Sunday, December 20, 2009

Conservative Scholars "Make Do" with the Historical Jesus

ChrisB offered the following comment on my post about responses to the Christ myth theory from the conservatives in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. “All this is really telling us is that you would like more information. Well, so would I, but we have to make do with what we have.”

I find Chris’ use of the phrase “make do” quite revealing because it suggests that the goal remains unchanged even if the means are less suitable. If I cannot afford a car, I still have to get to work so I “make do” by riding the bus or walking. If I cannot afford steak, I still have to eat so I “make do” with hamburger or peanut butter. If the evidence is insufficient to say with any certainty how some first century Jews came to believe in a resurrected Messiah, the Bible believing Christian still has to affirm that the historical Jesus is the Jesus of orthodox Christian faith. For conservative scholars, “making do” means paying lip service to objective historiography while finding some way to define the historical Jesus solely in terms of the gospel accounts.

I think I find Luke Timothy Johnson’s approach in Five Views most interesting. He freely acknowledges that the gospels “are replete with accounts of 'events' that in principle fall outside the ability of the historian to declare: virgin birth, voices from heaven, exorcisms, healings, transfiguration, resurrection.” He does believe that it can be established “that Jesus existed as a Jew in the first century, that he was executed by Roman authority in Palestine, that a movement arose in his name and proclaiming him as risen Lord spread across the Mediterranean world within twenty-five years” along with a few other basic facts. However, he doubts history’s ability to get much farther.

For Johnson, the solution to this dilemma is to read the gospels as literature and Jesus as a character in a narrative:
Rather than ask first concerning a word or deed of Jesus, “did Jesus really do this or say that?” the reader asks first, “what does attributing this saying or that deed” do to shape the meaning of the character of Jesus within the narrative?
Johnson believes that this makes the gospels into useful sources.
In this approach, the Gospels are treated not as limited and problematic sources for historical reconstruction but as invaluable witnesses to and interpretations of—precisely in their integrity as narratives—the human person, Jesus. The Gospels are read literarily rather than historically.
According to Johnson, understanding the literary character leads to understanding of the historical person:
Precisely because of their obvious divergence in their interpretations of the human Jesus, the Gospels are all the more valuable as witnesses on those points where they agree—even if their understanding of the point differs.
As Johnson’s alchemy proceeds, the literary character becomes historical fact.
Finally, the Jesus whom we engage and come to know as a human character in the canonical Gospels is also the historic Christ. It is this fully rounded literary character that provides the basis for the “Christ-Image” in literature, so recognizable a way of being human that it can be mistaken for no other.
It is a marvelous piece of prestidigitation. Perhaps Johnson can apply his techniques to root out the facts about other characters whose true history has been obscured by legend. Surely he can tease out the truth about King Arthur from Excalibur, Camelot, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. No doubt the facts pertaining to the rogue of Sherwood Forest lie somewhere between Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Kevin Kostner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Cary Elwes in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. It is too bad that historians have not discovered this technique before.

Like Johnson, James D.G. Dunn is willing to admit that the gospel accounts pose problems for a historian. He acknowledges that “normal historical means can hardly confirm” the resurrection. However, he denies that the historian should draw a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith:
In direct contrast to this deeply rooted suspicion of faith as a barrier to and perversion of any historical perspective on Jesus, my proposal is that the quest should start from the recognition that Jesus evoked faith from the outset of his mission and that this faith is the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission.
Where Johnson made do with a literary character, Dunn makes do with the faith that the historical Jesus inspired:
One thing we can be sure about: that Jesus made an impact in and through his mission. . . . What has not been given sufficient recognition or weight, however, is the effect of this impact. These disciples encountered Jesus as a life-transforming experience: they followed him; they left their families; they gave up their livelihoods. Why? Because they had believed Jesus and what he said and taught. Because they believed in Jesus.
Frankly, however, I think it is precisely the faith response of his disciples that calls into question the Jesus of history and affirms the Jesus of myth. In all the surviving letters from first century Christians, not a single one indicates that the writer's faith was based on what Jesus said or taught. Not a single one indicates that its author had been influenced by a parable Jesus told or a miracle he performed. Their faith is shaped entirely by their understanding of the resurrected Christ. The itinerant preacher who wandered Galilee is absent.

Rather than “making do” with the evidence, perhaps we need to “make peace” with the evidence. We need to acknowledge that there are many possible historical explanations for how the stories about Jesus came to be written the way they were ranging from a Jesus who is largely legendary to a historical Jesus who said and did many of the things that are attributed to him. Our sources are not sufficient to allow us to do much more than outline some of the possibilities. Choosing any one of them as most likely is by nature speculative and choosing any one to the exclusion of all others is silly.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jon Stewart Rips Laura Ingraham for Holocaust References

A few years back, the Right Wingnuts went crazy when Illinois Senator Dick Durbin dared to suggest that the photos coming out of Abu Ghraib prison reminded him of something he would expect to find in a totalitarian regime. Now, however, these same jackasses have no qualms about using Holocaust analogies to oppose health care reform that would still leave Americans far short of what citizens enjoy in almost every other industrialized democracy in the world.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Highway to Health - Last Tea Party Protest of the Year
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Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Perhaps Stewart's best line was his response to the moron who insisted that "we can never let the pen become mightier than the sword."

"The pen being mightier than the sword is only the basis for our civilization."

Ehrman on Paul's Historical Jesus

As I noted, I am not persuaded by conservative scholars attempts to read the historical Jesus of the gospels into Paul's epistles. However, I haven't run across any liberal scholars tackling the issue as thoroughly as I would like. I heard Bart Ehrman say that he sometimes assigns his new students the task of listing everything Paul says that Jesus said and did, and that they are always surprised by how little there is. On the other hand, I haven't heard Ehrman address the implications of that for the question of the historicity of Jesus himself.

I was intrigued to run across the following comment from Ehrman about the dispute that Paul describes having with Peter in his letter to the Galatians:
One can imagine Peter himself saying such a thing to Paul in their controversy in Antioch: "You think you're right because you saw Jesus for a few moments on the road to Damascus? I spent years with him."
I can imagine that very well. What I find much harder to imagine is how no hint of that found its way into any of the epistles.

I occurs to me, however, that the historical Jesus might have had a much shorter ministry than the gospels give him credit for. Perhaps he was a disciple of John the Baptist who started proclaiming John's message after John was beheaded only to be snatched up and executed by the Romans within days of starting out. Perhaps there are no disputes in the epistles about the meaning of what he said because he did not have a chance to say much besides "Repent. The end is near."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Conservative Scholars Respond to the Christ Myth Theory

It is often hard to find conservative Christian scholars who will respond to the mythological Jesus arguments with anything other than derision so I was pleased to find a recent book titled The Historical Jesus: Five Views in which scholars of various viewpoints give their take on the current state of the quest for the historical Jesus. What I really like about the book is that each of the scholars writes a brief response to the other essays so we get to see how conservative scholars James D.G. Dunn, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Darrell L. Bock as well as Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan respond to Robert Price’s defense of the argument that there never was a historical Jesus.

