Monthly Archives: May 2008

‘Fabricating Jesus’: ch 1. Evans on Funk and Robinson

Continuing from this earlier post

After assuring the reader of his superior scholarly background in comparison with “modern scholars” of the Jesus Seminar, Evans goes and undoes all the intellectual confidence he has sought to establish by falling into the most astounding logical fallacies when he attempts to explain why 4 scholars in particular are no longer fundamentalist believers.

Of Funk and Robinson he says: read more »

“Discovering” an original gospel behind canonical Luke and the gospel of Marcion

The early church fathers accused Marcion of mutilating the canonical gospel of Luke. But there are problems with accepting this charge, as discussed in a previous post. Tyson in Marcion and Luke-Acts resurrects the hypothesis that both Marcion and the author of canonical Luke used another text no longer surviving and which he calls, after Baur, “original Luke”.

Tyson traces the historical pedigree of this hypothesis of “original Luke” through Ritschl, Baur, Hilgenfeld, Volckmar and Knox. read more »

‘Fabricating Jesus’ by Craig Evans, ch1. Misplaced Faith and Misguided Suspicion

Having discussed the Preface and the Introduction, I continue here with chapter 1 of Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans.

Misplaced Faith and Misguided Suspicion

A tired and common condescending put-down so often leveled against anyone who drifts away or turns against a tight-knit group of any kind is to accuse them of never having understood or been truly with the group from the beginning. The group-defensive-arrogance is almost too hot to approach. “No-one who really understands what we are about could ever possibly disown us.” Those remaining true to the original cause reflect and look for past signs of faults in those departed to explain why they left. Those who do leave or dissent are never taken at their word when they try to explain their reasons. It is some sin or missing key element that is the “real reason”. A letter in the Bible says the same, and Craig Evans says it of scholars whose studies have led them away from their fundamentalism:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; . . . 1 John 2:19

Erhman’s struggle with faith — and I feel for him — grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian. (p.31)

The condescension reeks. In both passages. Evans “feels for” the lost sheep who was wrongly set up from his days as an “impressionable” youth. We are listening to a pastor of superior learning and experience (according to his Preface) informing his other children why their erstwhile colleague no longer plays with them. The message is religious and moral, not scholarly. It is about the True Faith. It is not scholarly except in some of its language and in relation to a few branches growing out of Ehrman’s views.

Like the author of the first epistle of John, Evans seems to think it enough to propose his personal “insights” into the spiritual flaws of the scholars Robert Funk, James Robinson, Robert Price and Bart Ehrmann. He opts to spiritually condemn rather than offer a synopsis of scholarly arguments that would, when unpacked, hopefully challenge to their views of the Bible. A reader wanting to discover what is actually wrong in scholarly terms with the basic arguments of these scholars will find nothing here. Certainly Evans does give a few contradictory views of specific points of their arguments, but this is only tackling the odd twig or branch of one of the sceptic’s arguments, not their fundamental conclusions.

I should clarify at this point that I am not supporting here any of the arguments of Funk, Erhman et al, but am discussing Evans’ religious sermonizing approach posing as scholarly critique in relation to them.

I have studied in depth various strands of history, educational philosophy and English literature but until I began reading a few of the Christian fundamentalist apologetics I had never come across scholars rebutting one another with barbs like “misplaced faith” or “misguided suspicion”. Suspicion is, of course, the antithesis of faith, so the two complaints are really the stamp of the one coin.

Rather than take up critical debate and challenges on their own terms, as is done in every other discipline I know, fundamentalist scholars seem to insist on applying special rules of their own: one must have “faith” in the gospel and the texts that bear witness of that gospel, and failure to take the texts at face value is somehow deemed “a hermeneutic of suspicion”, that is, “unscholarly”. Reasons and evidence for a fundamentalist interpretation need not be a factor. The failure to adopt the “right” interpretation, the “face value” fundamentalist interpretation, is enough to invite the charge of “misguided suspicion”.

“Rigid fundamentalism” — never the Bible — is mostly to blame!

Incapable of admitting that there could be any real merit in a sceptic’s view of the Bible, Evans has to confess the sins of the church for being largely responsible for such waywardness. read more »

The Date of the Canonical Gospel of Luke

As discussed in previous posts from Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (Joseph Tyson), if the Book of Acts is to be dated so late, and was written as a response to the Marcionite challenge, then what of the Gospel of Luke?

  • Irenaeus wrote that the same author composed both Luke and Acts.
  • The Muratorian Canon did the same.
  • Henry J. Cadbury coined the term Luke-Acts to describe the two texts and to emphasize their common authorship.
  • Some scholars treat Luke-Acts as a single text.

In an earlier post (Did Marcion Mutilate the Gospel of Luke?) I outlined Tyson’s reasons for doubting that Marcion edited what we know as the canonical Gospel of Luke.

Nonetheless, Irenaeus and Tertullian do speak of a relationship between Marcion’s gospel and canonical Luke.

So beginning with this post I will discuss Tyson’s next chapter in which he discusses the composition of canonical Luke. He begins with the question of its date.

More than one edition of the gospel of Luke read more »

Dating the Book of Acts: Acts as a response to the Marcionite Challenge

This post follows on from one I completed — here — way back in February. The lot can be found in my archive for the Tyson category.

Continuing notes from reading of Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts . . . .

Tyson summarizes the hypothesis of John Knox published in 1942, that Acts (and canonical Luke) was composed as a response to the (second century) Marcionite challenge: read more »

‘Fabricating Jesus’ by Craig Evans, Introduction

This is a continuation of my comments on Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus (first post is here) — am making here some introductory comments on his book with special focus on his Introduction.


Craig Evans lays out what he sees as the context of book in its Introduction. As he writes passages like

We live in a strange time that indulges, even encourages, some of the strangest thinking. It is a time when truth means almost what you want to make of it. And in these zany quests for “truth”, truth becomes elusive. (p.15)


Modern scholars and writers, in their never-ending quest to find something new and to advance daring theories that run beyond the evidence, have either distorted or neglected the New Testament Gospels, resulting in the fabrication of an array of pseudo-Jesuses (p.16)

one can hear the clear echoes of

But we know this, that in the last days perilous times will come, for men will be . . . always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:1-2, 7)


For the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but telling or hearing some new thing. (Acts 17:21)


O Timothy, guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge — by professing it, some have strayed concerning the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)


For false Christs . . . will arise . . . (Matthew 24:24)

And when he later speaks of his puzzlement and amazement (pp.27, 29) at how some scholars have abandoned their fundamentalist beliefs and moved to unorthodox views of Jesus and the New Testament, one hears the resounding biblical text:

I marvel that you are turning away to . . . a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. . . (Galatians 1:6)

Craig Evans has tossed in the dog-whistle words that his fellow believers will register and that will recall the above passages to mind as his real message. Dog-whistle words and phrases like: “we live in strange times”, “a time when truth means almost what you want to make of it”, “in these quests for truth, truth becomes elusive”, “their never-ending quest to find something new”, “pseudo-Jesuses”.

Craig Evans makes it no secret that one of his concerns is “the times” and conditions that have led to scholarly divergences from orthodoxy. As I will demonstrate, he at best attacks twigs of arguments that are debated even among “sceptics”, or sometimes oversimplifies the position of some sceptics to the point of straw-man caricature. But the main focus of his book is an attempt to explain biblically and in biblical terms — while only marginally addressing the real positions and arguments themselves — why so many have departed from orthodox faith. Hence his main target will be the “misplaced faith and misguided suspicions” that the scholars had and that led to their fall from grace.

So even when he addresses points such as “questionable texts from later centuries”, or “failure to take into account Jesus’ mighty deeds”, or “cramped starting points and overly strict critical methods”, etc. it is from the perspective of a spiritual failing, a lack of correct faith. The dog-whistle words here, though are “suspicion” and “overly sceptical”. It seems enough to dismiss some questions as borne of an “overly sceptical attitude” when one seeks to avoid grappling with the actual arguments and reasoned assumptions underlying the methods of some of the “modern scholars”.

Ironically though not surprisingly, in some cases Evans even fully embraces the arguments the most liberal of sceptics himself — when that sceptic is arguing for a particular conclusion that he likes. So Evans is clearly not really opposed to the methods of the sceptics at all — at least not when they come to the “right conclusions”. I will discuss an example or two in the appropriate place in a future post.

