Monthly Archives: April 2008

Resurrection: more responses to Bishop Wright’s study

I have no intention of committing myself to a chapter by chapter detailed response to Durham Bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God as I did for Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but since Wright has (at least in discussions with me) been touted as a touchstone of scholarly authority among some fundamentalists, I can’t help but make periodic observations about his tomes, if only to hopefully leave a seed in minds of some that will one day germinate genuinely independent and honest questioning. (I’ll collate my posts that have some commentary on Wright’s works in my blog’s Book Reviews and Notes category beneath the archives links.)

The so-called early-origin of the resurrection appearances “traditions”

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. His reasons include:

  • the absence of Old Testament allusions in their narratives, in contrast to the OT riddled pre-resurrection narratives in the gospels — the argument is that the use of OT allusions were proclivities of the gospel authors, but each gospel author relied on transplanting much older traditions when it came to the resurrection scenes
  • the differences among the respective resurrection accounts do not reflect theological differences and arguments found among the later church, so variant theological dispositions of the gospel authors cannot explain their narrative differences
  • the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence
  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

These Wright arguments are by no means conclusive. They are certainly debatable, even wrong.

I’m sure more can be added to any of my comments on these below. And maybe I have missed some relevant point among Wright’s 800 pages. I’m sure someone will let me know.

Old Testament allusions in the resurrection narratives

The Gospel of Mark does not have a resurrection appearance narrative. The verses 9-20 of its final chapter are well recognized as late additions by scribes who were dissatisfied with their copies of the original all ending abruptly with the audiences’ attention directed to focus on a conclusion of silence and fear. (One might compare the conclusion of the Aeneid, even the Primary History and the Elijah-Elisha Cycle, but each of those is, well, . . . “another story”.)

The Gospel of Matthew‘s narrative of Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection is most clearly embedded in Old Testament allusion. While Dale Allison (The New Moses, A Matthean Typology) discusses the tendency of scholarship of his day to deny special Mosaic comparisons in Matthew (partly a reaction against the Straussian challenges it posed to the historicity of the gospel narrative), he nonetheless alerts us to specific stories and redaction in Matthew that demonstrably link Jesus to OT and other Jewish legendary tales about Moses. While Matthew’s gospel does not depict Jesus as a Moses figure himself, it does make use of comparisons with Moses traditions in its presentation of Jesus:

  • the circumstances of his birth, with the slaughter of the infants and his divinely orchestrated escape, is undoubtedly intended to bring comparisons with Moses to mind from the beginning of the gospel
  • redactional details (in comparison with the gospels of Mark and Luke) in Matthew’s telling of Jesus crossing the water and going into the wilderness to spend “forty days and nights” fasting
  • the Sermon on the Mount, with its overt comparisons to Mosaic law, hits many readers as a patent transvaluing of Moses delivering the law to Israel from Mount Sinai
  • Allison cites 12 points within Matthew 11:25-30 resonating with details of Moses’ unique character, and his special relationship with God and Israel
  • Jesus’ specifically transvalues details of Moses in the Matthean mountain transfiguration scene
  • Jesus’ final appearance, like that of Moses, is on a mountain (Deut. 32:48-50 — also, along with associated Jewish legends of this passage, a tie back to the temptation in the wilderness). Like Moses at his end, he commissions his successors (Deut 31:6-9); and as with the successor of Moses, the successors of Jesus are instructed to go out faithfully and are promised they will never be forsaken (Joshua 1:1-9).

The Gospel of Luke likewise draws on OT passages from which to construct at least one of its resurrection appearances. I have discussed these in an earlier post. Some of the key passages from there:

The Road to Emmaus story contains easily recognizable literary motifs associated with similar stories in Genesis and Judges . . . .

In Genesis Abraham sees three strangers on the road and exercises hospitality by inviting them in to eat with him; it emerges in the course of the narrative that the three strangers were angelic messengers, and one is even named “the Lord” (Genesis 18). Then two of those same strangers travel to Sodom where Lot has to work to persuade them to stay at his place before continuing their journey. It is late in the day, as in the Emmaus road story. He is unaware of their identity until later in the narrative (Genesis 19). Joshua also encountered a stranger he assumed was a fellow mortal at first but who went on to reveal himself as a divine being (Joshua 5:13-15).

When Jacob was travelling the sun set (early Jewish legends explained the pointed reference in Genesis 28:11 by saying God had caused it to set prematurely to force Jacob to stop there) and he had a dream that he was in the presence of God. God spoke to him there. And the name of the place was originally known as Luz — in the Septuagint it is Oulammaus. In the Codex Bezae this is the name used for Emmaus in Luke 24. In an early reading of Luke (perhaps the earliest) the Emmaus road revelation happened at the same place that Jacob dreamed he was visited by God.

