Category Archives: early Christianity

The Biblical Definition of Marriage

So the Chick-Fil-A fiasco. Yes, yes, we all know about the usual Bible verses that point out the various arrangements of marriage. But, some people might think that that only applied in the “Old Testament” and was no longer valid for the NT. They would be wrong.

Here is Josephus (contemporary of the Gospel authors) describing events going on during the time period of Jesus:

2. …[Herod the Great] also allotted one of Aristobulus’s daughters to Antipater’s son, and Aristobulus’s other daughter to Herod, a son of his own, who was born to him by the high priest’s daughter; for it is the ancient practice among us to have many wives at the same time….

3. Now Herod the king had at this time nine wives; one of them Antipater’s mother, and another the high priest’s daughter, by whom he had a son of his own name. He had also one who was his brother’s daughter, and another his sister’s daughter; which two had no children. One of his wives also was of the Samaritan nation, whose sons were Antipas and Archelaus, and whose daughter was Olympias; which daughter was afterward married to Joseph, the king’s brother’s son; but Archelaus and Antipas were brought up with a certain private man at Rome. Herod had also to wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, and by her he had his sons Herod and Philip; which last was also brought up at Rome. Pallas also was one of his wives, which bare him his son Phasaelus. And besides these, he had for his wives Phedra and Elpis, by whom he had his daughters Roxana and Salome. As for his elder daughters by the same mother with Alexander and Aristobulus, and whom Pheroras neglected to marry, he gave the one in marriage to Antipater, the king’s sister’s son, and the other to Phasaelus, his brother’s son. And this was the posterity of Herod.

– Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.1.3


2. But although the grandees of Adiabene had failed in their first attempt, as being delivered up by God into their king’s hands, yet would they not even then be quiet, but wrote again to Vologases, who was then king of Parthia, and desired that he would kill Izates (d. 55 CE, just to put a timestamp on the context of the polygyny), and set over them some other potentate, who should be of a Parthian family; for they said that they hated their own king for abrogating the laws of their forefathers, and embracing foreign customs. When the king of Parthia heard this, he boldly made war upon Izates; and as he had no just pretense for this war, he sent to him, and demanded back those honorable privileges which had been bestowed on him by his father, and threatened, on his refusal, to make war upon him. Upon hearing of this, Izates was under no small trouble of mind, as thinking it would be a reproach upon him to appear to resign those privileges that had been bestowed upon him out of cowardice; yet because he knew, that though the king of Parthia should receive back those honors, yet would he not be quiet, he resolved to commit himself to God, his Protector, in the present danger he was in of his life; and as he esteemed him to be his principal assistant, he intrusted his children and his wives to a very strong fortress, and laid up his corn in his citadels, and set the hay and the grass on fire. And when he had thus put things in order, as well as he could, he awaited the coming of the enemy. And when the king of Parthia was come, with a great army of footmen and horsemen, which he did sooner than was expected, (for he marched in great haste,) and had cast up a bank at the river that parted Adiabene from Media, – Izates also pitched his camp not far off, having with him six thousand horsemen. But there came a messenger to Izates, sent by the king of Parthia, who told him how large his dominions were, as reaching from the river Euphrates to Bactria, and enumerated that king’s subjects; he also threatened him that he should be punished, as a person ungrateful to his lords; and said that the God whom he worshipped could not deliver him out of the king’s hands. When the messenger had delivered this his message, Izates replied that he knew the king of Parthia’s power was much greater than his own; but that he knew also that God was much more powerful than all men. And when he had returned him this answer, he betook himself to make supplication to God, and threw himself upon the ground, and put ashes upon his head, in testimony of his confusion, and fasted, together with his wives and children….

– Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.4.2

So polygyny was still going on in the time period of Jesus. Yet Jesus never condemns Herod. Did Jesus not have the gall to do what John the Baptist did? Or did Jesus implicitly accept polygyny as well?

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Posted by on August 3, 2012 in early Christianity, historicity, pseudo-history


Historical Jesus Scholars Should Do What Biologists Do in the Creation/Evolution Debate

In my time traveling through the mire of debating Creationists (both occasionally IRL and on the series of tubes) one of the questions I get from them is “What is the best evidence for evolution?”. Before I even considered myself a Bayesian, I started to realize that this was a trick question, especially after Creationists would attempt to refute that “best evidence”.

On my website about the evidence for the theory of evolution, I list a bunch of evidence and then their explanation in an evolutionary framework. In a Bayesian sense, all of this evidence increases the probability of evolution, since their absence would decrease the probability of the theory of evolution. And that’s the point; the best argument for evolution is that there is so much evidence accumulated together for evolution. Which is the Bayesian answer.

Historical Jesus scholars should follow the same reasoning when dealing with mythicism. There is no “best argument” for the historical Jesus. The best argument should be a cumulative Bayesian one, meaning that the best argument for the historical Jesus is (or should be) that there is so much evidence for the historical Jesus. That’s certainly what I would do, and that is certainly what Richard Carrier will do in his forthcoming book about the historical Jesus (though he will be arguing the negative for Jesus’ historicity).

For example, Bart Ehrman, whenever questioned about whether Jesus existed or not, usually falls into the analogous Creationist trap above. He notes the best evidence for why he thinks Jesus existed which is essentially using the criterion of embarrassment. This fails for two reasons: One, like I wrote above, any “best argument” has the possibility of being wrong which if it is, then this gives the opposition the opportunity to claim victory. And two, even if that logic weren’t the case, criteriology can never uncover “evidence”. A criterion of embarrassment is an interpretation of evidence, not the evidence itself. The only way that Ehrman’s argument could be foolproof, and admitted into the evidence bin, is if it were formulated like this:

P1: All people in antiquity didn’t invent dogma that was embarrassing
P2: All Jews in antiquity were embarrassed by a crucified messiah
P3: Jesus was crucified
C: Therefore, Jesus was not invented

This argument is only as strong as its weakest premise. Do we know that all people in antiquity didn’t invent embarrassing details of their religions? Do we know that the Jews were Borg-like entity with one monolithic thing that they were embarrassed by? The same failure happens when scholars appeal to Paul meeting James the brother of the lord as a “slam dunk” argument. There are no slam dunk arguments; the only “slam dunk” should be the accumulation of evidence.

Usually, though, when dealing with Creationists, I lay out all of the evidence and then ask them to explain it using their Creationist framework (e.g. how do you explain both Endogenous Retroviruses and Ring Species using one framework?). More importantly, I ask them what is the least likely type of evidence we would expect to see given Creationism. That is the principle of falsifiability, explained using Bayesian conditional probability terminology. Historical Jesus scholars should do the same, instead of listing hypothetical documents that aren’t in evidence; they can’t be in evidence because they’re hypothetical (if you have to appeal to a hypothetical document to support your hypothesis, this makes your initial hypothesis less likely).

For example, under a mythicist framework, when talking about the original language that a pericope is written in, the least likely evidence would be… absolutely nothing. There’s no restriction on the language that a pericope would originally be written in. This means that there is no language that is the most or least probable given mythicism, making mythicism unfalsifiable when it comes to language evidence. Which is a strike against mythicism. That should be the strategy that historical Jesus scholars engage in when dealing with mythicism. On the other hand, given that Jesus was such a charismatic preacher that that was why his followers revered him and exalted him to the right hand of god after death, what is the least likely evidence we would see? The least likely evidence would be the absolutely zero quotes of his so-called charismatic preaching in any NT writings until around the time of Marcion and Justin Martyr; a full 100 years after Jesus was supposed to have lived**. If you didn’t read any gospels and only the epistles written in the first 100 years of the Christian religion, the last thing you would come away with was how much Jesus’ teachings influenced the new religion.

