Friday, September 27, 2013

An Open Letter to "Celebration of Praise" Church (Clermont, Florida)

To: Pastor Chris Dutruch, Celebration of Praise Church, Clermont, Florida

From: James Patrick Holding, President, Tekton Apologetics Ministries, Orlando, Florida

Dear Pastor Dutruch,

While watching local news recently, I was surprised to hear of the upcoming difficulties your fellowship will have in making a mortgage payment, and of the plan to sell the property.

I remember very well the opening of the Celebration of Praise church when it was at a more northerly location on Highway 27, in Minneola. I remember it well because we frequently use the gas station next door. I picture it now, in fact: Not much more than three times larger than the gas station itself, as I recall. And I admit I was a bit puzzled when the location became the City Hall for Minneola. I had no idea what had happened to CoP and wondered about it.

It wasn’t until later that I found out that CoP had moved to its new location. And it was not until this past week that I was aware of the following, which was reported in a news article:

Buying a church may not be the typical way for a city to expand its services, but for Clermont, it could be the answer to a prayer.

The growing city in south Lake County, whose residents have been demanding more recreational opportunities, has offered to pay $6.3 million for Celebrtation of Praise Church of God, which can't afford an upcoming $7 million "balloon" payment on its mortgage.

The 47-acre megachurch on a hilltop overlooking U.S. Highway 27 includes an Olympic-size swimming pool, the largest auditorium in Lake County, a gymnasium and 30 undeveloped acres that could be home to a new police station, a conference center or a recreation complex….

Although the church property went on the market about a year ago, city leaders took a sudden interest in the site after a series of public "visioning sessions" in which residents clamored for more recreation. Some suggested a splash park for kids; others proposed a zip line and a zoo.

The unusual deal, which is contingent on property appraisals and inspections, may be the church's salvation, too.

Celebration of Praise, which moved to the site about a decade ago, had never missed a payment on its mortgage, which has a $7 million payment due soon, said Pastor Chris Dutruch. The 1,200-member church had hoped to refinance its loan, but couldn't do so because of tumbling property values.

Although it doesn't pay property taxes, the church has an assessed value of about $5.1 million in Lake County property records.

Celebration of Praise has invested more than $9 million in the site, county records show. It bought the land in 2002 for $4 million, borrowing $3.25 million. Then it sank more than $5.2 million into the house of worship in 2003 and added a $200,000 pool and spa in 2004. Like many megachurches of the past decade, Celebration of Praise added amenities in an effort to attract new members.

Well now! I can’t help but be impressed. 4 million for land, $200,000 for a pool and spa. And now you can’t make the balloon payment? Really?

I have to say, this does make me wonder. You see, Pastor, as the President of a small apologetics ministry, I would think I’d never be able to spend $200,000 on anything like a pool and a spa. In fact, $200,000 would just about cover 10 years of my ministry’s operation.  I also have a junior ministry partner, Nick Peters, who is an up and coming apologist; he is not as far along as I am, though, and presently he and his wife are struggling just to make ends meet. 

So I have a question for you.

Since you have experience in these matters, and are obviously far better versed in the stewardship of resources than either of us could ever be, Nick and I have decided to follow your lead. Do you recommend that we build an Olympic sized pool for our apologetics ministry? Or should we opt for something larger?

Please advise soon, as we already have plans for a down payment on a spa, just as soon as we get my poodle an air-conditioned doghouse.

Thank you, and God bless,


(There was no direct email address for Pastor Dutruch, so I sent this to their media person, named Marco Diaz. I'll let everyone know if I get an answer.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Zeitgeist Lunacy On Mithra, Part 1

Turning from one wacky Jesus myther to another, I was asked to take a look at the “Zeitgeist Companion” (ZC) which was offered to supposedly validate the claims of that production. I’ll perhaps treat it in more depth in a future update of Shattering the Christ Myth, but for now, let’s sample the fare with a look at how it treats claims about one of my subjects of speciality – Mithra. We’ll cover this over several entries.
The section on Mithra begins with a summary of the pagan copycat view as  offered by a 1921 author named Edward Carpenter. Carpenter lived from 1844  to 1929 and was a poet, not a religious scholar or an authority on Mithraism.  Carpenter gives no source for his claims, except for the alleged birthdate of  Mithra, which he sources to, “F. Nork, Der Mystagog, Leipzig.” Unfortunately  that’s a 19th century book you’d be hard pressed to find today. Not that it  matters: “Freidrich Nork” was a pen name for Josef Kohn, who was a journalist  and author of pseudo-scientific works, not an authority on religion or Mithraism.   ZC may as well be quoting Mickey Mouse as an authority.   

