Monthly Archives: February 2009

Miracles 2: another misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

This post should be Part 2 of my ‘reviews’ or notes re “God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1).

The subtitle of Roy Williams’ book is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational’ objections to religion are unconvincing”.

Roy Williams wishes to define a miracle in terms that do not presuppose a god, so embraces English philosopher Brian Davies’ definition of a miracle as

an event that cannot be explained in terms intelligible to the natural scientist or observer of the regular processes of Nature. (p.163)

That’s hardly a very good definition. It would mean that any event that is not currently understood by science is miraculous. It would mean that if Einstein had not been born or no-one had postulated the theory of relativity at the time that a star’s light was seen to actually bend around the sun at the time of an eclipse, then that bending of starlight would have to be defined as even more miraculous than the bending of Uri Geller’s spoon. Did lightning only cease to be a miracle after the discovery of electricity? The role of science has been to uncover natural explanations for things that once could not be explained naturally. Still a wee way to go too.

Roy Williams distils David Hume’s argument against the possibility of a true miracle being honestly reported into four points (p.165):

  1. no such testimony has ever been given by enough people of adequate learning and intelligence;
  2. people are naturally gullible and untrustworthy;
  3. reports of miracles tend to emanate from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’;
  4. and different religions report different miracles, and this invalidates all such reports.

Of the first three points Williams writes:

they amount to saying that no human observer can ever be completely trusted. This seems to me a cynical generalisation, a prime example of reductionism.

With this dismissal, Roy Williams’ dismisses David Hume from the remainder of his discussion of miracles, apart from a later section where he treats point 4 separately.

Williams depicts David Hume’s scepticism as extremist and even unnatural in its relationship to the rest of humanity. My own scepticism has been accompanied by a deeper sense of affinity with the rest of human kind, and David Hume’s argument never struck me as so cynical. Compare Roy Williams’ rationalization for dismissing David Hume with what Hume actually wrote in his famous section on miracles:

. . . we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. . . . It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

Far from coming within two miles of even suggesting that “no human observer can ever be completely trusted”, Hume flatly states from the start that acceptance of eye-witness testimony is the most common, useful and even necessary of “species of reasoning” we all have.

Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

There is no room in the passage from David Hume for Roy Williams to dismiss his writing as a “cynical generalization” against the normal course of eyewitness testimony of fellow human beings. On the contrary, Hume begins with “the charitable” position that most people are generally inclined to tell the truth about what they witness throughout life. Most people, Hume asserts, have no wish to be disgraced by being found out to be liars.

This passage from David Hume pulls the rug from beneath Roy Williams’ reasons for dismissing Hume’s arguments, and obliges Williams to seriously return to engage with the detail of Hume’s actual argument.

So if Hume asserts that it is natural and necessary to rely on eyewitness testimony as a general rule, under what circumstances does Hume then open the way to doubting others? He explains:

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

So how does Hume treat accounts of miracles in books that have a reputation of being authored by historians, or even just from any person with a reputation for being of good character?

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

Hume argues that the reason we tend to believe historians and others is because our experiences have conditioned us to expecting them to tell the facts.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

But if an historian or otherwise honourable person proclaims a miracle, then our experience that miracles do not happen is enough to alert us that in this case the otherwise trustworthy person is mistaken. Hence most readers of Josephus today may take many of his details of the history of the Jewish war as factual, but will not treat his reports of miracles as having the same level of credibility. Similarly ancient historians like Herodotus and Livy pass on many historical details that we are at liberty to assume as factual, but no-one embraces their tales of miracles with the same certainty.

Hume argues for consistency:

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

The reason we generally accept certain information from historians as factual is the same reason we dismiss their reports of miracles.

Many fundamentalists and other Christians who dismiss the miracles in pagan histories yet believe in the Bible’s miracles are being inconsistent. They treat the “facts” in pagan histories as historical for the same reason most people do — readers are accustomed to finding correlations between the writings of historians and true facts. And they find it as easy as any sceptic to dismiss as untrue any event (a miracle) that goes against their experience of nature and the world. But they treat the Bible differently (as a book whose words are permitted to assume greater authority than our own personal experiences) and therefore the miracles of the Bible must be accepted.

David Hume does not write cynically or with sweeping generalization against the trustworthiness of people. I have quoted his writings on how he approaches normal eyewitness testimony to show that he is hardly a reductionist (as Williams suggests).

In the first part of his essay on miracles Hume presented the rational argument against believing in them. In the second part of his essay he discusses four reasons for disbelieving the testimony that does exist for miracles. Williams dot-pointed these 4 (above) and Hume’s discussion of each of them can be found in part 2 of his essay.

Disappointingly, after dismissing David Hume’s scepticism as cynical and reductionist, Williams discusses the miracles of Jesus as if they are known to us all from multitudes of eyewitnesses. Of course, we only have four gospels, with at least two and very likely three all largely mutations from the original one (GMark) — not multitudes of eyewitnesses at all.  The fact that one author wrote a story about multitudes of witnesses, and that that story was modified by others, and that it was not testified till the second century c.e., is scarcely credible evidence for miracles being performed a century earlier. We have more reason to believe the historian Tacitus who “reported” miracles by the emperor Vespasian within a decade or two of his lifetime.

