Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)
|Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed
Now available as a book, fully updated and reorganized. This is the definitive edition of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?” Even better than online, improved and revised throughout. Available at BarnesAndNoble
19. Responses to Critics
If you have read all eighteen chapters of my thorough critique of Holding’s essay “The Impossible Faith,” then you have read everything important that I have to say. As promised, I have shown that “some set of natural causes that we know for a fact happen more often than miracles do were reasonably likely to have produced” the actual success of the Christian Church. It has not been necessary for me to prove that any of those available causes actually did operate in producing the facts. We may never know, for the evidence is simply too scarce to confirm anyone’s theory. But so long as these natural causes and circumstances could reasonably have been responsible, it cannot be maintained that “only” irrefutable evidence of the Resurrection can explain those facts. Therefore, Holding’s conclusion that only “irrefutable evidence” of a supernatural miracle can explain the facts is not warranted.
The present chapter is reserved for an extended footnote to the whole project: a continually updated response to the most significant criticisms against my project that I find online. All my work was updated several times, after its initial publication on my home site, in response to Holding’s replies (some of which amount to corrections and are mentioned below). All nineteen chapters were then edited for the Secular Web by Keith Augustine with my approval. Any future changes or corrections here or elsewhere (beyond the trivial) will be announced on What’s New.
Most of Holding’s criticisms worth responding to are not important enough to warrant emending the text of my critique. Rather than identifying actual errors of fact or critical omissions that significantly affect my arguments, or clear flaws in my reasoning or manner of expression, most responses amount to an unjustified misunderstanding of what I actually wrote, or new groundless assertions or even outright false claims. I have corrected (and will only correct) the text of my previous chapters when presented with: (1) actual, legitimate evidence that I misstated the facts; (2) actual, legitimate evidence that I omitted some fact that significantly affects my arguments; (3) clear flaws in the logic of any of my arguments as actually written; or (4) a significantly better way to say what I meant, if in fact my manner of expression was misleading.
Otherwise, false claims have no effect on what I argue, many misunderstandings are not my fault but the product of a lazy reader, and unsupported assertions are a waste of time. Ultimately, if the best Holding can do is base his conclusion on a groundless assertion, then his conclusion is itself a groundless assertion, and I am content to leave it at that. For that is exactly the point of my critique: that Holding’s conclusions are simply groundless assertions. Otherwise, I am eager to get everything right, and will certainly correct the text of my critique if any legitimate problems with it are identified.
So far, the only notable rebuttal to my critique is by James Holding himself (“Broken Vector Sinks Again: Or, TIF Vindicated“). Most of what he writes there is insulting or irrelevant, or belies a failure to read with any care what I actually wrote. See, for example, the independent analysis of Chris Hallquist on his blog (The J.P. Holding Files). Hallquist’s conclusions match the more general findings of other observers (see Tektonics Exposed!). Holding has also published a highly condensed version of his original essay as a book (The Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Succeeded When It Should Have Failed, 2007), including some material from other essays, but he adds nothing new, nor interacts with my critique at all. In fact, his book is written as if he never saw my critique, and thus repeats all his original errors and deceptions, and though he mentions my critique to promote his book (his preface is actually titled “A thesis so explosive an atheist paid over $5,000 for an answer to it!”), he never names me or tells his readers where this well-funded “answer” of mine can be found. He even implies my work is too juvenile to be worth reading (p. 109). I have responded by publishing an updated and revised version of my complete online work on this subject, as Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (which is better organized and updated from this online version, and includes all the material in this chapter), so buyers at BarnesAndNoble can now get both.
Inanna: Holding protests that Inanna wasn’t really crucified. But being humiliated by being stripped naked, killed, and nailed up in shame amounts to the same thing to any reasonable observer. The story itself emphasizes the humiliation of it. Holding asserts without evidence that such treatment was not a humiliation in ancient Sumer, but it seems clear that Inanna was treated that way in the story precisely because it was humiliating to strip someone naked and hang their shamed corpse in public view. Though we can’t trace how far back this goes, such public hanging to shame corpses was certainly a practice more ancient than Rome (Joshua 8:29 & 10:26-27; 1 Samuel 31:10; 2 Samuel 4:12; Ezekiel 16:39-40; Esther 9:13-14; Lamentations 5:12), even more ancient than Israel (Genesis 40:19-22). It was already a method of legal shaming in the Code of Hammurabi (§ 21, 153, 227), and the Old Testament itself establishes the practice as so horrible it was a “curse to God” that could “defile the land” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
At the very least, Holding has no grounds to claim that what was done to Inanna wasn’t humiliating to Sumerians, especially when done to a queen—for like all ancient cultures, Sumer was also an honor-shame society, and hanging up the naked, unburied corpse of royalty would surely have been among the gravest of insults. Holding also protests that she was already revered. But so was the God who had already proclaimed in his ancient oracles the vindication of his humiliated Son and Christ, so the advantage was the same. Finally, Holding concludes that my argument validates his by proving “a crucified deity would require a vindication to be worshipped,” but there was no more evidence that Inanna was “really vindicated” by resurrection than Jesus was. And that was exactly my point: if people could believe she was vindicated without “irrefutable evidence,” then so, too, Jesus.
Why the Attis Cult Failed: Holding asks why the Attis cult failed—as if he didn’t know that the Attis cult survived for centuries before Christianity took over the government, and only failed when actively destroyed. His rhetorical question thus amounts to using the fact that Christianity outlawed the Attis cult into extinction as evidence for the inability of the Attis cult to survive because it was false, which is already a non sequitur. Therefore, when Holding argues that “Christianity would either have died out and/or thoroughly revamped itself” because that is what happened to the Attis cult, there is no logical connection between his premise and conclusion. Of course, it just so happens that Christianity did revamp itself, quite often throughout its growth, as I point out in Chapter 18 and the first part of Chapter 2. And the original Christian religion of Peter and James did die out, replaced by the religion of Paul, which (among other things) abandoned Jewish law and practice. It was only by changing that Christianity survived at all—and it was only by seizing control of the axe of government that Christianity could finally eliminate competitors.
Holding then snipes briefly at my supposedly having no grounds to say that the Attis cult “commanded a very large following,” even though I cited several scholarly sources surveying the literary and archaeological evidence demonstrating it had a considerable, visible presence—certainly enough to establish that its membership empire-wide was “very large” (at least in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands). As I note several times throughout my critique, we have no evidence that in the first century Christianity was any more successful (commanded any greater a following) than any other cult, including the Attis cult. I offered the fact that we have abundant archaeological evidence of the Attis cult all over the Roman Empire, but none whatsoever of a Christian presence until the 3rd century—at which point I openly allow that Christianity probably overtook any particular competitor (including the Attis cult) in size of membership. As I wrote, “only in the 3rd century does material evidence of a Christian presence, anywhere in the Empire, begin to match that of even minor pagan cults,” and indeed it probably then began to exceed them, as I explain in Chapter 18. But of course, as I also explain in that chapter, Christian growth by that point has no bearing on Holding’s argument anymore (as he himself admits). And before then, there is no evidence that Christianity was even as large as the Attis cult, much less any other competing religion. That is what I said. And it remains true.
Invisible Elite Converts: Holding tries to fallaciously shift the burden onto me when he protests against my factually true statement that there is no evidence that any elite scholars converted to Christianity in the first century. Holding insists he has the right to pretend that some did, only we have no evidence of it; but he has no such right. Of course, by their very nature, elite scholars typically leave evidence of their existence, especially when their team ultimately wins control of the culture and has every reason to preserve its heritage. So absence of evidence is evidence of absence in such a case, meeting the criteria of a valid argument from silence (see Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity“). But even if that were not so, Holding still can’t bootstrap his case with groundless assertions. The fact remains: the evidence does not support the claim that any elite scholars converted in the 1st century. That is what I said. And that is true. If Holding wants to rest his case on a groundless assertion that such converts existed, then his conclusion becomes a groundless assertion, too, and as I said already: I am content with that. That his conclusions are groundless is exactly what my critique aims to prove. So I welcome all the assistance Holding wants to give me in proving my case against him.
Misreading the Wisdom of Solomon: Holding says chapter 2 of the Wisdom of Solomon “would imply that Jesus, if he were indeed just, ought to have been delivered from his punishment,” but Holding is reading the words of the wicked and mistaking them as advice to the righteous, and consequently he misses the point of the text: that God will not deliver Jesus until the Resurrection. Holding seems to think the text tells the reader that God “will help him and deliver him from the hand of his enemies,” but verse (2:21 says those who claimed this “were deceived, for their own wickedness had blinded them.” Holding apparently misses the exact parallel with Mark 15:29-32 (which develops Psalms 22:7-8), where the wicked yet again say they expect God to save his Son, and are yet again deceived into imagining this, blinded by their wickedness. Otherwise, it is certainly true—and I consistently conceded the point throughout my critique—that Christians still had to offer some evidence that Jesus was the one raised. But the issue is whether they needed “irrefutable” evidence. And I found they didn’t, as shown most directly in Chapter 7, Chapter 13, and Chapter 17, but also in Chapter 4, Chapter 6, and Chapter 10.
Which Kerygma: Holding strangely asks what kerygma I imagine the Christian missionaries taught, even though I explicitly discuss this in several places, and never do I mention “justice and contentment” in such a context. It is hard to fathom what Holding is even talking about here. As best I can tell, he means to argue against the fact that Christianity was attractive because it was a movement of moral and social justice by somehow mistaking the reason it was attractive with the actual way it was sold. I never make that mistake myself. I consistently argue that the Christian kerygma was from the very beginning exactly as Holding wants it to be: that Christ died for our sins and rose again and all who join him will be saved. The question my critique sets out to answer is why anyone believed this message, and I found moral and material benefits of membership among the reasons. The question of why the first Christians sought to attach this moral message to that kerygma is a question whose answer has little bearing on Holding’s case, since his argument concerns why the message sold, not where it came from. Still, even though it is a completely different issue, I answer the question of why that kerygma was adopted to sell this social message in Richard Carrier, “Whence Christianity? A Meta-Theory for the Origins of Christianity,” Journal of Higher Criticism 11.1 (Spring 2004).
