J.C. meets the 9/11 nuts.
A few months back, the sad Jared Lee Loughner incident brought increased attention to one of his influences, a strange 2007 film called Zeitgeist
which became a viral sensation on the internet. You can watch it here
In earlier posts, I argued that, although Loughner may have suffered from schizophrenia, he worsened his condition by avid consumption of psychotoxic material like Zeitgeist
. This is a work of surreal stupidity. Its popularity among conspiracy buffs leaves me filled with despair over the sad state of American dissent.
The filmmaker, one Peter Joseph, seems to have had a hard time choosing a topic. His film has three: The historicity of Jesus, the alleged "controlled demolition" of the twin towers, and the evils wrought by those pesky "international bankers." (In conspiracy buffdom, that phrase is usually code for you-know-which-group.)
Since this is Easter Sunday, let's stick with the Jesus material.
The first part of Joseph's movie derives from a book called The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold
, the author of which is a "scholar" who goes by the not-terribly-promising pseudonym of Archaya X. Her real name, it seems, is D.M. Murdoch. X (or is it D?) believes in the theory that Jesus never existed. She thinks that the gospel story is a mystical fiction cribbed from earlier mythologies.
This idea has become popular with a growing number of young pseudo-hipsters. These cocksure, ill-read kids exemplify the phrase "a little learning is a dangerous thing." They constitute the primary audience for Zeitgeist
Not long ago, I heard a talk by renowned Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who ran into some pseudo-hipsters of this sort. In this case, they were Swedish. Not only did they accept the Jesus myth theory, they seemed to think that it was the only alternative to belief in Biblical literalism. They were surprised to learn that Ehrman -- a recovering fundamentalist who now calls himself an agnostic -- nevertheless stipulates the historicity of Jesus.
Incidentally, Ehrman's position is shared by the vast majority of New Testament scholars -- many of whom are as irreligious as Ehrman is.
The work of these scholars remains invisible to a whole generation of haughty young numbskulls who do not realize that they have bought into a false dichotomy. These dolts seem to think that one must choose between the Jimmy Swaggart version of reality or the Archaya X version of reality.
In fact, both of those realities are indefensible.History.
The "Jesus myth" hypothesis, as it has been called, is nothing new. It goes back to a couple of French Enlightenment thinkers named Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis. (Here's Dupuis' book
, if you care to skim it.) In the early 19th century, wits mocked the pseudo-scholarship of those two gentlemen by mounting similar arguments to "prove" that Napoleon Bonaparte was a myth -- even though Boney was, at the time, still alive and puttering around St. Helena.
The "Jesus Myth" theory thus had an inauspicious start.
Toward the end of the 19th century, one Bruno Bauer took up the idea. (I first encountered the theory by way of Bauer, back in my college days.) Bauer hated Jews passionately, and he managed to conflate his pet theory about Jesus with his anti-Semitism.
Ever since that time, the Jesus Myth theory has had a following among anti-Semites of a certain stripe. Perhaps the disturbing Bauer legacy explains why Peter Joseph (staunch enemy of those "international bankers") finds the theory so attractive.
In recent times, the Jesus Myth hypothesis has also had some prominent followers who are not
Among the more interesting thinkers to explore this position are John Allegro (who thought that early Christianity was a mushroom cult -- no, I'm not kidding) and Bertrand Russell. Among the least
interesting are the ever-annoying Christopher Hitchens and the supremely dull Richard Dawkins, a classic blowhard who often pretends to know all about topics he hasn't researched.
(When will the BBC learn not to use Dawkins as a talking head? The man never has anything to say that cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy.)
New Testament scholar Robert Price is a "myth" guy. He is worth reading. But he confesses that his is a minority position.Zeitgeist.
Peter Joseph's version of the Jesus Myth theory is the most thoroughly bonkers rendition ever offered. Like most modern conspiracy theorists, Joseph thinks that adopting the persona of a radical outsider gives him the right to concoct facts out of whole cloth. When I first saw the film, I considered offering a point-by-point refutation. Fortunately, that job has already been done, and done well, by a fellow named Edward L. Winston (who has no discernible religious ax to grind). Go here
Let's look at an example. This comes from the Joseph's film:
Broadly speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, which in turn, three kings followed to locate and adorn the new-born savior. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples he traveled about with, performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as The Truth, The Light, God's Anointed Son, The Good Shepherd, The Lamb of God, and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for 3 days, and thus, resurrected..
