Monday, June 22, 2015

Was Dionysus born of a virgin?

I recently had a dialogue with a fellow on (hereinafter DDO) about some supposed similarities between Dionysus and Jesus. I just responded to one of the parallels, but I decided to do some digging around about the supposed virgin birth of Dionysus. Usually when these things come up, nobody ever cites a primary source, and it's hard to get to the bottom of anything. So I thought I'd see if I could get to the bottom of this one and settle it once and for all.

Through googling around, I discovered that the fellow on DDO had cut and paste from an an article by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S. I read the section on the virgin birth to see if she would cite any primary sources that I could look at. Unfortunately, she cited nothing but secondary sources. But she said, "In the common myth about the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus, Semele is mysteriously impregnated by one of Zeus's bolts of lightning--an obvi­ous miraculous/virgin conception." I decided to pursue this incident to see if I could get to the bottom of it.

To help me along, I posted a question about it in a closed group forum on facebook. One of the people there directed me to this article on pagan parallel saviors. The pagan parallel article cited an on line encyclopedia entry on the mother of Dionysus, Semele, that was written by James Hunter. It says:

Because Zeus slept with Semele secretly, Hera only found out about the affair after the girl was pregnant. Bent on revenge, Hera disguised herself and persuaded Semele to demand that Zeus come to her in all the splendor with which he visited Hera. As a result, Semele asked Zeus to grant an unspecified favor, and got him to swear by the river Styx that he would grant it. Unable to break his oath, Zeus came to her armed in his thunder and lightning, and Semele was destroyed. However, Zeus rescued the unborn child from the mother's ashes and sewed it in his thigh until it was ready to be born.
I still wanted to see it in the primary source, so I kept looking. The savior god article also cited Ovid's Metamorphoses, so I googled "ovid metamorphoses semele" and found a primary source for this story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book III. It appears under two subtitles: "Juno sets out to destroy Semele" and "Semele is consumed by Jupiter's fire." Apparently, this is a Roman version of an earlier Greek story, and I still haven't found the Greek version. Juno is the same person as Hera, and Jupiter is Zeus. Other than the change in names, everything James Hunter said in the encyclopedia entry is true.

Zeus had been having an affair with Semele. Hera/Juno "was grieved by the fact that Semele was pregnant, with the seed of mighty Jove," aka Zeus. Since Semele was pregnant, Hera decided to get revenge by destroying Semele. She disguised herself as an old woman and visited Semele. She manipulates Semele into getting Zeus to promise to "assume all his powers before he embraces you," just as he does with Hera. Zeus doesn't want to do it because he knows it will kill Semele, but he can't back out of his promise. Zeus tries to limit his powers as much as he can, but he gathers the storm clouds and the thunder and lightening, etc., and appears to Semele. Predictably, she gets burned up. Zeus then rescues Dionysus/Bacchus who was "still unfinished," and sews him into his thigh until he is ready to be born.

So basically, D.M. Murdock had the wrong idea. She thought Zeus somehow got Semele pregnant with the use of a lightening bolt when in reality, Semele was pregnant already from sleeping with Zeus while he was disguised as a mortal man. The lightening played no role in Semele getting pregnant. It seems pretty clear to me that Semele was no virgin.

It's nice to finally get to the bottom of something, huh?

[UPDATE July 31, 2017]
I found another primary source for the conception and birth of Dionysus.  It comes from The Library 3.4.3 by Apollodorus and dates to the second century AD.  It agrees with the other sources that "Zeus loved Semele and bedded with her unknown to Hera."  She became pregnant, and the rest of the story unfolds as in the other accounts with Hera tricking Semele, and Zeus accidentally killing her with lightening, then sewing Dionysus into his thigh.  So again, Semele was not a virgin. This account gives a footnote that lists other primary sources for Semele and the birth of Dionysus, but I haven't looked at them all yet.

[UPDATE: October 16, 2021]
Here are a few more sources I found on this subject (One from the The Bachhae by Euripides discussed in the comments below).:

Hesiod, Theogony, 940-942
8th to 7th century BC
“And Semele, daughter of Cadmus was joined with him in love and bare him a splendid son, joyous Dionysus, -- a mortal woman an immortal son. And now they both are gods.”

Euripides, Bacchae,
5th century BC
I’ve arrived here in the land of Thebes,
I, Dionysus, son of Zeus, born to him
from Semele, Cadmus’ daughter, delivered
by a fiery midwife—Zeus’ lightning flash.”