So as of right now I’m extremely disappointed in the way that historical Jesus scholars have been arguing against mythicism. They need to think more rigorously and scientifically, using actual logical reasoning instead of faulty criteriology and waving around invisible — hypothetical — documents. What I’m seeing is the same sort of reaction that Christian apologists have when trying to defend the truth of their god’s existence or the resurrection; being well read but not knowing anything about formal logic or even probability theory to ensure that they’re not promoting logical fallacies. Maybe the whole enterprise is inherently apologetic in nature, as Hector Avalos argues in The End of Biblical Studies.

** Of course, I’m excluding the four gospels because no one seems to be aware of their Jesus-the-teacher content until Marcion and Justin Martyr


Was Paul Against Homosexuals?

The passage which is quoted that shows that the New Testament is hostile to homosexuals is 1 Corinthians 6.9. This reads as follows:
"Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men."
Get that context: Men who sleep with men are "wrongdoers"! A note in the New International Version reads "The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts". The Wescott-Hort version of this reads:
"ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν; Μὴ πλανᾶσθε: οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται"
The words that I underlined — ουτε μαλακοι ουτε αρσενοκοιται::oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai — literally mean "nor the soft (μαλακοι) nor men who lie with men (αρσενοκοιται)". The only other two times that the word "soft" occurs in the NT is at Luke 7.25 (But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft clothing [ἄνθρωπον ἐν μαλακοῖς ἱματίοις ἠμφιεσμένον]? Behold, those who are gorgeously dressed, and live delicately, are in kings' courts.) and the Synoptic parallel Matt 11.8 (But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing [ἐν μαλακοῖς ἠμφιεσμένον]? Behold, those who wear soft clothing (τὰ μαλακὰ) are in king's houses).
But there's a bit of an oddity here. At least, how it seems to me. It just so happens that μαλακός (malakos) sounds a bit familiar to, uh, μαλακία (malakia) which means to be a person who pleases themselves. The Synoptic evolution between Matt and Luke using this phrase might give it away. Why would Luke reinterpret Matt's people who wear soft clothing living in kings' houses to people who are gorgeously dressed and live delicately in kings courts? Was Luke comparing John the Baptist (who was wearing "soft clothing") which is a "good" thing, to people who live in the king's court, who are ostensibly better off than people living in the wilderness? Does this mean that Matt originally had a pun between soft and masturbate? As in, people who wear soft clothing compared to people who are self-gratifying?
So "the soft" is in male plural form so it probably implies "sissies" or "weak men" who are on the, uh, receiving end of the men who lie with men. On the other hand, Paul might be talking about people who masturbate instead of "soft" men. But the last word that Paul uses – αρσενοκοιται – most definitely means men who sleep with men.
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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in early Christianity, paul


What Did Paul Mean By "Another Jesus"?

2 Cor 11:

4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

5 But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”

Here Paul is implying that some “super-apostles” ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων or hyper-lian (super-duper) apostles were preaching some “other Jesus” with some “other gospel”. This seems to allude to heretics of some sort.

But there is a bit of an inconsistency with his use of “some other Jesus” and “some other gospel”. For both the other “spirit” and “gospel”, the adjective that Paul uses is ἕτερον yet for the other Jesus he uses ἄλλον. The word ἕτερος or heteros is where we get words like heterosexual or heterochromia. It means “another” of a different type. The word ἄλλος or hallos, on the other hand, means “another” but of the same type. So if I wanted to say “get me an apple and another pear” I would use heteros for “another” yet if I were to say “get me an apple and another apple” I would use hallos.

Using the fruit analogy: If the Jesus, gospel, and spirit that Paul is preaching are apples, then the spirit and gospel that the super-duper apostles preach is a pear yet their Jesus would also be an apple. So the gospel and spirit that these other apostles are preaching is of a different stripe altogether, yet the Jesus is “another” Jesus but of the same… I dunno, “type” of Jesus? What does that mean? And why, if it is the same “type” of Jesus but another, would it be a bad thing for these other apostles to preach about him?

We know what “other gospel” is to Paul because he uses the same term in Galatians (Gal 1.6 ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον). What exactly was the Jesus that these other apostles were preaching at Corinth? I would think that if Paul were talking about something like docetism vs. adoptionism vs. what-have-you, he would also use heteros. But he doesn’t, so those distinctions must not have existed when he wrote. Or at least, he wasn’t aware of them.

This might be more evidence for my observation that all of the variants of Jesus didn’t come about until the first gospel was written (Gnosticism, etc.). The question then becomes what sort of Jesus did Paul have in mind? Was it the Jesus of Marcion, the Jesus of Mark, the Jesus of John, the Jesus of Valentinus, or some “other” (ἕτερος) Jesus?

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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in early Christianity, paul


The Many Faces Of Jesus

A while ago I made a post called Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?. That post was meant to illustrate that the name Jesus was common in antiquity, and a lot of those people named Jesus share eerie similarities with the Jesus of Christianity.

Here is a post over at Vridar that is itself a repost of David Fitzgerald’s own blog post about the myriad Jesuses created by scholars of the historical Jesus.

The entire post is worth reading, but I just want to call attention to one fact: There isn’t just “one” historical Jesus (that is, the Jesus recreated by historians). There are a multitude of historical Jesuses.

Albert Schweitzer in his From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus (1906), was already discovering that every scholar claiming to have uncovered the “real” Jesus seemed to have found a mirror instead; each investigator found Jesus was a placeholder for whatever values they held dear. Over a century later, the situation has not improved – quite the contrary.  To say there is still no consensus on who Jesus was is an understatement. A quick survey (Price presents excellent examples in his Deconstructing Jesus, Prometheus, 2000, pp. 12-17) shows we have quite an embarrassment of Jesi:

Cynic philosopher – The many borrowings from Greek philosophy in Jesus’ teachings would make sense if Jesus had actually been a wandering Cynic or a Stoic philosopher, or the Galilean equivalent. Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, Gerald Downing and others have strongly defended this view, citing plenty of Cynic statements with their equivalents in the Gospels.

Liberal Pharisee – Something like his predecessor, the famous Rabbi Hillel.  In Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, historian Harvey Falk argues that virtually all of Jesus’ judgments on the Halakha, the Jewish law, are paralleled in the Pharisaic thought of that time, as well as later rabbinic thought.

Charismatic Hasid – Similarly, Dead Sea Scroll authority Geza Vermes, an expert on New Testament-era Judaism and author of Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s View of the Gospels, sees Jesus as one of the popular freewheeling Galilean holy men, unorthodox figures like Hanina Ben-Dosa or Honi the Circle-Drawer. Just like Jesus, they had little respect for the niceties of Jewish law, which of course ticked off the religious establishment.

Conservative Rabbi – On the other hand, Jesus upholds the Torah, insisting “not one jot or stroke of the Law will pass away” (Matthew 5:17–19).  He wears a prayer shawl tasseled with tzitzit (Matt. 9:20-22), observes the Sabbath, and worships in synagogues as well as the Temple.

Antinomian Iconoclast – But on the other other hand, Jesus then turns around and point by point dismantles the Torah (Mark 7:18-20, Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-44, etc.) and dismisses the Temple (Matt. 12:6, 23:16, 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6).   

