About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Yo, Saturnalia!

Around this time of the year, everybody wishes to remind us of "the real reason for the season." The problem is that "reality" here depends not only on one's ideological commitments, but also on a frank look at the historical record.

Christmas today is, as a matter of fact, mostly about three things: being together with your family (and try to avoid fights), eating a lot (which seems to be linked to the above mentioned fights), and -- of course -- shopping until dropping.

That is why so many fundamentalist Christians become particularly vocal during this time of the year (scrap that, they are always particularly vocal), and want us to go back to the "real reason" for celebration -- according to them, the birth of Jesus Christ (even though we don't know for sure whether such a historical figure existed, and we sure as hell know nothing about his birthday).

It was therefore refreshing to see an article by John Tierney in the New York Times where he humorously summarizes the hybrid origins of Christmas as it is celebrated today, from the Christian take over of the ancient Roman fertility festival of Saturnalia (in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and celebrated with orgies and banquets), to the importing of the Christmas tree from Nordic European traditions (the Yule solstice festival).

As for what the proper holiday greeting should be, Tierney prefers to go back to the Roman version of the festival. The Romans said "Io, Saturnalia," which means "Ho, praise to Saturn." Just remember that the Latin "Io" is pronounced "Yo" and you'll get a delicious southern-sounding greeting guaranteed to drive your fundamentalist neighbor insane. Not that this should be your goal: after all, it is the season to be jolly...

18 comments:

  1. "Ho, praise to Saturn"

    That might turn into "Ho, Ho, Ho, praise to Santa!"

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  2. MP: "That is why so many fundamentalist Christians become particularly vocal during this time of the year (scrap that, they are always particularly vocal), and want us to go back to the "real reason" for celebration -- according to them, the birth of Jesus Christ.."

    I think that I began to understand why this problem has evolved to what it has become after some discussions last year with an acquaintance from the east coast. No exaggeration intended here but if the words "secularist" or leftist were listed in the dictionary, I'm convinced that his picture (he's well known) would be there to surmise what it means to be on the left.

    Secularists are plainly tired of mere symbolism and minimal substance from Christians. (not that there are not sincere Christians, of course – and not that each person, secular or otherwise, still isn’t responsible for his individual response to truth)

    Interestingly enough, if Christians believed their own Bible they would know that even God doesn't want our symbols (or the so-called "sacrifices" of the things we WANT to give) without the substance (real motivations of our hearts), either. In the NT, the Christian is repeatedly depicted as a bond servant or “slave”. I think we have come to a point in time where the ‘cultural Christian’ is all too happy to shed that image for one that now has “rights”.

    cal

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  3. "even though we don't know for sure whether such a historical figure existed"

    A quote from atheist historian Michael Grant"

    ... if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event ever took place just because some pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend around Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and ficticious. To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.' In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus'--or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. (p. 200)

    Repeatedly, those who have argued against the existence of Jesus have resorted to distortions, gross speculation, and arguments from silence. You have no business repeating their canards and then entitle your blog "Rationally Speaking."

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  4. J.J.,

    calm down my friend. Take it easy. The historical consensus is indeed on your side, but I don't think it is "irrational" to question the existence of Jesus (notice that I didn't assert that he never existed).

    There is much more evidence in favor of the existence of Alexander, and Jesus is -- in my humble opinion -- more comparable to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Which isn't to say that they didn't exist, only to point out that the myth has overwhelmed whatever historical person may have been behind it (unlike the case of Alexander, where history and myth are much more readily discernable).

    Enjoy the holidays.

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  5. "I don't think it is 'irrational' to question the existence of Jesus"

    I think that statement is a few decades out of date. The problem is that many have tried to prove the hypothesis that Jesus didn't exist and it has repeatedly degenerated into distortion. That hypothesis is simply an inferior explanation for the facts as they stand. At this point, the Jesus-mythers have earned the same credibility as creationists. Unless new evidence comes along, giving them any further credence is irrational.

    "Jesus is -- in my humble opinion -- more comparable to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome"

    Except for being from far humbler circumstances and dying in a way that invited mockery from the pagans. If you read between the lines, Jesus' life is far more mundane. What is so remarkable about settling down in a village by the Sea of Galilee (Capernaum, which the Gospels miscall a city) and then condemning to hell the towns within walking distance that were not so impressed by his supposed deeds of power. A very much human religious fanatic with time on his hands could do that. And tell me that Mark 6:1-6 doesn't look suspiciously like a case of (mostly?) failed placebo effect. Some Romulus and Remus!

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  6. J.J.,

    There are big differences between evidence for the existence of Alexander vs. Jesus.

    The fact that Alexander was a military and political figure means that he was written about by many, many different contemporaneous sources, pro and con. He renamed cities after himself -- a fact documented by a myriad of ancient sources. He's also depicted in at least two contemporaneous works of art that I'm aware of, and his likeness is imprinted on coins from the era.

    For Jesus, basically all the "evidence" that you have is four pieces of propaganda written by people who couldn't get some key facts straight, and who borrowed liberally from each other (in the case of the synoptics).

    Personally, I tend to think the Jesus myth is based on a real Jewish preacher, but I also don't think the "evidence" for his existence is all that compelling either.

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  7. I'd heard some interesting things about the jesus as myth theory which perhaps could be addressed here? I had heard that the first Christian documents date to over 300 years after he had supposedly existed - a long enough time for information to become doubtful, altered, or freshly created.

