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James Patrick Holding’s The Impossible Faith or,
How Not to Start an Ancient Religion


Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Internet apologist James Patrick Holding (as he chooses to be known) has thus far seen fit to by-pass the pages of published books, though one can only imagine numerous evangelical publishers would love to have him. He maintains a website containing a whole raft of apologetical essays, most of them aiming to refute unbelievers and biblical critics, all of whom he considers to be enemies of the faith. He is amazingly prolific and erudite as well, though he seems to me sometimes perversely to misread his opponents’ arguments and to reduce them to strawman status. In the essay to be addressed here, Holding sets forth a wide-ranging version of an old argument one hears more and more these days from fundamentalist apologists: that the initial success of Christianity defies sociological common sense and demands a miraculous explanation. The sheer scope of the argument, as well as its increasingly common use in debate, make a critical review of it advisable.

Holding here attempts “to put together a comprehensive list of issues that we assert that critics must deal with in explaining why Christianity succeeded where it should have clearly failed or died out” like many another messianic cult. For example, that of Sabbatai Sevi in the seventeenth century. Holding deems it unlikely, first of all, that Christianity could have begun with the hoodwinking of a sufficient number of gullible dupes. Imposture is no basis for a successful religion, a notion asserted as if self-evident by many apologists past and present. And yet it is easy to show how Mormonism started with a hoax, though, given the paradoxes of human psychology, we cannot for that reason dismiss Joseph Smith as not also being a sincere religious founder. But a hoax it was, and here today, look at it: it is a thriving world religion in its own right. So such things can happen. On the other hand, I believe the parallels to Sabbatai Sevi are important and show how some of the greatest challenges facing early Christianity may have been overcome, especially the crushing defeat in the wake of Messiah's death. It also illustrates the thinking that led to retrospective claims of "passion predictions" and scriptural prophecies, as well as the framing of atonement theories as after-the-fact rationales of an embarrassing death. Plus resurrection appearance- and miracle- rumors. Most devastating of all, as I show in Beyond Born Again, the rapid, contemporary formation of legends, and that against the attempts to the Apostle (Nathan of Gaza) to prevent miracle-mongering, utterly destroys the apologist's claim that such legendary embellishment could not have taken place in the case of the Jesus tradition.

            Holding argues that “Christianity ‘did the wrong thing’ in order to be a successful religion” and that thus “the only way Christianity did succeed is because it was a truly revealed faith -- and because it had the irrefutable witness of the resurrection.” Here he serves notice that we will be asked to "admit" that miracles are the only way to account for the rise and success of Christianity. In any other field of inquiry this would be laughed off stage. I am thinking of a cartoon in which a lab-coated scientist is standing at the chalkboard, which is full of integers, and he is pointing to a hollow circle in the midst of it all, saying, "Right here a miracle takes place." Appealing to miracles as a needful causal link is tantamount to confessing bafflement. But in fact, there will be no need for this.


Cross Examination

Citing 1 Corinthians 1:18 (“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”), Holding asks rhetorically, “Who on earth would believe a religion centered on a crucified man?” He contends that crucifixion was so repulsive and degrading a punishment that no one could have taken a crucified man seriously as a religious founder. On top of that, no one could have envisioned the notion of a god stooping to undergo such treatment. “This being the case, we may fairly ask… why Christianity succeeded at all. The ignominy of a crucified savior was as much a deterrent to Christian belief as it is today - indeed, it was far, far more so! Why, then, were there any Christians at all? At best this should have been a movement that had only a few strange followers, then died out within decades as a footnote, if it was mentioned at all. The historical reality of the crucifixion could not of course be denied. To survive, Christianity should have either turned Gnostic (as indeed happened in some offshoots), or else not bothered with Jesus at all, and merely made him into the movement's first martyr for a higher moral ideal within Judaism. It would have been absurd to suggest, to either Jew or Gentile, that a crucified being was worthy of worship or died for our sins. There can be only one good explanation: Christianity succeeded because from the cross came victory, and after death came resurrection! The shame of the cross turns out to be one of Christianity's most incontrovertible proofs!” This is completely futile and does not begin to take into account the religious appetite (in many people) for the grotesque and the sanguine. Just look at the eagerly morbid piety of Roman Catholics and fundamentalist advocates of "the Blood" who wallow in every gruesome detail of the crucifixion, real or imagined. Consider the box office receipts of Mel Gibson’s pious gore-fest The Passion of the Christ. In ancient times, think of the Attis cult which centered upon the suicide of its savior who castrated himself and bled to death. Street corner celebrations of such rites invariably attracted bystanders, even initially hostile ones, swept up in the music and chanting, to castrate themselves and join the sect on the spot!