ZC nexts addresses specifically the alleged “virgin birth” of Mithra on Dec. 25th.  Once again, they may as well quote the mouse, but they actually quote  Acharya S, who says:  
As concerns the debate regarding the Perso-Roman god Mithra‘s virgin birth,not a few scholars and writers of Persian/Iranian extract have discussed the Persian goddess of love Anahita as Mithra‘s virgin mother.

In the scholarly digest Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress, Dr. Martin Schwartz, a professor of Iranian Studies at the University of California, discusses the Armenian national epic concerning Mithra, who is called the Great Mher.In recounting a myth regarding the Great Mher (Mithra), Dr. Schwartz relates the story of his father, Sanasar, who along with his twin brother Baltasar is ― born of a virgin who becomes pregnant from the water of the Milky Fountain of Immortality…’ “He next says:

“Combining these data with the tradition found in Elise that Mithra was born of God through a human may suggest a transference of the miraculous birth of the Sosyants to Mithra.”

ZC sums up: “In other words, in certain traditions Mithra was said to have been born of the union of God with a human mortal, possibly a virgin mother like that of his father.”

Well, that’s a train of speculation that crashes into the station before it even gets stated. “Possibly” a virgin mother? In other words, there’s no evidence for it at all. But the real clue is that this is from an “Armenian epic” about Mitrha, which is something later than Christianity. In fact, elsewhere in the same book, Hinnnells remarks on the uncertainty of the date of the Armenian epic, and says it would be “premature to use the Armenian epic to interpret Roman Mithraism.” (357) One wonders why Acharya didn’t see fit to share this information. Acharya also repeats her rather silly idea that the rock Mithra was born from can be called a “virgin” because “mater” (mother) in Latin goes back to the same word as the Latin for “matter” (material). As I said before to that, however, that’s merely vivid imagination at work. We have yet to see any reference to a rock as a “virgin”.

As far as December 25th as Mithra’s birthday goes, ZC quotes no authority on Mithraism, and no ancient source; rather, it quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia, and a 1916 book by Thomas Thorburn. I have yet to see any Mithraic authority designate December 25 as Mithra’s birthdate, much less see an original ancient source cited. The “natalis invicti” referred to is that of the birth of Sol Invictus, and that is first referenced as December 25th in 354 AD. I’ll have more to say on this later, as I’m currently doing a project which includes discussions on the origins of December 25th as the observed birthday of Jesus. (Just a heads up: It may well be that it was selected for Jesus much earlier than I first thought.)

The last part we’ll look at today is the claim of 12 disciples for Mithra, and here, after an extended diversion on the use of the number 12 in Judaism as some sort of alleged astrological signal (guess what that means when you buy a dozen eggs?), ZC decides it isn’t that significant after all:

The point here is not whether or not these companions are depicted as interacting in the same manner as the disciples of Jesus but that the theme of the god or godman with the 12 surrounding him is common enough -- and with very popular deities in the same region — to have served as a precedent for the Christian Twelve with Christ at their center. It surely would have struck any intelligent and half-way educated member of the Roman Empire as very odd when Christians attempted to tell their supernatural
tales of a Jewish godman with 12 companions, in consideration of the fact that there were already so many of these saviors in variety of cultures.

Well, actually, yes – that WAS the point, in good measure, because after all, the claim is phrased in terms of Mithra having 12 DISCIPLES. Not 12 plumbers, or 12 milkmen. In any event, if there were “many of these saviors” we are still left with the fact that the only evidence of Mithra in association with these 12 (non-)disciples postdates Christianity, and the 12 disciples of Jesus have their precedence in the 12 tribes of Israel. This is not altered or affected by any interpretation of the 12 tribes in terms of the signs of the Zodiac by Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus, as ZC claims, since both Philo and Josephus nevertheless saw the 12 sons of Abraham and the 12 tribes as historical people. In other words, such connections add nothing to the mythicist case, because they cannot simply cherry pick what they want from Josephus and Philo.

We’ll be back with more in the next entry.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Raphael Lataster the Scholarship Disaster, Part 1

Yet another fringe fundy atheist has emerged from the fetid swamp that is Jesus-mythicism; Raphael Lataster (aka the Scholarship Disaster) has seed-picked a collection of poor arguments from the field (ranging from Doherty to Price to the dollar bin at the Pic and Save) and put them into a collection titled There Was No Jesus There is No God that is guaranteed to be a best seller among Skeptics who don’t realize it’s nothing  new. In that sense, it is sort of like foolish Christians who keep buying the last garbage from Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Max Lucado, in spite of the fact that you could switch the covers on them and no one would be the wiser.

