In this episode of Hebrew Voices, Easter Miracle of the Holy Fire, Nehemia Gordon speaks again with Dr. Richard Carrier, an historian specializing in ancient philosophy, religion and science. Gordon and Carrier begin by discussing the annual miracle claimed by the Greek Orthodox Church at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but go on to compare notes on miracles and magic from ancient times through the 21st century.
With at times differing opinions, the two discuss: Bel and the Dragon, Alexander the Great and the horned snake, the Rood of Grace, the Second Temple miracles as described in the Babylonian Talmud, as well as the showdown between Elijah and the false prophets on Mount Carmel. Gordon and Carrier also respond to the writings of Maimonides, Herodotus, Lucian and Josephus—and their accounts or exposés of ancient scams that caused statues to move, sweat, bleed or illuminate—tricking people out of their cash or inspiring them to believe.
Gordon concludes this Hebrew Voices with prayer and encourages listeners not to allow anyone’s skepticism to shake their faith, but to rather establish their faith on a solid foundation of Yehovah and his Torah—which provides instruction for discerning the source and purpose of miracles.
Thank you for supporting Makor Hebrew Foundation, which allows me to create all the teachings found on NehemiasWall.com. Together we can empower people around the world with vital information about the Hebrew sources of their faith!
The Truth About Christmas and Tammuz with Dr. Carrier
Dr. Richard Carrier: Hello. It's good to be here.
Nehemia Gordon: Let me just give a little background on you. Richard Carrier has a PhD in the history of philosophy from Columbia University, is a published philosopher and historian, specializing in contemporary philosophy of naturalism and in Greco-Roman philosophy science and religion and the origins of Christianity. He blogs regularly, lectures for community groups worldwide and teaches courses online. He is the author of many books including Sense and Goodness without God, On The Historicity of Jesus and Proving History. He has also written chapters and several anthologies and articles in academic journals. For more about Dr. Carrier and his work see RichardCarrier.info. Last time, when I introduced Dr. Carrier, I mentioned that he's an atheist and I had people write to me afterwards and say, we're not going to listen to this, the man's an atheist, we don't want to hear what he has to say. And I said, you know what, give it a try and tell me what you think. And most people who listened to the episode said, "wow, we got a different perspective, we don't agree with a lot of what he says, but we learned a lot". You're an expert in ancient religion and that's what we'll mostly be talking about today Dr. Carrier. What made me want to do this episode is something that is referred to as the Easter Miracle of the Fire. I want to start with that. I'm here in Jerusalem and in Jerusalem we have what's called The Church of the Holy Seplecture, which is for many Christians the most important place in the world. Its church was founded in the fourth century, they say by the mother of Constantine, the Emperor. She had a vision about the place where Jesus was crucified and went to that place and what they call the true cross, which means not like the cross in your church, but the one on which he was actually crucified. Ever since, there has been a church there. The Greek Orthodox Church has a lot of influence there. They've really been there the whole time or some form of them has been there the whole time. And they have this annual miracle that takes place in the church. They say going back over a thousand years. Maybe with some breaks when the Crusaders came. But basically, maybe even back to the time of Constantine, according to some sources I read. They call it the Holy Fire or the Easter Miracle of the Holy Fire and I want to start with that and then launch into some other discussions about other ancient miracles. Let me just read to you from holyfire.org. It says "The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Eastern Orthodoxy. It has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time." I got to say, just from that description I'm a little skeptical. Dr. Carrier, what are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Richard Carrier: They're really pushing that. We haven't described the miracle yet.
Nehemia Gordon: Let me briefly describe the miracle. So, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, which is the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Israel, or in Jerusalem at least. He goes into the tomb of Jesus or the place the Greek Orthodox believe is the tomb of Jesus. If you're Protestant, you put it somewhere else. He walks in with an unlit candle and it says on their website, holyfire.org, "The Israeli authorities come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door, they check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle." It's interesting, they're starting out saying, we know you're skeptical, so this has been verified by nonbelievers. By people who aren't part of our church, who are maybe even hostile towards the church. They compare the Israeli authority to the Romans on their website. I disagree with that analogy. And then they have this description of the Orthodox patriarch, a man named Diador, but long story short, he walks in the with the candle unlit, it's miraculously lit and he walks out and this candle is lit and he lights everybody else's candle. He's a scribe. He says "I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of that place where Christ laid after his death. Here I say certain prayers, that have been handed down to us through the centuries and having said that I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay, an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the color may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake. It almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre." By the way "sepulchre" is a fancy word for "grave" or "tomb". Diador goes on "So that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn." It's interesting he give a whole description of how the light doesn't burn and I think he's trying to draw an analogy there to what the book of Exodus describes with the burning bush. It burned with fire, but it didn't consume. He talks about how his beard doesn't burn, even though there is this big flame around him. He goes on "The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it." So now the Greek Orthodox patriarch lights his candles from this miraculous flame. He goes on "When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church." Thousands of people every year witness this. Well, what they witness I guess, is him going into the tomb with an unlit candle and he comes out with the candle lit. They don't witness what goes on inside the tomb. And they make a big deal on this website, holyfire.org and on other websites that there have been occasions in the past where the Catholics for Arminian Christians took over the church and they tried to perform the miracle and it failed. And their conclusion is very clear. They say it in no uncertain terms, the Greek Orthodox Church is the one true religion. Not just Christianity, but specifically the Greek Orthodox Church. That's their conclusion from this annual miracle that takes place every year. (Dr. Carrie laughs.) Look, you're laughing, but I'm prime not to believe in it. I'm a Jew. I'm not Greek Orthodox, so I'm very skeptical going into this and there are a few possibilities. One is that that the Greek Orthodox Church is the one true religion. Number two is that this is sleight of hand or trickery, and that's what I want to talk about today. I want to bring two other possibilities, though. I know many of my Christian listeners are saying this is a demonic force or some type of super natural magic. One Jewish response would be no, this is a genuine miracle in the spirit of Deuteronomy 13. It talks in Deuteronomy 13 that there will be a false prophet who has genuine power. That God grants him that power in order to say, you don't want to believe what I have to say in the five books of Moses, the Torah, ok believe your delusions. They'll be prophets who will rise up and perform miracles and they'll be true miracles, but they're a test. And I'm sure that you laugh at that, but ok, that's because you're coming from a different perspective. Those are four possibilities.
Dr. Richard Carrier: You're right though, those are all things that you'd have to rule out, before you could get to the Greek Orthodox conclusion. They aren't presenting any way to rule all of those things out.
Nehemia Gordon: I'm not so sure you have to rule them out. Meaning if you're starting out already believing in the Greek Orthodox Church, this confirms what you already believe. Doesn't it?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Unless it's one of those other things, then you're being fooled. You're either being fooled by demons, or by God, or by the patriarch performing the ritual. I've done this sort of thing for about 15 years, reading up on research of sceptics who go and investigate miracles. And miracles include things like pseudo-science and psionic powers.
Nehemia Gordon: I don't know what psionic powers are, so you have to explain that.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Psionic powers are things like being psychic, being able to levitate things. Uri Geller is a classic example.
Nehemia Gordon: He's Israeli, by the way.
