Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Piercing the Myths of Time

Ok, I just must share one more chapter (26; this one's about four pages long) from Dan Barker's book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. It's just too priceless to keep bottled-up. (Don't worry. There are many other wonderful chapters in the book. And, I'm not going to share them all; I want to encourage people to support Dan by getting the book, and reading it for themselves!)

Chapter Title: Cross Examination

The Freedom From Religion Foundation used to be located on the eighth floor of a building facing the Wisconsin State Capitol. People who walked into our offices were treated to a wonderful view of the largest capitol dome (by volume) in the United States, situated on a spacious, manicured concourse, with a glimpse of Lake Monona through the treetops.

The panorama would have been perfect except for one thing. Across the street from the Capitol is a lofty golden cross, perched on the towering steeple of 130-year-old Grace Episcopal Church, staring at us as we worked for free-thought. Our line of sight was directly between the two buildings, which was fitting for a group that keeps an eye on the separation of church and state.

Crosses are all over the place. There is probably not a city on the continent that does not have a cross in plain view. An organization in West Virginia called “Cast Thy Bread” (of course) erects huge Calvary scenes along roadsides. In 1986 they had “just over 320 clusters now installed” and were sending crews into five more states.

An attorney here in Madison “jokingly” makes the sign of the cross when he sees me, warding off the evil atheist. The cross is deeply meaningful to some, but to others the T-shaped symbol is merely a social punctuation mark. It is more “in” than the American flag. People wear cross earrings and necklaces as if they were beautiful!

A cross is not beautiful. It is an emblem of humiliation, agony, and death, no matter how you look at it. It represents a public execution, like a gallows, guillotine, or gas chamber. Approaching a cross is like walking into a firing squad. Try to picture a steeple supported an electric chair; or imagine people wearing noose jewelry!

“Easter was always a time of horror for me,” said Ruth Green in the Foundation film, “A Second Look At Religion.” “I wanted to retire from the world. I shuddered at any mention of torture or crucifixion. I feel that this Christian torture symbol, the cross, is being imposed more and more upon our landscape.”

Suppose someone saved your life by blocking a terrorist's attack, but died from the bullets. Would you hang little gold machine guns on your ears? Would you want to be confronted with the grisly details, day after day? Instead of dwelling on brutality, wouldn't a healthy person rather take action to prevent such atrocities from happening again, forgetting the horror to live a normal life?

Yet the most popular Christian hymn says:

In the old rugged cross,
Stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see;
For 'twas on that old cross
Jesus suffered and died
To pardon and sanctify me.
So I'll cherish that old rugged cross...

Referring to the blood running from Jesus's pierced side (reported by John only, perhaps in confusion over the exact manner of death), another favorite hymn drones:

Jesus keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain
Free to all, a healing stream
Flows from Calvary's mountain.
In the cross, in the cross
Be my glory ever...

A sow's ear, to me, is a sow's ear. But look at what believers have done in these lyrics:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime

When the sun of bliss is beaming
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

Swaggart and Bakker took that “luster” business a little too seriously, but however you look at it, the cross is offensive. Ten thousand psalms might deaden the senses of the average pew sitter, but they can't turn lead into gold. (Note that even in these lyrics, the real message of Easter---spring, light, the sun, the vernal equinox---is not completely disguised.)

The gold-plated cross which glowered at our offices sits on a forty-foot spire resting on a six-story steeple. Even as a minister I had known that there is no spire in the bible: spires are phallic architectural structures borrowed from paganism.

[This is where it really starts getting interesting!]

But I just learned something about the cross that absolutely astonishes me, something that makes me embarrassed that I ever believed. Most freethinkers know that Christianity is borrowed mainly from earlier religions. There is nothing unique about it. Other myths have their virgin births, saviors, and resurrections. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Aztecs, and others, had cross symbols. But what I never knew before---and it is still hard to believe---is that there is no cross in Christianity. No cross at all!

The enduring emblem of atonement is an impostor. There is no cross anywhere in the bible.

Christian apologists, when pressed, often resort to the “true meaning of the original language,” but this is one case where they are better off ignoring the Greek. The words which have been translated “cross” and “crucify” in the New Testament are σταυρός (pronounced “stau-ross” or “stav-ross”) and σταυρόω (“stav-ro-oh”). All translators, even fundamentalists, agree that a σταυρός is not a cross.

Liddell & Scott's A Greek-English Lexicon defines σταυρός as “upright pale or stake. Of piles driven in to serve as a foundation. A pale for impaling a corpse.” Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, a “King James” reference much used by believers, agrees, and says that the English word “staff” derives from σταυρός (citing Skeat, Etym. Dict.).

W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, another Christian resource, reports that σταυρος “denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution, Both the noun and verb ... are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross. The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) ... By the middle of the 3rd cent. ... pagans were received into the churches ... and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau, or T, in its most frequent forms, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ.”

The verb σταυρόω means “to affix to a stake.” Herbert Cutner, in Jesus: God, Man or Myth (The Truth Seeker, 1950), says, “A stauros was a mere stake, and horrible to contemplate; it was used in the cruelest fashion to execute criminals and other persons ... It was sometimes pointed and thrust through the victim's body to pin him to earth; or he was placed on top of the stake with its point upwards so that it gradually pierced his body; or he was tied upon it and left exposed till death intervened; and there were other methods too. There is not a scrap of evidence that a stauros was ever in the form of a cross or even of a T shape.” If Jesus had been executed, mythically or historically, it would not have been with outstretched arms on a cruciform structure.

Cutner reports that scholars have been aware of the error but have been unable to resist the traditional mistranslation. In the eighteenth century some Anglican bishops recommended eliminating the cross symbol altogether, but they were ignored.

