The Invisible Things

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The Tomb and The Question

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Consider this perhaps familiar scenario: A controversial theory is made that challenges the core beliefs of a faith rooted in history, embedded in an attractive, popular and entertainment-oriented format which masquerades as scholarship…

Like the cultural fallout of the The DaVinci Code, James Cameron’s documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” makes strident claims about the central figure of Christianity, Jesus himself, yet takes them even further than even Dan Brown. The substance of the claims of the documentary is that an opulent tomb containing 10 ossuaries, 6 of which are inscribed with Biblically familiar names, actually contains the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family- including his wife, Mary Magdalene (or in this case, “Mary, the Master”) and their child, Judah! No doubt the discussion will be passionate, and perhaps last as long as the post-DaVinci Code activity did. However, central to any discussion will likely be the same question: Who was Jesus?

I have already seen numerous opinions written in the last several days that in response to the discovery of the so-called “Jesus Tomb,” Christians should do the reasonable thing and accept the facts, “Jesus’ bones have been found. He was not bodily resurrected. He is dead. You’ve been duped! But, I suppose you can still be a Christian. After all, Jesus is more powerful as an idea rather than a person. Ideas change people. That’s all we have!” I must strongly disagree. If it were to be proven somehow that these remains are in fact those of Jesus and his family, and that he was not resurrected, the reasonable response would not be to adapt the Christian faith and reconstruct its theology to fit the predicament and worship a symbol. The reasonable response would be to abandon the Christian faith altogether (what this would mean for theism is another argument). The apostle Paul spoke to this idea when he wrote in his first letter to the church of Corinth, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

Ultimately, faith cannot be in a symbol. Symbols are interpreted in light of many things, often subjective in nature. They can mean vastly different things to different people. Yet, the Christian faith and its understanding of who Jesus was has always been based upon specific events in history and the people involved in those events. The primary meaning of these events is not subjective, but the foundation upon which Christian theology is understood. The meaning and power of these events and people have no value if they are not true! There are many beautiful stories that were never intended to be anything other than fiction, and though their ideas and symbols have persevered through the generations, placing faith in them in the way Christians do in Jesus Christ, would be absurd.

In the same way, no man, no matter how wise a teacher or influential a revolutionary, aught to be the object of faith or worship; for so long as he is a man, he can reach no further or do no more than those who may mistakenly place their faith in him. The man who accepts worship and acts as if he were God without having a shred of divinity is, as famously put by C.S. Lewis, either a lunatic or a liar, neither of which is worthy of worship. But, if He truly is Lord, then worship Him we must!

While we have little reason to think that this particular find bears any threat to the truths of the Christian faith, we must not entertain any notion of diluting it simply to avoid the challenges we are sure to face. We must consider it yet another opportunity to respond to the question that Jesus asked of His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

Initial Impressions of the “Jesus Tomb” discovered in Talpiot, Jerusalem

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A tomb discovered in Jerusalem has been the subject of much media attention in recent days. A Time Magazine blog entry, entitled “Jesus: Tales from the Crypt” (http://time-blog.com/middle_east/2007/02/jesus_tales_from_the_crypt.html?iid=feed-middle_east) has been heavily viewed, as has the Discovery Channel interactive site that details much of the information known about the tomb (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/tomb.html).

Though the tomb and its contents (10 ossuaries, 6 of which have inscriptions, as well as 3 unidentified skulls) have not yet been evaluated to the satisfaction of most interested parties, enough information has been gathered so far as to merit discussion. My initial impression is that much of the alleged evidence that has been interpreted as proof that the tomb discovered in 1980 was indeed that of the Biblical Jesus and his family is gaining such widespread attention now based upon an excellent and intentional public relations effort and hype rather than its own validity. However, I will be paying close attention to this story as it develops further.

Most of the information that will be revealed at the coming press conference and Discovery Channel documentary produced by Hollywood director James Cameron is known at this point. I have detailed below what I think are several strong points of contention.

The Family

It should be wondered whether a humble Galilean family would have been able to afford what is obviously an opulent and grand tomb for its time, or whether they would have located that tomb in Jerusalem rather than their own home. Though tradition recounts that James, the brother of Jesus, came to believe in Jesus as messiah and lead what became the early church in Jerusalem, it is also known that he was stoned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin in approximately AD 62. This is an important fact because the nature of his death would lead many historians to conclude that his subsequent burial would not have been likely to be honorable. Additionally, James’ presence in Jerusalem may lead some to conclude that the rest of his family was there as well, though there really is no conclusive evidence to suggest this.

The Inscriptions

Six of the ten ossuaries in the tomb have inscriptions. They are: “Maria,” the Latin form of Mary, inscribed on the side of the ossuary in Hebrew script; “Matia,” inscribed in Hebrew script; “Yose,” the diminutive of “Yosef,” inscribed in Hebrew script; “Yeshua bar Yosef,” translated “Jesus, son of Joseph,” inscribed in Aramaic lettering; “Mariamene e Mara,” so far translated as “Mary, known as master,” inscribed in Greek lettering; and “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” translated “Judah, son of Jesus,” inscribed in Aramaic lettering on a more decorated façade.

