The God Who Wasn't There: an Analysis

Section 1: Misinformation

 

By: GakuseiDon

Last Updated: Feb 2007

 


In June 2005, Brian Flemming released a documentary DVD on the Jesus Myth, which is the idea that there is no historical person at the core of Christianity. Flemming proposes that Christ was in fact a being that died and resurrected on a mythical plane, sharing similarities with other saviour godmen of the day, like Mithras, Dionysus and Osiris. 

 

This is an analysis of the data that he presents in his documentary. I find that he presents inaccurate information as fact, and provide evidence to that effect. I conclude that, whatever the validity of the subject, Flemming's documentary should be viewed for entertainment purposes rather than education. I strongly urge anyone interested in this topic to follow up on some of these points for themselves, rather than take my word or Flemming's word for it. 

 


 

Introduction

 

Section 1: Misinformation: Errors in the movie

1.1 Check everything!

1.2 Previous Saviour Figures

1.3 Beddru - the TRUE God Who Wasn't There

1.4 Kill, Christ, kill! Luke 19:27

1.5 That darn Orpheus amulet

1.6 Conclusion

Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say?

 

Section 3: Paul and early Christianity

 

Section 4: Jesus Myth overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 


Introduction

 

Flemming's documentary The God who wasn't there certainly stirred up some debate on the Internet. I'm a moderate Christian who has debated many of the points raised in the movie, so I am reasonably familiar with them. I am not a scholar, and have an amateur's interest in the topic.

 

This article is not intended to be a review of the movie. Rather, it is a look at the evidence that Flemming presents in his documentary. I don't look at the extended interviews included in the DVD in this analysis.

 

I personally found the movie fascinating. Flemming has managed to assemble many of the more popular pieces of misinformation available on the internet, while at the same time interviewing noted experts in the field who would probably have been able to correct him on a lot of that misinformation if he'd asked them. 

 

Personally, I would have liked to have seen more on the influence on the Religious Right. And I don't think that anyone could see his interview with the Principal of his old school, Dr Sipus, without feeling some sympathy for the Principal. Still, I would have liked to have seen more on education issues in religious schools (I note with some distress the rise in pressure to have Intelligent Design introduced into science classes in the USA). 

 

In the end, the movie comes across as part Michael Moore and part "They faked the Moon landings!" conspiracy whacko-ness.

 

I've never tried to give references to a movie before. When I refer to information in the documentary, I will give a time reference for when that information is presented on the screen in square brackets, e.g. "[10:10]" means "10 minutes and 10 seconds into the movie". All times are approximations. 

 

I urge anyone reading this analysis to not take my word for anything. I am a Christian - a moderate Christian even! (Anyone who watched the movie will know that we are EVIL... E-V-I-L!!!) So I may be lying, deluded or trying to trick you for baby Jesus. 

 

For those who are interested in this topic, I hope this article will encourage you to spend time checking these things out for yourself. And if you aren't interested, what are you doing wasting time reading this tripe??? Spend some time with the wife and kids, already!

 


Section 1: Misinformation

 

1.1 Check everything!

 

There is a statement by Richard Carrier in the documentary that is worth highlighting. Carrier is a historian who believes that there is some validity to the Jesus Myth. He is referring to Christians in the following quote, but I'd like to suggest that it is sound advice for us all. He says:

"You have someone make up a fake quote, or misrepresent a document, misrepresent the evidence. [Readers] assume: "This guy wouldn't lie. He wouldn't have made this stuff up." And so they go and repeat it. And so you get the lie repeated many times mostly by people who aren't lying - they really do think it's true. They just didn't check." [37:40] 

Too many people on both sides of the Jesus Myth debate have the same problem: they don't check their facts.

 

Some people will make ridiculous claims like "there is more evidence for Jesus than there is for Julius Caesar!" Well, there may be more artifacts, but quantity doesn't make for quality. In fact, there is very little evidence for a historical Jesus. Questioning his historicity is, in my view, a valid line of enquiry.

 

On the other hand, others repeat the claim that there were many virgin-born, crucified and resurrected saviour godmen in ancient times. But too often they are relying on poor and/or outdated scholarship. And even if proven wrong on a particular point, they will then claim "But there is so much more information around". And indeed there is. The question then becomes, do they then go on to check the other pieces of information?

 

And that is the problem that needs highlighting. There is too much misinformation out there now, too many people making claims that get repeated uncritically from website to website, and which Flemming's documentary has recycled.

 

If there is one thing that debating this issue has taught me, it is: always check primary sources. Ask for them. Demand them. Don't let the other side make claims without them! 

