Monday, January 19, 2015

Review - Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 2

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price
Jesus at the Vanishing Point – part 2
Well, I admit that I was pretty rough on Robert Price in the first part of this review.  I do hope things get a little better as I continue through his article, Jesus at the Vanishing Point.  I learned that I need to be extra scrupulous with Robert Price’s sources to make sure they are not being misrepresented.  But, blast it all, that takes time!  This time around, I will do my best to work my way through this article but not get too bogged down in the details.

The Traditional Christ-Myth Theory

As I continue through Jesus at the Vanishing Point, I find that Dr. Price is already back to repeating the biggest oversight that I have found in this book so far.  Just as I think Dr. Price will finally define the Christ Myth Theory, and explain what exactly it is that he is defending, he instead elaborates on what he considers the three main pillars in support of the Christ Myth Theory (whatever that is!).  It is too bad, because Robert Price has not yet defined his particular conception of Christ Myth Theory, and will not for another 300 or so pages.  So when Robert Price makes arguments, it is very difficult for me to understand what he is arguing for.  It is not enough to say, for instance, that most if not all of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus cannot be defended as an actual historical event.  Dr. Price is, I assume, arguing in this article that Jesus was worshipped as a pre-Christian, heavenly deity before he was ever worshipped as a human – something Dr. Price does not mention until page 388 of his book!  Until I read that page of the book in detail, I can only assume or even guess what exactly he means by Christ Myth Theory, and this makes it tough for me to evaluate Dr. Price’s personal conception of this Christ Myth Theory.  But I will give it the best shot I can with the information that I have.
Let’s look at the ‘three pillars’, as Dr. Price calls them, of the traditional Christ Myth Theory.

1) There is no mention of a miracle working Jesus in secular sources. (p31)
2) The epistles, which were written before the gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus. (p32)
3) The Jesus story shows strong parallels to other Mediterranean religions that were also based on gods that died and rose again. (p44)

I can’t believe there are not more pillars than this.  Isn’t there something about a pre-Christian deity that later became the flesh and blood Jesus that really defines this conception of a Christ Myth?  I know I keep pressing this point, but it is a deadly flaw in the whole presentation so far.

No mention of Jesus?

So I guess the traditional Christ Myth Theory, whatever that is, rests on only three foundational pillars. I agree with Dr. Price when he says that the first pillar is the weakest one of the three he gives.  He views it as so weak, in fact, that he spends next to no time discussing it – neither here or in the remainder of the book.  The argument is: there are no secular sources, contemporary with the time and place in which Jesus was alleged to live, that mention or even hint at knowledge of Jesus.  Certainly, a charismatic wonder worker, as Jesus was said to have been, should merit a mention from local bystander.  But, despite the wishful thinking of Christian apologists, there is nothing like this.  As I said, I also think that this is the weakest of the three arguments.  But it is not invalid.  It is definitely worth discussing.  When pressed, apologists reflexively counter with, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!’  But is it?  There were thousands if not millions of people from the ancient Mediterranean who lived and died without any preserved record of their existence.  Sure, I concede that.  But Jesus was allegedly no mere human.  Would it be unreasonable to expect some contemporary record of a man who performed the marvelous wonders, and uttered the profound sayings that Jesus was said to have?  I do not see why not.  Extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence.  Since this particular article was addressed to Dr. Price’s scholarly colleagues, I assume they would also view this argument as weak, so while I do not blame Dr. Price for not fleshing out this argument a bit here, it would have been helpful for Dr. Price to throw us amateurs a bone.  After all, even though most Christian apologists concede that there are no contemporary sources, they will still claim that there are dozens of other sources in the years immediately after the life of Jesus.  What does Dr. Price do about that?

Considering that this is one of three pillars that supports Price’s entire argument, I would anticipate that he would include more than a single paragraph out of his entire book dedicated to this topic.  As often as Apologists try to turn this argument in their favor, it is worth more than this brief mention.

Who did Paul think Jesus was?

Who the heck knows?  Dr. Price reminds us that as the Apostle Paul has next to nothing to say about a historical Jesus.  Paul writes, at least on face value, thirteen epistles to various people and churches, and for all his talk of Jesus he says almost nothing about who Jesus was as a historical person.  Is there any reason, beyond a Faith commitment, to think that Paul understood the historical Jesus as He is presented in the Gospels?  Would Paul have known or understood anything about Jesus’ infancy, baptism, sermons or miraculous wonders?  Given what little Paul actually says about the life of Jesus, there is no reason to think so.  Dr. Price argues that if the Gospels that detail the life of Jesus and Epistles which say next to nothing about the life of Jesus were written by different authors, there is no reason to think those authors held the same theologies about Jesus.  There is no reason to think that the Apostle Paul knew any of the Gospel authors.  In fact it is unclear if he even knew the Gospel of Jesus even existed!  We have to let Paul speak for himself without projecting the beliefs of the Gospel authors onto him.


According to Dr. Price, the second pillar of the traditional Christ Myth Theory is that Paul does not speak of Jesus in any historical sense.  It is a rather shocking thing to review the epistles of Paul and realize that the only time Paul describes Jesus, He is not described necessarily a historical character.  Jesus, as described by Paul, can be easily and consistently interpreted as a celestial Savior who never touched down on the profane Earth.  According to Paul, Jesus as a Divine Being conducted His great act of salvation in the nether regions of the spiritual and heavenly realms.  When we remember that the ancient conception of the Physical World was that of a mere shadow that was cast by the activities of the Spiritual World, it is not so hard to understand that all the mystical language of Paul in his epistles were meant to describe Spiritual salvation.  If it is not this, then something has to explain why Paul described Jesus in ways that are never expressed in the Gospels!