Though the collection of names bears striking resemblance to what we know are names of Jesus’ family, it should be said at the outset that these names were extremely common at that time. Additionally, there are some names from Jesus’ family that are missing from the tomb and some heretofore unknown names present. Joseph, the father of Jesus, does not seem to be present among the ossuaries, unless of course, his is one of the uninscribed. The ossuary inscribed “Yose” is unlikely to be that of the patriarch given that Yose would have been nicknamed this because of his father’s name. The ossuary inscribed “Matia” is puzzling given that the name Matthew has been associated with Jesus because of his disciple, Levi, though not with a member of his immediate family. “Matthan,” a name similar to Matthew, is listed among the genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew as the grandfather of Joseph. It seems doubtful that the two are related as the names themselves are different and the presence of Joseph’s grandfather in the tomb would only further raise the question of Joseph’s absence, as well as why the grandfather’s ossuary would be inscribed but Joseph’s presumably not.

The presence of the ossuary inscribed “Yose” strengthens the circumstantial case, as the name has been listed in the Gospel accounts as being a brother of Jesus. However, there is no other evidence to confirm that this ossuary belonged to the brother of the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef.”

The inscription “Mariamene e mara” is of high interest, especially to those who would like to make a case for the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. The inscription has been translated “Mary, known as master,” which is strange indeed as it is unlikely that such a description would be given to a woman of that time, no less strange given that her presumed “mastery” bears reference to Jesus himself, yet the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef,” has no other description or title associated with it. If these are indeed the ossuaries of the Biblical figures, why would Mary have such a title and Jesus not? However, it is also possible, if not likely, that the inscription “Mariamene e mara,” could be translated as the diminutive form of “Mariam,” or “Maria.” In any case, none of these translations bear a direct or confirmed link to Mary Magdalene, nor do they really indicate a relationship between the owners of the “Mariamene e mara” ossuary and the “Yeshua bar Yosef” ossuary.

The other ossuary bearing an inscription reads “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” or “Judah, son of Jesus.” There is really no strong evidence to suggest that the Biblical Jesus had a son, nor that he was married (I have discussed this previously here: https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/04/11/what-about-all-the-other-gospels-part-2/). However, the presence of this inscribed ossuary in a tomb among other common yet Biblically familiar names in no way merits the reinterpretations of Biblical passages widely interpreted to be referring to the disciple John as actually referring to a child- possibly the child of Jesus. Without any additional historical evidence that Jesus had a son, the presence of the Judah ossuary seems to be a strike against the case, not for it.

The Discovery channel site seems to imply that an ossuary inscribed with “Yaakov bar Yosef a khui d’ Yeshua,” or “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” in Aramaic, is present along with the others. This is not the case, and is frankly misleading on the part of Discovery. Indeed, an ossuary with this inscription has been found and has been the subject of much discussion given its inscription. Much of the controversy surrounding this ossuary is due to the dismissal of the last part of the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” which some scholars have claimed was added as a forgery to bolster the value of the artifact. Incidentally, the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, testified in 2004 that it had been in his possession for over 25 years, and prior to that had been owned by someone else. This means that the James ossuary must have been discovered at least several years prior to the discovery of the intact Talpiot tomb, leading to the conclusion that it was never among the ten ossuaries found there.

Lastly, it seems to me that the linguistic variety of the ossuary inscriptions do not necessarily imply any kind of special status. It seems that the inscription of the “Maria” ossuary is being singled out due to the fact that Maria is the Latin form of Mary. Yet, what of the “Mariamene e mara,” “Yeshua bar Yosef,” and “Yehuda bar Yeshua” ossuaries, which are also inscribed in languages other than Hebrew script? This means that four of the six inscribed ossuaries are not in Hebrew script. Perhaps, then, the Hebrew inscribed ossuaries are the special ones? The statistical evidence, which has been put forth to conclude that the chances that this tomb is not that of Jesus’ family are 600:1 is also quite misleading. It assumes that the “Mariamene e mara” inscription identifies Mary Magdalene. It also does not weigh the presence of the names not associated with Jesus’ family against it, nor does it take in to consideration the presence of unmarked ossuaries. While the collection of names is intriguing, 600:1 in favor of this tomb being that of Jesus’ family seems almost absurd.

The DNA Evidence
According to information released about the tomb, useable tissue samples were only able to be extracted from the ossuaries inscribed “Mariamene e mara” and “Yeshua bar Yosef.” (Jewish law prohibits the bones from being disturbed, so testing has been limited to organic tissue residue found in the ossuaries.) Testing has so far concluded that the occupants of the two ossuaries could not have been maternally related. However, this is a far cry from establishing that the two were married! Though it seems obvious, it should be noted that without an authentic sample of DNA from either the person him/herself or a proven descendant, it is impossible to use DNA sampling to establish the identity of a person. Thus, without an existing sample of DNA from the Biblical Jesus, or a sample from a proven descendant of the Biblical Jesus, no DNA evidence will prove that this ossuary belonged to him.

