The Ehrman-Price Debate: Ehrman’s Opening Address

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate. I have not been able to access the online debate since to check the details of the following.

I think most listeners on the mythicist side would have been disappointed because this was an opportunity for BE to address the extensive published rebuttals (Zindler, Doherty, Carrier) to his book, Did Jesus Exist?

Bart Ehrman (BE) opened by saying that he would not address the mythicist argument (“after all, no mythicist arguments have been presented yet”) but instead present the strongest case he knew for the historical existence of Jesus.

But first, he digressed, he would mention just two of the mythicist arguments.

Mythicist argument #1, Nazareth

Do any mythicists argue that the non-existence of Nazareth disproves the historicity of Jesus? BE did not cite any. It is also apparent that he has not read any of Salm’s work on the archaeological work on Nazareth.

One mythicist argument that he said was commonly found among mythicists was that since there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus it followed that Jesus of Nazareth could not have existed. But on the contrary, BE assured his audience, archaeologists have discovered the site of Nazareth; its existence is not a debated point because they have found there a house, pottery, a farm, coins dated to the days of Jesus.

“Anyone who says otherwise simply does not know the archaeological record,” BE concluded, adding that whether Jesus existed is not dependent on his being born in Nazareth anyway.

Mythicist argument #2, Tale types

Again I think most on the mythicist side would have been disappointed that BE missed the opportunity to address their replies to this old chestnut. The point is not that legendary embellishment means nonhistoricity, but that mythical tropes in the absence of historical evidence points to fabrication.

The second arguments mythicists come up with, he asserted, related to the Jesus in the Gospels being portrayed according to patterns of other figures in the Old Testament and other gods. Such a portrayal was not an argument against historicity for the simple reason that most historical figures — Washington, Julius Caesar, Baal Shem Tov — the have legendary portraits made of them. Octavian (Augustus) was said to be the son of god and performed miracles and ascended to heaven. The lives of famous people are told in stereotypes, such as the divine saviour or the rags to riches stories.

That a person’s life is told according to a type does not mean that person did not exist.

The Case for Jesus Being Historical: One of the Best Sourced Figures of First Century

Jesus is one of the best attested Palestinian Jews of the entire first century.

Gospels and their sources

Again I believe most on the mythicist side would have been disappointed that BE failed to address the many criticisms that they have published about these claims, claims that even a good number of BE’s scholarly appears would reject.

We have more evidence of Jesus that we do about Josephus. We have four gospels about Jesus and zero narrative accounts of Josephus. For Caiaphas (and Pilate?) we likewise have no narrative accounts.

The gospel accounts are problematic, yes, but they are four narratives about a person in history and they do give us information. All are based on different literary and oral sources.

Mark is absolutely based on oral sources that he heard. John didn’t use Matthew, Mark or Luke but used other sources.

There are so many sources for Jesus and they are independent of each other; they are not copying each other.

They contain information based on sources going back to the Aramaic stories in Palestine years before the gospels were written.

Writings of Paul

Before the four gospels we have the writings of Paul. Paul makes off-the-cuff biographical comments that give us a chronology of his life. We know he began as a persecutor of Christians within two years of the death of Jesus.

Paul talks about a real historical figure crucified by earthly opponents. Paul firmly believes Jesus lived in Palestine as a man even though he had been divine.

BE repeats his arguments from Did Jesus Exist? without any acknowledgement of the reasons and arguments that mythicists have made to the contrary. It appears the actual mythicist debate is being sidestepped.

BE compared the letters of his very devout Christian mother. Her letters do not talk about Jesus’ baptism, etc. So don’t expect all details in Paul’s letters. Yet Paul does tell us that Jesus

  • was born physically
  • had a woman as a mother
  • had brothers, including James
  • preached to other Jews
  • had disciples (sic), including Peter

Two points of what Paul says need to be noted:

#1 — Galatians 1:19 says Jesus had a brother and “brother” means what it means. Paul is contrasting James with Cephas — that is, Cephas is not the brother of the Lord — only James is the brother of the Lord.

#2 — Jesus is the crucified messiah, that is, he suffered a Roman crucifixion as a criminal.

The Case for Jesus Being Historical: Messiah a Crucified Criminal

If Christians invented Jesus as the Christ they would not have invented the idea that he got crucified.

They also said he was buried.

As posted here, on other blogs, and above all in the scholarly literature, there is abundant evidence presented in the professional channels that argues against BE’s assertions about Jewish messianic concepts of the first century. The same applies to his interpretation of it was about the preaching of Christ crucified that Paul’s Jews found to be a stumbling block.

I suspect many mythicists would have liked BE to have addressed the logical fallacy underlying his “they would not make it up” claim given that they have repeatedly pointed it out in publications and responses to his DJE?

It is important to understand what was meant by the term Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew). The Christ was the King of Israel; he, the king, was the “anointed one”. Jews believed that the Messiah would be a great warrior figure like David and would rule over his enemies. Some Jews also thought he would be a cosmic figure who would destroy his enemies on earth. But ALL expected a great, powerful figure who would destroy his enemies and set up God’s Kingdom.

But Christians said Jesus was a crucified criminal. That’s the opposite of what a Messiah would be.

So we can’t explain a crucified messiah as something that was made up. Christians believed he was a Messiah who then got crucified as a criminal. That’s why Paul said that for Jews a crucified messiah was a stumbling block. It’s why they all rejected Jesus as a Messiah — because he was crucified.

Sum Up

Thanks for condescending to deliver the sage exhortation, Bart. We really are a dishonest bunch, aren’t we, raising the question in the first place and being prepared to ignore such strong evidence merely to satisfy our convenient agendas.

There is historical data for Jesus. It’s in the gospels but we need to find it. Hope you don’t decide to believe only what is convenient!


Next — Price’s opening address




Woops …. with gaffes like these. . . . (will anyone dare to discreetly tell the professor that David was right all along?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Most readers with an interest in the mythicism debate are well aware that Paul never uses the term for “disciples” in any of his letters but only ever speaks of “apostles” — e.g. 1 Cor 9:1-5; 12:27, 29; 15:7, 9; 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11f; Gal 1.17, 19.

So what are we to make of the following exchange in the Ehrman/Price Post-Debate Show @ 22 min 30 sec . . . ?

