This is a series offered by a spiritual agnostic/atheist. Earlier, a different version of the series appeared as campus leaflets. Information presented here can be found in standard books or websites. Corrections and comments are welcome, and may be sent to Vaughn Barnett, B.A., J.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– 1 –
There is considerable evidence that Judeo-Christian religion is filled with mythological elements from ancient pagan cultures. Among the earliest and most fundamental of these are Mesopotamian/Canaanite themes, as found in the following motifs of the Bible:
1. Polytheism implied by God as “elohim,” a plural Semitic word for gods or the pantheon of El
2. “Let us” spoken by the elohim, like the council of gods consulting before creating or acting
3. World created in stages from watery chaos, with a sky dome between waters above and below
4. Creation and repose matching the week and Sabbath based on seven heavenly bodies or gods
5. Man formed from dust in God’s image, similar to the mythical mixing of clay and divine blood
6. Adam, like Adapa/Adamu, as the first man, and one who gains divine knowledge
7. Eve as the lady of the rib, and as the lady of life
8. Paradise guarded by cherubim, linking food and a serpent to death or mortality
9. Humankind required to work the ground, comparable to workers created to serve the gods
10. Cain and Abel competing with offerings, like the rival farmer-god and shepherd-god
11. Sin crouching for Cain, as in the myth of the evil croucher lying in wait for his offering
12. List of pre-flood patriarchs living for centuries, paralleling Sumerian/Babylonian king lists
13. Enoch as the seventh patriarch, who was taken to heaven, like the seventh king or sage
14. Great men born from unions between sons of God (sons of the elohim) and daughters of men
15. Divinely caused flood survived by a favored family and animals in an ark covered with pitch
16. Noah’s ark stranded on a mountain, and birds sent out from it, after the flood
17. God smelling a sacrifice, then promising by the rainbow as by the mythical divine necklace
18. Building of a Babylonian tower towards heaven, and confusion or diversification of language
19. Anthropomorphic depiction of God as walking, searching, making mistakes, being cruel, etc.
20. Willingness of Abraham and Jephthah (and even God as Jesus’ father) to offer child sacrifices
21. Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven, comparable to the myth of a tree or pole to heaven
22. Infant Moses in a basket floating on water, similar to the legendary king Sargon
23. Law of Moses comparable to codes such as Hammurabi’s, also said to be of divine origin
24. Henotheism or monolatry implied by worship of El/Yahweh as one god above others
25. Male God implying a goddess, such as the consort of El or Yahweh found by archaeologists
26. People of Israel given to Yahweh, one among many patron gods inheriting from Elyon
27. Yahweh, like Baal, as a warrior storm-god or cloud-rider, with a mountain brickwork palace
28. War in heaven, and defeat of fierce or multi-headed dragons such as Leviathan and Rahab
29. Astrological symbols, such as man-lion-bull-eagle imagery, and stars for signs
30. Christ as both human and divine, dying and rising, like pagan heroes/saviors/gods
Questions to consider:
How likely is it that pagan mythology borrowed elements from biblical history, rather than the reverse, when the former lacks traces of monotheism, while the latter contains such obvious hints of polytheism and henotheism? If we allow for Mosaic authorship of the first books of the Bible, despite the contrary evidence, can the divine offspring and supernatural motifs still not be accounted for by earlier Sumerian and Babylonian myths? Even assuming some historicity of such stories, is a supernatural explanation in terms of an anthropomorphic god and his procreating sons more plausible than the comparably fantastic, but at least naturalistic, theory of tribal people’s encounters with a lost or alien race (earthly or otherwise) so technologically superior as to seem god-like, as has happened in colonial explorations and modern cargo cults?
– 2 –
Of all the textual indications that biblical theology is largely derived from pagan mythology (see DR-1), perhaps the most telling is the fact that the first and most frequent Hebrew name for God in the Bible is the polytheistic “elohim.” Not only does this word literally mean “gods,” or possibly even “goddesses,” and is translated as such in other biblical contexts, but it is also the term used by the Canaanites for their pantheon of gods and goddesses under the high god El. There are no Hebrew capitals or other linguistic features to warrant a selective translation of this word as the proper name of one male “God,” nor is it unlikely that other singular terms accompanying biblical references to the elohim are due to later editing to preserve a well-known divine name without its polytheistic meaning. Hence, certain passages about God in the Bible’s opening chapters can be translated more literally to yield the following parallels to pagan myths:
“In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth… The gods created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves… Then the gods said, ‘Let us make humans in our image, to be like ourselves’… So the gods created humans in their own image; the gods [and goddesses] patterned them after themselves; male and female they created them.”
Genesis 5, 6
“Enoch walked with the gods [and then] the gods took him… Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of gods saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose… The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of the gods came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown… Noah walked with the gods… Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of the gods… Then the gods said to Noah… ‘We are going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens’… Noah did everything just as the gods commanded him.”
“Now Abraham arose early in the morning… and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace. Thus it came about, when the gods destroyed the cities of the valley, that the gods remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when they overthrew the cities in which Lot lived.”
Questions to consider:
Is the willingness to destroy the innocent with the wicked, as depicted above, not what would be expected from the capricious gods of polytheistic mythology? Does not “elohim,” as a plural term used for the one God, capture in a word the demonstrated historical tendency for multiple gods to merge gradually into one? Are contrary explanations for this plural word, based on concepts such as God’s majestic fullness or the Christian Trinity, consistent with either tribal people’s less abstract mode of thought or a monotheistic God’s presumed desire not to mislead people with a polytheistic name? Could this scandalous hint at the possibility of the biblical God’s polytheistic origins be the reason that different versions of the Bible, even when otherwise scrupulously footnoting alternative translations of Hebrew terms, typically omit noting the most literal and plain translation of the Bible’s most frequent Hebrew word for God?
– 3 –
Among the textual indications that biblical theology is largely derived from pagan mythology (see DR-1), along with the fact that the commonest Hebrew name for God in the Bible is the plural “elohim,” a term shared by the Canaanites for their multiple gods (see DR-2), there is the further fact that “el,” another common Hebrew name for the biblical God, was also the word used by the Canaanites both for a god in general and for their high god in particular. This supports the view, accepted by experts in history and archaeology, that the Hebrews once worshipped the Canaanite El as one god above others. Consistent with such a view are apparent vestiges of henotheistic El worship detectable in biblical references to the early Hebrews, such as the following:
“Melchizedek [possibly meaning ‘my king is Sedek,’ a Canaanite god], king of Salem [believed to be the Canaanite, pre-Israelite Jerusalem, possibly named for the god Shalim], brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of El most high. He blessed Abram and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of El most high, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be El most high, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Abram gave him a tenth of all.”