John’s Resurrection: Holding argues against my endnote in Chapter 1 that those who thought Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist “either thought John was raised by means other than resurrection, or that this was done in anticipation of a general resurrection that was shortly to take place.” I am glad Holding thinks so, since that is in fact what the early Christians thought of Jesus: that he was raised “in anticipation of a general resurrection that was shortly to take place,” exactly as I point out in Chapter 3.3. But Holding seems to be getting ahead of himself, since I mention the fact (that some believed “John the Baptist is risen from the dead,” Mark 6:14) only as evidence that John was revered. So here it does not matter how or why John was raised: the fact that many Jews expected God would raise him can be taken as evidence that John was revered. That is the only reason I brought it up in that context. Otherwise, it is a contradiction in terms to say John was raised from the dead by some means other than being raised from the dead, so I am not sure what Holding has in mind here, except perhaps an appeal to the modern terminological dichotomy between resurrection and resuscitation, which I address in an endnote in Chapter 3. As I note in that chapter, there were certainly many different conceptions of how someone could return from the dead in a new or healed body. But no matter how they quibbled over the details, bodily returning from the dead was still a bodily return from the dead.
Who Wrote the Palatine Graffito: Holding has several beefs with my endnote on this item of evidence. First, he notes that my “source” (Decker) dates it to the 1st century, but Holding seems not to have noticed that I name “sources,” plural: I cite Beard and Dinkler, who demonstrate the correct date (archaeologically, the wall the graffito was cut into did not exist in the 1st century or the early 2nd). Then Holding thinks it doesn’t matter that it is “late.” But he doesn’t understand my argument about social attitudes (see discussion below: Crucifixion and Class Warfare). In light of what I actually argue, the fact that this record is late does matter: for the social and political situation of Christianity had significantly changed by then, and pagan disgust or resentment was even greater. And since we cannot know what if anything is being mocked by the image, it is difficult to draw the conclusions Holding wants. For example, the fact that the God is depicted as crucified may merely be because he was, while the only intended insult may be God’s depiction as an ass. As I explain in that very note, whether a god’s crucifixion was being mocked would depend on whether the author thought the god was crucified justly or unjustly. Since we don’t know what the author was thinking, we can’t draw any useful conclusions.
Holding then says there is no reason to believe the author was a member of the middle class. But the reason we conclude he was is obvious to anyone who knows Greek: the graffito is misspelled. In fact, the error is a common phonetic mistake that would typically be made by someone who knew Greek orally but was not very literate. Since no adult elite would be so inept in Greek (even Romans were expected to be fluent), and it was very rare for a lower classman to write any Greek at all, it follows that (exactly as I say) “most probably this was written by a member of the middle class.” The location of the graffito (inside the imperial palace) further supports this conclusion (it likely originated from a member of the imperial staff). Finally, Holding ignores all my extensive explanations of what I mean by those who are “well-invested in the elite power structure.” I very definitely intend a limited group who, as I say of Seneca, are so invested in the system that they would not be sympathetic to critics of that system, but would regard attacks on the system as attacks on themselves. Obviously this did not include everyone, for there are copious examples of critics of the system, inside and outside Christianity (see, for example, Chapter 12 and Chapter 2.5).
Roman Prejudice: Holding tries to change his argument now by claiming he meant the Romans and Greeks were prejudiced against people from Judaea, rather than against members of the Jewish religion. This is absurd, and of course he presents no evidence to support his new claim. All the evidence is of prejudice against the Jewish religion and culture, not against their land of origin. Countless Romans and Greeks were born and lived in Judaea, and hailing from there was no issue for them or anyone else. Indeed, Augustus and Herod the Great were by all accounts very good friends, and Augustus lavished all manner of goods and honors on Herod and his country, and even passed laws protecting the Jewish religion, proving there was no issue of prejudice for him.
Holding can’t come up with anything to rebut what I actually said: that prejudice against Jews and Judaism was not universal. The decrees of Caesar and Augustus protecting the Jewish religion is proof enough of that. The widespread evidence of many Greeks and Romans joining the Jewish faith, adopting Jewish values, worshipping a Jewish God, and revering Jewish heroes and scholars is proof enough of that. Josephus hailed from Judaea and was a Jew, and yet was not a victim of prejudice—to the contrary, the Roman authorities took him into their own. Even the Emperor Titus fell in love with the Jewish princess Berenice, and put her aside only in response to the prejudice of others. So the fact remains that though there was prejudice against Jews, this prejudice was not universal enough to prevent the scale of success Christianity actually achieved in the first century.
Respecting Tradesmen: In my first draft I demonstrated conclusively that Jews had great respect for tradesmen and thus would not have looked down on Jesus for being a carpenter, as Holding falsely claimed. In response to that, Holding desperately resorted to the bizarre argument that only Jews respected tradesmen—apparently assuming that Greco-Roman tradesmen all despised themselves and each other, which is obviously ridiculous. As usual, he inserted his foot into his mouth yet again by not actually checking the facts before making a claim. Indeed, he betrayed his utter ignorance of ancient culture by saying “the only evidence [one] can find is within Judaism.” Only someone who knew nothing about the ancient world, and made no effort to learn, would make so foolish a claim. In a similar fashion, Holding claimed no one would worship a deity who worked in a lower class occupation, which is also not true—the pagans worshipped several gods of that description. Consequently, I significantly updated Chapter 2.3 to include all the evidence Holding embarrassingly claimed didn’t exist.
One thing to add here is against Holding’s now more adamant claim that no one in antiquity had notions of improving their condition. That is outrageous. It is not what any of the scholars he quotes have ever argued—to the contrary, they would all be appalled by what he claims they said. I ask all readers to stop trusting Holding, and actually buy or borrow those books that Holding quotes out of context and read them. Then you will see how those scholars actually discuss the total situation very differently than Holding lets on. On this issue in particular, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Holding, as I explain in Chapter 10 (where I also present examples of his gross misrepresentation of the arguments of Bruce Malina). But we needn’t trust the opinions of scholars. We can go to the primary evidence. And here Lucian’s autobiographical account in My Dream again provides refutation enough: there he explains how his family sought to improve his prospects by buying him an apprenticeship to a stonecutter, and how Lucian in turn regarded it as far better an improvement in his situation to become a scholar instead. Yet according to Holding, no one in antiquity thought or acted like this. Holding simply isn’t telling the truth.
Virgin Christology: Holding seems to think I was referring to the doctrine of immaculate conception (“that Christ was thus not tainted by original sin”) when I argued that Jesus had to be virgin-born to be divine. Holding must be confused: the immaculate conception was a doctrine about the birth of Mary, not Jesus. It was Mary who was born without sin, so no sin would be passed on to Jesus (see “Immaculate Conception,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., 1997: pp. 821-22). In other words, the virgin birth was not the Christian solution to the inheritance of sin, the immaculate birth of Mary was. Therefore, the fact that this concept came late has no bearing on the motives for having Jesus born to a virgin, which required no concern for the problem of inherited sin, and I made no mention of this problem as the reason for making Jesus virgin-born. Rather, I said God could not have sex (least of all with someone else’s wife) because God could not sin. And that is true. This was not a “late” notion, but certainly a fact of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. Therefore, only a nonsexual conception was ideologically possible. That leaves the option of whom to magically impregnate, and there were many good reasons to choose a virgin for this. To make this all clear, I updated the relevant section (Chapter 2.7).
The Word Anastasis: Holding likes to pretend he knows what he’s talking about. A good example is his remark that:
While we are aware … that the word anistemi was used of resurrection, resuscitation, or even such mundane things as getting up from a seat, the word-form anastasis I have yet to see any evidence of being used of anything but what is conceptually Jewish resurrection.
He has not seen any evidence of this, because he never bothered to look. Take a gander at the definition of anastasis in the Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon: anastasis. There you can see how wrong Holding is, for you will find listed every mundane meaning with cited examples: it could mean any ordinary getting up or rising up (even in the Septuagint: Lamentations 3:63), or it could mean any kind of rising from the dead. Not only does Hebrews 11:35 use it to refer to what Holding would tell you were mere “resuscitations” in the Old Testament, but we have it in pagan texts as well. Aeschylus uses it to refer to the mere revival of a corpse (Eumenides 648). Lucian uses it to refer to the resurrection of Tyndareus by Asclepius (De Saltatione 45). Plotinus uses it to refer to the soul’s “resurrection” from the body (Enneads 3.6.6). According to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the word anastasis is used over thirty times in extant pagan literature before the time of Christ. Are we to believe these are all in reference to “what is conceptually Jewish resurrection”? Holding’s bluff has been called. There simply was no terminological distinction between “kinds” of resurrection in antiquity.
More recently, in Holding’s new response (which mostly waxes on about irrelevant points), he falsely claims that I also deny there was any conceptual distinction between kinds of revival, but that must betray his poor memory, since I repeatedly said in the original chapter that there was such a distinction in concept, but not in the vocabulary—another example of Holding’s inability to get straight what I actually say. I call all readers to go back and read what I actually said in Chapter 3.
God Incarnate? Holding has since denied this, but he gave me the distinct impression of claiming that any time Paul says “Son of God” he means God Incarnate, though I already presented copious evidence that this does not follow (in Chapter 9), and scholars agree with me. At any rate, Holding tries to prove Paul believed Jesus was an eternal being in various ways, but this does not pertain to the issue of whether Jesus was literally God Incarnate in the Nicene sense. Some of Holding’s arguments are dubious anyway. For example, he tries to argue that Paul called Christ “Wisdom,” and since “Wisdom” was an eternal being, so must Christ have been. But Holding cites a verse that challenges this very argument: 1 Corinthians 1:30 says “Christ Jesus became Wisdom to us from God,” using egenêthê, the passive aorist of “become,” meaning at a specific point in time Jesus came into the state of being “Wisdom” by an act of God. This conforms to the view that Jesus was not always Wisdom, but was appointed Wisdom at a later time, and at any rate there is nothing here about Jesus existing eternally. In like fashion, 1 Corinthians 1:24 says Jesus was both Wisdom and the Power of God, yet Romans 1:4 says Jesus was appointed into Power at his resurrection—so this was not an eternal condition, either.
The only passage of merit here is Colossians 1:15-18, though the authenticity of this is questioned by scholars (see “Colossians, Letter to the,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible 2000), and so it is not a secure source for establishing what Paul believed (especially in light of Romans). But even what is said here does not establish that Jesus was God Incarnate in the Nicene sense. To the contrary, it specifically says the Son (not yet Jesus) was the image (eikôn) of God, not God himself (Colossians 1:15). Hence, regardless of how Christians evolved their ideas in following centuries, this particular passage agrees with what I already said about the Jewish ideology of divine possession: Jesus, like all Jewish prophets and kings, was possessed by the spirit of God—and in this case not even by God, but a lesser spirit, the Son, who was created by God (“firstborn of all that was created,” 1:15), and who was merely God’s “image.” This Son was literally, and meaningfully, “firstborn” twice: once at creation (1:15), then again at his resurrection (1:18), which was the dawn of the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Finally, Colossians does not say when the man Jesus came to be possessed by this spirit (hence becoming the Christ)—whether at birth, baptism, or death.