David Fitzgerald: [Paul] never even uses the word disciple in any context ever in any of his [writing]. He never implies that Jesus had twelve of them. He never identifies the twelve. . . . .
James McGrath: Are you thinking of apostle? Are you thinking of apostle?
David Fitzgerald: He talks about apostles but when he describes what an apostle is it has nothing to do with being a disciple of Jesus who followed him around. . . .
Moderator: [Attempts to intervene and redirect the discussion]
James McGrath: It’s characteristic that mythicists don’t know the terminology that’s used in these sources. You have a superficial familiarity with it and then they’re confused by it and think that proves something. I think this actually illustrates an important point.
David Fitzgerald: I don’t know why you’re here James, to be honest with you, because what else are you going to say besides shitting on mythicism?
Daniel Gullotta: Because he’s an expert in [the New] Testament?
James McGrath:
I’m going to point out you don’t know what the sources say. You don’t know the terminology. When a student in my class says the Bible is important and they talk about the Book of Revelations with an s at the end, I’m like, they haven’t even looked at the title carefully. I know there’s a [certain] familiarity; they’re paying lip service to the text. They don’t actually know it.
David Fitzgerald: I’m not going to get into a pissing match about . . .
James McGrath: No, this is not a pissing match. I’m talking about the evidence. I want you to talk about the evidence!

read more »


Price-Ehrman Debate Wish

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by Neil Godfrey

No doubt there will be to-and-fro on “the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19. I would love to see any such discussion go beyond the face-value interpretation of the words and to explore both the provenance and nature of the source containing that line. That is, some serious discussion of the historical evidence itself:


And the Mysterious Unknowns of Other Historical(?) Figures

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by Neil Godfrey

following on from the previous post . . . .

What is wrong with living with doubt and uncertainty as to the historicity of any figure of the past? Unless one is a fundamentalist or ideological nationalist whose very identity depends upon the literal certainty of past figures and events, what is wrong with simply accepting that we cannot know for certain if there was a historical Buddha, or Moses, or David or Solomon, or even Socrates, or Honi, or Hillel, or Muhammad, or Jesus . . .

What difference would it make? Certainly it would make an enormous difference to certain fundamentalists or believers whose personal identity hangs upon the certain reality of some such figure, but for scholars, for academics, for the general public…..? Very little, if anything, of history would have to be re-written. Maybe just the wording of a few lines here and there would need to be tweaked, that’s all.

Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, as I understand their publications, have misrepresented my reference to a quotation from Albert Schweitzer. My point is not that Schweitzer is casting doubt on the historicity of Jesus — not at all — but that he is saying that religious faith should not rest upon the mundane. Our certainty of what we know of the mundane can rarely be secure and the focus of spirituality belongs elsewhere. Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my emphasis):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .



The Secret Mysteries of the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Mythicists have often gotten upset with me for pointing out that almost no one with any qualifications in the requisite fields of scholarship agrees with them.  I can see why that would be upsetting.  My sense is that some of them think that I’ve been rubbing their noses in it.  But that isn’t really my intent.  My intent is to point out to anyone who is interested – for example, someone who just doesn’t know what to think – that those who are qualified to speak knowledgeably on such subjects are virtually unified on one view (there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth) and opposed to the other (he is a complete myth).Bart Ehrman

So it seems the establishment of the historical existence of an ancient figure requires a level of expertise comparable to physicists who tells us that such things as quarks really do exist. If you’re not a physicist you just have to take the word of the scientists for it.

History and historical evidence was never that complicated when I was at school or doing undergrad studies in ancient, medieval and modern history. And I don’t know of a single figure historians say can only be confirmed by esoteric skills of those trained for many years in the required specialist fields — apart from Jesus.

Now Jesus may have been a historical figure, of course. But to claim academic privilege as the key to being able to prove it strikes me as . . . . well, . . . . [you fill in the blank for yourself].

That the only scholars who supposedly are emphatically and wholeheartedly agreed that Jesus existed happen to be those who are religiously devoted to Jesus or who have been closely associated with an interest in that figure of worship (e.g. ex believers) does not strike me as a strong point in favour of the grounds for Bart Ehrman’s confidence.

Archaeology as Manufacturer and Destroyer of Historical and Contemporary Identities

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been struggling with a virus since returning from my recent o/seas trip and unable to focus on blogging after work hours these past two weeks but a Jerry Coyne blog post has roused me from my lethargy:

The anti-Semitism of UNESCO

The visceral illogic of his post leaves me somewhat dismayed. Does he really believe — is he even aware that he is saying — that present-day cultural monuments of devotion for one religious and historical identity should be replaced by monuments to ancient myths that have not existed in the land for millennia in the interests of an opposing religious and historical identity? Is he really oblivious to the politics of archaeology, to the way archaeology has long been used as an ideological and nationalistic propaganda tool?

Did he even read in full the Unesco draft decision [link is to pdf] that he curiously declares to be “anti-semitic”? (I’m reminded of yesterday’s debate. If something goes against X, X always says it is because it was “rigged”.)

I will probably delete any comment that expresses an view that clearly demonstrates a failure to have actually read the UNESCO document which I copy in full below. I’m interested in informed discussion.


200 EX/PX/DR.25.2 Rev.
PARIS, 12 October 2016
Original: English

Executive Board

Two hundredth session




Submitted by: Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan

I.A Jerusalem

The Executive Board,

1. Having examined document 200 EX/25,

2. Recalling the provisions of the four Geneva Conventions (1949) and their additional Protocols (1977), the 1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and its related Protocols, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) and the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), the inscription of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls at the request of Jordan on the World Heritage List (1981) and on the List of World Heritage in Danger (1982), and the recommendations, resolutions and decisions of UNESCO on the protection of cultural heritage, as well as resolutions and decisions of UNESCO relating to Jerusalem, also recalling previous UNESCO decisions relating to the reconstruction and development of Gaza as well as UNESCO decisions on the two Palestinian sites in Al-Khalil/Hebron and in Bethlehem,

3. Affirming the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions, also affirming that nothing in the current decision, which aims, inter alia, at the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem, shall in any way affect the relevant Security Council and United Nations resolutions and decisions on the legal status of Palestine and Jerusalem,

4. Deeply regrets the Israeli refusal to implement UNESCO previous decisions concerning Jerusalem, particularly 185 EX/Decision 14, notes that its request to the Director-General to appoint, as soon as possible, a permanent representative to be stationed in East Jerusalem to report on a regular basis about all the aspects covering the fields of competence of UNESCO in East Jerusalem, has not been fulfilled, and reiterates its request to the DirectorGeneral to appoint the above-mentioned representative;

