The Web Unwoven – Sample Chapter:

As I am just about ready to self-publish my first book, I thought it fitting that after telling people that it was nearly finished for the last 4 years, it might be nice to give people a quick sample of what The Web Unwoven is all about.  Originally I had planned on covering the origins and content of the Bible (and therefore also the origins of Judaism and Christianity) in this first book, but due to the the sheer length of the work (and the time involved in editing such a work, let alone the cost of publishing) I have divided it into two. The first part which I will self-publish very shortly is on comparative religion and religious pluralism, whilst the second part on the Bible and the origins of the Judeo-Christian tradition will come out at a later date (hopefully within a year).  So, here is the first chapter of The Web Unwoven – Part 1:

Chapter 1)     Introduction:

We live in a marketplace of ideas, beliefs, worldviews, paradigms, philosophies, religions and ideologies. They share many views and overlap in particular areas, and likewise contradict in other ways, often ending up at opposite ends of fierce debate. Religious beliefs play a significant role in society, influencing laws and popular opinions on morality and ethics. They are also intensely personal, as they relate to the very meaning and purpose of life, and give hope for a better life after death, as well as giving faith in a higher power that brings justice and grace. Most religions and systems of philosophy aspire to bring healing, forgiveness, grace, mercy, compassion, joy and prosperity to the world, and to a certain degree they generally succeed in doing so. However at the same time, religion has also been known as a political force that has been wielded to justify and create hatred, bigotry, separation, persecution, fear and superstition. Holding different religious views to those of society, family or other major cultural groups can produce a range of social consequences, from heated exchanges of words, to social exclusion and political persecution. In more extreme cases, many people have been killed or locked up for their religious views, and throughout history many wars have been fought over faith.

There are many religious debates and interfaith dialogues taking place today, as there have been throughout recorded history. However, it is rare that anybody actually changes their beliefs on the basis of these debates, and it is rare that any level of resolution is achieved. To some degree this is understandable, as personal opinion isn’t always something that can be analyzed and studied objectively, and the data and evidence making up the study of religion isn’t black and white. This can make it difficult to achieve resolution in a topic that is vastly complex, personal and sacred. Likewise, another major reason why resolution is rarely achieved through religious debates and dialogues is that human beings have learned to associate their very identity with their mental concepts. We believe that we are our thoughts, and religious beliefs are habitual thoughts that we consider to be above all other human concepts. When someone expresses a critique of our religious beliefs we feel as though it is a personal attack against us, or against all followers of our faith. As such, debates on religion tend to stir the emotions of all parties, and make it difficult to see reality objectively through the emotion that we experience when our sacred beliefs are questioned or ridiculed. The thing is that reality doesn’t change just because someone denies or derides it; hence there is no need for us to react emotionally to the disbelief and/or disrespect that others show in regards to our religious beliefs. It is understandable that we would take our religious beliefs seriously; however we have perhaps been guilty of taking ourselves too seriously to this point, as it has hindered our ability to sort out truth from untruth in the realm of ideas.

The topic of religion, spirituality, philosophy and the paranormal is incredibly vast, to the point that one can study it all their life and continue learning more. It is obviously not possible for everyone to personally study the topic in depth, and neither should we expect everybody to have the motivation and interest to do so. To reach a “big picture” understanding and construct a religious “theory of everything” requires enormous amounts of time, and one is required to resolve and conflate countless opinions and arguments in order to reach a cohesive and comprehensive worldview. Hence, as with other fields of interest, many of us find ourselves being influenced by accepted authorities, and we put our trust in them to accurately summarize the topic for us. Unfortunately, when these authorities themselves cannot reach the correct conclusions on a topic, they lead much of the general public astray. I would like to offer my readers my own personal approach to understanding religion, along with the evidence and arguments that led me to my conclusions. Despite the vast, complex and personal nature of the topic, I believe it is possible for resolution of interfaith conflict to be achieved, and for the followers of different faiths to therefore come to see each other as spiritual brothers and sisters. To attain this resolution we simply need to compare different beliefs and doctrines and follow them through to their logical conclusions. We also need to consider the bare facts relevant to the subject, and apply our natural human capacity for reason to resolve conflicting opinions, and sort through the maze of differing conclusions. Obviously I am not claiming to know everything on the subject of religion, nor do I wish to deny the necessity and worth of other books on the topic. Rather, I wish to offer a means through which religious dispute and conflict can be resolved, and through which we can all understand the relationship between different faiths. I also wish to offer an understanding of why religion has been a force for both good and bad, and offer a suggestion as to how we can reform it so that it continues to heal humanity, but ceases to divide and harm us.

