NPR acts as if the myths of Christianity are real

Reader Thomas called my attention to a 5-minute piece on today’s National Public Radio (NPR): “When Easter and Passover overlap,” which I guess is the situation this year. It’s a discussion between host Linda Wertheimer and Andrew McGowan, Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, using the temporal overlap of the holidays to discuss their theological connection. (You can hear the program or read the transcript at the link above.)

The discussion sounds like a complete waste of time, designed to fill the “Easter/Passover news cycle” but Thomas had another objection, one based on the fact that—in the absence of evidence for the Resurrection and the evidence of absence of any Jewish Exodus from Egypt—NPR is treating these holidays as if they’re based on real events. (Linda Werthheimer is by her own admission a Jew, and says in this piece that she went to a seder, while Andrew McGowan is an Anglican priest.)

Here’s some of Thomas’s email, with Wertheimer’s words italicized:

I know you are as annoyed about NPR’s osculation, as you say, of religion as I am, so I thought you might have a comment on this aspect: NPR (and of course other outlets) frequently uses the language of fact around religious myths. This is from this morning’s Weekend Edition Saturday:

At midnight tonight, many Christian congregations around the country will hold an Easter vigil to commemorate the resurrection of Christ – this as Jewish congregations celebrate Passover, an eight-day commemoration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. I’m joined now by Andrew McGowan. He is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Thank you for being here.

The story of the resurrection is clearly a myth, and the story of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt is also highly questionable historically. Yet above they are both treated as fact in a format notorious for over-use of words like “alleged” or “rumored” to remove responsibility for stating controversial truths.

The worst aspect of this is that NPR is the same network that, by official policy, won’t use the word “lie” to describe anything Trump says.

Now Thomas is right about these issues, but at first I thought “this isn’t a big deal,” as Wertheimer isn’t really claiming that the events were real. A charitable take is that she’s merely describing what is being celebrated. But then the interview went on:

WERTHEIMER: You know, one of the things that is said every year at the Seder that I go to is that the last supper was a seder.

MCGOWAN: That’s absolutely right. We can’t be sure that it was a seder quite like those that are more familiar from recent times because, in fact, strange as it may seem, the stories of the Last Supper are among the oldest evidence we have for anybody celebrating a seder. And yet they don’t include some of those lovely details that are familiar to so many – the series of cups of wine or all the special foods or the questions that are asked. But it’s absolutely true that the bulk of the earliest Christian material identifies the Last Supper as a meal celebrated at Passover by Jesus with His disciples, even though they’re a bit short on the ritual detail.

Note how “the stories of the Last Supper” are described as “evidence.” The piece goes on:

WERTHEIMER: What about the journey from slavery to freedom which is part of the Passover celebration? The way that Christians celebrate the journey from death to life which is part of the resurrection of Christ – I mean, are those all parallels that we should pay attention to?

MCGOWAN: Well, the Easter Vigil itself is really a kind of mini Passover for Christians, I think. Much of its symbolism is specifically about mapping Jesus’ narrative – the story of Jesus’ connection and his movement from death to life – as a kind of image that parallels that of the Exodus experience so that Jesus becomes Israel itself and his passage from death to life is like the passage through the Red Sea.

And so Christians themselves, especially in the first thousand years of Christian history, saw the whole of the Jesus experience very much as a new kind of Passover, a new kind of deliverance from slavery to freedom and the creation of a people who had a special relationship with God. But, of course, they allegorized the Exodus story and made it part of their own story. And the Easter Vigil still retains that basic language and symbolism of a journey from slavery to freedom, a journey from oppression to liberation.

Again, one could be charitable and just say they’re discussing religious tradition, not the truth of religion (after all, as a Jew Wertheimer surely doesn’t believer in the Resurrection), but neither do they mention that in all likelihood—and in near certainty in the case of the Exodus—what they’re talking about is equivalent to celebrating Santa’s delivery of presents on Christmas or the flight of witches on brooms at Halloween. There is no mention that these are myths without an evidential support.

