By: LARRY SITES
Re: Messiah Gate 1
[From the WWW. Notice how this effectively deals with Al and
Michael's claims about the disciples. LGS]
Reproducible Electronic Publishing can defeat censorship.
This file made available by the Internet Infidels for The
A Tale of Murder and Deception
by Larry A. Taylor
Originally printed in HUMSIG
newsletter, Number 7, August 1987;
Larry A. Taylor, ed..
Lecture delivered at Humanist Society of
Friends (Los Angeles), August 27,
Larry A. Taylor
11743 E. North Circle Drive
Whittier, CA 90601
Copyright HUMSIG, 1987.
Jerusalem; it's a tough town, but it's my beat.
I knew it was going to be a tough case when the dame walked into my
office. She tough and she was cool. I could tell from her looks that
she wasn't going to take "no" for an answer. She said she wanted me
to do an historical investigation, but I knew that her type would be
satisfied with nothing less than my soul. She was a missionary. Her
boss had been murdered. She wanted the impossible "proved" from history:
that this Jewish carpenter's son - Jesus, she called him - had risen
from the dead. If I didn't take the case, then I could go to hell for
all she was concerned.
The Historian as Detective
I've made up the above little mystery novel scenario to emphasize the
similarity between a shamus and a historical investigator. A historian
is like a detective - both of us have to be tough about the facts, and
not take the first story offered to us. Who said so? Why? What's the
angle? What's in it for them?
Historian R.G. Collingwood argues that the fundamental attribute of
the critical historian is skepticism regarding testimony about the
past.1 All we have are documents and artifacts. Documents can be
propaganda, or real evidence but biased, or completely forged in a
later century. Examples of famous forgeries include the "Donation of
Constantine," supposedly a deed of gift of Vatican lands to the
Pope by the Roman Emperor, but actually fabricated
in the eighth century; the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion;" and
Minnesota's famous Kensington Rune Stone.(2)
The treatment of Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE, is an example
of the bias of writers. Nearly all ancient writers
whose works have survived agree that Tiberius was a monster in
human form. They depict him at an age of eighty
indulging in a variety of vices that seem even physically
impossible, much less likely. What would be our knowledge
of Tiberius if other ancient sources had survived?(3)
How does this apply to the story of Jesus? Simply that all of the early
critics are dead. Skeptical opinions were banned. Christian opinions,
other than those of the establishment, were banned. Books were destroyed,
and later, heretics were burned.
The following is a composite of a typical, traditional argument for
believing that the resurrection of Jesus was a fact
provable from history:
The twelve disciples were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of
The earliest accounts of the
resurrection speak of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The canonical gospels record the eyewitness accounts of the
The gospels are to be regarded
as at least ordinary historical documents, substantially if not
completely true. The eyewitness accounts
are accurate because they are clear and consistent. Early
regarded these accounts as
inspired, or at least literally accurate and truthful.
The sincerity of the disciples is proven by the martyrdoms they
endured. The Christian story must be
regarded as truthful because the Jews and Romans, threatened
growing movement, could have
easily presented contrary evidence had if it existed.
It is therefore logical to believe in Jesus' resurrection. The
historical evidence proves that Jesus was
Let's investigate the above claims. Just the facts, mam.
The story is a good story, too. Like all good detective stories,
there is a
love interest. Did you know about Jesus'
girlfriend? Imagine Mary Magdalene suddenly showing up at a trial to
deliver surprise testimony. This account has
been suppressed by centuries of orthodox Christianity:
The companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalen. [But Christ
more than [all] the disciples,
and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the
disciples were offended]. They said to
him,"Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior
said to them, "Why do I not
love you as (I love) her?"(4)
The easy way
In a strict sense, no "miracle" can ever be proved by a historian.
Flew summarizes the arguments as put
forth by David Hume:
[F]irst, that the present relics of the past cannot be
all unless we presume the same
fundamental regularities obtained then obtain today.
Second, the historian must employ as his criteria all his
knowledge, or presumed knowledge,
of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible.