Magician/Exorcist/Faith Healer – Morton Smith, discoverer (or more likely, its forger – but that’s another story) of the Secret Gospel of Mark made the argument that Jesus the Christ was actually Jesus the Magician in the book of the same name.  Like the pagan miracle workers, Jesus cast out demons and healed the blind, deaf, and mute with mud and spit, using the same spells, incantations and techniques as taught in the many popular Greek magic handbooks of the time (Mark 5:41; 7:33–34).

Violent Zealot Revolutionary – But maybe Jesus was really a political messiah, inciting a revolt against the Romans; like Theudas or “the Egyptian,” the unnamed Messianic figure Josephus describes, or the two “robbers” crucified with him (since rebel bandits were commonly referred to as “robbers”). Why else would it be the Romans crucifying him, rather than the Jewish Sanhedrin just stoning him to death for blasphemy?  There is evidence one can point to: Luke’s Gospel lists a disciple called Simon “the Zealot,” and seems to hint that Jesus had other Zealots in his entourage: at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his followers to grab their bags and buy a sword (22:36); they tell him they already have two swords on hand (22:38); when Jesus is about to be arrested they ask if they should attack (22:49).  In Mark 14:47, one of the disciples does just that and cuts off the ear of one of the High priest’s men (the story grows more details in the other Gospels: Matt. 26:51-52, Luke 22:50-51, John 18:10). Many capable scholars including Robert Eisler, S. G. F. Brandon, Hugh J. Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby, and Robert Eisenman have thought this is where the real Jesus is to be found, and there are many scholarly variations arguing for the Jesus as Che theory.

Nonviolent Pacificist Resister – but then again, Jesus isn’t called the Prince of Peace for nothing; there’s no trace of such political agitation when he instructs his followers “if someone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39), or when conscripted by Roman soldier to lug their gear for a mile, to “go with him two” (Matt. 5:41).

Apocalyptic Prophet – This is the Jesus that Albert Schweitzer and many subsequent historians have thought was the real thing: A fearless, fiery Judgment Day preacher announcing that the end was nigh and the Kingdom of God was coming fast.  Like Paul (and many other first century Jewish apocalyptists) this Jesus did not expect the world to survive his own lifetime.   Bart Ehrman makes a well-reasoned case for such a figure in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

First-Century Proto-Communist – Was Jesus the first Marxist?  Milan Machoveč and other leftists have thought so. You have to admit Jesus has nothing good to say about the capitalist pigs of his day (Luke 6:24, 12:15), repeatedly preaching that they cannot serve both god and money (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13), that they should sell all they own and distribute the money to the poor (Matt. 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22) and most famously, that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into heaven (Matt.19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) – and don’t forget his casting the Moneychangers out of the Temple with a scourge. Acts not only depicts the early Christians as sharing everything in common, it even the states the Marxist credo: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (Acts 4: 34-35).

Early Feminist – Or was he the first male Feminist?  Some scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Kathleen Corley point to his unusual attitudes towards women, some of which seem remarkably progressive for the first century.  They say not only were some of his closest followers women, but he forgave the woman caught in adultery, and challenged social customs concerning women’s role in society (John 4:27, Luke 7:37, Matt. 21:31-32).

Earthy Hedonist – Or was he a male chauvinist pig?  Onlookers criticize him for being “a glutton and a drunk” who consorts with riffraff like tax collectors and whores (Luke 5:30; 5:33-34; 7:34, 37-39,44-46).

Family Man – but then again, Jesus is a champion of good old family values when he gets even tougher than Moses, ratcheting Old Testament law up a notch and declaring “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12). He also reminds his followers to honor their father and mother, then sternly warns “whoever speaks evil of father and mother must surely die” (Matthew 15:4).

Home Wrecker – Though when Jesus speaks evil of the family, apparently it’s okay: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). When Jesus is told his mother and brothers have come to see him, Jesus ignores them and asks, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:47-48) “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34–35).

Savior of the World – But despite all that, Jesus loves everyone; he even preached to Samaritans (John 4:39-41; Luke 17:11-18) and Gentiles (Matt. 4:13-17, 24-25).

Savior of Israel (only) – Well, he loves everyone except Samaritans or Gentiles.

When a Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter he ignores her; after the disciples ask him to make her go away, he first refuses, saying “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them not to preach the good news to Gentile regions or Samaritan cities (Matthew 10:5-6).

Radical Social Reformer – Still others like John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley see Jesus as a champion for the Jewish peasants suffering under the yoke of the Roman Empire and its rapacious tax collectors; a Jesus somewhat along the lines of Gandhi and his struggle against the British Empire.

The problem with the vast majority of these reconstructions is that they don’t have the necessary logical connection to a death by crucifixion. Bart Ehrman points out:

The link between Jesus’ message and his death is crucial, and historical studies of Jesus’ life can be evaluated to how well they establish that link.  This in fact is a common weakness in many portrayals of the historical Jesus: they often sound completely plausible in their reconstruction of what Jesus said and did, but they can’t make sense of his death. If, for example, Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish rabbi who simply taught that everyone should love God and be good to one another, why did the Romans crucify him?

Of course, the Apocalyptic Prophet model also doesn’t necessitate Jesus’ death by crucifixion. As I pointed out in my post “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”, there was another apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was simply roughed up by the Jews, given a trial by a procurator — not saying a word in his defense — and simply let go. He was left free to preach his apocalyptic warnings for six years straight until he was killed by a random weapon during the first Jewish-Roman war.

None of the wandering, preaching Jesus models (including a straighforward reading of Mark) make sense of his execution by crucifixion.

The model that I’m partial to is the violent revolutionary, which to me makes sense of Jesus’ association with Simon the Zealot. As I wrote in that post, Simon the Zealot possibly makes an appearance in Mark, but Mark might have Hellenized the original Hebrew/Aramaic name for “zealot” and ended up with something phonetically close to “Canaanite”.

Simon himself was executed around 46 AD.

As I’ve written before, I think that Jesus was cruficied along with Simon and Simon’s brother James. Which itself gives us the familiar Gospel image of Jesus crucified among two “robbers”. The only problem is that this places Jesus’ cruficixion 10 years later than what is given in the Gospels. But why trust the Gospels’ dating anyway? 40 years prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple is symbolism enough to make it suspect. And there’s no reason to think that any of the teachings of Jesus go back to an original Jesus, other than a straightforward reading of the Gospels and using fallacious criteriology. The fact that Pharisees in Galilee during the time period of Jesus and disciples calling Jesus “rabbi” are anachronistic** also makes the Gospel teachings of Jesus suspect. There are other anachronisms which place the composition of the Gospels after 70 AD, which would mean that post-70 Christians were retrojecting their gripes with Pharisees into the time period of Jesus using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their own struggles.

** “Sage” or “elder” (elder in Greek: πρεσβύτερος::presbyteros) were terms of respect in the time period of Jesus; Second Temple (pre-Rabbinic) Judaism. It’s almost tautological that “rabbi” (Hebrew for my teacher) would be a term of respect in Rabbinic Judaism, which itself only started to form after Judaism was decentralized due to the destruction of Jerusalem. Decentralization forced Pharisees to start setting up shop in other areas besides Jerusalem. Hence Pharisees only started having a presence in rural areas like Galilee as a necessity of Rabbinic Judaism. Here are other anachronisms

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in early Christianity, historical jesus, jesus myth


Pilate The Procurator, And Why Tacitus’ "Annals" Is Not Independent Evidence For Jesus’ Historicity

Richard Carrier posted his M.Phil thesis paper in which he argues that Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria. In doing so, he also points out that Pontius Pilate was also a procurator, which was something that Tacitus purposefully points out to both demean Christians and demean Pilate.

