A contemporary example of a status driven extremist?

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Unlike his inspiration Barannikov, however, Mirsky was unable to contain himself: he told everyone who would listen that he was the attempted assassin. . . . Soon [the police arrested him].

Only a few weeks later, Mirsky was already betraying his comrades from People’s Will and writing humble petitions to the czar. His loyalty to the radical movement evaporated completely; there is even evidence he was recruited to serve as an informant for the prison authorities. . . . 

Barannikov sought the thrill of adventure; Mirsky status. The two kinds of motives are often linked in experience and can be linked in theory. Gang activity is a familiar setting where certain young men seek status. In an earlier post in a series addressing factors that attract persons to extremist radical groups, Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures, I did not discuss Mirsky. But this morning I caught up with a detailed investigation into another (ex)Islamist radical I have posted on a few times and am struck by some similarities.

The contemporary example of someone who was driven by a pursuit for social status in his involvement in an extremist Islamist group appears to be Maajid Nawaz.

Previous posts focusing on Nawaz:

harris-nawazIn at least one of those posts I did wonder why Maajid Nawaz appeared to approve of being a billed as an equal joint author (with Sam Harris) of a book in which some of Harris’s more extreme views went unchallenged and were even further promulgated through the advertising of a book whose arguments are opposed by Nawaz.

I had also heard reports that Nawaz had been responsible for falsely reporting peaceful Muslim groups to the British authorities as potential extremists. I was unable to find secure evidence in fairly quick searches to verify such claims. (Some have accused him of falsely presenting himself as a Moslem, but I have probably met more non-practising Moslems than devout ones when overseas, and see no reason to pronounce a spiritual judgement upon them and accuse them of not being Muslims at all. The identity cards of those who have them flatly state they are Muslims.)

This morning I read the following:

The Self-Invention of Maajid Nawaz: Fact and Fiction in the Life of the Counter-Terror Celebrity

The lengthy report is on Alternet; the authors are Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal. The byline reads:

Maajid Nawaz bases his credibility on a compelling personal story, but how much of it is true?

read more »


Is Religion for the Gullible?

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverIt is easy enough for us atheists to mock religion (and much of it is indeed “mockable”) but we cannot ignore the fact that some very intelligent and well-educated people hold these beliefs. So is it really gullibility that is responsible for people believing that they go to a heavenly paradise or agonizing hell when they die, that some other-worldly power made the universe for his own and our benefit, and even that he made it in six days only a few thousand years ago, and so forth?

I can’t forget how humiliated I felt after finally realising that much of what I had for long believed was nothing but a make-believe fantasy. Yet at the time preceding my conversion I was studying in one of the more reputable universities, and subsequently I studied at a post graduate level the processes of indoctrination and propaganda without my personal faith suffering the slightest dent. Crazy!

But are we crazy?

In my efforts to understand the scholarly research into extremist religious and political movements and behaviour, I have inevitably been led to try to grasp the nature of religion itself more clearly in the light of recent studies. I still have much to learn but in the meantime I think the following is worth sharing. It is from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001).

Boyer observes that religious beliefs are restricted to a certain range of beliefs. People don’t just believe any impossible thing and make it part of their religion. That fact should alert us to something, he says. It may not be gullibility that is the responsible party. Maybe it is something about those specific types of beliefs that strike a plausible chord in many people. If so, we need to study what it is that distinguishes those beliefs from other types of nonsensical concepts and also, of course, the way the brain works in relation to beliefs generally.

Boyer sums up the main points of his argument on this specific question in three points:

• The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes.

• Belief is not just passive acceptance of what others say. People relax their standards because some thoughts become plausible, not the other way around. 

• A different angle: We should understand what makes human minds so selective in what supernatural claims they find plausible. (p. 31)

He begins the question of gullibility by summing up his earlier discussion of other suggested reasons often posited for the origins of religion (my formatting) — pages 31-34: read more »


A Historian Reviews Carrier: “The Bayesian perspective on historiography is commonsensical”

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey


Aviezer Tucker

Thanks to a reader who has alerted me to an article by a philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker, on Richard Carrier’s Proving History in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal History and Theory. I have since seen an rss feed alerting me to Carrier’s own comments on the review. I look forward to reading it but meantime I’d like to remind readers of a post I did a few years ago on the author:

Real Historians Do Bayes!

I also see that Tucker’s review has been made open access. (The journal’s policy is to make a work open access if the author or their supporting institution pays a fee of $3000. So do appreciate the access you have to this article. It’s free to you but the publisher is not giving it away free.)

The Reverend Bayes vs Jesus Christ.

See also Carrier’s comments. No doubt I’ll write something once I have had a chance to read it, too.


The Jewish Jesus as a Christian Bias

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

mofficJesus and Jews have not always got along well together in Christian scholarship but today (and for some decades now, especially since Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew) they have been rollicking along just fine. So close are they that some scholars have been known to censure anyone who attributes to Jesus Hellenistic tropes of “latent anti-semitism”.

