Memories of the polemical and literary activity of Earl Doherty

Few today will have heard the name of Earl Doherty.  But in the late 90s and early 2000s, if you were one of those posting online in the religion groups in Usenet news, you would inevitably encounter some atheist gleefully parotting his theories.

Doherty was a Canadian atheist, who used the nascent internet to push the claim that Jesus never existed.  Doubtless he found this in long-forgotten intellectually disreputable atheist literature.  But the popularity of the claim among online teenage atheists is entirely his work.  Others would come later, but he was the first.

Doherty has faded from the internet in the last decade.  His Wikipedia page gives his date of birth as 1941, which would make him very elderly now.  So my own memories of his activity are therefore historical data now.

He started with a website, jesuspuzzle.org.  This contained his theory, in the form of a series of pages or essays, all of them written with the utmost certainty.  The original versions could be pretty crude.  The Christian apologist J.P.Holding attacked them fiercely.  His essay on Minucius Felix, reflecting very outdated views on his priority to Tertullian, came to my notice through postings on usenet.  I felt obliged to add a page to my site debunking them.

Doherty’s response to these attacks was always the same.  He would use the material supplied by his critics to improve his material.  He never changed his mind, or withdrew his claim, but instead he would edit or reword parts of the essay to blunt the criticism or make the objection irrelevant.  In the meantime he would trade angry responses with critics in the online forums, often resorting to ad hominem arguments or insults.

I remember watching this process in progress.  It came to me then that, rather than achieving anything, J.P. Holding was effectively acting as an editor, helping Doherty make his book more convincing.  I had no desire to do the same, so I did not engage much with Doherty.

At the end of this, he worked up his material into a book, The Jesus Puzzle: Challenging the existence of an historical Jesus.  This has a copyright of 1999, and doubtless appeared at that time.

The book was very well received by those at whom it was aimed.  The prose was immensely convincing.  I remember reading it, and I had to step back in one passage, put the claim made into my own words – rhetoric is a means of persuasion, I was reminded – and sanity-check it.  The song of the words lulled and convinced many.

Doherty continued to work.  But somehow he became less important.  Newer peddlars of the same idea such as Acharya S gained notoriety, and publicised themselves.  The claim itself was nonsense, but it enjoyed quite a vogue.  Doherty published a revised version of his book in the mid-2000s, but nobody noticed.  Other publications likewise failed to attract attention.  He was, by this time, yesterday’s man.  His task was done. I believe he last published in 2009.  I have not seen him online since before that.

He did some real harm.  Online atheists were always noxious, but few believed that Jesus never existed until he came along.  He helped to add nonsense and misinformation to the internet.

His influence on history online, insofar as lay with him, was entirely baleful.  The book’s influence on the lives of others was also pernicious.  Even atheists such as Richard Carrier, who held an ancient history degree, might have remained sane longer were this theory not around to lead them into nonsense.  I would imagine that a few teenagers were induced to abandon a good upbringing and indulge in the horrid vices of our period under the influence of his claims.

On the positive side, the whole school of “Jesus myth” that he founded doubtless stirred many of us to look at the data, and think out clearly how we know what we know about antiquity.

The school seems to be  fading in influence now; searches on Twitter for atheism show a raggle-taggle lot.  No doubt some other craze will arise.

Yesterday I found a copy of his book on my shelves.  I bought it for reference on the 16th May 2002, from a bookseller in this country.  Atheists like Doherty or Acharya S often cynically responded to critics with “you haven’t read my book”.  In those days there no PDFs around, so I thought that it would be useful to have on-hand.  But, unknown to me, it was already fading in influence.  I don’t think that I ever used it.  So for 16 years it has occupied space in my house.  No longer: I converted it to a PDF last night.

Sic transit gloria mundi.  So too passes every nonsense of fashion, to become dust, merely material for the musings of antiquarians.

    *    *    *    *

Let us also remember this man in his old age, forgotten as he now is.  His life work was nothing or worse.  In the end he was only a tool for the enemy of all mankind.  May he find God, and find mercy.  Amen.

Goodbye Harpocrates, hello Hor-pa-khered!

I’ve spent a little time looking for information about the ancient Egyptian deity who lies behind the Greek figure of Harpocrates.

The results are discouraging, because I find so very little.  Admittedly I have no access to Egyptological databases; but I can’t help feeling that if there was much more to know, that the articles that I have read would tell me so.

It’s as if we really don’t know that much about large sections of ancient Egyptian mythology. Can that be so?

It seems that the word “Harpocrates” is in fact just the ancient Egyptian word “Harpekhered”, rounded off with a Greek ending.  The actual word is without vowels, and may be transliterated variously, such as Hor pe khrod, or Har pe khered, or Heru p xrat, depending on how we vocalise the name.  It means simply “Horus the child”.[1]

Obviously we would all want to see this name engraved on a monument, attached to a statue or relief of the deity.  This would give us a clear indication of how Harpekhered was depicted.