But I will leave the last word to Roy Williams here and leave it to readers to ask the obvious follow up questions it leaves hanging. Roy Williams argues against Hume’s fourth point as follows:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (p.293)

Miracles: fundamentalist misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd are widely reputed among fundamentalist circles for having authored a “most important book . . . for critical assessment of the Gospels”, “a powerfully argued defence of the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels”, “a thoroughly compelling cumulative argument – one of the very best available – for the reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition”, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition. Average rating is 4 and a half stars out of a max possible of five!

I have repeatedly been urged by fundamentalists to read it for myself. So now I have begun to do that. I really had hoped for something substantial after the hype, but so far have been a bit disappointed.

To take just one point here, — Eddy and Boyd’s argument against eighteenth century Enlightenment sceptical philosopher David Hume‘s writings against belief in miracles — pages 61-63 of The Jesus Legend. (I have already addressed another point or two of theirs and will, no doubt, address more. The complete set will be found in the Eddy and Boyd link under BOOK REVIEWS & NOTES on the right margin of this blog.)

Here’s how Eddy and Boyd sum up David Hume’s argument against believing in miracles:

Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agents.” With this definition in hand, Hume concluded that it is always irrational to believe a miracle had occurred. To Hume’s way of thinking, one must weigh the probability of a claim that a “transgression” of a natural law (a miracle) had occurred against . . . every confirmed instance of this law being confirmed . . . (pp. 41-42)

Thus against a report that one man had risen from the dead must be counted the number of times people who die stay dead. Eddy and Boyd rightly conclude that such an argument means that no historian can ever rationally believe a report that one man rose from the dead. But they go further and argue that this argument is invalid, and they argue it is invalid by directly misrepresenting what Hume actually wrote. (I’d like to think they had not read Hume directly for a long time, or being rushed they over-relied on common wrong assumptions about what Hume wrote.)

They continue:

The Perfect Bridge Hand – A Circular Straw Man Fallacy

(E&B cite N.Geisler’s The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 1999, for this)

One problem with Hume’s line of reasoning is that he seems to associate rational thinking with adding up evidence rather than weighing evidence. To rationally determine whether one has been randomly dealt a perfect bridge hand, for example, one wouldn’t simply add up all the possible alternative hands one could have been randomly dealt and compare it with the odds of getting a perfect bridge hand (1,635,013,559,600 to 1) Were this the case it would obviously never be rational to accept that one had been dealt a perfect bridge hand — even if, as a matter of fact, one was holding one!

Eddy and Boyd have subtly twisted Hume’s argument in the above passage. Where Hume made a case about the likelihood of predicting a certain event, Eddy and Boyd give the impression that Hume would dispute the possibility of a past event known to have happened.

Eddy and Boyd:

The way a rational person goes about determining whether or not he or she has been randomly dealt a perfect bridge hand is by looking at the empirical evidence. Is the person in fact holding a perfect bridge hand?

And THAT is exactly what David Hume was arguing. Eddy and Boyd appear not to have brushed up on Hume’s argument before attempting such a “refutation”.

So to let David Hume speak for a moment from his famous passage on miracles, Section 10 of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty . . . . All events follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. . . .  so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

In other words, Hume is arguing that the odds of experiencing worse weather in any one week in June than in December are small, but not impossible. And the mathematical odds of being randomly dealt a perfectly bridge hand are so astronomical that it would be irrational to expect to be dealt one, but if one was dealt one, then one knows just how astonishingly rare such an event is.

Hume says that past experience teaches us that we can have absolute certainty about some things happening or not happening (e.g. the sun rising or dead cats not rising). Our experience teaches us that there has never been an exception to those events so we can have the highest assurance they will remain true tomorrow.

The chances of being dealt a perfect bridge hand are quantifiable numerically, so they are not infinite. One can say that a tossed coin will have a 50-50 chance of landing heads up, so one can have a rational fifty-fifty assurance that it will land heads. But experience also teaches us that a coin may land tails up many times before it really does land heads up. The rational expectation (50 -50 chance) is not invalid, however. The question of the perfect bridge hand is merely an extension of the degree of expectation, of assurance, one can have. One knows it is possible by the “laws of probability” while at the same time confessing that one is not likely to see it happen in one’s lifetime.

In between these two extremes one might place the odds of “YOU” winning the Lotto. Not likely, but possible, so “you” keep dreaming, and paying.

Eddy and Boyd distort Hume’s argument. Hume is arguing that it is our physical senses, including reason, that inform us of the likelihood of an event happening. And that it is our physical senses, including reason, that also inform us either directly or indirectly whether an event has really happened. Hume would not deny that he had been dealt a perfect bridge hand if indeed he had, but he would be extremely confident he never would be dealt a second, and that he may even have been the only person in history who ever will be dealt such a hand. It is a straw man argument for E & B to say he would not believe it if it happened because the odds, not even infinite odds, are against it.

It is also a circular argument that E & B make, because they are assuming that the resurrection of Jesus can be proven. It is only with this assumption that the odds against a raising the dead can be reduced to a finite, and therefore a technically possible probability ratio.

The Unusual and The Impossible – they really are not in the same peapod

Eddy & Boyd further stretch (distort) Hume’s argument by writing:

Second, if carried through consistently, Hume’s methodology would render it unreasonable to conclude that anything unusual ever happens, since, by definition, there are far more usual events than unusual ones. . . . In fact, Hume’s methodology would justify denying that a miracle occurred even if one witnessed it personally. (pp.61-62)

The same passage from Hume that I copied above demonstrates the failure of Eddy and Boyd to understand Hume’s argument.