 

That's not to say that some Jesus Mythers don't work with primary sources. Like any controversial field, there is a wide range of scholarship on the subject, which I will discuss further in Section 4: Jesus Myth overview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Acharya S and Tom Harpur represent the more - shall we say - "creative" end of research in this field. Freke and Gandy's "Jesus Mysteries" is just plain bad. However, G.A. Wells and Earl Doherty have presented coherent cases that deserve to be investigated seriously, since they tend to deal with primary sources and accepted scholarship. Earl unfortunately doesn't appear in the main movie, though there is an extended interview with him on the DVD.

 

Flemming doesn't provide many references to the information he presents. This is understandable, and is a limitation of the media, so I don't fault him for this. However, this lays a greater burden on Flemming to "get the facts right" in the documentary. While Flemming interviews noted experts such as Robert Price, Alan Dundes (who sadly passed away recently) and Richard Carrier, it appears that he didn't spend much time checking his information with them. It is a curious lack, since Flemming no doubt respects them as disinterested parties. Carrier, certainly, would have been able to correct him on some points. 

 

Flemming appears to have accepted many of the Jesus Myth claims, despite the availability of noted experts like Richard Carrier. For example, Flemming is on record as saying that there probably was no Nazareth in Christ's time, while Carrier is on record as saying that the current evidence almost certainly suggests that there was. I am surprised that Flemming appears to have done little verification with actual scholars like Carrier, especially given that one of his main charges is that Christians don't look into the claims that they have accepted. 

 

I will make references to on-line primary sources wherever I can, so that interested parties can check the claims being made. Often it takes just a matter of minutes on the Internet to verify a claim. Other claims may take longer to verify, but it is often worthwhile doing so.

 


 

1.2 Previous Saviour Figures 

 

Flemming produces a list of some of the attributes of previous saviour figures [22:15]: 

 

Born of a virgin on December 25

Stars Appeared at Their Births

Visited by Magi from the East

Turned Water into Wine

Healed the Sick

Cast out Demons

Performed Miracles

Transfigured Before Followers

Rode Donkeys into the City

Betrayed for 30 Pieces of Silver

Celebrated Communal Meal with Bread and Wine, 

Which Represented the Saviorís Flesh and Blood

Killed on a Cross or Tree

Descended into Hell

Resurrected on Third Day

Ascended into Heaven

To Forever Sit beside Father God And Become Divine Judge

 

The old argument of "how close does a parallel have to be before it becomes a parallel?" often rears its head in these types of debates. Often these lists are constructed to sound as similar to Christianity as possible. My rule of thumb is that if someone claims that one or more godmen were "born of a virgin on December 25", then that is what they should show. They can't then turn around and say "Oh, I mean 'born miraculously'". If that is the case, then why not just state that in the first place?

 

With that in mind, let's go through that list again, and I will add the names of saviour gods that Flemming later lists that match the criteria. Again, I urge you NOT to take my word for it, but to investigate these things for yourself. Remember, if you want to quibble about wording, I am going with what Flemming presented. If someone wants to create their own revised list with more general parallels, then they are welcome to do that. (Though it goes without saying that the more general the parallel, the less surprising the match.)

 

Born of a virgin on December 25 - None. And according to the Gospels, not even Christ. Mithras was formed from a rock on Dec 25, but this date doesn't appear to predate Christ.

Stars Appeared at Their Births - Krishna

Visited by Magi from the East - None

Turned Water into Wine - I'll put Dionysus here, though there is no myth where he does it himself. In one story, empty jugs left in a Dionysus Temple miraculously fill with wine overnight. In another story, a devotee causes a spring of wine to appear. In neither case is "water turned into wine" -- wine only gets created. (Again for those who want to quibble: I am going with the wording presented. I suspect "turned water into wine" is worded that way to bring up the image of Christ personally performing that miracle. Why not just say "Wine gets miraculously created", which would be a match?)

Healed the Sick - Asclepius, a few others, especially when believers prayed to them after they ascended to heaven.

Cast out Demons - Krishna, Buddha

Performed Miracles - Several 

Transfigured Before Followers - None.

Rode Donkeys into the City - None. Dionysus is depicted riding on a mule, though not into a city. (What? Close enough, you say? Then why not say "Rode a beast of burden to some place for some reason"? Then it would be a match)  

Betrayed for 30 Pieces of Silver - None (though I've heard this is true of Socrates)

Celebrated Communal Meal with Bread and Wine - Mithras 

Which (Celebrated Communal Meal) Represented the Saviorís Flesh and Blood - None

Killed on a Cross or Tree - None

Descended into Hell - Dionysus

Resurrected on Third Day - Attis (though the evidence for this doesn't appear to predate Christ)

Ascended into Heaven - Lots! (Not sure where else gods are supposed to go)

To Forever Sit beside Father God And Become Divine Judge - None (Osiris and Mithras do become judges, though don't sit beside a Father God)

 

As you can see, nearly all categories are pretty poorly represented by the gods Flemming lists in that part of the movie. Given that there were thousands of gods in ancient times, there are probably a few more that might make one or two categories. But the laws of probability are hardly being strained.