But of course Werthheimer and McGowan don’t think they’re myths, and NPR is certainly not going to say, “By the way, these holidays are probably not based on historical events.”

I’d normally let this pass, but Thomas’s email got me thinking that in America we are so saturated by this assume-it’s-true religious palaver that we never think to challenge it, or to tell a radio station wedded to “giving the facts” that they cut awfully close to the bone when those “facts” involve religious claims.

58 Comments

  1. ploubere
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    It is bothersome, but I’d be charitable too. I don’t see any specific statement that claims these were real events, and expecting them to dismiss them as myths would be unlikely given the intent of the segment. The description of the last supper in the bible is indeed evidence of the tradition, whether it really happened or not.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      The point is the rhetoric. News stations re ultra-careful to couch anything not known for certain as “alleged” or “a source reports” etc.

      Their discussion never puts the religious myths at this kind of rhetorical arms-length.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Think about how they would handle it if it were a less popular religion. They’d phrase it more like “Christians are celebrating an event they believe was the resurrection of their savior” or some such.

      And, as far as passover, vast numbers of people believe the slavery of Jews in Egypt is historical fact. Speaking of it as fact is the opposite of journalism.

  2. Blue
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    And for your religiosi weekend’s reenactment, christians, this from Fake – / Alternative – Jebus heard to be shouting as he entered not upon an ass but, alternatively, by way of miraculous levitatin’, “O S**t !”

    … … = “8 – foot Cross VS the Escalator” = the performance

    Escaltor 1 : Alt – Jebus 0.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixdr-BbYDJE

    Blue

    • Blue
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Too and as re “assume – it’s – true religious palaver,”

      … … “Who ( d’y’s’pose, actually “evidentially t r u e” of any such “like” – event then @ the alleged ~33 CE – year or since ) Cooked that Last Supper ?” of https://goo.gl/ZEwmWN ?

      ?
      Blue

  3. Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that the oldest mention of the Last Supper is from Paul…where he gives instruction on performing the Eucharist in basically the same language and format as is used to this day.

    One of the next mentions of the Eucharist comes from Justin Martyr, who bemoaned the “fact” that the Mithraists had stolen it for their central sacred rite from the Christians. There’s one small problem with his thesis, of course…namely that Mithraism is much older than Christianity, and it was the hometown religion of Tarsus (as in, “Paul of”).

    That the Last Supper was a Seder would be a perfect example of what, in Judaism, would be called, “Midrash.” The Last Supper was the most important dining ritual of Christianity; Jesus was superficially Jewish; the Seder is the most important dining ritual of Judaism; therefore, the Last Supper must have been a Seder. From that bit of logic, the rest of the story can be woven with whatever elaboration is desired.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Erp
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Roman Mithraism seems to be quite different from the cult in Persia and does seem to be newer than Christianity. Nor does Tarsus seem to have been a cult center for Mithras (we apparently have one coin from Tarsus circa 240CE).

      http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2011/06/16/mithras-in-tarsus/

      • Posted April 16, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Roger Pearse has done good work insofar as he’s published a rather good collection of ancient documents on the Internet.

        But he’s one of the sorriest apologists out there, to the point that he’ll remain perfectly ignorant of content that he himself has published if it contradicts his hardline interpretation of Christianity and its history.

        See Plutarch, Vita Pompeii, 24:

        The power of the pirates had its seat in Cilicia at first, and at the outset it was venturesome and elusive; but it took on confidence and boldness during the Mithridatic war, because it lent itself to the king’s service. […] They also offered strange sacrifices of their own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them.

        Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia. The Mithridatic war was in the ’60s BCE.

        So, yes, of course. The cult of Mithras persisted after the invention of Christianity. And, unsurprisingly, younger information survives better than older information. But to suggest that Mithraism is newer than Christianity is so absurd it beggars belief how anybody could have proposed it in the first place.