And even if one stops short of the Christ Myth theory, one must still reckon with the possibility, as advocated by Bultmann and others, that the crucifixion of Jesus would still have been readily embraceable as a means of salvation because of the familiarity of the dying and rising god mytheme. It was a familiar religious conception, and no less so because of Hellenistic Judaism's martyrdom doctrine as glimpsed in 2 and 4 Maccabees, where the hideous deaths (much more fulsomely dwelt upon than the crucifixion is in the gospels) are set forth as expiations for the sins of Israel. See Sam K. Williams, The Death of Jesus as Saving Event.

Finally, crucifixion was not a taboo subject, as witnessed by the frequent occurrence of crucifixion in dream interpretation manuals, where dreaming of being crucified was typically taken as a good omen of impending success.


Good Jews, Bad News?

Holding thinks that “Jesus' Jewishness…was also a major impediment to spreading the Gospel beyond the Jews themselves. Judaism was regarded by the Romans and Gentiles as a superstition. Roman writers like Tacitus willingly reported… all manner of calumnies against Jews as a whole, regarding them as a spiteful and hateful race. Bringing a Jewish savior to the door of the average Roman would have been only less successful bringing one to the door of a Nazi.” This is ludicrous. There were Roman anti-Semites aplenty, though this seems to have prevailed mainly during periods of Jewish revolt against Rome. But in fact, Judaism was quite attractive to Gentiles in general, Romans in particular, as witnessed by the number of conversions and the unofficial adherence of Gentile God-fearers (like Cornelius in Acts 10 and the Lukan Centurion who bankrolled the synagogue). It had the appeal of an "Oriental" religion as well as the sterling teaching of Ethical Monotheism to recommend it.

“The Romans… believed that superstitions (such as Judaism and Christianity) undermined the social system established by their religion – and… anyone who followed or adopted one of their foreign superstitions would be looked on not only as a religious rebel, but as a social rebel as well.” No, Judaism was considered a legitimate religion and for that reason Jews were exempt from military service. The Roman attitude seems to have been that an ancient religion was okay, even if silly by the standards of Romans like Juvenal, who felt the same way about the religion of Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Attis, etc. But these, too, were legal and quite popular. It was only new religions, like Christianity or the Bacchanalia (new to Rome), that aroused suspicion. (Holding will acknowledge this fact later, when it seems to prove useful to him.)


This Accursed Multitude

Furthermore, says Holding, “Christianity had a serious handicap [in] the stigma of a savior who undeniably hailed from Galilee -- for the Romans and Gentiles, not only a Jewish land, but a hotbed of political sedition; for the Jews, not as bad as Samaria of course, but a land of yokels and farmers without much respect for the Torah, and worst of all, a savior from a puny village of no account. Not even a birth in Bethlehem, or Matthew's suggestion that an origin in Galilee was prophetically ordained, would have [de]tached such a stigma: Indeed, Jews would not be convinced of this, even as today, unless something else first convinced them that Jesus was divine or the Messiah.” I cannot imagine anybody would have been this snobbish. Romans and other non-Palestinians could hardly have drawn much of a distinction between Galilee and Timbuktu. But even if they had been so choosy, does Holding seriously imagine that any such blue-nosed scoffer would have been convinced only by the miracle of the resurrection, as opposed to the assertion of the resurrection? They would no longer have been in a position to be convinced by the real thing, though they might have found the preaching of the resurrection emotionally or spiritually compelling, as many still do. It is foolish to argue in effect that "They were convinced by it, so it must have been convincing.  So you, too, should be convinced."

            Again, “Assigning Jesus the work of a carpenter was the wrong thing to do; Cicero noted that such occupations were ‘vulgar’ and compared the work to slavery.” Must early Christian preaching have won over the worst sort of snobs? No one, not even the special pleading Crossan, argues that Jesus was one of the Untouchables or Outcasts. Don't tell me there weren't plenty of people then as now who would not have relished the notion of a faith started by a rustic carpenter. But I think the identification of Jesus as a carpenter, a la Geza Vermes, was an early error, a Gentile misunderstanding of the Jewish acclamation that he was an erudite rabbi, skilled in scripture exposition. At any rate, it did not seem to hinder the fantastic success of Stoicism that one its most beloved sages, Epictetus, had been a slave, even less classy, one might suppose, than a carpenter.

Placing Jesus' birth story in a suspicious context where a charge of illegitimacy would be all too obvious to make would compound the problems as well. If the Gospels were making up these things, how hard would it have been… to take an "adoptionist" Christology and give Jesus an indisputably honorable birth (rather than claiming honor by the dubious, on the surface, claim that God was Jesus' Father)?” Tell that to all the myth-mongers who ascribed divine paternity to their saviors and heroes! Must these miraculous nativities be factual, too?