In Judges we read about an unnamed woman who meets a “man of God”, but whom the audience knows is an angelic messenger. Her husband is named, Manoah, and he prays to God to send the same man again but this time “to us” — both of them. So God sent him again but only to his unnamed partner. She had to call Manoah to meet him. The couple, Manoah and his wife, press the “man of God” who speaks to them of divine promises to come in and stay with them in their house. A sacrifice is offered and the “man of God” reveals his true identity by disappearing before their eyes carried up into heaven by the flames and smoke of the sacrifice. (Judges 13)

This story in Judges contains many of the motifs used in Luke 24:

a. Two people receive a visit from a supernatural being.

b. Only one of the two persons is named. How readers would love to know the name of the both – in both stories. The authors of both are in some way playing with their readers’ curiosity. (Readers are told the names of both parties in all other stories where an angel comes to announce a special birth.)

c. The supernatural being speaks of divine plans and knowledge.

d. The couple invite this stranger to stay with them and eat.

e. A meal or sacrifice is begun.

f. Before the stranger eats he miraculously vanishes before the couple’s eyes

g. By witnessing this disappearing trick the couple are made aware of the identity of their guest

h. The couple speak to each other about their experience and what they have just seen and express their emotional responses.

Conclusion: It is at the very least by no means certain that at least the authors of Matthew and Luke did not construct huge chunks of their resurrection appearance scenes out of OT references.

These posts always take longer than I anticipate. Will have to discuss the other points later.

Resurrection and Monotheism, and an odd case for uniqueness

Note 30th May: Currently updating my notes on Wright’s resurrection arguments here.

My previous post was a jotting down of some points I had found of interest in Martin West’s chapter explaining how the distance between monotheism and polytheism was very narrow indeed. It is not at all difficult to imagine how monotheism gradually evolved from polytheism.

Since I am currently perusing sections of Durham bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and it is impossible to avoid noticing the sharpest contrast between styles of arguments of West and Wright. read more »

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: first steps

m-typesOne of the more intriguing books I read not many years ago was Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. Its opening chapter by Martin West looks at some of the earliest signs of the transformation of polytheistic religions into monotheistic thought. He begins with Greek and “Near Eastern” (sic) literature.

The essence of polytheism is that the many gods have independent existences, rarely crossing each others paths as they are respectively called on by devotees to help out with their special talents. A thief would call on a god of thieves for blessing, not the god of justice — unless or until he was himself wronged. The Homeric hero Odysseus was persecuted by the god Poseidon but regularly protected by Athena. The Bible narratives likewise point back to the time when Yahweh was among many gods with his own distinct provenance:

You have the right to take what Chemosh your god gives you, but we will take the land of all whom the Lord our God has driven out before us (Judges 11:24)

But Homer, West argues, also introduces readers to something contrary to true polytheism. The gods meet in council and subsume their individual wills to their exalted chief, Zeus. read more »

Tibet protests over China Olympics: hope for Diego Garcians by 2012?

I wish the thought didn’t sound so fanciful, but if there can be such a world-wide clout against China over Tibet at the Olympics, can the people who were forcibly deported by the UK in the 1960s and 70’s find any hope for international support in their wish to be repatriated?

Or does a Creole speaking black African Chagossian ethnicity simply not compare with the image of serene Tibetan Buddhists and Shangri-La up there in nirvana-high mountains?

Or does an atavistic enemy of Chinese barbarians evoke more visceral response than anything that could possibly be done, however “misguidedly” and “undoubtedly well-intentioned”, by a white English speaking nation?

See the contrasting images in a Spiked-Online article by Brendon O’Neill:- example …..

The UK decided they had the power and therefore the right to deport the entire population (mirroring the population deportation practices that we first see practiced among the ancient Chaldeans, Assyrians and Persians and that were thought to be the modern day preserve of the Nazis and Soviets) of Diego Garcia.

Diego Garcia was then turned into a military base cum (torture?) prison for extraordinary rendition prisoners.

Much of the population of Diego Garcia, demonstrating human propensities we normally associate with whites (and non-Chinese Tibetans), still wants to return.

After the China Olympics it might be a good idea to turn attentions to requiring the UK government to make full amends for its perpetration of what was at the Nuremberg Trials declared a crime against humanity.

Linking the women’s, demons’ and storm’s silence in Mark gospel

Rambling ruminations follow.