5. Deeply deplores the failure of Israel, the occupying Power, to cease the persistent excavations and works in East Jerusalem particularly in and around the Old City, and reiterates its request to Israel, the occupying Power, to prohibit all such works in conformity with its obligations under the provisions of the relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions;

6. Thanks the Director-General for her efforts to implement previous UNESCO decisions on Jerusalem and requests her to maintain and reinvigorate such efforts;

I.B Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif and its surroundings

I.B.1 Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif

7. Calls on Israel, the occupying Power, to allow for the restoration of the historic status quo that prevailed until September 2000, under which the Jordanian Awqaf (Religious Foundation) Department exercised exclusive authority on Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram AlSharif, and its mandate extended to all affairs relating to the unimpeded administration of AlAqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif, including maintenance, restoration and regulating access;

8. Strongly condemns the escalating Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the Awqaf Department and its personnel, and against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their Holy Site Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif, and requests Israel, the occupying Power, to respect the historic status quo and to immediately stop these measures;

9. Firmly deplores the continuous storming of Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif by Israeli right-wing extremists and uniformed forces, and urges Israel, the occupying Power, to take necessary measures to prevent provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity of Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif;

10. Deeply decries the continuous Israeli aggressions against civilians including Islamic religious figures and priests, decries the forceful entering into the different mosques and historic buildings inside Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharifby different Israeli employees including the so-called “Israeli Antiquities” officials, and arrests and injuries among Muslim worshippers and Jordanian Awqaf guards in Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif by the Israeli forces, and urges Israel, the occupying Power, to end these aggressions and abuses which inflame the tension on the ground and between faiths;

11. Disapproves of the Israeli restriction of access to Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif during the 2015 Eid Al-Adha and the subsequent violence, and calls on Israel, the occupying Power, to stop all violations against Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif;

12. Deeply regrets the refusal of Israel to grant visas to UNESCO experts in charge of the UNESCO project at the Centre of Islamic Manuscripts in Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram AlSharif, and requests Israel to grant visas to UNESCO experts without restrictions;

13. Regrets the damage caused by the Israeli Forces, especially since 23 August 2015, to the historic gates and windows of the al-Qibli Mosque inside Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram AlSharif, and reaffirms, in this regard, the obligation of Israel to respect the integrity, authenticity and cultural heritage of Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif, as reflected in the historic status quo, as a Muslim holy site of worship and as an integral part of a world cultural heritage site;

14. Expresses its deep concern over the Israeli closure and ban of the renovation of the AlRahma Gate building, one of the Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif gates, and urges Israel, the occupying Power, to reopen the Gate, and stop obstruction of the necessary restoration works, in order to repair the damage caused by the weather conditions, especially the water leakage into the rooms of the building;

15. Also calls on Israel, the occupying Power, to stop the obstruction of the immediate execution of all the 18 Hashemite restoration projects in and around Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram AlSharif;

16. Deplores the Israeli decision to approve a plan to build a two-line cable car system in East Jerusalem and the so called “Liba House” project in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the construction of the so called “Kedem Center”, a visitor centre near the southern wall of the Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif, the construction of the Strauss Building and the project of the elevator in Al-Buraq Plaza “Western Wall Plaza” and urges Israel, the occupying Power, to renounce the above-mentioned projects and to stop the construction works in conformity with its obligations under the relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions;

I.B.2 The Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate in Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram ash-Sharif

17. Reaffirms that the Mughrabi Ascent is an integral and inseparable part of Al-Aqṣa Mosque/Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif;

18. Takes note of the 16th Reinforced Monitoring Report and all previous reports, together with their addenda prepared by the World Heritage Centre as well as the State of Conservation reports submitted to the World Heritage Centre by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Palestine;

19. Deprecates the continuing Israeli unilateral measures and decisions regarding the Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate, including the latest works conducted at the Mughrabi Gate entrance in February 2015, the instalment of an umbrella at that entrance as well as the enforced creation of a new Jewish prayer platform south of the Mughrabi Ascent in Al-Buraq Plaza “Western Wall Plaza”, and the removal of the Islamic remains at the site, and reaffirms that no Israeli unilateral measures, shall be taken in conformity with its status and obligations under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict;

20. Also expresses its deep concern regarding the illegal demolitions of Umayyad, Ottoman and Mamluk remains as well as other intrusive works and excavations in and around the Mughrabi Gate Pathway, and also requests Israel, the occupying Power, to halt such demolitions, excavations and works and to abide by its obligations under the provisions of the UNESCO conventions mentioned in paragraph 2 above;

21. Reiterates its thanks to Jordan for its cooperation and urges Israel, the occupying Power, to cooperate with the Jordanian Awqaf Department, in conformity with its obligations under the provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and to facilitate access of Jordanian Awqaf experts with their tools and materials to the site in order to enable the execution of the Jordanian design of the Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate in accordance with UNESCO and World Heritage Committee decisions, particularly 37 COM/7A.26, 38 COM/7A.4 and 39 COM/7A.27;

22. Thanks the Director-General for her attention to the sensitive situation of this matter, and requests her to take the necessary measures in order to enable the execution of the Jordanian design of the Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate;

I.C UNESCO reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls and UNESCO experts meeting on the Mughrabi Ascent

23. Stresses yet again the urgent need of the implementation of the UNESCO reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls;

24. Recalls in this regard 196 EX/Decision 26 that decided, in case of non-implementation, to consider, in conformity with the International Law, other means to ensure its implementation;

25. Notes with deep concern that Israel, the occupying Power, had not complied with any of the 12[1 see the pdf version linked above for the list of these decisions] decisions of the Executive Board as well as six [2 see the pdf version linked above for the list of these resolutions] decisions of the World Heritage Committee that request the implementation of the reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls;

26. Regrets the continued Israeli refusal to act in accordance with UNESCO and World Heritage Committee decisions that request a UNESCO experts meeting on the Mughrabi Ascent and the dispatch of a reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls;

27. Invites the Director-General to take necessary measures to implement the above-mentioned reactive monitoring mission in accordance with World Heritage Committee decision 34 COM/7A.20, prior to the next session of the Executive Board, and invites all concerned parties to facilitate the implementation of the mission and experts meeting;