        …and, again, this is made crystal clear by no less a figure than Justin Martyr. In the same passage where he accuses the Mithraists of stealing the Eucharist, he accuses the same evil daemons with the power of foresight for stealing all the other Pagan demigods and beliefs from Christianity. Note: he doesn’t claim that the Pagan superstitions are newer than Christianity; he makes plain that they’re much more ancient than Christianity. His thesis is that those evil daemons used their foresight to predict the imminent arrival of Jesus, and so they spread all those false imitations in advance in order to lead honest men astray.

        So…again, if it’s on Roger’s site and it’s an ancient text, it’s good stuff. But if it’s anything modern, especially anything Roger himself has written, it has even less to do with reality than the latest installment in the Star Wars saga.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • rickflick
          Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

          Thanks Ben. It’s nice to know someone is out there keeping them honest. 😎

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Actually, IIRC, Paul talks about the _Lord’s_ Supper, which is interesting in the mythicist context.

  4. E.A. Blair
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    However, Easter has been cancelled – yeah, they found the body.

  5. Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    In Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov explained that Jesus had to be crucified quickly on Friday due to the threat that his presence at the next day’s Passover celebration might trigger a revolt against Rome.

    In fact, he characterized it almost as a known fact rather than mere speculation.

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      It is *amazing* how much people add to the text, even clever and informed scholars like Asimov.

  6. Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Year after year, the same old striving, literal almost aneurysm causing effort that sends blood pressure through the roof during the presentation of salvation stories as the only hope humanity has. Pfffft. I prefer my allergies more absurdist, for instance The Life of Brian, Sausage Party or any episode of Rick and Morty or even a novel like The Stranger or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Happy Chocolate Day!

  7. Posted April 15, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    *allegories

  8. Randy schenck
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    They are saying that Christians see the resurrection as deliverance from slavery to freedom, just as the Exodus accomplished this for the Jews. So Jesus was the Christian’s Moses? And how were they slaves before the resurrection?

  9. Craw
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I disagree. Early christians telling stories, even fables, involving meals that seem like a Seder really is evidence that people did have seders at that time. I read a play from 1900 mentioning automobiles. It really is evidence people drive automobiles in that era.

  10. Redlivingblue
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Uhg…

  11. BJ
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m not surprised NPR would do such a thing. They’ve been accommodationist toward religion for some time now. They’re not quite as bad on the subject as BBC Radio, but they’re pretty bad about it.

  12. ladyatheist
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    CNN’s series is even worse. I can’t bear to watch entire episodes but it’s clear from the parts I’ve watched that there’s no chance of them bringing any of it into doubt.

  13. Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    It bugs me when supposedly secular sources report on biblical events, particularly miraculous ones, as if they were actual ancient history, like the Punic wars or something. It just validates the view by the religious that the Bible is literally true.

  14. Posted April 15, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I heard this on my local (MPR) station this morning. I guess I’m used to it by now. I put on a CD instead …

  15. Historian
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think we’ll see NPR calling out religion any time soon, even if in the unlikely event it had any inclination to do so. Trump wants to cut NPR’s funding, which would seriously hurt its revenue. If NPR criticized religion the highly Christian Republican Congress would be further emboldened to cripple it.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      They could ignore it. That’s not the same as criticizing is it?

  16. sensorrhea
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    And, of course, the Abrahamic myths are privileged. NPR will say Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but you won’t hear them say so matter-of-factly that scientologists struggle with million-year-old ghosts haunting their brains.

  17. rickflick
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s as if the commenters on PBS have their fragile, smiling, grandparents in the studio with them and just don’t feel right about depriving them of their fantasies.

  18. colnago80
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    The notion that, during the Exodus, the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and entered the promised land, what is now the State of Israel, is preposterous. If they had crossed the Red Sea, they would have ended up in what is now Saudi Arabia, not Palestine.