Of course, an objection could be made to this argument that Paul actually did include some historical details of Jesus.  Dr. Price goes through what little that can be offered as historical data of Jesus in the Epistles and attempts to re-interpret historicity into mysticism.  It could be argued that Dr. Price is conveniently arguing away any evidence of a historical Jesus that he finds uncomfortable.  But I that it could also be fairly said that there are anomalies to any historical Jesus theory that must be dealt with sooner or later.  There are brief hints in Paul’s Epistles that indicate he believed Jesus was a physical human being.  After all, Jesus had a brother named James “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19).  There you go!  Jesus had a brother named James!  This must speak of flesh and blood relations between two human beings!  Not so fast, says Dr. Price. ‘Brother of the Lord’ could mean about anything when spiritual leader’s and their disciples are concerned.  Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13).  It is well known that Paul did not write 1 Timothy.  Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). Oh, that tells us a lot!  Thanks for the useful historical information, Paul. 


But in my mind, no immediately available historical information about Jesus does not by itself equate to a Christ Myth Theory.  It seems to me that the only way to form a theory is by explaining the presence of pieces of evidence, not by imagining scenarios based on holes where evidence does not exist.  Disproving the existence of the Jesus of our beloved religious traditions is one thing, but creating a Jesus to fill the leftover vacuum is quite another.  Positive evidence is what is needed to form a proper theory, even if there only scraps leftover.  For instance, when considering the Christ Myth Theory, I think it is fair for me to ask: is there any evidence that Jesus was worshipped before Christian Orthodoxy was created?  A perfect opportunity for this is missed by Price when he only only briefly hints at a pre-Christian conception of Jesus presented by Paul.  “…Philippians 2:9-11, read without theological embarrassment, seems to intend that it was that name, exalted above all other names, that the savior received, not the title κυριος.” (p. 33)  This data needs to be fleshed out, tied with other related scraps that can be found, and developed into an actual theory of a pre-Christian Jesus.  I would love to read more material like this that presents positive evidence for an actual Christ Myth Theory, rather than building the theory on a lack of historical evidence.  It is too bad that Price just leaves hints of this kind before moving on.


Well, this is a long book and I am still only in the introductory chapter.  There is a lot of reading left to go.

Dying and Rising Gods?

The Jesus story as attested in the epistles shows strong parallels to Middle Eastern religions based on the myths of dying and rising gods…Strong evidence from ancient stelae and tablets make clear that Baal and Osiris were believed to be dying and rising gods long before the Christian era.  There is also pre-Christian evidence for the resurrection of Attis, Adonis, and Dumuzi/Tammuz.”(p. 44)

I began to critically investigate my Christian beliefs with the help of online articles back in 2007.  This claim of dying and rising gods was one of the first things I ran into on whatever videos and blogs were available at the time.  Of course, believing Christians such as myself typically had never heard these things in their Sunday sermons, so at the time these claims about the Deity of Christianity were astounding to me.  I immediately saw through a bit of video hokum I saw online somewhere called Zeitgeist.  I figured that the life, ministry, death and resurrection claimed of various forgotten pagan deities were just too close to that of Jesus to be true.  But two small things did strike me about the Dying and Rising God motif.  I had first heard of a mythical bird-creature called a Phoenix when I was a little boy.  From what I remembered, this unique creature died annually by fire but was able to miraculously rise from out of its own ashes.  Maybe this creature was not exactly a god, but it definitely counted as a myth that fit the motif.  And a well worn motif it is.  I do not know about which myths influenced which, but I do know that the struggle, the death and the ultimate return of the hero is an age old story arc through all literature.  Humans just can’t seem to get enough of this story, and it is just as popular now in our modern movies as it was in ancient myth.  And speaking of the Phoenix, isn’t the common expression ‘rising out of the ashes’ just a reminder of how ubiquitous this literary and mythic motif really is? 

I do not currently listen to debates between Christian apologists and skeptics like I once did, but I do know that one of the recurring themes in these debates is the claim among apologists that there were no dying and rising gods before Jesus.  Jesus was the first deity who was resurrected, and I guess that this is supposed to imply that the resurrection event is therefore true.  Behind this argument is the assumption that the very first resurrection story claimed of Jesus was actually historical because it had been previously inconceivable, and every subsequent resurrection myth must then be just a cheap copy of the historical event.  Well, despite this preposterous claim that this linear sequence of events must be the only way to explain the spread of legend and myth, I do think that it is a moot point to argue which resurrection myth borrowed from which, as these debates often do.  We do know that resurrection was just one small part of the superstition, myth and magic that the ancient Mediterranean cultures were saturated in.  We do not need a linear progression of which myth was derived from what legend.  Any of these beliefs was just an organic outgrowth from the surrounding environment.  Yes, Jesus is just one more Mediterranean deity who performed miraculous deeds, underwent a passion, suffered and died, only to rise stronger and more glorified than ever.  It is true that the Jewish Scriptures, or Old Testament, do not mention a physical resurrection as described of Jesus, so I can imagine the idea of resurrection would seem pretty strange to the Jewish culture.  But impossible, as some Christian apologists claim?  I would never go so far as that.  To say that this motif is an ancient mythological archetype that is hard wired into our collective psyche is just a very intellectual way of saying that it just makes for a great story.

So where to we stand so far?