28. Requests that the report and recommendations of the reactive monitoring mission as well as the report of the technical meeting on the Mughrabi Ascent, be presented to the concerned parties;

29. Thanks the Director-General for her continuous efforts to implement the above-mentioned UNESCO joint reactive monitoring mission and all related UNESCO decisions and resolutions;



30. Deplores the military confrontations in and around the Gaza Strip and the civilian casualties caused, including the killing and injury of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, as well as the continuous negative impact in the fields of competence of UNESCO, the attacks on schools and other educational and cultural facilities, including breaches of inviolability of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools;

31. Strongly deplores the continuous Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, which harmfully affects the free and sustained movement of personnel and humanitarian relief items as well as the intolerable number of casualties among Palestinian children, the attacks on schools and other educational and cultural facilities and the denial of access to education, and requests Israel, the occupying Power, to immediately ease this blockade;

32. Reiterates its request to the Director-General to upgrade, as soon as possible, the UNESCO Antenna in Gaza in order to ensure the prompt reconstruction of schools, universities, cultural heritage sites, cultural institutions, media centres and places of worship that have been destroyed or damaged by the consecutive wars on Gaza;

33. Thanks the Director-General for the information meeting held on March 2015 on the current situation in Gaza in the fields of competence of UNESCO and on the outcome of the projects conducted by UNESCO in the Gaza Strip-Palestine, and invites her to organize, as soon as possible, another information meeting on the same matter;

34. Also thanks the Director-General for initiatives that have already been implemented in Gaza in the fields of education, culture and youth and for the safety of media professionals, and calls upon her to continue her active involvement in the reconstruction of Gaza’s damaged educational and cultural components;



35. Reaffirms that the two concerned sites located in Al-Khalil/Hebron and in Bethlehem are an integral part of Palestine;

36. Shares the conviction affirmed by the international community that the two sites are of religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam;

37. Strongly disapproves the ongoing Israeli illegal excavations, works, construction of private roads for settlers and a separation wall inside the Old City of Al-Khalil/Hebron, that harmfully affect the integrity of the site, and the subsequent denial of freedom of movement and freedom of access to places of worship, and asks Israel, the occupying Power, to end these violations in compliance with provisions of relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions;

38. Deeply deplores the new cycle of violence, going on since October 2015, in the context of the constant aggressions by the Israeli settlers and other extremist groups against Palestinian residents including schoolchildren, also asks the Israeli authorities to prevent such aggressions;

39. Regrets the visual impact of the separation wall on the site of Bilal Ibn Rabaḥ Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as well as the strict ban on access of Palestinian Christian and Muslim worshippers to the site, and demands the Israeli authorities to restore the original character of the landscape around the site and to lift the ban on access to it;

40. Deeply regrets the Israeli refusal to comply with 185 EX/Decision 15, which requested the Israeli authorities to remove the two Palestinian sites from its national heritage list and calls on the Israeli authorities to act in accordance with that decision;


41. Decides to include these matters under an item entitled “Occupied Palestine” in the agenda at its 201st session, and invites the Director-General to submit to it a progress report thereon.


A “Richard Dawkins” Project to Help Atheists Talk to Believers

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by Neil Godfrey

By Alana Massey, on Alternet:

A new app called Atheos aims to help non-believers have friendly, thoughtful discussions with people of faith.

Tired of the shouting matches? Want to find a calmer way to try to tell believers they are mentally deficient idiots engage in a potentially fruitful, thought-provoking exchange with the faithful? Then this app could be just the place to start. Beware the condescension, though. (But at least condescension is a one grade improvement on direct insult, or is it?)

Here’s the site: http://www.atheos-app.com/

I’d go one step further and invite everyone to explore what the research in anthropology etc is learning about what religious beliefs actually are, why we have them, and even whether or not the world would be any better off without them. (One of my favourite quotables, Pataki, said something about it being a nice idea to get rid of all the garden pests in the world but then who knows what damage would be done in the end by doing so!)

And while we’re at it, how about an app for a more civil discourse with Muslims and about Islam …. or again, how about actually trying to inform ourselves about the whole shebang by taking a look behind the sound bytes of the mass media?


Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

platocreationhebrewbibleRussell Gmirkin in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible draws attention to striking similarities between the Pentateuch (the first five books of the “Old Testament”) on the one hand and Plato’s last work, Laws, and features of the Athenian constitution on the other. Further, even the broader collection of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible — myth and history, psalms, wisdom sayings, moral and religious precepts, all presented with the aura of great antiquity — happen to conform to Plato’s recommendations for the sorts of literature that should form the national curriculum of an ideal state.

The idea that the Jewish scriptures owe their character and existence to the Hellenistic era, a time subsequent to Alexander’s conquests of the Near East, jars hard against traditional views of the origins of the Bible. Yet Gmirkin shows that many significant laws in the Pentateuch as well as the narrative style of their presentation are indeed closer to later Greek ideas than those found among Israel’s/Judea’s Syrian or Babylonian neighbours.

The key to this close linkage is the Great Library of Alexandria. Past studies exploring possible cultural contacts between the Greeks and Judeans prior to the Hellenistic era (that is, the period following Alexander the Great, from around 320 BCE) have generally shown that exchanges were primarily limited to trade and had minimal impact in the literary and philosophical sphere. On the other hand, we do know that Jews and Greek culture met in Alexandria. The history of the Athenian Constitution was available in the works of Aristotle there; Plato’s reflections on the ideal state and laws were also stored there. And the Hebrew Bible was said to have been translated into Greek there. Moreover, there is no external evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch prior to the Hellenistic era. In an earlier book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, — see earlier Vridar posts — Gmirkin likewise argued that the Pentateuch was composed around 270 BCE and he introduces his new book as a sequel to Berossus and Genesis.

The main stimulus for Gmirkin’s new study is a desire to examine more closely some of the parallels presented by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. (Again, see earlier Vridar posts on Argonauts.) According to the Acknowledgements in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible it was Thomas L. Thompson who suggested this study to Russell Gmirkin, and Gmirkin explains that his focus was on Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuchal laws as the most persuasive section of his book.

While on the Acknowledgements, I have to refer to one other detail that struck me:

Many thanks . . . to both Greg Doudna and Daniel Samson for convincing me of the need to disseminate the results of my research outside of academia proper and laying out strategies to do so . . . .

That’s a nice sentiment. Unfortunately there is some way to go with the dissemination of the research beyond academia proper given its very hefty price tag. Even an electronic version costs around half of the hard copy price which still keeps it out of the financial range of most interested people. The traditional publishing model is going to have to break eventually.

I worry a little when I pick up a book that argues for a viewpoint I have been strongly partial towards. What if I am agreeing too quickly with its arguments because of my bias and overlooking the problems? (I also feel a little queazy, conflicted, when I receive a book gratis for review, as I did in this case.) Fortunately each chapter contains copious endnotes for me to follow up. Chapter two where the detail of the overall constitutional and governing structure implicit in the Pentateuch (and other sections of the Bible) is discussed has an endnote section larger by word count than the chapter contents. I can’t help myself. I take my time checking out those details. So it’s a slow read and I have only very superficially skimmed the remaining chapters at this stage.

As for the first chapter I need say little more since Russell Gmirkin has made it publicly available at academia.edu.

I’ll discuss chapter 2, “Athenian and Pentateuchal Legal Institutions”, in the next post.


Library of Alexandria



Gospel Truth (no joke)

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by Neil Godfrey

Sometimes good advice comes from the least expected places. Who would ever have thought Christian apologists dedicated to . . . Christian apologetics . . . would espouse six rules for a fair, reasonable and honest exchange of ideas. There is a catch, however. The rules appear to be confined exclusively to exchanges among those who are more or less like-minded Christian apologists. It’s almost like reading a satire on Babylonian Bee — “Christians discover rules of reasoned and honest exchange of ideas for Christian fellowship. Fail to acknowledge the rules are standards among professionals and humans of all stripes and beliefs outside the Christian community.”

Here they are, presented by Andy Naselli from a Tim Keller book:

1. Take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of others’ views. In our Internet age, we are quick to dash off a response because we think Mr. A promotes view X. And when someone points out that Mr. A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize—or maybe we don’t even do that. Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr. A believes and promotes before you publish. This leads to a related rule.

Wow. What a difference to the tone of discussions that would make. Surely Christians would not need such a reminder; surely the point is more usefully directed to those outside the beloved fold.

2. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own. Nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander stated that we must not argue in such a way that it hardens opponents in their views. “Attribute to an antagonist no opinion he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence.” In other words, even if you believe that Mr. A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr. A of holding to belief Y himself if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but this is not the same as implying or insisting that he actually holds belief Y when he does not. A similar move happens when we imply or argue that if Mr. A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr. A must hold to all the views held by the author. If we, through guilt by association, hint or insist that Mr. A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then we are not only alienating him or her; we are also misrepresenting our opponent.

Go on! Christians need such a reminder? Surely not Christian scholars. Never.

3. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively. . . . .

4. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form. . . .

5. Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives! . . . .

The sixth rule might have more generic relevance (assuming anything can be more important or relevant than the gospel and theology) by simply saying stick to the point, the argument, not the motives, and avoid “attitude” and put-down.

6. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology—because only God sees the heart. Much criticism today is filled with scorn, mockery, and sarcasm rather than marked by careful exegesis and reflection. Such an approach is not persuasive. . . . Newton also reminds us that it is a great danger to “be content with showing your wit and gaining the laugh on your side,” to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with “the compassion due to the souls of men.”

Oh how we have tried, sometimes failed, but certainly tried. But why should these rules be hidden under the cloister of a Christian apologetics community? Why not post them as professional standards for all to follow?



Something Rotten in the Lands of Islam

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by Neil Godfrey

The survey of Muslim religiosity was carried out in

  • Indonesia,
  • Pakistan,
  • Malaysia,
  • Iran,
  • Kazakhstan,
  • Egypt
  • and Turkey.

It included statements on the respondents’ image of Islam. The survey listed forty-four items that examined religious beliefs, ideas and convic­tions. These statements were generated by consulting some key sociological texts on Muslim societies by authors such as Fazlur Rahman, Ernest Gellner, William Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Arkoun and Fatima Mernissi. Respondents were asked to give one of the following six responses to each of the statements presented: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, strongly disagree, or no answer. More than 6300 respondents were interviewed. (Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 48)

This is post #5 on Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan. We are seeking an understanding of the world. If you have nothing to learn about the Islamic world please don’t bother reading these posts since they will likely stir your hostility and tempt you into making unproductive comments.

We have looked at a historical interpretation of how much of the Muslim world became desensitized to cruel punishments and oppression of women and others. But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Here Hassan turns to a study explained in the side-box. Each question was subject to a score between 1 and 5, with “very strong” being indicated by 1 or 2.

Following are the 20 questions (out of a total of 44) that generated the highest mean scores.

Overall the results tell us that Muslims feel strongly about “the sanctity and inviolability” of their sacred texts. There is a strong belief overall that all that is required for a utopian society is a more sincere commitment to truths in those texts.

In other words, there is a large-scale rejection of modern understandings of the genetic and environmental influences upon human nature.

The evidence indicates very strong support for implementing ‘Islamic law’ in Muslim countries. (On “Islamic Law” see Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?) Respondents strongly support strict enforcement of Islamic hudood laws pertaining to apostasy, theft and usury. The purpose of human freedom is seen not as a means of personal fulfilment and growth, but as a way of meeting obligations and duties laid down in the sacred texts. This makes such modern developments as democracy and personal liberty contrary to Islamic teachings. The strong support for strict enforcement of apos­tasy laws makes any rational and critical appraisals of Islamic texts and traditions unacceptable and subject to the hudd punishment of death. The strength of these attitudes could explain why hudood and blasphemy laws are supported, or at least tolerated, by a significant majority of Muslims. Strong support for modelling an ideal Muslim society along the lines of the society founded by the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs is consistent with the salafi views and teachings discussed earlier. (p. 54)

But notice:

Once again, such views are stronger in some Muslim countries than in others.

The view expressed so strongly that a true Islamic identity can only be found through a strict adherence to certain Islamic beliefs and duties raises a host of problematic questions for Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim societies, as well as in Muslim countries like Kazakhstan and Turkey. The reality is, on the contrary, that many Muslims find their identity in family, ethnicity and cultural heritage. Hence it is a mistake to speak of Islam as some sort of ideologically monolithic beast and to accuse “moderate Muslims” of simply being “insincere” or “not truly faithful” in their religion.

This belief does not provide any political and cultural space for the coexistence of multiple routes through which Muslim identities are constructed in modern societies. (p. 55)

Notice the areas where there was a Disagreement in certain Islamic nations, especially #15 and #19 where patriarchal traditions are addressed. Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkey do not equally share those patriarchal attitudes.

Other differences appear with these three nations, too. If we are looking for explanations it may be pertinent to notice that . . . .

Iran is dominated by diverse ethnic groups, especially Persian and Azari, has had a relatively higher degree of national prosperity than many other Muslim states, and is predominantly Shia, not Sunni, and in fact has been at war with Sunni Iraq.

An important characteristic of Shi’ahism is that it tends to be intellectu­ally more oriented to ijtihad (innovation) than Sunni Islam is; hence, many scholars regard it as less tradition-bound than Sunni Islam. (p. 20)

Kazakhstan with its many years as part of the Soviet Union has also had a very different history from many other Muslim populations. And I think we are generally aware of the secular heritage of Turkey since Ottoman rule. (As for current developments in Turkey I find an earlier post here to have been prescient: Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory?)

The point is that even with Islam, just as we have learned to expect with any other religion, time and circumstance, historical experience and cultural heritage are central to shaping of its expression and interpretation.

1. The Qur’an and Sunnah contain all the essential religious and moral truths required by the whole human race from now until the end of time

Egypt Very strong (= mean score less than 1.95)
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Very strong
Kazakhstan Strong (= mean score between 1.96 and 2.95)
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Strong


2. What is required is a deeper appreciation of the essential principles implicit in the Qur’an and Hadith, so that solutions to contemporary problems can be found

Egypt Very strong
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Strong
Kazakhstan Strong
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Strong


3. The Qur’an and Sunnah are completely self-sufficient to meet the needs of present and future societies

Egypt Very strong
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Very strong
Kazakhstan Very strong
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Strong


4. It is a duty of Muslims to strive to establish a truly Islamic society

Egypt Very strong
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Very strong
Kazakhstan Strong
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Strong


5. Freedom should not mean licence to do anything one chooses in the name of self-fulfilment

Egypt Very strong
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Very strong
Kazakhstan Strong
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Strong


6. Any state will be imperfect unless it is based on moral values implicit in the shari’ah and also on belief in Allah as the upholder of morality and justice

Egypt Very strong
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Very strong
Kazakhstan Strong
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Strong


7. Muslim society must be based on the Qur’an and shari’ah law [Again, on “shari’ah law” see Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?]

Egypt Very strong
Indonesia Very strong
Iran Very strong
Kazakhstan Strong
Malaysia Very strong
Pakistan Very strong
Turkey Disagree (= score greater than 2.96)


8. Women should observe Islamic dress codes read more »

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

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by Tim Widowfield

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

The Poisonous Cocktail of Salafism and Wahhabism

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by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsContinuing from Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism . . . .

According to Abou El Fadl, characteristic features of salafabism (combination of salafism and wahhabism) include the following:

  • a profound alienation from institutions of power in the modern world and from Islamic heritage and tradition
  • a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeat­ism, disempowerment and alienation
  • a belief in the self-sufficiency of Islamic doctrines and a sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the ‘other’
  • the prevalence of patriarchal, misogynist and exclusionary orien­tations, and an abnormal obsession with the seductive power of women
  • the rejection of critical appraisals of Islamic traditions and Muslim discourses
  • the denial of universal moral values and rejection of the indeter­minacy of the modern world
  • use of Islamic texts as the supreme regulator of social life and society
  • literalist, anti-rational and anti-interpretive approaches to reli­gious texts.

(Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 46, my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

There is little room for me to go beyond Hassan’s own outline of El Fadl’s account:

Salafabism has anchored itself in the security of Islamic texts. These texts are also exploited by a select class of readers to affirm their reactionary power. Unlike apologists who sought to prove Islam’s compatibility with Western institutions, salafabists define Islam as the antithesis of the West. They argue that colonialism ingrained in Muslims a lack of self-pride and feelings of inferiority.

For salafabists, there are only two paths in life: the path of God (the straight path) and the path of Satan (the crooked path): The straight path is anchored in divine law, which is to be obeyed and which is never to be argued with, diluted or denied through the application of humanistic or philosophical discourses. Salafabists argue that, by attempting to integrate and co-opt Western ideas such as feminism, democracy or human rights, Muslims have deviated from the straight to the crooked path. (pp. 46-47)

And it gets worse . . . .

In arguing thus, they exaggerate the role of the texts and minimize the role of the human agent who interprets them. In the salafabist paradigm, the subjectivities of the interpreting agents are irrelevant to the realization and implementation of the divine commands con­tained in the text. In this paradigm, such public interests as protecting society from the sexual lure of women can be verified empirically and must be protected. In contrast, moral, ethical and aesthetic judgements about human dignity, love, mercy and compassion — qualities that cannot be quantified empirically — must be ignored. (p. 47)


Mohammed al-Ghazali

Of course the ideology of “salafabism” did not go unchallenged. It was far from being the only discourse in the Muslim world. One of the most influential Islamic scholars in the modern world was Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali of Egypt. al-Ghazali denounced “salafabism” as sheer fanaticism and was of course denounced in turn by the fanatics.

“Salafabism” is the term used by Hassan as he follows El Fadl but it reads to me as a near synonym of another term found in the  literature, “Islamism”. It’s the type of Islam that many traditional Muslims came to fear as it gained inroads into their communities, especially given its central goal of imposing a strictly literalist Islam on others. Maajid Nawaz’s biography, Radical, describes the reaction of his parents to the early indicators of Islamism: discussed in the post The Conflict between Islamism and Islam.

Today Islamism/Salafabism has come to dominate large sections of various Muslim nations and that’s why we are hearing the horror stories coming out of certain regions in countries like Pakistan.

Some Westerners (notably George Galloway of Britain’s Respect Party) appear to see nothing wrong with the peaceful wing of this ideology . . .  but on this point I find myself siding with Maajid Nawaz who opposes the peaceful version as little more than a front or cover for the violent form.

