New Atheism has a Fringe History problem

New Atheists quite rightly denounce Fundamentalist Christians for promoting junk science, but whilst they like to parade themselves as ‘champions of reason and skepticism’ to the point of cliché, this is not always the case. As part of their crusade to undermine the basis of Christianity they often promote fringe theories regarding the origins of the bible which have long been abandoned by the mainstream (and for good reason), often (I highly suspect) not because the evidence supports this conclusion but rather because the theories support their worldview.

Perhaps the most common fringe historical theory promoted by New Atheists is the idea that Jesus never existed, an idea frowned upon by almost all Historians and Biblical Scholars (even by atheist scholar Bart Ehrman). This often is combined with the quite frankly groundless notion that the story of Jesus is copied from older pagan gods, common examples being Mithras (who’s cult is in fact believed to have formed after Christianity), Krishna (whose worship in India is unlikely to have influenced Jews in Palestine and Horus (whose “parallels” with the story of Jesus are often entirely invented). Atheist Youtuber Jaclyn Glenn has promoted this idea like its historical fact (in reality she is truly just parroting claims she has heard from poorly researched secondary sources). Ben Stanhope has thoroughly debunked Jaclyn’s claims. To give prominent Jesus mythicist Richard Carrier credit where it is due, he has rejected some of these quite frankly absurd claims regarding a pagan origin for Jesus.

Another junk historical theory often promoted by New a Atheists is Panbabylonism, the claim that stories in the Old Testament are often shamelessly plagiarised from Mesopotamian sources. At first glance this may seem obvious, when Biblical stories are compared to older Mesopotamian myths, but closer examination reveals that it is much more complex than New Atheists, with a very basic understanding of the subject matter realise. ‘Early’ (emphasis here) Assyriologists widely embraced Panbabylonism, but it has now been mostly abandoned (and for good reason, as we shall see), though still promoted as historical fact by New Atheists and Ancient Astronaut theorists. New Atheist Author Michael Sherlock here and here claims that it is a ‘painful “fact”’ that the Jews gained Genesis 1 from their captives during the Babylonian exile, without having a clue as to what he is speaking about (though thinking he does). The sources he uses are mostly from before there was evidence to the contrary, which is important, because most modern day scholars of Akkadian and Sumerian DO NOT hold this view any more, and for proper research reveals that the reasons for this are clear. The discovery and decipherment of Ugaritic, a language very similar to Biblical Hebrew revealed that Genesis 1 has parallels with myths and legends all across the ancient near east, not just Babylon. So whilst almost all historians agree the two stories share a genetic relation, this is more likely to be a case of common origin than simple plagiarism. (As I have stated before, I believe the closest parallels with Genesis 1 are in fact with Egyptian creation myths) I would go as far to say that the poor and outdated quality of most of his sources, combined with his clear anti-religious views shows that Sherlock is clearly attempting to push this notion in order to fufill an agenda.

It is worth noting that the book of Genesis consistently polemically addresses the pagan myths of other religions (for example by calling the sun and moon ‘lights’ in order to remove polytheistic associations), so the parallels between Genesis 1 and other Near Eastern stories are not necessarily lethal to the Bible, only a literalist interpretation of it. Other times the book of Genesis will deliberately use pagan stories as a framework in order to contrast between the nature of God and that of pagan deities. For example in the story of Noah’s Flood (often cited as an example of ‘plagiarism’) God sends the flood for a benevolent and just reason (due to the wickedness of man), in contrast, in the Mesopotamian Atrahasis flood myth, the god’s send the flood for a malevolent reason (due to a lack of sleep).

I doubt that the New Atheists will learn from their mistakes, but one thing remains certain, the ones who rally the most against Pseudoscience and Pseudo-history have no issue with promoting the latter when it suits their agenda.

Dr Michael Heiser has written some great articles regarding modern day Panbabylonism. As he points out, the origins of Panbabylonism are heavily antisemitic (though he does not view modern day Panbabylonists as being antisemites, and neither do I). You can find them here:



How does a priestly scribe write a veiled polemic against pagan religion if he doesnt include literary features that indicate which pagan ideas are being referenced?