    • Posted April 15, 2017 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      I heard an Israeli joke about Moses making a wrong turn after crossingbthe Red Sea. “If he had turned right instead of left, we’d have

    • Pikolo
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      If I remember the Exodus right, he crossed into Sinai peninsula. From which it’s far closer to Palestine than it is to Saudi Arabia.

      Then again, in 40 years with no worries about provisions(water from a rock, food from the sky) you can march quite damn far. They could have ended up in the Ural mountains if they so wanted…

      I’ve heard a different version of that joke “Moses was the worst guide ever, he managed to choose the only place where there is no oil”.
      On a side note: Israel is currently extracting oil from under the Mediterranean Sea

    • loren russell
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      As far as lack of evidence is concerned, the Exodus is far more preposterous than the crucifying of Jesus [resurrection? – that’s another kettle of fish. don’t get me started]. The Egyptians kept excellent records and somehow missed mentioning a million or so foreign slaves taking off after various plagues of frogs, lice etc., killing all the cattle [several times over], all the first-born, and then drowning an entire army in the Red Sea. No mention! Romans don’t seem to have kept a tally on executions in the far provinces, so couldda happened..

      On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that my peeps [both sapiens and Neanderthal sides] crossed either the Red Sea or Sea of Reeds at various times in the past half-million years. Any suggestions for out-of-Africa ritual feasts?

      • rickflick
        Posted April 15, 2017 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

        Not to mention the incredible 40 years to travel 500 kilometers. Talk about dragging your feet in the sand!

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 16, 2017 at 6:46 am | Permalink

          I seem to remember Hitch? making that point.

          All just religious nonsense anyway.

          cr

          • rickflick
            Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

            Wasn’t there 40 days and nights of rain at some point? What’s the deal big with “40” anyway?

            A quick keyword scan shows:

            Asher, experienced soldiers prepared for battle—40,000

            I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year.

            The number from the tribe of Ephraim was 40,500.

            It’s a miracle.

            • Posted April 18, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

              It seems to be used to mean “a big number” – much like the Chinese used 10 000. There’s a lesson in the size of those “big numbers”!

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    As I understand it, Easter’s always celebrated on the Sunday after Passover; there’s nothing special about this year, as far as I know.

    • Posted April 15, 2017 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      That is not right. They can be almost a month apart. Sometimes, like this year, they overlap. They are determined by different calendars.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 15, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the correction.

        Next, I suppose you’ll tell me Rosh Hashanah isn’t on January 1st. 🙂

      • Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

        The jewish calendar is lunar. The christian calendar is solar. I don’t remember the precise number of the current year for jews but it is 5000+.

    • James Walker
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      When I was growing up (Catholic), I was told that Easter is always held on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21. I didn’t know any Jewish people in my small Ontario town, so I didn’t hear about Passover until a high school course in comparative religion (the course that, ironically, helped me on the road to disbelief).

      • Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        I wish I could remember where I read it, but I understand that one of the disagreements between the roman catholic church and greek orthodox catholic church (and other such orthodox christian churches) that prevents them from getting back together has to do with when easter is celebrated. This is due to the fact that roman catholics use the Julian calendar and orthodox catholics stayed with the Gregorian calendar.

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted April 17, 2017 at 5:51 am | Permalink

          I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around – the RCs are Gregorian and the Orthodox are Julian. The differences between the two also have to do with papal authority.

      • Posted April 18, 2017 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I believe it’s not March 21st but the Spring Eqinox that is the demarc point.

  20. ploubere
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    It would have been a better report if they had looked into where all the symbology of Easter came from—rabbits, eggs, etc., and then how the xtians co-opted it.

  21. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    The seder as we have it does seems to borrow some features from Greek symposiums. The earliest mention of one in Jewish literature is 70 AD around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and the birth of what is known as “rabbinic Judaism”. No mention of a seder in Philo or the Books of Jubilees, which you would think mention it if they were being practiced.

    Jesus of Nazareth’s last supper may have been a prototype of the modern seder. Whether J of N existed or not, the recording of such a thing is legitimate evidence of such a practice being in circulation.