The rest of Robert Price’s article Jesus at the Vanishing Point is spent touching on various topics that are explored in greater detail in other parts of this anthology, so I will not review them here.  Most of these topics seek to demonstrate that Jesus is a product of literary rather than historical pedigree.  His life as described in the Gospels seems to rely on stories and themes common in the ancient world and archetypes common in the human psyche.  Has Robert Price made his case so far?  I do not think so.  So far, his case seeks to undermine what the traditional Gospel stories say about Jesus, and demonstrate that the Gospels are more likely some sort of fiction rather than reliable history.  The Christ Myth theory, as presented in this book so far, is a theory built mainly on the destruction of the traditional historical understanding of Jesus.  When it comes to demonstrating the fictitious nature of the Gospel, I am completely on board, but the Christ Myth Theory does not automatically rise from the ashes of what has been burned away.  A theory must be built on some foundation, and so far I just do not see a positive case being presented.  The three foundation stones of the ‘traditional Christy Myth Theory’ that Price does present, only show evidence of a lack of a historical Jesus, but this is different from Jesus as a Myth, which I must repeat, Price has not yet defined thus far in the book.  But there is plenty of book left to go, so we shall see how it goes from here.

NEXT:  New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash
                The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

Saturday, January 10, 2015

El Nazareno Negro and Religious Tolerance

The Black Nazarene has just completed its 19 hour procession in the Quiapo District of Manila.  After an entire day where upwards of 12 million Filipinos whipped themselves into a state of religious hysteria, the venerated black effigy of Jesus is back in the Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Manila.  Every year on the 9th of January, the venerated statue, which depicts a cross bearing, coal black Jesus is removed from the Basilica for a public procession through the streets of Quiapo.  The statue is placed on large carriage and pulled through the streets with large ropes by dozens of men.  Throughout the procession, the carriage that bears the effigy is mobbed by millions of faithful Catholics hoping to touch the Black Nazarene.  The Black Nazarene is believed to transfer miraculous powers through the touch of the faithful catholic devotee.  Not everyone in the mob can possibly get close enough to touch the Black Nazarene, so men stand on top of the carriage wiping the effigy with white towels and throwing them back into the crowd.  If the faithful Catholic cannot touch the magical effigy, he might have to settle for touching a rag that touched the effigy.  The Filipino government has estimated that 12 million devotees participated in this year’s Feast of the Black Nazarene.  Emergency crews were on site to treat the hundreds of injuries, mostly from barefoot penitents slicing their feet open on street garbage.  Two people have been killed in this year’s celebration; one from a heart attack, the other apparently was trampled.  Their names and ages have not been confirmed since carrying anything including identification into dense mobs of millions of fanatics is just asking to be robbed.  Now that the procession is complete, the city is hoping to clean up the massive piles of leftover trash before the Pope’s visit to Manila next week.

There has been wall to wall coverage of these religious events on our two Filipino satellite channels, ABS-CBN and GMA.  The city has been preparing for months for the Pope’s arrival, and the news stories have focused most of their stories on the Pope’s security, the Pope’s itinerary through Tacloban City, and the devotional entertainment that will be performed for the Pope by the faithful Catholics of the Philippines.  Then during the weekend, local programming was interrupted with live updates of the Black Nazarene Procession.  Businesses and schools were closed, traffic was halted and the Quiapo district came to a grinding halt as millions of Catholic Filipinos went stark raving mad over a wooden statue!



I should have said: celebrated their devotion to a holy relic.  But I just can’t.

Since marrying a Filipino Catholic and especially since leaving Christianity myself, I have striven to be tolerant of Religion, and respectful of Faith.  I truly have.  After all, these people are Catholic Christians.  They are not like lunatic Muslim fanatics who routinely believe themselves justified in killing anybody they perceive as insolent towards their particular brand of Faith.  But there is something about watching a professional news reporter admiring the bloody feet of young men who chose to fight through a mob and touch the black effigy in their bare feet as a sign of their devotion and humility.  As I watched the satellite news channels with Rosemary, my level of religious tolerance just saturated.  It was exactly like watching fawning national news coverage of a state-sponsored Benny Hinn miracle rally.

I asked Rosemary if anybody in her family has ever participated (I refuse to say ‘celebrate’ as the Filipino press regularly does) in the Black Nazarene procession.  No, she told me, her family would watch the event on television, but would never attend in person.  They felt it was too dangerous.  But they did admire the Faith of the people who did mob the area, as apparently all Faith is to be admired.  Rosemary reminded me that not every one of the estimated 12 million people in the streets were devout Catholics.  Many of them were pick-pockets.  There were many vendors along the roadsides taking advantage of the opportunity by selling food and souvenirs.  There were also quite a few daredevils who just wanted to fight through the mob as a thrill to tell their friends – sort of the Filipino equivalent of running with the bulls.

It is religious hysteria, I told her.  It is well organized, mass scaled, delusional superstition.  It is millions of desperate people believing in a miracle if they just so much as touch a magical statue.  I asked her why people believe they will be cured if they touch a statue.

Rosemary:  “It is just their belief.  They are born with it.  You cannot understand.  You were not born there.”

Me:  “I think I sort of understand.  I remember my mom getting whipped into a frenzy by traveling revival preachers.  Not as many people.  Different method.  But I think it is the same mindset.  If I had my way, every one of those sons of bitches should have been thrown in jail.  That is why this stuff bothers me so much.  It is false hope.  It is harmful superstition.”

Rosemary had heard lots of stories about the charismatic religious beliefs of my mother, and she could not understand our tent revival culture the same way I could not understand her Black Nazarene culture.  But Faith is Faith no matter what the culture.  The desperate hope for a miracle cure transcends boundaries.

Me:  “The Pope is visiting Manila next week.  He is an educated man.  He seems to care about the poor.  Why doesn’t he tell these people not to place their hope in magical statues?  Can’t he tell them to stop getting hysterical about looking for miracles in a statue??”

Rosemary:  “Oh no, he would never do that.”

