2017-01-14

Schweitzer in context

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by Neil Godfrey

My response to Cornelis Hoogerwerf’s post on Γεγραμμένα, Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, has raised the question of the intended meaning of Schweitzer’s words in relation to historical probability, common sense, and more. Cornelis has said my own explanation of S’s words is wrong; I attempted to explain why I disagreed. But rather than leave the discussion hanging with as a “you are wrong; no I am not wrong” exchange I copy a fairly large section of the relevant section from the Fortress Press edition of Schweitzer’s Quest so that readers can hopefully have a more secure handle on the evidence in order to make up their own minds about the meaning and significance of S’s words.

Before I do let me comment on a new post by Bart Ehrman in which he explains that “some” biblical scholars are also “historians”. The gist of his explanation appears to me to be that if a scholar chooses to study and write about “history” then s/he can be called a historian. Of course that makes perfect sense. But is such a scholar any better at “doing history” than an amateur historian without training or background knowledge in the philosophy and methods of historical research and history writing? I have found that some of the best history writing about “biblical times” has come from those pejoratively labelled “minimalists”. It is their work, and in particular their explanations of their methods, that resonates with the best historical research I read among those writing in other (non-biblical) areas. Most significantly, (a) they do not begin with the assumption that a text’s provenance can be understood entirely from its own self-testimony; (b) they understand the importance of independent confirmation of its contents in order to establish its degree of reliability; and (c) they “take seriously” the question of genre and wider literary matrix of the text prior to deciding how to interpret it, and do not assume that its content is essentially a window through which readers can look to see “true history” in the shadow of its narrative. These may sound like simple basics but they are very often overlooked by many biblical scholars who aspire to write “history” from the Gospels. Unfortunately Bart Ehrman fails on all three of those points. Among some of the best historians working with the “Old Testament” texts are, in my view, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Russell Gmirkin. There are a few names I would consider genuine historians among later biblical-related history, Steve Mason being one.

It is in that context that I read with interest Schweitzer’s words. Even though Schweitzer was not a mythicist and argued extensively against the Christ Myth theory, he did acknowledge the theoretical importance of the above historical principles, especially point (b).

To return to Cornelis’s post, I do see that he has since acknowledged his debt to Bart Ehrman for the views and complaint he expressed in the first part of his post. Given his failure to cite a single “mythicist” who has misquoted Schweitzer in an attempt to mislead readers into thinking S himself presented an argument against the historicity of Jesus, I conclude that no-one has done so and that efforts from certain quarters to mislead readers and repeat baseless rumours related to my own quotations of S are entirely mischievous.

In our recent discussion on my post Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate other differences arose. Cornelis believes that scholarship since Schweitzer’s day has indeed raised the level of probability that Jesus was historical to as close to 1.0 as one might wish. Again, his reasons unfortunately indicate a poor grasp of how historical methods and epistemology is understood outside the field of biblical studies.

Schweitzer, pages 400-402

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Robert M. Price Doing Satan’s Work

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by Neil Godfrey

Robert M. Price sees himself as acting the role of the original Satan who was God’s envoy tasked with testing the true character of those who professed fealty to God. I’ll leave you to read his post where he explains the analogy. What interested me were the following sentiments:

I have too much experience, much of it quite positive, with religion in general and Christianity in particular, simply to fight against it tooth and nail. It would be pathetic and quixotic. It would say more about me than about Christianity. I would have turned into a crazy, bitter ex-boyfriend. No thanks.

Ditto for me.

I have seen so much of Christians of all stripes and of Christianity in its many variations that I cannot pretend there is no good side to it. There is much to be loved, and I still love it. And this sentiment seems to me basic to any study of religion, period. You have to try to understand Islam, Buddhism, etc., from all sides including the inside. Unless you see what is loveable about it, you will never see why its adherents love it.

Mmm … I’m not quite in sync here. No, I can’t say I “love” any of it, still, though I am awed at the architecture of some of the older churches I’ve seen in Europe. But yes, one does need to try to understand religion “from the inside” in order to appreciate why people do love it — and that’s where I do think too many anti-theists fail. My perspective is more from the psychological side, though. What is it that happens in our brains when we imagine and pray to other-worldly beings? Such questions don’t lead us to love religion so much as they lead us to a deeper appreciation for our fellow creatures, for an acceptance of what we ourselves are made of. Maybe that has more to do with “self-love” or “self-understanding” and appreciation than “love for any aspect of religion”.

 

 


Bishop John Shelby Spong Update

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by Neil Godfrey

Westar Institute has posted an update on the health of John Shelby Spong by Cassandra Farrin. Back in September Episcopal Café announced that he had had a stroke.

Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism had a major impact on my understanding of the Bible at a time I was breaking away from belief in Christianity altogether. In some ways that book was my 101 introduction to critical studies of the Bible.

What I found of particular interest was learning how the differences among the gospels reflected quite different theological perspectives and how later ones attempted to amend deficiencies they perceived in earlier ones. I even wrote up a series of mock “newspaper reports” of the resurrection of Jesus as an attempt to put together what I had learned from Spong’s discussions. (This was all long pre-blog days.)  So one paper reported the resurrection as a rumour based on the hearsay of an unknown guy sitting in a tomb (Gospel of Mark); later gospels added reports of the resurrected Jesus eating fish, etc; and so forth.

The same book also introduced me to the arguments that allowed for gays to be accepted into Christian fellowship. Until then I had no idea how anyone could make such an argument from the Bible, certainly not from Paul’s writings.

Around the time I was reading Rescuing I was moving towards atheism and when Spong came to visit the Anglican church near to where I lived (I think Spong was a friend of Gregory Jenks, another Jesus Seminar Fellow and the pastor (or whatever the correct title is) there at the time. I was blown away by the experience of a congregation of whom nearly all were as radically minded as Spong or anyone else on the very liberal end of the Jesus Seminar. What I simply had to do was personally thank Spong for his assistance in leading me out of belief into atheism — a destination where I felt far more at ease, comfortable, relaxed, than I had as a somewhat “uptight” Christian. We had a little discussion about the uptightness of believers in general: Spong volunteered that it was his sad experience that most Christian believers do have an uptightness about them. (I put it down to those who are serious enough about their faith to take the Bible seriously and always be striving to “put on the new man” — living the life of a “put-on”, in other words, as Edmund Cohen explained it in The Mind of the Bible Believer.)

Spong’s next book, Liberating the Gospels, introduced me to the main principles of Michael Goulder’s arguments about the gospels being written as lectionary readings for churches. What struck me about this book was his case for the “midrashic” rewriting of Old Testament figures throughout the gospels: see the Spong: Liberating the Gospels archive of posts. But what I found truly astonishing was that Spong could argue essentially for the “fictionality” of so many of the gospel figures yet not allow Jesus himself to have been just as fictional, even though the same types of arguments he used for Mary, Joseph, and others were many times more applicable to the Jesus figure. That’s when I learned that Spong’s Christianity is far more “mystical” than anything I was used to — perhaps not unlike Thomas Brodie’s (who does not accept the historicity of Jesus) or Albert Schweitzer’s (who did).

All in all, Spong has had a significant impact on my life and understanding of religion and the Bible. I welcomed the update on Westar’s site.

 

 


2017-01-13

The Gospels as Creative Rewriting (like rewritten biblical books)

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in 2010 the University of Copenhagen published news of a project to “map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture [i.e. Q], but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.” See Scholars will explode the myth of the New Testament.

(For yet another work by Morgens Müller discussed on this blog, see Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.)

A Facebook reader reminded me of this post a few days ago and asked me what the outcome of this project had been. One outcome appears to be Luke’s Literary Creativity – a work edited by Mogens Müller and Jesper Tang Nielsen that I look forward to reading in the coming months. Meanwhile I can discuss another essay by Mogens Müller that appears to be related to the same project,

The New Testament gospels as Biblical rewritings : On the question of referentiality

By “the question of referentiality” Müller means the question of “whether the story told refers to real incidents.” To what, exactly, do the narrative’s episodes refer? How much is historical? How much fiction? Are our attempts to make such black and white distinctions anachronistic? Müller draws upon Ulrich Luz’s Studies in Matthew in which the gospel is compared with Greek literature that intends to reference and describe “historical” or “factual” events. Luz believes that the author of the Gospel of Matthew

must have known that in his writing, to some extent, he reshaped the Jesus-tradition or even invented it. (p.22)

Müller’s article led me to Luz’s study but it soon became obvious I would not be able to merge the two discussions into a single post. Luz’s book requires separate treatment so I will restrict this post to Müller’s article and a few of his references to Luz. The argument that arises is that the Gospel of Matthew is a re-writing of the Gospel of Mark much as

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles are re-writings of the books of Samuel and Kings,
  • or as Deuteronomy is a rewriting (possibly in King Josiah’s time?) of the Covenant narrative found in Exodus-Numbers,
  • or as Jubilees is a rewriting of Genesis-Exodus,
  • or as the Genesis Apocryphon is a rewriting of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,
  • or as Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and
  • Josephus’s first eleven books of Antiquities are rewritings of biblical narratives.

Some scholars have even seen parts of Genesis 1-11 as a rewriting of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A re-writing can be found in the same book with a single narrative repeated in different ways: the Abraham and Isaac / Sarah and Rebecca narratives contain three narratives that are all duplicates – Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1-11 – changing to gradually conform more and more closely to Mosaic law.