Scholars like April DeConick and Louis Painchaud have suggested that the modern tend to find some good in Judas is an outgrowth of a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews in the wake of World War 2 and the Holocaust and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years. Both scholars argue that the National Geographic presentation of the Gospel of Judas portrayed Judas as a hero as a result of wishful and tendentious translations the text. Both argue that in fact the Gospel of Judas by no means presents him as a would-be saint.

But back to Jesus. Of course Jesus was a Jew. But traditionally many Christians have been taught to think of him as opposing what was essential Judaism of his day, that is, the self-righteous, legalistic and judgmental Pharisees. That concept has probably historically fed in to waves of antisemitism throughout history.

Now I fully agree that that traditional perception of Judaism is a misplaced caricature, the product of hostile Christian invention. That that simplistic notion has been replaced by more nuanced reality in the scholarly literature is a good thing.

But does the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus also indicate that Christian scholars are working outside the zone of their natural Christian biases? By no longer claiming Jesus “for themselves” and by implication as having no part with Judaism, are Christian scholars necessarily working towards a more neutral scholarly venture?

I think not. The reason is a new book I came across, What every Christian needs to know about the Jewishness of Jesus : a new way of seeing the most influential rabbi in history by Rabbi Evan Moffic.

Notice this passage from the Foreword to the book by Kent Dobson, Teaching Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church:

And discovering a Jewish Jesus is not just an academic exercise; it has widespread implications for the health of Christianity. In some sense, we cannot claim Jesus as our own anymore. He was Jewish, we need to hear him in his own Jewish context, and we need to hear from Jewish voices about how they read this rabbi from Galilee.

Personally, I learned more from my Jewish brothers and sisters about Jesus and his world than I ever learned in church. . . . 

I believe we are better people of faith when we bring our experience into a real conversation with those from other faith perspectives and convictions. The Jewish-Christian dialogue is not a politically correct game. We are conversing about meaning and truth, beauty and love, family and forgiveness, and the mystery of God. What could be better! . . . 

Jewish perspectives on Jesus clarify, strengthen, and take further some Christian convictions about his mission, teaching, and life. . . . 

This new era of Jewish-Christian dialogue is just dawning. In some sense, it’s still very fragile. It started in academia and now is spilling out into the Synagogue and the Church.

Moffic, Rabbi Evan (2016-02-02). What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Kindle Locations 62-83). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

read more »


Another review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

onhistoricityIt’s more of a few notes or a “book write up” than a review per se. PhD candidate and Bible scholar James Pate has posted Book Write-Up: On the Historicity of Jesus, by Richard Carrier on his blog James’ Ramblings. He explains the purpose of his brief notes:

I would like to wrestle with some of Carrier’s arguments.  This post will not be comprehensive, but it will wrestle with key points that Carrier makes in his book.

Unfortunately what I missed from the “key points” that follow was an acknowledgement of the central methodology and case made by Richard Carrier. What troubles James Pate more appear to be some of the old chestnuts that I thought Carrier had addressed, but evidently not to the satisfaction of James. But credit where credit is due: James Pate does not engage in subtle or overt innuendo, put-down, and cavalier dismissal of Carrier as some other reviewers have done. Nor does he engage in outright distortion of the arguments. [There is one point made by James Pate that is incorrect, however, and I addressed this in a comment below.]

I suspect the limitations of Pate’s post are really the outcome of simply wanting to jot down notes of some key questions that a reading of Carrier’s book failed to dispel rather than write a formal review. We ought not be faulted for not doing what we did not set out to do. So I would like to think that Pate’s points should provide a good spring-board for further discussion and an opening into the wider arguments presented by Carrier.

Pate’s first point:

A.  Carrier does ask good questions. . . . 

Pate lists several of them. Of course Carrier does more than simply ask such questions: he raises such questions in the context of probabilities against the relevant background knowledge of Christianity and its wider cultural matrix. Potentially fruitful discussion topics here.

B.  On why first century extra-biblical sources fail to mention Jesus, many would respond that they would not mention a backwater Galilean peasant. . . . 

C.  . . . . Carrier notes that so many extrabiblical sources fail to mention Christianity. . . .  Why did so many first century sources fail to mention Christianity?  Was it because Christianity was obscure, or not well-established yet, or kept to itself?

read more »


The Madness of King Jesus

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

H/t a BCHF thread: A book due out in a few months from now, The Madness of King Jesus: The Real Reasons for His Execution by Justin Meggittmadness

Given the understanding that the crucifixion of Jesus is “one of the most secure facts” we have in history Justin Meggitt tackles one of the perplexing conundrums that the crucifixion has left us: why did Pilate crucify Jesus yet not lift a finger against his followers, even allowing them to continue preaching about Jesus after his execution?