 

Richard Carrier, as part of his review of a "Christ Myth" book (see "1.3 Beddru - the TRUE God Who Wasn't There" below) makes this point:

Although I have not exhaustively investigated this matter, I have confirmed only two real "resurrected" deities with some uncanny similarity to Jesus which are actually reported before Christian times, Zalmoxis and Inanna, neither of which is mentioned by Graves or John G. Jackson (another Gravesian author--though both mention Tammuz, for whom Inanna was mistaken in their day). This is apart from the obvious pre-Christian myths of Demeter, Dionysos, Persephone, Castor and Pollux, Isis and Osiris, and Cybele and Attis, which do indeed carry a theme of metaphorical resurrection, usually in the terms of a return or escape from the Underworld, explaining the shifting seasons. But these myths are not quite the same thing as a pre-Christian passion story. It only goes to show the pervasiveness in antiquity of an agricultural resurrection theme, and the Jesus story has more to it than that, although the cultural influence can certainly be acknowledged.

There is no doubt that early Christianity was influenced by Hellenistic thinking, both directly from pagans and via a Hellenised Judaism. Investigating the influence is a legitimate line of enquiry, and I certainly don't want to dispute that.

 

However, the parallels listed in this section of his documentary are basically 'urban myths' that have been spread around the internet without critical analysis. I have no doubt that Flemming took them on good faith. After all, who would lie about this stuff?

 

But maybe I would. I am a Christian, after all. So don't take my word for it. I urge everyone to look into this for yourselves. And always ask for PRIMARY SOURCES!

 


 

1.3 Beddru - the TRUE God Who Wasn't There.

 

As background to the above piece, Flemming produces a list of gods, presumably sharing in the list of those attributes [21:50]. The list contains the following names:

 

Zoroaster

Thor

Tammuz 

Osiris

Orpheus

Mithras

Krishna

Horus

Hercules 

Dionysus 

Deva tat

Beddru

Balder

Bacchus 

Baal 

Attis

Adonis

 

As I've already suggested, most of these gods share few of the attributes that Flemming lists in his documentary. I urge anyone interested to check this out for themselves. Check with mythology sites, and where possible, those that list PRIMARY sources. Let me repeat Carrier's wise comment again:

"You have someone make up a fake quote, or misrepresent a document, misrepresent the evidence. [Readers] assume: "This guy wouldn't lie. He wouldn't have made this stuff up." And so they go and repeat it. And so you get the lie repeated many times mostly by people who aren't lying - they really do think it's true. They just didn't check."

Some of those gods are interesting inclusions. I urge you to look over the list again. Thor shares attributes with Christ? THOR??? Where does Flemming get this from??? Baal is also an interesting inclusion. But by far the most interesting gods on the list are Beddru and Deva tat.

 

"Deva tat of Siam" appears to be the name of Buddha in Thailand. So we have two names on his list, both apparently being Buddha.

 

"Beddru" has an interesting history. He was first listed by Kersey Graves' "The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors" as "Beddru of Japan". Graves was a 19th C writer whose claims about "crucified godmen" have been used by Jesus Mythers for over a hundred years. As far as I know, he is the origin for the "Beddru" myth that Flemming propagates. 

 

Outside Graves, Beddru is unknown: the TRUE God who wasn't there. But even Graves has him as "Beddru of Japan". Even if he took Graves at his word, does Flemming really think that Christians 2000 years ago were influenced by myths from Japan?

 

Now, recently Acharya floated the idea that "Beddru" was a typo, and that Graves meant "Beddou", another name for Buddha. But that would give THREE Buddhas on Flemming's list. And even if true, how does "Beddou of Japan" make sense? Wasn't Buddha born in India? It would be like saying that the Anglican Church believed in "Jesus of England".

 

Without any surprise at all, I saw Flemming linking to Acharya's "explanation" about Beddru being "Buddha of Japan". Again, Flemming appears to show no interesting in validating any of this information.

 

So you have to ask: where the heck is Flemming getting this information??? It certainly isn't from primary sources. Why is he using disreputable 19th Century works? Even more surprising, since Flemming obviously has interviewed Carrier several times, why didn't he ask Carrier about "Beddru/Beddou of Japan" and "Deva tat of Siam"? Did Flemming even TRY to look into these gods for himself?

