Easter War on Information Literacy

Easter War on Information Literacy April 17, 2014

It is always particularly disappointing when those who classify themselves as freethinkers and skeptics share nonsense. This image is making the rounds again in precisely those circles:

Candida Moss has a great article on what is problematic both with such claims about Easter being borrowed/stolen in this way, and with the reverse, namely Christian claims that everything about Easter is unique, unprecedented, and unparalleled.

The gullibility that allows one to fall for a meme like the one above without fact checking is characteristic of mythicism. Harry McCall posted (and since it wasn’t April 1st, I genuinely think he meant it to be taken seriously) that we have evidence of dinosaurs existing 66 million years ago, but no solid evidence of Jesus existing a mere two thousand years ago.

Can he really think that that is a serious argument? How many specific people do we have hard evidence of from 2,000 years ago? How can he think that evidence for the existence of a category of organism is comparable to evidence for a single individual? Is he not aware of how many species must have existed even though we lack solid information for them? Is he not aware of how rarely we have solid evidence for anyone other than the wealthy upper echelons of the society of the ancient world? Is he not aware that simply setting aside texts as evidence ought to mean discounting inscriptions, which would deprive us of clear evidence about any single specific individual?

Easter is a season when critical thinking and information literacy are frequently discarded, both by Christians who use illogical and unpersuasive arguments that they claim can prove the resurrection, and by opponents of Christianity who think that any anti-Christian claim ought to be given credence merely because it is saying something uncomplimentary about Christianity.

I hope that those who consider accuracy important will use the opportunity of Easter to spread the good news that being part of a community – religious, areligious, or anti-religious – need not mean falling for tricks and deceptions.


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  • J.P.

    Most of times, freethought and skepticism are mere covers to be intelectually dishonest to sustain whatever claim that fits with an ideological position. I always mistrust people who label themselves in such way.

    • Tim

      Yep, it’s really just contrarian thinking; but as a label that’s not as impressive .

  • CTimeline

    I’m fed up of hearing this nonsense “but there are no contemporary sources for Jesus!”. Just last week a popular U.K. comedian on his podcast raised this point as a reason why he thinks Jesus did not exist. That article however by McCall is probably one of the worst pieces of misinformation/skeptical hype that I have read for a while. I mean seriously… Dont get me start on his mentioning of Philo, but doesn’t this “skeptic” know that we have almost nothing written from the time about dozens of Roman Emperors who ruled one of the largest and most literate societies pre-enlightenment Europe. That we only hear of great generals, such as Scipio, decades after the event. Perhaps we might suggest that he didn”t exist too?

    Great philosophers who mingled with Emperors, politicians and business men, who would have had infinitely more influence (and connections with literate people) than the itinerant failed messiah figure Jesus in rural Palestine with twelve regular followers! How much do we know of them from the time of their lives? Practically nothing. People like the founders of Stoicism and Epicureanism; their writings were part of every educated Romans’ libraries and had followers (like Christianity) in every major city. So there must be thousands of copies of their writings? No. Apart from three letters of Epicurus almost nothing. Alexander the Great who conquered the whole known world. Well, we must have thousands of reports about him from Nope. We can fit it on about half a page of A4.

    Read Professor Robert Garland’s “Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens” and Graham Anderon’s “Sage, Saint and Sophist: Holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire”, try to note down in a word document how close the extant records we have for apparently well-known people in antiquity (including actors, philosophers, religious charismatics etc”) are. All are pretty much written about decades, even hundreds of years after their lives, and are almost always only referenced in one solitary source. Look at the Jewish historian Josephus’ works. He lists many Jewish leaders who were equal to Jesus in fame. Who else records them? No one, just Josephus. So perhaps they all are made up? We just do not get multiple records of people close to their time (apart from some notable politicians)!

    One interesting exercise to show how ancient fame vis-a-vis ancient literary records works is to compare Jesus with Cato the Younger. Cato was probably the most famous person by the time of Christ. We even have two classical authors saying they are fed up having with having stories of his live being constantly recollected by everyone. Now how many biographies of his life now exist? One; by Plutarch who wrote it over a hundred years later!

    “Skeptics” like McCall need to study ancient history before trying to comment on it. Other than that their blind distaste for Christianity will just lead them to make ridiculous comments and spread ignorance. Although i’m sure their audience will lap it up, cheer then on, share it hundreds of times on facebook, and even give them their money (as Christians often to with amateur Christian apologists).