They do seem to exist – at least, the Meeks article to which I will refer in a moment says that they do.  But I have been unable to find a photograph of any such monument.  In fact he also says that depictions of the god appear with someone else’s name on the bottom.  Someone like Rameses, for instance.  That’s not very helpful.

But I was able to find a hieroglyphic representation of the name.  In Budge’s dictionary,[2] the entries for “Harpokrates” are:

The middle one is the one we want.

Note the last glyph in the name is of a child, putting its finger to its lips.  Doing a search for “child” at http://www.hieroglyphs.net shows me:

At the start of the name is the hawk, which Wikipedia (shudder) tells me is the sign for Horus himself.

So the characteristic depiction of Harpekhered and of Harpocrates is simply derived from the hieroglyph for “child”.  So we get statues like this:

Egyptian Museum

Harpekhered appears in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts[3] and here is one of them, taken from the pyramid of Teti at Saqqara:

RECITATION. Cobra, to the sky! Horus’s centipede, to the earth! Horus’s sandal has stepped, nãj-snake. The nãj-snake is for Horus, the young boy with his finger in his mouth. Teti is Horus, the young boy with his finger in his mouth. Since Teti is young, he has stepped on you: had Teti become experienced, he would not have stepped on you.

The best information that I could find was in an article online by Dimitri Meeks on the Egyptian iconography of Harpokrates.[4]  From this I learn that the “iconographic type is considered a depiction of the new born sun god”; that the actual name first appears late on in Egyptian history, in the 21st dynasty, ca. 1070 BC.  It first appears associated with the iconography of Harpokrates in the 22nd dynasty, in the reign of Sheshonq III (835-785 BC).  The name of Harpokrates appears for the first time in Phoenician and Aramaic in the 5th century.

But … did people worship Harpekhered?  Well, there are lots of statues around.  What did they do to worship him?  Well, I don’t know.  Do we even know?  Was there a priesthood?  I see no information on this.  Was there a mythology?  I haven’t seen any sign of one.

All we seem to have is the name… meaning Horus-the-child.  The rest appears to be modern guesswork.

Here I find myself stumped.  Possibly an Egyptologist, reading this, would guffaw and say, “Well why didn’t you consult xxxxx?”  But of course I don’t know anything about xxxxx.  The Reallexikon of Bonnet is not online, as far as I know; or I would consult that to see if it gave primary sources.

Faced with this, there is not much we can do.

If we go back to Acharya S, Christ in Egypt, and look at references to “Harpocrates”, with what knowledge we have been able to glean, we find, as usual, only secondary sources, of doubtful value.  This is asserted to “be” that, it is argued; this looks like that, so this is that, or this must be derived from that.  Unfortunately without a proper database of ancient Egyptian sources, we are no further forward.

Which is a pity.  Oh well.  We tried!

  1. [1]E.S.Hall, “Harpocrates and other child deities in ancient Egyptian sculpture”, Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt, 14 (1977), 55-8.  JSTOR;  C. Christea, “Egyptian, Greek, Roman Harpocrates – A protecting and savior god”,  in: Moga, Angels, Demons and representations of afterlife, 2013, 73-86; 75.
  2. [2]E. Wallis Budge, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic dictionary, 2 vols. 1920.  Vol. 1, p.501, col. b.  Index vol. 2, p.1131.  If you open both volumes from here, and have one looking at the index, and the other just enter the page number, then you can find the glyphs fairly easily.
  3. [3]James P. Allen, The ancient pyramid texts, SBL, 2005, p.88, number 248.  These are inscriptions which cover the walls of the Old Kingdom pyramids of Unas and Teti at Saqqara in Egypt.  The standard edition is apparently R.O. Faulkner, 1969: spell 378; lines 663c-664a; but I have been unable to locate a copy.
  4. [4]Iconography of deities and demons.  Electronic pre-publication. Last updated 22 Dec. 2010. Online here in the pre-publication section.  It gives a catalogue of objects and types.  Annoyingly the PDF is locked, which makes it awkward to run it through Google Translate.

How can we write history or mythology when all we have is archaeology?!?

In my last post I gathered the handful of Graeco-Roman literary references to Harpocrates, the Horus-the-child deity.

But now we must venture behind the ancient world, into an area which few of us know well – ancient Egypt – and try to find some primary sources for the original Harpocrates, whatever his Egyptian name.  This leads us into unfamiliar territory, for me at least, and straight into a methodological problem.

