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The Criterion of Embarrassment in 177 AD

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series On the Historicity of Jesus

This has nothing to do with the historicity of Jesus but I stumbled upon an interesting passage while reading A Plea for the Christians written by Athenagoras in 177 A.D. In chapters 28 through 30 he is arguing that the Greek gods were really just men; kings who came to be worshiped as gods.

At the end of chapter 30 he deploys the criterion of embarrassment to make his point! He quotes what must be something written by Callimachus, a librarian at Alexandria, denying the tomb of Zeus is legitimate. The point he is making is that if the gods had tombs, if they had suffered and died, they were men, and no one would have invented such sufferings and deaths unless they were true! After all, the poets and multitudes wished these gods to be venerated, so why would they invent sufferings and deaths?

“The Cretans always lie; for they, O king, Have built a tomb to thee who art not dead.”

Though you believe, O Callimachus, in the nativity of Zeus, you do not believe in his sepulchre; and whilst you think to obscure the truth, you in fact proclaim him dead, even to those who are ignorant; and if you see the cave, you call to mind the childbirth of Rhea; but when you see the coffin, you throw a shadow over his death, not considering that the unbegotten God alone is eternal. For either the tales told by the multitude and the poets about the gods are unworthy of credit, and the reverence shown them is superfluous (for those do not exist, the tales concerning whom are untrue); or if the births, the amours, the murders, the thefts, the castrations, the thunderbolts, are true, they no longer exist, having ceased to be since they were born, having previously had no being. And on what principle must we believe some things and disbelieve others, when the poets have written their stories in order to gain greater veneration for them? For surely those through whom they have got to be considered gods, and who have striven to represent their deeds as worthy of reverence, cannot have invented their sufferings.

Searching for Rational Religion

Professor of Philosophy David Kyle Johnson went to a conference hoping to find the ever elusive believers who eschew pseudo-scientific thinking. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the article he wrote is a good read.

Source: Is Religion Pseudoscience?

As an atheist, and a logician, I’m often tempted by the notion that religion is just socially accepted pseudoscience (with tax breaks). After all, the arguments in favor of ghosts, alternative medicine and ancient aliens, are very similar to the arguments for angels, the “power of prayer” and God. Sleepparalysis and hallucinatory visions are taken to be evidence for ghosts/angels, post-hoc reasoning is used in arguments for alternative medicine/prayer, and “unexplained mysteries” are counted as evidence for aliens/God. But as tempting as this notion is, it’s difficult to see it all the way through. Although I know plenty of people whose religious belief is steeped in pseudoscientific thinking, I also know religious people who pride themselves in their critical thinking abilities. Does this mean that religion isn’t steeped in pseudoscience, or are these religious people who say they are critical thinkers just fooling themselves? I’d hate to think the later is true. 

I was partially successful in my conversations, where I met some wonderfully rational religious people who understood and cared about science. They helped me hone some of my own arguments and I hope I helped them hone theirs. Unfortunately, I also found creationists, people who believe in demons, new-ageism, and even defenders of the pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake. Some even refused to say Dawkins’ name—saying instead “the D word”—because (as someone suggested)  he was like Voldemort. If you say his name, especially in Oxford, he might appear. And then there was the New Testament scholar who insisted that the idea that 21st century medical doctors are more qualified to distinguish illness from death than 1st century Palestinians was just a conclusion driven by “western bias.”

But what was most disappointing were the headliners—the keynote speakers, none of whom were academic lightweights, and all of whom were there to speak at the request of the foundations. Although a few of the talks were interesting, far too many were tinged with pseudoscience—and the biggest names seemed to be drenched in it.


Jesus Barabbas and the Allegorical Trial Scene

People have devoted entire websites to contradictions, moral failings, and falsehoods in the Bible. In a world where some hold to the untenable position of biblical inerrancy such sites have their place. However, many such biblical problems are boring and, in any other environment, pointing them out would even be a bit petty. Some problems are actually quite interesting though and I think the character Barabbas from the trial of Jesus is one of them.

For those unfamiliar here is the story as told in Mark

Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified

6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Historically Plausible?
The problem with this part of the trial story is that it has zero historical plausibility. Outside of this one gospel story no writer ever mentioned a Roman custom of releasing dangerous criminals. Given its unusual nature we can have a high expectation that we would find at least one such a mention. What’s more, what we know of Roman administration of territories positively excludes such custom for the Romans were no kind and gentle overlords.

This goes doubly for the territory of Jerusalem. Riot and insurrection were common occurrences both when Rome ruled through client (puppet) kings and when they ruled the territory more directly. If the Romans had such a custom one can be sure that each year at Passover, they would be compelled by the crowds to release the most popular rebel, thus insuring more riot and insurrection. Not to mention this is supposed to be happening under Pontius Pilate, a man with a brutal reputation in our sources, especially when it came to his attitude towards Jewish customs and laws. No, this episode simply did not happen.

