There has been some interesting harassment going about the Internet from an independent “scholar”, Ralph Ellis, who has been rather upset about the treatment his ideas have gotten from various biblobloggers. Tom Verenna has been doing the most to show the deficiencies in his work (especially here, here, here, and here), though Steve Caruso from Aramaic Blog has also been rather patient in showing how the etymologies Ellis uses are several degrees of wrong (see here as well as Tom’s blog links above). Etymologies have a history of being abused, so it’s not surprising to see it violated by yet another non-expert. Because of this criticism, Ellis is now going about the Internet trying to smear Tom, including on my blog when I reviewed ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ (see here, edited to remove a link to some smut about Tom). Tom has a round-up of his harassment. So, let me institute the same policy I said I wanted to use against those that harass people in the skeptic movement: point it out, call it out, and make sure support is given to those that need it.
Also, I had to look at what Ellis is up to and get a good laugh. Hey, Tom and Steven can’t have all the fun. So far it looked like shooting fish in a barrel, so why not get in some easy laughs? (But does shooting these fish make me a bad vegetarian?)
For those of you that don’t want to go through the history of links I provided above, let me state some of Ellis’ theses. He has written several books about Jesus, trying to argue that he was, for example, the king of Edessa, a city in a region that is also known as not Judea. Ellis also claims that Jesus is King Arthur, sent with his wife and queen Mary Magdalene to exile in Britain by the Romans. You know, just like what the Romans always did with rebels, right? I mean, it’s not like there are any sources that say Jesus was crucified by the Romans or anything, right?
However, his research had to go through a publisher, so it can’t be completely cray cray, can it? Well, unfortunately, all of his books are through a publisher known as Adventures Unlimited Press. They have a nice collection of books on how to survive 2012 (which I did just fine without this help), and they are the publisher of ancient astronaut folks like David Hatcher Childress (who makes many appearances on Ancient Aliens) and Erich von Daniken, and the biggest pusher for astrotheology, Acharya S/D.M. Murdock. Basically, it’s self-publication of pseudo-anything and everything. Basically, take the sum total credibility of all university book presses (Oxford, Princeton, Uni of Chicago, etc.), take the inverse of that, and you have the upper limit to the credibility of anything at Adventures Unlimited. (Also, Acharya doesn’t publish her books through AUP anymore [she now self-publishes]; that is how low the credibility of this publisher is.)
So let me take some time to demonstrate that, even if you research something for a very long time (Ellis claims to have been doing independent research for over 30 years), you may not get anything actually correct. Unless you have good method and attention to detail, you will make significant mistakes. And with history and languages, there are a lot of details to get right or even probably right.
When it comes to his claims, I wanted to bounce through his book on King Arthur and Jesus, and in particular I wanted to see what he did with the Star Prophecy (Number 24:17); Ellis talks about it a lot, largely because of its connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls and thus the Essenes (but that connection has been challenged). But I came across so much wrongness I had to point it out. It also shows just how strange a collection these books are of his ideas, because so much doesn’t even really have anything to do with Jesus or the King Arthur legends.
In his King Jesus (p. 120), Ellis is trying to connect a bunch of names together etymologically and then connect that to stars and star worship. He wants to related the Egyptian word for star with not only a 3rd century Syrian queen, but also to god names like Ishtar (whom I mentioned before), Astarte, Ashtroreth, and “Zoroastra” (not a misspelling on my part, and one that Ellis uses two in his book plus in the index). He also claims these all derive from ester (אסתר) or aster (αστηρ), again having the meaning of ‘star’. There is so much wrong in just this one paragraph, I need to space it out.
First, his use of the word ‘star’ in Egyptian seems off. According to Hieroglyphs.net, here is the word for star (sba, and not saba):
Somehow, Ellis has added a few more characters to his word for ‘star’ at the end, and the best I can tell is he didn’t realize that this was another possible ending or variant to the word (compared to this page under ‘star’), but I’m not sure. But really, going off to Egypt to derive the names of Semitic and Persian gods is very odd. More importantly, there is no obvious connection between sba (or saba to be kind to Ellis) and aster/ester. It’s just an assertion by Ellis without even a hint of plausibility.