If you know anything at all about Egyptology, you'll see right away that Joseph pulls nearly all of these facts straight out of...well, out of an orifice which Aleister Crowley jokingly called "the eye of Horus."
Hit Google, hit the library, double check what I'm about to say as thoroughly as you can: You won't prove me wrong. Horus was not born on December 25. His Mom Isis was no virgin; she was married to a guy named Osiris, who may or may not have spent some time trapped in a tree stump (depending on which version of the myth you prefer). Horus was never called the Good Shepherd or the Lamb of God or any of that crap.
Sweet merciful Ra, where did Peter Joseph come up with the notion that Horus was crucified?
No ancient Egyptian ever wrote down a story like that. I don't know of any ancient myth that has Horus trotting across H2O or teaching at the age of twelve or gathering twelve disciples.
Bottom line: Nearly every word that Peter Joseph has written is pure crap. His entire movie operates on this same low level. The guy is a toon.
Most of the time, I applaud those who offer quirky, outside-the-mainstream views. We need more people who, when handed a sheet of lined paper, insist on writing the other way. But alternative thinkers must still be thinkers
. They have to have standards. History isn't Calvinball: You can't just make it up as you go along.
So. Now that we've swatted the behinds of infants like Peter Joseph and Archaya X, let's get back to the main question. Did Jesus exist?Setting a date
. I may be a layman, but I've been reading about the origins of the New Testament since the 1970s. I feel certain that Jesus did exist. I also believe that oral testimony from eyewitnesses mutated over time. The anecdotes in circulation became encrusted with spurious and legendary material added by early Christian writers who allowed their nascent theology to color the facts.
That position, as mentioned previously, is held by most modern scholars.
I differ from them only in questioning their late dating of the four Gospels. Most scholars place Luke after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70; many would place all four Gospels after that date. But what is the evidence for this contention?
Near as I can tell, the argument all comes down to those passages in Luke which predict the destruction of the holy city. There are three such passages in the book. Here's one from the 21st chapter:
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.
And that, friends, is it
. That is the reason why scholars date Luke after the year 70: The prophecy came true, therefore the text must have been written after
Alas, many NT scholars are, like Ehrman, escapees from the restrictive religious traditions of their earlier years. Quite understandably, these guys don't want to concede any territory to the blinkered reactionaries who once made their lives miserable. Thus, they reason: If we date Luke before AD 70, we are allowing for the possibility that Jesus really did possess supernatural powers. And we can't have that!
We need not admit a supernatural explanation. You don't need ESP to make an accurate forecast. Jesus, or the writer of Luke, may simply have made a logical deduction based on a ground-level knowledge of political reality.
As early as 2005, I predicted that the housing bubble would turn into a disaster. I don't possess mystical powers; I simply reasoned that home prices could not continue to rise while wages remained stagnant.
There were several revolts against Rome before the great war of 66-70; Josephus discusses an earlier uprising led by an Egyptian Jew, who also rates a mention in the book of Acts (21:38). The Jesus movement originated in Galilee, a hotbed of anti-Roman sentiment. I have no problem believing that Jesus -- or his early followers -- sniffed the air and smelled revolution. They came to the sensible conclusion that Rome would win.
There's your explanation for Luke 21. The book could have been written in AD 60 or 50 or even earlier. We simply have no way to know.
But I don't think it was written after the fall of Jerusalem. Think about it: If the above-quoted passage were written after AD 70, then Luke (whoever he was) would not have hesitated to crow about the fulfillment of the prophecy. The Gospel writers certainly were never shy about shouting the first century equivalent of "He shoots; he scores!"
Anne Rice (of all people) once wrote some wise words along these lines. She noted that there are zero
concrete, unmistakable after-the-fact references to the destruction of Jerusalem to be found anywhere in the New Testament. The loss of the war was an awe-inspiring, shattering event -- yet the NT authors don't talk about it. Therefore, she reasoned, most of the NT material was probably written earlier
That argument makes sense to me.
Please understand: Positing an earlier date for these texts doesn't mean that guys like Tim LaHaye are anything other than a bunch of silly-billies. Heck, they're almost
as silly as Peter Joseph.
