Comparing Religions VI: Early Sources

6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved).  Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?

Last time, we looked at the ancient religions of Hinduism and Judaism, which make claims about events taking place long enough ago, that there is room to doubt or deny the very existence of their foundational figures.  But even in the case of founders who clearly existed in historical times, there is often a significant gap of centuries between the time they lived, and the time in which the accounts (or legends) about them were written down.

(This particular post will not focus on religious founders during the modern era, e.g. Joseph Smith, for whom lots of contemporary documentation still exists.  Modern founders can usually pass this test fairly easily, although in many cases the contemporary material is sufficiently embarrassing that these religions might have been more plausible if less contemporary material had been preserved...)

Pali Canon (gap of centuries)

I'm no expert on Buddhism, but I gather that the earliest texts seem to have been written down quite a long time after his death.  First of all, Buddhist traditions can't even agree on which century Gautama Buddha lived in; some traditions say 563-480 BC, others say 483-400 BC.  (Although, if you think that's bad, the scholars can't even agree on which millennium Zoroaster lived in!)

According to Gautama's Wikipedia article:

Various collections of teachings attributed to him were passed down by oral tradition and first committed to writing about 400 years later.

although the article on the Pali canon (the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures, compiled by Theravada tradition) suggests that a few of the books may have been fixed by the reign of Ashoka (268-232 BC).

Because these are some of the earliest documents we have about Buddhism, in the other parts of this series I am implicitly assuming that the Pali canon contains a more or less authentic account of Buddha's teachings.  But it should be kept in mind that we have them at a significant remove.

This is a significantly longer period of time for legends and accretions to develop, compared to the interval of 20-30 years between e.g. Jesus' Resurrection and St. Paul's letters.

Lotus Sutra (more centuries, also snake people)

Other Buddhist texts were written much later still, and have no good claim whatsoever to be based on the life of the historical Buddha.  For example, one of the most popular Buddhist religious texts outside the Pali canon, the Lotus Sutra of the Mahayana tradition, teaches the inspirational doctrine that anyone who seeks Enlightenment can eventually become another Buddha, helping others in turn.  This text has the following origin story.

The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutras were written down during the life of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a nāga-realm [i.e. a parallel world populated by snake gods].  After this, they were reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir.

which hardly inspires confidence that the text really represents the authentic teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha.  (Would you trust a snake-person to accurately copy a manuscript?)  It takes only a small modicum of skepticism to suspect that this document was actually written around the time of its supposed "reintroduction to the human realm", which if the above account is correct would have taken place c. 78 AD or c. 127 AD depending on when Emperor Knishka took the throne, approximately 5 or 6 centuries after the death of Buddha).

If my argument in the previous installment was right, the fact that the Lotus Sutra is legendary should also be pretty obvious from its contents and style, since it is very hard to spin convincing fake histories out of whole cloth.  Let's see if this suspicion bears out.

This text opens with the Buddha surrounded by (if I've looked up the terms correctly) over 12,000 fully enlightened monks, 8,000 additional monks and nuns, 80,000 irreversibly enlightened bodhisattvas, 42,000 heavenly deities of various kinds, hundreds of thousands of snake-gods, millions of horse-headed deities, bird-headed deities, nature spirits of different kinds, and oh, a few hundred thousand normal humans too.  (One wonders who was doing the catering for this event?)  At this time, the Buddha emits a ray of light from his forehead that illuminates the entire multiverse.  The crowds then listen to him expound his teaching of the sutra for 60 small kalpa [i.e. aeons lasting billions of years], before he passes into Nirvana.

It is hard to take this seriously as the recording of a historical event.  To be very clear, my reason for saying this is not that the text contains a supernatural event.  (The Bible also contains supernatural events.)  Nor is the problem that the supernatural events described contradict my Christian worldview.  (That would be circular reasoning, if we are trying to figure out whose religion is most plausible.)  Rather, the problem is that the text makes no attempt whatsoever to fit the supernatural events into a plausible historical narrative that fits within the space and time parameters of the historical Siddhartha Gautama's life, the monastic teacher who lived for 83 years (not billions of years), during which the population of India probably did not include millions of people with animal heads, at least according to our current archaeological understanding.

Thus, it's not so much that the Lotus Sutra tries to be historically plausible, but fails to be fully convincing due to a few minor slip-ups about details.  As far as historical accuracy goes, this document is not even competing in the same tournament as the canonical Gospels!  Given its legendary nature, any spiritual value it has can only survive if the text is capable of standing on its own independently, apart from being historically grounded in the words of the actual Buddha.  But for this particular text, I don't see how that can work very well, since a lot of the content of the Lotus Sutra consists of specific promises supposedly made by the Buddha to his disciples, on the basis of his preternatural wisdom.  If the Buddha didn't actually make these promises, then what reason do we have to trust them?

(To Christians, the Lotus Sutra is also noteworthy in that it contains an alternative version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Because of the greater complexity of the Buddhist story, my personal opinion is that the Christian version probably came first; not that it matters much theologically, because we already know that Jesus sometimes adapted illustrations from other sources.  The Buddhist version of the tale is notably different though, in that the father only becomes wealthy after the son departs.  Also, in the Buddhist version the son really is taken on as a hired servant; not because of any defect in the father's love, but rather because the son is skeptical that the rich man is actually his father, so the father devises it as a clever scheme to gradually entrust the son with more and more privileges, so as to eventually restore the relationship.)

The Miracles of Zoroaster (gap of millennia)

With regard to the miracles of Zoroaster, the (non-religious) Encyclopædia Iranica says:

These miracles do not reflect historical events; they are always associated with the mythical and legendary history of Mazdaism and the ancient Iranian epic, although the miracle itself remains, as in other cultures, an act contrary to the laws of nature or one attributable to divine intervention (Sigal, p. 10).  One might even say that there is no hagiography in Iran comparable to that which grew up in Christendom or in Islam.  Even though Zoroaster can be considered a saint, the legends concerning his life and miraculous deeds are probably of late origin.  They are not comparable to the miracles attributed to Jesus and his disciples, nor indeed to those attributed to Christians martyred under the Sasanians (see Gignoux, 2000).  The invention of miracles in Mazdaism may be the result of competition towards the end of the Sasanian period with other established religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the aim perhaps being to show the holiness and eminence of the founder of Zoroastrianism; such hagiographic traditions can scarcely have survived for more than a millenium...

The sources concerning Zoroaster... and others are Dēnkard V and VII, the Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram (see ZĀDSPRAM), and the Wizīrkard ī dēnīg.  No historic accounts exist of the life of Zoroaster.  The Mazdean theologians formulated pious legends, mainly based on their own imaginative perceptions, although one may surmise the existence of lost parts of the Avesta or the Zand that would have attested them.  The existence of many variations between the texts may be construed as evidence of their authenticity, or merely an indication that there was competition to relate the most striking and demonstrative miracles.  [bolded emphasis mine.]

Of the three sources mentioned above: the Zadspram dates to the 9th century AD; the Denkard dates to the 10th century AD; and the Wizīrkard ī dēnīg has an extremely controversial and convoluted textual history.  Although the story of Zarathustra’s life is narrated by Medyomah in the first person, the transmission of the manuscript can only be traced back to 1239 AD (and even this date is controversial, since when the text was published in 1848 it was rejected and suppressed, leading to the destruction of most copies of the text).

To summarize this data: Zoroaster died somewhere in the range 1500 - 600 BC.  The earliest accounts of his miracles seem to date to the 800-1200's AD, which is approximately two thousand years later, in texts that written during the dominance of  Christianity and Islam, when Zoroastrians needed to show that their religious founder was just as cool as those other religious founders.  In this case the gap is too large to take the claims seriously.

The Oral Torah (a millenium and a half)

Rabbinic Judaism also has some relatively unconvincing claims of oral transmission from the past.  It claims that its interpretations of the Torah (which are compiled in the Talmud, the first layer of which was written down c. 200 AD) are based on an unwritten "oral torah" given by God to Moses himself, more than fifteen centuries earlier.  Even though we have no records of anyone talking about the oral torah before about 150 BC, when the party of Pharisees began to exist!  This is staggeringly implausible, not just because of the lack of references in the written Torah to this supposed secret tradition, but also because of the tumultuous history of the Jews described in the Bible, during which the written Torah barely survived intact.

(Incidentally, Jesus was vehemently opposed to these oral traditions of the Pharisees, even though in other respects his theology was in closer agreement with the Pharisees than the other Jewish sects of the time.  After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees and Christians were the two main sects of Judaism that survived.  Although in medieval times, there was a significant sect of Jews who rejected the oral torah, called the Karaites.)

Orthodox Jews believe that the Great Sanhedrin (i.e. the supreme council of 71 rabbis who judged the most important religious cases, which existed until 358 AD), goes back all the way to the time of Moses.  The Torah does say that there were 70 elders who received the Holy Spirit at the time of Moses, but there is no statement that this was intended to be a permanent body, nor are there any references to the Sanhedrin before 76 BC.  Prior to the Babylonian Exile in 605 BC, decisions about the law seem to have been normally rendered by priests, not by rabbis (who did not exist before the Exile, and who therefore also do not have an unbroken chain of ordination going back to Moses).

The New Testament (decades)

In the case of the New Testament, the exact dating of the Gospels is somewhat controversial, but it is pretty uncontroversial to say that they are all products of 1st century Christianity, which places them no more than 70 years after the death of Jesus c. 33 AD.  (Some unusually skeptical scholars date the Gospel of John to the early 2nd century, say 110 AD, but I believe this is currently a minority opinion.)

I personally think the Gospels were probably written significantly earlier than this.  For example, one of the main reasons these scholars date the Synoptic Gospels to after c. 70 AD, is that in them Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, about 40 years before it happened.  But this argument seems to rest on the anti-supernaturalist assumption (sometimes called "Methodological Naturalism") that historians should never accept supernatural explanations on principle.  These scholars are basically asking the question: "Given the premise that predictive prophecy is impossible and that Christ didn't really say this, when did this text most likely arise?"  But that would be circular reasoning, if we are trying to decide which if any religion is believable in the first place!