Greek and Roman history and culture are known to us mainly from literary sources.  These reach us, because they were preserved by copying down through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, and then by printing.  The archaeology and inscriptions supplement and correct this picture.  For mythology, we have a number of ancient handbooks of ancient myth, like the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, whose narrative we can use as a frame for archaeology and inscriptions.  We also have sculptures, often with a label engraved on them, which tell us what we are looking at.

With ancient Egypt, the situation is very different.  We don’t have any ancient Egyptian literature transmitted like that.  We don’t have handbooks of ancient Egyptian mythology from ancient Egypt.

Before the hieroglyphics were deciphered by Champollion, our knowledge was based on shreds of knowledge that had made their way into Greek sources, such as Manetho.  It was a wretched level of knowledge, as anyone who reads literature written before the time of Champollion will quickly see.

Even so, the list of dynasties of kings that we use today is still mainly derived from Manetho.  Even shreds of literary knowledge give us something that the raw archaeology does not.  It tends to give us context.

But our real hard knowledge of ancient Egypt comes from archaeology; and from the inscriptions written upon that archaeology, supplemented by such literature as has survived on papyrus.

There are in fact some dribbling bits of literary material, recovered from tombs or rubbish dumps and preserved by the marvellous climate of Egypt.  Indeed one ancient Egyptian legend even managed to survive by copying: by being translated and adapted into Coptic as the Legend of Hilaria, a female monk!  But the literary side seems very weak.

The result of this is that descriptions of primary material for ancient Egypt quickly turn into catalogues of objects and sites, and the various ways in which the same item is depicted at various dates.  We end up with catalogues of lumps of rock.

There’s nothing at all wrong with this.  This is all good solid hard archaeology.  What it tells us, it tells us for certain.  That said, we must never forget the maxim, drummed into archaeology students, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence:  That you didn’t find it when you were digging is not evidence that it doesn’t exist.

These lumps of rock are our primary sources.

But … it is very much harder than many people suppose to write history, or mythology, when all you have is lumps of rock.  Even if these have useful inscriptions like “This is Ra, the sun god” on them, this tells you very little about Ra, or how Egyptians thought about him, or his cult.  Archaeology is often inscrutable. Men need stories; or rather, narratives.

Some may doubt that history from rocks is rather awkward.  To such honest gentlemen, allow me to recommend a perusal of the early volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History.  Those excellent, careful volumes are based solidly on the archaeology of Sumer, Akkad, and other long gone ancient societies, known to us only from the shovel; and they are hard reading, and harder to digest.

So … how do we proceed?  How do we learn about the mythology of Harpocrates, as he actually was in ancient Egypt?

Well, we cannot work with the ancient data in the same way that we did for classical sources.  We are, perforce, obliged to rely on the publications of specialists.  But … this does not mean that we forget what we just read.  We must read intelligently, always asking ourselves, “On what piece of data is this based, or can it be based?”

For the problem with writing history with rocks, is that you have to fill the gaps somehow.  “Maybe” is a powerful word.  Imagination you will have to use, for imagination is your only way to connect the rocks together.  This is not wrong; but it can mislead.

One way in which 19th century writers tend to misread ancient Egyptian material is by thinking with their 19th century church-going Victorian hats on.  If a temple is a religious site, they reason, then maybe we can compare it to a 19th century church or chapel, in order to obtain some enlightenment.  If the inscriptions say that the temples own land and farms, is this perhaps analogous to medieval monastic farming, or priories?  In consequence, everywhere in older books on ancient Egypt, there are attempts to understand ancient Egypt as if it was like Christianity.

The authors must have known this was not likely to be so; but they worked with the tools that they had.

But in reality the term “religion” can blind, rather than illuminate.  In our own day, we are told that “all religions are the same”.  This is, of course, grotesquely untrue.[1] The consequences of our modern falsehood can be silly, or wicked; or merely amusing, as seen in the tax-efficient career of professional science fiction writer-turned-prophet, L. Ron Hubbard.

Failure to recognise this inevitably creates problems.  Some religions define their boundaries by their teaching.  Accept this and that, and you are in; reject it, and you are out.  So Christianity, and Islam.  But others define their boundaries by race, or a class, or a social group; if you are born one of us, you will always be one of us, and never mind what you think; if you are a foreigner, you will always be a dirty foreigner. So Hinduism.  And some which ought to be teaching-based insensibly slip into being class- or nation-based; so Ulster protestantism and catholicism.  Others again define their boundaries by what you do; do the rituals, and you are in; fail to do so, and you are out.

I once saw this point made as follows.