Some of us will be familiar with Paula Fredriksen’s answer to this question in Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Fredriksen’s argument is that Pilate knew Jesus was harmless — he had, according to the Gospel of John, travelled to Jerusalem for several years running where he preached quite harmlessly. For some reason on that last journey, however, the crowd got out of hand in their response to his preaching about the coming kingdom, and Pilate needed to nip in the bud early signs of trouble. Jesus was the one they were agitated over, so a quick crucifixion solved the problem. The disciples were of no account according to this equation.

Meggitt explains his confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion on page 380:

  1. multiple attestation in earliest Christian and non-Christian sources (Josephus, Tacitus);
  2. the absence of doubt by any of the early critics of the new religion;
  3. and “it is hard to imagine anyone in the early church would have wanted to fabricate [such a datum] about their founder”

These points (based on criteria of authenticity; an ideologically framed chronology; and the appeal to incredulity) are virtual mantras that are too rarely seriously questioned.

Another scholar, Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, in a 2013 article in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, “(Why) Was Jesus the Galilean Crucified Alone? Solving a False Conundrum”, resolves the dilemma by denying that Jesus was crucified alone but was indeed crucified with followers:

The view that those crucified with Jesus had nothing to do with him is not only exceedingly improbable from a historical standpoint, but it uncritically relies upon the story told in biased sources: only the theological necessity to distance Jesus from any rebellious connection can account for the tenacity with which this view is held.

Meggitt proposes a different solution. The book is not yet published but he has had an article on the same theme published in the same journal in 2007 (JSNT 29.4: 379-413), “The Madness of King Jesus: Why was Jesus Put to Death, but his Followers were not?” The abstract:

To argue that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by the Roman authorities because they believed him to be a royal pretender of some kind, fails to explain satisfactorily why he was killed but his followers were not. A possible solution to this conundrum, which is supported by neglected contextual data, is that the Romans thought Jesus of Nazareth to be a deranged and deluded lunatic.

The first part of the article outlines the evidence that it was standard practice for Roman rulers to pursue and execute followers of would-be insurrectionists along with their leaders. read more »


Still troubled by mythicism

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

It’s been a long time since I’ve addressed any of James McGrath’s regular little swipes at mythicism but it’s a dreary rainy Sunday morning and I’m in a mood for nostalgia.

The following has just popped up on my rss feed: The Real Difference Between Creationism and Mythicism. The point McGrath drives home is set out twice, once in a colourful box illustrated with a silly creationist trope of a man with his pet dinosaur:

Creationists can find 3,000 academics who will sign a statement against evolution. That’s not 3,000 academics in relevant fields, just 3,000 academics, including retired ones. I’ve yet to see mythicism show any sign of even coming close to that. And yet supposedly we are to believe that creationism’s 3,000 are irrelevant, but the 10 or so mythicist sympathizers show that the historicity of Jesus is “a theory in crisis”?

The point is to denigrate the very idea of mythicism in order to exclude its actual arguments a priori from any serious consideration. The idea is to associate mythicism with anti-intellectualism and an ideologically driven agenda. The comments to the post sing the chorus: a few ignorant atheists are misguidedly pushing an anti-Christian agenda.

There is no quotation from a mythicist (not even a decontextualised one) so what mythicists think and argue is entirely found in both the context and words set out by McGrath himself.

And here is the rebuttal:

Unless, of course, the evidence for that conclusion is considered so strong, and the alternative interpretations of the evidence so implausible, that there aren’t that many academics who would be willing to put their name on something that is, in the end, every bit as ridiculous as rejecting evolution, however different the fields in question may be.

Are we really to believe that as “many academics” who admit to being sympathetic to creationism have actually bothered to seek out and analyse the evidence for the existence of Jesus? Why would they? Is Jesus really so important to the non-religious? I hear that belief in Christianity is much more important in the U.S. than it is in other countries so I can understand the importance of fundamentalist types putting up their hands to declare support for certain beliefs there. I hear that in the U.S. it is even problematic in many regions to declare oneself an atheist!

And as long as Christian scholars like McGrath continue to accuse mythicists of being intellectually deficient then one can sense a climate that makes public discussion of Jesus’ historicity somewhat problematic for some academics who might otherwise be curious.

There are too many faulty assumptions and fault-lines in the reasoning leading to McGrath’s conclusion to address here. Besides, I don’t believe anything said to the contrary will make any difference to the anti-mythicist camp. There really is some truth to the proverb that says the accuser is in fact the guilty one.

The point is that the post is not an argument; it is a put-down, a dismissal. And that is what it is meant to be. There is no room for serious argument. There never has been. I think Raphael Lataster is right.




Plato’s Thought World and the Bible

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Updated 5 hours after original posting. New section beginning with Monthly Religious Festivals added. 

Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)
  6. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States (2015-09-21)

The ideal state can only begin with the second generation

First generation to receive the laws has to die off before the state can be established on a secure footing:

Plato’s Laws, Book 6:

Laws 752 b-c Deuteronomy 1:34-39
Athenian. Let us remember what a courageously mad and daring creation this our city is.

