Monday, July 26, 2010

4. Myths and Fabrications

As previous chapters have shown, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures, constitute--each of them--an amalgam compounded of various elements.

At the outset, this chapter deals with the primordial stories in the Hebrew Bible. Stemming from one of the junior peoples of the Middle East, the Israelite narrative of origins abounds in borrowings from older, more venerable traditions of mythopoea. A few salient instances suffice to document the migration of these motifs.

There follow discussions of mythical elements in Christianity and Islam.


The story of the Deluge ranks as a major achievement of Mesopotamian myth making. The earliest extant flood legend appears in the fragmentary Sumerian Eridu Genesis, recorded on a cuneiform tablet from Nippur datable by its script to the eighteenth or seventeenth century BCE. The German scholar Arno Poebel deciphered and published the tablet in 1914; it has figured prominently in religious studies ever since. Two later Akkadian versions, Atrahasis and the Gilgamesh epic, supply some missing details.

The gods An, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursanga create the Sumerians (the "black-headed people") and the animals. Then kingship descends from heaven and the first cities appear: Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larsa, Sippar, and Shuruppak.

After a gap, the story resumes, saying that the gods have decided to send a flood to destroy humankind. King Ziudsura learns of this impending disaster, and gives instructions for the construction of an ark. Then there is another gap. When the tablet’s narrative starts up again it is describing the flood. A terrible storm rocks the huge boat for seven days and seven nights; then Utu (the Sun god) appears and Ziudsura creates an opening in the boat, prostrates himself, and sacrifices oxen and sheep.

After yet another break the text resumes. With the flood apparently over, the animals disembark and Ziudsura prostrates himself before An (the sky-god) and Enlil (chief of the gods), who give him eternal life, taking him to dwell in the fabled land of Dilmun as a reward for "preserving the animals and the seed of mankind.”

There are a number of Mesopotamian successor texts, notably a section towards the end of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh where the hero is a man named Utnapishtim. All the stories share a number of general features, which constitute the deep structure of the myth. Deities (or a deity) create the animals and human beings, but people anger the god(s), so they decide to destroy most of the people and animals with a flood. A divine being warns one pious person of the impending flood and tells him to build a big boat, and with it he preserves humankind, and usually the animals, from extinction. In the end the god(s) reward him for his actions.

We turn now to specifics. The similarities with the well-known story in Genesis 6-9 are startling. Among them are the following motifs. In both the Genesis and Gilgamesh stories, mankind had become obnoxious to the god(s): in the Bible they were hopelessly sinful and wicked, in the Babylonian story, they were too numerous and noisy. As a result the god(s) decided to send a worldwide flood. This disaster would drown men, women, children, babies and infants, as well as eliminate all of the land animals and birds. The god(s) knew of one righteous man, Ziudsura/Ut-Napishtim or Noah. The god(s) ordered the hero to build a multistory wooden ark, which would be sealed with pitch. The ark would have with many internal compartments, and a single door. It would have at least one window. The ark was duly built and loaded with the hero, a few other human beings, and samples from all species of other land animals.

Then a great rain covered the land with water. The ark landed on a mountain in the Near East. The hero sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land had emerged. The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return. The hero and his family left the ark, ritually killed an animal, offered it as a sacrifice. The god(s) smelled the roasted meat of the sacrifice, and the hero was blessed.

The Babylonian gods seemed genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had inflicted. The god of Noah appears to have regretted his destructive actions as well, because he promised never to do it again.

Of course, the two stories exhibit a number of differences, many of them trivial. For example Noah’s ark was three stories high, while the Babylonian one had six stories. Noah's ark landed on Mount Ararat; Ut-Napishtim's at on Mount Nisir; these locations are both in the Middle East. Noah released a raven once and a dove twice; Ut-Napishtim sent out three birds: a dove, swallow, and raven. In Genesis the rains from above persisted for forty days and nights; in the Babylonian account the inundation lasted only six days.

Some believers have sought to make much of such differences, most of which, however, simply attest the migration of the myth from one culture to another. Those who focus on the differences point to the monotheism of the biblical account. However, recent research in early Israelite religion shows that originally Yahweh functioned as the president of a council of the gods. In other words the society was effectively polytheistic. Accordingly, this difference is minimal.

Chronologically, the Mesopotamian accounts are earlier. Moreover, the story makes sense in the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, where floods are common. It is much less suited to the highlands of Palestine.

The evidence suggests that the biblical story of the Flood was purloined from the mythological storehouse of the more highly developed Mesopotamian civilizations. In other words, the borrowing amounts to plagiarism. Still too little known among believers, comparative studies of this kind have severely eroded the case for the authority of the Hebrew Bible.


Here are a few further parallels, by way of example. Sargon of Agade, who reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE, forged an empire that annexed Sumeria to the Semitic heartland of Akkad in northern Mesopotamia.

The ensuing centuries confirmed Sargon’s status as a major culture hero. With varying degrees of plausibility, many legends surrounded the birth and upbringing of Sargon. While the identity of his father is not clearly known, his mother was supposed to have been a temple priestess. Giving birth to him in secret and setting him in a basket to float, she abandoned him to the Euphrates river. Akki, a gardener, rescued him from the waters and raised him. After working as a gardener for Akki, Sargon rose to the position of cup-bearer to Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish. Such details recall the early life of Moses (Exodus 1:22-4:26), another major culture hero. Moses’ biography was evidently refurbished so as to absorb some of the features of the Sargon legend.