Genesis 17, 21
“[The Lord] appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El almighty; walk before me and be blameless. …your name shall be Abraham… I will give to you and to your descendants after you all the land of Canaan, where you are now a stranger, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their god [literally ‘gods’]’… In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael [meaning ‘El will hear’] his son… Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of [the Lord], the everlasting El.”
Genesis 32, 33
“[The man] said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel [meaning ‘he who strives with El’ or ‘El strives’]’… So Jacob named the place Peniel [meaning ‘face of El’]… Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan… Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel [meaning ‘El, the el of Israel’].”
“God [or ‘the gods’] said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel [‘house of El’] and live there, and make an altar there to El’… So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to El’… So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him. He built an altar there, and called the place El-Bethel [‘El of Bethel’].”
Questions to consider:
Can it be just coincidence that the biblical Hebrews were called to worship the same god that was worshipped by the Canaanites at the very same time that they were settling among the Canaanites? Does not the depiction of the Hebrews receiving a new land and adopting its high god as their own, being blessed by a Canaanite king-priest in this god’s name, making offerings and altars to that god while putting away foreign deities, all suggest that the Hebrews were making a henotheistic transition from the gods of their former homeland to the local supreme deity?
– 4 –
Whereas two common Hebrew names for the biblical God of Abraham are the singular “el” and the plural “elohim,” suggesting that the early Hebrews recognized the Canaanite high god El and his pantheon of lesser deities (see DR-1 to DR-3), it would seem to follow that Yahweh/Jehovah, the biblical God of Moses who later was hostile to the Canaanite deities, must have been a new or rival god, assimilating El and competing for Hebrews’ exclusive loyalty. Accordingly, historical and archaeological experts have concluded that biblical monotheism was preceded by a transitional stage of Yahweh monolatry, or the exclusive worship of Yahweh combined with a belief in the existence of other gods. Following are what appear to be vestiges of this assimilative and competitive mythology, found in books of the Bible attributed to Moses:
“God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai [a name for the Canaanite high god], but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.’”
Exodus 15, 18
“Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to Yahweh: ‘I will sing to Yahweh, for he is highly exalted… Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?’… Jethro said, ‘Blessed be Yahweh… Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all the gods.’”
Exodus 20, 22, 23
“God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am Yahweh your god… You shall have no other gods besides me… for I, Yahweh your god, am a jealous god… You shall not revile the gods… …do not mention the names of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth.’”
Deuteronomy 4, 6, 10
“Has any other god tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation… as Yahweh your god did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown that you might know that Yahweh is God; there is no other besides him… Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our god – Yahweh alone… Yahweh your god is the god of gods and the lord of lords.”
“When Elyon [another name for the Canaanite high god] gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of man, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of gods. For Yahweh’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of his inheritance. …let all the angels [or ‘sons of the gods’] worship him.”
Questions to consider:
Do the above biblical passages, especially the last one, not say or imply that Yahweh was the deity of Jacob/Israel as one patron god among many, and that the Israelites were thus to honor Yahweh above all these other gods? Is it also not said or implied in the last passage that Yahweh was distinct from El/Elyon, as one of the gods inheriting from him, and that the early Hebrews thus knew only El, not Yahweh, as their high god? Hence, could the first passage above be a hint that Yahweh was later identified with El, so as to become their new high god, in the same way that a high god of the pagans was often absorbed by a previously lower deity?
– 5 –
Given the evidence that biblical theology originated in polytheistic mythology (see DR-1, DR-2), then developed from henotheistic or monolatrous worship of one god above others (see DR-3, DR-4), it would not be surprising to find that the first clear monotheistic statements in the Bible come, not from Abraham or Moses, but centuries later from Deutero-Isaiah of the first millennium BCE. The following passages illustrate this evolution towards monotheism:
“If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve Yahweh [Jehovah], choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served… or the gods of the Amorites…”
“The woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson [or Shamash, name of the sun god who, like Samson, takes zodiacal vows, has strength to move pillars, kills a lion whose body serves as a beehive, burns fields, is weakened by loss of his ray-like hair, and is blinded by dark forces].”
1 Samuel 28
“The woman said, ‘I see gods coming up out of the earth.’”
2 Chronicles 2
“Solomon sent this message to Hiram king of Tyre: ‘…our god is greater than all other gods.’”
Job 1, 38
“One day the sons of God [literally ‘sons of gods’] came to present themselves before Yahweh… Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, ‘…who laid [the earth’s] cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God [or ‘sons of gods’] shouted for joy?’”
Psalms 8, 29, 82
“You have made [man] a little lower than the angels [literally ‘the gods’]… Give honor to Yahweh, O sons of the gods… God [literally ‘the gods’] presides in the assembly of El [the Canaanite high god]; he gives judgment among the gods… ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of Elyon [another name for El].’”
Psalms 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 136, 138
“There is no one like you among the gods, O Lord… Who among the sons of gods is like Yahweh, a god greatly feared in the council of the holy ones?… For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods… He is to be feared above all gods. The gods of other nations are worthless things… Yahweh reigns… All the gods have worshipped him… For you are Yahweh most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods… Give thanks to the god of gods… I will give you thanks [and] sing praises to you before the gods.”
Questions to consider:
Would we not readily understand all the verses above as having been written from a polytheistic perspective were we not conditioned by our Judeo-Christian heritage to read the Bible as a purely monotheistic book? Should we not understand the Jewish merging of El/elohim and Yahweh/Jehovah into one God, and the later Christian merging of that God and his Son, as part of the historical global evolution from polytheism to monotheism?
– 6 –
If biblical apologists have difficulty accepting the evidence that their religion has evolved from polytheistic mythology (see DR-1 to DR-5), they cannot ignore the corroborative evidence in the biblical narrative for the very slow evolution of so-called ethical monotheism. This is illustrated by the Bible’s clear accounts of murderous heroes. Leaving aside the mass deaths from natural disasters attributed to the main biblical hero, God, as well as numerous other condoned atrocities in the Bible, the following scriptural references focus on just three biblical heroes whose cruel and homicidal behavior would surely be condemned by more modern, and presumably more divine, standards of ethics:
Exodus 2 – He committed premeditated murder of an Egyptian.
Exodus 21 – He allowed slavery, and punishment of slaves if they did not die quickly.
Exodus 32 – He had 3,000 men killed for idol worship.
Leviticus 27 – He even seemed to condone human sacrifice.
Numbers 15 – He ordered a man stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath.
Numbers 25 – He had leaders hanged before God for worshipping other deities.
Numbers 31 – He decreed the death of all the Midianite children except female virgins.
Deuteronomy 2, 3 – He had his army kill the adults and children of conquered cities.
Deuteronomy 20 – He allowed men to be killed, women and children to be taken as booty.
