Friday, October 29, 2010

Misanthropic Quote of the Day

"Obviously I don't have any knowledge of what motivated his postings, none of us do."
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick on why student Declan Sullivan tweeted "Holy f*** holy f*** this is terrifying" before he was killed when high winds knocked over the lift from which he was filming football practice.

Really?  I tend to think that there are many, many people who have no doubt whatsoever why Sullivan tweeted that.  Perhaps Swarbrick has no knowledge of why he was sent up there in those conditions and perhaps he doesn't know whether the conditions were different at the time the decision to send him up was made, but it strikes me as shockingly callous to suggest that there is anything puzzling about the terror Sullivan felt before his life ended.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (14): Paul's Silence

Upon what did the Galatians, Romans, Corinthians, and Thessalonians believe their faith was founded.  Did they think (1) that the gospel message was based on the teachings of a first century itinerant Rabbi that had been passed along by the original disciples who had been taught by that Rabbi,  or did they think (2) that the gospel message was something that had been directly revealed to Paul by a divine being?   If we only had Paul's writings to go on, we would have to conclude that Paul's revelation were the source of his followers' beliefs. 

I have raised this point numerous times with both liberal and conservative Christian who have offered various reason why Paul's letters never disclose the fact that the source of the gospel he preached was the teachings of the historical Jesus rather than the revelations of the divine Christ.  The most common  explanation boils down to "It just never came up."  According to this line of thinking, the epistles Paul wrote were directed towards issues that never required him to say anything to indicate when or where Jesus lived or what he said or did during his life.  Another explanation lies in the competitive tension between Paul and Peter.  Paul was trying to establish his authority in various theological disputes with Peter and acknowledging that Peter and others had been taught directly by Jesus would have diminished Paul's standing.  I don't find either explanation terribly convincing, but even if I did, they would still leave a basic problem unaddressed.

These explanations leave open the possibility that Paul and his followers did believe that Jesus was a recently deceased miracle working teacher, but they don't give us any reason to think they did.  Paul letters are the earliest Christian writings and our best source for understanding the early church.   They tell us the kind of questions that were in dispute in the early church, and the kind of arguments that were considered dispositive of those questions.  We shouldn't expect these letters to include absolutely everything that Paul and his followers believed about Jesus, but for those beliefs not reflected in the letters, we need some reason to think they were a part of the early faith.

One reason to think that Paul and his followers believed something would be to show it to be a generally held belief during their time.  After all, Paul acknowledges that there were others preaching the gospel at the same time he was.  If a belief can be shown to held by Paul's contemporaries within the Christian community, it would seem likely that it was part of Paul's faith, too.

When we look at the other early epistles, we don't find much evidence of others thinking that Jesus was a first century teacher whose message was spread by his original disciples.  Like the Pauline epistles, the pseudo-Pauline and the Johannine epistles, along with Hebrews and James are focused on the supernatural risen Christ to the almost complete exclusion of a human Jesus who actually walked the earth.  Only when we get to later epistles like 1 Timothy and 2 Peter do we get any indication that people known to the authors had personal knowledge of the things Jesus did prior to his crucifixion.

The gospels of course do describe the human Jesus as someone who initiate the proclamation of the gospel, worked signs and wonders, and taught his original disciples the meaning of his life, and coming death and resurrection, but they are nonetheless problematic.  The date of their composition cannot be established with any confidence.  Their authors are unknown.  The place of their composition and their intended audiences are unknown. The specific questions that they were intended to resolve are much less certain than those addressed by the epistles. The extent to which they were meant to be understood historically rather than theologically is not clear.   Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the lack of unambiguous external references to the gospels until well into the 2nd century.  Even if we accept dates for their composition that are nearer to Paul's time, we cannot establish that they were generally accepted or in general circulation until much later.

Even if we conclude that Paul believed that Jesus had been a flesh and blood human who walked the earth prior to his crucifixion, there does not seem to be any way to establish that Paul or his followers thought of him as the 1st century preacher described in the gospels.  Paul could have thought of Jesus as someone who had lived at a indeterminate time and place like Job in the Old Testament.   Paul does tell us that he knew others to whom the risen Christ had earlier appeared, so it might be reasonable to think that he believed others had received earlier revelations, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Paul thought that anyone he knew had received any teachings from the human Jesus during an earthly ministry.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (13): James the Brother of the Lord

I have been having another interesting discussion with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University on the question of whether our earliest Christian sources support the idea that Jesus was a recently deceased authoritative teacher.  I don't think they do for the following reasons:

  • The earliest epistles don't indicate when or where Jesus lived or died.
  • The earliest epistles don't indicate that any members of the believing community knew Jesus personally.
  • The earliest epistles never refer to any teachings that Jesus delivered during his earthly ministry.
  • The earliest epistles never discuss the meaning of anything Jesus did during his earthly ministry.

The only reference that would seem to establish that Paul thought that his own contemporaries in the community had known Jesus personally is found in Galatians 1:19-20. "Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.  But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." Obviously, if Paul thought that James was Jesus' biological brother, he must have thought that Jesus had lived recently and been known to people within the community.  Dr. McGrath seems to rely heavily on this point.

Dr.  McGrath also cites two other passages in our discussion.  In Romans 1:3, Paul writes "concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh," and in Galatians 4:4 he writes "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law." These verses indicate that Paul thought of Jesus as a human being who walked the earth, but give no indication of when or where that might have happened. They don't provide us any evidence that Jesus was any less mythical or legendary than Adam and Eve.

Given the lack of any other reference that would establish that Jesus was a contemporary of others in the early church, it seems to me that we must consider the possibility that Paul was referring to a spirtual relationship between Jesus and James rather than a biological one.  For example, when Paul lists Christ's appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, he mentions one appearance to "brothers" and another appearance to "apostles."  Perhaps these were two different groups within the early church.  Perhaps what Paul meant in Galatians 1:5 is that he met with Peter who was one of the apostles and James who was one of the brothers.

Dr. McGrath criticized me for "working hard" to find alternative meanings for the text, but I don't think his criticism holds water.  Biblical scholars regularly consider the possibility that a less obvious interpretation may be the better one if the more obvious interpretation does not fit with the rest of the author's writings.  Given the fact that nothing else in Paul indicates that he thought that anyone he knew had personally known Jesus, and the fact that Paul routinely uses the word "brother" to indicate a spiritual relationship, it doesn't seem like any great stretch to conclude that maybe Paul wasn't referring to a biological relationship here.  The church itself began doing so before too long when many of the Apostolic fathers concluded that Mary must have been a virgin for her entire life.

I also raised the possibility that the text of Galatians had been corrupted.  There were 150 years of copying between the time Paul wrote it and our earliest manuscript.    For all we know some well-meaning scribe copying a manuscript of Galatians in 150 A.D. added "the Lord's brother" in order to clarify which James Paul was talking about.

Raising the issue of interpolations with a biblical scholar can be like waving a red cape in front of bull and Dr. McGrath's response did not surprise me.

But if you want to play the unrestrained emendation game, I can grant your emendations and simply posit earlier excisions of verses that seemed to make Jesus seem too human.

If we had different evidence, we'd draw different conclusions. But mainstream scholarship is about making sense of the evidence we have, not emending it so that it doesn't inconveniently provide evidence, however minimal, that runs counter to the beliefs we already hold.
I understand that we have to make sense of the evidence we have, but we also have to acknowledge its limitations.  Some very eminent textual critics think that it doesn't even make sense to talk about what the original manuscripts contained because we don't have them.  The best we can do is talk about the understanding of the communities that produced the manuscripts that we do have.  We have to be circumspect in asserting certainty about what the "original" meaning of any passage was.

Moreover, I don't think that I am suggesting "unrestrained" emendations.   Given the length of time between the composition of the originals and our earliest manuscripts, the probability that any specific verse was altered can't be trivial even if it may be small.  Because it is small any interpretation that depends on hypothesizing multiple emendations must necessarily be speculative.  However, if positing a single emendation radically changes the evidence for a particular interpretation, I would think it must be taken seriously.

More importantly, I don't need to rely on the possibility that the text was corrupted.  I merely have to posit that a less obvious reading rather than a more obvious reading is correct.  When I do, the case for a recently deceased Jesus who had been known personally to the earliest community gets very shaky, very quickly. The possibility of corruption simply adds an additional level of uncertainty.  Surely my agnosticism is not completely unwarranted.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Effects of Fact Free Education

The Hill reports that the Center for Disease Control, found that the lowest rate of teen pregnancies are found in states that have not gone in for "abstinence education," while the highest rates are found in those that do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (12): The Banned Mormon Cartoon

Dr. James McGrath of Butler University claims that the origin of Christianity is better explained by the hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person rather than the hypothesis that Jesus was a purely mythical creature.    He often cites mythicist's inability to explain how first century Jews came to believe that the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament had been fulfilled in the person of a crucified criminal if in fact there were not an actual crucified person who was believed to be the Messiah.

Conservative Christian apologists make a similar argument to defend not just the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, but the historicity of all the events described in the gospels including the actually physical resurrection of Jesus.  They claim that a literal intepretation of the gospels is necessary to adequately explain the conversion of Paul, the willingness of the first Christians to die for their believe in the resurrection, the empty tomb, and various other elements of the gospels which they claim are "facts."

These arguments came to my mind as I watched a video known as "The Banned Mormon Cartoon" which purports to describe the beliefs of the Latter Day Saints.  H/T to Ken Pulliam at Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity.

(I say "purports" because the cartoon was produced by an ex-Mormon Christian in order to discredit Mormonism.  As such, it exaggerates and distorts many Mormon beliefs.  For example, from what I can gather, it was never official LDS doctrine that Jesus had three wives or that Elohim physically had sex with Jesus' mother Mary.  Nevertheless, it seems that most of the stuff in the cartoon has been believed or taught by at least some Mormons at one time or another even if it is not presently LDS doctrine.)

What is the explanation for a church based on such beliefs growing to more than twelve million members in less that two centuries?   There is some evidence that upstate New York in the early nineteenth century was particularly fertile ground for innovative religious beliefs.  Perhaps sociologists and psychologists could tell us something about the strength of Mormon communities today and the hold they exert upon adherents.  Perhaps as one commenter on Pulliam's blog suggested, Rational Choice Theory provides the best framework to understand the phenomenon.

One place I do not think I would look for an answer is in the actual historical reality of anything that Joseph Smith believed or taught.   I don't think that the origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints is in any way explained by the historicity of Jesus' appearance in America shortly after his resurrection, or by Moroni burying golden plates in the fifth century A.D. which described the history of Jesus' followers in America, or by Joseph Smith actually finding those plates and translating them by sticking his head in a hat and reading them with seer stones.

By the same token, I wonder whether positing some historical reality behind the gospel stories actually adds anything to our understanding of the origins and growth of Christianity in the first two centuries.  The example of Mormonism demonstrates that a religion can enjoy phenomenal growth among reasonably advanced people regardless of the plausibility of any of its historical claims.  I cannot help but think that the best explanation for the origin of Christianity lies in the sociological and psychological susceptibilities of its first century adherents, not in the historicity of the things they believed.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Quote of the Day

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.

Matt Taibi in The Rolling Stone