The next questions are best considered together:
8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?
9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?
Jesus preached a message of self-sacrifice, and went to the Cross. His Apostles, although respected in the Christian church, could reasonably expect to live unpleasant lives and be killed for their testimony. Tradition states that nearly all the Apostles were martyred, and we have pretty good historical documentation of this in the case of a few key eye-witnesses (Sts. Peter, Paul, James the Apostle, and James the brother of Jesus).
On the other hand, many cult leaders have deliberately created religions on purpose in order to get money, sex, and fame. If the religious leader gets plenty of women, wealth and power, then one can reasonably suspect ulterior motives. Especially if their "revelations" support their own power-seeking agenda.
Certainly, if a religious leader engaged in other sorts of fraud, confidence schemes, crimes or other immoral conduct, that should be a huge red flag! (Especially if they did so after starting their religion; but even frauds committed beforehand serve as evidence of character, especially if they didn't show any signs of remorse.)
If you are a follower of any of the religious founders mentioned below, I ask for your patience and tolerance, as an adequate exploration of this topic is bound to touch on some sensitive issues. But on a matter as important as this, I think it is important for me to tell the truth as I see it, even when the facts do not seem to be very flattering to the individuals concerned.
L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology)
For example, in the case of Hubbard, he is well known to have told multiple people beforehand that "the easiest way to make money would be to start a religion," prior to founding Scientology and fleecing tens of millions of dollars from gullible marks. (The main way to advance in Scientology is to pay the "Church" tons of money for classes.)
This suggests an "Hubbard test" for diagnosing false prophets. If they get a gazillion bucks or lots of sex from preaching their religion, then any testimony they give about the divine is tainted given the obvious incentives for them to do what they are doing.
Some other cult leaders pretty obviously fail this test:
Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints, i.e. "Mormonism")
Prior to becoming a religious founder, Joseph Smith was already notorious for scamming people out of their money to fund "treasure hunts" using seer stones, to the extent that he eventually faced prosecution:
Smith was arrested for disturbing the peace, a charge commonly used for charlatans and tricksters, and according to the Vagrant Act of New York included those “pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found.” Referred to as “The Glass Looker” in court documents, Joseph openly admitted to indulging in magic arts and organizing hunts for buried gold. New York law provided punishment for disorderly persons, whose definition included jugglers (conjurors), diviners, and those pretending to have skill in discovering lost goods. The charge aligns with uncle Jesse Smith’s description of Joseph: “He says he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are, and that the angel of the Lord . . . has put him in possession of great wealth, gold, silver, precious stones.”
Given that no treasure ever materialized, Stowell’s nephew, Peter Bridgeman took legal action after he became sufficiently concerned over Smith’s unfulfilled promises, ever-increasing requests for money and complaints about treasure slipping away at the slightest infraction. In his complaint, he wrote: “Mr. Stowell is represented as being not a very bright man, but he had saved considerable money for those times, and Joe Smith managed to get and spend most of it.”
And after being commissioned as a "Prophet", Smith came up with a purported divine revelation in which "God" [actually Joseph Smith] tells Emma that he could break his oath to her and marry additional wives, with her consent:
61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. (Doctrine and Covenants 132)
Oh, wait, just kidding about her permission being required: if she rejects the institution of plural marriage God will punish her and Smith will be exempted from that requirement:
64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.
(Obviously, any attempts of Smith to state that he only very reluctantly accepted the religious obligation to sleep with a bunch of attractive young women should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.)
Oh, and don't read too much into the "virgin" bit either, since Joseph also liked to convince married women into sleeping with him, under the guise of offering an "eternal marriage", including some women he seduced without the knowledge or permission of his first wife Emma! (Here is corroboration of the factual aspects by a Mormon apologetics site, along with some unconvincing attempts to argue that it isn't really adultery to have sexual relations with women who are legally married to other men.)
And finally Smith's "martyrdom" in prison doesn't really have a huge amount of evidential value regarding his sincerity, given that he was shooting his assailants at the time. These are not the actions of a man resigned to death.
Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)
Mary Baker Eddy made some dictatorial rules for her church which include: 1) not bothering her with information she didn't want to know, 2) always calling her by her proper title, 3) the right to make any female congregant serve her as a personal maid in her home. What a &$@!
Apparently she was also paranoid that people would "maliciously mesmerize" her, and would excommunicate people for this offense on the turn of a dime. This is not the kind of suffering for one's faith that makes it more credible.
Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church)
The abusive antics of Sun Myung Moon (and his supposedly sinless family) are similarly well documented. Moon's doctrine was that he could create a new perfect human family by, well abuse. According to the link above:
While Moon’s theology had geopolitical ambitions, he saw his family as the means for realizing his vision. At the age of 40, he married his cook’s daughter, a delicate 17-year-old beauty named Hak Ja Han. Moon claimed that their union marked the beginning of the “completed testament” era, in which Moon would reverse the fall of man by making his wife pay penance for Eve’s sins. For three years, he stashed Hak Ja Han in a rented room, kept her in bitter poverty, and forbid her from seeing her family. The goal was to rid her of Eve-like defiance and cultivate “absolute obedience” so that she could bear children free of original sin. By the winter of 1960, the first of these perfect children had arrived.
It turns out that when you teach your cult that your children are literally perfect, they turn out kind of messed up:
The task of caring for the messiah’s children fell to his followers, who didn’t dare discipline them. “The Moon kids were like gods—completely and utterly exempt from the rules,” says Donna Orme-Collins, a onetime Unificationist whose father directed the British church. Moon’s eldest son, Steve, a plain, slender boy, was particularly brazen. In the late ’70s, he was expelled from an elite middle school for shooting students with a BB gun. Moon sent him to live with Bo Hi Pak, but Steve’s behavior only deteriorated. He started doing drugs and picking fights, and Pak was unable to rein him in. At one point, according to members of the Moon and Pak families, Pak even resorted to spanking his own son—a sweet, studious boy who went by the American name James Park—when Steve got out of line.
You can click on the link above for the rest of the sordid story.
[Including a connection to Hunter Biden, for you political junkies! I wrote the first draft of this post well before the Trump scandal, so I was a bit surprised to find him there when I reread the article.]
The cult leaders above are somewhat niche figures, who preached messages which could also be rejected on more philosophical grounds. But now I would ask you to bear with me as we apply the same test to the founder of a major world religion:
While Mohammad's persistence under persecution during the early phases of his ministry is quite impressive, it would have been more impressive if the later stages of his career did not contain so much retaliation and bloodshed.
Similarly, while his moderation when it came to material possessions was admirable, it is blemished by his lack of self-restraint when it comes to sex; although other Muslim men were limited to 4 wives (plus slave women), he allowed himself 11 at once (plus slave women). As it says in the Quran:
Prophet, We have made lawful for you the wives whose bride gift you have paid, and any slaves God has assigned to you through war, and the daughters of your uncles and aunts on your father's and mother's sides, who migrated with you. Also any believing woman who has offered herself to the Prophet and whom the Prophet wishes to wed—this is only for you and not the rest of the believers. We know exactly what We have made obligatory for them concerning their wives and slave-girls—so you should not be blamed: God is most forgiving, most merciful.
You may make any of [your women] wait and receive them as you wish, but you will not be at fault if you invite one whose turn you previously set aside: this way it is more likely they will be satisfied and will not be distressed and will all be content with what you have given them. God knows what is in your hearts: God is all knowing, forbearing. You are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have with others, even if these attract you with their beauty. But this does not apply to your slave-girls: God is watchful over all. (Haleem translation of Sura 33:50-52)
His immediate Companions also received significant quantities of status and booty, through military victory, as a result of their close connection to their prophet.
While many of them fought courageously and died in battle, and many doubtless sincerely believed Mohammad's prophecies, those who survived were able to profit considerably from the new religion. This has to be taken into consideration when evaluating their testimony.
Regarding evidence of possible deception, there are a few red flags, in which divine revelations to Mohammad just so happened to come out in an extremely "convenient" way for him personally. Here are three particularly notable incidents, each of them reported by faithful Muslims (and each partially corroborated by the Quran):
1) Visibly coveting a wife he gave to his adopted son Zayd, then later (after they divorced) making a ruling that adoption isn't legal in Islam, thus allowing Mohammad himself to marry her (otherwise it would have been considered incest according to the Arab culture of the time). Part of this event is alluded to in Sura 33:37-40 of the Quran:
When you said to the man who had been favored by God and by you, `Keep your wife and be mindful of God', you hid in your heart what God would later reveal: you were afraid of people, but it is more fitting that you fear God. When Zayd no longer wanted her, We gave her to you in marriage so that there might be no fault in believers marrying the wives of their adopted sons after they no longer wanted them. God's command must be carried out: the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him. This was God's practice with those who went before—God's command must be fulfilled—[with] those who deliver God's messages and fear only Him and no other: God's reckoning is enough. Muhammed is not the father of any one of you men; he is God's Messenger and the seal of the prophets: God knows everything. (Haleem)
In other words, under the guise of forbidding adoption, he changed the rules about incest in order to benefit himself personally. Of course he said God was the one changing the rules, but we have only his word for it, and the motivations don't look good here.
[Incidentally, this is another difference with the New Testament, which talks about adoption as a metaphor for how God welcomes us as his own family.]