Because it is nothing new, it will be sufficient to address samples from particular topics. The first, for today, will be the testimony of Tacitus. Not surprisingly, Lataster’s text is essentially bare of reference to qualified Tacitean scholars, and he opts for the desperate ploy that Annals 15.44 is interpolated. Here are his specific arguments, and our replies to them as they have appeared in the prior incarnations we have addressed.

The earliest extra-Biblical or non-Biblical references (such as passages among the works of Josephus and Tacitus) appear decades after the supposed events.

The only answer needed: So what? The bulk of history Tacitus records is that of events decades before he wrote. In spite of this, I have yet to see a single Tacitean scholar – whether Syme or Benario or Mellor or any other – think that this has sort of bearing on the accuracy of Tacitius’ reports. Nor does anyone seem to think it has any bearing on such things as histories of the Civil War written today. The obvious answer to that is that “it was written decades later” is an utter irrelevancy. Such factors as competence as a historian, or access to reliable source material, erase any such issues. Tacitean historians have apparently decided that Tacitus’ reliability as a historian makes the decades-span a moot point. Yet one must ask why it is that amateur Skeptics like Lataster continue to resurrect this canard again and again and again. (The obvious answer is that they have no better arguments to speak of, and continue to be able to fool gullible everyday Skeptics who have never done any serious study in history.)

It is the phrase in the middle of this passage, referring to Christus and his death under Pontius Pilate that is of great interest. It could be that this phrase (or even the whole passage) could also be a later Christian interpolation. 

“Could be” of course requires some support. The manuscript tradition, while admittedly sparse, is unanimous that 15.44 belongs in the text. I have also yet to find any Tacitean that thinks it is interpolated. This has been the province of lunatic freethinkers and fringe authors. If an interpolation is to be suggested, the grounds must be good ones, as the tests suggested by William Walker tell us. So what reasons does “the Disaster” offer?

It is interesting that the name ‘Jesus’, ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’ or ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is never used, and that this is Tacitus’ only supposed reference to Jesus.   It is unlikely that a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as ‘Christ’ (a term of religious significance to Christians), rather than the more secular ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. A Christian scribe however, would have no issue in calling him ‘Christ’. Given that ‘Jesus’ is not specified, there is also the possibility that this refers to another ‘Christ’ or messiah-figure

This is not “interesting” or “unlikely” at all. This is the old “he calls him Christus” canard, which has been answered repeatedly:

Like the above objection, this is not considered at all problematic by any Tacitean or other historian. Rather than find some deficiency in Tacitus because of this, it is more plausible to recognize that Tacitus would use the name with which his readers would be most familiar - and that would not necessarily be the name that Jesus was executed under. Furthermore, simply referring to “Jesus” would not explain how it is that Jesus’ followers were named Christians. Van Voorst further makes the point that Tacitus is actually issuing a subtle corrective here: The text of the oldest manuscript of the Annals, and most likely reading, spells “Christians” with an e (“Chrestians”). In naming “Christ,” Tacitus “…is correcting, in a way typical of his style of economy, the misunderstanding of the ‘crowd’ (vulgus) by stating that the ‘founder of this name’ Christus, not the common name given by the crowd, Chrestus...he calls atten- tion by his somewhat unusual phrase to the nomen of the movement in order to link it directly— and correctly — to the name of Christ.”

It should be further added that the New Testament itself tended towards the direction of using “Christ” as though it were a proper name, and that Tacitus may be reflecting this.

Other than that, I am not sure why “the Disaster” things Tacitus ought to have referred to “Jesus son of Joseph” or “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Does he think this reflects normal Tacitean usage? How many times does Tacitus introduce people by their parentage or their location? Within Annals 15, no one is introduced as the “son of”  someone else.  Figures like Memmius Regulus and Verginius Rufus (15.23),  Lucius Lucollus (15.27), Gaius Laecanius and Marcus Licinius (15.33)., and even Pilate himself, and not introduced by way of their fathers or of their hometowns. (Though I might add, Tacitus has already introduced Jesus’ location as Judaea, which would be more than sufficient  to inform his audience about what sort of person Jesus would be.)

The idea that Tacitus may here refer here to some other “Christ figure” is fairly stupid. This figure 1) founded a movement 2) that reached to Rome, and 3) whose followers were called “Christians” and was 4) crucified 5) under Pilate. It seems rather peculiar that Lataster wants to invent an otherwise unattested figure that meets all five of these criteria while also denying the existence of a figure that is otherwise attested in the New Testament and elsewhere. By that reckoning he’d have even less evidence for “Christus 2” than for Jesus Christ, yet accept the former as real while saying the latter didn’t exist.

Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14CE to 66CE, no other mention is made of ‘Jesus Christ’.

That’s nice. So likewise dozens of other figures are never mentioned again by Tacitus, some of whom would have been more important and honorable in his eyes than Jesus.  Has Lataster ensured that every procurator and prefect Tacitus refers to between 14 and 66 gets at least two mentions, for example?

This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quotes Tacitus in the third century.  

Yet another tired canard, which has been answered repeatedly:

No church father, however, would have willingly quoted such a negative reference to Jesus and the Christians. There is also nothing in the passage that would not have been common, agreed-upon knowledge to church authors or their opponents.

Latatser needs to explain in what content and for what purpose any church father would have quoted this passage. The great flaw in such reasoning is the assumption that it contained information that answered or supported whatever Tertullian or Origen were addressing. So, what then? Does Lataster know of someone in that time who doubted that Jesus 1) founded a movement 2) that reached to Rome, and 3) whose followers were called “Christians” and was 4) crucified 5) under Pilate? Or does he simply mindlessly expect someone like Origen to gratuitously quote the passage just to satisfy his arbitrary desires to see it in print?

 Tacitus, born after Jesus’ death (and perhaps after Paul started writing his epistles), could not have been an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. He could well be repeating what a Christian believer is claiming. Many scholars dismiss this passage as Christian hearsay. 

The “eyewitness” bit is the same objection as the “decades later” objection we dealt with above. As for the “repeating” and “hearsay” bit, this is why I offered this material:

Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust  what they say?

Absolutely! The Tacitean literature is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus:

Syme, who was regarded as one of the foremost Tacitean scholars, says “the prime quality of Cornelius Tacitus is distrust. It was needed if a man were to write about the Caesars.” He adds that Tacitus “was no stranger to industrious investigation” and his “diligence was exemplary.”

Chilver indicates, “for Tacitus scepticism was inescapable is not to be doubted.

Martin, though noting difficulties about discerning Tacitus’ exact sources, says that“[i]t is clear, then, that Tacitus read widely and that the idea that he was an uncritical follower of a single source is quite untenable.”

Grant, while charging Tacitus with bias, error, and “unfair selectivity” in various areas (especially associated with the Emperor Tiberius), nevertheless agrees that Tacitus “was careful to contrast what had been handed down orally with the literary tradition.” Elsewhere he notes that “[t]here is no doubt that (Tacitus) took a great deal of care in selecting his material.”

Dudley notes that despite problems in discerning what sources Tacitus used, “it may be said with some confidence that the view that Tacitus followed a single authority no longer commands support.”

Mellor observes that although he made use of other sources, including friends like Pliny, Tacitus “does not slavishly follow, as some of his Roman predecessors did, the vagaries of his sources.” He adds: “If research is the consultation and evaluation of sources, there can be little doubt that Tacitus engaged in serious research though it is not often apparent in the smooth flow of his narrative.” Tacitus “consulted both obscure and obvious sources,” and “distinguishes fact from rumor with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian.”

Benario tells us that Tacitus “…chose judiciously among his sources, totally dependent upon none, and very often, at crucial points, ignored the consensus of his predecessors to impose his own viewpoint and his own judgment.”

Wellesley remarks that investigation “very seldom shows (Tacitus) to be false to fact” and that archaeology has shown that “only once or twice is Tacitus found guilty of  a small slip.” He adds: “When the sources differ and the truth is hard to decipher, (Tacitus) takes refuge in ambiguous language or the balance of alternative and some- times spiteful variants,” rather than doing original research to determine which option is the truth. We may note that there is no such ambiguous language in the Christus cite.

Ash  notes  external  evidence  that Tacitus  “was  actively  engaged”  in  “meticulous research” and internal evidence that Tacitus “investigated the facts painstakingly.

Finally, Momigliano, while pointing out that Tacitus was of course “not a researcher in the modern sense,” nevertheless says that he was “a writer whose reliability cannot be seriously questioned.” He cites only one possible major error by Tacitus, but puts it down to him relying on a trusted predecessor rather than official records.