Moses’ successor, Joshua, followed the precedent of utterly destroying whole cities, including women and children (Joshua 6, 8, 10, 11). Later prophets continued this practice (1 Samuel 15; Ezekiel 9). A similar disregard for the children of enemies is shown in Psalm 137:9: “How blessed will be he who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”
1 Samuel 18 – He killed 200 men, to be allowed to marry King Saul’s daughter.
2 Samuel 11 – He had a man killed to cover up adultery with the man’s wife.
1 Chronicles 22 – He was not allowed by God to build a temple due to his violence.
1 Kings 18 – He killed hundreds of Baal prophets after they lost a contest between gods.
2 Kings 1 – He had heavenly fire kill about 100 soldiers to show he was a man of God.
Questions to consider:
Even if the Bible were factually true, do the above texts not give us ample reason to doubt that the Bible is true morally or spiritually – and yet, if we have reason to doubt that the Bible is morally or spiritually true, do we not have all the more reason to doubt that it is true factually, in particular with regard to its incredible supernatural claims? To what extent can we say that the homicidal, warmongering deity and heroes of the Hebrew Bible are morally superior to, or less mythical than, the pagan gods and heroes with their similar violent conflicts? Likewise, to what extent can we consider the Christian Bible to be more advanced, when it not only presupposes the Hebrew Bible as its Old Testament, but also presents Jesus as Joshua’s namesake, King David’s heir, and a savior transfigured with Moses and Elijah?
– 7 –
Reinforcing the other textual evidence that biblical theology evolved only slowly from polytheistic mythology to ethical monotheism (see DR-1 to DR-6), the following biblical references hint at a history of approved child sacrifice:
Genesis 22 – God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and, though later revoking the command, rewards Abraham for his willingness to kill his son as an offering to God.
Exodus 22 – Through Moses, God commands the Israelites to give him the firstborn of their sons (redeemed or not), just as they are to offer up the first of their crops and flocks.
Joshua 6 – Joshua decrees for God that Jericho cannot be rebuilt without the builder’s sacrifice of two children, including a foundation sacrifice of his firstborn at the city’s base (as at 1 Kings 16).
Judges 11 – Under divine influence, Jephthah wins a battle after vowing to sacrifice whatever meets him at the entry of his home, and thus has to sacrifice his daughter.
2 Samuel 21 – King David is told by God that a famine has been caused by a former king’s guilt, which David then expiates by having sons and grandsons of the former king hanged before God.
2 Kings 3 – When the Moabites are losing a battle against the Israelites, the Moabite king sacrifices his oldest son, causing a great wrath to come upon the Israelites to defeat them.
Isaiah 30 – Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, are consigned by God to the fire-pit of the Topheth, a site of child sacrifice.
Jeremiah 19 – As if protesting too much, Jeremiah declares that God never commanded, decreed, or even thought about child sacrifice, suggesting that this was debatable at the time.
Ezekiel 20 – God explains that he gave the Israelites bad statutes and ordinances, and made them offer their firstborn by fire, so that they might be horrified and know that he is God.
Micah 6 – Morality is said to be more desirable than offerings of young calves, thousands of rams, or even one’s firstborn (all by implication increasingly pleasing to God).
Questions to consider:
If biblical religion evolved from polytheistic mythology, and if, as the evidence also suggests, human sacrifice was a worldwide practice up until the Common Era, how probable is it that the early biblical tradition involved no child sacrifice? Since there are hints of approval for this practice in even our present edited Bible, dated back to only the first millennium BCE, what does this tell us about the possibility of overt approval for child sacrifice at an earlier stage of the same tradition? Does not the mythology of child or human sacrifice continue to the present in the Passover celebration of God’s ritualized killing of firstborn Egyptians, and in the Easter celebration of God’s offering up of his crucified son as an atoning sacrifice? Could it be significant that these solar-lunar festivals appear to have connections to the pagan celebration of the spring equinox, with its new life following a time of death, and that Christ is honored on Sunday, the day of the sun god, the first known god depicted on a cross?
– 8 –
Corroborating the evidence that ethical monotheism in the Bible evolved from polytheistic mythology in the first several centuries BCE (see DR-1 to DR-7) is the evidence that Moses did not write the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible, in the second millennium BCE, as traditionally held, and that our Hebrew Bible was largely composed or edited centuries later. Among the indicators of this late biblical authorship are the following:
1. The references in Genesis to Philistines and Chaldeans appear to be anachronisms, since research confirms that these peoples arrived much later, suggesting that Genesis or the Torah was written, or at least edited in its present form, no earlier than the time of the Chaldeans and their Neo-Babylonian empire in the 600’s to 500’s BCE.
2. Duplicate stories (often with Yahweh as deity in one version and Elohim as deity in the other), internal inconsistencies (such as Joseph being sold to Ishmaelites and Midianites at the same time) and linguistic variations (based on analysis of grammar, vocabulary, and writing style) have led to a general scholarly consensus that the Torah has more than one author or literary source.
3. Similarly, two incongruent traditions have been found in the Torah, such that according to one tradition, deity is called Yahweh, the mountain of the covenant is called Sinai, the original inhabitants of the promised land are called Canaanites, and Moses’ father-in-law is called Reuel, but according to the other tradition, deity is called Elohim, the mountain is called Horeb, the land’s inhabitants are called Amorites, and Moses’ father-in-law is called Jethro.
4. Virtually nothing has been located by archaeologists (such as an Egyptian record, or a bone or campsite artifact in the Sinai desert) to support the account of a mass exodus from Egypt and a forty-year trip in the desert by over half a million Hebrew slaves.
5. Mosaic authorship is not claimed in the Torah for its whole five-book text, but only for specific parts, such as a song or a law, implying that someone other than Moses wrote the Torah as such.
6. In the Torah’s narrative, Moses is referred to in the third person, is described as the humblest man on earth, and is depicted as dying (in the writing style of the preceding narrative, contrary to the postscript theory), making it very improbable that Moses wrote the Torah about himself.
7. Phrases in the Torah such as “at that time” and “to this day,” its references to a conquest of Canaan and a pre-monarchy period as completed phases of Israelite history, and the Torah’s geographical orientation to the east side of the Jordan River as “beyond the Jordan,” even though the Torah says that Moses never went to the west side of the river, all reflect a much later time.
Questions to consider:
Since even biblical apologists have acknowledged changes and anachronisms in the Bible, as a result of either human fallibility or an intention to clarify for later readers, what implications does this have for the notion of inerrant or unvarying scriptures? If late composition or editing of the Torah has to be conceded, is it not likely that theologically undesirable language has been altered over the centuries? Hence, does our present edited Bible, dated back to only the first millennium BCE, not allow for its possible evolution from the prevalent polytheistic mythology of the second millennium BCE, as otherwise suggested by the evidence?