Let’s Get Physical

Holding ventures that a fabricated religion such as he supposes critics imagine Christianity to have been, would never have chosen a version of exaltation for its hero that entailed a physical resurrection since many ancients are on record as finding the whole notion repugnant, preferring Platonic soul-survival. Indeed, many rejected the idea: Sadducees, some philosophers, even pagan Arabs in Muhammad's day. Does that mean no one else liked it? We never find denunciations of a belief that no one holds. I find fundamentalism grossly repugnant, but that doesn't mean everyone else does.

            Holding knows that many Jews did share the Christian belief in a physical resurrection, but he says this would not have facilitated their belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since Jews supposedly restricted resurrection to the end of the age (John 11: 23-24, “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’”) Holding, like all evangelical apologists, claim that belief in a man rising from the grave before the time, in the midst of “this age,” would have been unthinkable. Hence on the one hand, it cannot even have occurred to Christians as a possibility unless they knew Jesus had actually arisen. And on the other, it would have struck the ears of other Jews as the rankest heresy. But think of John the Baptist, transformed into a miracle-working entity by virtue of resurrection, according to the belief of many (Mark 6:14). Of course Mark makes it a false opinion, but the point is that such a belief, closely paralleling the resurrection kerygma of Jesus himself, was readily available in the immediate environment of early Christianity according to the gospels themselves.

As for the venue of the Gentile Mission, “what makes this especially telling is that a physical resurrection was completely unnecessary for merely starting a religion. It would have been enough to say that Jesus' body had been taken up to heaven, like Moses' or like Elijah's. Indeed this would have fit… what was expected, and would have been much easier to ‘sell’ to the Greeks and Romans.” But this only means the early Christians didn't concoct Christianity like a bunch of network execs fashioning a sitcom according to focus group surveys. The question is: where did they get the belief in resurrection that they were shortly (if not from the first) "saddled" with? It might have been because of a real resurrection, sure, but they might simply have inherited it from an environment more friendly to the idea.


Too New to be True

Holding first argued that Judaism was repulsive to Romans, but now he has to switch hats. He says, correctly, that Romans paid grudging respect to Judaism because it had an ancient pedigree. “Old was good. Innovation was bad.” Thus a new faith like Christianity should have failed. Should we then conclude that no new religions ever started or were accepted on their appearance in the West? You just can't take the opinions of the intellectual caste as definitive for what everyone would have thought. Especially since the very expression of such opinions presupposes a regrettable (to these snobs) prevalence of precisely such "superstitions" as the snobs were condemning. Such faiths famously could and did succeed--even to the extent of becoming the official religion of Rome: Mithraism and even Baalism, for example. Holding argues as if the success of Christianity couldn't happen and so it must have taken a miracle for it to have happened. The scientific approach, taken by Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity) and others, is to take as established that it did happen and then explain it, not piously refuse to explain it and claim "It's a miracle!" With that utter abdication of the scientific method, we would still be in the Dark Ages.

Of course, no one denies there were persecutions of the Christian faith and, before that, the Isis and the Dionysus cults. They were occasioned by the fact that many, many people did like these religions and practiced them. That is why Juvenal has occasion in the first place to ridicule them, why Plutarch warns young matrons against them--because they were so prevalent, even among the aristocracy. Their husbands didn't like it, but they couldn't ultimately stop it.

Novelty was in large measure responsible for official distaste for the new faith. But as always, many people are looking for something new, however much the establishment hates and forbids it. And even they may eventually succumb: they yielded to Mithraism as the official state religion, and similarly later to Christianity. Hurdles are meant to be jumped, and hardy religions have jumped them. Christianity had much going for it, many noble features, just as Judaism did, and they won out.


Raising the Bar

Where, Holding wonders, would have potential converts have derived the wherewithal to repent of their nice, cozy sins to swallow the bitter pill of early Christian abstinence, if the whole thing were simply a matter of joining one more man-made religion? Can he ignore the fact that all the (very popular) Mystery Religions called their recruits to an initial stage of repentance and purification, too? 

And neither must we suppose that all Christians were heroic cross-bearers. The whole crisis of a second repentance seen in the Shepherd of Hermas and witnessed in Constantine's deferral of baptism to his deathbed attests to the general mediocrity of Christian lay behavior as the rule. They were all no doubt good folks, just not heroic like Jesus or the martyrs. As Stark (The Rise of Christianity) shows, the growth rate of Christianity seems to have matched that of analogous modern "new religions" like Mormonism and the Unification Church. One reason it expanded was its narrowness. Unlike other faiths, it insisted that theirs was the only way, so if you joined Christianity you left your other affiliations behind, whereas others could and did belong to several movements at once, with naturally watered down devotion to any one of them.

            Another way it grew was that Christianity provided a constant safety zone for assimilating Hellenistic Jews who wanted to slough off parochial Jewish ethnic markers like circumcision (already Paul is telling the Corinthian men not to undertake the epispasm operation to “undo” circumcision—ouch!) yet without abandoning the biblical tradition. Yet another growth factor was Christianity's opposition to abortion and infanticide, both quite common among pagans. This meant there were many more Christian women surviving to adulthood, perforce marrying pagan men and converting them. And of course the sterling conduct of Christians, ministering to the sick and destitute in times of plague and famine while pagan priests headed for their countryside villas, like Prince Prospero in Poe's Masque of the Red Death, must have attracted many of those helped--and justifiably so! Christianity has much to be proud of in all this. But we don't need any overt miracle to explain it.

            And as for the unlikelihood that a great number should have welcomed a new faith that offered moral guidance and discipline--I don't see a problem, unless one already takes for granted a doctrine of total depravity. 


Intolerance of Intolerance

Christianity began in the Hellenistic age of cosmopolitan tolerance. It was common for members of various religions to regard all the gods as the same, just wearing different names from nation to nation. Even some Jews, like the writer of the Epistle of Aristaeus, regarded Jehovah and Zeus as the same. One result was that anyone might join several different religions or cults simultaneously. So mustn’t Christianity have disgusted Roman society because of the new faith’s exclusivism? Mustn’t the preaching of Jesus as the only way to heaven have appeared a piece of tasteless bigotry? Surely no one would have found such a faith attractive, would they? Actually, it was a mixed bag. As I have just said, a la E.R. Dodds (Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety) and Rodney Stark, exclusivism was also a factor accounting for Christian expansion, not necessarily making it unlikely. The same thing is evident in the modern day in Dean M. Kelly's famous book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: people feel they are getting the red meat of authentic Christianity with evangelicalism, not the vapid tofu of liberalism, so they flock to the clear notes of the fundamentalist/orthodox trumpet.

            On the other hand, what Holding notes about the guardians of the social order being enraged by this, or even some of the people, is true too: there were plenty of lynch mobs before Diocletian and Decius declared open season on Christians. But not everybody reacted the same way. And much of the reaction was conducive to Christian growth--even the persecutions! For, as Tertullian said, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. And then what if significant elements of the establishment embrace the new faith? Things change rapidly.

            “Jews, too, would be intolerant to the new faith. Jewish families would feel social pressure to cut off converts and avoid the shame of their conversion. Without something to overcome Roman and even Jewish intolerance, Christianity was doomed.” But Christianity appealed to Hellenistic Jews and to Gentile God-fearers precisely because it offered Jewish morality, added to something like Mystery Religion salvationism (and this independent of the question of whether its symbolism and soteriology were borrowed from these faiths. Let's assume for the sake of argument that they weren't), and freedom from what Gentiles and assimilating Jews regarded as the burden of the Law. As Stark (chapter 3) shows, Hellenistic Jews found Christianity a bonanza!

No doubt Ebionite Jewish Christianity did eventually dry up on the vine for the reasons Holding gives: Non-Christian Jews came to associate the name Jesus with what appeared to them a new Gentile cult and wanted nothing to do with Torah-Christianity, either. The plaintive pleas of the latter, "But we're not like them! We're like you!" fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Gentiles faced with the choice of Law-free Christianity or Torah Christianity would surely choose the former, not so much because they were lazy, but because it seemed less inauthentic for them. Why should you have to adopt alien cultural markers to become a Christian?


An Omniscient Public

Holding next cites Acts 26:26, “For the king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner.” Here Paul is making his defense before King Herod Agrippa II. “The NT is filled with claims of connections to and reports of incidents involving ‘famous people.’ [For instance,] Herod Agrippa [I]… ‘was eaten of worms’ as Luke reported in Acts 12:20-23. Copies of Acts circulated in the area and were accessible to the public. Had Luke reported falsely, Christianity would have been dismissed as a fraud and would not have ‘caught on’ as a religion. If Luke lied in his reports, Luke probably would have been jailed and/or executed by Agrippa's son, Herod Agrippa II… because that was the fellow Paul testified to in Acts 25-26… And Agrippa II was alive and in power after Luke wrote and circulated Acts.” No, sorry. For one thing, Luke’s account of the first Agrippa’s death sounds remarkably like that in Josephus (Antiquities 19:8:2) as well as the tale of the worm-devouring death of Antiochus Epiphanes in 2 Maccabees 9:9. For another, there are many reasons to think that Acts stems from the second century, and many scholars think so. Merely mentioning that opinion does not make it true. It does mean, however, that the reader is not entitled to take Holding’s assertion of Luke’s contemporaneity with Herod Agrippa II for granted either. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Agrippa "was dead and couldn't blow the gaff." It is typical of the Hellenistic novels to have fictional heroes interact with famous historical figures, just as in such novels today. Does Holding imagine that the spurious letters between Paul and Seneca must be authentic because otherwise somebody would have definitively put the hoax to rest? Look how hard it is to lay the ghost of Nicholas Notovitch's bogus Unknown Life of Jesus Christ which keeps getting revived after the public has forgotten both it and the refutations it garnered in earlier generations.

"People outside the area of Lystra may not have known enough about what happened in Lystra, or wanted to check it, but Christianity was making claims at varied points across the Empire, and there were also built in ‘fact checkers’ stationed around the Empire who could say something about all the claims central to Jerusalem and Judaea -- the Diaspora Jews.” Thus Acts’ stories must be true. But this is unrealistic and anachronistic--fact checkers? No doubt there were local skeptics who, as in the case of Sabbatai Sevi's miracle reports, denied anything was really going on, but who listens to them? Not the true believers. Like Holding himself, they will mount any argument so as not to have to take threatening factors seriously. Rastafarians refuse to belief Haillie Selassie died. Premies refuse to believe their Satguru's mom fired him. Also, does Holding expect us to accept that the temple of Diana in Ephesus collapsed at the preaching of John because it says so in the Acts of John?

“The NT claims countless touch-points that could go under this list. An earthquake, a darkness at midday, the temple curtain torn in two, an execution, all at Passover (with the attendant crowds numbering in the millions), people falling out of a house speaking in tongues at Pentecost…-- all in a small city and culture where word would spread fast.” Word spreads fast—word of what? Events and non-events. Rumors spread as fast as facts, faster even. And besides, a little event called the fall of Jerusalem supervened between the time described and the writing of the gospels and Acts. Any witnesses pro or con were long dead and unavailable.In short, Christianity was highly vulnerable to inspection and disproof on innumerable points -- any one of which, had it failed to prove out, would have snowballed into further doubt, especially given the previous factors above which would have been motive enough for any Jew or Gentile to say or do something.” Oh please! If such claims were even made in the time of apostolic contemporaries, we have no way of knowing they were not as thoroughly and adequately refuted as the claims of Joseph Smith were. Christian tradition and documents would hardly inform us of the fact. And once Jerusalem fell, as it had before the New Testament was written, all hope of corroboration is sheer fantasy.


Sticks, Stones, and Names

Holding mounts a version of the argument from martyrdom that is slightly more nuanced than the usual one, and for that we may give him credit. He admits that we have no reliable information as to the possible martyrdom of any specific early Christians. Most of the supposed data comes from apocryphal, legendary sources like the fanciful Acts of Paul. But, following Robin Lane Fox, Holding widens the scope of social ostracism to which early Christians were subjected: “rejection by family and society, relegation to outcast status. It didn't need to be martyrdom -- it was enough that you would suffer socially and otherwise.” But this sword cuts both ways, if you are trying to determine its likely effect on the growth and consolidation of membership in a new religion. Such ostracism, when not spontaneously forthcoming at the hands of outsiders, is famously cultivated (even simulated) by "cults" who seek to cement the loyalty of new members by isolating them from natural family and old friends so they will bond more strongly with "brothers and sisters in the faith." This is why cult deprogramming was such a waste of time--it only drove the victim into the arms of the cult more deeply than ever.

But as for outright persecution, e.g., lynchings, seizure of property, just observe how the censured and persecuted Mormons reacted to such hardships--by succeeding fabulously! “It is quite unlikely that anyone would have gone the distance for the Christian faith at any time -- unless it had something tangible behind it.” Or, unless they believed it did, which no one doubts, and which is all Holding can ever show.


Monolithic Monotheism?

Holding has already expressed his reluctance to credit any ancient believing in a crucified god. But what about the general belief that Jesus was God incarnate? Would that notion have proven so repugnant to ancient Jews and Gentiles that none of them could have seriously entertained it—unless either irrefutable evidence for the resurrection (how is this a proof for the Incarnation?) forced one to accept it? But Holding, like C.S. Lewis and so many others who use the same argument, is stuck on the discredited notion that something like second-century rabbinic orthodoxy prevailed or even existed in the first centuries BC and AD. A lot of weird stuff was going on in the Holy Land and elsewhere that would later be forced out under the post-70 hegemony of the rabbis. One might as well ignore the diversity of theologies in Islam and conclude that the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim was Allah incarnate, as the Druze maintain, or that Ali already was God in the flesh, as many Shi'ite sects believe today. How could such beliefs have arisen in the context of absolutely and fiercely monotheistic Islam? Well, it turns out it wasn't so monolithic, and neither was first-century Judaism. 

“And it would be no better in the Gentile world. The idea of a god condescending to material form, for more than a temporary visit, of sweating, stinking, going to the bathroom, and especially suffering and dying here on earth -- this would be too much to swallow!” But exactly such was believed of the various demigods, like Asclepius, Pythagoras, Apollonius. Besides, many early Christians did not believe in a genuine incarnation, but were docetists, and it is far from certain that Paul was a real incarnationist, with his talk of Christ taking on the likeness of human flesh, the form of a servant, etc. I for one do not take for granted that orthodox definitions of incarnation can be assumed for the earliest Christians.


Armchair Radicalism

“‘Neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.’ You might be so used to applauding this sort of concept that you don't realize what a radical message it was for the ancient world. And this is another reason why Christianity should have petered out in the cradle if it were a fake.” It is a notorious matter of debate even among “literalist” evangelicals whether statements like the one Holding quotes meant any more than that all the listed categories had equal access to salvation, or whether they also denoted the abolition of traditional social distinctions among Christians. We don’t know how progressive a face early Christians presented to their contemporaries. Besides, some of the pre-Socratic Sophists had already preached male-female equality, as did the Pythagoreans and Stoics. And Christians were by no means, except for Marcionites and Gnostics, quick to implement texts like Galatians 3:28, as the Pastoral Epistles show.

            “Note that this is not just to those in power or rich; it is an anachronism of Western individualism to suppose that a slave or the poor would have found Christianity's message appealing on this basis.” On the contrary, part of the appeal of such "cults" is that they offer esteem and honor to someone in the eyes of his brethren that he cannot achieve in the secular world. A slave could be a Christian leader.

“Christianity turned the norms upside down and said that birth, ethnicity, gender, and wealth -- that which determined a person's honor and worth in this setting -- meant zipola.” This is characteristic of all sectarian movements in their infancy. It is partly "Know-Nothingism," because education is disparaged, partly true egalitarianism, of course. But hardly unusual for a new religious movement. Buddhism, too, repudiated caste and succeeded. Is it the only true religion, too?

            “The group-identity factor makes for another proof of Christianity's authenticity. In a group-oriented society, you took your identity from your group leader, and people needed the support and endorsement of others to support their identity… Moreover, a person like Jesus could not have kept a ministry going unless those around him supported him. A merely human Jesus could not have met this demand and must have provided convincing proofs of his power and authority to maintain a following, and for a movement to have started and survived well beyond him. A merely human Jesus would have had to live up to the expectations of others and would have been abandoned, or at least had to change horses, at the first sign of failure.” This is outrageous special pleading. What about the Buddha, John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and many others who were let down temporarily or permanently by their followers? And if there were anything special about such persistence, you needn't posit an incarnation. It would be adequate to say Jesus was strengthened by God. Were the indefatigable Paul and Peter God incarnate, too?

“If Christianity wanted to succeed, it should never have admitted that women were the first to discover the empty tomb or the first to see the Risen Jesus. It also never should have admitted that women were main supporters (Luke 8:3) or lead converts (Acts 16).” Similar traditions stem from the ritual mourning of women devotees of Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), Attis, Baal (Zechariah 12:11), etc. They are not supposed to be "evidence for the resurrection" any more than the Oberammergau Passion Play is. And plenty of Mystery cults gave leadership roles to women. That's part and parcel of sectarianism and its first-generation rejection of mainstream norms.

Holding appeals to the bumpkin status of Jesus, John, and Peter (Acts 4:13), and even of the early Christians generally, as another factor militating against the success of the new faith. On the contrary, the supposed illiteracy of prophets and founders is part of apologetic rhetoric, used of Jesus, Peter and John, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith so as to argue they must have been incapable of making this stuff up--"Flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my father in heaven." It is a common, predictable, and fictive topos, much like the common rhetorical trope that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, the claim to have renounced or to be inept at clever rhetoric, to throw readers off the track and set them up to fall for it.

            Besides, how would Christianity's being "real" or "fake" as to miracle claims have anything to do with the success or failure of its progress in society decades later? Wouldn't we have to look to the strengths of the movement at the time? Or are we to picture the Holy Ghost hypnotizing people as they heard the gospel? If instead Holding means they found ancient Christian apologetics so compelling, then he must reproduce them for us to be convinced by. He can't adopt the approach of the Catholic Church, a call for "implicit faith," second-hand faith in the faith of the early Christians.