Mark’s gospel opens with a series of commands of Jesus compelling demons to be quiet and not to proclaim his identity: 1:25; 1:34; 3:12.

But Jesus does not have the power to hold a healed leper to silence about him: 1:44-45.

Jesus can also compel a storm to be silent: 4:39.

He can command a man he has just liberated from possession by demons to go and preach in Decapolis (5:19), and he gave his twelve disciples power over demons and the power to preach also, at least for a time (6:7-13).

Jesus had the power to heal a man who had a spirit that rendered him unable to speak or hear: 7:35.

But he did not have the power to make him or his friends silent once he was freed from that spirit: 7:36.

After the disciples proved to be repeatedly faithless and incorrigibly hard-hearted, as evidenced by their fear and incomprehension (4:40; 6:49-50; 8:17), Jesus called their leader Satan, and had the power to command them to be silent, too: 8:33; 9:9-10.

The disciples are pointedly said to have been without power over a mute spirit. Only Jesus had power to release a victim from a mute spirit: 9:17-29.

All the male disciples ended their careers having “stumbled” and failed, their fear once again demonstrating their faithlessness (14:27). That left the women. They too fearfully — that is, faithlessly — fled at the end. The young man in the tomb had no power to make them speak. (He was just as much a young man as the young man who earlier fled naked — not an angel with powers on behalf of Jesus.)

Is this where the stories of possession by mute demons have been leading us? Is what has been happening in the demon world, where Jesus has been establishing a controlling mastery over demons and the very elements of nature, being mirrored in the fates of followers and would-be followers? The demons have been silenced, and so have the incorrigibly fearful and faithless.

The spirit of fear and mute spirits can only be removed by Jesus, at least if the seed has fallen in good soil. And the women were no better soil than the men had been: that the women were looking for a corpse and worrying about a sealed tomb was to the author of the Gospel of Mark a sign of unbelief, not commendable loyalty as it was in later gospel versions (Matthew, Luke, John).

Only Jesus has the power to make the dumb speak. And Jesus has moved on, as was his habit after healing people and silencing demons, even when others were (belatedly?) looking for him — 1:37-38.

And the young man also said he would be going before his erstwhile disciples into Galilee. Should we be reminded of how twice before Jesus was passing by them. The first time they followed him (1:16; 2:14); but on a later occasion when he was passing by/as if to be going before them the disciples only “caught up” with him after mistaking him for a ghost (6:48-49). Had it not been for their fearful cries at that point they would have missed him altogether way back then. Since there is little in the narrative to suggest that the disciples improved their faith and understanding between then and Gethsemane we can fairly conclude that the final announcement that Jesus is going before the twelve disciples to Galilee will not mean they catch up with each other at all.

But there are a couple of passages where the author does not tell us how others responded to Jesus’ command to be silent: 5:43 (after healing Jairus’s daughter) and 8:26 (after healing the blind man). As with so many other passages in Mark we are left with tantalizing ambiguity. It is easy to assume that those commanded remained silent, but elsewhere the author appears to be stating a general recurring pattern when he explains that the more Jesus commanded silence the more they spoke out. I have no idea of those passages poke holes in my above interpretation of the women’s silence or if they are the answers to another question I know nothing about.

How Faith undermines Logic: why logic will not rescue one from a cult, or persuade a fundamentalist

This passage from Deborah Bennett’s “Logic Made Easy“, and drawing conclusions from scholarly studies, hit me between the eyes when I read it just recently:

Subjects have difficulty applying rules of logic when counterexamples in the subject’s experience are unavailable or difficult to recall and when the logical task fails to cue individuals to search for counter-examples. (p.105)

This is why it means nothing to, say, a Moonie if one attempting to pull them back out of that “cult” tries to force them to change their minds by presenting them with the plain-as-day evidence of dubious character of their leader; or why one will generally waste one’s time by pointing out the clear evidence for evolution or the fallibility of a biblical text.

The Moonie or fundamentalist is being completely rational within their own lights. The difference is that they are unable to see the counter-examples to their belief system even when they are right beneath their noses. (I know. I used to be this way myself, and often reflect on why I remained in such a thought-system for so long.)

And the reason they are unable to see what is staring them in the face is that their faith system instructs them to exercise total thought-control. The same technique used in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT):

[Cast] down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Their faith can only be sustained by the techniques of cognitive behaviour therapy. Counter-examples and falsifying evidence simply does not exist, or there would be no faith to begin with. Anything presented as falsifying evidence is conceptualized as a weapon of Satan designed to deceive and in his war against them. The contrary evidence is simply rejected as a tool of Satan to destroy them.