“For my mother’s sisters have acted badly,
something they, of all people, should avoid.
They boasted aloud that I, Dionysus,
was no child of Zeus, claiming Semele,
once she was pregnant by some mortal man,
attributed her bad luck in bed to Zeus,
a story made up (they said) to trick Cadmus.   
Those sisters state that’s why Zeus killed her,
because she lied about the man she’d slept with.”

“Chorus: His mother dropped him early,
as her womb, in forceful birth pangs,
  was struck by Zeus’ flying lightning bolt,  
a blast which took her life.
Then Zeus, son of Cronos,
at once hid him away
in a secret birthing chamber,
buried in his thigh,
shut in with golden clasps,
concealed from Hera.”

This man claims 
that Dionysus is a god, alleging
that once upon a time he was sewn up,
stitched inside Zeus’ thigh—but Dionysus
was burned to death, along with Semele,
in that lightning strike, because she’d lied.
She maintained that she’d had sex with Zeus.
All this surely merits harsh punishment,
death by hanging. Whoever this stranger is,
his insolence is an insult to me.”

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 4.2.2-3
1st century BC
“[4.2.2] Semelê was loved by Zeus because of her beauty, but since he had his intercourse with her secretly and without speech she thought that the god despised her; consequently she made the request of him that he come to her embraces in the same manner as in his approaches to Hera.

[4.2.3] Accordingly, Zeus visited her in a way befitting a god, accompanied by thundering and lightning, revealing himself to her as he embraced her; but Semelê, who was pregnant and unable to endure the majesty of the divine presence, brought forth the babe untimely and was herself slain by the fire. Thereupon Zeus, taking up the child, handed it over to the care of Hermes, and ordered him to take it to the cave in Nysa,4 which lay between Phoenicia and the Nile, where he should deliver it to the nymphs that they should rear it and with great solicitude bestow upon it the best of care.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.253-272
c. 8 AD
“She [Hera/Juno] was grieved by the fact that Semele was pregnant, with the seed of mighty Jove. Swallowing words of reproach, she said ‘What, in truth, have I gained from frequent reproaches? I must attack her. If I am rightly to be called most powerful Juno, if it is right for me to hold the jewelled sceptre in my hand, if I am queen, and sister and wife of Jove, sister at least, then it is her I must destroy. Yet I think she is content with her secret, and the injury to my marriage will be brief. But she has conceived – and that damages me – and makes her crime visible in her swollen belly, and wants, what I have barely achieved, to be confirmed as the mother of Jupiter’s child, so great is her faith in her beauty. I will render that faith hollow. I am not Saturnia if she does not plunge into the Stygian waters, overwhelmed by Jove himself.’”

Philostratus of Lemnos (or his father-in-law, Lucius Flavius Philostratus, or Philostratus the Elder), Imagines, 1.14
3rd century AD
“A cloud of fire encompassing Thebes breaks into the dwelling of Cadmus as Zeus comes wooing Semele; and Semele apparently is destroyed, but Dionysus is born, by Zeus, so I believe, in the presence of the fire. And the form of Semele is dimly seen as she goes to the heavens, where the Muses will hymn her praises: but Dionysus leaps forth as his mother’s womb is rent apart and he makes the flame look dim, so brilliantly does he shine like a radiant star.”

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Love and acceptance

One of the points that keeps getting raised by the LGBT… movement in response to Christians who oppose things like same sex marriage and sex changes is that Jesus was all about love and acceptance. They argue that Christians are inconsistent with Jesus' teachings when they oppose these things and are therefore not acting like real Christians.

But that strikes me as being an extremely unreflective argument. Do these people really think Jesus was loving and accepting of just any life style that any person might choose? Do they really think Jesus would approve of any lifestyle whatsoever just on the basis that he's "loving and accepting"? Well, I don't see how anybody who has read the new testament could get that impression. And even if they haven't read the new testament, I don't see how anybody could think that would be a good attitude to have anyway.

But if it was a good attitude to have, then why can't the LGBT… folks be more loving and accepting of the Christians that oppose them?

The idea that Jesus or anybody ought to be loving and accepting of anything is absurd on its face. Surely we shouldn't be loving and accepting of the criminal lifestyle, the rapist lifestyle, or the alcoholic lifestyle. What kind of person would Jesus be if he approved of these things and was accepting toward people who engaged in them?

If you think Jesus would be loving and accepting of anybody, regardless of how they choose to live their lives, you should check out Matthew 23. He certainly was not very loving and accepting to the Pharisees in that passage.