Third, that since the word "miracle" has to be defined in
practical necessity and practical
impossibility the application of these criteria inevitably
proof of a miracle.(5)
Notice that Hume/Flew is not saying that "miracles are impossible."
could that possibly mean, anyway? But a
historian, dealing with accounts of events, and explanations of
events, has to rank these events as "probable"
and "improbable." Because a "miracle" by definition is contrary to
ordinary experience, it always has to be
classified as "improbable." A report of a resurrection is so
that the historian must rank a literal
interpretation as less probable than that the reports are the
illusion, deception, garbled transmission, and
Even Christian apologists admit that certainties cannot be
historical arguments. Origen, one of the
earliest educated Christians, wrote: "An attempt to substantiate
of almost any story as historical fact, even if
the story is true, and to produce complete certainty about it, is
the most difficult tasks, and in some cases
In fact, it is doubtful that any amount of testimony could way so
as to overcome the strength of our present
experience. I regard Hume's argument as correct and sufficient.
No! Christians which to use history say that I would have a
anti-supernatural bias to begin with. Who do I think I
am to dismiss all reports of miracles? But such critical thinking
to modes of thinking other than
What if ones pregnant daughter said she was still a virgin and the
was Jehovah? I think that most
fundamentalist fathers would exhibit an "anti-supernatural bias." I
say that no "miracle" was "possible". I
merely say that no "miracle" can be "proved." because alternative
explanations, likely and unlikely, are still more
probable than that observed relations so regularly established be
But to satisfy everyone, the case must go
Historians must judge the past by the present. What could be more
No other method seems logical. We
judge the unfamiliar by the familiar, the far by the near.
Some people claimed some things. It is valid to investigate
"miracle-claims." Let us find out who said what to whom
Let me put on my tough detective hat again. "I've seen a lot of
my time, lady," I would say. "But I never
saw a dead person get up. No detective (or historian) has got any
claiming that he or she can 'prove' a
miracle. I think that the evidence will show that someone has been
you stories. I tell you what I am going to
do. I'll investigate all the facts and lay them out. After I give
the facts and you still think you can find a miracle
in all of this, then that's your business.
"I get one hundred dollars a day plus expenses."
Who is Jesus?
Let's go back to the method of the historian, who necessarily
his or her own sources. What do we know
about the historical Jesus? Let's lay out the facts that are
Writings of Jesus: none. Contemporaneous records, such as tax
Roman administrative documents: none.
Books or other accounts written by eyewitnesses (more on the gospels
further on): none. Physical descriptions,
such as height, weight, eye and hair color: none.
What do we have? Dozens of "gospels" composed by later followers,
which were canonized into the New
Testament. These were written between thirty and two hundred years
the claimed date of Jesus. But we also
have references in the letters of Paul. Paul was a second generation
Christian who probably never met Jesus. Most
of the letters which bear his name are approved by scholars as
having been written by him.
Incidental references to Christians and Jesus can be found in
Suetonius.(7) Suetonius spells the name,
"Chrestus"; either this is a confusion on his part, or it refers to
Suppose we use the canonical gospels for evidence of biographical
about Jesus. Where was Jesus born? The
writers of the gospels disagree among themselves. Matthew and Luke
the usual notion that the event took
place in Bethlehem; while John and Mark give the impression that
never heard of such a thing.(8) Jesus
was commonly known as a Nazarene, an inhabitant of Nazareth, a
When was Jesus born? According to Luke, it was during the reign of
Roman governor Quirinius,during a census
ordered by Augustus throughout the whole world.(9) According to
and Matthew it was also during the
reign of king Herod "the Great."(10) The problem is that Herod died
B.C.E., and this was fully ten years before
Quirinius' census. Furthermore, during Herod's reign, no Roman
have been held in his territory, which
included both Judaea and Galilee, the locations of both Bethlehem
Nazareth.(11) Herod would have collected
his own taxes, and given tribute to the Romans. Lastly, the
existence of a
census throughout the whole empire is
contrary to the practice of the Romans, who collected taxes
province, often subcontracting the process
It would seem that a genealogy would a simple and straightforward
Both Matthew and Luke both give
accounts.(12) Unfortunately, they contradict each other, and the Old
Testament, too; disagreeing even over the
name of the father of Joseph. As good detectives, we are driven to
conclusion: almost no authentic biographical
information is known about Jesus. That which is not included in the
Christian Bible is extremely sketchy, while that
which is regarded as "inspired" is contradictory to itself and to
The Disciples: Missing Persons
Did not the disciples provide testimony of Jesus, and prove their
by martyrdom? If Jesus is doubtful, the
disciples are positively obscure. Other than James the brother of
no claim is made for the fate of any of
the disciples in the Bible. No clues are provided by any
When Prophecy Fails
Sometime in the 1950's ( the researchers have obscured the exact
well as the identity of the subjects),
sociologists at the University of Minnesota read in a major city's
newspaper that messages from the planet Clarion
received by a suburban housewife prophesied that the city would
a flood from the great lake on a
specific date only two months away. Similar cataclysms at the same
would amount to the end of the world.