– 9 –
Building on the evidence that biblical religion emerged from a subsequently edited history of polytheistic mythology and ritualized violence (see DR-1 to DR-8), we may note that the shift to a more ethically oriented monotheism occurred largely during the Persian Empire, with its official Zoroastrian faith. Persian motifs in our Judeo-Christian tradition include the following:
1. God as the one, universal, transcendent, wise and good creator
2. Angels and demons in place of a pantheon of gods
3. Invisible spirit world existing beyond and before material creation
4. Holy Spirit as God’s emanation or agent
5. Devil as the author of evil, temptation, and affliction
6. War between God and the devil prior to the creation of humanity
7. Fall or expulsion of the devil from heaven
8. Earth as a battlefield for continuation of the same war
9. Temporary reign of evil, causing corruption of the material realm
10. Human beings with free will influenced by good and evil spirits
11. Characterization of this struggle in terms of light versus darkness
12. Light representing truth, darkness representing falsehood
13. Pastor or shepherd as a model of moral behavior or leadership
14. Magi watching the stars for a sign of a savior or messianic figure
15. Virgin birth or miraculous conception of the savior
16. Wisdom, healing, and other benefits upon the savior’s arrival
17. Food/drink symbolizing a slain Son of God
18. Son of God sacrificed to bring eternal life
19. Resurrection of the dead
20. Heaven, hell, and purgatory as earned abodes for the soul after death
21. Final judgment of the dead at the end of the known world
22. Time divided into world-ages, such as four periods symbolized by metals
23. End-time preceded by great apostasy, conflict, earthquakes, and natural signs
24. Messianic figure to come or return, and make all things right
25. Triumph of good over evil in one last great battle
26. Glorious or fiery transformation of the earth
27. Kingdom of God on earth or millennial reign
Questions to consider:
Could Deutero-Isaiah be exhibiting sympathy for Zoroastrian ideas in praising the Persian king Cyrus, presenting the Bible’s first clear statements of monotheism, expressing some of the earliest messianic themes in the Bible, and using light-dark imagery? Should we suppose that the Persians borrowed more from the Jews than the reverse, when the former were culturally dominant, when Zoroastrianism is thought to predate messianic Judaism, and when the apocalyptic aspect of the latter has more in common with Zoroastrianism than with earlier biblical religion? What of the possibility that the Jewish Pharisees were named after Parsees or Persian Zoroastrians? Is this, plus the Zoroastrian concepts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and apocryphal texts, not evidence of Persian and Jewish ideas being synthesized around the beginning of Christianity? Hence, is it not quite possible that Christianity also came under Persian influence, particularly via Gnosticism and Hellenistic mystery cults, given that the above list reflects what Zoroastrians and Christians had in common more than what either group shared with biblical Jews?
– 10 –
Only when the biblical tradition made its transition from polytheistic mythology and ritualized violence to a more ethically oriented monotheism under the influence of Persian dualism (see DR-1 to DR-9), did it apparently resort to inventing the devil to account for the existence of evil. Hence, in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, there is a virtual absence of the devil, under that or any other name, and it would seem instead that he was retrospectively constructed from other figures, during the Persian and Greco-Roman periods. The following evidence supports this:
Nowhere does the word “devil” appear in the Hebrew Bible. As far as can be determined, the early Hebrews had no term for a chief demon.
In 2 Samuel 24:1, believed to have been written before the Babylonian exile, God tempts King David to commit the sin of conducting a census, whereas in the later version at 1 Chronicles 21:1, believed to have been written during the Persian era, Satan replaces God as the tempter. This is the only biblical verse where the word for “Satan” is correctly translatable as a proper noun, apparently a cognate of the name for the Egyptian devil Set/Sata.
Elsewhere in the Bible, a “satan,” according to the Hebrew, is basically any “adversary.” The word may refer to a human being (1 Samuel 29:4), an angel of God (Numbers 22:22, 32), or a prosecutor in God’s court (Job 1:6; Zechariah 3:1-2). It does not refer to God’s evil counterpart.
A reference to Satan as a fallen angel is supposedly found in Isaiah 14:12-14, although these verses actually concern the fall of a Babylonian king. Metaphorically, the king is called Lucifer or “morning star, son of the dawn,” who sought to exalt his throne “above the stars of God” and become “like the Most High” – or in an alternative translation, “son of Shahar” who sought to exalt his throne “above the stars of El” and become “like Elyon.” Shahar was the name of the Canaanite god of dawn, while El and Elyon, Hebrew names for God in the Bible, were also common names of the high god of the Canaanite pantheon. This mention of a morning star and stars of El would therefore appear to be a reference, not to the origin of the devil, but to a Canaanite astral myth.
Like Lucifer, Beelzebul appears to be another Canaanite god only later transformed into the devil, according to the historical practice of demonizing others’ gods. The name is derived from Baal Zebul, referring to the warrior storm-god Baal who was the greatest competitor of the biblical God.
The Hebrew Bible does not identify the serpent or dragon as the devil. Such an association was simply assumed later. Moreover, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the dragons fought by God, including their names or descriptions, have direct parallels in ancient Near Eastern myths.
Questions to consider:
Regardless of the sense in which there might be good and evil forces, must we still be tormented by the unsupported and much abused idea of the devil or Satan? Can he not just “go to hell”?
– 11 –
Upon making its transition from polytheistic mythology and ritualized violence to a more ethically oriented monotheism (see DR-1 to DR-9), not only did the biblical tradition apparently invent the devil (see DR-10), but it also appears to have invented Jesus Christ as a cosmic figure to vanquish the devil. So just as the devil is virtually absent from the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is also absent as the promised messiah or savior. For the following reasons, the Old Testament’s supposed prophecies about Christ, as subsequently claimed by New Testament authors, cannot be accepted as genuine:
1. In the Hebrew Bible, a messiah or anointed one is never a Christ-like figure, but only a king, a prophet, or a priest. As well, a king might be God’s metaphorical son or earthly representative. Several supposed prophecies of Jesus simply refer to concepts such as these, rather than to a divine Christ. – 2 Samuel 7:14 (referring to a king who might “commit iniquity,” obviously not sinless Jesus); Psalms 2:1-7; 16:8-11; Isaiah 9:1-7; 61:1-2; Daniel 9:24-27 (two instances apparently referring to King Cyrus and a high priest, possibly Onias III).
2. Other passages are similarly taken out of context, but have the further problem of being too easily subject to intentional or unverifiable fulfillment. The supposedly prophesied event could have been either consciously planned in advance (such as is recorded for Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey) or fabricated after the fact with details that cannot be substantiated (such as minor alleged incidents related to the alleged betrayal of Jesus and his crucifixion by the Romans). – Psalms 22:18; 34:20; 69:21; Zechariah 9:9; 11:12-13; 12:10.
