Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Those Embarrassing Apostles

I have heard many Bible-believing Christians share the story of how they came to accept Jesus as their personal savior. Invariably, they portray themselves as vile, wretched people prior to their conversions. I have even heard some give their testimony more than once and it seems that their pre-Christian life becomes more wretched each time they tell the story. This makes perfect sense. The Christian wants to sell the unbeliever on the transformative power of the gospel and wants to make the transformation in his own life sound as dramatic as possible. I am thus baffled when these same Bible-believing Christians try to defend the historicity of the gospels on the grounds that they include stories that make the apostles look bad, thereby invoking the historical criteria of embarrassment which suggests that details which might prove embarrassing to an author have a greater likelihood of being true.

Here is a typical example that I found on an apologist’s blog:
When I say embarrassing I mean if the account was fictional, the writers would have never included such an event. An example of embarrassment is to make a fool out of Peter, the brave leader of the disciples. In the Gospels we read that under pressure and fearing for his life, during the trial of Jesus just before he was crucified, Peter denied knowing who Jesus was; in fact he did it 3 times. Peter, the powerful disciple of Jesus, is shown to be a coward at the time of Jesus’ arrest and greatest need. Peter later redeems himself, lives a courageous life, and eventually is crucified upside down for his belief in Jesus. However, the Bible doesn’t pull any punches in showing at the trial of Jesus, Peter was a coward! There are many embarrassing moments in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts so many so, that historians say this is evidence for the historical accuracy of the Bible or at least these books.

I think that this is an embarrassingly bad argument. I am sure that this Christian has heard countless sermons about the transformative power of the gospels that cite the change in the apostles. In fact, the same Christians who make this argument usually cite the apostles’ transformation from bumbling cowards to dynamic preachers as proof of the reality of the resurrection. Far from being embarrassing, the earlier ineptitude of the apostles is a indispensable element of the narrative. If Peter had acted courageously and powerfully before the resurrection, the story wouldn’t make any sense and the gospel message would be much less persuasive.

Christian apologists tend to rely on the criteria of embarrassment an awful lot. It is very convenient for them because it does not require any corroboration from outside sources. Nevertheless, if we can see that an element serves an important function in the narrative structure, we cannot conclude that the author would never have invented it even if it can be characterized as embarrassing. I think we also have to take into account the possibility that the author might have had a reason for inventing the detail that we cannot now discern. In the case of the apostles’ bumbling, however, the reason for including it is so obvious that I find it hard to believe that anyone can argue for the criteria of embarrassment with a straight face.

Barry Ritholtz's Political Wisdom

One of my favorite blogs dealing with the stock market and the economy is The Big Picture by Barry Ritholtz. I just started reading his book, Bailout Nation.

Ritholtz describes his political stance as “Pragmatic Independent,” and his justification for declining to align with either party makes a great deal of sense to me. Of the Republicans he says, “I usually tell them that I find much of their ideology intellectually indefensible, and their marriage to the religious right offensive.” Of the Democrats he says, “they seem to not understand how the economy works, are too spineless to get anything done, and are way too politically correct for my tastes.” He goes on: “We have a Congress that is a Parliament of Whores of who sold themselves to the highest corporate bidder. Why do I want to have any affiliation with either group?”

I feel much the same way.

Monday, January 25, 2010

SCOTUS Trusts the Magic of the Market

During the oral arguments in Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Solicitor General defended limitations on corporate participation in election campaigns on the grounds that the corporate insiders who control the decision might be acting contrary to shareholder’s interests.
[Chief Justice] Roberts sharply challenged this line of argument. "Isn't it extraordinarily paternalistic," he asked, "for the government to take the position that shareholders are too stupid to keep track of what their corporations are doing and can't sell their shares or object in the corporate context if they don't like it? ... 'We the government have to protect you naive shareholders.' "

Two thoughts:

First, where the hell has Roberts been these last two years? AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers all went down the tubes because corporate insiders took risks that were in their interests, but not the shareholders. The financial system almost went down the tubes because Alan Greenspan believed that the magic of the market would keep those insiders on the straight an narrow. Is there anything more na├»ve than Roberts’ blind faith in the efficiency market hypothesis?