I will argue that there is a singular spiritual philosophy that we refer to as the “Perennial Philosophy”, that is found to different degrees in most (but not all) of the world’s faiths, and that therefore most religions share common goals. However, I will argue that this does not mean that all religions are equal or that they are all identical. Rather, to the contrary, I will argue that most religions have different strengths and weaknesses, and that some are closer to a pure representation of the Perennial Philosophy then others. I will argue that whilst there have been many great spiritual teachers across the ages and from various cultures, the founders of the world’s faiths were not all enlightened sages. Rather, human beings have a great capacity to deviate from truth, and there have been many religious leaders over time that have preached their own doctrines, which have originated either through fraud and/or delusion. I also believe that many common religious ideas have developed through the common means through which human beings share ideas. As such we can trace the evolution of many religious concepts back through the ancient world, and gain context on the doctrines of the major religions in the world today. I do accept that many of my conclusions may be contentious, and my personal approach to attaining religious harmony involves facing the difficult issues surrounding religion, rather then attempting to sugarcoat them or simply ignore them. As such, I could understand if my opinions raised the emotions of some of my readers. Hence, I will ask for patience from my readers, as I will discuss each subject in considerable detail in order to attempt to convince readers of the merits of my conclusions.

I found myself feeling compelled to create this book because I felt that my own intuitions on the topic were not being fully represented anywhere. I myself am deeply indebted to many brilliant scholars, mystics and philosophers for much of the information that I am presenting here, and I do not wish to take the credit for the work of others. There are endless books on religion, spirituality and philosophy that offer insight into the topics that I could not give, and I do not wish to diminish such works. Rather, my hope is that my own work would compliment the work of others, and give my readers a means through which they can understand the ways in which different sub-topics of religion and spirituality relate to each other, and how one can harmonize the different views that are found in the religious world. Most books that I have read on comparative religion either seek to achieve one of three goals. Some proclaim one exclusive faith alone to be true, at the expense of all others. Others argue that the world’s faiths are all the same, at the expense of the details that show that they are not. Finally, some works simply seek to present information on different religions, without offering any opinion as to how one is to view their relationship to each other. What I have sought to do is to be realistic about the contradictions that one finds between different religious viewpoints, and yet show that we can resolve them and attain an understanding of comparative religion that results in friendship and cooperation between different faiths.

The Abrahamic faiths[1] (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have traditionally been quite outspoken in regards to expressing their explicit disapproval of other faiths, to the point of quite literally demonizing them and their followers as being agents of evil. Such a view has of course never promoted tolerance and unity between various faiths; at best it leaves an uneasy truce, and at worst it leads directly to various levels of conflict. There have also been ultra conservative streams of other faiths throughout history that have taken similar exclusive views towards other religions, although these rarely receive as much attention. At the opposite end of the scale there is a liberal movement that is very popular in the western world at the moment, which has presented the opinion that all ideas are relative and therefore equal, particularly in the realm of religious beliefs. In doing so they have argued that the religious beliefs of all peoples are sacred, and should thus be respected. Hence it has been argued that we should not attempt to argue that any faith is superior in comparison to any other, and that it is offensive to criticize anybody’s sacred beliefs. Those that hold this opinion often believe that all religions are ultimately cohesive, and form one universal spiritual tradition. Hence they argue that all major religious figures spoke of the same truths, and that all sacred scriptures preach the same doctrines; only that they argue that many devotees of these faiths have misunderstood the teachings of the founders of their faiths, and the texts which they have left behind.

Hence, religious liberals often claim that Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Plato, Jesus, Mohammed etc. were all prophets of the one God, and that the Tanakh, the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddhist Sutra’s, and the Tao Te-Ching etc. all speak of the same universal truths. I would like to discuss these two competing perspectives on comparative religion and consider whether they are consistent and cohesive, whether they are supported by logic and the relevant facts, as well as consider what the implications of each view are. Obviously there are other opinions on comparative religion aside from those expressed above, not to mention that many religious followers only have opinions on their own faith, and do not wish to pass judgment either way on other faiths. Hence, some views have been formulated to take into account many of the relevant facts and factors, but some of them only take into consideration very specific experiences and conditions relative to their own context. Due to the open access to information that we have in today’s world, we now have many alternatives to the traditional views on religion, for better and for worse. Consequently, as well as the well-known and structured religions of old we now have countless other worldviews, pieced together from various sources with an amateur DIY approach[2].

I have therefore attempted to do what I haven’t seen anyone else do in a way that has satisfied me. There are many books (and websites) written by conservative Christian apologists that have attempted to give a complete means of viewing comparative religion, through offering a defense of their own faith, and equally offering a scathing critique of all others. I have therefore set out to counter these works and the conclusions that they set forth, whilst making a positive case for my own views. In many ways you could say that I am likewise offering an apologetic for Perennial Philosophy, as well as offering a counter-response to Christian apologetics. Whilst there are many individual faiths in the world today, I have spent the majority of the book comparing the views of orthodox Christianity and Perennial Philosophy (as I see it). As I personally had a Christian upbringing, and as Christianity is currently the biggest religion in the world today[3], I believe that this is necessary, and I hope that my readers will grow through taking this journey with me.