We therefore conclude that there is every reason to trust Tacitus as reliable. However, there are objections that have been raised by various sources in this regard.

Lataster refers to “many scholars” who “dismiss this passage” as hearsay. Unfortunately, he does not name any, nor give a reference to any, save for Ehrman earlier in the text (whose conclusion in that regard he also cites as self-contradictory), and did not find any scholar who made such a dismissal in my survey of the literature.

There is also some question over Tacitus’ reliability as historian, particularly when he calls the prefect Pontius Pilate a procurator, although he could possibly have been both.

Lataster is forced to swallow this one with that latter caveat, being that Richard Carrier has allowed for that possibility. Either way, it is a stale canard, rendered deceased both by the testimonies of Tacitus’ reliability we noted above, and by these points:

We should first consider the difference between these two titles. A procurator was a financial administrator who acted as the emperors personal agent. A prefect was a military official. In a minor province of the Empire like Judaea, there was probably not much difference between the two roles, and the same person would very likely hold both offices simultaneously.

Critics assume that because there is an inscription that describes Pilate as a “prefect” in Caesarea, that therefore this was his sole title. But other literary evidence shows that Pilate likewise held the title of procurator. The Jewish historian Josephus calls Pilate a “procurator” in Antiquities 18.3.1. In practical terms, “both the procurators and prefects in Judaea had the
power to execute criminals who were not Roman citizens” This is a “difference” that is no difference at all.

But even if Pilate did not hold the title of procurator in his day, Tacitus may have had any number of other reasons to use that term in place of “prefect.” Tacitus may have simply been using a term with which his readers would be most familiar. Alternatively, he may have been deliberately anachronizing. Kraus and Woodman  note that Tacitus often uses “archaizing, rare, or obsolete vocabulary” and also “avoids, varies, or ‘misuses’ technical terms.” They do not cite the prefect/procurator issue specifically, but it is possible that a “misuse” of “procurator” would simply reflect Tacitus’ normal practice.

In any event, being that Tacitus’ readers were - like he had been - members of the Senate and holders of political office, we must suppose that this “error” escaped not only Tacitus’ attention, but theirs as well. We may as well suggest that a United States Senate historians error of the same rank would pass without comment. All of the above, therefore - along with the fact that this is not cited by Tactiean scholars as a problem - shows that there is certainly no grounds for charging Tacitus with error, or degrading the reference to Jesus because of the alleged procurator/prefect mixup.

Continuing with the Disaster Area:

Also of interest is that this supposed reference to the death of Jesus is made in Book 15 (covering CE62-65), rather than in Book 5 (covering CE29-31). Though Tacitus supposedly claims the death of Christ happened during the reign of Tiberius, Tacitus makes no mention of Jesus in the books he wrote covering the reign of Tiberius; he only makes this one passing comment among the books covering the reign of Nero, which is quite odd. 

No, it isn’t odd at all, not unless Lataster has established that every procurator, every religious leader, every teacher, that Tacitus mentions, gets at least two mentions, and always in their proper chronological place. I might also add that this objection assumes that Tacitus viewed Jesus in the same reverent and respectful light that modern people do. Quite the contrary. As a disgracefully shamed and crucified figure, a passing comment like this one is quite intelligible. Indeed, has Christians not been connected to the fire at Rome, and been useful to Tacitus as an example of Nero’s cruelty, it is likely he would not have mentioned Jesus at all.

  Furthermore, most of Book 5 and the beginning of Book 6 (covering CE32-37) of the Annals is lost.[ 102] The Annals is suspiciously missing information from 29CE to 32CE, a highly relevant timeframe for those that believe in Jesus! Professor of Classics Robert Drews theorises that the only plausible explanation for this gap is “pious fraud”; that the embarrassment of Tacitus making no mention of Jesus’ crucifixion (or associated events such as the darkness covering the world or the appearances of resurrected saints, as well as the resurrection, of course) led to Christian scribes destroying this portion of the text (and perhaps later fabricating the Book 15 reference).

Drews’ rather silly claim has been answered by Van Voorst, who notes that the “usual scribal practice is to interpolate, not excise” and also that other portions of Tacitus are lost as well. From the Annals, we are missing books 7 through 10. From the Histories, we are missing much of what comprised 12 or 14 total books.  One is justified in wondering why Lataster did not share this information with his readers.

That’s all on Tacitus from “the Disaster Area”. We’ll see what other travesties we can dig out later.

Link: Nick Peters also comments.