    • Who was the comedian, out of interest?

      • CTimeline

        Rufus Hound

    • I’m in agreement with you about mythicism, but you have gone way too far in the other direction in comparing Jesus to Cato the Younger.

      Plutarch may have written the most well-known “biography” of Cato the Younger, but there are multiple accounts of Cato written during his own lifetime by men who knew him personally. For example, Julius Caesar discusses Cato briefly in his Bellum Civile, and Cicero reported meeting Cato in a library and discussing philosophy with him in his De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum. Sallust is also a contemporary source for information on Cato (particularly a comparison between Cato and Caesar) in his Conspiracy of Catiline.

      These are not the only contemporary written references to Cato, and beyond writings, we have contemporary coins and pottery that bear his inscribed name and even his profile.

      By comparison, there are no writings about Jesus during his lifetime. I don’t think that means he doesn’t exist, of course, though I’m sure that the gospel accounts take huge liberties in telling his story. Plutarch also took liberties in his biographies, but he, at least, often cited his sources of information.

      But in terms of contemporary accounts, we have them for Cato the Younger (several quite interesting accounts). We have no contemporary accounts of Jesus.

      • CTimeline

        beau- I know this, which was why I was quite careful to say “biography” and not “accounts”. I am quite familiar with Cicero and Julius Caesar’s descriptions of him, so this is not news to me. I also never averred that the situation was comparable to the sources of Jesus- so you have critiqued something that was never argued. As I said, my point relates to “how ancient fame vis-a-vis ancient literary records works”. That Cato was famous, that there was a cottage industry in producing accounts of his life, yet despite the apparent wide provision of these of only one of them has reached us which was written over a hundred years after his life!

        The obvious point being that the records of Jesus are not, in any way, suspicious, despite the way that McCall has dressed it up. Indeed, the first reference to Jesus (73 A.D. from Mara bar Serapion) is remarkably close for a classical figure. (Incidentally: the type of primary material we DO receive about Cato is evidently not comparable for understanding the sources for Jesus- unless you think that he was intimately connected with politicians, and whose letters are extant, or he was likely to have coins minted bearing his image.)

        • Well, I would agree that most ancient documents don’t survive, and there’s no reason to expect any contemporary records to survive of a 1st century apocalyptic rabbi like Jesus.

          The Cato comparison, though seems a bit strained and unhelpful, if you have to limit yourself to “biographies”, even if we were to concede that a Plutarch biography is in any way comparable to the gospels as a literary type.

          • CTimeline


            Well the point shows quite clearly that there could be a mass of literature created about someone in antiquity, yet barely any of it reach us. That was the argument I was seeking to establish, and I can think of no better example than that of the missing biographies of Cato. It is only strained if you misread or start applying the argument (and you unhelpfully did) to other areas! (In fact you appear to have done this again: the particular genre of the account of someone’s life doesn’t matter when we are just considering the nature of the extancy of classical literature. In no way does my argument hinge on Plutarch’s biography being comparable to the Gospels!)

          • Yes, that’s correct. most ancient literature has not survived to the present day. That no contemporary sources exist for Jesus is one of the weakest of mythicist arguments.

  • guest

    I’ve never heard the Ishtar/Easter claim before, but isn’t it true that the word Easter comes from the Goddess Eostre? Of course in languages other than English, there isn’t this problem, because Easter tends to be called a name derived from Passover, like ‘Paske’ in Danish.
    As for the rabbits, they were originally hares and have no obvious connection with Christianity, but are connected with spring, since they start mating around now. And eggs are obvious symbols of fertility, as well as delicious. The connection with spring is clear there too- all around us, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, birds are making nests and laying eggs!

    • arcseconds

      Apparently Bede is our only source for this, according to the OED.

      ‘Easter’ is cognate with words for ‘east’ and ‘dawn’ in other languages.

      German also calls it ‘Ostern’, but you’re right, English and German are unusual in this regard.

      It does seem plausible that Germanic peoples did celebrate some kind of vernal equinox thing around this time, which may have been associated with a dawn goddess. But supposing that Easter is simply this festival again may actually be informed more by linguistic parochialism than anything else.