An ancient temple is not like a church.  If you worship the sun, your primary concern is that the sun comes up each morning, and that the drought does not kill everyone this year.  You carry out the rituals for a precise, practical purpose.  You are a priest: your job is to make sure that Ra comes over the horizon on schedule.  In a sense, you are like an engineer in a nuclear power station, rather than a preacher addressing a crowd.  Whether you believe in what you are doing is of no importance.  And obviously you don’t need a lot of space in which to do your deed.  You don’t need a load of peasants underfoot – you have work to do.

Now how accurate that view is, I cannot say.  But it does fit a lot of what we see, when we look at ancient temple monuments.  Obviously it involves a very different idea of “religion”.

We have to remember what we do not know; and look for evidence before we claim it.  And that may be hard to come by, when our evidence consists of rocks.  Let us not say, what we do not know.  Let us mark our speculation – which may be a very necessary way to tie the rocks together in some human-intelligible way – as being speculation.

None of this is intended as disparagement of archaeology.  It is a fine science.  Rather it is intended to highlight pitfalls into which we are certain to fall, unless we take steps to avoid them.  For us, the rocks are a means to an end.  The end is to learn about the myth of Harpocrates.

Enough, then, about the problems of archaeology as a source for mythology.  In my next post, I will see what I can determine, as best I can, about the ancient Egyptian Harpocrates.  It should be an interesting experience.

Seated figure of Harpocrates. Bronze, Egypt, Late Period, 664-323 BC. Brooklyn Museum 37.686E, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund. From here.
  1. [1]It is a distortion of a true observation, that all the sects of Christianity are much the same from a practical, legislative point of view.  The falsehood was to forget that this was not a statement about their nature, but only a pragmatic observation about their ability to function safely in the community.

Who the heck is Harpocrates and why is he “really” Jesus?

Let’s start looking at Acharya S, Christ in Egypt. In my last post, I discussed how you create a false story about some ancient person or event. With this in mind, I now want to look at Harpocrates, who appears as a key player in Acharya’s book.

The central contention of Acharya’s book is that Jesus is really a rebranding of Horus. The rambling nature of her book means that she never comes out and says so, but there you are.[1]  And Horus is also Harpocrates, it seems (as well as Osiris, etc; but let’s not get distracted).

Who is this Harpocrates? Well, let’s have the primary ancient literary sources:[2]

Varro, De Lingua Latina 5.57 (1st century BC) [3]:

These gods [Sky and Earth] are the same as those who in Egypt are called Serapis and Isis, though Harpocrates with his finger makes a sign to me to be silent.

Ps.Hyginus, Fabulae 277 (1st c. AD?):

Isis first invented sails, for while seeking her son Harpocrates, she sailed on a ship.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 9, 684 f. (early 1st c. AD):

… beside her [Isis] stood the dog Anubis, and Bubastis, there the sacred, dappled Apis, and the God of silence with pressed finger on his lips; …

Catullus, Poems, 102 (1st c. AD):

If anything was ever entrusted by a friend to a silent sure one, whose loyalty of spirit is deeply known, you’ll find I’m equally bound by that sacred rite, Cornelius, and turned into a pure Harpocrates.

Plutarch, “Isis and Osiris”, from his Moralia, ca. 100 AD:

Chapter 19 (358E): Typhon formally accused Horus of being an illegitimate child … Osiris consorted with Isis after his death, and she became the mother of Harpocrates, untimely born and weak in his lower limbs.

Ch. 65. (377B): … about the time of the winter solstice she [Isis] gave birth to Harpocrates, imperfect and premature, amid the early flowers and shoots. For this reason they bring to him as an offering the first-fruits of growing lentils, and the days of his birth they celebrate after the spring equinox.

Ch. 68. (378C): And Harpocrates is not to be regarded as an imperfect and an infant god, nor some deity or other that protects legumes, but as the representative and corrector of unseasoned, imperfect, and inarticulate reasoning about the gods among mankind. For this reason he keeps his finger on his lips in token of restrained speech or silence. In the month of Mesorê they bring to him an offering of legumes and say, “The tongue is luck, the tongue is god.”

Epiphanius, Panarion, 4th century.[4]:

11, 3. … For instance, the cult of Harpocrates near Buticus, or the little town of Butus itself [is equally silly]. They are already elders in years, < but are children in behavior* >, and are compelled by the daemon to enact the imaginary frenzies of Horus at the sacred month. (4) But each citizen—even an elder already far along in years, together with young women of the same persuasion, and other ages from youth up—are supposedly priests of this Horus, and of Harpocrates. Their heads are shaved and they shamelessly carry the slavish, as well as accursed and childish emblem, willingly taking part in the games of the daemon’s initiates laughing madly and foolishly, and cast off all restraint. (5) First they smear their faces with porridge, flour and other vulgarities, and then they dip their faces in a boiling cauldron and deceitfully madden the crowds with their faces, for a supposed miracle; and they wipe the stuff off their faces with their hands, and give some to anyone who asks, to partake of for their health’s sake and as a remedy for their ills.

Augustine, City of God, book 18, chapter 5, (late 4th century) mentioning the statue of Harpocrates with a finger at his lips:

… since in every temple where Isis and Serapis were worshipped there was also an image which, with finger pressed on the lips, seemed to warn men to keep silence, Varro thinks this signifies that it should be kept secret that they had been human.

Ausonius, Epistles 29[5]:

You, as though you were a mute citizen of Oebalian Amyclae, or Egyptian Sigalion [=Harpocrates], were sealing your lips, stubbornly keeping silence, Paulinus.

There are also items in the spell books in the Greek Magical Papyri, although they tell us little.[6]

PGM III, ll.633-731:

Recite often . . . written down . . . to learn something, it is told to you by the god. And if you . . . write . . . and wrap in linen from head to foot . . . , and on the ground draw Harpocrates holding [his finger] to his mouth, and in his left hand clutching a flail and a crook . . . then “ABLANATHANALBA” in wing . . . “ABRASAX”: near the back, “OEAUA” . . . and set the child on it, and write the 5th formula . . .

PGM IV, 930-1114:

Godbringing spell to be spoken three times with your eyes open: “I call upon you, the greatest god, sovereign HOROS HARPOKRATES ALKIB HARSAMOSI IOAI DAGENNOUTH RARACHARAI ABRAIAOTH, you who enlighten the universe and by your own power illumine the whole world, god of gods, benefactor …

Phylactery for the rite, which you must wear for the protection of your whole body: On [a strip] from a linen cloth taken from a marble statue of Harpokrates in any temple [whatever] I write with myrrh these things: “I am HOROS ALKIB HARSAMOSIS …

PGM LXI, l.30-35 = Demotic papyrus PDM lxi, l.175.:

And whenever you perform this spell, have an iron ring with yourself, on which has been engraved Harpokrates sitting on a lotus, and his name is ABRASAX.

And… that’s our lot.

From this material, which is entirely Graeco-Roman, we learn that Harpocrates is a child deity, depicted with a finger to his lips, son of Osiris and Isis, who is born at the winter solstice.  There is a relationship of some sort to Horus, but it is left indefinite, whether these are two separate gods, or two aspects of the same.

However any google search will reveal what the RealEncyclopadie states, that “Harpocrates” is merely a Greek form of an ancient Egyptian deity of the late dynastic period.  Will this perhaps give us more?  In my next post, I shall look into this.

First-century AD wall painting from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii depicts a statue of Harpocrates (son of Isis) in a niche, with a priest with two silver candle holders. (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus). From here.
  1. [1]This may not be an accident. Such omissions are not uncommon in these kinds of fake histories. Earl Doherty, before publishing his Jesus Puzzle in book form, released chapters online as web pages. The chapters often got severely pummelled. So when he edited the book, he removed the explicit claims, which had been roundly refuted, preferring to let the reader infer them from his build-up (which he did not remove). This gave him deniability and at the same time made it much harder for opponents to pin him down. It is never a good sign, in my experience, when an author fails to articulate his controversial claim concisely and explicitly. The aim may be to hamper others from testing its truth.
  2. [2]My thanks to theoi.com for the list of sources here. The old RealEncyclopadie can be good for listing sources. But in this case we only find this:

    Harpokrates. 1) Aegypt. etwa: Har-pe-chrod = Horus, das Kind, besondere Form des Gottes Horus. Wann sie zuerst vorkommt, ist nicht sicher festzustellen, seit der 26 Dynastie wird sie ziemlich häufig und besondere Verbreitung erhielt die Verehrung des Gottes seit der Einrichtung des Serapiskultes durch die Ptolemaeer in Alexandria. Da die verschiedenen Formen des Gottes Horus schwer ausemanderzubalten sind, werden alle zusammen unter Horus behandelt werden.

    Harpocrates. 1) Egyptian. I.e. Har-pe-chrod = Horus, the child, a special form of the god Horus. It is not certain when he first appears, but from the 26th dynasty he becomes quite frequent, and the worship of the god receives special encouragment after the establishment of the cult of Serapis in Alexandria by the Ptolemies. Since the various forms of the god Horus are difficult to separate, they will be treated all together under “Horus”.

    In fact there is no entry for “Horus” in the succeeding volume or any of the supplements.

  3. [3]Loeb vol.1, p.55
  4. [4]This is from the last section, De Fide, which appears in vol. 2, p.669 of the revised translation by F. Williams.
  5. [5]Loeb vol. 2, p.115.
  6. [6]H. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, p.291. On p.334 we find the following note which might be useful to look into further: Harpocrates: Harpokrates (“Horus the child”) typically is portrayed with a finger of his right hand to his mouth, and he also may hold a crook and flail in his left hand. Harpokrates is the son of Isis and Osiris and is identified with the rising sun. See H. Bonnet, Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschitche, Berlin 1952, 273-75, s.v. “Harpokrates”; D. Meek, “Harpokrates,” in: W. Helck and E. Otto, Lexikon der Ägyptologie 2 (1977) : 1003-11.

