Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)
1. Who Would Buy One Crucified?
1.1. Precedents and Distinctions
James Holding asks: "Who on earth would believe a religion centered on a crucified man?" Well, the Sumerians perhaps. One of their top goddesses, Inanna (the Babylonian Ishtar, Goddess of Love and "Queen of Heaven"), was stripped naked and crucified, yet rose again and, triumphant, condemned to Hell her lover, the shepherd-god Dumuzi (the Babylonian Tammuz). This became the center of a major Sumerian sacred story, preserved in clay tablets dating over a thousand years before Christ. The corresponding religion, which we now know included the worship of a crucified Inanna, is mentioned by Ezekiel as having achieved some popularity within Jerusalem itself by the 6th century B.C. The "women weeping for Tammuz" at the north gate of the Jewish temple (Ezekiel 8:14) we now know were weeping because Inanna had condemned him to Hell, after herself being crucified and resurrected. So the influence of this religious story and its potent, apparently compelling allure upon pre-Christian Judaism is in evidence.
Even so, my point is not that the Christians got the idea of a crucified god from early Inanna cult. There may have been some direct or indirect influence we cannot trace. We can't rule that out--the idea of worshipping a crucified deity did predate Christianity and had entered Jewish society within Palestine. But we don't know any more than that. Rather, my point is that we have here a clear example of many people worshipping a crucified god. Therefore, as a matter of principle--unless Holding wants to claim that Inanna really was resurrected--it appears that people would worship a false crucified god. Therefore, Holding cannot claim this is improbable.
In the case of Christianity, Holding is certainly correct that the point of crucifixion was extreme humiliation (as well as terror), and it was certainly a commonplace view held by the elite, especially the more snobbish, that to die in such a way was the ultimate disgrace and embarrassment. However, just because many people find some idea repugnant does not mean everyone does, nor does this mean it was regarded as repugnant by those who converted. Ancient literature (by far most of it written by the rich and well-connected) is full of disgust towards the humiliating professions of prostitute or slave, and yet there were still people willing to choose the life of a hooker or slave. Likewise, to be a gladiator was a shameful embarrassment among the rich, and yet gladiators could become famous and revered among the poor. And for a more direct parallel, consider the cult of Attis and Cybele: this was a popular religion, with priests and followers all over the Roman Empire, yet it centered on the worship of a eunuch (the castrated Attis), and priests as a result castrated themselves in honor of their god. And this despite the fact that the emasculating act of castration was among the worst of embarrassing disgraces to the snobbish elite, just as crucifixion was.
This last point is demonstrated by a passage from Seneca, who (as a famous philosopher, rich land owner, and advisor to emperors) definitely represents someone deeply invested in the elite power structure. Seneca wrote of this practice of castration (and acts of mutilation promoted by other popular cults):
If anyone has leisure to view what they do and what they suffer, he will find practices so indecent for honorable men, so unworthy of free men, so unlike those of sane men, that if their number were fewer no one would have any doubt they were demented. As it is, the only support for a plea of sanity is found in the number of the mad throng.
Thus, even something so foul and repugnant to an elite scholar like Seneca nevertheless commanded a large following. There can be no ground for claiming Christianity was any different than the cult of Cybele and Attis in this regard. One man's disgrace was apparently another man's holy salvation. Contrary to Holding's assumption, the most repugnant beliefs could command large followings.
Therefore, it does no good to present examples of people who find something repugnant or embarrassing--especially from the literate elite. Christianity won very few of the elite over until it had positions of power and authority to offer them within a wealth-generating Church hierarchy (by the mid-to-late 2nd century), amidst an otherwise collapsing social system (in the mid-3rd century) discussed in Chapter 18. Rather, what we want to know is whether anyone would find a crucified god acceptable or even praiseworthy, and whether it was those very people who became Christians. That means we must study the attitudes of those who converted--not the attitudes of those who refused or attacked the religion. Obviously, many people rejected Christianity because it was repugnant to them in various ways, and probably would have rejected it no matter what evidence confirmed its truth. That's why Christianity never won universal acceptance until it had the power to compel that acceptance under pain of death or loss of all property (by the end of the 4th century A.D.).