But this apparent contradiction clearly explains why he does not grapple with the methodologies of sceptics, and why this book is really a religious tract born of his “love to lecture . . . love to preach . . . love to tell the stories of the Gospels . . . love to see the look in the faces of people in the congregation when they first understand what Jesus meant — what he really meant . . .” (p.13).

So who is the book for? Evans writes:

  1. for anyone confused by “wild theories and conflicting portraits of Jesus”
  2. for anyone interested in wanting to learn more about Jesus and the Gospels but is confused by the “strange books” available
  3. “for skeptics, especially for those prone to fall for some old nineteenth-century philosophical hokum that almost no one today holds”
  4. for the scholarly guild in hopes of lifting the “standard of scholarship”, that is a “scholarship” “which doesn’t presume that skepticism equals scholarship”
  5. “Finally, this book is written to defend the original witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”


  1. to reassure the flock that they don’t have to take any notice of scholarly enquiries that depart from orthodoxy
  2. to reaffirm the orthodoxy
  3. for those without faith who are likely to fall prey to fatuous ‘hokum’
  4. “true scholarship” is one in which the rules insist that faith always trumps skepticism; that is, it serves the interests of the prevailing orthodox fundamentalist ideology
  5. as an apology for the orthodox Christian faith

So the introduction makes it clear that Evans is only looking for any arguments (no doubt cherry picked from scholarly tomes, or from cherry picked scholarly tomes) that will be found to support the conclusion that his religious faith from his youth has not been misplaced. He has paid good heed to those who warned him, when he entered Claremont, “that critical study would not be good for [his] faith.” (p.13)

One is reminded of Soviet science serving the ideology of the Soviet state, of Catholic scholarship serving the Catholic orthodoxy, of Nazi intellectuals being bound to bolster the claims of Nazi ideology, and the often subtler forms of political pressures in many academic and research fields today. Unfortunately it is left to the outsiders, or those looking back from another time, to see most clearly the fallacies that must inevitably abound in the interests of preserving the ideology, whatever its brand.

‘Fabricating Jesus’ by Craig Evans — The Preface

Given the high praise so widely given Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans, and given the book’s subtitle, How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, I had hoped to find a scholarly engagement, albeit accessible to a lay audience, with the methods and arguments of “modern scholars”.

The book generally avoids doing anything like this. Rather, it is a strong statement of the correct views and interpretations according to Craig Evans, mixed with sermonizing laments that some Christians have made shipwreck concerning the faith because of their misguided learning and enquiries. If books like Fabricating Jesus are held up as “powerful and persuasive” arguments — that’s the description by Lee Strobel on the dust jacket — for fundamentalist faith then fundamentalists are betrayed. They do not have in this book anything like an understanding of the issues required to engage a sceptic in debate. They have nothing more than a book that makes strong noises supportive of their faith, that gives strong assurances that they don’t have to worry, or even think about, or honestly investigate the issues for themselves. They have only an empty illusion that here is an authority that demolishes the “distortions” of “modern scholarship”.

Will try to explain here for any fundamentalists relying on the wisdom contained in Fabricating Jesus why they will fail completely to engage a student of a “liberal modern scholar” or Bible sceptic.

But first, I wonder if this book was able to win a few of its accolades, such as “exposes the misinformed nonsense that has confused the reading public over the past few years”, by including a discussion of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh and their The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in the same volume he discusses the Jesus Seminar. I haven’t yet bothered to read his critique of those authors since the nonsense they have peddled (and even had to concede is fiction in order to make a copyright challenge against Dan Brown) has been amply demonstrated by journalists in the mainstream media.

Jesus at the MOMA, Kathy Moniot art
“Jesus at the MOMA” Kathy Moniot art,


Craig Evans opens his Preface by lightheartedly comparing his “journey” to the Christian faith with that of Paul. He was diverted from a career in the law to a life of faith while at college.

But the apparent intent of this Preface is to inform the reader that he is more learned in areas that matter than many of the Jesus Seminar scholars, and that the latter are misguided dilettantes by comparison.