Historical Considerations
While the information collected from this tomb might seem to build a convincing case for it being that of the Biblical family, it must be considered along side of all the other information we do know about the family and the circumstances of the early church. The historical validity of the New Testament documents provides ample information about the followers of Jesus, as do the writings of early church fathers and Josephus. Taken as a body of evidence, they certainly suggest that something significant happened to alter the behavior of the disciples and to propel the Christian movement into what it is today. I have written about this previously here: https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-3-the-origin-and-perseverance-of-the-church/ and here: https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/11/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-2-the-empty-tomb/.)

It seems valid at this point to conclude that the evidence that has been released so far is not strong enough to build a case for the Talpiot tomb having belonged to the family of the Biblical Jesus. Indeed, even Amos Kloner, the Bar-Ilan University professor and archaeologist who lead the excavation and subsequent analysis, has been quoted recently, dismissing the hype by saying “It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s impossible. It’s nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE.”

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Related Issues:

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 1 (The Pos-Mortem Appearances)
https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/10/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-1-the-post-mortem-appearances/

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb)
https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/11/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-2-the-empty-tomb/

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 3 (The Origin and Perseverance of the Church)
https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-3-the-origin-and-perseverance-of-the-church/

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)
https://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/14/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-4-addressing-alternative-explanations/

Related Articles (offsite):

The Discovery Channel interactive site on the “Lost Tomb of Jesus”
http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/frm/f/3601981278

The Discovery Channel sponsored “Lost Tomb of Jesus” discussion board
http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/frm/f/3601981278

CNN Article posted after the televised press conference:
http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/02/26/jesus.sburial.ap/index.html

Ben Witherington’s take on the Talpiot tomb:
http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/jesus-tomb-titanic-talpiot-tomb-theory.html

Ben Witherington’s second take on the Talpiot tomb:
http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/problems-multiple-for-jesus-tomb-theory.html

David Kuo’s take on the Talpiot tomb:
http://www.beliefnet.com/blogs/JWalking/2007/02/think-jesus-meets-titanic.html

A fair take on some of the scholarly objections on Time.com:
http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1593893,00.html?cnn=yes

Update (03/06/2007):

An interesting commentary on the symbols found in the tomb, by Pastor David Janssen (new):
http://davidjanssen.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/the-jesus-tomb-and-its-tale-of-symbols/

Craig Blomberg’s article on the Talpiot Tomb (new):
http://www.denverseminary.edu/dialogue/jesusbones

Jesus is Not a Mithras Redux

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Mithraism, as it is germane to Christian historical discussion, was a mystery religion adopted by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. (I am careful with my words here, as Mithraism has a previous historical incantation in ancient Persia, though its relationship to the Roman tradition, in practice and philosophy, is unclear at this point.) Some critics claim that Christianity borrowed from the traditions of Mithraism as a means of attracting followers, though these allegedly adopted Mithraic traditions were not actually authentic to Jesus. I believe it is safe to say that, on the basis of historical scholarship done by secular, Christian and Mithraic-oriented scholars, this claim is thoroughly without serious basis.

History
According to Mithraic scholar Franz Cumont, the first mention of Mithra was made in a treaty from 1400 B.C. (Other, more recent, scholars place this date at around 700 B.C.) At this time and after, Mithraic tradition indicated Mithra as a deity who gave orders and guidance to the military, as well as dispensed justice to those who broke political treaties. As the religion developed, the Mithraic story grew richer. Mithra became known as the provider of rain, bringing vegetation and health to the people. However, to the Persians who held to this tradition, Mithra was not the supreme deity, but subservient to another god, Varuna, who was specifically associated with the culture’s rice harvest. Some descriptions of Mithra have been translated, “Lord of the Contract,” “Upholder of Truth,” “Peaceful, benevolent protector,” and “Not easily provoked.” Even later mentions of Mithra characterize him again as a warrior, though at some point they seem to have reverted again to depicting him as a pacifist deity. When Zoroastrian religion developed in Persia (estimated at around 440 B.C., according to Herodotus’ The Histories), Mithra’s previous association with treaties developed into his role as a “mediator” between the gods of good and evil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman, respectively. He was considered part of a larger pantheon of seven deities that served the gods of the upper spiritual echelon. In this Mithraic-Zoroastrian incantation, Mithra’s role in the cosmos also included delivering the condemned to hell and the saved to heaven. By the first century B.C., Mithra was still associated with these themes, in addition to having some sort of relationship with the gods Apollos and Hermes.