Faithful believers would be saved by boarding flying saucers.
The researchers decided to join the group, taking notes of behavior
and after the date of the proclaimed
disaster. The record of the group's torment has enormous
the so-called "Easter event."
The authors of When Prophecy Fails observed a cultic group that had
predictions about the end of the world.
They looked for the following conditions in that group:
1.A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have
relevance to action, that is, to what the
believer does or how he behaves.
2.The person holding the belief must have committed himself to
is, for the sake of his belief, he must
have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In
general, the more important such actions are,
and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the
individual's commitment to the belief.
3.The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently
with the real world so that events may
unequivocally refute the belief.
4.Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be
recognized by the individual holding the
5.The individual believer must have social support. It is
one isolated believer could withstand the
kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however,
believer is a member of a group of
convinced persons who can support one anther, we would expect
belief to be maintained and the
believers attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that
belief is correct.(14)
The expectations of the theory were dramatically confirmed. The
lady continued prophesying, the
believers believed, and the researchers took notes, right through
of the expected disaster. The gathered
believers were not taken on their flying saucers. Suddenly,
increased. Normally shy members of the
group took to phoning newspapers with new rationalizations.
Committed to secrecy previously, members now sought publicity of
In the words of the researchers,
proselytizing increased "meteorically."(15)
If anything is known about Jesus, it would be the following. He was
wandering rabbi and perhaps also a magician
in first century Palestine. He gathered a movement of thousands of
had Messianic expectations. A small
group of followers had forsaken family and fortune.(16) After a
march on the capital, Jesus was suddenly
arrested and executed.
Christian apologists assert that the subsequent force of the
only be supplied by the dramatic force
of miraculous resurrection and appearance to the disciples. But the
sociological experiment thirty years ago show
that the opposite is true. The researchers considered that their
applied very well to early Christianity, only
that the historical record was too obscure to determine whether all
Early Christians differed in their views of the resurrection. As
by the original, short, version of Mark, the
idea of a "spiritual resurrection" as opposed to a bodily one goes
the very beginning. This is supported by
the stories from Emmaus that disciples had seen him "in another
--not his former earthly form; and the
gardener in whom Mary Magdalene senses the presence of Jesus.(19)
Why not see simply, that these emotionally wrought disciples
deprived of their leader, saw Jesus
everywhere, even in an ordinary stranger and a gardener?
This same Mary Magdalene is said to have been possessed of "seven
and later exorcised; in modern terms,
she would considered to be either schizophrenic or psychic. In some
versions, she is said to be the first to see
Jesus. According to Elaine Pagels, So if some of the New Testament
insist on a literal view of resurrection,
others lend themselves to different interpretations. One could
certain people, in moments of great
emotional stress, suddenly felt that they experienced Jesus'
Paul's experience can be read this way.(20)
Paul, of course, never saw Jesus alive so far as we know. But the
of his vision of Jesus makes clear that it
was a spiritual presence, not physical. One account of his
contradicts the other on a crucial point: did
bystanders hear the voice?(21)
But what of the Christian claim that a risen Jesus appeared to more
five hundred brethren at once?(22) First of
all, where or when did this take place? Although Paul intimates
of the persons involved were still alive, he
does not name them. Also, what is the likelihood that Greek
travel to Palestine to check up on his
story, in an age when such travel was expensive and dangerous? If
Greek had actually done such a thing,
would his individual word be worth much to the Christians if he had
out Paul in a fib? Our experience with
modern groups based on charismatic leaders shows us the incredible
flexibility of credulity.