1.2. How Converts Differed from Critics
When we engage this correct approach, however, we find there are two relevant facts that Holding omits from his consideration. First, the early Christians were in a significantly different social position than those who most looked down on the form of Christ's death, and we know they had credible reasons not to share the elite view when it came to Jesus. Second, among some Jews there was a certain expectation that the Messiah had to be humiliated as part of God's plan to secure his triumph, and these Jews would not find a crucified messiah repugnant--to the contrary, it would be exactly what they were looking for.
The first point becomes clear when we read the early teachings in Paul and Acts, and compare them with the teachings of the Essene community at Qumran. Like the Qumran community, the early Christians appear to have come from a disgruntled poor and middle class who had grown disgusted with the fundamental injustices in their society and government, especially social and economic inequities, but also the execution of righteous men. The fate of John the Baptist is a case in point: executed by the state, yet still held in high esteem by a great many Jews. If John could be revered despite the embarrassment of execution, so could Jesus. This would have been no less likely had John been crucified--to the contrary, the outrage at this insult to his honor would be all the greater, and popular reverence for his unjust suffering all the greater for it. So long as someone believed Jesus had been a righteous man crucified unjustly (which converts always had to be persuaded of first), his crucifixion would have been no stumbling block at all. To the contrary, it would be testimony to his greatness. It would make him even more a hero than any other death could have.
This was especially true among Jews and their sympathizers, who already had a tradition of revering humiliated martyrs, and among the poor, disillusioned, and disenfranchised, who expected good men to be humiliated and murdered by the corrupt elites they despised. Indeed, "standing up to the man," as modern slang would put it, was a surefire way to win reverence among these groups. Obviously "the man" did not feel that way--hence those who looked down on Christians for worshipping a crucified god were typically invested in the wealthy power structure, Jewish or Gentile. In contrast, we don't have on record anyone outside that structure scorning the idea. And when we look at the early success of Christianity, in its first century it was nowhere so successful as among the poor, the disillusioned, the disenfranchised, and Jews and their sympathizers (like the faithful centurion of the Gospels, cf. Luke 7:2-6). That Christianity won success principally among these groups is evident in Acts, where successes are achieved primarily within Jewish communities and synagogues, and elsewhere most often by recruiting slaves and women. Roman citizens or anyone of wealth or power (who were not already Jews or sympathizers) were rare among converts. In other words, Christianity was most successful among those very people who would have empathized most with the story of Jesus and could admire his unjust manner of death. And for at least a century it had no known success with the very kinds of people who did scorn Christ's manner of death: wealthy, politically-connected scholars (whose writings are the only ones we have that scorn the manner of Christ's death).
1.3. How Things Really Looked
So it seems that Holding has no case here. Yes, someone who found the idea of revering a crucified man repugnant would need very powerful evidence to convert--exactly as Holding argues. But there is no evidence any such person converted, at least for a hundred years after Christ's death, and after that all opportunity to inspect the evidence would be gone. So Holding's argument turns out to be irrelevant to the actual history of early Christianity. Instead, with a lone exception we shall examine in later chapters, all those who converted within that period--insofar as we can assign them to any social group at all--do not appear to have belonged to any of the social groups who would routinely scorn the idea of revering a crucified man. Rather, they belonged to groups who would readily accept or even cherish the idea of a righteous man martyred for his principles. And for them a crucified hero would be even more a hero, precisely because crucifixion was intended by the despised elite to be the ultimate humiliation. To deify such a man could easily be sold as an attractive "f-you" to the corrupt powers of Judaea and Rome: for then the good man triumphs despite their greatest efforts to destroy him in the most degrading way possible. Indeed, these very efforts at degrading honorable men were exactly the kind of thing the disillusioned despised about those in power.