But Why Include It?
The question naturally arises as to why this part of the story would become part of the early Christian tradition (it appears in all four canonical gospels). Did the authors, and their readers, simply not know how implausible it was? It appears the reasons for this story were strictly allegorical.

The Two Goats of Yom Kippur
In Leviticus 16 we find the source of the allegory. It describes a sacrifice the high priest is to perform on Yom Kippur. He is to gather two goats as sin offerings. One (selected by “casting lots”) will eventually be set free into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. The other will be sacrificed to atone for those sins. Sound familiar?

So we have a criminal, bearing the sins of Israel (insurrection and murder) set free into the crowd, and another that stays behind to be sacrificed to atone for sin.

What’s in a Name?
The parallels would have been painfully obvious to any first century reader but just to drive it home a bit we have the sledgehammer of character’s name, Barabbas. “Bar” means son of, while “Abba” means father. So the name of the man who was set free was “Son of the Father.” In early copies of Matthew it goes even further and his full name is given as Jesus Barabbas, “Jesus, son of the Father.” The Jewish crowd picked the wrong Son of the Father! They chose insurrection and murder.

Not Even Wrong
What I find interesting about this story is that it shows that those who read the Bible as an inerrant historical document are missing the point! The story isn’t true, but it also isn’t the case of a really bad historian telling a thoroughly implausible tale. The author isn’t instead trying to lie to anyone. This is not even intended to be history, it is allegory.

Credit where it’s due. I first heard of this through biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, and later through historian Richard Carrier.

Egregious Misrepresentation of Lenski’s E. Coli Experiment

What do you do when a scientist runs a long-term experiment where E. coli bacteria evolve a new metabolic pathway in the lab thus completely refuting the creationist claim that evolution can’t add new information? You lie of course. Well, you get a friend of yours to make a video for you where he lies for you. That’s just what Ken Ham did during his recent debate with Bill Nye.

Richard Lenski’s lab has been running a long term evolution experiment with E. coli for the last 25 years. During the course of the experiment the bacteria evolved the ability to metabolize citrate. This is a direct and deadly blow to creationist claims that evolution can’t create “new information,” like new metabolic pathways.

The thing to realize is the researchers still have the strains frozen and available to work with, in addition to having “snapshot” samples taken every so often during the experiment. Because of this they are able to sequence the genomes of the relevant strains. From doing so they know this is definitely not a case of an existing ability that was suddenly “turned on.”

The link below includes commentary by one of the experimenters involved.

Source: Zachary Blount on “Ham on Nye” Debate, Follow-up #3 | Telliamed Revisited

Of course, this attention has also been a bit troubling because it has led to repeated disparagement, dismissal, distortion, and misrepresentation of my work by both professional and amateur creationists. These creationists often get entirely wrong the work my colleagues and I toiled long and hard to do, likely because they haven’t bothered to read our papers, learn the details and methods, or think much about the results. (I suspect some duplicity is in there, too.) Reflexive, unthinking dismissal bothers me – maybe because my parents and devoutly Southern Baptist Granny told me when I was a child that this is something that civilized folk simply should not do.

The second argument was more direct. Both Ham and Fabich asserted that the Cit+ function did not evolve because using citrate did not involve “any kind of new information … it’s just a switch that gets turned on and off.” (Fabich went on to state that this “switch” is what we reported. That is emphatically not true. It beggars belief that anyone, much less a trained microbiologist, could actually read our 2012 paper, where we reported the genetic basis of Cit+, and come away thinking this.) Variations on that wording are often used by creationists who discuss the citrate work because it implies that Cit+ arose because of a pre-existing regulatory switch and involved no evolution at all. But that simply is not the case – that wording, dare I say it, is a lie.

Regular E. coli cells have no existing genetic regulatory circuitry that “flips a switch” to allow them to start growing on citrate in the presence of oxygen.

Silly Claims by Ken Ham About Evidence for a Young Earth

This article tackles a few of the claims made by Ken Ham in his debate with Bill Nye. As is the norm with creationist arguments the claims are fact-challenged, full of shoddy (or dare I say deceitful) logic, and have been debunked for decades. I found this excerpt particularly amusing for its analogy.

Ken Ham uses young earth arguments debunked over 20 years ago in Bill Nye debate

The “amount of helium,” “amount of sediment in the sea” and other “amount” arguments have also been debunked because the young earth creationists only take into account the factors that add certain substances and then ignore the processes that remove these substances and the point of which equilibrium is met.

Through measuring the amount of trash in your house, we can conclude that your home is no more than a week old. We can reach that conclusion by factoring the trash that comes into your residence every day and by completely ignoring the weekly trash pickup or any other consideration. Using half of equations in conjunction with “we don’t know something therefore god did it” is how young earth creationist arguments work.