Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Carlos Woke Up

I've decided to write a reply, of sorts, to a post I ran across a little while ago on another blog. That blog, the Jehovah's Witness Blog, is run by a former Jehovah's Witness who goes by "Carlos Scienza" (which, I think, he's intimated is more or less an anagram of his actual name). Carlos finally left the Jehovah's Witnesses several years ago, and has been an atheist since then. By and large, when it comes to many of the intellectual and social problems regarding Jehovah's Witnesses, I'd surmise that Carlos as I are quite in agreement. Needless to say, because he's an atheist and I'm a Christian, there are quite a few other issues on which he and I differ quite widely. So as I said, I ran into his blog a while ago and found him to be an atheist when I stumbled across the post, "What made you wake up?", about what finally drew him away from Jehovah's Witnesses. (Carlos included a particularly entertaining scene from the comic strip Bizarro; that alone would make Carlos' relatively brief post worth looking at.) I tried to leave a comment or two for Carlos there, but they appear to have gotten lost in cyberspace. Not an uncommon problem for me. It thus seems more efficient for me to just write a post in response.

The first big issue is the reliability of the Bible's accounts of Jesus, and Carlos has this to say:

I wanted to find out what the bible was, when it was written, and why. I discovered that there were other accounts written about Jesus, such as those found at the Nag Hammadi site. I got to watch a documentary called The God That Wasn't There. If you thought you knew the truth about Jesus Christ, you'd better check your facts.

A plethora of books and websites helped me see that the New Testament was certainly not prophecy, but written after the fact by people who never met Jesus. Paul was the first Christian writer whose works survived, but his Jesus was more like a Star Wars Jesus - A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...

Read Paul's writings again. You'll find no time period for Jesus, no lineage, no ride into Jerusalem, no being put to death story. What you will find, is that Jesus was a mythical man. Did Jesus ever live? Maybe, I don't know? But nobody wrote of such a miracle worker during his lifetime.

I learned that many God-men of many religions came down to earth and were born of a virgin. Apparently, that is the basic formula - A God-man is larger than life if he visits people. People know that he was born of a woman, so they have to say that his birth was miraculous and pure. Look up Horus and Mithra.

Now, I'm not sure whether or not Carlos realizes it, but the vast majority of what he's said here is in direct contradiction to essentially all contemporary scholarship on all of these subjects. The degree of contradiction is, in fact, every bit as extreme as the Jehovah's Witnesses' insistence that the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians occurred in 607 BC--see here. A first comment, though: the title of the movie that Carlos references is actually The God Who Wasn't There, not The God That Wasn't There. A very minor nitpick, I know, but I want to make sure my readers (well, alright, the vast empty halls of cyberspace, then) know the correct title of the movie.

Now, first, it is true that we have no surviving documents that mention Jesus and that were written during his earthly life. This is, as a matter of fact, wholly unremarkable. Jesus was a peasant leader in a backwater of the Roman Empire, a backwater in which literacy rates were not nearly as high as they are today; furthermore, this society was predominantly oral in its modes of communication. In fact, the prevailing attitude of the ancient Mediterranean seems to have been a preference for orality rather than literality. Furthermore, Jesus' ministry lasted, most likely, for around three years. Before this time, Jesus did not perform any acts that would be likely to have made a serious impression on any of the literate elite; and thus we have, essentially, a three-year window in which some expect there to have been literary activity regarding Jesus, a figure who operated solely in Judaea and Galilee--places from which we have no surviving documents that date to precisely those three years, so far as we can tell. It is, in short, not a historically reasonable expectation. Moreover, contemporary literary documentation is not the standard demanded by historians; it is not sound historical methodology. If we were to limit our historical knowledge to exclusively contemporary sources (along with, of course, archaeological findings), we would know exceptionally little. Moreover, we would have no reason to believe in the historical existence of figures such as:

  • Gamaliel, a first-century rabbi
  • Hillel, grandson of Gamaliel and another important rabbi
  • Shammai, another leading rabbi of his period
  • Honi the Circle-Drawer, a charismatic Jewish sage
  • Hanina ben Dosa, another charismatic Jewish sage
  • Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha
  • Apollonius of Tyana, first-century Pythagorean sage
  • Alexander of Abonoteichos, a religious charlatan posthumously lambasted by one of my heroes of the ancient world, Lucian of Samosata
  • Speusippus, Plato's successor as head of the Academy in Athens
  • Alcetas of Epirus, a great-grandfather of Alexander the Great - although he was mentioned by Demosthenes, that great orator was only 14 when Alcetas died, and so the speech doesn't count as strictly contemporary evidence
More importantly, if just a few works had failed to survive, we'd have to add others to this list, including Socrates (if we get rid of Aristophanes' Clouds). And, for that matter, without archaeological evidence like coinage, we'd have nothing certain and contemporary for even someone so crucial as Alexander the Great; all of our surviving literary documentation for him comes from long after his time. I could probably augment the list even further. For example, I'm not sure that we have any contemporary evidence for, e.g., the Roman consul Quintus Fabius Vibulanus (our knowledge of him derives from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita Libri, if I recall correctly)

Carlos also talks a bit about the story of Jesus (or, rather, the purported lack thereof) in the letters of Paul, which are without doubt the earliest surviving Christian documents. Does Jesus lack any sort of lineage in Paul's thought? Well, Paul talks in his letter to the Christians in Rome about Jesus, "who is descended from David according to the flesh" (Gk. autou genomenou ek spermatos Dauid kata sarka--Romans 1:3). A similar reference appears in the Pastoral Epistles at 2 Timothy 2:8. David, as was well known from the Hebrew scriptures, was a historical human king of Israel, founder of the dynasty that would govern the Israelites for centuries. Even if one wants to be especially skeptical and suggest that there was no historical king David (which is, I think, contrary to the best archaeological and historical indicators; I'll also note that Carlos appears to accept a historical king David), Paul and his contemporaries accepted that David was a real human, a real king--and it would seem difficult to chart a genealogy between a human David as an ancestor and a descendant named Jesus who lived in a mythical realm. The opposite direction has precedent--one may consider the putative descent of the Merovingian Dynasty from Merovech's alleged father, a sea monster of some sort--but I know of no other case in which, apart from apotheosis of a human figure, a completely heavenly, mythical figure was thought to be descended from a flesh-and-blood human who had lived at a particular time in human history.

What of Jesus having "no time period"? Well, the Pastoral Epistles mention that Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13), which specifies a ten-year window. Admittedly, not all are in agreement that the Pastoral Epistles are authentically Pauline, though I think that they are. So we can at least say that perhaps Paul made a reference to Pilate. We may also gather a reference to Jesus' earthly life in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, which most certainly places Jesus on earth. Apart from that, Paul doesn't give any specific chronological data of use. He wouldn't have had to, in his context. There would have been relatively little reason to mention it in his surviving letters, all of which were written to people well aware of when Jesus had lived and died. We cannot simply make the jump from 'Paul never mentions exactly when Jesus lived on earth' to 'Paul doesn't believe that Jesus ever lived on earth'.

Perhaps an analogy would be at least marginally helpful. We may imagine a world in which our surviving sources for early Jehovah's Witness history were Joseph F. Rutherford's Religion, his Comfort for the Jews, his Salvation, and the three volumes of his Vindication. In this collection--much, much larger in size than the existing Pauline corpus--there is absolutely no mention of Charles T. Russell. The name "Russell" is utterly absent; only a mention of "Russellites" can be found in the second volume of Vindication. It is true that Russell is not the subject of any of these works, but by the same reasoning by which Paul's lack of detail means a mythical Jesus, so too perhaps Rutherford's lack of mention in these works would, to some people in that alternate world, mean a mythical Russell. (Of course, if we add a few more works by Rutherford, such as Harp of God or Millions Now Living Will Never Die, then we gain both Russell's name and some chronological indicators--made possible by the convenient dating scheme used in twentieth-century America.) Moreover, were everything before the tables of contents lost, not even Russell's own Studies in the Scriptures (excluding the seventh posthumous volume) would offer any information about Russell that would aid in dating him. With the exception of the letters from C. Piazzi Smyth and a missionary in China quoted in Thy Kingdom Come, and one brief reference in the sixth study of The New Creation, even Russell's name would be entirely absent.

