“The age of Jesus was not an age of critical reflection…”

Kooks, quacks, lunatics, and con artists

It has been my depressing experience, a couple of times in recent years, to attend services at Catholic churches. Once for a funeral, once for a wedding. On both occasions—one for grief, one for joy—the Mass was celebrated: the theatre, the spectacle, of magic. Here were citizens of the modern world: they survive and thrive because they have a pretty good grasp of the realities of life. They know what to do to raise families, acquire cars and houses, pursue careers, plan vacations, and build portfolios for retirement. 


Their family entertainments commonly include Disney and superhero movies—and, of course, the Harry Potter adventures. These make-believe worlds are fun, because on-screen magic is fun. But why, in the world of church theatre, is the magic taken seriously? During both ceremonies I witnessed, members of the congregation approached the priest—in splendid theatrical costume—to receive a fragment of the body of their god: to eat their god. On some occasions they drink its blood as well.


How does it happen that group-think prevents these devout folks from seeing that this practice—come on, consuming flesh and blood of a human sacrifice—is revolting? It is a mark of magical thinking. Theologians have convinced pious folks that this ritual assures passage to eternal life, without noticing that this amounts to endorsement of magic potions: eat this, drink that, and you get to live forever. 


For Catholics this magical thinking is embedded in susceptible brains through First Communion—that occasion when kiddies are allowed to eat and drink Jesus for the first time. A few years ago I was present for one of those ceremonies as well—a church packed with parents and relatives to hear the priests proclaim the importance of this particular rite of passage. The church bureaucracy works so hard to preserve magical thinking that derives from superstitions of antiquity. 


I often refer to Christianity as the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult because it is now evident that it followed that pattern. Christ was the mystery the early Christians had been entrusted with. In Mark 4, Jesus tells his disciples—this is the Jesus-script created by the author of Mark’s gospel—that the secret/mystery of the kingdom of God is given to them; outsiders don’t have that privilege. The apostle Paul was confident about his preaching as well: “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (I Corinthians 2:6-7)


The authors of Colossians—there is disagreement among scholars if it was indeed Paul—assured his readers concerning people who hadn’t met him yet:


“I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.”   (Colossians 2:2-4)


Other ancient cults were just as confident that they were on the right track with their secrets, their own gods, and their rituals included sacred meals as well. Dying and rising gods were especially appealing, and the early Christian cult was eager to participate, as Richard Carrier has pointed out in his essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.


Other than rituals and sacred meals, how did Christianity seek to secure its foundation? What was a common tactic? We get a glimpse of this in Matthew 19:14, the famous Jesus script: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Childlike simplicity is welcome and encouraged. This is a strategy used by most religions: Accept the proffered doctrines as little children do; just believe what you’re told. No critical thinking skills are required or encouraged. Or as the author of Colossians put it: don’t be deceived by plausible arguments!


And in the ancient world plausible arguments probably wouldn’t have carried much weight anyway. The Carrier article that I just mentioned should be read in conjunction with another that he wrote, Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look Into the World of the Gospels. I have yet to meet a Christian who is genuinely, voraciously, interested in Christian origins. Oh, they think they know how Christianity got its start—without grasping that they’ve been fed, and accepted, the party line, which, on close inspection, makes no sense whatever: in the Old Testament a messiah was predicted in the distant future—why would a god wait hundreds of years to send a savior?—then along came Jesus whose story is presented in our four treasured gospels. But suspiciously, these documents collapse under close inspection: they fail to qualify as history. And any genuine study of Christian origins includes careful, critical study of gospel origins.


The context of Christianity’s appearance in the first century allows us to see how farfetched it is. Here are some crucial extracts from this Carrier article:


“We all have read the tales told of Jesus in the Gospels, but few people really have a good idea of their context. Yet it is quite enlightening to examine them against the background of the time and place in which they were written…


“There is abundant evidence that these were times replete with kooks and quacks of all varieties, from sincere lunatics to ingenious frauds, even innocent men mistaken for divine, and there was no end to the fools and loons who would follow and praise them. Placed in this context, the gospels no longer seem to be so remarkable, and this leads us to an important fact: when the Gospels were written, skeptics and informed or critical minds were a small minority.”