Limited Good? Holding claims that the ancient idea of “limited good” entailed that everyone would hate Christians for taking what wasn’t theirs, and no one would join Christianity for the purpose of improving their access to goods (like food, friendship, or healthcare). Holding is simply wrong—and, of course, none of the sources he cites say any such thing about Christianity. They only discuss the idea of limited good as a social problem that Christianity was a response to—not as a barrier to Christianity’s success. In contrast, Holding argues:
Just as anachronistic is Carrier’s idea that “Christian missionaries were meeting a new market demand, of a growing mass of the discontented.” He is yet again importing modernist, individualist ideas into the social world of the NT; the reality however is that “discontent” such as he imagines, though it would exist, would not be seen as solved by Christianity….As Pilch and Malina report in The Handbook of Biblical Social Values [79ff], this was a world of “limited good” within which all resources were considered at a fixed value….The “discontented” who wished to rise in the ranks, would perceive that they did so at the expense of others, including their fellow poor, who would have the same perception and would resent any attempt to “rise above” others. Thus in fact the ancient person regarded their lot as decided by fate; however dissatisfied they may have been, there was nothing that they could do about it, and any discontented person seeking resolution of the sort Carrier envisages would incur the envy and probation of their fellow in-group members. If anything, Christianity as a newcomer would be rejected as a religion trying to cut from the pie that was already distributed.
I asked Bruce Malina about this, and in a personal e-mail of 15 April 2005, he told me himself that this is not what he argued. Instead, Malina says “morality based on limited good held people back, except those devoted to greed,” hence “the commonplace: every rich person was a thief or the heir of a thief,” and for this reason Christianity was attractive, not stigmatized, because it sought to restore the distribution of goods according to human dignity as intended by God, rather than according to the cutthroat principles of the wider society. “I have argued,” Malina wrote, “that what people wished to do was to maintain the status that they believed was proper to their kin group” and “this often entailed improving their circumstances when they were dislodged from their status.”
Hence the poor were poor because of the immoral greed of the rich, not because of mere “fate.” To the contrary, the very idea of limited good Malina argues for would have caused the poor to feel cheated, and then motivated them to seek to restore the piece of the pie that was already owed them—and promised them by God (Malina told me Jews would have seen in Christianity an effort to realize God’s law as established in Leviticus 25:10-55). Christianity was thus a movement widely seen as seeking to set things right—not as an attempt to “rise above” others. So nothing I argued was “anachronistic,” but was in fact perfectly in accord with the social reality of the ancient world. As Malina himself says, the ancients did believe they could do something about their lot, Christianity was seen by many as a solution to the inequities of society, and its efforts to restore equity were not resented by anyone but the greedy, thieving rich.
Crucifixion and Class Warfare: Holding mistakenly claims that I said “the ancient everyday man … would not have held the same disdain for a shamed person.” That is not what I argue. I never claim that there was any general difference. Rather, I very clearly argue that certain members of ancient society would not regard the humiliation of an innocent man as shaming him, but as an insult to his honor—the exact opposite of what Holding argues. Holding does not seem to understand that I limit my position twice: first, I limit my claim to a very particular cross-section of people, which I carefully define—and not to “the ancient everyday man” as some sort of blanket category; and second, I limit my claim to attitudes toward the treatment of righteous men—and not to just any “shamed person.”
Of course, contrary to Holding’s denial of the fact, I present a lot of evidence that certain people in antiquity did not regard humiliated martyrs as disgraced, but as insulted by unjust treatment, and rather than ceasing to revere them, revered them all the more, and hated all the more those who unjustly humiliate such good men (see Chapter 1 and Chapter 8). It thus does not matter what the Japanese have done, or what modern Iraqis do. What matters is what the ancients did within the Roman Empire. And contrary to Holding’s ridiculous claim that the masses universally approved all the values and behaviors of the elite, I present vast and copious evidence soundly refuting him (in Chapter 12 especially, but also in Chapter 2 and Chapter 17). Never mind that every single qualified expert on ancient culture agrees with me (see Note 2.16 and Note 5.3), including Holding’s own favorite sources (Malina, Fox, Stark, DeSilva, and so on—just read them for yourselves).
Holding knows he can’t find anyone to side with him, which must be why he only quotes (and at inordinate length) what other scholars say about completely different situations in completely different cultures. It is all the worse that what Holding claims about these unrelated cases is either irrelevant or false. It follows from the very nature of an honor-shame society that when those who deserve honor (like Jesus) are treated disgracefully, they are not abandoned in shame, but defended against such insults to their honor—this is true in Iraq, Japan, and the ancient Mediterranean. Shame a righteous man in either Japan or Iraq and see how quickly the crowd turns against you, and not against the man you insulted.
Likewise, Holding seems not to know that hundreds of thousands of Saddam Hussein’s own people gave their lives fighting against him for decades—a far cry from “coming to admire the tyrant.” Nor does Holding seem to grasp the difference between Iraqis defending Iraq and Iraqis defending Saddam. You need not share your leader’s values to fight for your homeland (especially against meddling foreigners), and surely Holding does not imagine that all Iraqis shared or even accepted Saddam’s twisted values. Likewise, Holding is apparently unaware of the several rebellions and social conflicts that have plagued Japanese history, especially in the 17th and 19th centuries (see: Major Events in Japanese History). As with all such cultures, class discontent is unleashed when the elites fail to deliver the social harmony expected from them—exactly the circumstance Christianity found itself in, a point made again and again by Malina, DeSilva, and every other qualified expert I’ve read. Indeed, the entire history of Rome is the history of class struggle between the commons and the aristocracy, which often broke out into wars and protests. Consult any textbook on the history of the Roman Republic, especially on the most pivotal events, from the fate of the Gracchi to the Social War to Caesar’s political campaigns.
Jewish Idea of a Suffering Savior: Holding argues that the messianic Old Testament passages I cite describing a suffering righteous servant of God were “never” used or interpreted as referring to the messiah. Of course, he doesn’t actually have evidence it was never so used. Holding can’t prove his case by adducing evidence that some Jews saw things differently, since I only propose that some (not all) Jews held this conception, and unlike his invisible elite scholars, we know there were many diverse Jewish sects and views that do not survive in the record. So no argument from silence can establish the blanket negative that Holding’s argument requires. Even so, I do not merely argue the possibility, but the actuality, and so I willingly took on the burden of proving my claim. And so I did: all the passages and texts I cite predate Christianity, and at least one clearly and unambiguously refers to the messiah, while the others clearly support the same general picture.
Holding foolishly proclaims that all Jews expected a messiah who “would successfully rout the Romans,” even though the pre-Christian book of Daniel, a book written by Jews, says exactly the opposite: “the Christ shall be utterly destroyed yet there is no judgment upon him,” and then a ruler would come and destroy the Temple (as the Romans did). The Septuagint actually has the word Christos in 9:25, with Chrisma in 9:26 (which refers to Christos by metonymy), and the original text has Mashiyach (“Messiah”) in both passages. Thus, rather than expecting a messiah to “rout the Romans,” some Jews plainly expected a messiah to be killed, even though innocent, and thus fail to rout Judaea’s conquerors. Holding cannot claim this text is “late,” wasn’t Jewish, or wasn’t about the messiah—for it says it is about the messiah!
That soundly refutes Holding. But let’s look at my other evidence anyway. Some of it could be interpreted a different way (like Isaiah 49 or Psalms 22) and so those passages only support the plausibility of my point. But others are as clear as the passage from Daniel. For example, consider Isaiah 52:7-53:12:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that brings the Gospel, publishing peace, bringing the Gospel of good things, that announces salvation, that says to Zion, “Your God rules!”….for Jehovah has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem….Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high…Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of Jehovah been revealed?
For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised, and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him. And with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way. And Jehovah has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and as for his generation, who among them considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? And they made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it pleased Jehovah to bruise him. He has put him to grief. When you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many. And he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong. Because he poured out his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Here we have a pre-Christian text, written by Jews, predicting that a “righteous servant” of God, chosen of God, shall suffer, be despised, and be buried a criminal, even though innocent, and then shall be exalted, raised up, and made great—and that in so doing, he shall “justify” and “heal” the Jews, carry away their “sorrows” and “sins,” and “the pleasure of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand.” How could any Jew not have understood this to mean that a righteous, wise, chosen servant of God would be wrongly despised, convicted, and executed, and in so doing save Israel from its sins and afflictions? That is, after all, exactly what the text says.
Isaiah also says this servant will be “cut off” though “he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” Then Daniel later says the messiah will be “cut off” though “there is no legal judgment against him.” These sure sound like the same man. In fact, it sounds like Daniel is alluding to Isaiah’s servant and predicting that he will be the messiah. Since scholars agree the book of Daniel was actually written in the 2nd century B.C.E., during a time of Greek persecution, it is quite possible the author had such an allusion in mind. Moreover, since Daniel 9:26 is otherwise obscure and strange, but makes perfect sense once linked to Isaiah 52-53, it is reasonable to infer that Daniel 9:26 is a messianic interpretation of Isaiah 52-53. Though the Hebrew employs different verbs in each case for “kill,” they both mean “cut off.” And though the following Hebrew is unclear, the later (but still pre-Christian) translation employed the Greek word krima for “judgment,” which connotes a formal legal judgment, thus clarifying that an unjust execution is what the author of Daniel had in mind—hence a shameful but undeserved death, exactly as Isaiah envisioned.
Maybe this is too speculative. And one might also argue that a man who “brings the gospel” as the “servant” of God, who is “righteous” and shall be “exalted,” yet whose “life shall be made an offering for sin,” bring “salvation,” and “redeem” all Israel would not be understood as the messiah. As improbable as that may seem, let’s suppose no one saw the obvious. The text of Isaiah still predicts a righteous, innocent man who will bring the gospel and announce salvation, yet be shamed, humiliated, executed, and buried as a criminal, but whose death will bring salvation and atone for the sins of Israel. And the same text still predicts that this man will be accounted righteous and exalted by God after his shameful death. Therefore, even if no Jew understood this passage to be about the messiah, it remains undeniable that all Jews would see this passage as predicting exactly what the Christians were preaching about Jesus. Therefore, there could be no stigma attached to a “righteous man” who exactly fit Isaiah’s description, whether he was called the messiah or not. The Jews clearly anticipated such a person, regardless of what formal title they cared to bestow on him.
