How to Spot a Myth

I like talking about mythology because people seem to do so much of it. Those in the Abrahamic religions have contributed to an ongoing set of myths that just won’t quit.

The first set, the Hebrew myths, were a long time in the making. Like Buddhism, there was a long period of oral traditions before the art of writing set the words into some form of permanence. And the Hebrew myths were far from original, following in the shadow of earlier and more powerful civilizations. The wonder is that the Hebrew myths have been so pervasive, given the minor importance of the Hebrew tribe in the world. They survived a number of overseers while carrying a sense of their glorious warrior past that never was.

The creation stories from Mesopotamia and Egypt play a large part of their mythology, and there are other characters from surrounding regions who have had some influence. It’s good to remember that the Hebrews were not always monotheists and that monotheism was probably late-coming for them. Even (according to scriptures) during the monarch of Josiah steps were being taken to stop the worship of other gods among the Hebrew people.

The Jesus myth begins to take shape around the first part of the first century. I’ve long suspected that it had been around longer than that – an extra hundred years or so – because I don’t believe that the gospel Jesus was a real figure, at least not from that time. There were so many wandering magicians and teachers from that era that it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Jesus borrows little from the Hebrews according to the religion that claims him, but instead seems to acquire his attributes from the surrounding Roman and Greek religions. Still, the Hebrew scriptures are retained to give some respectability to the new group. There must be provenance.

And Mohammed’s myths are somewhat new but somewhat old. The Kaaba is reputed to be an ancient site of worship of goddesses, and the belief in djinns and desert ghosts remains part of the milieu of the Prophet.

For me, Moses is a completely concocted figure. He’s an impossibility given the lack of written language during the period he allegedly lived. Those writing his story seem to have no knowledge of which pharaoh may have been Moses’ adversary. They mistakenly use what were at the time modern potentates from whom Moses had to beg passage. If there was any element of the Moses story that could have been real, specific details did not survive. The stories that did survive are often disproved by both comparative history and archeology and at times a little common sense – neither a sense nor common.

The Moses story conflicts with the origins of the Hebrew people in the sense that while the Exodus from Egypt was supposedly taking place there were already settlers in the hills over Palestine. It wasn’t the first attempt to settle the area, but it was the last time that the nomadic desert-dwellers moved in and stayed. There’s no need to look for them in Egypt, it’s obvious where they came from.

Was there ever a person named Moses? It’s possible. What isn’t possible is that any of the deeds or events written in the Hebrew scriptures is a true story. As an attempt to delineate and aggrandize the origins of the Hebrew people, it’s just a great story.

Moving right along:

There’s a hole in history regarding the legendary Jesus of Nazereth. It’s not that someone fitting his description didn’t exist, it’s that such people were common. The name, probably Yehoshua, was common – a reference to the great general Joshua of the Exodus. Why not use a famous name when inventing a famous person? And many of the Mystery Religions that abounded in the Hellenic society had godmen very much like Jesus, all performing similar acts and making similar statements. And it appears that at least in many of the religions, the godman head of the religion was mythical – no actual person needed or required. There is no reason to think of Jesus as different from these other gods. After all, his chroniclers were no different from those who invented Zeus, Dionysus, Poseidon and so on.

And those who came to the various Jesus cults were mostly those from other Hellenic religions. There wasn’t much change for them – and in some cases they attended services in the same buildings they used to worship the other gods in.

There’s a dearth of history – of the historians who lived at the same time as Jesus, not one thought to jot a few words about him. Not until well after his death were any official historians conscripted to sing his praises, such as the questionable passages in Josephus. By the time any experienced or professional scribes began to write about Jesus, he had been long dead, assuming he was once alive, and the motives behind their writing were clear.

When you strip away the things that are impossible for a skeptic to believe, the miracles and the historical inventions, the contrived genealogies, the historical revisions, there is not much of anything of Jesus left. Knowing that the gospels have already been sorted for their agreement (except for John – who knows how that survived?) it seems amazing that there are still so many contradictions in the writing. And even if it were possible that even one of the gospel writers knew Jesus, they certainly would not have known much about his childhood.

And then, Mohammed. There seems to be little agreement about the origins of the Quran. The surahs are arranged according to length rather than chronology, so a coherent story is difficult to assemble. The surahs were supposedly collected from those who remembered the sayings of Mohammed, but that becomes impossible if it is true that it was over a hundred years before they were written down. Like Jesus, it’s not difficult to reject such things as a flying horse. The nature of these stories is mythological, not historical. To get a better understanding of mythmaking, one need only look at something more recent such as the Mormons. To a Mormon, Joseph Smith was a very special person. But to an outsider, J. Smith was a strange and conniving individual.

The Mormon story has holes that you can drive an oil tanker through and I find it amazing that anyone could believe in it, and yet many do.

Just the story of Joseph’s first meeting, first written by he and Oliver Cowdery, if memory serves, disagrees with what Joe wrote in later years, as he embellished his own myth. The attempts to prove that the Americas were once populated by thriving Hebrew empires have been soundly refuted by both actual archeology and by DNA evidence, yet they still persist in looking for some factoid that will prove their claim legitimate. It’s not about studying the evidence to see where it leads. It’s about finding the evidence that backs up their claims.

Any minor study of comparative religions should be sufficient to disabuse anyone of the validity of any of these myths. But even a close look at one’s own scriptures should be enough to call it into question.

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About herkblog

I'm an atheist. Although that's just a part of my life, I consider it to be important enough to me to be the main theme of this personal screed. I am self-employed in a service business and I live in Idaho, a place not known for its liberal qualities.
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4 Responses to How to Spot a Myth

  1. Beg to differ on Israelites not being important. Not a conquering empire, true, but that their culture has survived for many centuries, WITHOUT a homeland, makes them significant. Also, we know something happened in the Levant around the time of the Moses myth, somehow the yoke of Egypt was lifted and a more egalitarian system replaced it. True, they had their own corruption, their own male dominated abuses, but it was the beginning of something that we are still working toward. That it all got packaged into a system with saviours and angels and commandments is unfortunate. If you look at it as fallible human beings fighting about how best to live together in this world, instead of just one group trying to gain power for the sake of power, it makes more sense. To me it does anyway.

    • herkblog says:

      Thanks for your comment, John.

      Yes, something was going on in Egypt though I suspect that the Hebrews had little to do with it. Since mythologies seldom deal with exact dates or names, it’s sometimes difficult to place the characters on a timeline. But Moses was supposed to have lived around 1350 BCE. The earliest known settlements of the Israelites start around 1200 BCE. Akhenaten died around 1332 – 34 BCE. Some estimates place Moses as far back as 1870 BCE.

      The Hebrew settlements contained no written language at all. The language of the Hebrew Bible dates from around the sixth century, and there are various opinions about when written Hebrew began – usually around 1100 BCE.

      Akhenaten was a wild card. He stopped the practice of demanding tribute from surrounding areas – certainly a candidate for a kinder, gentler Egypt. He began building Amarna, and is supposed to have been the first known monotheist – some think he was the model for the Moses character. Manetho, the Egyptian historian, said that one of the priests of Akhenaten changed his name to Moses when they were exiled from Egypt – to wind up in Hebrew country perhaps?

      I’ve often wondered why the Hebrews have had such tenacity while we know so little of their neighbors – but perhaps it’s just that I’m not a historian and am unaware of much of the history of the area. We certainly focus on the Hebrews a lot.

  2. Well, when you put it that way… I didn’t know you were going to play the Akhenaten card on me. Seriously, very interesting research. It seems you are developing a theory of how the Hebrews sort of hijacked the history of several cultures that, over a few hundred years or so, started a shift away from sacrifices to Kings who claimed to be god, to a rule based system with claims of connections to a mysterious higher power. I’m sure I misrepresented you there, but I think I like where you are going with this.

    • herkblog says:

      Well, I love Akhenaten, but one must be careful because many of the stories are more speculation than fact. And it’s also difficult to draw a clear line from Akhenaten to the Hebrews because even in the 6th century BCE they still, according to the scripture, were struggling against polytheism. Moses’ alleged killing of several thousand of his people doesn’t seem to have deterred them from worshiping other gods. YHWH was just a tribal war deity who Josiah was attempting to force on his people to unify them or for his own political purposes.

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