We’ve Moved!

It’s been a great first year for Galileo Unchained, but it’s time for a move. This blog is moving to Patheos, one of the largest religion sites on the internet. It has portals featuring material on lots of other religions, including over 100 blogs, such as Hemant Mehta’s “Friendly Atheist” and Greg Epstein’s “Good Without God.” I invite you to continue following the blog at the new site and with a new name: Cross Examined.

All the old content will remain here, but new posts will be only at the new site: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/

If you’ve signed up for email notification, there are two ways to do that at Patheos. You can sign up for notification of all Patheos atheist blogs (right side, top) or just Cross Examined (right side, scroll down a couple of pages).

Please join me at the new site!

No matter where you go … there you are
— Buckaroo Banzai

Who Would Die for a Lie?

Almost all of the original apostles that surrounded Jesus died martyr’s deaths.  If they knew that he was just a regular guy and that the resurrection story was fiction, why would they go to their deaths supporting it?  Lee Strobel said that though people may die defending their beliefs, “People will not die for their religious beliefs if they know that their religious beliefs are false.”

While people have died for lies—the 9/11 hijackers, for example, or the Heaven’s Gate cult—they didn’t know it was a lie.  That the apostles were in a position to know and still died defending it is strong evidence that the Jesus story is accurate.

Or, at least this is the story Christians tell themselves.

There are several issue here, but let’s focus first on the big one: how do we know how the apostles died?  Since their dying as martyrs is key to this apologetic, you’d think that this was well established in history.  But as we’ve seen (“Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?”), sometimes Christian historical claims have a very weak pedigree.

Our one-stop shopping source for this question is historian Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) in his “On the Twelve Apostles.”  At best, this is an early second century work written close to 150 years after the facts it claims to document.  At worst, it was written even later by an unknown author (called “Pseudo-Hippolytus” by historians) and deliberately or inadvertently compiled with the writings of Hippolytus.

Here’s the summary:

  • 4 apostles were crucified: Andrew, Bartholomew, Peter, and Philip (the last three upside down).
  • 3 were killed in some other way: James the son of Alpheus was stoned, James the son of Zebedee was killed with a sword (presumably decapitated), and Thomas was killed by spear.
  • 5 died natural deaths: John, Matthew, Matthias (the new twelfth disciple added after Judas left the group), Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James (Thaddeus).

Another popular source for this information is John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563 and in many later editions.  Its late age, 1500 years after the events, is enough to disqualify it since we have the earlier account, but its popularity makes it an important source.  To a large extent Foxe was simply a mouthpiece for the anti-Catholic sentiment in England at the time, and many sources dismiss its accuracy (Wikipedia, 1911 Britannica, Catholic Encyclopedia).

Foxe largely agrees with Hippolytus on the deaths of the apostles except for the ones that Hippolytus says died natural deaths, giving that fate only to John.  He says that Matthew was “slain with a halberd” in Ethiopia, Matthias was stoned in Jerusalem and beheaded, Simon the Zealot was crucified in Britain, and Judas the son of James was crucified in what is now eastern Turkey.

James the son of Zebedee seems to have the oldest martyrdom story.  Hippolytus probably got his account from Acts 12:2, written in the latter half of the first century, which says that Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great) killed him “with the sword.”

For most of the other apostles, however, contradictory stories cloud the issue.  For example, Bartholomew’s death is documented in a number of contradictory ways.  One account says that he was beaten and then drowned.  The Martyrdom of Bartholomew (c. 500) says that he was beaten and then beheaded.  The most popular, perhaps because it’s the most gruesome, is that he was skinned alive and then crucified (or perhaps beheaded).

Various sources add to the story of Matthias.  He was crucified in Ethiopia.  Or he was blinded by cannibals but rescued by Andrew.  Or he died a natural death in Georgia on the coast of the Black Sea.

Simon the Zealot might have been sawn in half in Persia.  Or crucified in Samaria.  Or martyred in Georgia.

Add to this:

  • the many additional contradictory stories about other apostles not included in this brief list,
  • the decades-long period of oral history from event to writing, and
  • the time span, usually centuries-long, between the original manuscripts documenting the martyrdom stories and our oldest copies that make those copies suspect.

What can we conclude given this evidential house of cards?  Only that “most apostles were martyred for their faith” is historically almost indefensible.

And it’s not just that the claim for any particular martyrdom story is flimsy; it’s that we can be certain that many of them are false because they contradict each other.

Let’s pause for a moment to savor this lesson.  “Tradition holds that” or “The Church tells us that” is never enough—be sure to look behind the curtain to see what evidence actually supports a historic claim.

“Who would die for a lie?”  I dunno—first establish that someone died at all.

Martyrdom has always been a proof of the intensity,
never of the correctness, of a belief.
— Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

God’s Diminishing Power

In the beginning … God walked in the Garden of Eden like an ordinary supernatural Joe.  He dropped by Abraham’s for a cup of coffee and a chat.  He didn’t know what was up in Sodom and Gomorrah and had to send out angelic scouts for reconnaissance: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me” (Gen. 18:20–21).

But, like Stalin gradually collecting titles, God has now become omniscient and omnipotent.  He’s gone from needing six days to shape a world from Play-Doh and sprinkle tiny stars in the dome of heaven to creating 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars.

That’s 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg of universe.

And yet, oddly, his biblical demonstrations of power faded with time.  From creating the universe, he’s weakened such that appearing in a grilled cheese sandwich is about as much as he can pull off today.  He has the fiery reputation of the Wizard of Oz but is now just the man behind the curtain.

Even God’s punishments became wimpier.  A global flood, with millions dead is pretty badass.  Personally smiting Sodom and Gomorrah is impressive, though that’s a big step down in magnitude.

And it’s downhill from there—God simply orders the destruction of Canaanite cities, and to punish Israel and Judah, he allows Assyria and then Babylon to invade.  As Jesus, he doesn’t kick much more butt than cursing a fig tree, and today he simply stands by to let bad things happen.

Maybe God’s power diminishes as the universe’s dark energy increases?

Photo credit: Why There is no God

Dr Johnson: Legend, Myth, and More

Jesus, God, and all thatLet’s straighten out some of the terms used in the study of religion, the supernatural, and related topics.  I know I’ve not always used the terms precisely, so this is a chance to make amends.

We’ll begin with the big category, folklore.  This is the traditional knowledge or forms of expression of a culture passed on from person to person.  Folklore can be material (quilts, traditional costumes, recipes, the hex signs on Amish barns, etc.), behavioral (customs such as throwing rice at a wedding, what constitutes good manners, superstitions, etc.), or traditional stories.

Traditional stories is itself a large category, containing music, anecdotes, ghost stories, parables, popular misconceptions, and other things you might not think of.

Now on to the kinds of traditional stories that are most interesting to apologetics.  These terms can overlap quite a bit, so consider these definitions approximations.  First, let’s consider stories seen as true (or plausibly so) by their hearers.

  • Legends are grounded in history and can change over time.  They can include miracles.  Urban legends are a modern category of legends that don’t include miracles, are set in or near the present day, and take the form of a cautionary tale.
  • Myths are sacred narratives that explain some aspect of reality (for example: the myth of Prometheus explains why we have fire and the Genesis creation myth explains where everything came from).  Epic poems such as Beowulf and the Odyssey are one kind of myth.

The difference between legends and myths is that a legend is set in a more recent time and generally features human characters, while myths are set in the distant past and have supernatural characters.  Some stories are mixtures of the two—the Iliad tells the story of a real city, and the characters include gods, humans with supernatural powers, and ordinary humans.

Lady Godiva, King Arthur, William Tell, and Atlantis are examples of legends—the stories have human characters and are set in a historic past.  Myths include the stories of Hercules and Zeus, Hindu mythology, the Noah story, and the creation stories of dozens of cultures—they have gods as characters and are set in a distant or undefined past.

Let’s take a brief detour to look at a few relevant terms that are not part of the category of traditional stories.

  • Religion starts with the sacred narratives of mythology and adds beliefs and practices.  Myth and scripture are both sacred, but scripture is the writings themselves.  Doctrine is codified teaching, and dogma is that mandatory subset of the doctrine that must be believed for one to be a member.
  • Superstition is any belief that relies on a supernatural (instead of natural) cause like astrology, omens to predict the future, magic, or witchcraft.  It can also be defined as the unfounded supernatural beliefs of the other guy’s religion (not your own, of course).  Merriam-Webster defines it as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Finally, let’s consider stories understood by their hearers to not be true.

  • Fables have a particular kind of character: nonhumans such as animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that have human-like qualities.  Fables end with a moral.
  • Fairy tales also have particular characters: fantasy characters such as fairies, goblins, and elves.  Magic is also an element.  There is no connection with historic time (it begins “Once upon a time …”).
  • Parables are plausible stories with plausible characters (no talking rocks, no magic) that are not presented as true.  Parables illustrate a moral or religious principle.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links: