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Fables of Aggression:
David Skrbina & Paul’s Cunning Plan

[1]4,348 words

David Skrbina
The Jesus Hoax: How St. Paul’s Cabal Fooled the World for Two Thousand Years
Creative Fire Press, 2019

This short book presents itself as the latest in a genre whose brightest lights are Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (which the author quotes extensively) and Savitri Devi’s pamphlet Paul of Tarsus, or Christianity and Jewry [2] (reviewed here [3]; Skrbina has produced an excellent new and revised edition of her related work, Son of the Sun [4]). More recently, such works as Kenneth Humphreys’ Jesus Never Existed: An Introduction to the Ultimate Heresy [5] (reviewed here [6]) have appeared, which take advantage of the vast amount of material produced by scholars working in the increasingly accepted Christ Myth [7] paradigm.

Those earlier works were produced by academic outsiders and rather than being works of scholarship, promoted a particular theory: that Christianity was not only a myth but was deliberately produced by Jews to harm or destroy the gentiles. This book seeks to return to the earlier, polemical point of view, while using the results of contemporary scholarship.

The author, David Skrbina, would seem well placed to accomplish this plan. Until recently he was a lecturer in Philosophy at a regional campus of the University of Michigan and is the author of a number of academic works [8], one of which immediately strikes my fancy: Panpsychism in the West (MIT, 2017), a well-received study of the theory that “mind exists, in some form, in all living and nonliving things” (despite its airy-fairy sound, a popular notion among serious analytic philosophers today). I regret to say, then, that I did not find this to be a successful venture: his basic argument is vague, his grasp of the material tenuous, and even as rhetoric, I find it less persuasive than the earlier texts in the genre.

As for the argument:

1. Christianity is a lie [1] [9]
2. If there is a lie, there must be a liar [2] [10]
3. Around the same time, there was a very bad man named Paul (and his “cabal” [3] [11])
4. Paul did it.

Before looking at the premises, you will note, in both cases, the missing step in the argument: where is the evidence that Paul & the Gang are the ones behind it? (Or even, to anticipate a bit, that they exist at all?) [4] [12] Consider this passage, which gathers his premises:

Since the biblical Jesus story is false [1], it was evidently constructed [2] by Paul and his fellow Jews [3] in order to sway the gullible Gentile masses to their side and away from Rome [?] (p. 31)

Evidently! Indeed, as we used to say among ourselves in grad school, surely no man of sense would dispute that, Socrates!

Of course, in historical research, there is seldom a question of mathematical proof, and Skrbina rightly says “I’ll not claim certainty here.” (p. 66) But he also fails to establish much of any connection between the perfidious Paul & the Gang and the creation and promulgation of the Christian “lie” (more on that “lie” soon). [5] [13] In place of which, we get what Noam Chomsky called, in his review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, “handwaving.”

As near as I can reconstruct it, [6] [14] Skrbina’s argument is something like this: Paul was a typical Jew: a hater of mankind, and he especially loathed the golden, life-affirming Greco-Roman world; more particularly, he was a Zealot, seeking to overthrow Roman rule and restore the Kingdom of Israel. Then, perhaps on the road to Damascus, a blinding flash of inspiration! Subvert the masses! Create a new religion that would morally degrade them, while also containing subtle hints at rebellion against all authority. It might take “a few hundred years” (p. 104) but it’s just crazy enough to work!

This is what the author calls his “Antagonism Thesis,” which he claims is superior to the “Mythicist Thesis” because it “addresses the question of motive… The mythicists and other skeptics have no good account of a motive.” (p. 89). Since the author is “unaware of any other plausible options,” he wins.

Motive is indeed an important consideration for scholars trying to understand how and why texts have been altered or created. But in fact, there are plenty of motives available. As a commenter on Skrbina’s appearance on the MythVisions podcast says [15], “why would deliberate intent to deceive be more likely than [some]one having an hallucination and believing it was a vision?”

And here’s another, which comes from my first encounter with Mythicism, Freke and Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries (Harmony, 2000): the original Christianity was an attempt by Jews to create their own mystery religion, in imitation of those of the Gentiles. As was customary, new recruits were given a dumbed-down version of the true mysteries, which were reserved for the elite; this was the “historical Jesus” story, merely an edifying narrative. After the Jewish Revolt was crushed, the leaders were killed or scattered, and a group of low-level members in Rome continued to believe and promote the “cover story.”

