Saturday, December 21, 2013

It's Not the Horizons

Michael Licona spends a lot of time talking about a historian's horizons, but he is like a man trying to use a ruler to measure the radon levels in his basement. Unfortunately, it's not possible to measure radon with a ruler, but Mike doesn't want to hear that. When someone tries to explain how a ruler works, he accuses them of having an anti-radon bias.  He insists that they need to be open to the possibility that radon gas exists, like he is.  What he can't seem to understand is that it's not a question of whether radon exists.  It's a question of having a tool that allows you to measure it.

Among the tools historians use to investigate the past is the principle of analogy which assumes that events of the past do not differ in kind from those in the present.  Since events in the present appear to follow natural law, it is difficult to see how any historian could conclude that a miracle occurred in the past as there are no events within present knowledge or experience with which to draw analogies.   If an event is unlike anything in the historian's knowledge and experience, he has to conclude that it is unlikely.  The principle of analogy doesn't preclude supernatural causes of events, but it has a very difficult time detecting them just as a ruler has a hard time detecting radon gas.

Naturally Licona doesn't like the principle of analogy, but some of his objections to it are pretty silly.
Numerous established modern beliefs would fail according to the principle of analogy. For example, we could not conclude that dinosaurs existed in the past.
Licona doesn't seem to get that it's the principle of analogy. Big reptiles are analogous to small reptiles so there they pose no problem.

He also has some stupid reasons for thinking the principle of analogy unnecessary.
If historians do not follow the principle of analogy, will they find themselves embracing superstitions? I see no reason why this must be the case if proper historical method is applied. We do not interpret Aesop's Fables as history because a highly plausible natural hypothesis is available considering genre. Miracle-claims must be judged on an individual basis. Accordingly the threat of superstition should not prohibit historians from proceeding while being careful to apply sound method.
I don't know about Licona, but the reason I don't interpret Aesop's Fables as history is because they are filled with talking animals.  It is because Aesop's Fables are filled with talking animals that I conclude that the genre is something other than history.  I don't need to decide on the genre before I decide whether to believe that the animals really talked.

Licona is correct that the principle of analogy makes it difficult to recognize unique events, but that's just the nature of historical inquiry.  The historian can only say what probably happened in the past and it is always going to be difficult to assess an unprecedented event as more likely than a common one.  

Licona keeps accusing the principle of analogy of ruling out God and miracles a priori, but it doesn't. If present knowledge and experience could be shown to include miracles worked by God and a past miracle could be shown to be similar to those that are currently known, the principle of analogy could be used to argue for the historicity of the event.  Unfortunately, as Licona's criteria acknowledges, establishing a miracle requires knowledge of that it is the kind of thing God would want to do.

Licona wants to claim that the historicity of the resurrection turns on whether one believes in a God who acts in history, but he can't because he knows perfectly well that a belief in such a God doesn't lead to the conclusion that He acted in any particular situation.  Again and again, Licona is forced to acknowledge that belief in a God who wanted to raise Jesus from the dead is required.
However, if we take into consideration the existence of a God who may have reasons for raising Jesus from the dead, the probability that Jesus rose is increased significantly. For example, if a historian holds that God does not exist, she will also hold that Jesus' resurrection is implausible. However, if she holds that God exists, that he acts within human history and that Christianity is probably true, she is most likely to hold that Jesus' resurrection is quite plausible
Why should a historian take into consideration the existence of a God who may have reasons for raising Jesus from rather that a God who may have reasons for not raising Jesus?  Of course if we beg the question by holding that Christianity is true, we will conclude that the resurrection is plausible.
The failure of billions who have not returned from the dead only warrants the conclusion that the dead are not raised by natural causes. The Christian claim is not "Jesus is risen by natural causes." The claim is "Jesus, the Son of God, is risen" or "God raised Jesus from the dead."40 Can historians a priori conclude that if Jesus is divine he cannot raise himself or that if God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead there is a high degree of probability that he cannot have done so? It would not appear so. 
Actually, the success of billions who have remained dead warrants the conclusion that the dead stay dead, period.   Until someone can be shown to have returned from the dead, their is no justification for limit those who are not raised to "those who are not raised by natural causes."  Of course it is impossible to show that a God who wanted to raise Jesus from the dead couldn't do so but neither is it possible to show historically that God would want to do so.
Since we are bracketing the question of worldview in relation to RH [the Resurrection Hyposthesis], it is difficult to name widely accepted truths that suggest RH. In order to illustrate this point, let us presuppose for the moment that supernaturalism is false. In this case, we can conclude that RH is implausible, since it is certainly not implied by other accepted truths, namely that metaphysical naturalism is an accurate representation of reality. Conversely, let us presuppose for the moment that supernaturalism is true or that God or some supernatural being wanted to raise Jesus from the dead. In this case, we can conclude that RH is very plausible, since it is certainly implied by the accepted truth that a supernatural being wanted to raise Jesus.
Ta Da!  By presupposing that God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, Licona has turned it into "the accepted truth."

As Dagoods pointed out on a comment on an earlier post "Just because a god could transform me into a giant pickle, does not create an expectation a god would."  Being open to the possibility of a God who can act in history may make the resurrection not impossible, but it does nothing to make it any more than infinitesimally probable.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A New Historiographical Approach or the Same Old Apologetic Claptrap?

In my last post I looked at Michael Licona's assertion that miracles are subject to historical analysis.
We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event (a) is extremely unlikely to have occurred, given the circumstances and/or natural law and (b) occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance. In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act.
I call this an assertion rather than an argument because Licona never explains how a historian determines that an event is sufficiently unlikely to satisfy the criteria nor does he explain how a historian determines where God might be expected to act.   He simply asserts that it can be done.

One obvious hypothesis when a person starts claiming to have seen a dead person is that he has experienced a hallucination or some other known psychological phenomenon.  How can a historian possibly conclude that such an explanation for appearance claims is "extremely unlikely."  What evidence could there possibly be? Licona deals with Michael Goulder's hypothesis concerning the psychological basis for the appearance claims quite neatly:
We may likewise note that Goulder's psychoanalysis of those who lived two thousand years ago is a highly problematic exercise. As Craig explains: "Psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult even when the patient is seated in front of you, but it is virtually impossible with historical figures."
TA DA!   Psychological explanations for the appearances are now off the table, not because there is any way to eliminate them or to declare them unlikely, but because we can't put Peter and Paul on the couch. This fits quite nicely with the historical bedrock that Licona declares any theory must explain.
1. Jesus died by crucifixion
2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
Talk about stacking the deck.  If Licona doesn't have to eliminate psychological processes that might give rise to the type of experience in the last two facts, it is not surprising that his resurrection hypothesis is going to come out on top.

Licona resorts to the same trick to undermine Gerd Ludemann's hypothesis:
Psychoanalyzing persons who are not only absent but who also lived in an ancient foreign culture involves a great deal of speculation and is a very difficult and chancy practice. Allison opines that Ludemann's conjectures "are just that: conjectures. They do not constitute knowledge. In recent decades contemporary historians have been more leery than their predecessors of the viability of reconstructing and then analyzing the psycho-histories of men and women long dead .Ludemann appears not to recognize this. Instead, his approach is a methodical skepticism that says, "As long as I can offer a naturalistic proposal that has an ounce of plausibility, I do not need to consider a supernatural one."
Surprise, surprise!  Licona is criticizing exactly what his methodology requires.  Under Licona's criteria, the historian needs to consider any natural explanation that is not extremely unlikely because if he determines that there is one, he is not justified in affirming the historicity of a miracle. I suppose, however, that an explanation with only an ounce of plausibility may be still be deemed extremely unlikely.  Perhaps a cup of plausibility is required before a miraculous explanation can be rejected.  Perhaps the natural explanation requires a gallon of plausibility before it gains priority over the supernatural one. Alas, Licona never explains how much plausibility is enough.

So we can see that Licona is happy to jettison the first half of his historical miracle criteria when it proves inconvenient for his position.  How about the second half of the criteria?  Well, we can see that tossed overboard when Licona responds to Dominic Crossan's ethical objections to the doctrine of the resurrection.

The ethical objection should be offered only after a close examination of the data and a firm conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead has been made. Crossan's ethical objection is an emotional, even political, appeal that says, "Can't we all just get along?" But it is not historical. He has put the cart of theological implications before the horse of historical truth.
Once again, Licona is criticizing what his methodology seems to require.  Surely we have to consider the theological implications of the event in question in order to determine whether it is the kind of thing that we might expect God to do.

According to Licona, his approach "differs from previous approaches in providing unprecedented interaction with philosophers of history related to hermeneutical and methodological considerations and applies these to an investigation pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus."  Unfortunately, he still provides no method for determining that Christianity's supernatural claims are any more likely to be true than any others.  It looks like the same old bullshit to me.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Michael Licona on Proving Miracles

I am skeptical that a supernatural event can ever be established by evidence.

Evidence is an effect from which we infer a cause.  If we find a body with a knife sticking out of its back and the knife has little swirly patterns on the handle, we infer that the person whose fingerprints match those patterns is the person who put the knife there. We can do this because we understand the natural processes of cause and effect that lead to the appearance of those little swirly patterns on objects. Just as importantly, we believe that those natural processes are overwhelmingly consistent, if not invariable. If we thought that those little swirly patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, they wouldn’t be evidence of anything. We could not say it was Professor Plum with the knife in the library.

 The intellectual tools by which we draw inferences from evidence use the consistency of natural processes of cause and effect. As a result, they can not identify supernatural causes regardless of whether one's world view allows for them. We do not know what effects require supernatural causes and we do not know what effects supernatural causes are likely to produce.

I have finally gotten around to reading Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which came out in 2010.    I have done so because Kris Komarnitsky was kind enough to supply me a review copy of the second edition of his book Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? in which he engages with Licona's conclusions on a number of points.   As Licona's book has been so highly praised by Christian apologists, I figured it would contain the best possible explanation of how a historian might go about distinguishing a miracle story that was the product of an actual supernatural event from one that was the product of the usual human shortcomings like superstition, ignorance, wishful thinking, gullibility, exaggeration, and prevarication.

The best they have is pretty bad.  Writes Licona,
We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event (a) is extremely unlikely to have occurred, given the circumstances and/or natural law and (b) occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance. In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act. The stronger the context is charged in this manner, the stronger the evidence becomes that we have a miracle on our hands, if the historical evidence for the event itself is good. (p.163)

The first question I have is how can the evidence for an event be good if it is extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or natural law?  The simple fact that an event is extremely unlikely given natural law must at the very least put the possibility of the event's non-occurrence on the radar.  If as I proposed above, we draw inferences from evidence based on the regularity of natural processes of cause and effect, it is hard to see how we can ever claim to have "good evidence" of an event that is inconsistent with those processes.

The second question is how the hell can a historian identify the contexts in which a god might be expected to act?  What the hell does "significantly charged religious context" even mean?  What basis other than wishful thinking is there to believe that a god, God, an angel, a demon, or any other supernatural being is any more likely to act in such a context than in any other?  On what basis can the historian claim to know the mind of an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being?  Not surprisingly, Licona provides no answers to any of these questions.  He simply takes the expectation of God's action as self-evident.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Jesus

Despite my agnosticism, I still put out the Nativity set every Christmas because I still love the idea of God manifesting Himself in humble circumstances. Like Ricky Bobby, Christmas Baby Jesus is my favorite Jesus.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why do Historians Consider the Crucifixion of Jesus to be a Fact?

If someone told me that a dead person they knew had come back to life, I think my first question would be "How do you know that he was dead?"  If they didn't have any credible evidence, I think I would be justified is suspecting that the guy had never really died.

Our evidence for Jesus's crucifixion consists of stories passed down by men who claimed to have seen him alive after he had been crucified.  For the most part, however, these stories give us little reason to think that the men were likely to have seen Jesus crucified. As his followers, they had every reason to be in hiding out of fear that they might be arrested and crucified along side Jesus.  So if the men who claim to have seen Jesus returned from the dead mightn't have been in any position to verify his crucifixion and there is no independent corroboration for the event, mightn't that be sufficient reason for a historian to doubt that it actually took place?

Perhaps when the crowd of men with clubs and swords showed up at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus and his disciples scattered and most of them got away.  Judas, wishing to collect his thirty pieces of silver, simply kissed one of the men who had not gotten away and that man was crucified.  Jesus managed to make his way back to Galilee while his disciples, assuming that he had been crucified, remained in hiding in Jerusalem.  Later when they encountered Jesus in Galilee, they concluded that he had returned from the dead and not wanting the Romans to find out that he hadn't been crucified, Jesus declined to disabuse them of that notion.   I cannot see how that is any more far fetched than the idea that he actually returned from the dead.

I think that the simplest explanation for a claim that a person has been encountered alive is not only that he is not dead, but that he has never been dead.  Before embracing either hallucination or resurrection as the explanation for the encounter, I think a historian would wish to corroborate that the person had in fact died prior to the claimed encounter.  It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Jesus's followers might mistakenly believe that he had been captured and crucified.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Criteria Embarrassment and the Changed Lives of the Disciples

Christian apologists like to argue that the gospel writers are telling the truth because no early Christian would have invented embarrassing stories that made early Christian  leaders look bad, such as Peter denying Jesus three times.  On the other hand, they also like to argue that changed lives of the disciples are proof of the resurrection because only a real encounter with the risen Christ would be sufficient to explain the transformation of cowardly weasels into champions of the faith.

Sadly, they never seem to notice the inconsistency in their arguments.  If the transformation of the disciples is proof of the resurrection, then their earlier cowardice isn't embarrassing at all.  It is an absolutely essential element in the story.  In fact, the gospel writers would have every reason to make the disciples look as bad as possible prior to the crucifixion in order to highlight the transformative power of the resurrection.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Where Did Peter's Clout Come From?

In the mythicist reconstruction of Christian origins, the risen Christ is analagous to the Angel Moroni in Mormonism and Peter is analogous to Joseph Smith as the first person to experience a revelation of the heavenly being.  Smith figured out at a fairly early point, however, that being first in line wasn't sufficient to maintain control of the movement when everyone claimed to be receiving divine revelations.  Smith found it necessary to proclaim himself the supreme revelator in order to make everyone else's revelations subordinate to his.  He was able to do this by virtue of being the recipient of the Golden Plates and the seer stones from Moroni.  Although there were periodic challenges to Smith's authority and occasional splinter groups, his status gave him the clout to weather them.