The Roman Mithraic tradition seems to only be linked to the Persian Mithra by name, though in the Hellenistic and Roman traditions, he is referred to as Mithras (the Greek masculine form of Mithra). The Roman Mithraic story involves the heroic slaying of a sacred bull by Mithras, perhaps an astrological allegory, though the Persian details, treaty enforcement, agriculture, and escorting of souls, seem to no longer apply. According to Roman tradition, Mithras’ heroic slaying of the bull gained him the favor of the sun god. Other than tracking the evolution of the name of Mithras across the two traditions, scholars in the 20th century have failed to establish a substantial link between the two Mithraic traditions in terms of their actual beliefs. Rather, the latest scholarship in regard to Mithras suggests that the Romans founded their version of Mithraism in response to the astrological discovery of the movement of the heavens (now referred to as the precession of the equinoxes). Scholars who advocate the astrological thesis suggest that the Persian name of Mithras was given to the god who they believed orchestrated this movement (Perseus in the Roman tradition) due to an alliance at the time with a leader from Asia Minor named Mithridates and the influence of Mithraic Cilician pirates.

Despite what seems to be an obvious lack of related details between the Mithraic tradition and the origins of Christianity, critics nonetheless allege that certain details of the Christian tradition were adapted, if not outright “stolen” from Mithraism. I will examine some of the more inflammatory claims below:

Like Jesus, Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave. His birth was also attended by shepherds.
Many Christians are well aware that there is no Biblical basis for setting the date of the birth of Jesus on December 25th. History shows that this date was introduced as significant to Christ later by the post-apostolic church, no doubt influenced by the multiplicity of sacred festivals occurring at this time. According to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was not born of a virgin in a cave. In fact, Mithras was said to have been born, fully grown, from solid rock; the event leaving a cavity behind. There was no mention of a virgin. Interestingly, the story continues to describe Mithras being helped out of the rock by shepherds, who offer him a pick from their flock. Yet according to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was created prior to the creation of mankind. Consequently, the Mithraic “shepherds” cannot be legitimately compared to those of the Christian tradition. Lastly, the earliest existing record of this narrative is from around 100 years after the manuscripts of the New Testament, leaving no room for claims that the Christian tradition copied the story and attributed it to Jesus. (Note also that the later Persian Mithraic traditions recount his conception through the incestual copulation of the god Ahura-Mazda and his mother. The Christian virgin birth story is principally concerned with the humanity of Mary and God’s role in the creation of Jesus through her. There is no parallel between this and the Mithraic story.)

Mithras was also considered a great traveling teacher and master.
This particular attribute is probably one of the most common identifiers of just about every spiritual leader in history. However, there is no mention in Mithraic tradition of Mithras being an itinerant teacher like Jesus. If this claim is to be taken seriously as evidence that Christian tradition appropriated from Mithraic tradition, one must also take into account the travels and teachings of other spiritual figures like Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, etc.

Mithras had 12 disciples.
The Persian Mithra was often associated with the god Varuna, such that one might infer that they were considered a pair. However, in this tradition Mithra is short 10 companions. In the Roman tradition, Mithras was accompanied by two entities, created after his own image, named Cautes and Catopatres. They have been said to represent day and night or spring and fall or life and death. Mithras was also associated with the snake, the dog, the lion, and the scorpion, likely due to the astrological origin of the Roman tradition. Still, Mithras’ companions only add up to 6 at most, taking all into account. Some claim that a Mithraic stone carving, which depicts the famous bull scene with one vertical row of six images on each side, proves the “12 disciples” connection. However, most current Mithraic scholarship attributes these to zodiac representations. In addition to acknowledging that since the carving itself dates to well after the time of Jesus, any connections to the Christian tradition of 12 disciples would have to implicate Mithraism as the copycat, not Christianity. In the other direction, one would have to claim that Christianity stole the number twelve from astrology- likely a much more difficult case to make.

Mithras offered eternal life to his followers.
Like the “traveling teacher” connection, this claim no more implicates Christianity as it does just about every religious tradition that posits life after death. Incidentally, the only specific mention of a Mithraic offer of eternal life to his followers exists in a piece of writing dated to 200 A.D., which has been translated, “and us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood.” In Mithraic tradition, the blood is not the blood of Mithras, but that of the bull he slaughtered, and “saved” referred to being approved to ascend through other levels toward immortality. It was clearly not the same type of salvation that is taught in Christian theology.

Mithras performed miracles.
While both the Iranian Mithra and the Roman Mithras traditions recount acts of great power done by Mithra(s), this is hardly an incriminating fact. Like the teaching and offering of immortality, this is another common attribute of any religious figure. To make this claim worthwhile, one would have to show similarities in type of miracle (i.e. Mithras walked on water, healed the blind, or raised the dead).

Mithras sacrificed himself for mankind.
Some Mithraic scholars have tried to depict Mithras and the bull he had slain as one and the same, construing the story to represent that Mithras gave his own life. However, the narrative in no way suggests this. At best, Mithras could be considered heroic for his victory over the bull, though more likely is the modern interpretation that the bull slaying story corresponded to astrological themes. However, this has no comparison to the Christian claim that Jesus died as atonement for the sins of mankind.