Mesopotamia and the neighboring regions in Asia Minor display a long and rich tradition of law collections, of which the Laws of Hammurabi (king of Babylon, 1792-1750) is the most famous example. The collections that have come down to us are compilations, varying in legal and literary sophistication. They were recorded by scribes in the schools and the royal centers of ancient Mesopotamia and Asia Minor from the end of the third millennium through the middle of the first millennium BCE. The languages of the texts are Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite. Some of the collections, like the famous Laws of Hammurabi, achieved wide circulation; others, like the Laws about Rented Oxen, were scribal exercises restricted to a local school center. All, however, reflected contemporary legal practice in the scribes' recordings of contracts, administrative documents, and court cases. They also provide historians with evidence of a process of distillation of legal rules from specific cases (Roth, 1997).

Strictly speaking, the collections are not “codes” in the modern sense of marshaling laws systematically according to category, but simply gatherings in which some recurrent themes are evident, but--as far as can be determined--no overall plan. Much the same is true of the ancient Israelite collections, which clearly stem from this same broad legal culture. According to the conventional terminology, these collections include the so-called Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), and the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26). Further discussion, including some nuances, occurs below, in Chapter Nine.

Some works of Mesopotamian literature recall the troubled history of its various city states. One example is the “Lament for the Fall of Ur,” which foreshadows the later Israelite lamentations for the fall of Jerusalem. as seen in the books of Lamentations, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Psalms (especially Psalm 137).


Contemporary biblical scholarship has established fairly conclusively that such worthies as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses, Aaron, and Joshua never lived. They belong exclusively to the realm of myth.

So much for the historicity--or more accurately, the nonhistoricity--of the figures who populate the Pentateuch. Gradually, it seems (as we read on in the story and the generations roll by), the world of the Hebrew Bible becomes less mythical and more historical. But when does it do so? It is a startling fact that no real evidence has emerged for the existence of David and Solomon. To be sure, there is one doubtful inscription supposedly pertaining to the former, but the interpretation of the name David is disputed. Where are the commemorative steles and other monuments we would expect to find as evidence for a great Middle Eastern empire, as Solomon’s was reputed to be? What became of the polity’s archives? It is becoming increasingly evident that if David and Solomon ruled over anything it was a petty chieftainship, too minor to merit much notice in the annals of the great kingdoms of the Middle East.

In short the Hebrew Bible is a mix of fact and fantasy. To disentangle the two is a challenge that is difficult to meet.


The idea that Jesus never existed as a historical figure goes back more than 200 years. To the best of our knowledge, the first writer to argue this point in detail was the French savant Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809). Trained as a lawyer, Dupuis developed a passion for astronomy. Oddly enough, this interest informs his magnum opus "Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle," which appeared in 12 volumes in Paris in 1795. In this vast work, the French scholar held that religious myths of all nations adhered to common principles, which derived from nature. Chapter Nine of this gargantuan work bears the title of “An explanation of the fable in which the Sun is worshipped under the name of Christ.”

Late in life, the American founder John Adams (1735-1826) obtained a full set of Dupuis’ work of synthesis. Reading it carefully, he became convinced of the nonhistoricity of Jesus. In this way, Adams was “one up” on his correspondent Thomas Jefferson, who had kept his belief, itself revisionist, in the real existence of Jesus as a wise teacher of moral truths.

Dupuis’s rejection of the historicity of Jesus resurfaced in the more popular work of his contemporary Constantin François Volney (1757-1820), entitled "Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires." Although this work appeared earlier than Dupuis’ (in 1791), Volney probably depended on his older colleague for his opinion about Jesus.

On a different basis, these doubts resurfaced in the work of the German theologian and philosopher Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Starting in 1840, he began to publish a series of controversial works arguing that Jesus was a myth, a second-century fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. Bauer’s arguments were based on his deconstructive analysis of the text of Mark, which by his time was generally recognized as the earliest of the gospels.

Then the baton was taken up by the Dutch radical theologians, who denied the authenticity of the Pauline epistles. Most of these scholars retained some sense that there was an authentic core, however, exiguous, that could be retrieved about the historical Jesus. A few, such as Systra Hoekstra, Allard Pierson, and Samuel Adrian Naber went further, denying that the Gospels contained any authentic information. In their view we possessed no reliable information that would affirm the actual existence of Jesus.

From time to time these questionings of the historicity of Jesus have surfaced again, most recently in The Jesus Project, an outgrowth of the earlier Jesus Seminar (founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk and still ongoing). The Jesus Project was intended to be a five-year-long investigation into the historical Jesus. Initiated by R. Joseph Hoffmann, the project sought to advance beyond the Jesus Seminar. It would ask a radical question: did Jssus exist? The initial meeting took place in Amherst, New York, December 5–7, 2008, and included fifteen scholars from a variety of disciplines.
Unfortunately, the project did not fare well As a result of scholarly defections, perceived sensationalism in the media, and the loss of funding, the project collapsed in 2009.

The long-running Jesus Seminar itself has been more successful, though many have been disquieted by the results. It has been quipped that as a result of its work Jesus has lost over 80% of his body weight. As such, he is a very thin man indeed--but he hasn’t yet blown away. One who thinks otherwise is Robert M. Price in his “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?” (Prometheus Books, 2003).

The author has sought to collect and analyze all the relevant information about Jesus--his birth, childhood, baptism, miracles, sayings, and so forth--primarily using the New Testament as we have it, but also employing some Gnostic source material. Unlike some of his predecessors, who have not benefited from seminary training, Price’s analysis is thoroughly grounded in the texts, and for this “warp-and-woof” approach he is to be commended. He has analyzed this data to understand what we know for certain about Jesus. Price concludes that this amounts to very little, if anything.

The writer utilizes three main critical criteria. The first is “whenever we can compare a more and a less extravagant version of the same claim or story, the more modest has the greater claim to authenticity.” Price gives the example of walking on water. In Mark only Jesus walks on water. In this the evangelist is followed by John. Yet Matthew adds Peter to the aqueous adventure. Since we know that Mark is the earliest of the surviving gospels, it seems likely that his version (followed by John’s) is correct; while Matthew’s is an embellishment. So far, so good. However, there may be other reasons for simplicity. Many medieval commentators thought that Mark was not the earliest gospel but the latest; that is, it was a kind of abridgment. On this account, for the reasons of brevity he may have preferred the short (Johannine) version to the Matthaean one.

Yet there is another reason for omissions which goes to the heart of the matter. In looking back over a past occurrence, such as the Dublin Easter Uprising of 1916 or the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York's Greenwich Village, some observers like to assert that “X was not there,” even though he almost certainly was. The reason is personal dislike, or a disapproval of the tendency that X belonged to. Thus someone who held that Peter was getting too much power in the nascent church organization may have wanted to “cut him down to size” in this manner. In this particular instance I am inclined to accept Price’s reconstruction. But the methodological principle he adduces is not necessarily universally valid.

From his work in the earlier Jesus Seminar Price takes over the criterion of dissimilarity. That is, if Jesus says or does something that is unique to him (as far as we can tell), then it is likely to be authentic. If not, not. Is it really plausible, though, that the “real Jesus” was constantly innovating 24/7? In the course of my graduate education I been privileged to attend a number of dazzlingly brilliant lectures. There was not one professor, however, who did not occasionally utter some platitude, such as “silence is golden” or “the last mile’s the hardest.” The reason for this is not simple laziness. If one wants to attract a following, as Jesus is represented as wishing, one has to begin by building on what people know--or think they know. Someone who was original all the time might be a forerunner of André Breton and the Surrealists--but he could not lay the foundations for the religion that is currently the most populous on the planet.

Finally, Price offers parallels with other stories, especially those from classical antiquity. He cites Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander, and Apollonius of Tyana (among others) as individuals who are thought to have come into the world through some miraculous birth. The themes of the Incarnation and Nativity may indeed have been embellished by the Christian writers with such detail--but so what?

Continuing in the comparative vein, the story of Jesus counting 153 fishes and how this was part of the Pythagorean legend is a little known fact, and a good example of how Price uses this approach to deconstruct many of the New Testament's assertions regarding the life of Jesus. Still, there are times where Mr. Price seems to be stretching to find matching similarities. Indeed, there are limitations to this method. As a French scholar said in a different context: comparaison n’est pas raison.

It is hard to suppress the suspicion that Price has adopted a kind of kitchen-sink approach, throwing in anything that occurs to him. Thus he says that Jesus cannot have entered any synagogue in Galilee, because archaeologists have not found them there in this period. There are indeed many spectacular finds in Middle Eastern synagogue architecture during the Roman period, but it is clear that the record remains incomplete. For example, not a single synagogue has been excavated in Mesopotamia (Iraq); yet we know from the Babylonian Talmud that this country was a particularly flourishing center of Jewish life and scholarship during the period. On these grounds, an argument from silence (no known synagogues), are we to conclude that the Babylonian Talmud is a falsification?

Some sources that Price throws into the pot are dubious at best. For example, he cites a British occultist, G. R. S. Mead, writing a hundred years ago, as a source for the improbable claim that Jesus actually lived around 100 B.C.

There is one final consideration, to my mind the most significant of all. By modern standards, few figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are well documented. For most ancient philosophers, for example, we have (to all intents and purposes) only the data recorded by Diogenes Laertius. Yet few doubt that Heraclitus or Democritus actually lived. In her book "Lives of the Greek Poets," Mary Lefkowitz points out that "virtually all the material in the lives is fiction."

Yet we do not say that the majority of the ancient Greek philosophers and poets never existed. The information we have on them is exiguous at best. That being so, why is the historicity of these figures not challenged? The reason is that there no motive for such doubt, even thought they are less well attested than Jesus.

Doubt serves as a weapon. An example demonstrates this rule. The Greek archaic poet Sappho has become an icon for modern feminists--a sort of Sappho Christa. Action produces reaction, and so some scholars have begun to doubt whether she existed.

