2012-02-29

Same Miracles, Same Arguments, Different Gods

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by Neil Godfrey

"Jupiter and Mercurius in the house of Ph...
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Anyone who reads the Bible should read it in context and see how similar the other religious stories about other gods were in those olden days. Anyone who hears an argument for the truth of the Bible and its God should hear the same arguments being advanced to prove the truth of other religious tales and gods in those same ancient times.

Here is myth preserved by a Roman poet, Ovid, about the time two gods visited earth, met a pair of humble mortal god-fearers, performed some miracles familiar to readers of the Bible, and finally rescued them from a general disaster that befell all their neighbours.

Readers familiar with the Bible will be reminded of

  1. heavenly visitors, appearing as mortals, coming to the tent of Abraham and Sarah, and the hospitality that couple lavished on their guests
  2. the general wickedness of mankind highlighting the piety of the pious hero
  3. the heavenly visitors grant what the pious couple most desire
  4. heavenly visitors coming to the house of Lot and rescuing his family from the general destruction by taking them out to a mountain
  5. they turn back to look at the destruction — in the Bible this results in a transforming punishment (salt); in the Roman myth, in a transforming reward (marble)
  6. the pious mourn the destruction of the wicked
  7. the miraculous manner in which a bowl of wine or oil never ran out as it continued to be poured out
  8. the appropriately pious response of those who see this miracle
  9. the changing of a mortal into another element, in the Bible narrative into a pillar of salt

Modern readers may scoff at the possibility of such tales being true. Devout modern readers who believe the Bible may scoff at the same stories being told of the nonbiblical gods and heroes.

But look at the arguments used to persuade the pagans of the truth of those tales and see how they are no different from some of the arguments used today in an effort to convince nonbelievers of the truth of the Bible:

  1. Verification by eyewitness testimony
  2. Incidental details to lend verisimilitude to the eyewitness testimony
  3. Trustworthy and honest reporters
  4. No reason to make it up
  5. Moral pressure: the respectable leaders of the community censure the ungodliness of the scoffers

I’ve copied the section of Ovid’s narrative from http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses8.html#6

[611] And at this point, the River said no more. This wonderful event astonished all; but one was there, Ixion’s haughty son—a known despiser of the living Gods—who, laughing, scorned it as an idle tale. He made a jest of those who heard, and said, “A foolish fiction! Achelous, how can such a tale be true? Do you believe a god there is, in heaven so powerful, a god to give and take away a form—transform created shapes?

Such impious words found no response in those who heard him speak. Amazed he could so doubt known truth, before them all, uprose to vindicate the Gods the hero Lelex, wise in length of days. “The glory of the living Gods,” he said, “Is not diminished, nor their power confined, and whatsoever they decree is done. And I have this to tell, for all must know the evil of such words:—

Upon the hills of Phrygia I have seen two sacred trees, a lime-tree and an oak, so closely grown their branches interlace. A low stone wall is built around to guard them from all harm. And that you may not doubt it, I declare again, I saw the spot, for Pittheus there had sent me to attend his father’s court. Near by those trees are stagnant pools and fens, where coots and cormorants delight to haunt; but it was not so always.

[626] “Long ago ’twas visited by mighty Jupiter, together with his nimble-witted son, who first had laid aside his rod and Wings. As weary travelers over all the land they wandered, begging for their food and bed; and of a thousand houses, all the doors were bolted and no word of kindness given—so wicked were the people of that land. At last, by chance, they stopped at a small house, whose humble roof was thatched with reeds and straw;—and here a kind old couple greeted them. The good dame, Baucis, seemed about the age of old Philemon, her devoted man; they had been married in their early youth, in that same cottage and had lived in it, and grown together to a good old age; contented with their lot because they knew their poverty, and felt no shame of it; they had no need of servants; the good pair were masters of their home and served themselves; their own commands they easily obeyed.

[637] “Now when the two Gods, Jove and Mercury, had reached this cottage, and with bending necks had entered the low door, the old man bade them rest their wearied limbs, and set a bench, on which his good wife, Baucis, threw a cloth; and then with kindly bustle she stirred up the glowing embers on the hearth, and then laid tinder, leaves and bark; and bending down breathed on them with her ancient breath until they kindled into flame. Then from the house she brought a store of faggots and small twigs, and broken branches, and above them swung a kettle, not too large for simple folk. And all this done, she stripped some cabbage leaves, which her good husband gathered for the meal. Then with a two-pronged fork the man let down a rusty side of bacon from aloft, and cut a little portion from the chine; which had been cherished long. He softened it in boiling water. All the while they tried with cheerful conversation to beguile, so none might notice a brief loss of time. Swung on a peg they had a beechwood trough, which quickly with warm water filled, was used for comfortable washing. And they fixed, upon a willow couch, a cushion soft of springy sedge, on which they neatly spread a well worn cloth preserved so many years; ‘Twas only used on rare and festive days; and even it was coarse and very old, though not unfit to match a willow couch!

[660] “Now as the Gods reclined, the good old dame, whose skirts were tucked up, moving carefully, for so she tottered with her many years, fetched a clean table for the ready meal—but one leg of the table was too short, and so she wedged it with a potsherd—so made firm, she cleanly scoured it with fresh mint. And here is set the double-tinted fruit of chaste Minerva, and the tasty dish of corner, autumn-picked and pickled; these were served for relish; and the endive-green, and radishes surrounding a large pot of curdled milk; and eggs not overdone but gently turned in glowing embers—all served up in earthen dishes. Then sweet wine served up in clay, so costly! all embossed, and cups of beechwood smoothed with yellow wax. So now they had short respite, till the fire might yield the heated course. Again they served new wine, but mellow; and a second course: sweet nuts, dried figs and wrinkled dates and plums, and apples fragrant, in wide baskets heaped; and, in a wreath of grapes from purple vines, concealed almost, a glistening honey-comb; and all these orchard dainties were enhanced by willing service and congenial smiles.