(Sure, if a scholar has other reasons to believe Christianity is false, it would be completely rational for them to ask what historical conclusions would follow from that.  But the scholarly constructions of such hypothetical scenarios, are almost always presented to the public as if they were a refutation of Christianity based on definite historical evidence, instead of what it almost always is: a speculative historical reconstruction based on the assumption that Christianity is wrong.)

Without such biased assumptions, it is just as plausible to suppose that the Synoptic Gospels were written more like 30 years after the death of Jesus, and the Gospel of John perhaps another decade or two after that.  Especially if the Gospels were actually written by their traditional authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as testified to by nearly all subsequent Christian writings to discuss the question, beginning in the 2nd century.  Earlier dates are also suggested by the kind of indicators of historicity I described last time.

One can argue for a more conservative point of view as follows:  The book of Acts (a text in the New Testament describing the early history of the Christian Church) highlights the missionary work of Sts. Peter and Paul, but strangely ends at an anticlimax (St. Paul is in Rome awaiting trial, but hasn't yet been tried by Caesar or executed).  One can think of several possible explanations for this omission, but the simplest one is that these events hadn't happened yet.  This would put Acts in the early 60's at the latest.  But Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke (by the same author), and Luke's Gospel is generally believed to have used Mark as one of its sources.  This would probably push Mark back to the 50's AD, i.e. less than 30 years after the Crucifixion of Jesus.  (I don't claim that this argument from silence is completely watertight, not at all; but the arguments for later dates are at least equally indirect and circumstantial.  What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.)

To a young person, a few decades may seem like a long time—but actually this is really good by the standards of most ancient historical texts.  It means that the New Testament was written down when at least some of the people who had witnessed the key events were still alive.  Similarly, most scholars of ancient literature would probably kill to get multiple sources identifying the author of their favorite text from the century after it was written.

On the other hand, the surviving Gnostic Gospels were all written much later, mostly in the 2nd-4th centuries.  A possible exception is the Gospel of Thomas, which could be from the 1st century, but is more usually dated to the 2nd.

The letters by St. Paul are dated (depending on the letter) in the interval between the late 40's and his martyrdom in the early 60's.  Secular scholars generally think only about half of the 13 Pauline epistles in the New Testament were actually written by him (opening the door to later dates for the rest of them).  I would dispute this judgment, but it is not of great importance in this context, since the most important letters from the point of view of Christian apologetics mostly belong to the undisputed category.  (Although if 1 Timothy is authentic, it would give another reason to date the Gospel of Luke earlier than Paul's death, since 1 Tim 5:18 appears to quote from Luke as if it were already authoritative Scripture.)

One particularly important passage (in a letter that is undisputedly by St. Paul himself) recites a long list of eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [i.e. Peter], and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.  For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.  No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.  Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.  (1 Cor. 15:3-11)

By cross-referencing Paul's ministry to other historical events, this letter is usually dated c. 55 AD, that is about 25 years or so after the claimed appearances.  It implies that St. Paul was given a list of individuals and groups who encountered the resurrected Jesus before he himself did (although he omits the women who were the first to see Jesus, possibly because the ancient world, being sexist, did not take the testimony of women as seriously).

To get more detailed information about what actually happened during several of these appearances, you have to read the Gospels or Acts.  (No one source gives all of the Resurrection Appearances, but several Appearances seem to be described by multiple sources.)  This data is summarized in a table at the end of this post.

A Note about my Methodology

I'd like to make a slight digression about my methodology at this post, in order to highlight at least one potentially biasing factor in my own research.

In the last section I questioned the anti-supernaturalist assumptions of biblical critics.  But I only know about these circular assumptions because I've investigated the Christian religion closely enough to have my own opinions.

On the other hand, for most of the other religions in this section like Buddhism, I have had to rely on the dates given by supposedly objective "neutral" scholarship as summarized by e.g. Wikipedia.  On the other hand, I would never rely on the supposedly "neutral" scholarship on Wikipedia in the case of Christianity, which I consider to be tainted by its deference to secular biblical scholarship.  So is this a fair mode of proceeding?

Well, one possible answer is this: given my current level of knowledge of other religions I don't see much alternative, so it will have to do for now.  But if anyone is aware of evidence that other religious texts are dated in a way which is also cynical and biased against the claims in question, they are welcome to present this evidence in the comments.

And I do think I am able to reject similarly specious rejections of religious histories when I encounter them in the wild.  For example Patricia Crone, a highly respected Islamic Studies scholar at the IAS, seriously argued that Mohammad never really lived in Mecca.  This is exactly the kind of bizarre reinterpretation of Islamic history which I would never accept in the case of Christianity, and indeed I don't accept it for Islam either!

Also, even if I were to take the views of secular biblical critics at face value, the gap before the New Testament was written down would still compare very favorably to all of the cases reviewed above, where the record gap is much longer.  (The large majority of secular biblical scholars date the Gospel of Mark to c. 70, which is still only four decades after the death of Christ, i.e. within the lifespan of a single individual.  And this document is filled with lots of different miracles.)  So I think an apples-to-apples comparison still ends up with Christianity coming out looking very favorably on this point, compared to other ancient religions.

(By the way, I don't think my rejection of manuscripts that were supposedly preserved by snake-people in a parallel universe, or manuscripts written on golden plates that are invisible almost all the time, counts as a similarly pernicious methodological assumption.  There's a big difference between: 1. being open-minded enough to potentially accept manuscript evidence for supernatural claims if the texts bear the marks of being actual historical documents, and 2. being so gullible that you'll accept documents written by people who basically said to their contemporaries: "No, you can't see the previous manuscripts, they were invisible the whole time because of this additional supernatural event, an event which makes it so this totally isn't a situation where I just wrote this document right now and tried to pass it off as a lot older than it actually is".)

The Quran (effectively contemporaneous)

We now turn to the most recent of the large world religions.  According to Islam, the primary source of religious knowledge is the Quran (supplemented by traditions called Hadith, see below).  The Quran itself was extensively memorized by a large number of people, and written down not very long after Mohammad's death.

The evidence does not seem to support the extravagant claim by orthodox Muslims that the Quran was preserved perfectly, since there is plenty of evidence for variant readings among early Muslims.  (Mohammad is said to have explained some of the variant readings among different Muslim groups by claiming that the Quran had been revealed in 7 different Arabic dialects, but this could easily have been an ex post facto rationalization in order to keep peace in the community.)  Also, the third caliph Uthman ordered the destruction of all versions of the Quran except a standardized edition, thus removing most of the evidence of early variations.  From a scholarly perspective, this is the worst possible way to make the exact contents of the text certain.

Nevertheless, the Quran was likely still preserved with a very high degree of accuracy, due to the large number of listeners who memorized, recorded, and preserved it.  So I think we can trust that the version we have today is extremely close to the words that Mohammad himself spoke.  Thus, for the practical purpose of deciding whether Islam is true, I think we can take the text of the Quran for granted as being nearly identical to the version spoken by Mohammad.

(As stated in the last section, I am assuming that the standard outline of Muslim history reported by Muslims is basically accurate in its broad outlines, and there are no giant conspiracies to make up entire cities and dynasties during the period after Mohammad.  Which is not to say that there are no legends or exaggerations, or that facts are not recounted from a specific viewpoint.  I think this is entirely reasonable and fair, given the number of people involved and the fact that it was founded during historical times.  I don't think weird revisionist theories of early Islam should be taken seriously, any more than weird revisionist theories of early Christianity.)

So far, so good.  However, the purpose of this exercise was to assess the credibility of specific supernatural claims, not merely to assess the evidence for the mere historical existence of the religion itself at the time of its supposed founding.

And for the most part, the Quran itself doesn't record any miracles actually done by Mohammad.  In fact there are a great many disavowals of the miraculous, in which he explicitly refuses to perform miracles!  (On occasion, the Gospels also record Jesus refusing to perform miraculous signs to convince skeptics, yet there are far more incidents described where Jesus does perform dramatic miracles, usually out of compassion for suffering people, and often in the presence of his enemies.)

There are three noteworthy exceptions:

(1) The Night Journey in which Mohammad was taken from Mecca to Jerusalem, described for example in the following verse:

Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs.  Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.  (Sura 17:1)

Later traditions (not found in the Quran) say that the journey took place on the heavenly steed Buraq, and that in his journey Mohammad also ascended to Heaven, where he met with a series of previous prophets.  Suspiciously, no one on Earth witnessed any of this besides Mohammad himself, so mostly we are left with his bare claim to have done this.

(2) The Splitting of the Moon is mentioned in just 2 consecutive verses of the Quran:

The Hour has come near, and the moon has split.  And if they see a miracle, they turn away and say, "Passing magic."  (Sura 54:1-2)

If it weren't for later traditions (see below), it wouldn't be 100% clear that this is supposed to be a sign at the time of Mohammad's ministry (a few Islamic commentators have thought that this text refers to a sign that will take place in the End Times).

(3) The primary miracle of Islam is supposed to be the literary beauty and inimitability of the Quran.  This has always seemed unconvincing to me as a supernatural sign, since there have been many other brilliant poets in history with rough backgrounds.  And as far as I can judge personally from English translations, while parts of the Quran certainly have a forceful grandeur (e.g. the magnificent Rolling Up Sura), taken as a whole I do not get the same impression of stylistic beauty that I get from many other poetic books.

Admittedly, I don't know what it's like in the original Arabic.  (I was never very good with foreign languages, so I'm not going to try to learn it either.)  Most Muslims would say that this doesn't fully count as reading it, and I can certainly believe that it sounds far better in the original.

But this is yet another way in which Islam, despite its attempt at universalism, is much more bound to a particular culture than Christianity is.  We accept translations of the Bible in all languages, because Christ is for everyone!  And while no translation can capture all of the stylistic features of the original, quite a bit of the poetic beauty of e.g. the Psalms and Isaiah comes through just fine in English translations.

Hadith (a couple centuries)

There are also several reports in the Hadith (later oral traditions about Mohammad's words and deeds) that Mohammad did miracles.  Now, the major collections of hadith were not written down until a couple centuries after Mohammad's death, and there are typically several people in the chain between the first person who wrote it down and the prophet.  So far this may not sound all that impressive...