Mithras was buried in a tomb, and after three days, He rose again.
In Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian writes, “if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crow.” This is the only reference from which some Mithraic scholars claim a correlation between Mithraic and Christian traditions. Unfortunately, having been written after the New Testament, there is no evidence that what it describes predates Christianity. Nor is there really any compelling aspect to Tertullian’s description that would indicate that these practices were authentic to Mithraism or even appropriately compared to Christian tradition.

Mithras said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”
There is no evidence for this saying being attributed to Mithras. Scholars have, however, found this saying attributed to Zarathustra, though in a medieval document (remember that Zarathustra, the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, is thought to have lived some time around 2000 B.C.). Though followers of Mithras were known to have fellowship meals, at which was eaten bread, water, wine and meat, such circumstances were common to meals shared by many people in many different contexts.

Conclusions
It should be emphasized that none of the alleged similarities between Mithras and Jesus can be shown to apply to the Persian Mithra, but only to the Roman Mithraic tradition, which did not really flourish until after the time of the New Testament. That said, the alleged connections are quite dubious, as I explained above. In fact, no archeological evidence for this tradition can be argued to exist from any earlier than A.D. 90. This seems to suggest that the re-emergence of Mithras in the Roman context preserved the name of the Persian deity, yet adopted a new set of traditions more closely linked to the many mystery religions of the time. In any case, the overall Mithraic tradition should actually be thought of as two distinct movements, having little to do with one another beyond having a god of the same name.

The driving force of these comparisons appears to be a deliberate application of language resembling that used in Christian tradition to traditions that never actually used that language in the first place. For example, referring to the “birth” of Mithras to a “virgin” is absurd given that, according to Mithraic tradition, he was not “born” in the human sense at all, but came into being out of lifeless solid rock. Perhaps one might claim that the lifeless solid rock, having never before had an entity emerge from it, was “virgin-like,” but that would be an extreme stretch in language and meaning, and more akin to an intentional characterization of Mithraic tradition in Christian terms. Similarly, if Mithraic tradition could be shown to teach that Mithras instructed his followers to gather together in a fellowship meal, it would be misleading to refer to this as a Mithraic “last supper.” Even if Roman Mithraism did hold to traditions similar to Christianity, it would be false to assume that simply because the two traditions existed similarly and contemporaneously one must have preceded or caused the other. Like liberal Biblical scholars that give priority to Gnostic sources on Jesus, though they date long after the canonical Gospels, those that desire to establish a link between Mithras and Jesus must contend with the fact that the existing sources for Roman Mithraism are all post-Christian and cannot be said to have influenced Christian doctrine.

I do find it strange that these allegations persist despite the overwhelming fact that the historicity of the character of Mithras is incomparable to that of Jesus of Nazareth. Given that Mithras is obviously a mythical character, and that no evidence exists to show that a man name Mithras actually lived at some point in history and had followers in the same sense as the Christian disciples, the notion of Mithras actually participating in historical events and teaching actual people is significantly questionable. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence, attested to by multiple independent sources, that Jesus was a historical figure that actually lived in first century Palestine, assembled a group of followers, the teachings of whom were recorded by multiple sources, and was actually put to death by Roman authorities. Given the amount of historical knowledge that exists about Jesus of Nazareth, the suggestion that the Christian tradition “re-branded” Jesus with Mithraic characteristics implies an unfathomably large conspiracy without a bit of evidence to back it up.

Some sources on Mithraism

Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont

The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief that Shaped the Christian World by Caitlin Matthews and Payam Nabarz

The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries by Manfred Clauss

The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, by David Ulansey

Written by Christopher Butler

October 7, 2006 at 1:35 am

Brief Comments on the Recent Craig-Ehrman Debate

with 16 comments

On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.

Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.

Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.

This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.

In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.

While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).

Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.

The Early Church and the Creedal Affirmation of Paul

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Like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus has been reinvented numerous times by theologians and historians alike, mostly in an effort to provide an explanation for the origin of the Christian movement other than the simplest or most obvious one provided by the testimony of the New Testament scriptures. Contrary to the well known theory of explanatory simplicity proposed by William of Ockham, such reconstructed “Pauls” tend to be based upon numerous assumptions that ultimately complicate the explanation itself and require that the most plausible evidence is rejected.

But, do we have any reason to believe that Paul of Tarsus, the late-coming Apostle of Jesus, was not who he claimed to be, or that the testimony of the New Testament is rife with contradictions in regards to his identity? My argument would be a simple “no,” given that the majority of historical information that is used by anyone even trying to reconstruct the life of Paul comes from the New Testament. In other words, historians, both religious and secular, rely upon the Bible as their primary source of information about the life of the Apostle Paul. To be sure, the New Testament does not provide a comprehensive biographical account of Paul, not because it is in some way incomplete or inadequate, but because it’s primary purpose is not to educate people about Paul, but to provide a testimony of God’s relationship with His people, especially in the culminating events surrounding the life of Jesus. However, many attempt to fill in the gaps in the life of Paul through traditional accounts that mention him, such as the writings of early church fathers like Clement, Eusebius, Gaius, and Bede, and other documents.