3. Some verses, apart from being taken out of context, are too general or vague in any case to be convincing as prophecies about Christ. – Deuteronomy 18:15; Psalms 41:9; 78:2; 118:22; Isaiah 40:3; 42:1-3; Daniel 7:13-14; Micah 5:2; Zechariah 13:6-7; Malachi 3:1.
4. Certain passages concern the writers’ past or present rather than a messianic future. – Jeremiah 31:15 (“Rachel is weeping for her children,” referring to captives in Jeremiah’s time, not to victims of King Herod’s alleged massacre during Jesus’ time); Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” referring to the Exodus, not to Jesus’ return from Egypt after his parents’ flight from Herod).
5. For some purported prophecies, the above problems are compounded by inaccurate translations. – Psalm 22:16 (‘like a lion” mistranslated as “they pierced”); Isaiah 7:14 (“the young woman is with child” mistranslated as “a virgin will be with child.” A sign was given to address a king’s fear of an imminent invasion, not to predict a virgin birth far in the future); Isaiah 53:5, 8 (a servant is wounded “because of,” mistranslated as “for,” people’s transgressions; “a plague befell them” mistranslated as “was he stricken.” Hebrew plural terms, and references to the nation of Israel as the suffering servant, indicate that Isaiah was depicting an afflicted Israel, not a crucified Christ).
Questions to consider:
Why does the Hebrew Bible, in all its many books, never give one unambiguous account of Christ’s mission, or even distinguish between his first and second comings? If the Hebrew Bible is the Christian faith’s Old Testament, why are its supposed prophecies of Jesus so cryptic? Do these factors, and Jesus’ failure to fulfill the messianic expectation of political liberation, not provide an obvious explanation for why the Jews would have largely rejected him?
– 12 –
Having an Old Testament whose mythological themes (see DR-1 to DR-10) did not include the promise of a royal, virgin-born, literal Son of God (see DR-11), Christianity apparently contributed this mythology through Jesus’ fabricated nativity and genealogy. Following are indications that Jesus’ biblical birth narratives are at least partially inventive:
1. Contrary to what would be expected for such a great event, Jesus’ virgin birth is not mentioned in the Bible outside two late gospels. Most New Testament authors seem unaware of the event, treating Jesus’ mother, not as the Virgin Mary, but as an ordinary or even faithless woman. This suggests that the birth story, like its eventual appropriation of the pagan Meri/Madonna and Child, and the sun god’s winter solstitial birthday, was a later adaptation to a Hellenized culture.
2. Matthew and Luke, the only biblical books to make the claim of a virgin birth, contradict this claim by presenting Jesus as a descendant of King David through his earthly father Joseph. Apologists cannot solve this problem by arguing that royal descent came through adoption, since elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is said to be of David’s “seed” (John 7:42; 2 Timothy 2:8) “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), denoting normal biological descent.
3. A royal genealogy for Jesus (a common feature of birth myths) is presented in two inconsistent versions in Matthew and Luke. The inconsistency cannot be avoided by attributing the versions to different sides of the family, since both lines are expressly Joseph’s. Such an explanation also fails to account for the fact that these two genealogies have so many ancestors in common, and yet are hugely discrepant in the number of ancestors listed for the same time period. Plus, neither version fully conforms to the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3 of the Old Testament.
4. Both New Testament genealogies include Jeconiah or his descendants, about whom it was prophesied in Jeremiah 22:30, “no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.” Since Jesus was held to be of David’s seed, he was also held to be a Davidic ruler via Jeconiah’s seed. According to the Bible, this was not to happen.
5. Incompatible explanations are given for how Jesus, thought to have lived in Nazareth of Galilee, was born in Bethlehem of Judea, King David’s birthplace. Matthew has Jesus’ family settle in Nazareth after fleeing Bethlehem to escape King Herod’s attempt to kill his infant rival (another common feature of birth myths), whereas Luke has Mary give birth in Bethlehem as a result of Joseph travelling from his Galilean residence to his ancestral home for a Roman census carried out by Cyrenius/Quirinius. Given that Herod died about 4 BCE, and the census was conducted about 6 CE, there is a gap of a decade or so between the two accounts.
6. Historically, there is no evidence of Herod’s alleged slaughter of children, even in Flavius Josephus’ careful record of the king’s abuses. Similarly, as to the historicity of the alternative story, Galileans would not have been subject to a census in the administratively separate land of Judea, nor would an expecting couple have been required to make a long difficult trip to an ancestral home, when the aim of the census was only to obtain current information for taxing purposes.
Questions to consider:
Might the above suggest the wisdom of the biblical counsel against myths and genealogies (1 Timothy 1:3-4)? Does not the incoherence of the Christian Nativity speak for itself?
– 13 –
Jesus Christ, if he has any basis in history, can be understood as a Jew, or very possibly a composite Jewish figure, who inherited a tradition of evolving religious mythology that, by his time, included messianic, apocalyptic and related themes, but without the non-Jewish concept of a promised savior as a virgin-born Son of God (see DR-1 to DR-12). According to most critical scholars in the field, this historical/composite Jew did not present himself as God’s literal son or an otherworldly Christ, but was a Jewish prophet/sage who, like other figures of that period, was persecuted for challenging Roman rule by preaching the kingdom of God on earth. Certain New Testament passages lend support to this position in suggesting that Jesus helped to initiate a resistance movement similar to ones led by the following contemporaneous Jews:
In Acts 5:36, a Jewish judge urges toleration for Jesus’ followers by comparing them to the followers of Theudas, a reputed prophet-magician. Such a comparison reflects the biblical Jesus’ reputation as a miracle-working prophet who, like Theudas, seems to have placed more emphasis on miraculous divine intervention than on armed revolution as the means of bringing about or manifesting the kingdom of God on earth.
Judas the Galilean
Yet, in the next verse, the judge compares Jesus’ followers to those of Judas the Galilean, a failed messianic leader and founder of the revolutionary Zealots – not to be confused with Jesus’ apostle Judas Iscariot, though Iscariot might be a Zealot term for political assassin. Whether or not Jesus was violent, the New Testament records that he had one or more Zealots among his chosen apostles (Luke 6:13-16), that Jesus required disciples to carry swords (Luke 22:36-38), and that one of them used a sword quite violently (John 18:10). Paralleling proto-Zealot and Zealot revolts, Jesus reportedly organized a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, took charge of the temple as a known economic centre of Roman-Jewish collaboration, was considered an atoning martyr vindicated by resurrection, had martyred followers, and in dynastic fashion, having succeeded “cousin” John the Baptist, was succeeded in turn by “brothers,” James and then Simon – not by Peter and the corrupt Romanized papacy with its own proven violence. Later orthodox Jews known as the Ebionites, invoking James against Paul, accepted Jesus as a non-divine messiah.