In college he “majored in history”, and the reader soon sees the significance of this datum when he reads several times that Evans states categorically that virtually no scholar trained in history would ever come to the conclusions of some of the sceptics he discusses.

The biting sermonizing tone of the book is felt early:

Professor Mack was in those days . . . at that time a warm-hearted Christian scholar. . . . Times change and so do some people. (p.10)

Evans claims that his background studies in “the Greek and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic literature was an enormous asset in the study of Jesus and the Gospels.” He believes “the oddness of much of the work of the Jesus Seminar” is to be blamed on too many New Testament scholars lacking the same depth of knowledge of “early rabbinic literature and the Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture” (this particular deficit is repeated for emphasis on the same page), of deficient “training in the Semitic background of the New Testament”. He even complains that only “[f]ew have done any archaeological work.” I wondered about the relevance of this latter point, but on page 220 Evans writes that the archaeological “evidence for the existence of Jesus . . . is overwhelming” (p.220).

Regrettably I did not see any instance in Fabricating Jesus where Evans demonstrates where his superior understanding or practical experience in these areas was used to undercut the methods and arguments that have led some scholars to question the veracity of the Bible.

Interestingly, Evans says that his studies in biblical criticism challenged not the essence of the Christian message but “the baggage that many think is part of the message.” And of what does this baggage consist?

  1. views of authorship of the gospels (e.g. that they are written by the apostles)
  2. view of the dates of biblical books (e.g. that they are early)
  3. assumptions regarding the nature of biblical literature (e.g. gospels are history only)
  4. assumptions about the nature of Jesus teaching (e.g. that Jesus taught only new things)

The examples Evans offers for each bit of “baggage” are important. He is using those examples to narrow the real meaning of what he thinks is baggage in each case. He will not concede, for example, that whoever wrote the gospels was doing anything other than relying on orally transmitted memories of the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Nor will he concede for a moment the possibility the nature of the gospels could be something quite apart from anything truly historical. Nor that the assumptions about the nature of Jesus’ teaching could embrace sayings and proverbs from other sources put into his mouth.

In other words, despite the apparent disclaimer, Evans is, it must be said, playing word games. These four items of baggage are only baggage so long as they stay within limits that nonetheless support the conservative Christian message. In other words they are not baggage at all to Evans. They are really the container of his faith with a built in limited elasticity. He speaks of “baggage” but really means “limited elasticity”.

Fabricating Jesus is a book that takes a hard look at some of the sloppy scholarship . . . that [has] been advanced in recent years. . . . Some of it, frankly, is embarrassing.” I’ll have a look at chapter one of this book and see how Evans begins his treatment of some of this “sloppy” and “embarrassing” scholarship.

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 2

Continuing with the first chapter by Martin West of Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. This and the 2 earlier entries of this series can be found in my Book Notes/Reviews subcategory “West” or in the Religion subcategory God and other deities.

School of Athens by Raphael

Parmenides (early 5th century b.c.e.) — Love, not fire or lightning, is the guiding principle, and he/it’s a She

For Parmenides what steered or guided cosmic events was:

  • a goddess
  • who was located in the middle of a system of circles of fire and darkness
  • and who ruled by bringing male and female together to produce all births and mixtures

Plutarch identified Parmenides match-making goddess with Aphrodite.

Another text fragment informs us that this feminine power first brought forth — apparently by the power of her mind or thought alone — the god Eros.

One school of Parmenides appeared to identify this goddess with Dike or Ananke. What is certain however, is that once again we have a hierarchy of gods emanating from the ultimate one.

The Orphic Protogonos Theogony (ca 500 b.c.e.) — Zeus the first and last, for a moment anyway

A theogony is a list of births of many gods, but West sees its relevance to the history of monotheism in that it this particular poem was part of Parmenides’ cultural tradition, and includes a dramatic scene where polytheism for a moment become effectively “monotheistic”:

When Zeus succeeded Cronus as King of Heaven, Zeus swallowed Protogonos, or Phanes. Phanes was the bisexual god who first appeared from the cosmic egg with the seed of the gods inside him/her. By swallowing Phanes, Zeus swallowed the universe, including all the gods:

all the immortals became one with him, the blessed gods and goddesses
and rivers and lovely springs and everything else
that then existed: he became the only one.