Here is Tacitus’ Annals 15.44 where he describes Jesus:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin** suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Some people argue that this is an interpolation because Tacitus mistakenly refers to Pilate as a procurator. But in fact, Pilate held both titles simultaneously since they weren’t necessarily separate titles.

Here is Dr. Carrier’s take on it:

Tacitus almost certainly got this information from his good friend Pliny the Younger, who would have gotten it from his strong-arm interrogation of a Christian deaconess in 110 A.D. (when Tacitus and Pliny were governing adjacent provinces in what is now Turkey, and carrying on a regular correspondence in which Tacitus evinces asking Pliny for information to include in the history books he was then writing). And she [the deaconesses] would certainly have gotten the information from the Gospels, many of which were being read in the churches of the time. So yes, Tacitus is in fact giving us useless evidence, since it is not independent of the Gospels (that’s why his account contains nothing not in them, yet that would have been in an official government record, like Jesus’ full name and crime). But Wells’ argument to that same conclusion is incorrect, due to another oddity about the ancient Roman system that non-experts don’t know about (and that even many experts don’t know about, not having specifically studied the matter of imperial administration and economics).

In actual fact, Pilate was both a prefect and a procurator. An imperial procurator, to be precise. In fact this was true of all the prefects of Judea, and many other regional prefects, such as the prefect of Egypt who governed that whole province directly for the emperor


One of the persistent drums Tacitus beats throughout his entire Annals is that it was shocking (why, just shocking!) that lowly equestrians were being given the official powers of senators. As business managers, procurators were only ever equestrians, or often even plebs or slaves; no senator would disgrace himself by taking such a servile job (again, imagine the President of the United States taking a job as a “common” real estate agent). But Tacitus was annoyed even by idea of prefects running things. Procurators were just an even bigger insult. Since an imperial procurator was the legal agent of the emperor, he literally had power of attorney to represent the emperor in court and contracts. Which meant that in practice, lowly procurators could tell mighty consular senators what for. It’s not like a senatorial governor is going to cross the emperor. Thus procurators often wielded in effect imperial scale power. And that pissed off consular senators like Tacitus. His Annals is full of morality tales illustrating how so really disastrous and awful this was.

Which gets us back to that passage in the Annals where Tacitus says Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate “the procurator.” Tacitus was a consular senator who had held many imperial provincial governorships and nearly every other office in the land. He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to make paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.

So there you have it. Though, the entire post is worth reading to get some insight into Roman politics and its class system.

**note: the -ianus suffix, as in Christianus, ported over to Greek as Χριστιανος :: Christianos, where we get the word Christian, means “belonging to Christ[us]”

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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in early Christianity, historicity, historiography, history


The Name Jesu

Here is a post from Stephan Huller explaining where the Talmund gets the odd name Jesu or “Yeshu” from:

The rabbis came into contact with ‘Yeshu’ in the Semitic Christian cultures of the East. Because Syriac does not use the ‘furtive’ pathach (see link below) Yeshua the shortened form of the name Yehoshua would be naturally rendered Yeshu (i.e. so the ‘a’ vowel is not used). This follows a pattern noticed with respect to other Hebrew words rendered in Syriac. The third and fourth century rabbis must have come across the name Yeshu and found it puzzling or decided to preserve the unusual form in their Aramaic reports about their Christian neighbors. It does not provide any window into the original name of Jesus as it represents only a transformation of the short form of ‘Joshua’ into Syriac.

Why is this particularly significant? Because this possibly gives us a terminus post quem for when non Greek/Latin speaking Christians started interacting with or trying to convert Jews. But the knowledge of this odd spelling seems to go back further than the 3rd century. This is Irenaeus writing in the late 2nd:

Against Heresies 2.24.2

Moreover, Jesus, which is a word belonging to the proper tongue of the Hebrews, contains, as the learned among them declare, two letters and a half, (ישו:: Y-SH-W)

I’m thinking that this gives weight to the idea that Jesus actually wasn’t that well known among the Pharisees who supposedly had him crucified. The traditions of the Pharisees are where the traditions in the Talmud come from. We already have evidence of this from the possibility that Pharisees historically had very little to no presence in Galilee. So the popular gospel image of Pharisees stalking Jesus there would necessarily be an invention.

So if Pharisees had actual eyewitness experiences with Jesus, or traditions that actually went back to Jesus, then they would have retained his actual Aramaic name Joshua and not used the derived Syriac name Yeshu. This also seems to corroborate the idea that Jews did not know about Jesus until Christians started preaching about him.

Finally, the Islamic name for Jesus, Isa (or Yasu), seems to be derived from the Syriac, as Syriac Marcionites called Jesus Isu.

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Posted by on January 2, 2012 in early Christianity


Why I Am Not A Christian

I thought I would write up a short (ish) post explaining my reasons why I’m not a Christian. Individually these reasons might not be convincing, but their aggregate weight is vastly in favor of Christianity — especially modern Christianity – being false. I’m going to try to keep this post as short as possible since each reason could be its own post altogether.

Jesus Isn’t A Jewish Messiah

“The Holiday Season is schizophrenic. Hanukkah celebrates the defeat of a guy who got rid of the laws of Moses, but Christmas celebrates the birth of a guy who got rid of the laws of Moses.”

My witty catchphrase to sum this up: “If Christianity is true why are there still Jews?”. Some people who debate Christians regularly have probably noticed that apologists almost always take things out of context. Cherrypicking is the pejorative term. The funny thing is, Christians have to take the entire Jewish Bible out of context to “demonstrate” that Jesus was a Jewish messiah; Christians have been cherrypicking since the beginning. Cherrypicking Christians are as old as Christianity itself. The biggest irony, of course, is when a non-Christian quotes a particularly damning part of the NT or Jewish Bible and Christians deflect criticism by saying they’re taking that verse out of context. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Here’s a small sample “prophecies” about Jesus taken out of context:

  • Isaiah 7.14 is not about Jesus. In context (i.e. all of chapter 7, at the least), the prophet Isaiah is trying to console king Ahaz. The historical situation was that the southern kingdom of Judah was about to be invaded by two foreign kingdoms. Ahaz wanted to make an alliance with a neighboring kingdom that wasn’t all that friendly with Judah and Isaiah is trying to convince Ahaz not to make said alliance and to wait for Yahweh’s deliverance. Verse 7.14 specifically is about using a contemporary pregnant, or soon to be pregnant, woman as a chronological marker to show when Yahweh will come to king Ahaz’s rescue. By the time that the child from the pregnant woman hits puberty, the two kingdoms (v. 16) that Ahaz is fretting over, the two kingdoms that are about to invade, will be defeated. Arguing over whether the verse says in Hebrew “almah” or “betulah” (or παρθενος in Greek) is irrelevant.
  • Isaiah 53 is not about Jesus. In context (that is, all of the preceding chapters of Deutero-Isaiah [chpts 40 – 55]) the suffering servant is the personification of Israel, or Jacob. If you read from chapters 40 – 53 in one sitting, you’ll notice that this personification of Israel/Jacob has been going on the entire time. To take chapter 53 in isolation, something the author did not intend, and make it apply to Jesus, is to take the entire metaphor out of context.
  • Isaiah 9.6 (or 9.5. depending on the translation) is not about Jesus. This verse says the messiah’s name will include EL GBWR (אֵל גִּבּוֹר). EL means “god” and GBR means “strength” or “might”. It doesn’t say the messiah will be a mighty god, but that his name will include Gabriel (GBR EL), which means “might of god” or “god is mighty”*. Just because it is a theophoric name doesn’t mean we should take it literally. Taking it literally is (surprise) taking it out of context. The order of the words in the name generally does not matter; Netanyahu (current Prime Minister of Israel) and Jonathan mean exactly the same thing (gift of Yahweh). Both names are composed of NTN — meaning “gift” — and YH (short for YHWH).
  • Psalm 110.1 is not about Jesus. In context, Psalms can’t be a prediction about Jesus, or any messiah, since Psalms are not prophetic (effectively ruling out all of the Psalms that Jesus supposedly fulfilled). If the Psalms were prophetic, there should be other prophecies — that have nothing to do with Jesus — that the Psalms predict (there aren’t). But let’s say that the Psalms are prophetic just for the sake of argument. Psalm 110 says that it was written to David and not by David. Thus the “my lord” that this Psalm is talking about is David himself. It’s not David talking about “my lord”. In historical context, this Psalm was probably written by the Hasmoneans since they were the first ones to consolidate the roles of high priest and king into one office. The sectarian Dead Sea Scroll followers did not have this Psalm in their library, evidencing that it was written after their breakaway. And it makes sense that they would not have it, since the DSS group was antagonistic towards the Hasmoneans.
  • There’s nothing in the laws of Moses that says that if someone follows all of the laws perfectly, then no one else has to. This assertion that Jesus “fulfilled” the laws of Moses is a wholly Christian invention. You can’t even say that Christians took this out of context since it is a soteriology that was invented whole cloth to validate Christianity. No one would think it were true unless they were already a Christian.

Of course, there are many more. But one thing is certain: Every single one of the so-called prophecies of Jesus are taken out of their original context to be made to apply to Jesus. Chances are, if someone purports that this or that Jewish Bible passage is a prediction about Jesus, and it’s only one or two verses, then it’s taken out of context.

Church History

Marcion (Μαρκίων) of Sinope (modern Turkey)

So here’s a simple lead question in to church history: “Why are there four gospels instead of one?” Most apologists will say that there are four gospels because each are separately giving witness to the historicity of the events they describe, much like four different people being interviewed after a traffic accident. Even though there might be minor contradictions, these minor contradictions don’t detract from the overall fact of a traffic accident. Unfortunately, this response completely ignores the historical situation that was actually happening in early Christianity and subtly assumes what it is trying to prove.

  • Why are there four gospels instead of one? What was the historical situation that produced a fourfold gospel canon? Instead of using traffic accidents to describe religious history, we should use religion to explain religious history. Why is there, for example, one book of Joshua? Trick question; there isn’t just one book of Joshua, there are two. One, the Jewish version which is in the Christian Bible, and another one, the Samaritan version. So using religion as our explanatory example, we see why there are two books of Joshua: Religious sectarianism. Jews don’t consider Samaritans to be the true version of their religion and Samaritans don’t consider Jews to be the true version of their religion. If this explains why there is more than one book of Joshua, this probably also explains why there is more than one gospel. Religious sectarianism; Matthew wasn’t written to corroborate Mark, as the traffic accident explanation assumes, but was written to replace Mark. The same with every other gospel. There are more reasons why we know religious sectarianism is the answer:
    • 1. The self-designation “catholic”. This comes from the Greek word καθολικός which means whole or universal. Small c catholic also means the same thing in English. Why would the “orthodoxy” give themselves that name? The same reason why the United States calls itself “united”. Making something “whole” or “united” that was, originally, well… not.
    • 2. The Synoptic Problem. Mark was written first, which Matt and Luke rewrote to produce their gospels. People who independently report on a traffic accident don’t use the same exact words to describe the incident like Mark, Matt, and Luke do. If they did, then the police would rightfully be suspicious. To a lesser extent John also used Mark or a source that used Mark since John uses characters and towns we are pretty certain that Mark invented whole cloth (i.e. Barabbas; Bethany), this is yet again a point against independence, which is also an assumption of the traffic accident analogy.
  • Expanding on the point about Jesus not being a Jewish messiah, many of these sectarian Christians did not cherrypick the Jewish Bible. Due to them reading the Jewish Bible literally, they realized that Jesus was not any sort of Jewish messiah. Moreover, they realized that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with or contradicted the character and commands of Yahweh portrayed in the Jewish holy book (like many atheists do today) and concluded that these were two different gods. Some other sectarian Christians read the Jewish Bible a bit less literally than that and realized that Jesus could not be Yahweh in the flesh or born from a virgin. On the flip side, other Christians read the Jewish Bible more allegorically and more out of context than the Catholics did and said that Jesus was one god out of hundreds, or that Jesus was a god who was antagonistic towards Yahweh, who they reinterpreted as Yaldabaoth (possibly Aramic for “lord of chaos”), or that the serpent in the garden of Eden was a good being who was only giving humans knowledge, or other Christians who said it was the teachings of Jesus that saved and not his death (and chided those who “worshiped a dead man”) and so on and so forth.
  • The first Christian who actually put together a canon for Christians was one of these sectarian Christians: Marcion. He is the one who realized that Jesus and Yahweh were contradictory and concluded that they were separate gods. Since they were separate gods, Christians needed their own canon since the Jewish Bible no longer applied; the Jewish messiah sent by Yahweh was yet to come. Marcion’s canon consisted of one gospel (remember, sectarianism) and 10 letters of Paul (which were probably all that existed when he did this). Marcion is also the first Christian to cite any written gospel (ironically Marcion means little Mark, just as Caesarion means little Caesar). The Catholics, in their catholicizing agenda, simply followed Marcion’s “gospel-apostle” canon format to capitalize and assimilate Marcionite Christians. This also meant bringing in Paul and making him more acceptable to Catholic dogma, which included editing his letters to undo the editing that Marcion probably did. Which means there is probably more than one voice in Paul’s letters that we read today.
  • Apostolic Succession. It’s curious that, with all of this information in the background, Catholics have asserted that the concept of Apostolic Succession gives credence to their side of the story. However, in the timeline of Christian teachings, Marcion seems to have been the first Christian to actually claim his teachings go back to some sort of authentic apostle. We have no records of any Christians citing a teacher of theirs that goes back to the “original disciples” before Marcion (or his contemporaries Basilides and Papias). The redactional process of the gospels follows this same trend. The earliest gospels were unconcerned with who was authenticating the story. As we go along the timeline, moving diachronically through early Christian history, later gospels started to become more and more concerned with someone authenticating the narratives; starting with Luke’s introduction, to the gospel of Thomas’ introduction, to John’s concluding chapter saying that he got these stories from a beloved disciple, to finally gospels being written from first person points of view of the disciples like Peter or Judas.

All this means is that whatever or however Christianity originally started as, Catholicism (and all of its breakaway Christianities, like Protestantism) is necessarily a reaction to whatever Christianity or Christianities came before it. So even if original Christianity was true, Catholicism (i.e. all modern Christianities) is second to this original form and probably not true.

New Testament

“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, see me after class. Your book reports are surprisingly similar.”

Following the conclusions of the previous section on Church History, what is the story behind the New Testament? Do we have the authentic teachings of Jesus, of Paul, of Peter or John? More succinctly: Is the NT reliable?