Price’s argument is titled Jesus at the Vanishing Point and it focuses heavily on the question that I find most intriguing: Why don’t Paul’s epistles contain any details of Jesus’ life prior to the crucifixion?
Setting aside the very late 1 Timothy, which presupposes the Gospel of John (the only Gospel in which Jesus “made a good confession before Pontius Pilate”),19 we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context, only that the fallen angels (Col 2:15), the archons of this age, did him in, little realizing they were sealing their own doom (1 Cor 2:6-8). It is hard to imagine that the authors of Romans 13:3 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 (where we read that Roman governors punish only the wicked, not the righteous) believed that Jesus died at the order of Pontius Pilate. We should never even suspect he performed a single miracle, since none are mentioned. Did Paul think his Jesus had been a teacher? We just don’t know, since his cherished “commands of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:10, cf. 25; 9:14), while they might represent quotations from something like the Q source, may as well be midrashically derived inferences from Old Testament commands of Adonai in the Torah, or even prophetic mandates from the Risen One.

I don’t suppose that anyone will be shocked to learn that I didn’t find the conservative Christian responses to Price terribly convincing. I thought that they were much too blithe in asserting that a historical Jesus could be found throughout the New Testament and not just in the Gospels. When it came to citing actual points at which the historical Jesus could be found in Paul’s epistles, I thought their examples were pretty weak.

Timothy Luke Johnson got first crack at Price and he appealed to what he calls “two interrelated historical facts” that require explanation:
The Christian movement did not exist before Jesus, and when it appeared across the Mediterranean world of the first century, the “Lord” who was believed to be present in the cult worship was not an Egyptian or Persian deity, but a failed Jewish Messiah who was executed under Roman authority in the time of Tiberius. . . .

The second historical fact is the composition of at least twenty-seven distinct compositions within a fifty year period by members of this religious movement, all of which, despite their diversity of literary genre, social setting and theological perspective, have the same Jesus as their point of focus, and the same generative matrix, namely the death and resurrection of the human person Jesus.

The problem is that I do not think that either of these counts as a historical fact. The earliest record we have of the appearance of the Christian movement is the letters of Paul and he doesn’t say anything about when or where Jesus was executed and very little about why. Of “the twenty-seven distinct compositions,” only five of them contain details about what a human person said or did and the time and place when he lived. The point of focus of the other twenty-two is a theological figure whose significance rests entirely on his death and resurrection. The writers of these twenty-two books don’t demonstrate any knowledge of the contents of the other five and write nothing to indicate that the contents of them would be relevant to anything they have to say about the theological figure.

Johnston goes on to point out where he thinks the historical Jesus can be found outside the gospels:
Price’s effort to remove evidence of Jesus from Paul’s letters amounts to an unconvincing tour de force. I mention only three examples. (1) He leaves aside the evidence in Paul’s letters that Jesus was Jewish (Gal 4:4)—indeed, descended from David (Rom 1:3)—and was regarded as Messiah (Rom 9:4). (2) He does not acknowledge that Paul’s reference to a command of the Lord concerning divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10 provides multiple attestation for Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 10:2-8; Mt 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Lk 16:18) and shows how the criterion of dissimilarity—for all its problems—actually yields positive evidence concerning Jesus’ teaching, for the very struggles found in Matthew and Paul to provide some exceptions to the command testify to its being a received tradition, and one contrary both to Greco-Roman and Jewish practice.

These don’t seem terribly impressive to me. That Paul thought the Jewish Messiah was Jewish doesn’t seem to require a known historical person. Neither does the fact that the Jewish Messiah comes from the line of David. The prohibition against divorce is more interesting, but it does not seem nearly as definitive as Johnson would like to believe. The passage in Corinthians deals with what changes believers should make in their lives given the imminent Second Coming. Paul advises slaves to remain slaves and he advises married people to remain married citing the Lord as his source for the latter admonition. That context seems much different than Jesus’ teachings on divorce in the synoptic gospels. They could be related, but I think there is plenty of room for doubt.

I suppose I should say what I think the epistles might contain if Paul did have well-known recently deceased teacher in mind. First I would expect Paul to support his arguments when possible by citing things that Jesus had said. Second, I think Paul would be forced to discuss the significance of things Jesus said and did when others referred to them. For example, Paul argues against other believers who insisted that pagan converts should be circumcised and observe the Jewish dietary laws. His opponents would naturally have pointed to Jesus’ statement that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished,” (Matthew 5:18) had they heard it from Jesus’ own mouth. The fact that the letters of the earliest Christians don’t reflect any disputed interpretations of the things Jesus said or did during his life leads me to believe that none of them had any knowledge of them.

James D.G. Dunn decided to go with derision in his response to Price:
Gosh! So there are still serious scholars who put forward the view that the whole account of Jesus’ doings and teachings are a later myth foisted on an unknown, obscure historical figure. . . .
This is always the fatal flaw with the ‘Jesus myth’ thesis: the improbability of the total invention of a figure who had purportedly lived within the generation of the inventers, or the imposition of such an elaborate myth on some minor figure from Galilee. Price is content with the explanation that it all began "with a more or less vague savior myth." Sad, really.
Personally I find this kind of sarcasm rather sad.

Dunn does even worse then Johnson when he tries to find evidence of a historical Jesus in Paul’s epistles:
Where I begin to become irritated by Price’s thesis, as with those of his predecessors, is his ignoring what everyone else in the business regards as primary data and his readiness to offer less plausible hypotheses to explain other data that inconveniences his thesis. Why no mention of 1 Corinthians 15:3—generally reckoned to be an account of the faith that Paul received when he was converted, that is, within two or three years of the putative events—“that Christ died….” Why no reference to Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23), his preaching as openly portraying Christ as crucified (Gal 3:1)? How can Price actually assert that “we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context,” when it is well enough known that crucifixion was a Roman political method of execution characteristically for rebels and slaves? I could go on at some length—“seed of David” (Rom 1:3), “born under the law” (Gal 4:4), “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). Yet Price is able to assert that “the Epistles…do not evidence a recent historical Jesus,” a ludicrous claim that simply diminishes the credibility of the arguments used in support.

Dunn’s argument boils down to little more than “we should read all these passages as referring to a historical person because everybody knows that Jesus was a historical figure. The reason that Price doesn’t mention the passages in Corinthians is because Paul says nothing to indicate where or when the crucifixion took place. While the fact that Christ was crucified may bring to mind the Romans, the Carthaginians, Persians, and Greeks had practiced crucifixion in the five centuries since it had been invented so it really doesn’t narrow potential times, places, or responsible parties very much. I have no doubt that Dunn could go on at length but if he decides to lead off with “seed of David,” “born under the law,” and “did not please himself,” I doubt that he is going to get very far towards establishing that Paul believed in a recent historical Christ.

Bock is much more civil than Dunn, but he also assumes the points that upon which Price seeks evidence:
Price’s claim actually ignores many features we can consider historically, such as a figure’s impact on his contemporaries or their testimonies that this impact is not a matter of myth. First-century Christian documents clearly claim this distinction, which means they are aware of the difference and reject a tie to myth for Jesus. This puts Jesus and his historical reality on the table.
Price's point is that Jesus’ teachings and miracles do not seem to have made any impact whatsoever on the writers of twenty-two out of the twenty-seven first century Christian documents. It may be clear that the gospel writers claim the distinction between a mythological and historical Jesus, but it is not clear that anyone else does.

After reading three leading conservative scholars’ comments on the mythological Jesus argument, I still don’t see a more satisfactory explanation for the dearth of evidence for the historical Jesus in the epistles that that the writers of those epistles did not have a historical figure in mind.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Historical Reliability of the Gospels and Eyewittnesses

One of the arguments I see most frequently in support of the historical reliability of the gospels is that they were written within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. The idea seems to be that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could not have gotten away with fabricating stories about Jesus because the eyewitnesses who knew the true stories would have set them straight.

The first problem with this argument is it assumes that there were eyewitnesses who knew true stories about Jesus. As I pointed out in my posts about Paul's understanding of the historical Jesus, our earliest Christian sources don't say anything about anyone having any contact with Jesus before he began making appearances after his resurrection. If the earliest Christians weren't witnesses to the events described in the gospels, they wouldn't be in a position to contradict the gospel stories.

Another problem is that we do not know that the gospels' authors weren't contradicted. As I also pointed out, references to the gospel stories by other Christian writers are not found until sometime in the second century. If the dates traditionally assigned to the gospels of 60-90 A.D. are correct, it is possible that they were contradicted by the first generation Christians who knew that the movement was not founded on the person that the gospel writers were describing. It could be that the gospel stories only came to be accepted as part of the tradition after the earliest Christians had passed from the scene.

For me, however, the biggest problem with this theory is that fanatics tend to be impervious to facts. In our present day, we have people who deny the holocaust. We have people who deny that man landed on the moon. We have people who believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. We have people who believe that a controlled demolition engineered by the Bush administration brought down the Twin Towers. We have people who believe that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus in order to kill Black people. We have people who believe that Jewish scientists created the AIDS virus to kill Black people. I could go on and on. There is more than enough evidence available at the click of a mouse to render all of these beliefs absurd. Nevertheless, people believe these theories with a passion that is frightening. What possible reason could we have for thinking that the earliest Christians would have been deterred by an eyewitness who asserted that the tomb was not empty?

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (4)

In many ways, the Jesus we find in Paul’s letters is a cipher. His activities prior to his death are unknown other than the fact that he instituted the Eucharistic meal. Where and when he lived is unknown. Where and when he was crucified is unknown. Little if anything is known of the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion other than that he was betrayed. His only contacts with identifiable people are the appearances he made after he rose from the dead. He might have had a brother named James, but maybe that was a spiritual relationship rather that a biological one.

Paul was not the first person to witness an appearance of Jesus, but we don’t know much about the theological significance that the others attached to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul says that the message he preached about Christ’s atoning death was revealed to him directly by Christ himself. Even the part about the Eucharistic meal Paul says he received from Christ. We don’t know whether this is what the earlier believers thought before Paul came along because Paul says that they contributed nothing to his message.

If all we had was Paul’s letters, we might reasonably conclude that Christianity had its origins in the vision that Paul had on the road to Damascus rather than in an actual person who lived and walked around Galilee in the first century.

So where did the gospel stories come from?

Paul was undoubtedly a very charismatic guy and his story and his message of Christ’s atoning death was enough to convince a lot of people to embrace the new faith. As time went by, however, and the religion spread, curiosity about what Jesus had said and done would have grown. Paul’s story might have been enough for people who heard it directly from him, but as the religion became several steps removed from it, people might have been easier to convert if the preachers could tell them some stories about Jesus himself.

If these early preachers were honest fellows, they wouldn’t want simply to invent stories, so they would need a source. They knew that Jesus had been the Messiah who had been foretold in the Jewish scriptures because Paul told them so. As the Messiah, he must have done the things that the Jewish prophets had said the Messiah would do. All the preachers had to do was look in the Old Testament to find out what Jesus had done during his life.

As the stories were told and retold, they were expanded. Things that Paul had said were attribute to Jesus. Things that other apocalyptic preachers like John the Baptist had said and done were attributed to Jesus. Eventually, the author of the Gospel of Mark pulled the stories together to form a coherent narrative that supported his interpretation of Jesus.

Can I prove that this is what happened?

Of course not. In fact, I see some serious holes in this theory as well, because it is not just Paul’s letters that neglect Jesus’ life prior to his crucifixion. None of the first century Christian writers including Clement demonstrate any knowledge of the gospels or the stories they contain. Perhaps the attempts to historicize Paul’s Jesus did not take place until much later.

In the comments to a post about alternative explanations for the resurrection over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton posed the following question: “If you did not have a anti-supernaturalistic bias against the possibility of the resurrection, wouldn’t you say that a belief that Christ rose from the grave is at least a good possibility for the evidence?”

Not surprisingly, I answered no. A big part of that no comes from my inability to trace the lineage of the gospel stories. If in fact the Christian message in Jerusalem around 35 A.D. was based on a recently diseased individual whose life and death were personally witnessed by the earliest Christians, I would think that any historical explanation would have to take the stories about Jesus’ life and death seriously. However, I don’t think that there is enough evidence to show that the gospel stories were not much later additions to a movement that was founded solely on Paul’s interpretation of a vision he had. As such, I cannot see any reason to resort to supernatural explanations.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Is It Moral to Walk Away From a Mortgage?

Although more than 32% of American homeowners have negative equity, only about one in ten chooses to walk away from their mortgage before being forced to do so by circumstances like job loss. As long as they are able to pay, they continue to do so despite the fact that the economically rational decision would be to turn the keys over to the bank that holds the mortgage and move out.

Felix Salmon of Reuters calls this "The world's largest guilt trip." Last March, Bush's Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen insisted that underwater homeowners "who can afford their mortgage should honor their obligations." As Salmon points out though, "he would have fired anyone at Goldman who behaved similarly."

Monday, November 23, 2009

The MSM Myth

If the mainstream media is so damn liberal, why did it spend so much time last week on Sarah Palin's book and Barack Obama's bow to the Emperor of Japan?

For more see Palin's book and Obama's bow: a media week to forget at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (3)

Another argument I have heard is that Paul's writings presuppose a historical Jesus. After all you cannot have a death and a resurrection without a prior life. I think there is some logic to this (although mythers maintain it need not have been an earthly life and death), but I don't see how it helps the case for a historical Jesus.

Paul had an experience on the road to Damascus that he believed to be an encounter with a resurrected Messiah. While this may presuppose that this Messiah had lived and been put to death, it does not presuppose that Paul had any historically reliable evidence for that life and death other than his experience. We could just as well say that Joseph Smith's vision of the Angel Moroni presupposes that a race of native Americans with Caucasian skin tones had lived hundreds of years before his time. So what?

Paul's first source of information about this resurrected Messiah would have been the people he was persecuting prior to his conversion. However, I think experience shows that religious zealots tend not to have reliable information about their victims' beliefs. Jews were believed by their persecutors to be sacrificing Christian babies for their rituals. The Romans thought that early Christians engaged in incest because they called each other "brother" and "sister." The Puritans thought their victims in Salem were witches.

I have often wondered how much of Paul's early information might have come from informants or torture victims who would have been happy to tell Paul any crazy story he wanted to hear. "No. No. I'm not a Christian, but my next door neighbor is and he told me that Jesus appeared to 500 of them at one time!" Would Paul have needed any evidence beyond his vision of the resurrected Jesus to convince him that all the stories he had heard were true?

Christian apologists claim that Paul could have obtained historical information about Jesus when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. Gal. 1:18-24. However, right before he describes that visit, he says "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Gal. 1:11-12. Given Paul's superior education and his history of dealing harshly with people who disagreed with him, I cannot help but suspect that it was Paul who did most of the talking at that meeting. Paul was already enjoying success as an evangelist and Peter and James may have been more eager to get on his bandwagon than point out any errors in his historical understanding.

The apologists also point to Paul's later trip to Jerusalem as proof that he got information from the original apostles. "I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain." Gal. 2:2. However, nothing in what Paul writes suggests that he was at all concerned that he had gotten anything wrong. Rather, he was concerned that the guys in Jerusalem were behind the false teachings that were screwing up his work. "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you." Gal. 2:4-5. If the apostles in Jerusalem had disagreed with Paul, it would not have changed his message. "As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews." Gal. 2:6-7. Paul then goes on to describe a later meeting in Antioch where he accuses Peter of hypocrisy. Gal 2:11-21.

Everything that Paul writes indicates that he considers his knowledge and understanding of the gospel to be equal or superior to anyone's based on the revelation that he had received. Had he thought that those with whom he disagreed had been personally taught by Jesus for three years, it is hard to believe that he would not have grappled with the fact that others had sources of knowledge that were not available to him.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (2)

One reason that conservative Christians offer for Paul eschewing discussion of what Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry is that Paul was writing epistles rather than gospels, which I think boils down to the idea that Paul didn't need to reference any of those teachings or activities in order to make his points.

One of the reasons I find this unpersuasive is that even if Paul did not feel the need to quote Jesus, he would have needed to deal with opponents who did. In Galatians, Paul describes his disagreement debate with Peter and James over whether pagan converts needed to be circumcised and observe the Jewish laws. Surely, Paul's opponents would have cited Jesus own words in support of their position:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20. If Jesus' words were known and considered authoritative during Paul's time, it is difficult to see how he could address these issues without touching upon what Jesus had to say on the subject.

I can accept that Paul thought that Jesus was an actual person who had walked the earth, but it is hard for me to see how he could have thought that anyone he knew had personally interacted with Jesus while he had.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (1)

Few scholars of early Christianity seem to have much patience for the theory that Jesus of Nazareth was an entirely mythological invention. More liberal scholars will often acknowledge that the gospel stories may contain so much legendary material that little about the historical Jesus may be known with any certainty, but most of them still seem confident that such a person existed. Conservative Christian scholars, on the other hand, tend to view the idea that Jesus did not exist as a crackpot conspiracy theory.

Conservative Christian bloggers seem to be even more hostile to the Jesus “mythers” (as proponents of the mythological Jesus theory are known in the blogosphere). Even Bible believing bloggers who are generally willing to engage in cordial debate with atheists and agnostics will draw the line at the mythers. In a way, I don’t blame. Some of the mythers roaming the blogosphere can be fairly obnoxious. The worst of them will just repeat their own arguments ad nauseum without addressing the points their opponents make and they will treat any argument that even plausibly seems to favor their side as ironclad proof of their entire position. Of course there are many conservative Christians who act like that as well, and I suspect that such behavior can be found on both sides of every issue that gets debated on the internet.

I don’t consider myself a myther, but I find it hard to discount the possibility that the historical Jesus may be virtually beyond recovery. The main problem I see with the theory of a completely mythological Jesus is that the mythers’ position would have to be the right one on each and every disputed issue while the historical Jesus prevails if the mythers are only wrong once. Still, I find some of the myther arguments really interesting and I like to try to get conservative Christians to respond to them. I have to be careful in how I raise the issue though, lest I be perceived as a lunatic myther rather than a respectful agnostic.

For me, the most interesting point on the myther side of the ledger is that our earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles, don’t demonstrate any knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry prior to the night before he was crucified. Consider all the questions that Paul leaves unanswered:
  • Where was Jesus from? Was it Nazareth, or could he have been from Egypt or Rome, or Schenectady?
  • Where was Jesus crucified? Was it in Jerusalem, or could he have been put to death in Samaria or Damascus, or Poughkeepsie?
  • When did Jesus live and die? Was it a few years before Paul’s time, a few decades before, or more than a century before?
  • How long did Jesus preach and teach before he was arrested?
  • Did any one Paul knew have personal contact with Jesus prior to his resurrection? Did Jesus teach his followers about ethics and morality?
  • Did Jesus say anything about having a divine nature?
For all we know from Paul’s letters, Jesus could have materialized on the earth on the night of the last supper. No events prior to that night seem to matter to Paul. It is only Jesus’ death and resurrection that are significant to Paul but he doesn’t say when those events took place.

The hardcore myther explanation for this lack of detail is that Paul didn’t believe that Jesus was a historical individual at all. According to this theory, Paul’s Jesus was an entirely spiritual being and his death and resurrection played out in some heavenly dimension rather than on earth in first century Palestine. These mythers think that it was the writer of Mark’s gospel who invented an allegorical story about a Jesus who actually walked the earth. While I haven't studied the issues that closely, I cannot help but be struck by the fact that the teachings in Paul’s letters don’t seem to depend on an actual historical person doing or saying any of the things that the gospels say Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry.

So I guess I come down at about the same place on the existence of the historical Jesus as I come down on the existence of God. I’m agnostic. I don’t find the evidence sufficiently compelling in either direction.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Goldman Sachs Doing God's Work?

THE LLOYD’s Prayer

Our Chairman,
Who Art At Goldman,
Blankfein Be Thy Name.
The Rally’s Come. God’s Work Be Done
On Earth As There’s No Fear Of Correction.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Gains,
And Bankrupt Our Competitors
As You Taught Lehman and Bear Their Lessons.
And Bring Us Not Under Indictment.
For Thine Is The Treasury,
The House And The Senate
Forever and Ever.

Found at Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Free Markets v. Competitive Markets

From the Economist's View:

Free markets - where free simply means minimal government involvement - are not necessarily the same as competitive markets. There is nothing that says what many interpret as freeing markets - lifting all government restrictions - will give us competitive markets, not at all. Government regulation (as well as laws, social norms, etc.) is often necessary to help markets approach competitive ideals. Environmental restrictions that force producers to internalize all costs of production make markets work better, not worse. Rules that require full disclosure, or that impose accounting standards help to prevent asymmetric information improve market outcomes. Breaking up firms that are too large prevents exploitation of monopoly power (or prevents them from becoming "too large to fail") which can distort resource flows and distort the distribution of income. Making sure that labor negotiations between workers and firms are on an equal footing doesn't move markets away from an optimal outcome, just the opposite, it helps to move us toward the efficient, competitive ideal, and it helps to ensure that labor is rewarded according to its productivity (unlike in recent years where real wages have lagged behind). There is example after example where government involvement of some sort helps to ensure markets work better by making sure they are as competitive as possible.

The Health Care Crisis in the Suburbs

My wife just donated to a fundraiser for the mother of a boy that my son played basketball and soccer with in grade school. She was recently diagnosed with breast cancer but she has no health insurance. She is divorced and she is unemployed because she has spent the last year taking care of her mother who suffers from dementia. At least she has the comfort of living in a country that doesn't infringe on its citizens' freedom by providing government sponsored health care.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Charlie Gasparino: CNBC (and WSJ) Jackass of the Day 11/6/09 (Part 3)

Perhaps the most disingenuous claim that Charlie makes in his WSJ piece is that the United States government was a “co-conspirator” with “the greed merchants.” As I listened to him on his CNBC spots, it seemed clear to me that he viewed the government as bearing primary responsibility as if Wall Street had been duped into generating all those toxic loans and securities. This of course plays perfectly into the conservative thesis that the solution to the problem is to have the government do less to regulate activities on Wall Street. Like the rest of Charlie’s theory, any relationship to reality is coincidental at best.

The government was not a co-conspirator with the greed merchants. The government was the hireling of the greed merchants. It wasn’t some member of Congress who came up with the idea that the country would be better off if Glass-Steagall Act were repealed and then went out to persuade banks to engage in securities underwriting. It was the banks who lobbied the government. It wasn’t the SEC that talked the investment banks into adopting irrationally risky capital ratios. It was the investment banks led by Hank Paulson of Goldman Sachs who lobbied Christopher Cox for the rule change that allowed them to take on more risk.

The government failed not because it induced Wall Street to do things it did not want it to do. It failed because it did whatever Wall Street wanted it to do. The government was the flunky in this conspiracy, not the mastermind. The government was the night watchman who gets a few bucks to leave the door unlocked while the thieves rifle the vault. Like all good flunkies, Charlie figures it should take the fall while the masterminds waltz away with the loot.

Charlie Gasparino: CNBC (and WSJ) Jackass of the Day 11/6/09 (Part 2)

Charlie’s argument about the government encouraging home ownership is trickier and it requires some consideration of American political history.

It may well be that of all the rights the Founding Fathers sought to protect from government interference, property rights were foremost in their minds. It may also well be that nowhere else in the world could you have found popular support for a revolution based on property rights. In Europe, there were unpopular governments, but in there were also vast segments of the populace who owned no property and had no reasonable prospects of ever obtaining any property. As a result, you couldn’t build an army motivated primarily by the vindication of the right to property.

In America, however, things were different. Thanks to the Indians’ susceptibility to European diseases, there were vast tracts of land there for the taking. Everyone could aspire to own a piece of the land from which he could provide for himself. From this comes Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the ideal citizen as the yeoman farmer. The common man would fight for a government that protected property rights in America because the common man could carve out his own piece of property from the wilderness.

As vast as America might have seemed to the Founding Fathers, it wasn’t unlimited. As immigrants flocked here from Europe, all the good land was eventually taken. As the frontier closed and the poor man no longer had the option of packing up and making a new start out west, it became more difficult to maintain popular support for a government whose sole goal seemed to be the property interests of the wealthy.

Things came to a head in the Great Depression as the last parcels of land that had been available to homesteaders in Oklahoma turned to dust and the citizen farmers that were expected to form the backbone of the republic found themselves on the road. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the government actively intervened in an effort to provide the equality of economic opportunity that had once been available simply by virtue of unoccupied space.

The pendulum always swings though and in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected on a promise to return America to a simpler time when government protected an individual’s property rights and otherwise stayed out of the way. Unfortunately, land was no longer just there for the taking and another method was needed to convince the common man that he shared the wealthy man’s interest in the protection of property. It is no coincidence that the massive expansion of consumer debt started in the Reagan years.

Charlie bemoans the transformation of home ownership from “something that must be earned into something close to a civil right,” an event that he seems to locate during the Clinton administration. What he misses is that the roots of the notion go right back to our founding. You cannot elevate property rights above all else in a democracy if everyone does not have some opportunity to acquire property. The only way to maintain the illusion of the conservatives’ beloved “ownership society” is easy money that makes both the easy credit with which to buy things and the asset bubbles that create the illusion of wealth.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Charlie Gasparino: CNBC (and WSJ) Jackass of the Day 11/6/09 (Part 1)

Consider the following game:

From a standard deck of fifty-two playing cards along with two jokers, I let you pick a card. If the card is a spade, heart, diamond, or club, you receive $20,000. If the card is one of the jokers, you lose $1,000,000. Would you play the game?

Unless you are a fool, you wouldn't. After drawing the entire deck, you would be out $960,000.

Now let's change the game:

You draw cards from the same deck. You still get $20,000 every time you draw a spade, heart, diamond, or club. Now, however, when you draw a joker, you lose half of what you have made up until that point and some unknown innocent party loses $1,000,000. Would you play that game?

If you had some sense of ethics, you might not, however, if you were a Wall Street trader or executive, you would play all day long.

In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed today and frequent spots on CNBC, Charlie Gasparino claimed to have identified the cause of the financial crisis. Anyone who is familiar with those two fonts of wisdom won't be surprised to learn that it wasn't the over-compensated traders and executives on Wall Street who took irrational risks. It was...brace yourself...the government! Specifically, it was the government leading those risks takers to believe that they would get bailed out if their bets went sour and that same government encouraging undeserving peons to believe that home ownership was a right. I will only try to address Charlie's first reason for blaming the government in this post.

The problem with Gasparino's "moral hazard" thesis is that the traders and executives who worked for companies that got bailed out didn't do any better than the ones who worked for companies that didn't get bailed out. Think about it. Bear Stearns got bailed out and Lehman Brothers didn't. However, both Jimmy Cayne and Dick Fuld took a bath on their holdings in company stock as did all the traders and executives in those companies. Moreover, traders and executives in both companies lost their jobs. If the potential for a government bailout played a role in the risks they took on behalf of their companies, why didn't the bailed out executives come out way ahead?

The reason is that the risk that Wall Street traders take is driven by the nature of their compensation packages, not by the possibility of bailouts. Like players in the second game I described, Wall Street executives get paid generously if their bets work out and they have to give up part of what they made if things blow up in their faces. However, it doesn't matter to the executives and traders who takes the loss when they draw the joker. If their company is bailed out, it is the taxpayer. If it is allowed to fail, it is their company's lenders, customers, and counter-parties that take the hit. The executives and traders are indifferent between the two. They will take the risks they do as long as the losses fall somewhere else and that is a function of the manner in which they are compensated, not the extent to which the government backstops the market.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Glenn Beck's Rejection of Rational Thought

On Beck's delusional rantings:
These are postulates that it is only possible to believe after you have utterly closed yourself off to conventional ways of knowing, after you have decided that the reporting and analysis and scholarship on these subjects are not worth reading, and that you will choose ideological fairy tales over reality until the day a magical phone call comes from on high.
Glenn Beck's Hotline to Nowhere by Thomas Frank in today's Wall Street Jounal:

Yesterday's Elections Results

It was very gratifying to see Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin cause the Republicans to lose a congressional seat that they have controlled for over a century. I wonder if they will work their magic in Illinois next year and help elect a Democrat to Obama's former seat. It appears that moderate Republican Mark Kirk is seeking Sarah Palin's endorsement in the hopes of avoiding the fate that befell Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd District.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ayn Rand's Originality

One of the things I find most interesting in Professor Kobylka's Cycles of American Political Thought is his discussion of Social Darwinism in the late 19th century. Much of Ayn Rand's philosophy seems to come right out of William Graham Sumner's writings.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ayn Rand's Imagination

I am currently reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns. In an interesting juxtaposition, I am also currently listening to Cycles of American Political Thought from the GREAT COURSES series taught by Professor Joseph F. Kobylka of Southern Methodist University. It is my opinion that the misanthropic Rand was clueless about American history.

Al Franken Spanks Hudson Institute on Medical Bankruptcies

I understand that Minnesotans were reluctant to elect another entertainer after their experience with Jesse Ventura, but I think they can be happy with their junior senator.

New Blog Title

I have never been particularly happy with my blog's title. It was inspired by a conservative Christian blog that I used to follow called "Culture Campaign" that disabled its comment function because the bloggers got tired of responding to me, however I have always wanted something different.

My new title is based on an exchange found in the play Inherit the Wind which is in fact taken from the transcript of the original Scopes Monkey Trial where Clarence Darrow was questioning William Jennings Bryan.

Matthew Harrison Brady: I do not think about things I do not think about.
Henry Drummond: Do you ever think about things that you do think about?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I Don't Get the Religious Right's Take on Free Markets

My evangelical Christian sparring partner ChrisB tells me his one of his reasons for preferring free markets to regulation: is “the belief that the people in government are no less wicked than those in business and usually not as bright.”

As an aside, I find it ironic that anyone who would vote for George Bush and Sarah Palin would be criticizing the lack of bright people in government. When you vote for people who are convinced that government cannot do anything right, you shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t.

As far as comparative morality goes, I agree that people in government and people in business have an equal capacity for wickedness. I just have a very difficult time seeing how that fact provides any justification for arbitrarily choosing to allow the latter group to pursue its interests unchecked. The Constitution was designed to provide checks and balances so that man’s propensity to pursue self-aggrandizement at the expense of the common good could be curbed and channeled. However, the only check on the wickedness of businessmen is the government.

I couldn’t help reflecting on ChrisB’s comment as I was reading a post on Barry Ridholtz’s blog titled Why Financial Reform Died: “Banks Run Congress.” Despite the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it is looking increasingly less likely that there will be any meaningful reform legislation. This is due entirely to the fact that the free market ideology that has held sway over the last thirty years has allowed the wicked business people that the religious right so willingly accommodates to acquire complete control of the wicked government people of whom the religious right is so terrified.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I Love the Kindle

The best thing about the Kindle is the ability to download book samples. Usually you get the introduction and part of the first chapter.

Before I went away for the weekend, I downloaded samples of everything that looked interesting from Amazon's recommendations as well as from recent book reviews I have read. Unfortunately I wound up with a number of books that I want to read and it was very difficult deciding between Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War by Andrew J. Bacevich, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back by Frank Schaeffer, or After the Fall: The Inexcusable Failure of American Finance by Kevin Phillips.

I finally went with Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party by
Max Blumenthal

More on My First Tea Party

The other signs I found interesting were the ones that read "Take back America" because that statement raises an interesting question.

From whom does America need to be taken back? I think it needs to be taken back from the big corporations like the banks, the insurance companies, and the oil companies. The only way to do that, however, is through regulation and taxation.

My First Tea Party

My wife and I went to southwestern Michigan this weekend to check out the fall colors and we happened to be in South Haven while a Tea Party was taking place. I don't know how these people deal with the cognitive dissonance. There is something very odd about senior citizens waving signs reading "Say no to national healthcare" and "Stop the spending now."

As we walked by, my wife opined in a loud voice "Say yes to health care reform." An older gentleman said to her "Then you pay for it." I asked him "Are you on Medicare?" He responded, "Yes and I'm scared."

It seems to me that if I were worried about my Medicare coverage, I wouldn't be urging people to say no to national health care and I wouldn't be urging the government to stop spending.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bob Dole Favors Health Care Reform

Bob Dole, former Senator and candidate for President, and former Senator Tom Daschle issued a statement urging Republicans to get on board with health care reform legislation:
...Congress could be close to passing comprehensive health reform. The American people have waited decades and if this moment passes us by, it may be decades more before there is another opportunity. The current approaches suggested by the Congress are far from perfect, but they do provide some basis on which Congress can move forward and we urge the joint leadership to get together for America’s sake.
No doubt the teabaggers and wingnuts will view this as some sort of betrayal, but they shouldn't. Once upon a time, support for universal health care was a perfectly acceptable within the Republican party and its supporters included Nixon and Eisenhower.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tale of the Tape: Part 2

I noted last month how the health insurance companies rallied on the day after President Obama's big health care speech to congress. At the time, I thought that this pointed towards the fact that these companies had the Blue Dog democrats so firmly in their pockets that any health care reform legislation would leave their profits untouched.

I found it interesting that these same companies reacted negatively to the news that the Congressional Budget Office had scored the Baucus bill much more favorably than reform opponents might have hoped, which should make the insurers happy because it does not contain a public option. In fact, they have been under performing the market for the last month.

HUM 35.91 -1.99 (5.25%)
WLP 44.72 -2.94 (6.17%)
UNH 24.16 - .89 (3.55%)

Perhaps this means that the insurers are no longer sure that the final bill is going to be the windfall that they had hoped for. With momentum on the side of the progressives, maybe Blue Dogs are going to have to accept a meaningful public option.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The American Dream

For anyone who thought like the Wall Street Journal that the financial downturn might do something to lessen the income inequality gap in the United States, guess again. The uber-wealthy may have taken a hit, but it has been more than offset by the hit taken by the poor and the middle class. So the concentration of American wealth that has been going on since the dawn of the Reagan era proceeds unabated.

Of course this is the land of the American dream where anyone can become wealthy and success. Only it turns out that is not so true either. In fact, social mobility in the United States lags behind many other comparable nations. In fact, it seems to have been getting worse throughout the Reagan era as well.

Government bad--Free markets good! That's been the conservative mantra for thirty years and what has it gotten us? The rich have gotten richer and the middle class has fallen behind. Actually that probably isn't correct either. The very rich have gotten a lot richer and everyone else has lagged behind. The world's leading manufacturer has turned into the world's biggest debtor.

I saw Ron Paul on the Daily Show the other night preaching the libertarian gospel. I was happy that Jon Stewart asked the question that I always want to see asked, "Has there ever been a society that met your libertarian ideals?" Many libertarians following the logic of Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged point to America before the New Deal as the best exemplar, but I was glad to see Paul admit that there were plenty of industrialists sucking at the government tit in those days. Paul had to go back to the Founding Fathers for the closest approximation of his libertarian dream.

I don't think that the Founding Fathers had the kind of blind faith in free markets that today's libertarians have though. They understood avarice and the lust for power to which man is always prey. They sought to set up a system of checks and balances in which the energy of man's desires could be harnessed to produce desirable ends. However, they did not labor under any illusion that these desires if unfettered would naturally tend to produce justice or the common good.

I am always fascinated by conservative Christians who embrace the free market ideology. Of the seven deadly sins, they would never claim that pride, sloth, gluttony, lust, or anger are forces for good. Yet they willingly accept the notion that unfettered greed and envy will lead to economic prosperity in which all will benefit.

I don't think I agree with the thesis of Michael Moore's new movie that capitalism is immoral, but I tend to think that it is amoral.

The Olympics

Although I have lived in or around the area for most of my life, I was indifferent to whether Chicago was awarded the Olympic Games. I think I started losing interest in them them when we started sending professional basketball players to represent our country. Nevertheless, the glee with which conservatives are greeting the rejection of Chicago's bid strikes me as amazingly juvenile and petty.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Do you ever think about things you do think about?

From Todd Wood, a professor of science at Bryan College, a Christian college located in Dayton, Tennessee where William Jennings Bryan squared off against Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial:
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.
I say these things not because I'm crazy or because I've "converted" to evolution. I say these things because they are true. I'm motivated this morning by reading yet another clueless, well-meaning person pompously declaring that evolution is a failure. People who say that are either unacquainted with the inner workings of science or unacquainted with the evidence for evolution.
Like his school's namesake, Wood accepts the biblical account of creation as a matter of faith, but he apparently has too much respect for his God-given capacity for rational thought to deny that the scientific method supports the theory of evolution.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beginnings and Causes and God (2)

The virtue of the Kalmic argument for God's existence is that it avoids the problem of who created God by declaring as its premise that "Everything that begins has a cause." Without this premise, you would have a infinite regression of early and earlier causes without ever getting to a beginning cause.

In order for this little trick to work, the set that is composes of things that have a beginning must not be exactly the same as the set that is composed of all things. Otherwise, the qualifier "that begins" is meaningless and "everything that begins has a cause" just reduces to "everything has a cause." Therefore, an implied premise of the Kalamic argument must be "Some things don't have a beginning."

Unfortunately, God is the only thing that doesn't have a beginning and the existence of God is the conclusion of the argument. Since you cannot use the conclusion of an argument as a premise, the Kalamic argument seems to be fatally flawed.

Of course, I don't see why an infinite being is any more satisfying than an infinite regression. As Alec pointed out in a comment to my previous post on this topic, man's brain is not equipped to deal with the infinite. Substituting one infinite abstraction is pointless.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Having a Deep Discussion

Beginnings and Causes and God

The Kalam argument for the existence of God goes something like this:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • The universe began to exist.
  • The universe must have a cause.

It has always struck me as odd to talk about things that begin to exist without some experience of things that don’t begin to exist.

For example, the statement “all crows that are black have wings,” doesn’t have any more meaning than the statement “all crows have wings.” The statement seems to imply that wingedness has some connection to blackness, but unless we have some experience or knowledge of white crows, we have no reason to talk about “crows that are black” rather than simply “crows.” We are better off saying simply can say that all crows are black and have wings because it doesn’t imply any dependence of one characteristic on the other.

By the same token, if we have no knowledge or experience of things that don’t begin to exist, what basis do we have for thinking that there is some connection between beginning to exist and causedness. Our knowledge and experience at best warrants the inference that all things have causes.

I often wonder why skeptics don’t have clever little syllogisms like the Kalam argument. How about this one:

  • By knowledge and experience, we know that all things that exist have a beginning.
  • God has no beginning.
  • God does not exist.

Or for agnostics like me:

  • Everything whose existence is objectively knowable has a beginning.
  • God has no beginning.
  • God is not objectively knowable.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bush's Economic Legacy

From The Atlantic:
On every major measurement, the Census Bureau report shows that the country lost ground during Bush's two terms. While Bush was in office, the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country's condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton's two terms, often substantially.
To all the wingnuts who are afraid of losing "their America," please recall who threw it away.

The Co-Presidency

I just finished reading “The Co-Presidency of Bush and Cheney” by Shirley Anne Warshaw It is the story of two guys from Texas. One of them ran for President with little other purpose it seems than fulfilling what he thought was God’s plan for his life. The other one ran for Vice-President knowing exactly what changes he would like to make and how he would go about making them if he got the power to do so. Unfortunately, the first guy let the second guy have as much power as he wanted.

The key point in the whole story came early on when Bush put Cheney in charge of the transition after the 2000 election. While Bush followed the dispute over the Florida recount, Cheney was filling key slots in the new administration with appointees who would be loyal to him. Since Bush knew little about how Washington worked or foreign policy, he was happy to take Cheney's advice. Cheney was careful not to step on the toes of the loyalists that Bush brought with him from Texas, which wasn't that hard because Bush didn't have much of a domestic agenda beyond tax cuts and faith-based initiatives.

Bush never knew what hit him.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ignorance is Bliss

A friend of mine has been an auto mechanic at a dealership for thirty years. Fully paid health insurance has always been part of his union contract. Recently, the owner of the dealership threatened not to renew the union contract and to bring in non-union mechanics. My friend was shocked when I told him it would cost him well over $1000 per month to replace his insurance coverage. Many health care reform opponents would argue that union contracts like this that insulate the consumer from any understanding of the cost of health care have contributed to the brewing crisis. Even some supporters would acknowledge the problem.

I think one of the most disingenuous tactics employed by health care reform opponents is to cite the percentage of Americans who are currently happy with their health care. As I have noted in the past, people who are healthy would be happy with any coverage or no coverage at all. However, what makes this tactic even more devious is that the reform opponents know perfectly well that many of the people who are happy today will lose their coverage in the next few years due to rapidly escalating costs. Indeed, some of them might even welcome my friend's predicament as they blame unions for the problems.

Corporation = Socialism

The corporation is a socialist experiment:
Prior to this form of social insurance, the owners of a business were legally liable with their personal wealth for damages the business might have inflicted on others. With limited liability, the corporation’s shareholders are liable only up to their equity stake in the company. ... Beyond that, someone else in society — often the taxpayer — bears the financial risk for damages attributable to the corporation.
One wonders how many business executives and members of chambers of commerce ... realize that the limited liability of shareholders is social insurance.
Harvard business professor David Moss, quoted at The Econmist's View, When the Going gets Tough, the Tough Run to the Government.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tale of the Tape

As much as I liked what I heard of the President's speech last night, it bothers me that the health insurance companies seemed to like it so well.

HUM 39.54 +1.47 (3.86%)
WLP 54.18 +1.34 (2.54%)
UNH 29.11 + .71 (2.50%)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Wall Street Journal Wages Class Warfare

From today's Wall Street Journal: "We've never fretted over budget deficits, at least if they finance tax cuts to promote growth or spending to win a war."

Isn't that special? As long as the rich get richer while the middle class falls behind and does the dying in the wars, deficits are just fine and dandy. But a deficit that doesn't serve the interests of the rich? Whoa Nelly!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Republican Tourette's

There is a wonderful South Park episode in which Eric Cartman pretends to have Tourette's syndrome so that he can blurt out any insult or profanity that comes into his head without getting in trouble. Unfortunately, he loses the ability to filter his thoughts at all and finds himself blurting out embarrassing secrets about himself including his bed wetting and his crush on a classmate.

I think many conservatives have lost the ability to filter their thoughts. The other day I saw a gun rights advocate on Chris Matthews calmly saying that he had no problem with law abiding citizens bringing guns to presidential appearances or onto airplanes. I wasn't shocked by the fact that he believed it, but I was surprised that he would say such things in the proverbial mainstream media because there is nothing to gain by it. The hardcore gun nuts already support him and he scares the hell out of everyone else.

I think this is what comes from watching too much Glen Beck.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mark Haines: CNBC Hero of the Day 8/19/09

I've got to give credit where credit is due. My nephew was right. Although I have called him a jerk in the past, Mark Haines has shown himself willing to play the crusty old curmudgeon from both sides of the aisle in the past few days in the debate over health care reform. Today he took on the Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein who wrote an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal titled "ObamaCare Is All About Rationing." The Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan did not get the warm embrace that members of that administration have come to expect on CNBC with Haines repeatedly pointing out "Your argument is a very easy one to make by someone who has money."

The best part was when Feldstein tried to make a boogeyman out of cost-effectiveness research.

Feldstein: What do you think the cost-effectiveness research is for?

Haines: For the government to decide what it thinks the money is best spent on.

Feldstein: That's right. That's right.

Haines: That's simply rational sir. That's simply rational to make the decision based on what history has shown is the effectiveness of a therapy.

Feldstein: Yes, but you and I may have a different tastes. On whether I want to get a different test.

Haines: But if you have the money, you will still be able to get that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Did Mark Think Jesus Was God?

It often happens that when a Christian apologist cites some scholarly tome and I track down the book to read it, I find that it undermines the apologist’s position as much as it supports it. I was recently debating the question of whether the Gospel of Mark presents a different and lesser view of Christ’s divinity than the Gospel of John with Nick Norelli on his blog Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. Nick cited Darrell Bock’s, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65 as support for his position and urged me to read it. I normally view reading recommendations to be attempts to weasel out of an argument that isn’t going well. (I do this because when I have done the reading, I have found the person who did the recommending unprepared to discuss it.) However, I have always found Nick to be a pretty straight shooter so I requested Bock’s book through inter-library loan.