I do not mean to single out Christianity for criticism however, or simply focus on its weaknesses and ignore its strengths. Rather, the conclusions that I reach from comparing Christianity and Perennialism should apply to religion and spirituality as a whole, and hopefully give the necessary context to put everything in its place. I do not wish to simply offer my critiques for the sake of it, but rather I am doing so in the hope of offering a solution. In the final chapter I will offer some conclusions that I believe we can be certain of once all is considered. I believe that many of these conclusions have the potential to dramatically change humanity for the better, were they to gain widespread acceptance. I am hoping to reveal a complete truth that unites people of different faiths, and gives humanity a template from which we can reform and evolve the subject of religion. I have offered what I believe to be the way through the mess of contradictory and internally inconsistent views, so that we may unweave the web of opinions and see the light that shines behind it. It is my belief that to create a convincing case you must look at every angle in the same context, in that merely covering part of an issue allows for people to dismiss strong arguments through circular reasoning[i]. The entire spectrum of information must be covered for the possibility of achieving resolution to be realized.

I have written this book as a comparison and consideration of different religious views; not a consideration of whether religion in general is valid. So, there is a whole category of views on religion that I have deliberately failed to cater for here; that being atheism or naturalism (depending on how you choose to label such views). There are actually a wide variety of sub-variants on the naturalistic philosophy, though they all claim that reality is wholly material, and reject any sort of belief in the supernatural or paranormal. Such a view is known by the technical term metaphysical naturalism[4], but could also be known as material monism[ii], in that it states that there is in-reality only matter, and that mind is a second-hand construct created from matter, and existing only due to matter. This view does not allow for the existence of any sort of spirit and/or soul, God/gods or any other non-physical or super-physical entities, existence after death in any form, or spiritual or mental interaction and intervention in the material world[5]. This non-religious worldview is of course very popular today, particularly amongst the highly educated ranks of people in western countries. It is however not a new philosophy, as there have been naturalistic philosophies in many nations going back millennia[iii]. I have deliberately tried to avoid making statements about evidence for or against the existence of the supernatural in this book, although occasionally I have found it relevant to the discussion at hand. I am personally a believer in the reality of spiritual experiences and the paranormal, and it is not possible for me to put that fully aside in writing this book.

So, for the purpose of this book I will assume that my readers are either already avid believers in the paranormal for whatever reasons[iv], or that my readers are willing at least to humor me in this regard, or even just ignore this point for the purpose of this book. I personally consider that question to be a completely different kettle of fish altogether[6], despite the efforts of some influential leaders from certain faith groups that have attempted to confuse this issue[v]. So, essentially I am asking the question:

If spirituality is real, then what is the best worldview for explaining it, and the various phenomena that exist because of it?”

Without any further ado then, let us begin to attempt to answer that question.

[1] Obviously named as such because all three view themselves as originating with the biblical patriarch Abraham. We should note that many Christians object to being identified in the same category as Islam. Rather they generally use the phrase Judeo-Christian tradition to identify their belief in the continuity of Christianity from Judaism, whilst rejecting any claim that Islam is in any way directly related to their religion (except to see it as having borrowed, copied or stolen many of its tenets, as well as those of Judaism).

[2] Again, for better or worse.

[3] Not to mention that it still maintains a privileged position in the western world.

[4] Not to be confused with methodological naturalism (which is the method of science), in which we presume a naturalistic explanation as the simplest and most likely explanation in absence of strong evidence to the contrary. In an upcoming book I will in fact argue that many people today have confused and conflated methodological naturalism with metaphysical naturalism, and confused science with philosophy.

[5] For example: Prayer, spiritual healing, manifestation, magic, psi or miracles of any sort etc.

[6] Which I will discuss in detail in a future work.

[i] Complex topics like religion and philosophy naturally involve many interconnected facts, points, sub-topics and arguments. In many cases during heated debates people on both sides are accused of using circular reasoning. A circular argument is obviously one whereby ones argument cannot stand on its own ground, but only seems to have strength on the weight of other facts and arguments. It can be quite difficult to avoid some level of circular reasoning in various topics (particularly religion), as ones entire worldview filters into each individual topic. Thus any point raised to support an entire worldview must to some degree refer to other topics that are important to the worldview in question. Having conceded this however, you can’t construct a large-scale argument for something as significant as a religion solely on the basis of individual arguments that cannot stand on their own merit. An argument must not rest upon things not yet covered or resolved, and a valid argument should not collapse on the basis of information not yet elucidated. If this is the case then it is likely that the arguments are in fact baseless, and are simply intellectual games or tricks, like constantly transferring credit from various credit cards to cover the fact that you are in fact broke. Ideally, slight diversions in the middle of good solid arguments should not be done for the purpose of providing presumptions on which the new argument will rest. Therefore, valid arguments should be able to stand independently.