One particular non-canonical account of Paul comes from a second-century Coptic document known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This apocryphal story describes Paul’s missionary travels and his relationship with a virgin girl named Thecla, who is miraculously delivered from persecution several times, presumably protected by God in reward for her purity. According to the story, Paul primarily preached on the virtues of chastity, which reflects the asceticism of some of the divergent Christian sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It also includes the earliest physical description of Paul, who is described as short, stocky, bald and having a rather large nose. While there is good reason to reject the theological implications of the Thecla story, on the basis that it heavily contradicts earlier and better attested accounts, such as Paul’s own letters, it could be possible that Paul did in fact look as this document describes him. In other words, like other apocryphal works which likely contain bits of historical truth, they will not necessarily be helpful in creating a more accurate understanding of who Paul was and what he did.

Even factoring in the various apocryphal accounts of Paul, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the character of Paul and his significance to the Christian faith does not dramatically change. Rather, incidental details are added, such as remarks about possible stops he made on his journeys, the circumstances of his death, and the location of his burial which most scholars and theologians would agree have little to no theological relevance. This means that alternative accounts of the identity and legacy of Paul, no matter how ‘reinforced’ by collected historical hints and snippets, are actually peculiar reinterpretations of the existing scriptural record on the basis of various political or religious presuppositions with an aim to discredit Christian orthodoxy.

The most typical conclusion of the many reinterpretations of Paul is that Christian doctrine, and in the most extreme cases the person of Jesus, is the creation of Paul for variously argued political reasons. These types of theories, however, are generally defended on the basis of ad hoc assumptions about the veracity of Paul’s statements in his letters. For example, one popular reconstruction comes from the late British scholar Hyam Maccoby, who alleges that Paul invented Christian doctrine by basing the legend of Jesus on the traditions of existing Pagan mystery religions. He comes to this conclusion by arguing that Paul was not a Pharisee, as he claimed to be, nor even a Jew familiar with Hebrew! Specifically, Maccoby argues that Paul’s statements in Romans 5:10, 5:17, 11:15, and 11:24 would not have been made by a Pharisee because they are not in doctrinal agreement with first century Orthodox Judaism. Of course, this claim is outright laughable since no scholar would argue that Paul is writing to defend the perspectives of a Pharisee- these passages are written in direct opposition to the Jewish messianic scheme. No, the validity of Paul’s identity as a Pharisee has little to do with Paul’s defense of Christ, nor are such passages valid in arguing against it. Actually, Maccoby’s entire theory begins and ends with the same presupposition- that the early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ, nor could such a belief be possible anyway. Therefore he concludes that Paul must have been a liar and a manipulator. This type of circular reasoning is typical in Pauline ‘reconstructions.’

Yet, on the basis of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures for a defense of this), I think that it is quite obvious that Paul is not the subversive figure that some scholars like Maccoby have made him out to be. While Paul is responsible for an enormous portion of the growth of the Christian church, and is without a doubt the most influential apostolic voice in the scriptures, it does not follow that Paul is the creator of Christian doctrine. Neither does his influence as a man merit the great suspicion with which some skeptical scholars approach his writings and the truth of Christianity at large, unless a predisposition towards conspiracy theories is considered valid scholarship.

Having little to hide, Paul freely admits the details of his conversion after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the fact that he was well known as a former persecutor of Christians. Furthermore, Paul seems quite clear that he desired to use the influence he had for the sake of the Gospel, rather than to dictate or manipulate for personal gain. The evidence that his post-conversion life was one of great trials and suffering should speak for itself. Paul, in his letter to the Galatian church, speaks to the fact that though he had encountered the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road, the details of the Gospel were provided to him by the apostles Peter and James, to whom he submitted and checked with in regards to doctrine. In his letter to the Corinthian church, he elaborates:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)”

This information, given to Paul by James and Peter, can be dated to at least 3 years after the death of Jesus, meaning that it preceded the writing of any Gospel and was taught and believed by the early church independent of any document! This again supports the conclusion that the incidentals of Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances were not Pauline inventions, but facts shared and experienced by the entire Christian community and established as oral tradition before Paul’s conversion.

Paul clearly is not writing with the pretense that this information is unique to him. In fact, many of his letters include material that is now recognized as pre-established Christian hymns and creeds (see Rom. 1:3-4;1 Cor. 11:23 ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 2:6_11; Col.1:15-18;1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8; see also John 1:1-18; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 John 4:2). New Testament linguistic scholars have discerned that the quality of the language used in these passages is different from what has been recognized as typical of Paul’s writings, suggesting he did not formulate the verses but was actually referring to them. Also, these passages show a remarkable simplicity in being translated from Paul’s Greek into Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect spoken by Jesus and His followers, suggesting that they originated in this language as part of the pre-Gospels Hebrew/Christian oral tradition. Specifically, the terms ‘delivered,’ and ‘received’ derive from Rabbinic oral tradition, presumably an integral part of the early Christian tradition as well. This is remarkably significant considering the fact that all of these passages clearly affirm the doctrines of the death, resurrection and divinity of Jesus.

