How to create your own crank theory about Christian Origins (or any other ancient event)

I’m going to start looking at Acharya S, Christ in Egypt, a crank volume which I found myself turning into PDF a couple of days ago.  But first, a few words about how I always approach such things.

Every Christmas the internet is full of stories which rewrite Christian origins to show that (a) the Christians and their bible are wrong and (b) Jesus was really a <insert idea here>.

The replacement story varies wildly.  If you look at the archives of newspaper reviews of books, you will find many, many “real Jesus” stories; Jesus the spaceman, Jesus the revolutionary, non-existent Jesus, and many, many more.  Once you know how many different versions there are, you rate each example very low.

Now the ancient data is what it is.  So all these narratives are fabricated in the same way.  The authors invent a story.  Then they look at the bible, and early Christian writers, and maybe ancient data in general.  They do so with a scalpel.  They find excuses to ignore whichever portions of the narrative may be inconvenient – sometimes to ignore the entire data base! – leaving only scattered snippets of information that can be made to fit into their imaginary, pre-determined narrative.  And … once the data has been mutilated to fit, they claim that this is the “real” story.

As a teenager I remember reading Chariots of the Gods.  It had a cosmic-looking cover, and a friendly, relaxed, chatty writing style.  I was too young to see what was wrong with it.  But really it was quite convincing.  It did dismiss “experts”. All these books tend to do that, unless they are written by academics peddling some theory.  However it did so in a mild and unaggressive way.  But it did the same trick; selected pieces of data, that could be made to fit a theory, and ignore everything that contradicted it.

On Christmas Eve, I created a PDF of Acharya S’ Christ in Egypt.  Then, as I often do, I created a set of bookmarks for the chapters, so that these 600 pages were not just one intimidating wodge of text.  The chapter titles make her aim clear – to assert that Jesus is really … drum-roll … Horus (?!).

I’m sure that Egyptologically-minded people will have burst into laughter.  But that’s the object of this fussy, obsessive book.  I already know, as you see, how she will do this.

How do we respond to this kind of falsification?

Well, before we decide that some novel idea actually is a falsification, it’s a very good idea to actually find out whether it is actually wrong!  We’re not in the business of mindless rote repetition of whatever ideas about antiquity were current when we were receiving our education.

Usually the best thing to do is to assemble all the ancient data about the person in question, read it; and then, and only then, go to the article or book peddling a theory, and see what it has to say.

So if we hear certain strange people in the USA claiming, for instance, that “Cleopatra was black”, what we do is to assemble every reference in ancient literature to Cleopatra.  Once we have that, we look through it to see if there is anything that supports this claim.  Once we know that it does not arise from the data base, we are justified in rejecting it as a modern invention; whatever clever trickery may be used to advance it.

But before we do this, there is a snare.  We must first work out what the claim being made is.  We must get it, phrased as a sentence, in our own words, which we can then test in this manner.

For some of these writers can be very convincing, if you read their prose.  There was an amateur atheist named Earl Doherty – I suspect he was probably an American, rather than an Irish peer – who wrote a now forgotten book called The Jesus Puzzle, aimed at showing that … I don’t even recall now.  It was canvassed quite energetically by atheists around 2000.  I came across it because it made claims about Minucius Felix, which I happened to see.  His writing style was terribly convincing; if you allowed him to lead you through his argument, the sound of the words would lull your critical senses to sleep.  The thought that this was wise, the urge to sound wise yourself by agreement, is a trap for the enquirer.

Skim the book.  Read the conclusion first.  Work out what the claim is; and then how to test it.  Once you have mastery of the data base, then you may read the book; and you will quickly see the way in which the author honestly presents the data; or softly leads you off into the bushes.

In the case of the Doherty book, I learned that one of his claims was that nobody before 200 thought that Jesus was God.  Argument from silence, of course; but was it even correct in the data?  What I did was to find an e-text of all the 2nd century writers, and search them for mentions of “Jesus”, “Christ”, “God”, using ctrl-F in my browser.  There are only ten.  At the end of this, I had a set of quotes; and definite evidence to the contrary.

Doherty wasn’t very clever, tho.  Like many of these people, he was taken in by his own supposed cleverness, to the point of blindness.  So he claimed that Minucius Felix wrote around 150; in order to claim that what Felix did not say was evidence.  As it happens opinion among scholars is that he wrote around 230, based on his use of Tertullian.  But Doherty wouldn’t have that, whatever he was told!

Returning to Acharya S, her book is a version of the “pagan Christs” theory, put forward by ignorant people sporadically over the last 150 years, and propped up by whatever careless quotes they can find.  The theory claims that Christianity is copied from paganism.  They claim this out of spite, knowing that it will enrage modern Christians who all reject taking doctrine from anyone but Christ.  Few, one discovers, have any real interest in ancient history.

As with much atheist invective, it is in fact a bastardised version of 19th century protestant anti-Catholic argument.

The early church certainly was very careful to avoid anything pagan.  But the medieval church, in its position of enormous power and intellectual strength, took a different approach towards the primitive paganisms that it encountered in its march to the modern world.

To ancient and modern Christians, conversion is about individuals.  But in the medieval period, men were merely parts of tribes.  Kings might be converted; but the community was all.

So the medieval church sought to convert whole communities, and accepted that this might be ragged at the edges.  St Augustine of Canterbury, going to pagan England, was advised to build his church on the site of a pagan temple, so that the people’s habit would tend to take them to the temple.  Likewise festivals might be repurposed, and saints’ days created to overlie older celebrations.  The clergy were important, and the church made more effort to ensure they thought correctly; the mass of the people much less so, and doing the right thing mattered more than doctrine.  So there are indeed signs with popular catholicism in some countries of observances that may have originally had some now-forgotten pagan significance.  And it does not matter.  They really did blot out the old paganism.

Anti-Catholic literature in the 19th century made great play of how Catholicism was “really pagan”, making use of such items as these.  Atheist literature of the 20th century simply made the same assertions about protestant Christianity, ignoring the enormous differences.

With all this in mind, I shall start looking in my next post at Christ in Egypt.

13 thoughts on “How to create your own crank theory about Christian Origins (or any other ancient event)

  1. Paul might refute the story in a similar way. But with stronger language and weaker punctuation. ;-). Looking forward to the next installment.

  2. I just ran across an old novel about pagan Rome in early Christian times; it was called Jovinian, by a rather good writer named Kingston. The first paragraph describing ancient Rome was trying to make it sound like it was exactly the same as a medieval Catholic town. I was left very bemused….

  3. Well, I think it was meant as either a slam or a joke about Italian continuity. Kept talking about temples of Aesculapius with votive offerings like they were a Catholic shrine, and mendicant pagan priests who were beggars described as if they were Franciscans. Very strange opener.

    I was looking for info about the Roman vetinarii priests and slaves who dealt with dead bodies, actually. I hadn’t realized there was such a thing, until I ran into them n the SPQR mystery novels.

  4. Looked up the Jovinian book scanned on Google Books, as opposed to the Gutenberg version I first saw. That earlier UK edition had a foreword explaining that the pagan Roman Pontifex Maximus worshipped “the Babylonian goddess and her son,” and that the pope and Catholicism were all just Babylonian Roman paganism hiding as Christianity.

    So yeah, it’s 1881, and that stupid Alexander Scoursby Babylon stuff was already around.

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