[ii] By very definition monism refers to the existence of only one thing, and in philosophical contexts it generally implies that several things commonly considered to be separate are in fact part of the one thing. Dualism, on the other hand relates to the interaction and eternal relationship between two individual and distinct things. The terms monism and dualism can refer to a multitude of issues and topics in religion and philosophy. For example, dualism can refer to mind-brain dualism, subject-object dualism, God-creation dualism, spirit-matter dualism, or good God-evil god dualism. The brain-mind dualism is a common concept in western philosophy, relevant to the topics of religion, philosophy, psychology and medicine. Eastern religion and philosophy makes multiple use of the concept of monism, both in subject-object monism and God-creation monism, both which ultimately amount to the same thing when seen in the greater context of Perennial religious teachings (as will be shown later). Subject-object monism refers to a state whereby there is no distinction or separation between a perceived external universe and the being that is perceiving, observing or experiencing it. This concept has controversially been used by some in the New Age movement to attempt to explain the particle-wave duality of quantum physics, but most commonly it is known through the writings of various mystics in attempting to describe their experiences of cosmic consciousness. God-creation monism therefore is the application of subject-object monism to the absolute reality – God; seeing creation as existing within God, commonly with the metaphor of Creation as God’s dream existing within the mind of God, rather than being in eternal relationship and interaction with an independent creator as in the Abrahamic faiths. In this way Christianity can be referred to as dualistic compared to Perennial Philosophy, which is primarily monistic.

The term dualism often holds negative connotations, and is commonly used as a derogatory term to defame the belief of an opposing party. Many modern philosophers oppose the belief in mind-body dualism, just as in a religious sense dualism is often associated with Gnosticism, with its assertion that there is both a good God and an evil god. As there are various different contexts in which the term dualism can apply there is a burden for the person using the term to define what it is in particular they are referring to. In terms of ultimate worldviews, monism is commonly connected to the belief that there is only one singular absolute reality, from which all other things can be reduced. Naturalism (atheism) can be considered to be a monistic worldview as it states that there is truth only matter in existence, and that consciousness is only a by-product of matter. Hence this presents consciousness as a construct, having no ultimate separate existence of its own without matter, and ultimately existing only within matter. The complete polar opposite of this is the view of the Perennial Philosophy, which is expressed quite succinctly amongst the many Eastern philosophies (as well as others) in stating that the only absolute reality is God (or Consciousness, Spirit and/or the Self if you like), and that matter is a by-product of Spirit. The technical term for this view in western philosophy is “Monistic Idealism”, and it is found in many mystical traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Yoga, Tantra, Kashmir Shaivism, all forms of Buddhism, Taoism, various mystical variants of Hellenistic philosophy such as Platonism, Pythagoreanism, Orphism and Hermeticism, and possibly even some indigenous Shamanic traditions.

There are countless other contexts to which we can apply these terms, therefore it is necessary to clarify what context they are being used in when using these terms, as sometimes the words monism and dualism are often just thrown around without explaining what exactly they are referring to, therefore having the potential to be misleading. It is also important to avoid seeing the term dualism as always being a negative term. It simply isn’t so, as those that use it in a negative sense often object to many monistic concepts (as we will see).

[iii] For example, some of the early Greek philosophers held a belief in metaphysical naturalism. Likewise the Bhagavad-Gita makes reference to naturalism as well (albeit in rather a negative light): “They say: The world is unreal, without a substratum, without a God, and without an order. Sexual union of man and woman alone and nothing else causes the world.” Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 16:8.

[iv] There are many reasons why individuals such as myself believe in the supernatural. For example: Personal experiences, correlations between personal experiences and the testimony of other people, examination of various fields of research such as near death experiences (NDE’s), parapsychology etc., various complex philosophical arguments, and much more. Regardless, I am not assuming that all my readers accept the existence of the supernatural (in fact quite the opposite, I am accepting and acknowledging that many of my readers probably will not).

[v] Many Christian apologists (such as William Lane Craig) have argued that any argument or evidence for the existence of the supernatural is positive evidence for Christianity, as they have argued that Christianity is the only spiritual worldview that is internally consistent. There is even a specific sub-category of Christian apologetics called “pre-suppositional apologetics” that actually claims that it is impossible to make an argument for anything without presupposing the Christian worldview (yes, that is actually what they claim)! I have dealt with these arguments later on in this book, so please read on.