“…this essay is a warning and a standard, by which we can assess how likely or easily what we are told about Jesus may be false or exaggerated, and how little we can trust anyone who claims to be a witness of what he said and did.”


Carrier asks readers to consider, for example, Acts 28:6, which provides insight into prevailing gullibilities. The apostle Paul, after landing in Malta, while building a fire, found a viper clinging to his hand—which he shook off. This was the reaction of the locals who witnessed it: “They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.” God-gullibility is also illustrated by Acts 14:8-18, where we read that Paul, by voice command, had healed a man crippled from birth. Here the locals—in Lystra this time—were convinced that Paul and Barnabas were actually gods. They shouted, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes…”  (14:11-12)


In Acts 3 we read of the dramatic events of the day of Pentecost, when the holy spirit rushed upon a diverse crowd, enabling them to “speak in tongues,” and Peter rose to the occasion to speak the new cult’s party line about Jesus as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. The result? 


“So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  (Acts 2:41-42) Of course, we can recognize this as cult propaganda—written decades later, by the way. When we read Acts 2 today, we cannot be impressed. In fact, we can be depressed that three thousand people took Peter at his word: “Hey, what he says sounds pretty good! What the hell, let’s get baptized and join the cult.” No fact checking, no due diligence, no critical thinking applied to Peter’s claims.


In a major part of the essay, Carrier describes three other religious founders, Apollonius of Tysana, Peregrinus, and Alexander of Abonuteichos. Their stories illustrate how even the most bizarre beliefs can be embraced when people fail to apply critical thinking skills and “just believe.” Alexander was accepted as an intermediary on behalf of a “snake-god with a human head…born as an incarnation of Asclepius.” “With this arrangement,” Carrier points out, “Alexander gave oracles, offered intercessory prayers, and even began his own mystery religion.” 

So, such rampant superstitions were the context of Christianity’s birth. Carrier’s conclusion: 

“…the age of Jesus was not an age of critical reflection and remarkable religious acumen. It was an era filled with con artists, gullible believers, martyrs without a cause, and reputed miracles of every variety. In light of this picture, the tales of the Gospels do not seem very remarkable. Even if they were false in every detail, there is no evidence that they would have been disbelieved or rejected as absurd by many people, who at the time had little in the way of education or critical thinking skills.”  


“From this it is all the more apparent that religious crazes were a dime a dozen in the time and place of the Gospels, helping to explain why a new and strange religion like Christianity could become so popular, and its claims—which to us sound absurd—could be so readily believed.”  


…which to us sound absurd…  If Christians today could take off what Seth Andrews has called “their God-glasses,” they could see that making a big deal of kids being allowed to eat and drink Jesus for the first time is not only absurd but grotesque. This practice derives from one of the craziest texts in the New Testament, in which Jesus says (as scripted by the author of John’s gospel): “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them...so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:56-57)


Such ghoulish words came out of the ancient cult context in which Christianity arose. I would prefer a snake-god with a human head! A few months ago, here on this blog, I published an article titled, A Nightmare for Christians: The Origins of Their FaithThe more Christian origins have been studied, the messier the situation becomes: the more the nightmares pile on. We can see how much the New Testament absorbed from other religions; we can see how much the early Christians disagreed about Jesus—and that turmoil grew with the centuries.  But, of course, the laity haven’t tuned in to this, because delving into the ancient context requires genuine curiosity and study—far, far beyond what they’re exposed to from the pulpit, in Sunday School, and in approved Bible study guides. 


These two Carrier articles I’ve mentioned here: do you have a few Christian friends and family who are curious enough—actually brave enough—to read them?





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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