CNN’s annual “Bash Christianity on Easter” story is crazier than usual.
This year, they ran an article entitled The Jesus Debate: Man vs. Myth. On one side were John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman, who deny the physical Resurrection. On the other side, are folks like (self-proclaimed “spiritual pioneer”) Timothy Freke who go even further, and deny that Jesus even existed. They don’t just deny Easter, they deny Christmas.
|Raphael, The Resurrection of Christ (1502)|
That’s right: the Resurrection-denying side was the closest thing to orthodoxy in this debate, at least for the first forty paragraphs (literally). Around the forty-seventh paragraph, they finally quote Prof. Craig A. Evans, who explains that Jesus of Nazareth existed. He is literally the first and only Christian source quoted. And the only thing they use Evans for is to provide some quotes saying that Jesus exists — you wouldn’t be able to tell from the context whether or not Evans even believes in the Resurrection.
So CNN’s idea of a balanced article commemorating Easter is to depict the debate as between those who deny the Resurrection and those who deny the entirety of the Gospels. It’s hard to know what to describe this as, if not flagrant bias, particularly when it’s coupled by this sort of editorializing:
Those who argue against the existence of Jesus say they aren’t trying to destroy people’s faith.
“I don’t have any desire to upset people,” says Freke. “I do have a passion for the truth. … I don’t think rational people in the 20th century can go down a road just on blind faith.”
Yet Easter was never just about rationale.
The Easter stories about the resurrection are strange: Disciples don’t recognize Jesus as they meet him on the road; he tells someone not to touch him; he eats fish in another.
Those last two paragraphs are apparently from the reporter (CNN writer John Blake) himself, explaining that since we believers don’t really care about things like reason, we can still cling to our faith.
|Lorenzo Costa, The Holy Family (1490)|
I could sort of understand this false balance if the scholarly debate really was split between those two Easter-denying camps. But that’s not the case at all. Professor Evans describes the state of academia in his book, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (p. 220):
Not long ago Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ created a sensation by presenting in new form the odd notion that Jesus did not exist. I say odd because almost no serious academic – of any ideological, religious or nonreligious stripe – doubts that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived some time in the first century and was crucified by order of Pontious Pilate, governor of Judea. The evidence for the existence of Jesus – literary, archaeological and circumstantial – is overwhelming.
The agnostic Bart Ehrman is even more blunt. CNN reports his reaction this way:
Most Jesus deniers are Internet kooks, says Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who recently released a book devoted to the question called “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”
That is, almost every scholar acknowledges that Jesus existed, and the debate is over whether or not He rose from the dead. But CNN wants to recast it so that every scholar accepts that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and the debate is over whether or not He even existed.
They go digging through the dregs pretty far to find someone who will say this, too. In a follow-up post, they described the article as a “story on a small cadre of authors challenging the existence of Jesus Christ.” So CNN sought out, not “scholars,” not “experts,” but “a small cadre” of “authors,” just to find somebody who would deny that Jesus existed.
Don’t get me wrong: plenty of folks outside of academia have had invaluable insights into the Gospels. But shouldn’t we expect to find some sort of expertise from the folks that CNN dug up?
Instead, we get another regurgitation of the long-discredited idea that the Gospels are just a retelling of pagan myths. No one who has actually read the Gospels and the pagan myths in question could seriously claim this, and I’ve previously criticized the sloppy methodology behind these claims, showing that they could just as easily “prove” that Gandhi didn’t exist.
But let’s look at the specific “evidence” that gets trotted out for the CNN piece. The article opens by talking about how Freke decided Jesus didn’t exist after reading an old book with a picture of “a drawing of a third-century amulet” of “Osiris-Dionysus, a pagan god in ancient Mediterranean culture” on a cross in a very Christological manner.
|The drawing that allegedly
It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, the drawing in question (depicted on the left) doesn’t claim to be of “Osiris-Dionysus” but of “Orpheus” and Dionysus (also known as Bacchus). This mistake is embarrassing, since the drawing has ΟΡΦΕΟΣ ΒΑΚΚΙΚΟΣ (Orpheus Bacchus) written on it.
And “Osiris-Dionysus” wasn’t “a pagan god in ancient Mediterranean culture.” These were two separate gods from different cultures. Osiris was the Egyptian god of the dead, and Dionysus was the Greek god of wine. And Orpheus wasn’t another name for Osiris or Dionysus, or any other god, for that matter. Rather, it’s the name of a mythical Greek prophet and storyteller. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was killed by Dionysus. So the idea that Osiris, Orpheus, and Dionysus are all one god is off to a … rocky start, to say the least.
There’s also the fact that the now-lost amulet was almost certainly a forgery. The German epigrapher Otto Kern, who initially promoted the amulet as authentic, recanted in the face of the evidence, a fact that Freke’s coauthor Peter Gandy has acknowledged. In Kern’s words, the amulet “is almost certainly a fake.” For example, the bent knees in the depiction of the Crucifixion is characteristic of later Medieval art, not art from late antiquity. But since the only evidence of the amulet’s existence is the line drawing, it’s impossible to know for sure.
So let’s overlook all of that for a moment. Assume that the amulet was authentic, and that it actually did depict Dionysus (or Osiris, or Orpheus, or “Osiris-Dionysus”) in a very Christ-like pose. What does this prove, exactly? By Kerns’ own telling, the amulet is supposed to be from the third century A.D.
Did time-travelling Christians steal this image to construct the story of Jesus? Because the Crucifixion of Christ was a pretty central part of Christianity from the first century. You might as well point to Kanye West’s obnoxious Rolling Stone cover as proof that the Gospels were based off of rap music.
|Theophanes the Cretan,
Justin the Philosopher (1546)
Perhaps a more lucid conclusion from those facts would be that later Christological depictions of Messianic pretenders (from pagan gods to Kanye West) are modeled off of a very Christian understanding of what a Messiah looks like. That is, even a pagan living in the Christianized West hears “Messiah” and thinks of Jesus, and it’s natural that art should reflect this.
In fact, we know from St. Justin Martyr’s writings (c. 180 A.D.) that the pagans didn’t have crucified depictions of their gods:
But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically.
And he says this exactly one chapter after he lists Bacchus as one of the sons of Jupiter. So the idea that Bacchus was depicted as crucified, prior to Christ, is directly contradicted by the only evidence that we have.
Let me emphasize something here: this amulet is at the heart of Freke’s argument. I didn’t just choose Freke’s stupidest argument. Rather, this is how the CNN article opens, and Freke and Gandy acutally put a computer enhanced (read: “doctored”) version of the amulet drawing as the cover of their own book.
Given all of this, Freke’s amulet argument is laughably weak. It’s probably fake, and even if it were real, it doesn’t remotely prove what Freke and the others are claiming (and goes directly against uncontroverted second-century evidence).
As is hopefully clear, this was worse than a puff piece. This was part of a recurring trend: that each year at Easter, CNN runs stories hostile to orthodox Christianity, and often doesn’t bother checking even basic facts.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that CNN’s article would be roughly equivalent to a mainstream news source deciding on the anniversary of V-E Day to run an article sympathetic to Holocaust deniers. In both cases, we’re dealing with conspiratorial nuts without regard for evidence. And in both cases, it would be incredibly tactless for a paper to run that sort of frontal assault at that particular time. But as BBC director-general Mark Thompson has admitted (and defended), it’s common practice to treat Christianity much more harshly than religions like Judaism or Islam.
I’m not suggesting that Christianity (or any religion) be treated with kid gloves. As Christians, we make truth claims, and I would love a spirited dialogue over the reliability of those claims. But this trend of exploiting Christian religious holidays to spread bilious nonsense under the guise of critical scholarship is the opposite of the role that the media should be playing.