A Roman commander, in Acts 21:38, asks the Christian Paul whether he is the man called the Egyptian – another comparison with political implications since the Egyptian sought kingship by leading an anti-Roman revolt. While Paul may not have sought kingship, Jesus reportedly was crucified between two rebels for claiming to be king of the Jews. The Bible’s description of Jesus’ revolutionary message inciting less animosity from the brutal and anti-Jewish Roman governor Pontius Pilate than from the nationalistic and humane Pharisaic Jews (not the stereotyped Pharisees of the gospels) is a historically false role reversal.
Questions to consider:
Leaving aside claims of divinity, is there anything about Jesus’ adult life, more or less as depicted in the synoptic gospels, which makes it very unique in the context of the Judaism of his time? Is our New Testament not anti-Semitic, inherently and by its effects, in denigrating this Judaism, and suggesting that “the Jews” as a supposedly evil people, rather than their Roman oppressors, killed Christ? As a Christian in the past, do I not owe Jews an apology for alleging this?
– 14 –
Assuming that the Jesus movement was originally a Jewish “Kingdom of God” movement derived from a long tradition of evolving religious mythology that did not include the pagan idea of a dying and rising divine savior (see DR-1 to DR-13), it seems that such an idea came into the movement through Paul, under the influence of the Gnosticism and mystery cults of his Greco-Roman environment. While Paul’s letters in the Bible are considered the earliest extant Christian texts, precluding direct comparison with prior Christian writings, the following excerpts from those letters contain hints, minimized in the later book of Acts, of a mystical Hellenized Paul promoting new beliefs that caused division within a Jesus movement based until then on orthodox Judaism:
“…we have been buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead… so we too might walk in newness of life.” [as in the mystery cults]
1 Corinthians 1
“One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’… another, ‘I follow Peter’… Is Christ divided [like his followers]?”
1 Corinthians 2, 15
“…we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery… the wisdom which none of the rulers of the age [Gnostic demons] has understood [or] they would not have crucified the Lord of glory [as was done to the pagan savior] …Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised on the third day [like the pagan savior] …he was seen [from a word referring to mystical sight] by Peter, then by [others].”
1 Corinthians 10, 11
“Is not the cup… a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread… a participation in the body of Christ? [mystery cult language] … For I received from the Lord [directly/mystically, not from Jesus’ followers] …that the Lord Jesus [instituted the Lord’s Supper, a mystery cult term].”
2 Corinthians 4
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light… For God [gave us] the light of the knowledge…” [Gnostic themes of two gods, light, and knowledge]
2 Corinthians 11
“For if one comes and preaches another Jesus… you might well bear with him. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those super-apostles… For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” [more division over Jesus; see also below]
Galatians 1, 2
“…if anyone is preaching to you a different gospel… he is to be accursed… For I neither received [my gospel] from man, nor was I taught it [by Jesus’ followers], but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. …false brothers infiltrated our ranks to spy on our liberty [from Jewish law, as in Gnosticism]… When Peter came… I opposed him [for heeding] certain men from James [orthodox Jew leading the Jesus movement]. …Christ lives in me.” [mystical language]
Questions to consider:
Between orthodox Jews, such as Peter and James, who knew Jesus historically (according to the biblical account), and Paul who knew him only mystically – who knew him better? Was the false apostle not Paul?
– 15 –
Granting that Paul was a transitional figure in an evolving mythology (see DR-1 to DR-12), linking the original Jesus movement’s “Kingdom of God” Judaism to later Christianity’s worship of Jesus as a divine savior similar to the dying and rising gods of the surrounding pagan cults (see DR-13, DR-14), we are now able to make sense of the following pattern whereby Paul’s letters and the biblical gospels, considered in the order in which they are thought to have been written, exhibit a developing Christology, with an increasingly deified Jesus and accumulating pagan motifs:
In Paul’s letters, Jesus is depicted as one who had “the form of God” but not “equality with God,” who only by being “obedient to death” was exalted as Lord (Philippians 2:5-11), and who only “by his resurrection” became God’s son, just as others might also receive “a spirit of adoption as sons” to become “fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 1:4; 8:15-17). Without ever mentioning the virgin birth or other miracles associated with Jesus, Paul simply says that “God sent forth his son, born of a woman… that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
According to the earliest manuscripts of the gospel attributed to Mark (which end at verse 16:8), there is darkness at Jesus’ death, as well as a messenger at an empty tomb, but no appearance by the risen Christ. Mark has miracles, but no virgin birth, beginning rather with Jesus receiving God’s spirit, and being declared by a heavenly voice to be God’s son, only at his baptism (Mark 1).
The gospel attributed to Matthew introduces the virgin birth amid other miracles such as a guiding star for visiting magi (Matthew 1-2). Christ’s death and resurrection are portrayed as being accompanied by an earthquake, an angel rolling back a stone from Jesus’ sepulcher, and appearances of both Jesus and other resurrected people (Matt. 27-28). Nowhere else, in the Bible or historical records, is this account of an earthquake and multiple resurrection to be found.
Presenting a different virgin birth story, the gospel attributed to Luke has a manger, attending shepherds, and a host of praising angels (Luke 2). Also, in another version of the resurrection narrative, Luke introduces a second angel, and emphasizes the physicality of Christ’s risen body, as well as the glory of his heavenly ascension as a separate event from his resurrection (Luke 24; Acts 1).
Finally, in the gospel attributed to John, Jesus is not just God’s son at his resurrection (Paul), baptism (Mark), or birth (Matthew, Luke). Moving still farther back in time, he is identified with God as the only One or Son, and as the pre-existent, incarnated Logos, Light, and Lamb (John 1). His God-like miracles include turning water into wine at a wedding, like the wine god (John 2), and raising buried Lazarus before two sisters at Bethany amid much weeping (John 11), as in the earlier Egyptian myth of El-Asar-us, raised before two sisters at Beth-Anu, a place of weeping.
Questions to consider:
Are these stories not too inconsistent, too Gentile, and too increasingly mythical, to be first- or second-hand historical records? Is this not confirmed by the fact that the gospels were unknown to church fathers before the second century, then quoted as anonymous works until c. 180 CE?