Me:  “Why not?  I mean, these Catholics believe in God don’t they?  They should believe in prayer, shouldn’t they?  If they need a miracle, why not go to Church during mass and pray for their miracle there.  I mean even when I was a Christian myself I figured that out.  I stopped believing in these traveling miracle salesmen and just prayed in Church.  Why can’t somebody in authority, somebody that they will believe, tell them the truth??”

Rosemary, of course, had no answer or just did not want to discuss it, and I did not want to try her patience.  I let it go. 

On this occasion, like so many others, I feel like I have to walk a tightrope or balance a scale.  On one plate of the scale is my society’s insistence on tolerance for different religions and cultures.  I get that.  I understand that.  I cannot be so arrogant as to insist that my views and opinions about the nature of reality are superior to everybody who holds different views and opinions.  But on the other plate of the scale is my tolerance level of what I see as obvious delusion, hysteria and superstition.  I can live and let live, but at some point my tolerance level reaches its peak.  When I see millions of people, as a unity, act with such irrationality, and a society that views this irrational behavior as virtuous, I feel like I am living in a Twilight Zone.  I do not feel I am in a position to correct Faithful people who believe in the efficacy of this superstitious behavior.  But I am sure glad that certain people had the courage to correct my own superstitious behavior. 

Religious Tolerance vs. Calling Bullshit.  It is a tightrope that I am still learning to walk.

video courtesy of :

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Recently overheard at a yard sale

me: (sorting through a pile of books at a yard sale) wow, this book is huge!
yard owner: yeah, it is huge.  My kids liked that book when they were in school.  They thought it was fun.  It helped them learn history.
me: Oh!  This is a history book?
yard owner: yes, but it is done so that the history events look like newspaper articles.  It is full of pictures and catchy headlines!
me: This book is huge though!
yard owner: well, it covers all of world history even into ancient times!  Look, it even has headlines from what might have happened 10,000 years ago!
yard owner: (suddenly pauses and looks at me for fear that he may have offended me)
yard owner: 10,000 years ago .. uh… .unless you love Jesus.
me: (laughing until nearly wetting myself)
It was the best laugh I have had all week.  I am sure he thought I was mad.  I bought the book.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Racism in the Outback

I am finally home in El Paso to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.  After almost a year away from home, I spent the last month in the tropical savannah of northern Australia.  Upon coming home, I had many stories to tell my family from this amazing place on the other side of the world.  But for this blog, I will share a story that I have not yet shared with anybody.

I was picking up supplies in Darwin before heading back into the outback for field work.  This meant a trip to LiquorLand for a crate of delicious and expensive Carlton Draught.  The liquor store was crowded, and I was standing in line with a case of beer and a credit card.  Suddenly I heard a ruckus behind me.  I spun around and saw a young white LiquorLand cashier scold a young black Aboriginal Australian.

“Why are you doing that?!?  Why are you waving your arms around?!?”  The cashier thrust his face inches from the black man and stared him dead in the eye. “Answer me!!”

The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“That is not an answer!!  Why are you waving your arms around?!!?  Are you trying to cause trouble?!!?”

Without saying another word, the Aborigine immediately walked out of the liquor store.  I only noticed the customers in line paying any attention.  All others continued scanning the shelves for their favorite brew.  After chasing the black man out of the store, the cashier went back to his register and faced the young woman waiting at the front of the line.  She was another black Aboriginal.

The cashier’s eyes glared at the woman with razor concentration.  “Are you with him?!!?  What did he do?!!?  Why was he waving his arms?!!? “

 The Aborigine mumbled something I could not hear.

“ ‘nah’ is not an answer!!  Answer me!!  Why was he waving his arms like that?!!?  What trouble is he causing!!”

 The Aboriginal woman mumbled.  “He is not with me.”

“Now that is an answer.  That is better.  When you see him, tell him to stay out of this store!!” 

 I have seen small hints of racism in my travels this year.  I felt uncomfortable when my Slovene friends made degrading racial jokes against Serbians.  But this encounter left me dumbfounded.  Worse yet was the reaction, or rather inaction, of all the other customers in the store.  Judging by their casual attitude to unwarranted interrogation of two Aborigines, I figure this scene is still common between the two races of Australia.  I did not know what to do as I stood in line.  When my turn came up to purchase the beer, the cashier was perfectly pleasant and professional.  It is such a dichotomy in my mind when an otherwise likable young man was a blatant, unapologetic racist at the flick of a switch.  How can these two personalities exist under the same skin?  I can just imagine such a scene occurring here in a local El Paso liquor store between a White cashier and a black customer.  All customers would protest and scream bloody hell!  The cashier would be lucky to get away with just a firing but would more likely get a couple of good fists to the face behind the store alley.  The complacency of the Australian customers was what unnerved me the most about the whole episode.

I got the impression that the relation between Whites and Aboriginals in Australia was one of mere toleration and not complete acceptance.  They got along because they had to get along.  While I was escorted by my Australian hosts deep in the Outback, we passed a group of Aboriginal people, including men, women and children, trying to flag us down by their parked car by the road.  The engine hood was up; a sure sign of car trouble.  Although we had a toolbox and an emergency satellite phone, we passed them by.  I have lived in rural regions of New Mexico most of my life, and a rule of hospitality is to stop and help if you are able when you see a person in distress by the road.  There are too many sparsely populated areas up there and car trouble could be more danger for the driver than the car.  

As he drove past them, my host turned to me and said, “Some advice – when you see them trying to flag you down, don’t stop.  Just keep driving.”

I understood the rationale.  It could be a trap.  They could be armed.  They may rob us of our cash!  But  as the days passed, I traveled that same stretch of road numerous times, and while the Aboriginal family had long since left the scene, their abandoned car never left that spot on the side of the road.  Each day we passed, the car lost a little more value due to human scavengers and vandals.  If this were a trap, the thieves were certainly dedicated to keeping up the front, even at the expense of their own vehicle. 

