2012-10-20

Part 3: Review of Acharya S’s “The Christ Conspiracy”

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by Neil Godfrey

I decided to review this book after encountering commenters on this blog strongly asserting that Christian origins must be found in “astrotheology”. I had to confess I had never read Acharya S’s or D. M. Murdock’s book arguing for this position, The Christ Conspiracy, completely from cover to cover. I did, however, attempt to point out where the comments presenting this case here were logically fallacious. Each time, however, or at least very often, I was assured that there was “much more” to the argument. So I thought it might be a good idea — at least for the benefit of curious bystanders — to have a closer look at the book that I understand propelled a renewed interest in the apparent astrotheological roots of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the responses of both those earlier commenters, Murdock herself and other of her supporters, have been uniformly maliciously hostile towards me personally. I was regularly chastised for even deciding to review this book at all since it was an “old” book and Murdock has written other things since 1999, in particular Christ in Egypt. But as far as I can see Christ in Egypt does not address, at least not directly, the arguments for astrotheology as the basis of Christian origins. Moreover, that recent book refers its readers more than once (pp, vi, 575, and it is referenced in the index 20 times) to The Christ Conspiracy without any sense of embarrassment. So I think it is fair to say CC still has relevance.

As for the accusations that my reviews are riddled with personal insult and abuse towards D. M. Murdock, I leave it up to disinterested readers to decide their validity. What comes across to me is that Murdock’s supporters and Murdock herself interpret any criticism of their arguments, or any point at all that they deem not to be wholeheartedly supportive, even lighthearted irony and humour, as psychologically deranged personal attacks. Their leader has apparently even called upon them to find all the dirt they can about me — beginning with my past association with the Boy Cubs, or was that my childhood fantasies about Santa Claus? — no, no, I remember now, it was my time spent in the Anglican and Uniting churches after I left a cult, or was it the time I spent in the cult itself, or was it that cult-exit support group I started up for a while afterwards? Anyway, they apparently have my tortured past and my supposedly twisted psychological makeup all sorted out among themselves as a result of these reviews. (I now routinely divert their comments to my spam bin.)

Chapter 2. The Quest for Jesus Christ

D. M. Murdock (she used the name Acharya S on the book) points out the way Jesus Christ has been interpreted and reinterpreted in different ways to meet changing cultural needs. She writes: “Burton Mack says in The Lost Gospel of Q” — the actual title is The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins — that before Constantine Jesus was mainly seen as a good shepherd yet after Constantine as a great victor. Murdock updates this with a wide range of popular images of Jesus today. I have posted on Dieter Georgi’s in-depth study of these changing images of Christ: see How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs.

But none of this supports the case that Jesus himself was a mythical figure. The argument is a non sequitur. There are several different versions of Australian history and the ideologies or myths about our past I was taught in school have been replaced by quite different ones today. That does not mean that Europeans never encountered indigenous peoples in Australia, but that changing political and social trends mean we come to interpret our past differently. How our famous/infamous bushranger Ned Kelly is imagined depends very much upon whether one has a stake in the tourist industry of Ballarat, is a descendant of one of his victims, or is a member of his surviving extended family. How a person is portrayed by others, especially in later times, in itself has no bearing on the question of the historical existence of the person.

Murdock then segues into the wide spectrum of views among scholars about what the historical Jesus was really like. This has more relevance to the questions of methodology of historical Jesus scholars and the elusive nature of their various views of what constitutes the “evidence” for the historical Jesus. Murdock does not discuss this aspect, however, and lumps the widely divergent views of Jesus — both pop cultural and scholarly — into the one basket and concludes:

Despite all of this literature continuously being cranked out, it is obvious [sic] that we are dealing not with biography but with speculation . . .

The rhetoric the author uses reminds me so vividly of the rhetoric used by some past cult leaders I have known in their efforts to grab attention and stun audiences into listening to their words as authoritative. How like the old Armstrong-style is this:

Whereas this [the debate over Jesus’ divinity] is the raging debate most evident today, it is not the most important. Shocking as it may seem to the general populace, the most enduring and profound controversy in this subject is whether or not a person named Jesus Christ ever really existed.

