Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (18) An Analogy

Consider the following scenario:

A man with a charismatic and dynamic personality claims to be a prophet and claims to have had an encounter with a heavenly being who reveals previously unknown spiritual truths. The man claims that the heavenly being confirmed the revelation tangibly and physically.  Some people are persuaded that the man is telling the truth while others think he is a crackpot.  Even for skeptics it is hard to be certain whether he is a deluded lunatic, a pathological liar, or a charlatan.

The prophet claims that the heavenly being had once been a flesh and blood man who walked the earth and stories are invented about the man's activities.  However, the initial focus of the earliest believers is on the new spiritual truths that have been revealed and the way in which these truths fulfill the holy writings that are already widely accepted in the culture. Some of the early believers also claim to have had physical and tangible experiences that corroborate the prophet's claims.

As time goes by, substantial numbers of people are converted to the new beliefs without the slightest bit of evidence to confirm the appearance of the heavenly being, the physical corroboration of the revelation, or the historicity of the stories about the heavenly being's activities when he walked the earth.  All they have to rely on is the claims of the prophet and his earliest followers.

Many people in the surrounding community think that the prophet is a charlatan and that his claims are utter hogwash.   These people try to persuade the believers of the foolishness of the prophet's claims.  Some are convinced and fall away, but those who remain become even more fervent in their beliefs.  The prophet tells them that the skeptics are servants of the devil who should be ignored.  He tells them that the fate of their everlasting souls depends upon unwavering commitment to the teachings of the new faith.

The believers endure many hardships on behalf of their new faith. They put their reputations, wealth, and at times even their lives at risk. They endure abuse and persecution from outsiders. This causes some to fall away, but those who remain are drawn closer together. They begin to see themselves as a separate people and they shun contact with the rest of society. Anyone who fails to maintain sufficient commitment to the teachings of the prophet is cast out as a heretic. 

The new religion continues to spread and within the course of a couple hundred years, it has millions of adherents.  Nevertheless, there is never a shred of credible evidence to support any of their supernatural beliefs.

I think that most scholars who believe that Jesus was a historical person would accept that this is a more or less reasonable characterization of the founding and spread of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  (The exception would be those historical Jesus scholars who are also Mormons.)  Nevertheless, most historicist scholars think it preposterous to suppose that any sort of similar dynamic could have been at work in the origin and early spread of Christianity rendering Jesus of Nazareth as complete a fabrication as Moroni, the Warrior-Prophet of the Nephites.  They believe it reasonable to express a high degree of confidence that there was a historical person behind the visions that Paul and others claimed to have.

I will confess that I have purposely used ambiguous language in describing Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism in order to highlight the parallels with Paul and the origins of Christianity while obscuring the differences.  I will also acknowledge that some of the differences may be of sufficient weight to justify belief in a historical Jesus while rejecting belief in a historical Moroni.  Nevertheless, most of the reasons I usually see given for why Christianity couldn't have grown and spread in the way that it did without a historical Jesus seem to be predicated on the idea that 1st century Christians were markedly less gullible and superstitious than 19th century Mormons.

For example, a historicist might rightly point out that early Christians believed in a heavenly being who had walked the earth as a man within living memory while the first Mormons believed in a heavenly being who had walked the earth as a man fourteen hundred years earlier.  The important point to me, however, is that the early Mormons believed in both the heavenly being and the man with absolutely no evidence whatsoever other than the word of Joseph Smith.  Is there any way to establish that the earliest Christians had any better evidence than the word of Paul who had claimed to have seen the heavenly being but seemed to know almost nothing about the man who walked the earth?

Historicists can also point out that it would have been possible to investigate claims about an actual human being named Jesus who had walked the earth within living memory and that there would be people around who could debunk false claims.  On the other hand, it was been possible to investigate many of Joseph Smith's claims as well and there were plenty of people who tried to expose him as a fraud.   However, Smith managed to convince most of his followers that their eternal destinies rested on their willingness to ignore skeptics and unbelievers.  As a result, the people who accepted Smith's claims without question were not deterred by the people who investigated them and found them wanting.  Is there any reason to think that the earliest Christians wouldn't have been just as willing to ignore evidence that contradicted their beliefs?

Another difference that might be noted is that the experiences that corroborated Joseph Smith's encounter with the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates took place after Smith's among his followers while the experiences that corroborate Paul's experience are thought to have taken place before Paul's among his predecessors.  This might be significant, but the first account of the events that corroborate Paul's experience come from Paul himself some twenty years after they are thought to have occurred, while the   accounts that corroborate Smith's experience are much closer in time to the events themselves, and are purportedly verified by the people who experienced them.  I am not sure that this difference makes Paul's account the more credible one.

One of the differences that many scholars scholars cite as significant is the incongruity of a crucified Messiah to first century Judaism.  Dr. James McGrath describes the argument this way:
The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . . It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.
According to Dr. McGrath, belief in the resurrection was most likely a result of the cognitive dissonance that Jesus' followers experienced after he was put to death by Romans who he had been expected to conquer.

My problem with this argument is that I an unaware of any objective criteria by which one would assess the probability that any particular supernatural story might be invented by a particular individual in a particular culture and the probability that the story might be believed by large numbers of his peers.   Are historians really able to accurately identify the factors that distinguish a supernatural story that might be invented and believed in 19th century upstate New York from one that couldn't have been invented and believed in 1st century Palestine?  When evaluating the probability that people of a particular culture might accept a particular story, can any evidence possibly be more significant than the fact that many of them  did accept the story?  Moreover, if it can be shown that large number of people did accept a story, how does one go about assigning a low probability to the possibility that someone might invent it?

All in all, I still see no reason to conclude that it is more likely than not that Jesus of Nazareth was a complete fabrication.  The idea that the resurrection stories were the product of the cognitive dissonance experienced by the followers of a failed apocalyptic prophet seems perfectly plausible to me.  Nevertheless, I have yet to see an argument that convinces me that there is any principled basis to assign a significantly higher probability to that than the possibility of invention by a uniquely imaginative personality.  Hence, I remain agnostic about a historical Jesus.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sometimes Things Work Out Well

Over at Parchment & Pen, C. Michael Patton explained that "there are certain things that I would look for and expect if the resurrection of Christ actually took place."  Conveniently, the things he would look for and expect line up quite well with the things that he finds in the New Testament.  Who'd a thunk it?  Happily, he didn't expect anything inconvenient like independent accounts of the events from secular historians.

I couldn't help but think of Margaret O'Brien's line from Meet Me in St. Louis:  "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favorite city?"

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Changes in the Catholic Liturgy

I attended 7:30 mass this morning with my daughter and it was my first exposure to the latest changes in the Catholic liturgy.  The hardest thing to get used to is the new response to "The Lord be with you."  After years of saying "And also with you" several times during the mass, the congregation now responds to the priest with "And with your spirit."  This is a more direct translation of the old Latin Rite.

In the Nicene Creed, the Lord Jesus Christ is no longer "one in being with the Father." He is now " consubstantial with the Father." This too is thought to go back to the original better.

As long as they are trying to get back to originals, I think that it would be fun to go back to the original ending to the creed that the Council of Nicea came up with in 325 A.D.:
But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Apparently this was never very popular as it was dropped from the creed by the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why Have Women Find the Empty Tomb First?

Although I am an agnostic, I still put out the Nativity set at Christmas every year because I still love the idea of God manifesting himself in such humble circumstances.  I always thought that the way that Jesus reached out to the outcasts in society is what made him such an appealing character and I always figured that it was a large part of the reason why Christianity caught on the way that it did.

As a result, I am puzzled when I hear Christian apologists argue that nobody could have invented the story of the women finding the empty tomb because of their low social status.  Here's a typical example:
When you understand the role of women in first-century Jewish society, what's really extraordinary is that this empty tomb story should feature women as the discoverers of the empty tomb in the first place. Women were on a very low rung of the social ladder in first-century Palestine. . . . Women's testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren't even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of Law. In light of this, it's absolutely remarkable that the chief witnesses to the empty tomb are these women... Any later legendary account would have certainly portrayed male disciples as discovering the tomb - Peter or John, for example.
William Lane Craig in The Case for Christ.

What the hell is this guy talking about?    The gospels have Jesus healing lepers and blind beggars, eating with tax gatherers and sinners, and forgiving prostitutes.   When the end of the gospels is reached, does Craig really think that the men who wrote these stories or the first people who read them would be concerned about the rung on the social ladder occupied by the first people to find the empty tomb?  Would "My gosh!  Women aren't even allowed to testify in court." really enter into anyone's thinking?

It really kind of saddens me that in their desperation to defend the historical accuracy of the gospel stories so many Christians should miss the point that indifference to social status is one of the things that gives the stories their meaning in the first place.  It saddens me that it doesn't occur to them that the women's low social standing might be the very reason the evangelists place them first at the empty tomb.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Smoke and Mirrors of Apologetics

Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny
The D.A.'s got to build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks, like, like these, right?  [puts his hand on the wall]  Let me show you something.  [he holds up a playing card]  He's going to show you the bricks. He'll show you they got straight sides. He'll show you how they got the right shape. He'll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there's one thing he's not gonna show you. [turns the card flat] When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they're as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick.  

When discussing the historicity of the resurrection with Christian apologists, I never argue that the supernatural is impossible.  Instead I argue that reason and experience dictate that the overwhelming majority of supernatural stories are the product of things like wishful thinking, gullibility, and ignorance.  Most apologists are willing to concede this point because they believe that the supernatural claims of every religion but their own are false.  I then argue that there are no objective criteria by which to identify those few supernatural claims (assuming there are any) that are in fact the product of legitimate supernatural events rather than the product of wishful thinking, gullibility, and ignorance.  As a result, even conceding that there might be a God who could raise a man from the dead if He chose to do so, I still have to assess the probability of that having occurred as very small compared to the probability that the resurrection stories are ancient myths and legends.

If it is the first time that I have discussed the issue with a particular apologist, he will inevitably conclude that I have either not carefully looked at all the evidence or that I have not thought about it in the right way. He will then try to guide me through Habermas and Licona's "minimal facts" approach or Lee Strobel's courtroom analogies or Tim and Lydia McGrew's Bayesian analysis to show me how it really is rational to believe that the resurrection was a historical event.  One very pleasant gentleman told me that he was working on a paper which would show that confidence in the resurrection can be achieved by looking at the big picture in the way that an engineer does.   However, when I examine these approaches, I invariably find that like Vinny Gambini's hypothetical D.A., they are simply attempts to present the evidence from an angle at which its playing card thinness is harder to see.

The essential and insoluble problem with the historical case for the resurrection is that the evidence that the event occurred consists of ancient supernatural stories which are (1) of indeterminate authorship; (2) based on unknown sources; (3) recorded decades after the events they purport to recount; and (4) written solely from the perspective of fervent religious belief.  No matter how pretty a facade the apologist tries to create, those bricks aren't going to carry the historical weight.

It's like the mortgage backed securities that brought the world banking system to the edge of collapse in 2008. Using complex analysis, Wall Street's financial engineers put together piles of no-doc, pick-a-payment, liar loans and sliced and diced them into tranches that looked like AAA bonds to the ratings agency.  Unfortunately, they never really solved the inherent problem of garbage-in/garbage-out.  All their complex analysis was smoke and mirrors.

Christian apologists love to talk about the "facts" upon which scholars agree, but all these facts are derived from those ancient supernatural stories which are (1) of indeterminate authorship; (2) based on unknown sources; (3) recorded decades after the events they purport to recount; and (4) written solely from the perspective of fervent religious belief.   No matter how many scholars look at those stories, trying to determine what actual events occurred decades before they were written can never be more than an educated guess. Even if we can all agree on what the best guess is given the evidence we have, the evidence we have is still highly problematic.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Were 1st Century Christians Smarter than Everyone Else?

I sometimes run across Christian apologists who deride skeptics for thinking that the supernatural stories in the New Testament were the product of ignorant and superstitious people.  They argue that it is elitist or condescending to suppose that 1st century Jews and pagans were incapable of understanding the events they observed and reporting them accurately.  The modern skeptic is simply being arrogant.

My response to this argument is that I am not skeptical because I think that 1st century Jews and pagans were any more naive or gullible than modern thinkers.  I am skeptical because I don't think that they were any less naive or gullible.  I think that 1st century Christians were probably just as credulous as the 19th century Mormons who were taken in by Joseph Smith's tales of golden plates and magic seer stones.  I think that they were probably just as credulous as 20th century Scientologists who were taken in by L. Ron Hubbard's fantasies.  People have always wanted to believe that their lives have some transcendent meaning and there have always been people willing to accept the most fantastic stories without any evidence whatsoever in the hopes of finding that meaning.

Many of the arguments that Christian apologists make seem to rest on the rather bizarre notion that 1st century Christians were somehow unique among all people throughout recorded history in that they were impervious to supernatural tales where those tales were not supported by convincing empirical proof.  Unlike people at all other times and places, they wouldn't have passed along such stories without carefully determining all the facts and they wouldn't have exaggerated the stories and added details as they retold them.  Moreover, unlike all other people, they would have promptly abandoned their religious beliefs if challenged with contrary evidence.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Pathetic is Rick Perry?

It occurred to Rick Perry that if he wanted to be president of the United States, he might need to have a position on taxes. Unfortunately, coherent thought isn't his strong suit. Charles Pierce of Esquire has the skinny in Rick Perry's Tax Plan: A Comical Slow Dance with Confusion:
It is on days like this that I don't envy political economists. They're the ones that are going to have to take this Message from Goobertown seriously. They're going to have to score it. They're going to have to do the math, such as it is, and try to find a coherent formation in this unwieldy parade of hackneyed talking points (Kill the Estate Tax and Save the Family Farm!) and tired applause lines (The Job Creators Are Uncertain!). They're the ones who are going to have to find a way to square the utter abandonment of the progressive income tax, a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, a return to explosively inflationary health-care costs, an unchained and undoubtedly newly amok financial-services industry, and the partial privatization of Social Security, all of which Goodhair has managed to wedge into "Cap, Balance, and Grow (!)."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What I Have Learned from the Cheering at the Republican Debates

Gay? Fuck you!

No job? Fuck you!

No health insurance? Fuck you!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The System is Broken

Since [2006], researchers have found that about 90 percent of major U.S. companies expressly set their executive pay targets at or above the median of their peer group. This creates just the kinds of circumstances that drive pay upward.
The Washington Post.

Shouldn't performance have something to do with it?

Krugman on the Reaction to Occupy Wall Street

What’s going on here? The answer, surely, is that Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They’re not John Galt; they’re not even Steve Jobs. They’re people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.
Paul Krugman

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Refreshingly Honest

If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself.  Herman Cain

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Infrastructure Banks

What exactly is an infrastructure bank?

Does it mean that instead of taxing the rich to build roads and bridges that everyone uses for free, the government lends money to the rich so that they can build toll roads and toll bridges that everyone will pay them to use?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Things that Even a Bible Believer Can't Believe

I am always fascinated by the things that strain the credulity of conservative Bible believers.  For example, Christian apologists  insist that the reports of Jesus' postmortem appearances couldn't be the result of hallucinations because hallucinations are individual experiences and Jesus is reported to have appeared to groups of people.  Apparently the idea that more than one person would claim to have seen the same vision (or that one person would claim that others had seen the same vision he saw) is so far fetched that it is eminently more reasonable to believe in Jesus' body coming back to life with the ability to appear and disappear at will while passing through solid objects.

In the 13th Chapter of Mark, Jesus makes various predictions about the cataclysmic events that will surround the coming of the Son of Man and tells his listeners "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place."  Mk 13:30.  This passage is troubling for many Christians since Jesus seems to have made a bad call.  That generation is long gone and Jesus hasn't returned yet.  Many apologists have argued that Jesus must have meant something other than that some of the people who were listening to him at the time would still be around.

Over at Grace and Miracles , one apologist seemed to think that Jesus couldn't have meant that some of his listeners would still be alive because he couldn't have been that foolish.
For under such an assumption Jesus would have had to have in mind such events as the Jews being disbursed to ALL the nations as well as ALL the nations being reached with the gospel. But this is hardly something one would expect of Christ—since it requires us to believe that One who was savvy enough to shame his aggressive and ambitious interrogators until they dared not ask him further questions before the people, would also imagine with the greatest naiveté that such a Dispersion and Spreading of the Gospel to ALL nations could take place within a single generation.

The Bible is filled with incredible and fantastic prophecies and Jesus himself predicts events that are unimaginable and unprecedented.  None of these these prophecies will the apologist deem too far fetched not to be fulfilled in exactly the way that the Bible describes.  Nonetheless, if a prophecy violates the apologist's common sense notion of how long it will take for a particular set of events to occur, Jesus must have meant something else. It is absurd to think that Jesus would have been so naïve as to think that these unprecedented events could have taken place within an unprecedentedly short time frame. Oh no!  Jesus was much too savvy to think that.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Who Cares What Standard and Poor's Thinks?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the financial crisis is that so many people who couldn't get a job writing the daily horoscopes still have their financial forecasts taken seriously.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


I keep saying I am not a Democrat because I have no idea what their economic policy is, and I am not a Republican because I know EXACTLY what their economic policy is. That is our policy choices: Inept cluelessness on one side, and hapless fantasy-based lunacy on the other.
Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Comments are Banned by an Atheist

It appears that I have been banned from posting comments by John Loftus at Debunking Christianity.  The comments that got me banned concerned John's claim that the quality of any academic program in Christian apologetics could be judged by whether or not it dealt specifically with the books he has written on counter-apologetics.  I suggested "that criticizing apologists for not specifically addressing your arguments is the exact same tactic that apologists use to dismiss scholars they don't like."

Apparently, however, it is my agnosticism about the historical Jesus that really ticked John off:  "Vinny you are like every other atheist I have met who does not think Jesus existed. You have cookie cutter mentality. If I do not fit the mold you will find something to criticize me for if you can."

My response to that comment was evidently the straw that broke the camel's back:

I do not in fact believe that Jesus did not exist. I am agnostic about the historical Jesus. I don't think it really matters whether the historical Jesus existed or not because I think he has been too thoroughly mythologized to be recovered either way. I think that historicists overestimate the strength of their case and underestimate its vulnerability. However, I think that mythicists generally do the same thing.

I do find the discussions of mythicism interesting and I enjoy participating in them to test my own thinking and understanding. I have generally tried to be polite although I realize I can be a smart ass sometimes.

I think you are completely overreacting to my comment. If it's not too late to vote on whether you should take some time off from counter-apologetics, I think I might vote yes.
The next time I returned to John's blog, I found that I would not be allowed to post any more comments.  I have been banned from the blogs of some conservative Christians, however, this is the first time that I have been banned by an atheist.

I regret this because Debunking Christianity has always been one of my favorite blogs, and as far as I can tell, I have not violated any part of John's Comment Policy.  However, I guess it is just as well that there is one less internet site that I will have reason to waste time on. 

I was gratified to see that John has decided to take some time off from blogging.  I don't know whether it had anything to do with my suggestion.

Friday, July 29, 2011

We Are So Screwed

The economy is barely moving and the Democrats and Republicans are arguing over how hard to push on the brakes.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Evidence Doesn't Matter to Rick Perry

I don't have any problem with people who believe that the Bible is a supernatural book.  I do have a problem with people who believe that objective evidence proves that the Bible is a supernatural book.  I have seen the convoluted mental gymnastics that people use to convince themselves the empirical evidence justifies their belief in a magic book.  I think that engaging in such distorted reasoning inevitably impairs their ability to deal with empirical data in other areas as well.

Here is a perfect example with Texas governor Rick Perry.  Confronted with the fact that Texas has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, Perry insists that Abstinence Only sex education works.  He has no idea why Texas has such a high teen pregnancy rate, but that doesn't matter because his personal subjective experience tells him that "abstinence works."

Watch live video from texastribune on

On August 6, Governor Perry will be hosting "a solemn gathering of prayer and fasting for our country" called The Response at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Here's how he is promoting the event:

Fellow Americans,

Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.

Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response. Therefore, on August 6, thousands will gather to pray for a historic breakthrough for our country and a renewed sense of moral purpose.

I sincerely hope you’ll join me in Houston on August 6th and take your place in Reliant Stadium with praying people asking God’s forgiveness, wisdom and provision for our state and nation. There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

Some problems might be easier to solve if we tried to figure out what actually works based on empirical evidence rather than our subjective feelings about what we wish would work. I don't know whether there is a God, but if there is, I think he wants us to use the brains he gave us to address our problems.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Apologetics in a Nutshell

Christian apologists love to make arguments based on the way things normally happen and the way people normally act. For example, they have no trouble asserting that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus couldn't have been hallucinations because we know that hallucinations are not shared. However, when some one points out that we also know that dead people stay dead, they insist that this is evidence of the skeptic's closed-minded anti-supernatural presuppositions.

I saw this phenomenon illustrated recently in a discussion over at Dagoods' blog about dating the composition of the Acts of the Apostles.  The book ends with Paul awaiting trial in Rome.  Anette Acker, who blogs at Grace and Miracles, argued that Acts was written around 62 A.D. because it doesn't mention important events that occurred after that date.  Dagoods and I argued that the author had other reasons for ending the story there.  We argued that the book must have been written after the destruction of temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  because the author has Jesus foretell that event in the Gospel of Luke.