Hume indeed discusses unusual experiences (e.g. having a finer week of weather in June than in December). All that this means is that we are surprised that something unusual has happened, and we talk about it. The fact that something happened against the odds is the very definition of a “surprising” or an “unusual” event.

Eddy and Boyd cite the conquests of Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte as so “unusual” (they use the adjective “mind-boggling” to describe the exploits of these men) that according to Hume’s argument, a sceptic must not believe they ever happened.

Thus, E&B conclude, one must “weigh” the evidence, not merely “add up” the evidence. They mean one must not judge the likelihood that an event has happened according to mathematical probability (adding up the evidence). Rather, they argue that one must “weigh” the evidence. “Weighing” is (instructively, I would suggest) left as a vague and undefined concept in their book.

But of course E and B know as well as anyone that there are very real naturalistic explanations (economic and geo-political etc) for the unusual moments of conquests of extraordinarily large areas by military leaders throughout history. There are no naturalistic reasons for believing that cats, or any other mammal, run over by trucks or skewered to stakes, ever comes to life again.

Eddy and Boyd vainly try to squeeze a supernatural event, a defiance of the laws of gravity, of physics, of cellular biology, into the realm of “possible” and therefore “probable” to some extent.

Hume, in fact, argues that while our experiences teach us that some events may possibly happen, they can be expected to happen only very rarely, and maybe never in our own lifetimes. A wise man looks at the evidence, including that of his own experience, Hume wrote, and from there he makes a rational assessment of the probability of a similar event happening again. If there are NO instances at all of inexplicable gravity defiance (an apple or man “falling” upwards and taken up by the clouds and angels “into heaven”) then the likelihood of such an event happening in the future is zero, infinitely improbable.

E&B conclude by effectively charging Hume with biased reasoning against the supernatural:

Hume’s reasoning about miracles, it seems, was filtered through his a priori convictions about the probabilistically inviolable laws of nature, which rendered it virtually certain that miracles do not occur. (p.62)

Note E&B’s reduction of the laws of nature, let’s take gravity as an example, to a matter of (finite mathematical) probability and to what is “virtually certain”. Is it really a matter of finite mathematical probability that a rock will sink if you throw it into deep water? Is it only “virtually certain” that if you are caught out in the rain without cover you will get wet?

I find it somewhat amusing (also somewhat hypocritical) that fundamentalists resort to the relativity of post-modernism to push their anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment and psychologically and socially retrograde agendas of black-and-white absolutes.

There’s another side to David Hume’s argument about belief in miracles that Eddy and Boyd do not address at all in their book, but I’ll save that one for another post.

(P.S. Yes, yes, I know that the laws of physics don’t behave in the same way the closer we get to the singularity or the speed of light etc, but fundamentalists don’t believe in the big-bang anyway. Also I know that one day something might crash into the earth knocking it to smithers so there’s no more rising of the sun, etc etc. But the discussion that interests me is the one of human experience in the here and now)

the glory of suffering for god — hindu and christian styles

thaipusam3A couple of weeks ago, by chance I stumbled across a crowded street scene in Little India (part of Singapore) and had to have a look to see what the interest was. Hundreds of onlookers were staring at a half-naked man stoically carrying a heavy metal structure decorated with peacock feathers and other Hindu decorations. From a distance it was easy to dismiss it as little more than a decorative show for some worship ceremony, but a closer look raised questions. Were those really metal hooks laced by the dozens through his skin? Were both his cheeks really pierced through with a single dagger?

There was no blood, however. But yes, looking at more of these men following one another along the street, it was clear they were walking with some form of self-sacrificial burdens. Daggers pierced both cheeks; other exquisitely decorated long blades pierced tongues; hooks through their skin in dozens of places carried what must surely have been a substantial weight of chains; and most bore on their shoulders an obviously weighty structure displaying the glory of what I took to be some Hindu god. A smaller number instead hauled heavy religious statues along the road by chains hooked through the skin on their backs.

All were surrounded by close bands of supporters. Presumably relatives and friends. Women, elderly, children. Regularly they all broke out into chants and songs, beating drums, clashing cymbals. They would keep a close eye on the one carrying the burdens of some sort of penance and regularly check to see that he was coping. Sometimes this “help” consisted of refastening a hook on the end of a chain that had fallen out of  his skin on his back, or his nose or cheek. Sometimes a little water was poured down the mouth of a man who looked up helplessly with his cheeks parted by a single dagger lodged through them both, and another upright through his tongue.

Astonishingly, on some occasions one of these flagellants would begin skipping, jumping, and whirling around in a lively dance with the sound of the drums and cymbals. Crowds would cheer him on. Ocassionally after one who exerted himself like this for a few minutes supporters would offer him a stool for a moment’ sit-down.

I know very little about Hinduism, but I afterwards learned from some Hindu friends here in Singapore that this is the Thaipusam festival, and that it is only found today in Malaysia, Singapore, and pockets of southern India. Not even all Hindus would have heard of it, I was told.

I have a full set of photographs, including video clips (which will not load here) at my Thaipusam collection on Flickr.

I was also told that that preceding this journey the men would undergo a special fast that was supposed to contribute to the absence of blood when pierced by hooks and daggers.