Dr. Richard Carrier: I know, yes.
Nehemia Gordon: I'm ashamed of that, but go on.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Oh and faith healing and all of that. So there have been lots of these investigations.
Nehemia Gordon: So tell people what Uri Geller was, because I don't know that many people know.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Oh, that's a good point. Yeah, that was from long ago.
Nehemia Gordon: That was from the 70s, wasn't it?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes. Uri Geller claimed to have the ability to bend spoons with his mind and to move things on tables with mere thought and things like that. And James Randi, who's a famous investigator of the paranormal, basically exposed him. Figured out all his tricks. Exposed him on national television. And Uri Geller sued him over that, but lost. He never won the case. In any event, Randi went on to create the Randi Prize. Right now it's a million-dollar prize to anyone who can prove… They have to meet their scientific protocols. If you can come up with a valid scientific protocol with which we can prove you have this ability or this power or this miracle exists, you can claim the million dollars.
Nehemia Gordon: Do you know whether the Greek Orthodox have tried to claim this million dollars?
Dr. Richard Carrier: I'm sure they would not, because it would require an actual scientific investigation of the miracle. I seriously doubt they would permit that to happen. They would come up with their excuses "because it would be profane" or whatever. But I think the reality is they would discover the trick.
Nehemia Gordon: But we don't know, because it hasn't been tested. I'll tell the audience up front, I do believe in miracles. But I don't believe in what I believe, because of miracles and that's in an important distinction.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, that is a good one.
Nehemia Gordon: So Maimonides, who was the famous Jewish Rabbi in the twelfth century… let me read a quote from him. He writes "The Jews did not believe in Moses our teacher, because of the wonders he performed. Whenever anyone's belief is based on wonders, the commitment of his heart has shortcomings, because it's possible to perform a wonder through magic or sleight of hand." Imagine, he writes this in the twelfth century. That's pretty cool.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah. And they knew that in the ancient world too.
Nehemia Gordon: So let's talk about that. Let's talk about some examples from the ancient world. You had mentioned to me in an e-mail, something that I should have brought and didn't even think of. It's Bel and the Dragon. Tell us what that is and what happens there.
Dr. Richard Carrier: There's an extended version of the book of Daniel, it has an extra chapter or two in which one of the many things Daniel does for the Babylonian court is they have this miracle in this temple, where they seal the temple and supposedly the god eats all this food they leave in there. I can't remember how Daniel got into this position of claiming this was a fake miracle. And he said he had a way he could test this, and I think his life was on the line over this. If your test fails and it turns out to be a miracle, then we are going to kill you.
Nehemia Gordon: And what they said was, if we wake up in the morning and the temple is sealed and all the sacrifices are eaten, it must be the god and you'll be put to death.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah. That's right.
Nehemia Gordon: And he says, ok let's see this.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, so I don't remember what material he uses. Was it flour? He covers the floor in something.
Nehemia Gordon: With some fine powder, yeah.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah. He covers the floor in something. I'm assuming he did that under concealment. He must have worked that out with the Babylonian king.
Nehemia Gordon: Yeah. So basically, Daniel is the James Randi of the fifth century BC or whenever this took place.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Truly, Lucian of Samosata is the closer analogy to Randi, because he actually went around debunking things. And the things that Lucian was discovering are classic scams that are still being performed today. But back to Bel and the Dragon. Daniel covers the floor. They officially seal it and they confirm it's all sealed. The food is already in there. Then the next morning, they break the seal and go in and all the food is gone, but there's tons of little human footprints everywhere, showing people came from secret doors to come in and eat and abscond with the food. Therefore, he proved it was all just a trick. There were secret doors, people who were assigned the task of making the food disappear in order to make the miracle. But this is probably a fictional story. I doubt this ever really happened.
Nehemia Gordon: It's not in the Hebrew or actually Aramaic version of Daniel. It only appears later in the Greek. But whether it happened or not, sometime around 200 BC, the Jews were… I mean this is my take and you tell me if you understand it differently. The Jews were confronted with these apparent miracles and their skeptical response was to say, no that's just a trick, it's sleight of hand.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah.
Nehemia Gordon: You mentioned Lucian of Samosata. I don't remember whether we talked about him last time in The Truth About Christmas and Tammuz. I don't think we did. Anyway, he has two books that I really recommend you guys read. They're online. You can read translations in English. One is called The Syrian Goddess, and it's interesting, because there you have the opposite of what you read in his other book, which is called Alexander the False Prophet or Alexander the Quack Prophet. In Alexander the False Prophet, he's very skeptical. In The Syrian Goddess, he believes this. He seems to believe it. To the point where I think some scholars have said maybe it's two different authors.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Or it's not clear the purpose of the Syrian Goddess, as a treatise is. Because it's very unlike his usual stuff and he's written other books. Like, he's written a book called True History, in which a million absurd things happen.
Nehemia Gordon: And so, is he skeptical of those things?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes, of course. He's making fun of historians who write wild tales.
Nehemia Gordon: So what's an example of the type of thing you'd find in ancient history, that even Lucian would have said can't be true, that didn't really happen?
Dr. Richard Carrier: They had miracles. There's the story of Alexander the Great being led through the desert by a talking horse-snake. Or even just implausible historical events, where someone won a battle, they couldn't possibly have won. One of my favorite examples is there's two accounts of the Battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great crosses a river to engage the Persians. In one account they meet on opposite sides of the river and camp. At night Alexander's army goes down the river ford and attacks them by surprise on the other side of the river. Now there's another account, where they meet in the day and Alexander the Great, himself, charges across the river and just goes pell-mell into the Persians and starts fighting them and then his soldiers come. And that's ridiculous. Even Lucian would have said that's ridiculous.
Nehemia Gordon: That's actually a lot more plausible than some of the stuff we are talking about here, but it's still unlikely is what you're saying. Meaning, if you have two versions…
Dr. Richard Carrier: Exactly. It's something that could literally have happened, that doesn't require a miracle, it's just not probable. And there is a famous example of Herodotus. I can't remember who the author was. There was an author in antiquity who wrote a book about the lies of Herodotus. And he had this whole rant.
Nehemia Gordon: Tell people who Herodotus was.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Herodotus was a historian of classical Athens, of that period. There was a lot of discussion about him being a liar.
Nehemia Gordon: I think you said this in your book On the Historicity of Jesus, that basically anyone with a classical education in ancient times would have read Herodotus. Is that right?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Correct. Herodotus was one of the standard readings.
Nehemia Gordon: In other words, some of the books are pretty obscure. They've survived today, but the average Greek reader, who could read and write, may not have been familiar with them. But Herodotus, that's what you read.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Sure. Once you got to the ancient equivalent of college, Herodotus was one of the standard reads. It's one of the pros writings.
Nehemia Gordon: And I think you say Paul of Tarsus would have been familiar with Herodotus. Is that right?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes, he certainly would have. His Greek is of sufficient quality that he must have elevated to that level of schooling. And Isocrates and various other people. There were some standard writings that were commonly read. They are mostly poetry at the lower levels of schooling, but you get to pros when you get to the ancient level that is equal to today's level of college.
Nehemia Gordon: That's interesting. So they started with poetry and advanced to pros. I would have thought it would be the opposite.