Either way, it’s unreasonable to believe that no Jews understood these texts to refer to such a man, especially since it says God intends to send out a messenger to deliver the “Gospel” that brings “Salvation,” and that this man will be humiliated with a shameful but undeserved death, and then exalted thereafter. But even in general, Isaiah 52-53 still clearly preaches that a man like Jesus should be revered, and that even a man despised, shamed, and buried a criminal could and should be praised and exalted—so long as he was wise and innocent, as Jesus was. And this is enough to destroy Holding’s premise that no Jew would see Jesus as worthy of reverence because of his ignoble fate. Quite the contrary: the Jew’s own sacred text says we should revere such a man (so, too, Isaiah 50:4-9). And that is exactly the point I make.
The same teaching is clearly conveyed in the Wisdom of Solomon, which presents the very same lesson: that a “righteous man” whose “soul is blameless,” yet is mistreated “with insult and torture” and wrongly condemned to a “shameful death” (2:19-22; compare Mark 15:29-32), is in fact a “Son of God” (2:13, 2:16, 2:18, 5:5) who will be resurrected (3) and crowned by God (5), while those who despise him will be condemned. This lesson certainly predates Christianity (see Early Jewish Writings Online and Jewish Encyclopedia Online). So this is another example of how Jewish values were primed for accepting the story of Jesus, not rejecting it.
Indeed, the Wisdom of Solomon equates the fate of righteous men generally with a Son of God specifically:
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because … he professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a Child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange … he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls; for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they only seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-3:3)
This plainly says that a Son of God will be humiliated and killed, just as the righteous man is generally. But then “the righteous man who had died will condemn the ungodly who are living” (4:16) and “then shall the Just One with great assurance confront his oppressors.” Upon “seeing this, they shall be shaken with dreadful fear, and amazed,” and they will say “This is he whom once we held as a laughingstock and as a type for mockery, fools that we were! His life we accounted madness, and his death dishonored. See how he is accounted among the Sons of God! How his lot is with the Saints!” (5:1-5). And so we see again that Jews were already being influenced by lessons and texts like these before Christianity even got started, and we can plainly see how the values espoused here align perfectly with the Christian message about Jesus.
Nazareth & Galilee: What I’ve said on the status of Nazareth and Galilee remains unrefuted. Nevertheless, Holding defends his unsupported assertions by twisting what I say with even more unsupported assertions and adding groundless insults against my competence, all the while ignoring the actual point: that there is no evidence whatsoever of any prejudice or disdain toward Galilee or Nazareth except a single remark in the Christian Gospel of John, which is cunningly used to denounce such prejudice as a conceit of the arrogant elite. Everything I said on that subject stands. But examining how Holding tries to skirt this issue with bluff and innuendo provides a good example of his typical, bankrupt tactics.
First, as to priests moving to Nazareth within thirty years of the time of Christ, Holding tries to dismiss this as an inscription a hundred years too late—even though it documents an event only thirty years later. Holding then tries to dismiss it by claiming “it is clear that prejudices would at times have to take a back seat to practicality,” even though this makes no sense in this case, for there were numerous major cities in Galilee—and elsewhere in Judaea outside Galilee—where priests could have gone. So there was no practical necessity here. Why would they even think of moving to Nazareth? Clearly they had no prejudice against it. The idea that they went there to “teach” the Nazarenes is completely an invention of Holding’s imagination, and yet even if it were true, it would only prove my point: they clearly thought well enough of the Nazarenes to honor them with their time, attention, education, and even their residence. And this is no small matter for Holding: for it entails that they thought it fitting to join the group. Holding argues ad nauseum that to know a person’s home was to know them—which if true would entail that no priest would dare “become” a Nazarene, for then all the stigma attached to Nazarenes would attach to him. Holding thus traps himself in a Catch-22 from which there is no escape. No matter how you spin it, there could not have been any great stigma attached to becoming a Nazarene.
Holding also claims I am “confused” if I suppose that major stone structures “somehow lifted the social status of Nazareth in the eyes of outsiders,” but all he has to back up this claim is a ridiculous analogy from modern times—even though Holding otherwise constantly berates me for imposing “modern” ideas on past cultures. It seems he is the one who is confused. (I don’t really do what he accuses me of, but he does. Go figure.) The fact remains that no town would have major stone structures in the ancient world unless it possessed or received some wealth, and that entailed some measure of status. True, it was no Sepphoris or Tiberias. But it was no despised hick town, either, and Holding is still wrong to claim so. And that’s the bottom line. Holding cannot present any evidence that Nazareth was despised by ordinary people. John gives us the only hint of prejudice solely from the elite (a prejudice John’s narrative condemns). And for Galilee, we find no hint of this prejudice in Josephus, who was himself an elite and who wrote about Galilee extensively—yet never once do we hear anything about anyone’s disdain for it. Clearly, if there was any such disdain, it was not common enough to remark upon, and Josephus himself did not share it.
Holding then steps into a bear trap. He says that “line 390” in the Life of Josephus contains “nothing” about what I argue, that in line 228 “nothing is said about the governorship of Galilee,” and that JW 2.590 refers “only” to “the repairing of a wall.” From all of this, Holding mistakenly claims that “Carrier clearly hopes that no one will check these references.” Yet in saying this, Holding proves he is not a skilled researcher and has no competent knowledge of the sources he is working with. The fact is, I made a small mistake in writing down the numbers of my source citations in that one endnote (which I have since corrected). But the error was so small that had Holding actually read the paragraph, not the line, in each case he would have seen that the material I referred to is there. The fact that he didn’t do so simple a check as this proves that Holding is just mining his sources and doing the absolute minimum to prove his case instead of honestly and seriously studying the sources and making sure his claims are correct. Holding doesn’t read Josephus. He just jumps to single sentences that help his case—not even caring if there are any other sentences that hurt his case. And while I knew the facts, and then took the trouble of tracking down the exact references, Holding is completely ignorant of the facts, and therefore incapable of tracking them down. Instead, he just uses what he wants and ignores the rest—the truth be damned.
Indeed, the truth is so irrelevant to Holding that when he can’t find facts to help him, he just makes them up, as we’ve already seen above. His dismissal of my Eleazar the Galilean example is another case in point. He tries to discredit this example by asserting that “in order to become a scholar, he had to leave Galilee and be tutored, very likely in the prestigious city of Jerusalem.” There is no basis whatever for this claim. Holding just made it up out of the blue. How does Holding know there were no schools in Galilee? He doesn’t. He just asserts it. Since the sources say there was a sect of rabbis called the Galileans, who were often at odds with the Jerusalem rabbis, it is simply incredible to think that these Galileans went to schools in Jerusalem. And even if you think it plausible, there is still no evidence that any of them did, and no evidence that Eleazar did, or even would have. But Holding “can’t” be wrong, so he gets to make up any “facts” he wants to secure his case.
That isn’t the only dirty tactic Holding uses. He also moves the goal posts. For example, Holding also claims Eleazar is irrelevant because “no one was ever asked to worship this man,” but that has nothing to do with the fact that Holding claimed a Galilean would be looked down upon and never revered—Eleazar refutes that very prediction, therefore the prediction is false. Instead of admitting that I refuted his claim, he pretends he made a completely different claim. The fact is, whether anyone would “worship” Eleazar would depend on other factors apart from his origin—in other words, where someone came from didn’t matter, so long as there were reasons to worship him. Holding can’t challenge that conclusion, so he tries to pretend it doesn’t affect his case. But it does. Holding is the one who claimed there was an insurmountable prejudice against Galileans. I proved him wrong. So now he pretends his now-refuted argument didn’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t. But it was still wrong, and therefore no longer supports his case.
Demons & Elite Corruption: Holding claims to “know of no NT text” where Christians blame corruption and failure among the elite power structure on the elite’s worship of demons (meaning the pagan gods), “much less one that connects it to everyday exploitation of the poor and oppressed.” I am not sure what he means to challenge. Is he denying the Christians preached that all pagans worshipped demons? They clearly did preach that (see Note 6.4). Is he denying the Christians expressed disgust with the moral failures of their society? They clearly preached that, too. So he must be denying that the Christians blamed social evils on the deceptive influence of demons. But if we put the first two facts together, we end up with the third, making sense of Paul’s point that “if our gospel is hidden, it is hidden in those who are doomed, in whom the God of this Age,” meaning Satan, “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving” so “the light of the gospel would not dawn on them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Since the demons serve Satan, and pagans worship demons, the pagans are therefore blinded by demons. This explains every evil that comes from them: all unbelievers are “enslaved by those who are in nature not really gods” (Galatians 4:8).
And this is what the Christians taught. Jealousy, envy, selfishness, coveting, murder, and strife comes from demons (James 3:14-4:7), from whom the pagans seek rewards through sacrifice (1 Corinthians 10:20-21) because they are deceived (1 Corinthians 12:1-2). It is partly for this reason that idolatry is to be shunned (1 Corinthians 10:6-15). At the same time, the leaders of the world war against God because their demons deceive them (Revelation 16:13-14). The social system of “Babylon” will fail on account of these demons (Revelation 18:2-6), specifically because of the arrogance, selfishness, and greed the demons inspire in the elite (Revelation 18:7-16) through demon worship (Revelation 9:20).
Greed and avarice are singled out above all, “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), and we know selfish greed was the principal fault of the elite failure to care for the poor and downtrodden. Society was corrupted by idolaters, coveters, and extortioners (1 Corinthians 5:10), hence all among the elite who engage in such injustices are those who worship idols and are doomed, while those who follow the true God will not only be good people (unlike the corrupt among the elite), but will also be saved (Galatians 5:17-24; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3; 2 Peter 1:4; Romans 1:20-29). The implication is that there is a difference in behavior between those animated by God’s spirit, and those animated by the “spirit of this world,” by Satan and his demons (1 Corinthians 2:12; Ephesians 2:2, 6:12; cf. 1 John 4:1-3), who at present rule the world, from which fact stems every evil, directly or indirectly (Acts 5:3; 26:18; 1 John 5:18-19; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; Romans 1:19-32, 8:20-22; cf. Mark 8:33; Luke 22:3; Matthew 16:23).
The message is clear: the corrupt elite worship demons, and from this stems their lust to acquire and extort wealth and deceive and betray others, seeking their own worldly glory instead of the true glory of God. For the idolaters “walk according to the course of this world, according to the Prince of the Powers of the Air, of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). In other words, what’s wrong with society is that people are following demons. Even as all this transpires according to God’s plan, and even as there remain some just men among the elite (by God’s will), nevertheless every actual injustice that transpires is ultimately due to the influence or worship of demons rather than the true God. That is certainly what many Christians appear to have preached (again, see Note 6.4).