The large weights of magnificant decorations are called kavadi. This was a cross shaped base superimposed by a dome.

Some of the women carried food — milk and flour and fruit. At one stage the suffering of one of the devotees was ritually enhanced by one of his attendants stop before him, take a piece of fruit from a tray held by a woman nearby, and then with a knife cut it in two — and tossing each piece far out into the crowd. The sufferer was not to eat, but had to see food tossed away from before him. (I think this is captured in the second half of my IMG1919 clip.)

I was also told that at the end of their several kilometer “pilgrimage” they fire-walk. But I know how that works so that didn’t impress me so much. (The heat from coals is slow to generate and as long as one keeps one’s feet moving quickly enough there will not be time for them to be burned across a short sprint.)

Given my Christian background and the strangeness of this ceremony to me, I could not help but make comparisons:

  1. In both religions there is the concept of a person being required, for salvific purposes, to undergo extreme physical suffering
  2. This physical suffering is something to be overcome. In the ceremony I saw there were no tears from any of the participants, only the reverse — an occasional burst of dance and song to apparently demonstrate that the sufferer was “not of this body” but was infused with a higher existence.
  3. There is an important role for blood: either it is to be liberally shed or not shed at all.
  4. The suffering and giving up of the flesh of each man is also his glory. Presumably he does this to attain to some higher spiritual life or relationship. And as Christian literature speaks of the cross as a glory, so it was clear that each of these participants bore in their suffering the weight of the glory of their gods.

Interesing — the myths vary, the roles of the actors vary, but they all point to a common action-theme. Of course some Christians today in Latin America, Philippines and southern Europe imitate the sufferings of Christ in a similar way. Again, this may be another pointer to the origins of myths — they originated long ago to explain the customs, not the other way around.




My video clips and more pics available here.

Embarrassing or stereotypical narrative details? (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend)

I had been assured by a number of fundamentalists and book reviews that the Eddy and Boyd book (The Jesus Legend) was a cut above the rest of apologetics in its scholarly critique of sceptical arguments and buttressing of the veracity of the gospel text as it is. So far I have been disappointed in my search for something seriously challenging. In their discussion of what many call the “criterion of embarrassment”, there is nothing new, and it seems they studiously avoid the most obvious and well-known literary tropes to which the New Testament gospels were indebted.

On page 408 Boyd and Eddy write:

The presence of self-damaging details in a document usually suggests to historians that the author was willing to risk damaging his own cause for the sake of remaining faithful to history.

They continue,

early Christians would not have invented material that was counterproductive to their cause — material that put Jesus of themselves in a negative light . . .

After discussing the “embarrassing” account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, Boyd and Eddy list 15 other supposedly self-damaging details, all from Mark’s gospel, to demonstrate “the prevalence” of this “honesty-at-all-costs” type of material.

Before looking at some of these 15 “self-damaging” points, a note on the “embarrassing nature” of Mark’s baptism narrative. What is embarrassing about Mark’s scene of the baptism of Jesus is that it flies in the face of later orthodox doctrine. Mark presumably believed that Jesus was a mere man who was possessed by the spirit only after his baptism, and it was only at that point that he was declared to be a “son of God”. The subsequent embarrassment is one over theological beliefs, not historical facts, about Jesus and his nature. But this is a discussion requiring a post of its own.

Eight of the fifteen points of “embarrassment” or “self-damaging honesty” in the narrative of Mark’s gospel that Boyd and Eddy (pp. 410-411) list are:

  1. Jesus’s own family questioned his sanity (3:21)
  2. Jesus could not perform many miracles in his own town (6:5)
  3. Jesus was rejected by people in his hometown (6:3)
  4. some thought Jesus was in collusion with, even possessed by, the devil (3:22, 30)
  5. Jesus’s disciples were not always able to exorcise demons (9:18)
  6. Jesus associated with people of ill-repute (2:14-16)
  7. The disciples who were to form the foundation of the new community consistently seemed dull, obstinate, and eventually cowardly (8:32-33; 10:35-37; 14:37-40, 50)
  8. Jesus was betrayed by an inner-circle disciple (14:43-46), and Peter denied any association with him (14:66-72)

I will address these separately from the others because they all belong to the same literary trope found in Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) literature to characterize the godly hero as stereotypically rejected by his own, misunderstood, burdened with uncomprehending “followers”, etc.

The other points listed by Boyd and Eddy are, for most part, no less readily explicable as UNembarrassing parables or anecdotes to teach particular theological or spiritually symbolic lessons.

  1. Jesus at times seemed to rely on common medicinal techniques (7:33, 8:23)
  2. Jesus’s own healings and exorcisms were not always instantaneously successful (8:22-25; 5:8)
  3. Jesus seemingly suggested he was not “good” (10:18)
  4. Jesus was sometimes rude to people (7:27)
  5. Jesus seemed to disregard Jewish laws, customs, and cleanliness codes (2:23-24)
  6. Jesus “often” (sic) spoke and acted in culturally “shameful” ways (3:31-35)
  7. Jesus cursed the fig tree despite it not being the season for figs (11:13-14)

These points require a separate discussion from the eight above. Suffice to remark here that (a) Jesus’s suggestion that he was “not good” sits equally with the observation I made with Mark’s portrayal of the baptism of Jesus;  (b) why would any early gentile Christian see it as an “embarrassment” that Jesus disregarded Jewish customs? and (c) — what do fundamentalists do with passages that seem to show Jesus as being rude and insulting? From the way some correspondence has gone with them I wonder if some of them see this portrayal of Jesus as offering licence to likewise be rude and insulting. But back to the first set of eight.