Ultimately, for a crucified man to be victorious stands as a testimony to the impotence of the corrupt leaders, and that was the very thing the oppressed wanted most to believe: that there is a greater power the wicked elite cannot defeat no matter how hard they try. Obviously, a supernaturally victorious conqueror was what people wanted more. But there was never any such person. So for the Jews and their sympathizers and other social underdogs, the only heroes left were martyrs--for the only way left to claim that the corrupt power structure was really powerless was to point to someone who triumphed despite their every efforts to degrade him (see Chapter 8), and lacking any real such hero, only someone whose triumph was invisible to all but the eye of faith could win anything like wide support. That is exactly what the early Christians were striving for. That was the "market niche" they most ably exploited. And in that context, the Christ story was sure to be a hit.
This is confirmed by the fact that the Gospel did not really preach a god crucified. No one converted thinking they were worshipping a defeated, disgraced god. To the contrary, from the very beginning the Gospel preached a God crucified and raised to glory. Many a potential convert could find that attractive. Christ was a victorious god receiving the ultimate honor, not a god defeated in humiliation. His crucifixion was only a temporary defeat. The god actually being worshipped, therefore, was not defeated at all--he lived, and sat on the ultimate heavenly throne, his power attested on earth in the charisma, conviction, and "miracles" that belief in him inspired (more on that point in Chapter 13). Not everyone bought it, of course. But many would have. And many did. The crucified Christ was the ultimate hero, who soon would save us all from the awful, corrupt world we despise and can no longer control, while raining down punishment on the wicked elite who seem to us so untouchable. That this hero had to die at the hands of elite conspirators in order to gain this ultimate power was not unusual--many a god required just such a path, from the Sumerian Inanna, to the Egyptian Osiris, to the Roman Romulus.
1.4. Many Converts Expected a Humiliated Savior
And this idea of a suffering, executed god would resonate especially with those Jews and their sympathizers who expected a humiliated messiah. Jewish scripture declared that "The Redeemer of Israel" or "The Holy One of God" shall be "despised" by men, and nations will be "disgusted" with him, yet he shall triumph; the people will "bury him with the wicked" even though he was innocent, and he shall be "numbered with the transgressors" just as the Gospel of Mark says. The idea that a Chosen One of God must suffer total humiliation and execution at the hands of the wicked is a major theme in Isaiah. Even David, a common prototype of the Messiah, sings in Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" for "I am a worm" and "a reproach to men, despised by the people" and "all that see me laugh and scorn." This song set up a Jewish model for a crucified Davidic savior.
The pre-Christian text of the Wisdom of Solomon also declares that the wicked will "condemn to a shameful death" the holiest man of God, because they are "blinded by their wickedness" and "do not know the secret purposes of God" and it is said this righteous man, "a son of god," who is given a shameful execution will be raised and exalted by God to avenge his own death. This was a lesson that would automatically apply to the Messiah, who would be, by definition, a blameless and righteous man. And we have evidence it probably was understood by some in just this way, for the preeminent prophecy of the coming Messiah declares this very fate:
The anointed one shall be utterly destroyed yet there is no judgment upon him, then the city and the sanctuary will be torn down by the ruler who shall come. They will be knocked down in a cataclysm, until the end, when after war wreaks havoc there will be a systematic extermination. (Daniel 9:26)
This Jewish prophecy was widely known in the Jewish and Roman world, and interpreted in many different ways--by the Romans, as presaging the crowning of Vespasian as Emperor, and by the Jews, as presaging a military victory over Rome, even though the prophecy plainly says their anticipated messiah will be killed (despite his innocence), and that the Jews will be defeated (though later vindicated in the Apocalypse). So we have the lesson of the Wisdom of Solomon, combined with Isaiah 52-53 (which explicitly describes a humiliated servant of God who is subsequently exalted) and the way David could be imagined to speak of himself (e.g. humiliated and killed in Psalm 22, then sojourning in the land of the dead in Psalm 23, then exalted to glory in Psalm 24). But most of all, we have Daniel 9, which outright says the Messiah will be unjustly killed--while Isaiah and the Wisdom of Solomon confirm that he will then (like other righteous men) rise again in divine triumph.