In my last post, I noted how Paul claims in Galatians that he received his revelation independently of Peter, and yet, he still acknowledges Peter as his predecessor in the faith.  In both Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul instructs the recipients of his letters to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. Under the mythicist reconstruction, the only way any of the apostles encountered Christ was through appearances, revelations, and scripture.  Nevertheless, the group in Jerusalem headed by Peter seems to have some special claim to superiority that--to me at least--is not fully explained by the mere fact that Peter was the first one to receive a revelation.

I asked Dr. Richard Carrier about this in an email and he suggested that "Peter started the cult and began the evangelization abroad that created a useful network of dues paying churches and garnered support for his cult-center long before Paul joined it."  While I think that this would explain Paul's deference, I don't think that Paul gives us enough information to determine how and when the practice of submitting offerings to Jerusalem developed or what role Paul himself may have played in that development.

I have a feeling that there is something that Paul isn't telling us that might better explain the basis for Peter's clout.  I'm guessing that it is not as impressive as Smith's Golden Plates because Peter doesn't seem to have been able to maintain as much control as Smith did, but I suspect that it is something more than mere chronological priority.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What Might Convince Me that Jesus Existed

I have been accused of being dogmatically committed to agnosticism concerning the historicity of Jesus, which I do not believe to be true.   What I do believe is that a convincing argument for the existence of Jesus isn't going to depend on our ability to prove the meaning of a single uncorroborated verse in Paul that we cannot prove he wrote anyway.  The kind of argument that might convince me is one that explains some broadly observable phenomenon in early Christianity.

One such phenomenon is the way that Jesus becomes less human and more supernatural in the gospels as time goes by.  In the earliest gospel, Jesus gets angry and despairs of his fate while in the later gospels he faces his fate with superhuman calm.   Perhaps it is reasonable to extrapolate backwards to the earliest figure in the oral tradition being entirely human.

Another idea occurred to me in considering Paul's message in the first two chapters of his letter to the Galatians, which seems mostly to be "Don't listen to those guys in Jerusalem.  Listen to me."

Among the things Paul tells the Galatians are are:

(1) My message came directly from God, not from the Jerusalem crowd;

(2) They added nothing to my message;

(3) I ignored them for three years;

(4) Then I ignored them for another fourteen (eleven?) years;

(5) They spy on us and make us slaves;

(6) They are hypocrites;

(7) Their reputations mean nothing;

(8) They agree that it’s my responsibility to preach to the gentiles. 

So the question occurred to me: Why doesn’t Paul just ditch these guys? If they are just making Paul’s life difficult, why not just denounce them as false brothers with a false revelation and tell the Galatians to have nothing to do with them. He seems to be doing fine without them and he is clearly unhappy about them interfering in his communities. If this is just a mystery cult based on visions of a purely spiritual being, I wouldn’t think that would be very hard to do.

On the other hand, if the visions were supposed to involve the resurrection of a known human being, then it might be very difficult for Paul to question the authenticity of their experiences without calling into question the authenticity of his own. That might explain why he is forced to acknowledge them as his predecessors even though he denies that they contributed anything to his message.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Party of LIncoln?

There can be no successful appeal from a fair election, but to the next election. Abraham Lincoln

Methinks it is the Tea Party that is "Republican in name only."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mythicism v. Historicism in a Nutshell

(1)  Did visions of a resurrected Messiah lead to men inventing stories about Jesus of Nazareth?


(2) Was it something about Jesus of  Nazareth that led to men having visions of him as a resurrected Messiah?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why the Consensus of Historical Jesus Scholars Fails to Impress Me

When I express my doubts about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, I am frequently confronted with arguments based on the consensus of scholars. If the overwhelming majority of scholars trained in the field have reached the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical human being, isn't it rational to think that there is probably some good evidence for his existence?

My answer is no, not when well respected scholars like N.T. Wright offer stupid reasons for believing Jesus worked miracles. "Jesus attracted large crowds. A thousand little features of the stories put this beyond doubt. When we ask why, the gospels all say it was because he was healing people. The link between healing and crowds is made in all the sources."  Simply Jesus, A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. Slightly circular I would say.

From what I can tell, Wright has the appropriate training and credentials and some of his work would be considered mainstream even though he is known to engage in conservative apologetics from time to time.  That he makes arguments like the one above makes me wonder whether the training and peer review in the field of New Testament studies isn't doing it's job.   It would be like a tenured professor of history arguing "We know that the Yellow Brick Road was real because all the sources tell us that Dorothy used it to get to the Emerald City."

One of my problems with appeals to scholarly consensus is that I am never certain about just who that consensus includes.  Just how many of them are willing to forsake logic when necessary to preserve the tenets of their?  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Discussing Parallels with an Apologist

Over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton has been doing a series titled Top 5 Resurrection Myths.  Naturally a myth is any explanation other than "Jesus really rose from the dead."  Yesterday he posted #3 The Resurrection Was Borrowed from Ancient Myths.

I'm wary of these kinds of discussions because it can be very difficult to prove direct borrowing.  Just because a sports movie ends with the underdog making a last second comeback doesn't mean that it was borrowed directly from Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Hidalgo, The Karate Kid, The Fighter, Breaking Away, or any of who knows how many other movies.  Nevertheless, I can still recognize the lack of originality, so I couldn't resist commenting on Patton's claim that
The primary reason why the idea that Christianity borrowed from the ancient mystery religions [fails] is that upon examination the parallels are simply not there. Of course there is always some borrowing from the culture of the day for liturgical or cultural reasons, but when it comes to the key doctrines of Christianity–especially the death, burial, and Resurrection of Christ—the so-called parallels are not very striking.
Now what is or is not "very striking" may be somewhat subjective, but the fact that early Christians thought it necessary to address the parallels would seem to me to preclude the claim that they aren't there at all.  In Dialogue with Trypho, ch 69, Justin Martyr wrote
For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by (Jupiter’s) intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that (the devil) has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?
Clearly Justin Martyr saw some similarities between pagan beliefs and Christian beliefs.  So I pointed out to Patton that I thought that Justin Martyr's comments pretty well settled the question of whether the parallels existed although I conceded that their existence was not proof of borrowing.

Any good politician knows that the best way to conduct a press conference is to answer the question that you wanted the reporter to ask rather than the one he actually asked.  Similarly, a standard tactic of internet apologists is to respond to the argument they wanted the skeptic to make rather than the one he did make.  Patton came up with a new twist though.  Rather than respond to the argument that he wanted me to make, he demanded that I make the argument he wanted me to make.
Please make an argument for them [the parallels]. Make sure that you argue how Christianity borrowed from them and give the text.
Although I told him again that I was merely addressing the question of whether the parallels existed, he kept insisting that the burden was on me to prove that borrowing had occurred. After some pointless back and forth, I finally wrote

Why is there a burden on me to defend a claim that I haven’t made rather than a burden on you to defend one that you have?

You asserted that the parallels are “simply not there” and “not very striking.” I’ve suggested that your assertions are belied by the fact that an early church father–who was surely in a much better position than you to judge the existence and the significance of the parallels–felt compelled to attribute the parallels to demons.

Rather than address the argument that I’ve actually made by defending the statement that you actually made, you keep insisting that I make some other argument (a typical apologist’s diversion I might add).
That comment got deleted and in its place Michael wrote
Vinny. Which parallel do you want to deal with?