When Jesus was asked why he hung out with sinners and tax collectors, it wasn't because he was loving and accepting. Quite the contrary. He said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick" (Matthew 9:12). In other words, Jesus didn't accept their lifestyle at all. He hung out with them because he wanted to fix them. He wanted to free them from their slavery to sin. That is love, to be sure, but it is not acceptance.

That's another confusion of LGBT… people who make this argument. It is not loving to accept somebody's sin and treat it as if it weren't sin. If same sex marriage is a sin, then it would not be loving for a Christian to celebrate it. That would be the exact opposite of love because then you'd be enabling somebody and encouraging them to sin.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Does libertarian freedom entail the ability to do good or evil?

Some folks attempt to hold on to libertarian freedom even in light of an inability to do good or an inability to do evil on the basis that when faced with a choice between good and evil, there are multiple options for doing good and multiple options for doing evil. So let's say Jesus has libertarian freedom, but he is incapable of doing evil. One would say that when faced with a choice between good and evil, there are multiple good options that Jesus could choose from, and his final choice is not determined. If he chooses one good option, he could've chosen the other.

I don't think this is an adequate escape for libertarians, though. I think it's a slight of hand. Let's say George is faced with a choice between drinking Sprite or Dr. Pepper. You might be tempted to think this is a choice between two options. But in reality, it's two distinct choices with two distinct sets of options. One choice is whether to drink Dr. Pepper or not. The other is whether to drink Sprite or not. That's two different choices, each with it's own set of options.

When Jesus is faced with some temptation, his choice is whether to give into that temptation or whether to resist that temptation. If resisting that temptation leaves him with multiple options, those multiple options are part of a distinct choice. If Jesus had libertarian freedom regarding the choice whether to give in to the temptation or resist the temptation, then he would be capable of doing either. So if he is incapable of taking one of those options, then he does not have libertarian freedom regarding that choice. If, having resisted the temptation, he is left with multiple morally praiseworthy options, his choice between those options can be free in the libertarian sense, but that doesn't make his choice on whether to give in to or resist the temptation free in the libertarian sense.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

homosexuality and transgenderism

A thought just occurred to me. You know that post I made a while back on "gender and sex" where I talked about how some people consider sex to be a physical thing but gender to be a mental thing? That is, some people think gender has to do with your self-identification. A person can have a male body and a female mind, in which case their sex is male and their gender is female.

Well, I was just thinking about how that fits into the whole homosexuality thing. What does it mean to be homosexual in light of this notion about gender being mental rather than physical? Is a person homosexual because they are into the same sex or because they are into the same gender?

Suppose Tom is physically and mentally male, but his friend, George, is physically male but mentally female. And suppose Tom buys into the whole notion of "gender identity," so he refers to George as a "she." And suppose that Tom has a crush on George. Would Tom be gay or straight?

Or suppose Lisa is physically and mentally female, and she has a crush on George. Would she be gay or straight?

Or suppose Gwyneth is physically female but mentally male, and she has a crush on Brad who is both mentally and physically male. Would she be gay or straight?

Or suppose Andy is physically male but mentally female, and he has a crush on Gwyneth. Would he be gay or straight?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What is evidence?

Some people define evidence like this:

E is evidence of T just in case the probability of T is higher given E than it would be without E.

Or in other words. . .

P(T/E) > P(T/~E)

I once used that definition of "evidence" in a debate to show that contrary to my opponent's view that "faith is not evidence" for the existence of God, faith actually was evidence for the existence of God since the existence of God is more probable given that some people have faith than it would be if nobody had faith.

I'm not sure that's really a good definition of evidence, though. Consider the existence of the Elder wand in Harry Potter. The Elder wand is a magic wand made from the Elder tree that is so powerful, it renders the wizard who wields it invincible. That's assuming the wand chose the wizards since in Harry Potter, the wand chooses the wizard.

Now obviously if there were no such thing as an Elder tree, then the probability of the existence of the Elder wand would be zero. But the Elder wand would at least be possible if the elder tree existed, which it does. That possibility might be extremely remote, but the probability would still be greater than zero. Something whose existence is possible has a better chance of existing than something whose existence is impossible, so the probability of the existence of the Elder wand is greater given the existence of the elder tree than it would be given the non-existence of the elder tree. From that, it should follow that the existence of the elder tree is evidence for the existence of the elder wand.

But doesn't that strike you as wrong?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Enough with the snarkiness!