What is going on here? Why do authors feel at liberty to take existing texts and change them here and there, keeping the original outline more or less in tact but feeling free to add details and to omit others, and changing the way some stories are told so that they present readers with a new lesson that contradicts the original one?

What is going through the authors’ minds as they are reading Genesis or the Gospel of Mark and deciding what elements to change or omit and where to inject new material? Can they really be thinking that Genesis or the Gospel is a true account of historical events that must be preserved for posterity in the way a Greek or Roman historian felt a desire to preserve for posterity the best and most authoritative account of a people’s past?

To try to answer these questions it is useful to identify the characteristics of a “rewritten bible” and here Müller uses the nine characteristics singled out by Philip S. Alexander on the basis of Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, Pseudo-Philo’s Book of Biblical Antiquities and Josephus’s Antiquities.

  1. “Rewritten Bible” texts are narratives following a sequential chronological order;
  2. On their face, they are free-standing compositions replicating the form of the biblical books on which they are based;
  3. Despite superficial independence of form, these texts are not intended to replace, or to supersede the Bible;
  4. “Rewritten Bible” texts cover a substantial portion of the Bible;
  5. They retain the biblical order of events but can be very selective in what they represent;
  6. The intention is to produce an interpretative reading of Scripture;
  7. The narrative form means, in effect, that they can impose only a single interpretation on the original;
  8. The narrative form also precludes making clear their exegetical reasoning;
  9. “Rewritten Bible” texts draw on non-biblical sources, whether oral or written.

Müller’s conclusion:

This means that rewritten Bible texts, by their very existence, document that the texts they are rewriting have not exclusively been understood as being referential with regard to the events which have really taken place. This would have precluded the freedom of their “rewriters.”

Apparently, they are foremost perceived as theological texts, not so much aiming at information as at preaching.

Put another way: In their rewriting they intend to mirror the heavenly forces that, according to these authors, are active in their readers’ lives. Thus it is this “truth” and not some “historical” fact, they are aiming at describing. (p. 23, my bold and formatting in all quotations)

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2017-01-08

Albert Schweitzer on the Christ Myth Debate

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by Neil Godfrey

Without citing any instances to support his claim, Bart Ehrman charged “mythicists” as sometimes guilty of dishonestly quote-mining Albert Schweitzer to make it sound as if Schweitzer supported the view that Jesus was not a historical person. Ehrman’s unsubstantiated allegation has been repeated by Cornelis Hoogerwerf on his blog (without any acknowledgement to Ehrman); Jona Lendering of Livius.org has reportedly alerted Jim West of Cornelis’s “observation” and Jim has in turn informed his readership of Cornelis’s “excellent post”.

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (Albert Schweiter, p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest) — and ditto for the 21st century!

Here’s an excellent post . . . on the way the Jesus mythicists misrepresent Schweitzer to further their unhinged, maniacal, idiotic goals. (From The Crazy ‘Jesus Mythicists’ Lie About Schweitzer the Way Trump Lies About Everything)

If anyone knows who has quoted Schweitzer to support a claim that Jesus did not exist please do inform me either by email or in a comment below. I am not suggesting that no-one has mischievously or ignorantly misquoted Schweitzer to suggest he had doubts about the historicity of Jesus but I have yet to see who these mythicists are of whom Ehrman, Hoogerwerf and West speak. I do know that my own blog post quotations of Schweitzer have been picked up by others and recycled but I was always careful to point out that Schweitzer was no mythicist, and indeed that was a key reason I presented the quotations: the strength of their contribution to my own point was that they derived from someone who argued at length against the Christ Myth theory.

So I would like to know the identities of the “quack historians” of whom Cornelis Hoogerwerf writes:

To no surprise for those who are a little bit familiar with the contrivances of quack historians, Albert Schweitzer is getting quote mined to bolster the claims of the defenders of an “undurchführbare Hypothese” (infeasable hypothesis), as Schweitzer himself called  the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (p. 564). Part of it is due to the English translation, but another part is certainly due to the fact that quotations of his work circulate without context, and moreover due to the lack of understanding of Schweitzer’s time and his place in the history of scholarship. Perhaps some light from the Netherlands, in between the German and the Anglo-Saxon world, could help to clarify the matter.

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Now, without context, it seems that Albert Schweitzer rejects the whole project of historical Jesus research. But nothing is further from the truth, for Schweitzer criticises the liberal scholarship that was current in the nineteenth century, which, according to Schweitzer, tried to make the historical Jesus a stooge for their modern religious predilections. That Jesus had never any existence. Schweitzer’s own historical Jesus was the eschatological Jesus, who remained strange, even offensive, to our time.