...but on the other hand, many of these traditions are recorded by multiple lines of transmission.  For a few hadith, there are so many independent chains of transmission that it is essentially impossible for a reasonable person to doubt their validity.  For other hadith, there is only a single chain of transmission, so you have to decide whether you think that the narrators were trustworthy.  Muslim hadith scholars have taken great pains to try to separate out the reliable from the unreliable hadiths, by checking the accuracy of all the individuals responsible at each step of the chain of transmission (although in Sunni Islam, the Companions of Mohammad himself are pretty much just axiomatically assumed to be reliable, which is potentially problematic for those who do not already accept Islam).  In many ways, their minimal threshold for accepting hadith as reliable are quite impressive—if also somewhat legalistic and rigid.

At the end of this post I will insert a "tree diagram" showing the chain of transmission for the hadith for the Splitting of the Moon, which is one of several miracles attributed to Mohammad in Hadith.

Comparison between Christian and Islamic miracle sourcing

While the 2nd century testimony for e.g. the authorship of the Gospels is quite good by the standards of ancient history (when it comes to nonbiblical texts, scholars are willing to accept authorship claims with far less evidence), as an apologist I can only wish that the early Christians put as much attention into explicitly recording chains of transmission as the early Muslims did.

On the other hand, there was also less need for them to do so.  The writers of the Gospels and Acts were writing within a few decades of the events they wanted to record, and—operating within the usual conventions of Greco-Roman biography—they found it sufficient to merely name some of the individuals who were present at each event, with the implication (normally unstated) that some of these individuals were sources for the historian.  What we are really seeing here is the distinction between a literate culture and an oral culture.

Since the Gospels were preserved in an essentially fixed form before the first generation of witnesses had died out, there was not the same need to construct elaborate chains of transmission, when the written documents came from the Apostles themselves or their close associates.

So I don't think that the miracle reports in the hadith can be casually ruled out as later legends.  But that does not mean I am willing to concede that these miracles actually happened.  (See the next question).

In order to facilitate a head-to-head comparison between the Resurrection of Jesus (the most important Christian miracle) and the Splitting of the Moon (which I consider the most impressive Islamic miracle of those that are well-attested), I include the following two charts, giving the witnesses associated with each miracle claim:

[I am grateful to my friend Ahmed for providing me with the following "tree diagram" illustrating the chains of transmission for the "Splitting of the Moon".  The top 4 names are those who are claimed to be direct eyewitnesses of the miracle, while the bottom names are the last members of the chain, whose testimony was recorded in early, reputable hadith collections along with the chain of narrators]

Next: Natural Improbability

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fixed problem with previous post

People were getting an error message when they tried to read the previous post:

Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

I've fixed the issue now, so if you weren't able to read this post before, you can do so now!  (Although some people were probably able to read it before since it was correctly displayed on the main page of the blog)

It is also now possible to leave comments on that post, so feel free to write in complaining that I unfairly dismissed the historical evidence for Frodo, or whatever else you'd like to say.

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Comparing Religions V: Historical Accounts

In this installment of Comparing Religions, we will tackle two of my proposed questions in a single post, which has the nice side effect that it brings the post numbers and the question numbers into synch with each other.

4. Are the primary texts describing some sort of mythological pre-history, or are they set in historical times?

Sometimes a document that purports to be from the distant past is simply an outright forgery.  For example, the Book of Mormon's anachronistic description of American cultures that somehow left no archaeological evidence, supernaturally preserved in a nonexistent language on invisible golden plates.  Some supernatural claims really are more obviously bogus than others!

Other times, a book may be a collection of mythological stories from an even earlier era.  For example, the Bhagavad Gita consists of a dialogue with Krishna, who is supposed to have lived around 3,000 BC.  Since this was thousands of years before writing came to India, that's obviously much too early for this text to be a historical record, even leaving aside the obviously mythological content.  (There was some discussion of this in the comments to another post.)  The Gita is one part of the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic which (like Homer) involves gods living among men in various shapes and guises.  Although traditionally the Mahabharata was believed to be authored by the Vyasa (a sage mentioned in the story), in fact the earliest known possible external reference to the Mahabharata dates to the 4th century BC, and it might have continued to change significantly until the 4th century AD.

(The Vedas, a more foundational set of Hindu religious texts, include hymns that are probably significantly older than the Mahabharata; I gather that these were composed during the Vedic period c. 1500 – c. 500 BC, but I have not studied them enough to comment intelligently about them.)

In Judaism, the traditional date of the Exodus/Torah is around 1400 BC, give or take a century or two.  This is significantly later than the supposed date of Krishna, and postdates the invention of the alphabet.  Even so, there is difficulty confirming the events in question from archaeology or other written sources.  Although there are a few corroborating details, they are hard to fit into a consistent chronology with e.g. Egyptian histories.  While I personally accept the historicity of the Exodus (and its accompanying dramatic miracles) this is mainly because I am already a Christian for other reasons, and also because some parts of the Torah (especially all the boring bits!) sound rather like the minutia of real historical documentation.  It is not because I think there is strong extrabiblical evidence for it.

Other parts of the Old Testament were written significantly later, and some of these parts do have confirmation from other ancient historical records.  Notably, the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib is in both Isaiah/Kings and in Herodotus' Histories.  Herodotus was the father of Greek-style investigative history, although sometimes he is often a bit overcredulous.  His version of the event is significantly different from the biblical account: in it the Assyrians are defeated because mice eat all of their bowstrings.

On the other hand, the New Testament comes after Greek historical methods were widely disseminated (this was because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, which spread Greek culture all over the place).  There are many other histories generally regarded as reliable, written at around the same time in the same culture, and some of them mention Jesus as a historical figure.  We know pretty much when he was born (c. 4 BC), and when he died (30 or 33 AD).  He fits into the 1st century Jewish context and makes sense in that context, etc.

Similarly, no reasonable person can deny the historical existence of Mohammad, or that we have at least some accurate accounts of what he said and did.  (There are unreasonable people who subscribe to Mohammad mythicism just as there are unreasonable people who subscribe to Jesus mythicism, but they are regarded as crackpots by the greater scholarly community.)  And of course the same goes for most founders of modern religious movements.

5. Related, does it sound like fiction, or does it sound like history?

Reading fictional myths about great heroes like Achilles or Beowulf or Frodo is a very different experience than reading actual historical documents, which fit into the historical context of the real world, talk about circumstantial details in the right way, provide plausible and realistic reportage of people's reactions, and so on.  For the most part, we can tell which books in the library are fiction and which are nonfiction by their literary style.

Educated ancient Greeks knew perfectly well that Homer and the other ποιητης (poets, but the word literally means "makers") were writing fiction about the gods; the Athenians laughed at people who actually took them literally.  Sure, the Greeks thought the Trojan War was an actual historical event, but Homer's description of it was their equivalent of Shakespeare, not the Bible.  Which is why the poets began by invoking the Muse, who is the goddess of literary inspiration, not historical accuracy.

It is true that a religious fanatic like Euthyphro might answer affirmatively when Socrates asked him if he took the myths literally:

And do you believe that there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things as are told by the poets, and other sacred stories such as are embroidered by good writers and by representations of which the robe of the goddess is adorned when it is carried up the Acropolis?  Are we to say that such things are true, Euthyphro?

(Plato's Euthyphro, Grube translation)

but we know from earlier in the dialogue that Euthyphro was generally regarded by other Athenians as being nuts!

No sensible person could believe that the myths about e.g. Hercules are sober documentary histories, comparable to e.g. the history of Thucydides (the first really excellent Greek historian).  This is not to say that the Greeks disbelieved in their gods, or that you wouldn't get into trouble for completely denying their existence; but their actual religion was not really identical to their mythology; still less was it the same as their philosophy or their history.  These things were kept somewhat separate.

But Christianity brings historical claims and theology together.  At the level of literary genre, the Gospels (and Acts) read much more like actual accounts of real events; they talk about contemporary historical individuals (such as St. John the Baptist, Joseph Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, the Herods, etc.) whom we know existed from other historical writings.   Not to mention St. Peter and the other Apostles, who founded an organization that is still around and left written records.  There are numerous miracles, but they are pretty firmly embedded in this particular historical context.

The New Testament fits into its historical context

One of the Gospels opens its account of Jesus' ministry with the following words:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  (Luke 3:1-3)

In other words, these are events whose beginning can be dated precisely based on the political administration in a particular year (AD 29), and which took place at a known geographical location.

The New Testament includes practical details

And throughout the Gospels, the sense of being actually present (e.g. having to deal with logistical concerns related to bustling crowds) is often quite palpable:

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed.  When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.  Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him.  For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.
....
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.
(Mark 3:7-10, 20)

These are not the sort of practical details that one would expect to be included in purely mythological fiction (any more than an ancient poet would bother to tell us where Perseus stopped to use the restroom on the way to kill Medusa).  Yet this sort of texture pervades the canonical Gospel narratives.

(The Fourth Gospel, attributed to St. John the Apostle, has a noticeably different style from the other three "synoptic" Gospels; for example there are long conversations between Jesus and his interlocutors, and his claims to have divine status—while not unique to John—are more frequent and explicit.  However, there is still a significant overlap with the events of the Synoptic Gospels, and its narrative parts show detailed knowledge of 1st century geography, architecture, and Jewish feasts.  And in several places, the Gospel of John actually reads the most strongly of any gospel as if it were written by an eye-witness of the events in question, who sometimes even seems eager to "correct the record" regarding quite minor circumstantial details of events reported by the other 3 Gospels.)

The New Testament Jesus is recognizably Jewish

Unlike later Gospels that were rejected by the Church, the Gospels portray Jesus and his contemporaries as Jews, with Jewish concerns.

While this fact may seem obvious (Jesus was in fact a Jew, so his Jewishness ought to be obvious in any historically accurate representation of him), it provides a sharp criterion for distinguishing the historically informed primary source material from all the unreliable legends composed later (after Christianity became detached from its parent religion and there was no incentive or ability to portray Jesus in this way.)

