Gospel myth – Atlantis myth: Two “Noble Lies”

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by Neil Godfrey

Okay, I’m sure there will be a few differences if I stop to think seriously about it, but I have just read the introduction in Benjamin Jowett’s Critias by Plato in which are cited the reasons Plato’s lies have managed to convince so many people of the historical truth of the myth of Atlantis. And hoo boy, how can anyone fail to notice certain echoes of the arguments used — even by professional scholars! — to argue for the historicity, and even the contemporary sophistication, of the gospels?

He begins:

No one knew better than Plato how to invent ‘a noble lie’.

I skip here the earlier discussion found in the companion treatise, Timaeus, in which Plato’s character Socrates explains the necessity for a myth or lie such as that of Atlantis. So here are the ten reasons Jowett cites for why so many generations have fallen into the trap of thinking the tale of Atlantis was based on something historical. I add a few remarks to draw attention here and there to their similarity to arguments even biblical scholars (not only fundamentalist lay people) have advanced to justify acceptance of the Gospels themselves as reflecting some genuine historical reality.

(1) the innocent declaration of Socrates that the truth of the story is a great advantage;

How often does one happen to encounter the phrase even from scholars that the gospel narratives have the “ring of truth” about them!

Even the most unnatural of all the gospels, that of John, is said by some that its claims to have originated with an eyewitness entitles it to be taken as serious history.

(2) the manner in which traditional names and indications of geography are intermingled (“Why, here be truths!”);

This is a most common claim among believers in “gospel-truth”. Why, it speaks of Pilate, and Jerusalem, and the Temple, and real towns around the Galilee lake, and of Pharisees, and Sadducees, and Tiberius and Augustus, and sudden storms on the Galilee waters . . . .

(3) the extreme minuteness with which the numbers are given, as in the Old Epic poetry;

Or is this the most common appeal to gospel-truth? Why else would Mark happen to speak of the grass on which crowds sat as being attributed with the colour “green”, unless this were from a veritable eyewitness!

Details, details. Surely no fiction author has ever been able to invent details out of his imagination alone!?

(4) the ingenious reason assigned for the Greek names occurring in the Egyptian tale;

Ah yes, Plato had his narrator Critias demonstrate his astuteness in realizing that his veracity of his tale could founder over his facile introduction of Greek names — given that he had said the tale originated with Egyptians. No problem. Just slip in a notice that the original Greek to have learned the tale, Solon, took the pains to ask his Egyptian narrators to give him the meanings of the names so that he could reproduce them in Greek!

Is there a counterpart here to those who find a certain genuineness behind the gospel tales on the grounds that they confess that certain speech they express in Greek was, in fact, a translation of specific Aramaic phrases? So when Jesus told the girl to rise, or when he called out to God from the cross — we are allowed the Aramaic original that lay behind the Greek text. A nice touch of authenticity!

(5) the remark that the armed statue of Athena indicated the common warrior life of men and women;

It is always helpful for purposes of verisimilitude if the author has his narrator indicate to readers some explanation of the customs to which he refers in his narrative. You know, like finding a reason to explain that when Jesus’ disciples were faulted for not washing their hands before a meal, this was because of certain specifically Jewish customs of which there were a great number.

(6) the particularity with which the third deluge before that of Deucalion is affirmed to have been the great destruction;

It is always good for the impression of veracity that the characters are able to refer to specific facts in past history, or even just to introduce new details as if they were real facts. So when Jesus can speak of the chance news event of the Tower of Siloam killing a number of people, or of having seen Satan fall, then we have another form of colourful detail which many find so persuasive.

(7) the happy guess that great geological changes have been effected by water;

Does one not think here of the ‘happy guess’ that not a few scholars attribute to Jesus for his supposed ability to predict the fall of Jerusalem?

(8) the indulgence of the prejudice against sailing beyond the Columns, and the popular belief of the shallowness of the ocean in that part;

And there are still people, even some quite highly educated people, who believe that the gospel assumptions that certain diseases, particularly mental illnesses, are caused by demonic influence.

More commonly, anti-semitism has helped build a popular tradition of belief that the gospel portrait of the mean-spiritedness of the Pharisees is historical, and to which Jesus stood in opposition.