(Yes, I know that the earliest extant copy of the complete New Testament dates to the Fourth century. So? The earliest extant copy of Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars
dates to 900 A.D. That fact doesn't make Caesar a myth.)So why do I think Jesus was real?
The Gospels are filled with funky details that make no sense as fiction. For example, there's the famous lacuna at Mark 10:46:
And they come to Jericho: and as he went out from Jericho, with his disciples and a great multitude, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the way side.
He goes in, he goes out... For centuries, scholars have suggested that a "Jericho story" once existed here.
No ancient writer of fiction would have strewn his narrative with the messy, inessential details that abound in the Gospels. I've certainly never seen a myth
with this kind of stuff in it.
You can feel the hand of a narrative artist on every page of Homer and Virgil. The Gospels, by contrast, are rough-hewn and stitched together, filled with contradictions, stylistic shifts and endless streams of needless trivia.
The notorious formal weirdness of John -- just try
to make sense of the thing chronologically -- tells me that some more-or-less factual bits and pieces, gathered from a number of sources (oral and written), have been stitched together with some legendary material and a lot of concocted ex-post-facto sermonizing (e.g., the big after-dinner speech).So how can we know which bits are reliable history and which are not?
We can't. Not with any certainty.
Scholars break up each Gospel -- each speech, each mini-story -- into discrete pieces. "Pericope" is the term of art. Determining which pericopes "feel real" and which do not is a fuzzy, frustrating business. It certainly is not a hard science.
But logic gives us some guidelines. Most scholars offer these three rules:1. The rule of chronology.
Earlier texts are considered more reliable than later ones.2. The rule of multiplicity.
If a story shows up in all four Gospels -- and, even better, in non-Gospel sources -- it is more likely to be true than if it shows up in only one Gospel.
3. The rule of embarrassment.
If a story would have inconvenienced an early Christian -- if it made the faith look dubious, if it gave a proselytizer a "lotta 'splainin' to do" -- then, paradoxically enough, that story is likely to be true. Think about it. Why include so humiliating a story as Peter's denial if it isn't
Consider the crucifixion. It appears in all four Gospels, including Mark, which is probably the earliest of the texts. The crucifixion is mentioned in the Pauline epistles, which were probably written before Mark. So from the standpoint of Rule 1 and Rule 2, the crucifixion of Jesus seems likely to have been a real event. And the fact that the religion's founder was executed as a criminal certainly brings the rule of embarrassment into play.
Consider, as well, the baptism by John, which is described in all of our sources. It's a somewhat embarrassing story point because it places John in the "mentor" (or sensei
) position over Jesus. Conclusion: The basic account probably has a factual basis -- but certain details, such as the descent of the dove (not mentioned in the earliest text) were probably added to lessen the embarrassment factor.
The despairing cry of "Why have you forgotten me?" comes under the third rule. So do the passages where the apostles jockey to be "the big cheese" in heaven. A fiction writer intent on propagating a new myth simply would not have concocted such difficult, cheek-reddening material.
Now consider the raising of Lazarus, a story which isn't mentioned in the synoptic Gospels. It appears only in John, the last Gospel written. The tale's absence from all other texts is downright suspicious. And there's no embarrassment factor at work here -- at least, none that I
All three of our rules render the Lazarus pericope very suspect.
I would offer a fourth rule: The rule of likelihood.
Is the tale injurious to common sense?
To illustrate my point, let's posit that an extra-canonical Jesus text turns up at Oxyrinchus. It isn't much of a text -- just a small, difficult-to-read scrap of paper from the first century. But it does mention Jesus. (A few items of that sort have turned up over the years.)
The passage reads: "And then Jesus and four of disciples walked to Caesaria Philippi, where they stayed with a man named Benjamin."
Would you consider this passage historical? Or at least credible?
Before you answer, let's suppose that we also find another passage which reads a bit differently. It says: "Jesus flew to Caesaria by flapping his arms like a bird."
Which passage seems more believable to you? Obviously, we can't know
whether the "walking" version is true, but, on its face, it certainly seems more credible than does the "flying" version.
Rule 4 makes the Crucifixion easy to believe. Lots of guys back then were crucified. But the Resurrection -- well, that's a Rule 4 toughie.
If you have faith, I suppose, Rule 4 considerations simply won't matter to you.