As another Christian blogger St. Anne / "Weekend Fisher" writes at her blog:

In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today."  Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy.  The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen.  The original edition (1913) was in German.  At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written."  His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others.  Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

Before we look at why this might happen, I should mention why this work takes so much notice of certain Christian writings: it uses them to establish historical facts about Jewish liturgy and worship, especially as it is practiced in the synagogue.  The canonical gospels contain first-century evidence of what Jewish worship was like.  There is a record of Hanukkah being celebrated in Jerusalem under the name the Feast of Dedication; it is applicable to the discussion of the history of Hanukkah. The book considers parallels between traditional Jewish prayers and other prayers recorded in the canonical gospels, and uses that to show how far traditional Jewish prayers were already developed at that point in time.  The canonical gospels were referenced for peoples' reactions to the practice of giving scholars preferred seats in the synagogues, for whether the Jewish synagogue worship already included readings from the prophets and sermons on those readings, for whether the twice-weekly fast was already in place before the fall of the Temple.  There is evidence on the development of the role of the synagogue leader in speaking to people who were out of order; when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the fellow who objects has the proper title for the person who was supposed to maintain order in the synagogue.  There is even evidence in the New Testament for some very detailed aspects of the Jewish liturgy: that the person who gave the sermon was first called to read, that the reading occurred while standing, that the sermon occurred while sitting.  The gospels are used as evidence for the location of certain particular synagogues, and for the practice (also known elsewhere) that non-Jews might contribute to building a synagogue.  All these very Jewish facts in the New Testament are placed alongside a continuum of Jewish writings to form a coherent whole of which they are an integral piece.  (The historical Jesus is Jewish)

The fact that the canonical Gospels are useful historical sources for a Jewish liturgist with no interest in Christianity, besides the desire to gain period knowledge about Judaism, shows that they are not mere legends but contain significant quantities of historically accurate information.

It's hard to make a good fake

Neither do the Gospels have the same character as forged historical texts, a process which tends to give itself away through tell-tale signs.  As Richard Feynman wrote (about a fake Mayan astronomical codex):

Those people who copy things never have the courage to make up something really different.  If you find something that is really new, it's got to have something different... In addition, there should be a number of things in it that are not understandable, and are not exactly like what has been seen before.  That would be a good fake.  (Bringing Culture to the Physicists)

Most forgers have very little historical sense, and their forgeries end up being transparently obvious.  They are derivative where they should be original, yet somehow fail to partake of the spirit of the things which they are copying, and they are missing the little details which ought to be to provide a sense of reality.  There is not enough "roughness around the edges", showing the cut of the original unpolished wood.

To illustrate this point, here's some nice examples of pseudo-apostolic frauds: The Gospel of Mary and 3rd Corinthians.  The former being a Gnostic gospel fragment, and the latter an anti-Gnostic piece of correspondence purportedly between the Corinth and St. Paul.  Just reading the texts makes it instantly clear, to the trained eye, that neither is authentic.  They try to copy the mannerisms of the New Testament, but it sounds forced: it is clearly not the sort of thing which an actual person at the time would ever have written.  I'm not going to say that fakes are always this obvious, but usually they are!

A slightly better example, but still obviously biblical fan-fiction, is the Protoevangelium of James, which supposedly describes the birth and childhood of Mary the mother of Jesus, but is generally dated to the 2nd century.  It shows little evidence of compatibility with known Jewish customs of the 1st century BC.  Most shockingly, it describes the child Mary as being allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, yet it does not describe angry mobs demanding her execution (as would inevitably have happened if people thought she had profaned the holiest site in the Temple, which not even the priests were allowed to enter, except for the High Priest once a year).  It is not as though the Jews already believed she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.  It reads exactly like the sort of text that a later Christian would make up, in order to fill in the disappointing lack of detail regarding Jesus' parents.

As St. Lewis pointed out, when people make up legends, it's actually really hard to make them sound like historical reportage (and mostly forgers didn't even try very hard).  Speaking of the canonical Gospels, he writes:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life.  I know what they are like.  I know that not one of them is like this.  Of this text there are only two possible views.  Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind.  The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read.

It took until modern times for novelists to figure out how to make fiction sound like history, and even then, it usually doesn't.  (Modern novels, whether "realistic" or "fantastic", tend to deviate from documentary reportage in the opposite direction, by giving far more circumstantial detail than anyone would ever remember about an event unless there was a camera-man following them around.)  It seems like it should be easy (just write whatever you would have written if it had really happened), but it is actually quite tricky, since the little details give you away.  It's a bit like how you can easily tell whether a picture hanging in an art gallery is a painting or a photograph, just by looking at it.

I suppose I should go on in this post to describe some examples of non-Christian religious scriptures whose style and content clearly indicates that they are legends.  But, it turns out that it will be more convenient to give some examples in the following post, which concerns dating.  So stay tuned for the next installment!

Next: Early Sources

Posted in History, Theological Method | 1 Comment

Comparing Religions IV: Supernatural Claims

Continuing my series on comparing the evidence for different religions...

3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?

In this post we will consider a number of philosophers who touched on religious subjects, and compare their self-conception with Jesus' own claims.  We will see that many so-called "religious founders" never intended to put themselves forward as individuals with a supernaturally special role.

Confucius (Confucianism)

For example, take the case of Confucius, for whom I have the greatest respect.  (After I read the Analects in grad school, I immediately wanted to read it over again.)

Confucianism is sometimes called a religion, but if you go back to the actual primary sources it is clear he was a political philosopher and ethicist, not a prophet who claimed to have any sort of supernatural revelation.  Still less did he claim to be any kind of divine figure.  Naturally legends and cults of veneration sprang up later (e.g. stories of his miraculous birth appear in Records of the Grand Historian, composed 4 centuries later).  But Confucius himself made no claims to have any access to supernatural knowledge:

The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder and gods.  (Analects VII 21)

He was a humane, pious, and wise man who taught principles of virtuous conduct, and who happened to live in a society in which all departed ancestors were venerated by their descendents (of which he had many).  And yes, one of his principles of conduct was sincere participation in the religious rites of his culture.  But it would be just as wrong to call him a religious founder, as to call Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln a religious founder.

This does not mean he was an "agnostic", as some have strangely claimed, since he does seem to have had an explicit religious belief in some sort of higher power providentially guiding history:

When under siege in K'uang, the Master said, "With King Wen dead, is not culture (wen) invested here in me?  If Heaven intends culture to be destroyed, those who come after me will not be able to have any part of it.  If Heaven does not intend this culture to be destroyed, then what can the men of K'uang do to me?" (Analects IX 5)

In this (and several other sayings) of Confucius, the term traditionally translated as "Heaven" is Tian (天), a word with a broad range of possible meanings.  According to one scholarly explanation of the classical Chinese word:

This term can refer to the sky, hence the standard translation "Heaven."  However, Heaven can also be a sort of higher power. Various thinkers conceive of this higher power in different ways, though.  Thus, Heaven seems to be very much like a personal god in the Mohist writings, but is more like the impersonal processes of nature in the writings of Zhuangzi and Xunzi, and is somewhere in the middle in the sayings of Kongzi [i.e. Confucius] and Mengzi.  In the period covered in this anthology, Heaven is not primarily thought of as a place, and is not connected with any explicit views about an afterlife.   [bolded emphasis mine]

Thus while 天 could be taken, without absurdity, to allude to a distant but personal deity, it could equally well mean "the grand scheme of things".  But this modern Western uncertainty about how to translate 天 into our own concepts shouldn't be projected onto Confucius himself, who clearly had a fundamental conviction about the reality and importance of the harmonious order associated with 天.

As I read him, Confucius' religious beliefs were at least adjacent to belief in God in the monotheistic sense, but that does not imply that Confucius thought of himself as having a relation to the divine beyond what any other teacher of ethics would have, if he were the last remaining voice in civilized society advocating for traditional moral culture.  While Confucius viewed 天 as a source of guidance for conduct, he did not view it as being responsible for any sort of verbal revelation, beyond what can be read from Nature itself:

The Master said, "I am thinking of giving up speech."  Tzu-kung said, "If you did not speak, what would there be for us, your disciples, to transmit?"  The Master said, "What does Heaven ever say?  Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being. What does Heaven ever say?"  (Analects XVII 19)

Even on the most robustly theological interpretation of these passages, if believing that your mission in life comes from above makes you a religious founder, then quite a few of the Christians I know would also be religious founders!

The fact is, I have already given a highly misleading impression of Confucius simply by quoting three of the more "religious" passages in the book.  Read it yourself, and you will see how little there is on this topic.  Here is how Confucius wanted to be remembered:

The Duke of Sheh asked Tsze-lû about Confucius, and Tsze-lû did not answer him.  The Master said, "Why did you not say to him,—He is simply a man, who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on?" (Analects VII 19)

Laozi (Taoism)

Another example of a "religion" that clearly started out as a mere philosophy is Taoism, which is generally known in the West as a source of provocative but somewhat cryptic wisdom like the Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes unite around one hub to make a wheel.
It is the presence of the empty space that gives the function of a vehicle.
Clay is molded into a vessel.
It is the empty space that gives the function of a vessel.
Doors and windows are chisel out to make a room.
It is the empty space in the room that gives its function.
Therefore, something substantial can be beneficial.
While the emptiness of void is what can be utilized. (XI)

Its author, the sage Laozi, only makes these modest claims about his own wisdom:

I alone remain quiet and calm
like an infant who is pure and innocent.
And I alone appeared to be lost like one who has no where to go.
All people have a surplus,
but I alone was simple and left out like a fool.
People seemed bright and shrewd, while I seemed dull.
People like to dispute, while I alone remain quiet.
I am calm and peaceful like the boundless ocean.
I am open-hearted and free
like the wind blowing high above the sky without hindrance.
Everyone thinks of themselves as capable and outstanding
while I appeared unlearned.
I am the only one to be different from others
for I value highly the Great Tao [Way] and joyfully act accordingly. (XX)

While the Tao that pervades Nature comes across as a mystical concept, the text does not imply that Laozi has any special status, besides being a keen observer of Nature.  This is simply not parallel to the claims of e.g. the Hebrew prophets to have received special verbal revelation from God.