Then follows a hymn to Zeus:

Zeus was first, Zeus was last, god of the bright bolt:
Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, from Zeus are all things made . . .
Zeus is the king, Zeus the ruler of all, god of the bright bolt.

Zeus thus for a moment becomes the sole god. He then proceeds to “bring up” all the other gods “from his holy heart”, presumably a metaphor for an intelligent design. So all the gods subsequently existing become are the creation and emanation of Zeus himself.

Empedocles (ca 490-430 b.c.e.) — the Solitary Sphere, made by Love, shattered by Strife

The same model of all the elements becoming absorbed into One and then expelled again was used by Empedocles. All matter was the product of 4 divine elements — fire, air, water, earth. Under the influence of Love, these elements periodically absorbed themselves into one uniform mass, a single god called Sphairos, or the Sphere.

“This rotund divinity ‘rejoices in his circular solitude’, until Dissension [Strife] sends tremors through his body and the separating elements begin to take the shapes of all the beings that are now in the world.” (p.35)

So unlike Zeus, this Sphere god does not guide or control the universe. It disappears under the infiltration of Strife.

Out of the breakup of the Sphere come the 4 elements as the 4 gods (the links with the elements is my guesswork, not in West):

  • Zeus / fire
  • Hera / air
  • Nestis (Persephone) / water
  • Aidoneus (Hades) / earth

There were 2 other gods who governed the relations between these four, not through the chances of conflict, but through the orderly abiding by the terms of formal agreement:

  • Love
  • Strife

The things produced by the mixing of the four elements included not only humans, trees and plants, animals, birds and fish, but also extremely long-lived gods.

These gods can be condemned for misbehaviour to 30,000 years of embodiment within animal or vegetable bodies.

One of the gods of Empedocles was a disembodied Mind that darted across the universe at the speed of thought. Unlike the solitary Mind or Intelligence god postulated by Xenophanes and Heraclitus, this Mind was merely one of many of the long-life gods that emerged after the Sphere fractured into the 4 divine elements. Other ancients attributed this Mind to Apollo, or to divinity in general.

Anaxagoras (ca 500-428 b.c.e.) — a material controlling Mind over all

Anaxagoras postulated something that functioned like a god but was a natural material substance. He thought of this as an extremely rarefied material Mind (Nous) that:

  • is a rarefied, homogeneous and autonomous material (not divine) substance, the finest and purest of all material substances
  • cannot combine with other substances
  • is everlasting (but Anaxagoras refused to apply divine labels like “immortal” to it)
  • is able to live in some living creatures
  • is the greatest power in existence
  • is all-knowing
  • initiated the rotation of the cosmos which led to the separation of all things from the original mixture
  • has determined and continues to decide the precise mixture of elements in each thing
  • governs all living things
  • has organized all things, past, present and future

Anaxagoras thought of it as a stand-by physical explanation to answer questions that could not be explained by other physical mechanisms.

Diogenes of Apollonia (ca 460 b.c.e.) — the divine Air we breathe

Diogenes was more clear cut in restricting the ultimately divine power to Air (Aer) than Anaximenes had been. Anaximenes had attributed divinity to all the products and secondary products of Aer. Not so Diogenes.

Air is breathed in by living things and is therefore the soul and consciousness of living things.

Everything contains some portion of air. But not everything contains the same portion.

This air is everywhere and in everything. It gives humans and other animals their souls and consciousness through their breath. It is God.

Air is responsible for the “intelligent design” of the orderly universe: winter and summer, night and day, rain, wind and fine days.

Like Anaxagoras, Diogenes attributed this Mind or Consciousness to a physical element, Air, but unlike Anaxagoras he was willing to call it divine, God.

Diogenes also interpreted Homer allegorically and regarded Zeus in the epic myths as the personification of Air. It is unknown whether or how he interpreted the other deities allegorically as well. If he did, no doubt Zeus or Air would have been the overall guiding power.

Ancient Arguments from Design

Herodotus commented in his Histories on what he took as evidence of “intelligent design” guiding the universe and everything in it. He observed, for example, that animals that were food for others bred in large numbers while the predators had few offspring, thus preserving a happy balance (‘happy’ at least for the predators!)

