Who was right?

Good evening my friend,

In Small(er) Bite #3 – – competing saviors you asked this question:

How do I know who was right? … Hundreds of millions follow faith different from mine. Hundreds of millions more are skeptical.

We were discussing Justin Martyr’s “diabolical mimicry” that I brought up in A Skeptical Response to the Bible – Romans 1:1-7. You thought “diabolical mimicry” was overly complicated and silly. However, the similarities between the Jesus story and the God-beliefs of his contemporaries are just the tip of the iceberg.

For a deeper context we must confront the many other similarities between the Bible stories and what appear to be preexisting beliefs held by other cultures during the times they first appeared in biblical sources. We could try to dismiss them all as “foreshadowings and echos of God’s intervention throughout human history across time and space,” as you have done. However, before we can make an informed decision, we must acknowledge both the predated similar stories and the problems with the Bible stories. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Creation story

Problems: The Bible’s creation story isn’t consistent and doesn’t agree with science (for many reasons we can discuss).

Predated by: Enuma Elish and others (I just picked out phrases from Enuma Elish to keep this post short-ish)

…heaven was not named…
the earth beneath did not yet bear a name…
chaos…
waters were mingled together…
heaven
way was evil
fixed the zenith…
caused to shine forth…
the night he entrusted to him, to determine the days…
six days,
And on the seventh day

He set a throne…in heaven…
Marduk…
My blood will I take and bone will I fashion,
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth
Who established … the bright heavens
ordained their path;
The Merciful One
who seeth through the innermost part!
Director of Righteousness
named the four quarters of the world
mankind he created

mighty one
Creator of the earth…
Chief of all lords…
supreme is his might!
Since he created the realm of heaven and fashioned the firm earth,
The Lord of the World,” the father Bel hath called his name.
This title, which all the Spirits of Heaven proclaimed

Bel and Marduk are mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 46:1Jeremiah 50:1-3, Jeremiah 51:44) so we know the Bible authors had access to those legends at some point.

"Chaos Monster and Sun God" by Georgelazenby - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Chaos Monster and Sun God” by Georgelazenby – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Garden of Eden and The Fall

Problems: There are many. Example: What does the garden story mean if we evolved and there was no Adam? I have 2.6% Neanderthal DNA. Did they “fall” too?

Predated by: Both The Southwind Myth and The Epic of Gilgamesh

…biblical scholars have long been aware that the Genesis account is based on cosmological legends and mythological elements known to various peoples of the ancient Near East—in particular the image of a garden of the gods containing trees with mysterious powers. The anthropomorphic conception of a god strolling in his garden, as alien to the Hebrew tradition as is the walking and talking serpent, probably also came from another source. Notably, most of the characteristic motifs of the Genesis account are to be found, albeit in wholly different configurations, in the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. …the harlot tells him, in words anticipating the biblical serpent’s, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!” Clothing him with half of her garment, she leads him to Uruk… …the epic contains virtually all the elements of the biblical account of the Creation, Temptation, and Fall…” (p. 13–15. . The Sin of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. 2000)

"GilgameshTablet". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GilgameshTablet.jpg#mediaviewer/File:GilgameshTablet.jpg

“GilgameshTablet”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Flood

Problems: The story conflicts with itself and science. Either a global flood didn’t happen or God hid all the major evidence. A local flood is not a possible interpretation of the text.

Predated by: Epic of Gilgamesh. This is from a Christian site:

COMPARISON OF GENESIS AND GILGAMESH 

GENESIS

GILGAMESH

Extent of flood Global Global
Cause Man’s wickedness Man’s sins
Intended for whom? All mankind One city & all mankind
Sender Yahweh Assembly of “gods”
Name of hero Noah Utnapishtim
Hero’s character Righteous Righteous
Means of announcement Direct from God In a dream
Ordered to build boat? Yes Yes
Did hero complain? Yes Yes
Height of boat Several stories (3) Several stories (6)
Compartments inside? Many Many
Doors One One
Windows At least one At least one
Outside coating Pitch Pitch
Shape of boat Rectangular Square
Human passengers Family members only Family & few others
Other passengers All species of animals All species of animals
Means of flood Ground water & heavy rain Heavy rain
Duration of flood Long (40 days & nights plus) Short (6 days & nights)
Test to find land Release of birds Release of birds
Types of birds Raven & three doves Dove, swallow, raven
Ark landing spot Mountain — Mt. Ararat Mountain — Mt. Nisir
Sacrificed after flood? Yes, by Noah Yes, by Utnapishtim
Blessed after flood? Yes Yes
"Noahs Ark" by Edward Hicks - http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~aaronson/zoo.html. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Noahs Ark” by Edward Hicks – http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~aaronson/zoo.html. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Yahweh