    I had also heard that no jewish or roman historian of that time period recorded anything that would corroborate the jesus story. Additionally, the romans were supposed to be insane about records - detailing every petty thief they tried, etc. but no record of a messiah joshua exists (the original name of jesus - apparently the name jesus is a greek translation of joshua).

    Simply saying all these things have been debunked leaves me wanting to hear the actual details. Just the facts please.

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  8. Curious,

    I'm no expert on this, but I've read a couple of books on the historical figure of Jesus. The earliest Gospels seem to date from about 50 years after his death, surely enough to significantly distort any historical record. There is a historian, Josephus, who mentions him in passing, but he was also partizan, later, and prone to fantasies (he believed Caesar had in fact ascended to the heavens when he became a god...)

    I'd like for others to contribute additional sources, but a good one on the shaping of early Christianity is: "When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome," by Richard E. Rubenstein.

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  9. "The earliest Gospels seem to date from about 50 years after his death, surely enough to significantly distort any historical record."


    But as I suggested in the comment on ID, would you, as an intimate contemporary of Christ, willfully give your life for a cause that you knew as a fact to not be true?

    Many did just that, before, during and after the era to which you refer.

    cal

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  10. would you, as an intimate contemporary of Christ, willfully give your life for a cause that you knew as a fact to not be true?

    No, but I might willfully give my life based on a false belief. And that would be wholly regrettable.

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  11. For Jesus, basically all the "evidence" that you have is four pieces of propaganda written by people who couldn't get some key facts straight,

    Which is why getting much decent info about Jesus is a dog of a task. That is also why the criterion of embarassment is important. Since the Gospels are, loosely speaking, propangandistic, embarrassing statements are statements against the interests of their authors, and hence more likely to be true. That there are such embarassments at all is a sign that there was a real man behind the myth whose actions did not always quite fit with what his followers wanted from him.

    Paul's letters also give us a few snippets about Jesus, and it is multiple attestation across the letters, the Gospels, and Josephus that indicate that Jesus had brothers, and thus actually existed.

    BTW, curious, there are relatively few records from the first century.

    The earliest Gospels seem to date from about 50 years after his death, surely enough to significantly distort any historical record.

    Indeed, they do distort the record. The same can be said about the sources about Alexander, and these are also late as well.

    The statement "we don't know for sure whether such a historical figure existed" is a concession to arguments that are as dishonest as those of the creationists.

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  12. I'm not an expert here, but I would be highly surprised to find that Jesus did not exist in some manner -- lest we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.

    It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus was just another in a long line of Jewish prophets and that all the subsequent deification was the result of zealous gospel writers.

    However, I will agree that many are too quick to latch on to the Jesus didn't exist hypothesis simply because it is attractive to agnostic/atheists.

    We should be careful not to "cherry pick" data. And (again stating I have not researched this area thoroughly) I agree that we need to make sure that objectivity, reason and evidence carry the day.

    Alan

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  13. Sorry for interrupting the Jesus talk, but I'll go back to the original theme just to suggest you guys hear the following, which aired on NPR:

    Have a PC Holiday, Ancient Rome-Style
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5060356

    Quite funny, with the interpretation and all. Very similar to the text Massimo wrote about, it seems like (I still haven't read it because my NYT password is elsewhere).

    Cheers
    J

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  14. The passages in Josephus that mention Jesus have been recognized as forgeries for centuries now, j.j.

    But many other prolific writers who allegedly lived at the same time as Jesus never mentioned him. Hmmm.

    As for Paul, he obviously didn't know jack sh*t about the "real" Jesus either (if there was one), or about the Jesus depicted in the gospels. Paul is such an obvious poseur that I wonder how anyone could have ever taken his claims seriously.

    On the other hand, the main *extant* source of historical knowledge about Alexander the Great is someone who wrote hundreds of years after Alexander's death, it's true. But he based his account on multiple sources contemporaneous to Alexander, including those of Ptolemy and Aristobolous, who both knew Alexander personally and quite well.

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  15. j, that NPR leads to a "Page not Found" error.

    Has anyone else here started humming "Have Yourself a Pagan Little Christmas"? ;)

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  16. "The passages in Josephus that mention Jesus have been recognized as forgeries for centuries now"

    Um, no. The Testimonium Flavianum is very much suspect, but the consensus on the far more brief mention of James as the brother of the one called Christ is that it is authentic.

    As for Paul, he obviously didn't know jack sh*t about the "real" Jesus either

    He knew enough to know that Jesus had siblings.

    But many other prolific writers who allegedly lived at the same time as Jesus never mentioned him.

    Yawn. This is not only an argument from silence, but a poor one. As far as the Romans were concerned, Jesus wasn't that important, especially not during his lifetime.

    This is exactly why I hate the hate the Jesus-myth canard. You just spewed out one bit of outright misinformation about Josephus, one questionable statement about Paul, and one fallacious argument. This is where the "Jesus was a myth" junk takes you.

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  17. Adrienne,

    sometimes the Blogspot format gives us trouble with long lines, I've had them before. So here goes the link, this time "broken" in two lines (copy and paste each at a time on your browser's address bar):

    http://www.npr.org/templates/
    story/story.php?storyId=5060356

    I hope it works now for you (it did for me)

    Cheers
    J

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  18. Saturnalia: a festival in which kings and servants exchanged roles.

    Christianity: a religion in which the King of Kings took on the role of a lowly servant.

    I wonder if anyone has explored this interesting link between the pagan religion of Christianity and the other pagan religions.

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