

[Simon Peter] saw the strips of linen lying there [in the tomb], as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. (John 20:6–7)

Strips of linen (presumably for the body) and a separate head cloth is not a single shroud. And there is no evidence besides the shroud itself to imagine that first-century Jews buried their dead that way.

They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:40)

This wasn’t just a pinch of spice—it was 75 pounds worth (John 19:39). And yet we see no evidence of all this spice applied to the body in the shroud image.

Next, an artistic problem. If a linen cloth were laid over a prone person, it would drape over the face. That is, it would wrap around to some extent.

A typical man’s face is roughly six inches wide. But it’s more like eleven inches from one ear, across the face, to the other ear. Granted, the shroud wouldn’t be vacuum-sealed to hug the face completely. But we would expect to see some wraparound distortion to the image when the shroud was later laid flat. The image is actually thinner than an ordinary person, not wider, as it ought to be.

Could this have been a hoax or some other fake? Traffic in holy Christian relics was common during the medieval period—it’s been said that there were enough pieces of the cross to build a ship and enough nails from the crucifixion to hold it together. And this wasn’t the only shroud—history records forty of them. Obviously, at least 39 of these must be false.

In fact, our first well-documented discussion of the shroud in 1390 states that it is a forgery and that the artist was known.

(An aside: I’ve written before about the apologists’ Naysayer Argument, that the gospel story must be true because, if it weren’t, we’d have rebuttals from contemporaries. The Shroud debate nicely defeats this argument. Our oldest reliable source is a rebuttal of the supernatural claim of the shroud, and yet this obviously didn’t eliminate Christian belief.)

Many problems argue against the shroud being the real thing. Carbon dating says that the linen is from the 1300s, there is evidence of tempera paint creating the image, 2000-year-old blood should be black and not red, pollen on the shroud seems to be only from Europe and not also Israel, the weave of the fabric doesn’t appear to be authentic, and so on. Christian apologists have a different way to rationalize away each of these problems, but the most economical explanation, the one that neatly explains the evidence, is that it’s a fake.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of information on this topic. It is clearly important for a lot of people. The best that can be said of the shroud is that we can’t prove that it wasn’t the burial cloth of Jesus. But that’s no reason to believe that it was, at least for anyone who cares about evidence.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Back from the Reason Rally

Atheism clashes with ChristianityI’ve recently returned from the Reason Rally, held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (photos here). There were an estimated 20,000 people there, in the rain, which is a lot more than I would have predicted. The organizers figured that it was the biggest secular gathering in world history by a factor of ten.

The atheist glitterati were all there—Michael Shermer, James Randi (founder of The Amazing Meeting), Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina (my favorite atheist blogger), PZ Myers, Tim Minchin (whose beat poem “Storm” is awesome), Eddie Izzard, Jessica Ahlquist (American Atheist’s “Atheist of the year” for her lawsuit against the religious banner in her public high school), Rep. Pete Stark (the only open atheist in Congress), Sen. Tom Harkin (not an atheist [!] but a senator who welcomed us anyway), Penn Jillette, Todd Stiefel (whose foundation helped sponsor the event), Nate Phelps (an eloquent and estranged member of the infamous Phelps family), and many more. The Rally proceeded without a break for over seven hours.

The 2012 American Atheist conference was the following two days and had 1300 attendees. The theme this year was “Come Out,” and many speakers talked about both the need for that and for dealing with the challenges that coming out as an atheist can impose on someone living in America today.

After being away from the office, I’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’ll be busy with the Northwest Freethought Alliance conference here in Seattle this weekend. I’ll get back to a regular posting schedule soon. Thanks for all your comments to the posts of the past couple of weeks; I’ll be responding ASAP.

Any brief summary will be inadequate to cover the Rally and conference. I’ll just summarize some of the highlights.

  • Roughly ten Christian protesters held signs at the Rally. Discussing apologetics with Christian sign carriers is one of my hobbies, but each was surrounded by lots of atheists—sometimes conversing thoughtfully and sometimes haranguing. The only one that I talked to at length admitted that he had no arguments in favor of Christianity but was just mindlessly on the Mall, witnessing for Jesus. I wondered what the point was, since he’s not informing anyone of anything. He had no new arguments, and simply stating the tenets of Christianity (all he seemed capable of doing) to atheists better informed than the average Christian was pointless.
  • Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh spoke of the Muslim response to her writings—riots, burned cars, and house arrest. After hearing this, it was hard to compare any struggle atheists might have in coming out with hers.
  • Physicist Lawrence Krauss said that philosophers asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is like Johannes Kepler asking “Why are there five planets?” It’s an irrelevant and outdated question!
  • Too often, the Christian says, “Morality is built on a foundation of God’s existence!” and the atheist response is a tepid, “But we are moral, too.” We need to take morality back. Our morality is superior—it’s built on something besides myth and wishful thinking.
  • Richard Dawkins spoke of a poll his foundation did in the UK. Of self-identified “Christians,” many accepted non-Christian beliefs (ghosts, fate, reincarnation), many don’t believe in the power of prayer, many don’t read the Bible and know very little about it, and some don’t even believe that Jesus was a historical figure. Conclusions: most “Christians” aren’t, and we shouldn’t accept Christians’ self-identification but rather ask what they mean.

Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in ten (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in ten (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.

But when asked where they seek most guidance in questions of right and wrong, only one in ten (10%) said it was from religious teachings or beliefs, with over half (54%) preferring to draw on their own inner moral sense.

  • Jerry DeWitt is a cheerful ex-pastor who left religion half a year ago through the Clergy Project, a group trying to find a soft landing for doubting pastors. I’ve written before about Rich Lyons, a local ex-pastor who had to get through the process solo and suffered from PTSD after leaving his pulpit.
  • PZ Myers gave an interesting quote from Sean Carroll: “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions.”
  • PZ Myers on trying to juggle science and religion: “Squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”
  • Religion is a natural part of the human mind. Okay, and smallpox is natural, too. That doesn’t mean you resign yourself to it.
  • This chart from a 2009 Gallup poll documents the long-term change in religious preference in the U.S. and shows that the increase in atheism and erosion in Christianity has been fairly steady and not just a recent phenomenon.

  • In a cartoon, two guys are talking. One says, “New Atheism indeed—it’s just the same old indisputable scientific evidence again.”
  • Religion makes you happy? Okay, but so does a puppy. There’s no need to abandon reason for happiness.
  • On the subject of atheist accomodationists (“Do you have to be so shrill?”) versus confrontationists (“Don’t mince words—tell it like it is!”), Greta Christina likened the atheist movement to a toolbox. If you’re a hammer, be the best hammer you can be and let the other tools be the best they can be.
  • Christina drew parallels with the gay movement and noted that for many straight people, simply knowing a gay person was key to dismantling their prejudices. Similarly, we need to come out (where practical) to help Christian America dismantle its anti-atheist prejudices. One important difference: when you come out as gay, you’re not telling straight people that they’re wrong. That’s not really true with atheism.
  • The Secular Student Alliance has grown from 50 chapters in 2007 to 250 a year ago and even more today. The Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”) has three times as many chapters, but it has an annual budget of half a billion dollars and is losing chapters.

Curiously, no one talked about what I like to talk about: critique of Christian apologetics. I’m not sure what to make of this. Does no one care about this topic? Has everyone already moved on, comfortable in their conclusion that the emperor has no clothes?

Ah well, I guess I’ll just be the best hammer I can be.

How can you have judgment if you don’t have faith
and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?
Newt Gingrich (October, 2011)

Humor: Paranormal Activity

Photo credit: James Randi Educational Foundation

Word of the Day: Confirmation Bias

Christianity and atheism, does God exist?Sandy beaches often have a line of debris left by the last high tide. These lines look different on different beaches, reflections of the local environment. They might contain rocks, shells, seaweed, jellyfish, flotsam or garbage, egg cases from skate or conch, and so on.

When I was about 11, I spent a week at a beach on which amber occasionally washed up. After a little training, I got pretty good at seeing the amber. On a different beach, the prize was fossilized shark’s teeth, and again I got good at spotting them amid the pebbles.

Given a little training and motivation, the mind pulls out interesting things from the background chaos. What is the wheat and what is the chaff changes based on your needs.

Suppose you’re an emergency room nurse and comment on what a crazy night it’s been and a coworker says, “That’s always the way it is with a full moon.” Now that your mind has been primed, you may notice this coincidence often. But seeing this as more than just a coincidence without good evidence is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias becomes a problem when you sift through the evidence that you come across and select only those bits that confirm what you already believe. You don’t seek information but confirmation.

The hypothesis “God answers prayers” can also be supported by confirmation bias—those prayers that more or less come true within some broad time range are counted as successes, and those that don’t are either ignored or repositioned with, “Sometimes, God says no.” Psychics and horoscope watchers will similarly list successful predictions and ignore or forget the failures.

I listened to the weekly Reasons to Believe podcast from Creationist Hugh Ross for a while. It was little more than a selection of the few bits of evidence from the thousands of scientific articles that week that could be interpreted to support his old-earth Creationist views. Seeing this for what it is—an answer to the question, “What in this week’s news would support my Creationist preconceptions?”—would be fine. It’s when we imagine that this is objective science that we delude ourselves.

So that we evolution-accepting atheists don’t get too smug, Sam Harris proposed the Fireplace Delusion, a chance to have our own preconceptions challenged. It’s a good exercise by which to see your mind being offended and the defenses it puts up to maintain its initial position.

The mind is built to favor evidence that confirms an existing opinion over disconfirming evidence, and to combat this bias, science tries to disconfirm theories rather than confirm them. You can’t prove a scientific theory right, but you can prove it wrong. This reversal—testing our opinions with disconfirming challenges rather than selecting confirming evidence—is a good example to follow.

We can prime our mind, like we’re looking for shark’s teeth on the beach, to pull in only what we want to see, but we delude ourselves when we do so.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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