Predated by: El

Yahweh seems to be an adaptation of the Canaanite God, El (husband of the Asherah, the Queen of Heaven). There is a lot of evidence for this in archeology, other texts, and the Bible itself (Exodus 6:2-8, Jeremiah 44:17-19, 25, 2 Kings 23:15). I have a few thousand words written on this if you want to discuss it. According to The Oxford Companion to World Mythology,

It seems almost certain that the God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El, who was in all likelihood the ‘God of Abraham’… If El was the high God of Abraham—Elohim, the prototype of Yahveh—Asherah was his wife, and there are archaeological indications that she was perceived as such before she was in effect ‘divorced’ in the context of emerging Judaism of the 7th century BCE.

"Canaanite God El" by Camocon - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

“Canaanite God El” by Camocon – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus

Predated by: Buddha, Greek gods, Indian gods

Why was the Golden Rule mentioned close to 2000 years earlier in Egypt with the Wisdom of Amenemope, likely before Leviticus’ version that Jesus paraphrases (Jesus’ version also being preceded by other nearby Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Chinese philosophers)?

It appears that many of God’s new ethics to be taught by Jesus were already taught around 500 years earlier by Buddha. You can find the source information for the following list at the bottom of this site (the few I checked backed up the dating of the Buddhist versions). Remember that the translations from different languages cause some differences.

JESUS: “A foolish man, which built his house on sand.”
BUDDHA: “Perishable is a city built on sand.” (30)

JESUS: “Therefore confess your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed.”
BUDDHA: “Confess before the world the sins you have committed.” (31)

JESUS: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.”
BUDDHA: “Let all sins that were committed in this world fall on me, that the world may be delivered.” (32)

JESUS: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
BUDDHA: “Consider others as yourself.” (33)

JESUS: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”
BUDDHA: “If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon all desires and utter no evil words.” (34)

JESUS: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
BUDDHA: “Hatreds do not cease in this world by hating, but by love: this is an eternal truth. Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good.” (35)

JESUS: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
BUDDHA: “Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.” (36)

JESUS: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.”
BUDDHA: “Do not look at the faults of others or what others have done or not done; observe what you yourself have done and have not done.” (37)

JESUS: “You father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
BUDDHA: “The light of the sun and the moon illuminates the whole world, both him who does well and him who does ill, both him who stands high and him who stands low.” (38)

JESUS: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
BUDDHA: “The avaricious do not go to heaven, the foolish do not extol charity. The wise one, however, rejoicing in charity, becomes thereby happy in the beyond.” (39)

"Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra)". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra)”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

See Justin Martyr’s claims about Jesus that were already attributed to the Greek gods at the time (which we discussed).

Problems:

Birth: Why are the stories surrounding his birth so conflicting, uncorroborated when we’d expect them to be corroborated, and often claiming prophecies that don’t appear to have been prophecies?

Teachings: When we look closely at the Sermon on the Mount, was the advice always of divine quality? Can we dismiss all these challenges?

Death: With all the historians writing about eclipses, why are there no records of the eclipse at Jesus’ death? Why are there no records of the many dead saints who rose from the grave and were seen by many throughout Jerusalem, and why does only one author record this event in passing?

Ascension: Recorded only by one author (Luke/Acts) who, by his own admission in Acts, wasn’t there.

Failed prophecy: The generation is over and everyone he was speaking to has died. Why hasn’t Jesus returned? Do any of the reasons you’ve heard sound likely?

Existence: Why is there compelling evidence that Jesus didn’t even exist?