I only stayed in northern Australia for a month, and never spoke to a single Aborigine, so I have a very biased, ignorant and myopic view of the race relations that I witnessed there.   But I do know that the British first colonized southern Australia around 1800, and the northern Darwin region of Australia around 1830 or so.  The invasion of White colonists is extremely recent in the history of the ancient Aboriginal culture.  It is only 200 years or so, give or take, that they have had to share the same land.  At only 200 years of relations, I suspect that the current relation between Australian Whites and Australian Aborigines is about the same relation that existed in the United States say about the year 1830 between American Whites and American Aborigines.  Just a hunch …

With all the traveling I did this year, Rosemary suggested I get a gig on TV like Anthony Bourdain.  Nah, that would not work for me.  My travel show would be too much like my blog articles: instead of writing about the amazing tropical wildlife that I saw, I instead write about what made me nervous and uncomfortable.  Who wants to watch that?  Besides, I can’t eat all the food that he does in his show. 

I am glad to be back home.  Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We grieve to our gods

During my recent European travels, I visited the Narodni muzej Slovenije in Ljubljana.  The ancient Roman artifacts there just whetted my strange fascination with old tombstones and graveyards.

About the time that Jesus was said to have been born in Bethlehem, the region now known as Slovenia was annexed by Roman Empire.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the beautiful country of Slovenia, and I made a point to visit several of the national museums in the short time I was there.

Although all remnants of the Roman Empire are now buried, underwater, or scattered in ruins, traces of it can still be found in various places.  The original castle foundation in the town of Škofja Loka dates back to Roman times.  I wanted to see more Roman artifacts from the region of Emona, as the capitol city of Ljubljana was known at the time.  So I was amazed when I saw the Roman tombstones housed in the Narodni muzej Slovenije (National Museum of Slovenia).  Dozens of tombstones from the Roman era were dredged out from the bottom of the Ljubljanica River and placed on display in the museum.  I was fascinated by these tombstones, because these were the records of ancient common people as they grieved to the pagan gods who carted the dead into the afterlife.  Not a single tombstone appealed to the Christian Deity, which for some reason only increased my fascination.  All the tombstones were inscribed in Latin, but placards gave translations into several European languages including English.  Photographs were not allowed, but I did have a pencil and an old Wal Mart receipt in my wallet.  It was enough for me to scribble the beautiful, sad, and poetic lines written by Atimetus, an otherwise unknown common individual who lived in ancient Emona.  He died two millennia ago, and the only trace he left of himself, was his inconsolable appeal before his gods.  Here is all I had room for on the back of that old Wal Mart receipt:

Urbana, the slave of Iulius Salvine, lies here.  Atimetus, her companion in servitude, had this monument erected.

You have stolen me from my husband, from my children, cruel gods, why have you taken me so soon?  I had only lived for three decades and already a mound of earth conceals my bones and ashes.

Now carry quickly on, traveler, forward where the road leads you!  All will subsequently meet their fate after me.

There were dozens of tombstones in the museum with equally tragic but beautiful inscriptions.  I only bothered to copy one.  I have said many times on this blog that our gods are always there for us to express our profoundest and deepest emotions.  It is true now, and it was true 2000 years ago.  Perhaps my fascination with tombstones is due to this constant reminder that people are drawn to their deities when they have no other way to express their overwhelming grief. 

Is there a point to this article?  Nope.  Just writing this down and putting my thoughts online before I clean out my wallet and lose that Wal Mart receipt forever.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Bone Church

I have been fortunate to travel to several different European countries this year.  I use my Facebook account to keep my family in New Mexico updated on my European adventures.  I am currently in western Czech Republic, otherwise known as Bohemia, enjoying the local historical sites, and indulging in the famed Bohemian food, spas, mineral baths and beer.  I wrote the following short article for my Facebook account.


I have read a lot about the 16th century Reformation in Europe, and while I find the subject fascinating, I quickly forget a lot of it because I have no visceral attachment to the subject.  A lot of that has changed now that I have actually visited Europe, and seen for myself some very small effects of Europe’s dark history.

We visited the nearby town of Kutná Hora, just a few miles outside of Prague.  I quickly got the impression that they were once sister cities, and maybe even rivaled each other in this Bohemian province of the Holy Roman Empire.  A name that I only vaguely remembered from my history lessons, Jan Hus, is all over this town.  He was a Czech priest who lived in this area back in the early 15th century.  It turns out that Hus read a little too much John Wycliffe, and decided that the Catholic Church was corrupt in its practice of Indulgences.  He began to openly preach this and against other Church doctrines.  At the time, Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and to defy the Catholic Church on fine points of dogma was to not only commit heresy, but also treason.  There was a long series of Church Councils, trials and papal schisms during this time, but the short story is that Jan Hus quickly found himself excommunicated.  He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.

After the execution, nearly the entire population of Bohemia remained loyal to Jan Hus, and revolted against the Catholic Church.  During the next 15 years, the Pope instituted five separate Crusades against the followers of Jan Hus, now known collectively as the Hussite Wars.  And this brings me back to my visit in Kutná Hora

I felt like an ignorant hick, looking at all the monuments to the Hussite Wars, and trying to recollect the dim memory of what they were.  We visited the historical museum, and even though there were no guides or signs in the English language, we saw pikes, spears, maces and other weapons, along with contemporary paintings of their use.  Using these weapons to personally crush or impale another human over dogma disputes is savage to me, but history is not a Disney movie.  We visited the silver museum and learned how Kutná Hora gained its fortune and importance from the region’s famed silver mines.  We also learned as an almost trivial fact, that there were so many dead bodies left in the wake of the Hussite Wars, that corpses were simply tossed into the mines.  We visited the beautiful Baroque Gothic church, Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie.  Like most of these old churches in Czech Republic, it still conducts mass, but is today mostly used as a museum and cultural marker.  Inside were hung paintings depicting the Hussite Wars.  Again, no signs or guides were printed in English, but I could make still make out the graphic depictions of slaughter as righteous acts of God.  Just across the street from the Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie was the grim Sedlec Ossuary.