Why presume that an author who portrays Jesus as rejected by his own is somehow embarrassed by this fact and that he only records it because of his compulsion to be “true to the facts”? He would never fabricate such a portrayal of Jesus?

Why not? Since the first story of the martyrdom of Abel the Jewish literature portrays in both narrative and wisdom-sayings form the stereotypical notion of the true “man of God” always being alone in this corrupt world.

The Old Testament narratives would actually suggest that any story of a righteous — or a chosen — godly man would, for the sake of “ringing true”, of necessity have to depict him as misunderstood and rejected by his own.

  • Righteous Abel was rejected and betrayed by his brother.
  • Righteous Abraham had to endure and go out of his way to get along with his self-seeking kinsman, Lot
  • Isaac was hated by those in his own household
  • Jacob was hated by his brother and had to flee as a fugitive for his life
  • Joseph was hated by his brethren for the favour he found with God, and was betrayed by his close brethren.
  • Moses was rejected by his Israelite kin and had to flee into the wilderness
  • Jephthah was hated and rejected by his kin
  • David was not esteemed by his family, parents or brothers.
  • David associated with a band of undesirable fugitives from the law
  • David was thought to be mad by some of his enemies.
  • Like Joseph, David was falsely accused and betrayed by his closest kin
  • Elijah was persecuted and hated
  • Elisha had to patiently bear with an uncomprehending and failing disciple
  • Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet
  • Daniel was falsely accused before kings

The portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is, I suggest, in complete synch with the Jewish tale of the stereotypical righteous chosen one: misunderstood, hated, even by family, betrayed, persecuted. . . .

The trope of uncomprehending disciples is also as old as literature iteself, perhaps. It is a multi-millennial old technique for enhancing the superiority of the heroic leader. We find it used as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh has his Peter, the wild-man Enkidu), Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus has his wayward crew led by the devoted but rash Eurylochus); Jason’s Argonauts; Buddha’s followers . . .

Rather than being “embarrassing” details such points were the badges of honour, the signs of being truly an elect of God. The point of such details is, as the author of Hebrews would have understood, to show that “the world is not worthy” (11:38) of the divinely chosen hero. Even the chosen followers are “scarcely saved”, if at all.

An audience that has chosen the way of being rejected from their own kin and of being cruelly misunderstood or accused, such an audience needs a like hero with whom they can relate for assurance.

Most Christians I know and whom I have discussed it with absolutely adore the gospel accounts of Peter’s failures. Peter gives them hope, not embarrassment. Why would it have been any different among the first generations of would-be martyrs?

Destroying a story to save a geographic reference. (Eddy & Boyd’s ‘Jesus Legend’)

Several believers in the inerrancy of the Bible text have strongly urged me to read Boyd and Eddy’s The Jesus Legend so I have finally got around to it.

But Boyd and Eddy actually deny or remove from a story the occurrence of a dramatic nature miracle in order to rationalize a mere apparent geographic discrepancy in one of Mark’s stories. Their explanation makes perfect sense, but only at the expense of ignoring much of what Mark actually wrote and above all ignoring – as if it never happened at all and had no impact on the characters whatever -the miracle in the middle of the story.

Why do fundamentalists recommend, let alone write, such a book?

I started near the end, on page 447, as specifically requested by the most recent advocate insisting I should read this. The discussion is about supposed geographic errors in the Gospel of Mark.

After miraculously feeding the 5000 Jesus sent his disciples out across the “Sea” of Galilee (only Mark and his more literal translators call this lake a “sea” but we’ll leave aside that specific geographic anomaly for now) “to Bethsaida”. Bethsaida was on the eastern shore of the lake. But by the time the disciples land they are said to be at Gennesaret on the western shore.

Boyd and Eddy say they can explain this discrepancy by joining with other commentators and arguing thus:

“the disciples encounter a storm during their boat voyage” (p.449)

“In fact the episode is told for this very reason — a strong storm arises and Jesus meets them, walking on the water, to calm their fears.” (p.449)

Why don’t literalist fundamentalists take up stones to throw at Boyd and Eddy for blasphemy and for contradicting the Scriptures when they write stuff like this?

Firstly, what storm? Here is what Mark 6:47-48 actually says:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.

Mark used another word for “storm” (lailaps) in his earlier miracle story of Jesus commanding the storm, wind and seas that threatened to end the lives of the disciples to be still. Here is uses only the word for “wind”, and contra Boyd and Eddy and the commentators they follow here, Mark nowhere says a storm was involved.

The disciples were not in fear of drowning. They were “merely” having a very tough time rowing against the wind. What was that passage in the Book of Revelation about curses on those who would add a single word to scriptures?

Secondly, the second statement of Boyd and Eddy — that Mark told this story for the very reason of demonstrating how Jesus went out into the storm, walking on water, to reassure the disciples — contradicts the story as we read it in Mark.

Facts of the story as writ:

  1. Jesus was about to pass the disciples by. He only turned towards them and joined them after they were terrified at seeing him.
  2. It was the fear of seeing what they thought was a ghost, not any fear of a non-existent life-threatening storm, that Jesus responded to.
  3. The reason Mark told the story, if his final line is any guide, was to demonstrate the failure of the disciples to comprehend the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and thus to demonstrate just how hard-hearted they really were.