Other problems:

I can’t make sense of the Tower of Babel (a few similarities to predated Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta). God’s justifications are very strange and his attributes don’t sound like the God from most of the rest of the Bible.

Did Moses even exist?

The existence of Moses as well as the veracity of the Exodus story are disputed among archaeologists and Egyptologists, with experts in the field of biblical criticism citing logical inconsistencies, new archaeological evidence, historical evidence, and related origin myths in Canaanite culture.

Who wrote the Torah?

"P1050763 Louvre code Hammurabi face rwk" by Unknown - Mbzt 2011. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“P1050763 Louvre code Hammurabi face rwk” by Unknown – Mbzt 2011. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Why did God’s laws (old testament predated by the Code of Hammurabi and The Egyptian Forty Two Commandments in the MA’AT – Right and Truth, New Testament predated by Buddha and leaders in China, Greece, and Egypt), always seem to follow rather than lead the ethics of the time?

Why did Solomon copy sayings from a long-dead follower of another God (discussion and examples)?

If the Bible is consistent with itself and nature, why does it (with a natural reading) cumulatively describe the universe something like this. At the bottom there’s an abyss. Above that is God holding up the earth. What he’s holding are the foundations or pillars of the earth which are made of water. Above the water sits the flat, four-cornered circle of the earth. Heaven is a hard bowl-shaped material with lights scattered around it and some windows. The sun, moon, and stars are just lights place in/on this bowl above the earth. The sun and moon travel along the disk every day in their circuit, while the earth stands still, neither spinning nor moving beneath it. I can provide many verses to demonstrate this. Here’s a concerning quote about biblical cosmology:

“The authors of ancient cosmologies were essentially compilers. Their originality was expressed in new combinations of old themes, and in new twists to old ideas.” (p.107. W.G. Lambert. “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis.” [1965], in Richard S. Hess & David T. Tsumra, Editors. I Studied Inscriptions From Before the Flood. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 1994)

Your other questions from the post and comments

What might be a natural explanation for why so many cultures have a creation and messianic story? I’d love to talk about how god-beliefs are a natural, probably inevitable part of human psychology, but I want to keep this post short. In brief, early cultures found themselves in the mystery of existence and came up with a reason for how they got there. They were often scared and alone, without an understanding of the patterns to weather, earth events, and other parts of nature. Humans are builders and creators so we project those attributes on the things in nature we anthropomorphize. We want to be rescued from the seemingly random forces that control our fate. We crave the psychological relief that comes from turning our troubles onto a mysterious force(s) out of our control that we believe we can trust. Some forces, like thunder or volcanoes, seem to have certain qualities different from others, like the sun, so we create separate versions of gods (polytheism). We imagine something like us controlling those forces of nature, but they are greater than us and (like us) somewhat unpredictable. Like an alpha-male, controller of the heard, or other dominant human, we usually have to earn its favor or protection by doing something for it.

In another post I’ll be happy to talk about the natural explanations for why polytheism almost always leads to pantheism or monotheism (Judaism was a henotheism throughout much of the Old Testament, not a monotheism). Things are driven that way by culture for understandable reasons. The ultimate deity is the one who is personal and gets us. The one who has the power to give us what we desire most (love and everlasting life), while only requiring something any of us can give (faith).

I think these basic examples provide some glimpse into a natural explanation for creation stories and messianic figures.

What about a natural explanation for flood accounts? Most ancient cultures thrived around rivers. Archeology shows rivers flood every few years, flood catastrophically on scales of tens or a few hundreds of years, and have even more devastating floods periodically on longer time scales.

Why did Judaism and Christianity survive when Jupiter and Mercury did not? A natural explanation would be the one thing Judaism did as well or better than any other culture. They’re belief demanded extreme, absolute, worship to a single God. Dictatorships are often more effective in war than republics or democracies, and the Old Testament bore that out. I don’t mean the following in a disrespectful way. I just want to report what I read. Time after time the solution was to utterly wipe out the neighboring clans. If there was a hint of any other worship than that of Yahweh, the followers of the opposing religions were slaughtered down to the woman and child (with a few exceptions, Numbers 31:13-18 is a sad one). The Jewish culture was so closely nit as a community, bound to each other their observance in their law, rituals, care for one another, devotion to their God who demanded all worship, and separation (holiness) from outsiders, they formed the perfect mechanism for preserving their religion in the long march across their promised land. That is why they survived the exile and came back as one people. Their culture is that close, and that made all the difference. The other major reason is procreation. I’ve heard that religions that don’t encourage procreation end up as footnotes. Judaism was encouraged this in several ways (“be fruitful and multiply,” etc.).