CBT will prompt the believer to reject the contrary evidence immediately. This can be done either by literally dismissing it as false, or more subtly by ingeniously if sometimes fatuously “discovering” reasons to “prove” the invalidity or irrelevance of whatever falsifies their belief. The sham behind these arguments is readily apparent to anyone who notices that only the less informed or fellow-believers buy them. But to those of faith, that simply proves that they alone are right and the whole world lies in darkness.

But they are being logical. Such members can be and often are very smart. They can be studying for higher degrees and doctorates in the most respected institutions. They can even repeat and write all the evidence and argument required to be awarded their letters. But they may not believe much of it. Or they may use some of their “worldly education” in ways it was never intended and would not sustain scrutiny by scholarly peers.

But no matter how logical one may be, that rigid and valid mental process will simply fail to properly inform if faith is lurking to rob them of the ability to even see falsifying evidence right before their eyes for what it really — and so obviously — is.

In other words, faith undermines one’s ability to apply rules of logic — as Bennett, above, observes. Falsifying evidence simply will not exist and must therefore be exposed as falsely presuming to falsify: so goes the (CBT) thought process of faith.

And ironically this is also why it can be the most intelligent, the most mentally agile, who will remain strongest in their faith! One should expect them to have the greater ability to find rationalizations to “falsify” what is otherwise obvious to anyone led by genuine scientific enquiry instead of faith.

No longer to call myself “an atheist”; with some Grayling snippets

I’ve decided to no longer call myself an atheist, but a naturalist. A. C. Grayling convinced me to do this without much trouble in his little book “Against All Gods

As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is ‘naturalist’, denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves ‘a-fairyists’ or ‘a-goblin­ists’ as ‘atheists’; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so. (Most people, though, forget that belief in fairies was widespread until the begin­ning of the twentieth century; the Church fought a long hard battle against this competitor superstition, and won, largely because – you guessed it – of the infant and primary church schools founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

By the same token, therefore, people with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists . . . . (p.28 )

Simple. So I’ve decided not to discriminate against those who believe in garden gnomes or leprechauns and revert to the catch-all “naturalist”. And those who confuse this with naturist might have more to think about than others.

The “Tu-Quoque/You too!” fallacy: Atheism is not a faith

The point of Grayling essay is to rebut the common fallacious claim that “atheism is itself a faith position”.

I’ve responded to this charge numerous times myself on various forums, and I suspect many of those who don’t want to think otherwise will simply ignore the obvious rebuttals to this charge:

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a ‘faith’ in ‘the non-existence of X’ (where X is ‘fairies’ or ‘goblins’ or ‘gods’); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgement of both on the principles and theories which premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. ‘Faith’ – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing. (p.34)

Faith, on the other hand, is belief in the absence of, even contrary to, the evidence. Grayling does not say it, but I can see no place for faith to intrude into scholarship that plies itself to understanding the literature and historical origins of any religion.

The sad part is that some fundamentalist Christian “scholars” pretend to agree with this statement, but their escape hatch is to insist that it is “dishonest hyper-scepticism” to go beyond a superficial face-value acceptance of selected (not all) texts. They fail miserably to see that true scholarship means submitting even their favourite texts to verification. They really demand that we have faith in the surface reading of their canonical texts and only submit noncanonical texts to scholarly scrutiny.

Religious faith is surely something that belongs to the privacy of one’s home or circle of fellow-believers. There is nothing publicly noble about anyone believing in a proposition contrary to the evidence. Even many Christians accept this when they twinge with some embarrassment over their fellow-travellers who allow their loved ones to die “in faith” in preference to seeking medical care; and most Moslems feel ashamed at their fellow-faithful who blow themselves up with innocents “in faith”.

I’d rather they felt no embarrassment or shame, but only constructive anger. Embarrassment and shame are emotions that admit that they belong to the same general mind-set, the same broad club, to begin with.

Forget asking who should win: cancel the game instead

But the argument is not about “which faith is true” and “which faith is false”. It is about the irrationality of faith to begin with:

Even some on my own side of the argument here make the mistake of thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false. Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational. To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes, is exactly the same kind of serious irrationality. The best one could think is that if there is a deity (itself an overwhelmingly irra­tional proposition for a million other reasons), it is not benevolent. That’s a chilling thought; and as it happens, a quick look around the world and history would encourage the reply ‘the latter’ if someone asked, ‘if there is a deity, does the evidence suggest that it is benevolent or malevolent. (p.37)

Why did no-one edit gospel gaffes about the Second Coming?