West comments on Herodotus’s example of the flying snakes of Arabia that, H says, would over-run the world if it were not for the planning of Providence in guiding the female to crunch on the male’s throat at climax and for the unborn young avenging their father by eating their way out of their mother’s body.

Herodotus attributed such balance to “the forethought of the divine”, which was Wisdom.

Socrates likewise, according to Xenophon in his Memorabilia, argued for a divine intelligence behind humans, for example. They had arms whereas other animals only had legs; they also had light to see by; and usefully stood upright; and each part of the body had a useful function. He saw similar design in the heavens and other living things.

He attributed all of these things to “the gods”.

The indifference between gods, plural, and God, singular, in ancient thought

One reads sayings of Socrates where he will speak sometimes of “the gods” and other times of “(the) god”.

Whether in 5th century b.c.e. Histories, Philosophical Discourse, the Hippocratic Corpus or in Dramatic Tragedy, “[w]henever some theological truth is formulated, some statement about the regime under which mankind lives, the writer typcally does not name one of the traditional gods but says οι θεοι or ο θεος (in tragedy commonly without the article).” (p. 38 )

West concludes:

The indifference as between singular and plural is possible because when someone says ‘the gods’, the assumption is that these gods act as a unanimous body. Because of the force of tradition there was no hurry to discard polytheistic language, and yet there was a general disposition to see the divine regimen as unified and purposeful. This was a situation in which monotheism could develop without causing upset. (pp.38-39)

( . . . to be contd etc . . . )

Beloved and Only Begotten Sons Sacrificed by Loving Fathers (Offering of Isaac, 5)

First of a couple of backtracks here before completing the Offering of Isaac’s / Sacrifice of Jesus series. Based on Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.

According to what Eusebius tells us in his Praeparatio Evangelica, one passage Philo of Byblos wrote of sacrifice among the gods:

It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Kronos then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called ledud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.’

Kronos or El sacrificed his son to put an end to the “very great dangers from war that had beset the country.” The same motif is found in the Bible where King Mesha also offered “his first-born son, who was to succeed him as king” to end the siege of his city. See 2 Kings 3:27. In both cases a king sacrifices his royal heir.

Elus is otherwise known as El, and is also known by the same name and in the same supreme role in the Hebrew Bible, and sometimes equated there with YHWH.

Iedud is, following Levenson, better spelled Iedoud to reflect Eusebius’s Greek.

Another manuscript tradition names this only begotten son of El Ieoud rather than Iedoud (Levenson, p.27).

The only begotten son

Ieoud is most likely the same as the Hebrew word yachiyd, the only, the solitary one, the only begotten.

This word is prominent in stories of child sacrifice: read more »

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 1

Last month I posted my reading of an interesting discussion by senior research fellow M. L. West about the nature of ancient Mid-East and Mediterranean world polytheism and how it appears to have evolved into monotheism in late antiquity.

This post continues the remainder of that discussion by West. It outlines how and why the philosophers moved the intellectual world to a position where monotheism came to be embraced as the most economical answer to “the big questions” of the day.

As in that previous post, I am discussing the first chapter by Martin West in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede.

On the quest of the sixth and fifth century Greek philosophers West begins:

To invoke God as an explanation of phenomena is to confess that you do not know how to explain them rationally — unless, that is, you are prepared to supply a rational explanation of God. The Presocratics, however, did try to explain God. What they sought to eliminate from the world was not divinity as such but caprice and the arbitrary events which had formerly been ascribed to divine initiative. (p.30)

Guiding principles: Depersonalize and Economize

Rather than discard gods as an explanation, what these philosophers did was to depersonalize the gods of the myths. By depersonalizing them and morphing them into abstract principles they hoped to discover ageless and unchanging forces and powers and principles in place of the moody temperamentalism of human-like gods. They may retain the names of some of these gods for those abstract agencies, but at least such impersonal phenomena would be worthy of the label “god” in their view.

“Among the principles that informed these men’s theorizing were economy and coherence.” They valued the idea of a single cause over many causes. The fewer gods at the apex who could be deduced to be guiding all below the better, although some thinkers retained a small hierarchy of a few agencies at the top.