In practice a lot of later Taoism was mainly concerned with alchemical and sexual tricks to try to live as long as possible.  You can call that a "religion" if you like, but it would probably be better to classify that as a (mostly) pseudo-scientific medicinal tradition, competing with other forms of fad dieting advice.  Either way, Taoism is clearly better classified as a philosophy, not a religion.

(There is a third strand in so-called Taoism which is simply traditional Chinese paganism that venerates various local and heavenly deities, sometimes considered as manifestations of a single unifying divine principle, but this strand presumably predates Laozi and is not very different from pre-Christian paganism in the West.)

Socrates (Stoicism, Neoplatonism)

Of course, in the modern West it is not at all traditional to regard Socrates as a religious founder, instead we typically recognize him as one of the key progenitors of Western philosophy.  Yet when it comes to exotic Eastern traditions, Westerners usually categorize them as alternative "religions", when it might be more illuminating to treat them as philosophers.  So it seems illuminating to compare Confucius and Laozi to Socrates, who really is closely parallel to them.

Socrates was a pious man, but he was a philosopher and not a prophet.  (Even though two later religious philosophies, namely Stoicism and Neoplatonism, did take him as their hero.)  This is completely obvious to anyone who reads the Platonic dialogues.  True, when the prosecutors at his trial accused him of atheism, he did defend himself by ironically suggesting he had a divine mission (confirmed by the oracle of Delphi), to ask people annoying questions.  But no divine message:

I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle [that "there is no man wiser than Socrates"] he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.  And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise. (Plato's Apology)

It is also true that Socrates made mention of a daimonion, or divine sign, speaking to him; but he claimed that it never told him what to do or say, but only (on occasion) what not to do.  Whether this was just a poetic way of referring to what modern people would call a conscience, or whether (as I would like to think) it was an actual supernatural gift, is not something we need to decide here, since it was not in any case the basis of Socrates' teaching method.  Instead, Socrates believed in using reason and dialogue to draw the truth out of other people in conversation.

Buddha (Buddhism)

The case of Buddha is considerably murkier, but something similar may be true in his case as well.  If one goes back to the earliest sources, Buddha does not seem to have made the claim to be a divinity or god.  Nor does he claim to be a prophet in anything like the biblical sense.  Instead he was claiming to have acquired enlightenment about the nature of the "self", by his own meditations and contemplations.

(In some early versions of the Enlightenment of Buddha, the god Brahma appears to Buddha to encourage him to share his message with others; but this is only after he has already achieved full Enlightenment by his own efforts.  In general, early Buddhism was skeptical of attempts to ground religious doctrines in revelations by divine beings, who may not themselves be fully enlightened.  In any case, this putative supernatural event was seen by only a single witness at best, and then filtered through centuries of oral tradition.)

Far from being a divinely planned event, Buddha thought it was a freak coincidence that he happened to stumble across the correct path:

"Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to toss a yoke with a single hole there.  A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from the west would push it east.  A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the south would push it north.  And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there.  It would come to the surface once every one hundred years.  Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole?"
....
"It's likewise a sheer coincidence that a Tathagata, worthy & rightly self-awakened, arises in the world."  (The Hole)

Unlike Confucius or Socrates, I think it is fair to say that Buddha intended to start a religion—if by that you mean a way of saving the human race from existential suffering, through the practice of a certain method.  But it is not a religion based on divine revelation; instead it is based on certain experiences (or, perhaps, a certain way of transcending experience) which he believed himself to have had.

On the other hand, a few of the (relatively) early Buddhist sutras do state that the Buddha claimed, as a result of his Enlightenment, to have knowledge that most of us would consider "paranormal".  For example, in the Greater Discourse of the Lion's Roar, he asserts the knowledge of all of his hundreds of thousands of past lives, and the vision of many different heavens and hells.  He goes on to strongly deny that he arrived at his views merely by speculative reasoning:

Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.  The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him'—unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

For reasons that will become clear in subsequent posts, I do not know to what extent these sutras are authentic to the teaching of the actual historical Buddha.  If he did make such claims, they are hard for an outsider to test, since Buddha did not seem to think highly of using supernatural powers as a way to convince people:

"And what is the miracle of psychic power?  There is the case where a monk wields manifold psychic powers.  Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one.  He appears.  He vanishes.  He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space.  He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water.  He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land.  Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird.  With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful.  He exercises influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.

"Then someone who has faith and conviction in him sees him wielding manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.  He reports this to someone who has no faith and no conviction, telling him, 'Isn't it awesome.  Isn't it astounding, how great the power, how great the prowess of this contemplative.  Just now I saw him wielding manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.'

"Then the person without faith, without conviction, would say to the person with faith and with conviction: 'Sir, there is a charm called the Gandhari charm by which the monk wielded manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.'  What do you think, Kevatta—isn't that what the man without faith, without conviction, would say to the man with faith and with conviction?"

"Yes, lord, that's just what he would say."

"Seeing this drawback to the miracle of psychic power, Kevatta, I feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted with the miracle of psychic power.  (Discourse to Kevatta)

Thus, in the absence of miracles, the only remaining way to check the metaphysics of Buddhism for yourself is to see to what extent its teaching matches human experience.

Of course, some people committed to Atheism or Naturalism think that Buddhism is the best religion for precisely this reason: they think that (after separating out all the chaff about reincarnation and psychic powers) the core doctrines of Buddhism do not require belief in any supernatural beings or events, but can be verified by one's own meditation experiences.  Some of them even argue that Buddhist doctrines can be supported by the discoveries of Neuroscience.  (We will return to this position later when we discuss religious experiences.)

Revealed Religions

In my own view, there's nothing wrong with philosophers teaching from their own personal experience; but if there are any legitimately supernatural revelations out there, I think that such revelations should take precedence over anything else.  If the God who made the entire Universe chooses to reveal himself explicitly to certain people, this seems like a more reliable way to come to know reality than groping towards it by our own efforts.

This criterion suggests we should focus primarily on religions with a strong claim to be revealed by God (or perhaps by multiple gods, but this criterion correlates strongly with Monotheism) to some prophets or holy persons.  This includes Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and various later religions.  If all of these turn out to be false or unverifiable, then we can look into the works of those who claim to have figured it all out on their own.

Among these prophets of "revealed religions", one major religious founder seems to have had a much more extraordinary conception of his own role in God's system than any of the others did.

Jesus (Christianity)

In the New Testament, Jesus does not merely claim to be a great philosopher, or even a (mere) prophet.  He claims to have a unique relationship with the one God, whom he called his Father.  Thus, if the accounts of his words are accurate, Jesus saw himself as the "Son of God" in a unique and special sense, implying that he himself shared in divine attributes.

It is true that there is a disturbing tendency for people to superstitiously worship religious leaders as divinities after their death, even if, like Buddha or Confucius, they would probably have been horrified by this development.  (There is even a religion, the Alawites, that worships Ali (son-in-law of Mohammad) as an incarnation of the Supreme Deity!  For anyone who knows anything at all about the Islamic religion that Ali was among the first to embrace, it is hard to express just how deeply ironic this is.)  But very few major religious leaders have actually claimed to be divine in a robust sense during their lifetimes (not counting pantheists, who believe everyone is part of God).

But in the case of Jesus it does not seem to be a later accretion; it goes back to the very earliest recorded traditions we have about Jesus.  For example, in the earliest biography we have of Jesus, namely the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a parable in which God is represented as a landowner who rents a vineyard out to tenants, who represent Israel.  (This story is also found in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and the noncanonical gospel of Thomas.)  He represents the earlier prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) as being "servants" of this man, but he represents himself in the story as the "son" and sole heir!

Later in the same conversation, he playfully questions the Messianic title "son of David"—in favor of a much stronger title as King David's "Lord".  Since David lived about a 1000 years beforehand, this strongly suggests a claim to pre-existence, a divine attribute.

More famously still, in all four canonical Gospels (plus the letters of Paul, who was even earlier) Jesus refers to his own body and blood as a sacrificial meal, that initiates a New Covenant between God and humanity.  This sort of thing is not really compatible even with being a merely human prophet like Mohammad with a verbal message from God; rather Jesus presented himself as God's message.

Please note that it's not really that much less arrogant to go around strongly hinting that you are divine, than it is to assert it overtly!  Either way, something is seriously wrong with you (unless it is true).

It is true that other remarks of Jesus in the Gospels emphasize his humility or humanity.  Some, like his retort to the rich young ruler, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except one, God" (Mark 10:18, cf. Matt. 19:17, Luke 18:19) could—if taken in isolation from the rest of the gospel—be read as denying or minimizing his deity.  But this passage can also be read as a challenge to the young man to think about what he is saying, and ask himself whether he really means it!  This sort of challenge is compatible with the teaching strategies that Jesus used elsewhere when prompting people to reflect on his identity: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29).

In the earliest strand of biography about Jesus unrelated to Mark (the hypothetical "Q" source which most scholars think the gospels of Matthew and Luke drew upon) Jesus says:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27, cf. Luke 10:22)

Despite its early attestation, this saying is quite similar to the kind of language Jesus makes in the Fourth Gospel, which contains some of Jesus' most explicit claims to share in his Father's divinity.  For example, after healing somebody on the Sabbath, Jesus gets into trouble with the Jews:

Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.  Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.  For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.  Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.”  (John 5:16-23)

There are even more explicit statements of Jesus' self-existence and unity with God elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but I'm quoting this one to illustrate how this doctrine does not come out of the blue, but has precursors in some of the earliest, multiply attested words of Jesus.

It is possible to find biblical scholars who would reject all of these New Testament passages as inauthentic representations of what Jesus actually said.  But as we have seen, implicit and explicit claims to be the Son of God are present in all strands of Jesus tradition, including the earliest ones.  So this does not seem to be a position which could be obtained by a neutral methodology.  It can only be sustained by a sort of circular reasoning whereby one assumes that a "high Christology" must be a later development and that any passage exhibiting it can be judged to be inauthentic for that reason alone, even if it appears in the earliest sources!

