Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Religious Cult?

Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2017 by Derreck Bennett

 

Language is powerful, and nothing better illustrates this than its use in religious cults. Religious cults employ loaded language and communicative concepts that are intended to manipulate their converts, a practice tantamount to brainwashing. This paper will explore one organization in particular, Alcoholics Anonymous. By examining the organizations’ literature and rhetoric, this paper will set out to demonstrate that Alcoholics Anonymous exhibits the language and communicative concepts of a religious cult.

Alcoholics Anonymous has its origins in the “zealous religious sect” known as the Oxford Group (Galanter 177). The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, was introduced to the group at the height of his despair. After many years of struggle with alcoholism, he finally achieved sobriety through his conversion to the group (Galanter 177). Greatly influenced by the practices of the Oxford Group, which “were characterized by open confessions and guidance from [fellow] members in the assembled group,” Wilson started Alcoholic Anonymous, establishing “a network of mutual aid” and “social support” bound together by “commitment to a common goal” (Galanter 177-78).

“From the start, AA displayed characteristics of a charismatic sect: strongly felt shared belief, intense cohesiveness, experiences of altered consciousness, and a potent influence on members’ behavior” (Galanter 178). “As in the Oxford Group, AA meetings exhibited from the outset ritualized open confessions of prior transgressions and the acceptance of a ‘Higher Power’ for guidance. Of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, ten are based on the creed of the Oxford Group” (Galanter 178). From the beginning, the organizations’ roots were deeply religious in nature.

In AA: Cult or Cure?, Charles Bufe lays out several key characteristics of religious cults. Number one is Religious Orientation. “Cults are usually centered around belief in a ‘Higher Power’; they often have elaborate religious rituals and emphasize prayer” (Bufe). This is overtly reflected in the Twelve Steps of AA, including Step Two: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”; Step Three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God”; and Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God … praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out” (Wilson 59). As Bufe notes:

AA literature is filled with references to “God” and a “Higher Power,” and the so-called Big Book’s chapter, “We Agnostics,” concludes with the words, “God restored us to our right minds … When we drew near to Him He disclosed Himself to us!” Further, the 12 steps, the core of AA’s program, are simply a codification of Oxford Group principles; and fully half of the steps mention “God,” “Him,” or a “Power greater than ourselves.”

Creating “a sense of powerlessness” is also a key characteristic of religious cults, intended to “undermine the person’s confidence in himself and his judgment” (Singer). Thus, “submission of the individual to the ‘Will of God’ is emphasized” (Bufe). This is explicit within Step Three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” (Wilson 59). As Bufe notes, “This means abandonment of individual decision making in favor of obeying the will of the abstraction as interpreted by the cult.” “Victims gradually lose their ability to make independent decisions and exercise informed consent” (Singer).

Number two on Bufe’s list is Irrationality. “Cults discourage skepticism and rational thought” (Bufe). As Bufe notes, “AA’s emphasis is primarily on emotional experience (‘spiritual awakening’) and ‘overcoming’ doubts en route to spiritual ‘knowledge.'” This is primarily achieved through “Group-Speak” and “Thought-Stopping Techniques” (Orange Papers).

Groups use what Lifton calls “the thought-terminating cliché.” Repetitive phrases, clichés, sayings, platitudes, and buzz words are regularly invoked to describe all situations, and prevent further analysis or discussion. Any disagreements are usually settled by referring to the sayings or writings of wise leaders (past or present), rather than by turning to independent analysis. Members are rewarded for their ability to regurgitate this “Group- speak” and for their willingness and talent for putting down dissenters with cult clichés … the effect of group-speak is critical for mind control, since language is so central to all human experience (Orange Papers).

Bufe examines some of the common expressions of AA that reflect this:

AA aphorisms are [quite] revealing. Two common ones are “Your best thinking got you here” and “Utilize, don’t analyze.” It would be hard to think of more virulently anti-intellectual epigrams … Another popular AA saying is “Fake it until you make it.” In other words, members should sit on their doubts and mouth accepted AA wisdom until they feel comfortable doing it. This sounds more like a recipe for brainwashing than a recipe for “spiritual awakening.”

Bufe explains, “The way that these ‘thought-terminating clichés’ operate is that the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. Put more broadly, thought-stopping phrases include any use of language, especially repeated phrases, to ward off forbidden thoughts.” Furthermore, “the purpose of such slogans as ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid,’ ‘Utilize, don’t analyze,’ ‘Your best thinking got you here,’ and ‘Let go and let God,’ is to get AA members to stop thinking for themselves and, instead, to accept divine guidance (that is, guidance from AA)” (Bufe). As a result, converts “use AA catchwords and interpret many of their problems in terms of AA rhetoric” (Galanter 181).

Third on Bufe’s list is Exclusivity. In other words, religious cults present themselves as the only path to salvation (Bufe). As Jan Groenveld notes in Totalism in Today’s Cults, “Their ‘truth’ is the absolute truth. It is sacred — beyond questioning. There is a reverence demanded for the leadership. They have all the answers. Only to them is given the revelation of ‘truth.'” Bufe relates that, at “the vast majority of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, newcomers are routinely told that participation in AA and acceptance of the AA ‘program’ (basically the 12 steps) is the only way to overcome an alcohol problem.”

This mentality is reflected in the literature when Bill Wilson states, “If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution” (25). At the beginning of Chapter 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous, Wilson explicitly relays a message which is read aloud during the commencement of every AA meeting: “Never have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program” (58). Elsewhere in the book, he relates how “one poor chap committed suicide in my home. He could not, or would not, see our way of life” (16). The message is clear: AA is the only way.

Closely related is number four on the list, Dogmatism. “Cults invariably have The Truth and are highly antagonistic to those who question it. The Truth is invariably revealed in a cult’s sacred texts or in the pronunciations of its leaders” (Bufe).

Everything is seen in terms of black and white, pure and the impure, good and evil. There are set answers for everything and no room for uncertainty, controversy, healthy debate or doubt. The member is given a complete solution. In return, members of the group are expected to be unquestioning in their commitment to the group’s identity, its ideas and leaders (Orange Papers).

Bufe summarizes just how well AA fits the bill when it comes to such Dogmatism:

They regard the 12 steps with the reverence that a fundamentalist has for the Ten Commandments, and they regard the “Big Book” [of Alcoholics Anonymous] as a fundamentalist would the Bible … At most meetings, even mild criticism of the steps or the “Big Book” will be met with sarcasm, anger, and put-downs. For AA true believers, the steps and the “Big Book” are received wisdom (which, indeed, Bill Wilson believed them to be); and they are to be blindly followed, not questioned.

At number five on the list is the concept of Separatism. Bufe notes that “Cult members almost always view themselves as outsiders, as different from the rest of society … and it’s common for cult members to believe that only they and their fellow cult members can understand each other—’outsiders’ certainly can’t.” This is especially achieved through “the use of specialized terms; almost all cults develop a jargon peculiar to themselves” (Bufe). Groenveld explains, “This effectively isolates members from the outside world. The only people who understand you are other members. Other members can tell if you are really one of them by how you talk.”

