'Did Jesus exist?' vs. 'Did God exist?'

In the beginning was the word, and the word was, like all words, a human invention, to label something that humans want to label. This gave shape to a concept that eventually led to an ontological fallacy (God-the-greatest-thing-I-can-imagine does indeed exist as a concept - that's the whole point - but that doesn't mean that God-the-greatest-thing-I-can-imagine also exists) ...

Whether a word represents 'the truth' is beside the point - labelling something tells us nothing about the thing itself (thank you, poststructuralism), but it may well tell us something about the labeller. In this case it tells us that the lebeller was concerned with conceptualising a higher force who might provide some explanations and relieve some of the responsibility of his/her existence.

In the not-beginning, i.e. since the conceptualisation of 'God', many other words have been spun, whose provenance is almost constantly the subject of furious debate in this forum and many others. I have vented my spleen about these debates before (see my final word here, sorry to all you promoters of non-self-promotion), but have only recently crystallised precisely what it is that bugs me about them in its simplest form:

Pondering questions such as 'did Jesus exist?' or 'how/why/when/where/by whom was the Bible written?' distract from a simple truth: God does not exist. Writings about 'him' are incidental to this fact, and discussions about religious sources are at best tangential to the more important questions, like 'God does not exist - why do people believe in him anyway?'

That is why I find that the 'historical approach' is of limited use when debating with theists; it is merely a curiosity that avoids the real issues. Of course it is interesting as an example of various aspects of religion, but the heated debating of 'facts' tends to miss even those points - such as the factors contributing to the development, codification and development of religious ideas and practices...
I'm not suggesting that there is anything 'wrong' with debating these matters, but the venom with which they are addressed never ceases to amaze me. An understanding of the Bible is in no way necessary for an atheist - indeed one might say more generally: religion is tangential to atheism, and affects it in no way whatsoever.

To return to 'the word' - surely questions such as 'what was it based on?' and 'who wrote it?' are insignificant compared to 'why does it exist at all?'

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Tags: Bible, Jesus, atheism, historical

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Comment by Matt VDB on October 4, 2010 at 5:52am
Diana,

This is very interesting stuff. I'll have to research the relevant information you mention and see if I have any further questions.

Thanks a lot,

Matt
Comment by Diana Agorio on October 2, 2010 at 11:01am
Matt,
In the Old Testament, the same word, חֲזִיר (chaziyr ) is translated interchangeably as “boar” and “swine.”

In Psalms 80:13, it is translated as boar: “The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.”
In Proverbs 11: 22, it is translated as swine: “As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.”

A wild boar is just a wild pig. If you were an ancient person imagining a domestic pig possessed by a demon, might you not imagine a swine transformed into a wild boar?

In the case of the Mad Dog, he was also referred to as Wild Beast and portrayed either with lion or wolf features by Greek astrologers. So, don't get hung up on the picture in the chart. He was associated specifically with exorcisms and attributed to a goddess of exorcisms, Kusu. The Mark chapter 5 story is specifically an exorcism story. In Hebrew, temple eunuchs, who performed rituals like the Galli were called “dogs.” A “mad dog” was a crazy eunuch.

As for my methodology, I am just using the same method used for interpreting pagan myths as star stories for Bible myths. Astrology was the basis for just about all myths. One you might be familiar with is the Twelve Labors of Hercules. He has twelve labors because he travels through the twelve regions of the zodiac. The Epic of Gilgamesh is also a star story. I go through a variety of Babylonian, Greek, Phoenician, Anatolian, Egyptian, and Hebrew myths as star stories in my book. The pagan myths are well known as star stories; so, there is nothing radical about my method. The excerpt I gave you is from the last chapter in my book, in which I cover the entire story in Mark as a star story. The preceding chapters explain the rituals, myths, and historical context of the story.
Comment by Matt VDB on October 2, 2010 at 4:39am
Hi Diana,

I really appreciate the response!
I hope I'm not a douche if I ask you about your methodology now, because I'm having difficulty interpreting things the way you do. You say that the order of events here is Mad-Dog -> Wild Boar -> Abyss (representing demon-possessed man -> swines -> sea). I can agree with the identification of sea with Abyss (the word abyssous is used frequently in the NT in roughly the same context), but the two others strike me as pretty creative. A wild boar is not the same thing as a swine no matter how far we want to stretch definitions, and this is compounded by the difficulty that your star chart already gives a place for 'swine' specifically, namely at the top of the right upper quadrant.
The identification of a demon-possessed man with the Mad Dog requires more justification too, since he has none of the characteristics traditionally associated with him (lion's tail, hindquarters, and occasionally affiliation with the Egyptian royal family) and is set in a different frame.

It's an interesting interpretation though.