Other Divine Claimants

A few megalomaniac political rulers and minor cult leaders have made divine claims for themselves (as opposed to having somebody else make it for them after their deaths), but I think it is pretty obvious that none of these claims were made by anybody of remotely the same spiritual and intellectual caliber as Jesus.  What sensible person feels themselves to be in the presence of a great divinity, when they ponder the wit and wisdom of Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero Caesar, or (outside of North Korea) Kim Jong-un?
(Not that any of these people were claiming to be divine in a monotheistic context such as Judaism.)

These figures belong to the category that Christians call "antichrists", namely earthly rulers who become so puffed up with pride that they demand worship from their subjects and persecute those who fail to applaud them.  (Quite the opposite from the real Christ, whose divine glory was wrapped in the garments of humility, poverty, and self-sacrifice.)

Krishna (Vaishnavism)

So far we this post has considered historical individuals, not mythological ones.  If we open the door to mythological figures, then of course there are many more accounts of gods, and much closer parallels to Jesus' extravagant claims can be found, most notably in Krishna, who is woshipped by many Hindu sects as one Incarnation of Vishnu.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is clearly portrayed as divine—not just in the polytheistic sense of being one god among many, but in the stronger sense of being the fundamental reality which sustains all existence:

Neither celestial gods nor the great sages know my origin.  I am the source from which the gods and great seers come.  Those who know me as unborn and beginningless, and as the Supreme Lord of the universe, they among mortals are free from illusion and released from all evils.  From me alone arise the varieties in the qualities amongst humans, such as intellect, knowledge, clarity of thought, forgiveness, truthfulness, control over the senses and mind, joy and sorrow, birth and death, fear and courage, non-violence, equanimity, contentment, austerity, charity, fame, and infamy.  (Gita 10:2-5)

Yet for reasons we will discuss in the next post, it seems very unlikely that Krishna actually existed as a historical personage (whereas only crackpots say Jesus never existed).  So that is a failure of parallelism to the Christian worship of Jesus.

Supernatural Effects

Of course, no such claim of divinity should be accepted without very good evidence.  But if you believe the Gospels, Jesus also performed supernatural acts to go along with his claims, e.g. miracles of healing:

Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.  The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing.  And they praised the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:29-39)

This passage gives a very brief account of mass healings, but the Gospels go into more detail regarding places and names for each one of these specific types of healing.

More dramatically still, the Gospels describe how Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb and appearing to his disciples afterwards.  We will go into more detail about the historical attestation for the Resurrection later; for now I will make a different point.  In many religions, the theology and the miracle claims are separable; the key parts of the religion have little dependence on any overtly miraculous events.  On the other hand, the Resurrection of the Son of God is the central claim in the earliest documented form of Christianity.  In this sense, the supernatural is far more tightly bound up with Christianity than many other religions. As St. Lewis wrote:

One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who ask it say, “freed” from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed.  Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity.  In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching.  Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles.  You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals.

But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him.  It is precisely one great miracle.  If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.  There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.  (The Grand Miracle)

It is rather convenient for Christian apologists, that the best documented miracle claim in the New Testament, namely the Resurrection, happens also to be the cornerstone of our entire religion.  (Although it should not be forgotten that the Gospels and Acts recount numerous more minor miracles by Jesus and the apostles.)

But, it is one thing to make a supernatural claim, and another for it to be historically plausible.  That issue will be addressed in the next several questions.

Next: Historical Accounts

Posted in History, Theological Method | 6 Comments

Comparing Religions III: Ancient Roots

The next question on my list:

2. How does the religion relate to previous and subsequent religions?

If a religious prophet claims to reveal the God who created the universe... well, since God must have existed before that guy came along, that prophet should have some story to tell about what God was doing beforehand, prior to the time that his own religion came into existence!  This suggests we should look for a religion that either (a) has roots going back to ancient history, or (b) is a plausible continuation of such religions.

Imaginary Roots

Of course, just because a religion claims to originate from (or restore) some ancient religious tradition, doesn't necessarily mean that those claims are historically accurate!  There are plenty of examples of modern religious movements that have fake origin stories.  For example, certain Masonic texts describe an elaborate mythological origin for Freemasonry, involving Euclid, ancient Egypt and King Solomon's Temple, but there is no good evidence that the organization even existed before medieval times!

Similarly, Wicca claims to be based on an ancient pagan traditions, but actually has very little in common with any historical form of paganism.  (Their myth that millions of Wiccans were killed during the "Burning Times" is therefore essentially fictitious, since Wicca did not exist then.  The witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries were on a much smaller scale, and most of those killed were falsely accused Christians.)  Wicca actually originates with the 20th century occult figures Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, who constructed a more friendly version of the magical practices of the Satanist Aleister Crowley, by replacing the explictly selfish aspects with more humane principles.

What real Paganism was like

However, in the ancient world there was such a thing as real paganism.  Typically it involved the worship of a pantheon of mulitple gods and goddesses.  Usually, the pagan myths described their gods as beings of finite power, wisdom, and goodness, who in turn produced new deities by various scandalous methods of sexual and asexual procreation.  These gods did not create the entire universe, they just built certain aspects of it.

These pagan religions did not usually regard themselves as making exclusive truth claims; there was plenty of warfare, but almost never over the question of whose pantheon was "real".  When polytheists encountered a new form of worship, they seldom denied the existence of the new deity (although they sometimes concluded that the victors' gods must be more powerful).  Often, they would identify the other culture's god with a corresponding deity in their own pantheon.  Alternatively, they would simply add the new god to their own pantheon, and start worshipping it alongside the others.  So the different polythistic religions should not necessarily be regarded as having rival worldviews.  They are much more like variations of the same basic thing, like different local varieties of wine or cheese.  In cosmopolitan cultures like the Roman Empire, they were freely exchanged to suit individual taste.

The Weirdness of Israel

In the middle of all this, there was something else, which by any objective standard was quite different from the rest.  Israel was remarkable for being the only ancient nation whose national religion was strict Ethical Monotheism, eschewing all idolatrous representations of God in the visible form of any created being.  Although many great philosophers from all nations have arrived at the understanding that there is one God who created everything, Israel claimed to have this knowledge by revelation, because God had rescued Israel from slavery and made a covenant with them to be his own special people, and so gave them a special responsibility to obey his Law that no other nation has:

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.  Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.  And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.  But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.  (Deuteronomy 4:15-20)

It is difficult to express just how unusual this prohibition of images was in its cultural context, but it allowed Israel to have a more sophisticated and less anthropomorphic notion of deity than the surrounding pagan cultures.

Another rather remarkable aspect of the Jewish religion is the large number of different prophets whose teachings were recorded in great detail.  The different books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written over many centuries—about a thousand years from Moses to Malachi, if you take the biblical chronology at face value—and contain the records of dozens of different prophets, each proclaiming the words of the same Deity, with a broadly consistent message.  This is quite remarkable, and I do not know of any parallel among polytheistic religions.

While there were indeed pagan prophets and oracles, you cannot buy the "collected writings of the prophets of Aphrodite" in a bookstore, or if you could it would be a very short book!  Nor can you find an equivalent to the prophet Isaiah, in which Apollo speaks at length about his nature and his plans for human history.  (The closest one gets is a few ambiguous pieces of advice attributed to the Oracle of Delphi.)  These texts never existed, because these pagan gods simply did not reveal themselves in a definitive literary form, the way that the God of Israel does in the Bible.

Monotheism vs. Polytheism

So who is more likely to be right?  The diverse majority, or the peculiar minority?  Well, for one thing Polytheism does not seem to be very compatible with a scientific understanding of the world.  Nature is impersonal; it can be studied and normally it seems to operate according to fixed and objective principles.  Although intelligent beings more powerful than human beings might well exist, is hard for me as a scientist to take seriously the idea that different aspects of the Universe originate from a pantheon of squabbling deities.  It makes more sense to say that the real source of all things is something more basic and unified: either a single Almighty Deity, or a single Law of Nature.  So the a priori philosophical plausibility of Monotheism provides a solid reason to think that Israel is special.  All by itself, this tells us that Judaism is more likely to be true than any other randomly selected ancient religion.

(Note that, even if one were to assign e.g. an 80% prior probability to the majority opinion of Polytheism, and a 20% prior probability to the minority opinion of Monotheism, that would still make Judaism WAY more probable than 1 / total # ancient religious cults.  And that is before considering any specific evidence for supernatural or miraculous events, which we will get to in future questions.)

We Moderns would probably have preferred a more "democratic" setup, where all people groups are given equal access to divine revelation, and nobody is specially privileged.  Well, that's just too bad, because there is no religion like that.  Not unless we want to water down what we mean by religion to a lowest common denominator doctrine shared by multiple traditions (e.g. Ethical Monotheism or Pantheism) that removes all of the distinctive teachings.   Some aspects of these lowest-common-denominators might be valuable and true, as far as they go.  But if you want a religion that says anything nontrivial about God or humanity, then it has to be a specific religion, capable of making nontrivial claims that may contradict other religions.  (Although they can agree with other religions about important aspects of the truth.)

Anyone who accepts Jewish-style Monotheism must accept that Paganism was, at the very least, deeply confused.  However, that does not require us to say that it was entirely isolated from real spiritual experiences.  If human beings have a natural instinct or intuition that God exists, it is quite possible that many pagans indirectly sensed God's presence in Nature, and wrongly associated this numinous experience with a more limited, localized concept of deity.

Mythology and Christ

Some Christians have noticed that, even though Paganism is incompatible with Jewish-style Monotheism, certain pagan myths can still be thought of as foreshadowing the Gospel in striking ways.  Despite what some crackpots say, the stories about Jesus were not directly copied from pagan myths.  However, elements such as e.g. gods being sacrificed to produce a harvest, or Odin hanging himself on a tree for nine days in order to gain wisdom, do hint at the method of salvation later provided through Christ.  Christians can attribute this to the influence of the Holy Spirit preparing the nations to receive and understand the Gospel of Christ.  Since human beings are created in the image of God, it is not surprising that human myths should in some way reflect our divine origins, as St. Tolkien argued in the conversation that resulted in St. Lewis' conversion:

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—'twas our right
(used or misused).  That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

("Mythopoeia", as quoted in "On Fairy Stories")

Yet these pagan myths (which include all kinds of obscene, superstitious, and absurd elements) can in no way be regarded as parallel to the explicit revelation of God to the prophets of Israel.  The teaching of Jesus presupposes that God really did reveal himself to Israel in a special way.