And, have you actually read these parallels yourself?

Brother, in my worldview there is a concept of a sinful waste of time. I am done here until you give me examples. My post has some examples. The burden is yours. But I do think you have demonstrates the point of my post well.

To the rest, just ask people to give you examples. It works.

To which I responded
If by “works” you mean "avoids responding to the argument that the skeptic is actually making and avoids defending the apologist's misstatements," then yes, it works quite well.
Not surprisingly, that comment didn't make it through either. I'm not sure whether Michael has banned me permanently, but we'll see. If so, one less website to waste my time at.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Paul or Jesus?

Even if you are correct that religions typically begin with some sort of religious experience, why would you make that Paul's, rather than that of say Jesus of Nazareth? Dr. James McGrath

Sometimes a good question brings things into focus.

My reluctance to give Jesus's religious experience primacy over Paul's is that I have a very difficult time figuring out what, if any, credible information I have about Jesus's experience.  Paul is my earliest source and he doesn't give me any indication that Jesus of Nazareth ever had any religious experiences that were of any consequence to the early Christian movement or even that he had any religious experiences at all.  Paul writes a number of letters in which he explains the meaning and significance of his own religious experiences, which he seemed to view as some sort of divine revelation from a heavenly being. Paul never indicates, however, that this revelation was informed by anything that the man Jesus of Nazareth said or did or experienced prior to his death.

The fact that Paul is the earliest source doesn't necessarily make his experience the one that gave rise to  Christian belief and practice, but I don't see any clear way to get back to anyone's earlier experiences.   Paul certainly doesn't help much in this endeavor as he claims that his message was revealed to him directly by God and that other men neither taught it to him or added to it.  He indicates that others had some sort of experience with the heavenly being before he did, and that he was a persecutor of such people before he joined them, but he never says what it was about his predecessors that he found particularly offensive.  About the only thing he says about the Christian movement before he came on the scene is that there were some people who believed that a crucified guy had risen from the dead. What led to that belief he does not say.

So Paul doesn't give me any information about the crucified guy's religious experiences, but the gospels tell me some things about Jesus.  Mainstream scholars think it most likely that something about the things Jesus said and did during his life caused his followers later to have experiences that convinced them that he had been raised from the dead.  Paul's writings do not preclude this scenario, but neither do they corroborate it.   What bothers me is how much reading between the lines of the gospels is required to support it.  After all, the gospels tell us that the things Jesus did and the experiences his followers had were miracles. As the skeptic in me thinks that miracles are highly unlikely, I have to figure out some way to parse the gospels to get at what Jesus's experiences might really have been and that's where I run into problems.

My first problem is determining the nature of the experiences that led to the belief that the crucified guy had risen from the dead.  Were they dreams?  Were they visions?  Were they hallucinations?  Were they hoaxes?  Were they cases of mistaken identity?  Were they merely some sort of intellectual insight as John Shelby Spong has suggested.  Frankly, I cannot see any basis for declaring any of the possibilities as being the most likely seed out of which the legends of gospels grew.

My next problem is figuring out how Jesus made such an impression on his followers that they had experiences after his crucifixion that convinced them he had returned from the dead.  Obviously this is made more difficult by the fact that I'm not sure what those experiences were, but even if  I knew that they were dreams or hallucinations, I doubt that I could say what kinds of things it would take to induce someone to have such dreams or hallucinations. It's just not the kind of thing about which I have any data to make comparisons.  I suspect that is part of the reason why every scholar can come up with his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Everyone has there own idea of what Jesus must have been like to have had the effect he had on his followers and there is no way to choose among the various pictures.

The final problem then is to figure out what experiences it was that Jesus might have had that led him to do whatever it was that he might have done to so impress his followers that they had whatever experiences it was that they which convinced them that he had risen from the dead.  It seems like a dead end to me.  Aren't I better off just accepting that Paul is the earliest experience that I have to work with?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

World War II in the South Pacific

The next book I am going to read is Islands of Destiny:  The Solomon Islands Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Son, by John Prado.   My son is a Peace Corps volunteer stationed near the Solomon Islands, and while I have read some World War II history, I realized that most of what I know about the area where he is stationed comes from South Pacific and McHale's Navy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why Slavery Wasn't Really So Bad After All

For the first time in many years, I am commuting to work by train again. This not only means that I get more opportunity to read books, but I finish more of the books I read. When I get bored or annoyed with a book at home, I put it down and pick up something else. While commuting, however, I'm stuck with a book at least for an hour or so. One book that I might not have otherwise finished is A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War by Thomas Fleming.

Fleming's thesis is that the Civil War resulted from the fact that Northerners and Southerners hated each other and had since the founding of the republic. Fleming acknowledges that slavery was wrong, but not nearly as bad as it was made out to be by northern abolitionists. Had it not been for the unnecessarily confrontational tactics of the likes of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, Fleming thinks that southerners would have found it in their hearts to let slavery fade away as the founders eventually expected that it would.

The first point at which I was tempted to quit reading was in the introduction when Fleming started posing rhetorical questions. Noting that Britain, Brazil, and Cuba had eliminated slavery without going to war, he asked "Why were the Americans, with a government designed to respond to the voiceor voicesof the people, compelled to resort to such awful carnage?" Observing that only a small proportion of southerners owned slave, he queried "Why did the vast majority of the white population unite behind the slaveholders in this fratricidal war? Why did they sacrifice over 300,000 of their sons to preserve an institution in which they apparently had no stake?"

Interesting questions to be sure, but I found myself wanting to say "You know. I think there have might have been a book or two written on the topic.  Have you read any of them?" You might think that Fleming would compare his new understanding to some of the older understandings, but he never seems to acknowledge that any other historians have even thought about the issues. Nor does he devote much time to examining how other countries eliminated slavery peacefully. After the introduction, Cuba and Brazil are never mentioned again.

The book starts our with a chapter vilifying John Brown as a murderous crackpot, which is, I suppose, a tenable position. It made me wonder whether, if I had lived at the time, I wouldn't have found radical abolitionists to be as obnoxious as I find radical pro-lifers to be today. Like those pro-lifers who don't care what happens to a baby after it's born, many of the abolitionists seemed to have little interest in what would happen to the slaves after they were freed.

Where the book really started losing me though was when Fleming discussed the nasty accusations that abolitionists hurled at slave owners, such as the charge that slave owners routinely forced themselves on female slaves:
Did the campaign of slander about the South's sexual exploitation of its slaves have any basis in fact? The mulatto population of the South as recorded in the censuses of 1850 and 1860 suggests a rather low rate of miscegenation. In the nation as a whole, the census takers of 1850 counted 406,000 "visibly mulatto" people out of a black population of 3,639,000, which is 11.2 percent of the total. About 350,000 mulattoes lived south of the Mason-Dixon.

The figures make it clear that there was considerable amount of sexual activity between the two races, even if it was a long way from meriting the term "unrestrained lust."
Really? It's not clear to me at all that the lust was restrained. If the census counted the "visibly mulatto," that clearly implies that many were uncounted because their mixed racial heritage was not obvious. Why should I believe that the "visibly mulatto" provide an accurate measure of slave exploitation? When you consider that only 6% of whites owned slaves, you wind up with more mulattoes than owners even if you only count the "visible" ones. Moreover, when you look at the even smaller portion of whites who owned twenty or more slaves, you start getting ratios of two to three mulattoes per owner.