Another compelling example comes again from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, which was a Greek-speaking community, in which he uses the Aramaic phrase ‘maranatha,’ which refers to Jesus as ‘God’ (mar)*(see Scott Pruett's comment below) and looks forward to his imminent return (anatha). This inclusion of an Aramaic phrase in addressing a Greek audience indicates that the Corinthians were familiar with the phrase and its religious significance prior to Paul’s writing them, which again shows the importance of the early establishment of an oral tradition prior to the writing of any documents.

Lastly, many critics remark that since Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that we have, it is somewhat incriminating how little biographical information about Jesus they contain. Such skeptics conclude that this is because the information about Jesus contained in the four Gospels was mythological and developed over time. While I think that my above remarks refute this claim satisfactorily, I think it is also important to consider that most of Paul’s writing makes little sense outside of a scheme of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, the communities to whom Paul wrote would not have needed any kind of ‘recap’ on the life of Jesus in these letters, as they were already part of established Christian church communities assembled on the basis of such truths about Jesus!

It was the judgment of the early Christian community that the teaching and words of Paul were not only consistent with the teaching of Christ, but inspired by the Spirit of God. While many scholars are free to reject that particular spiritual conclusion, the cumulative weight of the evidence affirms that Paul sincerely participated in the growth of a church based upon the historical events of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it seems likely that with or without Paul, the Gospel of Jesus would still have been preached.

The War on Easter?

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Many will most likely be hearing reports today about a DVD documentary that has been distributed and hidden in churches by volunteers for an atheist organization. The documentary, titled The God Who Wasn’t There, seeks to spread the “truth” that Jesus never existed.

Brian Flemming, president of Beyond Belief Media, the distributor of the DVD, has said, “People go to churches to hide from the truth. At no time is this more apparent than Easter, when Christians get together to convince each other that a man died, stayed dead three days, rose from the dead and then flew into the air above the clouds.”

Though I have not yet seen this film, nor do I have any plans to intentionally seek it out, I would like to initially make a few comments. Primarily, the assertion that Jesus never existed is extremely far out from the mainstream of scholarship in regards to Jesus. No serious scholar, skeptic or not, would make such a claim. Contrary to whatever obsolete arguments are touted on this DVD, historical evidence is strongly in favor of the existence, life, death and resurrection of Christ. To suggest otherwise is almost comical.

I do wonder what the advantage to this “guerilla” tactic is for the distributors. My suspicion is that it may be the result of not obtaining agreements to have the program aired on television. Though, had it been aired this way, it wouldn’t be much of a deviation from much anti-Christian programming commonly seen anyway! I also find the method of distribution ultimately ironic. Were Christians to place pro-Jesus propaganda on private property, they would be shut down in a second, blasted by the media, and trailed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 12, 2006 at 10:14 pm

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)

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While I think the historical evidence for the resurrection is more than solid, no case would be air-tight without addressing some of the most common alternative explanations that attempt to cast doubt upon the Gospel accounts.

The Conspiracy Theory
First suggested in 18th century scholarship, though certainly based upon the earliest Jewish polemic against Christian claims, the conspiracy theory asserts that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb and fabricated the story of the resurrection for the purposes of establishing a power-motivated dogma. While this theory is contradicted by the historically trustworthy accounts of multiple independent sources (refer to parts 1, 2 and 3, which discuss the evidences for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb, and the establishment of the Christian church), it persists on the basis of skepticism regarding the motive and character of the disciples.

It is unlikely that the disciples were insincere. History verifies through written accounts the motivations and the sufferings of the disciples of Christ, and despite their failure to appropriate power, they persisted in their faith. They were completely aware of the consequence of the message they spread, both from the swift condemnation they would receive from the Jewish authorities, and the likelihood of penalty from Roman authorities, so a drive for power is simply an absurd hypothesis for motive.

Most importantly, however, the conspiracy theory applies modern perspectives on Jewish and Christian theology to men who would certainly not have conceived of such ideas. For the disciples, the death of Jesus served as a definite end to any notion that he was the promised messiah. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the messiah became understood as not triumphing over just worldly kingdoms and rule, but over death itself and eternal condemnation of the soul. The disciples, far from being shrewd and manipulative theologians, were fishermen and tax collectors, hardly likely suspects for such a deceptive collaboration.

The Apparent-Death Theory
The apparent death theory, also referred to as the ‘swoon theory,’ suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and therefore never died, nor was resurrected. This is probably the least possible of explanations, on the basis of several points.