I don’t deny this, but it is much more complex than simple plagiarism, which is what many insist it is.


Maybe we could think of it like research papers have references.

A funny side note is Joseph shaving in Genesis 41:14. Why does the text mention that he shaved and what did he shave? I’m looking at one of the free E-books with the Biblical Archaeology Society (

As they note, most people in ancient Mesopotamia did not shave. But Egyptians, by contrast were clean shaven. Foreigners can be distinguished from native Egyptians in many Egyptian tomb paintings by the presence of full beards, for example. This was a big deal, and by shaving Joseph immediate transforms himself from a foreigner to an Egyptian (hence why his brothers don’t even recognize him). Given that he was going to enter Pharaoh’s divine chambers, it is also possible he shaved everything like the Egyptian priests.

It was a big deal to be physically ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ for Egyptian priests who completely shaved themselves (and thus is easy to spot them in ancient paintings). The laity and the unclean were not able to enter the temple, priests had to abstain from sexual activity during the period of their priesthood and only the male ‘pure ones’ could enter into the inner rooms. The priests who entered the temple were also circumcised for cleanliness sake. No problems there for Joseph, as he was likely circumcised when he was eight days old.

And then of course the Levites in Numbers 8:6-7 had similar requirements.

My current idea is related to them picking up bits and pieces from everywhere they went and putting it all together for different reasons.

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As Michael Heiser has pointed out, God clearly didn’t change the culture of the Israelites. You can find parallels to elements of the mosaic law all throughout the Near East. For example, the unbelievably cruel practice of forcing a women to marry her rapist is also found in the Code of Ur-Nammu.

An interesting law however is the prohibition on pork. To Archaeologists the one thing which clearly differentiates the Israelites from the other inhabitants of Canaan is that Israelite settlements lack pig bones.

He is actually not due much credit, in my opinion. His scholarship is largely based on misapplication of Bayes’ Theorem, which he doesn’t seem to understand. (Bayes’ theorem is designed to use new information/measurements, about which one has has reasonably good information, to correct your result or prediction. He does not use it as intended.) Ad hominem: It doesn’t help that he is an insufferable narcissist who uses 1000 words for every 10 that are necessary.

I was going to pick up his most recent book to thumb through it. Funny enough Bart Ehrman had a post which you probably are familiar with: I can appreciate Reggie’s point though in strict New Atheists being willing to bend (a little bit) even if Carrier’s still hell-bent on showing everyone Jesus wasn’t real.

In other words though, do you have a good article or resource that can help me appreciate Bayes’ Theorem with some examples? I see Sean Carroll for example using Bayes’ Theorem on inflation giving it greater than 50% chance of being correct.

That’s probably what my students think we I get going about some topic. Perhaps reading his book will help me improve my skimming skills.

I would argue there is actually still some ‘soft’ Anti-Semitism shown by modern adherents to Panbabylonism, even if they don’t realise it. They are holding the ancient Israelites to a lower standard than other ancient cultures, who truly weren’t doing anything different from them in terms of parallels in their literature. Yet no one accuses the Hittites, or Canaanites, or hell, even the Babylonians of plagiarism. It seems to me like a soft Anti-Semitism of low expectations.

I think there is a general feeling that a lot of people were borrowing and putting their own spin on what was borrowed. It is human to do so. Certainly the successive cultures in Mesopotamia borrowed from the previous (e.g., cuneiform passed down through successive cultures for over 3000 years, Gilgamesh started as Sumerian but the story changed as other cultures replaced the Sumerians). We enjoy seeing how Shakespeare uses the stories most of which predate him. We enjoy modern riffs on Shakespeare’s plays (e.g., West Side Story).

