Stories Chosen For You
The historical record is so frayed, and so stitched together with obvious myth and legend, that Fitzgerald began wondering whether the man, Jesus, had ever actually existed. He soon discovered he was not alone. Were the stories about Jesus mythologized history (meaning that stories of a real person had mythic elements added over time—like Davie Crockett killing a bear when he was only three)? Or were they historicized mythology (meaning that legends of a mythic personage had historical details added as the stories were retold)? Ancient writings offer us plenty of both. Alexander the Great performed miracles. The three wise men of the Christmas story received names and biographies during the Middle Ages.
For generations now, academic Bible scholars have been gradually transferring bits of the gospel stories out of the History bucket and into the Mythology bucket. As inquiry tools have become more advanced, what we “know” about any historical Jesus has shrunk. The vast majority of relevant experts do think that a real person lies at the heart of the stories. If you want to understand why, read or listen to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman or James McGrath. But either way, we can be confident that biblical portraits of Jesus offer little clarity about whoever he may have been. The form of the gospels, their contents, internal contradictions and most likely dates of writing suggest that they are largely the stuff of legend.
That’s OK says Fitzgerald. As several scholars have pointed out, we don’t need to know who Jesus was or even whether he existed in order to better understand the emergence of Christianity. There are, as it turns out, patterns in how religions emerge, whether or not the iconic founder was a single flesh-and-blood person. These patterns have to do with cultural and technological evolution, which will be highlighted in Part 2 of this series.
But one key piece of the pattern is this: Most major religions have founders who are wrapped in layers and layers of obvious mythology—to the point that little of interest remains when the myths are peeled away. Christianity is far from unique when it comes to sketchy evidence about an ostensible founder who is now heralded as a prophet, god or demi-god. For centuries—or even millennia—religious teachings have pointed to great individuals, prophets, demi-gods, or supernatural beings as the source of divine revelation. But looking closely at these claims can be rather like holding cotton candy in the rain.
As Fitzgerald began to write and speak publicly about his doubts regarding Jesus, he was surprised to be contacted by Buddhists and former Muslims who informed him that they were having similar debates in their respective circles—arguments over whether the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, or the Prophet Muhammad, actually existed! As with Jesus, the vast majority of relevant experts assume that the stories of Muhammad are rooted in a real person. But even assuming these larger-than-life figures did once exist in the flesh, the doubts reflect how remarkably little about their lives or any direct roles they (rather than their legends) may have played in history.
Judaism – Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and other Old Testament Figures
Most non-Christians and non-fundamentalist Christians recognize stories like the Garden of Eden, Tower of Babel, and Noah’s Flood as sacred myths which sought to explain natural disasters or bolster moral rules or tribal identity. A devastating meteor strike may have inspired stories about Sodom and Gomorrah or the walls of Jericho (or then again, maybe not), but we lack archeological evidence for major Biblical stories including the conquest of Canaan and the flight from Egypt. We have nothing to back up stories of the Patriarchs from Abraham to Moses and Joshua.
Evidence on the ground fails to show any sign of Israel’s lauded monotheism until the better part of a millennium afterwards. Even then, archeology suggests that David and Solomon existed, but the grandeur of their fabled kingdoms and royal exploits likely did not. To modern eyes, the real David and his “united monarchy” might look like a bandit chieftain of a cow-town in the wild Judean hill country.
Daniel Lazare tells the story this way:
“Judah, the sole remaining Jewish outpost by the late eighth century B.C., was a small, out-of-the-way kingdom with little in the way of military or financial clout. Yet at some point its priests and rulers seem to have been seized with the idea that their national deity, now deemed to be nothing less than the king of the universe, was about to transform them into a great power. They set about creating an imperial past commensurate with such an empire, one that had the southern heroes of David and Solomon conquering the northern kingdom and making rival kings tremble throughout the known world. From a “henotheistic” cult in which Yahweh was worshiped as the chief god among many, they refashioned the national religion so that henceforth Yahweh would be worshiped to the exclusion of all other deities.”
Jewish history doesn’t start approaching historical reliability until centuries later, with well-corroborated events such as the Babylonian conquest and exile, and even the accounts from these and later periods show extensive bias from the scribal factions that wrote them. For instance, they demonize successful, long-lasting rulers such as Manasseh and the Omride dynasty (including the notorious queen Jezebel), while heaping praise on short-lived but pious failures like Josiah.