After looking through Bock's book, I think it provides support for the argument that the author of Mark did not think that Jesus was God. Bock shows that first century Jews believed that God, in his infinite wisdom, had in the past and would in the future exalt certain unique human beings thereby granting them authority to execute certain divine functions on His behalf and allowing them to sit in his presence. These individuals nonetheless remained human beings subordinate to and distinct from God. Mark's Jesus makes sense as an exalted human whose relationship with God was one of agency rather than equality. There seems to be no reason to read between the lines to find some divine Jesus when a human Jesus fits Mark's cultural context.

As the title indicates, Bock’s book is focused on thirteen verses from the Gospel of Mark:
They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law came together. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.' "Yet even then their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, "Prophesy!" And the guards took him and beat him.
Mark 14:53-65. 1 Bock examines how Jesus’ claim fit into first century Jewish understanding and why the priests considered it blasphemous.

It should be noted that Bock’s book does not seek to compare Mark’s Christology to John’s or Paul’s or anyone else’s. It would not surprise me if he does it elsewhere, but Blasphemy and Exaltation is directed towards responding to arguments from more liberal scholars that the passage in Mark is ahistorical. Bock does this by thoroughly examining the first century Jewish literature concerning blasphemy and exaltation and showing that the priests’ conclusion that Jesus had committed blasphemy was consistent with the understanding that prevailed at that time. In his discussion with me, Nick used Bock’s work to argue that the Gospel of Mark expresses Christ’s deity just as clearly as the Gospel of John does, but it is not an argument that Bock addresses in the book.

Although Bock’s writing is geared towards other biblical scholars and hence often over my head sometimes (particularly when he quotes German scholars in German), he does provide an accessible summary of his argument at the end of the book:
Jesus’ blasphemy operated at two levels. 1) There was a claim to possess comprehensive authority from the side of God. Though Judaism might contemplate such a position for a few, the teacher from Galilee was not among the luminaries for whom such a role might be considered. As a result, his remark would have been seen as a self-claim that was an affront to God’s presence. 2) He also attacked the leadership, by implicitly claiming to be their future judge (or by claiming a vindication by him). This would be seen as a violation of Exod. 22:27, where God’s leaders are not to be cursed. A claim that their authority was non-existent and that they would be accounted among the wicked is a total rejection of their authority. To the leadership, this was an affront to God as they were in their own view, God’s established chosen leadership.
Blasphemy and Exaltation p. 236.

What I found most intriguing was Bock’s discussion of the exalted human figures that are found in early Jewish literature outside the Bible. For example, Enoch only makes a fleeting appearance in Genesis 5 as the father of Methuseleh, but there was apparently a large body of non-canonical literature on him. In it he is the angelic Metatron at one point and the Son of Man dispensing judgment from a heavenly throne at another. Other exalted humans include Adam, Abel, Moses, Elijah, and the future Messiah. According to Bock, there was “a wide variety of views about who gets into God’s presence." There also seem to be a variety of activities that these figures undertook while in a state of exaltation. Nevertheless, each individual was selected for exaltation by God, each one's power and authority was delegated by God, and each remained subordinate to God.

When apologists argue that Mark understood Jesus to be God, they typically point to Jesus doing "God-like" things like forgiving sins. However, Mark understood that God could and did delegate the performance of "God-like" functions to certain unique humans when it suited him to do so. When challenged for forgiving sins, Jesus specifically noted that he has the "authority" to do so. Mark 2:10. Isn't it more reasonable to think that Mark was telling a story with in the context of first century Judaism rather than rethinking its concept of monotheism?

Bock argues that the priests considered Jesus' claim blasphemous because it was a self-claim2 and it does seem logical that the exaltation itself would be one prerogative that God would never delegate. However, the fact that the priests thought Jesus was usurping a divine prerogative doesn't mean that Mark thought so. The priests were mistaken on this point and Mark knew they were mistaken because Mark knew that God had revealed himself as the source of Jesus' status at both his baptism and his transfiguration.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says things about himself that go beyond what even an exalted human being might have been able to claim within the context of first century Judaism, e.g., "he who sees me sees the Father" and "I and the Father are one." His opponents understand that Jesus is claiming to be God. In Mark, on the other hand, Jesus claims the status and authority that God has been known to confer on exalted humans. According to Bock, this is how the Jewish priests understood his claims.

If you understand contemporary idioms, you don't think that someone who says "I am so hungry I could eat a horse" is actually communicating an intent to consume an entire equine. By the same token, if Bock is correct about first century Judaism, there doesn't seem to be any reason to attribute to Mark an understanding of Jesus as God incarnate rather than as an exalted human.

1 The passage has parallels in Luke and Matthew, but apologists will almost always cite Mark in support of the claim that the Synoptic gospels reflect the same view of Christ’s divinity as the Gospel of John. This is because Mark reports that Jesus unambiguously answered “I am” when the priests asked him whether he was the Messiah. Depending on the translation you read, Jesus seems to be tap dancing around the question in Luke and John.

From the King James Version:
Art thou the Christ? tell us. And he said unto them, If I tell you, ye will not believe: And if I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go. Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God. Then said they all, Art thou then the Son of God? And he said unto them, Ye say that I am.
Luke 22:67-70.
But Jesus held his peace, And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Matthew 22:63-64.

2 Bock also acknowledges the possibility that Jesus wasn’t talking about himself when he spoke of the priests seeing “the Son of Man coming on the clouds,” but was instead referring some future messenger from God who would judge the priests and vindicate Jesus. Blasphemy and Exaltation p. 225-28. Apparently, the phrase “son of man” was a circumlocution in Aramaic that meant something along the lines of “yours truly.” Although Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the son of man” in Mark, he may not have been claiming the title of the figure from Daniel’s prophecy in most of those cases. In other words, when Jesus said “the son of man has nowhere to rest his head,” all he meant was “yours truly has nowhere to rest his head.” Therefore, when he refers to Daniel’s “Son of Man” in the third person when responding to the priests, he may actually have been referring to some third person.

Bock considers this to be the less likely reading, however, if it is correct then the charge of blasphemy rested only on the insult to God’s priests rather than on the insult combined with Jesus’ claim about himself.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fantasy and Reality

I always found “the world changed on 911” to be one of the most disingenuous catchphrases spawned by the Bush administration. The fact is that the world did not change. What happened was America’s ignorance about what was really going on in the world was exposed. However, that would have been an inconvenient narrative because it would have required us to examine the source or our misunderstanding and to find ways to correct it. By simply declaring that the world had changed, the administration absolved itself of any responsibility for past failures and left itself free to improvise entirely new approaches based on ideology while rejecting established principles as irrelevant to the “changed” circumstances.

I have the same reaction to the right wingers who complain that “this isn’t the America that I grew up in.” It is nothing more than an emotional appeal calculated to avoid a reasoned discussion of what America is really like and what sort of rational steps we can take to make it better for as many people as possible. The America in which anyone grew up is nothing more than what a child understood America to be.

It is no surprise that the same fools who fell for the idea that the world was different on 9/10/01 also believe that there was a different America when they grew up. The same inability to acknowledge reality is what causes them to believe in death panels and birther conspiracies.

Thursday, August 13, 2009