Now, Carlos also comes to mention the "many God-men of many religions" who, he says, "came down to earth and were born of a virgin". He cites two examples, Horus and Mithra, to whom I'll return momentarily. I'd first like to say that divine incarnation of any sort comparable with that found in Christianity is exceptionally rare in world religions; in the most precise sense, I'd say that it's in fact totally unique. It is true that many divine or heroic figures of the ancient world were thought to have had peculiar conceptions... but few of these actually fit the bill of being virginal conceptions. To take the case of the Egyptian god Horus, for example, he was most definitely conceived during an act of intercourse between the Egyptian god Osiris and his wife/sister Isis, as can be confirmed by consulting Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride (well, the Greek title would be Peri Isidos kai Osiridos). I've yet to come across a primary source that claims that Isis was in fact a virgin when she gave birth to Horus.

As for Mithras (or Mithra), there's the tricky question: which Mithra? There was the Mitra spoken of in the Vedas, the Iranian deity Mithra, and finally the Mithras of the Roman mystery religion of Mithraism. They need to be carefully distinguished in certain regards, since their stories frequently differ. Generally the extravagant claims about Mithras rely to an extent on the outdated scholarship of Franz Cumont, who worked under the outdated assumption that Iranian Mithraism and Roman Mithraism were substantially connected in a way that more recent Mithraic scholars have wisely rejected. As for the virgin birth of Mithras, it should be noted that the Roman Mithras was born from a rock (see, e.g., the thirteenth section of Commodianus' Instructions for the statement that "the unconquered one was born from a rock"). The Iranian Mithra, on the other hand, was in some accounts a direct creation of Ahura Mazda, being numbered among the yazatas, and so not born at all. Neither of these options gives Mithras a virgin birth.

Similar analysis reveals that many of the other claims made to this effect (viz., that the story of Jesus derived from those of pagan deities) are similarly incorrect; they largely derive, originally, from 19th-century freethinkers who failed to substantiate much if any of their data from primary sources. Those few claims that do initially appear to have some connection with the primary sources are generally either inconsequential (i.e., no more significant than noting, for example, that both the English king Henry VIII and the Chinese emperor Jianwen (Zhu Yunwen) had special headgear) or else are rooted in a misinterpretation that has since been corrected by the advance of scholarship.

In general, when it comes to these topics, the one book I'd recommend reading is called Shattering the Christ Myth. And I'm not just recommending it because I happen to have been one of the contributors (Chapter 22, the longest in the volume, is mine). There are certainly other very relevant books, such as The Jesus Legend (which I haven't read yet), but Shattering the Christ Myth deals accessibly in depth with essentially every issue that Carlos raised. The 'silence' of Paul? Check. The lack of reference to Jesus in surviving strictly contemporary records? Check. Horus? Check. Mithra? Check. Other alleged similarities to pagan deities? Check. The movie The God Who Wasn't There? Check, and for a bonus we'll throw in a second movie, Zeitgeist. In short, perhaps the most thorough published response to date to those who espouse some of the views that Carlos has adopted since breaking ranks with Jehovah's Witnesses.

Finally, I'll also note that Carlos makes reference to the finds recovered at Nag Hammadi. This was an immensely important archaeological discovery, uncovering a cache of documents, many of which otherwise had been lost to the ages. They tell us a great deal about a fringe group (or family of groups) very active in the second and third centuries AD. They do not, however, tell us terribly much about the historical Jesus, although some of them (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas) can at times be useful for checking sayings of Jesus recorded in both the canonical gospels and in the Nag Hammadi texts. What these documents contain, however, is very, very foreign to the soil of first-century Palestine, the setting of Jesus' life. Many of these documents contain highly non-Jewish ideas that would have been extraordinarily strange to find in the mouth of Jesus. To try another analogy, if archaeologists in the future were to unearth some Jehovah's Witness's "theocratic library", those future scholars would undoubtedly learn a great deal about the Jehovah's Witnesses, a fringe group very active in the nineteenth, twentieth, and (so far) twenty-first centuries AD. They would not tell us much about contemporary biblical scholarship or mainstream American religious life. It would seem peculiar if those future scholars were to seriously re-evaluate their views of either of those fields on the basis of that recovered theocratic library; likewise, although I've read a number of the documents from the Nag Hammadi library, nothing in it has given me reason to re-evaluate my views of the historical Jesus, precisely because they shed no new light on him, but rather use him as a spokesman for ideas that he is historically very unlikely to have ever held.