Anette insisted that our conclusion was being driven by our presuppositions about the impossibility of the supernatural:
The real question is this: How likely do you think it is that scholars would date Acts after the fall of Jerusalem if Jesus had not predicted it in Luke? Do you think that if it was written several decades later, it’s likely that Acts would have ended a) while Paul was in house arrest in Rome pending appeal, b) without mentioning the death of Paul, c) without mentioning the persecution of Nero, and d) without mentioning the Great Revolt and the fall of Jerusalem?

This is the problem: Biblical criticism is the study of the Bible as a human creation. By itself that is no problem, because the Bible can certainly be studied that way, like any other series of historical documents.

However, this means that everything is presumed to have a natural explanation. In other words, because Jesus “predicted” the fall of Jerusalem, critical Bible scholars have to date the Gospels—and by extension Acts—after 70 AD.

The real problem with this is that if you look to critical Bible scholars to help you decide whether the Bible is the word of God, they will give you only one possible answer: No. Why is that? Because the answer is already assumed in biblical criticism, which is “the treatment of Biblical texts as natural rather than supernatural artifacts” (Wikipedia).

Do you see the circularity in this approach if your question is whether the Bible is the word of God or just a human construct? In biblical criticism the presupposition is that the Bible is an entirely natural text.

So if you're approaching this in a neutral way, then the question is: Apart from the "prediction" of Jesus, what is the most likely explanation for why Acts ends the way it does?
Here’s the problem I see for the apologists who make this argument (and Anette is certainly not alone in doing so): The argument that Acts was written in 62 A.D--i.e., before Paul’s death, the Neronic persecution, and the fall of Jerusalem--depends upon the assumption that it is a human book. Only when a finite human writes a book can we infer from its silence about a particular event that the author doesn't know about the event and was, therefore, writing before the event occurred. God, on the other hand, knows everything that ever happens throughout all eternity. If a supernatural book omits mention of a particular event, we cannot conclude that its author doesn’t know about it or that it hasn’t occurred yet. That argument depends on the natural assumption that human beings cannot see into the future.

However, if we assume that the Acts is a human book, then how can we avoid making the same assumption about the Gospel of Luke?  If the assumption that human beings don't see into the future is valid when dating Acts, we have to conclude that that the detailed descriptions of the fall of Jerusalem in Luke are strong evidence that it was written after 70 A.D.  It is conceivable that the author of Luke simply recorded the canny predictions of an astute military and political analyst, but I don't think that the historian can assess that as more likely than the much more common phenomenon of someone claiming to have foreseen important events only after the fact. 

The real problem is that apologists want to apply the methodology of critical scholarship--i.e., methodological naturalism--only so long as it supports the conclusion that they wish to reach.  As soon as it poses a barrier, they deride it as closed-minded and biased.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How Strange are Dr. & Mrs. Bachmann?

Here's Michelle Bachman explaining how she became a tax lawyer because her husband told her to do so and the Bible tells wives to be submissive to her husband.

Here's Bill Maher noting that the really weird thing is that when Michelle told her husband that she would do anything he wanted, rather than asking for a three-way or asking her to cover herself with whipped cream, he asked he to become a tax lawyer.

That of course leads to Jon Stewart struggling to control the urge to make fun of the contrast between the "pray-the-gay-away" therapy that Dr. Bachmann's less than macho voice and mannerisms.

Finally we have South Park's take on reparative therapy with Pastor Phillip.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Republican Myths

Happy 4th of July
Consider the mythology that makes up GOP orthodoxy today. Imagine the contortions that cramp the brains and souls of men and women of intelligence and compassion who seek state and national office under the Republican banner.

• They must believe, despite the evidence of the 2008 financial collapse, that unregulated — or at most, lightly regulated — financial markets are good for America and the world.

• They must believe in the brilliantly cast conceit known as the "pro-growth agenda," in which economic growth can be attained only by reducing corporate and individual tax rates, especially among the investor class, and by freeing business from environmental rules that have cleaned up America's air and water and labor regulations that helped create America's middle class.

. . .

• GOP candidates must scoff at scientific consensus about global warming. Blame it on human activity? Bad. Cite Noah's Ark as evidence? Good. They must express at least some doubt about the science of evolution.

. . .
Read the rest at

Thursday, June 30, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

From the Chicago Tribune:
An Arlington Heights man was fined $500 after he turned in $17,000 but lied about how and where he actually found the cash, police said Wednesday.

Robert Adams was cited for filing a false report with the Rolling Meadows Police Department.

On the evening of June 6, Adams found a Chase Bank bag of cash totaling about $17,000 near an ATM at a Walgreen store in south suburban Midlothian, police said.

Instead of turning the cash in at that location, Adams drove to Rolling Meadows and turned in the bag at a Chase Bank. He later told police he found the cash outside a newspaper stand in Rolling Meadows.

After investigators reviewed video surveillance, they discovered Adams, 54, found the money in Midlothian, Rolling Meadows police Sgt. Tony Gaspari said in the news release.

Adams told the Tribune on Wednesday night that he felt more comfortable turning the cash in to Rolling Meadows officials and filing the report with Rolling Meadows police.

"I know now a little better than I knew then," he said. "I feel very badly and understand why I should have told the truth."

Adams said it was a hot day and he just wanted to get home. "I wasn't looking for a reward. I was just doing the right thing," he said. Adams said he did not get a reward for finding the money.

On Wednesday, Adams said he was told he had to pay a $500 fine for filing a false report.

Here's what I think happened: The guy's initial reaction was to keep the money. As he drove the forty miles from Midlothian to his home in Arlington Heights, his conscience got the better of him so he took the money to a Chase branch in nearby Rolling Meadows. He was embarrassed about having thought about keeping the money so he made up the story about finding the money in Rolling Meadows.

All he's guilty of is stupidity. What he should have said when he turned the money in was, "I wasn't sure what do and it was hard to think clearly with that much money in my car. I knew that there was a Chase branch in Rolling Meadows which is near where I live so I decided to bring the money there."

Chase should pick up the $500 fine for the guy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

There Are Some Things the Government Should Run

Prisons are something that shouldn't be privatized.
Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania judge was convicted of racketeering, of taking bribes from parties of interest in his cases. It was a fairly routine case of bribery, with one significant exception. The party making the payoffs was a builder and operator of youth prisons, and the judge was rewarding him by sending lots of kids to his prisons.
From Who Wants to Keep the War on Drugs AND Put You in Debtor's Prison by Matt Stoller.

Stoller quotes this interesting passage from a recent 10K filing from The Corrections Corporation of America:
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
It is hard enough to have a rational debate about drug policy or immigration policy without lobbyists representing corporations whose vested interest in seeing people thrown in prisons has nothing whatsoever to do with the danger that those people pose to society.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Matt Taibbi on Michelle Bachman

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can't tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.
From Michele Bachmann's Holy War by Matt Taibbi.

If suspect he's right and it scares me.  The more that Bachmann, Palin, and Perry show themselves to be buffoons, the more beloved they become.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tim Pawlenty Wants the Rich to Get Richer

My father used to say that Ronald Reagan's genius was in convincing so many members of the middle class that they could afford to vote Republican.  I wonder how many people will be convinced by Tim Pawlenty.

Appearing on CNBC's Squawk Box this morning, Pawlenty proposed cutting top income tax rates and getting rid of taxes on dividends, capital gains, interest income, and estates.  According to Pawlenty, these tax cuts would pay for themselves by sparking GDP growth of 5% per year for ten years.  Never mind the fact that sustaining that kind of growth for that length of time is a pipe dream.

So wouldn't such policies likely increase wealth inequality in America?  Sure but Pawlenty doesn't care:
The measure of a successful economy is not whether some small percentage of people get a little more wealth or a little less wealth. . . . I don't care if we shift the wealth a little this way or that way. . . .  Don't measure this by whether of few more people get a little wealthy or not.
Pawlenty made it clear who he is looking out for,  "Every business leader across every sector of this economy large or small across the whole country that I meet with says essentially the same thing,  'Get the government off my back'."   Like the way that government got off Wall Street's back over the last thirty years?  How did that work out?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pawlenty Counting on Ignorance

In a speech today in Chicago, Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty is expected to play the class warfare card according to The Huffington Post:
"President Obama is a champion practitioner of class warfare," Pawlenty will say, according to advance excerpts. "He has spent three years dividing our nation, fanning the flames of class envy and resentment to deflect attention from his own failures and the economic hardship they have visited on America."
What pure and utter crap.  Any class envy and resentment that exists is the result of Republican economic policies of the last three decades which have made the rich richer while the American middle class stagnates or falls behind.

As the following graph from the Paris School of Economics shows, the richest 1% of Americans earned 8.18% of total income in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected.   (H/T The Big Picture) Today the richest 1% of Americans earn 17.67%.  Income distributions have been nowhere near as skewed in other major industrialized nations like Japan, France, and Australia.  During that time, America has gone from being the world's biggest creditor to its biggest debtor, median incomes have gone nowhere, and America's manufacturing base has deteriorated.

Pawlenty's prescription for the economy is more of the same policies that got us where we are today: tax cuts for the rich, less regulation of business, and further dismantling of the social safety net.

It would be nice to think that voters aren't that stupid, but the signs are not encouraging.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Will the United States Default?

On Monday the United States hit the debt ceiling which precludes the government from borrowing any more money.  However, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner apparently has some tricks up his sleeve that will allow the government to keep paying its bills until August at which point it will be forced to start defaulting on its obligations if the debt ceiling is not raised.

All the pundits seems to agree that a U.S. government default would be catastrophic for the economy and that therefore, it will never happen.  The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans and Democrats will reach some last minute deal that saves the day.  I hope this is true and I wish I were as confident.

I cannot help but think about the build up to World War I.   Almost up until the moment that war was declared, financial markets were convinced that Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm would find some way to avoid a war that promised to wreck such devastation.  They were wrong, the two cousins played chicken with each other and drove the world off a cliff.

I also remember September 29, 2008 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 800 points after Congress failed to pass the financial bailout bill.  Every market pundit was shocked when the House Republicans sent the bill down to defeat.  Although they passed the legislation four days later, many Republicans now insist that it was a mistake.  They may not be so quick to cave in to panic in the financial markets this time around.

The Tea Party Republicans are ideologically committed to spending cuts despite the fragility of the economic recovery.  If the Democrats happen to develop some spine on the issue, I can easily see this ending badly despite the assurance of financial pundits that it will never happen.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Crying Wolf on Medicare

As Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune details, conservatives have been proclaiming the eminent bankruptcy of Medicare for forty years.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why I Am Agnostic About HJ (17): Putting Together the Puzzle

[E]ven though puzzle pieces can be forced together in countless ways, they should not be arranged in the ill-filling configuration mythicism offers, when other arrangements allow those pieces we have (many must be presumed to be missing) to be fit together without the use of scissors. Dr. James McGrath

Dr. James McGrath of Butler University is blogging about Earl Doherty's  Jesus: Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus at Exploring Our Matrix.  I have never read any of Doherty's books, but he is generally regarded as making made the strongest possible case for Jesus mythicism (however that term is defined).  In the past, Dr. McGrath has opined that the strongest possible case for mythicism is still worthy of little more respect than the strongest possible case for creationism and nothing in his first couple posts on Doherty's book suggests that he is going to change his mind about it.

McGrath may be correct about the shortcomings of mythicism, but I think he underestimates the extent to which the same sorts of problems plague historicism.  Not only must we presume that many of pieces of the puzzle are missing, I think we can be confident that the overwhelming majority of the pieces are missing.  Nor do we know how big the puzzle is so we don't know whether the handful of pieces we have is any sort of meaningful fraction of the total.   On top of that, we cannot be sure that all the pieces we have belong to the same picture.  Some of them may have been put in our box by mistake.  

McGrath may be correct that the historicist's arrangement of the pieces is more plausible than the mythicist's, but I can't help but think that the advantage may be trivial.  Sticking with the jigsaw puzzle analogy, we have some pieces that are light blue and some that are dark green.  It may be the best guess that the blue pieces are part of the sky and the green pieces are parts of trees, but it is still just a guess. There are lots of other objects that can be blue and lots of other objects that can be green.  The person who guesses sky and trees may have better odds of being right than the person who guesses house and car who may have better odds of being right than the one who guesses cat and dog, but that doesn't mean that any of them are justified in thinking that they know what the whole picture looks like.

Of course no historian has all the pieces to any puzzle and the problem only becomes more acute for ancient events, but I believe that some historians of ancient times have things better than historical Jesus scholars.  A scholar who wishes to examine how a particular war unfolded has much more to guide him in arranging his pieces.  There is archeological data that can be consulted.  There are accounts of other ancient battles and wars that can be used for comparison.  Things that are known can be used to help form hypothesis about things that are unknown.  On the jigsaw puzzle analogy, perhaps it is like having some edge pieces that at least define the boundaries and size of the puzzle.

For the historical Jesus scholar, on the other hand, there seems to very little useful data concerning the origins of ancient religions.  We know something about what people believed at various times and places, but very little about how they came to believe it.  Dr. McGrath argues that the existence of an actual historical Jesus is a much more likely explanation for the origin and growth of a religion based on a crucified Davidic Messiah than a purely mythical or legendary Jesus could be, however, it is hard to see what the basis might for assessing this probability.  We simply don't have a basis for comparison.   Indeed, the data we do have suggests that people will believe almost anything regardless of the evidence.

The problem comes when trying to eliminate an alternative hypothesis.  If someone proposes a radical reinterpretation of an ancient battle, it may be sufficient to respond that there is no evidence of that kind of thing happening in any other battle.  However, it is much less persuasive to say that we have no evidence of a religion being founded on a mythical crucified Messiah because we have so very little evidence on the founding of any religion.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Quote of the Day

How many more gay people does God have to create before we ask ourselves whether or not God actually wants them around?  Minnesota State Representative Steve Simon

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is Osama in Hell?

I guess it depends on whether or not the Koran is the correct magic book or the Bible is the correct magic book. However, anyone who takes the Old Testament as the literal word of God has to accept the fact that when a desert deity orders his followers to slaughter those with whom he is displeased, no matter how innocent they might appear to the unbeliever's eye, the followers have a duty to carry out those orders to the letter.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Did Torture Play a Role in Finding Bin Laden?

I don't know.

I have heard that normal interrogation techniques were used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed to obtain the information that contributed to finding Osama bin Laden. However, once a person has been tortured, the threat has to be in the back of his mind every time he is questioned after that. I would like to think that the information could have been obtained without enhanced interrogation, but I don't think the evidence proves that it could have been.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One (of Many) Problems with Believing in Magic Books

Most historians don't believe that George Washington really said to his father "I cannot tell a lie." They think that it is a pious fiction invented by Parson Weems in the years after Washington died. Happily, such historians are not considered to have an anti-Washington agenda or anti-Weems presuppositions. Nor do such historians risk everlasting torment in a lake of fire should they happen to guess wrong on the authenticity of the story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

On the other hand, when New Testament scholars have the audacity to suggest that maybe Jesus didn't really say all the things that are attributed to him in the gospels, they are accused of trying to destroy Christianity. Moreover, if they guess wrong on whether Jesus really claimed to be God, they run the risk that either Allah or Yahweh will consign them to everlasting torture.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Perils of Economic Inequality

From Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% by Joseph Stiglitz
Americans have been watching protests against oppressive regimes that concentrate massive wealth in the hands of an elite few. Yet in our own democracy, 1 percent of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income—an inequality even the wealthy will come to regret.

An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year—an economy like America’s—is not likely to do well over the long haul. There are several reasons for this. . . .

First, growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity. . . .

Second, many of the distortions that lead to inequality—such as those associated with monopoly power and preferential tax treatment for special interests—undermine the efficiency of the economy. . . .

Third, and perhaps most important, a modern economy requires “collective action”—it needs government to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology. . . .
Twenty-five years ago the top 1% had 12% of the income. Now they have 25% and the Republicans are dedicated to even greater concentration of wealth while the Democrats play along.

Quote of the Day: Fundamentalism

To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.
R. Joseph Hoffmann 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why Is Paul's Honesty Taken for Granted?

When someone claims to have encounters with supernatural beings and receive revelations from God, it seems to me that one of the possibilities that must be considered is that the claims are the product of an over active imagination.  The person making the claims might be perfectly sincere, but he he might be delusional or he might be a pathological liar.

In the 19th century, Joseph Smith managed to convince many literate people that he had encountered a supernatural being and that he had received revelations from God.  Some of his followers made similar claims.  Most non-Mormons seem to think that Smith was a huckster or a lunatic.  In the 1st century, many illiterate peasants became convinced that a supernatural being had made appearance to various people and that God had given revelations to some of the people who had witnessed those appearances.  Nevertheless, I have never seen any serious discussion of the possibility that the resurrection was an invention of someone's imagination.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Persecution of Mormons vs. Persecution of Christians

Apologists like to cite the willingness of early Christians to endure persecution as necessitating some sort of supernatural explanation for the spread of Christianity, but it seems to me that this willingness must be viewed in context. Although the persecution of early Christians was occasionally severe under the Roman Empire, it was sporadic and ad hoc. Many early Christian communities were probably undisturbed. Moreover, life for peasants and slaves within the Roman Empire was no bowl of cherries in the first place.  Life expectancies were low, social mobility was unlikely, and the possibility of a brutal death was a fact of life.   It is easy to see the attraction of a supportive community that taught that man could transcend a world filled with pain.

In fact, when you compare the choices available to nineteenth century Mormons with those available to first century Christians, I think that the sacrifices of the Mormons look pretty impressive.  The people who followed Brigham Young out to Utah could have settled on fertile farmland in either Iowa or Illinois where the Indians had been largely subdued.  Instead they chose to make a long trek to a much less promising region where the threat from hostile natives was much greater.  Despite having seen their leader murdered, they chose hardship when there were many other attractive opportunities.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Joe Kernen: CNBC Jackass of the Day 3/10/2011

Since my cable package added Bloomberg, I have been watching CNBC much less.  However, I did catch Joe Kernen's interview with Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan today.  Naturally, when Ryan cited a recent article by Alan Greenspan, Kernen did not ask why the Republican Congressman was looking for policy guidance from the man most responsible for the financial crisis.  And of course, Kernen did not question the logic of  cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits in order to avoid cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sticking it to Teachers

Only five states do not allow collective bargaining rights for teachers. Their ACT/SAT rankings are as follows:

South Carolina – 50th

North Carolina – 49th

Georgia – 48th

Texas – 47th

Virginia – 44th

From Get Schooled with Maureen Downey.

Let's not forget Texas' new social studies curriculum:
Complex historical issues are obscured with blatant politicizing throughout the document. Biblical influences on America’s founding are exaggerated, if not invented. The complicated but undeniable history of separation between church and state is flatly dismissed. From the earliest grades, students are pressed to uncritically celebrate the “free enterprise system and its benefits.” “Minimal government intrusion” is hailed as key to the early nineteenth-century commercial boom—ignoring the critical role of the state and federal governments in internal improvements and economic expansion. Native peoples are missing until brief references to nineteenth-century events. Slavery, too, is largely missing. Sectionalism and states’ rights are listed before slavery as causes of the Civil War, while the issue of slavery in the territories—the actual trigger for the sectional crisis—is never mentioned at all. During and after Reconstruction, there is no mention of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, or sharecropping; the term “Jim Crow” never appears. Incredibly, racial segregation is only mentioned in a passing reference to the 1948 integration of the armed forces.
From The Thomas Fordham Institute.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lee Strobel and A.N. Sherwin-White

I was gratified recently to learn that a post I wrote more than three years ago has generated sufficient interest that a conservative Christian named John Fraser thought it worth his while to attempt a refutation. My post was entitled The Apologists' Abuse of A.N.Sherwin and in it I examined the way in which Christian apologists have misquoted and misrepresented a late Oxford professor of Roman history who made some brief and very general comments about the historicity of the New Testament. Sherwin-White thought it likely that at the time the Gospels and Acts were written, the oral tradition concerning Jesus would not have been completely mythologized. Comparing the New Testament to the kind of sources that he dealt with when studying ancient Rome, he said "however strong the myth-forming tendency, the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail." Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament p. 191.

This does not seem like a terribly profound observation. Many New Testament scholars who are routinely vilified as liberals or skeptics, like Bart Ehrman, think that historians can make use of the New Testament in order to draw some historically reliable conclusions about things Jesus was likely to have said or done. I find myself more in sympathy with the scholars who think that the historical Jesus is unrecoverable for all practical purposes, but that is minority position even among liberal scholars. Given Sherwin-White's admission that gospels and Acts may contain "a deal of distortion," it may seem odd that he has been embraced as a champion by conservative Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel, but that is indeed the case.

What so delights the likes of Craig and Strobel is some comments that Sherwin-White made about the rate at which legends accumulated in the ancient world. "Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition." RLSNT p. 195.  These comments have frequently been cited as proof that the Gospels should be accepted as historically accurate accounts.  For Strobel, Sherwin-White was the clincher in his unbiased quest to determine whether the gospels were the product of legend.
I had wanted to believe that the deification of Jesus was the result of legendary development in which well-meaning but misguided people slowly turned a wise sage into the mythological Son of God. That seemed safe and reassuring. After all, a roving apocalyptic preacher from the first century could make no demands on me. But while I went into my investigation thinking that this legendary explanation was intuitively obvious, I emerged convinced that it was totally without basis.

What clinched it for me was the famous study by A. N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane alluded to. Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth,

Now consider the case of Jesus. Historically speaking, the news of his empty tomb, the eyewitness accounts of his post-Resurrection appearances and the conviction that he was indeed God's unique Son emerged virtually instantaneously.
The Case for Christ p. 264.

Since Sherwin-White said only that "the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail (emphasis added)," it would seem that the Oxford professor believed that falsification might still be partial, considerable, pervasive, or even predominant.  Nothing he wrote would seem to justify Strobel's confidence that the stories of the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances were part of the historic core rather than falsification. 

What I consider most dubious about Strobel's reliance on Sherwin-White is his claim that "Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world," which I assume is what Strobel is referring to as a "famous study."  In fact, Sherwin-White's meticulous examination consists of a single anecdote that doesn't seem particularly relevant to the question of whether the story of the empty tomb and the appearance accounts might be legends or myths.

Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition. A revealing example is provided by the story of the murder of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus at the hands of Harmodius and Aristogeiton who became the pattern of all tyrannicides. The true story was that they assassinated Hipparchus in 514 B.C., but the tyranny lasted another four years before the establishment of the Athenian democracy. Popular opinion created a myth to the effect that Harmodius and Aristogeiton destroyed the tyranny and freed Athens. This was current in the mid-fifth century. Yet Herodotus, writing at that time, and generally taking the popular view of the establishment of democracy, gives the true version and not the myth about the death of Hipparchus. A generation later the more critical Thucydides was able to uncover a detailed account of exactly what happened on the fatal day in 514 B.C. It would have been natural and easy for Herodotus to give the mythical version. He does not do so because he had a particular interest in a greater figure that Harmodius or Aristogeiton, that is, Cleisthenes, the central person in the establishment of the democracy.

All this suggests that, however strong the myth-forming tendency, the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail even with a writer like Herodotus, who was naturally predisposed in favour of certain political myths, and whose ethical and literary interests were stronger than his critical faculty. The Thucydidean version is a salutary warning that even a century after a major event it is possible in a relatively small or closed community for a determined inquirer to establish a remarkably detailed account of a major event, by inquiry within the inner circle of the descendants of those concerned with the event itself . Not that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides. But it can be maintained that those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolic and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material. It can also be suggested that it would be no harder for the disciples and their immediate successors to uncover detailed narratives of the actions and sayings of Christ with their closed community, than it was for Herodotus and Thucydides to establish the story of the great events of 520-480 B.C. For this purpose it matters little whether you accept the attribution of the Gospels to eyewitnesses or not.

RLSNT p. 195-96.

If I understand this anecdote correctly, in the mid-fifth century B.C., some Athenians gave Harmodius and Aristogeiton primary credit for the establishment of democracy because they had assassinated the tyrant Hipparchus in 514 B.C.  In fact, Hipparchus was not the tyrant.  His older brother Hippias was, and the tyranny continued for four more years after the death of Hipparchus until Hippias was overthrown by the Spartan king Cleomenes and the Cleisthenes of Athens. Cleisthenes was instrumental in the establishment of democracy.   Herodotus and Thucydides managed to get the story right.  According to Thucydides, Harmodius and Aristogiton had originally intended to kill Hippias, but changed targets because they believed he had been warned.

Interestingly, Sherwin-White doesn't say how long it took for the myth to arise, and as far as I can tell, neither Herodotus nor Thucydides specifically addresses how or when the story about Hipparchus being the last tyrant arose.  Cleisthenes seems to have contributed to the legend himself by commissioning a statue honoring Harmodius and Aristogeiton as liberators.  It is thought that Cleisthenes wanted the overthrow of tyranny to be seen as the work of the Athenian people rather than a product of Sparta's foreign intervention.  Regardless of how the legend arose, it is hard to see how one example of an inaccurate story in ancient Athens sheds any light on whether or not the story of the empty tomb is a myth.

In my earlier posts I avoided any criticism of Sherwin-White himself, but I must confess that I am puzzled by the conclusions that he draws from that single incident.  He says that "those who had a passionate interest in the story of Christ, even if their interest in events was parabolic and didactic rather than historical, would not be led by that very fact to pervert and utterly destroy the historical kernel of their material."  However, in the case of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, it seems that there may have been a deliberate attempt to rewrite the facts by some individuals for propaganda purposes.  The true story was available to Herodotus and Thucydides because somebody else had their own reasons for seeing Cleisthenes get the credit he deserved or for undermining the legends about Harmodius and Aristotigen.  It was not that the historical core somehow resisted the mythologizing tendency as the story was passed down in the oral tradition.  It was that different stories were preserved in different lines of transmission by people with differing interests.

According to Sherwin-White, "it would be no harder for the disciples and their immediate successors to uncover detailed narratives of the actions and sayings of Christ within their closed community," but that really doesn't seem to take the differences in the two situations seriously.  The overthrow of tyranny and the establishment of democracy in Athens was an event which drew the attention of many groups with divergent interests.  Each group would be motivated, politically or otherwise, to preserve their particular version of the events.  That is why the true story was available.  Who would have preserved an oral tradition about Jesus that omitted the legendary and mythological elements?  There is no reason to think that anyone other than those who proclaimed him the supernatural Son of God preserved any version of Jesus' life and teachings.   If the inner circle of the closed community was composed of the myth-formers, where was the determined inquirer going to go to get the true story?

In any case, regardless of what one thinks of Sherwin-White's analysis of legendary accumulation in the ancient world, I don't see anything in it that begins to justify Lee Strobel's claim that the legendary explanation for the deification of Jesus is totally without basis.  Even Sherwin-White admitted that "a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the events."  John Frazer believes that I have abused poor Lee Strobel along with William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Josh McDowell, Norm Geisler and all the other apologists who have taken Sherwin-White out of context, but I was happy with my post when I wrote it three years ago, and I'm even happier to know that it still generates interest.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quote of the Day: We're Still Screwed

Unfortunately, most of our political elite – both left and right – is still living in a land of illusions. They cannot even seriously discuss what would be required to bring our true fiscal position under control – remember that most of the recent damage to our collective balance sheet was done by big banks blowing themselves up. No one who refuses to confront the power of those banks can be taken seriously as a fiscal conservative.
Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario

Sunday, January 16, 2011

To Hume is Ehrman

There are countless blogs and websites (or maybe 46,700) that compare and contrast Bart Ehrman's argument that miracles are inherently the least probable historical explanation for any set of evidence with David Hume's Of Miracles.  Amazingly however, no one else ever seems to have come up with the obvious bad pun.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (16): The Problem with the Sources

Imagine trying to write a history of the first seventy-five years of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints based only on the writings of Joseph Smith and his most devoted followers.  If you took seriously the possibility that many of these writers were either deluded or dishonest to varying degrees, you might be able to come up with a tentative outline of who the leaders were, what the church believed, and a broad picture of how the church got from upstate New York to Utah.  On the other hand, if you decided to take these writings at face value absent some proof that the accounts were less than truthful, you would probably come up with a narrative that was flat out wrong in countless major and minor details.