Once again, Bufe examines how well AA reflects this particular cult mentality:

The one area in which AA members definitely show signs of separatism is in their use of jargon. AA terms often take on meanings different from their standard English meanings—for instance, “sobriety,” rather than merely meaning “unintoxicated,” means a special state of Grace gained by working the Steps and maintaining absolute abstinence. It is characterized by feelings of Serenity and Gratitude. It is a state of living according to God’s will, not one’s own. It is sanity.

Sixth is Manipulation through Guilt. “Many cults expertly manipulate their members through arousal of guilt feelings” (Bufe). Groenveld explains that this process “manipulates a person’s range of feelings. Guilt and fear are used to keep control. Cult members cannot see the control by guilt, and like other abuse victims are conditioned to blame themselves when things are wrong, even grateful when a leader points out their transgressions.”

Groenveld elaborates, “By conducting an all-out war on impurity, the ideological totalists create a narrow world of guilt and shame. This is perpetuated by an ethos of continuous reform … Since each man’s impurities are deemed sinful and potentially harmful to himself and to others, he is, so to speak, expected to expect punishment.” Bufe discusses this tactic as it is conducted in AA:

Guilt is inherent in AA dogma. It’s enshrined in the 12 steps with their references to “our wrongs,” “our shortcomings,” “defects of character” and [the instruction to take] a “moral inventory” … the AA “program” fosters guilt in abundance … AA-induced (or reinforced) guilt makes members feel sinful and fearful, and thus tends to tie them to AA, because temporary relief from their unpleasant feelings is available at meetings.

Closely related is number seven on the list, The Cult of Confession:

Group meetings often include confessional sessions where members admit to past or present sins against the norms of the group — doing bad deeds, thinking bad thoughts, etc., and in return, they receive both admonition, warnings and praise for their confessions. To help cultivate emotional control public exhibitions of emotional highs and lows are often encouraged and applauded as a form of ritual self-flagellation (Orange Papers).

“More than this, the sharing of confession enthusiasms can create an orgiastic sense of ‘oneness,’ of the most intense intimacy with fellow confessors and of the dissolution of self into the great flow of the Movement” (Bufe). “Thus confession serves the purpose of fostering identification as a member of the cult rather than as an individual human being. It also serves the purpose of alleviating guilt, thus making the confessor dependent on the cult for that alleviation” (Bufe).

This characteristic is embodied in Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” (Wilson 59). As relayed earlier by Galanter, AA meetings involve “ritualized open confessions of prior transgressions” and are replete with “the litany of sin and redemption” (178-79). Converts are instructed to obtain a seasoned mentor, or “sponsor,” with whom they engage in “daily confessional communications” (Galanter 180).

Eighth on Bufe’s list is Mind Control Techniques, primarily Intimidation. “For example, it may be suggested or implied that failure to adopt the approved attitude, belief or consequent behavior will lead to severe punishment or dire consequences such as physical or mental illness, the reappearance of a prior physical illness, drug dependence, economic collapse, social failure, divorce, disintegration, failure to find a mate, etc.” (Singer). “Not choosing the group’s Way will usually lead to humiliation, damnation or death” (Orange Papers).

Bufe notes that, “At newcomers’ meetings, AA members almost invariably repeat the lies that alcoholism is a progressive, fatal disease, that alcohol abusers have no control after they take the first drink, and that AA is the only alternative to jails, institutions, or death.” In the literature, Bill Wilson ominously declares, “Unless each AA member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant. His drunkenness and dissolution are not penalties inflicted by people in authority; they result from his personal disobedience to spiritual principles” (174). Elsewhere, he states that, if the alcoholic failed to “perfect and enlarge his spiritual life, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die” (15). The message is abundantly clear: Do or die. Assimilate, or else.

While it is not explicitly included in Bufe’s list, another important aspect of cult manipulation is the use of Extravagant Promises, though this is very much akin to the Millenarian/Utopian outlook of most religious cults. Common expressions from AA include “Beyond your wildest dreams,” “Spiritual Awakening,” and “Don’t quit before the miracle happens” (Orange Papers). In the literature, Wilson relays the following promises, which are also recited at the outset of every meeting:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self- seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves (83-84).

Elsewhere in the literature, Wilson states, “Most of us feel we need look no further for Utopia” (16). “We have found much of heaven,” he claims, “and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not dreamed” (25). Other statements include, “This Power has in each case accomplished the miraculous,” and “We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe” (50, 75). “As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn” (63). This is what Wilson promises—nothing short of spiritual rebirth, of heaven and Utopia.

In conclusion, it can be stated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Alcoholics Anonymous employs the language and communicative concepts of a religious cult. This is overtly reflected in such concepts and practices as Religious Orientation, Powerlessness of the Individual, Submission to the Will of God, Thought-Stopping Clichés, In-Group Jargon, Manipulation through Guilt, Confession, Intimidation, and Extravagant Promises. The aim of such devices is to achieve coercive mind control, manipulating the convert into believing that AA is the only path to salvation, that they are powerless without its aid, and that, if they don’t conform absolutely to its standards, they are doomed. Given the pervasiveness of AA throughout the world, as well as its continued growth, these tactics seem to work very much in its favor, demonstrating the power inherent in its use of cult language and communications.

 

Works Cited:

Galanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.
Wilson, Bill. Alcoholics Anonymous. Fourth Edition. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001. Print.
Bufe, Charles. AA: Cult or Cure? More Revealed. Ken Ragge, n.d. Web. 20 November 2011.
Groenveld, Jan. Totalism in Today’s Cults. The Orange Papers. A. Orange, n.d. Web. 20 November 2011.
Singer, Margaret. Coercive Mind Control Tactics. Fact.net. Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network, 1993. Web. 20 November 2011.
Orange Papers. Key Cult Features. A. Orange, n.d. Web. 20 November 2011.

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Jesus: Man or Myth?

Posted in Uncategorized on August 16, 2017 by Derreck Bennett


For many years, I held the default position that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person, whose story was simply embellished along the lines of popular religious archetypes from the time. However, as my studies have ensued over the years, I’ve come, quite surprisingly, to relinquish this view, embracing instead the mythicist position–that Jesus Christ is a mythological figure, from top to bottom. There is a great deal of scholarship and material that one must digest before fully understanding this position, much of it highly complicated and intertwined in ways that are no less complex. For my part, I thought it best to simplify any such explications for the lay reader by use of a historical timeline–one that will hopefully elucidate the process by which Jesus Christ materialized over several millennia.


Tammuz, Ishtar, and Baal (3rd ML. BCE to 6th C. BCE)

The Babylonians worshipped Tammuz and Ishtar (Dumuzi and Inanna in Sumerian), both of whom were raised from the dead. Tammuz underwent a cyclical, or annual, return from the underworld. Ishtar, on the other hand, was killed while attempting to rescue Tammuz from the underworld. She was stripped of all her clothing beforehand and hung on a nail (crucified), after which she rose from the dead three days later. [1]

Baal was the Canaanite counterpart of the Babylonian Tammuz. He was one among the many sons of El (“God” in Hebrew). Ancient texts from Ras Shamra depict the resurrection of the slain Baal Aleyan, as conveyed through a vision of his father El. [2] Thereafter, he is enthroned as the king of gods and men, reigning over a new and peaceful era.