In trying to make some sense of the numbers, I found that between the 1850 census and the 1860 census, the number of visibly mulatto slaves increased from 247,000 to 412,000, a 67% increase. This might suggest a real frenzy of slaveholder debauchery. On the other hand, it might just mean that spotting mixed race heritage was not a precise science. Either way, it suggests that the raw number of visibly mulatto people in 1850 isn't particularly helpful in determining the extent to which slaves were sexually exploited. Fleming's tactic is basically the same one that Christian apologists like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell use, i.e., cherry pick the statistic or anecdote that most favors your argument and present it as if it settles the question.

I think the point at which the book most wanted to make me puke was when Fleming described Robert E. Lee's decision to turn down command of the Union Army before resigning and going south to serve the Confederacy.
As Robert E. Lee sat there trying to absorb this astounding offer, what did he think and feel? What did he remember? Almost certainly his first thought was John Brown. That madman's rant about the sin of slavery and the blood that was required to wash it away, the pikes he had been prepared to put into the hands of slaves, weapons that might have been thrust into the bodies of Lee's daughters and wife, the letters in Brown's carpetbag linking him to northern backers. Could Lee invade Virginia or any southern state at the head of an army composed of men who believed John Brown was as divine as Jesus Christ? How would the orders of a southern-born general, a slave owner thanks to his wife, restrain such men?

Next perhaps came the memory of the way the abolitionists had smeared him in their newspapers in 1859accused him of stripping a young black woman and personally lashing her. Did he want to fight for a government that had been elected, in part at least, by these fanatics? What would prevent them from smearing him all over again if he lost a battle or even a skirmish? The thought of their righteous arrogance filled him with loathing.

Finally might have come the distant but still terrible memory of the way Nat Turner and his army of maddened black men had slaughtered men, women, and children only a few miles from Fortress Monroe. Would that happen again if his northern army routed the South's soldiers? Would there be timeseven for a few hourswhen slaves ran wild that way.

No. No. No. That was the word that whispered in Robert E. Lee's soul. He could never undertake such a task.
What unadulterated crap.  The eighty-five year old Fleming clearly watched too many movies like Santa Fe Trail in his youth where Errol Flynn plays a young Lieutenant Jeb Stuart encountering John Brown in Kansas.  Naturally, the southern-born slave-owning Stuart is the only one who really understands and cares about the black people that Raymond Massey's Brown is cynically exploiting, and the blacks are grateful for his attentions. Throw in Ronald Reagan as Stuart's West Point classmate George Armstrong Custer (despite the fact that Custer was actually seven years behind Stuart) and you have the typical Hollywood version of history, i.e., never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Perhaps Fleming doesn't know that one of the most successful and most respected generals of the Civil War was George Thomas. Thomas's memories of Nat Turner's slave rebellion would have been even more vivid than Lee's as he, his sisters, and his widowed mother had been forced to flee from their home and hide in the woods in 1831. Nevertheless, the Virginian Thomas remained loyal to the Union and was universally respected by the officers and men who served under him.

I was not familiar with Fleming's work before I picked up this book at the library, but he has apparently written a number of books like this that challenge conventional interpretations of American history with the upshot usually being that the problems were the fault of liberals. While I think it is important for me to read books written from a conservative perspective in order to test and challenge my views, Fleming's sloppy methodology gives me little confidence in anything he has to say. His concepts of noble southerners and crazed abolitionists are more reactionary than revisionist.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mystic Chords of Memory

Having recently had my comments blocked by a Christian who took exception to my characterization of one of his sources as a hack apologist rather than a real historian, it was interesting to read a book that illustrates just how difficult the practice of history can be.  In Misplaced Massacre:  Struggling with the Memory of Sand Creek, Ari Kelman explores the November 1864 encounter between  a village of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahos in eastern Colorado and 650 troops led by Colonel John Chivington, as well as the varying interpretations of the event offered up until the present.

Most of the book deals with efforts of the National Park Service to balance competing interests and viewpoints as it sought to establish the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2005.  There were many to deal with, including representatives of four tribes, the first native American U.S. Senator, land owners, the local populace, state officials, historians, archeologists, and cranks who viewed the memorial as political correctness run amok.

The first major issue to be resolved was whether the encounter was a battle or a massacre.   Military experts and historians agreed fairly early on that "massacre" best described the attack on peaceful Indians who had been promised protection by Colonel Chivington if they camped near Fort Lyons.   However, the State of Colorado never quite gave up on the notion that it was a fair fight.  Towns and buildings were named after the white participants and memorials were erected commemorating the Battle of Sand Creek.  Coloradans liked to think of their ancestors as fearlessly conquering the wilderness, not wantonly slaughtering its inhabitants.

The second major issue was the exact location where the encounter took place.  This might seem to be a straight forward question of fact, but it turned out not to be.  The spot where the massacre was always thought to have taken place was supported my a map drawn by one of the Cheyenne survivors several decades after the battle.  Contemporary Cheyenne had treated it as a sacred place.   Unfortunately, the ground at that site did not contain the kind of artifacts of battle that it could have been expected to have contained.

Having been burned in the past for misplacing a historic site, the National Park Service was reluctant to move forward without confirming where the massacre had taken place.  As it turned out, the artifacts of battle were found about a mile north of the traditional site.  Although finding the right spot made the NPS happy, many of the tribal representatives took the rejection of the traditional site as an insult to their cultural memory and history (not all though--the representatives of the Northern Arapahoes seemed to accept the empirical evidence).  This led to a lot of cultural friction. My main takeaway from the book is the confirmation that politics has a huge influence over how history gets told.

I think that this is a very interesting book for anyone who is interested in how history really gets written.  It was a little difficult to keep the cast of characters straight and I wish the maps had been a little clearer about the property lines so I could tell which parts of the massacre took part on which of the modern ranches.  Those quibbles aside, it was an interesting read.

There was one ironic point which the author never mentioned but which amused me to no end.  In consideration of his conservative Republican constituents who distrusted the federal government, the Colorado senator who proposed the legislation establishing the site insisted that no land would be acquired by eminent domain.  The National Park Service could only buy land from willing sellers. After all, the last thing that any Coloradan would want to be a part of would be the federal government forcibly dispossessing people of their land.  It's not like the only reason Colonel Chivington had ridden in the first place was that the governor of the territory begged the federal government to take care of an Indian problem that the settlers couldn't handle themselves.  I'm always amused by anti-government libertarians who don't see the role that the government played in their acquisition of property.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th?

I must confess that I am not feeling terribly patriotic today having just finished Nick Turse's Kill Anything that Moves:  The Real American War in Vietnam.  The book makes a persuasive case that the My Lai Massacre was not an aberration, but simply one egregious example of the kind of atrocity that occurred with regularity in a war where American commanders made "body count" the only performance standard.  Consider for example Operation Speedy Express which ran from December 1968 through May 1969, where the 9th Infantry Division reported killing 10,899 enemy troops, but only recovered 748 weapons.  During one week in April 1969, the division reported killing 699 guerrillas while losing only one man and capturing only nine weapons.  The book is well sourced and well written, but hard to get through.

