Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter, Ishtar, Eostre and Eggs

As I mentioned in my last post, two things we can now be sure the internet will deliver up at Easter are rehashes of the tedious "Jesus never existed" thesis and memes telling us that "Easter is actually pagan!".  The one above has become one of the most popular in recent years, so much so that its "Ishtar = Easter" claim has taken on internet factoid status. More recently, online New Atheists seem to have finally worked out that the "Ishtar" claims are New Age garbage, so they now prefer ones like these:

From the 'No More Make Believe' Facebook group

From the 'Philosophical Atheism' Facebook group
Of course, in typical online New Atheist style, both the "No More Make Believe" and "Philosophical Atheism" groups on Facebook pontificate about  evidence reason, scholarship and fact-checking, but then merrily post any old crap if it has a suitably anti-Christian slant.  So let's actually apply some reason, look at some scholarship and do some fact-checking and see how these glib little memes stand up to the kind of critical scrutiny supposed "rationalists" should apply consistently.

Ishtar and Easter

Back in 2013 someone posted the "Ishtar = Easter" meme on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science's Facebook page.  Around the same time someone noted this on the  Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science site, posted a link to a Scientific American article that made a rather poor attempt at debunking the meme, and then they actually made a smart point:

"There have been many of these types of ideas spreading around through documentaries & books these days. Many of them seek to connect Christian traditions with pagan ones. I must say, I can understand the reasons behind the claims: However, there still has to be historical proof to back such claims."

Fact-checking using evidence?  What a great idea.  Unfortunately the 25 responses the post received displayed little to no sceptical analysis, let alone any actual reference to source material or evidence.  Most of the comments simply droned on about how the idea was "highly plausible" or some general comments about how "Christians adopted many pagan practices and beliefs".  There were also some even more crackpot contributions, such as the guy who doubles down and says Easter is not derived from Ishtar ... but from the goddess Isis!  There was one lonely comment from someone who actually bothered to do "some simple Googling" and managed to work out that Easter and "Ishtar" have nothing to do with each other, however he got completely ignored.  So much for fact checking by the fans of the so-called "Foundation for Reason and Science".

Let's take the claims in the meme one by one:

"Ishtar is pronounced 'Easter'"

No, it isn't. In modern English, it's pronounced the way it looks, with "Ish-" as the first syllable.  The original Akkadian name is 𒀭𒈹 DINGIR INANNA , which is transliterated as D-IŠTAR (the first letter here is "dingir", which indictes that this is a deity's name), so this was probably pronounced "ISH-tar" or perhaps "EESH-tar", but not "EAST-er".  Any similarity between the way the modern English form "Ishtar" looks and the modern English word "Easter" sounds is purely co-incidental.

"Easter is originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex."

Contrary to popular opinion, the idea that ancient deities were somehow the gods or goddesses "of" simple, particular things is far too simplistic.  Ishtar was the Akkadian counterpart to the Semitic goddess Astarte and came to be identified with the Sumerian goddess Inanna.  Inanna had some associations with fertility - she was associated with the date palm and with wool, meat and grain.  There is some evidence that Ishtar's cult involved sacred prostitution, though this is disputed, since it comes from a very late account by Herodotus.  She had several lovers, but a clear indication that she was any kind of "goddess of sex" is hard to establish.  This element seems to get emphasis in the meme because the idea that Easter was "originally about fertility and sex" rather than anything boring and Christian is much more fun to believe.

"Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?)."

Ishtar was associated with several symbols, but "the egg and the bunny" are not among them.  Her symbols seem to have been the star, usually with eight points, often alongside a crescent moon or a rayed sun or both, the lion and the gate.  

"After Constantine decided to Christianize the Roman Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus."

This sentence doesn't make much sense on two levels.  Firstly, Constantine did not decide "to Christianize the Roman Empire".  He converted to Christianity in 312 (or maybe just came out openly as Christian then) and in 313 he decreed toleration of all religions, ending the periodic persecution of Christianity in the Empire.  Despite this, he did not embark on any campaign to impose Christianity on the Empire and, at least initially, took an outwardly neutral path on religion so as not to alienate the still largely pagan senatorial and equestrian classes on which he depended for his administration.  Later, he passed edicts that ended most state sponsorship of the pagan cults and sought to limit public pagan worship, though it's unclear how rigidly the latter were enforced.  The conversion of the emperor and his family to Christianity and, more importantly, the removal of massive imperial funding of pagan temples and centres certainly did have the effect of greatly increasing conversions to Christianity over Constantine's reign and that of his successors, but the Empire was not "Christianised" until the reign of Theodosius, who made Christianity the state religion in 380 AD; 43 years after Constantine died.

The only connection between Constantine and Easter is his calling of the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD, with the aim of settling several disputes within the Christian churches.  While the primary issue for the Council was sorting out the Arian Controversy over the nature of the Trinity, the Council also ruled on when Easter should be celebrated.  This issue had been controversial within Christianity for some time, with Eusebius reporting that as early as 190 AD there had been disputes about whether the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus should be celebrated in line with the Jewish Passover or only on a Sunday, since Jesus is reported to have risen from the dead on the Sunday after his crucifixion.  Most Christians in the west of the Empire celebrated the Resurrection on a Sunday but in the east many churches kept in sync with the Jewish Passover, with the relevant day often falling on a weekday as a result.  So the Council of Nicea ruled that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday and seems to have ordered that it should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21.

Obviously the fact that Christians were having a dispute about when Easter should be celebrated indicates that there was already a celebration of Easter long before Constantine, so the claim that somehow "Easter was changed to represent Jesus" (whatever the hell that means) is clearly garbage.  And the only reason their celebrations of Easter were connected to the vernal equinox is because that is the time of the Jewish Passover and Jesus was said to have been executed around Passover.  So the date has a purely Christian origin that has nothing at all to do with pagan festivals (though Passover may have had a prehistoric origin in some kind of Semitic spring festival).  Finally, there is no evidence of any association between Ishtar and the vernal equinox, let alone the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21.  

Those who peddle this stupid New Age "Ishtar = Easter" meme also don't explain how the word somehow jumped all the way from the Middle East to England, skipping pretty much every single other Christian nation on the way.  This is why, despite the fact the festival is called "Easter" in the English speaking world, in almost every other European language it is some variant on the Greek Πάσχα:

French: Pâques; Romanian: Paşti; Portugese: Páscoa; Italian: Pasqua; Spanish: Pascua; Faeroese: Páskir; Swedish: Påsk; Icelandic: Páskar; Welsh: Pasg; Norwegian: Påske; Danish: Påske; Dutch: Pasen; Russia: Paskha.