Christianity as the Fulfilment of Judaism

So if Christianity is true, then the essential claims of Judaism are also true.  They are not necessarily rivals.  Instead, Christianity claims to be the fulfilment of Judaism.

I find this claim of continuity plausible because Judaism is clearly marked as provisional: there are many prophecies of a Messiah, descended from King David, who will be an exalted figure that leads to a new era in which God relates to people in a more intimate way; they describe both his suffering and his later glory.  The New Testament states that Jesus fulfilled many of these prophecies in specific and surprising ways, even though some of them are still waiting for his Second Coming.

There are several possible objections a Jew might make to these claims, but probably the two most important to address are these:

First, the Torah (the Law given through Moses, contained in the first 5 books of the Bible) states that it is eternal, whereas the New Testament explicitly abrogates many of the specific ceremonial decrees of the Torah, such as circumcision and kosher rules.

Of course, the New Testament agrees that the Torah sets up an eternally valid relationship between Israel and her Lord; and also that the Torah, being divinely inspired, is a perpetual source of wisdom and guidance in the Church.  In Christianity the term "fulfilment" comes from Matthew 5:17-19, where Jesus agrees that the Torah has perpetual validity:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, the reason Jesus had to say that explicitly, is that in the rest of the chapter he asserted his authority to radically reinterprets the meaning of obedience to the Law, and he didn't want people getting the impression that he was rejecting the validity of the Torah as the words of God.

The question is whether you still have to obey all the ceremonial laws in a literal sense.  And here the answer can be conclusively proven to be No just from the Hebrew Scriptures alone.  For the prophets state that the Messianic age will result in a New Covenant being made, to replace the old one.  If the sacrifices and rituals of the Old Covenant were still adequate, there would have been no talk about replacing them with a new regime in which things work differently.  (To be truly consistent with a no-updating principle, one would also have to reject most of the prophets that followed Moses, like the Samaritans do.)

Also, the Torah itself indicates that the reason for many of its ceremonial rules is to keep the Jews separated from the Gentiles [non-Jews] and their immoral practices.  For example:

“You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you.  Because they did all these things [sexual immorality and child sacrifice], I abhorred them...  I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.  You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds...  You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” (Lev. 20:23-36)

But one of the major predictions about the Messianic era is that the Gentiles will be joined with the Jews in the worship of the true God.  Many examples could be given; here is just one:

Many peoples will come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

But if the Gentiles give up their idolatry and worship God together with the Jews, this implies that the special ritual observances which were designed to keep Jews and Gentiles separate, having fulfilled their stated purpose, ought to come to an end!

The point of what the prophets (and Jesus) are saying is that nothing in God's commandments can be rejected as spurious, but if any part of God's plan "has been accomplished" (in the sense of its purpose being fulfilled) then of course the proper way of proceeding will be different from that point on.  Suppose you are driving your children to a party.  You might tell them "Don't get out of the car while it is driving!", because they need to obey that commandment for their own safety, as long as its reasons are still applicable.  But you can still tell them to "Get out of the car" once they've reached the destination, because arriving at the destination (with you) is why they were in the car to begin with!  That is the difference between abolishing and fulfilling a command.

No other gods

A second and more critical objection, is that the whole point of the Torah was to teach Monotheism, but Christianity assails this doctrine by asserting the divinity of Jesus; that he is the Son of God and eternally one of the persons of the Trinity (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit).  And the Jews were supposed to reject any prophet who told them to worship other gods:

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.  The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.  It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere.  Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.  That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.  (Deut. 13:1-5)

One possible response to this is that the Hebrew Scriptures already contain several hints that the Messiah would have some superhuman or quasi-divine status.  He acts as a sort of eternal mediator between God and Israel, ruling over all the peoples:

Every warrior's boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.  (Isaiah 9:5-7)

The most important thing here is not so much the title "God" considered by itself, since the Hebrew word אֵ֣ל (el) is ambiguous and could also be translated as "judge" or "hero".   Looking at the entire context is important.  And in that context, the more essential point is that God is willing to trust a single human being with ruling all nations forever, saving us all from war and death, and acting in that capacity as a perpetual parent ("Eternal Father") and guide for the human race.  But Monotheism has no room for a semi-divine savior figure like this, since there is only one God—and as he says "apart from me there is no Savior" (Isaiah 43:11).  So it was actually to preserve Monotheism that the early Christians decided that Jesus must be fully divine, of one being with his Father; not a separate god from the God of Israel.

It is (once again) the fulfilment of what God was aiming at all along.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God states that he will come and live among his people: through their observance of his Law, their reverence for his Name, in their Temple, etc.  But none of these proved sufficient by themselves; people kept turning away.  It is a dramatic and shocking claim (blasphemous unless it is true) that God came and dwelt among his people in a temple of human flesh.  But it gives new meaning to all of these promises, which could never really be fulfilled by a mere building in Jerusalem.

Why was God not more explicit about this from the beginning?  Because like all good educators, God was revealing the truth progressively, rather than trying to present all the material at once.  (For example, it was not until the later stages of the Jewish revelation that prophets began to explicitly teach about an afterlife.)  It took over a thousand years to drill Monotheism into Israel and prevent them from continually falling back into idol-worship, polytheism and other pagan practices.  It was hard enough keeping the Israelites from having shrine prostitutes in the Temple, and sacrificing their own children to dark gods.  During this time the doctrine of the Trinity could only have been a distraction, misunderstood in the grossest possible ways (e.g. as a pantheon generated by sexual procreation).  First the Lord had to make it quite clear that he alone is God, that he is holy and righteous, and not to be depicted by an image or understood in a crudely anthropomorphic way.  Only after these lessons sunk in, could the mystery of the Trinity be fully revealed (as opposed to merely hinted at).

Islam as Further Fulfilment?

Now Islam claims, in turn, to be a fulfilment of both Judaism and Christianity.  Muslims believe that Allah sent many prophets before the final prophet Mohammad.  [Note: "Allah" is just the Arabic word for God, used even by Christians in Lebanon and other countries.  There are important theological differences between Islam and Christianity, but the name used for God is not one of them!]  God has no sons or daughters.  Instead Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, and Jesus were all prophets, speaking a message from Heaven, and that their religions were all essentially identical to Islam (allowing for minor differences in ritual observance to suit different times and places), but that their teachings were corrupted over time.  According to Islam, Jesus is merely the second-most important prophet in history; he did not did not claim to be the Son of God or divine:

When God says: "Jesus son of Mary, did you say to people, `Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God'?" he will say, "May you be exalted!  I would never say what I had no right to say—if I had said any such thing you would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know all that is within you, you alone have full knowledge of things unseen—I told them only what you commanded me to: "Worship God, my Lord and your Lord."  I was a witness over them during my time among them.  (Haleem translation of Sura 5:116-117)

The Quran also denies that Jesus was crucified or died, explaining that it only seemed like that to the bystanders:

“They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to himself.”  (Haleem, Sura 4:157-158)

And therefore the Quran also implicitly denies that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, although Muslims do believe that Jesus was taken into Heaven, and will return to rule over a Muslim kingdom during the End Times.

I find these claims of continuity with the past to be significantly less plausible.  It is true that Islam's strict Monotheism is superficially more similar to the teaching of Judaism, but it makes far less use of biblical prophecies and themes.  And the fact that Muslims have to resort to saying that the Torah and New Testament became corrupt whenever they contradict Islam, shows that they do not in fact fit very tightly to Islam.  It is very implausible that the process of copying the New Testament could have resulted in such thoroughly profound changes to the text; thus the Muslim must claim that our earliest written Christian texts, even those purportedly by Jesus' own disciples, radically misunderstood Jesus' own teaching.

The claim that Jesus was never crucified is especially historically implausible, since this is a fact which virtually every serious scholar (outside the Muslim world), even those generally skeptical of the historicity of the New Testament, agrees is historically certain.  After all, nearly all of the early sources that mention Jesus, including those by non-Christian Roman historians, allude to his execution.  (One text that may date as far back as the 6th century, the Gospel of Barnabas, claims that Judas was substituted for Jesus on the cross, but this work is highly anachronistic and has no real historical value.)

Of course most of the early texts that mention Jesus' death also mention his Resurrection, which is not generally accepted by non-Christian scholars, because then they'd end up being Christians.  We will examine the evidence for the Resurrection later, but for now I'll note that there are solid reasons why even those who doubt the Resurrection accounts should still accept that Jesus was crucified.  Crucifixion was an extremely shameful way to die in the Roman world, and it is quite unlikely that Christians would have invented a story their Master died this way if it hadn't actually happened.

There is a natural tendency to resist the idea that a divinely appointed and honored prophet could suffer such an ignominious fate.  Yet in attempting to save the Christ from dishonor, Islam implicitly denies the most powerful ethical themes in Christianity: love, sacrifice, and the triumph of God even in weakness and suffering.  From the Christian perspective, this is as if one bought a generic-brand pill from a pharmacist containing everything except the active ingredient of the name-brand pill.  The active ingredient is God suffering on behalf of human beings.

I admit, of course, that an omnipotent Deity would have the ability to successfully hoodwink everyone about what happened to Jesus.  But it is very hard to see a good reason why he would perform this particular trick.  First of all it would raise serious questions about God's truthfulness, which is fatal in a religion based on divine revelation, which requires trust in God's veracity.  I could perhaps see a motive to fool the enemies of a true prophet, but what motivation could there be to trick Jesus' faithful original disciples, whom the Quran speaks positively of:

O you who have believed, be supporters of Allah, as when Jesus, the son of Mary, said to the disciples, "Who are my supporters for Allah ?"  The disciples said, "We are supporters of Allah."  And a faction of the Children of Israel believed and a faction disbelieved.  So We supported those who believed against their enemy, and they became dominant.  (Sura 61:14)

Now consider the fact that the actual historical effects of Jesus' apparent Crucifixion—and, although the Quran does not mention this explicitly, his subsequent appearances to his disciples—were to convince his loyal disciples of (what Islam considers to be) false and idolatrous theological claims: namely the divinity of Jesus, and his ability to atone for the sins of the whole world through his death and Resurrection.  Given the verse I just quoted, it doesn't really seem consistent to blame the disciples for the mixup.  So it seems like God would be responsible for starting Christianity off on the wrong foot.