In its own words:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

Matthew was apparently so embarrassed by the moral of Mark’s story (to demonstrate how hard-hearted and unbelieving the disciples were) that he added the story about Peter at least trying to believe and get it right by attempting to walk on water just like Jesus.

Commentators who speculate that Mark omitted this scene from his gospel out of deference to the modesty of Peter (his supposed source) who did not like to “boast” that he walked on water, too, at least for a moment, are playing wishful fantasy games. Mark says (as quoted above) that the point of the story was to demonstrate to his readers just how UNbelieving and UNcomprehending were the disciples led by Peter.

But note in particular that any commentator who tries to argue that Jesus went out to reassure the disciples is simply denying the story as we have it. Mark’s Jesus was about to pass his disciples by. The disciples were terrified — not of any storm (there was no storm) — of Jesus.

Jesus attempted to reassure them they they had no need to fear him. We are reminded of other evangelists who similarly portrayed the disciples after the resurrection of being fearful that they were seeing a ghost, but who then had Jesus reassure them they had no reason to fear anything like that.

Boyd and Eddy next disagree with scholars who suggest that the reassured disciples, with Jesus in the boat, and the wind no longer tending to blow them off course, would have had every reason to re-establish their bearings and continue on their way to Bethsaida, as originally instructed. So why do we read of them berthing on the opposite side of the lake? Boyd and Eddy “explain”:

the actual experience of a group of traumatized, water-logged men on a small boat who just narrowly escaped being drowned . . . . Perhaps stepping onto firm terrain and drying out were more pressing priorities at that moment than turning the boat back into the sea! (p. 450)

Where to begin? Why is this sort of “explanation” not hidden from “sceptics” such as myself as an embarrassment to fundamentalism attempting to save the inerrancy of the Scriptures?

This “explanation” is asking readers to completely overlook, deny, pretend the complete absence from the psychology of eyewitnesses to a most astonishing miracle of a man walking on water and changing the weather by the mere act of stepping in a boat!

Instead, Boyd and Eddy want readers to try to imagine the psychology of sailors who had endured a “storm” (which is not in the story) as if no such miracle had ever occurred!

Mark’s actual story:

  • Before Jesus came on the scene, the disciples were hard at work attempting to keep the boat on course against the wind.
  • No storm. No fear of drowning. Just hard physical labour of attempting obey the command of Jesus to row to Bethsaida.
  • They suddenly see a man walking on water and in the act of passing them.
  • They scream in terror at the sight of this “ghost”.
  • It turns out to be Jesus and the wind is suddenly favourable again.

How on earth can any reader honestly impute into such a story the image of Boyd and Eddy of “a group of traumatized, water-logged men on a small boat who just narrowly escaped being drowned”.

Such an image is a complete denial of the story Mark told.

By attempting to “rationalize” the story to make it historically plausible, and to apparently save any reason for Mark to cite variant geographical settings, Boyd and Eddy in fact destroy the story and tell a completely different one.

Note also how Boyd and Eddy go even further and subtly assume what they are in fact attempting to prove.

Perhaps stepping onto firm terrain and drying out were more pressing priorities at that moment than turning the boat back into the sea!

TURNING the boat BACK into the sea? They have neatly just assumed — gratuitously injected into the story — that a storm arose, and that a wind accompanying this took them in a westerly direction, and that they were now somehow near Gennesaret.

Facts as we read them in Mark’s story paint a different scene:

When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. (Mark 6:47-53)

The only location Mark gives for this scene is “in the middle of the lake”. That is where they were when Jesus “went out to them”. This is to read the story as is, without re-imagining some other story we might find easier to rationalize. And after these events where Jesus had gone — “in the middle of the lake” — then they are described as “crossing over” to land at Gennesaret.

How is it that Boyd and Eddy can honestly inject here the image of all this happening near the shore of Gennesaret so that the disciples would have been required “to TURN BACK TO SEA” to sail to Bethsaida?

No, the geographic question remains. The disciples are sent to Bethsaida and they end up, without explanation, at Gennesaret. Boyd and Eddy’s attempt at rationalization both deny Mark’s account and deny the impact of a miracle on eyewitnesses.

One would expect the oarsmen, who had been labouring exhaustively against the wind to obey Jesus, would have momentarily lost any sense of weariness after their adrenaline rush from witnessing the miracle of Jesus.

Boyd and Eddy fail to address the psychology of those who had really believed they had seen a ghost walking on water, and then the shock of discovering it was Jesus, and then the added awe of witnessing the changing of the weather to give them smooth rowing the moment he reached them.

Instead, they inject an imaginary storm into the story, assume the wind is an easterly and the disciples, instead of straining against it, had been helplessly blown near the shores of Gennesaret, and that the dominant fear they faced was a near-drowning and being left cold and wet.

Surely if this is an attempt to save the story of Mark, and its geographic inerrancy, the gospel has more to fear from its over-zealous friends than its critics.

Re a common error made when critiquing “parallelomania”

One thing bugs me when I read an article by a scholar or student who is attempting to demonstrate that an author like Dennis MacDonald (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) has lost his marbles and supposedly proclaims even the “absence of parallels” is evidence of parallels. And that one thing is ignorance (or forgetting) how parallels are known to work in non-biblical literature.