Cleinias (of Crete). What had you in your mind when you said that?

Athenian. I had in my mind the free and easy manner in which we are ordaining that the inexperienced colonists shall receive our laws. Now a man need not be very wise, Cleinias, in order to see that no one can easily receive laws at their first imposition. But if we could anyhow wait until those who have been imbued with them from childhood, and have been nurtured in them, and become habituated to them, . . .  if this could be accomplished . . . -then, I think that there would be very little danger, at the end of the time, of a state thus trained not being permanent.

34 “And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’37 Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.


Twelve commanders, governors. . .

read more »


Exodus as a Fairy Tale

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey


David Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt 1828.jpg

Dr. Hector Avalos has posted at Debunking Christianity his thoughts on the documentary film, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus produced by Timothy Mahoney, and reasons to discount the historicity of the Exodus. Film trailer.

I posted various views of the origins of the Exodus story in a number of posts now.

So speaking of Exodus, hHere I want to continue on from a 2014 post, Transvalued Folktales & Classifying the Bible’s Narratives, and see how a contemporary specialist in Exodus identifies the signs of folklore or fairy tale in this biblical narrative.

William H.C. Propp sees in the Exodus tale the same nuggets that go into the making of folktales or fairy tales and that were set out by another Propp (no relation), Vladimir Propp in 1968, The Morphology of the Folk Tale. For an outline of these structural elements see the Wikipedia article on Vladimir Propp. William Propp’s argument is found in his commentary, Exodus 1-18: a new translation with introduction and commentary, pp. 32 to 34

William Propp begins by acknowledging that Exodus is far more complex than the ordinary folktale. For a start Exodus has not one but three heroes: God, Moses and Israel. Other tale types intrude as well. Nonetheless, “the overall sequence of events follows [Vladimir] Propp closely.”  read more »


Who Joins Cults — and How and Why?

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

We must remember an old adage: no one joins a “dangerous cult” or a “terrorist cell.” Converts invariably see the act of joining in positive terms, as beneficial for both themselves, their society, and the cosmos (literally), and the process is far more gradual than it appears. — (Dawson 2010, p. 7)
Lorne Dawson, whose article is the basis of this post.

I am drawing heavily on a 2010 article by Lorne L. Dawson, “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue“, published in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1-21, 2010, for this post. The research findings point to other factors associated with those who do join religious cults (and Dawson suggests it might be worthwhile examining to see if they are also applicable to those who join terrorist groups.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Christian sects like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to draw most of their followers from poor or underprivileged sectors of society. So it was easy to explain their attraction as offering converts a reversal of their fortunes: from being nobodies to being “the elect”. In the apocalyptic scenarios they all preached, those who were the least in this world would become the first in the next. The meek were to inherit the earth. The rich and powerful of this world would be brought down and the poor exalted.

(Similarly with Palestinian terrorist groups: the most obvious explanation appeared for many to be that they preferred a rich symbolic life, a reward of honour in the memory of their people, to continuing to be subject to extreme economic hardships and political and personal humiliation.)

The above explanation for why Christian cults exercised such a strong pull on the “lower classes” was overturned in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of a plethora of New Religious Movements (NRMs) — or cults — that attracted youth from well-to-do families, highly educated, with excellent career prospects, and generally of secular upbringings. Even established Christian cults like the Mormons were also found to be becoming increasingly populated by members belonging to the higher socio-economic rungs of society.

So what was going on?

New theories of “relative deprivation” emerged in the literature. Perhaps people were attracted not because of the objective fact of their lower economic and social status, but because they perceived that they were disadvantaged in some way, whatever their real status. And maybe the perceived lack was not only economic, but also moral, social opportunities, psychological . . . .

The idea of relative deprivation seems very plausible; in many ways it conforms to our personal experience. But in the end it allows for too much interpretive flexibility. Almost any action could be explained by reference to some hypothesized sense of lack of respect, inadequate love, or ethical frustration. The theory explains everything and yet nothing because it cannot discriminate effectively between those who think this way and those who choose to act on their perception in some radical way, especially becoming violent. (Dawson 2010, p. 5)

Compare those joining new cults in the 60s and 70s with the 9/11 hijackers. The latter were also from well-adjusted middle class families. They were not oppressed or impoverished in any conventional sense. They had not been particularly religious. They had good opportunities to do well in careers in many countries.

An NYPD report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat concluded that most individuals who had been involved in terrorist plots had had quite unremarkable backgrounds, no criminal history, ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives. They were fluent in English, were Western educated and familiar with the Western lifestyle. They had opportunities to do well in both their countries of origin and in the USA.

There is no clear profile of a potential terrorist and they are, like those who come to join religious cults, largely indistinguishable from anyone else.

“Converts to NRMs are more likely to have fewer and weaker social ties.”

Since cults are in conflict in significant ways with society, it stands to reason that they are more likely to draw their recruits from those who have “fewer social attachments” and consequently “lower stakes in conformity”.