– 16 –
Various mythical elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, originating in ancient Mesopotamian and neighboring cultures, and concentrating in the story of Jesus Christ (see DR-1 to DR-15), have the following parallels in relation to Jesus-like figures of other major faiths, such as Zoroaster in Zoroastrianism, Krishna in Hinduism, Buddha in Buddhism, Laozi in Daoism, Confucius in Confucianism, and of course Jesus as depicted in the Islamic and Baha’i faiths:
Divine incarnation, deification – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Laozi, Confucius
Royal genealogy – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Virgin/miraculous birth – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Laozi, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Birth accompanied by a special star – Krishna, Buddha, Laozi, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Shepherds, wise men, or angels visiting – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Baha’i Jesus
Murderous threat from a rival king – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Baha’i Jesus
Baptism or ritual bathing – Zoroaster, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Temptation by or as by a devil – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Healing of the sick or possessed – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic Jesus
Miracles such as passing over water and magically feeding a multitude – Krishna, Buddha
Accounts of a man born blind, a woman by a well, and a prodigal son – Buddha
Wisdom from youth onward – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Lessons about offensive eyes, rain for the unjust, waterproof houses, eternal treasure – Buddha
Parables about a mustard seed, wheat and tares, seeds in different soils – Buddha
Declaring the Way/Word – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Laozi, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Proclaiming heavenly rule – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Names such as Firstborn or Only Begotten, Lord/Prince of Peace, etc. – Krishna, Buddha
Triumphal entry in a city or among hailing disciples – Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Bodily transfiguration – Krishna, Buddha
Mission as savior or redeemer – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Betrayal and death on a cross or tree – Krishna, Buddha, Baha’i Jesus
Earthquake or signs at death – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Laozi, Baha’i Jesus
Journey into hell, assistance or judgment of the dead – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha
Resurrection or ascent – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Laozi, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Promised return one day – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus
Questions to consider:
Can the biblical story of Jesus be uniquely true when it shares so many features of narratives from other world religions that, directly or indirectly, could have been expected to influence the development of Christianity through the commerce and syncretism of its Hellenistic environment? Is not Islam also discredited, along with its Baha’i offshoot, since it incorporates biblical mythology, and since its god Allah, like the linguistically related El/elohim of the Bible, is a former high god of a pantheon, who still speaks as a polytheistic “we” or “us”? Similarly, is not Judaism discredited, insofar as the apocalyptic and related themes it contributed to Christianity it also shares with other world religions, dating from the period of its contact with the Persians and their Zoroastrian faith? Likewise, can Zoroastrianism be uniquely true, or Hinduism or Buddhism, given that the Zoroastrian and Hindu faiths share features drawn from a common Indo-Iranian heritage, while Buddhism incorporates Hindu motifs? Are not the parallels in all these world religions, particularly as they are traceable to the descending-ascending figures and other themes of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, sufficient proof that all the faiths are reworked mythology?
– 17 –
Paralleling the Christian, Islamic, and Baha’i revisions of biblical mythology (see DR-1 to DR-16), the Mormons also revised biblical myths. Other reasons to reject Mormonism include the following:
1. Mormon founder Joseph Smith made claims of paranormal experiences common for young people in his time. Further, his new religion promoted ideas already found in occult traditions: spirit as purer matter, prior spirit creation, Christian prophetic sacrifices originating with Adam, Satanic secrets originating with Cain, Enoch weeping over the resulting flood but rejoicing in Christ, proxy baptisms for the dead, initiatory washing and anointing with a garment and new name, Masonic-like symbols and oaths, key words or signs for a heavenly ascent, mortals seeking godhood, three celestial worlds and two lesser degrees of glory, etc.
2. While Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon purported to be a new divine translation from ancient plates, it restated popular claims made by his nineteenth-century American contemporaries:
– that ancient America was inhabited by migrants from Israel and/or the tower of Babel
– that they divided into dark-skinned uncivilized people and fair-skinned civilized people
– that the latter built great cities (such as those whose ruins were found in Mesoamerica)
– that Christ visited these people post-resurrection (possibly becoming Quetzalcoatl)
– that these people were Christ’s other sheep of a different fold, per the New Testament
– that the dark-skinned people destroyed the fair-skinned people in a final great battle
– that descendants of the former later became known as the American Indians
– that a record of these people was written on metal plates, and buried in a stone box
– that these people were destined to help establish the New Jerusalem in America
Virtually all non-Mormon experts in the field, and even some Mormon experts at the risk of excommunication, have concluded that the archaeological, linguistic, and/or genetic evidence does not support the above claims (forcing a partial concession by the main Mormon church in 2006 when it changed its introduction to the Book of Mormon).
3. The religious and Semitic complexity of the Book of Mormon can be explained by Joseph Smith’s prior involvement with Sidney Rigdon, an educated preacher whose mentor’s unique restorationist theology is discernible throughout the book, except significantly where Rigdon disagreed with that mentor (such as regarding common property, special gifts, and extra-biblical authority, all of which Rigdon and the Book of Mormon endorsed against his mentor). In Book of Mormon passages that reflect Rigdon’s views, there has been found a disproportionate frequency of terminology characteristic of Rigdon’s teachings, notably the phrase “children of men.”
4. A similar word pattern has been found in other Mormon scriptures – Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Moses, and a modified Bible – discrediting them also as God’s supposed revelations to Smith. The Book of Abraham, a further Mormon scripture, purports to be a translation by Smith from Egyptian papyri, but both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists have agreed that this is a false translation, and that the papyri are funerary texts having nothing to do with Abraham.
Questions to consider:
Should I not, as a Mormon apostate, warn that my former faith has doctrines such as dark skin by divine curse, priesthood denial to blacks formerly and women still, and plural wives as an ideal? Is not another concern the Mormon Church’s heavy taxation of its members without ethical investment accountability? Does this powerful emerging world religion call for our vigilance?
– 18 –
Evolving biblical religion, having borrowed anthropomorphic concepts of the divine from the ancient Middle East (see DR-1 to DR-17), similarly drew upon Western and Eastern philosophy to develop a doctrine of God and spirits as immaterial entities. That this immateriality doctrine is a post-biblical pagan myth can be seen from the following considerations:
1. According to a growing consensus of biblical scholars, the ancient Hebrews did not make a distinction between material and immaterial beings. The original Hebrew and Greek words for spirit in the Bible mean “breath” or “wind,” suggesting a more refined or subtle form of matter. Possibly influenced by Stoic pantheism, which used the same Greek word to represent the deity as a material substance pervading the universe, some church fathers held that God was embodied. So common was this interpretation of the word that John 4:24, which employs that word to describe God, was actually cited by those who argued for divine corporeality. Hence, the contrary view has been challenged as unbiblical, while religious believers as diverse as Mormons and New Agers have defined spirit in terms of matter or energy.
2. Only when non-biblical philosophers had conceptualized a purely immaterial reality did such a notion enter biblical theology. This development began when teachers of the East and West, speculating about the hidden unity or permanence underlying transient matter, without recognizing it as the physical universe’s inherent order, ascribed to it a separate reality. Consequently, this natural unity became reified and deified as the One or Being or the Absolute, a truer ideal reality transcending the world of the physical senses. Under the influence of such a philosophy, largely as transmitted through Plato and his successors, biblical theologians made the pagans’ transcendent immaterial reality their own.