Regards,

Matt
Comment by Diana Agorio on October 1, 2010 at 7:58pm
Okay, Matt. I will give you one example of pagan mythology and Babylonian star lore in the New Testament. This excerpt from my book describes the action in Mark chapter 5:

“As Jesus continued his trip in this quadrant of the zodiac, he drove a herd of demon possessed swine into the sea. Jesus and his apostles crossed the sea from Pisces and headed for Gadara (or Gerasa,) deep in the lower left quadrant of the sky chart. They found a man possessed with demons in a graveyard. Jesus casts his legion of demons into a herd of swine and drives them into the sea. This story is very clearly illustrated in the stars. In the lower left quadrant of the sky, stands Mad Dog (Figure 1.) Directly in front of Mad Dog is the Wild Boar, representing the demon filled swine. The Wild Boar is headed for the Abyss constellation, the sea where the demon swine drown. This same pig in the Wild Boar constellation did not kill Joshua, on his adventure with the twelve spies. Caleb, the eunuch faithful dog of Joshua, also takes part in Jesus story, as the Mad Dog constellation. He was the man in the graveyard possessed by the legion of demons. The Mad Dog illustrated the crazed Galli priests, who performed frenzied rituals during festivals. The story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man reflects precisely the rituals of the Galli. The eunuch priests used loud music to treat psychological disorders (Roscoe 1996). They were equated with the Cabeiri type dancers who performed the same rituals. The growing public dislike for the Galli is also noted in Mark. After healing the crazy man, the locals tell Jesus to leave their region. The Mad Dog whom Jesus cured asked to follow Jesus. But, Jesus tells him to go home to his friends and tell how Jesus cured him. The Mad Dog became a Galli priest and his home was the Mad Dog constellation, just like Caleb. The Galli priests were the traveling preachers of savior theology, like the apostle Paul.
Some New Testament scholars have scratched their heads about the swine story, because the geography makes the swine running all the way from Gadara to the sea seem far-fetched. (Apparently, a legion of demon possessed swine does not defeat logic.) Probably the real reason for this tale happening in Gadara was because of Dionysus’ popularity in the Decapolis region. In a couple myths, Dionysus drives men mad and they fall into the ocean and turn into dolphins. The story matched star lore and popular myth, not the geography of Gadara.” (Sex Rites: The Origins of Christianity, pg 279-280)

Here is the star chart, with Mad Dog standing behind the Wild Boar, running towards the Abyss, in the lower left quadrant:

Comment by Matt VDB on October 1, 2010 at 4:59pm
"As I said before, Judaism was just a variation on the same themes as in the rest of West Asian religion. If you want to believe that Judaism was exceptionally different from other ancient religions, than you turn a really blind eye to the descriptions of their rituals, the layout of their temple, and their theology, in comparison to that of their neighbors."

I never said they were exceptionally different (certainly not initially), I just said that - at the time we're talking about, i.e. First Century CE - they were different enough to distinguish themselves from many of them and had enough unique elements so that the leading castes supervised outside influences.
Which isn't all that different from many other religions, when you think about it. Sure, Islam and Mormonism also have shared roots (if we go back far enough) but it's a long shot to go from there to saying that there is a rich set of interdependencies between the two taking place in the here and now. That requires a whole other fountain of evidence.

"You are welcome to be happy with your favorite description of Jesus. Or, you can explore further and seek out a richer understanding of his story. I don’t care what you do."

Oh please. If you had any idea how much time I spend refining my understanding of history and how much junk I have and continue to discard, then you wouldn't have made that statement.
What's becoming increasingly clear is that you're not actually out to help me or anyone else achieve that an increased understanding at all. If your case is so strong, why haven't you spent at least a little time going through the relevant New Testament material pointing out all these pagan parallels and posting it on this site as teasers? What I (and many others I assume) are trying to figure out is whether your book is actually worth buying or not. The only way to go about that, when the book is written by a non-peerreviewed author, is to ask questions and get them to expand on one or two points; that's how you figure whether they know what they are talking about and what their methodology is. Yet every time I ask this, all I get in return is either long-winded evasions or different ways of telling me that "If you really want to find the truth, it's in my book." Sorry, things don't work that way.

Hell, I've explained more things to people and examined more of the relevant material online than you have. And I'm not even trying to sell a book.

"But, I really don’t understand why you are so upset about 1st century CE Judaism and Christianity described as religions, just like all the other dumb religions of their time."

And when you feel yourself forced to resort to pathetic strawmans like that, it might be a good thing that you're not trying to seriously argue your points.
Here, watch this: 1st Century Judaism and Christianity are religions and can be described as such.

Happy? It certainly didn't make me upset to say this, because I'm as stoic as a Chinese panda right now; so how did you arrive at the conclusion that I had emotional difficulties with this? Could it be because you simply made that shit up?

Right, I thought so. I suppose that about ends the possible merits of the discussion.