Like most theological orientations, salafabism manifests itself in both moderate and extreme forms. Its moderate expressions can be found in such political movements as Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood and Malaysia’s PAS, and similar movements in various Muslim countries that are struggling for the establishment of an Islamic state; its extremist expressions are represented by such groups as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. (p. 47)

No doubt some moderate Islamists would take offence at my rejection of even the peaceful version of Islamism, but I do see both wings as emanating from the same intellectual roots and with the same goal fueled by intolerance of opposing viewpoints and values. Even the moderates must be responsible for a certain muteness of responses to the barbaric violence and injustices of the extremists.

The [cruel punishments and atrocities we hear about in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia] are stark manifestations of a way of thinking among many Muslims that has come to value a superficial sense of independence, control, security and power, regardless of the moral and social consequences.

  • Colonialism,
  • blind nationalism,
  • the universal failure of the nationalist project in the lands of Islam,
  • a woeful backwardness in science and technology
  • and a preponderance of oppressive authoritarian state structures

have nurtured moral lethargy among the Muslim masses and given rise to salafabism. (pp. 47-48)

Such is El Fadl’s historical analysis as outlined by Hassan. In later posts we turn to the empirical evidence for this explanation.


Abou El Fadl

Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is the third in my notes from Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan.

The second response among Muslims to their experience of colonialism and its aftermath is salafism.

Response 2: Salafism



Whereas apologetics was a direct response to colonial rule, salafism emerged out of apologetics but in the post-colonial era. When independent nations experienced the failure of their ruling elites to bring about the reforms and better life — “jobs, economic development, welfare for citizens and equality of citizenship” — that they had promised.

Building on apologetic thought the salafists concluded that this failure was the consequence of using secular laws instead of the laws of God.


Al Afghani

Some of the founding ideologues of the salafist movement were Mohammad Abduh, al-Afghani, Muhammad Rashid Rida and (one that we have discussed on Vridar before) Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi.



Like the apologists these early salafists believed that the Islamic religion was entirely compatible with modernism. Recall that the apologists argued that modern western ideals like democracy, constitutional governments, socialism etc were all to be found in early Islam. What was required of modern Muslims was to interpret their sacred texts in the context and according to the needs of adapting to the modern world. Moreover, there was no single interpretation that could demand a monopoly on “the correct interpretation”.

Salafism as it originally developed maintained that, on all issues, Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and interpret them in the light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound by the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations. In this respect, it was a distinctive intellectual project. Salafism advocated a kind of interpretive community in which anyone was qualified to return to the divine texts and interpret their messages. . . . [I]t was not hostile to competing Islamic juristic traditions, Sufism or mysticism. (p. 43)


Salafi ideology concerned itself with making Islam into a political force that might transform the ummah (the universal community of Muslims) and with providing a solid basis for Islamic identity in the Muslim struggle against neo-colonialism and the underdevelopment of Islamic lands. As a result, it essentially became a part of Muslim identity politics. (p. 44)



Maududi (from the region that is now Pakistan) went a step further by setting out detailed rules and practices that he believed all Muslims should follow to clearly mark them as identifiably different from other peoples. One such requirement was a new “economic system” that banned usury, although in reality there was nothing particularly valid about it as an “economic system” as such.

Seeking new ways to define one’s own identity is a natural response when any people’s identity takes a battering from losing clashes with foreign cultures.

In its original form salafism may have had some potential to work in a positive direction for Muslim communities, but it came under the influence of (and eventually became identified with) a third response to colonialism, wahhabism.

Response 3: Wahhabism

Wahhabism was the most vicious and intolerant of the three responses to colonialism and at first appeared to be the least likely ever to spread its influence beyond a single group of Arab tribes.

Ironically it was not Western colonialism that was the initial target but the rule of Ottoman Turkey over Arabia.


Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahab

Wahhabi theology was founded by the eighteenth-century Arabian evangelist Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) as a response to the Ottoman rule of Arabia. With puritanical zeal, al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of all ‘corruptions’ and ‘aberrations’, such as mysticism, intercession, intellectualism, sectarianism and rationalism, in order to restore its pristine purity. He proclaimed that Islamic purity was reclaimable with a literal implementation of Islamic texts and the commands and precedents of the Prophet and through a strict adherence to correct ritual practice. Wahhabism resisted the indeterminacy of the modern age by retreating to a strict literalism in which the sacred texts became the sole source of legitimacy. Any form of moral thought and ideas not completely dependent on these texts were treated as a form of idolatry. Wahhabism viewed rational inquiry with deep suspicion and hostility. It rejected any attempt to interpret Islamic law that would accommodate modern conditions and exigencies and treated classical jurisprudential tradition as a corruption of the true and authentic Islam. Religiously puritanical, it rejected all interpretations of the sacred texts except those of wahhabism. (pp. 41-42)

Followers were confined to the tribes of Najd who became notorious for several brutal rebellions in the nineteenth century. Other Muslims despised wahhabism as a fanatical sect and it seemed destined to remain confined to the Najd tribes until those warriors became a useful ally to assist a certain Abd al Aziz ibn Saud to become the ruler of Arabia and establish the Saudi dynasty. Even then there was little prospect of wahhabism ever attracting any following outside Saudi Arabia until 1972 when the price of oil skyrocketed. We have covered the way Arabia used its financial windfall to spread wahhabist ideology throughout much of the Muslim world when looking at Jason Burke’s study of the rise of Islamic militancy. Riaz Hassan sums it up in Inside Muslim Minds:

With this rise, the Saudi Arabian state gained the financial resources to spread wahhabism throughout the Muslim world—partly as a counter-ideology in response to the challenges created by the socialism and nationalism practised in neighbouring Arab states. (p. 42)

But wahhabism cold was a difficult sell. It began by riding on the back of salafism. Salafism was open to alternative interpretations of Islam and their texts, and appeared to support very similar goals of a restored and respected Islamic identity, so wahhabism was given free cover for its propaganda.

Eventually salafism and wahhabism became virtually indistinguishable.

Putting all of this together

Apologists in response to western colonialism asserted the superiority of a mythical original Islam (one that had preceded western notions of democracy, universal rights, etc) and closed their minds to modernity;

Salafists grew out of apologists as a response to the failure of post-colonial societies to deliver on the promises of democracy, equal rights and social welfare, and sought to establish idealistic Islamic states that came to terms with these values;

Wahhabism originated as an Arabian tribal response to Turkish rule and was the most intolerant of any of the responses. It rode the back of a political revolution in Arabia and then the financial resources from increased oil prices to spread its influence throughout much of the Muslim world, at first under the more benign guise of salafism.