The Sedlec Ossuary - popularly known to tourists as The Bone Church.  I tried to gain an introspective feeling at the Sedlec Ossuary, but for some reason I could not.  I still do not know quite what to feel about the place.  There were signs printed outside the church (including one in English) that warned visitors to remember that the church was now home to between 40 and 70 thousand people who were killed in the Hussite Wars, and to please remember to be respectful on the church grounds.  The small church, now known as an ossuary, or bone box, was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen.  Apparently, so many people were killed in this region during the Hussite Wars, that there was no room to bury them all.  So they were placed where room could be found.  Renovations to the Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie still turn up bodies buried in the church’s foundation, and a couple of them were even on display.  But the small Sedlec chapel in Kutná Hora had won fame because it was the site where a pilgrim had once sprinkled dirt that he had collected from Golgotha, the sight of the Crucifixion.  What better place to bury the countless numbers of dead?  It already had a famous cemetery because of the legendary dirt from Golgotha, so bodies had to be exhumed to make room for the sudden influx of new casualties from the war and placed inside the chapel.  Upwards of 70,000 of corpses were stuffed into the Sedlec chapel.  Beginning in the early 16th century, various efforts were made to clean the Sedlec Ossuary out, but final work was done in 1870 when a woodsmith named František Rint was commissioned to display the bones in an orderly fashion. 

Rint took the commission and created one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, but also one of the most beautiful and disturbing pieces of art I have ever seen.  The chapel is still surrounded by the old graveyard with the legendary dirt sprinkled from Golgotha, and walking past the tour buses and concession booths I walked inside.  The signature of the artist František Rint was plastered to the wall, created entirely out of human bones.  To the left was the Coat of Arms of the artist’s benefactors, again created entirely out of human bones.  The chapel itself was morbid, fascinating, beautiful, disturbing and reverent all at the same time.  Bones from some 70,000 people were artistically arranged, piled, stacked and organized in a way that left me speechless.  Alternating patterns of skulls and crossbones were interwoven along the wall tiles.  Two enormous altars of bone stood in the main sanctuary.  The bones were used with stunning ingenuity.  Hip bones and shoulder blades were fanned in a circular pattern around a group of skulls as a kind of macabre halo. Bone arrangements hung from the ceiling in a way that reminded me of marionettes.  Candle holders were made of arrangements from spinal vertebra.  Everything, the choir loft, the pulpit, even the ceiling tiles, was overlaid with a mosaic of human bones.  The enormous chandelier that was in the center of the chapel was also ingeniously created entirely out of human bones.  Finally, the four alcoves where I would normally see an altar or confession booth in any other traditional Catholic Church were piled to the ceiling with human bones.  Each pile was arranged in a pyramid shape, and included two skulls that guarded a candle holder arranged into the stack of bones.  

Visiting this chapel and wandering around the graveyard left me a little drained.  So we left for the nearest food court and indulged in more of that famous Czech sausage and beer!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review - Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 1

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

Jesus at the Vanishing Point – part 1

Jesus at the Vanishing Point is an article originally published in the collaborative book, The Historical Jesus: Five Views.  I think the idea of that book was to get five biblical scholars to write articles in defense of vastly different theories of who they think Jesus was, then scribble more ink critiquing each other's articles.  Price wrote the essay which defended his radical view that there is no such thing as a historical Jesus.  I have never read the entire book, so I have no idea what critiques or opinions the other scholars gave to Price's article.  Since I currently have no intention of purchasing this book, I guess this pathetic critique of my own will have to suffice. 

Dr. Price begins the article by explaining a few of the basic tools for the historian.  He asks, “What is the greatest commandment for historians?” (p25)

Whoa there, hold the phone for just a second.  Something about Price’s article has been bugging me since I first read it a couple of years ago, and I could only figure out why after thinking about it carefully.  In the previous article in this series, I discussed how Dr. Price prefers to approach the Gospels as a literary critic as opposed to a historian.  Now in Jesus at the Vanishing Point, Dr. Price is going to switch to the same role of historian that is followed by the majority of his scholarly contemporaries.  Before I discuss his method in any detail, let me quickly list what Dr. Price considers to be the greatest commandments of the historian:

1) The principle of analogy
2) The criterion of dissimilarity
3) The ideal type
4) Consensus is no criterion
6) Conclusions must be tentative

(There appears to be no number 5)

I have consulted a couple references on accepted best practices for the historical method, but try as I might, I cannot find anything regarding the ‘greatest commandments’, and I sure cannot find these criteria, particularly the first three, listed outside of the narrow discipline of Historical Jesus studies.  I am certainly no historian, and I fully admit that I am missing a lot of information regarding historical methodology, but in the few that I have read in this genre, I have not seen anything like these ‘greatest commandments’ listed.  True, I have seen the principle of analogy, the criterion of embarrassment, multiple independent attestation, and those kinds of things, but to this suspicious reader, Dr. Price’s particular ‘Greatest Commandments’ seem especially chosen to remove anything that can be possibly known of any historical Jesus.  Even those criteria that Dr. Price shares with his scholarly buddies seem to be deliberately and uniquely formulated by him to whittle Jesus away into nonexistence.  It seems to me to be deliberate.  I do not mind radical reinterpretations of existing data, but to call them ‘greatest commandments’ of a methodology seems to me like a subtle charge against his contemporaries.  Hey, if Dr. Price is using the greatest commandments of historical research and coming to the conclusion that Jesus never existed, why isn’t everybody else coming to the same conclusion as he?  It is so subtle, I doubt Dr. Price even knows that he is doing it.