The Canaanite god, Baal

 

Isis and Osiris (3rd ML. BCE to 4th C. CE)

As recorded in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, Osiris suffered a violent death at the hands of his brother Set. Isis pieced his dismembered body back together and raised him from the dead, after which he ascended upon a ladder to heaven. [3] [4] In the death and resurrection of Osiris, the ancient Egyptians saw the promise of their own victory over death, believing that they could be mystically united with Osiris upon death and raised, as he was, to eternal life. [5] Osiris himself reigned henceforth in the Egyptian afterworld, as ruler and judge of the dead. His worship persisted for several millennia, spreading into the Greco-Roman world until it was forcibly suppressed by the Church in the 4th century CE.

The Resurrection of Osiris

 

Dionysus and Attis (2nd ML. BCE to 4th C. CE)

Among the Greeks, particularly a sect known as the Orphics, Dionysus Zagreus was torn apart and consumed by the evil Titans (Giants), after which he was reborn, or resurrected, based on various myths involving the efforts of either Zeus, Rhea, or Demeter (On Piety 44; Libr. Hist. 3.62.6). According to both Philodemus and Diodorus Siculus, Dionysus was reassembled in the same fashion as Osiris, indicating religious syncretism with, or influence by, the Osirian cult. The same sort of salvation scheme, by which the devotee shares in the fate of the risen god, appears to have been at play. Gold leaves found in graves from the 4th century BCE state, “Now you have died and now you have come into being, O thrice happy one, on this same day. Tell Persephone that [Dionysus] himself released you.” [6]

Originally a god of Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), Attis died emasculating himself under a tree after he’d been driven mad by his consort. Cybele invoked Zeus to have his body preserved, never to rot or decay. At some point in the legacy of Attis’ myth, the mere preservation of his body morphed into a full-blown resurrection, leading to a “Passion Week” by the 1st century CE under the reign of Caesar Claudius. [7] [8] The resurrection of Attis appears to have had the same salvific benefits for members of his cult as did the risings of both Osiris and Dionysus. [9]

The Risen Attis

 

Asclepius, Heracles, and Romulus (6th C. BCE to 5th C. CE)

The Greek physician Asclepius healed the lame, the blind, and the paralytic, and raised the dead (First Apology 22:6). Zeus struck Asclepius down for bringing forth too many resurrectees, but later raised him from the dead to become an immortal god (Autol. 1.13; Dial. Mort. 13.1).

Heracles (variously known as Hercules) suffered and died upon a funerary pyre, after which he was bodily raised to heaven, leaving not a trace of his mortal remains behind (Bibl. Hist. 4.38.5). In the 1st century play Hercules Oetaeus, Hercules appears to his weeping mother Alcmene following his death and resurrection. He tells her to refrain from mourning, that he has been “granted [his] place in heaven” among the gods (1940-43; cf. John 20:11-15).

Romulus, first king of Rome, was begotten by the god Ares and a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia. According to Livy and Plutarch, the body of Romulus went missing, amid rumors that the Senate had conspired against him, though it was declared that he had risen to heaven to become the god Quirinus. Afterwards, he appeared before Proculus to deliver a Great Commission: “Go, and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Livy, Hist. 1.16.2-8; cf. Mt. 28:16-20).

Romulus, Legendary Founder of Rome

 

The Jewish Messiah and Persian Saoshyant (6th C. BCE)

Following the destruction of the Davidic monarchy and the exile of the Jews by their Babylonian conquerors, there arose a hope for the restoration of Jewish independence and sovereignty under a new king from David’s line (Isaiah 10:33-12:6; Micah 5:2-4; Zechariah 9:9-10; Ezekiel 34:22-24, 37:24). Though there are verses that would seem to suggest that this king, or messiah, would be a supernatural being, e.g., the titles of divinity bestowed upon him in Isaiah 9:6-7, these are better understood as hyperbolic and ceremonial expressions of royalty, to be taken no more literally than when 1 Kings 1:31 declares, “May my lord King David live forever!”

Christians would later interpret such passages literally, as well as misapply those like Isaiah 53, which, in its original context, has nothing whatsoever to do with the messiah, but expresses the hardship of the quintessential Israelite captive to Babylon, as well as his eventual vindication at the hands of Persian intercessors. Even within Rabbinical Judaism, some Jews would come to view the 53rd chapter of Isaiah as a prophecy of the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah, extending the notion of sacrificial atonement for sin from mere animals to actual men, as had been done in the case of Eleazar (4 Macc. 6:29-30), though this idea does not persist in modern Judaism.

Interestingly enough, however, many Jews would come to embrace the religious ideas of their Persian liberators, e.g., the coming of a virgin-born savior, Saoshyant, who would inaugurate a Final Judgment and resurrection of the dead (Yašt 19.11, 13.129). These were fundamental elements of Persian Zoroastrianism, which entered the biblical stream in the 6th century BCE works of Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and their later redactors. Jews who embraced such views were called “Pharisees” (from Farsi/Parsee), denoting “Persians.” This is precisely why the Pharisees upheld belief in the resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees did not.

Faravahar, symbol of Zoroastrianism

 

Philo’s Firstborn Son of God (20’s CE)

A contemporary of the apostle Paul, Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who merged Greek and Jewish ideas to form his own Greco-Judaic synthesis. Philo’s ideas were born out of the Hellenistic climate of his day and age, when Jews, Greeks, Romans, etc. were exposed to one another as never before, largely due to the conquests of Alexander the Great. In his works, Philo spoke of a celestial being, or Jewish archangel, whom he referred to as the “firstborn son of God,” the very “image of God,” and God’s “agent of creation” (Conf. 62-63, 146-47). He describes him as a “being most perfect in all virtue,” who was able to “procure forgiveness of sins” (Mos. 2.134). However, Philo never made mention of any historical personage in nearby Palestine who supposedly embodied these ideas. They were, for him, merely a philosophical and religious abstraction, i.e., “not a man, but a divine word” (Fug. 108).

Philo of Alexandria

 

Paul’s Christ Jesus (50’s CE)

Of the thirteen epistles attributed to Paul, only seven of them are authentically written by him. [10] Those are 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. And they represent the earliest known form of Christianity, written decades before the Gospels and Acts. In these authentic letters of Paul, Christ is preeminently a dying and rising savior god like that of Osiris, Dionysus, and Attis. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is extended to his devotees (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). The rite of baptism mystically unites the believer with the death and resurrection of Christ, so that they too can live eternally (Romans 6:3-5). Following his resurrection, he is exalted to the heavenly spheres (Philippians 2:8-9), like Romulus and Heracles. His death is an atoning sacrifice (Romans 4:25), in line with the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament and the vicarious suffering of Eleazar, etc. Like the Zoroastrian Saoshyant, he will inaugurate the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:23). And, in lockstep with Philo, Christ is the firstborn Son of God (Romans 8:29), the celestial image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), and God’s agent of creation (1 Corinthians 8:6), able to procure forgiveness of sins (Romans 3:23-24).