This datum explains why it is so often the young (and students) who are attracted. “They can afford to experiment with alternative ways of living.”

“Converts also tend to have fewer and weaker ideological alignments”

As I have noted in recent posts, research shows that people with strong attachments to their mainstream faith (whether Christianity or Islam) are not likely to join cults or terror cells. It is the “unchurched”, those with weak, non-existent or troubled religious backgrounds, or the rootless “seekers”, who are the more likely to join cults.

But there is a balance. Complete loners or those with no interest at all in spiritual and religious questions are not likely to join.

That’s the “who”. What about the “how”? read more »



Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

NazGate_coverUntil some major new finds turn up at new digs I am convinced that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. I have been slowly reading the first six chapters of René Salm’s new book, NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus, stopping to consult wherever I can his footnotes, his citations of various archaeologists’ works, and at this point I have found his argument to be both

  • decisive with respect to the non-existence of Nazareth until well into the latter half of the first century CE
  • and absolutely devastating in his analysis of archaeologist Ken Dark’s published efforts to prove the presence of early first century domestic dwellings there.

Many people understandably find the minutiae of archaeological reports and debates to be tedious. They are not light reading, especially for anyone new to a particular study. Sensibly they are willing to defer to the specialists in the field. I am by no means a specialist but I can still read the literature — it is not as complex as advanced mathematics or quantum physics — and follow exchanges of views among archaeologists and readers of their reports. Reasonably intelligent lay readers are able to distinguish between those claims made with the support of clear evidence and others made on the basis of more speculative reconstructions. With some extra effort those same readers can also identify where a scholar has misunderstood or misused the works of others. Nor after a little immersion is it very difficult to detect tell-tale signs of ideological bias. (I elaborated on this point in Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I would love to see serious engagement with the detailed arguments in Salm’s book. I would love to see how specific questions and data are addressed. Maybe Salm’s conclusions can be overturned after all, or at least modified. We won’t know until we see further reports, discussions and responses.

Unfortunately it appears so far that scholars (and others) who ardently oppose the very idea that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, and who loathe the mere mention of Salm’s books, are not very different from that handful of scholars (Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, James McGrath) who have attempted to publicly refute the writings of Jesus mythicists. Their reviews of Salm’s first book (The Myth of Nazareth) leave the knowledgeable reader with the strong suspicion that they read no more than a few snippets of the book and those with ideological hostility. The main arguments are ignored.

Though I acknowledged that the field of archaeology is complex enough for most people to defer to the specialists, some lay critics of Salm tend to rely upon authorities indiscriminately for the purpose of hectoring and belittling a lay scholar who has genuinely mastered the published literature in this particular niche topic. I would love to see people like Tim O’Neill engage seriously with both Salm’s arguments and his critiques of Dark’s published work.

René Salm’s method

Salm does not attempt to hide his outsider status. His account of how he undertook his study of the archaeology of Nazareth reminded me of some of my own experiences in embarking on serious biblical studies. Both of us found the now defunct online discussion group where scholars and lay persons met, CrossTalk, an informative starting point. Salm writes:

From the start I left no stone unturned, did not hurry, skip any steps, nor overlook even minor reports. Lacking a relevant Ph.D. I knew that thoroughness would be my only credential — one that would have to be earned. 

I began with the most accessible secondary material: encyclopedia articles and entries in secondary reference works. Scouring the footnotes and references, I slowly accumulated the obvious primary sources. Among these, the largest was B. Bagatti’s long tome Excavations in Nazareth (vol 1, 1969). . .  This book was the first (and often only) resource used by scholars who ventured to write about Nazareth’s archeology. . . 

[Salm then describes his heavy use of the University of Oregon library and special help of a librarian who was able to procure for him “obscure books and hard-to-find articles”.] He validated my status as a resident scholar so that the University of Oregon’s critical interlibrary loan facilities would be made available to me as if I were a member of the faculty. 

Accumulating the necessary research material also required trips to major libraries in Seattle and San Francisco. . . 

Collecting the requisite material was of course only the first step. Each account, description, or excavation report had to be examined in a particularly careful way. It was not good enough simply to read the report, or even to collate all of its itemized artifacts in columns by type, date, and so on — things I learned to do quite early on. Incidentally, such collation could be quite revealing. For example, on one page Bagatti dates a certain pottery shard to the Roman period and on another page to the Iron Age. Such errors are quickly detected through careful and complete bookkeeping

All this was tedious, but the problem which required the most time, by far, was that each and every claim had to be tested. For example, in one place Bagatti claims that a fragment of pottery is “Hellenistic” — but the parallels he gives, when checked, date to the Iron Age. In another place, his alleged “Hellenistic” parallels actually date to Roman times. Richmond, too, in 1931 claimed that six oil lamps found in a Nazareth tomb were “Hellenistic.” Subsequent redating by specialists . . . shows, however, that all the lamps in question are Roman. 