Islam – Muhammad
The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th century are well-established and undeniable—but the same is not true of the prophet who was the purported inspiration behind them. Before these military conquests, Arabia was a region of many different tribes, including urban merchants, nomadic Bedouin, and Jewish and Christian communities. The pagan Arabs worshipped hundreds of gods, including the three goddesses Al-Lat, Manat, and al-Uzza, mentioned in the notorious “Satanic Verses”of the Qur’an, and high gods like Hubaal and Allah. Features we associate with Islam, such as pilgrimages to the sacred Kaaba in Mecca (originally a thousand-year-old shrine to Hubaal), were important parts of the region’s religious life for centuries before the Muslim era.
According to tradition, it was the prophet Muhammad who united the Arabian tribes and wrote the Qur’an. But there are curious inconsistencies in the official story. Early mentions of Muhammad are oddly non-specific and, at least twice, are accompanied by a cross. The word Muhammad itself is not just a proper name, but an honorific title (“The Praised One”) —and it is possible it originally referred to Jesus, as pockets of Christianity were well established in the region. Crosses appear on some coins of this era and in some early ostensibly Muslim architecture.
Though orthodox Muslims believe Muhammad received the Qur’an directly from the archangel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic), as much as a third of the Qur’an appears not only to pre-date Muhammad, but to be derived from various earlier Syrian Christian liturgical writings.
According to the standard account, the Qur’an in its present form was distributed in the 650s— but in example after example of important correspondence and records, no one—neither Arabians, Christians nor Jews—ever mentions the Qur’an until the early eighth century.
During the early years of the Arab conquests, accounts by conquered peoples never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur’an. The Arab conquerors are called “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,” “Muhajirun,” “Hagarians” —but never “Muslims.” Approximately two generations after Muhammad’s official death date, the first references to Islam and “Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam” appear. Around the same time, Islamic beliefs begin to appear on coins and inscriptions, and certain common Muslim practices such as reciting from the Qur’an during mosque prayers begin.
But no record of Muhammad’s reported death in 632 appears until more than a century later. After the Abbasid dynasty supplants Abd al-Malik’s Umayyad line in the mid-8th century, the first complete biography of Muhammad finally appears and biographical material begins to proliferate (at least 125 years after his supposed death). The Abbasids also accuse their Umayyad predecessors of gross impiety, and Abbasids, Ummayyads and Shiites all write new hadiths against one another.
All these and still other inexplicable elements of early Islamic history suggest that, incredible as it seems, Islam and the Qur’an and the shape of Muhammad’s biography were results rather than causes of the Arabian conquests.
Buddhism – Buddha
Scholars are careful not to put too much confidence in any of the professed historical facts of the Buddha’s life. Trying to establish even a ballpark figure of when he lived with any degree of confidence has proven to be deeply problematic. Many scholars tend to place him around the 6th or 5th century BCE, but Tibetan Buddhist traditions put his death in the 9th century BCE (about 833 BCE), while the Eastern Buddhist traditions (China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan), believe he died over a century earlier than that (949 BCE). In any case, it was not until the early second century CE—or roughly half a millennium after Buddha’s life—that the first biography of Buddha was written in the form of an epic poem called the Buddhacarita.
According to tradition, the Buddha’s teachings were only transmitted orally for several centuries. By the time the earliest Buddhist scriptures were first written down, large numbers of rival Buddhist schools existed—each with their own competing collection of Buddha’s teachings. Virtually all of these have been lost, though some have been partially reconstructed through translations into Chinese, Korean, and Tibetan. However, our surviving and reconstructed canons differ from one another so greatly that scholars are unable to tell which, if any, represent the “original” or “authentic” Buddhist scriptures.
According to venerable tradition, the founder of Daoism, Laozi (aka Lao-Tze, Lao Tzu, Lao Dan, or “Old Master”) wrote his teachings in a short book named after him in the sixth or early fifth century BCE. Modern scholars disagree. Based on archaeological evidence, competing collections of sayings attributed to Laozi began to be written down probably from the second half of the fifth century BCE, grew, competed for attention, and gradually came to be consolidated over the following centuries until the Laozi probably reached a relatively stable form around the mid-3rd century BCE.
Nearly every fact about Laozi is in dispute, including the name Laozi itself. The most common biographical account of his life was recorded around 94 BCE in Sima Qian’s Shiji, (or “Records of the Grand Historian”). Scholars today take the Shiji with a grain of salt. According to Daoism scholar William Boltz, it “contains virtually nothing that is demonstrably factual; we are left no choice but to acknowledge the likely fictional nature of the traditional Lao tzu [Laozi] figure.”