(Misquoting Albert Schweitzer, my bolding in all quotations)

What is the source of this claim? Has Cornelis Hoogerwerf really read any post, article or book in which Schweitzer has been so quoted for such a dishonest purpose? He cites none. But his wording does have remarkable similarities to the text of Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? when he made the same charge — also without citation of supporting sources.

To lend some scholarly cachet to their view, mythicists sometimes quote a passage from one of the greatest works devoted to the study of the historical Jesus in modern times, the justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus, written by New Testament scholar, theologian, philosopher, concert organist, physician, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Albert Schweitzer:

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus.

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.

. . . .

Taken out of context, these words may seem to indicate that the great Schweitzer himself did not subscribe to the existence of the historical Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The myth for Schweitzer was the liberal view of Jesus so prominent in his own day, as represented in the sundry books that he incisively summarized and wittily discredited in The Quest. Schweitzer himself knew full well that Jesus actually existed; in his second edition he wrote a devastating critique of the mythicists of his own time, and toward the end of his book he showed who Jesus really was, in his own considered judgment. For Schweitzer, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of history as we know it. (Did Jesus Exist? p. f)

I hesitate to suggest that Ehrman’s accusations were made without substance but I have yet to find any “mythicists” quoting the above passage by Schweitzer for the intent that Ehrman and Hoogerwerf claim. Is this an entirely manufactured accusation? Is West alerting readers to Hoogerwerf’s “excellent” relaying of a baseless rumour?

***

Cornelis Hoogerwerf adds a second part to his post: read more »


2017-01-04

Pros and Cons of Antitheism

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by Neil Godfrey

My thoughts exactly, as posted by Trave Mamone on his By Any Means FreeThought blog . . . . The Pros and Cons of Antitheism

So does that make me an antitheist? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. . . . I just do whatever I can to make the world a less shitty place. Sometimes it includes calling out religion’s bullshit, and sometimes it’s working with a religious person for a common goal. Sometimes it’s having conversations with people who disagree with me, and sometimes it’s telling them they’re full of shit. Make of it what you will.

Excerpts

When I first became an atheist . . . . . After seeing so many angry atheist trolls online, I didn’t want to join their camp. Plus, shortly before deconverting, I was (loosely) involved with the liberal Christian scene, so I knew not all Christians were fundamentalists.

. . . There is literally no need for religion in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean religious people are fools; most of them just don’t know you can have a fulfilling life without a god.

. . . even though I’m happy to work with progressive believers for secular social justice work, progressive religion still has a lot of fucked up theology. . .  I’ve seen way too many progressive Christians turn it into another form of shame.

. . . So does that make me an antitheist? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. I find labels like “antitheist, “faitheist,” “firebrand,” and “diplomat” to be superficial. I just do whatever I can to make the world a less shitty place. Sometimes it includes calling out religion’s bullshit, and sometimes it’s working with a religious person for a common goal. Sometimes it’s having conversations with people who disagree with me, and sometimes it’s telling them they’re full of shit. Make of it what you will.

 

 


2017-01-03

The Australian Magpies

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by Neil Godfrey

I loved this program when it was first broadcast a few months ago and appreciated the ABC’s Radio National “re-releasing” it as a podcast. I always love watching magpies and so often notice fascinating behaviours. For some years many times I went outside to hang the washing out the same magpie would fly down and perch on the clothes line, looking intently at me as if to greet me and spend some time with me. In Australia we easily take their beautiful song for granted so I was pulled up with some surprise when an overseas tourist expressed amazement at the sound.

Anyone interested who hasn’t yet heard the program, do listen to

The colourful life of the Australian Magpie

The opening seconds is all you need to hear their sound.

Other details that fascinated me:

  • they are listening for the sounds of grubs etc beneath the grass
  • they recognize individual human faces
  • in the event of the loss of the male partner the female soon accepts another male replacement who continues to care and provide for her chicks
  • their black and white colour is no camouflage but functions as a highly visual signal for territorial purposes

 


Guy with a Hobby Versus an Airline Pilot

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by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne is at it again, posting stuff guaranteed to upset certain theologians fervidly hostile towards mythicism.

Peter Nothnagle: No evidence for a historical Jesus

Reader Peter Nothnagle sent me the transcript of an Easter talk, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”, that he gave last March to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. I was much impressed with Peter’s success at distilling all the scholarship around the historical “Jesus” (he’s read all the relevant stuff) as well as his ability to present it in a reader (and listener) friendly manner.

Peter’s conclusion is that there is no evidence for a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted—something I’ve thought for a long time. . . .

Peter Nothnagle (who describes himself in his presentation as “just some guy with a hobby”) forwarded Jerry Coyne a covering note in which he writes:

I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.