The sort of false or erroneous critique I am thinking of goes like this: Since Odysseus loses all hope in a storm at sea while Jesus rises to command the storm to cease, the reactions of the characters are arguably polar opposites so it is ludicrous to imagine there is any sort of parallel here at all. The reason I am not quick to agree with this sort of argument is twofold: (1) the context of other direct parallels is ignored; while at the same time (2) “polar opposites” are indeed by definition connected conceptually, and are known very well in other literatures to be a form of direct “transvaluation” of one character by the simple fact of the new character surpassing the feats or attitudes of an earlier one in the literary tradition.

G. N. Knauer demonstrated the rich complexity of the techniques used by Virgil in his imitation of Homer as far back as 1964 (Vergils’ Aeneid and Homer, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 5, pp. 61-84 — published again with revisions elsewhere in 1984 and 1990). What Knauer discerned in the ways Virgil studied and imitated Homer deserve to be considered in any discussion of possible indebtedness of biblical narrators to non-biblical works.

. . . Aeneas is represented throughout as a hero surpassing his Greek counterpart, Odysseus, who had passed through the same or similar situations shortly before him (in epic time). Odysseus, the victor, destroys Ismaros in Thrace; Aeneas, the exile, . . . founds Ainos in the same region. On his way home to . . . [western] Ithaca, Odysseus is shipwrecked by a storm at Cape Malaia; Aeneas, in spite of a storm, successfully passes this cape on his way west, where in the end he will find . . . home, Hesperia. Here, for the first time, one begins to sense Vergil’s purpose in following Homer. . . .

It seems clear that Aeneas, who excelled Odysseus in the first part of the Aeneid, now surpasses the Greeks who had been victorious at Troy. . . . The way in which he completes the divine mission to found a new Troy, that is Rome, elevates him morally far above the Greek heroes.

This sort of transvaluation cannot be effected apart from differences in action and character that nonetheless are connected by polar opposition. Aeneas, the exile, builds; Odysseus, the victor, destroys. Odysseus, sailing towards X is shipwrecked at Z; Aeneas, sailing towars his own X, pointedly has smooth sailing.

There is much more to the way Virgil “deconstructed” and used Homer. It was far more than just reflecting a few lines of verse here and there. At least as noteworthy as the above transvaluation goal, Virgil had clearly studied the very structure of Homer’s epics and reshaped those structures in his own work. The battles of the Iliad that preceded the wanderings of Odysseus are mirrored at the dramatic conclusion of Virgil’s epic. Odysseus is only released from his captivity to the charms of the divine queen Calypso just prior to the moment he is to fulfil his destiny; Aeneas is released from his long captivity to the queen Dido long before he can fulfil his destiny.

The differences found between the Aeneid and Homer’s epics do not all indicate absence of contact.

Some differences are as distinctly related as strong echoes off opposing walls.

“God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1)

godActuallySubtitle is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational objections’ to religion are unconvincing”

When I first saw dozens of copies of this new book piled high and red near the entrance of my local ABC bookshop (Australian, not American, broadcasting) I was compelled to investigate. First thing I noticed from the back cover was that the author was a lawyer. That reminded me, worryingly, of another lawyer’s attempt to prove Christianith with “Who Moved the Stone?” That book was so riddled with logical and historical-methodological fallacies that it has left me wondering why a publisher would want to advertize that yet another apologetic book was coming once again from the same profession that had failed so dismally once before to go beyond talking to the choir.

Since my interest has been largely in the historical evidence for Christian origins I turned quickly to where Roy Williams discusses “the historical Jesus”. Unfortunately, he does not appear to engage with the critique of the normal things (the usual texts and even archaeological (sic!)) evidence for Jesus’ existence, but brushes it all aside under the collective rubric of ” G. A. Wells and others” who are merely said to strike R.M. as “too clever by half”.

A brief discussion of Michael Onfray‘s critique is included, but his main fault appears to be that his is “[t]o put it mildly . . . a minority view.” (p. 153)

Williams then proceeds to repeat the normal routine arguments for the existence of Jesus found on any fundamentalist website or that are asserted (never proved) in general Christian texts.

Much in his book is also a response to recent atheist publications by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

This was my first encounter with Roy William’s book, and since his arguments on the historicity so disappointed me, not engaging at all with the serious critiques against both their logic and historical methodologies, I didn’t think anything more of it. And I had little confidence in how he would have handled works by Dawkins et al given what I had seen of his treatment of this side of the argument, including the case made by Onfray.

But some months later I still see this book at many more bookshops, not only in Australia, and so I had another look. I even went so far as to break my promise not to bother to buy a copy.

So here I have it, and only need time to read it more completely (alongside many others on my list) and I hope I can respond in some detail to some of the points made in this book — if only for Australian lay audiences who may not so familiar with much of the scholarship and serious critiques of Jesus’ historicity as others in the home countries of Europe and North America where much of the debate and publishing on these topics takes place.

Will try to get to continuing with this and other posts in coming months.