Thales (ca 624-547 b.c.e) — getting the abstractions right

West sees Thales as the one who began to emancipate such terms as “soul” and “god” from their conventional mythical applications. read more »

Burma after Nargis: $$$ the junta DOES NOT need

The Burmese junta has just requested $11.5 billion for rebuilding after Cyclone Nargis.

On a recent Late Night Live interview Sean Turnell, Associate Professor at Macquarie University and co-founder of Burma Economic Watch, presented the following:

  1. The Burmese regime is “flush with funds” at the moment
  2. Over the last 5 years it is earning $150,000,000 US from exports of natural gas to Thailand
  3. It has $4 billion stashed away, none of which goes into the government’s public account
  4. The incoming money is recorded at the official exchange rate which is 200 times undervalued

The Burmese regime is thus deliberately starving the public account of funds

The podcast for this interview, which also includes input from Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese journalist and editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine; and with Gary Woodward, former ambassador to Burma, is well worth a listen.

Guided by astrology? It also emerges in the LNL interview the possibility that the reason the military junta went ahead with their referendum on the constitution in the midst of the chaos was to follow through on the predictions of their astrologers that that was the most favourable day for it.

The Irrawaddy Magazine is also of special interest, with 2 of its current story headings about cyclone victims being forcibly evicted from their places of refuge and about poorly paid military looting in some of the cyclone areas.

Fraudulent history of Intelligent Design

A wonderful little videoclip exposing the fraudulent history of Intelligent Design has been picked up on Exploring Our Matrix.

It shows how subpoenaed drafts of an Intelligent Design text clearly demonstrate a direct re-writing of Creationist material.

The Offering of Isaac . . . . 4: death and resurrection

Implicit in my series of notes on Jon Levenson‘s book, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, is that the Jesus story, in particular the fact of and meaning attributed to his humiliation and crucifixion, the saving function of his blood, his pioneer role and one with whom the faithful are to identify, should not be seen as unique developments. They arguably emerged within the context of a Jewish intellectual matrix that was attributing the same sort of theology to Isaac.

Certainly some of the clearest expressions of these meanings to the binding of Isaac are found in the rabbinic literature that was penned after the destruction of Jerusalem. But the earlier delineations of these interpretations are seen as early as the second century b.c.e.. Further, many of the rabbinic passages to which Levenson refers appear to derive from the earliest period of rabbinic Judaism. This is the same period in which the Christian gospels are also most commonly dated. (There are also what I believe are strong arguments — if not widely accepted ones — that the Pauline literature also dates from the late first or early second century.)

It is therefore no stretch to postulate the Jewish and Christian theological interpretations of Isaac and Jesus emerging in tandem, perhaps even in a dialogue with each other. For me it is also interesting that Levenson places some of the radical Isaac salvation and death and resurrection theology to the circumstances of the persecution of the Jews at the time of the Bar Khoba war (early 130’s c.e.) or possibly earlier. Interesting to me because this period, and its forerunner, the first Jewish war (late 60’s c.e.), set what I believe are the most plausible circumstances and explanations for both the emergence of Christianity and the course of rabbinic Judaism. Both naturally drew on pre 70 c.e. schools of thought (and Judaism pre 70 c.e. was a far from monolithic religious and thought system), but it was surely the crises of the Jewish wars that created the conditions that led to the real beginnings of these two trees. Both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism may be seen as natural (vacuum filling) replacements of what had been lost. (I’ve hinted at one aspect of this in an earlier thought about the tomb of Jesus being born out of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.)

But I’m getting way ahead of myself here, and sidetracked from the arguments of Levenson. Back to the business at hand:

The Death and Resurrection of Isaac?

The Shed Blood of Isaac read more »

Religion in Public Life — 2 bad arguments by Professor Roger Trigg

Professor Trigg
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, Roger Trigg, was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Religion Report this week (see the transcript — and the podcast if you’re quick enough — here) and 2 of his arguments in favour of keeping religious debate in the public political arena struck me as very bad.

Bad argument #1:

Addressing the controversy Prime Minister Tony Blair raised when he publicly declared that God would judge him on his decision to invade Iraq, Professor Trigg said that he thought people would like the idea that their leaders felt they were accountable to someone above them as opposed to thinking they themselves had the last say.

Why bad read more »