When prophecies of the end fail those who placed their hopes in them commonly attempt to explain and understand differently what they once expected to happen. When Christ failed to return to earth between March 1843 and March 1844, the schedule was re-written as April 1844. When that passed, it was revised again to October that year. After Christ failed to show up the third time, other groups insisted the date was right but they had misunderstood the event it marked: Seventh Day Adventists reinterpreted the event to a heavenly venue, unseen here below; Bahais claimed the advent happened in the form of Bab beginning his public teaching in Iran at that time. But many disappointed Millerites, not least Miller himself, turned their backs on specific event-based steps in a timetable and opted for the more general “Be ready; we don’t know when; he could come any time; we believe it will be in our life-time, but if not . . . .”

The question

Our earliest gospels are clear that Jesus promised an event of cosmic import in which he would “be seen” on earth again within the lifetime of his own generation. Thus in Matthew 24 we read:

Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately . . . And Jesus answered and said to them . . .

Therefore when you see the Abomination of Desolation, spoken by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place . . . then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be . . . Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his elect . . .

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled. . . . Therefore you . . . be ready, for the Son of Man is coming in an hour when you do not expect him.

Today popular understandings and many fundamentalist teachings find various ways to “see” subtle nuances in the text to enable them to apply Jesus’ promise to today’s generation. They cannot change the text, so they must find ways to read the text to remove its meaning from its original context and make it relevant to subsequent generations. The problem they face when they do this is that they can only hope to find tentative re-readings and subtleties in the hope of convincing themselves.

But the earliest transmitters of our gospels faced no such quandary. Even if the original authors did write within the life-times of Jesus’ generation, and had fully expected Jesus to swoop down visibly from heaven and bring fiery judgment to the entire world in their own time, those custodians of their narratives who soon followed them and succeeded that generation were living with the proof that such a prophecy had failed. Why is there no evidence that they attempted to re-write or re-interpret the literal import of the prophecy?

It took a long time after the gospels were first written before they achieved a sacred enough status to forbid copyists from re-writing or revising any awkward bits in them. When “Matthew” re-wrote “Mark”, for example, the opening account of John the Baptist was ruffled with a few extra lines to find a way for both John and Jesus to apologize to readers for letting the superior be baptized by the inferior:

Compare Mark 1:9

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

with Matthew 3:12-15

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John . . . to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he allowed him.

But even within the one gospel we find evidence in the different manuscripts of attempts by various editors to re-write passages that were not congenial to someone’s theology, doctrinal tastes or were thought to be simply inaccurate:

  • Thus in Mark 10:19 some copyists simply dropped the “Do not defraud” command from Jesus’ citation from the Ten Commandments, presumably because it is not one of the Ten. The authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels likewise changed Mark’s original.
  • Not all scribes liked the text of Mark that claimed Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) so some changed it to read that he was thought to be the son of a carpenter. The church father Origen indicates that he did not know the passage familiar to most of us declaring that Jesus was a carpenter.
  • Similar variation in the texts surrounds the problematic circuitous itinerary of Jesus in Mark 7:31.

Most famously, we have among the manuscripts 4 different endings of the Gospel of Mark:

  1. And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus)
  2. And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. (Bobiensis . . . )
  3. Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. And when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. And after that, He appeared in a different form to two of them, while they were walking along on their way to the country. And they went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either. And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. “And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (Many manuscripts underpinning the Textus Receptus)
  4. And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or: does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now” — thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven. (Washingtonianus)

So there is little doubt that the early texts of the gospels were not, well, engraved in stone by the finger of God. Early generations found it permissible to re-touch them here and there for perceived inaccuracies, embarrassments, theological disagreements.

There was a time when there was time to likewise edit the prophecy of Jesus to make it less necessary to tax the interpretive ingenuities of subsequent generations.

Yet throughout the synoptic gospels and their textual variants the prophecy that Jesus is to be seen coming in judgment within the life-time of his original disciples does appear to be engraved in stone. There is no evidence of embarrassment attached to it during its transmission even after the first generation had passed away. (The Gospel of John’s complete omission of it is not evidence of embarrassment over its failure, as discussed below.)

The answer

They answer is, I believe, not novel, but not popular either. Yet the question raised above adds weight to its certainty.

The authors of the synoptics understood that they were adapting metaphors from their Jewish sources to an historical event that did happen within the lifespan of the generation of Jesus. There was no embarrassment over prophetic failure. They were writing in apocalyptic language about an historically apocalyptic event — the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. That is, the end of the old Jewish kingdom that had once been God’s, leaving the followers of Christ free to feel they had been vindicated as the new kingdom of God.