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.

In Memoriam: Acharya S

Did you know that:

  • Mithra [sic] was born on December 25th.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or disciples.
  • He performed miracles.
  • He was buried in a tomb.
  • After three days he rose again.
  • His resurrection was celebrated every year.
  • Mithra was called “the Good Shepherd.”
  • He was considered “the Way, the Truth and the Light, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.”
  • He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
  • His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • Mithra had his principal festival on what was later to become Easter, at which time he was resurrected.
  • His religion had a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper”

Or that very much the same is also true of Horus, Krishna and Prometheus?

These claims, and others equally strange, were widely circulated on the early internet.  They originated from a website, www.truthbeknown.com, run by a woman calling herself “Acharya S”.[1]

These claims were met with much derision at the time, at least among those with any knowledge of antiquity.  But they were terribly useful to a certain sort of ignorant atheist, and so were repeated endlessly.  Indeed they may still be met with online, in one form or another.  The author never withdrew them, or admitted any mistake of fact.

I was led to interest myself in Mithras as a direct result of the circulation of these claims.  Occasionally I crossed swords with the authoress or one of her close disciples on various online discussion forums, an encounter that seldom left a pleasant impression behind.  But always the claims were stimulating, and I received a great deal of enjoyment in chasing down the real facts of the matter on more than one occasion, and learning of strange or unusual ancient sources, such as Antiochus of Athens.  We all need intellectual stimulus, and sometimes it may be found in strange places.

On Christmas Day 2015, she died.  She was 55 years old, and died of cancer, leaving a 13-year old son.

That she should die on 25 December was itself full of irony.  Acharya S was certain, certain with a degree of certainty that would appall most of us, that Christmas Day was a fraud: that Jesus of Nazareth never lived, and that the day was in fact the birthday of a huge number of pagan deities – Attis, Mithras, Adonis, Osiris, Horus, and so on.  So she wrote, and so she preached with a fierce fervour that contradiction only strengthened.

I cannot tell you her real name.  She went by the pen-name of Acharya S; before that, of Acharya Sanning.  In recent years she used the name “D. M. Murdock” on her books, but whether that was her legal name is not clear.   If it was, her name may have been Dorothy.

Nor can I tell you anything much of her background.  She claimed to have modelled when young, in New York City; to have become a Christian briefly at that time.  But she gave no account of her life.  This cannot, therefore, be an obituary – only an account of what I encountered or found online.

Her key assertion was that Jesus of Nazareth never lived, and that Christianity was merely an antique and fraudulent concoction from pagan beliefs.  This she derived from 19th century atheist popular writers, and embedded into a hazy new-age system of her own that she called “Astrotheology”.  But this system was really nothing: her life-energy was really spent in trying to rewrite history to prove Christianity false, and to convince as many as possible of her preferred account of events.

Without the internet, it is unlikely that Acharya S would have ever been heard of.  But the “Jesus myth” was taken up eagerly by atheists on the web.  Claiming that Jesus never existed, and demanding people prove them wrong, is an easy way to render discussion futile, while creating an impression of doubt; for it requires no education, merely impudence, a willingness to demand others prove to them what everyone knows, and a determination that any evidence to the contrary shall be “inadequate”.

Carried along by this tide, in 1999 she published The Christ Conspiracy: the greatest story ever sold.  How well this sold I do not know, but it certainly attracted attention, and material from it has continued to circulate.  She contributed to a film, Zeitgeist, which made many of the same claims.

But mythicism did not pay well.  She wrote online that she was very poor.  It is a fact that, in the last year of her life, she was obliged to seek money from the public in order to pay medical bills.  Pitifully, her executors have been obliged to continue the appeal in order to pay her funeral expenses.

What can we say about her?

Acharya S stirred up interest in a whole load of obscure aspects of antiquity.  It gave us all something to research, something to investigate, and much time and fun online in rebutting it.  To this extent we are all poorer for her passing.

On the other hand she did some real harm.  Nobody is well served by getting the raw facts wrong.  Many a gullible young atheist will have been confirmed in his newly-minted obscurantism by her work, and led just a step or two further from the light of knowledge into the darkness of ignorance and intellectual self-destruction.  “Jesus mythicism” is the judgement of God upon modern atheists – that those who boast most frequently of their own logic, science, reason and learning should be led to advocate an ignorant, stupid claim in the face of the world.  In this judgement she took a full part.  To dedicate yourself full-time to proving that others are completely wrong is perilous to every human soul that does so, whatever the object so hated.  It leads those who do it into a darkness of hate and blindness.  This path she walked.

She dedicated herself to trying to destroy the Christian religion, to the extent that she was able.  I never knew the reason for this, but it must be personal.

She was not an educated woman.  This fact lay at the root of all the mistakes of historical judgement that filled her books.  I never detected the slightest interest in history for its own sake.  If she had had this, it might have given her the education she lacked.  As far as I can tell, she never understood that history must start by compiling the primary sources and seeing what they say.  To the end, a book by some writer of the 19th or 20th century was “authority” – so long as he said what she wanted to hear!  In fairness she used better sources in her later books.  Acharya S wanted, wanted very badly, to be learned; but only, one sensed, to bolster the cause.

This lack of education meant that she had no critical detachment from her own claims.  What she wanted to believe was what she believed, and woe betide you if you contradicted her wishes.  Like many ignorant people, she seemed unaware that men may honestly disagree sometimes.  Even her admirers describe her as “strong-willed”.  I remember asking for evidence that Mithras had twelve disciples, and, after much abuse, being shown a relief with a Zodiac on it, and told that if the apostles were sometimes depicted as the zodiac in the renaissance, then clearly this showed that Mithras had twelve disciples.  If you disagreed with her, on whatever basis, she asserted that you were simply dishonest.

I usually felt sorry for her, except when provoked by some very gross piece of intellectual dishonesty.  Perhaps I am unduly imaginative or sentimental, but I always felt pity for this poor woman.  She was somebody’s little girl, somebody’s “mum”.  Indeed any sensitive man must look at how women are treated in our times with hearthbreak and shame.  Everything is against them.  Everything encourages women when young to throw themselves away outside of marriage.  The pain, guilt and misery that results must ruin many lives.  In attempting to cope with the guilt, some turn into railers at Christians – the only people to say “this is wrong” – and, in their howls, one can sometimes hear the pain of a violated conscience.  Acharya often railed against men, and “patriarchy”.  Was there some awful experience at the hands of some selfish man or selfish men in her past?  I do not know.

But it is impossible to look at her life, and not feel a sense of waste.  The world owes a great debt to energetic, single-minded women such as Florence Nightingale, or Elizabeth Fry, or several modern women.  Such women are often personally charming, as Acharya was, and often attract dedicated supporters who feel chivalrous towards them, as she did.  They are often determined to an intimidating degree, as Acharya seems to have been.  Such women can achieve much.  What can be vices in conversation can become virtues for society as a whole.  Acharya S might have been one such.  Who can say?

May the God whom she was so fierce against in life have mercy upon her, and rescue her, somehow, from the consequences of her wrong choices in life.

RIP “Acharya S”, 25th December 2015.

Edit: Add a couple of words of clarification at one or two points.

UPDATE (25 June 2016):  Her legal name was Dorothy Milne Murdock, known as Dori, and she was born on March 27, 1960.  I have found an obituary at the “The Hartford Courant”, published January 24, 2016, which mentions her family, which I have pasted into the comments.

UPDATE (14 November 2016): Via her Facebook page (pointed to by this link) I find this image of her gravestone.

Acharya S' gravestone.
Acharya S’ gravestone.
  1. [1]A sample post from 2005 is here, which helpfully tells us the source from which they were then disseminated: http://www.truthbeknown.com/origins.htm. The page at truthbeknown.com no longer contains these claims, and Archive.org were prevented from archiving it.  However her PDF “Origins of Christianity”, although revised somewhat, still contains a  version of much of these claims.

A Mithraic Pope? The “Pater Patrum” or “Father of Fathers”

Among the nonsense that circulates on the web is an interesting claim, which may be found in the old online Catholic Encyclopedia,[1] and spread into atheist literature via the medium of Joseph Wheless’ Forgery in Christianity.[2].  It is perhaps most accessible today by means of the Christ Conspiracy by a certain Acharya S., a poor woman who has seemingly managed to read uncritically incredible amounts of unreliable books, without acquiring any critical sense in the process.[3].  The various corrupt versions of the Catholic Encyclopedia material will doubtless be professionally interesting to the textual critic, who may see therein the process of transmission by careless scribes beautifully exampled.

The CE states:

The fathers conducted the worship. The chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called “Pater Patrum” or “Pater Patratus.”