 [678] ” But while they served, the wine-bowl often drained, as often was replenished, though unfilled, and Baucis and Philemon, full of fear, as they observed the wine spontaneous well, increasing when it should diminish, raised their hands in supplication, and implored indulgence for their simple home and fare. And now, persuaded by this strange event such visitors were deities unknown, this aged couple, anxious to bestow their most esteemed possession, hastily began to chase the only goose they had—the faithful guardian of their little home—which they would kill and offer to the Gods. But swift of wing, at last it wearied them, and fled for refuge to the smiling Gods. At once the deities forbade their zeal, and said, `A righteous punishment shall fall severe upon this wicked neighborhood; but by the might of our divinity, no evil shall befall this humble home; but you must come, and follow as we climb the summit of this mountain!’

[693] “Both obeyed, and leaning on their staves toiled up the steep. Not farther from the summit than the flight of one swift arrow from a hunter’s how, they paused to view their little home once more; and as they turned their eyes, they saw the fields around their own engulfed in a morass, although their own remained,—and while they wept bewailing the sad fate of many friends, and wondered at the change, they saw their home, so old and little for their simple need—put on new splendor, and as it increased it changed into a temple of the gods. Where first the frame was fashioned of rude stakes columns of marble glistened, and the thatch gleamed golden in the sun, and legends carved, adorned the doors. And all the ground shone white with marble rich, and after this was done, the Son of Saturn said with gentle voice, `Now tell us, good old man and you his wife, worthy and faithful, what is your desire?’

[705] “Philemon counselled with old Baucis first; and then discovered to the listening Gods their hearts’ desire, `We pray you let us have the care of your new temple; and since we have passed so many years in harmony, let us depart this life together—Let the same hour take us both—I would not see the tomb of my dear wife; and let me not be destined to be buried by her hands!’ At once their wishes were fulfilled. So long as life was granted they were known to be the temple’s trusted keepers, and when age had enervated them with many years, as they were standing, by some chance, before the sacred steps, and were relating all these things as they had happened, Baucis saw Philemon, her old husband, and he, too, saw Baucis, as their bodies put forth leaves; and while the tops of trees grew over them, above their faces,—they spoke each to each; as long as they could speak they said, `Farewell, farewell, my own’—and while they said farewell; new leaves and branches covered both at once.

[719] “The people of Tyana (Thynia) still point out two trees which grew there from a double trunk, two forms made into one. Old truthful men, who have no reason to deceive me, told me truly all that I have told to you, and I have seen the votive wreaths hung from the branches of the hallowed double-tree. And one time, as I hung fresh garlands there, I said, `Those whom the Gods care for are Gods! And those who worshiped are now worshiped here.’”

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Neil Godfrey

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  • RoHa
    2012-02-29 11:13:56 GMT+0000 - 11:13 | Permalink

    “Anyone who reads the Bible should read it in context and see how similar the other religious stories about other gods were in those olden days”

    But the other Gods were a lot more fun.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      2012-03-03 06:43:04 GMT+0000 - 06:43 | Permalink

      Roha: “how similar” is very ambiguous. Similar to what? In what respect?
      As you said, the other gods were much more fun. No comparison there.

      At least the old Jewish God had some oomph, some life to him, and created some vigorous drama. This old God was a “mensch”! as the Jews are prone to saying (usually a great compliment). But this God started losing his vitality through the OT, and when Jesus came on the scene, we don’t hear much more of him. The more so that he is suddenly relegated to the backstage, and his pronouncements no longer directly issued by him, as the Holy Spirit has become the messenger. What happened with Jesus is that the old God became for all practical purposes, dead. Jesus had replaced him, armed with his own command over the Holy Spirit. Since then God has remained dormant, extinguished, put in storage, and mentioned in passing as a memory, or an incantation.

      Compare with the vitality and drama of the Greek Gods, and the richness of their lives. Or the Norse Gods celebrated by Wagner. Even the Egyptian Gods, so far as Egyptologists can reconstruct their antics, were vastly interesting and varied.

      To tell the truth, the Christian God has become immensely boring. And even worshipping Jesus as a replacement is no great fun. Looking at the image of a corpse on a wooden cross is all that’s offered to feed our imagination and emotional needs. On excitement alone, the Christian God is way down on the scale of interest. The fun, the life, the drama are gone.
      So, again, this remark on “how similar” the other stories about the other gods were is not really justified.

  • 2012-02-29 15:59:24 GMT+0000 - 15:59 | Permalink

    There’s another argument for the truth of the tale that I overlooked, and it is comparable to the most common one (some would say most forceful one) used by many today who argue for the historicity of the Bible narratives, especially that of the Gospels: Explanatory Power.

    How else can you explain those intertwining trees that are there for all to see? In a pre-scientific age this was indeed as powerful logically as today’s “How else do you explain the rise of Christianity?” Perhaps setting such logic in another setting might help some see the logical fallacy here — it is, of course, a rhetorical appeal to ignorance and not a valid explanation at all.

    Of course explanatory power is a useful and valid argument when it is supported by hard evidence, independent controls etc, — but not when it is, as here and most commonly in the context of those who argue that the gospels are true, an ignorant scoffing of the possibility of any alternative.

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