Friday, May 29, 2009

Another Bad Argument for Traditional Authorship

Another argument offered for the traditional authorship of the canonical gospels is that the communities for which the gospels were written would have known who wrote them and would have passed that information along, i.e., even though Mark didn’t attach his name to his gospel, Mark’s community knew that he had written it and would have passed along that information when copies were made. According to this reasoning, when Irenaeous finally identified the authors in 180 A.D., he was simply recording information that had been known all along.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes its conclusion. It assumes that the authors of the gospels were prominent people whose names would be associated with the gospels. What seems just as likely is that the earliest gospels were the product of ordinary nameless Christians who just happened to have sufficient literary skill to compose a coherent narrative from the stories that were known in the oral tradition of their communities. The believers within each community might have known the identity of the writer, but they would not have viewed him as being the source of the stories. The source of the stories was the oral tradition that had come down to the writer.

Most beginning guitar books contain old folk songs like “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” that are listed as “writer unknown.” There must have been someone who first wrote down the words and lyrics and there might even be some musicologist somewhere who knows his name. However, it doesn’t stay with the song. To the overwhelming majority of people who try to learn to pick out the notes, that name is meaningless.

If an early second century Christian from Corinth were to bring back a copy of an account of Jesus’ life that he had obtained in Ephesus, he would probably describe it as the story that the Ephesians knew about Jesus. Even if the Ephesians told him who had written it down, the Corinthians wouldn’t have any reason to remember the writer’s name or to pass it along unless that person had some notoriety that extended beyond Ephesus. This would explain why the gospels circulated anonymously for decades until theological disputes with the Marcionites and other heretics made it important to establish the authority of the orthodox writings by associating them with an apostolic source.

A Crappy Argument for the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

According to Christian apologists, it is reasonable to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really wrote the canonical gospels because these authors are unlikely to have been invented by the early Church. As Mark Roberts explains:
Two of the biblical gospels were named after relatively inconsequential characters who did not actually know Jesus in the flesh. If you were some second-century Christian wanting to make up an author for a gospel, you'd never choose Mark, even if he was believed to be a companion of Peter. And you'd never choose Luke, because he had no direct connection to Jesus at all. If second-century Christians were fabricating traditional authorship, surely they could have done a better job. Assign the second gospel to Peter himself, for goodness sakes, not Mark! (emphasis in original)
In Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, Craig Blomberg argues that Matthew was the last apostle that anyone would invent as the author of a gospel because “as a former hated tax collector, he would have been the most infamous character next to Judas Iscariot.”

One of the problems with most arguments like these is the notion that we can be so sure of how second century Christians felt about particular traditions that we can know which ones are factually true. For example, why should we think that anyone in the early church would have been averse to the idea of a former tax-gatherer authoring a gospel? Paul was the most prolific writer in the early church and he had once been, by his own admission, its most vigorous persecutor. How could we possibly be sure that Matthew’s former profession wasn’t a reason for attributing a gospel to him in order to highlight the life changing power of the gospel? These arguments seem to assume that early Christians were pretty stupid. If Craig Blomberg and Mark Roberts are able to recognize that attributing the gospels to lesser figures is more credible, why should we think that a similar insight was beyond the scope of a second century imagination?

Perhaps the biggest problem with this particular argument is that it works equally well for the apocryphal and heretical writings. As long as a more prominent figure can be posited as the author for any writing, it constitutes evidence for the authenticity of the named author. For example, why would anyone attribute a gospel to Mary Magdalene when they could have attributed it to Mary the Mother of God? About the only time the argument wouldn’t work is if someone claimed a gospel written by Jesus himself.

The apologists’ arguments also ignore some basic historical information:
(1) Interestingly, there was in fact a gospel attributed to Judas Iscariot by the Gnostics. It seems silly to argue that no one would name a hated character as an author when someone did.
(2) There was in fact a gospel attributed to Peter that was accepted in some communities as orthodox. Giving the early church credit for not attributing a second gospel to Peter doesn’t really seem warranted.
(3) Most egregiously ignored is the fact that the prologue to Luke’s gospel makes it clear that its author was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ earthly ministry. Roberts and Blomberg are apparently too stupid to realize that this would have precluded the early church from attributing it to someone with a direct connection to Jesus. Either that or they figure that second century Christians would have been too stupid to figure that out.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Is Bush Being Vindicated?

If Bush's goal was to screw things up so badly that the next administration was left with no safe choices in foreign or domestic policy, then yes; he is being fully vindicated.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The History of the Neoconservatives

I just finished reading They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, by Jacob Heilbrunn.

I was particularly fascinated by Heilbrun’s description of the neoconservative reaction to the campus unrest of the 1960’s. Allan Bloom who was friends with Irving Kristol and taught Francis Fukuyama, Paul Wolfowitz, and Alan Keyes was a professor at Cornell in 1969 when a group of radical Black students occupied a campus building. Bloom likened the takeover and the administration’s willingness to negotiate to Weimar Germany’s inability to standup to the Nazis in the 1930’s. He feared the onset of totalitarianism.

Heilbrunn points out that Bloom, who went on to write The Closing of the American Mind, may have overreacted:
The bandolier-wearing leader of the Cornell rebellion, Thomas Jones, would end
up as a prosperous Wall Street pension fund manager. The neoconservatives,
by contrast, never left the claustrophobic mental world that they began to
inhabit in the 1960’s.

I always thought that the attempts to link Barack Obama to Bill Ayers and the campus radicals of the 1960’s were just a sign of Republican desperation. I still think that it was mostly opportunism, but perhaps there were more conservatives than I had believed that were as scared as they pretended to be.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Michael Medved and the Indians

I am reading Michael Medved’s The 10 Big Lies About America: Combating Destructive Distortions About Our Nation.

The first big lie that Medved identifies is “America was founded on genocide against Native Americans.” As nearly as I can tell, Medved’s only objection is the use of the word genocide. If the statement were “the Indians got screwed over pretty damn badly,” I suspect that Medved might be forced to concede its truth. Nevertheless, Medved correctly points out that most Native Americans died of European diseases to which they had no immunities and you can’t really call that genocide.

I particularly enjoyed Medved’s discussion of the Battle of Wounded Knee. After noting that only 25 soldiers died compared to 153 out of 350 Indians including 44 women and 18 children, Medved makes the case that there was nothing genocidal about the encounter.
The statistics indicate the one-sided nature of the fight, but it was a fight.
(emphasis in original) Neither the soldiers nor the government that
commanded them had any intention of killing Indians that day, despite the
mythology that’s grown up around the tragedy. With true genocidal intent,
the soldiers could have simply used the artillery they brought with them.
On several they tried to encourage the Miniconjou to surrender (by shooting
them?), but the Ghost Dance Warriors chose to continue the struggle. The
commanding officer himself, Major Samuel M. Whiteside, lifted an Indian infant
from the arms of the child’s dead mother and placed him with some of the female
Mininconjou survivors for protection.

As far as I can tell, Medved’s whole argument boils down to “Things could have been a lot worse for the Indians.” After all, the soldiers didn’t blast away with their cannons, the Indians managed to take a few soldiers down with them, and the commanding officer retained a sufficient shred of humanity to take pity on an infant. What’s not to like?

I just don’t understand why conservatives like arguments like this. It wasn’t genocide! We weren’t as bad as the Nazis! Do we really want to set the bar that low? Don’t we diminish ourselves by doing so?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Krauthammer Is Easily Compelled

Charles Krauthammer claims that the current evidence that torture works is “fairly compelling.” Here is the evidence he provides:

(1) George Tenet said that the "enhanced interrogation" program alone yielded more information than everything gotten from "the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency put together.

Would that be the same George Tenet who claimed that the case for WMD in Iraq was a slam dunk? Would that be the same George Tenet who begged George Bush not to investigate the CIA’s failure to connect the dots prior to 911? Doesn’t Tenet’s assertion point to the overall shortcomings of America’s intelligence communications just as much as to the effectiveness of torture?

(2) Michael Hayden, CIA director after waterboarding had been discontinued, writes with former attorney general Michael Mukasey) that "as late as 2006 . . . fully half of the government's knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from those interrogations."

Once again, doesn’t this point to the incompetence of the CIA if fulfilling its intelligence gathering mission? Do we really want to sanction torture merely to establish an enemy’s organizational chart?

(3) Even Dennis Blair, Obama's director of national intelligence, concurs that these interrogations yielded "high value information."

Isn’t “high value information” awfully vague? If this is the criteria, can we ever set any limits on when torture is permissible?

Surely we need something more compelling than this before we sell our national soul?