The first, and most crucial, point which affirms the probability that Jesus did in fact die on the cross is that the Roman guards were efficient executioners and not likely to be lax in officiating over the penalty of such a public figure. Likewise, the crucifixion is probably the most sure among all information about Jesus of Nazareth, affirmed by multiple, independent sources among Christians and non-Christians alike. Though modern liberal scholarship attempts to undermine many things about Jesus, his death by crucifixion is not one of them.

However, the details provided by the Gospel witnesses regarding the crucifixion provide some astoundingly particular clues that affirm Jesus’ death. Besides clearly stating that Jesus breathed his last on the cross, the gospels note that the Roman guards, in order to expedite the executions of the other condemned men, broke their legs so that they would no longer be able to support themselves as they struggled to breath. The actual cause of death for a crucified man was asphyxiation, due to the position of the body which made it impossible to sustain prolonged breathing. However, it is further noted that the guards did not break the legs of Jesus, because it was determined that he was already dead. Next, the guards drive a spear into Jesus’ side for good measure, at which point it is written, “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:34)” This is surely a peculiar detail to be included, yet modern medical knowledge affirms that pericardial effusion as well as pleural effusion- fluid resembling water that collects in the heart and lungs due to cardiac arrest- would have been expelled had a spear pierced the side of Jesus.

It is sure, then, on the basis of historical consensus and the confirmation of seemingly insignificant details, that Jesus did not survive the crucifixion.

The Hallucination Theory
The hallucination theory posits that the appearances of the resurrected Christ were actually hallucinations on the part of overzealous and emotional followers.

This theory has little ground to stand on due to the nature of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Had there been only a handful of witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus perhaps in one place at one time, the theory might be adequate. However, the accounts describe many sightings by many people, individuals and large groups, in multiple locations, by believers and skeptics alike!

Hallucinations, had they occurred, would have been unlikely to portray Jesus as bodily resurrected. The nature of a hallucination is that it will portray images based upon preexisting ideas or thoughts in the mind. As shown before, the idea of a bodily resurrection of an individual before the general resurrection of the dead at the final judgment would have been non-existent in the minds of the disciples. Given their point of view, had they experienced hallucinations of Jesus, they would have likely seen him as spiritually raised and enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Abraham, awaiting the final judgment.

Lastly, though the hallucinations might account for appearances of Jesus after his death, had the details of these appearances been much different of course, they do not account for the empty tomb or the rapid growth of the church, consisting of individuals fully convinced of the reality of the risen Christ.

The Pagan Influence Theory
The pagan influence theory, one that originated in the late 18th and early 19th century study of comparative religion, suggests that details of Christian theology, such as the resurrection and virgin birth, were adapted from pre-existing religious myth and tradition and were therefore not real events. This theory, which had been entirely debunked prior to a recent resurgence after the publicity of the Jesus Seminar, a radically liberal “think-tank” which rejects most of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, is inadequate for two significant reasons.

The first reason is due to the lack of resemblance that the Christian doctrines actually have to pagan traditions. For example, the resurrection of Jesus was initially compared to the dying and rising tradition of pagan gods like Osiris, yet the character of Jesus’ resurrection is quite different. The dying/rising myth was an intentional symbol meant to emphasize and reflect upon the crop cycle and never referred to an actual historical individual. Furthermore, the “resurrection” of Osiris was actually limited, in that his “risen” state limited him to exploits in the underworld, as apposed to Jesus, who, after the resurrection, was both able to manifest on the Earth and in heaven. What becomes apparent is that pagan “resurrections” were more transitional than transformational. The virgin birth, often compared to the origin of such Greek characters as Hercules, is also quite distinct. While Hercules was said to have been conceived out of the copulation of Zeus and a mortal woman, Jesus’ conception was through the holy spirit acting upon, and preserving, the virginity of Mary. There was not even a shred of the idea of God taking a human form and actually engaging in sexual intercourse with Mary to accomplish this! When one takes a closer look, these doctrines are more dissimilar than bearing any resemblance to one another.

However, history also shows the unlikelihood that any borrowing on the part of Christianity from pagan ideas occurred. It wasn’t until the second century after the crucifixion of Christ that any kind of Christo-pagan synthesis was even found in the Palestinian region. To suggest the opposite, that Christians borrowed from existing sects of pagan mystery religions in the community, would be historically inaccurate and indicative of a lack of understanding of pagan ideas. More importantly, however, the Jewish-ness of Jesus should not be overlooked, nor undermined for the cause of subversive historical maneuvering. Jesus and his followers were distinctly Jewish, and like all Jews, would have found pagan concepts and practices detestable. The Jewish people had a long-established tradition of resisting pagan influence, and it is unlikely that even the crucifixion of Jesus would have changed their beliefs regarding them.

Conclusion
I think that these theories are shown to be woefully inadequate explanations of the evidence we do have concerning Jesus. So, it is on the basis of the resiliency, diversity and plentitude of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the inadequacy of alternative theories, that I affirm its historicity and confidently establish my faith in Jesus.