Such blind dogmatism! :-J

Coyne himself comments:

One of the things that’s always puzzled me is the rush to judgment about the historical Jesus by Biblical scholars, nearly all of whom, including Bart Ehrman, are eager to say that a historical (not a divine!) Jesus is probable, despite the woeful lack of evidence. This includes Biblical scholars who aren’t religious. It often seems that they’re being tendentious: trying to arrive at a conclusion that splits the difference between secularists and religious people, trying to offend neither group.

The paper itself, or a Why Evolution is True (WEIT) version, is downloadable at here. (I have not yet read it but will probably comment when I do.)

Interestingly this post appears hard on the heels of staunch anti-mythicist James McGrath comparing Christ mythicists with hypocritical and smug airline passengers who think they can pilot their aircraft better than the trained pilot. He attacks their “hypocrisy” . . .

the hypocrisy of it, as though figuring out what is happening with the climate, or the history of biological organisms, or what happened in the past, involves less training and expertise than flying a plane or performing surgery. All these different skills share in common that there is training and specialization required, and while plenty of people think that they can do them without training, the evidence doesn’t support such assertions.

In stark contradiction to this assertion that anyone doubting the historicity of Jesus is way out of one’s untrained intellectual depth, only 48 hours earlier the same author claimed the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus was so obvious or clear to everyone (by inference even to “just a guy with a hobby”) that mythicists were “morally reprehensible” for rejecting it:

denying that which we have adequate evidence for is more irrational – and more morally reprehensible – than believing that for which we do not have adequate evidence.

(My emphases in the quotations)

 

 


2017-01-01

Biblical Scholar Watch #1

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by Neil Godfrey

There are many excellent biblical scholars whose works are discussed here as often as opportunity arises. Check out the Categories list in the right column here to see the extent of our coverage.

But as with any profession there are some rogues who need to be exposed. A few hours ago on the Religion Prof blog appeared a post in effect leading the public to believe that mainstream biblical scholars have published far, far more on the topic of the historicity of Jesus than anyone who doubts Jesus’ historicity. Here is the screenshot:

The link is to the following page on Amazon:

Scrolling down one sees the number of pages is said to be 3300.

I have access to the electronic edition and can confirm that the number of pages is closer to 4000 than 3000.

But is it honest to claim that these four volumes under the title Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus address the question of the historicity of Jesus itself? After all, that is the clear message and point of the “religion prof’s” post. His message is that mainstream scholars have published far more on the topic that is addressed by, say, Richard Carrier.

But open up the pages of those four volumes and one soon discovers that this claim is misleading.

Of the over 3700 pages contained in these volumes there are exactly 29 pages that appear on first glance to be devoted to the question of whether Jesus existed or not. They are by Samuel Byrskog in a chapter titled “The Historicity of Jesus: How Do We Know That Jesus Existed?” — pages 2183 to 2211.

The four volumes are not about the question of Jesus’ historicity but in fact presume the existence of Jesus and from that starting point address scholarly questions relating to how we can learn what kind of person this Jesus was. Let me show a few more screen shots from the table of contents so you can get the idea:  read more »


Society needs to know what Christian academics and academic biblical scholars have to say

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by Neil Godfrey

Jim West indicates that because of his training and guidance by the holy spirit he speaks with a true understanding of the Bible. All others, he infers, inevitably fall into error or fanaticism. The Bible according to the trained (at an unaccredited seminary) and spirit led Jim is not simply an collation of historical documents but is imbued with magical powers, being

incapable of causing believers to err or stray from the revealed will of God. The Bible reveals the truth about the Divine and the Human. Believers who adhere to that revelation are kept safe from errant behavior or belief and the Scriptures do not err in teaching said proper behavior or belief.

I’m reminded of belief in the curse of the pharaohs and the healing powers of a murderer’s corpse. Jim does insist that the secret to drawing on this saving power from the Bible is that it be “correctly understood”. Hence only a person with both training and God’s spiritual presence can properly divine the true mantic meaning of the sacred magical words.

Jim West is also one of the pioneers of biblioblogging and today he laments what he sees as the decline of informed blogging about matters pertaining to biblical scholarship: read more »


2016-12-31

What a bizarre profession

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by Neil Godfrey

Romans 13 has been getting a lot of mention lately. Romans 13:1 was the one biblical text that the Communist authorities in Romania consistently knew. “Submit to the authorities” – the Bible says so! — Religion Prof, Nov 14 2016

The Religion Prof tagged those words with this image:

Meanwhile, another “religion prof” has singled out his research into this same passage for special attention with a title that on the basis of a confusing document from an ancient civilization strangely advises modern readers on their contemporary civic responsibilities:

When to Disobey Government – Quick Look at Romans 13

This post is a recycling of appreciation from a “religion master”, again providing instruction for readers today on how they should relate to political authorities:

How Should Christians Relate to Governing Authorities? Michael Bird Clarifies

How strange. Would anyone today turn to the recordings of the Sibyl Oracle for messages of guidance? Or to Hammurabi’s Code for how to treat a purveyors of faulty goods? Or to Plato or the wisdom of Imhotep? Or to the heavenly influences on human affairs according to Porphyry?

I am all for studying ancient documents. I have always loved studying ancient history. But the point has always been to understand how the ancients thought and lived, not how I can learn from them as guiding lights for my own life.

But notice how religion profs and masters take an ancient writing and strain and pull to make it somehow “relevant” as an instruction to readers today:

Consider Stanley Porter’s condition: qualitative superiority. “According to Porter, Paul only expects Christians to obey authorities who are qualitatively superior, that is, authorities who know and practice justice.” (449) The Greek for “governing authorities” (exousiais hyperechousais) seems to suggest this, given that hyperecho carries with it a “qualitative sense of superiority in quality.” (449) Therefore, the only governing powers to which Christians should submit are those that reflect the qualitatively divine justice they’ve been entrusted to bear, enact, and steward.

Woah there! Where to begin?

A raft of scholars have found reason to doubt that the passage in question was even original to the writing addressed to Romans: Pallis (1920); Loisy (1922: 104, 128; 1935: 30-31; 1936: 287); Windisch (1931); cf. Barnikol (1931b); Eggenberger (1945); Barnes (1947: 302, possibly); Kallas (1964-65); Munro (1983: 56f., 65-67); Sahlin (1953); Bultmann (1947). And who was this Paul, anyway? What independent evidence do we have to establish anything for certain? And how does one get from “a qualitative sense of superiority in quality” to modern readers’ concepts of “God” and “divine justice” (whatever “divine” justice is)? What was the original context and provenance of the document — we can only surmise — and what in the name of Mary’s little lamb does it have to do with anything in today’s world?

It would be naïve to suggest this passage is the last word on church/state relations, given that our conception of “state” is conditioned by post-Enlightenment views and the original context for Paul’s instructions came during a time of relatively benevolent and well-behaved authorities.

Amen. But why oh why does it deserve to be introduced into today’s discussion at all? Why not bring in Plato as well?

Bird reasons there are occasions resistance to governing authorities is both required and demanded by Christian discipleship. “Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to rebel against governments because of the same conscience.” (450) When governments misuse their power, sometimes Christians must say, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)

Bird likes John Stott’s summary of this discussion: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s Law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.”

Deep. Just what everyone instinctively knows and follows. We all acknowledge the need for some form or organization and cooperation. We are social mammals, after all. And we all live this way for the sake of peace and getting along. But of course those of us who have crises of conscience will very often find themselves resisting or evading those causing them such grief. It’s the stuff of thousands of movies and novels and pages of history books. “Christian discipleship” is no exception to the common experience of humanity and living in organized societies. Just dressing up the same conflict in the verbiage of one’s particular ideology makes no difference. My god, Sophocles’ Antigone has remained a timeless classic because of the way it epitomizes the theme of the individual standing up for right against the state.

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

And religion careers and publishing businesses are built on the determination to wrestle with problematic Roman era discourses in the belief that they offer something exceptional for initiates into the arcane mysteries.

 


2016-12-30

Israel’s Best Friends to Her Rescue

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Before authorizing the UK’s vote in the United Nations condemning Israel’s new settlement program British Prime Minister Theresa May made history by announcing that Britain would formally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. The IHRA’s definition is controversial insofar as it draws a very thin line between criticism of the state of Israel and antisemitism today, so May demonstrated courage in so unconditionally embracing it. Theresa May then did a Donald and tweeted:

The altright Breitbart could not avoid her praise of Israel:

Just two weeks ago, in a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) group, Mrs. May described the Jewish state as a “remarkable country,” a “beacon of tolerance,” and a “crucial” ally for Britain. Breitbart, 27 December 2016

So UK’s Prime Minister is speaking to Israel as a firm friend. About 9 and a half minutes in May also said:

“We must be honest with our friends like Israel because that is what true friendship is about. That’s why we have been clear about building new illegal settlements. It is wrong, it is not conducive to peace and it will stop.”

It is soon after that announcement, about 13 and a half minutes in, when Theresa May further declared that her government will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.

If the UK’s stance can be taken as an indication, then the words of an opposition member of the Israeli Knesset, Tzipi Livni, may not be very far astray:

“The entire world is not against the state of Israel, but rather against the settlement policy of the Israeli government. In times of war against enemies, we will stand by the government’s side, but we will not stand beside a government that turns our friends into enemies through its policies.” — as reported in The Algemeiner, 28 December 2016

The American Conservative similarly sends a well-meaning warning to turn Israel from future disaster:

There is a broad international consensus that settlement-building in the occupied territories is both illegal and a barrier to a negotiated resolution of the conflict. No one who is genuinely interested in securing a negotiated resolution of the conflict thinks that continued settlement construction makes a peace agreement more likely. One of the main reasons for continued construction is to establish de facto control over most of the territory that has been occupied while leaving less and less land for the Palestinians so that it becomes impossible for them to have their own state. If that continues, it sets Israel up to rule over a stateless, subject people in perpetuity, and that will be a disaster for all involved. If making an attempt to oppose that dreadful outcome constitutes “betrayal,” I shudder to think what loyalty is supposed to look like.

Calling out Israel for its ongoing illegal behavior becomes unavoidable when there is no progress in resolving the conflict, and the current Israeli government has made it very clear that there won’t be any progress. Criticizing Israel for behavior that has contributed to its increasing isolation in the world is not an unfriendly or treacherous act, and it ought to serve as a wake-up call to warn Israel away from a ruinous path.The American Conservative, 28 December 2016

The same conservative source published a like-minded article by Patrick Buchanan:

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, has warned his countrymen, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic.”

“If the bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote” added Barak, “this will be an apartheid state.” Of John Kerry’s speech, Barak said, “Powerful, lucid … World & majority in Israel think the same.”

Note that General James Mattis is Trump’s appointed Defense Secretary. Trump has also appointed Thomas Friedman as ambassador to Israel, and Friedman has compared Jews who criticize Israel with Jewish Nazi collaborators. But notice that that the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism appears to define such comparisons as worse than illegitimate.

Defense Secretary-designate Gen. James Mattis warned in 2013 that Israeli settlements were leading to an “apartheid” state. The American Conservative, 30 December 2016

No-one wants to see another apartheid state. These are the warnings of friends of Israel, not her enemies.

I have cited mostly pro-Israel conservative sources till now. Indulge me if I quote from a more liberal news service, but one that is nonetheless Jewish:

Kerry’s address was a superbly Zionist and pro-Israel speech. Anyone who truly supports the two-state solution and a Jewish and democratic Israel should welcome his remarks and support them. It’s a binary incidence, with no middle ground. It’s no surprise that those who hastened to condemn Kerry even before he spoke and even more so afterward were Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and the heads of the settler lobby. Kerry noted in his speech that it is this minority that is leading the Israeli government and the indifferent majority toward a one-state solution.Haaretz, 29 December 2016

A solid majority of the countries that voted for the UN Security Council resolution are not anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. The message of their vote was simple: It’s the settlements, stupid.Haaretz, 26 December 2016

Israel is in a terrible fix. The Netanyahu government is hostage to the most extreme right wing elements of all, especially the land lobby. To annex the West Bank outright is political suicide. Israelis do not want to add millions of Palestinians to their Jewish state. To do so would mean that Israel could no longer exist as a Jewish state if it were to remain a democracy. (Assuming a democracy based on ethnic qualifications for citizenship is not an oxymoron.)

Let Prime Minister Netanyahu be heard through Breitbart:

“I don’t seek applause, I seek the security and peace and prosperity and the future of the Jewish state,” he continued. “The Jewish people have sought their place under the sun for 3,000 years and we are not about to be dissuaded by mistaken policies that have caused great damage. Israelis do not need to be lectured of the importance of peace by foreign leaders. Israel’s hand has been extended to its neighbors since day one, from its very first day. We pray for peace. We worked for it everyday since then. Thousands of Israel families have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country and advance peace. My family has been one of them. There are many, many others. No one wants peace more than the people of Israel. Israel remains committed to resolving the outstanding differences between us and the Palestinians through direct negotiations. This is how we made peace with Egypt. This is how we made peace with Jordan. It is the only way we’ll make peace with the Palestinians. That’s always been Israel’s policy.”Breitbart, 28 December 2016

This is how we made peace with Egypt. Indeed. By withdrawing all occupation forces and illegal Israeli settlements from land captured in the 1967 war. But the Bible never really gave the Sinai to Israel, did it? Not that the UK and US are suggesting that Israel withdraw all settlements from the West Bank today. There is some irony, however, in the fact that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed on 26 March 1979 followed hard on the heals of the United Nations Security Council resolution 446, also condemning Israel’s illegal new settlement activity in the West Bank, adopted 22 March 1979 — again with the United States abstaining.