Carlos also wrote in his post:

I already saw that science could easily debunk the Old Testament stories of the flood and Genesis in general. I learned from documentaries and websites that archaeology and science proved how man is much older than the Bible makes room for, there is clear evidence for evolution, a global flood could not have happened, the Jews didn't have an exodus from Egypt, David was the king of a small empire that never included the entire 12 tribes, and that the Jews were still clearly polytheists in the days of David and Solomon, and they never ever actually lived under the Mosaic Law (which could not have been handed from God to Moses).

I learned that the Bible came out of a group of captive people in Babylon, possibly from more ancient writings but edited. I learned that it's stories were much like the stories of the Sumerians.

Both the Old and New Testaments were written chock full of legends that were full of fables (short stories, based on half-truths), but certainly not literal accounts. It seems that Judaism started out as allegory that nobody really believed, just as nobody really believed there were actual gods residing on Mount Olympus. Someone forgot it was a fable along the way. Same with the Jesus stories.

Well, where to begin my comments! I first want to focus on the first part, and then I'll no doubt skip around a bit here and there. I really have little objection to the first part of what Carlos said. As I've said on my blog before, I'm an evolutionist. I don't believe that the earliest sections of Genesis, up to and including the Flood narrative, were meant to be taken as history in anywhere near the sense that we understand it; this means that I, of course, don't see an inevitable collision between biblical authority and the general scientific consensus about the biological origins of humanity--both of which I accept.

(A caveat, however: documentaries are a notoriously poor source of information and have a strong tendency to sensationalize and interject bias through unbalanced selection; they inevitably involve sound bites. Generally speaking, I avoid documentaries unless I'm in the mood to yell at the television set. I prefer to get my information, not from documentaries nor from websites, but chiefly from published work by scholars in the relevant field.)

As for the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and various other things Carlos mentioned, I do accept the substantial historicity of those events, which are probably too complicated to discuss in any reasonable detail here. I will, however, recommend K. A. Kitchen's book On the Reliability of the Old Testament, which I've found to be an exceptionally persuasive treatment of the Old Testament. There are other books devoted to the exodus, such as James Hoffmeier's Israel in Egypt, but I haven't read it yet and so don't know to what degree I'd recommend it or not. I'm somewhat intrigued about what Carlos does think about the scope of the Davidic kingdom (which, while a 'micro-kingdom' of the sort common at the time, does appear to me to have included all the Israelite tribes). As for the Jews being polytheistic in their early history, we need to consider whether this statement is meant to cover normative Jewish religion or popular Jewish religion, which can be two quite different things. The Kuntillet Arjud ostraca, for example, are hardly surprising as examples of popular Jewish religion; the biblical authors are quite clear that much of the history of Israel and Judah was full of idolatrous deviation from normative Jewish religion, which was monolatrous at the least, if not necessarily explicitly monotheistic (primarily because, at least in the beginning, monolatry would have been the most pressing matter). I'm very curious, too, about what Carlos is saying with respect to the Mosaic Law.

Carlos is right when he says that many of the things in the Bible have parallels in Mesopotamian literature. (That doesn't necessarily indicate direct borrowing of those elements during the Babylonian Captivity, however. Many of the relevant motifs and narrative structures were commonplace in the ancient Near East.) I'm a lover of ancient Near Eastern literature, which means that I've read plenty of creation myths, flood narratives, and a whole slew of other documents from ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

When it comes to the general tenor of the Old Testament and New Testament, I'll have to disagree with Carlos. First, his definition of "fable" is non-standard insofar as it references "half-truths". Also, in the accepted sense of "fable", the biblical narratives do not consist of them. I think that genre and context are highly important for understanding the Bible, and I do agree that the Old Testament contains ahistorical narrative genres, particular near the beginning of Genesis; I do not, however, think that the New Testament should be read this way, because the genre is different. The story of Jesus is told in four Greco-Roman bioi ("lives", or ancient biographies--see Richard Burridge's What Are the Gospels?), not a collection of fables. One can reject the historicity of those biographies if one wishes, but they do not seem reducible to the level of allegory. I'm also not certain that it's true that no one ever believed that the Greek gods actually dwelled spatially on Mt. Olympus. (I considered trying to climb Mt. Olympus while in Greece but didn't have the opportunity; if I'm ever back in the area, I wouldn't mind tackling at least the Skolio summit.) I'm not entirely certain what Carlos means when he says that "Judaism started out as allegory that nobody really believed", though it appears to flatly contradict what Carlos said elsewhere to the effect that "in early times, the Bible was taken at it's [sic] word". Whatever Carlos precisely means when he speaks of early Judaism as wholly allegorical, if it means anything beyond the mythical character of, e.g., Genesis 1-11, then I'd be quite interested to hear more and also to hear some of the reasoning behind the claim.