A major problem with sorting out the facts, however uncertain they may be, concerning the life of Jesus stems from the situation that we have too many sources, not too few. In addition to the four canonical gospels, the texts of at least sixteen others are known. Other data stem from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, not to mention such early writers as Marcion, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon. The situation is closer to that of Socrates and Alexander, well attested but with numerous contradictions, than it is to that of Heraclitus and Anacreon, two somewhat shadowy figures. I am inclined to think that the argument that Jesus did not exist is ideologically motivated. It is based on special pleading--a one-sided presentation of the evidence that highlights every contradiction and dubious assertion, refusing to countenance any other evidence.

It is useful to recall the legal principle of neutrality of result. For example, legislation barring excessively high rates of interest should not be crafted so that the prohibition applies to some banks but not to others. Of course, there are disputed cases. Some would argue, I think correctly, that marriage should not be construed so as only to apply to opposite-sex instances ("traditional marriage"), but should cover same-sex ones as well. Others may disagree.

Still, it is a good plan to follow the principle of neutrality of outcomes. Yet that principle is conspicuously ignored by the Jesus-didn't-exist crowd, because they decline to apply their stringent criteria to analogous cases. Take, for example, the case of Jesus' older contemporary, Rabbi Hillel the Elder, after whom many Jewish student groups are named. He looks like a good candidate for erasure, because the evidence for his existence is considerably more skimpy than that for Jesus. Yet I know of no detailed argument for the nonhistoricity of Hillel. Nor is one needed.

When all is said and done, Jesus probably did actually exist--not the divine Jesus of the fictitious “Holy Trinity,” but the relatively modest teacher admired by Thomas Jefferson. Still, it is sobering to remind oneself than in trying to understand a society that flourished 2000 years before our own, we are generally restricted to probabilities, not certainties.


The basis for the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly--though I think erroneously--detected in certain New Testament passages linking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two such passages are the so-called “Great Commission" of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and Paul’s: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). A few other passages exhibit similar wording.

One of these is certainly spurious. The King James Version states, as 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Yet this Comma Johanneum, to use its technical designation, is now generally recognized as a parasitic addition to the Gospel text. Appearing in a few early Latin manuscripts, it is absent from the more authoritative Greek manuscripts--except for a few late examples, where the passage appears to have been back-translated from the Latin. Desiderius Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus on which the King James Version was based, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal. In the first edition of his Greek New Testament he took the principled step of refusing to include it, as he rightly suspected that it was a spurious intrusion. Later, he yielded to pressure to change his mind.

Erasmus was right in the first place. Not now considered to have been part of the original text, the Comma Johanneum has vanished from modern translations of the Bible, even from the revision of the Vulgate that ranks as the official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church.

With more than their usual dexterity, medieval theologians even affected to detect “prefigurations” of the Holy Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. One example of this exegetical strong-arming is the so-called “Old Testament Trinity” of the three strangers who visited Abraham (Genesis 18) . Artists have often chosen to employ this subject to illustrate the doctrine, which is otherwise hard to visualize. (In my opinion, it is even harder to conceive in the mind, but that has not been the view of countless credulous Christians, who believe what they are told.)

Returning to the New Testament, what we find there is simply a rhetorical formula of “Father/Son/Holy Spirit.” A moment’s reflection will show that one can habitually connect three things verbally without implying that they share a common essence. For example, the expression “Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” refers to the fact that these three disparate towns were linked by a railroad. (Imagine, if you will, purchasing a vacation plan for Santa Fe, only to have the travel agent disclose that one has been redirected to Topeka: "after all, they're the same place.") In fact the familiar railroad nomenclature advances no claim of organic similarity, not to speak of the bizarre notion that the communities are somehow the same: “triune” as it were. Yet we are asked to believe something much grander than that on the basis of a few fragments of New Testament rhetoric.

Thinking in threes has enjoyed currency in many cultures. Ancient Egyptian religion honored several sets of three deities, including the triad of Osiris (husband), Isis (wife), and Horus (son); local triads like the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu; as well as the Memphite triad of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem, These divine triads show family relationships, but not identity. The Egyptians also held that there were three seasons in the year, not four. For its part, later Chinese civilization honored three great systems of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

The approach is also common in folklore (three wishes, three guesses, three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff, and so forth). In medieval Europe, sorcerers would reputedly sacrifice three black animals when attempting to conjure up demons. On the other hand, a three-colored cat was a protective spirit. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) there are three witches, and their spell begins, “Thrice the brindled cat hath mewed,” reflecting this bit of folklore. Even today, we distinguish among the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms in common parlance.

This being said, the number three seems to have enjoyed particular prominence in Greek thought. For example, the Greek language has three genders. By contrast, Hebrew (like the Romance languages) has only two. Three was an important number for the Pythagoreans. Plato regarded three as being symbolic of the triangle, the simplest spatial shape, and considered the world to have been built from triangles. There were three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Later Greek thought conceived of the soul as having three parts.

This profusion, contrasting with the relative unimportance of the number three in Hebrew thought, suggests that the concept of the Holy Trinity is of Hellenic origin. And indeed most of the Christian theologians who addressed this issue had a Greek education and wrote in that language. Significantly, the Greek word "Trias," which these writers employed for the Holy Trinity, does not occur in this sense in the New Testament. All this evidence points to the conclusion that the concept, like the word, was an alien intruder.