Paul’s Christ Jesus is nothing more than an amalgamation of religious ideas that permeated the ancient Mediterranean world. There is no mundane reference to any historical person, whatsoever. No biographical details like that found in the later Gospels. Paul never mentions Mary or Joseph, a ministry or miracles, a trial by Pontius Pilate, the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, any association with John the Baptist, etc. In fact, Paul gives no historical context for Christ’s crucifixion, but places the blame on the archons and aions, the demonic rulers of this age (1 Corinthians 2:8), much like the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, where Satan and his angels crucify him prior to his celestial resurrection (9.14). Paul’s self-proclaimed knowledge of Christ comes from scripture and revelation (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Galatians 1:11-12), not from any recent, historical source. Even where Paul states that he was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and descended from David (Romans 1:3), he is relying on scriptural pesher, not historical data. And, while Galatians 1:19 mentions a James, “the brother of the Lord,” Paul is using an epithet that was bestowed upon all baptized Christians (1 Corinthians 15:1; Philippians 1:14), not a description of an earthly sibling.

All told, there is nothing of biographical value in Paul’s letters. Nothing evincing a recent, historical man, but, rather, a syncretistic confluence of dying and rising gods, Hellenistic heroes, Zoroastrian eschatology, and Greco-Judaic, philosophical prototypes. Our earliest Christian testimony suggests that Jesus Christ was a figure born out of ancient myth.

Jesus the Christ

 


Notes:
[1] Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (Harper Perennial, 1983), 64.
[2] George Al Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (American Sunday School Union, 1946), 535-539.
[3] Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Pyramid Texts. “Resurrection, Transfiguration, and Life of the King in Heaven, Utterance 676.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/pyt/pyt56.htm (2010).
[4] E.A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection: Volume 1 (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2011), 75-77.
[5] S.G.F. Brandon and E.O. James, ed., “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East.” The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Manchester University Press, 1963), 17-33.
[6] Sarah Iles Johnston and Fritz Graf, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (New York: Routledge, 2007), 36–37.
[7] G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1992), 202.
[8] Gary Forsythe, Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History (New York: Routledge, 2012), 89.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bart Ehrman, Forged (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

 

 

 

 

Ehrman Errs: Yes, Bart, There Were Dying & Rising Gods

Posted in Uncategorized on September 6, 2016 by Derreck Bennett

 


The Pursu
it of Truth

On October 21st in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leading New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, will be debating Robert M. Price on the historicity of Jesus. Ehrman made quite a splash back in 2012 when he published Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he decried, and arguably slandered, those who doubt the historical existence of Jesus, aka ‘mythicists.’ According to Ehrman, mythicists are simply anti-religious zealots, whose agenda to remove Jesus from history is driven by the desire to destroy religion. He chalks up the vast majority of those in the mythicist camp as mere Internet junkies, sensationalists, and hacks, who have no familiarity with either historical method or the ancient sources. Well, none of this is true of Bob Price, who remains friendly with evangelicals, and whose knowledge of biblical history is second to none. It isn’t true of the majority of mythicists whose work I’ve read, and it certainly isn’t true of me.

When it comes to the motivation behind those in the atheist movement at large, I think Dan Barker said it best:

What unites [many nonbelievers] is not revenge for having been victimized by the deceptions of religion, but a burning desire for actual facts. If we doubters do have a psychological motivation, perhaps it is the mental hunger, the intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge. [1]

That is what drives me, and the same motivation is at work when assessing the historicity of Jesus. To begin with, removing Jesus from the face of history is hardly necessary in order to refute Christianity. It’s enough to demonstrate the myriad, scriptural contradictions and absurdities, lack of evidence for various historical claims, etc. One can simply assume that there was a historical Jesus, and make the case that the miraculous feats attributed to him are unsubstantiated by the historical record, that his story was embellished like so many other ancient figures–Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, Apollonius of Tyana, etc. There simply is no need to make Jesus vanish from history in order to vindicate atheism. But that, for me, isn’t the end goal, anyway. The end goal for me, and for many nonbelievers, is the pursuit of truth. More and more, I find myself in agreement with the mythicists. Not because I want to eradicate religion, but because I think they’re right.

Pursuit of Truth


Ehrman, Interrupted: The Risen Osiris

One of the key points in this debate is whether Jesus was modeled after a dying and rising god archetype. This is the contention of most mythicists, including Dr. Price, and it is the point that I wish to address here. Such an archetype, in and of itself, does not preclude the historical existence of Jesus. It’s possible that Jesus did exist, and that he was simply deified in accordance with this mythic template. Mythicism, naturally, entails many more factors for consideration, but this is one of the most important. According to Bart Ehrman, however, mythicists are fooling themselves on this point. The following video features Ehrman’s “rebuttal” of Dr. Price, et al., on the matter.

I will now tackle each of Ehrman’s points, one by one. His arguments are, to use his own words, “problematic up and down the line.” Beginning with the preeminent dying and rising god of ancient Egypt, Osiris:

All you have to do is read the ancient sources on Osiris. The most famous one is Plutarch, who has a very lengthy essay on Isis and Osiris … It’s true that Osiris gets killed. What is not true is that he gets raised from the dead. He doesn’t get raised from the dead! When Jesus gets raised from the dead, his body comes back to life and he comes out of the tomb and he ascends to heaven. Osiris stayed dead. His body was entombed, and there were various places, according to Plutarch, where different people, different locales, argued that his body was entombed, and they built shrines to this dead body. The body stayed dead. Now Osiris himself, his soul, lived on in the underworld. He became the king of the underworld. But his body did not come back to life. So he wasn’t resurrected from the dead. His body stayed dead. That’s very different from the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, which is that Jesus’ body came back from the dead.

I have read the ancient sources on Osiris. While the 2nd century historian, Plutarch, may be our principal source on the story, he is far from being our only source. Consider the following texts:

Osiris! look! Osiris! listen! Arise! Live again! (Pyr. 258 ff.)

Osiris! thou wert gone, but thou hast returned; thou didst sleep, but thou hast been awakened; thou didst die, but thou livest again! (Pyr. 1004 ff.)

The ancient Egyptian sources are quite clear: Osiris died, but he has risen, and he lives again. Plutarch, equally, speaks of Osiris’ “revivification and regenesis,” though it is possible that, as a Middle Platonist, Plutarch regarded this as a spiritual resurrection, only. Among the philosophers and the elite in the Greco-Roman world, a disembodied soul was the preferred state of immortality. But this was not the common view in antiquity, much less of the ancient Egyptians. As comparative religion scholar S.G.F. Brandon relates, Osiris’ resurrection was “conceived of in completely materialistic terms, involving the use of a reconstituted physical body.” [2] The pyramidal texts reveal an emphasis on the corporeal reconstitution of the god, confirming Brandon’s claim:

“I have come to thee…that I may revivify thee, that I may assemble for thee thy bones, that I may collect for thee thy flesh, that I may assemble for thee thy dismembered limbs, for I am as Horus his avenger, I have smitten for thee him who smote thee…raise thyself up, king, Osiris; thou livest!” (1684a-1685a and 1700 = Utterance 606; cf. also 670)

“Osiris, collect thy bones; arrange thy limbs; shake off thy dust; untie thy bandages; the tomb is open for thee; the double doors of the coffin are undone for thee; the double doors of heaven are open for thee…thy soul is in thy body…raise thyself up!” (207b-209a and 2010b-2011a = Utterance 676)

Granted Osiris becomes king of the afterworld rather than taking up an earthly sojourn, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs state that Osiris was initially raised on earth, after which he ascended upon a ladder to heaven. [3] As we shall see, the same was originally believed of Jesus.