Dr. Richard Carrier: No, that's what they do. They're very much a speaking culture, so they are teaching you how to speak well. Poetry gives you meter. It gives you rhyme. It gives you the ability to control speech for effect.
Nehemia Gordon: That's interesting. So the lies of Herodotus.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, that's one.
Nehemia Gordon: So what are some of the lies?
Dr. Richard Carrier: I can't remember. It's been a long time since I read that one. I mean there are a lot of things in Herodotus where he says things about ancient cultures that aren't true. Where he says things about the deep past that are just obvious myths.
Nehemia Gordon: Didn't they look at some of the steppe people and say they were actually one animal with the horse or something like that?
Dr. Richard Carrier: I think there's something like that in there, yeah.
Nehemia Gordon: Because they couldn't understand how somebody could ride on a horse and not have to get off to fire his bow, so they thought it was one person. I don't know if that was Herodotus, but it was the Greeks that thought the steppe people were centaurs.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Right. There were a lot of ridiculous things like that.
Nehemia Gordon: And we know better now.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes. We know better now. But Lucian also wrote another book that I would recommend people read on this subject, which is The Lover of Lies. It's a dialogue where he's having these conversations with these believers and miracles. You get very good exposure to the gamut of what kinds of supernatural were common of the time. These were pagans claiming powers of sorcerers and faith healing and magic rocks and all of this stuff. So you get his skeptical take on it. Ghost stories come up in there and various things. He talks about what's really going on or why they're ridiculous or why they never pan out. So you get this sceptic's view of the whole gamut of the kinds of typical beliefs of the period. So, that's The Lover of Lies. But Alexander the Quack Prophet is the best one, because it's a first person account of Lucian going to this town to investigate this guy and he turns out to be a Popoff sort of character who has all these magic…
Nehemia Gordon: Who is Popoff?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Popoff is one of the faith healers who got exposed by James Randi.
Nehemia Gordon: I want to read a passage from The Syrian Goddess, where Lucian, who I think was born around the year 125 AD and was from what today would be Turkey. It's funny, because he's exposing all these other religions, but when it comes to what seems to be his religion, it seems like he really believes it.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah. I think Lucian is Samosatan, which I can't remember exactly where that is now. It's Northern Syria. I can't remember where the border between Turkey and Syria is.
Nehemia Gordon: Well that might change by next week anyway.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Right. Lucian himself identified himself as Syrian.
Nehemia Gordon: All right. So he says "The Temple of Hierapolis possess some splendid masterpieces, some venerable offerings, many rare sights, many striking statues and the gods make their presence felt in no doubtful way." That's an amazing statement.
Dr. Richard Carrier: From him, yes.
Nehemia Gordon: Like there's no room not to have faith here, because you're experiencing the gods through these manifestations and events. He said "The statues sweat and move and uttering oracles. And a shout has often been raised when the temple was closed." That reminded me of Bel and the Dragon. That in itself might have been the source of Bel and the Dragon. I had a professor once at Hebrew University, I wish I could find the source, he was an expert in Greek and Roman religions, and he said there is a source somewhere, where there is a pagan who is mocking the Christians and the Jews saying, you believe in this invisible god, but when we go to the temples, we see miracles happen and this might be the source of what he's talking about, I'm not sure. Meaning what Lucian is writing here. Because clearly, if you saw the statues sweat and move and speak and you hear the shouts at night… So the Jews would say, there's a secret door.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, right. Those are all known tricks. We even have one of the engineering manuals for how to build some of those.
Nehemia Gordon: Tell us about that.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Heron of Alexandria is the greatest engineering writers that we have surviving from the Roman era. He wrote in the first century AD. He wrote many books on various subjects. One of them is Pneumatics, which is on air and water powered machinery. The way he introduces the book is first he has a whole scientific introduction talking about this is how we understand, and the physics of air and water and he has this whole experiment showing how vacuums work and air pressure and so forth.
Nehemia Gordon: Basically, the average person didn't know about this.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Right, exactly. Absolutely, not back then. Even some educated people might not have known. Some of the stuff was fairly obscure and philosophers sometimes weren't very good at communicating accurate science.
Nehemia Gordon: Like today.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes. Except it was worse back then, because popular knowledge wasn't very vast. There were no TV documentaries. There was no Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So the quality of information that trickled down to the public, even among the elite isn't necessarily great. But people who were in the sciences, people who studied sciences, usually knew this stuff pretty well or people who on their own studied them. Lucian clearly knew some of the stuff pretty well. So Heron wrote this book, and in the rest of it he says, I'm going to describe all these little machines that can do these things, but the point of this is that you can then take all of these ideas and assemble them to make new things. So even though he is describing specific machines, that serve specific purposes, it's clearly understood what was done, was the people would make more elaborate machines, by combining the ideas that were in there. So this isn't even a complete list.
Nehemia Gordon: So what are these machines? Give us an idea. And by the way, there's a great documentary called Machines of the Gods from Ancient Discoveries, and it actually shows some of these machines. Basically they were being used to trick people into what Lucian is describing. The statues are sweating and they're moving and they're uttering oracles
Dr. Richard Carrier: That's right. All of those things.
Nehemia Gordon: Meaning this was technology they were using to trick people to believe in their religions.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes, as far as we can tell. Yeah, that's what they were doing or I think there's money in this too.
Nehemia Gordon: Let me read you the rest of this passage from The Syrian Goddess, section 10. It says "The statues sweat and move and utter oracles and a shout has often been raised when the temple is closed. It has been heard by many." Like, this is a fact. You can't dispute it, he's saying. He says, "And more, this temple is the principle source of their wealth, as I can vouch. For much money comes to them from Arabia and from the Phoenicians and the Babylonians and the Cilicians too and the Assyrians bring their tribute." In other words, look this is real. People all over the world believe this and bring money to this. Of course we hear this in the twenty-first century and we're like wait a minute. So you're saying there's a technology manual describing how to perform these miracles?
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes, how to build these machines. The machines will make spontaneous noise, basically fog horns, the equivalent of. You can do spontaneous fire. You do something that will spontaneously cause fire to appear in a pit or something.
Nehemia Gordon: So that's kind of like the Easter Miracle of Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yes. I'm pretty sure they are using a different trick there, but they had stuff like this. They had automated doors, doors could open and close supposedly on their own and various other things like that.
Nehemia Gordon: So like we walk into Walmart and see that and we're not impressed, but back then they're like this is the gods manifesting their power. There's no other explanation.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah and one of the ones that was very common were little puppet theaters. They would have these little tiny theaters. These puppets would come on and act a whole play and there would be curtain calls and there would be lightening sounds. There would be all kinds of stuff happening and they would act out this whole play and then stop and they would put it on a pedestal, so you could be absolutely certain there was no person inside manipulating. So you'd be like how do you explain this, this is amazing. Of course it was just basically a sand weight usually. Sand or seed weight device that allowed a heavy weight to fall and it would pull on cords and these cords were attached to this elaborate, essentially what we would call, a program. It was essentially the software of cogs and wheels all set up in a certain way, so that as you pulled it, it would go through all the motions of all the steps. So you could program any of these things, by setting the cogs and wheels in such a way. It's kind of like mousetrap, where you start one thing and it just goes through this cascade of events.
Nehemia Gordon: Oh I loved that game when I was a kid.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, but think of more elaborate versions of that.
Nehemia Gordon: And the point is they can't see the gears and mechanism inside.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Correct. They can't see any of this.
Nehemia Gordon: So in the mousetrap analogy, you flick the marble and then you have no idea what's happening, but all of the sudden, something at the end is then triggered. And you're saying they looked at that and said the gods are real, it's really clear.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, theoretically that was how they were using it. It was certainly to amaze. To what extent they were really pushing the miracle aspect of it, is hard to say, because we don't actually have writings from that side of it. We just know they existed. We know elites talked about them. The writings we have about it, is that people knew about it. Aristotle was aware of how these puppet theaters worked. Galen is an example, where he even used the puppet theaters as an analogy for how the fetus grows in the womb. So there were scientists who were aware of this, but the question is how widely was this knowledge available. And we know that's an issue, because Plutarch wrote some writings about this problem of the disconnect between elites knowing this stuff and the public not. And the public not liking it when the elite debunked miracles. Plutarch talks about that too.
Nehemia Gordon: Let's dwell on that for a moment, because I know there are going to be people who are going to listen to this podcast and say, here is this non-believing Jew, and by non-believing they mean that I'm not a Christian. Here this non-believing Jew, is getting together with the atheist, to slam the Greek Orthodox Miracle of the Fire on Easter. And look, when I was deciding whether or not to do this episode, the thing that came to mind for me, was something known as the Easter Massacre of 1506. That was an event that took place in Lisbon, April of 1506. There were hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholithism in Portugal. They were living as Christians and then there was a miracle which supposedly took place, where during this famine everyone was praying in a church and somebody said they saw the face of Christ on the alter and it was suddenly illuminated. Everyone professed it was a miracle, except for one Jew who said no, that's the light reflecting off of it from the candle. And after that 4,000 Jews were massacred in a period of a two or three day. This Jewish skepticism has led to people being killed, so I was hesitant to do this. Look, if this offends you listeners, turn it off, it's totally fine. What's important to me is to see that this is the type of thing that was going on in ancient times and is still going on today, that is tricking people. I do believe there are genuine miracles, but there are also things out there that are tricking people. And some of these so called miracles, the people doing them, it's really cynical. If the Greek Orthodox patriarch is… and look you can read this on line. There's suggestions of how he does this. I posted a video on NehemiasWall.com, which shows a modern Greek person on Greek television showing how you can reproduce this miracle very easily by dipping the candles in something called white phosphorous. It takes about twenty minutes exposed to air and then it will ignite spontaneously. Spontaneously? It's a chemical compound.
Dr. Richard Carrier: What they do is they take the white phosphorous and you put it in some kind of compound that evaporates, so that's your time, because as soon as white phosphorous comes into contact with the air, it ignites. There are a variety of materials that do this, as soon as they contact air, they spontaneously ignite. It's well-known chemistry, so we have lots of materials. White phosphorous is the most common one.
Nehemia Gordon: The point is, today it's well-known and millions of people are still tricked by it. And back then nobody had any idea, or certainly the common man had no idea. If the Greek Orthodox patriarch really is dipping his candles in white phosphorous and he knows that he's deceiving people…
Dr. Richard Carrier: That's probably what it really comes down to. Do you trust them to be honest with this? I think, from the perspective of an atheist, from a sceptic, my concern is, we've caught people doing these kind of fake miracles so many times. In fact, every time we have been able to scientifically investigate one of the things, it always turns out to be different than what they claimed. It always turned out to be some sort of natural phenomenon or trick or whatever. Not all of them are tricks. Sometimes people believe something is supernatural which really in fact is not.
Nehemia Gordon: In other words, there's innocent false miracles out there, and the example that comes to mind for me is… I don't want to give any specific examples, because I'll offend people. But there's definitely situations I've seen out there, where people innocently believe that something supernatural is happening and it's not. But this is a different situation, where the patriarch knows he's deceiving people.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, it has to be a deliberate thing. But it's the same kind of motivation that the ancient pagan temples had to bring people in and inspire their faith. There may be money involved as well.
Nehemia Gordon: So let's go back to Lucian of Samosata, you were going to quote from the Quack Prophet.
Dr. Richard Carrier: So Lucian stumbled across this guy Alexander in the town Abonoteichos. Alexander was basically starting his own religious cult. He had tricked people into thinking he had discovered this supernatural human headed snake and this human headed snake would talk to you and give oracles and stuff. So people come to this temple to see this human headed snake, who is Glycon, the son of god. And the god Apollo, as the case may be. So people would come to see this god. They would have sealed envelopes with their questions, that they would submit, and then the envelope would come back, I think with the answer in it, or something like that, but still sealed. Oh, it's magic, right? And things like this. There are various different things that were going on. And Lucian knew how some of these tricks were done, so he figured out like James Randi did. He figured out ways to catch them at it, and he writes about it in there. How he figured out the trick, how he unseals and reseals envelopes and things like that, to get the thing in. This is the other thing that I want to point out, these are well-known tricks.
Nehemia Gordon: So basically from what I remember reading, it's absolutely amazing, it will take you an hour to read, it's amazing, I'll post a link on my website, NehemiasWall.com. What I remember is, they would write their question on an envelope, it would be sealed with wax and it would be given to the god and then they would get an answer back. Surely none of the priests were giving the answer, because the envelope was sealed. What you are saying, is basically they figured out how to unseal it without anybody knowing.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah and Lucian talks about different ways. But I have to remind you, go to a Penn and Teller show in Las Vegas, they do all of these things. They literally do those kind of tricks with sealed envelopes and stuff like that. So these are well-known tricks. And Penn and Teller will end their show by saying, we have no supernatural powers, we are liars.
Nehemia Gordon: I want to give a modern example of that from the twentieth century. When I was in high school, I knew these guys who went to Skokie Yeshiva, which is a Rabbinical academy of Talmudic study. They would brag to everybody that one of the Rabbis at Skokie Yeshiva would perform miracles. He was a very learned Kabbalist. And he would regularly perform a miracle, where he would tell the students to open up the Talmud, which is thousands of pages in length. They would open up a volume, he wouldn't know which one. And he'd tell them to point to any place in the Talmud and then, without seeing what they were pointing to, would recite verbatim what they were pointing to. I didn't believe in the Talmud. I'm what's known as a Karaite Jew, which is, I don't believe in the Talmud. They would come to me and say, Nehemia, how can you not believe in the Talmud? The Rabbi does this. He does this regularly. He does it all the time. And even at the time, I'm thinking, so, I saw this at the Blackstone Theater with David Copperfield.
Dr. Richard Carrier: He did the same trick?
Nehemia Gordon: He did something similar to that.
Dr. Richard Carrier: So do Penn and Teller.
Nehemia Gordon: So they didn't do it with the Talmud. Maybe this guy had a photographic memory and that was part of the trick. I don't know how the trick worked. And I told them, I don't know how the trick works, but I know it's a trick and your faith can't be based on that. If that's what your faith is based on, then according to Maimonides it's not valid.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Right. Look at it this way, when you see something that we know is a known trick… For example, this candle thing, where the guy he has to be out of view of people, and it's just one candle, and it spontaneously ignites, which we know is a natural phenomenon that can be rigged. A real miracle, would not have all of these veils to try and conceal what's really going on. Right? It wouldn't be such a trivial thing. Like, the candle lit, wow. I mean real miracles would be like real freakin' miracles. Like the sky turns green before everyone. Things that could not be staged.
Nehemia Gordon: This is actually the point of Maimonides. In one of the passages he says, the Jewish faith isn't based on miracles. Yes, Moses performed miracles, because they needed manna or they needed water. But he wasn't performing miracles to convince people. He said, the reason we believe in the Jewish faith, is because the revelation of Sinai was witnessed by 3,000,000 people. Now, you might not believe that happened. But if you do believe it was witnessed by 3,000,000 people, it's not a miracle in a secret room somewhere that takes place. It's something that was, from our perspective… this is a fact of history and we can debate that history. But from our perspective, it's a fact of history, and that's what convinces us, not the miracles that took place. And yeah, miracles they may convince you or they may reinforce your faith, is kind of the Jewish perspective. But you shouldn't believe in something because of the miracles, because there's sleight of hand and according to Deuteronomy 13, there's even God empowering false prophets to perform these miracles. I want to read a passage from Lucian of Samosata's, Alexander the Quack Prophet or the False Prophet. He's describing here this godlike con, which is the snake. What's amazing to me, is that he's writing this in the first century, about this mechanical device.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Second century.
Nehemia Gordon: Oh, second century. And people are being tricked by this mechanical device. It's not even on the level of Heron of Alexandria. I actually read that Heron of Alexandria is considered the inventor of the steam engine, because some of his devices are primitive steam engines.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah, he uses steam as a mode of power in a lot of his devices.
Nehemia Gordon: So he's using this to trick people. They're very sophisticated devices with Heron of Alexandria. But with Glycon, this false god, it's really primitive stuff. He writes, "They had long ago prepared [they meaning Alexander and his cohorts] and fitted up a serpent's head of linen, which is something of a human look, was all painted up and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth, by means of horsehairs, [in other words there were little strings] and a forked black tongue like a snake's, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out." Now that wasn't enough to trick people, because then they had a real snake, that you put your hand in and you'd feel. It was a tame snake that wouldn't bite you, but people didn't know in that part of the world about tame snakes, that was part of the trick. He goes on, "We must excuse those men of Paphlagonia and Pontus, thick-witted, uneducated fellows that they were, for being deluded when they touched the serpent— Alexander let anyone do so who wished—and besides saw in a dim light what was purported to be its head opening and shutting its mouth." In other words, they stick their hand in this little dark room, where they can't see anything, and they feel a snake and then they see this head moving, and that's supposed to be the words of the oracle coming out. It's really primitive stuff. Here's what amazes me about this. In 1538, King Henry VIII, sent around his agents to destroy the monasteries, this is when he started the Anglican Church in England. The monasteries were a major source of wealth, and so he decided to plunder them. We have a letter that's written by Jeffery Chambers and Thomas Cromwell on February 7, 1538. He says, "Upon the defacing of the late Monastery of Boxley and plucking down of the images of the same, I found in the image of the Roode, called the Roode of Grace…" I'm going to stop here for a second and explain. In Old English, even in modern English, a Roode, spelled R-O-O-D-E, is a stature kind of a crucifix that separates the worshippers from the back area, part of a chancel screen. Basically, it's a crucifix. So there was this famous Roode, called the Roode of Grace, a famous crucifix. He says, "I found in the image of the Roode, called the Roode of Grace, which heretofore has been had in great veneration of the people, certain engines and old wire…" Meaning inside he found certain engines and old wire. "…with old rotten sticks in the back of the same, that did cause the eyes of the same to move and stir in the head thereof like unto a living thing, and also the nether lip likewise to move, as though it should speak…" The amazing thing is we have descriptions from before this, that pilgrims would come from France to ask their questions of the Roode of Grace, and they would see eyes move and the lips move, and then that was then interpreted by a priest, that yes your request has been accepted, because the lips moved. And Lucian describes almost the same thing in the Syrian Goddess. In section 32 he says, "The greatest wonder of all, I will precede to tell. The Syrian goddess bears a gem on her head." I'll skip ahead. There's light coming from the gem. He says, "There's also another marvel in this image, if you stand over against it, it looks you in the face and as you pass it, the gaze still follows you. And if another approaching from a different quarter looks at it, he is similarly affected." So imagine that, Lucian is writing in the second century, about this statue of a Syrian goddess in Syria, I guess. And 1,400 years later there are people coming from France and being tricked by the same thing with the Roode of Grace. This blows my mind. Why didn't Lucian apply the same skepticism to the Syrian goddess as he did to Glycon and Alexander the false prophet?
Dr. Richard Carrier: We don't know what the literary exercise is, because Lucian himself was an Epicurean, so he was definitely not a believer in miracles. So there is no way in which he believes the things he's writing in the Syrian Goddess, that's why some have suggested it wasn't written by him. But it could also have just been a literary exercise, possibly something he was hired to write for the temple. We know Lucian took certain jobs and even wrote a defense of himself taking hired jobs to do things, because apparently it was ignominious to do. So, it's entirely possible it was a commissioned piece or it's something where he wrote it just to see if people would fall for it. You know, something like that kind of thing. Other than that we don't know.
Nehemia Gordon: I got to wonder if somebody else didn't write this, because it doesn't sound like his other stuff.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Right, exactly. It very well may be someone else.
Nehemia Gordon: So, we've been talking about these Greek and Roman examples, and I want to jump to a Jewish source here. The reason I'm bringing this, is because a lot of people will be listening to this and saying, you're this Karaite Jew, you're skeptical, but this skepticism is really an inherit part of the Jewish tradition. You brought the example of Bel and the Dragon, that somebody sometime around 150 or 200 BC is saying yeah the miracles that take place in the pagan temples that's trickery, but there's this other Jewish source that talks about the encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. That's the famous scene where Elijah faces 400 prophets of Baal and they are both supposed to invoke the miracle of a fire coming down from heaven and somehow spontaneously lighting their sacrifice. And the Rabbis ask a question, and it's a valid question, so what were the prophets of Baal thinking? They must have known they couldn't have performed this miracle. It's an amazing question. The Rabbis conclusion is they had hidden a man inside the alter, and in Jewish tradition they were even able to name the man. A man named Chiel the Bethelite or Chiel of Bethel. He's mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the man who rebuilt Jericho, not connected to this event. He's some obscure reference in one verse as the man who rebuilt Jericho, but in this Jewish legend, which I don't know how to date it. In other words, this may have been written a thousand years after the story. But the point is, the Rabbis were asking this question, how on earth did the prophets of Baal think they could pull this off? Let me read you what it says here. This is from Yalkut Shimoni, 1Kings, Remez 214. It says "they hopped around the alter that he made". Let me skip passed that. Ok, it says, "Chiel of Bethel made the alter hallow and they placed him inside and said to him, 'When you hear the sound [or that can be translated as when you hear the thunder], immediately stir the fire that is in your hand, and light the alter from underneath'. The Holy One, blessed be He, immediately summoned the snake that bit Chiel and he died." And the really cool thing is, there's this synagogue in Syria, at a place called Dura-Europos, which has all these paintings, all these frescos, and one of the frescos, scholars looked at it and said, all the other ones are scenes from the Bible, this one is not from the Bible, we have no idea what it refers to. And so Jewish scholars came along and said, that's Chiel of Bethel. It was a man inside an alter and a snake coming to bite him. I actually posted that as the image of this week's episode. It's amazing. The synagogue of Dura-Europos is from the third century AD and that means in the third century AD, the Jews were dealing with this same issue, that there were these pagan temples and there were all these miracles being performed at the temples. From the perspective of the Jews, this was a trick and it had always been trickery. I want to read a passage from Maimonides that I think you will appreciate, Dr. Carrier. He's talking about magic and miracles, which from his perspective is sleight of hand and he says, "All of the above matters are falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceive the gentle nations in order to lead them after them." In other words, all of these miracles, all of these supernatural events that we see taking place, and he's talking there about magic and astrology. But he's saying this is ancient stuff from when idolatry was first invented. The leaders of the idolaters, their priests, used these to trick people. I can't believe Maimonides had read Heron of Alexandria, but he I guess intuitively figured out the same type of thing was going on. That's pretty cool and it's also scary to think this thing is also going on in the twenty-first century. I grew up in Chicago and I remember there was once on the nightly news this statue of, I think it was the virgin Mary, that was crying blood from her eyes. Doesn't Heron of Alexandria describe how to perform that trick?
Dr. Richard Carrier: I don't know if he does. He describes machinery that can do it.
Nehemia Gordon: Well, he doesn't describe the virgin Mary, but in one of his passages he talks about how there's some kind of device where you light a fire, which is an offering on a little alter. Then that causes air to be pushed, which then pushes the fake blood to come out of the eyes of the statue, and this is a pagan statue.
Dr. Richard Carrier: That definitely sounds like Heron, yeah. We have this in Plutarch too. Plutarch said pagan statues frequently wept and bled and spontaneously spoke, and he's very skeptical. He writes about this and says, this is just either natural phenomena or trickery and these things don't really happen. Gods don't really inhibit the statues. And this is a pagan writing about this.
Nehemia Gordon: But he's a very skeptical pagan we established.
Dr. Richard Carrier: This was a common thing, the pagans were making their gods weep and bleed as well. It predates Christianity these miracles.
Nehemia Gordon: From my perspective, what had to have happened, is some of those pagan priests became Christian priests and brought that technology along with them.
Dr. Richard Carrier: It could well be, yeah.
Nehemia Gordon: I've read on some Catholic websites, where they are talking about Roode of Boxley, the Roode of Grace, which was caught in 1538, as being a trickery, and they're saying oh no, everybody knew that, that it wasn't a miracle. They call it something like religious theater, that the people knew better. I don't buy that. Because I've met people who in the twenty-first century have been tricked by this type of thing. I just don't buy it. I know plenty of people in the Jewish world, who are tricked, not by crying statues, but similar sorts of things. I'll just give you one example, the tomb of the Babasali, who is this Rabbi who died sometime in the twentieth century. Miracles that are related to his tomb. They'll take a cup of water, they'll put it on the tomb and that will cure cancer. All kinds of things. Nobody who believes in this, the people I've encountered, believe this is religious theater. They think these are genuine miracles that are taking place. And there is somebody that knows this is a lie. Some of these people may innocently believe it, other ones, this is just outright cynical trickery.
Dr. Richard Carrier: The Popoff case, the famous one, the one where it's become now like the troupe, a joke, about the fraudulent faith healing act. He had a thing where he had a speaker in his ear, he had like a little ear bud.
Nehemia Gordon: Oh, I saw that.
Dr. Richard Carrier: His wife would feed him the information to make it seem like he was omniscient, like he could just miraculously know someone's ailments. And they would specifically pick people that were ideal for this kind of theater, that they were going to perform. But they all made it seem like God was talking to him and giving him this information, and it was all part of the act. Indeed, it wasn't perceived as theater. People thought this was a real miracle occurring, that God really was talking to him. And the fact he could spontaneously know their ailments proved that it was for real. And they would specifically pick ailments that can respond to psychosomatic healing or appear to, right? No one came up with a severed limb and regrew a limb, right? They would specifically not pick those people. They would pick people who had ailments that you can't really verify they had it, or that it's even been cured. If someone has chronic pain, the faith healing act could make the pain go away, psychologically, but it will come back later. So, they would pick these kinds of things. They would pick ailments that make people believe they had been healed, when really they hadn't been. So, they specifically did not pick the amputees and things like that for this trick.
Nehemia Gordon: I'll reiterate, I do believe in miracles and this is my faith. I believe God can heal people of anything, but I understand how somebody who sees this like you, who doesn't believe in God, says this is all a big scam. And that's why it's important for me to talk about this, because if we whitewash this, then it leaves people thinking all of religion is just one big scam and according to Maimonides, all religions except for Judaism are one big scam.
Dr. Richard Carrier: That's a good point though. It is important to be a good skeptic of these thing and be aware of how this trickery can occur. People can be misled, even innocently misled, into thinking something's a miracle. Because if you do believe there are miracles, it makes it more difficult for you to prove that these miracles exist and therefore you need better evidence and so forth, to establish that your miracles are the real miracles and these others are not, otherwise you can't know. Even if it's true, you can't know, and so if you want to bring people into the fold through miracle working and there is, as we have been discussing, there's problem with that strategy all together, but if you wanted to do that, you do need to take skepticism seriously and be a good debunker as well.
Nehemia Gordon: The example you gave with Popoff, and I'm going to post a link to that video as well, I think it's from a James Randi document I saw…
Dr. Richard Carrier: It is, yes. Absolutely.
Nehemia Gordon: It's an amazing example, where literally there's a woman speaking in his ear and James Randi picked up the frequency and exposed this guy, so there's trickery going on. I want to end with one more example of miracles and these are the miracles of the Second Temple. My point here is, it's really easy for me to sit on my high horse and knock the Greek Orthodox and the ancient pagans, but if we're not willing to look at our own miracles and question them, then this is just hypocrisy. So I want to talk about the miracles of the Second Temple. This is from a passage in Yoma 39B of the Babylonian Talmud. "Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord'] did not come up in the right hand [of the High Priest on Yom Kippur]…" What that's describing is Leviticus 16. They would draw one lot for Azazel and one lot for Yehovah, with two goats. What they believed, this isn't in the Bible, but what they believed is, if the lot for Yehovah or the Lord came up in the right hand it was auspicious, it was a blessed thing. So, for the last forty years the lot didn't come up in the right hand and the implication is, before that it always did. He goes on "…nor did the crimson-colored strap become white…" That was supposedly a miracle that happened. See I'm already skeptical, I said "supposedly". It was a miracle that happened every year in the Second Temple. There was a crimson or a red color strap that would turn white, and that's a reference to a verse in Isaiah, "though your sins be as crimson, I will turn them white". They said this literally happened in the Temple, except for the last forty years God was displeased with Israel. And it says, "…nor did the westernmost light shine…" That was some other kind of miracle of the light spontaneously shinning, interestingly. Then they say, "…the doors of the Hekal [which is the middle sanctuary] would open by themselves..." So let's talk about these, these miracles of the Second Temple. Some of these could have been sleight of hand, I mean, come on.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Also, this is in the Talmud, so these things might not even actually go back. These might be legends. They might not have even occurred, because we have references in Josephus, for example, of the spontaneous Temple door opening. Josephus says that happened one time, that this occurred. And we're not entirely sure it really did, but it was reported to have happened.
Nehemia Gordon: And as you read on in the Talmud that actually does sound like a one-time occurrence, because Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai then comes and rebukes the doors for opening. It does sound like that was a one-time thing.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Josephus mentions there was one bright light, that occurred one time, over the Temple alter, that was supposedly signifying something.
Nehemia Gordon: So you're saying this may have been exaggerated over time.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah or Josephus is closer to these events, so if you look at the miracles he talks about in the Temple, these are more like omens than miracles. They were omens of the impending destruction of the Temple, which were only interpreted correctly in hindsight, of course, right? He mentions a variety of them, not all of the ones that were listed in Yoma. We don't see the Yoma descriptions quite in Josephus really.
Nehemia Gordon: Which is itself suspicious. In other words, if Josephus was familiar with this, why wouldn't he mention it? I mean, a crimson colored strap turning white every year. But then again, maybe because he didn't see it. In other words, if this stopped around the year 30 or 28 AD, then he might have never seen it himself.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Absolutely. He was born in 37, the Temple was destroyed in 70, and he was writing in 93 AD. He probably had sources, people claiming these things to him. It might have been impossible for him to verify these things actually occurred.
Nehemia Gordon: I can imagine a scenario where he heard about this and said, yeah right, no red color strap turns white, I'm not even going to put that in my history. I'm not dismissing it so easily, because this isn't even David Copperfield stuff, this is like, a fourth grader could do these tricks, come on.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah and also normal things can occur. Like a mild earth quake can cause the doors to open. There are things like that or someone opened the doors and then someone didn't notice they were there and then they went and reported the doors opened by themselves and no one corrected them. So if you can't investigate, it's really hard to know what really happened. And Josephus would have been in that position, himself. He probably could not have really known what was happening. He's just reporting what was told to him. And the way Josephus writes, he usually writes from the double perspective, saying, this is the stuff that was said, there might be natural explanations or not. He doesn't say these things definitely happened. He reports them and lets you decide, as the reader, whether you believe them or not.
Nehemia Gordon: I believe these things did happen. Especially, the door opening, which is very interesting. But that was a bad omen. And there is a Roman writer who mentions that as well. So, that may have happened. I kind of think all of these things probably happened and then I have to ask the question why did they stop in the last forty years before the Temple was destroyed. I know the Christians have a specific answer, because the Jews rejected Christ and therefore the miracle stopped. I got to wonder, Herod married the daughter of a priest, named Boethus of Alexandria, who came over from Alexandria and became the high priest in the Temple. I have to wonder if he didn't bring over some of that Alexandrian technology to the Temple. I mean, Heron of Alexandria is describing what went on. It's not a leap to think that a High Priest would come. And after that, you have these High Priests who were like, we are always going to have in the right hand "For the Lord". We know how to do that. Any Temple in Alexandria would do these tricks. They're nothing.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Yeah and they could be political statements. If you are going to create a bad omen, that's a political statement. That's a way to sort of protest an existing government and claim it's not you, it's the gods.
Nehemia Gordon: Or maybe they didn't know how to do it. We know the High Priest was constantly changing, it was for sale from the Roman Governor. Maybe in the year 30 AD there was a new high priest who just didn't know how to do the first few tricks here. The last one is a specific event with the doors.
Dr. Richard Carrier: But also I find the forty years, a suspicious number. It's a theological number. It's like the forty years in the wilderness kind of thing. Even if these things happened, they might not have happened every year. They might not have happened for exactly forty years. But the story becomes that. It becomes for every year, for forty years.
Nehemia Gordon: It's what we call a typological number in Biblical studies. Meaning, maybe it wasn't 40 years, maybe it was 27 or 48.
Dr. Richard Carrier: And maybe it wasn't every single year.
Nehemia Gordon: But the point is, in that last generation these miracles weren't being performed. And I got to wonder if that wasn't the change in the High Priesthood, who were like, we don't know how to do this.
Dr. Richard Carrier: That's a valid hypothesis to explore, for sure.
Nehemia Gordon: This has been an amazing discussion about ancient miracles. I want to go back to the Easter Miracle of the Fire. Maybe it's sleight of hand and trickery, maybe the Greek Orthodox Church is the one true religion, maybe it's demonic supernatural forces, and maybe it's God allowing them to perform this miracle based on Deuteronomy 13. I guess we don't know, but what we're really saying here is, you can't just automatically assume the Greek Orthodox Church is the one true religion. You've got to explore these other possibilities.
Dr. Richard Carrier: For those interested in more on this, I have a talk I gave at Skepticon, you can find online, Miracles and the Historical Method.
Nehemia Gordon: We'll post a link to that.
Dr. Richard Carrier: I talk about Glycon. I show some of the icons and archaeology relating to Glycon and various other pagan miracles from the time and talk about what it would take to actually verify a miracle occurred. I don't think it's impossible. I think it can be done. It's just we haven't had any miracles of that caliber.
Nehemia Gordon: Well, thank you very much. This has been an amazing conversation. We were here with Dr. Richard Carrier, you can find out more at RichardCarrier.info. Thank you.
Dr. Richard Carrier: Thank you.
Nehemia Gordon: I really enjoyed that conversation and learned a lot from it. Now, for some concluding thoughts. I want to make it very clear, I didn't do this episode to shake anyone's faith. On the contrary, it's my sincere hope this will strengthen people's relationship with the Creator of the Universe. Get it on a solid foundation. Dr. Carrier was very open about being an atheist, so it's natural he doesn't believe in miracles, but miracles are real. Yehovah created the universe and He can do whatever he wants in His world, but I also believe in false prophets, as is described in Deuteronomy 13. They have the power to perform genuine signs and miracles in order to lead us away from the word of Yehovah. On top of that, there can be no doubt, there are also fake miracles performed through trickery and sleight of hand. All of the above are certainly true. There may also be miracles performed by harnessing demonic forces or genuine supernatural magic. That's debatable from the Tanach's perspective, but it might be true as well. For me, the standard is Deuteronomy 13. If a miracle leads you away from the Torah and the one true God, Yehovah, then do not pay attention to it. It's really that simple. We see an example of this in 1 Kings 22. In the story of Michaihu. It describes 400 prophets who prophesized falsely before King Ahab and Jehoshaphat. They are not tricksters. They were experiencing a genuine spirit causing them to prophesy. We know from Michaihu this was a false spirit. In Hebrew, a ruach sheker, sent by Yehovah to deceive Ahab. Let's say that again. Yehovah sent this lying spirt, according to 1 Kings 22. It was sent by Yehovah himself. Ahab wanted a delusion, and Yehovah gave him the delusion he wanted. This is what Deuteronomy 13 is all about. If you believe Moses, then don't pray for a delusion and don't be swayed by signs and miracles. Not even genuine ones, that lead you away from Yehovah and his Torah. Just prior to Deuteronomy 13:1, we read in 12:32 not to add or take away from any of the commandments in the Torah. It's in this context that God then brings the issue of the false prophet. This means, if a prophet comes and tries to add or take away anything from the Torah, you must not listen to him, even if he performs scientifically verifiable supernatural miracles, miracles that would convince Dr. Carrier. Even then, don't listen to that false prophet, because God said, don't add, don't take away. And a prophet will come one day who performs these miracles, don't listen to him. Just don't do it. It's that simple. If he performs miracles, and tells you the pig is now kosher, or the commandments have been done away with, or I have new commandments for you, it's a test from Yehovah. In the words of Deuteronomy 13:3-4 "You must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for Yehovah your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love Yehovah your God with all your heart and soul. Yehovah your God you shall follow, Him alone you shall fear, His commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, Him you shall serve, and to Him you shall hold fast." It's so clear. Don't be swayed by miracles, even if they're real. Just hold fast to Yehovah. That's how you prove that you love him. I'm going to end in prayer. Yehovah, Creator of the Universe, miracles are nothing for you. You created nature and so suspending its rules are within your power. But ever since Moses faced Pharaoh, the magicians have been using various means to reproduce your genuine miracles, to lead people away from you. Pharaoh wanted a delusion and you gave it to him. Father, I pray for your truth and to keep me far away from any test of my faith in you. Protect me from delusions and false prophets, from lying spirits and signs and miracles, that would lead me away from your Torah. That would add to your Torah, or take away from your Torah. I love you Yehovah and yearn for your truth. Please grant me the discernment to distinguish between genuine miracles and anything that might lead me away from your beloved Word. Amen.
Guest Bio: Richard Carrier has a Ph.D. in the history of philosophy from Columbia University, and is a published philosopher and historian, specializing in contemporary philosophy of naturalism, and in Greco-Roman philosophy, science, and religion, and the origins of Christianity. He blogs regularly, lectures for community groups worldwide, and teaches courses online. He is the author of many books including Sense and Goodness without God, On the Historicity of Jesus, and Proving History, as well as chapters in several anthologies and articles in academic journals. For more about Dr. Carrier and his work see www.richardcarrier.info.
Possible Explanations of the Easter Miracle of the Holy Fire
- Greek Orthodox Christianity is the one true religion.
- Sleight of hand or trickery (Exodus 8:18-19).
- Demonic forces or supernatural magic (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
- Deuteronomy 13 – God grants false prophets the power to perform Genuine signs and miracles.
The Rood of Grace
“…upon the defacing of the late Monastery of Boxley, and plucking down of the images of the same, I found in the image of the rood called th Rood of Grace, the which heretofore has been had in great veneration of people, certain engines and old wire, with old rotten sticks in the back of the same, that did cause the eyes of the same to move and stir in the head thereof like unto a living thing; and also the nether lip in likewise to move as though it should speak…” (Letter of Geoffrey Chamber to Thomas Cromwell, February 7, 1538)
Glycon the Snake God
"...they had long ago prepared and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out. Besides, the [tame] serpent from Pella was ready in advance and was being cared for at home, destined in due time to manifest himself to them and to take a part in their show—in fact, to be cast for the leading role. …we must excuse those men of Paphlagonia and Pontus, thick-witted, uneducated fellows that they were, for being deluded when they touched the serpent— Alexander let anyone do so who wished—and besides saw in a dim light what purported to be its head opening and shutting its mouth.”(Alexander the False Prophet by Lucian of Samosata)
The Easter Miracle of the Holy Fire
“The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Eastern Orthodoxy. It has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time... the Israeli authorities… come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door, they… check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle... [Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodor narrates:] I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death... Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the colour may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn …The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp... At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church."
Nehemiah's Nephthar Miracle
(19) …when our ancestors were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone. (20) But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but only a thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it. (21) When the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and on the things laid upon it. (22) When this had been done and some time had passed, and when the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled… (36) Nehemiah and his associates called this “nephthar,” which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha. (2 Maccabees 1)
Yalkut Shimoni, 1 Kings, Remez 214
“...Hiel [the Bethelite] made [the altar] hollow and they placed him inside it and said to him, 'When you hear the thunder [or: "sound"], immediately stir the fire that is in your hand and light [the altar] from underneath.' The Holy One, blessed be he, immediately summoned a snake that bit [Hiel] and he died.” ()
Deuteronomy Rabbah (Lieberman ed.), appendix
“…the prophets of Baal knew that [the statue of] Baal was not able to bring forth fire from itself. What did Hiel do? He stood before the prophets of Baal and said to them, “Be strong and stand before Elijah, and I will perform a deed as if Baal sent forth fire for you.” What did he do? He took two stones in his hand and a flax wick and entered into the bowels of [the statue] of Baal, because it was hollow. He struck the two stones in order to light the wick. Elijah immediately felt the Holy Spirit and said in his presence, “Master of the universe, I made a great request from you and you granted it, that you restored the soul of the son of the woman from Sarepta. Now I ask you to smite the evildoer in the bowels of [the statue of] Baal. The Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately commanded a snake that bit him on his heel and he died.”
Lucian of Samosata, The Syrian Goddess, Section 10
"[the Temples of Hierapolis] possess some splendid masterpieces... and the gods make their presence felt in no doubtful way. The statues sweat, and move, and utter oracles, and a shout has often been raised when the temple was closed; it has been heard by many. And more: this temple is the principal source of their wealth, as I can vouch. For much money comes to them from Arabia, and from the Phœnicians and the Babylonians: the Cilicians, too, and the Assyrians bring their tribute."
Lucian of Samosata, The Syrian Goddess, Section 32
"But the greatest wonder of all I will proceed to tell: [the Syrian Goddess] bears a gem on her head called a Lychnis; it takes its name from its attribute. From this stone flashes a great light in the night-time, so that the whole temple gleams brightly as by the light of myriads of candles, but in the day-time the brightness grows faint; the gem has the likeness of a bright fire. There is also another marvel in this image: if you stand over against it, it looks you in the face, and as you pass it the gaze still follows you, and if another approaching from a different quarter looks at it, he is similarly affected."
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 8:1
"The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone's belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery."
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Avodat Kochavim 11:18
All the above matters are falsehood and lies with which the original idolaters deceived the gentile nations in order to lead them after them. It is not fitting for the Jews who are wise sages to be drawn into such emptiness, nor to consider that they have any value as [implied by Numbers 23:23]: "No black magic can be found among Jacob, or occult arts within Israel." Similarly, [Deuteronomy 18:14] states: "These nations which you are driving out listen to astrologers and diviners. This is not [what God... has granted] you." Whoever believes in [occult arts] of this nature and, in his heart, thinks that they are true and words of wisdom, but are forbidden by the Torah, is foolish and feebleminded. He is considered like women and children who have underdeveloped intellects.
The Miracles of the Second Temple
"Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand [of the High Priest on Yom Kippur]; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal [=middle sanctuary] would open by themselves..." (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39b)