For a long time, it seemed to me that in interactions between Christians and non-Christians, all the vitriol, verbal abuse, sarcasm, snarkiness, and general unpleasantness was coming from atheists and other non-believers, but that Christians were, for the most part, trying to be civil.  J.P. Holding seemed to be the only Christian out there taking the low road, and even though some of us liked what he was saying, most of us didn't like the way he was saying it.  To a lesser degree, a lot of us were also uncomfortable with James White's abrasive attitude.

Atheists weren't just being abrasive because they were immature or because they let their emotions control them.  Even some of the very well-educated and well-respected atheists, like Richard Dawkins, were actually encouraging people to use ridicule.  What many of us previously thought was just the waste-water of the YouTube comment section was now being baptized by the intellectual leaders of the new atheist movement.  It was kind of shocking!

Apparently, even many in the atheist community were uncomfortable with it.  A rift formed between people like Jeff Lowder who thought atheists ought to be civil, and people like Richard Carrier who were all for being nasty.

But lately (for the last year or so), I've noticed that a lot of Christians are starting to give up on civility, too.  I've seen it in a lot of comment sections on blogs, and on discussion boards that I visit.  (I wonder if it is just exhaustion from having to put up with it for so long while trying to take the high road with little effect or reciprocation.)  The snarkiness I've seen from other Christians makes me even more uncomfortable than the snarkiness I've seen from atheists and other non-believers.  After all, I am a Christian myself.

So I just want to remind my fellow arm chair apologists of what Peter said in our signature verse about apologetics:

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being read to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)

Please, let's not forget the "gentleness and reverence" part.  It seems that a lot of us have.  As Solomon once said, "When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest" (Proverbs 19:11).  Don't be the foolish man.  Take the high road. Any fool can vent his frustration, but it takes patience and humility to remain civil and amicable when reasoning with people over controversial issues.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Do we have a priori knowledge?

By the law excluded middle, an item of knowledge is either inferred from prior items of knowledge or it is not inferred from prior items of knowledge.  Items of knowledge that are inferred are called a posteriori, and items of knowledge that are not inferred are called a priori.  The only way to escape this dichotomy is to deny that there's any such thing as knowledge at all.

The denial of a priori knowledge leads to absurdity.  If you deny that it's possible to know something without inferring it from something else, then you would have to say that for everything you know, there is a prior item of knowledge from which you inferred it.

For example, let's say you know that Socrates is mortal.  Perhaps you inferred that item of knowledge from these two items of knowledge:

1.  All men are mortal.
2.  Socrates is a man.

But if each item of knowledge you possess must be inferred from something prior, then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer 1 and 2.  Otherwise, you couldn't know that Socrates is mortal.  And then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer those as well.

If you continue to think this through, you'll quickly see that it leads to an infinite regress.  If all of our items of knowledge must be inferred from prior items of knowledge, then the only way it's possible to know anything is if there is a beginningless line of reasoning from prior premises that leads up to your present state of knowledge.

But that is impossible for three reasons.  First, none of us know an infinite number of things.  Second, because nobody has been around long enough to make an infinite number of inferences.  Third, because if there were no beginning, there would be no way to even get started making inferences.  You couldn't very well start at the beginning because there's no beginning to get started from!

So it is impossible that all of our knowledge is a posteriori.  If we know anything at all, then at least some of our knowledge must be a priori.  That means that unless there are some things we know immediately without inferring them from anything else, then knowledge is impossible.

Some people may be willing to bite the bullet and say, "Well, okay, then nobody really knows anything at all, including me."  This view is called global skepticism.  It is a self-refuting point of view for a couple of reasons.

First, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then we wouldn't know it.  A person who claims not to know anything is stating something he doesn't know to be true.

Second, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then nobody knows that any of the premises that lead to the conclusion are true, nor that the conclusion follows from those premises.

Besides that, there are plenty of things we obviously know.  We each know that we exist.  We know that two contradictory statements can't both be true at the same time and in the same sense.  I know that I have a sister named Jennifer and a brother named James.  There are all kinds of things we know.  So there must be a priori knowledge.

Is it a sin to be gay?

A lot of Christians make a distinction between having same sex attractions and acting on them.  They will say that it is a sin to have a gay relationship, but it is not a sin to simply be gay.  Some of them say that a gay person who wants to be a Christian has two moral options--they can either stay celibate, or they can go through one of those sexual orientation change programs.  Either way, they can consistently be Christians.