Zoroastrian Resurrection: Holding debates whether the Zoroastrians got the idea of resurrection from the Jews or vice versa, even though Zoroastrians were still pagans, and their teaching was already known to the Greeks and Romans by the time of Christ. But Holding presents no valid evidence for his case. He claims Daniel was written before the 4th century B.C., when in fact all objective scholars now agree it is a forgery produced in the 2nd century B.C., which leaves Ezekiel as the first Jew ever to mention the doctrine (see Note 3.1). But Ezekiel wrote from captivity within Babylon (Ezekiel 1:1), where Zoroastrianism was already spreading. Only then did he start writing about resurrection, after twelve years of captivity (Ezekiel 33:21, cf. 37:5-14). So nowhere, ever, in the entire Old Testament is the doctrine clearly advocated or mentioned until after the Jews were held in captivity for over ten years within a culture influenced by Zoroastrian beliefs. That is a remarkable coincidence—unless the Jews got the idea from their Persian captors. That the doctrine was attested in Greek sources as early as the 4th century B.C., and there identified as Persian (not Jewish), also argues for this conclusion. Nothing argues for the reverse.
That the Jews adapted and modified the belief to suit their own ideological preconceptions and cultural needs is irrelevant—because that is how syncretism always works. To be influenced does not mean borrowing an exact copy of someone else’s idea. But that the Jews were influenced by Persian beliefs is the most obvious explanation of the facts: not only did they pick up the notion of resurrection there, and mold it to their faith, but they also picked up the idea of a fiery hell and an eschatological war between Good and Evil (recast as God and Satan). These are fundamental to Zoroastrianism—the entire religion is founded on them, unlike Judaism, which is not. And these beliefs are described in the very pre-Christian reports from Theopompus that Holding himself cites from Plutarch and that I cite from Laertius, so it is impossible that they could have come to Zoroastrianism from Christianity. Yet these are also absent from the Old Testament prior to the Persian exile. Indeed, even in the early postexilic text of Job, Satan is still an angel in the service of God, and God alone is the ultimate author of evil.
Holding blindly asserts that the Jews would not “borrow” a religious belief from their captors, but this ignores every precedent (didn’t many Jews, like Philo, “borrow” religious ideas from their Greek conquerors?), as well as the reality of ancient cultural belief systems. What the Persians believed their god would do for them was not seen as a rival religious dogma, but as a power that a supreme god obviously should have, and as a better view of the nature of the universe. This would appear to the Jews like any other improvement in “knowledge,” no different from what they found in astronomy or zoology, and thus just as adaptable to their own beliefs about God—in exactly the same way post-exilic Jews adopted astrology from their Chaldaean captors (another obvious example of borrowing). Indeed, the Persian eschatological ideas of how their god would set things right in the end fit perfectly with what the Jews needed to restore faith in their own beliefs in the face of utter defeat—and by claiming it was their god who would do this, they could even claim superiority over their captors (as the book of Daniel explicitly aims to do, through prophecies and miracles that “show up” the magi).
So much for the general point. Now to correct Holding’s specific errors. Placing naïve trust in Yamauchi, he quotes Zaehner out of context. Had Holding actually done some genuine research, he would know that what Zaehner actually says (which Yamauchi downplays) is that “Israel found a kindred monotheistic creed in the religion of the prophet Zoroaster” and “from this religion too she learnt teachings concerning the afterlife altogether more congenial to her soul than had been the gloomy prospect offered her by her own tradition, teachings to which she had been a stranger before” (Robert Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, 1961: pp. 20-21). Thus, Zaehner supports me, not Holding. Indeed, on the Zoroastrian eschatological notion of a future eternal life, Zaehner says there was “surely” influence, for “the similarities are so great and the historical context so neatly apposite that it would be carrying scepticism altogether too far to refuse to draw the obvious conclusion” that the idea was derived from Zoroastrianism. Rightly so.
It is only after that sentence (on p. 57) that Holding’s quote begins: “the case for a Judeo-Christian dependence on Zoroastrianism in its purely eschatological thinking is quite different” (emphasis added). Yet Zaehner immediately says that “a deathless existence in body and soul at the end of time is affirmed” in early texts, hence only apart from this one detail does Zaehner call for doubt. In other words, Holding’s quote from Zaehner refers to other elements of Zoroastrian eschatology (Zaehner mentions the peculiar details in Paul and the book of Revelation in particular). Otherwise, Zaehner does not doubt that the general idea of a resurrection into paradise or perdition was a product of influence. To the contrary, Zaehner holds resurrection as the exception that is “surely” an instance of influence, while it is only in regard to particular details (like uniting soul and body) where independent development is credible.
Then, after Holding’s quote, Zaehner immediately says “the case of rewards and punishments, heaven and hell, however, is very different” for “the theory of a direct Zoroastrian influence on post-exilic Judaism does explain the sudden abandonment” of the old idea of sheol “and the sudden adoption, at precisely the time when the exiled Jews made contact with the Medes and Persians” of what was essentially a Zoroastrian “teaching concerning the afterlife.” In fact, he says Daniel presents a clear case of Persian influence, and “thus from the moment that the Jews first made contact with the Iranians they took over the typical Zoroastrian doctrine of an individual afterlife in which rewards are to be enjoyed and punishments endured.” And “so, too, the idea of a bodily resurrection at the end of time was probably original to Zoroastrianism, however it arose among the Jews” (p. 58).
In other words, Zaehner is saying that the Zoroastrians came up with the idea of resurrection first and on their own, while the Jews did not develop any idea of resurrection until after their contact with the Persian religion. Hence when Zaehner expresses doubt whether the Jews borrowed their specific doctrines of resurrection, he does not mean what Holding claims (that the Zoroastrians got the idea from the Jews), but rather that the Jews got the idea after being influenced by the Zoroastrian doctrine of an afterlife, but may have developed their own resurrection doctrine in response to this influence, rather than simply adopting any particular Persian scheme. In other words, Zaehner is uncertain whether the Jewish resurrection doctrine as a whole was “borrowed” from Zoroastrianism, but he is otherwise clear that the idea of resurrection was probably the product of influence. And he is quite adamant when it comes to our subject: “the resurrection of the body,” Zaehner says, “Christianity inherited from Zoroastrianism” (p. 316).
It is no accident that the only contemporary scholars Holding can find arguing anything contrary are Yamauchi (Persia and the Bible, 1990) and Bremmer (The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, 2002). They are pretty much the only ones left who maintain such skepticism. Yamauchi does not argue against borrowing (nor for any reverse influence), but merely argues the evidence is not sufficient to convince him and therefore we should reserve judgment. But Yamauchi engages the dubious tactic of citing outdated and obsolete scholars against current, updated scholarship. He also uses selective quoting and special pleading—e.g. he simply dismisses late texts without considering any arguments for the antiquity of their contents (an approach that would destroy most of the Bible as well). Ultimately, Yamauchi concedes the very fact I stated in the first place: that the widest consensus of scholarship stands against him (p. 458; see the scholarship cited now in Note 3.1).
That leaves Bremmer. Right off the bat I was suspicious of this guy, since everything Holding quotes him saying is false. Does “the whole genre of Iranian apocalypticism … postdat[e] Christian times”? (The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, 2002: p. 50). Theopompus proves the contrary. Is it at least the current consensus of scholars that the contents of all the relevant Zoroastrian texts are themselves post-Christian? No. The widest consensus of scholars has come to the opposite conclusion for the content of at least some Persian texts. Continuing this tendency to misrepresent the facts, Bremmer claims “Mary Boyce has consistently presented a static view—against all evidence and common sense” (p. 48), yet that is completely false: Mary Boyce presents a very nuanced and careful analysis of the historical development of Zoroastrian doctrine over time, taking into account numerous developments and changes. She does not regard all Zoroastrian texts and beliefs to predate later eras. Why would Bremmer say the opposite? Did he not really read her work? Or is he playing fast and loose with hyperbole and invective? Last but not least, Bremmer claims that “Mary Boyce quotes only Aeneas, not Diogenes Laertius” (p. 49), which is again false: in her three volume history Boyce discusses both passages in detail.
With three irresponsible misstatements of fact to his credit already—one in almost every quote Holding chose to use—we can dismiss Bremmer as unreliable. I found another problem with his lecture, though after Holding’s new remarks on the matter, I realize I may have misread what Bremmer meant. When I first read him, Bremmer appeared to claim that Josephus never attributed “the idea of resurrection to the Pharisees” but “mentioned only their belief in the immortality of the soul” (p. 46), which of course is not true. Josephus wrote that “the Pharisees … say that all souls are incorruptible, but the souls of good men only are transported into other bodies while the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment” (BJ 2.163), and again that bad souls “are to be detained in an everlasting prison” while good souls “shall have power to revive and live again” (AJ 18.14). And Josephus was himself a Pharisee (Life 12) and says point blank that he believes in a resurrection of the body at the end of time (BJ 3.372-75; Against Apion 2.218). But it is possible Bremmer did not mean what I took him to mean. However that may be, Bremmer still argues that the Jews did not develop any doctrine of resurrection until the 2nd century B.C. (p. 47), which, if true, would kill Holding’s case for the contrary. Thus, even if we trust Bremmer, his actual argument goes against Holding.
Finally, when Holding tries to play the expert himself, we get a fatal dose of fallacies and lazy research. For example, he argues that “Ezekiel speaks of the dead being raised from graves” and yet “the Persians exposed their dead” as if that mattered, but it doesn’t. The fact is, the Persians collected the bones of those they exposed and interred them in ossuaries or shafts to await resurrection (Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1, 1975: pp. 325-30). This is essentially what the Jews did, so there is no relevant difference here after all. In other words, of the differences that there were between Zoroastrian and Jewish burial practices (indeed, even of the differences that developed between Zoroastrian and Jewish resurrection beliefs), none matter for Holding’s argument: for even the Zoroastrians had “places of burial” (Ezekiel’s qibrah) to open for the dead to rise.
As another example of his specious tactics, Holding selectively quotes Plutarch, leaving out material that undermines his case, and then jumps to conclusions without actually researching them. Holding claims that Plutarch’s quotation of Theopompus in On Isis and Osiris 47 gives us “a seemingly contradictory description” and “Plutarch makes no clear reference to resurrection of the body.” But had Holding actually looked at the passage in context, he would have seen that it began like this:
A destined time shall come when it is decreed that [the Author of Evil] … shall be utterly annihilated and shall disappear, and then the Earth shall become a level plain, and there shall be one manner of life and one form of government for a blessed people who shall all speak one tongue. But Theopompus says that, according to the magi, one god is to overpower the other each in turn for the space of three thousand years, [etc.] … and finally Hades shall pass away, then shall the people be happy, and they shall neither need food nor cast a shadow.