The apocalyptic signs Jesus’ disciples are told to expect are the same as used by earlier prophets to describe the historical fall of Babylon to invading armies:

The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. . . . For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine . . . . And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, . . . will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. (Isa. 13:1, 10, 19)

The author was writing from a time when Babylon was lying in ruins and describing in typical Jewish apocalyptic metaphors the fall and end of that great city-state and kingdom.

The same author describes the fall of other nations before imperial invasion in similar apocalyptic metaphors:

And the mountains shall be melted with their blood. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as a leaf falls from the vine . . . (Isa. 34:3-4)

Another author uses the same metaphors to announce a historical judgment on Egypt:

Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him . . . When I put out your light, I will cover the heavens and make its stars dark: I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. . . . (Ezek. 32:2, 7)

Joel describes an earlier military conquest of Israel in the same language:

The heavens tremble, the sun and moon grow dark, and the stars diminish their brightness. (Joel 2:10).

This is the Day of the Lord, when God is said to stand in Jerusalem itself:

For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will grow dark, and the stars will diminish their brightness. The Lord will also roar from Zion and utter his voice from Jerusalem . . . (Joel 3:14-15).

The image is metaphorical. The author does not visualize God literally standing on earth, or his voice being literally heard.

The author of Isaiah 52 also spoke of a generation, his own, seeing God at the time of the restoration of Israel (God’s “Servant” nation) under the Persians:

The Lord has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations (Isa. 52:10)

The appearance of God is apocalyptic, not literal, imagery.

David likewise wrote that he saw God descend to earth to rescue him out of threatening waters. No-one takes his poetry literally:

Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of heaven moved and shook . . . He bowed the heavens also and came down with darkness under his feet. He rode upon a cherub, and flew; and he was seen upon the wings of wind. . . . He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. . . . (2 Samuel 22: 8, 10-11, 17).

The prophecy put into the mouth of Jesus by the gospel authors described the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. This was the end of a world for most Jews at that time. A traumatic life-changing experience can result in an individual feeling as if his entire known world has vanished, as if he no longer has ground to walk on, or the sky above that he had known all his life to cover him. That, at least, is how I know I felt some years ago when passing through such a trauma. Apocalyptic language seemed to be the most apt way to describe the experience. It was real, if not literal, enough, to me. No doubt seeing ones world, one’s nation, proud capital city, the monumental centre and foundation of one’s faith, all crumble and be destroyed in blood by invading armies, brings apocalyptic imagery and interpretations most readily to mind.

Jesus was seen returning in judgment upon the city that had crucified him and persecuted his followers. He was seen coming down to that city in the Roman armies just as surely as God had been seen coming down in historical acts of vengeance by earlier prophets, including David.

The Gospel of John’s omission of the prophecy

It is significant, furthermore, to note that among early Christians, when the canonical gospels were still being written, it is clear that this prophecy of the cosmic second coming of Christ represented an alternative eschatological belief.

If we accept the arguments of those scholars that the author of the Gospel of John knew the Gospel of Mark, then we find that this author chose to deliberately omits the prophecy altogether. If he did not know the synoptics, then he knew many of the “traditions” that found their way into the synoptics, yet not this end-time prophecy of Jesus. Either way, there can be little doubt that he would have found such a prophecy pointless because he disagreed with its fundamental doctrinal assumptions. Rather than judgment coming upon the world and the gathering of the saints all happening in a future cosmic event, these things befell the world from the moment Jesus was crucified:

Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself. (John 12:31-32)

Whether or not this author knew Mark, he holds to a theology that renders Mark’s prophecy of end times redundant. It is not a bed-rock of Christian faith like the crucifixion is, however that be interpreted, but an optional extra. You are free to wear it if it fits. If the authors of the synoptic gospels saw the replacement of the earthly Jerusalem by the spiritual kingdom of God as fulfilled in 70 c.e., John saw its complete fulfilment 40 years earlier.

The irony

It is ironical that many Christians who read Jesus’ prophecy of his “second coming” literally also stress the importance of understanding Jewish as opposed to Greek or gentile thought when interpreting the Bible, yet fail to do so themselves in this instance.

Charles Darwin’s complete works now online

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online

Includes Darwin’s private papers, field notebooks, handwritten manuscripts, complete publications, including first editions of Voyage of the Beagle, Descent of Man, all editions of Origin of the Species (includes the first draft of his theory from 1842).

Also includes memos of his religious views, cartoons and caricatures, family photographs, reviews of his books, newspaper clippings, handwritten domestic notes, views on experimentation on animals.