It's one thing for God to allow false religions to arise through the mendacity of charlatans; it's quite another for him to create them himself by means of direct and misleading miracles.  If God does such things, it would throw into doubt the claims of any religion based on divine revelation.  How would Muslims know that the miracles done for Mohammad were not equally deceptive?  One could never know for sure.

Bible Characters in the Quran

A related topic worth mentioning is the large number of stories about Bible characters found in the Quran.  Sometimes (as in the sura about Joseph), the quranic story is quite similar to the biblical narrative.  In other cases (such as the depiction of Ishmael) things seem distorted and inconsistent.  Now since the Quran is about 2,000 years farther removed from the people in question, it is a little difficult to believe that the traditional Arabic stories about these people were more reliable than the Hebrew traditions that went into the Torah.

The obvious reply for a Muslim, is to say that since the Quran is the direct word of God, the stories are not in fact based on Arab legends; instead they are divinely revealed accounts of what really happened!  Thus these stories were not transmitted to the present day by the usual processes governing history and myths; instead they were directly revealed by supernatural means.  But the trouble with this hypothesis, is that it fails to explain why the Quranic stories are so similar to the obviously legendary traditions that were already circulating at the time of Mohammad.

A very clear test case is the suras about Solomon.  In the Bible (e.g. 1 Kings 1-11), Solomon is portrayed as an ordinary human being, very wise and rich, but not endowed with magical abilities.  Apart from a couple visions in dreams, and a single supernatural sign to confirm God's acceptance of the Temple, nothing happens in the account of his reign which is not naturally possible.  But the Solomon of later Jewish legend is a veritable magician!  He can have conversations with birds and animals, and he can also enslave jinn (i.e. genies) with mighty magical spells and bindings, in order to force them to do his bidding.  (Even though sorcery was forbidden to pious Jews.)

Now to me there is no serious question which of these is the historical version, and which is the fantasy-novel version.  But the Solomon of the Quran is the mythological Solomon.  For example, see this excerpt from the Sura of the Ant:

Solomon was David's heir.  He said, "O people, we have been endowed with understanding the language of the birds, and all kinds of things have been bestowed upon us.  This is indeed a real blessing."  Mobilized in the service of Solomon were his obedient soldiers of jinns and humans, as well as the birds; all at his disposal.

When they approached the valley of the ants, one ant said, "O you ants, go into your homes, lest you get crushed by Solomon and his soldiers, without perceiving."  He smiled and laughed at her statement, and said, "My Lord, direct me to be appreciative of the blessings You have bestowed upon me and my parents, and to do the righteous works that please You.  Admit me by Your mercy into the company of Your righteous servants."

He inspected the birds, and noted: "Why do I not see the hoopoe?  Why is he missing?  I will punish him severely or sacrifice him, unless he gives me a good excuse."  He did not wait for long.  [The hoopoe] said, "I have news that you do not have. I brought to you from Sheba, some important information. (27:16-22)

To say that this is historical, would require believing that for some reason the Jewish chroniclers excluded from their own history all of the supernatural accomplishments of their greatest king; and then (over time) the stories about Solomon became gradually more and more accurate; until finally, under divine inspiration, it was revealed that these later myths were basically the same as what had originally happened.  Even leaving aside the absurdity of the tales themselves (if taken literally, rather than as fables), that is not how oral tradition works.

Now, let me be clear: I am not a fundamentalist when I interpet my own Scriptures.  (If we interpret either the Bible or the Quran as teaching that the Earth was literally created in just six days, then we have much bigger problems then Solomon talking to animals!)  So if a Muslim wanted to say: God was simply using fictional stories believed in by the surrounding Arab culture to teach important spiritual lessons, then in principle I would not have any objection to that method of teaching.

But most Muslim theologians seem to have a much stricter standard for the literal historicity of the Quran than that.  Their view of Scripture is not quite the same as that of the Bible.  Jews and Christians claim that the Bible is a product of divine inspiration working through the instrument of human writers, but Muslims believe that the Quran is the words of Allah revealed verbatim from heaven by the angel Gabriel, with no admixture of human skill or opinion.  I think that few Muslim theologians would consider giving up the literal accuracy of the stories about Bible characters.

And if they did, such an admission could potentially undermine the quranic claim to present a more accurate description of Jesus, whose nature is the key point of dispute beween Muslims and Christians.  (Indeed, some of the stories about Jesus can also be identified as later legends: for example the story of Jesus making a clay bird come to life comes from the 2nd century Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which fills in the gaps of Jesus' childhood with various capricious miracles, as if he were a superhero who hadn't yet learned to control his powers.)

Further Continuations

There are several more recent religions, such as the Baha'i faith, which claim in turn to fulfil Islam.  But if Islam is untenable, then it seems any religion based on it must also fail.  Or, even if Islam were correct, the fact that Mohammad seemingly claimed to be the final prophet would still invalidate them.  So there seems to be no way forwards in that direction.

In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly warns that many false prophets would come in his name afterwards, and even lead people astray with deceptive signs and wonders.  This seems like something to take into consideration, when evaluating any religion that claims to extend his teachings.

Eastern Religions

Moving over to the East, Hinduism is also an ancient religion (or perhaps more accurately, an eclectic mix of many different religious traditions, some of which are ancient).  This adds somewhat to its credibility, for reasons similar to our discussion of Judaism.  (If many people have been saying the same religious ideas for a long time, those ideas seem somewhat more likely to be based in objective reality than if one person has a revolutionary new idea about the gods, that no one has ever thought of before!)

On the other hand, Hinduism is considerably less unique looking than Judaism.  At the popular level the religion looks like standard paganism (i.e. polytheistic idol worship), but then there is an overlay of various more sophisticated philosophies, that teach more unified systems such as Pantheism, Monotheism, Materialism, Dualism, Nihilism etc.  This is more or less what the ancient Roman Empire looked like before Christianity became dominant there.  Of course, that does not automatically imply that any of these philosophical schools are wrong (that would require going into specifics) but it looks much less like a definitive supernatural revelation from Heaven, and a lot more like what you would expect people with a strong religious instinct to come up with on their own.

Buddhism clearly took over a number of important ideas from Hinduism, most notably the goal of achieving liberation from the cycle of rebirth.  The main reasons why Buddhism is regarded as a separate religion, rather than as a branch of orthodox Hinduism, are that 1) it does not accept the Vedas of Hinduism as religious scripture, and 2) it subscribes to the doctrine of anatman ("No Self") which denies that human beings have any permanent essence to subscribe to.  In these respects, Buddhism was a novel religion; it does not "fulfil" Hindu religious scriptures the way Christ claimed to fulfil the Jewish scriptures.

On the other hand, I was surprised to learn a while ago that Buddha is regarded by many Hindus as the most recent Incarnation of Vishnu, sent "to deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of righteousness."  In fact he is the only Incarnation on their list to appear in historical times (i.e. after writing came to India, but before the future).  And indeed, when I visited India to teach at a summer school, we went on a day-trip to the Konark Sun Temple and saw a relief carving of Buddha on this Hindu religious site.

But if that's true, then I don't really understand why these Vishnuists don't convert to Buddhism, since apparently that's the most recently updated version of the religion!  (When it comes to software updates, I'm not much of an early adopter.  I'd rather stick with what works, rather than migrate immediately to the newest version.  But if the next version of Windows came with a recommendation by God himself, then I might think differently about it.  And a couple dozen centuries is surely long enough to check that the new version is stable!)

Some Eastern religions, such as Sikhism, incorporate elements from both Islam and Hinduism.  This is a pretty audacious feat, since it is hard to imagine two religions that are, considered in themselves, more incompatible!  However, Sikhs identify as neither Muslim nor Hindu, and consider themselves to be an entirely new monotheistic religion, even though their Scripture includes the writings of certain Hindus and Muslims.

What happens to outsiders?

One important question that arises in any religion that claims to be revealed at a particular time and place, is what to say about those from other cultures who were never influenced by the message?  This is less of a problem for inclusivist religions (that teach that salvation can be achieved in any religion) or religions that teach Reincarnation (since these people could say that everyone will eventually be born into the right culture).  But in the case of Christianity and Islam, it raises more serious difficulties, since these religions teach that everyone ought to convert to the true religion.

(Indeed the problem is even more severe for Christianity, which teaches that union with Jesus is the actual cause of salvation.  Islam does not teach that Mohammad is a Savior; he only brought the final and most complete message telling people what God expects them to do.  This is similar to Pelagian heresy condemned by orthodox Christianity, the belief that human beings are already capable of pleasing God naturally, and only need instruction in how to behave, not a radical transformation of the human condition.)

In either case, I think the right strategy is to appeal to God's justice and mercy, to argue that people will be judged on the basis what they knew, even if they were not part of the truest religion.  I personally think the best interpretation of the Bible allows for the possibility of salvation for those who die as non-Christians, although like Christians they would be saved only through the sacrifice of Jesus.

If I were a Muslim, I would adopt a similar interpretation of Islam.  Even though there are passages suggesting that disbelievers go to Hell, there are also passages that explicitly allow for the possibility of monotheistic "People of the Book" (such as Jews and Christians) to be judged as righteous.  (On the other hand, orthodox Christians who consider Jesus to be divine would be committing shirk, the worst sin in Islam.)  It is also stated that God does not punish anyone unless he first sends a messenger to warn them:

Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul.  And whoever errs only errs against it.  And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.  And never would We punish until We sent a messenger.  (Sura 17:15)

suggesting that even some pagan idolaters might end up being saved, if they didn't know any better.

Since the foundational principle for both religions is God's goodness, it follows that we can trust God not to judge people unfairly.  Given that there is a life after this one, God's choice to reveal his truth by a historical process (initiated at particular times and places) does not require him to leave everyone else out in the cold permanently.

Next: Supernatural Claims

[4/6/19 Updated to add section headers, fuller discussion of fulfilment, and more minor corrections]

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