For someone who would like to understand the Vietnam War better, but is not eager to slog through 260 pages of America's war crimes, I would recommend Fredrik Logeval's Pulitzer Prize winning Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam.  The book deals with France's ill-fated attempt to reestablish its empire in Indochina after World War II, which America backed in order to assure French support in the developing Cold War in Europe.  The book makes clear just how fucked up the situation in Vietnam was long before the United States decided to put troops on the ground and why it was so unlikely that things would ever turn out any better than they did.

Whenever I go to the library, I browse through the new non-fiction section and grab whatever I think might be interesting.  By coincidence, the other book I grabbed last week also concerned the U.S. Army behaving badly; this time in Colorado in 1864.  In A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, Ari Kelman examines the various ways that America and Americans have coped with the memory of one particularly troubling incident from the time it occurred through the dedication of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007.  I'm just getting started on that one though.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

One Less Place on the Internet to Waste My Time

I have been banned from Tough Questions Answered by Bill Pratt.  Apparently the terms "hack apologist" and "apologetic propaganda" are beyond the pale.

The post which led to my banning concerned the work of J. Warner Wallace, a police detective turned minister.  Pratt quoted Warner's description of the way in which he managed to resolve the discrepancies between two eyewitness accounts of a robbery in grocery. In a comment, Pratt wrote "if Wallace can figure out what really happened given the diverging details provided by the two witnesses, then we can also figure out what really happened to Jesus." I suggested that perhaps there was a wee bit of difference between determining what happened based on extensively interviewing eyewitnesses shortly after the events and trying to harmonize anonymous accounts based on unknown sources removed an indeterminate number of times in decades of oral transmission from anyone with any first hand knowledge.

As he is wont to do, Bill went first for a straw man:
So Vinny, you are arguing that we can only believe eyewitness accounts where we are able to interview the witnesses immediately after the event occurred? Really? If we followed your methodology for determining the the truth of eyewitness testimony, we would literally have to throw out all written history except for what happened a few weeks ago. Any written testimony that was written by dead people would be right out.
After that didn't lead anywhere, Bill went with questioning my motives:
Vinny, what apologists like me say about the historical reliability of the NT documents is not the point. All I do is cite expert testimony from professional scholars who study these topics for a living. Picking on the likes of me is pointless.

Real historians support the facts I cite about the historical reliability of the NT. Your problem is that you do not like what real historians say about the NT, so you attack people like me because I'm an easy target, in your mind.

That's OK. I asked for the abuse when I started this blog and you have been happy to heap it on me.

But you might want to ask yourself why you keep coming back to this blog to rehash the same arguments over and over and over and over. I'm afraid I don't understand what you're trying to accomplish.

You clearly have it in for Christian theism and you come around every few weeks or so to remind me. I get it. You hate what I write. You think I'm wrong about everything. Anything I'm missing?
To which I replied:
In what sense is Wallace a real historian or a professional scholar? In what sense is he anything more than a hack apologist? What real historian would endorse any of his arguments?

I keep coming back to this blog because you keep misrepresenting the arguments and positions of those who do not share your faith. I keep coming back because you keep portraying apologetic propaganda as legitimate scholarship.

And with that, my comments were banned. Oh well.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Matthew's Guards and the Evolution of William Lane Craig

In a discussion over at Parchment and Pen, Rob Bowman cited William Lane Craig’s 1984 article The Guard at the Tomb which defends the historicity of Matthew’s story about guards being posted at the tomb of Jesus to prevent the disciples from stealing his body. Perhaps it is because it is an early effort, but it seems as though Craig wasn’t even trying to disguise his apologetic purposes. No argument for accepting the truth of Matthew’s account was so weak that Craig wouldn’t advance it.

Perhaps the most bizarre argument Craig made is that the story of the guards at the tomb is true because the truth would have been better than a lie.
Matthew's account has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend by the critics. The reasons for this judgment, however, are of very unequal worth. For example, the fact that the story is an apologetic answering the allegation that the disciples stole the body does not therefore mean that it is unhistorical. The best way to answer such a charge would not be by inventing fictions, but by narrating the true story of what happened.
Towards the end of the article Craig wrote
Lies are the most feeble sort of apologetic there could be.
But of course, quite the opposite is usually the case. The truth is rarely as one sided as we might like it to be. While the weight of the evidence might favor one side in a dispute or disagreement, there are almost always a few facts that the other side can cling to. A lie on the other hand, can be concocted to favor one side of a dispute overwhelmingly.

Craig’s most amusing argument advised historians to ignore the fact that Matthew’s gospel is the only one to report the story of the guards at the tomb.
And the evangelists often inexplicably omit what seem to be major incidents that must have been known to them (for example, Luke's great omission of Mk. 6. 45 - 8. 26) so that it is dangerous to use omission as a test for historicity. 
In other words, if we consider the inconsistencies in the accounts, we would be forced to concede that parts of the stories are fiction, so we had better not consider them.

Craig was somewhat troubled by the fact that the disciples never understood what Jesus was saying when he predicted his resurrection, but it was so clear to the Jewish authorities that they figured they better post a guard at the tomb. At the time, Craig was quite willing to ignore this inconsistency, too.
It is possible that the actions of the Jews were not motivated by any knowledge of resurrection prophecies at all, but were simply an afterthought to prevent any possible trouble that could be caused at the tomb by the disciples during the feast.
Craig's ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth was on full display in the article.
[T]he gospel of Peter also relates the story of the guard at the tomb, and its account may well be independent of Matthew, since the verbal similarities are practically nil.
For the way an apologetic legend handles this story, see the Gospel of Peter....:
Thus, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter was an apologetic fiction that nonetheless independently corroborates Matthew.

Interstingly, Craig seemed to think that Matthew’s writing was informed by modern scholarship.
Guard or no guard, no critic today believes that the disciples could have robbed the tomb and faked the resurrection. Rather the real value of Matthew's story is the incidental -- and for that reason all the more reliable -- information that Jewish polemic never denied that the tomb was empty, but instead tried to explain it away.
I.e., since twentieth century scholars don’t believe that the disciples stole Jesus body, Matthew wouldn't have reason to invent a story to answer first century critics who did.

Apparently, Craig eventually realized that there was a limit to the stupid apologetic arguments he could make if he wanted to pass himself off as a legitimate scholar.  In a 2001 interview by John Ankerberg, Craig was quite willing to acknowledge the reasons for doubting Matthew's story:
[T]his is a question that I think is probably best left out of the program because the vast majority of New Testament scholars would regard Matthew’s guard story as unhistorical. I can hardly think of anybody who would defend the historicity of the guard at the tomb story, and the main reasons for that are two. One is because it's only found in Matthew and it seems very odd that if there were a Roman guard or even a Jewish guard at the tomb that Mark wouldn't know about it nor would there be any mention of it. The other reason is nobody seemed to understand Jesus's resurrection predictions. The disciples who heard it most often had not an inkling of what he meant and yet somehow the Jewish authorities were supposed to have heard of these predictions and understood them so well but they were able to set a guard around the tomb. And again that doesn't seem to make sense so most scholars regard the guard at the tomb story as a legendary Matthean invention that isn't really historical.
Fortunately, this is of little significance for the empty tomb of Jesus because the guard was mainly employed in Christian apologetics to disprove the conspiracy theory that the disciple stole the body. But no modern historian or New Testament scholar would depend on a conspiracy theory. It's evident when you read the pages of the New Testament that these people sincerely believed in what they said so the conspiracy theory is dead even in the absence of a guard at the tomb. The true significance of the guard at the tomb story is that it shows that even the opponents of the earliest Christians did not deny the empty tomb but rather involved themselves in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain it away by saying that the disciples stole the body and that's the real significance of Matthew’s guard at the tomb story.
Naturally, Craig doesn't say that he rejects the story.  He merely chooses to limit his use of the story to proving that the Jews never denied that the tomb was empty.