Was it a bodily appearance? Paul did not distinguish his own
vision from those of the twelve or the
But instead, suppose the following happened. Five hundred
gathered somewhere near a cliff or bluff
in Palestine. Suddenly, a figure comes around the edge in white
leading most of the crowd to believe that he
had appeared from nowhere. Just as mysteriously, he disappears.
Instant miracle. Farfetched? Perhaps, but
given the state of mind of the early believers, it would account
for this story.
Bodily Resurrection - Not the Earliest Story
The claims of various apostles, singly and in groups, that they had
Jesus in the flesh, were added later. If there
were multiple eye witness accounts of these events available to
did he stop at 16:8 and not include
them? It is harder for me to believe that they did occur and were
by "Mark", than that did not occur but
were included by the other writers. In such books as the Gospel of
the Gospel of Thomas and other
Christian books as ancient as any in the canon, a literal belief in
bodily resurrection is ridiculed as a "faith of
fools." "Those who say they will die first and then rise are in
Instead they must "receive the resurrection while
The Ebionites - the Forgotten Jewish Christians
Early Jewish Christians in Palestine did not believe that Jesus is
Stranger and stranger! After all, Jesus never claimed to be God.
was not taken seriously by his friends,
but promoted by others who did not know him, to the ends of the
Who represents the original tradition of Christianity? Surely the
Christians, not those of foreign lands who
heard stories second and third hand. In my opinion, this group,
heretical by the later gentile followers of
Paul, represents the original belief of the small band of Jesus'
There is every reason to believe that the
Ebionites, whose name means "poor people", were the continuous local
Christian group in Judaea, including those
who knew Jesus. According to history,the Ebionites did not believe
Jesus was God, did not believe in the virgin
birth, and rejected the writings of Paul.(24) It seems that they
rejected all of the gospel writers, using only a
stripped down version of Matthew.
Furthermore, Irenaeus includes the Ebionites in a list of heretics
claims were associated with the Gnostics.
According to Elaine Pagels, the chief doctrinal difference the
with "orthodoxy" was that they did not
believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but a spiritual one,
It is my conclusion that this represents the earliest story.
The early Jewish Christians did not believe Jesus was God?
It's a Revelation!
The Story Was Changed
Elaine Pagels poses and answers a crucial question:
If the New Testament accounts could support a range of
did orthodox Christians in the second
century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all
heretical? I suggest that we cannot answer this
question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in
religious content. But when we examine its
practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see,
the doctrine of bodily resurrection also
serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the
certain men who claim to exercise exclusive
leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle
Revisions of the stories even deprived Mary Magdalene of the
receives in other versions, the first to
see a resurrected Jesus. In the revision, Jesus is said to have
Cephas (Peter) first.(27)
You've never heard an old fisherman exaggerate a story a little,
Gospels Not Accounts of Eyewitnesses
An astonishing passage in Matthew's account shows how completely
can be manufactured to fit
"prophecies" from the Old Testament. Jesus instructs the disciples
preparation for the "triumphal entry" of
Jerusalem, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you
an ass tied, and a colt tied with her.
[T]hey brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on
them, and he
sat thereon." (Mat. 21:2-5)
Did you catch that? Jesus is supposed to have sat on two animals at
Hosanna, that must have been hard to
do. If not impossible to accomplish, or at least ackward, this feat
also be a contradiction of John 12:14-15,
which states that Jesus was riding only one animal, a "young ass."
I think the obvious conclusion is that "Matthew" was not an
such a strange procession, nor could he
have gotten this detail from any reliable source.