There was also the problem of mislabeling. I learned that one scholar (J. Strange) termed the kokh type of tomb “Herodian” . . . . However, the important work of H.-P. Kuhnen shows that kokh tombs were not hewn in the Galilee before c. 50 CE. (They continued in use to c. 500 CE.) Thus, the term “Herodian” for these tombs is clearly erroneous and very misleading. . . . 

In the above and other ways it soon became clear to me that serious flaws characterize the primary reports, not to mention the secondary reference articles based on them. . . . 

Though I could read, tabulate, compare, and analyze the reports which came under my gaze, I could not venture any opinion myself, for I am certainly not a professional archeologist nor have I excavated in Nazareth. As a result, any opinion which I produced that disagreed with Bagatti, Strange, Richmond, etc., was necessarily the verifiable opinion of a leading specialist in the relevant field or subfield. This gave my writing ‘teeth,’ but it also required an enormous amount of time. In the process I could not help but become somewhat educated in Galilean archeology. That education extended to language classes at the university which afforded me the ability to also read excavation reports in Hebrew. . . . (NazarethGate, pp. 15-17, emphasis added)

Kokh Tomb

Kokh Tomb

Different from the earlier book

Salm’s second book, NazarethGate, is quite different from his first. The new work includes chapters that are (sometimes) edited versions of articles written and published since the first book. Some of these chapters are largely polemical (anti-Christian or anti-religion) in tone and written for militant atheist publications. The significance of the absence of Nazareth for the Jesus mythicist debate reverberates through a number of these chapters. If Nazareth did not exist, then clearly “Jesus of Nazareth” could not have existed either. I must point out that there is more nuance in the discussion than that: Salm is well aware of the arguments that some other “Jesus” figure lies behind the gospels and he is also very cognizant of the debates over the original derivation of “Nazareth” as an epithet or its cognates as the name of a sect, including the possibility of pre-Christian origins.

Frank Zindler writes the Foreword. He lists nineteen reasons to think that Nazareth did not exist in the early half of the first century, many of them having been extant prior to archaeological digs. This section nicely segues into Salm’s opening chapter (the Introduction) in which he adds further such reasons and addresses some of the complexities involved in understanding the meaning of “of Nazareth” and “the Nazarenes” etc in the Gospels.

What I was most keen to read in the new book were Salm’s responses to Ken Dark’s views. read more »


What Is Euhemerism?

Creative Commons License

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

by Tim Widowfield

chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Hu...

Chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Huxley. Caption read “A great Med’cine-Man among the Inquiring Redskins”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: This post reflects my perspective. Neil is not responsible for any of the following content. –Tim]

We have Thomas Huxley to thank for the word Darwinism, which he coined in 1860 in a review of On the Origin of Species. In modern times, of course, creationists have misused the term, applying it to any theory of natural evolution, and even to the study of abiogenesis. They continue to embrace the “ism” since bolsters their assertion that evolution is a kind of belief system, just as irrational as religion.

What is Darwinism? 

Simply stated, Darwinism is the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection. Technically, the terms Darwinism and biological evolution are not entirely synonymous, since theories of evolution existed before Charles Darwin. I recall being taken aback when I first read that Charles’ grandfather Erasmus had written a poem suggesting all forms of life were interrelated and had evolved to their present state. And well before Charles published his book, Jean-Baptiste Larmarck had proposed a theory of evolution based on the idea that organisms acquire traits during their lives, and later pass them on (somehow) to their offspring.

Darwinism differs from other competing theories of evolution in its mechanism for change. It makes no sense, then, to apply the term to other theories that posit some process other than gradual modification through natural selection.

Nor is it technically correct to call today’s modern synthesis “Darwinism,” since it embraces two other important foundational concepts, namely mutation theory and Mendelian genetics. So those who would today call an evolutionary biologist a Darwinist betray their ignorance of evolution, Darwin, and biology in general.

A less familiar term, euhemerism, from time to time suffers similar misuse. How should we define this word? We might explain it, following Dr. Richard Carrier, as “doing what Euhemerus did.

But then we have to ask, “Well, what was that?”

read more »

Crucifixion Portrayed Before the Very Eyes of Galatians

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Surely you have taken leave of your senses, you men of Galatia! Who has cast this spell over you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been exposed to view as nailed on a cross? — Galatians 3:1, Cassirer’s translation.

Recent comments on Vridar prompted me to recheck what we know about this odd-sounding verse. Here I’ll quote the ancient sources that provide an explanatory context but I’ll also go one step further and (in debt to Thomas Brodie) look at a plausible inspiration for this expression and how it relates to the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative. When we put this together and embrace the possibility of the Gospel’s debt to Paul’s letters then an interesting relationship between the two emerges over this very verse — of the Galatians apparently seeing Jesus Christ crucified before their very eyes.

But let’s begin with how Jesus was crucified “before their eyes”.