Second, isn’t it the legislative branch's job to decide how paternalistic to make the laws governing the relationship between corporations and shareholders? Isn’t this exactly the kind of judicial activism that the conservative justices were supposed to save us from.?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Corporations are Imaginary People, Not Real People

Nowhere does the Constitution of the United States mention corporations.  Nowhere does the Declaration of Independence mention corporations.  Corporations are not real people.  They are legal fictions created by legislation to facilitate economic activity. The purposes for which a corporation may be created are defined by the statutes under which they are incorporated. 

The Bill of Rights limits the ways in which the government can interfere with the activities of people in the United States.  However, corporations have never been allowed to do anything that the legislature did not say they could do in the first place.  No one can tell an individual that he may not pursue a lawful profession, but legislatures have often limited the extent to which particular professionals can do business as corporations.  This is why law firms and accounting firms are typically organized as partnerships.    

For more than a century, Congress has limited the extent to which corporations may participate in the political process.  Many states legislatures have imposed similar restrictions.  Since a corporation's right to engage in any activity is defined by statute, there should be no reason why its political activities should not be subject to legislative limitations.

In a brazen usurpation of legislative prerogatives, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that
Congress cannot make such distinctions between corporations and real flesh and blood human beings.  By such logic, corporations should be allowed to run for office and to vote.

Conservatives love to whine about activist judges who make laws rather than interpret laws.  I hope they will make their voices heard now.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Very Sad Day for Democracy

The United States Supreme Court today ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.That means that those same corporate insiders who decide how much of a corporations profits to pay to themselves in salaries and bonuses are now free to spend as much of those profits as they wish to influence elections.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Reaction to Massachussetts

Unemployment is over 10% and Wall Street is paying record bonuses this year.  I think the Democrats are losing because the voters see that they are serving the interests of the rich just as much as the Republicans were. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Screwed Up: Democrats and Democracy

Jon Stewart explains why the Democrats are going to lose Ted Kennedy's senate seat.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Health Care Crisis

Best line:  "If Coakley loses, Democrats will only have an 18 vote majority in the Senate, which is more than George W. Bush ever had in the Senate when he did whatever the fuck he wanted to."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Did Paul Need a Historical Jesus?

As my post titled “Conservative Scholars ‘Make Do’ with the Historical Jesus” is over seventy-five comments, I thought I would make this a separate post.

In one the comments, Marshall said he had never noticed before that Paul rarely says anything about what Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion. It seems that many Bible believing Christians have not noticed this before. A couple months back, Nick Norelli said that he had “never actually thought about this before,” but it did not strike him as odd.

What I found most telling about Nick’s post was that he said he did not usually refer to things that Jesus said or did when sharing his own faith.
I generally hit certain notes pertaining to our culpability for sin and Jesus’ sacrifice for said sin via his crucifixion and the subsequent victory over death in his resurrection. But I can’t say that I really point to the sayings of the so-called historical Jesus that we find in the Gospels, nor do I refer much to the miracles he worked throughout the course of his ministry . . . . The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that it’s not at all suspicious (granted, I never found any suspicion in it anyway) that Paul doesn’t mention such things more often. Like Paul, I presuppose the existence of Jesus when presenting the Gospel.
Christians have suggested many explanations for why Paul might not have mentioned anything about Jesus' earthly ministry.  In another post, Nick had said that "Paul was writing epistles, not gospels."  In the comments to my earlier post, Bubba said that Paul and the other apostles were "ambassadors" rather than "heralds."  Bubba also suggests that the issues Paul addresses in his letters would not have come up during Jesus' earthly ministry.  He also floats the idea that Jesus' parables were intended for unbelievers while Paul's letters were directed towards believers.

As far as I can tell, all the apologetic explanations for Paul's neglect of Jesus' earthly ministry in his epistles amount to this: Paul did not need to mention Jesus' teachings or miracles in order to explain the meaning of his death and resurrection. Another way of saying this is that Paul's message of salvation through Christ's atonement works perfectly well without any reference to anything that Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion. Taking it a step further, even if Paul's gospel depends upon Jesus being an actual flesh and blood person who walked the earth, it does not depend on anyone knowing anything about anything Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion.

The fact that Paul's writings don't require a historical person who said and did the things described in gospels doesn't preclude the possibility that there was one or that Paul knew of him.  I personally think that it is more logical to conclude that Paul didn't know anything about such a person and Dagoods does a good job of making that argument in the comments to my earlier post.  Nevertheless, even if there is some reasonable explanation for Paul's failure to demonstrate knowledge of the historical Jesus, he still fails to demonstrate any knowledge of the historical Jesus.  Therefore, we cannot look to him for historical corroboration of the stories about Jesus' earthly ministry.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Record Pay for Bankers and Class Envy

According to this morning's Wall Street Journal: "Major U.S. banks and securities firms are on pace to pay their people about $145 billion for 2009, a record sum that indicates how compensation is climbing despite fury over Wall Street's pay culture."

The Obama administration has proposed a bank tax to recoup some of the money that the taxpayers have spent bailing out the financial system. Of course, Wall Street is outraged by this. Speaking on CNBC with Larry Kudlow this morning, portfolio manager Matt McCormick of Bahn & Gaynor said, "It's a class envy issue in my opinion."

Really Matt.  Ya' think?

Of course it's a class envy issue!!  Unemployment is at its highest level in decades.  People without jobs envy people with jobs.  People who have seen the stocks in their retirement accounts take it on the chin are envious of the people who are making more money working for the companies that manage those retirement accounts.

More importantly, isn't class envy the driving force behind capitalism?  Individuals pursuing their economic interests is wonderful as long as it puts money in the pockets of Wall Street, but if the unwashed masses should consider pursuing their interests in some other way, e.g., walking away from an underwater mortgage or imposing taxes on the wealthy, bankers suddenly become beacons of moral rectitude.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sen. Judd Gregg: CNBC Guest Jerk of the Day 1/11/10

After the last two years, you wouldn’t think that anyone would proclaim the kind of blind faith in market forces that Judd Gregg did yesterday.
If the banks have some sort of investment from the taxpayers, then the taxpayer has a right to control and have a large say in their compensation. If the banks are not getting an investment from their taxpayer, then the banks can do whatever they want. It’s their stockholders that they have to answer to and if the stockholders are willing to pay those kind of bonuses, they must be thinking they’re getting value for than that in terms of stock appreciation or dividends.

Oh really Judd? Must they be thinking that?

So you figure that AIG’s stockholders thought that it would be a good idea to pay billions in bonuses to executives to write insurance policies on mortgage back securities without setting up any reserves. They must have thought that, right? Otherwise they never would have bought shares in the stock in the first place.

FYI Judd, that was not my thought process when I bought AIG stock for my IRA. What I thought was that given low interest rates, I had very little choice but to invest in stocks if I hoped to be able to retire. I bought AIG because the research I did indicated that it was a conservative insurance company that produced consistent earnings.

What I find so interesting is that Gregg is perfectly willing to endorse say and control over compensation where the taxpayers have invested in the banks. If there is nothing wrong with the huge portion of financial companies’ profits that goes to executive compensation rather than building shareholder equity, why shouldn’t the taxpayer happily sit still for the same shit as the poor schlub who holds the stock through a mutual fund in his IRA or 401k?

Could it be that the little guy needs the government to do something in order to level the playing field? Isn't it possible that government regulation is necessary so that publicly held companies aren’t just honey pots for corporate insiders?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Great Courses

I am a big fan of the Great Courses on CD from the Teaching Company  These are all the courses I would have taken in college if I had not been concerned with such trivialities as meeting the requirements of a major.  Happily, my local library has a pretty wide selection.  So far, I have listened to the following:

The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution by Thomas L. Pangle, University of Texas;

Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning by David Zarefsky, Northwestern;

Cycles of American Political Thought by Joseph F. Kobylka, SMU;

Philosophy of Science by Jeffrey L. Kasser, University of Michigan;

The New Testament and From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity by Bart D. Ehrman, UNC;

Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience and Reason by James Hall, University of Richmond:

Interpreting the 20th Century: The Struggle Over Democracy by Pamela Radcliff, UCSD:

The History of Ancient Rome by Garrett G. Fagan, Penn. State.
Everyone of them has been terrific.

Currently I am listening to The Conservative Tradition by Professor Patrick N. Allitt of Emory University. I don't know anything about Allitt's political leanings, but I am sure that many conservatives will consider him suspect by virtue of the fact that he is a college professor.  Nevertheless, he said at the beginning of the course that he hoped his listeners wouldn't be able to figure out his politics from his lectures and I have not been able to so far.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

William Lane Craig is Still Wrong About A.N.Sherwin-White

A couple of years ago, I did a series of posts about the way that Christian apologists used a 1963 work of the late Oxford historian A.N. Sherwin-White to argue for the historicity of the gospels on the grounds that they were written too soon after the fact to be legendary.  The gist of those posts was that Sherwin-White made a few tentative, qualified remarks which apologists had greatly exaggerated at best and deliberately misconstrued at worst.  Yesterday, a commenter using the name Doubting alerted me to a podcast in which William Lane Craig answered a question about Sherwin-White so I thought I would take a look to see whether Craig had developed any intellectual integrity on the issue.

The format of the podcast has a moderator relaying questions that have been submitted to Craig.  Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear exactly where the submitted question ends and the moderator's elaboration begins, but the general subject was the impact of the legends about Alexander the Great on A.N. Sherwin-White's theories about the rate at which legends grew in antiquity.  Craig's response is pretty clear although not entirely coherent:
Let’s clarify what Sherwin-White said. What Sherwin-White said in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament is that these mythical tendencies or the tendencies for oral tradition to corrupt cannot wipe out the hard core of historical fact within say two generations after the event; that you can still recover a historical core even within two generations despite these mythologizing tendencies. So he isn’t denying that the tendencies are there and operative, on the contrary, he says that the writings or Herodotus for example are just filled with legendary stories. They have all sorts of fabulous tales that Herodotus passes on but nevertheless he says Herodotus is still able to get at the facts about the war he narrates and is still able to get back to the historical core. And I think that the case of Alexander the Great is a wonderful illustration of this. The earliest biographies that we have of Alexander the Great come about four hundred years after the death of Alexander and yet historians still regard them as trustworthy accounts of Alexander’s life. The fabulous legends about Alexander the Great don’t begin to arise until after these two authors have written their biographies.
My guess is that the question was inspired by Kris D. Komarnitsky's 2009 book Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? where Komarnitsky points out that Sherwin-White acknowledged that "[t]here was a remarkable growth of myth around [Alexander's] person and deeds within the lifetime of contemporaries, and the historical embroidery was often deliberate." (RSRLNT p.193)  Craig's comments about Alexander are drawn verbatim from an article that he wrote over a decade ago which apparently was not very carefully fact checked at the time and not reflected upon since.  The idea that the legends about Alexander the Great did not arise for four hundred years seems pretty silly on its face and is certainly not what Sherwin-White wrote.

Craig doesn't seem to notice that he is contradicting himself as well as Sherwin-White.   In the same breath that he admits that the mythologizing tendencies are there in the oral tradition from the beginning, he claims that they were delayed for four hundred years with Alexander the Great.  In fact, he doesn't seem to remember that all Sherwin-White said about Herotodus was that he "was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths."  (RSRLNT p. 191) Sherwin-White said nothing about "fabulous tales" being passed on.

However, when the moderator claimed that there was "no room for mythological development" before the gospels were written, Craig did correct him:
I want to be careful about how we state this because I think it has been misunderstood. The point that Sherwin-White makes is not that there is no mythological or legendary development but that it is not to such an extent that the hard core of historical facts in obliterated. That’s why in my research or my case for the resurrection, I focus on the historical core of these narratives that a group of women for example discovered Jesus’ tomb empty on the first day of the week after his crucifixion, but the names of the women, the times of their visit, the details of the narrative are part of the secondary and circumstantial features of the narrative and I don’t claim to be able to show their historical credibility. It is the core of the narrative that I think you can show is plausibly historical and which most scholars do regard as representing a genuine historical core to the narrative.
If Craig recognizes Sherwin-White as an authority on this issue and understands his position to be that there would be at least some mythological development in the oral tradition prior to the composition of the gospels, I wonder what parts of the gospels Craig would deem to be legendary.  As far as I can tell, Craig defends the New Testament in all its particulars up to and including the zombie saints of Matthew 27:52-53.   Isn't it intellectually dishonest for Craig to cite Sherwin-White as an authority if the only legendary embellishment he will admit is the names of the women who found the empty tomb?

While insisting that his data should not be misused, Craig offers a defense of Sherwin-White that makes it clear that he doesn't actually know what he wrote.
By the same token, do not offer facile criticisms of him as I have also seen done on the internet, where for example its pointed out the number of fanciful and legendary tales that Herotodus does pass on. And A.N.Sherwin-White appeals to Herodotus as a case study for the rapidity with which these legendary tales accumulate and he says the tests show is that even two generations is too short a time span for these mythological tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts and pointing to legends and fanciful tales in Herodotus does nothing to negate the point that Sherwin-White is making. Quite the contrary, Sherwin-White is saying here is a very unreliable author who loves to narrate these mythological stories and loves to hand on these legendary tales and yet even with him, we are still able to reconstruct with confidence the historical core of what happened in the war that he relates.
 As noted above, Sherwin-White doesn't say anything about fanciful tales in Herodotus, but if in fact there were lots of them, why wouldn't that negate the point that Craig thinks Sherwin-White has made?  After all, every time Herodotus reports a myth or a legend as a fact, there is some part of the historical core that isn't getting through.  What Craig never acknowledges is that Sherwin-White is very careful never to speculate about the size of the retrievable historical core in the gospels.  While he may not think that myth would obliterate all the history, Sherwin-White intentionally leaves open the possibility that  myth could obliterate a very substantial portion of the history. 

After interviewing Craig in The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel shamelessly described Sherwin-White's argument as a "famous study" in which he "meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world." (p. 264)  Sherwin-White, by contrast,  described himself as an "amateur"  with respect to the New Testament who was "consider[ing] the whole topic of historicity briefly and very generally."  (RSRLNT p. v & p. 186)  Far from doing a meticulous study, Sherwin-White offered but a single example from Herodotus in support of his thesis. (RSRLNT p. 190-91)

The example cited by Sherwin-White concerned the assassination of  the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus by Harmodius and Aristogeiton in 514 B.C.  A popular myth arose that this act ushered in the Athenian democracy while the fact was that the tyranny continued for another four years.  Although this was the kind of political myth that Herodotus might have been expected to embrace when recording the events some half century later, "[h]e does not do so because he had a particular interest in a greater figure than Harmodius or Aristogeiton, that is, Cleisthenes, the central person in the establishment of the democracy."  (RSRLNT p. 190-91)  Thus, it does not seem to be that Herodotus got things right due to the inherent ability of facts to resist myth-making.  Rather, he chose not to report the myth because he had another horse in the race.

Christian apologists often cite Sherwin-White as if he proposed some empirically established process whereby fact and myth fight it out in the oral tradition with myth needing several generations in which to subdue its opponent.  Sherwin-White's example, however, suggests that each person in the oral tradition makes up his own mind whether he prefers the legendary version of events or the true one.  If enough people are interested in the true version of events to preserve it and pass it on, it will be accessible after several generations even if the mythological version proves quite popular.  That's a far cry from some inviolable principle that the true version will always survive within the oral tradition for some definable period of years.

In the case of the gospels, the questions remains (1) whether anyone was interested enough in the historical Jesus to preserve and pass on accurate information and (2) whether the evangelists were sufficiently interested in recovering that Jesus rather than reporting myths that furthered their theological agendas.  It is certainly possible that the answer to both questions is yes, but Sherwin-White's musings don't support Craig's insistence that there must recoverable historical information in the gospels.

I often get into debates about whether Irenaeus actually had any basis in 180 A.D. for attributing authorship of the canonical gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Invariably, someone will argue that there must have been some factual basis for these names or someone who knew the truth would have corrected Irenaeus  If such errors are so easily resolved, how come nothing has deterred Craig from repeating his misstatements for so many years?  I see no reason to think that second century believers would have been any more diligent in pointing out Irenaeus' errors than today's believers are in pointing out Craig's.  Nor can I see any reason to believe that Irenaeus would have been any more conscientious in his fact checking than Craig.