In all, about 90,000 images comprising 20,000 items. That is, just about everything available anywhere.

Israel’s God of War — against both Arab and (secular) Jew

The ultra-orthodox religionists (the Haredim/Charedim) of Israel now make up 10% of the population and are a critical support for the Olmert government.

For the Haredim the very existence of Israel cannot be justified without God and the Abrahamic promises in the Bible, which require the expulsion of the Palestinians from all that they believe God has given them. Haredi/Charedi prayers even call for the destruction of the secular state of Israel. Today these Haredim are a minority, “only” 10% of the population. But they make no secret of how they would enforce changes on Israel if ever they feel the muscle to do so.

They are the direct counterpart of Moslem extremists. Haredim claim to follow the Halachi rules as forever binding. The Halachi gives licence to kill secular Jews, to show no kindness to them. It also relegates women to being the property of their fathers and husbands, and forbids them to testify in legal proceedings. In another ironic twist in the minds no doubt for some western observers, some Jewish Haredi/Charedi women in Israel today are volunteering to wear the hijab. This is just one of their practices that actually demonstrates their claim to be reliving a past tradition that may never have existed: where there are doubts about interpretation of Halachi directives, they will err on the side of over-doing them.

Harmless nuts? A passing fad?

A Jewish site dedicated to “Enlightenment, education and freedom from religion”, Daat Emet, publishes online the reasons they believe non religious Jews and others should not dismiss the ultra-orthodox as harmless cranks.

There have always been religious extremists among orthodox Jews, and back in the 1960’s we were reading of sects who were apparently plotting the destruction of the Moslem Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the reinstitution of sacrifices. It appears that Jewish extremism is currently finding a growing support base within Israel itself.

Background Briefing (on Australia’s ABC Radio National) put together a well researched (though perhaps hastily edited) program on these ultra-orthodox Jews who are already having a serious impact on Israeli politics, not to mention the lives of other Jews and Arabs who come within their orbit. It is titled Israel: selling out secularism? From their site one can download the podcast of the program, listen to live-streaming, or read the transcript.

Background Briefing lists the following bibliography — of all readily accessible online articles — discussing more academically the background to the growth of the Haredi in Israel. I’ve read most of them, and recommend them to anyone wanting to seriously understand the social and psychological background to the rise of this social and political group today, and to explore some of the details of the fluctuations of their political strength over the past decade.

Iannaccone and Berman’s article (listed first) argues that safety lies in religious pluralism. Danger follows where States attempt to suppress certain militant religious movements. The United States is, perhaps paradoxically, held up as a model. Maybe so. The future is impossible to know. But thank the Enlightenment for the secularists, the educators, the peace activists in the meantime.

Title: ‘Religious Extremism, the good, the bad and the deadly’ in Public Choice 2006
Author: Laurence R. Iannaccone and Eli Berman
URL: http://econ.ucsd.edu/~elib/rex.pdf

Title: ‘Haredi Violence in Contemporary Israeli Society’ in Jew and Violence, Image, Ideologies, Realities
Author: Menachem Friedman
Publisher: Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002
URL: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/so/Haredi-Violence.pdf

Title: Sect, subsidy and Sacrifice: An economist’s view of ultra-orthodox Jews
Author: Eli Berman
Publisher: Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2000
URL: http://econ.ucsd.edu/~elib/sns.pdf

Title: ‘Rupture and Reconstruction: The transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy’ in Tradition 1994
Author: Haym Soloveitchik
URL: http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm

Title: ‘The Haredim and Israeli Society’ in Whither Israel – The Domestic Challenges
Author: Menachem Friedman
Publisher: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1993
URL: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/so/Ultra-Orthodox.pdf

Title: ‘The State of Israel as a theological dilemma’ in The Israeli State and Society, Boundaries and Frontiers
Author: Menachem Friedman
Publisher: State University of New York Press, 1989
URL: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/so/Theological-Dilemma.pdf

Title: ‘Haredim confront the modern city’ in Studies in Contemporary Jewry II
Author: Menachem Friedman
Publisher: Indiana University Press 1986
URL: http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/so/Haredim-Modern_City.pdf

Israel’s birthday and God’s gift from the Nile to the Euphrates

Manifest Destiny?

12/04/08
By Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom
Copied with permission from the Israeli peace activist site Gush Shalom (my links no longer default to new windows!)

NEXT MONTH, Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary. The government is working feverishly to make this day into an occasion of joy and jubilation. While serious problems are crying out for funds, some 40 million dollars have been allocated to this aim.