Thus, there is a flaw in Holding's reasoning. Yes, a man who "out of the blue" was crucified and then declared God would not win many supporters. But this did not come out of the blue. Rather, a large number of people had been prepared by the Jewish scriptures to expect that someone would suffer a most humiliating execution at the hands of the wicked elite, despite his complete innocence, and that this person would be the Chosen One of God, a Son of God, who would receive the ultimate elevation in heavenly honor, soon to return and impose his revenge on the wicked and bring salvation to the faithful. The soil was prepared for exactly what the Christians came to preach--in fact, this preparation no doubt contributed significantly to why the first Christians came to believe this amazing claim about Jesus in the first place. The scriptures predicted that around that very time an innocent man would be humiliated with execution and scorn and this man, scripture plainly said, would be the Messiah. Jesus was an innocent man humiliated with execution and scorn. That made him a good candidate. Holding's argument requires that the evidence must be overwhelming, but in fact by being crucified Jesus already fit the bill--so it would not take much to convince his followers that he was more than merely a candidate for the title of Christ.
This is confirmed by the fact that scriptural demonstrations were one of the main modes of successful argument employed by the Christians (as we shall show in Chapter 13). Even to the extent that the Christians developed novel interpretations, the fact that they found such meaning in these revered oracles could and often did carry tremendous weight. The relevant point here is that prophetic preparation for a crucified messiah made sure that preaching a crucified messiah would not be a black mark, but a useful tactic, even a feather in Christianity's cap--among many Jews, certainly, but also among some Jewish sympathizers who were already acquainted with and impressed by their scriptures, and even among some unprepared Gentiles. Throughout the ancient world a great many people were awed by oracles of the gods and sought prophecy at innumerable places around the Empire. They were also well-acquainted with the idea of finding predictions of current events in "sacred scriptures." The Roman state consulted the Sibylline Books, for example. Thus, to convert an unprepared Gentile merely required introducing him to the relevant texts and explaining how the story of Jesus confirms them. The fact that a humiliated, crucified man becoming a god (as all Heavenly Kings and Sons of God were) was predicted by ancient sacred texts would be a powerful argument in favor of belief. It is no accident that the Christians relied on that very argument.
In conclusion, Holding's point here only works to explain why certain groups and individuals rejected Christianity. It does nothing to argue against conversions from among those groups who actually did accept Christianity. For those groups included many people who would not have found anything challenging in worshipping a crucified martyr like Jesus, and some would even have found this particularly attractive, fitting both pagan and Jewish precedents, and conforming to their needs and desires within a corrupt world beyond their control.
 Samuel Noah Kramer, "The First Tale of Resurrection," History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man's Recorded History, 3rd ed. (1981): pp. 154-67. For more on Inanna, Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis: G. Sfameni Gasparro, Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis (1997); Diane Wolkstein, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (1983); Eugene Lane, Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren (1996) and M. J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult (1977); Betty De Shong Meador, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna (2001).
 Some Christians knew of the cult, too. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 250 A.D.) mentions the cult of Tammuz and Astarte (a common transliteration of Ishtar, i.e. Inanna) as among the heresies of the early Jews (5.12). Origen and Hippolytus give important testimonies around the same time (c. 225 A.D.). Origen discusses Tammuz (whom he associates with Adonis) in his "Comments on Ezekiel" (Selecta in Ezechielem), noting that "they say that for a long time certain rites of initiation are conducted: first, that they weep for him, since he has died; second, that they rejoice for him because he has risen from the dead (apo nekrôn anastanti)" (cf. J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graeca 13:800). Although the Sumerian records are incomplete, and thus do not preserve an account of the resurrection of Tammuz, we do know his death followed the resurrection of Inanna.
 I caution strongly against overzealous attempts to link Christianity with prior religions--see my critical comment on "Kersey Graves and The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors" (2003); and for a good comparative study see Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions (2000). But I can't deny there are some intriguing parallels, including those between this story of Inanna and the story of the Incarnation of the Lord told in the Ascension of Isaiah. There are many important differences, but it is curious that in the Sumerian story Inanna descends through the seven gates of Hell, with a different encounter at each stage, and her humiliation and crucifixion are at the bottom. Similarly, in the Jewish story the Savior (Jesus) descends through the seven heavens, with a different encounter at each stage, and his humiliation and crucifixion are at the bottom. Jesus also supposedly said he would be "three days and three nights" in the grave (Matthew 12:40), while Inanna herself was dead for three days and three nights. Of course, we are told Jesus was not actually dead for three nights, only at most two, but it is still curious why there would be a tradition of his saying otherwise, a tradition matching that of Inanna.
 On the Attis cult, see Note 1 and: "The Great Mother and Her Eunuchs," Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire (2nd ed., 1992; tr. Antonia Nevill, 1996): pp. 28-74; Mary Beard, et al., Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History (1998): pp. 164-66. On prostitutes, see discussions in: Catharine Edwards, "Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome," in Roman Sexualities, ed. J. Hallett and M. Skinner (1997) and Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1995). On slavery: Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (1981) and Alan Watson, Roman Slave Law (1987). On gladiators: Thomas Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (1995) and Michael Grant, Gladiators (1967).
 This quote comes from Seneca's lost work On Superstition, written before 65 A.D., but quoted by Augustine in City of God 6.10. Augustine makes implausible excuses for the fact that Seneca never mentions Christianity, even though he attacks every conceivable cult in this work, including Judaism (6.11). Seneca probably did not mention it because he had never heard of it--meaning the book had to have been written before the persecution of 64 A.D., and may well have been written as early as the year 40 (the beginning of Seneca's known literary career).
 "We decree that no one shall have the right to approach any shrine or temple whatsoever, or to perform abominable sacrifices in any place or time whatsoever. All persons, therefore, who try to deviate from the dogma of the Catholic Church shall hurry to observe [it]." Theodosian Code 16.10.13, A.D. 395. This consolidated and reinforced laws that had already been passing since 391. The penalties ranged from death to the confiscation of land and property. On the government's Christianization of the Empire, see: Bill Leadbetter, "From Constantine to Theodosius (and Beyond)," The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 1 (2000): pp. 258-92 (Theodosius: 285-87).
 As reported by Josephus (AJ 18.116-19); also attested in Mark 11:29-32 and by the apparent fact that many Jews expected God might raise John the Baptist from the dead before the general resurrection of Israel (Matthew 14:1-2; Mark 6:12-16, 8:27-28; Luke 9:18-19).
 For example, see 1 and 2 Maccabees (and also Daniel 11:33-35 & 12:3). Disgust at the murder of righteous men by those in power is certainly a complaint voiced by early Christians, quoting the rebuke of Elijah: e.g. Luke 11:47, Acts 7:52; 1 Thessalonians 2:15, Romans 11:3, drawing on 1 Kings 19:10. See Alan Segal's discussion of the social context of early Jewish martyrology in his Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004), pp. 285-321. For more on the socio-cultural causes of this reverence for martyrs, see Chapter 8.
 Though many may well have--just as jail time today can be a badge of honor or disgrace among the lower classes, depending on the circumstances. Hence those of any class who were unconvinced that Jesus was righteous could certainly mock the manner of his end. Holding offers one piece of evidence here, although it is rather late and ambiguous: the famous Palatine Graffito of c. 200 A.D. (See Rodney Decker, "The Alexamenos Graffito," n. d., though he makes several errors, which are corrected in the sources cited below.) Most probably this was written by a member of the middle class (free or slave), though we don't know exactly why, or what he meant by it (or whether the author was mocking or merely depicting the crucifixion), and Holding can't claim to know this author wasn't well-invested in the elite power structure by being dependent upon it and supporting it (after all, the location--inside the Imperial Palace--suggests otherwise). See Mary Beard, et al., Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook (1998): § 2.10b, pp. 57-58, and E. Dinkler, Signum Crucis (1967).
 The fact that the early Christian movement began among those outside the elite social structure, and only later worked its way up the social ladder in later centuries, is the consensus view among qualified experts, and is almost too obvious to need proving. It is even explicitly admitted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26. However, I will discuss the evidence for this in Chapter 18. But for now, the case is adequately presented in David Horrell, "Early Jewish Christianity" and Thomas Finn, "Mission and Expansion," both in The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 1 (2000), pp. 136-67 & 295-315, respectively.
 Inanna was discussed above. For Osiris, see Richard Carrier, ".Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange" (2002), as well as John Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, 2nd ed. (1980) and Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride (1970). Osiris was murdered, dismembered, buried, then ascended to heaven to become "the Supreme Father of the Gods" (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 12.355d-19.358e, c. 75 A.D.; Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.27-30, c. 130 A.D.; Seneca, On Superstition, via Augustine, City of God 6.10, cf. Note 5).
 Isaiah 50:4-9, 52:7-53:12. Thus, N. T. Wright's claim that "Messiahship in Judaism, such as it was, never envisaged someone ... suffering the fate he suffered" is demonstrably false--insofar as Isaiah 52-53 and Daniel 9 both envision such a fate, and the other evidence clearly allows it.
 Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-22 & 5:1-8, 5:15-23. For those who understood (or were taught) the Jewish idea of sin and atonement, this would make even more sense, since in order for Christ's death to properly atone for all sins, his sacrifice had to be the most extreme imaginable--and hardly any sacrifice was more extreme than submitting to crucifixion. Such an atoning sacrifice was overtly anticipated in Isaiah: cf. Romans 4:23-25, "it was written" that the Christ will be killed to atone, per Isaiah 53:4-6, 11-12; and Jesus had to die to be vindicated, per Philemon 2:5-11. For more on this whole scheme, see Richard Carrier, "Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day" (2002).
 This Danielic prophecy is alluded to by Suetonius (Life of Vespasian 4), stating that "an ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world." Josephus (Jewish War 6.312-16) states that the main reason the Jews made war on Rome "was an ambiguous prophecy found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time someone from their country would become ruler of the world." Tacitus (Histories 5.13) writes that "in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire" and "these mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth." The prophecy's interpretation as anticipating Christ's death in 30 A.D. is attested by Julius Africanus, a Christian chronologer who laid it out two centuries later (§ 18.2, preserved by George Syncellus, cf. my note in Newman on Prophecy as Miracle ). As one can plainly see from the text itself, the Danielic prophecy predicts two men, an "anointed" (a "Christ") who will be executed though innocent, and a "ruler" (a "Hegemon") who will destroy Jerusalem and its temple, and conquer the world for a while, but then "come to his end" (Daniel 11:45), after which shall be the Apocalypse when all these injustices will be righted by God (Daniel 12).
 On Gentile sympathizers and admirers of the Jews, and converts to Judaism, see Margaret Williams, "VII.2. Pagans Sympathetic to Judaism" and "VII.3. Pagan Converts to Judaism," The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans: A Diasporan Sourcebook (1998), pp. 163-72 (cf. also pp. 172-79).
 See H. W. Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity (1989) and D. S. Potter, Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius (1994); as well as Robin Lane Fox, "Language of the Gods," Pagans and Christians (1987): pp. 168-261.
Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.
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