  • First of all, all of the gospels were originally written anonymously. While later gospels (Luke and John) have allusions to eyewitness testimony, the gospels don’t actually get their attributions until the late 2nd century, when the Catholics were attempting to make their church the universal one by co-opting various heresies into their own traditions. We know that the original gospels were anonymous because no one who quotes a gospel prior to the late 2nd century Catholics ever quotes from Mark, Luke, John, or Matthew by name. First by quoting directly from it without attribution (“as the gospel says…”) or attributing them to generic apostles as appeals to original teachers gains currency. As I mentioned in the previous section, early Christian writings were all about revelation and very little about authentic teachers. As time progresses and sectarianism increases, the focus on authentic teachers increases and appeals to revelation decrease, eventually leading to attribution of the gospels (“according to Luke”, etc.).
  • The first gospel written was Mark. All other gospels derive from this gospel either directly, like Matt, Luke, Marcion, etc., or indirectly like John. Because they all depend on Mark, the historicity of subsequent gospels strongly depends on the historicity of Mark. However, Mark seems to have written his gospel as a highly allegorical tale, inventing towns and people to serve literary purposes in his narrative (like the towns Bethany or Bethphage, the legion exorcism, feeding of the multitude with fish, the cursing of the fig tree as an allusion to the cleansing of the temple, which is an allusion to the destruction of the temple, the name Peter as a diss on Paul’s antagonist Cephas in Galatians, the names Barabbas, Jairus, etc.), and the first image of Jesus as a teacher appear in Mark’s gospel as well, which is also suspicious; Mark could have invented a wandering preacher Jesus for his own theological purposes. Other gospel writers copying from Mark in some fashion use these names, pericopae, and towns uncritically so they must not have done any “homework” or fact-checking either. And we can tell that they followed Mark’s basic outline because they all differ dramatically after Mark ends (at Mk 16.8). The part after 16.8 in Mark is itself an interpolation by someone unsatisfied with Mark’s original ending, summarizing the endings of the other gospels onto Mark.
  • Marcion collected 10 of Paul’s letters. Why not all 13 (or 14)? Probably because the last three didn’t exist when Marcion did so. Marcion just so happens to have collected the seven of Paul’s letters that a large majority of NT scholars claim were written by Paul, and three that a smaller number think were written by Paul. He left out the three that a large majority of NT scholars conclude weren’t written by Paul. The seven authentic letters are Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Philemon. The three contested are Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians. The three pseudepigraphal ones are 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. But, we know that even the authentic and contested epistles have had more than Paul’s thoughts in them due to him being used in the battle between Catholics and Marcionites. There are interpolations. Romans 1.2-6 is probably an interpolation since it doesn’t fit the trend of introductions that Paul usually writes in his letters and the contents of this intro are anti-Marcionite. 1 Thess 2.14-16 is also likely an interpolation due to its anachronism. 1 Cor 14.34-35 is also probably an interpolation due to non-Pauline language. There are probably many more interpolations we cannot detect.
  • Acts of the Apostles is first mentioned in the Christian timeline sometime around the end of the 2nd century. Which probably means that it was used as a weapon against heretics; especially heretics who relied solely on Paul: Marcionites. AoA reads as anti-Marcionite propaganda, which means it is less about the history of the early church and more about taming Paul and stealing him away from Marcion. Furthermore, the Christian genre “Acts of…” gained popularity in the 2nd century, so it wouldn’t make sense that this work was written in the 1st century and sat around for almost 100 years untapped in the battle against heretics. Lastly, the work seems to get some of its information from Josephus, who published his last works around the end of the 1st century. So the earliest possible date for it is the beginning of the 2nd century.
  • The letter writer John, the gospel writer John, and the revelation writer John are all not the same John; at least, the letter and gospel writer are not the same as the apocalypse writer. Namely, the gospel writer and epistle writer never name themselves but the apocalypse writer does. Not only that, but the most important evidence is linguistic: The apocalypse writer seems to have been a native Aramaic speaker writing poorly in Greek**. Contrary to that, the gospel/epistle writer has a very good grasp on the Greek language, using puns that only make sense in Greek***. An argument could be made that the apocalypse writer was one of the original disciples of Jesus (assuming he had any, since “disciples” are only a title in Mark’s gospel), but the gospel and epistle writer had too good a handle on Greek to have been an Aramaic speaking disciple of Jesus.
  • The same situation happens with the epistles 1 & 2 Peter, James, and Jude. These were written in Greek, much better Greek than the apocalypse of John, which counts as evidence against original authorship by disciples of Jesus. 1 & 2 Peter have the same problem as the letters and revelation of John. 1 Peter is written in a different style of Greek than 2 Peter.

With all of this in mind, it doesn’t seem as though the NT is reliable as far as reconstructing Christian history. But it is a reliable collection of works to elucidate what type of struggles were going on in the 2nd century.

The Jesus Needle in the Christ Haystack

If the NT is not reliable, especially reliable about Jesus, and the history of how the church formed is explained by highly volatile religious sectarianism (mostly about different interpretations of Jesus) then how do we know anything about the “historical” Jesus? Most reconstructions of Jesus by scholars are done by assuming that one of the issues I wrote about above do not apply, or simply hand wave them away. But with all of this information in the background, it seems as though if Jesus existed, the balloon of myth that surrounds him is simply too large to determine with any certainty what a historical Jesus would look like. So at this point, I’m agnostic about the guy’s existence.

A major escape clause for the historicity of Jesus is appealing to oral tradition. The assumption being that if there was oral tradition, then there must have been a wandering preaching Jesus to start it all. Unfortunately this simply does not follow. Tradition guards its secrets jealously; traditions are only kept because they had utility in storytelling (or in battling heretics), not because of how historical they were. The subjective value of a tradition within a community has no bearing on how historical the tradition is; a tradition could be invented whole cloth that was intended for great storytelling (like Mark’s entire gospel), but this has no bearing on how historical the tradition is. At the most we can tell how young or old a tradition is, which, again, is only an indicator of how long the tradition was useful in storytelling. It is not a necessary indicator of historicity. And as we notice from the trend of church history, early Christians were unconcerned with authenticity of things here “on the ground” and more interested in revelations. The focus on the primacy of the earthly teachings of Jesus or his immediate disciples is a later development of church history, and this development only evolved to combat the rampant sectarianism.

Christianity In The Wider Pagan Matrix

Romulus and Remus, born from the Vestal Virgin Rhea

Ok, so if it is highly likely that none of the now common dogmas about Jesus either came from Jesus himself or his immediate followers, where did they come from? This is actually pretty easy, and can be summed up in the question “How many Jewish kings were worshiped as a god?”

  • How many Jewish kings or high priests were worshiped as a god? It turns out that this number is big fat zero. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish kings and heroes worshiped as gods is much, much higher. It seems as though as soon as the Jesus cult was ported over to non-Jews, then many of the now common ideas about Jesus began to take hold. If Jesus was thought to be a king to pagans, then he must also be a god. For example, Augustus Caesar (where we get the month August from) had the official title “son of god”. He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (where we get the month July). But these pagans who were interested in Christianity were faced with a conundrum. If Jesus is a god (since he’s a king) then which god is he? There is only one god in Judaism. The only solution was to combine them; Jesus became Yahweh in the flesh. The only problem was that this changed Jesus from a (supposedly) wandering Jewish preacher to a Greco-Roman god.
  • The same deal with the virgin birth and resurrection. Many heroes or kings in antiquity were thought to be born from virgins. It only follows that the same mytheme would be applied to Jesus once pagans started converting to Christianity. Stories about man-gods and heroes coming back from the dead also abound in antiquity. Richard Carrier made a tongue-in-cheek comment that stories of demi-gods and heroes coming back from the dead in antiquity were as common as Law and Order spin-offs today. Christianity’s claims are just “Law and Order: Judaism” or “CSI: Jerusalem”. As I wrote about in a pretty recent post, the most famous city in Western society was supposedly founded by a guy who was born from a virgin, ascended to heaven, and resurrected from the dead: Romulus, who founded Rome over 2,500 years ago. Coincidentally, Romulus would have been born from a virgin around the same time that Isaiah wrote 7.14.
  • For the more intellectual pagans, they revered the creative force of the Platonic god’s reason: the Logos. It was only logical for Christians (by way of Philo) to apply this Logos to Jesus. Intellectual Christians spun it so that if one was worshiping the Stoics’ Logos then one was in reality worshiping Jesus. The concept of martyrdom, also, originates from pagan society. At least, the culture of respecting martyrs. The very word itself, “martyr” in Greek (μαρτυρία), means witness or testimony. For the Greeks, the best witness to your claims is dying for them. Looking death in the face, and standing firm in the face of injustice, is a theme as old as the Homeric cycle. Christians also seem to have borrowed the Eucharist ceremony from contemporary Mithraists.

Very little of the dogmas of modern Christianity need to have been preached and believed by either Jesus or the early Jewish Jesus cults. Once Christians began preaching to non-Jews, the previous culture and memes that these pagans believed also became a part of the emerging Christian memeplex.

Christian Virtues Are Not Virtuous

1. Faith is not a virtue. Sure, there are quips about how Christians are “gullible” because of faith, but that’s not the angle I’m going for. It’s not the gullibility of faith that makes it not a virtue, but the self-deception of faith that makes it not a virtue; it’s the constant hammering that faith is a virtue which makes it non-virtuous, ironically enough.

If one is constantly prodded to believe something, not because it was true, but because believing in it in and of itself was its own virtue, then this pushes “truth”, no matter where it’s at, to second-class status in deference to this belief; this faith. This actually has nothing to do with gullibility. This has to do with Dennett’s “belief in belief” (also here). If some idea or value is promulgated as a better virtue than believing in whatever was “true”, then when the two are juxtaposed — when “truth” and faith come into conflict — if one doesn’t follow “truth” then one is engaging in some form of deception. Moreover, if one doesn’t actually believe some claim, but is constantly nudged to believe in something because one is told that it is virtuous to believe in it, then one is not being honest with oneself. This, also, is necessarily self-deception.

Of course, I think that this self-deception (i.e. “faith”, Christian faith) is the reason why Christians take the Jewish Bible out of context, and why church history panned out the way it did. Truth was not a concern for any of these Christians. Faith was. And in order to bolster faith, one would have to take a passage of Jewish scripture (like Isaiah 7.14) out of context and shoehorn it to apply to Jesus. In order to bolster faith, one would have to take a document of unknown authorship and provenance — like the gospels — and slap the name of an apostle on it. In order to bolster faith, one would have to take an epistle not written by you, but had some sort of authority, and subtly inject your own views into the pen of this authoritative voice.

Christian faith is not a virtue. Faith cannot be a virtue if one is concerned with the truth; if one is concerned with honesty. If we are concerned about truth, if we think that believing what’s true is a virtue, then we should only believe in high probability events (because reality isn’t black and white enough for binary “truth” and “lie”) to have a high probability of being “virtuous”. Because I value “truth”, I only value high probability beliefs and explanations. And because I value high probability beliefs, I do not value Christian faith.

2. Christian philosophy is arrogant. Basically, if the only two options for us being here are (1) accident or (2) intelligent design by god, then I’m not arrogant enough to pick the second option. Us being here “by accident” is the more humbling option, since it actually places us in our realistic relationship with the universe. If we were put here on purpose, especially by some god, then this purpose becomes “divine” and thus we become something closer to the center of the universe. Of course, pre-modern Christians actually believed that we were the center of the universe and fought tooth and nail against (scientific) ideas that proposed any alternatives. Which makes sense, when you consider that Christians, generally, place more worth on faith than on truth.

To think that the creator of the universe, assuming that one existed, created the universe for our benefit, wants a “personal relationship” with us, and eventually took on human form and died “for us” cannot honestly be anything other than abject narcissism.

3. The Christian worldview doesn’t answer any questions. Yeah, Christians like to say that the reason for xyz phenomenon is because “god wants it”, but this doesn’t actually answer the question, it just pushes the question back one peg. If the purpose for us being here is to give glory to god, or something else that has something to do with god, then what is god’s reasons for doing anything? If god has no reason for his existence, then every value and teleology that you attach to this god becomes meaningless by association. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, Christianity doesn’t give any more value to life than any other theistic worldview or even atheism.

Christian Belief Through The Lens Of Cognitive Science

Ok, so. If aliens came down to Earth today and we tried to explain Christianity to them, would they say “Interesting! Tell me more” or would they say “uhhh…”? In other words, why would we believe that a guy could come back from the dead in today’s modern world? Even more than that, why would we believe that his coming back from the dead has any repercussions for anyone living today? What’s the possible connection?

  • Of course, no one (at least, no one that I know) became a Christian through objective inquiry into Christian history. They became Christians for the same reason they speak English; their overwhelming surrounding culture spoke the “cultural language” of Christianity and they learned that cultural language at the same age(s) they learned their native language. And just like we use our native language to explain things that happen to us, we use our cultural language to explain “religious experiences”. The English language is just as pervasive in the U.S. as Christianity. One would only notice this if you didn’t speak either language. An Arab who grew up in a predominantly Muslim country would do the same. They would use their native language (Arabic) and their cultural language (Islam) to explain any “religious experience” they would have as well. The truly miraculous thing would be to see a native language and cultural Hindu explain a religious experience using English/Christianity when they don’t know anything about either English or Christianity.
  • All religions, not just Christianity, take advantage of our cognitive biases. The most entrenched one is the fear and avoidance of death. If we are given an option of either living forever or dying, our innate biological drive will compel us to pick the live forever option, no matter how illogical it is. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that every single cognitive bias that psychologists and neurologists have discovered helps inculcate religion from critical thought. Which might explain why psychologists are among the least religious professions. One of the most pervasive cognitive bias I see in debates (not just in regards to religion) is confirmation bias, where we engage in “motivated skepticism” of ideas that are contrary to what we already believe.
  • Then there is the unreliable feeling of certainty. Certainty is an emotion, just like love or anger. If we can get angry about a situation that we imagine happening, a situation that hasn’t actually occurred, then we can feel certain about a situation that hasn’t actually occurred as well. Neurological processes explain why we get sudden epiphanies; when we think a thought, even though it might leave our conscious awareness, the thought can still be processed and worked on subconsciously in the background. This is why some people might think that some random thought is from a god or some spirit being, when in actuality it’s just from the part of your brain that “thinks” without you thinking it. On top of this, the feeling of certainty feels good, and the feeling of uncertainty does not. This alone should make the feeling of certainty highly suspect. Unfortunately, religious believers think that this feeling of certainty, this good feeling, is unearthly and attribute it to the “inner witness of the holy spirit” or other religious terms.