The point is that it is Israel’s friends, nations opposed to antisemitism and pro-Israel in other respects, who are trying to save Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy, who are among those speaking out through the United Nations Security Council resolution 2334. If antisemitism is on the rise once again, and there are indications that it is, then it is encouraging to see that Israel does have such friends today who will speak out against the acts of an Israeli government under the influence of a radical right wing settlement lobby, and who will seek to bring Israel back from isolation into a community of nations made up of many good and strong friends.

 


How Israel Uses (not “Misuses”) The Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor of Moral Theology, Daniel Maguire, published How Israel Misuses the Bible few days ago in Consortiumnews.com. I agree with the political point of the article but not the attempt to rescue the Bible as if it has a halo that must be guarded from any blemish. People use holy books to justify almost any agenda they want.

How Israel Misuses the Bible — Some excerpts

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, let the theological cat out of the bag.   When the Security Council rebuked Israel for their land thefts (euphemized as “settlements,”) Mr. Danon replied with pious indignation: “Would you ban the French from building in Paris?”

There, in all of it effrontery, is the imperial theology that birthed Zionism. David Ben Gurion said of Palestine “God promised it to us.” Yitzhak Baer wrote in 1947: “God gave to every nation its place, and to the Jews he gave Palestine.”

So in this hallucinatory theology, just as God gave Paris to France the Zionist deity gave Palestine to Jews including the right to build whatever they want wherever they want it. If the Zionist god posted a “Jews only” sign on Palestine, the presence of non-Jews is a sacrilege and their land claims are specious. If nothing is intelligible outside its history, as the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin put it, Ambassador Danon’s French allusion can only be understood against this theological backdrop.

. . . . .

Zionist ersatz theology imagines a capricious god who is into real estate distribution, a god who hands out eternal deeds to people of his choosing. It is the will of the Creator that all others be cleansed and their property rights be negated.

Misunderstanding the Bible

Zionist theology depends on a fallacious exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. The two key words for properly understanding the Bible are descriptive and prescriptive. Many of the texts of the Bible describe the horrors of a barbaric time. They are not normative or in any sense admirable. The Bible is revered for its prescriptive texts which imagined with classical excellence a whole new social order where “there shall be no poor among you,” (Deut 15::4) and where swords will gradually be melted down into plowshares as violent power is subdued. In the prescriptive texts we see the beauty of Judaism which Zionism violates.

The Zionists don’t know the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. They take ugly biblical descriptive texts and use them to make imperial policy. Texts such as this from Deuteronomy: “When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canannites, the Perizzites, the Hivites … and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you … you must utterly destroy them. … Show them no mercy.” (7:1-11, 91-5, 11:8-9)

Following the “logic” of such texts, the Palestinians are now the new Hittites, Girgashites and Canaanites to whom no mercy is to be shown or property rights to be honored. Zionist theology dishonors Judaism.

The worst of mad men, said the poet Alexander Pope, is a saint gone mad. Ironically Jews should know the horrors that religiously motivated people can wreak. Nothing so animates the will for good or for ill like the tincture of the sacred. Christian animus against Jews unleashed slaughters, pogroms, segregation and influenced the anti-Jewish venom that Nazism mechanized with genocidal force.

The survival of Israel living in accord with international law, alongside a Palestinian state, is the goal that has no need of obstructive faux theology. Mr. Netanyahu like the High Priest is rending his garments in outrage, threatening to smite all nations that would challenge Israel’s manifest destiny to build in Palestine like the French can build in Paris. A bit of curative theology is needed to correct this brutal and ignorant madness. The Security Council gave the cure a jump start.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians and The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy [Fortress Press]).He can be reached at daniel.maguire@marquette.edu  — Consortiumnews.com December 27, 2016

I have omitted some rather controversial historical details from the original article because I want the focus to be on the political and popular manipulations of sacred texts. I want to follow up with a very positive post about the future of Israel, and the last sentence quoted above is an excellent segue into that — notice the word “cure”!

 

 

 

 


2016-12-24

From the “War against Christmas” to “Christmas as a war against. . . . “

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

It is not really until the second century and the rise of Christian gnostics who asserted that Jesus had not been present in an actual physical form — that he had been spiritual only — that Christian thinkers realized that they’d have to start emphasizing Christ’s bodily origins. And so they have to talk about the registration at Bethlehem, they have to talk about the cradle, and even the swadling clothes become an article of faith. So it’s after about a hundred years that Christians decide to start thinking seriously about the nativity, and so the next question for them is when to mark it.

Bowler, Gerry. 2016. The Persistence of Christmas: A Conversation with Historian Gerry Bowler. Accessed December 25. http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/12/19/christmas-gerry-bowler/

If you are thinking, “But but … weren’t the nativity stories written in the first century?” then have a look at Marcion and Luke-Acts.