In other words, Plutarch is not quoting everything Theopompus said, but only what he said that disagreed with what Plutarch had just described, and Plutarch is here only concerned with a disagreement over how the end would come about—whether all at once or after several ages of reversal. Otherwise, Plutarch’s description is clear: the future paradise he is talking about will be a life on Earth (two details Holding left out), and it will involve the final elimination of death (Hades), and those who enjoy this ultimate paradise will not need to eat. This certainly sounds like a resurrection: an immortal return to earthly life. Even including the peculiar detail that in the future people will cast no shadow, there is nothing here that contradicts Diogenes Laertius, nor does Plutarch’s description allow Holding’s inference that only a disembodied afterlife was meant.
Nevertheless, to try and bolster his speculation that Theopompus originally described some sort of bodiless future, Holding ignores every detail except the last, claiming that “not casting a shadow would not fit with a physical, ‘resurrectional’ existence,” though he fails to explain why. Instead, he cites yet another passage that he obviously did not actually check himself, claiming that “Plutarch elsewhere says, those who ‘cast no shadows’ are those who have been liberated from the body,” as if this meant the only way to cast no shadow is to have no body (already a fallacious inference). But in actual fact, it is not Plutarch who says this, but a Pythagorean ghost, in a story Plutarch relates from another source (On the Delay of Divine Vengeance 24 = Moralia 564d, his source appears to be a lost work by a certain Protogenes, cf. 22.563e). Hence this reflects a particular sectarian doctrine and not Plutarch’s own assumption (as he makes clear elsewhere—see below).
Moreover, the ghost in this story says “the souls of the dead neither cast a shadow nor blink their eyes,” although they had form, color, facial features, and otherwise physically displaced the air (“as the souls of those who die came up from below they made a flamelike bubble as the air was displaced and then, as the bubble gently burst, came forth, human in form,” 23.563f), and they experienced physical torments and pleasures (25.565a ff.). Hence these are not bodiless souls, but astral bodies, i.e. bodies made of elements superior to the body of flesh (just as Paul argues we will have when we are resurrected in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5). Moreover, all these souls are visible yet luminous—hence the reason they cast no shadow cannot be because they are bodiless (for they have form, color, and recognizable features, and are not fully transparent), but because they are radiant (for lights do not cast shadows). Elsewhere, in fact, Plutarch says stars and other lights cast no shadow, and that disembodied souls appear as rays of light, are transparent, and physically composed of ether (Plutarch, On the Face that Appears in the Orb of the Moon 19 and 28 = Moralia 932c-d and 943d-e). In other words, since radiant bodies cast no shadow, we can’t assume “casting no shadow” means a bodiless state, nor can we impose this Pythagorean doctrine of souls onto a description of Persian beliefs by Theopompus. If anything is shared in common between the two, it would sooner be luminosity than the absence of a body—in other words, transformation into a more glorious body, much like what Holding says the Jews believed.
In fact, when we finally look at what Plutarch himself has to say about the idea of casting no shadow, being in a “bodiless state” is not what he assumes to be the cause. Instead, Plutarch is perplexed by the idea in Greek Questions 39 (= Moralia 300c):
The tale that no shadow is cast by a person who enters the Lycaeon [the holy inner sanctum in the temple of Arcadian Zeus] is not true, although it has acquired widespread credence. Is it because the air turns to clouds, and lowers darkly upon those who enter? Or is it because he that enters is condemned to death, and the followers of Pythagoras declare that the spirits of the dead cast no shadow, neither do they blink? Or is it because it is the sun which causes shadow, but the law deprives him that enters of the sunlight?
From this we learn three things: (1) the idea that souls cast no shadows is uniquely Pythagorean and thus not Plutarch’s view nor, as far as we know, the view of Theopompus or his Magi informants; (2) Plutarch didn’t know why something would cast no shadow, and struggles with several hypotheses—therefore the phrase did not entail a bodiless state even to him; and (3) this is clearly not a case of being bodiless: for this “widely believed” claim was about flesh and blood people, and therefore it was “widely believed” that a body of flesh and blood could cast no shadow. In fact, it is suggestive that this new property is acquired only in the holy of holies, which the god was believed to inhabit—hence the Zoroastrians may have believed the whole Earth would become holy by God’s eternal presence and thus all darkness would be abolished, shadows and all.
Whether that was the cause, or the idea that resurrected bodies would be luminous, we can’t say, because Theopompus doesn’t tell us. But we can infer one thing. For this tale about the Arcadian sanctum also comes from Theopompus. Polybius reports, “It is a sign of a blunted intelligence to say that some solid bodies when placed in the light cast no shadow, as Theopompus does when he tells us that those who enter the holy of holies of Zeus in Arcadia become shadowless” (Histories 16.12.7). Pausanias gives us more detail about this amazing chamber, this time from his own direct questioning of local Arcadians: there was a popular legend “that everything alike within the precinct, whether beast or man, casts no shadow” and “when a beast takes refuge” in it, a hunter “will not rush in after it, but remain outside, and though he sees the beast, he can see no shadow” (Description of Greece 8.38.6). Here we have it: this story comes from Theopompus and independently from Pausanias, yet it clearly involved physical bodies of flesh and blood. Therefore, Theopompus clearly did not think casting no shadow meant a bodiless state. So Holding is quite wrong to infer that he did.
After composing the above I located and read the most thorough discussion of this reference to casting no shadows in Plutarch (and in Greek and Iranian literature generally): Albert De Jong, “Shadow and Resurrection,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 9 (1995): pp. 215-24. De Jong notes that most Zoroastrian scholars have rejected Holding’s interpretation (that casting no shadow means a bodiless existence). Instead, some have offered the interpretation that all darkness will simply be abolished (as by God’s eternal presence), while others have argued that since certain Zoroastrian texts have the sun “standing still in the middle of the sky” in the new world, “casting no shadow” could simply refer to the condition of things under a noonday sun (pp. 216-18). De Jong himself observes that in Zoroastrian texts the horses and chariots of Mithras are described as “casting no shadow,” while other texts say Zarathustra “did not see his own shadow on the earth” when he approached certain angelic beings because of their “great luminosity” (pp. 219-20). From a survey of further evidence De Jong concludes that early Zoroastrians believed they would receive “a spiritual body” (p. 220) at the resurrection and would thus become angelic beings like these—hence they would cast no shadow because their bodies would be radiant. Thus confirming everything I said.
Everyone a Deviant: Holding often quotes social historians DeSilva and Malina to the effect that everyone in society would be harassing “deviants” to return to orthodox beliefs and values, and therefore no movement could break away from the community’s beliefs and values unless they had iron clad proof they were right. Holding is abusing his sources—DeSilva never says deviant groups required such proof, nor does he argue that what motivated Christians to break away was “evidence of the resurrection,” while Malina explains in detail how and why deviant groups could and often did break with the community solely for reasons of discontent (Bruce Malina, The Social Gospel of Jesus, 2001: pp. 141-61).
And here the evidence destroys Holding’s case: for in actual fact, every Jew was a deviant—to some other Jew. At this very time in history Judaism split into more than twenty sects, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Hemerobaptists, Nasaraeans, Ossaeans, Herodians, Therapeutae, Bana’im, Hypsistarians, Maghariya, Masbotheans, Samaritans, Galilaeans, Qumranians, Essenes, Dositheans, Sebuaeans, Gorothenes, and a dozen others (see “2. The Heady Days of Jewish Diversity” in Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 107-10, 198-201). They all differed and often fell into heated debate over the proper beliefs and community values, yet they all thrived. Some rejected the Torah, some credited an angel with the creation, some worshipped Moses as Christ, some permitted obeisance to idols, some practiced astrology, some accepted baptism as an atonement for sins, some rejected a literal interpretation of the scriptures, some scorned the Jerusalem Temple, some believed Herod was the messiah, some denied the existence of souls or angels or spirits of any kind, and some denied resurrection altogether.
As a result, every Jewish sect was a deviant sect to at least some other Jewish sect. They were all attacking each other and trying to convert people to their way of thinking. It is no surprise that Christianity arose at the very time in history when schismatic deviations from orthodox Judaism were more frequent and more successful than ever before or since. Clearly, efforts by groups like the Pharisees to “harass back into the fold” other Jews were a dismal failure before the War, while after the War Christians already had a foothold in the even-more-accepting pagan society, which was awash with countless different religious sects and philosophical groups. Christianity was just another Jewish sect to them, and Jewish sects were already significantly accepted within pagan communities.
Hope & Hebrews: Holding tries to pull a fast one and pretend that Hebrews 11 actually says we should base our faith on the evidence, that in fact the message of Hebrews 11 is that people had faith only when they had “undeniable proof of God’s existence and power.” This is not the message of Hebrews 11, so I can only imagine Holding is banking on his readers not actually picking up a Bible and checking for themselves. Hebrews says the heroes of the Old Testament were not given evidence sufficient to prove what they hoped for or what they were promised would transpire, but they “trusted” in God anyway, and were rewarded for this faith by getting what they expected or were promised. The point is not whether they had sufficient evidence to believe in God. The point is that God’s word was enough for them—removing the need for any further evidence. Read the chapter and judge for yourself: the obvious moral of the story is that Christians should simply trust that what they expect or were told would happen will actually come true (either through “revelations” or interpretations of scripture, according to Galatians 1:12 and Romans 16:25-26), even though they do not yet have evidence it will.
For Abel and Enoch, blind faith had to come first, rewards after (Hebrews 11:4-6). Noah could not yet see evidence of a coming flood, but trusted God anyway (11:7). Abraham went where he was told, despite having no idea where he was going, and no proof it would be worth it (11:8-10). Sarah had to trust in faith that she would conceive despite all evidence to the contrary (11:11-12). All of them trusted in what they could not yet see (11:13), and so they will be rewarded with eternal life for trusting in what they could not yet see (11:14-16). Abraham obeyed God’s command to kill his own son, “trusting” without evidence that God would raise him from the dead to fulfill his promise (11:17-19). And so on. In every case, the example is of someone simply trusting God, without evidence confirming that what God said was true or would indeed take place (11:20-40). The point is not that these people had proof of God’s power, but that they didn’t have proof that God would use that power as they hoped. And now, the only “proof” of God’s power the author of Hebrews offers is these very stories! He is using the stories themselves as the only proof that God exists, has such power, and will keep his promises to us. That’s the kind of specious argument that actually persuaded people back then.