The problem with studying the origins of Christianity is that we only have a few documents from the first seventy-five years of its existence and those documents are overwhelmingly the product of men who were fanatically devoted to the new religion.  Our earliest and most prolific source is a man who claims to have received direct revelations from God, but never met the putative founder of the religion and gives very little indication that he knows what that founder is supposed to have said or done during his life or even when or where that founder lived or died.  While it is certainly possible that this man was scrupulously honest in everything he wrote, we would be fools if our analysis didn't incorporate the possibility that he was a lunatic, a pathological liar, or a charlatan.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (15): What Did Paul Know?

James Hamman of Quodlibeta has posted links to some articles he wrote that were intended to debunk the theory that Jesus never existed.  I was very interested in his list of “details about the historical Jesus” which he claims can be found in the undisputed letters of Paul.  What strikes me is the degree to which Hamman needed to twist these passages in order to characterize them as statements about the historical Jesus that Paul had to have heard from his followers as opposed to statements about the resurrected and exalted Christ that Paul would have thought he learned by divine revelation. (The numbering has been added.)

1. Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)

I find this misleading. When I think of Jesus “having a ministry,” I think of him tramping about Galilee with his disciples healing and teaching. Paul doesn’t seem to be talking about anything like that: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” Gal. 4:4-5.

2. Jesus was referred to as "Son of God." (1 Corinthians 1:9) 

This is just plain wrong.  Paul doesn’t say that the historical Jesus was Jesus was referred to as “Son of God.” Paul himself refers to Jesus Christ as the son of God. "God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."  1 Cor. 1:9.  This isn’t something that Paul is indicating he knows about a historical person. This is something that Paul knows about the exalted Christ who revealed himself to Paul.

3. Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. (Romans 1:3)

Paul does say this.

4. Jesus prayed to God using the term "Abba." (Galatians 4:6)

I think this one is just plain wrong, too.  Paul isn’t talking about anything the historical Jesus did. He is talking about what the spirit does in the heart of the believer. "Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.'”  Gal. 4:6.

5. Jesus expressly forbade divorce. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
6. Jesus taught that "preachers" should be paid for their preaching. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
7. Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)

My problem with all three of these is that Paul doesn't claim that the historical Jesus taught these things during his earthly ministry nor does Paul ever claim to know about anything the historical Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry.  On the other hand, Paul does claim to know things by divine revelation.  Why should we think that Paul saw the historical Jesus rather than divine revelation as the source of these teachings.   

8. Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Corinthians 3:22)

The truth is being stretched here.  Paul refers to a man named Peter, but he never indicates that this man had any connection with the historical Jesus.

9. Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)

I won't quarrel with this although Paul refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” rather than “Jesus’ brother.”

10. Jesus initiated the Lord's Supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

Paul does say this, although he claims to have received this from the Lord as opposed to learning about it from anyone who knew the historical Jesus and attended the meal.

11. Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

This may reflect Paul's belief, although some scholars think that “handed over” is a more accurate translation than betrayed. Once again, Paul attributes his knowledge of this to revelation.

12. Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

I think this is misleading.  Paul says that Jesus is our Passover lamb, but he doesn't link the death of the historical Jesus to the dates on the calendar when the Jews celebrated the Passover.
13. The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Paul does say this, although he doesn’t tell us who those rulers were.

14. Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)

This seems like another long stretch. I don't see anything in this passage to make me think that Paul is referring to anything that happened to the historical Jesus. In fact, it looks to me like he is talking about things that will happen to Christians.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. Romans 15:1-4.

15. Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)

More of less.  Paul refers to the Jews to generally rather than the Jewish authorities and some scholars think this passage is an interpolation.

16.  Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Corinthians 13:4, et. al.)

Paul does say this.

17. Jesus was physically buried. (1 Corinthians 15:4)

Paul does say this.

According to Hannam, mythicism "is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking."  I think many mythicists are guilty of all these failings, but I have yet to see an attempted refutation that didn't engage in the same fallacies. I guess historicists believe in debunking fire with fire.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (14): The Earliest Source

Suppose we came to Paul without any expectations. Suppose we simply tried to put together a picture of earliest Christianity based on our earliest source, i.e., not reading anything in Paul through the lens of later writings.

If all we had to go on were Paul’s writings, I don’t think that it would even occur to us that Christianity was predicated in any way on the teachings of a historical person named Jesus who lived in first century Palestine and who had disciples who passed those teachings along to others. Rather, we would think that Christianity was predicated on the teachings of a small group of men, the primary one of which was Paul, who claimed to have had an encounter with a heavenly being and claimed to have received divine revelations from or concerning that heavenly being. We might not think it all that different from the founding of Mormonism, i.e.,Joseph Smith claimed to encountered the Angel Moroni and received revelations. Like Smith’s Moroni, Paul’s Christ had once been a man who walked the earth, but neither Paul nor his contemporaries had known him personally and what they knew about him when he was a man was only known by revelation.

It is true that Paul talks about knowing other apostles, however, Paul never describes them in terms that would lead us to believe that they had had been disciples of an itinerant apocalyptic preacher named Jesus who had recently tramped about Galilee teaching and healing. If we only had Paul to go on, I think we would assume that these were men who were believers because, like Paul, they had experienced appearances of the risen exalted Christ. Without something else to indicate that Paul knew when and where the man Jesus lived or died or what he said and did during his life, I don’t think we would interpret the reference to James as “the Lord’s brother” as indicating a biological relationship.

Of course Paul is not our only source and it is entirely reasonable to try to make sense of what he wrote in light to what others wrote. Nevertheless, Paul is our earliest source and in many ways our best source so I think it makes sense to think about the picture we get when he is allowed to stand alone. Moreover, many of the early sources other than the gospels seem to paint the same picture that Paul does.

The question that causes me to remain agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus is this: Do we accept as historical any other person where the earliest and best source seems to point so exclusively to a mythical or legendary figure?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I Like to Think I'm Smart, but . . .

I took down the Christmas tree today. It is an artificial tree that we have had for many years. I keep it in the basement in two very large boxes. The boxes are not terribly heavy but they are very awkward to maneuver up the stairs and around the corners into the kitchen, the hallway, and then finally to the living room. I invariably knock things off shelves and tables that I pass and the boxes pop open spilling branches  on the floor.  The same thing happens when I take the tree down and return it to the basement.

Two years ago, as I stood in the basement dreading the prospect of carrying the boxes upstairs and considering whether I should call my son to help me, an amazing thought occurred to me. Why not just take the branches out of the box and carry them upstairs? It only took me five trips, which is just one more than I would make with the boxes since I would return them to the basement until I was ready to take down the tree.  The reduction in frustration and aggravation paid for the effort of that extra trip many times over.

As I carried the branches downstairs today and packed them back in the boxes,  I was still amazed that I struggled with those boxes for fifteen years before I hit upon such an obvious alternative.