Alexander of Abonuteichos and Christianity/Jesus

A well-known atheist denizen says that in the account of this figure, found in the works of Lucian, we have something that "illustrates how easy it was to invent a god and watch the masses scurry to worship it." Easy to invent a god? Yes. Secure a reaction? Guaranteed. Make that cult stick? Not so fast. We are told that Alexander's cult "lasted well beyond his death in 170 A.D., drawing the patronage of emperors and provincial governors as well as the commons" and "may have even lasted into the 4th century, although the evidence is unclear."

Well enough then. Based on the clear evidence, this is exactly what we would expect of a false movement. What I have asked of Sabbatai Sevi elsewhere, I now ask here: Why then did Christianity not die out? But there is more to this mix than that, and we need some background data. Here from our denizen is how Alexander's religion came about:

The official story was that a snake-god with a human head was born as an incarnation of Asclepius, and Alexander was his keeper and intermediary. With this arrangement Alexander gave oracles, offered intercessory prayers, and even began his own mystery religion. Lucian tells us the inside story. Glycon was in fact a trained snake with a puppet head, and all the miracles surrounding him were either tall tales or the ingenious tricks of Alexander himself. But what might we think had there been no Lucian to tell us this?

All this is quite on the mark, but we can add a few things. In Culture and Society in Lucian (which our denizen uses, but only as far as it suits his purposes) and elsewhere we also learn that Alex:

Alex's Magic Show

Before comparisons can be made between Jesus and Alexander, it's a good idea to see what sort of skills they had. Here is an example of one of the magic tricks Alexander would pull:

In the fullness of time, his plan took shape. He went one night to the temple foundations, still in the process of digging, and with standing water in them which had collected from the rainfall or otherwise; here he deposited a goose egg, into which, after blowing it, he had inserted some new-born reptile. He made a resting-place deep down in the mud for this, and departed. Early next morning he rushed into the market-place, naked expect for a gold-spangled loin-cloth; with nothing but this and his scimitar, and shaking his long loose hair, like the fanatics who collect money in the name of Cybele, he climbed on to a lofty altar and delivered a harangue, felicitating the city upon the advent of the god now to bless them with his presence. In a few minutes nearly the whole population was on the spot, women, old men, and children included; all was awe, prayer, and adoration. He uttered some unintelligible sounds, which might have been Hebrew or Phoenician, but completed his victory over his audience, who could make nothing of what he said, beyond the constant repetition of the names Apollo and Asclepius.
He then set off at a run for the future temple. Arrived at the excavation and the already completed sacred fount, he got down into the water, chanted in a loud voice hymns to Asclepius and Apollo, and invited the god to come, a welcome guest, to the city. He next demanded a bowl, and when this was handed to him, had no difficulty in putting it down a the right place and scooping up, besides water and mud, the egg in which the god had been enclosed; the edges of the aperture had been joined with wax and white lead. He took the egg in his hand and announced that here he held Asclepius. The people, who had been sufficiently astonished by the discovery of the egg in the water, were now all eyes for what was to come. He broke it, and received in his hollowed palm the hardly developed reptile; the crowd could see it stirring and winding about his fingers; they raised a shout, hailed the god, blessed the city, and every mouth was full of prayers-for treasure and wealth and health and all the other good things that he might give. Our hero now departed homewards, till running, with the new-born Asclepius in his hands-the twice-born, too, whereas ordinary men can be born but once, and born moreover not of Coronis, nor even of her namesake the crow, but of a goose! After him streamed the whole people, in all the madness of fanatic hopes.

Not bad -- but try hiding bread and fish for 5000 in the same way. Other tricks were along the lines of those used by magicians today, but nothing on the order of a blind man being healed.

Does this sound like Jesus to you? It sounds, actually, more like Peter Popoff, or an Old West snake oil salesman; Alexander's story only "illustrates how easy it was to invent a god and watch the masses scurry to worship it" if the god is not very demanding and appeals to baser instincts. Alexander did little more, apparently, than deliver poetic oracles (with the help of a professional writer, no less!), keep a clever mouth running, do a little ventriloquism, and ask for some money in return, and later added some sex in the mix for good measure. This is a religion of the Tom Cruise variety, not a faith for the faithful.

One may justly ask how this compares, in terms of demand-for-belief ratio, to someone who claimed to be the Word and Wisdom of the only God, claimed to be at the helm where eternal life was concerned, and came out of a background of despised superstitions (Judaism), and demanded top-flight behavior. Alexander's demands for belief were on the level of today's Omar Bradley astrological columns and the Psychic Friends' call-in. There is (in that context) a low level of demand for acceptance.

Believing in Alexander did not require offending friends and neighbors (other than an old stodge like Lucian, of course), did not require giving up all else you believed in (just a few bucks maybe) and was not dripping with social unacceptability -- indeed Alexander helped himself by blasting away at the unpopular Christians. (And the Epicureans as well!)

Had Alexander stopped asking for drachma, and started seriously asking for pledges of souls and proclaimed himself sole and universal deity to the exclusion of Roman gods, we can be sure he would have had to pass some higher level of muster. Alex's story also illustrates what happens to flash-in-the-pan religions -- and leads us to note that this obviously did not happen to Christianity, while it clearly should have if indeed there was nothing substantive to it.

Some religions thrive by being vague (Rastafarianism) or by having only philosophical demands, or demands beyond verification (Buddhism, Hinduism). Others staked a claim to survival by isolation (Mormonism) or by the sword (Islam). Christianity did none of these things and had none of these benefits, other than a late flirtation with the sword when it was already a secure faith.

It doesn't matter how many statues, coins, or officials Alexander laid claim to, and the craze of Alexander does nothing to "explain why a new and strange religion like Christianity could become so popular, and its absurd claims so readily believed." Rather, it does a great deal to explain how far down Skeptics need to dig in order to try to refute Christianity. It is not sufficient to simply throw examples like Alex in the air and then gawkishly say that Christianity just happened to be the movement that got away with the trickery and survived. Skeptics who vaguely appeal to "people can be duped" and appeal to examples like Alex are merely opting for a quick and dirty non-refutation which allows them to evade the hard arguments and quickly persuade those like themselves who have already made their decision and simply wish for verification of their prejudices.

-JPH