Take care and 'till next time,

Matt
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on October 1, 2010 at 4:00pm
Joe-Theists will be less apt to believe in brain parallels between human and non-human animals. The idea does not fit well with special creation. I am no expert but I will conjecture animal behaviorists will find many parallels in brain function between animals and humans. Similarities make sense when you contemplate evolution. Interestingly Diana referenced a video of chimps which sort of displays nascent religion.
I agree with your take on early hominids.
Comment by Jo Jerome on October 1, 2010 at 3:35pm
Free Thinker - My mother would have responded by saying religion is (an attempt at least) a positive answer to a negative question. The root situations are negative - fear of the unknown, fear of death, violence/disease/natural disasters beyond our control. Where religion is the positive - Here is the childishly simple answer to that unknown, when you die you'll go to a happy place, appeal to god(s) to wield some control over that which is beyond your control.

Of course, Mom was a Theist. I see the answers as an attempt at a positive, but ultimately sticking one's head in the sandbox of wishful thinking.

Diana and all ... patterns and such ... I'd be curious to know if that kind of instinctive pattern-formation is found in other animal brains and if it's a function of higher 'intelligence.' Though I'm not at all sure how we would determine that. I have made several attempts to ask my cats if, when confronting an unfamiliar object or concept, they feel they are subconsciously flipping through a databank of patterns in an attempt to discern the nature of the object/idea based on past experience.

So far, the cumulative response is a quizzical look, a 'mew' and a robust licking of the privates. I'm recording that as "inconclusive."

But seriously, it's interesting to ponder the brain's tendency towards pattern recognition and the impact it has on religion. I am also a big fan of the hypothesis that we are hardwired to see a "will" or a consciousness in every little thing. We hear a sound behind the bush and our instinct is to ask "who" made that sound more so than "what." Upon first hearing that it made absolute sense to me. The caveman who is just a little bit paranoid, imagining all kinds of beasties behind the bush, might have a better chance of survival than the rationalist-empirical caveman saying, "You're being silly. It's probably just a falling branch, or the wind, or your imaginati...{Chomp, as the rationalist gets eaten by the sabertooth tiger lurking behind the bush}. In other words, I can see a tendency towards superstition being a useful survival mechanism in some situations.

Unfortunately, it also seems to be a great hinderance once we got out of the caves.

I think it ultimately comes down to early hominids attempting to understand the world around them. Without the tools and technology to understand, say, how a rainbow works, it can certainly look like a magical design sent by a magical designer.
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on October 1, 2010 at 2:35am
Our brains have evolved to discern patterns. (The more discerning among us distinguish between relevant and irrelevant patterns.) Pattern recognition helps hunters and gatherers and farmers and fishermen. It helps interpret human behavior. The human penchant for patterns make man susceptible to ritual. This happens emotionally and intellectually. Humans come away from a ritual with a sense of having accomplished something. People expect repeating patterns or formula to produce the desired results.
Further humans are susceptible to religion because their mamalian evolution leaves infants helpless and therefore sponges. They are imprinted by their elders. Humans also are subject to hero worship. It is what gives a social unit cohesion. You obey the priest or else ...
You throw in a powerful religious institution and mix in the historical maxim that power corrupts and you have the oppressor and the masses.
Diana, your horsin intuition is correct in part. I love me harses and the thrill of picking winners. However, winning patterns in handicapping horses are ephemeral. Ya gots ta strike when the iron is hot. No, I never tried to sell my selections or handicapping theories.
Comment by Atheist Exile on October 1, 2010 at 12:40am
It often seems that all the reasons for believing in God are negative ones: fear, superstition, ignorance, insecurity, heredity, apathy. I try to think of a positive reason to believe in God but I can't. Wishful thinking is as positive as I can get.

I agree that debate over the historicity of Jesus usually gets out of control. Everybody seems to forget that nobody really knows the truth about the actual person of Jesus: did he walk the Earth or not? If nobody knows, it's a matter of opinion . . . but you'd think it's a matter of fact, reading the point/counterpoint postings.

The old adage maintains that sports, politics and religion are difficult to debate with civility. From what I've seen, there's no question about it.
Comment by Diana Agorio on October 1, 2010 at 12:18am
Jo and Glen,
You may have brought us back on the topic: Why does religion exist at all? All three of us demonstrate in our comments a unique human characteristic: we love to find patterns. Jo and I describe looking for patterns in cultures and figuring out the reasons for those patterns. We both note the religions are full of similar patterns.

Glen describes looking for patterns in horses and has identified methods for finding useful patterns, in order to make money. I suspect that he really loves horses; but, he also really loves the thrill of picking a winner. When he finds a pattern that works, he uses it again and again. Other people will try to copy his successful pattern and he may even try to sell his pattern. Prehistoric people probably did lots of things that look like religion, just because it is human nature to create and look for patterns. But, only the patterns that were economically/politically useful were replicated. Based on the manipulative nature of religion, it probably exists simply because it was a useful way of manipulating people.

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