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My thoughts on the passing of D.M. Murdock (aka Archaya S):

Love her or hate her, D.M. Murdock was well known amongst mythicists and Christian apologists, and many mainstream NT scholars are likewise familiar with her work. Her work is frequently heavily criticised, not only by those critical of mythicism in general, but also by many amongst her own ranks. Despite this, she maintained a loyal band of supporters, many of which have gone on to produce their own works on a similar theme to her own.

I thought that in light of her passing I would offer my own opinions of her work. As with many other people, I personally became familiar with Ms Murdock through the religion portion of the Internet conspiracy sensation Zeitgeist 1 (which was essentially a bad representation of many half-truths). Initially enthusiastic, I soon discovered that the relevant portion of the movie and her work in general were getting very negative reviews by academics and apologists alike. Over the course of many years since, I have learned much on the topic of Christian origins, and I think it is necessary to acknowledge both the strengths and weaknesses of her work.

Certainly, there seems to have been a massive difference in the quality of Murdock’s early work compared to her later work. “Christ In Egypt” is well worth reading (and much of it can be read online for free at Google Books[i]). Whilst I still find that she stretches sources too far, reads too far into the data and is too quick to reach definitive conclusions, I still believe that many of the core claims of the work are still correct; only that I think they can be presented and argued better.

I haven’t personally read any of her earlier works in full; however I have seen plenty of examples of major problems with them. One perfect example is the list of names quoted in the “argument from silence” that is cited in Zeitgeist 1:1, and I believe is also found in Murdock’s book “Who Was Jesus?” This list presents 23 names of figures from around the time that Jesus was supposed to have lived that Murdock stated never mentioned Jesus. Unfortunately the list is deeply problematic, and there are perhaps only 2 or 3 names on there for which it should actually be argued that they would have had a reason to mention Jesus had he lived.

Murdock focussed much of her career in arguing for parallels between astronomical phenomena and features of the Jesus narrative, for which she is known to argue that Christianity was founded upon “astrotheology”. Hence, she argued that the earliest conception of Jesus was as a solar deity, and that Christ’s nature as a representation of the sun was (and is) the primary feature of Christianity. Whilst I agree that there are legitimate examples whereby religious motifs reference the passages of the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations, I feel that Murdock is wrong to argue that astrotheology is the primary explanation for the creation of Christianity. I would state that as the Mystery religion themes that are found in Christianity (that themselves date back to the Osirian cult) relate both to eternal life for initiates and the rebirth of nature for a nation as a whole, it is natural that solar features are found within them, as many of the major seasonal markers involve key points in the suns yearly journey (such as the winter-solstice and vernal equinox). However, the Mystery religions weren’t simply about sun worship, and Messianic Judaism (with its Midrash of the Septuagint) was responsible for a large part of what makes up Christianity.

Having noted this however, Murdock was almost a lone crusader in pointing out the very legitimate links between the Egyptian celebration of the birth of Horus at the winter solstice and the later Christmas tradition. This topic is one in which even many fellow mythicists scoff, and certainly Christian apologists feel that they have laid this claim to rest many times over. However, when presented properly (unlike the many Facebook memes that float around every year around Christmas) the case stands on solid ground.

Whilst indeed it is true that much of the evidence that Murdock presented for her case was from within the Christian era, she did briefly allude to pre-Christian written evidence that shows that the birth of Horus was fixed in alignment with the winter solstice just prior to the Common Era, with the creation of the Alexandrian calendar. The evidence in question is found in a text called “The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys”, which refers to birth celebrations of Horus and places their date on the 25th of Choiak (which with the Alexandrian calendar corresponds to December 21st). This shows that contrary to the claims of many scholars and apologists, Plutarch’s testimony can indeed by trusted (and was indeed observing a preservation of a pre-Christian tradition), and that likewise the later testimony of church fathers was again referencing something that had origins before Christianity itself. Furthermore there is also the Kikellia as cited by Epiphanius, of which the pre-Christian origins is attested from the “Decree of Canopus”, this time in honour of Osiris on the 29th of Choiak (which was December 25th in the Alexandrian calendar).

As for the astronomical symbolism within the nativity narrative of Matthew and the events surrounding the adoption of the December 25th date for Christmas, that requires some time and space to do justice, so I will probably write my own article on the topic at some point in the future. In the meantime, I would like to recommend that my readers check out the following radio talk show, which features my friend DN Boswell, who is to my knowledge probably the best qualified person in the world on the topic of pagan parallels (even though (like myself), he lacks formal qualifications)[ii]. Boswell’s book and blog are currently offline as he is making a number of changes, so in the meantime this is a good place for people to encounter the evidence from someone who is properly informed and can reach the correct conclusions on these issues.