But the nation is in no mood for celebrations. It is gloomy. read more »

Information Clearing House

Information Clearing House is about the best collation I know of both major and alternative media articles about topics related to world issues in which Western powers have major impact, and therefore in which general populations within those western powers have some potential to influence policy. If you wonder what the news is behind the general gumpf you see repeated on Fox, CNN, BBC, et al ad nauseum, do click and scroll down the link Information Clearing House to see what I mean.

For more, see What and Who is Information Clearing House.

But the reason for posting about this here on Vridar is because . . . . . read more »

The GOOD legacy of the fundamentalist and cultic life: 12

12: Healthy Skepticism

Concluding my notes from Marlene Winell’s (Leaving the Fold) encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories.

Hoo boy! When I finally broke free of the faith-based thinking of religion I naively expected to enter a world of sensible healthy sceptical citizens. I had, after all, seen myself as apart from “the world” because of my faith, so on leaving my faith as a wiser sceptic and aspiring to be a healthily critical thinker, I assumed to some extent that I was about to become a part of the smart crowd. They had clearly demonstrated their smarts by not being fooled into any of the fairy tale nonsense I had been a part of for so long.

Nope. Fooled again. It had to slowly dawn on me that healthy scepticism was not the default position of most people in relation to most public issues. This was another slow disillusionment. I did not want to be a light in a dark place anymore. I wanted to be normal. But knowledge and experience necessarily bring with them some level of responsibility. I was startled to see that so many of the dark things I had experienced in the cult were taken as the norm, although in less intense degrees or with less damaging immediate impact in most cases, in society at large. Power struggles and willingness to destroy others for the sake of maintaining or enhancing one’s own position or world-view are pretty much regular hammer blows one hears and that batten wayward planks to hold societies together. After some years of tasting the worst of authoritarian ways in a cult one can smell authoritarian and dogmatic systems as easily as a cat smells a rat across a room. No matter if those systems be political, religious, philosophical, social, whatever.

Having been “burned” by your former indoctrination, you are now more likely to be on guard against rigid belief systems generally. You are now more aware of the dangers when you hear some pronouncement of “truth” that implies omniscience, restricts perception, and eliminates alternatives. (p.110)

Beliefs are or can be a form of “selfish gene” — what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”. They can be the tools of shutting down thoughts and imposing power over others. Or they can be simply armour-plated shells one dons out of fear of all that is “out there”. Whatever, they narrow one’s range of permissible questions and licensed answers. Foreign thoughts and and unexplored experiences are their victims.

I personally sometimes like to quip: Answers bind; Questions liberate. Though I do not mean that in a nihilistic sense. Answers are necessary, but equally necessary is an awareness of their inevitable tentativeness.

With healthy skepticism, you can now be more open, flexible, and fair. These qualities are greatly needed in a world full of bigotry and arrogance. (p.110)

I still vividly recall the strange frustration I felt when discussing my questioning processes with others still embedded in some level of faith. They could understand my questioning my church. That was good, they thought. At first I said that though I would question religious doctrines, I would never question the Bible. They seemed to think that was commendable too. But later I asked why not continue to question the so-called foundation of my religion too, and some I spoke to could understand and accept my questioning even the Bible. After that, the next step was to question God, too, of course. Now that’s where almost everyone baulked. Questioning a dubious cult was good, but one must not take questioning itself too far. It must only be applied to demolish “the right targets”.

So it looked to me like the propensity to question was God’s gift if one was questioning a given heresy. But that same propensity was a tool of Satan if it went much farther! Maybe questioning, healthy scepticism, is the only tool that enhances the dignity and true progress of humanity.

The irony is that narrow fundamentalist or cultic belief systems encourage questioning of all general social values and systems. They have to, since these systems are claiming to be the only valid alternatives to the world as it is. All it takes is for enough experiences to finally trigger release valves in one’s head to turn that questioning back on the religious belief system itself. That’s not so easy to initiate, but that’s another story. The important thing here is that for those who do manage it, they are bequeathed a powerful legacy that they can use in many positive ways for their own and others’ benefits.

Marlene concludes, probably looking back on all these good legacies and more:

The strengths that you retain from your experiences with religion are very significant. In spite of the confusion, sadness, and discouragement you may be feeling, you have a breadth and depth of being that others do not have. You are likely to have important values, positive personality traits, and a spiritual capacity. You can now challenge yourself to use these strengths to help overcome your difficulties. (pp.110-111)

I’d prefer to speak of emotional and mental maturity in place of “spiritual capacity”, but I guess that’s merely a question of semantics.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 11

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.

11: Community Experience

To quote this section from Winell (p.110) read more »