Sikhism has only been around for about five hundred years, a Johnny-come-lately compared to most world religions. Its founder, Gurū Nānak, said to have lived c. 1469-1539, was the first of a line of ten founding gurus of the faith. Virtually everything known about him comes from Janamsakhis, or “birth-stories” of the life of Guru Nanak and his early companions. These miracle-laden tales are replete with supernatural characters and extraordinary events like conversations with fish and animals. They come in many versions, which often contradict each other, and in some cases have clearly been tinkered with to beef up the role of this or that disciple or advance the claim of some faction. Oddly, they don’t begin to appear until 50-80 years after his death, and many more come in during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.
Sikhs hold that The Guru Granth Sahib, their scripture, was composed predominantly by Nānak and the first six gurus (along with the poetry of thirteen Hindu Bhakti movement poets and two Sufi Muslim poets). However, the Adi Granth, its first rendition, was compiled by the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev (1564–1606) in 1604, generations after the faith’s supposed beginnings, and the final edition of Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, was not finished until a full century after that, in 1704.
Confucianism – Confucius
Confucius, or “Master Kong,” a.k.a. K’ung Fu-tzu, Kǒng Fūzǐ, etc., is said to be a 5th century BCE figure, though his earliest biography appears 400 years after his death. The Analects attributed to him was actually composed sometime during the Warring States period (476–221 BC) and reached its final form during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).
Jainism – Rishabhanatha
Jainism claims that Rishabhanatha, the first of its twenty-four founding Jain Tīrthaṅkara, meaning teachers, was born millions and millions of years BCE, lived for 8.2 million Purva years—one Pūrva (पूर्व) equals 8,400,000 years, squared, in Western reckoning—and was 4,950 ft. tall. Skipping forward a bit, in the 9th century BCE, their 23rd Tirthankar, Parshvanatha,is born. He is a mere 13 1/2 feet tall and lives for but 100 years.
Despite this impressive (some might say incredible) pedigree, observers could be forgiven for suspecting that the religion actually started with the 24th and final (and shortest) Tirthankar, Mahavira, supposedly born at the beginning of the 6th century BCE; the actual year varies from sect to sect. It’s difficult to say for certain, as tradition also holds that starting around 300 BCE, Mahavira’s teachings, transmitted orally by Jain monks, were gradually lost, and the first written versions did not arrive until about the 1st century CE—at least, according to one branch of Jainism, a fact disputed by rival factions.
Not all religions claim great men—or god-men—as founders. Shinto & Hinduism are two of the oldest religions still widely practiced. Historically, Hinduism is considered a fusion of multiple Indian cultures over millennia, while Shinto emerged from the beliefs and practices of prehistoric Japan. As such, there is no single founder figure of Hinduism or Shinto. Other religions, like Baháʼí and Mormonism have known founders, but we also have clear documentation of the ways in which they borrowed from and adapted earlier religions. Mirza Hoseyn ‘Ali Nuri, founder of Baháʼí, drew on Bábism, which is itself a spin-off of Shia Islam. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, amended and appended Christianity. Despite claims of divine inspiration or intervention, the natural history of these religions is pretty clear.
But as with other information sets that replicate and spread (for example: DNA, internet memes or culture), changes can accumulate in small or large increments, introduced gradually or in large chunks. As bits get handed down, people instinctively “correct” those that don’t make sense or are no longer acceptable before passing them on. If we strip away the founding stories and look at religions with a critical eye, some of these corrections become obvious.
Looking at the big picture, patterns emerge in this process, patterns that are shaped by cultural and technological evolution and the gradual accumulation of knowledge. And that is the topic of Part 2 in this series.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Republican Mike May this week filed what’s known as an election contest with the Texas secretary of state’s office, citing reports of scattered paper ballot shortages at “numerous” polling places on Election Day. May lost to incumbent Democrat Jon Rosenthal by more than 6,000 votes in his bid to represent House District 135 in the Houston area.
The secretary of state’s office on Tuesday delivered May’s petition to House Speaker Dade Phelan, who can refer the contest to a committee for investigation and appoint another member of the House as a “master” to oversee discovery and evidence related to the contested election. If they side with May and void the results, another election would be required to decide the district’s representative. The House can also toss the contest by declaring it “frivolous.”