Where, then did it come from?
He got it from having a copy of Zechariah 9:9 and using it to alter
account in order to make a "fulfilled
prophecy." The passage reads, "Lo, your king comes to you;
victorious is he, humble and riding on
an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass." This sort of repetition is
to Hebrew poetry. Matthew misunderstood this,
and wrote that Jesus rode on two different animals.
"Some things that can not take place"
Origen, an early church father who was one of the first to obtain
education, wrote a defense of Christian
claims. In Origen's systematic treatment of inspiration and
tells us that where spiritual truths did not
correspond to historical events, " the scripture wove into the
narrative what did not take place at some
points what cannot take place and at others what can take place but
The distortions of the New Testament writers were detected as soon
Christians came to public prominence.
Porphyry [c. 200 CE] convicted the evangelists of false references
Hebrew prophets, pointed out
contradictions between the different Gospel narratives, and the
inconsistencies of St. Paul.(29)
Why can't you read Porphyry or the other critics today? Why,
you not read the works of the Gnostics
or other alternatives? Their works were all ordered to be destroyed
"faithful" Christians took over political
Neither the claim to Messiahship, nor the resurrection is unique in
history. The great early critic of Christianity
mentioned above, Porphyry, admits that the Christians "have
wonders by their magic arts," but
adds that 'to perform wonders is no great thing.' Apollonius and
and countless other have done as much.
In a world where every one believed in magic, miracles were both
commonplace and morally suspect. (30)
The accounts we have of Apollonius of Tyana resemble those of
shows that the gospels were following a
standard formula of hero worship writing.
It is not yourself that perpetrates this insult, but the demon who
you on without your knowing it.
[T]he ghost swore that he would leave the young man alone and never
possession of any man again 'I will
throw down yonder statue!'(31)
Compare the same literary elements present in the story of the
swine (Matt. 8:31).
In our day, the Self-Realization Fellowship believes that its
Paramahansa Yogananda, has appeared to
scores of followers both in bodily form and in visions.
In addition, the book, Autobiography of a Yogi, presents the
several other dead masters of their
The Romans: The Dog that Did Not Bark
A favorite argument of Christian apologists is this: Why didn't the
prove that Jesus did not rise from the
dead? Couldn't they have exhibited the body? Solve the problem of
tomb, and rid themselves of this
pesky sect. This becomes like the detective story, "The Dog that
Bark," with the Romans in the role of
The fact is, the Romans were known for their tolerance of religions.
According to Gibbon, "The various modes of
worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by
people as equally true; by the
philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally
useful."(33) It was the Christians who introduced
Every religion was the object of benign neglect. In a few cases,
as that of the Great Mother, or of Isis, or
others, were temporarily banned from the city of Rome. These were
as local political threats.
Instead of being a great threat to the Roman Empire, Christians
numerous in the first century. It was not
necessarily dangerous if one kept a low profile. Instead, it was
dangerous to be a Jew in Palestine about
70 C.E.., when hundreds of thousands of them were killed in the
So far as is known, the only Christians punished for their faith in
first century were those who refused to sacrifice
to the emperor, which, tragically was perceived as a political
Christians, for those who were Jews as well,
received a blanket exemption accorded to that community.
Problems only developed later, as Gentile converts grew. The
administrative notice of Christians took place
circa 112 C.E. The Roman provincial administrator Pliny ("the
wrote to Trajan about how to handle
them. The general tenor is, "Who are these guys?"(34) At the end of
first century, Christians were being
persecuted - but only on a provincial basis, not empire wide.
The Decian persecution of 249 C.E. was the first systematic attempt
exterminate Christianity. The great
persecution was under Diocletian between 303 and 305.(35) By the
Romans took notice, it was at least a
hundred years past the time the "empty tomb" claim could be dealt
terms of artifacts and contemporary
documents. The dog who did not bark did not do so because all it
saw was a
Gathering All the Suspects
Like any good (or bad) detective novel, we should have a final
which the detective confronts the suspects
and makes his accusation.
