Reader writes: “How was James Brayshaw?”

My reply: Whoops. This Man having has really cut down on my blogging time. Also it’s dark in the mornings and I’ve gotten lazy in terms of getting up early to write. None of those are good reasons to forget to write about an interesting Saskatoon Freethinker’s meetup, mind you. I’m just saying.

So yeah, James Brayshaw. I don’t know how well known he is, but he’s published three books so far on the history of the idea of Satan in Christianity/Judaism and a fourth book is planned for release next year. These are incredibly detailed volumes going back to the earliest of the Biblical writings, looking at the history of Babylonia, Persia and every other place the early storytellers and writers would have put their feet up after a long desert slog. His new one, Who’s the Devil Jesus Knew, looks at the notion of Satan throughout the New Testament. I don’t think he said what the fourth would focus on.

He’s not the only one doing research into the contextual history of the Bible but he was the one easiest for us to get, being somewhat local. He mentioned a few of his sources during his talk, specifically a book called The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels and earlier writers like Celsus that she quoted. (Breaks added)

What makes the Christians’ message dangerous, Celsus writes, is not that they believe in one God, but that they deviate from monotheism by their “blasphemous” belief in the devil. For all the “impious errors” the Christians commit, Celsus says, they show their greatest ignorance in “making up a being opposed to God, and calling him ‘devil,’ or, in the Hebrew language, ‘Satan.’ ” All such ideas, Celsus declares, are nothing but human inventions, sacrilegious even to repeat: “it is blasphemy … to say that the greatest God … has an adversary who constrains his capacity to do good.”

Celsus is outraged that the Christians, who claim to worship one God, “impiously divide the kingdom of God, creating a rebellion in it, as if there were opposing factions within the divine, including one that is hostile to God!”” Celsus accuses Christians of “inventing a rebellion” (stasis meaning “sedition”) in heaven to justify rebellion here on earth. He accuses them of making a “statement of rebellion” by refusing to worship the gods-but, he says, such rebellion is to be expected “of those who have cut themselves off from the rest of civilization. For in saying this, they are really projecting their own feelings onto God.”

Brayshaw explained a bit of his own history to us, coming from a Pentecostal upbringing filled with the notion of Satan’s hand in everything horrible to the place he’s at now, believing in God but arguing that Satan as a being at cosmic odds with God is strictly a human invention brought on by misinterpreting biblical writing over thousands of years like the meaning of the term Satan/sawtawn.

The bible is full of allegory and metaphor, he further explained. Storytellers the world over have loved to embellish their tales with fanciful, flowery prose because it’s a hell of a lot more interesting to listen to than a dry report of facts. One story he talked about was of the fall of the King of Tyre. It’s written about in the bible, but couched in metaphorical descriptions of a man who thought he was a god, specifically the god Venus, the one “star” that beats the sun up in the morning. Oh Lucifer (lit: light bringer, used on account of some ancient idea that Venus caused the sun to rise?) …

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Isaiah 14:12 KJV

He talked about Job and his adversaries; they were most likely to be men he knew, not some ethereal being sent from God to ruin his life. He also mentioned Jesus calling out to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Based on his research, and the sources he used, he’s certain that calling Peter a satan, or sawtawn, was meant to be an insult, a derogatory word for a person opposed to what God wants. A chapter earlier in Matthew (15:19-20) it’s stated that the real adversary is ourselves and our thoughts. What is more likely, that God created an enemy for us, or we created our own problems by the way we think? Jeremiah 17:9 blames our hearts for it instead. Either way, it’s our own damn fault and nothing else’s.

(I’m bouncing around a bit but I’m stuck going by scribbles I made in a margin six days ago. Sorry.)

Brayshaw put up a great list during his talk showing just how similar God and the Devil wind up being in terms of abilities. Both can kill and cure, both answer prayers, both have tremendous power over human beings, etc etc. This winds up being part of the basis of his argument that people created Satan to be a god as well, even if they don’t tend to think of him as one. Christianity wound up with this dualism on account of the Jews going into the area that became Persia and being influenced by Zoroastrian ideology and the Magi there. They were there long enough to assimilate some of those beliefs into their own culture and take it away with them when they left. The modified belief system of those post-exile Jews is how the dualism of God vs. Satan got started.

Plus, Christians got into the habit of considering every other cultures’ gods to be demonic interlopers on the strength of scripture. He listed many places in the bible where verses “prove” the existence of only one God (thus acting as “proof” that Satan couldn’t be one). It was an important distinction in an era where neighbours and enemies had all manner of gods in their own pantheons. It was necessary to insist the Jews had the best and only one. (Heaven forbid if they were wrong about that.) Everyone wants to feel special and it was important for the Jews to believe they were specially chosen by their God. It helped justify all the shit they had to go through. Tests from God…until the Jews left Persia, anyway. Then every evil thing that happened had to be the fault of Satan instead, apparently. Unless I misunderstood the history lesson.

He said a lot of interesting things and I wish I could remember more of them. I have a notation on my paper here about him thinking that the New Testament never should have been considered holy writ. The bulk of it is a series of letters written by various people including Paul (and those who forged letters under his and other names) and he made the point that none of them men writing letters then would have been thinking of them as potential doctrine or scripture. It’s just correspondence that happened to get saved long enough to make it into the collection of works. It’s stories and letters intended for a different audience than the one today.

Speaking of audience, I quote from the email I received this week:

I’m so curious because on Gormley on Tuesday he mentioned that he met with CFI, to which Gormley unaffectionately replied, Oh those are the Atheists!” It wasn’t nice. Much to Gormley’s relief, Brayshaw confirmed that he is still a Christian and believes in the personal God of the Bible. Did Brayshaw discuss this discrepancy at the meeting – how, for God he suspends the critical thinking that he so aptly applies to support the non-existence of Satan?

It’s so good to see the courage of Brayshaw to discount Satan in such a scholarly way and that is a big chunk of the delusion, but I wish that he would take the next inevitable step.

The Freethinkers were very polite and didn’t grill him on that critical thinking disconnect, unless it happened after I left. He’s certainly come a long way and maybe he will reach a point where he realizes that since people made up Satan then it’s entirely possible they made up all the gods as well. Then he’d have to conclude that he invented the personal one he believes in, the one that fits what he needs his God to be right now, perhaps a different god than his wife invented, or his pastor, or his friends. It’s nothing I had to go through, being atheist all my life, but I know that’s a hard step to take and one that tests all who are faced with it.

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One Response to Reader writes: “How was James Brayshaw?”

  1. I gotta say, The CFI group was extraordinarily hospitable and were eager to learn why there is no Satan according to the Bible. The brief statement I made on my belief in a divine force was taken in stride. I look forward to chatting with these fine folk agian sometime.

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