 

As an aside: Richard Carrier has a good review of Graves' work here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/graves.html. He writes:

Most scholars immediately recognize many of his findings as unsupported and dismiss Graves as useless...  In general, even when the evidence is real, it often only appears many years after Christianity began, and thus might be evidence of diffusion in the other direction. Another typical problem is that Graves draws far too much from what often amounts to rather vague evidence.

Carrier also discusses some parallels between Christ and other early gods. I urge everyone to read his review of Graves. It highlights the dangers of using materials that don't list primary sources.

 

Graves' book is available on the Infidel's website here: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/kersey_graves/16/

 

But perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe Thor does share many of those attributes that Flemming lists in his movie. So don't take my word for it. I urge everyone to look into this for yourselves. And always ask for PRIMARY SOURCES!

 


 

1.4 Kill, Christ, kill! Luke 19:27

 

One of Flemming's targets is the hate-mongering used by the Religious Right in the USA. I have no problems with this, and in fact, it would have been nice to see him expand on this subject. (Perhaps this could be a follow-up documentary for Flemming?). But he then uses an often-repeated quote from the Bible on a background panel [32:05]: 

"Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them - bring them here and kill them in front of me."
- Jesus (Luke 19:27) 

Devoid of context, it certainly sounds like Christ is asking his followers to kill his enemies for him. But in fact, this is part of a parable. A nobleman in the parable is speaking - they are not Christ's instructions to his followers:

Luke 19:11 ... He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. 
12 Therefore He said: "A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. 
13 So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten *minas, and said to them, 'Do business till I come.'
14 But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, 'We will not have this man to reign over us.'
15 "And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading.

... 
24 "And he said to those who stood by, 'Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.' 
25 (But they said to him, 'Master, he has ten minas.') 
26 'For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 
27 But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.'"

Usually this objection is met by stating that Christ shouldn't be using such violent imagery at all, or that the end times will be violent anyway. Yes, perhaps. But that is certainly no excuse for attributing the quote to Christ without noting that it is part of a parable, instead of a command that Christ is issuing. 

 

Again, I urge you to check this out for yourself.

 


 

1.5 That darn Orpheus amulet

 

A couple of times throughout the documentary, Flemming includes an image purporting to show a "crucified Orpheus" [e.g. 23:30]. This rather infamous image was popularized by Freke and Gandy in their book, "The Jesus Mysteries". They claimed that it represented an amulet displaying a crucified Orpheus. The amulet apparently dated to around 300 CE (that is, AFTER Christ).

 

Freke and Gandy sourced the image from Guthrie W K C, "Orpheus and Greek Religion" Princeton University Press, 1952. Unfortunately for Freke and Gandy, Guthrie declares on p. 278 that experts believe that the amulet is a forgery. That Freke and Gandy didn't indicate this in their book is, in my opinion, a very black mark indeed. That Flemming reproduces it is more understandable. After all, why would those guys lie about something like that?

 

To be fair, Flemming doesn't discuss the image, and only appears to be using it as an icon on a time-line graphic to (presumably) indicate Orpheus lived around 500 BCE. Still, you have to wonder why he uses this image. If he thinks it genuine, why not discuss it further? It is often presented as strong evidence for the Jesus Myth on uncritical websites. On the other hand, if he knows that it is a fraud, why make use of it at all? It can only deceive people.

 

I will note Carrier's comment again:

"You have someone make up a fake quote, or misrepresent a document, misrepresent the evidence. [Readers] assume: "This guy wouldn't lie. He wouldn't have made this stuff up." And so they go and repeat it. And so you get the lie repeated many times mostly by people who aren't lying - they really do think it's true. They just didn't check."

Guthrie's book can be searched on-line on the Amazon link given above. I urge people to check this out for themselves.

 


 

1.6 Conclusion

 

Flemming appears to have uncritically accepted a lot of the claims that can be found on many Jesus Myth websites. I have to point out the irony here: Flemming interviews Christians on the street on whether they know about Dionysus, Mithras and Osiris, decrying their lack of knowledge. But I have to wonder at his own understanding on these topics. His use of disputed sources suggests that it may not be as high as he believes.

 

I sincerely hope that Flemming is motivated to examine these things for himself, instead of relying on fringe ideas coming out of the 19th Century. A good place to start would be to set up another interview with Richard Carrier.

 

I'd like to stress that I'm not saying the Jesus Myth shouldn't be taken seriously. But I see Flemming's documentary as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. The dissemination of misinformation (on both sides) is a serious hindrance to debate on any controversial topic. 

 

But don't take my word... ah well, you know the rest.

 


 

End of Section 1. 

 

Go to:  Section 2: Justin Martyr: What does he REALLY say?


 

Back to the Top


Last update Feb-2007: Some reformatting