The Resurrection of Osiris (Philae, 2nd-3rd C. BCE)

The Resurrection of Osiris (Philae, 2nd-3rd C. BCE)

It is true that Plutarch mentions tombs of Osiris, and we find the existence of such tombs in ancient Egypt, as well. What this demonstrates is a diversity of ideas within ancient religious and philosophical traditions. For some, Osiris’s body remained entombed, though it would still be subject to reanimation, as was the case for all ancient Egyptians. [4] For others, as the sources above illustrate, he rose from the dead and bodily ascended to heaven. Such diversity was prominent also in early Christianity, as Bart Ehrman can certainly attest. Docetist Christians, for example, never conceived of a dying and rising Christ; he could not be put to death in the flesh, as he was a spiritual, not a physical, entity. Christianity had no uniformity until Catholic orthodoxy prevailed in the 4th century, stomping out and labeling all other views as “heresy.” Such diversity of ideas can still be gleaned, however, within the canon of the New Testament (just pit Paul against Matthew on whether the Mosaic Law still applies, etc.), and persists, even to this day, in the multitude of Christian denominations throughout the world.

Now, let’s circle back to something that Ehrman said earlier in the podcast:

I would like Bob to give a single reference from any Jew living anywhere within 200 years of Jesus who mentions the Osiris myth.

Ehrman wishes to establish that Jews from around the era would have had no familiarity with Osiris, much less dying and rising gods. But that is incredibly unlikely. Osiris had long been known in Palestine. Archaeological excavations reveal his presence there, and even scripture alludes to knowledge of him, e.g., the resurrection imagery of bones rejoining in Ezekiel 37, Psalm 78’s narrative parallels with an early Hymn to Osiris, etc. [5] [6] No surprise there, given that Egypt ruled Canaan from as far back as 3,000 BCE.

Early Christianity’s major centers of growth and development were in places like Alexandria and Antioch, home to Hellenized, Greek-speaking Jews who would’ve been all too familiar with Greco-Roman and Egyptian myths. Many of them may have embraced such myths, as 2 Maccabees informs us of “an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways” (4:13). Ehrman is essentially foisting an argument from ignorance. We don’t need explicit mention of Osiris by any Jew from the period in order to be reasonably certain that his myth was known to them.

Egyptian Funerary Stelae from Palestine

Egyptian Funerary Stelae from Palestine (Osiris at bottom)

Bart Ehrman’s attempt to minimize the relevance of the Osiris myth seems especially dubious in the face of what I consider to be the most salient point on the matter: Soteriology. What is eerily similar between Osiris and Christ is what their resurrections achieve for their devotees. In both cases, the resurrection of the godman is the conduit through which mortal men can conquer death and live eternally. [7] As Christ was raised, so too are Christians. As Osiris was raised, so too are his followers. By ritual identification with the risen god, one can be spiritually renewed, walking in newness of life (Met. 11.21-23; cf. Ro. 6:3-5). Both Jesus and Osiris ascend to heaven, where they take up their throne as Ruler and Judge. Both offer their body and blood in the sacrament of bread and wine. [8] [9] The similarities, in terms of theological function, are so staggering, they can only be the product of cultural diffusion and religious syncretism.

Jesus & Osiris Enthroned

Jesus & Osiris Enthroned

Ehrman continues by adamantly denying any “common motif in pagan religions of a god who dies and gets raised from the dead.”

We don’t have evidence that pagans believed in a dying and rising god at all … with respect to the pagan myths, there simply is no plausible parallel to the idea of a divine being who dies and is raised bodily, physically, from the dead. You just don’t have any instances of dying and rising gods. This idea of a dying and rising god started being made popular … in the early 20th century … More recent scholarship over the last twenty years has shown that in fact that’s bogus, that in fact there are not instances of this. And if you actually press a mythicist to give you an example, they give you examples like Bob Price just gave of Osiris, which is definitely not a case of somebody being raised from the dead.

Osiris we’ve just covered, and the ancient sources most certainly convey a bodily resurrection from the dead, with salvific significance like that of Christ’s, to boot. Before we launch into a survey of other notable dying and rising gods, let’s look first at the earliest depiction of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. In Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, M. David Litwa explains:

…in early Christian texts we read that after Jesus’ death, God “highy exalted” him (Phil. 2:8-9), and seated him “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20) at the “right hand of God” (1 Pet. 3:21-22). In his monograph on Jesus’ ascent, A.W. Zwiep comments that “the general conviction in the earliest Christian preaching” is that “as of the day of his resurrection Jesus was in heaven, seated at the right hand of God.” This is assumed, notably, in Luke 23:43, where Jesus says to the thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Indeed, says Zwiep, resurrection and exaltation were regarded as two sides of the same coin; resurrection meant “resurrection to heaven.” [10]

The earliest New Testament texts make Jesus’ resurrection and ascension a synonymous event. Christian apologists attempt to counter this by appealing to the list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, though critical scholars have shown that the appearances most likely represent visionary experiences of the heavenly Christ, like that of Paul’s, not an earthly sojourn. [11] There doesn’t appear to be any tradition of Jesus walking the earth after his resurrection until decades later, beginning with the Gospel of Mark. Prior to that, however, Jesus was raised to heaven, and “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection” (Ro. 1:4). As Paul has it, Jesus achieved divine status upon his resurrection/ascension–what scholars refer to as an apotheosis (to become a god). According to ancient sources, the same was believed of several other, notable figures. If the earliest depiction of Christ’s bodily exaltation to heaven qualifies as a resurrection, then so do theirs.


Asclepius, Heracles, and Romulus

The Greek physician Asclepius healed the lame, the blind, and the paralytic, and raised the dead (First Apology, 22:6). Zeus struck Asclepius down for bringing forth too many resurrectees, but later raised him from the dead to become an immortal god (Autol. 1.13; Dial. Mort. 13.1).

The second-century Christian apologist Theophilus of Antioch affirms that Asclepius “was raised” [using the same Greek word as that used] for the resurrection of Jesus in Matt. 16:21; Mark 14:28; Luke 24:6 [etc.] … Out of mercy, says Lucian, Zeus raised Asclepius not just to a normal human life, but made him participate in immortality … Justin Martyr apparently understands Asclepius’ resurrection to involve a simultaneous ascent to heaven… [12]

The Rod of Asclepius is, to this day, a universal symbol of medicine and healthcare.

The Rod of Asclepius is, to this day, a universal symbol of medicine and healthcare.

 

Heracles (variously known as Hercules) suffered and died upon a funerary pyre, after which he was bodily raised to heaven, leaving not a trace of his mortal remains behind. In the 1st century play Hercules Oetaeus, Hercules appears to his weeping mother Alcmene following his death and apotheosis. He tells her to refrain from mourning, that he has been “granted [his] place in heaven” among the gods (1940-43; cf. John 20:11-15).

A series of Attic and Apulian vases appearing from about 420 BCE show Heracles being bodily carried away to Olympus from his pyre … That Heracles was actually bodily removed from his pyre is also suggested by Diodorus of Sicily, who has Heracles’ companions search for the bones of the hero after his cremation–to no avail (Bibl. Hist. 4.38.5). Heracles’ body is gone, because it has ascended to the divine realm, leaving no remainder (cf. Jesus’ empty tomb). [13]

The Ascension of Heracles

The Ascension of Heracles

 

After Romulus, first king of Rome, was raised from the dead to become the god Quirinus, he appeared before Proculus to deliver a great commission: “Go, and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Livy, Hist. 1.16.2-8; cf. Mt. 28:16-20).

Romulus departed from this mortal life and was transformed into an immortal, transcendent being. His metamorphosis was simultaneously an ascent to heaven … Ancient authors agree … that Romulus’ body did disappear. The mortal remains, for those who believed in his ascent, were taken up and transformed for celestial life. On this point, Tertullian explicitly compares Romulus and Jesus: both were “encompassed with a cloud and taken up to heaven” (Apol. 21.23; cf. Acts 1:9-11). For Tertullian’s comparison to work, Romulus must have been taken up bodily, like Jesus. [14]

Romulus, Legendary Founder of Rome

Romulus, Legendary Founder of Rome

 

 The Mystery Religions: Dionysus, Attis, and Adonis

The mystery cults were originally agricultural faiths whose dying and rising gods symbolized the death and rebirth of croplife–thus the spring celebrations of popular gods like Attis. Over time, man came to believe that performing certain rituals of initiation could mystically unite him with the fate of the risen god, effecting for him a spiritual rebirth in this life, and, ultimately, a blessed existence in the next. This mystical concept is featured in such passages as Rom. 6:3-5 and Col. 2:12, in which baptismal initiation of the Christian neophyte brings about his metaphorical death and resurrection to new life in Christ, with the implication that he will share literally in the gift of eternal life to come. The roots of this salvation scheme may lie in the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris. As esoteric studies expert Arthur Versluis notes, Greeks and Romans regarded ancient Egypt as a land of great power and mystique, and scholars “have shown conclusively the links between Egyptian traditions and the Greco-Roman Mystery and magical traditions.” [15]

Dionysus was the central figure of both the Dionysian and Orhic mysteries. He was the Greek god of theater, fertility, and wine, and was believed to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele. The Epicurean, Philodemus, records that “after his dismemberment by the Titans, Rhea gathered together his limbs and he came to life again” (On Piety 44). Similarly, Diodorus of Sicily relates, “his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time” (Libr. Hist. 3.62.6). Plutarch explicitly identifies Dionysus with Osiris, stating, “the tales regarding the Titans and the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis” (Is. Os. 35.364).

Dionysus: God of Wine, Fertility, and Rebirth

Dionysus: God of Wine, Fertility, and Rebirth

 

Attis was a Phrygian god whose jealous consort, Cybele, drove him to madness, leading him to castrate himself and bleed to death under a pine tree. Plagued with regret, Cybele invoked Zeus to have his body preserved, never to rot or decay. At some point in the legacy of Attis’ myth, the mere preservation of his body morphed into a full-blown resurrection, leading to a “Passion Week” by the 1st century CE under the reign of Caesar Claudius. [16] Author G.A. Wells discusses the evidence brought to bear by Maarten J. Vermaseren in his seminal work, Attis and Cybele: The Myth and the Cult.

Attis died emasculating himself under a tree; but ancient art includes ‘scenes of the emasculated Attis dancing,’ indicating his resurrection. The oldest evidence is a Hellenistic Greek vase depicting ‘the dancing Attis hilaris … from the 4th century BC.’ Vermaseren also instances two later statues from Ostia which point to the god’s periodic resurrection. One (from Roman Imperial times) shows ‘another young Attis standing ready to replace the dying one.’ The other statue (dedicated in the second century AD) depicts the ‘lying and triumphant Attis, his entire figure indicating the resurrection which is also shown by the decoration of various kinds of flowers and plants.’ [17]

The Risen Attis (1st C. BCE)

The Risen Attis (1st C. BCE)

 

Adonis is believed to be the Greek counterpart of the Babylonian Tammuz–a name that graces one full month of the Jewish calendar. Though widely known as a god of beauty and desire, he also belongs to the category of dying and rising gods, as he too was associated with seasonal worship and fertility. Ritual mourning and lamentation accompanied the death of the god; though, like Tammuz, he would triumphantly rise again. [18]

They say, at any rate, that the deed that was done to Adon by the boar [i.e. the death of the God] occurred in their land, and in memory of that misfortune every year they beat their breasts and mourn and perform the ceremonies, making solemn lamentations throughout the country. And when the breast-beating and weeping is at end, first they make offerings to Adonis as if to a dead person; and then, on the next day, they proclaim that he is alive and fetch him forth into the air…  (Lucian, Syr. God., Ch. 6)

Women bemoaning the slain Adonis

Women bewailing the slain Adonis

 

Conclusion

Bart Ehrman is a top-notch New Testament scholar and textual critic. There is no denying either his brilliance or his contribution to the field of New Testament studies. However, in assessing the claims of mythicists, and scholars of comparative religion in general, he seems to have stepped well outside of his area of expertise. Despite Ehrman’s adamant claims to the contrary, there were dying and rising gods, as well as mythic figures like Romulus and Asclepius who were divinized upon their resurrection, like Jesus in the earliest New Testament texts. They rose physically, not merely spiritually, leaving not a trace of their bodies behind. Osiris is certainly to be counted among them, as ancient Egyptian texts and relevant scholarship make abundantly clear. And the scholarship on these matters is not outdated; Litwa’s work in Iesus Deus, for instance, was published a mere few years ago.

Bart Ehrman writes and lectures about the diversity within early Christianity, in such works as Lost Christianities and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He knows, as well as anyone, that emerging orthodoxy supplanted and effaced all other opposing views. In a strange twist of irony, Ehrman himself has become the champion of The New Orthodoxy within New Testament scholarship, railing against any views that aren’t represented by “mainstream, biblical scholarship.” But mainstream, biblical scholarship still lies on the conservative end of the spectrum for a reason: Because evangelical Christianity still exerts a mighty influence within the halls of academia. And, there, the fashionable opinions of mainstream scholars matter more than what the ancient sources themselves have to say. True discovery must recede behind the dominating shadow of the status quo. This is why independent scholars like Robert Price, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, etc. are the true heroes. They don’t give a damn about the status quo. They’re not in it to be “mainstream.” They’re following the evidence wherever it leads them. They, like me, are only interested in pursuing the truth.


Works Cited:

[1] Dan Barker and John W. Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2010), 11.
[2] S.G.F. Brandon and E.O. James, ed., “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East.” The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation, (Manchester University Press, 1963), 23.
[3] Adolf Erman, A Handbook of Egyptian Religion, trans. A. S. Griffith (London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1907), 96; see also E.A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection: Volume 1, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2011), 75-77.
[4] Louis Zabkar, A Study of the Ba, (SAOC 34; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968), 155.
[5] Alfred Bertholet, The Pre-Christian Belief in the Resurrection of the Body, The American Journal of Theology, (20:1 [1916]: 10).
[6] Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett, Power Over Egypt in the Hymn to Osiris, NIV Archaeological Study Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 877.
[7] S.G.F. Brandon and E.O. James, ed., “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East.” The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation, (Manchester University Press, 1963), 17-33.
[8] Joseph D. Reed, Arsinoe’s Adonis and the Poetics of Ptolemaic Imperialism, (American Philological Association: First Edition, 2000), 331.
[9] Internet Sacred Text Archive, The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden (Col. XV.), http://sacred-texts.com/egy/dmp/dmp18.htm (2010).
[10] M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 173-74.
[11] Matthew Ferguson, 1 Corinthians 15 and the “500 Witnesses,” https://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/1-corinthians-15-and-the-500-witnesses/ (2013).
[12] M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 156-57.
[13] Ibid., p. 159.
[14] Ibid., p. 164.
[15] Arthur Versluis, Magic & Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 12.
[16] Gary Forsythe, Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History (New York: Routledge, 2012), 89.
[17] G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1992), 202.
[18] S. N. Kramer, Dumuzi’s Annual Resurrection: An Important Correction to ‘Inanna’s Descent,’ Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 183 (October 1966:31).