If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a Greek intrusion into the original Semitic base of earliest Christianity, when did it first penetrate.? It is impossible to say for sure. Some scholars claim to have found adumbrations of the doctrine of the Trinity in writers of the sub-Apostolic age. An early, though typically problematic example of this claim occurs in the Church father Ignatius (d. CE 107), who exhorts the Magnesians to "prosper . . . in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit." As we have noted, though, such triadic formulae are scarcely conclusive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius maintains that "our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost." Here Jesus is thought of as God, but the Holy Spirit seems a mere agent acting at the behest of God the Father. Ignatius does not say that the Spirit was "consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal" with the other two, as later orthodoxy claimed. This text presumes no explicit Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of all three.

One thing, however, is clear. Crucial shifts in thinking began at a time when everyone who had known Jesus personally was dead. No one would have been alive to contradict the changes.

What did Ignatius really have in mind? He seems to be professing bitheism (sometimes termed "binitarianism"), a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. In contrast to ditheism, which implies rivalry and opposition (as between Good and Evil), bitheism posits two divine figures acting in perfect harmony. (A curious sidelight appears in the Marcionites, an early Christian sect which held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.)

Setting aside later elaborations, one must take Ignatius' bitheistic concept on its own terms. Doctrinal development might have stopped right there, and the Christian mainstream might have become Ignatian. Bitheism affirms the divinity of Christ, who is coequal with the Father. That is all that the doctrine of the Incarnation really requires.

Methodologically, the key point is this: one must resolutely abandon the common assumption (fetish, really) of the Holy Trinity as the starting point. Instead, we must understand the doctrine as a point of arrival, not necessarily an inevitable one. The reader must look elsewhere for further details of this gradual process (Carpenter, 2005). By the way, popular writers like Dan Brown are mistaken in suggesting that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity just popped up, as it were out of nowhere, at the Council of Nicaea. Such major changes in consciousness do not occur suddenly.

At all events, the doctrine of the Trinity does come into clearer focus as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Nicaea, convened by the emperor Constantine in 325. The Council adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that stood from then on as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος) as the Father. This notion was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance." In a paradox that has proved enduring, the answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Or so it seems.

Athanasius, a participant in the Council of Nicaea, stated that the bishops were compelled to use this terminology, which is not found in Scripture, because the Biblical phrases that they would have preferred were appropriated by the Arians, who doubted that Christ enjoyed the same status as God the Father. They therefore glommed onto the non-scriptural term homoousios (“of one substance”) in order--so they believed--to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius.

The Holy Spirit was now definitively in the picture, though Council of Nicaea said little about it. The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius (ca. 293-373) in the last decades of his life. He both defended and refined the Nicene formula. By the end of the fourth century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine had reached substantially its current form. In ancient times it was challenged by the Arians and others, while the Socinians, founders of Unitarianism, began a more sustained attack in the sixteenth century.

My conclusion is that there is no certain evidence that the writers of the New Testament documents adhered to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In all likelihood this innovation seeped into post-Apostolic Christianity from Greek sources. Through sheer legerdemain, it was read back into the canonical texts.


The Trinitarians could avail themselves of a further line of defense. In modern times, Roman Catholic apologists have maintained that Christian doctrine has two sources: text and tradition. The doctrine of the Trinity stems from the second source. I note parenthetically that it is a little hard to understand why such an important belief as the Trinity would not have been boldly proclaimed in the New Testament itself. Instead, we must rely on later witnesses, trusting (not too wisely, it turns out) that they have faithfully transmitted the original teaching. That is the fatal flaw, for this claim blithely ignores a key feature of oral tradition. That is the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, each participant in the chain tends to alter the formulation of what has been heard. Some of these changes are slight, while others are substantial.

This point can easily be grasped by recalling the parlor game known as “telephone.” A group of people form a line, and the person at the start whispers a phrase into the ear of his or her neighbor, who does the same, and so on. By the time the message has reached the end of the line it is completely distorted.

Oh, but this objection does not apply in the case of Early Christian doctrines, say the apologists. The messages have a truly faithful guarantor in the form of the Catholic Church. One of the sterling characteristics of that institution is that it is unchanging--the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. At this point, most would be compelled to say, we have broached, if not actually entered the realm of fantasy.

The idea of Church Unchanging is particularly problematic during the first three centuries, when periodic Roman persecutions and the dissensions that the winning side sought to stigmatize as "heresies" wracked the emergent Christian congregations. Viewed in a different perspective, what now seems “heresy” could easily be deemed “orthodoxy,” and vice versa.

Some mischief stems from the translation, standard in English-language Bibles, of the Greek noun ekklesia as “church,” instead of “assembly” or “congregation." In modern English the word church has several meanings, including: 1) a building for public Christian worship; 2) the world body of Christian believers; Christendom; 3) a Christian denomination; 4) a Christian congregation; 5) organized religion in general, as distinguished from the state. As is always the case with language, there has been much semantic evolution, a fact that the choice of words tends to mask. While the words stay the same, the reality they seek to describe changes.

The Greek word “ekklesia” appears in 115 places in the received text of the New Testament. Almost invariably the English translations render it as “church,” instead of assembly, which would be more accurate. In classical Greek city states the ekklesia was a public assembly of citizens summoned by the crier; the group functioned as a legislative body. In the koine Greek of the New Testament the term refers to a groups of persons assembled together for a particular purpose. The meaning was never confined to a religious meeting or group.

The word church which appears in our English bibles derives from the Greek “kyriakon,” not “ekklesia.” The Greek word kyriakon is not found in the New Testament. Its English counterpart "church" came into common use only in the sixteenth century.

This brief summary will suffice to survey the philological background. Let us now turn to the history of institutions. Reading the book of Acts and the Epistles ascribed to Paul, it is clear that the “churches” established in various parts of the Roman empire must be understood in sense no. 4 above; that is, they are congregations, and not limbs of some highly disciplined superorganism of the sort that Roman Catholicism represents today. This particularism is shown by the expression “seven churches [ekklesiai] in Asia.” The term easily lent itself to plural usage because that was the concrete situation.

In the light of these observations it is difficult to support the conclusion, common in Roman Catholic apologetic circles of yore, that Jesus founded THE CHURCH, an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the Roman Catholic Church today. In view of its unchanging adherence to primordial Christian doctrines (so we are told) we can rely with the utmost confidence on the Vatican as the faithful custodian of those doctrines--including the formerly unwritten body known as “tradition.”

These claims are vulnerable on a number of grounds. Even retaining (as convenience suggests) the conventional rendering of ekklesia as “church,” it is crystal clear that that institution was quite different prior to 313, when Constantine intervenes, to what came after. In fact the two are opposed by almost 180 degrees.

This change may be illustrated by the shift of meaning of another term. As the etymology suggests, “episkopoi” (“bishops”) were originally simply overseers or straw bosses. They possessed none of the trappings of magisterium they were later to acquire under the aegis of Constantine and his successors.

With the ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 everything changed, and three patriarchates, in effect, were confirmed to stand at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. One must be careful not to retroject Nicene norms back onto the previous era.

As far as I can see, Adolph von Harnack’s fundamental contrast between Urchristentum (comprising the Apostolic and Subapostolic eras; and the age of the Martyrs), on the one hand, and Early Catholicism, on the other, remains valid. Only the transition to the latter created the Christian Church as we know it. This was a slow, often literally agonizing process that reached its term only with Constantine.

I turn now to the matter of texts. Between ca. 160 CE and ca. 220 a grass-roots consensus gradually emerged in several centers as to what the “New Testament” should look like. We have evidence of this complicated process from, e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen of Caesarea.

In no case that I know of did people of this kind actually concoct scriptures. They merely sorted out what they found.

So one cannot seriously maintain that the Church was prior to the the New Testament, which it created. One might as well say that the Synagogue created the Hebrew Bible. Of course, rabbis associated with synagogues (plural) MAY have established some sort of canon at Jamnia ca. 90. But that is a far cry from their being progenitors of those documents. Even the most radical Minimalists do not make such a claim.

The actual origins of the texts remain obscure. It is unlikely, for example, that any of the Four Gospels was actually written by the “evangelist” whose name it now bears. One thing is sure, though. Since there was no such thing as THE CHURCH in those days, it could not have been the progenitor of these texts. We must reiterate another point. Never having existed, this phantom institution would not have been in a position to conserve a uniform body of “tradition” which it later "infallibly" drew upon.

The texts are the only evidence we have, and Roman Catholic efforts to trace such such patent fabrications as Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception to some primordial oral tradition must be dismissed as rubbish, pure and simple. That conclusion is, I would think, a no-brainer.

The same goes, I believe, for that perennial hobgobblin known as "Holy Trinity." If we wish to understand Christian origins we must set it aside, adopting a unitarian stance as our governing hermeneutic principle.


The Qur’an assumes familiarity with the major narratives in the Jewish and Christian scriptures--an instance perhaps of pan-Abrahamic solidarity. However, it also assumes a certain willingness to forget the details, as the altered (some would say garbled) Qur’anic versions are unfurled.

A curious feature is the phantom Suhuf-e-Ibrahimi (or Scrolls of Abraham), ostensibly part of the religious heritage of Islam. The authorship of these scriptures is attributed to Prophet Ibrahim, but also said to have contained works by Moses. No one knows for sure, for Muslims generally believe that these precious documents have perished.

Two suras of the Qur’an, which are ascribed to the first Meccan period, make reference to the “leaves, scrolls, journals” (suhuf) of Abraham (or Ibrahim) and Moses (or Musa), presumably autograph manuscripts of these worthies (87:18-19; 53:36-37). Unfortunately, the Qur’an gives no details of this revelation. This is a great pity, because the Muslim Holy Book does not speak explicitly of their possible corruption as it does in the case of the Torah and the New Testament.

Tawrat (Tawrah or Taurat) is the Arabic word for the Torah (in the sense of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). Most Muslims believe that it is one of the Holy books Allah gave to Moses. The word Tawrat occurs eighteen times and name of Moses (Musa) is mentioned one hundred and thirty six times in the Qur'an. Disappointingly, possible quotations from the Torah in the Qur’an are very few and inexact. An example is 5:45 where the Quran reads, "We ordained therein for them: "Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal."" This may allude to Exodus 21:25: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (KJV).

Many Muslims consider Deuteronomy 18:18, "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him." to be a reference to Muhammad. Jews, however, reject this connection because of Deuteronomy 17:15, which defines brethren as being limited to Israelites.

Apart from the Pentateuch references, the Qur’an also contains some allusions and quotations from other books of the Hebrew Bible.

We turn now to a more specific connection. The figure of Ibrahim (Abraham) is of great significance for Islam. According to Muslim belief, Ibrahim (the biblical patriarch Abraham) is a major prophet. He was the son of Azar and the father of Ismail (Ishmael)—his first born son—and Is'haq (Isaac), his second born, both of whom rank as prophets in Islamic tradition. Ismail ranks as the father of some of the Arabs—including the Arabized Arabs, peoples who became Arab—while Isaac enjoys the status of the Father of the Hebrews

As the first of the line, Ibrahim/Abraham enjoys an exalted status as the Father of the Prophets. He is also commonly termed Khalil Allah, or “Friend of God.” Ostensibly, Ibrahim is the person who gave Muslims that name (“those who submit to God”). He is considered the archetype of a hanif, that is a faithful monotheist. Abraham is discussed or mentioned in 25 of the Qur’an’s 114 suras, more than any other hallowed individual, with the exception of Moses.

For Jews, Abraham figures as the founder of Judaism. Christians essentially agree, while regarding Abraham as the initiator of a religious evolution that would eventually achieve its triumphal completion in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. For Muslims the matter is entirely different. Abraham/Ibrahim founded a pure monotheism, which gradually became corrupted. After many centuries of error and confusion, the unalloyed monotheism he championed was restored. thanks the the revelations vouched to the Messenger of God, Muhammad.

As discussed in Chapter One, the people who follow the faith of Abraham--ostensibly the same as that of Islam--are called Millat Ibrahim.

The importance of Abraham in Islamic tradition transpires in the five daily prayers of Muslims. Apart from Muhammad, Abraham, is the only other prophet of God who is mentioned by name four times in each of the five daily prayers that Muslims perform. This is done during the Durood recitation of the prayer where Muslims send their blessings to Muhammad.

The Qur'an treats Abraham as the spiritual father of all the believers. He is mentioned as an upright person who was neither a polytheist nor a Christian nor a Jew (Qur’an 3:67). According to the Qur'an, Abraham reached the conclusion that anything subject to disappearance could not be worthy of worship, and thus became a monotheist (Qur’an 6:76-83). Some Sunni Muslims believe that Azar the idol-maker was the father of Abraham, while other Sunnis and Shias hold that Tarakh was his father and Azar was Abraham's uncle.

Echoing a Jewish legend, Abraham is alleged to have broken Azar's idols, calling on his community to worship the true God instead. The Qur’an also mentions a confrontation between a king, not mentioned by name, and Abraham (2:258). Following Jewish sources, Muslim commentators identify Nimrod as the king. In Abraham's confrontation with his royal adversary, the prophet maintains that God is the one who gives life and gives death. The king responds by bringing out two people sentenced to death. He releases one and kills the other in a rather gross attempt to make the point that he also brings life and death. Abraham refutes this claim by asserting that God brings the Sun out from the east, and so he asks the king to bring it from the west. The wicked king is then perplexed and angered.

This tale was evidently culled from a rich deposit of Jewish legend. First, it should be noted that according to the Hebrew Bible there is a gap of seven generations between them, Nimrod being Noah’s great grandson while Abraham was ten generations removed from Noah. Nevertheless, later Jewish tradition brings the two of them together in a cataclysmic collision, a potent symbol of the cosmic confrontation between Good and Evil, and specifically of monotheism against paganism and idolatry.

This tradition first appears in the writings of Pseudo-Philo, continues in the Talmud, passing through later rabbinical writings in the Middle Ages. In some versions, as in Josephus), Nimrod is a man who sets his will against that of God. In others, he proclaims himself a god and is worshiped as such by his subjects, sometimes with his consort Semiramis honored as a goddess at his side.

A celestial portent tells tells Nimrod and his astrologers of the impending birth of Abraham, who would put an end to idolatry. Nimrod therefore orders the killing of all newborn babies. However, Abraham's mother escapes into the fields and gives birth secretly (in some accounts, the baby Abraham is placed in a manger). At a young age Abraham recognizes God and starts worshiping Him. He confronts Nimrod, advising him face-to-face to cease his idolatry, whereupon Nimrod orders him burned at the stake. In some versions, Nimrod has his subjects gather wood for four whole years, so as to burn Abraham in the biggest bonfire the world had seen (a story possibly inspired or confused with Nimrod's building of the Tower of Babel). Yet once the fire is lit, Abraham walks out unscathed, recalling the escape of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three men from the fiery furnace (Daniel, chapter one).

Such are the Jewish legends which provided a quarry of sources for this and other Qur’an accounts of worthies of earlier times. Borrowings of this kind raise serious questions about the originality and authority of the Qur’an.

At all events, the well-known but non-canonical Qisas al-Anbiya (“Stories of the Prophets”) by Ibn Kathir records other purported details of Abraham’s life.