Πάσχα in turn is derived from the Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach) meaning ... Passover.  Only an idiot could look at this and somehow conclude that the English word "Easter" had anything at all to do with the name of an ancient Akkadian goddess who was worshipped two millennia before the first English speakers and 4,000 kilometres to the south east of England.  But there are a lot of idiots on the internet and, unfortunately, it seems some of them are associated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

The goddess Eostre, according to some neo-pagan hippy on Pinterest

So How About the Goddess Eostre?

If Easter has nothing to do with Ishtar, what about the claims about it coming from "the pagan goddess Eostre"?  We are told that this is the "real" origin of Easter in other memes propagated uncritically by online New Atheists.  Apparently she was a "pagan goddess of light and fertility" and a "Spring Goddess" who "breathed life back into the world".  Lots of online sources seem to know a great deal about her and tell us that she was associated with hares and rabbits ("thus the Easter Bunny, see?") and eggs ("fertility symbols that have nothing to do with silly old Christianity!").  These things are all asserted with the internet's usually breathless assurance and so it all seems perfectly clear that "Easter" was originally this pagan goddess' spring fertility festival.  Unless you bother to actually check on the sources of all these claims and find this is not clear at all.  In fact, it's actually highly uncertain.

To begin with, we have the grand total of one reference to any pagan goddess called Eostre, and it's pretty dubious.  It's actually found in an early medieval Christian work focused on that vexed issue of the calculation of the date of Easter.  In 725 AD the prolific English monk and scholar Bede wrote De temporum ratione or "The Reckoning of Time" to help monks calculate Easter, but in the process he detailed various calendrical schemes, gave a potted history of the earth and, thanks to the work's popularity, helped fix the BC/AD dating scheme as the standard.  In his discussion of calendars he gives us the traditional Old English names for the months, with a brief discussion of each.  Some of his etymologies seem to refer to the agricultural cycles of the year, such as Weodmonath (August) or "weed month" or Thrimilcemonath (May) "three milkings month" so called because in that month cattle were milked three times a day thanks to lush spring grass.  Others refer to pagan practices.  Bede says Halgemonath (September) is "Holy Month" because it was a "month of sacred rites", possibly associated with harvest.  And he says two months were named after goddesses - Hrethmonath (March) after Hrêða and Eostremonath (April) after our Eostre:

"Eostremonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance." (Bede, De temporum ratione, XV)

That would seem to settle it - here is an early medieval source telling us that the month in which Easter (usually) falls was named after a pagan goddess called Eostre, so the festival is pagan.  Except things aren't quite that simple.

We have no other references to this "Eostre" anywhere in any other source.  Our sources of information on early Germanic mythology are scanty and fragmentary, but it is odd for us to have just one reference to a deity and no other indication of their worship: no references to her in other Christian sources, no inscriptions, no charms mentioning her name, no place names indicating her cult sites and no cognates of her name in later Old Norse texts on the Viking gods.  Bede was writing in the early eighth century and a couple of generations after England had converted to Christianity.  Even then many pagan practices and ideas would still have survived, but how familiar with them a devout monk living in the monastery of Jarrow would have been is not clear.  The lack of any other references to this goddess is suspicious and there is a very good chance Bede didn't have a clue what "Eostremonath" meant and that he invented an "Eostre" goddess to explain the obscure name.

The month name was not only found in England, however, and the prolific nineteenth century philologist Jakob Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales fame) noted that in his day some Germans still called April "ostermonat".  He also pointed to the Old High German version of the same month name: "ôstarmânoth" and the recorded Old High German words for two festival days: "ôstartagâ" and "aostortagâ".  He concluded from this that Bede must have been right and that a feast of "Eostre" or "Ostara" must have been held at this time.

Grimm was very good, however, at finding Germanic gods and festivals in the most fragmentary and obscure of evidence and while the Old High German cognates for the month name and festival days may indicate something pre-Christian, they don't necessary add up to a goddess.  The very cautious modern scholar of all things pagan, Ronald Hutton, accepts that Bede and Grimm may have been right, but we can't be very sure:

"[T]he Anglo-Saxon eastre, signifying both the festival and the season of spring, is associated with a set of words in various Indo-European languages,signifying dawn and also goddesses who personified that event, such as the Greek Eos, the Roman Aurora, and the Indian Ushas. It is therefore quite possible to argue that Bede’s Eostre was a German dawn-deity who was venerated at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon “Estor-monath” simply meant “the month of opening”, or the “month of beginning”, and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season, but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the Dawn itself.” (Hutton, Stations Of The Sun, p.180)

The etymology seems to trace back to the Indo-European root "*aus-" meaning "to shine" which in turn is the root for the modern English word "east" and a range of cognates referring to "the dawn", to "shining" and to the "sun". So "Eostremonath" could refer to an otherwise totally unattested goddess, a goddess not associated with Easter or it could be a reference to the month when the sun shines again as winter gives way to spring.  We simply don't know.

More neo-pagan New Age fantasy

Rabbits, Hares and Eggs?

So Easter has nothing at all to do with Ishtar and Eostre may not even have existed.  What about the pagan remnants that are Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny?  As already noted above, there is no evidence linking Ishtar to eggs, rabbits or hares, despite the claims to that effect.  And if we can't even be sure if there was an Eostre, clearly we have no information about her being connected to eggs or bunnies if she existed.

Given that no eggs or rabbits appear in any of the Easter narratives in the gospels, most people assume they have to have pagan origins.  After all, the usual Christian explanation that the eggs "symbolise the rebirth of Christ at his Resurrection" sounded dubious to me even as a child.  But it seems that the tradition of decorating and eating eggs at Easter does have a medieval Christian origin after all.

Christianity has long instituted days of fasting in association with various festivals and celebrations in its liturgical calendar and the earliest evidence we have of a 40 day fast before Easter comes in the festal letter of Athanasius from 330 AD.  What a "fast" meant varied, but it usually involved abstaining from meat and often also required avoiding all animal food products, including cheese, butter and eggs.  The fifth century historian Socrates Scholasticus noted at least some people abstained from eating eggs on fast days and the Council in Trullo in 692 AD recommended that people do so:

"It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain."

By the Middle Ages, abstaining from eggs on fast days and in Lent had become the standard practice in western Europe.  Thomas Aquinas made this requirement perfectly clear:

"Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh … Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods." (Summa Theologica, II.2. 127)

So this prohibition gave rise to two European customs maintained to this day: eating pancakes and pastries on "Shrove Tuesday" before the Lent fast began and eating eggs on Easter Sunday when it ended.  Using up what eggs, milk and butter people had before the fast made sense rather than letting this perishable food go to waste.  And since hens would be paying no attention to any fasts and still laying through Lent, there would have been plenty of eggs on hand to eat on Easter Sunday morning.  In fact, eggs gathered in the week ahead of Easter could have been stored or hard boiled in preparation for Easter Sunday morning, when they would have been quite a treat to peasants who had just endured over a month on a diet of bread, vegetables and some fish.

We have the first references to these eggs being decorated in the thirteenth century, but that practice may have started earlier.  What we don't have is any reference to any pagan spring festival or customs involving eggs.  The most logical source of Easter eggs, therefore, is the Christian practice of a Lenten fast in which this readily available staple could not be eaten.

The "Easter Bunny" is a modern commercial take on the northern European association of hares (not rabbits) with Easter.  Again, there is no evidence of any pagan origin here.  Hares are generally shy and solitary animals, but in early spring they become more social as part of their mating behaviour.  So around March in most of northern Europe hares can be seen in the fields "boxing" - with males competing for mates and females occasionally rebuffing males physically.  The sight of groups of hares in the fields would have been a sign of the onset of spring and that Easter was around the corner for rural people without calendars, thus the German and Dutch tradition of the "Easter Hare" which came to the US and became the "Easter Bunny".  So, again, no paganism.

Where Does All this Crap Come From?

So Ishtar had nothing to do with Easter, Eostre may not have even existed and Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny aren't pagan either.  So where did all this crap come from?  One of the interesting things about having spent several decades tracking down crank pseudo history is how often I find these dumb ideas can all be traced back to single sources.  In this case we have memes being shared uncritically both by New Agers and neo-pagans and by vehement New Atheists.  Which is deeply ironic, given that the source of these memes seems to be a nineteenth century fundamentalist Christian minister.

Alexander Hislop (1807-1865) was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland and parish schoolmaster in Caithness.  He was a vehement critic of anything to do with Catholicism and became convinced that while good Protestants like him followed the true faith of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church was actually the ancient Babylonian mystery cult of Nimrod, an obscure pagan figure mentioned a few times in the Old Testament.  According to Hislop, Satan allowed the Emperor Constantine (him again) to hijack the true Christian faith and lead it into idol-worship and Papist errors and that it was only by recognising this and throwing off any pre-Reformation vestiges that people could return to true Christianity.

Hislop initially published this thesis as a pamphlet in 1853, but then added a large amount of material to it and published it as The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife in 1858.  Hislop's book is a remarkable case study in the level of abject nonsense that can be created out of a stupid initial assumption, a burning desire to find (or create) evidence to support it and the motivating energy of good old fashioned bigotry.  So Hislop takes sources that have since been shown to be wrong and new information from digs in the Middle East that he didn't understand to create a fantasy of stunning complexity and idiocy.  We are told that the mitres worn by Catholic bishops take their shape from the "fish head hats" worn by the ancient priests of the god Dagon, though this ignores the fact that Catholic mitres didn't take their current form until at least the tenth century and earlier forms didn't look anything like the bizarre hats in Hislop's dubious illustrations of these pagan priests.  And where Hislop was unable to come up with evidence he simply makes strings of assertions, like "Nimrod was born on December 25" or "Christmas tree baubles are Babylonian sun symbols" - none of which have the slightest substantiation.

Not surprisingly, Hislop's book became a best-seller and remains very popular among the loonier elements of fundamentalist Protestantism.  The Jehovah's Witnesses still cite Hislop as an august authority in regular articles repeating his claims.  The infamous tract publisher Jack T. Chick was a huge fan of Hislop and several of his crazier evangelical comic books were simply rehashes of Hislop's thesis (such as his 1987 comic "Why is Mary Crying?").  And white supremacist groups of the "Christian Identity" variety also regularly feature Hislop's claims in their material.

Hislop seems to be the ultimate point of origin for the claims that Ishtar and Eostre were the original source of Easter, thanks to the wickedness of Catholics and, of course, Satan.  He devotes a whole section to the pagan origins of Easter in his chapter on the wicked Satanic festivals of the Catholic Church:

"What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name,… as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar ..." (Hislop, p. 103)

He goes on to detail a fervid fantasy about Middle Eastern gods being taken to Britain by, of course, the Druids, who he claims worshipped the Babylonian god Baal.  Then he makes the following series of leaps:

"If Baal was thus worshipped in Britain, it will not be difficult to believe that his consort, Astarte, was also worshipped by our ancestors, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar.  The religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter - that month, among our Pagan ancestors having been called Easter-monath." (Hislop, p. 104)

He then traces this pagan Easter and its Catholic customs via a circuitous route via the 40 day fast of "the Yezidis, the Pagan Devil-worshippers of Koordistan" and, somehow, the "Pagan Mexicans" and the cults of Adonis, Osiris, Ceres and Tammuz before it was imposed on the poor Christians of Britain by the wicked and Satanic Church of Rome. He concludes:

"Such is the history of Easter. The popular observances that still attend the period of its celebration amply confirm the testimony of history as to its Babylonian character. The hot cross buns of Good Friday, and the dyed eggs of Pasch or Easter Sunday, figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now." (p. 107-08)

Pretty much all the elements of the memes above can be found here, though not the Satanic hot cross buns, which Hislop condemns as celebrating "the goddess Easter" and therefore also evil.  I imagine Mr Hislop was not much fun at parties.

Hislop's junk scholarship was very popular and while his whole thesis generally only appealed to his hardline Protestant audience, his claims permeated nineteenth and early twentieth century culture.  So we can find them popping up in esoterica, in tracts by Theosophists and occultists and in Freethinker pamphlets, which recycled anti-Catholic material with uncritical enthusiasm.  And now we find the supposedly "rational" New Atheists of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the  the "No More Make Believe" and "Philosophical Atheism" Facebook groups cluelessly regurgitating this hoary fundamentalist Christian nonsense because they don't check their facts and just take any nonsense that appeals to them on ... faith.  Oh, the irony.

Update - April 19 2017: In a great victory for rationalism, I have now been blocked by the the "No More Make BelieveFacebook group.  I suppose that's one way of dealing with pesky people who point out their errors of fact.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Easter, the Existence of Jesus and Dave Fitzgerald

As Easter comes around again, it seems the internet will be serving us up two things that we now see every year.  The first is brainless memes telling us that Easter was originally "a pagan fertility festival", that the word Easter is derived from "the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar" and that her sacred symbols were rabbits and eggs.  All of which is complete garbage.  But lately this annual irritation has been joined by a new Easter tradition - articles dusting off the radical "new" thesis by certain "scholars" proposing ... that Jesus never existed at all.  Yawn.

Psychologist and recovering evangelical Christian Valerie Tarico gave the fringe Mythicist thesis an online boost three years ago, when she wrote an article entitled "5 Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed" which got a run on the Alternet alternative news site.  That article rolled out the usual suspects: New Testament scholarship's crazy old uncle (and keen Trump fan), Bob Price, unemployed blogger (and keen Richard Carrier fan), Richard Carrier, and some guy called Dave Fitzgerald, who once wrote a self-published booklet on the subject.

Most of Tarico's 2014 article summarises five of the main arguments used by Fitzgerald in that little book, though these are mainly parroting arguments used by Fitzgerald's "best friend, mentor and hero" Richard Carrier, most of which are also used by Bob Price.  As I have detailed at length elsewhere, Fitzgerald's book - Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All - is pretty terrible, even by the low standards of Mythicist attempts at argument.  Fitzgerald reacted to that negative review with the level of objective scholarly gravitas we have come to expect from online Mythicism advocates, calling me a "douche", a "blog gadfly", "the Perez Hilton of atheism", "Bill O’Reillyesque", "a Fox News pundit", "His Shrillness", "his assholedom","chicken-shit" and a few other choice examples of urbane academic discourse, and attempted to show that it was me who had got things wrong.  So I responded to that in detail as well.  I haven't heard a peep out of him since.

Now Tarico is back on the topic and has interviewed this self-published amateur in a new article, this time on the Raw Story site - "History writer: Jesus probably never existed — here’s why Christianity emerged anyway".  And it contains much of the same stuff, but with some new gems of Mythicist reasoning from Fitzgerald.  

Self-published amateur Dave Fitzgerald
Incredulity, Ancient and Modern

Fitzgerald is nothing if not bold and he kicks off the interview with a remarkable statement.  When asked by Tarico what led him to his conclusion that it's likely no historical Jesus existed, he replies:

"Honestly, I’d put it even more strongly than that – now, I actually can’t see how there even could have been an actual Jesus."

This is a very strong claim.  The analysis of history is actually an assessment of two main things: (i) what might have happened and (ii) which of those things is the most likely to have happened, according to an objective and parsimonious analysis of the relevant evidence.  The second of those questions is the part that takes up most of a historian's time and effort, but working out which interpretations are at least possible is the first step.  Anyone who knows me, has read my stuff online or has simply just read this far in this article will know that I hold the idea that there was no historical Jesus in low regard, but I am more than happy to accept that it is at least possible - to use Fitzgerald's language, it at least "could" be true.  I just find it very unlikely.  Yet here Fitzgerald is going so far as to say he can't even see how a historical Jesus could have existed.

Unfortunately the reasons he gives for this position are characteristically weak:

"The first red flag for me was realizing just how little evidence actually holds up to inspection at all. Another was seeing how differently Christians talked about Jesus before and after the gospels were written. And then there’s the general level of bluff and bluster and just ridiculously overstated claims of Christian biblical scholars."

If true, these are all potential reasons, perhaps, to hold that the existence of a historical Jesus is unlikely, but they are hardly sufficient reason to say there is no way he could have existed.  Then again, later in the interview Fitzgerald takes a much less hardline tone:

"There’s nothing implausible about Christianity beginning with a wandering teacher and his followers. And it’s no skin off my nose if there was – but that’s not what our evidence points to."

This is a much more reasonable statement, though what he seems to be saying is "I don't think that's what our evidence points to".  Like his mentor and hero Carrier, Fitzgerald has a bad habit of stating his opinion as fact and being overly emphatic even about his opinions.

Next Fitzgerald notes that the idea no historical Jesus existed is not new.  This is true - it's been a fringe idea since the eighteenth century and got some serious scholarly consideration in the late nineteenth century before it was rejected.  But he then makes another of his remarkable claims:

"Critics have been pointing out some of these problems since the first and second centuries."

They have?  One of the major flaws in the Mythicist thesis is actually the total lack of anyone in those centuries talking about a purely mythical/celestial Jesus or casting any doubt at all on Jesus' historical existence.  According to Mythicists like Fitzgerald there was supposedly a whole branch of proto-Christianity that did not believe in any earthly Jesus at all.  Yet, oddly, in all the early Christian literature about "heresies", where orthodox writers condemn the variant forms of the faith, we don't get so much as a hint of any such rival form.  By the same token, we have early Christian texts answering the arguments against Christianity by pagan and Jewish critics.  But, again, these critics don't seem to have noticed a whole branch of Christianity that not only didn't believe Jesus existed on earth, but could also make the claim to be the original form of Christianity.  The silence of these sources on this supposed original mythic Jesus form of Christianity, one that is required by the Mythicist thesis, is deafening.

So who does Fitzgerald think was pointing out problems with the idea of a historical, earthly Jesus in "the first and second centuries"?  Or in any century at all prior to Mythicism's first glimmerings in the eighteenth century speculations of Volney and Dupuis?  Fitzgerald doesn't say, though it seems in one of his three new books on the subject, he makes a typically weak argument that such doubts existed.  In his self-published Jesus: Mything in Action Vol. II he quotes from Justin Martyr's dialogue with the Jewish critic Trypho, which has Trypho declare:

"But Christ - if he has indeed been born and exists anywhere - is unknown, and does not even know himself and has no power until Elias comes to anoint him and make him manifest to all.  And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing." [Dialogue with Trypho, Dialog 8]" (p. 212, Fitzgerald's emphasis)

Fitzgerald somehow manages to read this as Trypho questioning "if Jesus wasn't just an invention of Christians" (p. 211), but Trypho is not saying that at all.  The "Christ" he refers to here is the Jewish messiah, who he says has either not been born or, if he has, has not yet been revealed.  Then he says that Jesus is not the true Jewish messiah, that the idea he is is "a groundless report" and that in accepting him as the messiah, Christians "invent a [messiah] for yourselves". 

And if this isn't clear from simply reading what Justin has Trypho say, it's perfectly clear from doing what Fitzgerald seems to have never done - reading the rest of the text.  Trypho makes repeated arguments that not only show he accepted there was a historical, human Jesus but actually depend on that acceptance.  For example:

"But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified." (Dialogue, XXXII)


"Those who affirm him to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to me to speak more plausibly than you who hold those opinions which you express. For we all expect that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah when he comes will anoint him. But if this man appear to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man is not He [the Christ]." (Dialogue, XLIX)


"Now show if this man be He of whom these prophecies were made." (Dialogue, XXXVI)

All these are consistent with the statement Fitzgerald quotes from Dialogue VIII where he says that the Jewish messiah has not yet been revealed and so Jesus was not the Jewish messiah.  The only way Mythicists like Fitzgerald can try to salvage their weird reading of Dialogue VIII is by saying in these references to Jesus as a man doing or not doing various things (being dishonoured by his death, not fulfilling prophecies, not being anointed by Elijah) Trypho is merely hypothetically accepting the posited Jesus of Christianity merely by way of argument.  But this begs the question.  Nowhere does Trypho say that's what he's doing nor does he say anything that even implies this, so Mythicists are simply reading that contrived assumption in to try to salvage their argument.  The clear, parsimonious reading of all these mentions of Jesus is that Trypho accepted he existed but did not accept he was the Messiah.

The Unbelief of the Unbelievers

Fitzgerald then has to account for the fact that the thesis he has championed is not only rejected by Christian scholars, which is hardly surprising, but has also been totally rejected by the overwhelming majority of non-Christian scholars as well.  This is an awkward fact that Mythicists have to dance around.  After all, if the situation was like that of Creationism and Evolution, where we have devout believers on one side and all the objective experts on the other, it would be clear that confirmation bias was in play.  But Mythicists are regarded as fringe contrarians (at best) not only by those with an obvious religious bias but also by leading non-Christian scholars who don't have a dog in the fight and could not care less if Jesus was an obscure mythic figure or an obscure historical one.  Tarico asks Fitzgerald why "there is so much resistance among non-believers to the idea that the person of Jesus could be a composite or a religious myth?"  And she notes, correctly, that leading non-Christian scholars like Bart Ehrman (and dozens of others, including many Jews) "would say that it’s because the evidence is against you."

But Fitzgerald, like all fringe contrarians, doesn't even countenance that option.  He tells us that it must be because the idea is just so radical, saying that when he first considered it "it blew my mind".  Perhaps my mind is less easily "blown" than that of Fitzgerald, but I first considered the idea that he may not have existed at all very early in my study of the origins of Christianity, because it was a logical option to examine for someone who has realised that much of what Christians accept from the gospels is clearly not historical.  The next rational question to ask is, "does this mean it's all made up?"  This is not exactly "mind-blowing", but it's also not an original question and, as mentioned above, late nineteenth/early twentieth century scholars considered it and rejected it.  Fitzgerald, on the other hand, seems to have had his mind so totally "blown" by this obvious question that it has never quite recovered.

He also seems to think that this option is so "mind blowing" that the poor, tiny minds of non-Christian critical scholars simply can't fathom it and so recoil from even seriously considering it.  Again, these are scholars who are trained to question absolutely everything about Christian sources and expose every line, phrase and word in the New Testament to critical scrutiny.  They also fully accept ideas about Jesus that are every bit as foreign and contrary to orthodox Christian dogma as the idea that Jesus didn't exist at all; after all, a historical Jesus who was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who died a futile death is about as far from the Jesus who will be worshipped in churches around the world as a god this weekend as any mythic/celestial non-historical Jesus.  Yet somehow these critical scholars can fully accept any number of non-Christian conceptions of Jesus but the simple idea that he didn't exist at all must, according to Fitzgerald, be too "mind blowing" for them.  This makes no sense.  As Tarico's question suggests, they actually don't accept this idea because it simply isn't convincing.

Fitzgerald says that he suspects that for many atheists the Jesus Myth thesis may sound a bit crackpot:

"[F]or many atheists, such a jaw-dropping notion raises the same alarms they get when they see crackpots talking about Atlantis or Bigfoot being real, or the moon landings being fake. To be fair, there are several Jesus myth theories that are just nonsense."

There certainly are.  And the truly crackpot versions of Mythicism definitely don't do the slightly-less-crackpot versions any favours.  But any true sceptic should have come across enough fringe theories where you have the overwhelming majority of experts, regardless of background, on one side and a tiny handful of contrarians, mavericks, amateurs and self-published nobodies on the other and had their sceptical alarm bells ring loudly.  Mythicism is another one of these, and even before you examine the merits of the arguments, this state of affairs alone hints strongly that the contrarians are very likely to be wrong.

And no Mythicism boosting would be complete without at least one mention of the supposedly significant lack of ancient non-Christian sources mentioning Jesus, despite the fact we have a similar lack for any other early first century Jewish preachers and prophets.  Fitzgerald asserts with typical great confidence:

"In my books I detail why the most cited so-called sources outside the New Testament are considered forgeries and why the rest only provide evidence for the existence of Christianity rather than Jesus himself. They all draw their information about Jesus from Christian sources."

Really?  But several of the non-Christian mentions of Jesus aren't "considered forgeries".  Even if we ignore the fact that most scholars think the mention of Jesus in Josephus Antiquities XVIII.63-64 is original to Josephus, though contains some obvious later Christian additions, the second one in Antiquities XX.200 is regarded as genuine by pretty much everyone.  So "considered forgeries" by who?  Well, by Fitzgerald and his mentor and hero Carrier of course, though I detail why Carrier is dead wrong on the Antiquities XX.200 reference here.  Then there is also the mention of the execution of a "Christus" by Tacitus in Annals XV.44, which is also considered genuine by scholars.  So Fitzgerald distorts the facts to fit his thesis yet again.

Fitzgerald makes further excuses for why only a tiny handful of nobodies takes Mythicism seriously.  "Basically, more than a few secular historians have inherited the automatic Christian dismissal of any kind of myth theory" he reassures us.  This may be true for many historians, but it is not true for those non-Christian scholars who are engaged with or highly conversant with historical Jesus studies.  Everyone in the relevant fields studies the way the field has developed over time and that includes the brief period when this question was given serious consideration.  They dismiss it because they understand why it was dismissed a century ago.  Finally we get this rather fatuous proclamation:

"Ultimately, however, this isn’t a fight between mythicists and historicists; it’s a fight between those that take mythicism seriously (mythicists and historicists alike) and those that simply dismiss it out of hand as something long-since settled."

This is garbage.  Any "fight" at all is between total nobodies like Fitzgerald and his hero Carrier and the few serious scholars who care enough about the public perception of questions like this to bother addressing these fringe-dwellers at all.  For everyone else in any relevant field it's either a silly storm in an internet tea cup or not even on their scholarly radar.

Apocalyptics and Mystery Cults

When Tarico asks him how Christianity arose without any historical founder, Fitzgerald replies:

"The further we go back in Christian history, the more diverse it appears, and the less likely it began with a single founder. Instead there are abundant indications that its origins are tied to the pagan mystery faiths."

These claims probably sound reasonable to anyone without a detailed grasp of the relevant source material or its Jewish context, but they don't stand up to much scrutiny.  First of all, it's the much later material that has the most parallels with any non-Jewish pagan mystery cults, while the early material is highly consistent in one key respect - its apocalypticism.  Far from being "diverse", the seven epistles of Paul and the three earliest of the canonical gospels along with Acts are all very consistent about Jesus' message: God was going to bring down an apocalyptic judgement on the world and re-assert his direct rule over the earth and he was going to do so very soon.  So everyone had to repent and fast, because this apocalypse was coming any day.  This is actually presented at the very beginning of the story of Jesus in the oldest gospel:

"At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. .... After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingship of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!' (Mark 1: 9-15)

And the same gospel ends its account of his teaching with a description of this coming apocalypse (Mark 13:1-31) which ends with a warning about its imminence:

"Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Mark 13:30)
This urgent message begins to be tempered later as some of "this generation" began to die, so we find assurances that at least some of them would still be alive when the apocalypse comes (see 1 Thess. 4:15-17; Mark 9:1 and Mark 14:62).  As the first century went on the delay in the coming of the apocalypse meant later gospel writers had to adjust things slightly.  So gLuke tones down some of the language he finds in his source, gMark, with its writer removing “in power” in Mark 9:1. This is because for Luke the Kingdom has already “come to you” in Jesus’ own ministry (Luke 11:10).  He also changes the prediction that the high priest would see the apocalypse in Mark 14:62,  since by the time gLuke was written that high priest was long dead ( see Luke 22:69).

By the time we get to the very latest of the gospels, gJohn, we see the kind of tactics used by all apocalyptic movements when the apocalypse fails to eventuate.  Now the coming apocalyptic "kingdom of God" is a spiritual kingdom, available in the present for all who are “born from above” (John 3:3, 5). The apocalyptic message about a coming Son of Man is now absent completely and Jesus has become a divine saviour figure, not a Jewish apocalyptic Messiah.

All this fits perfectly with a Christianity that arose as a Jewish apocalyptic sect centred on a preacher who genuinely thought the coming "kingship of God" would cleanse the earth of the unrighteous and very soon.  But it doesn't fit at all with some kind of "Jewish version of ... [the] Hellenistic theology" of the mystery cults.  On the contrary, it's only in the later New Testament texts and the much later Christian material of the following centuries that Jesus becomes anything like a mystery cult saviour and god; in the earliest New Testament texts he is not divine at all.  Fitzgerald's fanciful idea gets things completely backwards.

Fitzgerald, like his "hero and mentor" Carrier, has no knowledge of and it seems no interest in the Jewish context of the earliest Christian sect.  So he talks about "the mystery faith savior of Paul", when what Paul actually describes is a Jesus who is the exalted Jewish messiah - pre-existent second only to God and raised to that status by God after becoming a man and dying, but not divine himself.  And Paul loooks forward to Jesus coming again in the apocalypse.  As a result of his ignorance of the very religious context out of which Christianity arose, people like Fitzgerald misread texts written by Jews or based on Jewish ideas by looking at them through entirely the wrong filter.  Not surprisingly, the results are gibberish. 

The Mythicist Dead End

Fitzgerald finishes the interview with the following observation:

"What is important about this argument –and what makes it worth arguing about–is that it shows what we can and can’t know about who or what Jesus really was. Everything we learn from the back and forth of this historical argument – on both sides – helps us call the bluff of anyone who says they know how Jesus wants you to behave or think or vote."

Unfortunately, the more that activist anti-Christian atheists like Fitzgerald and Carrier hook atheism to the bandwagon of Mythicism, the less credibility they are going to have in any such arguments.  Mythicism is a dead end: a pseudo scholarly cul-de-sac inhabited by contrarians and more than a few total crackpots.  Genuine, mainstream scholarship on the historical Jesus as a Jewish apocalypticist presents a genuine challenge to orthodox Christian beliefs.  Mythicism, however, does not and never will.

(For a summary of the major problems with the Mythicist thesis and the reasons the overwhelming majority of non-Christian critical scholars find it unconvincing, see my article "Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth Theory, Again."  For a more detailed back and forth between two leading proponents of the two rival views, watch agnostic scholar Prof. Bart Ehrman and Mythicist Dr Robert Price meet to debate "Did Jesus Exist" on  October 21st 2016.  And for those who don't have a spare two and half hours to watch the whole debate, even Mythicists had to admit Ehrman wiped the floor with Price.)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cats, the Black Death and a Pope

New Atheists really love their internet memes.  There are whole Facebook groups that seem devoted to nothing more than the posting and exchange of snappy quotes and pithy mockery of religion, all served as an easy-to-share GIF or JPEG, each accompanied by a chorus of approval and agreement in the comments.  These are often quotes from leading atheists or expressions of disbelief at stupid things said or accepted by religious believers, which forms a rich seam of material to be sure.  But when they stray onto history, the results are predictably terrible.

So the Facebook Group called "No More Make Believe" (formerly known as "Atheists on Parade") normally posts illustrations with quotes like "Religion is a thought prison with restraints that are only seen after you're free".  But also posts ones with "quotes" like the fake one from Ferdinand Magellan, where he supposedly derides "the Church" and its alleged belief in a flat earth.  This is despite the fact the Church had no such belief in Magellan's time or any other time and the purported "quote" appeared nowhere before it suddenly popped up in a work by American agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll in 1873.  "No More Make Believe" doesn't seem to have a problem with "make believe" quotes.  Or does have a problem with basic fact checking.

Which brings us to the meme above, posted on "No More Make Believe" on April 5, 2017.  It's interesting that it was posted with an edited note saying "Updated to remove erroneous information...My bad".  I didn't see the original, so I have no idea what "erroneous information" was "updated".  But given that pretty much everything the text says is "erroneous information", it probably doesn't matter.

Burying the Dead in Germany, 1349

The Causes and Effects of the Epidemic

The first paragraph is more or less correct, but what it refers to as "the Black Plague" is more usually called "the Black Death", though at the time it was referred to simply as "the Pestilence", "the Dying" or "the Great Dying".  It certainly did cause the deaths of millions in Europe, though it began in central Asia and spread into Europe and into the Middle East, where it caused similar levels of devastation.  Whether it was one disease or several is still a matter of debate, and it's possible that it was actually a triple pandemic of bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic plague.  There are a few historians who don't believe it was plague at all, however recent DNA testing of victims' remains from "plague pits" seems to make it clear that forms of plague - the  Yersinia pestis bacterium - were the key pathogens involved.  Plague in its various forms can spread in a number of ways, with pneumonic plague spreading person to person via airborne bacteria and septicaemic plague spreading that way or via bites from vermin such as fleas.  Bubonic plague is certainly spread via animal vectors of this kind, so rats and other rodents spreading fleas would definitely have been a major factor in the spread of the pandemic.

Whatever the causes of the diseases' spread, the reason for the high mortality rate was fairly simple: a general lack of any natural immunity in the population of Europe.  Despite the popular perception of plague being a normal part of life throughout the Middle Ages, the era was actually marked by a centuries-long period where the disease was not seen at all.  After the major epidemic of (probably) bubonic plague in the sixth century there do not seem to have been any such plague epidemics until the visitation of the Black Death in the late 1340s.  As a result, few Europeans had any natural immunity.  The plague revisited Europe periodically from the 1340s onward - usually at generational intervals - and then the 1660s saw another major outbreak.  But increased levels of immunity meant that these re-visitations were not as devastating as the "Great Dying" of the 1340s.

Obviously, no-one had any clear idea of what caused the disease and the Church certainly did attribute it to the wrath of God, the way natural disasters were then and often still are to this day.  This did not mean there was no attempt at natural explanations for the disease by churchmen and scholars, who accepted that while it may be a manifestation of divine displeasure, it was still a natural phenomenon.  In the absence of any understanding of germ theory, they fell back on the ancient Greek idea of "miasmas" or "bad air" as the cause.  While this was wrong, it resulted in the practices of quarantining victims and disposing of dead bodies quickly (even burning them en masse, despite religious taboos about cremation), which went some way toward containing the disease.  But, as with any such epidemic in the pre-modern world, there was little else anyone could do other than let the disease run its course.