A natural explanation for why Christianity survived is based (off the top of my head) on four things. First, it was updated for the modern era and open to outsiders. The message of love and peace and blessings for the poor and poor in spirit had a large audience. Second, the new promise and threat of eternal bliss or torture based solely on a belief (of whether the story they were hearing was true) was very compelling. Potential converts didn’t want to be wrong, after all. Third, the conversion of rulers and kings who allowed and then demanded conversion of their subjects (there is much evidence than many of these rulers saw Christianity as the best way to achieve good moral behavior and subservience from the common people – this includes people from Constantine to some of the US founders – you could probably imagine the appeal). Fourth was the spread by the sword (Crusades, etc.) when rulers decided it was God’s will (or used that as an excuse to convince the masses – Kings and Popes were believed to have been chosen by God after all) to follow God’s Old Testament examples by eradicating and/or converting the heathens.

I’m not trying to be hard on Judaism or Christianity. If we want to look honestly at history, it just is brutal. These thoughts aren’t pretty and I don’t like them, but there are sufficient, natural answers to your challenge of why it has survived.

About my approach

In one of the comments on Small(er) Bite #3 – – competing saviors you mentioned strong rationalism again. I think you’ve used that phrase four times, but since then I’ve explained that it doesn’t represent my philosophy. In another comment you said I require proof. I do not. Please understand that all I require is evidence that outweighs the counter-evidence. I’m only looking for a higher probability of likelihood, not a certainty. What I’m after is the “seems” you speak of.

Our logic is the same. The only difference I can see is that I do not rely upon the presupposition of biblical inerrancy so I read the Bible like I would read anything else. I believe as you do – if it is to be worthy of complete trust, it must stand up to a critical examination. I believe that if one doesn’t presuppose the Bible’s answers must be right, one will come up with a more reasoned, skeptical conclusion.

The fairly recent Creationism vs Evolution debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye had an interesting final question. This is a one word summary of their answers.

Question: What would change your mind?

Bill Nye (agnostic): Evidence.

Ken Ham (Young Earth Creationist): Nothing.

Do I really want to trust the Bible or am I looking for reasons to doubt it? I really do want to trust it, but I have to follow the evidence the best way I know how. I’d have to confront these issues head-on and solve them before I could trust the Bible.

DarkMatter2525 is an atheist YouTuber with some wildly popular videos. In, The Real God: An Epiphany, he claims

Desirability is not a requisite of the truth.

I tend to agree. In, God’s God, he claims we created these gods, not the other way around. I won’t link to God’s God because, honestly, I’m not a fan of curse words or making fun of faith, but he does bring up points that I’ve considered for many years and that you echoed. There are so many ways to view this, and so many competing claims. How do we know who to trust? Who is right?

Conclusion

I’ve examined each of these issues over the last few days and written over 15,000 words (yes) in response (which I almost posted, but I value you’re friendship and I made a promise to CC to at least try to keep these shorter). For some of them, I was able to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. For most, it remains unclear whether the Bible authors may have been adapting existing stories to fashion the beliefs in their God.

In a classic example, the evidence of the Gilgamesh flood story can be shown to be far older than any record of the Genesis story, but believers must conclude that Gilgamesh is the copy. Why? Biblical inerrancy must be preserved.

It is within this backdrop that we must consider Martyr’s claims of the similar attributes of other contemporary Greek gods to Jesus (virgin birth, baptism, called the “Son of God” and “Word of God,” turning water into wine, healing the blind, paralytic, and lame, Eucharist, raising the dead, crucifixion, death, resurrection, etc.), and his claim of diabolical mimicry.