2) Raising the number of required eyewitnesses needed for an adultery accusation to 4, after his favorite wife Aisha was accused of misconduct, and (absurdly) mandating punishment for all those who testify, if not enough witnesses are found:
Those who accuse married women of adultery, then fail to produce four witnesses, you shall whip them eighty lashes, and do not accept any testimony from them; they are wicked. If they repent afterwards and reform, then God is Forgiver, Merciful. (Sura 24:4)
For all I know Aisha was in fact innocent, but that does not justify introducing permanent injustices into the legal system, to protect the interests of a single person. It is quite obvious that simply failing to meet an enormously high burden of proof, does not automatically imply that those testifying are guilty of perjury.
Perhaps (as many Western countries now seem to believe) the best legal system should not punish adultery at all. But what is the point of making it punishable but also virtually impossible to try to prove it without incurring serious consequences?
3) The "Satanic Verses" incident, in which Mohammad apparently revealed some verses for Sura 53 of the Quran, making concessions to Meccan polytheism. Then he back-pedalled by saying that Satan had actually recited that verse in his voice!
Then he claimed that all previous prophets had had the same issue. This implausible self-justification can be found in Sura 24:52-55:
And We did not send before you any messenger or prophet except that when he spoke [or recited], Satan threw into it [some misunderstanding]. But Allah abolishes that which Satan throws in; then Allah makes precise His verses. And Allah is Knowing and Wise. [That is] so He may make what Satan throws in a trial for those within whose hearts is disease and those hard of heart. And indeed, the wrongdoers are in extreme dissension. And so those who were given knowledge may know that it is the truth from your Lord and [therefore] believe in it, and their hearts humbly submit to it. And indeed is Allah the Guide of those who have believed to a straight path. But those who disbelieve will not cease to be in doubt of it until the Hour comes upon them unexpectedly or there comes to them the punishment of a barren Day.
This incident is discussed in more detail by early Muslim traditions, which describe the details of the previously revealed verse and how Mohammad corrected it.
(Many Muslim hadith scholars do not accept as authentic any of the hadith giving the story of the previously "revealed" Satanic verse, due to various defects in the relevant chains of transmission. However, I think some allowance must be made for the unwillingness of Muslims to propogate material so embarrassing to their Prophet. The tradition is still credible because: a) there are multiple early sources, b) it was accepted by the earliest Muslim biographers, and c) it makes coherent sense of the verses above in the Quran.)
If there were events of this kind narrated in the New Testament, that would make it a lot harder for me to trust it. Especially if there seemed to be a pattern of self-serving behavior.
What about their justifications for this behavior?
Of course, it is always possible for a person who claims to speak for God to make up some reason for why what they are doing is justified. When you have the social ability to freely invent stories about why you had to abuse people for the sake of their immortal souls or whatever, and if you have a community who trusts you enough that these claims are believed, this gives you a lot of power! So it's playing with the net down to ask whether the religious founder was justified by their own strictures, given their ability to amend those rules at any moment (although many cult leaders do not even meet this low standard). It's better to ask:
1. To what extent did these religious leaders follow the ordinary conventional moral rules about fair play, chastity etc. that everyone in their culture already knew about?
2. To the extent they argued for changes to the rules, did they follow the same rules which they imposed on everyone else? Are they a good example of what they are preaching?
(We can also ask if the new moral teachings are an improvement on what came before, but that is the subject of the next post in the series.)
From the perspective of a prospective follower who has to decide whether to place their trust in a claimed religious leader, one cannot simply accept at face value a prophet's claim to be a good person.
If I am supposed to accept somebody as a representative of God on the basis of their moral character, then that moral character needs to, at a minimum, be recognizably good by my own standards, even if in certain respects it goes beyond what I already know. If I also have to take their moral goodness on faith—if they use their status to behave like a person on a power-trip would—then there is no good reason to take their claim seriously.
It is generally pretty easy to tell whether a religious founder craves money and sex and ego. Just look to see whether they in fact fleece their followers for money and pressure a bunch of girls into sleeping with them! These kinds of religious leaders justify Jesus' statement that:
All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:7-13)
This should not be interpreted as saying that no sincere religious leaders ever existed before Jesus, since we know for a fact that Jesus regarded Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah etc. as authentic followers who served him beforehand. Nor does it imply the nonexistence of wise (albeit sometimes misguided) sages, such as Confucius, Laozi, Plato, certain rabbis, or even Buddha. These people never intended to put forward themselves as the object of veneration.
Christ did put himself forward as an object of veneration, but he also rejected earthly ambitions and power-games. Instead he humbled himself to the point of voluntarily accepting death by torture. It was in this way that he sought to save humanity, while remaining a humble suffering servant, not craving the praise of human beings. He only cared for what his Father thought was important.
To be sure, Jesus' contemporaries definitely accused him (and his apostles) of fraud and malfeasance. If you can take seriously the accusations that were actually made in the first century (e.g. that he did miracles by magic, or that his disciples stole his body on Easter to fake the Resurrection) then I suppose nothing I can say here is likely to make a difference to you. But I don't see in the New Testament any smoking guns, of the sort one would expect from a con artist trying to pull the wool over people's eyes in order to turn a profit.