Is there anything here we could prove to the satisfaction of a
court - "beyond a reasonable doubt?" - even
the existence of the chief character, Jesus?
"Insufficient evidence!" would have to be the verdict. As many
historians have concluded, Jesus probably
lived in Palestine in the first century, and was executed, as
records. But how did the followers of Jesus begin
to announce that their leader had been raised from the dead must
under a shroud of obscurity because of the
lack of contemporary, objective testimony. A charismatic rabbi with
messianic pretentions and a following of
thousands was suddenly executed. Under these conditions, it is
conclude that loyal band of insiders may
continue to feel the presence of their leader. That they continued
Jesus in visions wouldn't suprise anyone this
is exactly what happened to the followers of Paramahansa Yogananda
others. in When Prophecy Fails,
we have sociological evidence for continued and increased
Further, from the evidence in the Gnostic Gospels, we can see how
might have changed from a spiritual
interpretation of visions, to a story of bodily resurrection under
steady pressure of political interests.
1.Van Harvey, in Jesus in History and Myth, p. 199; R. G. Coll
"Who killed John Doe? The
Problem of Testimony," from The Idea of History, reprinted in
Historian as Detective: Essays on
Evidence, Robin W. Winks, ed. (New, York: Harper and Row,
2.Norling, Towards a Better Understanding of History, (Notre
Notre Dame University
Press,1960), p. 47.
3.Norling, ibid., p. 45.
4.Gospel of Phillip 63.32-64.5, in Nag Hammadi Library 138; as
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic
Gospels, (New York: Random House, 1979; New York: Vintage Books
edition, 1981), p. xiv.
5.Anthony Flew, "Historical Credentials and Particular
Jesus in History and Myth, R. Joseph
Hoffmann and Gerald A. Larue, ed., p.202.
6.Contra Celsum I, 42; cited by Grant, Earliest Lives of Jesus,
also Mircea Eliade, Myth and
Reality, p. 166.
7.Tacitus, Annales, 4.44; Suetonius Vita Claudii, 25.4, Vita
8.John 7:41-42; Mark 1:9; Michael Arnheim, Is Christianity True?
(Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,
1984), p. 9.
10.Luke 1:5; Matthew 2:1.
11.Arnheim, p. 11.
12.Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 23-38.
14.Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, When
Fails (New York: Harper &
Row, 1956), p. 4.
15.Festinger, et al., p. 212.
16.Mat. 4:19-22, Mark 2:14, etc.
17.Festinger, et al., p. 23-25.
18.Mark 16:12, Luke 24:13-32.
20.Elaine Pagels, "The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection:
Event or Symbol," in The Gnostic
Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979; Vintage Books edition,
21.Cf. Acts 9:7, 22:9. Pagels, p. 6.
22.I Cor. 15:6.
23.Origen, Commentarium in I Corinthians, in Journal of
Studies 10(1909), 46-47; Gospel of
Phillip 73.1-3 in the Nag Hammadi Library.
24.Tertullian, De Carne Christi, 14.18; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer.
3.21.2; 4.33.4; 5.1.3; also references in
Origen and Eusebius.
25.Pagels, pp. 3-31.
27.I Cor. 15:5; Pagels, pp.57-83.
28.De principiis 4, 2, 9; cited by Grant, p.66; Eliade, p. 166.
29.Adv. Christ. frs. 9 & 10; 12, 15, 16; 30-33; cited by E. R.
Pagan and Christian in an Age of
Anxiety (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965; Norton Lib.
York: W. W. Norton, 1970),
30.Adv. Christ. fr. 4; Dodds, p. 125.
31.Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, iv.20.
32.Self-Realization Fellowship, 3880 San Rafael Avenue, Los
90065. In chapter 43, "The
Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar," the dead master of that name
at the Regent Hotel, Bombay, at
three o'clock in the afternoon, June 19, 1936.
33.Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire II.
34.Plin. Epp. (ad Traj.),10.96; quoted in Bettenson, ed.,
the Christian Church, 2nd ed., (New
York: Oxford University Press), p. 3.
35.Dodds, p. 108; Bettenson, p. 14.
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