Hans Dieter Betz explains:

One of the goals of the ancient orator was to deliver his speech so vividly and impressively that his listeners imagined the matter to have happened right before their eyes. (Galatians, p. 131)

The evidence for this claim?


aristotle-rhetoricAristotle for one, Rhetoric, 3.11. I quote the passage at some length because Aristotle includes in his discussion a particular feature that we find in abundance throughout the Gospel of Mark — puns and other forms of wordplay .

It has already been mentioned that liveliness is got by using the proportional type of metaphor and being making (ie. making your hearers see things). We have still to explain what we mean by their ‘seeing things’, and what must be done to effect this. By ‘making them see things’ I mean using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity. Thus, to say that a good man is ‘four-square’ is certainly a metaphor; both the good man and the square are perfect; but the metaphor does not suggest activity. On the other hand, in the expression ‘with his vigour in full bloom’ there is a notion of activity; and so in ‘But you must roam as free as a sacred victim’; and in

“Thereas up sprang the Hellenes to their feet, “

where ‘up sprang’ gives us activity as well as metaphor, for it at once suggests swiftness. So with Homer’s common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things: all such passages are distinguished by the effect of activity they convey. Thus,

“Downward anon to the valley rebounded the boulder remorseless; and “

“The (bitter) arrow flew; “


“Flying on eagerly; and “

Stuck in the earth, still panting to feed on the flesh of the heroes; and

“And the point of the spear in its fury drove

“full through his breastbone. “

In all these examples the things have the effect of being active because they are made into living beings; shameless behaviour and fury and so on are all forms of activity. And the poet has attached these ideas to the things by means of proportional metaphors: as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the shameless man to his victim. In his famous similes, too, he treats inanimate things in the same way:

“Curving and crested with white, host following

“host without ceasing. “

Here he represents everything as moving and living; and activity is movement.

Metaphors must be drawn, as has been said already, from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related-just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart. Thus Archytas said that an arbitrator and an altar were the same, since the injured fly to both for refuge. Or you might say that an anchor and an overhead hook were the same, since both are in a way the same, only the one secures things from below and the other from above. And to speak of states as ‘levelled’ is to identify two widely different things, the equality of a physical surface and the equality of political powers.

Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’. The liveliness of epigrammatic remarks is due to the meaning not being just what the words say: as in the saying of Stesichorus that ‘the cicalas will chirp to themselves on the ground’. Well-constructed riddles are attractive for the same reason; a new idea is conveyed, and there is metaphorical expression. So with the ‘novelties’ of Theodorus. In these the thought is startling, and, as Theodorus puts it, does not fit in with the ideas you already have. They are like the burlesque words that one finds in the comic writers. The effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined: thus

“Onward he came, and his feet were shod with his-chilblains, “

where one imagined the word would be ‘sandals’. But the point should be clear the moment the words are uttered. . . .  This is also true of such lively remarks as the one to the effect that to the Athenians their empire (arche) of the sea was not the beginning (arche) of their troubles, since they gained by it. Or the opposite one of Isocrates, that their empire (arche) was the beginning (arche) of their troubles. Either way, the speaker says something unexpected, the soundness of which is thereupon recognized. There would be nothing clever in saying ’empire is empire’. Isocrates means more than that, and uses the word with a new meaning. So too with the former saying, which denies that arche in one sense was arche in another sense. . . .

. . . . The more a saying has these qualities, the livelier it appears: if, for instance, its wording is metaphorical, metaphorical in the right way, antithetical, and balanced, and at the same time it gives an idea of activity.

Successful similes also, as has been said above, are in a sense metaphors, since they always involve two relations like the proportional metaphor. . . .



Then there is Cicero’s On the Orator (De Oratore), 3.40

Here almost every thing is expressed in words metaphorically adapted from something similar, that the description may be heightened. . . .

but, even in the greatest abundance of proper words, men are much more charmed with such as are uncommon, if they are used metaphorically with judgment. This happens, I imagine, either because it is some manifestation of wit to jump over such expressions as lie before you, and catch at others from a greater distance ; or be cause he who listens is led another way in thought, and yet does not wander from the subject, which is a very great pleasure ; or because a subject, and entire comparison, is dispatched in a single word ; or because every metaphor that is adopted with judgment, is directed immediately to our senses, and principally to the sense of sight, which is the keenest of them all. For such expressions as the odor of urbanity, the softness of humanity, the murmur of the sea, and sweetness of
language, are derived from the other senses ; but those which relate to the sight are much more striking, for they place almost in the eye of the mind such objects as we can not see and discern by the natural eyes.

read more »


Violent Islamism: Many are Called, Few are “Chosen”, Fewer Defect

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

A new online article on the role of religious belief among Islamists supporting violence (an overlapping theme of these posts). The article by specialists in the field draws the some of the same comparisons I have been making between the appeal of religious cults and political extremist movements:

The Cult of Jihad: A Practical Theology Perspective on ISIS, a scholarly guest post by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann in Political Violence @ a Glance (Expert Analysis on Violence and Its Alternatives).

Of particular interest to me is another article cited in “The Cult of Jihad”, and that is “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue” by Lorne L. Dawson in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1, 2009. From the abstract:

This article examines:

(1) the obvious reasons for, and curious absence of, a dialogue between scholars studying new religious movements (NRMs), particularly those responsible for acts of mass violence, and those studying processes of radicalization in home-grown terrorist groups;

(2) the substantial parallels between established understandings of who joins NRMs, how, and why and recent findings about who joins terrorist groups in a Western context, how, and why; and

(3) the ways in which explanations of the causes of violent behaviour in NRMs are pertinent to securing a more systematic and complete grasp of the process of radicalization in terrorist cells.

The latter discussion focuses on the role of apocalyptic belief systems and charis- matic forms of authority, highlighting the behavioural consequences of this danger- ous combination and their possible strategic significance. . . . 

Another new article of related interest is What Does It Mean If An Attack Is ‘ISIS-Inspired’?

H/T http://intelwire.egoplex.com/ (J. M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: the State of Terror)

We have seen the process by which some people are attracted to extremist groups and have reached the point of examining how a subset of those individuals are drawn to cross the line from intellectual sympathy to committing themselves to the high risks of active support for violence. (The argument that we have been presenting is from Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising. Wiktorowicz takes the now-banned jihadist group in Great Britain, al-Muhajiroun, as a case-study.)

To recap:

  • Many people at some time face a crisis that leads them to question their life-long assumptions and beliefs and opens them to a willingness to seriously consider radically new world-view perspectives. Crises can vary from death in a family to a feeling of not belonging in one’s “homeland”, a result of the combination of experiencing racial discrimination and alienation from the foreign culture of one’s migrant parents.
  • Seekers are more likely to respond to groups with the following factors:
    • the trained representatives of the group are able to discuss questions of interest to the seekers (not only political questions; literature of the group covers a wide range of topics);
    • the extremist group conveys a sense of credibility and spiritual authority by means of
      • the charismatic personality of the leader
      • its ability to convey a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of questions of interest to the seeker and of the alternative answers (Wiktorowicz’s notes that the more devout Muslims have a deeper knowledge of how their religion relates to such questions and are not attracted to the simplistic idiosyncratic interpretations of the extremists; those who are most often attracted have had very little prior religious interest.)
      • the rationality of its arguments
      • the tactic of giving the seeker a sense of being in control of his journey towards the extremist’s point of view (e.g. the seeker will be encouraged to investigate rival groups)
    • the extremist group hides its extremist views through front organisations and strategically planned discussions/messages

The relative few who are led to intellectual agreement with extremist views through this process are still a long way from turning their backs on society to the extent that they are potential suicidal mass murderers.

That’s where “culturing” enters the picture.

Through regular classes “seekers” are socialized into the movements ideology. We have seen how these classes and related activities increasingly consume so much of the individual’s time that there is little room left for serious arms-length reflection on the direction into which the path is leading. And it certainly helps when the seeker has had little or no serious religious engagement prior to encountering the new movement and against which they would otherwise be more capable of assessing the new teachings.

The Islamist extremist (and the member of other religious cults as well) sees him or herself as belonging to a pioneering vanguard of a new way of life that with the authority of Heaven is destined to replace all “human systems”. In the case of the Islamist (the term refers to one who believes in politically imposing Islamic law over society) that new way of life or ideology is destined to replace Capitalism and Democracy (the two go together in Islamist thinking). Democracy is interpreted as an anti-godly effort to replace God as the law-giver and ruler of society.

The mind-set that is inculcated as part of the “culturing” into the extremist movement’s revolves around its own sectarian interpretation of tawhid, or the “oneness of God”. Since God is the only lawgiver then anyone who supports democracy or even follows the wisdom of mainstream imams is said to be worshiping authorities other than God. We saw how some of this works out in detail in the previous post. — Recall that Islamic regimes in the Middle East are judged to be apostate because they countenance some form of democracy and enforce laws that are inconsistent with pure Sharia.

Other Muslims, moreover, argue that judging others as apostate is akin to murdering them since without the utmost stringent proofs only God can know the mind of another.

We look now at the ideology into which Islamist extremists are “cultured”. The ideology into which they are ever more deeply immersed through regular meetings, classes and activities, Wiktorowicz argues, is what leads them ever closer to the point of believing that their own personal salvation depends on a willingness to lose everything in this life and even to make others pay with their own lives, too.

We begin by looking at the source of the extremist’s ideology. The Quran is not enough for their ideological needs.

Preparations for an Islamic State

The Islamists look to the life of Muhammad (not found in the Quran) for guidance in or rationalisation of their program. There is a difficulty, not insurmountable, however. The Prophet’s life spanned many years through different environments — exile and conquest, for example. Islamist leaders therefore select what they believe to be the period in Mohammed’s life that is analogous to today’s situation for the radicals and make a judgement on how to apply the analogous act today. read more »