Also, Murdock was quite vocal in arguing for quite late dating for much (if not all) of the NT, and I find much to agree with her on this issue. Anyways, the point of all this is that whilst there were many very real flaws with Murdock’s work, there are likewise many gems to be found amongst her work. Hence, whilst she may have deserved some of the criticism that came her way, she also deserved credit for standing up for some under-represented arguments that deserve our attention.

Finally, oh what irony that she passed on the 25th of December, considering her obsession with the history of the Christmas tradition! Obviously, one must consider the possibility that this is simply one great coincidence, as in a vast universe such coincidences do occur frequently. However, as a friend pointed out to me, it may simply be evidence of the great power of the human mind. With Christmas approaching and the scourge of disease stripping the life from her body, could it be that Murdock so strongly desired to pass on the 25th of December that her will made it so?

So, whilst I didn’t always agree with all of her conclusions or approve of her methods, I feel we are somewhat in debt to Murdock for her life’s work, and I for one am grateful for what she contributed to the study of Christian origins.

R.I.P.

[i] https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Iaqe9CG_s6cC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[ii] http://sftbinc.podomatic.com/entry/2015-12-29T16_18_14-08_00.

Why the Apostolic Fathers should NOT be cited as witnesses to christianity prior to the 2nd half of the 2nd century:

Abstract:        Both secular and Christian scholars (and apologists) regularly refer to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna) as early, reliable witnesses to Christianity in the late 1st and early 2nd century. Hence the texts considered authentic that bare their names are used as external witnesses to the existence of various Christian texts, doctrines and practices prior to the 2nd half of the 2nd century.

The problem is that the entire corpus bearing the name of Ignatius is suspect, to the point that no one should be relying upon it for anything. Likewise, it has long been noted by Christians themselves that the authenticity of the lone Epistle of Polycarp is dependent upon the authenticity of the Ignatian corpus, in which case it likewise should not be relied upon. As for Clements solitary “authentic” epistle, it doesn’t so much bear obvious signs of forgery, but rather the dating and origin of the epistle are highly questionable, leaving us with a very wide date range that should preclude its use as a reliable witness prior to the mid-2nd century CE.

Hence, whilst these texts are not without value for the study of Christian origins, they should not be called upon as external witnesses as if their authenticity and early dating were firmly established. Whilst this case that I am making here has been made many times before by others dating at least 100 years back, the field of religious studies is unfortunately flooded with apologetic works masquerading as scholarship, and even secular scholars have to deal with consensus views formed largely by those entering the study to defend certain presuppositions, rather than objectively consider the evidence as it stands.

Main Article:

Ignatius:

Whilst Clement of Rome is usually placed first sequentially out of the three Apostolic Fathers, I believe that the best place to start is with Ignatius and the letters that bear his name. Christian legends tell us that Ignatius was a prominent Bishop in Antioch in the late 1st century CE, and that in the year 107 CE he brought himself before the Roman Emperor Trajan at Antioch and confessed himself a Christian, for which he was sentenced to death. The story continues to tell of Ignatius being chained up and led by an entire legion of troops to Rome by foot, where he was eventually fed to the lions as a martyr in the Colosseum. Also, the story tells that along the way he was permitted to stop at various places along the way to converse with other Christians and compose the epistles that bear his name.

So, before we even get to the letters, there are a number of problems to be dealt with here. Firstly, the account of Ignatius being sentenced to death merely for confessing himself a Christian doesn’t gel with the evidence for the reality of early Christian persecution (note the letter of Pliny the Younger), but rather lines up with the way that Christian legends speak of immediate and widespread persecution of Christians merely for the sake of their faith. Secondly, if Trajan had indeed sentenced Ignatius to death, would he have really gone to the effort and expense of escorting him all the way to Rome with an entire legion of troops, rather then merely executing him at Antioch and leaving his body out on display for those that actually knew him? Furthermore, can we really believe that Ignatius would have been allowed to stop along the way and converse with other Christians (who were not arrested or killed?), and compose theological treatises partially disguised as letters to further his cause?

Of course all this sounds like the stuff of legends, and many scholars over the years have indeed come to this conclusion and rightfully rejected the tale of his martyrdom as a result. However, the tendency persists to assume that there was a historical core behind the legend, simply due to the existence of the letters and testimony from later Church fathers. However, there is no external, contemporary evidence for Ignatius and his letters, and thus it remains highly plausible that the entire tale is myth. This possibility becomes quite likely once we examine the actual state of the letters themselves.