Note I’m an old atheist and have no truck with Jesus mythicism (though my own view is that we can really say little about him other than he lived, was executed and had followers who refused to accept his death as final). Other atheists have been fighting the good fight such as Tim O’Neil

Man everyone keeps picking on Richard Carrier. He sounds like such a nice guy too. For fairness I’ll also post his response to Tim O’Neil on one point: On the Gullibility of Bart Ehrman & the Asscrankery of Tim O'Neill • Richard Carrier Blogs

Funny guy though Tim O’Neil. Thanks for linking Tim O’Neil who seems like he’d generally agree with @Reggie_O_Donoghue in the OP. From Tim’s FAQ:

“Have you read the Bible and do you want to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?”

Yes. And no, thank you. I know the Bible very well thanks, probably better than you. As a result, I have no interest in converting to your alleged “Christ”.

“You are a fake atheist/crypto-Christian/’accommodationist”/paid Vatican operative/great big poopyhead.”

That’s not a question.

Amusing that he has to prove his atheism to his readers. Kind of like when Christians write books about evolution they have to prove they’re Christian first.


I had a debate with Michael Sherlock on faceboak last night. He conceded that the Hebrew Bible was indeed polemically addressing pagan myths yet somehow still acted as though this was plagiarism and harmful to scripture.

I don’t have any particular reference on Bayes’ Theorem. At an introductory level, any probability book will introduce the theorem and have examples, usually involving medical testing. As for the scientist, any book on data analysis (I’m familiar with some related to nuclear or high energy physics) will have at least a solid chapter on Bayes.

Rats, I sold away my only Nuclear Physics book many years ago thinking I would never need it. I actually got a copy of a book on the Philosophy of Science that has several hundred pages on Bayes’ Theorem… perhaps that is what I need!

What?? Apostate!

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I know, if I confessed my true sins I probably would be stripped of my degree, also giving away my Griffiths and Jackson E&M books to name two more. There is a lot of pain in my heart just thinking about it, as I may have committed some unforgivable sins here.

I think I actually did it after I became a Christian, and I also happened to be a young earth Christian at that time who was ready to quit everything and go live in my car for Jesus.

I still have Jackson and a few others but I’ve discarded many, since my physics days are long past. Still, I made an interesting typo recently: while scribbling some notes about something, I wrote that P. falciparum had a “23 MeV genome”, instead of a 23 Mb genome. Some habits die hard. (Have I written that here before? I have trouble distinguishing between what I’ve thought about writing and the much smaller number of things that I’ve actually written.)

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And for completeness, I’ll post my detailed reply: Richard Carrier and Josephus
By the way, my name is not “O’Neil”, even though that’s how Carrier consistently misspells it. He seems to do that on purpose because he is a very petty little man.

Amusing that he has to prove his atheism to his readers.

Tedious, actually. I wouldn’t have to do it if idiots didn’t repeatedly question my atheism because I don’t subscribe to their silly pseudo historical theories which have zero to do with belief in the existence of God or gods, but unfortunately idiots abound.

Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.

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Jackson himself committed apostasy when in the latest edition, and contrary to an earlier promise, he left the One True System of units for electrodynamics, (I am, of course referring to Gaussian units) and switched to the Satanic SI units, with their demonic four-pi-epsilon-naught’s. And we should never speak of this again.

What a delight to have you pop up here! I certainly can feel your pain in establishing your orthodoxy so to speak. I applaud you for working tirelessly to counteract bad history; in a sense I try to do the same with years of bad science that Christians have done and still continue to teach despite being shown wrong for decades yet ignoring decades of well established ideas and theories in science.

Also, thanks for the counter counter. I am not actively following this debate having just learned of your blog yesterday was it? I learned of Richard Carrier a day before that. I suppose if anything, do you have something you think is worthwhile that I could read? I see you’re working on one book now personally according to (Tim O’Neill : Strange Notions). You seem like an excellent thinker and this history stuff just confuses me.

Richard Carrier caused me to read the letters of Paul. I don’t think I had in all my years of childhood Catholic education :slight_smile: Maybe it will be a trend :slight_smile: