Category Archives: Hoaxes

Name That Failed Doomsayer!

Welcome back, sinners! It’s Memorial Day weekend — so let’s play “Name That Failed Doomsayer!

Match the Pseudo-Prophecies below to their Pseudo-Prophets and win valuable (spiritual) prizes!

Here are three actual calculations for the END TIMES that were widely believed by tens of thousands of credulous Americans:

  1. Daniel 8:14 says the “sanctuary” will be “cleansed” after “two thousand and three hundred days.” This cleansing is the Second Coming of Christ. 2,300 days = 2,300 years. When do we start our clocks? When the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt. Ezra tells us this happened in the 7th year of the reign of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, which was 457 B.C. Add 2,300 years to 457 B.C. and you get: 1843! (Later revised to 1844! because this prophet — like so many — forgot there was no calendar Year 0.)
  2. In Matthew 24:32-34, Jesus says that a fig tree “puts forth its leaves” in summer. Then he makes his famous apocalyptic statement that “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Now, the “fig tree” = Israel. The modern state of Israel put forth its leaves (= was founded) in 1948. One generation = 40 years. 1948 + 40 years = 1988! (Later revised to 1989! because this prophet forgot there was no Year 0, apparently not noticing the error does not affect this particular calculation.)
  3. Jesus was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D. The Bible has three highly symbolic numbers — namely, 5, 10 and 17. Number 5 = atonement, demonstrated by the phrase “five shekels” in Numbers 3:47. Number 10 = completeness, shown by Revelation 20:2 where Satan is described as being “bound 1,000 years” (10-cubed is apparently even more “complete” than plain 10). And 17 = “Heaven” as revealed by the 1980’s New Wave power trio Heaven 17, I mean, by Jeremiah 32:9 where the prophet is told to buy a field for “17 shekels.” And of course, the Bible often repeats things for emphasis. So we see that (5x10x17) x (5x10x17) = 722,500. Add 722,500 days to the date of the crucifixion and you get … May 21, 2011! (Later revised to October 21, 2011! for reasons we’ll get into tomorrow.)

These publicly failed prophets are:

  1. William Miller, founder of the Millerites, a sect whose direct offshoots include Seventh Day Adventists and Branch Davidians.
  2. Edgar Whisenant, NASA engineer and million-selling author of the pamphlet “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur in 1988“.
  3. Howard Camping, unrepentant Doomsayer who has reached millions through his long-running radio ministry.

After the Rapturin’ … I’m Still in Love with You!

Sananda from the Planet Clarion

One might think that after the failure of the long-awaited Rapture to materialize at 6pm on Saturday May 21st, legions of credulous fundies would admit defeat and join the steaming ranks of shame-based human doings. And one would be wrong.

Since the time of Jesus, committed Christians have been predicting the Apocalypse — in fact, Jesus himself probably started it. His mentor John the B. and ace publicist St. Paul certainly knew the end was near. And with so many failed predictions come pew-loads of bereft believers.

Or not. What happens when prophecy fails?

The clinical term here is “cognitive dissonance,” which is a topic in social psychology championed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. His Theory of Cognitive Dissonance holds that when people have two conflicting “facts” in their heads, they seek to reduce the tension between them. As, say, when someone knows the world is going to end on 5/21 (Fact #1) and it doesn’t (Fact #2).

How is this tension resolved? Well, the person has to minimize the truth value of one or the other. And because of their emotional (perhaps even financial) investment in Fact #1, it’s usually Fact #2 that falls victim.

Here the games begin. Festinger didn’t think believers were stupid: they knew their conviction had bumbled. They can tweak or edit or rationalize, but there’s always some tension left. So what do they do? Something rather strange:

“There is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced,” Festinger wrote. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct.”

Thus, failure lends emotional momentum to greater proselytizing — not apostasy. People confound.

Festinger’s original experiment, described in a recent essay by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones, is mondo gonzo. Having read a newspaper headline “Prophecy From Planet Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood,” about a cult surrounding a Minnesota homemaker named Marian Keech, Festinger and two intrepid colleagues infiltrated the cult and started taking notes.

Keech believed she channeled Guardians via automatic writing. A being named Sananda from the planet Clarion (coordinates unknown) told the Lake City, Minnesota dweller that he was the reincarnation of Jesus and that her hometown would be destroyed by a flood on December 21st. Festinger and his new cult-buddies waited in Keech’s kitchen overnight and found they were not evacuated in alien spacecraft to elude the flood. There was no flood.

What did they do? Resolved the dissonance. Of the eleven non-spying members, only the two most “lightly committed” quit. The rest, observed Festinger, were “more strongly convinced than before.” Keech just revised the date.

21 Reasons the World Will Not End on May 21

Remember Edgar C. Whisenant? No? Take yourself back to 1988 … a leap year, perestroika, Gorbachev, Iran-Contra, “The Last Emperor,” Mayor Sonny Bono, Windows 2.1 … and the explosion of Whisenant’s mega-bestselling pamphlet, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988.”

Whisenant was a NASA engineer and thus good with numbers. Maybe too good: he saw patterns where they did not exist. He argued meticulously and with great conviction that “The Rapture” would occur September 11 or 12, 1988 — and his pamphlet gave, well, 88 good reasons why.

Self-published at first, he mailed it free to 300,000 evangelical ministers. They started a fire that roared, and ultimately Whisenant sold almost 5 million copies of this bad boy, hijacked the airwaves of the Trinity Broadcast Network and turned millions of innumerate fundies into quivering hillocks of Jell-O.

And “The Rapture” is scary, even for believers. It generally requires a military invasion (Whisenant predicted the Soviet Union marching into Israel) and seven years of absolute disaster, during which a Satanic leader emerges. Then it gets really bad. Nuclear holocaust, -150-degree days, no food. Frowny face.

So why was Whisenant so stuck on 1988?

Well, here we fall into the mind trap of illusory precision. Like all intelligent doom-sayers, he starts with ambiguous Biblical quotations, interprets them extremely literally or vaguely figuratively (whichever works best), layers unrelated logical steps not indicated by the text, and ultimately weaves a sophistic tapestry of overwhelming superficiality.

Of course! you say. Stop all the clocks!

Most of Whisenant’s 88 shreds of “evidence” are unbelievably convoluted, the product of a madman adding and multiplying until he hits the magic 88.

Typical example:

Leviticus 26:28 talks about “sevenfold” punishment. This means seven years. One lunar year is 360 days. God thinks of one day as a year. Therefore, the punishment term = 360 x 7 years = 2,520 years. And of course, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s reign began in 602 B.C.

Incredibly, -602 + 2,520 = 1988!

And so on. (Thanks to the great Bart Ehrman for this example.) With enough time, I guarantee you I could come up with “proof” that the End of Days was, say, 2013 or 2015 … giving you just enough time to … oh, my God! No! I’m being snatched up to the seventh Heaven …

Great Jesus Hoax 3D

It’s sort of funny to watch the late Columbia Professor Morton Smith toy with his adversaries as he defends the authenticity of the so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark,” which he claimed to have stumbled on in a monastery library at Mar Saba, Jerusalem, in 1958. The debate was a like a game.

You can’t catch me, he taunts, through the pages of his recently republished account of the “discovery,” The Secret Gospel. I’m smarter than you!

Like an unrepentant James Frey, Smith starts his screed with this hilarious warning: “No doubt if the past, like a motion picture, could be replayed, I should be shocked to find how much of the story I have already invented. Memory is perhaps more fallacious than forgetfulness.”

Huh? I can only imagine what the publisher of my memoir “Bad Dog (A Love Story)” would have said if I’d put that in my Author’s Note. P.S. I’m making this up!

Despite being a New Testament scholar, Smith was an atheist, driven out of the warm arms of Jesus by mysterious, bad childhood experiences. His Secret Gospel tells a tawdry tale of pedophilia by the Son of God Himself. It also supports Smith’s belief that so-called “miracles” like the raising of Lazarus in John were late accretions to early, non-miraculous gay orgies — um, I mean, events.

Early on in his misremembered account, Smith says, he “cast about, trying to find plausible reasons for assigning both letter and Gospel to the middle ages, the Renaissance, or the seventeenth century.” Or the 20th? For reasons he doesn’t share, he decided it was genuine. In other words, the least likely explanation became for him obvious.

Okay. He then decides Jesus must have baptized his followers (although this is not mentioned in our actual Gospels). And in a spurt of camp humor he writes [enhanced by my italics and “!”]:

“Thus the body of each possessed Christian is in effect a part (a “member,” that is a hand or foot or whatever [!]) of the body of the Messiah, who lives and acts [!] in [!] them all.” (p94)

But Jesus was not content to act in his disciples bodies — oh, no. He also enjoyed other baptismal actions, as Smith hints in a snickering footnote:

“Manipulation, too, was probably involved; the stories of Jesus’ miracles give a very large place to the use of his hands.”

Heh heh. Get it? Read this with learned commentaries from Professors Beavis and Butthead.

Smith goes on to argue that most likely (1) Jesus wrote stuff, (2) it was “suppressed”, and (3) it was suppressed because of its “libertine content” [i.e., tales of orgiastic initiations]. No evidence exists for any of these (3) points.

So twisted does Smith’s pretzel logic become that at one point he actually says:

“So the total neglect of the letter [containing the Secret Gospel] through seventeen centuries argues for its authenticity.” (p136)

Whassup? Smith seems to be inventing a new historical principle here: If there’s no evidence that something happened, that proves it happened!

Interesting. A recent book by Stephen Carlson called The Gospel Hoax lays out compelling reasons to think Smith forged the Gospel himself as a younger man. In addition to a devastating dissection of the letter’s handwriting, Carlson shows how Smith embedded clues to his own identity within the Gospel. Amazing.

Augustine got it right, after all: The ultimate reason for the Fall of Man is narcissism!

Amazing Jesus Hoax, Part Deux

To the day he died in 1991, Columbia’s combative Professor Morton Smith claimed the “Secret Gospel of Mark” he’d discovered in the monastery at Mar Saba was authentic. There was no deathbed confession, nor could there be.

For an academic of Smith’s standing to admit he’d forged such a document, then spent decades arguing and publishing for its startling value, would have been to put a stake not only through his career but his eternal reputation.

From such a death, no intellectual is ever resurrected.

So many — rather than believe a respected scholar could have perpetrated such a monumental hoax — gave the Secret Gospel the benefit of the doubt. It’s still taken quite seriously, and there was an academic conference devoted to it as recently as last March.

Which is odd. Because the Gospel itself reads like a joke. It’s a parody of a “Secret” suppressed from the New Testament; the Gospel According to Adam Sandler.

I’ll paraphrase parts of it here. I’m not making this stuff up — these are real sections from the manuscript Smith claimed to “find” in the monastery library. They’re framed as a letter from Clement of Alexandria to a guy named Theodore:

. . . After Peter [Jesus’ disciple] died, Mark came to Alexandria with both his and Peter’s notes. There he wrote the Gospel of Mark. But he didn’t say the “things not to be uttered.” He wrote another Gospel that included “certain sayings” that would lead people into “the innermost sanctuary of the truth.” It’s carefully guarded and read only to people being initiated into the sacred mysteries.

But then Carpocrates stole a copy of the Secret Gospel, which he mixed with “pollution” and shameless lies. The Secret Gospel of Mark actually says:

“In Bethany, a woman’s brother died. She begged Jesus to help, and he went to the young man’s tomb. Someone yelled. Jesus rolled the stone off the tomb and touched the young man’s body. The man woke up, looked at Jesus and loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him.

Jesus went to the young man’s house and stayed there for six days. Then Jesus told the man to come to him that night “wearing a linen cloth over his naked body.”

And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

Oh, my. Naughty, naughty Jesus!

* Here’s a link I found to a 1961 article in Time at the very beginning of the saga.

The Amazing Jesus Hoax! (part 1)

Imagine a highly respected scholar stumbled on a mysterious, hastily-scribbled letter in the back of a 17th century book in an ancient monastery in the desert outside Jerusalem. The letter was written in a 17th (or perhaps 18th) century hand, but its language indicated the contents came from much, much earlier.

Our professor was just a failed academic at the time — his tenure hadn’t come through. He had a difficult personality, in part due to being from New York, in part to an understandable rage against the Puritan sexual mores of the time. It was the 1950s, and he was perhaps a violently closeted gay man.

So he cannot believe his luck, there in that dusty monastery library. A copy of an ancient manuscript — one his vast training allowed him tentatively to attribute, on stylistic grounds, to the early Christian centuries. And even better, the letter itself contained a quotation from an even earlier source: a substantial section from nothing less than a “Lost Gospel” with heretofore suppressed details about the ministry and personality of Jesus himself! Knock knock, tenure committee!

Our professor took some natural-light photographs of the manuscript and (for reasons that are not entirely clear) put the book back on the shelf. Then he left the library and went back to America.

He showed his slightly grainy black-and-white photographs to some academic friends, who agreed the handwriting appeared to be from the 18th century. He studied the language of the letter and was able to attribute it to Clement of Alexandria, a well-known bishop and Church Father who wrote around the year 200 — and, as luck would have it, a prolific letter writer, thousands of words of whose actual letters were readily available for comparison.

Our professor then . . .  waited 20 years. That’s right. He established impressive credentials as an award-winning historian of Ancient Palestine, a tenured Columbia professor, textbook author, and belligerent jerk. Recapturing the precious manuscript seemed bizarrely unimportant to him. It remains missing and was never subject to the only real means of authenticating genuineness: microscopic physical examination of the paper, ink and handwriting.

Then, in the mid-1970s, safely tenured, he published two books on the manuscript he’d found back in 1958. Controversy greeted them, but nobody seemed to want to say the obvious. The “Gospel” was taken seriously, the “Letter” included in a standard edition of Clement’s works.

The professor’s first defense was a bulky, densely-footnoted, academically intimidating discussion put out by Harvard University Press. The second is a brief, lively book I’ve just finished called The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, reissued recently by a religious cult in California. The author (our professor): Morton Smith.

Well, well. The fact that this “Secret Gospel” was taken so seriously for so long, and continues to have its advocates, is the best argument I’ve seen lately for the proposition that academics have no common sense.

From beginning to end, Morton Smith’s incendiary discovery reads like a massive middle finger to the academy — an incredible insult so clever, so smart, even bright people are left absolutely speechless.

Morton Smith almost certainly forged the letter and had it “lost” so a physical analysis could not be performed. Then he spent decades writing intricate “defenses” of the letter that were, in fact, little more than pretexts for him to parade unrelated, tangential arguments for his own pet theories.

It’s an incredible story. Better than Holy Blood, Holy Grail. More tomorrow …