The connection between the Greek word for ‘star’ (aster) and the goddess Ishtar are also very distant. Aster comes from Proto-Indo-European that means to glow or shine, while Ishtar is not even in the same language family–these words are as distantly related to each other in language families as mushrooms are from dogs in evolutionary terms. The only research I am aware of on that goddess’ etymology is from a century ago (see George A. Barton Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 31, No. 4 (1911), pp. 355-358), and Barton argues it comes from ‘self-waterer’ or something with irrigating croplands. That makes sense considering she is related to fertility and her myth with Tammuz going into the netherworld may also connect to seasonal life and death of crops. However, what needs to be noted is that no one theorized that the name has anything to do with star or stars; it was never a viable option to linguists. Now, Ishtar was connected to Venus, called the morning star, but not because of her name; that was picked up from Ishtar’s earlier, Sumerian incarnation, Inanna, a name that obviously isn’t related to aster. Again, Don’t try to relate Inanna to aster; she is Sumerian, and that language cannot be fit into any language family, let alone Indo-European.
I’m also impressed by the made-up god name of “Zoroastra”. I think Ellis is referring to Zoroaster, though somehow feminizing the name, but either the correct or incorrect form will be a false lead. Zoroaster is the Greek transliteration of the Persian word for the prophet (not a god; that’s like confusing Mohammad with Allah) Zarathustra (Avestan: Zaraϑuštra). The ending of his name (–uštra) is universally believed to mean ‘camel’, rather than ‘star’. This name was actually confusing to the Greeks, and they thought that Zoroaster was the founder of astrology, even know we know the ancient Persians had little interest in astronomy or astrology until much, much later. So, this means that Ellis got Zoroaster’s name wrong, mistook him for a god rather than a prophet, and used the Greek transliteration rather than the original, Persian name of the prophet.
But Ellis isn’t done failing yet. He also claims that all these names are derived from ester, better known probably as the Jewish beauty Esther from the Bible. Her name is more likely derived from or a cognate to the goddess Ishtar mentioned above rather than the other way around. But even this connection is not certain; I would guess in favor of the Ishtar/Esther connection because another figure in the Book of Esther, Mordecai, is almost certainly related to Marduk (Marduka), a major Babylonian deity as was Ishtar, so the parallelism is suggestive. But the real problem is that ester is not the Hebrew word for ‘star’; what would be kokab (כוכב), which in Aramaic becomes kokhba, hence the name of the famous 2nd century Jewish rebel leader bar Kokhba (Son of the Star), a figure Ellis even mentions in this same paragraph. So, quite literally, his lack of knowledge about these words are calling him out in the very paragraph he used them (though he has some weird spelling I haven’t seen before [bar Kokhbar]).
Again, this is all in just one paragraph of his book, one that I came across pretty much at random. You cannot try to fail this hard. What it does show is the level of parallelomania that make mythicist arguments about Jesus look bad. Well, then again, I don’t know if you could ever make Jesus mythicism look this bad; Kersey Graves’ The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors is terrible scholarship, but it wasn’t anywhere near this bad, since Graves will get things right better than at random.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on Ellis. After all, it’s just some speculations about names. He can’t be that bad when it comes to historical facts, right? Actually, he can screw that up nicely as well. In the same book, he has a chapter on the New Testament (starting on p. 203), and the mistakes keep on coming. The very first sentence says that that it has been faith that has kept Christianity going for over 2000 years. Considering that the time of Jesus’ life and the earliest Christians would be in the 30s CE, that is less than 2000 years. But hey, why let math get in the way of bad history? We also get Ellis’ claim that Paul was the creator of Christianity. Interesting that, considering that Paul clearly tells us in multiple letters that he was not the first to follow in the new faith and even persecuted it. 1 Cor 15 gives a list of people that saw the resurrected Jesus before Paul, and if the 500 mentioned there isn’t a scribal aberration then there were literally hundreds of people in the Christian church before Paul converted. If anyone could be said to be the founder of Christianity who was not Jesus, you would think it was Peter, the first person to see Jesus according to Paul, and he is shown to be the big guy at the beginning of the church according to Acts 2 (oh, and G.Matt saying Peter was the rock of the church, etc. etc.). Paul certainly changed the Christian faith, but he did not invent it.