Of course, the story only proves that the the Jews never denied that the tomb was empty if we presuppose that the tomb was in fact empty.  If the story of the empty tomb was a later invention, it could have been someone without the slightest knowledge of what happened in Jerusalem who first raised the possibility that someone had stolen the body.  At a time when grave robbing was a common problem, it would have been a perfectly natural hypothesis.  The story of guards at the tomb would have been a natural invention regardless of who raised the possibility.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Why Wouldn't Jesus Want His Witnesses to Be Believed?

According to Christian apologists, no first century Jew would have invented a story about the risen Christ appearing first to women since women were not considered reliable witnesses.  I guess that means that Jesus purposely made the evidence for his resurrection weaker.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Presuming the Authenticity of Texts

In a discussion over at Diglotting, Kevin Brown wrote "The default position is that Nazareth in Mark 1.9 is authentic; one has to prove otherwise."   When I asked him why this was the default position, he responded, "Really?! This shouldn’t be a controversial issue." 

It's hard for me to see how presuming the authenticity of the text of Mark wouldn't be controversial.  We lack any manuscript evidence for more than the first century of its existence.  In the manuscripts that we do have, the earlier ones show a higher rate of variants than the later ones from which we can surmise that the highest rate of variants would have occurred during the period for which we lack evidence. There was no church authority overseeing the copying of the texts, but there were plenty of men who were willing to forge texts in the name of Peter or Paul or any other figure that the forger thought would lend authority to the writing.

In short, there is every reason to think that there were any of number of opportunities for alterations by men with both the motivation and the willingness to do so and every reason to think that there are any number of alterations that left no evidence in the manuscripts. How could we possibly justify authenticity as a default position?

Kevin argued for the presumption on the basis of "tenacity," which refers to the idea that the original reading of the text is always somewhere in the manuscript tradition.   Tenacity is lovingly embraced by conservative apologists, but my impression is that the consensus among textual critics is that there likely are original readings that were lost in the early transmission.  The problem is that tenacity is inferred from manuscripts that were overwhelmingly produced by trained scribes after the time that Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire with established structure and doctrine.  We cannot assume that it prevailed in the earlier period when Christianity was a disfavored minority religion composed of competing sects with significant variations in belief.

The idea that something should be presumed until disproved is a familiar one to judges and lawyers.  We all know that a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  What we may overlook, however, is the fact that such presumptions are usually based on considerations of policy rather than probability.  The presumption of innocence isn't based on the likelihood that the police have arrested the wrong man.  In fact, we hope that the presumption will help assure that they usually get the right one.  A husband is presumed to be the father of a child conceived by his wife not because matrimony proves paternity, but because we are more interested in protecting kids than cuckolds.  

I believe that the presumption of authenticity is also based on policy rather than probability.   As Kevin points out "We could argue that every word or phrase in the NT was interpolated with such specious argumentation."  So what?  If in fact our evidence isn't sufficient to eliminate the possibility of tampering and alterations, why not simply have New Testament scholars qualify their conclusions to reflect the appropriate degree of uncertainty.  Isn't that more intellectually honest than presuming authenticity.  New Testament scholars want to talk about the original texts, but maybe the evidence doesn't justify it.

I think Kevin overstates the problem though.  The problem isn't that every word might be an interpolation but that any word might be.  That's a problem that historians are always faced with, but they deal with it through  corroboration rather than presumption.  If a passage in one of Paul's letters contains an idea that is found three times in other letters, then we have stronger reasons for thinking it genuine.  However, if an idea only appears once, we are necessarily less certain about the passage containing it.  If by positing that passage as an interpolation, we would radically change our understanding of Paul, then our original understanding is necessarily less secure than we might otherwise have thought it to be.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Socratic Problem: HJA (28)

Classicists seem reluctant to express any degree of certainty about what the real historical Socrates said or did despite having writings from three different perspectives from men who knew him personally. New Testament scholars, on the other hand, routinely express high degrees of certainty about what the the real historical Jesus said and did despite having only the accounts of unknown authors who all shared the perspective that Jesus had become an exalted supernatural being and who based their accounts on decades of oral tradition which may or may not go back to anyone who ever had any personal contact with Jesus when he walked the earth. And yet, I am routinely derided as a "denialist" because I decline to accord the consensus of these scholars the same weight that I accord the consensus of evolutionary biologists or historians of the Holocaust.

Although I consider myself agnostic about the historicity of Jesus, I'm quite open to the possibility of  someone making a convincing argument that the existence of a historical Jesus is objectively more likely than not. Nevertheless, I think it highly unlikely that that someone will be anyone who thinks that the things that Jesus said and did can be known with more certainty than the things Socrates said and did.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hasa Diga Eebowai

I saw The Book of Mormon the other night and it was the most incredible show that I have ever seen.  I am a fan of South Park and I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I was nonetheless amazed at how well they pulled it off.

For those who do not know, The Book of Mormon is the musical story of two white as white bread mormon missionaries who get sent to Uganda to win converts for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  However, they find that people whose lives are plagued by poverty, AIDS, warlords, and female genital mutilation are not always terribly interested in the tales of Joseph Smith and his encounters with the Angel Moroni. The show is vulgar, profane, blasphemous, and thoroughly entertaining. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Book Review: The Myth of Persecution

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances....
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust.

Civil War buffs love to contemplate how the course of the war and the nation might have changed had Robert E. Lee chosen not to assault the Union Army on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. While I like counterfactuals as much as the next guy, when it comes to Pickett's Charge, what is really being asked is what might have happened if Robert E. Lee could have stopped being Robert E. Lee for just that couple of hours or just that couple of days. Had it not been for the audacity and aggressiveness that was his undoing at Gettysburg, Lee would never have been there in the first place because he wouldn't have won the brilliant victories that gave him the clout to get his plan to invade Pennsylvania approved by Jefferson Davis. As Shelby Foote noted "Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander."

In The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss contemplates what Christianity might be like without its martyrdom complex. The Notre Dame professor explains how the post-Constantine church exaggerated and misrepresented for propaganda purposes the extent to which the pre-Constantine church had been persecuted by the Romans.  Had this not happened—or at least if the church today recognized that this is what happened—Moss thinks that modern Christians might not be so quick to view every disagreement with unbelievers (or believers who believe a little differently) in terms Satan vs. God, evil vs. good, and lions vs. Christians.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like a clearer picture of martyrdom in the early Church.  If you have ever wondered why historians think that the Roman persecution of Christians was mostly sporadic and localized, this is the book to read.  The key point seems to be that when there is some secular record of the Romans taking action against Christians, the nature of the action often shows that most of the time Christians were left in peace.  One example is Valerian's decree stripping Christian senators and officials of their status and property. 
[I]t's surprising that Christians could and did achieve power and status in the government, if—as tradition has us believe—they were being systematically persecuted by that same government.  That both Valerian and, as we shall see, Diocletian ejected Christians from public office demonstrates that Christians not only lived peacefully among the Romans, they flourished and rose to positions of prominence and power.(p.144)
Another example is the church that Galerius pulled down in Nicomedia that faced the imperial palace.  Had Christians been subject to constant harassment, they wouldn't have put their place of worship right under the emperor's nose.