There is no cross in early Christian art before the middle of the fifth century, where it (probably) appears on a coin in a painting. The first clear crucifix appears in the late seventh century. Before then Jesus was almost always depicted as a fish or a shepherd, never on a cross. Constantine's supposed fourth-century vision of a cross in the sky was not of the instrument of execution: it was the Greek letter Х (chi) with a Р (rho) through it, the well-known “monogram” of Christ, from the first two letters of Хριστός, the Greek for Christ. (This is where we get the X in “Merry Xmas.”)

Any bible that contains the word “cross” or “crucify” is dishonest. Christians who flaunt the cross are not only unwittingly advertising a pagan religion, especially if it sits on a spire, but they are also breaking the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image...” (Now I know why many Christians are so cross!)

Most Christians, if confronted with these facts, will claim that the cross has a “spiritual” meaning beyond its physical appearance. They might point to Matthew 16:24, when the New Testament Jesus character said long before his death, “If any man will come after me, let him ... take up his cross [σταυρός] and follow me.” (Freethinking scholars realize that this anachronistic phrase is historical nonsense. It could not have had any meaning to the disciples before the cruci-fiction.) To the believer, the cross represents self denial, and salvation from sin. But there is no such thing as “sin.”

Or maybe there is. The threatening cross that brazenly stared into our windows---that is a sin.

Freethought Today, March, 1989

The Chi-Rho symbol, representing the monogram of Christ.


Now, to be fair, I must admit that I (having nothing in particular to lose for believing this) had a similar reaction to that of Barker's, when I heard this news---that is, incredulity.

However, I already knew that religions intermix and adopt each others' rituals, symbols, and stories. I already knew that a tremendous amount of Christianity was borrowed from other (pagan) religions of the time (e.g. virgin birth, guiding star, water to wine, resurrection, etc.).

So, while some additional research may be warranted for such a strong claim, I am very much inclined to believe Barker on this point. I think his own shock at this discovery, followed by the supporting evidence he cites (from Christian resources, no less!), indicates that he carefully researched this before publishing the discovery; and that, therefore, this is probably exactly what has happened with the cross.

And, I find this “revelation” to be quite hilarious (although pathetic, too). Calling it the “cruci-fiction” is even more apt than I already thought it was!


After a bit of my own research, I discovered that, unsurprisingly, this issue is not entirely crystal clear for either “side”. In summary, Barker is (mostly) correct in stating that the meaning of σταυρός is “an upright pale or stake”. This is its primary definition, which is stated in all the various lexicons, and upon which scholars agree; but, it appears that some lexicons/scholars include a secondary definition, indicating that it can be used to designate more complicated shapes (such as crosses). (What I have not uncovered is when the alternative meaning(s) came into use---which is, of course, of some relevance. And, also, why do some lexicons/scholars include it, and others do not?)

It is known that ancient executions were carried out on both stakes and crosses (of varying configurations, including an X-shape); and it is known that the Romans (specifically) did, sometimes, execute people on crosses. However, there is evidence that even this was (at least at times) a “hybrid system”, whereby the upright portion of the cross was a sturdy pole set in the ground prior to any execution, and then the victims were bound to the crossbar portion (like a yoke) and forced to walk, carrying only this piece, to the upright pole (sometimes being whipped/beaten along the way)---whereupon the crossbar was affixed to the upright stake, and they were left to die (often, simply due to exposure). I'd personally venture a guess that this offered increased re-usability of crosses (the upright part), while additionally increasing the security of transporting the accused to his place of death. (The potential to resist/escape would be reduced by being bound to the “yoke”.)

(Some of this description may sound remarkably akin to the “crucifixion” story told in the New Testament. Of course, this is not surprising, since such methods would likely have been reasonably well-known and therefore easily written about (at a much later date, by the way), whether fictitiously or not. (I could write a vividly descriptive story about someone being executed in an electric chair, or by hanging, or by lethal injection; that would not mean it actually happened. But, it would make it more credible than if I claimed they were executed by alien ray-gun dematerialization.) And, Barker enumerates in another chapter an amazing list of similarities between Jesus' story and other religious stories---such as that of Simon the Cyrenian sun God who carried pillars to his death. Compare this to “Simon the Cyrene”, who allegedly carried Jesus' “cross” to his death, and most Christians now worshiping on Sun-day (along with many other Sun allusions), and it seems quite clear that this is yet another case of story-blending and creative narrative.)

Nevertheless, it is also known for a fact that executions were carried-out by attachment to upright poles bearing no crossbar (and by impaling upon them, as well).

The Romans spoke Latin, and used the word crux for “cross”; the word in question for the New Testament is from Greek, and its primary definition remains “upright pale or stake”. In fact, one of the major modern bible translations, New World Translation, even translates σταυρός as “stake”, instead of “cross”!

So, it seems to me that the very best a Christian could realistically and honestly claim is that there is insufficient historical/biblical evidence to decisively conclude that Jesus was executed on a cross. (It seems more likely than 50/50, but... He may have been; he may not have been.) If one reads Barker's assertion that “there is no cross in Christianity” to mean that there is no reason to decide conclusively that Jesus' σταυρός was a cross, then I think it stands as reasonable (especially in light of the fact that many other pagan ideas were adopted by Christianity, and the issue with Tammuz still nags).

I just find it amusing that the cross has gained such outrageous status within Christendom, considering such tenuous underpinnings.


Iron Soul said...

Amazing. I'd never heard that before. I was sort of shocked, but I shouldn't have been, what with all the jesus vaginae that I see stuck to the back of cars. It is certainly plausible that there is no symbology in Christianity that is not derivative.

Keruso said...

Very interesting indeed, I had not heard that before either. Thanks a lot.

storkdok said...

I am only half way through the book, haven't gotten to this chapter yet. It is a really great book!