To try and twist this into the opposite message, Holding engages in a bogus exegesis of the language of Hebrews 11:1, claiming this passage says faith is “gained by conviction based on evidence” and amounts to a concrete “assurance,” that hope is something “earned,” and that “evidence of that which is not seen” means “past performance” by which God has “already proven Himself worthy of our trust by example.” But that is not what the verse says, nor is it the message of any of the examples that follow: in every case, each person trusts not on the basis of past fulfillments (no mention is made of any such thing), but on faith that God will fulfill his promise. That is the very point of the chapter: faith came first, then the proof. The exact wording of Hebrews 11:1-3 makes this clear. Here is a literal translation with hyperlinks to the definitions of the key words:
Trust is the foundation of the things we hope for, the proof of the deeds that are not seen. For in this way the elders were given evidence. Through trust we observe that the ages of time have been arranged by the spoken word of God, so that what became seen arose out of what was not made clear.
Faith means “trust,” and here the message is not that trust must be earned, but that trust must be placed in God first, and only later will our trust be vindicated, for the evidence we can’t see now will only become clear later on. Hebrews 11:1 does not say “evidence” is the foundation of trust, or the foundation of our expectations, or the proof we seek. Instead, trust by itself is the foundation of our expectations, meaning we rest our hopes on trust rather than evidence. Indeed, we have all the “proof” we need not from any “iron clad evidence” that Holding pretends they had, but from our trust in what we can’t yet see. That’s what this passage plainly says.
In every example that follows the elders were “given evidence” after they trusted, not before, and that is what Hebrews is saying here: that we rest our expectations on trust, trust that what we hope will happen will happen, even though we can’t see it now. Even beyond that, the only evidence Hebrews mentions us having is our “trust” that everything is going according to God’s plan, and the only evidence Hebrews offers for that is the Old Testament, which we must simply “trust” is a true account of what actually happened. No other evidence is ever mentioned. That’s the reasoning that won the hearts of Christian converts.
Zalmoxis: On the 27th of October of 2006, on the net radio show The Infidel Guy with Christian apologists Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, the notion that Zalmoxis was ever thought to be resurrected was challenged (contrary to my mention of Zalmoxis in Chapter 3). It was claimed Zalmoxis taught his followers that he and they would never die, and therefore (it was argued) Zalmoxis never died and therefore (it was argued) he was never “resurrected.” This is not a sound argument, and as is so often the case, once again we have to haul out the grass just to prove it’s green. Here is what Herodotus says in the fourth book of his Histories, which I have translated directly from the Greek:
4.93: Darius first conquered the Getae who consider themselves immortal…
4.94: This is the way they consider themselves immortal: when they are killed they do not think they die but that they go to the divine being Zalmoxis (though some of them call this being Gebeleïzis). Every five years they send off one of their group chosen by lot as a messenger to Zalmoxis, giving him orders on each occasion regarding what he must do. And this is how they send him: some of them appointed to the task hold short spears, while others grab the hands and feet of the one who is to be sent off to Zalmoxis, swing him back and forth, and toss him up in the air, right onto the spearheads. If he is impaled and dies, they think the god favors them. If he does not die, they blame the very messenger, saying he is a bad man, and once they have laid the blame on him they send off another. Of course, they give a messenger his orders while he is still alive. These are the same Thracians who also threaten their god by shooting arrows up into the sky at thunder and lightning. And they do not think there is any other god except their own.
4.95: What I hear from the Greeks who live on the Hellespont and the Pontus is that this Zalmoxis was a man enslaved in Samos—enslaved, in fact, to Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus. Later he was freed and made a great deal of money, and once he had made his money he went back home. Since the Thracians lead miserable lives and are rather stupid, this Zalmoxis, who had learned that the Ionian culture and lifestyle is deeper than the Thracian (inasmuch as he had lived with Greeks—and not the feeblest of Greeks, either, but the philosopher Pythagoras), got himself a banquet hall and there would invite the most prominent people and entertain them sumptuously, all the while teaching them that neither he nor those who drank with him nor any of their descendants would die, but they would come to that place where they would have eternal life and all good things would come to them. While he was doing what I said and teaching these things, he was building an underground dwelling in there. As soon as he finished this, he vanished from the Thracians, having gone down into his underground dwelling, and he lived there for three years. They missed him and mourned him as dead. Then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and because of that the things Zalmoxis told them became credible.
4.96: This is what they say he did. But regarding that underground dwelling I myself neither disbelieve nor believe much at all. In fact, I think this Zalmoxis lived many years before Pythagoras. And whether there was any man called Zalmoxis, or whether this is just some divine being among the Getae, let’s put that aside.
There are several points to make here.
First, it is clear the argument made on the show takes information regarding what Zalmoxis taught from hostile Greeks, not the believing Getae, and from a story intended to discredit and ridicule the Getic faith, which Herodotus does not believe and all but refutes. The first paragraph relates what Herodotus knew from the Getae, then the second paragraph, as Herodotus himself says, does not come from the believers, but from their unbelieving Greek neighbors. Yet according to his own information, Zalmoxis predates Pythagoras, and therefore the entire story he heard from the Greeks is apparently bogus, and therefore cannot reflect what the Getae actually believed or taught. This Greek version of events is exactly comparable to anti-Christian accounts of Jesus, such as making up stories about Mary being impregnated by a Roman soldier or Christ’s body being stolen, all to “explain away” the actual faith claims of the believers. Here, a story is being made up about a trick pulled on those “stupid” Thracians by an unscrupulous ex-slave, in order to “explain away” the actual resurrection claims of the Getic religion. When it comes to interpreting early Christian beliefs, a Christian would not tolerate any argument that assumed such a slander was true, so he cannot assume it in this case, either, unless he intends to declare himself a hypocrite. The bottom line is that what Herodotus heard from the Greeks is clearly not true, nor is it an accurate description of what the Getae believed. Therefore, right from the get-go, the argument made on the show is based on false and inaccurate information.
Second, when Herodotus says the Getae believe they are “immortal” he carefully goes on to explain what he means by that, and from his description it should be obvious that he does not mean they thought they can’t be killed or would never die in any sense at all. They clearly believe they die. As Herodotus says: “when they are killed” then they go to eternal life. They even kill each other to prove it! Their whole religion involves killing a messenger just to go and talk to their god. And clearly they would all know that their neighbors and kin can and do die in battle, of disease, of old age, and so on. So the claim that these people actually thought no one of them ever dies is plainly false, as is clear not only from common sense, but from the very description provided by Herodotus. This is further supported even by the slanderous account from the Greeks, who admit the Getae thought Zalmoxis was dead.
Third, the argument made on the show requires an interpretation that makes no actual sense anyway. If the return of Zalmoxis was thought by the Getae to mean he never died but only hid away somewhere for three years, that would do nothing whatever to persuade them that they or Zalmoxis would never die. Such an event would prove nothing of the sort, and could not have convinced anyone of the plausibility of his promise of immortality. Yet his return (so the hostile account claims) persuaded them that he and they were immortal—immortal in the specific sense Herodotus describes, which is exactly the same sense in which Christians believe themselves to be immortal, since when they die their souls go to live with Jesus, just as the Getae’s souls go to live with Zalmoxis. Although the Getae might not have believed they would get yet another body later on (unless this Zalmoxis cult was an offshoot of Persian Zoroastrian cult, which did at the time teach such a general resurrection, and their peculiar monotheism might indicate just such a connection), they certainly did believe they would live forever in a real paradise of some kind after the death of their mortal bodies, just as Christians believed would happen to them.
Fourth, the slanderous Greek story must have been an attempt to rationalize and explain away something the Getae really believed, which means it must indicate something genuine about their religion. For example, the claim that a Roman soldier impregnated Mary proves the Christians believed something special about the birth of Jesus, just as the claim that the body was stolen proves there was a belief among some Christians (at the time of the slander) that there was a missing body. So, too, for the Zalmoxis cult. And here it’s not hard to figure out what’s the slander and what’s the underlying belief targeted by that slander. The idea that Zalmoxis was a common slave and the whole story about his service to Pythagoras and his subsequent avarice and deception, is obviously a slander, as is the story about hiding in a cave. Herodotus himself gives reasons to doubt all of this.
Though Herodotus also can’t decide if Zalmoxis was ever a real person, this is the natural doubt of a rational Greek historian, who might suspect even the Getic account to be a mere myth that they nevertheless believe to be true. And what that was is fairly obvious: they believed their one and only god Zalmoxis had visited a group of their ancestors, then died, and then appeared risen from the dead as a proof of his teaching that believers would live eternally with him in paradise. They must also have believed there was a sacred meal attended by the founders of the cult in which drink was shared with their god, sealing a promise that all who drank would receive eternal life. We can be fairly certain of all this because the slanderous account can only be aimed at explaining away these very beliefs—hence the conspicuous role of drink, on a past occasion of importance, with the god actually being present and teaching his disciples, then disappearing and being mourned as dead, and then appearing and proving his defeat of death. Otherwise, if the Getae didn’t believe these things, the Greek story would make no sense, even to Herodotus, since it would not correspond to anything the Getae actually claimed, and thus would not explain away anything. For example, the Greek story specifically depicts the Getae believing Zalmoxis died and then being convinced he was immortal by his subsequent appearance—if the Getae didn’t believe that, then a Greek attempt to explain it with an elaborate story about trickery would be pointless and inexplicable. We must be consistent: claiming the disciples stole the body is as much a proof of a resurrection belief as claiming Zalmoxis pretended to be dead.
Finally, none of this entails or is even meant to argue that Christians “borrowed” from Zalmoxis cult the idea of an incarnated, dying, and rising god promising eternal life through a sacred act of drinking at a meal. But it does entail that those elements of Christianity were not new, but had been elements of other cults long before (and possibly still in their day). In other words, there were already pagans who saw nothing wrong with believing their one and only God had visited them, died, and appeared risen from the dead. These same pagans also had no trouble believing that sharing in a sacred meal could secure for them (and their descendants) an eternal life promised by their god. Thus, at least in this respect, Christians were not working against the grain of plausible religious concepts of the time, which is the entire point of the present work.
Christian Research? An independent critic has argued (in Holding’s Checking Facts for Yourselves) that in Chapter 17 (“Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?”) I ignored the distinction between new converts and “established congregations” and that it was the former who were asked to conduct empirical inquiry to confirm the resurrection claim, not the latter. As an objection this is confused on several levels.