We may reasonably ask what the source for this claim is.  Inevitably we find that it is Franz Cumont’s Textes et Monuments, vol. 1.  On p.317-8 this states:

Finally, at the top of the hierarchy were the Fathers, who appear to have presided over the sacred ceremonies (pater sacrorum). The chief of them bore the title of Pater Patrum [1], sometimes transformed into Pater patratus [2] in order to introduce an official sacerdotal title into a sect which was Roman by naturalisation.  These Grand Masters of the adepts retained until their death the general control of the cult.[3]

1. Pater patrum, cf. t. II, 535, col. 2.  One became pater patrum after being an ordinary pater, cf. inscr. 14, 15 and note, and also 13 and note. — the Marcellinus leo of inscription 45 is perhaps the same person as the Domitius Marcellinus of inscr. 31. — the title of pater nomimus (inscr. 166 and note) seems to be an ordinary Father, as opposed to the Pater Patrum.

2. Pater patratus, inscr. 190; cf. however 514: Pater patratum leonem, which I cannot explain.  Patratus cannot be considered as a collective, despite the expression ob honorem sacri matratus  of inscription 574 b.

3. Inscr. 13 and note, 15 and note.

This material is what lies behind the statements in the C.E., which thus merely serve to popularise.  (The title pater patratus is an ancient one which appears in Livy[4] for a fetial priest with powers to make a religious oath on behalf of the Roman people to conclude treaties, so perhaps might be translated as executive father).[5] 

The material given is unsatisfactory as evidence for the large claims made.  Page 535 is merely the index to all mentions of the term, 14 of them.  Inscription 13 relates to CIL VI 754, set up between 357-362 A.D. by Nonius Victor Olympius, which does not seem to refer to him as a simple pater. Inscr. 14 and 15 are the monuments of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus from 387 A.D.  The latter monuments certainly do not support Cumont’s claim that a Pater Patrum was first a Pater (however probable this would otherwise seem to be).  Neither state, as Cumont does, that the role consisted of a general direction of the cult as a whole.  Inscr. 190 is CIMRM 706, in Milan, where P. Acilius Pisonianus is labelled pater patratus, dedicates a Mithraeum with funds from the municipality of Milan after a fire.  But there is no indication that this title is the same as pater patrum.  Inscr. 514 is a 3rd century inscription in Spain (CIMRM 803), where presidente patrem patratum leonem, is the perfect Father of the Lions presiding.

As so often with Cumont, the evidence simply does not support the claims made in the text.  Wild imagination extrapolates what might be true from the rather less exciting raw data.  None of this material takes us further forward. 

We can speculate ourselves.  The Pater Leonem is, quite possibly, simply a pater with supervisory responsibility for the initiates of the grade of leo or Lion.  By analogy, a Pater Patrum would simply be the senior pater in a Mithraeum.  Given the military links of the cult, that a single individual would lead each grade, and perhaps the Mithraeum as a whole, seems inevitable, just as the centurions were led by a primus pilus in the legion.  This all fits the data admirably, and gives rise to none of the exciting claims of a “Mithraic Pope”.  Do we need to suppose the existence of such a figure?  Even if we refer to a “High Priest of Mithras”, which might have existed … do we need to suppose that there was one?  What evidence requires it?  Or should we, perhaps, see in the pater patrum the equivalent of the Christian bishop, responsible for the temples in a city?  We could; but what evidence requires this?

When we know nothing, it is really, really important not to speculate.  The data we have indicates very little.

A useful 1982 article by Peter Herz in ZPE [6] lists all the monuments that refer to a Pater Patrum.  There are fifteen of these in all.  Eleven of these are from Rome.  The majority are late Roman noblemen. 

It is, in truth, a thin collection of data.  I hope to review it all at some subsequent point.

  1. [1]Here.
  2. [2]The passage in Wheless may be found here, apparently on p.37, who states that the CE material is on p.403-4.  It reads: “The fathers conducted the worship. The chief of the fathers, a sort of pope,who always lived at Rome, was called ‘Pater Patratus’ … The members below the grade of pater called one another ‘brother,’ and social distinctions were forgotten in Mithraic unity…”
  3. [3]Achrya S, The Christ Conspiracy, p.120: ‘Of Mithraism the Catholic Encyclopedia states, as related by Wheless, “The fathers conducted the worship. The chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called ‘Pater Patratus.’” The Mithraic pope was also known as Papa and Pontimus Maximus.’
  4. [4]Book 1, chapter 24. Here.
  5. [5]More details on the ancient “Pater patratus”, a member of the college of priests known as fetiales, may be found in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), online here: “It appears that when an injury had been sustained, four fetiales (Varr. ap. Non.) were deputed to seek redress, who again elected one of their number to act as their representative. This individual was styled the pater patratus populi Romani. (It is an error to suppose that the pater patratus was the permanent head of the college: Mommsen, Staatsr.2 2.670. “
  6. [6]Peter Herz, Agrestius v(ir) c(larissimus), Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 49 (1982), pp. 221-224. JSTOR.