Why should we be wary of cognitive biases? Because most biases act on a subconscious level. And if they work on a subconscious level, then we are not aware that they are controlling us. Most people falsely believe that they are “critical thinkers” but almost none of these people has studied any cognitive biases. In order to be a good thinker, one has to know how the brain thinks. As tautological as that sounds, no one actually follows that advice. One cannot be a critical thinker without knowing common pitfalls of rational thought; common pitfalls that toss us into the chasms of irrational thought. And if these biases are working at a subconscious level, and we are being led around by them towards comforting, yet false, beliefs, then someone who does know about cognitive biases can lead us around by the nose into positions that we don’t necessarily want.


So these are my general reasons for not being a Christian. I didn’t really touch on the existence of a god because I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant to specific Christian claims.I might save that for another post, but I generally think that if a god exists, he does so naturally and/or is some sort of non-personal god. Hopefully, one can be anything but Christian (Jewish, Muslim, etc.) and will agree with everything I wrote above. But yeah. These are my reasons why I’m not a Christian, and will probably never be a Christian again.

*The ‘i’ in many theophoric names is possessive, which would mean that Gabriel means “my god is mighty”. Gaborel (or EL GBWR) would be “god is mighty” but is still a theophoric name; Ezekiel 14.14 has the name Danel (god is judge) not Daniel (my god is judge)
**cf. Rev. 1.4 ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος is bad Greek grammar; ὢν, which means “being”, should probably be εστιν to mean “is”. ὁ ὢν is a quote of the LXX version of Ex. 3.14 which only makes sense in that context as a rough translation of the original Hebrew pun
***cf. Jn 3.3ff the pun between “born again” and “born from above” only makes sense in Greek [note, this is a link to a joke that is lost on a non-native English speaker as an example] which is why the pun doesn’t make sense for modern readers and we have to stick to only one translation of άνωθεν. The “again” meaning of it.


Posted by on December 26, 2011 in early Christianity


The Three Wise Men

Just thought I’d do a quick post about the so-called “Three Wise Men” that will be the in the stories and hymns of Christians worldwide the next couple of days.
The word that Matt uses for the “wise men” at Matt 2.1 is μάγοι :: magoi, which is magicians. He doesn’t number them either, but simply has the plural word “magicians”. The author of Acts of Apostles also uses the word μάγος for, ironically, a false prophet and sorcerer (NIV) named son of Jesus (Acts 13.6 ἄνδρα τινὰ μάγον ψευδοπροφήτην Ἰουδαῖον ᾧ ὄνομα Βαριησοῦς [bar Iesous = son of Jesus]). Other writers in antiquity used the same word μάγος that Matt does:
Herodotus, in The Histories, writes:
When the bridges and the work at Athos were ready, and both the dikes at the canal’s entrances, built to prevent the surf from silting up the entrances of the dug passage, and the canal itself were reported to be now completely finished, the army then wintered. At the beginning of spring the army made ready and set forth from Sardis to march to Abydos. As it was setting out, the sun left his place in the heaven and was invisible, although the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day turned into night. When Xerxes saw and took note of that, he was concerned and asked the Magi (τοὺς Μάγους) what the vision might signify. They declared to him that the god was showing the Greeks the abandonment of their cities; for the sun (they said) was the prophet of the Greeks, as the moon was their own. Xerxes rejoiced exceedingly to hear that and continued on his march.
Euripides, in Orestes:
[1495] passing right through the house, o Zeus and Earth and light and night! whether by magic spells or wizards’ arts (μάγων τέχναις) or heavenly theft. What happened afterwards I do not know; for I stole out of the palace, a runaway.
[1500] So Menelaus endured his painful, painful suffering to recover his wife Helen from Troy to no purpose.
Plato, Republic:
[572e] to be repeated in his case. He is drawn toward utter lawlessness, which is called by his seducers complete freedom. His father and his other kin lend support to these compromise appetites while the others lend theirs to the opposite group. And when these dread magi (δεινοὶ μάγοι) and king-makers come to realize that they have no hope of controlling the youth in any other way, they contrive to engender in his soul a ruling passion to be the protector
The translator of Orestes decided to translate μάγος as wizard. So if one really wanted to troll fundamentalist Christians, we might substitute Harry, Hermione, and Ron as the three who visited Jesus on Christmas (lol).
(Harry, Ron, and Hermione rushing to baby Jesus before Herod can kill him)
Here is the Tufts dictionary definition of the Greek word μάγος:
Μάγος [α^], ου, ὁ,: Magian, one of a Median tribe hence, as belonging to this tribe,

2. one of the priests and wise men in Persia who interpreted dreams
3. enchanter, wizard, esp. in bad sense, impostor, charlatan
as Adj., magical, “μάγψ τέχνῃ πράττειν τι” , “κεστοῦ φωνεῦσα μαγώτερα”

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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in christmas, early Christianity


More Against The Existence Of Q

I've written a couple of posts about some arguments against the existence of Q. One was the inclusion of Joseph in a non-Q pericope in Luke. It seems as though Luke is following Matthew at this point (Lk 4.14-22 // Matt 13.53-55) and not Mark (6.1-3). There would be no reason for Luke to change Mark's “isn't this the carpenter” to “isn't this Joseph's son” without the intermediary — i.e. Matthew's — “isn't this the carpenter's son?”.
Another was the removal of the character Bartimaeus in Luke. If Luke had been following Mark at Mk 10.46, then he should have included Bart's name as well. But he makes Bart's character anonymous just like Matthew does (Matt 20.30 // Luke 18.35). We know why Matt makes him anonymous, but why would Luke do it?
Another argument against Q is brought up by Mark Goodacre in his book The Case Against Q. We know that Matt used Mark due to editorial fatigue: one example is that Matt corrects Mark's use of “king” for Herod; the actual title was tetrarch (Mk 6.14 vs Mt 14.1). But due to editorial fatigue Matt lapses back to following Mark in the same pericope (Mk 6.26 // Mt 14.9) and “reverts” back to calling Herod a king.
The same type of editorial fatigue can also be seen in Luke's following of Matt. Luke usually has a 10-1 ratio in his parables/miracle stories (ten lepers, one thankful [Lk 17.11-19]; ten coins, one lost [15.8-10]). In the parable of the ten minas, Luke starts out with ten (Matt has three; cf Mt 25.14-30) but only recounts three servants by the parable's end, just like in Matt. And Luke seems to follow Matt's conclusion when he recounts giving the last mina to “the one who had ten”. In Matt it makes sense that there was one who had ten since he was given five at the beginning and doubled it. But in Luke, the one who had ten actually ends up with eleven (he starts out with one and adds ten more). So either Luke forgot how to add, or he is following Matt.
One of the big points that Goodacre makes against Q in the last chapter of his book is that it is a hypothetical document with no other exemplar. While we do have another list of sayings sort of document like the gospel of Thomas, Q actually has a narrative structure unlike Thomas. So again, Q is a hypothetical document that has no equal in any other early Christian literature. A list of sayings, but with a narrative structure: it begins with preaching in the wilderness by John (Q 3.2-7), to Jesus' implied baptism (Q 3.16-22), then being tempted by Satan (Q 4.1-13). Later on in Q, Jesus is approached by messengers from JtB (Q 7.18-35) which follows the same narrative structure as the gospels. It then refers back to JtB's prediction of the coming one mentioned earlier in Q.
Thomas has no logical progression like that and doesn't follow any narrative gospel that we know about. It looks to me, according to Goodacre's argument, that Q is also a narrative gospel (if indeed Q existed) that we just have fragments of and not a bare list of sayings like Thomas.
For me, this puts the prior for the existence of Q at a low probability. I would like to do some Bayesian analysis to see whether Q exists or not, but I'll probably save that for later as it would probably get really involved.
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in early Christianity

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