A New Chapter Begins

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2014 by Derreck Bennett

 

Several months ago, a friend of mine on facebook simply disappeared out of the blue, with no one among our mutual friends able to reach him. We had no idea what had happened. Prior to his disappearance, he had been heavily engaged in theological debates, taking every opportunity to rock the boat and provoke his believing acquaintances. There was some indication that it was all getting to be a bit much for him, and I suspected that might have had something to do with his vanishing act. But, again, none of us were certain, and I was somewhat concerned. Lo’ and behold… he re-emerged. And, when he did, he was different. There was a certain peace about him. He had relinquished all conflict. He wasn’t fighting, anymore. He had chosen the path of serenity.

I envied him at the time, because, although I could certainly relate to his newly chosen path, I myself wasn’t ready to give up the fight, completely. I had reduced a good deal of it. But, I was still hanging on to it. Out of that need for validation, the need to boost my own ego and pride, I continued to feverishly research, debate, blog, and challenge others. I was fighting to prove my superiority. And continuing to act on old wounds, inflicted by the religiosity of others from my past.

There is certainly something to be said for the thirst for knowledge. There’s nothing inherently wrong with certain academic pursuits. But, what for me was a passion was also an obsession. One that consumed me so entirely that it came at too great a cost. It kept me from bettering myself in ways that should have been a greater priority: Seeking stability, financially and otherwise. Spending more time with friends and family. And being completely available to those I love. Not lost in a sea of my own thoughts, but present with them in the moment.

There is a saying: Until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change, no change will come. And that is why most of us have to learn so many of life’s lessons the hard way. Because we don’t change until our old ways are beaten out of us. All too often, it’s the only way. But, the good news is… it can and does happen. So long as we have both the fortitude to reflect on our circumstances, and the willingness to change them.

With that said, I am hanging my hat with blogging and debating about religion. And not just for practical reasons, but because my heart simply isn’t in it, anymore. Sure, I may dabble here and there, or answer questions from those who are interested. But, it will no longer be a priority for me. I am closing that chapter.

Make no mistake, though: I haven’t given up on my dreams. I will still seek after them. It’s just that my dreams have changed. What I want out of life has changed. If indeed it is so that life is finite, that I only have so many years left to experience this world, then I want to live that life to the fullest. I want to have the means to achieve stability and security, travel, spend quality time with the people I cherish most. And to share something special with someone, whomever that may be. Because that facebook friend of mine? He’s right. Love is all that matters.

 

Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 14, 2014 by Derreck Bennett

who_1

I was unable to join a podcast for the Owensboro Humanists recently, but I wanted to take time on my blog to respond to a few questions that they posed:

1. Do you think Jesus existed? Why or why not?

In all my reading of the debate over Jesus’ historicity, probably the best site I’ve come across is Early Christian History‘s entry on the topic: The Historicity of Jesus. It is brief yet comprehensive, and, above all, fair and balanced. There is no axe granding, no attempt to sway the audience one way or the other. And its conclusion is, I think, the most reasonable one we can come to: Was there a historical Jesus? We don’t know. And we can’t know. The evidence is inconclusive, either way.

To begin with, there are no contemporaneous references to Jesus, i.e., no written records of him from the time that he is said to have lived. This hardly rules him out as a historical personage, since many historical figures go unattested until some years later. But, it certainly doesn’t bode well for his divinity. Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, but it is where such evidence should be expected. Had Jesus actually been a miracle-working, death-defying Son of God, there are authors from the time who not only could have mentioned him, but should have mentioned him–most notably the Hellenized Jew, Philo of Alexandria. Philo had ties to both the Priesthood in Judea and the Herodian Dynasty, and he likely visited the Temple in Jerusalem not long after the supposed death of Jesus. Moreover, he waxed philosophical about a “First-Born Son of God” and “High Priest,” a “being most perfect in all virtue, [able] to procure forgiveness of sins” (Mos. 2.134). Though this was, for him, an abstraction, it is inconceivable that he’d fail to mention someone in nearby Palestine who literally embodied those ideas.

Not to mention, those attributes of Jesus that would mark him as divine bear too close a resemblance to the gods and heroes of contemporary myth and legend. Like Asclepius, he healed the lame, the blind, and the paralytic, and had the power to raise the dead. Like Osiris, he conquered death himself and extended immortality to his devotees. Like Perseus, Dionysus, and Romulus, he was the offspring of a High God and a mortal woman. Where we recognize the mythic character of one, we ought to do so in the other, or else we are guilty of special pleading.

Still, there may have been a historical Jesus whose story was embellished to mythic proportions, as had happened with Pythagoras and even, to an extent, Augustus and Alexander. But, how can we know? While the lack of contemporaneous reference certainly doesn’t rule out his existence, it doesn’t securely lock him into history, either. What we do have in the way of secular testimony from outside the Bible, e.g., Josephus and Tacitus, doesn’t help us much. They’re reporting from a generation after the so-called events, and they may only be passing on hearsay from Christian contemporaries. Josephus’ most widely known reference to Jesus, the Testimonium Flavianum, is fraught with problems; it is at least heavily interpolated (even Christian scholars admit this), if not an outright forgery. But even if the passage is partially authentic, it doesn’t provide us with anything conclusive.

Granting that Josephus did mention Jesus, we take him at his word concerning the existence of other 1st century messiahs–Athronges the Shepherd, Judas of Galilee, Simon of Peraea, etc. Like Jesus, Josephus could only have known about them secondhand. But, none of them bear the telltale signs of a figure born out of myth. It is Jesus’ correspondence to the Mythic Hero Archetype that warrants special consideration, a skepticism which needn’t apply to other, more mundane figures. But even this only takes us so far. Apollonius of Tyana bears some of the same mythic traits as Jesus, yet we know nevertheless that there was a historical Apollonius. We have his own correspondence with various kings and philosophers of the time. This is precisely the kind of thing that we don’t have for Jesus, but it still goes to show that conformance to mythic archetypes doesn’t necessarily render one ahistorical.

As you can see, this topic is complex, and there is much to be weighed on each end of the scale. For every point there is a counterpoint, and so on and so forth. Scholars who are far more mathematically inclined than I are now applying Bayesian Methods to determine the probability of Jesus’ existence. While I applaud their groundbreaking work, I suspect that the debate is far from over. In the meantime, I remain agnostic on the question of Jesus’ historicity.