I have run across a good number of internet apologists who will cite the growth of Christianity in the face of persecution as proof of the truth of New Testament claims.  Not being familiar with Professor Moss's work, my standard response has been to point out that there are somewhere around 14,000,000 Mormons in the world today despite the persecution that they endured.  One of the points Moss makes is that early Christians—like the nineteenth century Mormons in Missouri and Illinois—were not always the easiest people to get along with.  My favorite story concerned a mob of Christians who marched to the home of a Roman governor and demanded to be executed.  The governor sent them on their way, "telling them that if they wanted to die, they had cliffs to leap off and ropes with which to hang themselves." (p.144)

Moss puts primary responsibility for the distorted picture that has come down to us on Eusebius, the church historian who wrote during the years before and after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. 
It was Eusebius who made martyrdom a nearly continuous presence in the life of the church.  Christians had described themselves as suffering for Christ long before Eusebius, but the process of defining the church as a persecuted church was really initiated in his Church History. (p. 216)(emphasis in original)
Although Eusebius was writing about the experiences of an earlier time, the theological conflicts of his own day were very much on his mind.
The consequence of Eusebius's history of the persecuted church is that he divides the church into two groups: orthodox, as represented by orthodox bishops and martyrs, and their opponents—the heretics, schismatics, and persecutors.  Eusebius's targets are the dissenting voices within the church: those with whom he disagrees, those who threaten the idea of a single line of authoritative bishops, and those who question the tenets of orthodoxy.  By polarizing Christianity this way, Eusebius forces those groups outside the church.  At the same time, those within the church who might be inclined to disagree are reminded that they are either on the side of the martyrs or the side of the heretics and persecutors. (p.231)
Moss ends her book by urging Christians to move beyond their persecution complex.  
When Christians are invested in the history of martyrdom, they see themselves as persecuted, make their opponents into enemies, and equate disagreement with demonic activity.  This story of Christian martyrdom is a myth that makes collaboration and even compassion impossible.  The recognition that this idea is based in myth and rhetoric rather than history and truth, reveals that Christians are committed to conflict and opposition, but also that they don't have to be.   We can choose to embrace the virtues that the martyrs embody without embracing the false history of persecution and polemic that grown up around them. (p.260)
While I respect the fairness and clarity with which Moss presents the evidence and argues her case, it is here that I have a question.

Wasn't the idea of Christians as victims of persecution an essential part of the message from the very beginning? 

In the ancient world, when people suffered, it was usually seen as a sign that they had failed to do whatever was necessary to keep the gods on their side.  The Old Testament is filled with tales of the Jews suffering as a result of having displeased Yahweh in one way or another.  I've always suspected that Christianity's success was the result of turning this understanding on its head.  The downtrodden and disenfranchised no longer needed to accept their suffering as a sign that they were wrong with God, but could see it as a sign that they were right with God.  People learned that the reason their lives sucked was because God's enemies had targeted them.   Suddenly, their suffering had meaning as part of the great cosmic battle between good and evil, and hence, their lives had meaning. 

If the idea that being a Christian meant being persecuted was part of the message from the very beginning, then the narrative of persecution wasn't invented in the fourth century.  Eusebius simply repurposed the existing narrative to meet the changing needs of the church.  This seems to be a fairly common phenomenon when people who have been outsiders becomes insiders.  In the resulting power vacuum, one faction will seek to establish its supremacy by associating its rivals with its late oppressors.  Eusebius associating opposition to orthodoxy with Roman persecution may have been as natural and as inevitable as Robert E. Lee ordering Pickett's Charge.

I'm not one of those "angry atheists" who is convinced that nothing good can ever come from religion, but I would like to see Moss address the possibility that the problem is not so much the exaggeration and invention that took place in the persecution narrative, but a theology and world view that made that exaggeration and invention necessary—both in the fourth century and today.  My impression is that one of Moss's concerns in writing this book was whether she would offend the Catholic hierarchy at Notre Dame University (a school with its own rich and carefully crafted mythology). She worked hard to anticipate the challenges that might be offered by Christians who are invested in the traditional persecution narrative.  It would be interesting to see what she would say about the challenges that might come from the irreligious end of the spectrum.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent book.  Moss does the thing that I most value in a book like this: she equips the reader to think critically about the conclusions she has drawn.  I didn't always agree with her, but she enabled me to frame intelligent questions (or so I would like to think) because she laid out the evidence fairly and clearly explained how she reached her conclusions.  I suspect that this is a book that I will return to whenever the subject of persecution in the early church comes up.

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For a complete list of bloggers reviewing Dr. Moss's book, including Thomas Verenna, Tim Henderson, Brent Waggoner, and James McGrath, see TLC Book Tours.   My thanks to Jen Forbes for inviting me to participate.

Friday, March 1, 2013

My Problem with the Criteria of Embarassment

The depiction of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and praying that the cup pass from him, is one that it is hard to imagine being invented by the later church, after they had made sense of the cross as the decisive salvific event in human history. Would they invent Jesus asking for that not to occur?  James McGrath
The question isn't whether the later church might invent the story.  The question is whether anyone might invent the story.

We know that the Luke had no qualms about changing details in Mark in order to tone down the distress that Jesus experiences in the face of death.  For example, he changes Jesus' last words from  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."  Is there any reason to think that Mark would had some qualms about altering the stories that he heard in order make whatever theological points that he wanted to make?

If we accept that the evangelists felt free to alter the stories, then we have to accept that anything in the stories is there because it served the author's rhetorical purposes.  Mark could have thought it important to detail Jesus' human frailties in order to emphasize the transformative effects of the resurrection.  It doesn't mean that Mark's story can't be true, but I don't see how we can base our conclusion on the notion that he would have been reluctant to change the stories as they came to him.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Making Things Up: HJA (27)

"Why don't the epistles discuss the things Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry?" is the question that most keeps me on the fence about the existence of a historical Jesus.

One of answers I sometimes get is that the epistles dealt with issues that they arose after Jesus' death.  Therefore, the things Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry weren't relevant to the letter writers' purposes.  For example, questions regarding the administration and practices of early Christian communities wouldn't have come up during Jesus' earthly ministry so his teachings would not have been helpful in addressing the issues facing Paul.

I find this unconvincing because it doesn't square for me with what I see the early church doing.  When an issue arose that Paul hadn't dealt with somewhere in one of his letters, people simply forged new letters in Paul's name in order to make it seem as though he had dealt with it.  If Jesus' teachings were accepted as authoritative, I would expect that people would have invented teachings to make it seem that Jesus had addressed problems that he never addressed as well.  It might have been difficult to pass off a letter as being written by Jesus, but conveniently remembering what he said as necessary wouldn't have been hard.

Perhaps Paul had too many scruples to invent things that Jesus said, but I can't imagine that the people who forged letters in Paul's name would have had any such qualms.  Moreover, the guys who wrote letters attributed to Peter surely wouldn't have hesitated to include things that Peter supposedly remembered Jesus saying if they understood him to have been Jesus' closest disciple.