The overall death toll is not clear, with modern estimates ranging from 45% of the population up to the 60% claimed in the meme.  The final toll varied from region to region, with some isolated places being untouched while in other areas whole villages were depopulated and abandoned completely.  Large centres which were also hubs for trade seem to have been hardest hit, and cities such as London, Bremen, Milan and Florence clearly saw high death rates of up to 60% or more.  It's important to note that Europe did not see higher casualties than other parts of Eurasia and cities in the Middle East such as Cairo and Damascus saw similar mortality rates.

A procession of Flagellants

Reactions and Pogroms

Not surprisingly, there were many extreme reactions to the not inconsiderable shock of up to 60% of the population suddenly dying over the course of one summer.  Later moralists claimed that the survivors and their descendants adopted levels of decadence and pleasure-seeking unknown "before the Dying".  The later fourteenth century saw fashions for tight clothing for women, short gowns and tight hose for men, new styles of music and  dances and a general appetite for a good time that may have been a reaction to the plague, though it's hard to tell if this really was a kind of "swinging 1360s" or just old moralists referring to some mythical previously moral time the way moralists always do.

What is clear is that there was a definite religious reaction to the shock of the epidemic.  Devotions focused on the suffering of Jesus became much more popular from the mid-fourteenth century onward, with depictions of the Crucifixion becoming  increasingly focused both on Jesus as a human being and on the gore and pain of the process of his execution.  Images of death became increasingly commonplace, with memento mori - reminders of death - a theme in much popular religious art and literature.  The popular story of three young men who meet three images of themselves in various stages of decay appears across Europe and effigies on tombs were increasingly accompanied by images of skulls or even second effigies showing the deceased decayed and rotting.  The theme of the Danse Macabre - a dance with death that will inevitably include everyone from the Pope and Emperor down to the lowliest peasant - appeared in art, literature and songs.

More extreme reactions included the revival of Flagellant processions.  Movements of penitents who engaged in public displays of penance including whipping themselves and each other had been appearing periodically in western Europe since the eleventh century, but we see several very popular manifestations of Flagellants in the wake of the plague.  In some places these were spontaneous one-off acts of faith, but in Germany and the Low Countries they turned into a genuine movement that paraded from town to town and even went as far afield as England.  As this movement became more organised and took on more of a defiant political, apocalyptic and anti-establishment tone, the Church became less than enthusiastic about it and Pope Clement VI issued a bull condemning Flagellants in 1349, which later popes reissued when the movement emerged again later in the century.

But the most extreme reaction to the plague was seeking out and persecuting scapegoats.  Medical wisdom of the time traced the plague, correctly, to an outbreak in central Asia which had spread via trade routes and attributed it, incorrectly, to a combination of "bad air" and astrological alignments.  But many people wanted someone local and immediate to blame and punish and some soon found supposed culprits; predictably enough, among marginalised groups.  Lepers, or really anyone with any obvious skin condition including psoriasis or even chronic eczema, were among the first victims of lynchings and pogroms.  But anyone seen as an outsider were sometimes caught up in a frenzy of revenge, so foreigners, travelling friars and preachers, Romani people and religious pilgrims were all blamed and in many cases persecuted, beaten or killed.

The group most often scapegoated were western Europe's Jews, given that they were a separate, non-Christian community that was easily identified.  Pogroms against Jews broke out mainly in the Rhineland, which had seen large scale murders of Jews in earlier manifestations of mass hysteria, such as the beginning of the First Crusade in the 1090s.  So hundreds of Jews were massacred or burned alive in Strasbourg in 1349, but there were similar pogroms elsewhere in Europe, including Toulon in France and Barcelona in Spain.  

Of course, the meme above is keen to blame the Church for these massacres, but actually the Church spoke out strongly against them and instructed local authorities to suppress them.  Pope Clement VI issued two papal bulls - the first on July 6, 1348 and another on 26 September 1348 - condemning the pogroms and forbidding the persecution of Jews.  Modern Jewish accounts often claim that Jews were targeted because they had better hygiene than their Christian neighbours and so suffered much lower mortality in the epidemic, though this seems to be based largely on modern misconceptions about medieval hygiene.  Contrary to popular belief, all medieval people washed their hands before meals, washed and bathed regularly if not daily and washed dead bodies before burial, so these practices were not unique to medieval Jews.  Clement VI's first bull also counters any claims that Jews could have been responsible for the plague by noting that Jews were dying as rapidly as everyone else, which indicates that the Jews did not have some kind of lower mortality rate anyway.

So the meme's claim that certain people were targeted as scapegoats is correct, but the implication that this was due to encouragement by "the Church" is not.  The group that is missing in the accounts of victims of these revenge attacks, however, is "witches".

Seventeenth Century Witches and Cats

Witches and Cats?

Again, contrary to popular belief, the idea that alleged witches were regularly victimised by the Church in the medieval period is largely incorrect.  The heyday of the Witch Craze came much later, with its peak in the sixteenth century.  The position of the Church for most of the Middle Ages was that "witches" did not exist and even that it was sinful to claim they did.  This changed in the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, but this change seems to have been, at least in part, a reaction to the Black Death and only came much later in the fourteenth century.  Fear of supposed witches does not manifest itself in any substantial way until long after the plague of the 1340s and there is no official Church acceptance of the existence of witches until 1484.

So while there is plenty of evidence for pogroms against Jews in the wake of the plague and clear evidence of revenge against other marginal groups, there is no evidence at all that I know of that "witches" were blamed.  Which brings us to the claim about massacres of cats.

The story that the stupid medieval people, at the instigation of their even more stupid clergy, killed thousands of cats and so died in even greater numbers during the 1340s epidemic as a result is popular and widespread.  A quick Google on relevant key words will turn up a plethora of articles of the "strange true facts about history" clickbait variety that repeat the story, such as "Cats and the Black Plague" or "That One Time The Pope Banned Cats And It Caused The Black Plague" or "Cat History: The Black Plague" or dozens of others.  These articles are marked by a total lack of any reference to source material substantiating claims about a general medieval massacre of cats, a lack of any references to historical analysis of the Black Death or, if they have any references to the latter, a lack of any such references that actually mention any massacre of cats.  Why? Because it did not happen.

The whole story is one of those pseudo historical urban myths that keeps getting repeated despite the fact it's complete nonsense.  And it gets repeated because it feels right to many people - it makes our ancestors look stupid and so make us feel smart, it blames the medieval Church for something that popular culture says is the kind of thing the medieval Church would do and it's a nice story with an ironic ending.  So no-one actually bothers to check on one rather important element: whether it is actually true.