    If NPR’s practice is to let the reader decide without advancing a thesis of its own, fine.
    Years ago, I wrote a paragraph in Wikipedia in which I said “A has been misquoted as saying X. What A said was Y.” The admins told me this violated Wikipedia’s rules of original synthesis and original research, and made me change “misquoted” to “quoted” although I could reproduce X and Y verbatim.
    But virtually every reader looking at the paragraph can tell on their own it is a misquote. Overtime, I have come to conclude it reads better the new way.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      By treating some religious myths as fact NPR is rhetorically putting its thumb on the scale. They would never treat the claims of Scientology this way. They’d surround it with “scientologists believe” or “L. Ron Hubbard claimed.”

      • rickflick
        Posted April 16, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        ‘Thumb on the scale’ is a pretty good metaphor. It’s going to increase donations from the pious. A little like a good church sermon.

    • Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      During the time of the diaspora when the jews removed from Jerusalem had no access to temple worship and related practices, they developed other forms of worship conducted in homes or synagogues by rabbis. When diaspora jews returned to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple and certain of those jews (sadducees) again followed temple worship practices. Others (Pharisees)continued the Babylonian forms of worship. In addition to sadducees and pharisees, there were also jewish zealots and jewish essenes. In addition to sadducees, pharisees, zealots and essenes, non-diaspora jews settled in Jerusalem during the absence of diaspora jews. In addition, there were jews in Samaria that didn’t worship in Jerusalem. And, there were many jews who lived in many cities other than Jerusalem. There being no uniformity of jewish religious beliefs and practices in Judea and elsewhere, I doubt that passover and seder was celebrated by all jews.

  22. Filippo
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    From the Wikipedia article on “Passover”:

    “The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, hence the English name of the holiday.”

    Growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, I was told that it was the “Angel of Death” that “passed over.”

    Seems to me that the Spirit or Angel ought to be sufficiently in the know that it ought not be necessary to slaughter an innocent lamb for such a purpose.

    IIRC, in the beginning of the segment McGowan attributed the varying time span separating Easter and Passover to an “astronomical oddity.” I don’t see what is the least bit astronomically “odd” about the matter, in reference to Easter and Passover jointly or separately. I know the date of Easter itself varies. Why should it? Seems it should happen on a simple annual basis, as with the beginning and end of the seasons. That it does not so happen is rather what seems “odd” to me.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      It is odd given the adherence to December 25 as the celebration of Christmas.

  23. J Cook
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps NPR has thought of the threat of Trump and the Republicans to disembowel CPB including PBS and NPR, and are applying a little religious grease in hopes of mollifying the oleaginous zealots.

  24. Sastra
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    The way that Christians celebrate the journey from death to life which is part of the resurrection of Christ – I mean, are those all parallels that we should pay attention to?

    Now that’s surprising. On the one hand, there’s a story in which things start out bad and end up good — and then there’s another story where things go from bad to good. They must be connected! No way that could be a coincidence.

  25. jeffery
    Posted April 16, 2017 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    For some reason, when I read this I found myself thinking about the WWE- I’ve always marveled at how their “announcers” can sit there, pre-show, and debate back and forth on the relative worths of the different wrestling “champions” and their upcoming “challengers”, while knowing that it’s all utter, made-up bullshit…

    • sensorrhea
      Posted April 16, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      And millions love it.

  26. Posted April 17, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    The discussion sounds like a complete waste of time….

    What part of ‘NPR piece’ don’t you get?

  27. Posted April 18, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    “Note how “the stories of the Last Supper” are described as “evidence.””

    I think I disagree about this small part. Stating that the last supper in the Bible is early evidence of the existence of seders has theological implications only to the effect that there were such rituals. In and of itself, this appears to be true (saw comment about midrash (sp?) above so reserving judgment). The rest of it as evidence is horsepuckey but in this particular instance, it may be considered as evidence of a social ritual.


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