Based on similarities, how do you know who was right? You don’t. None of us possibly could know. While there is debate, from the evidence I saw almost all the examples I provided are believed by most scholars to have predated the Bible and been available to the Jewish culture when the relevant parts of the Bible were being formed. But we’re talking about ancient history. The “earliest archeological evidence” cannot demonstrate conclusively that another culture (e.g. the Jewish one) didn’t already have similar beliefs that left no trace (that we’ve found). Even if these other beliefs did predate the beliefs of the Jews, we cannot know conclusively that the Bible author’s knew of them or used them as inspiration. My skepticism works both ways. We can’t know. It’s also difficult for any of us to know which scholarly works are more accurate and there’s almost always debate. Unfortunately, my observation has been that the “conservative vs liberal” scholarly divide usually breaks down to those who presuppose biblical inerrancy (and thus use motivated reasoning) and those who don’t. I don’t rule them out based on that analysis. I take it at face value, compare, and try to go with the consensus.

In the end, the texts that are similar to the Bible and predated it do several things.

  1. They raise questions that need to be considered when we evaluate the level of probability we each want to assign to our beliefs about the reliability of the Bible. They prevent us from being certain that the Bible versions came first, and that God was “doing a new thing” in the world at each of these points in the Bible. The notion that, “the Bible must be from God because how could man create such things,” rings a little hollow considering much of it at least hast he possibility of being adaptations rather than new inventions.
  2. In the absence of all other evidence, they make the Bible’s claims less likely. We can go further than saying we don’t know which was right. We must conclude that it is more likely that the Bible copied at least some of these ideas, rather than that the other cultures were the ones copying in every case. You can call these other similar pre-occurrences “foreshadowing of God’s interventions,” but such a statement is self-defeating. Why would God foreshadow his revelations in a way that would make them less believable when His actual interventions took place? If such foreshadowings inevitably lead to skepticism about His real events, how is that different that something the Devil would do (i.e. diabolical mimicry)?

Based on the problems, how do you know who was right? None of them. The natural explanations are sufficient, so we should defer to them anyway (Occam’s Razor). But beyond that, there’s another reason to think the natural explanations are more likely. It’s not just the Bible’s similarities to preexisting ideas that make it less likely to be entirely trustworthy – many of the claims have the added problem of not making sense. The idea of progressive revelation is very convenient, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s one thing to not speak about a subject, but why indicate that some (or maybe even all) of certain types of illnesses are curses or demon possessions? Why paint a conflicting picture of the universe? Such ideas inevitably hold back progress in these areas and cause people to doubt the Bible later. In my opinion, the Bible’s problems (barely touched-upon in this post) make it unreasonable to believe that the entire work is trustworthy. At least some mistrust should be the default position anyway. Why would we ever assume, except for the desire to maintain our existing beliefs (usually taught to us as children and then preserved and amplified by The Problem), that any complex ancient work is entirely trustworthy?

Couldn’t some creator still exist and be behind this? Absolutely! Queue iMultiverse. 🙂 That’s why I don’t believe there isn’t a God. I just have to remain neutral and wait for enough evidence (that outweighs the counter-evidence) before holding a positive belief position in any claim. If the God of the Bible does exist, I just can’t use “the obvious inerrancy of the Bible” to demonstrate His existence.

The Bible may look solid on a surface reading if we want to believe it and we let our desires influence us. But if we look closely and objectively, the way we would examine other documents, it has the same problems we’d expect to see in any other ancient religious text. Unless we can face and honestly solve all the problems without using the assumption of inerrancy, I don’t see a way to objectively justify the belief that the Bible is entirely trustworthy.

I hope this clarifies more of my issues and way of thinking. Sorry, again for the length. It was great seeing you the other night! I’ll contact you soon with a day I can meet over breakfast. 🙂

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

5 comments

  1. Enlightening and thought-provoking as always, Russell. And–don’t feel like you actually need to limit your word count based on my attention span. You are writing to Pascal, not to me. A 15,000 word post might take me a couple of weeks to get through, but it would undoubtedly be worth reading. 🙂

    Like

  2. Hey Russell – thanks for pointing me to this post. I’ve read about some of these things, but several things were new to me. And it relates to the latest thread you have going with Pascal.

    Liked by 1 person

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