3. Therefore, although an immaterial reality was introduced on philosophical grounds, it is not philosophically justified other than as a mere abstraction from material existence. Likewise, minds do not justify belief in immaterial souls, for we have no proof of minds other than as abstractions from conscious matter, of which consciousness can no more exist independently than movement or weight can exist apart from things that move or have weight. Neither can a mind access any reality other than its own unless it finds that reality outside itself. Yet, it can do this only by contacting something that stimulates its awareness, in which case the thing would be known empirically and so, by necessary implication, constitute a form of matter-energy. It follows that any knowable reality, however elevated or mystical it might seem, must be scientifically explainable in physicalist terms.
Questions to consider:
Why should Christians (or anyone) retain the doctrine of immaterial entities when such a doctrine is neither biblically nor philosophically justified? Although it may avoid crude anthropomorphism, could it simply be raising anthropomorphism to a more abstract level, replacing projections of physical human beings’ limited bodily and emotional attributes with projections of thinking human beings’ ideal mental and rational attributes? Is this not why some theologians go further in claiming that we cannot use any literal or positive terms at all to describe the divine, which is wholly other and incomprehensible, thus conceding to agnostics that we cannot even know that a transcendent God is real? Does such abstracting/negating with regard to deity not then lead to the abstract nothingness of liberal theology’s God as the Ground of Being, showing that this deity is equivalent to an atheistic metaphor derived from material existence?
– 19 –
Biblical supernaturalism can be understood as an extension of the pagan tendency to deify natural forces, having evolved from Mesopotamian/Canaanite polytheism with its sky and earth deities, incorporated the Persian dualism of light and dark forces, Christianized the Hellenistic motif of a dying and rising savior personifying seasonal cycles, and finally adapted the Platonic concept of a transcendent reality abstracted from the unity of material existence (see DR-1 to DR-18). Consistent with such an understanding, there has been a shift away from supernaturalism as implausible mythology towards an exclusive reverence for nature, updating ancient wisdom in an empathic, holistic manner that can be considered progressive as long as it does not bring mythical notions back in by deifying nature, other than metaphorically. In that regard, the following can be said about three expressions of this reverential attitude:
Reviving polytheistic or animistic beliefs in a modern form, Neopaganism deifies processes of nature, whether intended literally or metaphorically. If the deification is intended literally, the divine beings would by definition be more than mere symbols for natural processes, and so would have to be separate from those processes in some sense, controlling or manifesting them from beyond, as it were. Besides reintroducing an implausible supernaturalism, this would be difficult to reconcile with Pagan claims that goddesses and gods are archetypes of an immanent energy, and that beliefs are to be considered metaphorical when needed to avoid conflicts with science.
Identifying God with the all, or a harmonious universe, pantheism is a classic example of deifying the unity of nature, again either literally or metaphorically. On a literal view, supernaturalism is only nominally avoided, by representing the deified unity as immanent rather than transcendent. Further, if this immanent oneness is conceived in terms of everything as part of a single consciousness, such can only make sense as a symbolic image of the collective life or organic unity of the material world. Yet, if the oneness is conceived as entirely impersonal, even more is a metaphorical view suggested, for an impersonal immanent unity is not meaningfully distinguishable from the inner harmony of the physical universe studied by science.
New Age Mysticism
Drawing on quantum physics and other sciences, New Agers have claimed that everything is interconnected as dynamic energy, and that human consciousness can alter this energy or connect to a higher reality. Critics have complained that such claims are used to distort the science on which they are based, and that ideas such as consciousness and energy are being applied in unscientific ways. When mystics in fact do this, in a literal rather than metaphorical manner, it can again be argued that avoidance of supernaturalism is only nominal, given that physical processes are then effectively being treated as supernatural forces. Correcting this error means keeping mystical references to consciousness, energy, and the like, unambiguously within a materialist or physicalist framework.
Questions to consider:
Is it fair perhaps to suggest that those who purport to eschew supernatural forces, while expressly or implicitly deifying processes of nature, are trying to have it both ways? Are they not trying to say that reality, in one sense, is only physical processes but, in another sense, transcends the purely physical? Does this not require the two senses to be literal and metaphorical respectively?
– 20 –
Finding reasons to reject biblical supernaturalism as implausible mythology (see DR-1 to DR-18), Neopagans, pantheists, and New Agers have sought instead to modernize the ancient wisdom of pagan cultures (see DR-19). Unfortunately, some of them have made claims about the past that are inconsistent with the conclusions of historical and scientific experts, such as the following claims about paganism:
That an advanced pagan civilization, typically called Atlantis, existed in the ancient past before vanishing under the sea – whereas this idea is contradicted by multiple findings related to anthropological and geological history (cf. the biblical story of a great flood), as well as by evidence that Plato’s account of Atlantis, which gave rise to Atlantean notions in the first place, was intended as philosophical fiction, possibly inspired in part by recent flooding of an island named Atalanta.
That ancient pagans had advanced skills passed down to us as magic or psi, energy healing or therapy, astrology or other divination, and so on – whereas belief in such phenomena has been shown to be correlated with psychological mechanisms such as confirmation bias (dismissing negative evidence), ignorance of statistical probability (underestimating the frequency of coincidence), perceptual illusion (being fooled by appearance), the placebo effect (reacting based on expectation), and the ideomotor response (unconsciously moving a divinatory object).
That pagan societies in prehistoric times were peaceful and egalitarian, honored women, and worshipped a supreme goddess – whereas their remains contain ample evidence of weaponry, violent deaths, class distinctions, sex role differentiation, and male-oriented religious imagery.
That the early modern witch hunts of the West targeted a pagan religion surviving from antiquity – whereas this claim has been discredited in favor of the view that the witch hunts targeted heretical sorcery, falsely accusing women and other marginalized people who were not pagans.
That ancient pagan worship survived underground until emerging as modern witchcraft or Wicca – whereas there is strong evidence that Wicca founder Gerald Gardner supported this claim with false data and credentials, a false initiation story, and a false tradition combining occult symbols, Eastern concepts, romanticized folklore, and the above discredited witch hunt theory.
That there is a direct connection between ancient and modern Druids – whereas the British Museum has stated that there is no such connection, and that many of the popular ideas about Druids, such as their supposed link to the builders of Stonehenge, are based on scholarly misconceptions from two centuries ago that have since been superseded by better research.
That the end date of an ancient Mayan calendar prophesied a global catastrophe or transformation around late 2012 – whereas there is no evidence that this end date was anything other than the day when the calendar was to turn over, nor has there been any scientific support for such an event occurring on that date.
Questions to consider:
Does it make good sense for Neopagans, pantheists, and New Agers to reject Christians’ unhistorical and unscientific claims only to replace them with similar claims of their own? Are not their feminist and other progressive values better served by the avoidance of discreditable myths?