There are 16 letters in total that bare the name Ignatius, though most scholars only consider seven of these to be authentic (they being the epistles to Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnaeans and Polycarp). Furthermore, there are multiple versions of these epistles of varying length in Greek and Syriac manuscripts, meaning that even if we accepted the consensus view, we would still be accepting that there were many forgeries written in Ignatius’s name, and that even the authentic letters had suffered interpolation and redaction. The primary reason for the acceptance of the above seven letters is that Eusebius only mentioned the existence of seven epistles in his day (the 4th century CE), along with the fact that the remaining nine letters bare evidence of coming from a later age then the first seven.

However, it is a curious fact that prior to Eusebius only three epistles were mentioned by other church fathers (that being Ephesians, Romans and Polycarp), quite a coincidence when considered alongside a Syriac manuscript discovered by Dr. William Cureton that just so happened to feature those three same epistles. If we were to apply the same reasoning that is applied to the testimony of Eusebius it would thus be natural to come to the conclusion that these three are the earliest epistles written in the name of Ignatius. Furthermore, whilst the short Greek versions of the seven accepted epistles differ greatly from the longer Greek versions of the same text, the Syriac manuscript found by Dr. Cureton preserves an ultra-short version of the three epistles.

These Syriac versions are missing most of the primary theological themes of the Greek letters (which themselves can be used to argue for post 150 CE origins), and one can even make the case that the theology contained within is supportive of a form of early heterodox Christianity[i]. Obviously the various Ignatian texts were originally written by someone at sometime, and it would not be surprising if some form of them were floating around by the middle of the 2nd century CE. However, the point here is simply that the Ignatian corpus is one giant mess, and accepting the short Greek versions as authentic and using it as reliable external witness for various things is simply poor scholarship (or apologetics). All we can really say with any certainty is that some form of the three epistles mentioned at the end of the 2nd century were circulating by that time, and the rest of the letters (including the other letters from the short Greek recension), could potentially all post-date them.  It would perhaps be safer to simply posit a date range of <170 CE for the earliest form of Ephesian, Romans and Polycarp), and forget about definitively dating any of the other epistles to the 2nd century CE.

In this manner we are in the unfortunate situation of having to deal with the apologetic works of various conservative Christians who have entered NT studies simply for the purpose of defending their prior beliefs, rather than considering evidence on its own merits. The work of Joseph Lightfoot is largely responsible for keeping the myth of Ignatius alive, showing that in the field of religious studies apologetics frequently passes for scholarship. It is akin to having large numbers of medical studies being published allegedly showing positive health benefits from smoking, whereby the studies were conducted by shareholders in tobacco companies.

Polycarp:

Moving on, the figure of Polycarp is closely related to Ignatius, particularly as one of the Ignatian epistles is addressed to Polycarp, and the epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians references an Ignatius. Likewise, Polycarp is credited with an equally implausible martyrdom in which the Romans attempted to burn him at the stake, and then resorted to stabbing him when the fire did not harm him. There is a single epistle bearing Polycarp’s name, which is usually dated 110-140 CE, though I will argue that it couldn’t have been written before 144 CE, in which case it again should be relegated to the 2nd half of the 2nd century CE, rather then the 1st.

In chapter 7 of this epistle we find a verbatim quote from 1st John: “For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;[ii]”, followed by a passage that states that anybody who denies the testimony of the cross and perverts the oracles of the Lord to their own lusts, and denies the resurrection and judgment is the “first-born of Satan”. The General epistles (John and Peter in particular) are well known to be responding to 2nd century heterodox Christianity. However, the specific passage which indicated that Polycarp’s epistle post-dates 144 CE is the quip about the “first-born of Satan”, as to the best of my knowledge that title was only ever used by Church Fathers to refer to Marcion, and Marcion didn’t fall out of favour with the orthodox church until 144 CE.

Again, this was pointed out some time ago by a previous generation of scholars, however Joseph Lightfoot argued in response that it could not have been referring to Marcion, due to the reference to those who “pervert the oracles of the Lord to their own lusts”, due to Marcion being celibate. However, this argument fails to acknowledge another tradition that Marcion had seduced a virgin, along with the fact that the aforementioned passage could be referencing other lusts aside from sexual urges (as Marcion was described by the Church Fathers as being extraordinarily wicked: See Tertullian’s Against Marcion, particularly the opening chapter). Hence, on this ground alone we can see that Polycarp’s epistle should not be relied upon as a reliable witness to Christianity prior to the 2nd half of the 2nd century.

Furthermore, many orthodox Christians themselves have long admitted that the reliability of Polycarp’s epistle depends precariously upon the reliability of the Ignatian epistles, and given the utter mess of the Ignatian corpus, Polycarp’s epistle can likewise be held in suspicion on the same grounds. And again, there are multiple incomplete manuscripts of Polycarp’s epistle, meaning we likewise have possible issues with interpolation and redaction. So, one could argue that we should be dating the earliest form of the epistle 144 CE >, and considering the possibility of later modification.  Even if we are to take a more cautious approach and consider early dating, we still have the case that we cannot be sure.  Hence, a dating of perhaps <170 CE is fairly safe, but achieves nothing in terms of validating early Christian beliefs, practices and the distribution and acceptance of the NT canon.