A similar story appears in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), pp. 704-06, where the mystery religion is originally a Torah-observant Jewish cult which had abandoned the Temple cult in favor of a celestial savior, and only later was co-opted by Paul’s gentile-friendly no-Torah version; [7] [16] he concludes:

When we consider the prospect of newly evangelized Christians, handed a euhemerized Gospel, [the “historical Jesus” cover story] but not yet initiated into the full secret, and then being set loose to spread their unfinished beliefs and founding their own churches and developing their own speculations, the idea that a myth could be mistaken as and transformed into “history” in just a few generations is not so implausible as it may seem, particularly given that the geographical distances involved were large, lifespans then were short, and legends often grow with distance in both time and space. [8] [17] There may even have been a “transitional” state of the cult in which the historical narratives were seen as playing out what was simultaneously occurring in the heavens (so one could believe both narratives were true), or in which certain sect leaders chose to downplay or reinterpret the secret doctrines and sell the public ones as the truth instead (as Origen seems to have thought was a good idea). Any number of possibilities present themselves; without any data from that period, we cannot know which happened.

[18]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book Green Nazis in Space! here. [19]

Carrier attempts to use Bayes Theorem to impose some mathematical rigor on the subject and concludes that “There is only about a 0% to 33% chance Jesus existed [and] the probability that minimal mythicism is true is about 67% to 100%.” (p. 704). So there’s that. But more to the point, there are plenty of motives out there, and absent some mathematics, “plausible” is somewhat of a matter of taste.

Speaking of motives and mysteries, let’s return to Skrbina’s first premise, that Christianity is not just false but “a lie.” At times I was reminded of the Thermidians of Galaxy Quest (reviewed here [20]), whose culture has no concept of lying, or of story-telling or acting. For Skrbina, if a story is, well, just a story, then it’s a lie, and like Lt. Harper of Plan Nine, he knows someone’s responsible!

Not for our author the possibility that the story is a truthful account of a visionary experience (even though Paul says that [9] [21]); nor the concept of leading a proselyte upward through various stages of revelation, as in the mystery religions, Freemasonry, or for a modern example, Scientology (even though Paul says that too [10] [22]). And speaking of the latter, notice that it doesn’t matter if an unscrupulous clergy are deliberately up to no good at a later date; what he needs for his case is the idea that the origin of the idea must be a deliberate conspiracy to do harm.

Above all, Skrbina seems unaware of the whole notion of a poetic or allegorical or symbolic mode of thought; the word “symbol” occurs just once: in quotation from Nietzsche.

Moving back to fingering Paul & Co. as the culprits: he tries to make his case easier by devoting an entire chapter — almost 20% of the text — to how nasty Jews are, [11] [23] (and therefore, I suppose, the inference is that we could expect that any one of them would create something to deliberately harm us [12] [24]), and one can’t help but think this is the real purpose of the book. As an argument, though, “this is exactly what you’d expect the bastards to do” is pretty weak.

It is interesting to note that when it comes to documenting how hated and hateful the Jews are, our author suddenly finds the most outlandish claims to be totally plausible: examples such as when Jews slaughter their victims they “make belts for themselves of their entrails” (p. 62) recall the silliest kind of Holocaust tales. [13] [25]

He blames Jewish intolerance on “monotheistic fundamentalists” but excuses Roman intolerance since “in the case of the Jews, though, monotheistic arrogance was combined with racial distinctness and other cultural characteristics, resulting in a deeply-embedded misanthropic streak.” (p. 58) Monotheism, the cause and justification for intolerance!

On the other hand, Seneca is quoted complaining of the Jewish Sabbath as promoting idleness; I wonder if Prof. Skrbina works a seven-day week, and if he would recommend that to the rest of us; it sounds more like the sort of thing a tyrannical Jewish foreman would demand.

Skrbina then concludes his “brief overview of some 600 years”:

The critiques come from all over the Mediterranean region, and from a wide variety of cultural perspectives. And they are uniformly negative. . . there simply are no positive opinions on the Jews or early Christians. (p. 64)

It may be an over-used bit of irony on the Right, but really, the only response to this must be: what chutzpah! The “Mediterranean region” was chockablock with admirers of Judaism, who either respected its moral teachings — so refreshingly different than the amoral Greek and Roman pantheons — or delighted in its stories — as people do to this day.

Some, the so-called “God-fearers [26],” attended synagogues and practiced as much of the Jewish law as they could; and it was this group to whom Paul’s Torah-free version appealed. By avoiding circumcision, kashrut, and other tribal markers, they could LARP as Jews without entirely separating from gentile society.

And again, that’s what Paul tells us:

So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel, and you that fear God (οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν), listen.” 

— Acts 13:16 (RSV)

“Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God (ἐν ὑμῖν φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν), to us has been sent the message of this salvation.” 

— Acts 13:26 (RSV)

Prof. Skribina’s obsession with lying liars reaches its nadir when he clues us in on why we should listen to him rather than other “academics, journalists, and independent researchers.” All three groups “want to portray themselves as unbiased and neutral investigators, and so they have a strong incentive to hide their true beliefs from the reader.” (p. 10) Even the Christ Mythicists are no good; gutless cowards all:

They lack the courage or the will to look hard at the evidence, and to envision a more likely conclusion [namely, his] . . . None of the Christ mythicists or atheist writers have, to my knowledge, articulated the view that I defend here. (p. 12)

For some reason, Robert H. Price comes in for special notice:

Price seems to rely heavily on book sales and speaking fees for income; he is very much in “the Jesus business.” I can’t help but think that this affects what he says and writes. (p. 15)

Speculating on the morals of the long-dead Paul is one thing, but this kind of unfounded insinuation (“seems” does a lot of work for Prof. Skrbina: 23 times in 100 pages) does not belong in a book claiming any kind of academic credibility. [14] [27]

The punchline is his modest claim to trustworthiness:

I like to think that I am as unbiased as possible, perhaps more so than nearly any present-day writer on Christianity. I am a paid professor, so I do not need to sell books to make a living. (p. 11)

A regular paycheck is a guarantee of intellectual integrity, while so-called “independent researchers” are just in it for a buck. Surely the very recipe for courageous thinking. And this from a man who claims to be inspired by Nietzsche! [15] [28]

But enough details; let’s back up a bit and get a wide view.

The basic problem with Skrbina’s approach is that he has literally missed the forest for the trees. Whether or not he has mastered the details of his avocational interest in New Testament studies, the vector of NT scholarship has been to move away from the whole idea of a unitary book (with or without one divine author) to a collection of writings (biblia, after all, is plural) that themselves reflect a plethora of viewpoints, vigorously edited over a period of almost two centuries by scribes and clergy into a synthetic product reflecting not an author’s views but the “orthodox” creed of what became the Roman Catholic Church. [16] [29] Some views were suppressed; some were modified for inclusion, and in some cases, whether by accident or design, they remain side by side (hence the notorious difficulty of Protestants with determining the exact teaching of the NT on any particular issue, resulting in hundreds of rival denominations).

Here is what Robert Price says, speaking both generally and specifically about Paul. It’s a long quote, but shorter than the book under review, and if the author had taken Price more seriously he might not have written the book at all:

Repositories of opposing opinions, like the Upanishads, are commentaries, not coherent treatises after being rewritten, corrected, revised, and redacted. There is no authority there, for there is no author. Brilliant exegetes may find ways of tracing some meandering line of thought from one ill-matched periscope to the next, but what will they really be doing? Not thinking the inspired thoughts of the Apostle Paul after him, but rather, if they are lucky, discerning the contrivances ancient scribes employed to lend some semblance of continuity to the texts. They will be ingeniously harmonizing (as they have already been doing, without admitting it to themselves) diverse and contradictory composite documents. And there will be no way to tell whether the order they find is one imposed in ancient days by scribes who arranged the letter fragments this way or that, or a new and artificial theological framework they themselves are imposing on the texts today. The latter is a head start toward abstracting the texts into a Pauline theology which, if they were honest, they would admit they prefer over a confusing collection of old texts anyway.

Protestantism is based on Martin Luther, and Luther’s theology is based on Paul, but Paul stands based on nothing at all. Paul does not have a unitary voice, is not a single author whose implied opinions might be synthesized and parroted. He is not even a single historical figure. He is certainly not a divine apostle who received his gospel, not from man nor through men, but directly from God one climactic day on his way to Damascus. That story, as we saw, is pure fiction, based on 2 Maccabees and Euripides’s Bacchae[17] [30] No author, no authority, only texts — and finally not even texts but fragments. All we can do, it seems to me, is read them for what they have to say, or seem to be saying, and let them strike us as they may. [18] [31]

All this is not only more plausible but is also a far more fascinating object of study than the “God wrote the New Testament” view, or Skrbina’s Vast Jewish Conspiracy view.

Skrbina simply accepts whatever scholarly “consensus” supports his project and rejects or ignores any that don’t. In particular, he seems to assume that the Pauline materials — Acts and his supposed Epistles — are either by Paul or (in the case of Acts, which most scholars assume is written by the author of Luke) are in any event reliable historical evidence: Paul did this, Paul did that, this happened to him, etc. Of course, all this is actually widely and hotly disputed, and even those who don’t go as far as Price (who considers “Paul” to be as fictional as “Jesus”) will argue over which epistle is Paul’s, or rather, what large or tiny parts can be attributed to him.

But while the mythical Christ is the essential first step of Skrbina’s project, the second step requires a historical, indeed a richly detailed, Paul to serve as the fall guy.

In fact, he needs a simple, consistent Paul, one writer of all of the Epistles attributed to him (along with Hebrews), all of which are and must be entirely self-consistent, otherwise he has no evidence, such as it is. Of course, they’re not (nor are they consistent with the others, such as James or Peter), but you wouldn’t know it from Skrbina’s selective quotes to prove his thesis about their sly anti-Roman poison. [19] [32] Thus, the same textual problems that have reduced the Gospels to patchworks edited over decades are simply ignored, so as to serve as the text of “Paul’s Hoax.” He might as well have made the same assumption for the Gospels, but I guess he thought most laymen still think the Epistles aren’t subject to the problems that plague the Gospels (or just don’t read them).

Along the way, Skrbina likes to refer to “scholars” and what they “say” or “assume,” but seldom provides any actual citations, often just names, so we just have to take his word for it. Of course, then it would be hard to be able to keep within those 100 pages, but popularizing doesn’t mean treating your audience like gullible rubes: oddly enough for someone who spends a lot of time talking about “reason” and “rationality,” his attitude seems to be “take my word for it.”

The contrast with a real scholarly communicator, like the supposedly money-grubbing Robert Price — who even in a “popular” context like a podcast might say something helpful like “Most people since Harnack’s day think Paul only wrote seven or even four of the Epistles [33], but many still cling to their baker’s dozen; you should check out Carrier on that” — is striking.

It’s hard to tell what the point of all this is. Skrbina’s Nietzschean ambition is to make an earth-shattering, epoch-making claim: not only is the Christian story false (widely accepted these days, one would think) but it was a lie created by a poisonous gang of deceitful Jews as a trick to destroy Western civilization, which has succeeded all too well. He wants to overturn the last 2000 years, good and hard. As he says about the Christian Myth, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof; one hundred pages of mostly unsupported and often dubious claims won’t suffice.

It must be said that the Kindle edition is only four bucks (indeed, he seems to not need to make money selling books), and someone who knew nothing, or almost nothing, about the dubious evidence for Christianity, and anti-Jewish opinions in the ancient world, would in a couple of hours gain some knowledge and a few hints about where to find out more. For that, I would suggest the works of Price referred to above (or any, really) but especially Richard Carrier’s just-out Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ (despite the sales gimmicky title, a rigorous exposition of the Mythicist position, shorn of the Bayesian mathematics of his earlier work).

In all the space Skrbina devotes to dismissing the qualifications of others, and lauding his own, the phrase “peer-reviewed” makes no appearance. This, as the author knows, is a sore point among Christ Mythicists, whose work is subject to sneers by “real” academics. [20] [34] No doubt, he would reply, correctly, that the value of “peer-review” has come into question in recent years, precisely because it stacks the deck against new, paradigm-challenging ideas, and especially in the touchy area of the Jews. However, I can’t help but think that this book would have benefited from such a review, given the high quality of his other more academic publications.

*  *  *

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Notes

[1] [35] Skrbina’s preferred term, rather than myth, as we shall see; it occurs 53 times, nearly every other page; liar 14 times; lying 5 times.

[2] [36] “None of the Jesus miracle stories are true. And yet, someone wrote them down as if they were true. The conclusion is clear: someone lied.” (p. 12, italics in the original).

[3] [37] Again, his preferred term, rather than group or circle; occurs 9 times, gang once.

[4] [38] “Although a government report later concluded the most likely cause was instead some sort of ‘directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy’ (i.e. a microwave weapon), that conclusion was primarily based on a lack of evidence. . . .” “Show Me a Directed Energy Weapon or Shut Your Anonymous National Security Official Mouth [39].”

[5] [40] I think it was Lenny Bruce who had a routine about his uncle who was fed up with being blamed for killing Christ and buried a bottle in their backyard with a note saying “We did it. We killed Christ. Signed, Morrie.”

[6] [41] As he says of Paul, “We can imagine him thinking to himself. . .” (p. 68, his ellipses).

[7] [42] Why gentiles would be attracted to a Jewish mystery religion will be dealt with later.

[8] [43] Contrast Skrbina on what he calls “the Rumor Thesis”: “Even in ancient times, people were not idiots. How could Mark accept without any apparent evidence or confirmation, such fantastic tales? And accept them so completely that he would write them down as factual truth, as real and actual events? And then how could the same thing happen three more times, to three different individuals?” (p. 90) “Paul [was] a clever man. How could he possibly have fallen so completely for a bogus Jewish messiah that he would dedicate his life to spreading the story?” (loc. cit.)

[9] [44] “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11). To anticipate, these “other gospels” show that Paul’s gospel had competitors.

[10] [45] “And, I, brethren, was not able to speak to you as to those who are spiritual, but as to those who are carnal — even as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, and not meat; for you were not yet able to receive spiritual meat; and neither are you able now, for you are still carnal. For since envy and contention and divisions are among you, are you not carnal? . . .” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) Again, the “contention and divisions” shows that Paul is encountering rival gospels making headway among his congregations.

[11] [46] He could have called it “The Jews and Their Lies,” but Luther already used it; but be sure, he quotes from it.

[12] [47] “In chapter four I cited numerous ancient sources who criticized Jewish misanthropy, and certainly a willingness to lie is compatible with that complaint.” (p. 84)

[13] [48] Skrbina, in his insistence that all sources are “uniformly negative,” ignores the basic rule of documentary research: sources are not to be counted but weighed. These wild tales may show that Jews were hated, but only help his case if they are reliable. See “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism [49]” by A. E. Housman (Proceedings of the Classical Association, August 1921, Vol. XVIII).

[14] [50] That Price, in particular — who has moved over a long life from evangelical Christianity to Christ Mythicism, openly supported Trump, and was banned from NecronomiCon [51] after a politically incorrect speech — trims his opinions to sell more books is risible.

[15] [52] Nietzsche would certainly notice how much Prof. Skrbina resembles his own imaginary Paul: “In classic ancient polemical style, Paul (real or pseudonymous) cannot believe anyone could sincerely disagree with him and so impugns their motives, in however preposterous a way.” Robert M. Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2012), 1 Timothy, note 571.

[16] [53] Why not attack the Roman Catholic Church for synthesizing all those poisonous Jewish ideas? This would be a problem for Skrbina, though, since not only was this not Paul & the Gang, but the modifications and additions — slaves obey your masters, the powers that be are appointed by God, marry and have children, women should be silent and listen to their husbands — were aimed to make Christianity acceptable to the Romans, not subvert it. Price calls it the “second-generation bourgeois retrenchment” in The Human Bible New Testament; translated and introduced by Robert M. Price (Cranford, New Jersey: American Atheist Press, 2015), p. 593.

[17] [54] Oops! There goes Skrbina’s “while on his way to Damascus. . .” (p. 67).

[18] [55] Robert M. Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2012), pp. 556-58.

[19] [56] Thus this incredible statement: “It’s not a terribly farfetched or complicated story. . . This, in fact, is all we read in Paul’s letters. No complicated theology. . . .” (p. 69) 

No complicated theology in Paul! Skrbina needs Paul to be the author of simple tales to fool those he calls “the masses,” yet one NT scholar (whose name I cannot recall) said he considered the heavily worked-over theological debates in Paul to be as unlikely to be personal letters to the simple faithful as it would be to imagine Hegel’s lectures being read to Trobriander Islanders.

[20] [57] Recently, two such “peer-reviewed” works have appeared, Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield Phoenix, 2014) and Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus (Brill, 2019); both also have “relevant” PhDs. See the discussion on p. 26 of Carrier’s Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ (Pitchstone: 2020).