While I'm offering a few assorted comments, I'll add in that, if Christian faith were indeed as Carlos describes it, I don't think I could have it. One popular definition of "faith" is, sadly, "firm belief in something for which there is no proof". (Technically, that isn't necessarily a problem, if we distinguish properly between "proof" and "evidence". Strictly speaking, I have no proof that Carlos even exists; I do, however, have strong evidence. Strictly speaking, I'm not even sure I have proof, per se, that the earth exists, but I certainly have far more than sufficient evidence to warrant that belief.) Generally speaking, I'm not a large fan of having "firm belief in something for which there is no [evidence]". I believe that God exists; I would contend that I do so at least in part because I perceive that such is a reasonable belief to hold and is warranted by evidence. I wouldn't say that I have faith that God exists, because I strive to use "faith" more in the sense of pistis, the Greek word used in the New Testament and commonly rendered as "faith". It gives more the sense, usually, of conveying the sense of loyalty and trust, which is perfectly compatible with having good reason to extend that loyalty and trust. It is in this sense that I have faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (This way of speaking survives in speaking of a "faithful" spouse; this clearly has nothing to do with "firm belief in something for which there is no [evidence]".)

To conclude this post, though, I want to say that although I disagree with Carlos on issues such as God and the Bible, his site is definitely worth reading, particularly for interesting insights on what it was like being raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses and what it's like transitioning away from loyalty to that group. That's why I'm happy to include it in the blog sidebar here.


  1. Hi JB,

    Thanks for doing this piece on me. I do find your research pretty interesting.

    Thing is, I came to be an atheist by accident. My parents asked me to read the bible when I started to fade out of "the truth".

    Big mistake.

    I found so many errors, that for a second, I thought I was going insane. It wasn't my intention to turn into a fully fledged atheist, but after analysing the Flood account (bypassing the creation account as that could have been symbolic, but as Jesus Christ discussed the flood, I find that account couldn't have been symbolic), I found it completely incomprehensible that a God could exist; or at least, the God that was described in the bible.

    After analysing many facts (not all the facts, as that would be impossible), I made my mind up.

    This, I suppose, is just one of those cases where we will need to agree to disagree.

    Have a fantastic weekend!

    Carlos Scienza

  2. Hello, Carlos! I hope your week's going well.

    I can definitely understand why someone raised with a very literal view of certain passages would, upon examining them critically for the first time, find the text as a whole rather difficult to swallow; and I appreciate your candor in stressing that it's mostly the biblical portrayal of God to which you object, moreso than the concept of God per se.

    I do disagree on the issue of the Flood, as I don't think that Jesus' statements necessitate that, to agree with them today, we accept the literal historicity of the Flood narrative in Genesis; I think that it's quite feasible to understand it as using a culture's traditional stories as teaching tools without passing judgment on their veracity as historical narrative. Had I been a Christian among the ancient Greeks, for example, I might well have used illustrations from Greek mythology without always stressing my rejection of them, depending on the point to be made; and if I recall correctly, some Indian Christian theologians and missionaries there have made ample use of motifs from Hindu mythology to express Christian ideas. (As a somewhat muted example, I believe that some notable work by Brahmabandhav Upadhyay contains a line or two that implicitly draw a parallel between Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross and a scene in Hindu mythology in which the god Shiva drained the poisonous Halahala from the sea during the Samudra manthan.)

    At any rate, I hope I have a chance to hear more sometime about the process that led you from being a Jehovah's Witness to becoming an atheist. And if you ever find yourself interested in a discussion about the Bible or the existence of God or anything of that sort, I'd probably quite enjoy the exchange.

    Have a great weekend as well!


  3. This is interesting. I've been meeting with Jehovah's Witnesses for three weeks--really my first exposure to the faith.