Clement:

Returning now to the first Apostolic Father in sequence, there are two epistles that commonly bear the name of Clement of Rome (though the first does not state so directly in the text), though scholars only accept the first one as authentic. In this case we do not face the same problems as encountered for Ignatius. The narrative of his martyrdom does not contain the same obvious legendary features (though it may still be legendary), nor do the manuscripts contain the same inherent textual issues. Rather, we have a very, very long theological treatise again presented as a letter, written apparently to settle a dispute in the Church at Corinth in which several presbyters had been dismissed. The letter goes on to argue that the righteous should submit to God’s authority, and that the presbyters had been given their authority through the wise appointment of the apostles and their successors (though the letter primarily uses examples from the Old Testament to make its case).

Different scholars accept a variety of dates and/or date-ranges for 1st Clement, and if we honour the extreme ends we have a range from 60-140 CE. Richard Carrier for one has presented his case that the epistle displays an unusual silence regarding the gospels and the typical earthly narrative for Jesus (in a similar manner to the argument that Wells, Doherty and Carrier present for the Pauline epistles), and hence has argued for a date in the 60’s. Other scholars have sought to identify the author with a Clement mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas, which would move the date closer to the other end of the range, whilst most scholars seem to be arguing for 80-100 CE.

The issue here is not so much explicit evidence for forgery or late dating, but rather significant uncertainty. There is no exact way of determining the date of composition of the text; hence it would be wise to approach the issue with significant caution. In regards to Carrier’s argument I would point out that just because 1st Clement doesn’t quote and cite the gospels for authority (but rather chooses the OT – Septuagint) it doesn’t necessarily mean that the gospels didn’t exist at the time of composition, but rather that the gospels weren’t seen as authoritative at that time (note Justin Martyr’s use of the Septuagint and at least one gospel in the mid-2nd century CE). We don’t have definitive evidence of the use of the gospels as authoritative texts until the late 2nd century CE (with Irenaeus); hence Carrier’s argument (if respected) does not preclude dating 1st Clement into the middle of the 2nd century CE.

Likewise, the references to repeated calamities and persecutions as found in the introduction could refer to pretty much any time within the date range, and hence the text cannot be dated on those grounds. Furthermore, chapter 44 makes reference to several generations passing, growing old and passing away (though the wording is vague enough to leave significant room for debate as to its intended meaning). Clement is usually presented as one of the earliest successors of Peter as Bishop of Rome, but there are multiple mutually exclusive lineages for this from different sources (hence they may all be legendary). It can certainly be argued that chapter 44 itself presents a significant period of time passing from the time of the Apostles, in which case we can easily find ourselves well into the 2nd century CE. So, on these grounds I am happy to concede the general range of 60-140CE for 1st Clement (see further discussion in the comments section). However, due to the significant uncertainty surrounding its dating, we should again be cautious about depending upon it for external witness, as there is no hard evidence precluding it from originating close to the middle of the 2nd century CE.

Conclusion:

In light of all this, we can see that Justin Martyr is in many ways the earliest Church Father of which we can be somewhat confident about dating. Hence we have no surviving, reliable extra-Biblical witness to Christian doctrine and the existence of (and use of) the NT texts prior to the mid-2nd century CE. Hence, scholars and apologists alike should refrain from citing the Apostolic Fathers as witnesses for the historicity of Jesus, the early acceptance of various orthodox Christian doctrines or the existence of and widespread acceptance of the NT canon[iii].

In light of this situation we can see that the late date ranges for various NT texts as suggested by radical scholars and hobbyists are actually far more plausible than is frequently acknowledged. Whilst I don’t agree with all the claims and theories presented by hobbyists and radical (or fringe) scholars, I believe that early dating of the NT texts is frequently and erroneously believed to be grounded upon the early witness of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp. Hence, perhaps mainstream NT scholars can afford to be more open-minded in considering theories of Christian origins that currently fall outside the general consensus view.

[i] Though this is an entirely separate kettle of fish, which I will deal with independently in due time. There is a very important textual variant of a Pauline epistle referenced within both the Greek and Syriac versions of Romans (though some English translations of the Greek epistles seek to align it with our versions of the Pauline epistle in question, in essence mistranslating the text) that supports this case, though it is rarely discussed.

[ii] 1 John 4:3.

[iii] And this is even before we look at the differences between vague allusions within such texts to gospel passages, and verbatim citations (as found in the writings of later Christian authors), on top of which the question of oral tradition must also be considered.