We also have to ignore other details about Paul’s life from those letters he wrote. For example, 2 Corinthians 11 has the tale of Paul’s escape from Damascus during the reign of Aretas IV (or is he Jesus, too?); this would have to be before 40 CE which is about the year Aretas died. But Ellis wants to claim Paul was born in 37 CE; so Paul was either not born or a baby when he had to run away from the ethnarch of Damascus, and having already been a Christian for some time according to both his letters and Acts. Of course, Ellis knows about this escape story, for he also mentions how Paul/Saul being ‘of Tarsus’ means that he was lowered down in a basket since ‘tarsus’ means basket. So Paul made up this story about his escape from Damascus because of the city he allegedly came from? Oh boy. (It doesn’t help that this of Paul coming from Tarsus comes from Acts rather than Paul’s letters, so even that may be historically suspect.)
What about the detail of Paul being a student of the famous rabbi Gamaliel? Again, this comes from Acts rather than Paul’s letters, but the issue here is if Paul would have been even old enough to be a student of Gamaliel. Interestingly, Ellis jumps to the Clementine Recognitions to support his claims of having him alive around the year 66 CE, but this source is very late, highly legendary, and claims Gamaliel was a Christian convert (which makes him also a Christian before Paul, thus another Christian before Paul “created” Christianity), even though Jewish tradition believed him to be orthodox to his last breath. Besides, I have it on good authority that Gamaliel was dead before then. The usual date he is said to have died was about 50 CE, which is too early for Paul to be his student if Ellis is right about Paul being born in 37 CE. And what authority am I using to justify this date of Gamaliel’s death? Why, Ralph Ellis! He said so in Jesus, King of Edessa (p. 217). To be fair, these two books are written a whole year apart, so he can forget what he spewed out in the past (his Jesus at Edessa book is the newer one, so is it the more accurate then?).
So, even when it comes to historical details, it’s a mess. Ellis uses the least reliable sources we have when it comes to the life of Paul while pretty much ignoring the most reliable sources we have (his own writings). The life painted not only contradicts what we have in our records, it even contradictions what Ellis says from book to book. And again, this is only a snapshot of what Ellis is claiming about history and the New Testament.
What seems to be causing so much failure on Ellis’ part is his inability to figured out or explain what details from our ancient sources are factual and what are not. Again, we have to dismiss the letters of Paul to get Ellis’ ideas to work, but somehow stories about Jesus in the Gospels have truth to it, including the legendary bits. Back in his Jesus/King Arthur book (p. 308), besides mistakes such as confusing a messiah for a king (they are not the same thing), Ellis seems to take the story of the Magi coming to Jesus at his birth (Matt 2) as totally historical. Apparently Jesus was a descendant of the magi (p. 539), so that is why they were so interested in his birth. So not only does Ellis take the amazing story of the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi as history, but he doesn’t seem to think that the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is worth considering; you know, the one that has Jesus come from the line of King David and many Jews; there isn’t a Persian in sight. But now to plug my future project, my book on the Star of Bethlehem coming out later this year will make clear that the entire episode hasn’t any historicity. Then again, that has been the consensus of scholars for quite some time (see the results from the Jesus Seminar, for example). The key thing to take away is that there is simply no consistency in what Ellis considered authentic. Without that bit of rigor, you can come to any conclusion, especially when the facts change from book to book.
So do I really need to continue on and see how he proves that Paul of Tarsus was actually Flavius Josephus (an interesting detail that Josephus left out of his own biography, it would seem), or any of the other ludicrous ideas he has in these books? And if he can connect Egyptian pharaohs, Jesus, kings of Edessa, and King Arthur, doesn’t that show he can connect anything to anyone? I can’t wait to see how Jesus was also Confucius and Queztalcoatl in Ellis’ next book: Jesus: Ah, What the Hell, I’ll Say It: He’s EVERYTHING, Man.
Alright, now I need some spirits for the sake of my spirit.