(9) the confession that the depth of the ditch in the Island of Atlantis was not to be believed, and ‘yet he could only repeat what he had heard’, compared with the statement made in an earlier passage that Poseidon, being a God, found no difficulty in contriving the water-supply of the centre island;

Is not this the position of so many who profess the truth of the Gospels? If a miracle is beyond credibility, what else can be the explanation? Dare we be accused of anti-supernaturalistic bias? Why the uncharitable “hermeneutic of suspicion” in response to tales of the miraculous? Do not the gospels simply state the bare facts, without ornament, as if they can appeal to nothing but the truth of eyewitness reports? Such disingenuousness is the most accomplished attribute of the con-man, the artificer of tall tales.

(10) the mention of the old rivalry of Poseidon and Athene, and the creation of the first inhabitants out of the soil. Plato here, as elsewhere, ingeniously gives the impression that he is telling the truth which mythology has corrupted.

So, too, when Jesus alludes to Adam and Eve, he does so within the framework of teaching a lesson of contemporary relevance about the state of marriage. Or when he speaks of Noah it is to teach a spiritual lesson of spiritual alertness. Such contexts enable more sophisticated readers to interpret Jesus as being a notch more enlightened than those who fail to see beyond the literalness of old mythical tales.

The whole point of the Atlantis myth was to offer an imaginative model for how virtues can work to produce the ideal state, and how an ideal state risks the consequence of hubris. One might call it a parable, or a moral tale. The lessons it teaches were no doubt once applied as explanations for the historical rise of the greatness of Athens, and its eventual demise. The tale even explained the primordial racial and “spiritual” origins of the people of Attica and Athens.

The tale professed the certainty of reliable tradition. It came via Egyptian priests and one of the most renowned and reputable of Athenian statesmen, Solon. Even certain written details were said to be in the possession of the grandfather of the literary narrator, Critias. Luke’s proclaimed sources in his prologue are anonymous and vague by comparison.

If one is a “noble lie”, on what grounds do we exclude the other?

In other words, what is the real bottom-line foundation for the argument for the historicity of the gospels?

Benjamin Jowett
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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Gospel myth – Atlantis myth: Two “Noble Lies””

  1. A couple of questions, I’ve taken your suggestion of Mark being fictional seriously (a total work of fiction like Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”, not historical fiction like Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”)*. In exploring the idea of what it is presenting exactly, do you think Mark was written as a kind of parable or allegorical story that the the initial audience might understand to be such, or was it created in the hope of tricking people into believing the mystical being Jesus lived on earth in history?

    I get the impression that some works that latter generations took to be factual accounts were initially taken to be spiritual fiction. I got the idea reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy” I thought it reminded me of Enoch, and if it were written in a less literate age would later generations of Catholics think this was actually a description of a mans travels in after world? I wondered if works like Enoch would have been taken as a mystics speculation on the world beyond using a familiar character, and not that the author of Enoch was trying to pass his work of as Enoch’s lost book.

    * I’m not Mel’s greatest fan, though I did like “The Road Warrior”, but I used the “Braveheart” example so I thought I should use an example for the other part, since Mark if total fiction, would still use real world locations, it isn’t the “Chronicles of Narnia”. Well you understand.

  2. I don’t know the mind of Mark, but I can compare his work with other works that go to some lengths to establish their claims for historical credibility. These works begin by establishing the identity and credentials of their authors (e.g. Thucydides, Arrian); they sometimes inform readers — especially when they introduce extraordinary events that they suspect their readers may question — of their sources; in cases where there are varying reports of the same event, they will often inform their readers of the natures of the varying accounts and leave it for readers to decide which to believe, or make a judgement themselves which is preferable (e.g. Herodotus); when relating a story of a miracle, they will themselves express scepticism, or the reason they are reporting such an event at all as ‘historical’ (e.g. Tacitus on Vespasian’s miraculous cure of the blind). Contrast all these techniques used by ancient authors to establish the credibility of their histories with what we find, by contrast, in Mark: http://vridar.info/xorigins/Markparable.htm

    Compare also what Josephus himself said about the historian’s craft with what we find in the Gospels: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2008/10/26/what-josephus-might-have-said-about-the-gospels/

    Of course it is quite possible for the above techniques to be forged, and some have attempted to pass off fiction as history through applying such methods. One always needs to test a work for its substance, not just its style.