(The New Testament does tell people to put their faith or trust in the message, even when circumstances seem dark and discouraging, but I am not so cynical as to interpret this as an admission of fraud all by itself. It's when you catch a religious leader pilfering from the money-box, or diddling a kid, and then they tell you that you just need more faith—that's when you should kick them to the curb.)
I do not, however, want to give the impression that Jesus was perceived as impeccable by his contemporaries. Far from it! His sinless perfection (if Christianity is true) consisted not in perfect conformity to human social convention, but rather the overthrowing of those standards in favor of God's new kingdom. To be fair, I ought to therefore show the more "scandalous" side of Jesus, and we can see if it is in any way parallel to the transgressions above.
One accusation found in the Gospels is that Jesus was
a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.
but this related to a controversy over whether religious people ought to socialize with "bad people" who don't keep all the rules. Jesus' self-conception, as someone sent by God to "seek and save the lost", is what sent him to these parties, more than a lack of ascetic discipline. Many modern people, more sympathetic to the idea of universal love, will probably not find this quite as objectionable as the religious leaders of the day did. Although I've heard that there are still a few "Pharisees" around in some Christian circles, who would object to a religious leader doing the same thing today.
(As for excessive use of food and alcohol, these are bad habits by definition, but it involves a judgement call. We can reasonably doubt whether the critics who didn't want him going to these parties in the first place, were very attentive to the exact quantities involved.)
Let's leave aside for the moment all these controversies related to Jesus' mission and identity, his interpretation of the law and welcoming of sinners, and his vehement critique of the religious establishment. These kinds of topics are the subjects of other posts in this series, and are not really analogous to the kind of moral transgressions and self-serving "revelations" that we've been discussing. We are looking for a more personal abuse of authority.
From that perspective, what is the most outrageous action of Jesus? Perhaps it is this:
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.
"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
An unsympathetic reading of this passage would be as follows: Jesus takes advantage of his religious charisma, in order to receive inappropriate public attention from a woman he isn't married to. And in the process he accepts a luxury item so expensive, that arguably nobody is justified in consuming it—let alone a person who strongly advised his followers to "sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Luke 12:33, Matt 19:21).
It is true that Jesus did not (so far as the story indicates) command the woman to act in this way. But instead of rebuking her for the waste, he encourages her; and even presents himself as a more worthy recipient of the gift, than the numerous poor who existed in the land. Does this make him a hypocrite?
The disciples were scandalized, and John even hints that this was the precipitating event that motivated Judas Iscariot to plan to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities. So we are not here dealing with an event unfavorably interpreted by outsiders, but rather an event capable of alienating a close disciple, who had given up quite a bit to follow Jesus (and was now apparently regretting that investment).
It is important not to accept a tendentious explanation, of a sort that I would find absurd if given by some random cult leader. At the same time, we also need to think about what this action would mean, if Jesus is really who he says he is. The question is: which hypothesis explains better Jesus's reactions to the situation?
Taken in full context, I think the disciples' objection shows itself to be superficial. Less than a week after this event, Jesus is arrested and killed. He sees this act of sacrifice as the culminating point of his ministry. As a general rule, Jesus never joined with those who criticized people for their spontaneous acts of devotion to God. But in this case, he justifies the woman's act as particularly suitable, because he is about to become a corpse. So this event is not really about a lifestyle of sensuality, but rather Jesus acknowledging a station on the road to Golgotha.
From an aesthetic point of view, her act is fitting and beautiful, and will be remembered long after other acts of charity are forgotten. Jesus does not forget the poor, but he affirms this woman's act precisely because of its consonance with the Gospel proclamation.
The term Christ taken literally means someone anointed with oil (as kings of Israel used to be anointed, when they began to rule). This refers primarily to his anointing with the Holy Spirit, but it was fitting that one who wore a crown of thorns should also be literally anointed. This was done by a woman totally outside of the usual structures of religious authority, who nevertheless recognized his glory.
Jesus recognizes her love, and elevates her act to a sacramental anointing which reveals God in operation. Just as (at the beginning of his ministry) his submission to John's baptism transformed its meaning into an enactment of death and new birth. If the onlookers don't understand, and view his conduct as inappropriate for a decent rabbi, that's their problem. Like David dancing before the ark, his spiritual compass points in a different direction than his detractors. In the light of all the acts of self-forgetting devotion which will follow from future saints, the critic's perspective seems more limited here.
In any case, the context clearly shows that Jesus was not aiming at the same thing as a typical cult leader, which is the important point for the time being.
Good Friday, 2021.
Next: An Unfulfilled Prophecy?