Standing Up for Jesus

Bruce “Malina and [Jerome] Neyrey note that in the ancient world, people took their major identity from the various groups to which they belonged. Whatever group(s) they were embedded in determined their identity. Changes in persons (such as Paul's conversion) were abnormal. Each person had certain role expectations they were expected to fulfill. The erasure or blurring of these various distinctions… would have made Christianity seem radical and offensive.” Right! Of course! That's what happens when people join new or different religions. Not everyone has the guts to do it (though many have long felt alienated, and have silently waited for some new option to present itself). Holding seems to be arguing that no one converts to new religions except by a miracle of God.

Holding, then, insists that ancient people, much more part of a group-mentality than we are, would not have been likely to break with family and convention to join a new sect. I doubt this, in view of the cosmopolitan character of the Hellenistic Roman Empire when it would have been scarcely less difficult than it is today to run into members of other religions. There was already beginning to be what Peter Berger calls a “heretical imperative” to choose for oneself. But this was probably less true for Palestinian Jews. And yet some did break with their ancestral creeds to joining Christianity. Or did they? Remember, Christianity would have begun among Jews. “Faith in Jesus” may not even have amounted to a sect allegiance any more than did Rabbi Johannon ben-Zakkai’s controversial belief in the messianic claims of Simon bar-Kochbah.

But let us admit that the earliest Christians, as well as other venturesome souls who went out on a limb and joined a new sectarian group, had a lot of guts. All honor to them! But is this miraculous? I know Holding is ultimately trying to say that the evidence for the resurrection must have been pretty darn compelling to prompt such wrenching changes. But it isn't in our day, nor is it even the reason most people give for such conversions. And even supposing there were a few eyewitnesses of the resurrection, assuming it happened, how many of the early conversions can they have accounted for? And then, once you look at the next generation of second- and third-hand converts, the air is out of the tire. "Hey Crispus! I heard this really convincing guy talk about a vision he had!" That is lame. "I guess you had to be there." I see early conversions as motivated by something else than clincher apologetics. "Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe" (John 20:29). "Without having seen him you love him; though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy" (1 Peter 1:8)


Every Idle Word

In the ancient world, we are told, everybody kept an eye on everybody else. Little escaped a neighbor’s scrutiny. Surveillance and gossip were rife—much like today! “So now the skeptic has another conundrum. In a society where nothing escaped notice, there was indeed every reason to suppose that people hearing the Gospel message would check against the facts -- especially where a movement with a radical message like Christianity was concerned.” All salvationist sects required repentance and new birth. Jews required righteousness. What was so radical about it? “The empty tomb would be checked.” Maybe it was, and maybe it was found occupied, and maybe Christians with their will to believe found it as easy to ignore it as Creationists do the fossil record. Many people, after all, did not come to faith. Maybe this is why. We, at any rate, are in no position to check it out. And Holding begs the question by supposing that the earliest Christians even told such a story. I agree with Burton L. Mack (A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins; The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins; and Who Wrote the New Testament?) and others who suggest that the empty tomb story is a late addition to the preaching. 

“Matthew's story of resurrected saints would be checked out.” Two generations later? Not likely. Besides who would be reading/hearing this story but the members of Matthew's church in Antioch?Lazarus would be sought out for questioning.” What, sixty or seventy years after event? He would be dead again by that time, supposing he was ever a historical character at all, and not just borrowed from the Lazarus of the Luke 16 parable.Excessive honor claims, such as that Jesus had been vindicated, or his claims to be divine, would have been given close scrutiny.” By whom? It is a safe bet Malina and his Social Science colleagues do not mean to depict the ancients as mirror-image apologists as Holding does.

And later, converts to the new faith would have to answer to their neighbors.” How many hearers of the resurrection preaching, which may not at first have included the empty tomb anyway, would have been in any position at all to "check it out"? "Master, I'd like several months off so I can travel over to Palestine and see if I can verify a story I heard from some street corner preacher, that a man rose from the dead over there fifty years ago. I'm hoping I can find his tomb, or maybe somebody who saw it a few days after the execution." And if we are thinking of hypothetical hearers of empty tomb claims in AD 34 or so, what makes Holding think they would be any more inclined to "check it out" than anybody in our day who heard Oral Roberts claiming he had witnessed a King Kong-sized apparition of Jesus in Tulsa one night?

            Besides, Holding's whole argument is misguided, as if one could adjudicate historical questions of what did happen by appealing to general tendencies of ancient temperaments and what would have happened. You can't just squeeze history out of peasant sociology, as Crossan does. He and Malina and the crew all tend to reduce Jesus to a mere instantiation of current trends, mores, etc.


“I Believe Because it is Absurd”

“Scholars of all persuasions have long recognized the ‘criteria of embarrassment’ as a marker for authentic words of Jesus. Places where Jesus claims to be ignorant (not knowing the day or hour of his return; not knowing who touched him in the crowd) or shows weakness are taken as honest recollections and authentic (even where miracles stories often are not!).” Surely, Holding reasons, the framers of a merely concocted religion would take more care to make their imaginary savior deity look good! Hence no one would take the gospel Jesus seriously—unless they had to. As usual, Holding grossly oversimplifies the historical situation. As John Warwick Montgomery observed, every gospel saying must have been offensive to somebody here or there in the early church. What offended Matthew (Jesus declining to be called "good," for example) did not offend Mark, and we may be able to suggest reasons Mark would have created it. At least no criterion of embarrassment will shield it. Other embarrassing sayings may yet be damage control, fending off something yet more embarrassing. Certainly Schmiedel was naive in thinking no Christian would ever have fabricated Mark 13:32, where Jesus says he does not know the time of the end. Obviously the point is to correct the impression of the immediate context that he did claim to know and that he was wrong, as C.S. Lewis (“The World’s Last Night”) admitted. For Jesus to disclaim knowledge was better than having him mistaken.


Junior Detectives

 “Encouraging people to verify claims and seek proof (and hence discouraging their gullibility) is a guaranteed way to get slammed if you are preaching lies. Let us suppose for a minute that you are trying to start a false religion. In order to support your false religion, you decide to make up a number of historical (i.e., testable) claims, and then hope that nobody would check up on them. What is the most important thing to do, if you have made up claims that are provably false? Well, of course, you don't go around encouraging people to check up on your claims, knowing that if they do so you will be found out!” Once a student in a class of mine insisted that the CEO of Proctor and Gamble had admitted on the Donahue TV show that he was a Satanist and that the corporate logo was Satanic symbolism as well. I told my student that this was an urban legend. Next time he brought in the crudely copied hand-bill he had read. It offered a New York City phone number and urged the reader to call and ask for the transcript of the show for so and so date. I called it. There was no connection at all with Donahue. The hoaxer had evidently assumed that the mere provision of this (fake) information would be so convincing as to deceive the reader into thinking just as my student did and just as Holding does. When the reader of 1 Corinthians 15 reads that Paul challenged him to go and ask the 500 brethren about their resurrection sightings, something Paul knew well the Corinthians would never have the leisure to do, he may be impressed, but Paul was taking no risks. The mere challenge in such a case functions as sufficient "proof." Note that he provides no clue as to the names or locations of these supposed witnesses. In the late Syriac hagiography, The Life of John Son of Zebedee,  the apostle similarly invites his hearers to check out the story of Jairus’ daughter, resurrected by Jesus. The idea is that the reader will understand that once upon a time the facts could have been checked out, even though it is too late for him personally to do so. This all proves nothing and indeed invites suspicion of imposture where it might not have arisen otherwise.

Holding imagines, with the eye of faith that calls thing which are not as though they were, that “Throughout the NT, the apostles encouraged people to check seek proof and verify facts: 1 Thessalonians 5:21 [says to] ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.’” But this text refers, in context, to prophetic utterances which should not be dismissed out of hand but scrutinized, as in 1 Corinthians 14:29.

            “And when fledgling converts heeded this advice, not only did they remain converts (suggesting that the evidence held up under scrutiny), but the apostles described them as ‘noble’ for doing so: Acts 17:11[says,] ‘These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.’” But this is only a much later description of a dubiously historical scene and in any case means only "See? The smart people agree with us!" And if Luke means us to take as representative the fanciful scripture "proofs" he has the apostles offer elsewhere in the book, we can hang it up right now.


Stigma and Dogma

“Christianity, as we can see, had every possible disadvantage as a faith… I propose that there is only one, broad explanation for Christianity overcoming these intolerable disadvantages, and that is that it had the ultimate rebuttal -- a certain, trustworthy, and undeniable witness to the resurrection of Jesus, the only event which, in the eyes of the ancients, would have vindicated Jesus' honor and overcome the innumerable stigmata of his life and death. It had certainty that could not be denied; in other words, enough early witnesses (as in, the 500!) with solid and indisputable testimony (no "vision of Jesus in the sky" but a tangible certainly of a physically resurrected body).” Finally we are reduced to this: It was plenty convincing to those in a position to know the inside story, so you ought to be convinced, too! Sorry, but I can only look at the meager fragments of evidence that survive, and they do not look promising.

If Holding deems the evidence for the resurrection to be so strong, then what is the point of all this business of “disadvantages” and so forth? Why beat around the bush rather than getting to the real business at hand? It is not as if he is shy to discuss the evidence in its own right, but the argument considered here is not only fallacious; it is wholly superfluous even if he is right in his other arguments for the resurrection.


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