    But there is another side to all of this, which unsettles all of the above arguments. What if Mark were deliberately writing something that he quite consciously intended to be read as an extension of the older works of sacred history? The anonymity of the work, and his voice of the all-knowing narrator’s authority (without appeal to sources — more usually a feature of outright fiction), and his evident re-writing of stories and prophecies from the Jewish scriptures – what if all of this was an indicator that his work was intended to be read as a sequel, or within the same tradition, as Scriptures themselves?

    I raise this question as a possibility after reading Levinson’s discussion of the origin of Deuteronomy and religious innovation: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/12/06/tactics-of-religious-innovation-deuteronomy-and-gospels/

    Not everyone liked Mark’s particular innovative ideas, so some (e.g. Matthew) attempted to rewrite it to express more palatable theological views and replace it with their own work.

    But this could not last. Gradually we see authors dropping in hints of ‘eyewitness’ sources to strengthen the authoritative claims of their own texts. Hence John’s mysterious eyewitness, and Luke’s vague reference to anonymous sources. Later authors were less diffident about this process, and simply said outright that their gospels were “by Peter” or Andrew, etc. in order to persuade others of their “truth” by virtue of the authority of the name they attached.

    But even if the latter option was how it was, the gospel of Mark in either case is a long way from being a work that more sophisticated readers would take as prima facie an attempt to relate historical truth.

    And we have not even begun to discuss the many techniques and motifs one finds in ancient novellas and fictional epics that all come together in this gospel. Would an author wanting to impress on his readers the idea that he was telling ungarnished historical fact embellish his work with fictional themes and styles? It does not seem likely to us. But if the audience was not highly sophisticated maybe this is not a handicap but only a positive? But one would still expect some more serious effort even in this case to write like other ancient historians, or use a few of the conventions (as listed in my opening paragraph) that were designed to give the audience some confidence in the factualness of the story.

  3. I don’t think I expect Mark to be written like a work from Tacitus or Thucydides. It is a work by and for a religious cult. I think Mark’s original intended audience would be rather small and not in need of Mark’s credentials. I don’t think these works were anonymously dropped off at the library or mailed to potential converts. They were teaching tools for a close knit religious community. Even Theophilus seems to have already been taught about Christianity, G.Luke just wants him to have an orderly and accurate account.

    This raises a lot of question for me on how the fictional “Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah” parable, con, or both, came to so completely squeeze out Jesus, the Spirit of God, His first born, the Logos, who is crucified in the realm of spirits of the air by demons, and what ever narrative this was expressed in. It’s an odd angle to begin with, having Jesus hanging out with Peter, John the Baptist and Pilate. The more I think about the more odd the idea becomes. I might elaborate more later.

  4. Some of material in Mark reminds me of name-dropping – in particular, of musicians who brag about who they’ve played with. Most of such claims are exaggerated – a single forgettable session becomes a ‘collaboration’ – if not outright fabrication, or a version of ‘I know a guy who knows a guy who knows…’ My hunch continues to be that these associations were never more than passing – Peter not the first of Jesus’s followers, JoB and Jesus not knowing each other, Pilate barely aware of the execution if even directly involved, Judas maybe not even existent. Right now I tend to think of Mark as a overproduced and underwritten period piece slash TV movie, aiming for maximum drama and alarm over accuracy. The story is there only to sell the imminent end of the world.

  5. Frankly, a bit of type wastage here. The myth of Atlantis has never been the Platonc myth. Any scholar who sees a reality in Atlantis is, genuinely, disingenuous.

    Its why we have adherents to whacking great planets in a extrasolar orbit and pyramids in Serbia.

    There is a time when science has its voice, sadly…its all the time.

    There is an appeal to an “authority of assumption”. You all may assume that Socrates lesson is absolutely correct and reflect it within the “pentameter of other correct assumptives”, but lets face it, these are all stories and assumptions of historicity and technology without support are just that.

    There are perfect assumptions to the story and there are vapid guesses without the onus or burden of proof.

    Lets just take this a bit further. 2-3 billion folk believe in a monotheistic god that was dragged out from the deserts an heights around Canaan. Until recently there was no dispute that this god was the same entity.

    Now interpretive scholarly studies based on science (called archaeology) clearly has it hat there were numerous gods of the same name but disparate notions.

    I am very sure that Atlantis evaporated before I was a child in the 60’s. There is no justification for it from anywhere but……the media who would have you believe in flying saucers and river monsters.

    Fun? yes… worth writing an article over? No! worth writing comparative literature over?…only for entertainment. It should come with a disclaimer; “for those about to suck, we salute you!”

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