The few versions of this story that bother to give anything like some substantiation claim that cats were declared servants of evil by Pope Gregory IX in 1232 or even that he declared that they should all be killed.  That sounds highly specific and substantial, though some might notice that 1232 is over a century before the first appearance of the Black Death in 1347 and wonder why it took this long for any supposed cat massacre to cause the plague.  Other versions of the story say the antipathy towards cats began with Gregory IX's papal bull and then grew until the lack of cats in Europe made the plague particularly catastrophic.

But did Gregory IX declare all cats evil or order their destruction?  Actually, no.  The "1232" reference seems to be to Gregory's papal bull Vox in Rama, issued in that year, which addressed an alleged outbreak of devil worship in Germany.  This bull gives a description of the ceremonies of this group of "Luciferians", which includes many standard tropes found in lurid medieval ideas about heretical practices.  This involved visions of a giant toad, initiates kissing an emaciated pale man and finally a statue of a black cat coming to life and speaking with the initiates.  Nowhere does the bull associate this diabolical cat with cats generally, condemn all cats or call for their slaughter.  Yet the claim that this bull somehow did cause massacres of cats continues to be made, usually with no reference to any supporting evidence at all.  

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entries for both Pope Gregory IX and the bull Vox in Rama perpetuate the idea that this pope and his bull caused a massacre of cats.  And these claims and many of the ones in the articles noted above about the alleged cat massacre and the Black Death all reference one book as their support - Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat (Routledge, 2001) by Donald W. Engels.  As far as I can tell, Engels is or was an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas and the author of a book on the logistics of Alexander the Great's army.  He certainly seems to like both Classical history and cats a lot.  And he also seems to heartily dislike the Middle Ages.

The section in his book on the Black Death (pp. 160-162) is heavy on outdated cliches about medieval hygiene and the medieval Church but light on any substantiation about cat massacres.  Engels declares confidently:

"For many years historians of medicine have understood that the virtual elimination of cats in medieval towns, beginning in the thirteenth century, led to an explosion in the black rat population.  This in turn increased the virulence of the disease."

This sounds all very authoritative and assured, but Engels doesn't bother to actually give us any basis for this supposed understanding by "historians of medicine". Or give any evidence that this "virtual elimination of cats" in medieval towns ever took place.  I certainly don't know of any sources that mention any such "elimination" and for animals that were virtually eliminated, cats sure as hell show up a lot in passing mentions, illuminations and marginalia from the period.

So not only do we have repeated references to cats being kept as pets - especially by nuns, showing that unmarried "cat ladies" have a long history - but, as the illuminations above show, cats were actually prized because they were good at controlling rodents.  Medieval bestiaries talk about how useful cats are for catching mice and rats.  Isidore of Seville thought the Latin name for the cat - cattus - came from the verb "to catch (mice)".  Most households kept cats both as mousers or simply as pets and etiquette books on how formal meals and feats should be conducted talk about how "dogs and cats" should be driven out of the hall before food was served.  The thirteenth century Ancrene Wisse - a guide for female hermits - advises "[you] shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat".  Far from being "virtually eliminated", medieval people rather liked cats.

A medieval cat messing up a nun's spinning
The Origin of the Myth?

Despite his confident assertions about medieval cat massacres, elsewhere in his book Engels lets it slip that this is only an "assumption":

"There are depictions of cats being killed in medieval art, and this evidence remains to be collected and analyzed. The assumption is made, correctly in my opinion, based on artistic representations, folk traditions, and contemporary documents such as the Vox in Rama, that the cats were massacred with their female owners in large numbers. The cat population of the continent was probably decimated, especially in the towns where the culprits could be more easily rounded up."

So it seems his confidence is actually not solidly based at all.  There may well be "depictions of cats being killed in medieval art" (though I can't find any at all), but there are also depictions of cats as pampered pets and valued mousers, so that is a flimsy basis for this "assumption" that this massacre "probably" happened.

Engels seems to have happily accepted the myth of a massacre of cats after Vox in Rama without bothering to check it.  Not surprisingly, the rest of his account of how this supposed lack of cats caused the plague is full of other popular but baseless ideas and his conception of medieval people as unwashed idiots who lived in piles of garbage and actually liked rats while killing cats is as bizarre as it is baseless.  He repeats the myth that European Jews were spared the plague because they were cleaner than their neighbours.  Importantly, he does not explain why the death rate in central Asia and the Middle East was just as high as in Christian Europe, even though those regions were well-beyond the reach of any papally-ordained cat massacres.  And his reference in the quote above to cats being "massacred with their female owners in large numbers" indicates that he thinks the witch craze happened in the medieval period and that he has a general ignorance of the period.  Perhaps Engels should stick to ancient Macedonian military logistics.

So where did this idea of a medieval cat massacre come from?  Like many myths that are projected back onto "the Middle Ages" (witch burning, an aversion to bathing), it seems loosely based on some much later incidents of killing animals as a reaction to other outbreaks of epidemics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  And the targets of these examples seem to have been dogs more than cats, though they could include both.

One thing that was notable about the Black Death and later European manifestations of the plague is that it seems to have affected many animals and livestock as well as humans.  This means it killed rats in large numbers (possibly causing their fleas to seek human hosts), but we also have descriptions of dogs, cats and cattle dying.  As a result, the main mentions of cats and dogs in accounts has them as victims of the epidemic, not as its cause.

Despite this, we do have some evidence that dogs and, sometimes, cats were killed in reaction to later outbreaks.  In Edinburgh in 1499 a city ordinance required stray dogs, cats and pigs be killed in reaction to an outbreak of disease, and this law was repeated in 1505 and 1585.  We find a similar reaction in Seville in 1581 and in London in 1563 and again in 1665, where the victims were again mainly stray dogs rather than cats.  The reason seems to have been the medical belief that stray animals spread the plague:

"From the later 15th century, such observers as Marsiglio Ficino began blaming animals - dogs that molested corpses made the most sense - for spreading plague, probably through miasma in their fur." (Joseph P. Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death, ABC-Clio, 2012, p. 13)

The fact that stray animals were blamed seems to indicate that animals that molested the corpses of victims or stirred up "bad air" in garbage were seen as the problem.  But this evidence all dates to well after the late 1340s, was aimed largely at dogs rather than cats, had nothing to do with "witches" and was not due to anything done by the Church.

So it seems the whole myth is the usual tangle of prejudices about the medieval Church, popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the general tendency for people to accept weird-sounding "true facts" about the past that perpetuate the idea that our ancestors were not as clever as us.  Add a heavy dollop of anti-Christian bias and we can see why New Atheists like whoever is behind "No More Make Believe" on Facebook didn't bother to check their facts.  Militant online "rationalism" fails again.