It was turns of phrases like this — “Shocking as it may seem . . .” — that made it difficult to continue reading the book some years ago. The author is evidently not laying out a case beside alternative views, but is about to dogmatically push one view alone as the only sane one. And that impression is confirmed with what immediately follows. Murdock then proceeds to present the debate over Jesus’ existence as falling into three rival views: two of these she will portray as ridiculous and the third she will describe as the only intelligent one. (I would never think to enter a discussion on the historicity of Jesus by painting my opponents as stupid and my view as the only one with any smarts, but Murdock is not fazed by such an approach.)

The “truth”, Murdock says, has been sought out by “many seekers of truth over the centuries to research thoroughly this important subject from an independent perspective”. These “seekers of truth” have produced “an impressive body of literature” that has been

hidden, suppressed or ignored . . .

(I can’t help but remark that Murdock recently said I myself had over the years “suppressed or ignored” her work as if I was part of some wider effort to hide her work from view.) Their works certainly have been for most part ignored among scholars of the New Testament. But to suggest it has been “hidden” or “suppressed” is taking it too far. Much of it is still readily available to the public despite its relatively small reading market.

The three groups active in the debate are “the believers”, the “evemerists” and the “mythicists”.

The Believers

These are those who believe the Bible. These are those who believe

that a male God came down from the heavens as his own son through the womb of a Jewish virgin. . . . in a remote area of the ancient world and spoke the increasingly obscure language of Aramaic as opposed to the more universally spoken Greek and Latin . . . . that there is now an invisible man of a particular ethnicity omnipresently floating about in the sky. . . .

This dogmatic stance in effect represents cultural bigotry and prejudice. All in all, in blindly believing we are faced with what can only appear to be an abhorrent and ludicrous plan on the part of “God.”

The Evemerists

These include many others — general public and scholars (Murdock places the word scholars in quotation marks) — who reject the “irrational beliefs and prejudicial demands” of the believers and

maintain that behind the fabulous fairytales found in the gospels there was a historical Jesus Christ somewhere . . . .

Why do they believe this? Murdock makes it clear that it is not because they have studied the question or seen clear evidence, but because it is a “commonly held” opinion.

This “meme” or mental programming of a historical Jesus has been pounded into the heads of billions of people for nearly 2,000 years, such that it is assumed a priori by many, including “scholars” who have put forth an array of clearly speculative hypotheses hung on highly tenuous threads . . . .

Murdock cites three arguments of mythicist G. A. Wells to knock their views out of the arena. (The arguments of the historicists themselves are not laid out and addressed.)

  1. Pre-gospel Christian documents do not portray Jesus as a political agitator
  2. If Jesus had been a political rebel, and the evangelists had no interest in explaining his political views, then what was the motive his followers believing in him?
  3. If the cleansing of the Temple had been a political act, why is it not mentioned by Josephus and why does Tacitus say there were no disturbances at that time?

Murdock quotes “evemerist scholar” Shaye Cohen’s “admission” of methodological problems with historical Jesus studies, and Gerald Massey‘s low opinion of historical Jesus scholars.

She quite rightly recognizes that the primary weakness of the historicists’ arguments is that once the mythical trappings in the story of Jesus are eliminated the very ordinary human that is left is hardly one to have inspired a new religious movement.

The Mythicists

This group has consisted of a number of erudite and daring individuals who have overcome the conditioning of their culture to peer closely and with clear eyes into the murky origins of the Christian faith. . . .

its brilliant work and insight have been ignored by mainstream “experts” in both the believing and evemerist camps.

I might agree with some of this to a point, but to belittle mainstream scholars by referring to them as “experts” in quotation marks, and to write as if there have been no bad mythicist literature at all, does not help an objective reader to take Murdock’s words as anything other than a polemic.

Murdock then argues that the early Christian debates over the nature of Christ — was he a spirit in the form of flesh only? — are an early version of the mythicist debate. She quotes Robert Taylor’s Diegesis asserting that the first Christians were docetists or those who believed Jesus did not have a literal human body — those who “denied Christ came in the flesh”. Thus Murdock is able to claim:

[T]he mythicist argument has existed from the beginning of the Christian era.

I doubt that there are many mythicist arguments today or in recent years that have argued the Docetic view — that Jesus appeared on earth as a spirit and only apparently in real flesh and blood.

Murdock has missed a good opportunity to ask how such a view of Jesus could have emerged so early if Jesus had indeed been an historical person. That would have been a more convincing argument.

[T]he mythicists’ arguments have been too intelligent and knifelike to do away with. Of course, the works of the mythicists have not been made readily available to the public, no doubt fearfully suppressed because they are somewhat irrefutable, so we cannot completely fault the “experts” for having never read them.

This is conspiracy-theory nonsense, of course. Murdock fails to provide any evidence that the mythicist literature has been “suppressed”. I suggest normal market forces are at work regarding the publication and availability of their works. Scholars are certainly not interested in the mythicist viewpoint and have undoubtedly ignored it, but that’s not the same thing as “suppressing” it.

Murdock objects to scholarly claims that mythicists apparently overlook the Jewish aspects of the Gospel (inferring that Jewish details must be historical) by saying that “anyone can interpolate quasi-historical data into a fictional story”. These scholars, says Murdock, should themselves pay more attention to these Jewish aspects of the Gospel narrative since they are frequently “erroneous, anachronistic and indicative of a lack of knowledge about geography and other details”.

Murdock concludes with another quotation by Gerald Massey to say that Christianity existed before “the Personal Christ”, and that the New Testament could be called “Gospel Fictions” and “the Christian religion could be termed the “Christ Conspiracy.”

So we are seeing an extension of the polemical style that, in my view, would be of little interest to those seeking to engage with the arguments as clearly understood from all sides. One hopes by the time we reach the arguments for astrotheology the tone of the book will mellow and we will indeed see sound and valid arguments.

 

15 Comments

  • 2012-11-04 21:42:11 UTC - 21:42 | Permalink

    Why is there so much solar and zodiac imagery on many major cathedrals and architecture ? I find it strange such devices are present if Jesus was supposedly human.

    • 2012-11-05 06:55:35 UTC - 06:55 | Permalink

      I have visited many cathedrals in Europe and some in Australia and did not notice “so much solar and zodiac imagery” in them. Presumably I should doubt the existence of famous entertainers and historical persons if I come across books presenting the horoscopes of these people, too. Your question sounds like it comes directly from Murdock’s astrotheology advocates who seem to avoid at all costs educating themselves on the fundamental logical fallacies.

      • mP
        2012-11-11 16:53:55 UTC - 16:53 | Permalink

        Perhaps the best thing to do is for me to give some examples, links, pictures highlighting what im talking about. When you see the zodiac repeated in the grand churches of Europe its obvious they had a very different perception of the BIble and their world that we may not understand.

        Ive given a few wiki links which i found by searching for “zodiac cathedral”. Scan for “zodiac” in each link below, and its easy to see theres some connection. I will give but a few major cathedrals around Europe and show that there is some pattern there. Of course its not hard to find more pictures by being creative in what you search for but its not hard to find plenty of more examples.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mark's_Clock
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartres_Cathedral
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_window
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Peter%27s_Square
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labours_of_the_Months (Canterbury Cathedral, Notre Dame Paris, St Marks Venice,

        http://www.paradoxplace.com/Church_Stuff/Zodiacs_and_Labours.htm
        I just found this, i have checked a few of the pictures and it seems to show some interesting photos of many cathedrals and churches. I could understand a few but when its this many it becomes more obvious that the xians saw some connection or explaination in astrology.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beth_Alpha
        If one continues to search along this theme it becomes obvious there are also many connections in Jewish religious thoughts in the past. Josephus himself tells us there was a zodiac wheel in the temple of Jerusalem, and the twelve tribes are the same as the signs.

        • 2012-11-11 17:40:20 UTC - 17:40 | Permalink

          I have no idea what any of this has to do with the study of Christian origins.

          • mP
            2012-11-11 18:01:13 UTC - 18:01 | Permalink

            I gave the links to show that astrology is not only a part of the holy texts, but it is also found in prominent places of worship all of which were built at different periods of time. If we continue to go back in time, we can find more astrological references in art, architecture, texts, names and so on. The myth angle of Jesus nearly always refers to source myths which are references to the Sun, its battles with dark and cold etc. The ancients obviously saw that astrology as a science and together with the writings explained Gods will and his creation.

            We might find astrology nonsense, and it is, but its a part of the history of xianity. If you want to learn about this past, this is but one avenue that has made a major impact on its history. Lets not forget the obvious 3 kings story which only makes sense if viewed from an astrological angle. There are also many books that go into much more depth about the zodiac and its influences on the gospels. Many of Jesus strange parables, the numbers, words and so on which seem mystical can be explained.

            All i am saying is take a quick look and you will find an interesting angle to explore. Dont just ignore it because its silly or absurd. The astrology of the past is a very different beast to the silly columns we see in the papers.

            • 2012-11-11 18:14:20 UTC - 18:14 | Permalink

              Reviewing a book on it and attempting to engage recently several times with advocates of astrotheology is hardly “ignoring it”. If you have a case to make for it then do so. But all you have done is point to medieval beliefs in astrology, and referenced ancient ones. So what? We all know astrology has been part of our belief systems for millennia. Anyone can say the twelve disciples represent the zodiac. But so what? If you want to engage with something specific then make a specific case to discuss. But do base it on valid logic AND evidence. And just saying that synagogues and churches had astrological symbols (actually among some of your above links there were quite a few that were NOT astrological as you seemed to think, and their meaning was hardly mysterious) is not an argument.

              • mP
                2012-11-11 18:23:56 UTC - 18:23 | Permalink

                Im sorry i didnt mean to imply you were ignoring it, quite the contrary. Im just suggesting that you look a bit harder perhaps with a twist. I did give evidence, there are many pix in the links i posted above. Sure some are may be wrong but theres no denying the ancients respected and connected God with astrology. I dont know which are “wrong” as you were not specific. So if astrology is not mixed up with xianity then why is it found in so many prominent places ? A few times may be luck but its a bit more often than that. Josephus wrote a few times that the astrology explains many parts of Jewish religion. Given astrology was a major component in Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian and lots of other religions, why is it found in Judaism and Xianity which are supposedly completely different. Perhaps the answer is the same as the mythical Christ. J & Christianity arent as different or unique as people want to pretend that they are. Its a bit difficult to get into specifics in a such a short space, buts it is interesting to see astrology in many jewish and xian places when supposedly it shouldnt be there at all.

                ———-

                Submitted on 2012/11/11 at 6:26 pm | In reply to Neil Godfrey.

                Im pretty sure she says Matthew’s 3 kings is astrological. There simply is no other sensible way to address what it actually means. There are many claims where people try and say it was some alignment etc but nobody agrees and they are not quite a good a fit as the story of Sirius and Orion.

                ———-

                Submitted on 2012/11/11 at 6:29 pm | In reply to Neil Godfrey.

                I thought this post was a little low on content and filled a bit too much with emotion, unlike your other posts which are often very interesting facts wise and have little commentary on personality, but thats just me.

              • 2012-11-11 18:46:56 UTC - 18:46 | Permalink

                You are merely repeating what other astrotheology advocates have said before and what you have said has nothing to do with Christian origins as far as I can see. You certainly haven’t explained the connection.

                Christianity did not begin with medieval cathedrals. So people who were Christians also had an interest in astrology. So what? What does that prove? Nothing. Astrotheology supporters, as far as I can see, including from your own implications, have to resort to fanciful speculations about possible connections. There is no evidence to prove any of their theories. They admit this and tell me the evidence was destroyed. Convenient.

                Okay, suppose all that they say about the destruction of the evidence is true. That leaves us with an impossible task. We can no longer say anything about it. The evidence is gone. There are no doubt many, many histories that have been lost and that we can say nothing about for similar reasons. If there is no evidence to work with no research is possible. All we can do is speculate and imagine connections.

                So what if the magi were astrologers? I think probably every commentary I have read has said as much. What does that tell us about Christianity beginning as some sort of astrotheology cult? Nothing. It simply says that pagan astrologers came and bowed to Jesus. All this in fulfilment of the prophecies such as those that said the gentiles shall come and worship.

                As for my post, I kept it brief to spare myself as much agony as possible and readers likewise. I attempted to point out the emotional polemic that characterized the chapter. Acharya does not encourage awareness of logically valid argument and genuine information. She simply throws out polemic so far. And your arguments reflect her style of failure of logical validity and evidence-based reasoning. Doherty and Price are much healthier reading. You can learn a lot about how to recognize and construct a valid argument.

  • 2012-11-11 19:18:34 UTC - 19:18 | Permalink

    mP, I have no time to waste going over the same sorts of arguments I engaged with recently from others of the astrotheology persuasion. I have trashed your latest comment because it was nothing but a repeat of the illogical nonsense that others have recently spilled out here often enough. Please, please, do go and study carefully the various logical fallacies and when you can finally see how they apply to what you have been saying then we will have some common base on which to have a conversation. But I’m tired of non-sequiturs, red-herrings, missing middles, false dilemmas, etc.

    Also, please do try to actually read what scholarship says about questions like the magi and star of Bethlehem before you start spouting off all sorts of nonsense from Acharya/Murdock. You will find that there really are very good explanations based on historical evidence, evidence from the culture of the day, that really do prove that the pyramids were built by Egyptians and not by aliens, or why Matthew wrote what he did the way he did without make-believe fantasies from astrotheologians.

  • 2012-11-11 19:48:09 UTC - 19:48 | Permalink

    One excerpt from mP’s post that I trashed:

    “Your comments about the 3 kings, seem to imply it in a literal sense which makes no sense at all. How exactly does a star in the sky guide anyone to an exact building ? The 3 kings are stars in Orion that point to the Messiah Sirius.”

    The logic of the argument seems to be that because one detail in the story cannot be taken literally according to our scientific understanding, so none of the story was meant to be taken literally. And then one jumps to a conclusion that the whole passage is about Orion. I wonder what all the dialogue and other story details represent.

    The simplest explanation taken straight from our clear and certain understanding of Jewish symbolic language for angels is that the star in the sky was an angel. Or actually, I don’t think such language was necessarily symbolic. Stars were thought to be living beings themselves, weren’t they? That simple explanation is entirely consistent with what we know of ancient understanding and Matthew’s language and interests. Please, astrotheology advocates, do try to spend a little time understanding the alternative explanations and stop advertizing your ignorance of the simple evidence-based information we already have from the established scholarship.

    mP, you only make it worse for yourself when you try to object that there is no prophecy that “3” kings will come to worship Jesus. Have you even read the Gospel of Matthew? Nowhere are we told how many magi there were in the story.

    The number 3 is not original to the story. It is a later tradition. I am interested in origins, not later traditions.

  • mP
    2012-11-11 20:49:09 UTC - 20:49 | Permalink

    ….www.ustream.tv/recorded/24885222 jump to 36:48 [file is no longer active, 19th August, 2015 — Neil. If you know of an alternative link let me know.]

    Robert M Price on Osiris=Jesus.

    • 2012-11-12 09:26:03 UTC - 09:26 | Permalink

      You’re not arguing in a straight line. I have no problem with the Jesus myth having borrowed from contemporary pagan concepts. But that’s not what I have posted about and is not an argument for astrotheological origins of Christianity.

  • Margarita
    2015-09-05 19:50:10 UTC - 19:50 | Permalink

    I came across your blog today and after reading for about an hour, I have to say you are a good scholar/writer; I wish I came across your blog (and books) earlier. Good refutation of D.M. Murdock .

    I have known of D.M. Murdock for a while now and consider her a bad scholar/writer.

    The fact that the Truth of God is written in the stars does not surprise me at all. God is the Creator and his signature is everywhere. The two fish swimming in opposite directions and pulling on a cord is the false teachers & false prophets and the true teachers & true prophets struggling as the tares and the wheat in Jesus’ parable. Jesus called His disciples/apostles “fisher’s of men”. What D.M. Murdock did was distort the Truth of God that is written in the stars just like she distorts the Truth of God written in the Bible.

  • Lowen Gartner
    2015-09-05 20:11:42 UTC - 20:11 | Permalink

    The Truth of God cannot be distorted.

    • Margarita
      2015-09-09 01:30:07 UTC - 01:30 | Permalink

      Lowen,

      2 Peter 3:16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures,

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