Salafabism is a term coined by Abou El Fadl to describe the ideology prevailing today that is a blend of salafism and wahhabism.

I’ll cover that description in another post and then examine the empirical data highlighting how different Muslim countries have had different responses to this ideology.



Islam and the Rise of Barbarism

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by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsSuch violent, repulsive and publicly visible acts could be interpreted as  the by-product of social malignancies that have festered for a long time. Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl—an eminent Islamic jurist . . . . —provides a succinct description of how historical and social conditions interact to form a particular mentality . . . .

[W]hen we speak about the meaning of Islam today, we are really talking about the product of cumulative enterprises that have generated communities of interpreta­tion through a long span of history. (p. 37)

The shocking injustices and brutality in the Muslim world that we hear about far too often are not isolated acts of a few troubled psychopaths. They are systemic and carried out with considerable (though fortunately not always unanimous) popular support.

Such acts take place because of social dynamics that have desensitized and decon­structed a society’s sense of moral virtue and ethics. Theological constructs and social responses that tolerate the commission of acts of cruelty are the product of a long process of indoctrination and acculturation. Indoctrination facilitates their com­mission; acculturation mutes or mitigates the sense of outrage over the offensive behaviour. (p. 37)

Boiling the frog

Each act of barbarism becomes a historical precedent for further similar acts and for increasingly easier public acceptance. (As for indoctrination, we are also looking at how that works first hand.) Each act becomes another topic of community discussion; explanations and interpretations that emerge become part of the social group’s identity and moral foundations. Theological perspectives of these same events are meanwhile being transmitted through generations of families, communities and institutions. The point is that community interpretations and practices adapt, evolve, change emphases and focus over time and that’s true of most societies throughout history. So the question that arises is, What historical changes have been emerging in “recent” history in the Muslim world? And when we say “recent” we are reaching back to the eighteenth century when European powers made their first takeovers of large numbers of Muslim populations (e.g. India, Egypt).

Three responses to Western colonialism

To make sense of the incidents described, we need first to analyze three streams of Islamic consciousness that developed under the historical conditions faced by Muslim societies over the previous few centuries. Under the conditions of economic underdevelopment, technological backwardness and powerlessness prevailing today in the Muslim world, elements of these three streams have somehow fused to give rise to a new hybrid Islamic consciousness: salafabism . . . . (p. 38, my formatting and highlighting in all quotations)

As we saw in Jason Burke’s historical narrative Saudi Arabia used its windfall from rising oil prices in the 1970s to propagate its vicious brand of wahhabist Islam. In addition to wahhibism Fadl points his finger at two other strands of Islamic thought, the first being apologetics. Let’s take them in order.

Response 1: Apologetics

A common feature of most Muslim societies is a shared history of colonialism under European dominance. This sociopolitical experi­ence was accompanied by a culture of orientalism: an assumption of Western superiority combined with a condescending trivialization of Islamic cultural achievements. The onslaught of these processes led not only to loss of power by political and religious elites in the lands of Islam, but also to the devaluation and deprecation of Islamic beliefs and institutions. The dominant intellectual response of Muslims to this challenge from around the mid-eighteenth century came from the apologetics. (p. 39)

Conquered peoples typically find ways to resist their conquerors even if only by symbolic means. Recall the way some Jewish leaders responded to the conquest of Judea by the Greco-Romans who justifiably took great pride in their cultural achievements. “Plato is so wonderful?” some Jews (and subsequently some Christians) challenged. “Ha! Plato filched all of his ideas from Moses!”

Among the conquered and humiliated Muslims were those who responded in a similar way to their Western overlords. Anything of value that the Europeans had produced was thought by Muslim apologists to have owed its origins to Islamic science or philosophy or political ideas.

According to apologists, Islam

  • liberated women,
  • created democracy,
  • endorsed pluralism,
  • protected human rights
  • and introduced social welfare

long before these institutions ever existed in the West. One implication of this orientation was that, since Islam had invented most modern institutions, there was no incentive to engage in any further thinking or analysis, except on very marginal issues. (p. 40)

So it was that Western orientalists (those who looked down upon oriental culture, ways and beliefs with a certain contempt) found themselves mirrored by Muslim apologists who in turn looked down upon Westerners with the same disdain. That’s one time-honoured way of a defeated people holding on to their self-worth and dignity.

But that kind of response has a serious down-side: it ossifies one’s religion.

Religion is no longer an evolving and adapting system that is constantly being critically studied and subject to adaptation in the face of new circumstances. An idealized construct is created, and this is sanctified and set in stone as a foundational golden age. Anything that falls short of that ideal is the fault of the enemy. Trying to cope with the humiliation that came with European conquest and hegemony some Muslims found refuge in a conviction that their ancient texts, ways, beliefs had from the beginning of time been superior and well in advance of anything associated with their new rulers.

So for Muslim apologists the superiority of Islam became a mirror reaction to their European masters’ presumptions of superiority. As cultural arrogance made it impossible for Europeans to bend and adapt so the same arrogance of apologists made it impossible for them to analyse and adapt their own traditions and belief systems.

Apologists treated the Islamic tradition as if it had fossilized at the time of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Companions (the four Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad).

And if there is nothing to reflect upon except to bask in the superiority of one’s beliefs then anyone can become an authority. The true Muslim intellectuals are marginalized into irrelevancy. The door is open to anyone becoming “the voice” of “truth”. The solutions become easy. If the Muslim peoples are under the boot of the aliens, unable to match the Westerners in political and military might and so liberate themselves, it is because Muslims are not faithful and devout enough.

The way to liberation and self-respect, apologists believed, was to become more fervently dedicated to the myth of the old ways. And those old ways proved to have even preceded the best the West had to offer such as democracies and human rights.

Islamic apologists were ultimately motivated by nationalistic aspirations for political, social and cultural independence from the West.

Islam thus came to be seen as a kind of anti-colonialist resistance ideology capable of restoring Muslim pride and political power. Political liberation anchored itself in a religious orientation that was puritanical, supremacist and opportunistic. (p. 41)

That was one response. The other two I’ll cover in another post. We also need to examine the empirical evidence of how these different types of responses took hold in varying degrees in different regions of Muslim peoples and fused into an ugly ideology. We will see that those differences can be correlated with respective historical experiences with the West.