With that out of the way, let’s look at Dr. Price’s historical ‘Greatest Commandments’ in a little more detail.

The Principle of Analogy

Robert Price asks, “What is the greatest commandment for historians?  The first and greatest is the Principle of Analogy.” (p25)  I am not sure what he means by this principle, because he immediately launches into a discussion of methodological atheism.  “...we weren't there and  thus do not know that natural law always operated as it does now ... but there is no particular reason not to think so, and unless we do, we have no criterion at all.  We will be at the mercy of old stories of people turning lead into gold, turning into werewolves, using magic to win battles…the historian must ask if an old account that does not fit the analogy of present-day experience does happen to match the analogy of legend or myth.” (p26)

Price seems to be mixing two ideas together under category of ‘Principle of Analogy”.  Basically, Price is telling us that if it walks and talks like a duck, it is likely a duck.  If the Gospel stories sound like they have the elements of countless myths from the ancient world, then more than likely, those Gospel stories too are myth.  I do think that this principle, as defined by Dr Price, can be too far-reaching.  We must remember that when dealing with the Gospels, or any other ancient writing, we are reading the words and thoughts from an unknown person, from an uncertain location, written with dubious motives, in an alien and forgotten culture.  The speculation surrounding the origin of many of these ancient myths should convince us that the Principle of Analogy does not apply in many cases.  These ancient people simply thought differently than modern people do.  For instance, why was the collection of mystical discourses and semi-gnostic cosmology, otherwise known to us as the Gospel of John, written?  The Principle of Analogy will be of no use in answering this question, at lease not when it is used in the way that Dr Price describes.

But I think I understand what Dr Price is trying to get at.  Because modern people agree that our common experience is governed by natural laws, and since there are apparently no observable miracles, we can only establish historical criteria based on what we have experienced.  Miracle has never been observed, thus according to the Principle of Analogy, what may seem to be a miracle on first glance, likely is explained by something more mundane.  History must be studied as a strictly secular discipline, and the study of history must proceed without considerations to the miraculous.  When this subject came up during my physics studies, we sometimes called this methodological atheism.  Even very religious scientists must practice their scientific discipline without recourse to their favorite deity.  Invoking a miracle to solve a challenging engineering problem is no solution at all – and everybody knows it.  The scientific study of history must be conducted in the same way.

Price lays out his standard of methodological atheism: “...we weren't there and thus do not know that natural law always operated as it does now ... but there is no particular reason not to think so, and unless we do, we have no criterion at all.  We will be at the mercy of old stories of people turning lead into gold, turning into werewolves, using magic to win battles.” (p26)

“If it looks more like a legend than like any verifiable modern experience, what are we to conclude?  If the story of Jesus walking on the water bears a strong resemblance to old stories in which Hermes, Pythagoras, the Buddha and others walk on water, mustn't we conclude we are probably dealing with a legend in the case of Jesus , too?” (p26)

I think Price is essentially correct here, but he is arguing with the wrong audience.  Much like the process detailed in the scientific method, the process of discovering the truth of history must assume a natural order.  If the existence of miracles can be included in historical analysis, then there are no boundaries to natural law, and all rules and methodology can be thrown out.  This 'Principle of Analogy' does make sense, but it is an argument against belief in literal miracles, not against a historical Jesus.  Most secular historians will admit that Jesus existed despite the obviously legendary miracles that are attached to his name.  Secular historians are not likely to believe that Jesus historically walked on water, multiplied food, or turned water to wine.  But these same historians will still believe that a historical Jesus did exist, and will likely look for some kind of historical kernel that underlay the embellished, miraculous legends.  Historically speaking, legend is not an 'all or nothing' proposition.

Price compares the accumulation of sayings attributed to Jesus with the number of Hadith attributed to Muhammed.  ”...early Muslim savants simply had no problem with fabricating Hadith if they thought the content was valid.” (p28)  Compare this with the attribution of quotes to Jesus from church signs.  But again - is this an argument against the existence of the historical Jesus?  Disciples of the Great Man would hear a profound saying.  It was so profound, in fact, that surely it must have come from the lips of the Great Man himself!  Because of this common practice, we may not be able to accurately determine what exactly the Great Man said, and even admit that popular apothegms were regularly attributed to him.  Albert Einstein has not yet been dead for 60 years, and even with detailed records of his works, even with the Internet, spurious quotes are commonly attributed to him.  Yet, there is no doubt that Albert Einstein was a real person.

Criterion of Dissimilarity

Price then outlines the remaining “historiographical commandments”.  “The second, the Criterion of Dissimilarity, is like unto [the Principle of Analogy]...The idea is that no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian sayings.” (p28)  Price gives an example. “ for the early church, the contradictions between gospel sayings on eschatology, divorce, fasting, preaching to Gentiles and Samaritans, etc., are most easily explained as the church ascribing their views to Jesus because they thought them valid inferences (or revelations from the Risen Lord).  If the Criterion of Dissimilarity leaves little left of the sayings of Jesus as potentially authentic, Price removes these too.  “...the Criterion of Dissimilarity must be all-devouring because of the central tenet of form-criticism, which is that in order to be transmitted, every gospel pericope must have had some pragmatic use.” (p29)

Immediately, something smells fishy to me.  Price claims that “no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian sayings.”  This argument seems to have too broad of a sweep.  I try to imagine a historian in the distant future who is trying to determine if the abundance of quotes attributed to, let’s say Maya Angelou since she recently died.  If we use Robert Price’s definition of Criterion of Dissimilarity, is there any way for a future historian to attribute any popular and inspirational sayings to Ms. Angelou?  Not a chance.  It is easy to see from a casual glance at her most popular quotes that none of them are hardly unique.  The uniqueness comes from her works as a whole, not from the individual aphorisms that a common, mass audience will find inspirational. 