I'm not so sure, though.  On the one hand, it does seem to me that God judges not only our actions, but the thoughts, intentions, and motives behind our actions as well.  In Genesis 6:5, it says that "every intent of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually."  In Jeremiah 4:14, it says, "Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved.  How long will your wicked thoughts lodge within you?"  So apparently, there is such a thing as a moral thought crime.  Intentions and thoughts can be wicked and evil, not just actions.  Proverbs 24:9 says that even "the devising of folly is sin," not just the doing of folly.  It is a sin to covet (Exodus 20:17) and to lust (Matthew 5:28), both of which are thought crimes.  And there are many passages that say God looks not only at our actions, but at our hearts (e.g. 1 Samuel 16:17, Jeremiah 11:20, 1 Chronicles 28:9,  Proverbs 17:3, 21:2, Luke 16:15, etc.).  Jesus said that our good or evil deeds come from good or evil treasure stored in our hearts (Luke 6:43-45).  So it would seem if homosexual acts are sinful, then the thoughts, motives, and desires behind them are sinful as well.

But on the other hand, Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus "has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."  If one can be tempted to sin without committing any sin, that would seem to suggest that it is not a sin to have a desire you don't give into even if the desire is for something that would be sinful if you gave into it.  In that case, one could desire to have sex with one's neighbor's wife and not be guilty of any sin, and one could desire to have a relationship with somebody of the same sex and not be guilty of any sin as long as one didn't act on the desire.

On the third hand, there are two senses in which one might be tempted.  Maybe what Hebrews 4:15 means is that attempts were made to persuade Jesus to sin, not that Jesus actually felt any compulsion or inclination to sin.  Maybe Jesus didn't feel at all tempted by the opportunities given to him.

Of course some people might object that since they can't change their desires, they can't be held accountable for them.  But isn't the whole point of the gospel that we are dead in sins, unable to repent, and that it is only by the grace of God that we can be saved?  The New Testament seems to presuppose that we are all doomed because of the sinful state we are in that we cannot change.  It's only by the drawing of the Father that we can come to Christ (John 6:44).  It is only by God taking our our hearts of stones and giving us hearts of flesh that we are able to obey his commands (Ezekiel 36:26-27).  Otherwise, we are guilty of sin even though we can't do otherwise.  We are completely helpless and at the mercy of God.  That's why God gets all the glory in our salvation (Ephesians 1:5-6, 12, 14).  That's why there is no room for boasting on our parts (Romans 3:21-28, 1 Corinthians 1:29-30).

They have these programs that are supposed to help you change your sexual orientation, and apparently there are a lot of people who claim they are no longer gay.  I am skeptical of the claim that people can change their orientation through any kind of therapy, though.  I suspect these claims of changed orientation are due either to some people actually being bi-sexual and sometimes having a preference for one gender while at other times having a preference for the other gender, kind of like how sometimes you'd rather have pizza, and sometimes you'd rather have a hamburger, or the claims of changed orientation may be due to people kidding themselves and living in denial.  That wouldn't surprise me because of the tremendous pressure these people are under to be straight.  In Pentecostal churches where people believe that if you don't speak in tongues, then you don't have the Holy Spirit in you, it seems that almost everybody speaks in tongues, when the rest of us know it's all fake.  They're just behaving according to what they think is expected of them.  I've actually read testimonies from people who claimed to have changed their orientation, and even gotten married to an opposite sex person, and they will sometimes admit that the gay feelings are still there sometimes.  Well, if that's the case, then their orientation hasn't actually change!  After all, what is being gay except a desire for the same sex?  I suspect these people are just bi-sexual or in serious denial.

Even if we grant all the claimed success stories, they still describe the minority of gay people.  Most people seem incapable of changing their sexual orientation even though a lot of them would like to.  Wouldn't it be better for gay people to just admit that they are dead in sin just like everybody else and throw themselves at the mercy of God?  Not one of us can get rid of all of our sinful desires, so why kid ourselves?  We can try, but we can't stop having sinful desires.  Our only hope is the grace of God through faith in Christ.  We're all in the same boat.  It's just that our vices differ from person to person.

If we are going to have programs that are supposed to change people's sexual orientation, then why not also have equally rigorous programs that change people's other sinful desires?  Do you ever hear of people going through programs and saying, "I've been cured of lust!" or "I've been cured of greed!"?  No, our sinful desires never go away.  We overcome them because God gives us a greater desire to do what is right so that we no longer give in to them, even though we still fail from time to time.  Even if we could refrain from behaving sinfully all the time, we'd still be at the mercy of God for the sinful motives, thoughts, and desires we have.  And thank goodness for a perfect savior who bore our sins on the cross and saved us completely!