Abraham has an important role in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Abraham's footprint is displayed outside the Kaaba, where it is protected and guarded by the Saudi Arabian Mutawa (Religious Police). The annual Hajj, the fifth Pillar of Islam, ostensibly retraces Abraham's, Hagar's, and Ismail's journey to the sacred site of the Kaaba. Islamic tradition narrates that Abraham's subsequent visits, after leaving Ismail and Hagar to reside in Arabia, were not only to visit his son Ismail but also to construct the first house of worship for God in conjunction with the Kaaba in fulfillment of God's command.

A principal aspect of the Hajj is remembering God's test of Abraham where he was asked to sacrifice his first-born son Ismail. Also commemorated is his path to the altar where Iblis (the Devil) attempted to dissuade him three times. Those places where Satan appeared are marked with three symbolic pillars where pilgrims throw stones. Moreover a part of the Hajj is a commemoration of the sacrifice and efforts of Abraham’s wife Hagar to find water in the desert for her son Ismail, when he was near death with thirst. She ran between two hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwa, seven times in search of help. This ritual, known as Saaee in Arabic (which means seeking or searching), is mandatory for all pilgrims to Mecca. Finally, on Mount Marwa, Hagar saw the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) sheltering her son Ismail from the sun as a spring of water emerged from beneath his feet. That spring became the basis of founding the city of Mecca, since fresh water was scarce in that barren land. The water from the spring, known to Muslims as Zam Zam, is still running, as it has been for thousands of years, purportedly since this event took place.

The Qur'an states that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The son is not however named in the Qur'an (e.g., 37:102–113). Early Islamic days saw a dispute over the identity of the son. However, Some Muslim scholars came to endorse that it was Ismail but some others--notably Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, one of the first exegetes of the Qur’an--held that it was clearly Isaac and not Ishmael. Eventually, it was generally agreed that Ismail was the son whom God wished Abraham to sacrifice.

The whole episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial that Abraham had to face from God. As such it is celebrated by Muslims on the day of Eid al-Adha, or “festival of sacrifice.

The Qur’an also contains references to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Joseph, Nimrod, Moses, Jonah, and Lot, among others. Lot’s visit to Sodom and Gomorrah is pivotal for the Muslim condemnation of male homosexuality.


The figures of Mary (Miryam) and Jesus (Isa) loom large in the Qur’an, though they are not always in accord with what the New Testament conveys.

Mary's story is told in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-37, 2:1-21, and Qur'an 19.16-35. In Luke, Mary is betrothed to Joseph but the Qur'an never mentions any specific man. In the Qur'an, “her people” have a conversation with Mary accusing her of fornication.

In the Qur’an chapter named after Mary, verses 16-22, Allah states that “We sent unto her Our Spirit that presented himself to her a man without fault. She said 'I take refuge in the All-merciful from thee! If thou fearest God. . .' He said 'I am but a messenger come from the Lord to give thee a boy most pure. She said: 'How shall I have a son whom no mortal hath touched, neither have I been unchaste?' He said: Even so thy Lord has said: 'Easy is that for Me: and that We may appoint him a sign unto men and a mercy from Us: it is a thing decreed.'' (Arberry translation)

Jesus (Isa) appears several times in the Qur'an: in verses 35-59 of Sura 3: al-Imran (The Family of Imran), verses 156-158 of Sura 4: an Nisa' (The Women), verses 109-120 of Sura 5: al-Ma'idah (The Repast), verses 16-35 of Sura 19: Maryam (Mary), verse 50 of Sura 23: al-Mu'minun (The Believers) verses 57-65 of Sura 43: az-Zukhruf (The Gold Adornments); and in verses 6 and 14 of Sura 61: as-Saff (The Battle Array). Reference is made to him several more times.

Taken overall, the Qur'an’s account cannot compete in scope to that of the Gospels, but does proffer some specific nuggets--controversial as they are from the Christian point of view. Since Islam rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, his divinity is not affirmed. Jesus was not killed or crucified, and those who said he was crucified lied. He did not die, but ascended to Allah. At the Last Judgment Jesus will come forward to affirm the truth of Islam, and to reprove the Jews and Christians for believing in his death. (4:157-59)

In the Qur'an Jesus is said to have created a bird out of clay and blown life into it; and he is also said to have spoken as an infant in the cradle to defend his mother from the false accusations of fornication. These two stories are not found in the New Testament as we have it, but stem from the non-canonical Christian Infancy Gospels.


We have come full circle. As the curtain rises on the grand Abrahamic enterprise, one finds the Israelites ransacking the treasures of ancient Middle Eastern myth and legend. Much of their finery, if that is the correct term, is borrowed.

At the end of the tale, the birth of Islam is attended by multiple purloinings from Judaism and Christianity alike. With remarkable effrontery, the Qur’anic changes are passed off as “corrections” of corruptions that had allegedly crept in to mar the senior faiths. In a remarkable instance of projection, the corrupter claims to be engaged in a salutary effort to repair the corruption of others.

At the center of this web lie the epic fabrications that came to surround the life of a humble Palestinian rabbi.


Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005.

Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger, Jr. eds. The Context of Scripture. 3 vols. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003.

Noonan, John T. A Church That Can and Cannot Change. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Universit Press, 2005.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. Jesus in the Qur’an. Oxford: One World, 1995.

Price, Robert M. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Roth, Martha T. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; with a contribution by Harry A. Hoffner, Jr. Second ed. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997.