Price’s definition of the Criterion of Dissimilarity seems like it could be used to remove any familiar saying or any attribution to any person.  Truly unique sayings are indeed rare, especially sayings that appeal to a general population of listeners.  And Price’s unique description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity does not fit any description that I have ever heard.  Since Price attributes the Criterion of Dissimilarity to Norman Perrin, I will look Perrin up to see for myself what he has to say about it.  Luckily, Perrin’s book which is cited by Dr. Price is online (LINK):

Here is what Perrin says:
Thus we reach the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must he built, which we propose to call the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. Recognizing that it follows an attempt to write a history of the tradition concerned, we may formulate it as follows: the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition oriented towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (From Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, p39)
Wait a second; do you see the difference in emphasis between how Perrin defines the Criterion of Dissimilarity and how Price applies it?  Price has cited Perrin in his formulation of the criterion of dissimilarity, but then applied it with reverse polarity!  It is a subtle difference, but Price is using the Criterion of Dissimilarity in the opposite sense from that intended by Perrin.  Where Perrin used the criterion in an attempt to determine sayings attributed to Jesus may be authentic, Price is using it do discard inauthentic sayings.  Paula Fredriksen describes it in even simpler terms:

“The criterion of dissimilarity holds that if the earliest form of a saying or story differs in emphasis from a characteristic teaching or concern both of contemporary Judaism and of the early church, then it may be authentic”  (From Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, p5.  The emphasis is in the original.)

Perrin and Fredriksen are saying that if a saying of Jesus seems radically different from anything expected in their culture, then that lends it greater probability of being authentic.  I am not so sure that is a well- founded assumption, but it does seem like a cautious methodology for determining what we can know about Jesus.  More importantly, this description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity does not discount any sayings of Jesus that do not fit the description.  Notice how different this is from Dr. Price.  He is saying, in contrast, that any saying of Jesus that appears similar must be inauthentic.  It is a re-definition of the criterion that he cites from Perrin, and it is much broader sweeping in its negative results than anything implied by Perrin’s description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  It is a method that seems designed to show what we cannot know, not what we can know, and to emphasize that since nothing Jesus says appears to be truly unique, he must never had said anything.

But what about those sayings of Jesus that do appear to be unique among his society?  How can Dr. Price discard even these with his own mis-application of the Criterion of Dissimilarity?  I have certainly not read all there is among ancient literature, but I have never seen anything in contemporary literature that is even close to some of Jesus’ most famous aphorisms in the Sermon on the Mount.  Love your enemy?  Salt and light?  The fulfillment of the Law?  These appear to me to be unique enough to plausibly be considered authentic sayings of Jesus.  But this attempt at determining the authentic sayings of Jesus via the Criterion of Dissimilarity is invalid with Dr. Price’s application of the same criterion.  In fact, he takes it one step further by pulling out another bit of arcane historical methodology.  “…the Criterion of dissimilarity must be all-devouring because of the central tenet of form-criticism, which is that in order to be transmitted, every gospel pericope must have had some pragmatic use” (p29). 

Central tenet of form-criticism?  Says who?  Well, let’s not go down that rabbit hole.  Let me instead outline Dr. Price’s methodology that leads to his conclusion that every saying and deed of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels is inauthentic:

1)      Anything that Jesus is recorded as saying or doing can be considered inauthentic if it has parallels among his contemporaries.
2)      The early church had doctrinal reasons for transmitting and preserving their favorite, thus canonical, sayings of Jesus. 
3)      The motives of the early church are apparently close enough to parallels in sayings among Jesus contemporaries.  Therefore everything in the Gospels that relates to Jesus must be inauthentic.

Sorry Dr. Price, but this just seems too easy to me.  The misapplication of these historical criteria seems designed to intentionally rid ourselves of everything we can possibly know about Jesus.  It may be true that Jesus never existed, but I think I understand the suspicion of Biblical scholars when they see methodology like this.  What is the point of years of scholarship, education and training when it can all be discarded with three simple bullet points?  After thinking about Dr. Price’s methodology, I am suspicious too.

The Remaining Commandments

I do not have a detailed commentary on the remaining historical commandments as outlined by Dr. Price, except that I again do not see how they are commandments of historical methodology.  In fact, they too, do not seem to be designed by an impartial historian, but by a person who is accustomed to arguing fringe opinions to more mainstream peers.  Dr. Price asks the reader to remember the definition of an ‘Ideal Type’.  The importance of mystery religions, Gnosticism and Pagan Saviors who were contemporary to Jesus must be considered as part of prevailing culture, and I agree with this.  The facts that consensus is no criterion of truth and that all scholarly opinion must be held as tentative are not so much greatest commandments of the historian, but general principles of any scientific investigation.  Again, I have no disagreement with any of this, but it does seem to be suspiciously applied, not on what we can determine about a historical Jesus, but about why mainstream scholars really need to take Dr. Price seriously.

Wow, I am really giving it to Robert Price in this critique.  But I have to call it like I see it.  So far in this article, his approach is like a bulldozer making quick work of a delicate archaeological dig.  And I am only seven pages in.

Next: Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 2