2. Lord, Liar, or Lunatic: Who was he?

Granting for the sake of argument that there was a historical Jesus, what might I make of him? C.S. Lewis popularized the “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument as follows:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma#Lewis.27s_formulation)

To one unacquainted with biblical criticism, this may appear to be a sound argument. But, in fact, it is logically fallacious. Lewis has committed a false trilemma by limiting us to only three options, when there is indeed a plausible alternative: Legend. The Gospels were written decades after the supposed death of Jesus, so we cannot simply assume that they accurately portray the words and deeds of the “Savior.” To make matters worse, they are undeniably works of fiction, wherein the authors had plenty of creative license. Classicist Matthew Ferguson explains:

The Gospel authors are silent about their identities and give context about their relation neither to their sources nor to the events they contain. The Gospel narratives instead just read like novels, told from a camera-like perspective, that merely follow around the characters with no critical analysis whatsoever … [They] are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject … Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not concerned with being critical or investigative, but merely serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them. (Matthew Ferguson, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament‏,” is available online at: http://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/ancient-historical-writing-compared-to-the-gospels-of-the-new-testament/)

Case in point: How do we know what Jesus prayed while away from his disciples on the Mount of Olives, with no one nearby to hear him (Luke 22:39-46)? Because Luke made it up. Without knowing what, if anything, can actually be attributed to Jesus, we can make no assumptions therein. Lewis’ argument falls apart on that basis.

But, if I had to take a shot in the dark as to who the historical Jesus was, assuming there was one, I’d follow John Loftus and Paula Fredriksen in estimating that he was an apocalyptic prophet, heralding the coming Kingdom of God in the tumultuous, political climate of 1st century Judea. “The end is nigh” may well have been his message. So, where does that place him within Lewis’ triadic scheme? This is a question we cannot answer without considering cultural and historical relativism. For his time, Jesus would have been pretty run-of-the-mill. But, by today’s standards, he’d be on par with David Koresh and Jim Jones. For the sake of sparing Lewis any “patronizing nonsense,” I’ll answer him within a 21st century context: Lunatic.

 

Why I Embrace Pope Francis: An Atheistic Liberal’s Affirmation

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2013 by Derreck Bennett

 

Pope Francis

 

It is absolutely understandable that one could read my blogs, my facebook posts, etc., and take me for a “militant atheist.” Obviously, I am highly critical of religion and its extraordinary claims. But, I personally don’t think that label is apt. While I share many characteristics with those in the New Atheist movement, there are some notable distinctions. For instance, I don’t feel that religion is the source of all evil, or that it needs to be eradicated from the face of the earth. I see no reason whatsoever to deny that much good is done in the name of religion, despite its flaws.

Most importantly, I have no animosity toward religious people in general. I rail against the politically-motivated Religious Right, because of their theocratic tendencies, and I subject Christian apologists to well-deserved scrutiny. But, outside of that, an individual’s personal beliefs are really none of my business. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Besides, there are just too many good, Christian friends and family members whom I cherish sincerely, and I refuse to treat them as ideological opponents. To the flames with any such “Us vs. Them” mentality.

It is in that spirit that I wholeheartedly embrace Pope Francis. I don’t give a damn about his personal religious convictions, or his position in the Catholic Church. I see a man who flies in the face of the Religious Right, exposing their flagrant hypocrisy. It boggles the mind that conservatives lay claim to Jesus, whose message was diametrically opposed to theirs (Mk. 10:21-25, Lk. 16:13). In the same ironic fashion, conservatives here in America condemn Pope Francis for following in Christ’s footstepsfocusing on the poor and impoverished. Teaching love, acceptance, tolerance, and compassion. I actually wish Jesus would momentarily return just to put a swift sandal in Rush Limbaugh’s ass.

It’s not that I don’t see where conservatives are coming from, at least some of the time. In the realm of politics, I perceive a lot more gray than I do black and white. I get that there are people who abuse the system. I agree that individuals should be rewarded for their efforts. But, it seems to me that conservatives are missing the forest for the trees. They’re so narrowly focused on the “social ills” of government spending that they fail to grasp the underlying issue: the astronomically absurd level of wealth disparity in this country.

 

wealthdistribution

The deadliest sin we face isn’t sloth; it’s greed. If it weren’t for the gratuitous level of financial hoarding in this nation, we simply would not need as much in the way of government aid and entitlements. And the trend toward a declining middle class reveals just how severely things have gotten out of hand. More and more, the post-apocalyptic visions of Hollywood films, like The Hunger Games and In Time, are unfolding before us, the gaping rift between the “haves” and the “have nots” ever widening.

I am not here arguing for communism, lest one invoke such a ridiculous strawman. But, there clearly needs to be some kind of regulation, some system of checks and balances. If you decry this notion as an attack on “freedom,” whilst honest, hard-working people are struggling to feed their families and make ends meet, then you’re not really an idealist; you’re an asshole. Or, shall we say, willfully ignorant. Whatever the case, if the shoe fits, wear it. But, don’t pretend to be a true follower of Jesus. He sides with me. And with the Pope–a man whose humanism is deeply admirable, whether secular or religious.

 

Identification With the Risen Osiris in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses

Posted in Uncategorized on December 1, 2013 by Derreck Bennett

 

During a stimulating discussion with a Christian scholar several months ago, I was challenged to present evidence for specific claims I made regarding mystery cult rituals and their similarities to Pauline Christianity. Among the most important was whether or not the initiate, Lucius, was ritually identified with the risen Osiris in Apuleius’ ancient work, Metamorphoses (11.21-23). If so, this would bear a striking resemblance to the identification of the believer with the risen Christ in Romans 6:3-5, and elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. I acknowledged that such mystical identification is not made explicit in Metamorphoses, but quoted a relevant scholar, Gwyn Griffiths, to this effect:

“In this cult the initiate can be identified with none other than Osiris, but here, after a ceremony which depicts the visit of the sun-god to the Osirian realm of the dead, the triumph over the dead is fittingly symbolized by an Osiris-figure with solar attributes. An identification with the god is therefore present” (Gwyn Griffiths, “The Isis Book,” [Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1997], 315).

Griffiths’ conclusion is based not only on Lucius’ adornment with twelve cloaks and a radiant crown (symbolizing the Zodiac and the Osirian Crown of Justification), but also on the longstanding tradition attested by ancient Egyptian funerary texts (Ibid., 315-16). Not to mention, it is remarkable that Lucius symbolically died and rose at the hands of the goddess, just as Osiris was believed to have done, literally.

Welp. Enter one Helmut Koester, scholar of New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard University. In his Introduction to the New Testament, Koester denies any mystical identification between Lucius and Osiris based on the fact that explicit mention is not made of the latter (Helmut Koester, “Introduction to the New Testament,” [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1995], 182). To be sure, Lucius dons “a precious garment of the highest god,” having “attained identity with the highest heavenly deity” (Ibid., 181). But, apparently, that’s not Osiris.

So, who is this highly exalted and grandiose deity? Unfortunately, Apuleius never tells us. Nope. Not ever. Oh, except for right here:

…Osiris, greatest of the gods, highest among the greatest, mightiest among the highest, lord of the mightiest… (Metamorphoses 11.28-30).

There, there now. Take a deep breath, Helmut. Even Harvard professors make mistakes. In the meantime, I’ll just go on being right. If that’s cool with you. Good news is, I got you a nice fruit basket, along with something to hang on your wall.

 

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