Election Day issues once again pushed Harris County’s election officials back under scrutiny, including from the state’s Republican leadership. Voting in Harris County was extended by court order for an extra hour after about a dozen polling places were delayed in opening. The county’s elections administrator Clifford Tatum has also acknowledged issues with insufficient paper ballots at some polling places, though he said election staff was dispatched to deliver additional ballots.
The fumbles prompted a lawsuit by the Harris County GOP, which alleged voters were disenfranchised by the paper shortages. The Harris County district attorney has since launched an investigation into allegations of “irregularities.” The Texas Election Code includes criminal penalties for various violations, including illegal voting, the unsolicited distribution of mail-in ballot applications by local election officials and the failure to distribute election supplies.
In his petition, May argued the results of the election were not the “true outcome” because election officials “prevented eligible voters from voting.” May did not immediately return a request for comment.
On Friday, Rosenthal’s camp framed May’s election contest as part of a national trend to “deny the outcome of an election when you lose.”
“This race demonstrated one of the largest percentage point differences in Harris County, it wasn’t even close,” Rosenthal’s campaign manager, Bailey Stober, said in a statement. “The opposition presented himself and his positions and was rejected by voters overwhelmingly. That is how democracy works.”
The statement came soon after Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee criticized the contest as an effort to “call into question the 2022 election in Harris County and lay the groundwork to force a redo.”
It’s unclear how Phelan will handle the contest. His office declined to comment Friday. But Menefee said he was hopeful that Phelan would throw out the challenge.
“And I trust that he will ensure a fair process before impartial legislators, without interference from the state leaders and other elected officials who have a history of making baseless claims against Harris County elections,” Menefee said.
The House took on a similar exercise in 2011 following a challenge by Travis County Republican Dan Neil, who, after a recount, lost to state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, by 12 votes. The House eventually upheld Howard’s win. She remains in the Texas Legislature.
Up till then, the Legislature had seen 113 election contests since 1846, according to the Texas Legislative Council, an in-house legal and research arm of the Texas Legislature. The losing party, however, had not managed to turn the outcome of the election at least in the last 30 years. In the one case in which the House ordered a new election in 1981, the winner of the initial contest was again elected.
Harris County, the state’s largest, has in recent years been ground zero for partisan battles over election administration. Since losing control of the county, Republicans have regularly challenged new voting initiatives like the creation of countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place on Election Day as well as the county’s creation of an elections administrators office.
The county also drew the ire of state Republicans who, in sweeping legislation passed in 2021, banned initiatives it championed in the first major election during the pandemic — 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting. The county said those voting methods were disproportionately used by voters of color.
Harris County will already be the subject of a full post-election audit by the state. The secretary of state’s office previously selected the county for review as part of a new audit process put in place by the Republican legislation.
Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/02/texas-house-election-challenge/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.
GOP judges 'dragged Judge Cannon through the mud' — and upheld the law she flouted: Watergate prosecutor
On Friday's edition of MSNBC's "The ReidOut," former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks analyzed the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit's decision ending the special master review of documents seized by the FBI from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago country club in Palm Beach, Florida.
The decision was not just a blow to Trump, said Wine-Banks, but also to District Judge Aileen Cannon herself, a Trump appointee who went out on a limb to order the review against all precedent, only to be unanimously dismissed by a panel of three deeply conservative Republican-appointed judges, including two other Trump appointees.
"What did you make of that ruling?" asked anchor Joy Reid.
"Everything in the opinion — and it's a per curiam, which means all three judges agreed to everything in it, it's not signed by any one in particular. And that includes the Chief [Judge] of the Eleventh Circuit, Judge Pryor, who is from one of the most conservative backgrounds ever. All three are Republican appointees. And they all basically said the law is the law, and we are sticking with the law. They said none of the things that the judge did, Judge Cannon, have any relevance to the cases that we have ever seen before. And it would entitle every single person who has ever had a search to do the same thing, because we cannot carve out just for one person, a man named Donald Trump. He does not get anything special."
The decision, Wine-Banks concluded, was "really a victory for our system of justice, for the rule of law."
"It was a very well-written opinion," she said. "And it ... dragged Judge Cannon through the mud. It really slapped her down. At every opportunity they could, they just made it clear that she was completely off the mark."
Jill Wine-Banks says Republican judges "slapped down" Aileen Cannon www.youtube.com