First, Chapter 17 argues there is no evidence of Christians encouraging such research at all. That remains a fact, as even this critic had to admit (“I will grant that there is not a great deal of extant evidence supporting [Holding’s] point”). Second, the examples I give from Paul (and John and other epistles) do not pertain to the resurrection, but to Christian research methodology in general (insofar as such methodology is mentioned at all). Hence, for example, when I note that Paul gives no empirical standard for testing prophecy (in 1 Thessalonians 5:21), I point out that he means ongoing prophecies in the Church. Therefore there is no pertinent distinction here between “new converts” and “established congregations.” If Paul wanted existing congregations to test prophecies empirically, he would have said so. Instead, rather than citing or quoting Deuteronomy 18:21-22 in any way at all (contrary to this critic’s assumption), Paul repeats the “moral test” that is explicitly elaborated in 1 John 4:1-5:13 and 2 Peter 1:19-2:22 (just as I said), and the basis for this shift was the new thinking, later credited to Jesus, that even false prophets can provide the same empirical evidence as true ones.
Otherwise, evidence of Christians looking for the wrong empirical evidence (as I give several examples of myself) is not relevant to the point of my argument, which pertains to the historical research required to test the authenticity of the resurrection claim. One could just as well say “finding it in scripture” is an empirical method because the Bible is a physical book and you have to actually turn pages to find the evidence. Sorry, but as arguments go, that’s lame. Otherwise, every attempt to claim that passages in Acts “imply” more research than is ever stated there is simply special pleading, and contrary to the overall evidence. The fact of the matter is that there are several places where an empirical standard of research could be mentioned or advocated, yet we hear none, and on every occasion where methods are mentioned at all, they appear quite the contrary, with remarkable consistency. For example in Galatians 1 Paul could have listed all the empirical evidence his congregation already had confirming the authenticity of Paul’s message and gospel, but instead all he offers is a private revelation to himself. Even in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul never mentions the Corinthians having checked any of the facts he lists there, but says only that this is what he told them. An empiricist would emphasize the fact that his audience had checked. Paul emphasizes only that he told them so.
Try as you might, you won’t be able to conjure any evidence from the New Testament of sound empirical research being encouraged at all, at least not of the kind Holding’s argument requires. One can try to explain away isolated passages, but that still does not get you any evidence of such advocacy, and to conveniently explain away so many passages, and such a pervasive silence, begins to look absurd. Step back and observe the overall picture, and what you will see is not a community of empiricists and historical researchers, but mystics and scripturalists committed to fallacious arguments and uses of evidence.
The Word Pistis: Holding now claims (in the middle of Checking Facts for Yourselves) that “as a noun, pistis is a word that was used as a technical rhetorical term for forensic proof” and that “examples of this usage are found in the works of Aristotle and Quintiallian” (sic), though for some reason Holding never tells us where (most curiously since Quintilian wrote in Latin). All he offers is one example from the Bible instead. That should raise a suspicious eye. The word pistis primarily means “belief” or “trust,” not “proof” in Holding’s intended sense (much less “forensic proof”). As you can see from the relevant entry in the Online LSG the word only means “proof” in specialized contexts, and even then only in the broadest sense of any argument or method of persuasion, whether forensic, empirical, or otherwise. Hence, though in special contexts pistis can refer to any form of assurance (including evidence), to claim from this that “faith” means “evidence” is simply a con.
A pistis in the formal terminology of rhetoric is not a “proof” in Holding’s sense, but an “argument” or “act of persuasion,” literally any attempt at forming a belief in the minds of an audience. Rhetoric excluded all pisteis except rational and emotive modes of persuasion, though there were other modes not accepted within rhetorical science (such as appeals to Scripture or private revelation or “confirming miracles,” the very modes of pistis-formation that I demonstrate the Christians preferred). The modes considered acceptable among the rational elite are described in Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.1355b-58a and 1.15.1375a. Here a modern translation correctly renders pisteis as “modes of persuasion” rather than the more inaccurate or misleading “proofs.” It is clear from Aristotle’s discussion that pistis is not in itself “a technical rhetorical term for forensic proof” but a technical term for any method of persuasion, and that it is only certain kinds of pisteis that are acceptable or characteristic of forensic inquiry. Though belief or trust can be created by “proof” in the broadest sense, there were proofs of different kinds, and which kinds of “proof” Christians asked or sought is exactly the matter in dispute. There is little evidence of any effective empirical, historical research (of the kind Holding’s argument requires) being among their preferred or advocated “proofs” (as I argue in Chapter 7, Chapter 13, and Chapter 17).
Which brings us back to Holding’s only “example” of pistis meaning “forensic proof” in Acts 17:31. Here he fallaciously treats the English word “assurance” as meaning “proof” in an empirical, forensic sense, which is not even correct English. If I “assure” you of something, generally this means I am not giving you evidence, but at any rate it in no way entails I am supplying evidence. Though I could assure you with evidence, I could also assure you in other ways, such as asking you to trust me. Hence Acts literally says that God “provided everyone with the belief that he raised [Jesus] from the dead,” in other words, God “assured everyone” of this. It does not say how. Hence my analysis in Chapter 17 surveys all the evidence we actually have of the sorts of ways Christians asked or expected to be assured. Though “evidence” occasionally comes up, what is asked or offered is rarely evidence sought through careful, empirical research or inquiry, or even evidence pertinent to the claim, but a very different kind of evidence altogether, most of which Aristotle would not have accepted as valid. Hence my analysis above of Holding’s attempt to rescue Hebrews 11:1.
Biblical Epistemology: Holding engages a raft of specious “reinterpretations” of Bible verses (in the second half of Checking Facts for Yourselves) in order to defend ancient Christian epistemology against the argument of Chapter 17.3, accusing me of the abuses that in fact he engages more often than I. It is not necessary to examine every case. I’ll just survey the leading examples, which are sufficient to dismiss the rest of this exercise as unworthy of continuing.
• The meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:7 is clearly not what Holding says, as one can see by reading 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:11: it very definitely argues that we should trust in what we can’t yet see here and now.
• Likewise, 1 Timothy 1:3-11 is not just about stories and genealogies as Holding claims (though in fact these are the very things I am saying they should have been told to investigate empirically, in order to confirm or refute them), but all other aspects of “doctrine” contrary to the teachings of Paul.
• Similarly, when Holding asks where I see philosophy and science in Romans 1:21-22, the answer lies in Romans 1:18-25: in Paul’s day, it was the philosophers and scientists who catalogued and studied the evidence Paul refers to, and thus it was they who saw this evidence yet failed to recognize God in it, but promoted and supported polytheism instead. In fact, “those who profess to be wise” was a common and obvious reference to philosophers (who were the scientists and logicians of antiquity). That these are the ones who “became futile in their thoughts” when examining the evidence of the natural world can thus only be a reference to the systems of natural philosophy that Paul’s Gospel was competing with. He is certainly not attacking with this argument mere plumbers and snowcone vendors.
• Even more egregiously, Holding claims Galatians 5:19-26 “says nothing at all about debating” even though it has the word “debate” in it (eris), as well as “disagreements” (dichostasiai, from the verb dichostateô), and references to the common consequences of both: “factions” and “sectarian divisions” (eritheiai and haireseis), which both essentially meant “taking sides” in a debate. Here Paul obviously equates arguments (and taking positions threatening or contrary to church dogma) as fundamentally comparable to murder or adultery or any other sin (“debaters,” as those who ask questions to discover the truth, i.e. syzêtêtês, are similarly denounced in 1 Corinthians 1:20). That he saw such things as the destructive product of personal passions and ambitions is besides the point, or rather supports the point, since it was evidently hard for Paul to imagine criticism, questioning, or debate as something that could have sincere motives or useful ends.
• Conversely, that James 1 is about “temptations” and “trials” that Christians face makes no difference to the fact that a general principle is proposed about how to face those trials that not only discourages doubt and inquiry, but actually argues that doubt in general is dangerous, and then applies this general observation to the particular case of “trials” (which would certainly have included temptations to leave the fold, thus including doubt itself as just such a temptation).
• Likewise, in context 2 Timothy 2:14-18 does not in fact support logical disputes that are “useful” (as Holding implies), since one cannot know whether disputes are useful if one is shunning them as instructed. Moreover, Paul’s criterion for “use” here is clearly little more than ‘agreement with Pauline doctrine’ and not some objective standard that would allow a Christian, for example, to make logical distinctions that could challenge Paul’s Gospel or disrupt his church.
• Similarly, Holding thinks it’s relevant that 2 Thessalonians 2:11 is directed to a particular case, when in fact the relevant point is how that particular case is dealt with, which provides evidence of the methods Christians embraced, which is confirmed by the sentiment expressed in 1 Timothy 4:1 as a general tactic for dealing with theories contrary to their own.
• So, too, for Holding’s attempt to dismiss Colossians 2:8 as somehow being limited to only one single heresy. To the contrary, Paul begins with a general principle, and then applies that principle to a particular heresy (Colossians 2). He does not say that this principle only holds for that single heresy. Indeed, such a concession would undermine the power of his argument. Paul clearly means to say that Christians should not allow themselves to be persuaded by any “philosophy” or “tradition of men” (paradosin tôn anthrôpôn, in context a clear reference to philosophical sects, as distinct from revealed doctrines of God) or anything based on “the elements of the cosmos” (stoicheia tou kosmou), which had a double meaning in antiquity: the stoicheia in Greek are not only whatever physical elements the whole world can be reduced to, but also the fundamental arguments upon which a system of philosophy is built (as in the Elements of Euclid’s geometry). Paul then deploys this as a reason to reject certain heresies that employ these methods of persuasion (philosophies and their elements, in either sense). I am not aware of any case where the word “elements” is used to refer to stars, planets, or gods, as Holding claims (perhaps some day he will present examples), but such a strange meaning would simply be a particular instance of Paul’s general rule.
The same or similar arguments can be deployed against the remainder of Holding’s examples. But above all, the single most important point is that making special exceptions for every passage is a fool’s game. What makes more sense, in the light of all the passages I collect (and all the things that could have been said in the Bible and yet aren’t): his interpretation or mine? Any one of these passages would not carry the point, but all of them together tend to support only one picture, and that picture isn’t one of encouraging empirical research and inquiry, certainly not of the sort required to sustain Holding’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus (as I also argue above). Which is more probable? That a religion that promoted such a thing never speaks of it and instead issues dozens of methodologically relevant statements that appear to advocate the contrary? Or that these passages resemble each other, and exclude proper skeptical and empirical values, because this religion did not endorse the latter, but endorsed instead values somewhere on the other side of good sense? You decide.
Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.