Meanwhile, to comment on one specific argument I read while resting in the Singapore heat and humidity yesterday:

Why God cannot allow Children to avoid an early death

Roy Williams writes in part:

Imagine a world in which, say, no one could di before the age of twelve; a world in which a supposedly more loving God ‘spared the innocent’, at least for a fixed time. Would that be a better world? No. The possibility that such a world could work satisfactorily really does not hold up for a moment. Children at a certain age would be known to be indestructible, and with what results? Parents would not care for them so painstakingly, nor love them with such protective tenderness, all kinds of monstrous evils (short of death) would be all the more likely to be visited upon them, by their parents and by others. (p.220)

Fact: Anthropologists know all too well, and it has been a fact of history since history began, that there have been many cultures where a parent (especially a father) is less likely to care for a child until it has survived past a certain age and has proven itself more likely to be a candidate for long-term survival!

It is the prevalence of early death to so many children throughout so much of human existence that has been a factor in withdrawal of deep parental love. Many parents have too often sought to avoid the pain of emotional attachment and the wasted time and energy on a child until they can be sure it will survive in the long term.

It is the evil of the fact of too much early death that has bred this evil.

Parents don’t love a child, or do so “painstakingly” or with “such protective tenderness” because of the fear they might otherwise die, but because they are a part and extension and fruit of their own very selves, and for whom they naturally wish all the best in the world, for the sake of a happy life both now and in the future.

Allen & Unwin blurb of this book.

ABC publisher blurb of this

Author’s blurb

Adelaide Arts Festival blurb

Christian bookstore blurb

Christian propagandist site blurb

Richard Dawkins net discussion

Christian blog discussions — blog 1, blog 2

Good Reads web discussion

LibraryThing details

(let no one say i don’t give the other side a good chance to be heard! 😉

Saudi Monstrosity and International Silence

Saudi Monstrosity and International Silence

By Huda Jawad

February 04, 2009 “Information Clearinghouse” — – For the past several weeks, dozens of family members have been reaching out to the Iraqi government in a fragile gesture meant to save the lives of their sons. In January 2009, Saudi courts convicted 25 young Iraqi men of trespassing into Saudi Arabia. Their punishment: beheading. Among the Iraqi prisoners are at least several men suffering from tuberculosis, all of whom are being denied medical attention by the Saudi judiciary.

Relatives of the Iraqi prisoners in Saudi prisons have been holding protests in the southern province of Al-Muthana, withstanding the bitter cold and wind. The response by the Iraqi officials has been ridiculously indifferent, with the buck being passed between the bureaucracies. Human rights officials have announced today that the case should be pursued by National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie. However, Rubaie has refused to take any proactive action in this regard. In September 2008, Rubaie had met with the Saudi King and authorized the transfer of 400 Saudi terrorists out of Iraq and back to Saudi Arabia. Any mention of the Iraqi death-row prisoners in Saudi Arabia was not present.

Iraqi politicians are far too engulfed in the elections to even grant a second glance to the young men about to lose their lives for petty crimes. However, these same power holders have no grievance with releasing Saudi terrorists and allowing them to live a normal life, long after they had wrecked that of the Iraqi children. Saudi Arabia has become the shame of the Muslim and Arab world; to think some claim these barbarians represent us is an insult to humanity and Islam.

Saudi Arabia is a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Secrecy and the lack of internationally recognized standards of due process have long been distinctive features of the Saudi justice system. None of the Iraqi men had access to any form of legal representation, nor were they offered such an option. This is a recurring theme within the Saudi legal system, and it strips away the most basic of rights for prisoners, both foreign and domestic.

The treatment of detained foreign nationals both in the case of the Iraqi men and other multinationals gives insight into the closed world and fundamental flaws of the Saudi judicial system, including prolonged incommunicado detention, the absence of protection against torture, and other forms of mistreatment during interrogation. In many cases involving foreigners, foreign governments rarely if ever publicly raise fair-trial concerns or engage in other vigorous public advocacy on behalf of their nationals, prior to or even after their executions.

If this was any other nation, there would outrage, but since it is Saudi Arabia, the world has become complacent. The kingdom spends a fortune on US public relations firms to cover up human rights violations. In the year 2000, Amnesty International reported that Saudi Arabia has spent more than one million dollars on public relations firms to ensure secrecy about abuses of human rights. An oil-dependent international community sits back in silence as the suffering continues inside the kingdom.

The death penalty is used in Saudi Arabia more than in any other country, mainly because many crimes are punishable by execution. Defendants are typically poor foreign migrant workers from developing countries in Africa and Asia, often have no defense lawyer, and are usually unable to follow court proceedings in Arabic. For countless prisoners, they had no knowledge of their sentence until the actual day of their execution.

We must act now to save the Iraqi prisoners in Saudi custody. These Iraqi nationals were beaten until they confessed, and all claim that they are innocent. Prisoners in Saudi Arabia can be put to death without a scheduled date for execution being made known to them or their families. Subsequently, these men could be put to death any time.

Here is whom to contact regarding appeals in the cases of the Iraqi prisoners, while also expressing our outrage at the abuse of all prisoners:

Ambassador Adel A. Al-Jubeir
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
601 New Hampshire Ave. NW
Washington DC 20037
Fax: 1 202 944 3113
Email: info[AT]

His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al- Saud
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
Office of His Majesty the King
Royal Court
Fax (via Ministry of the Interior): 011 966 1 403 1185 (please keep trying)
Salutation: Your Majesty

Turki bin Khaled Al-Sudairy
Human Rights Commission
P.O. Box 58889
King Fahad Road, Building No. 373
Riyadh 11515
Fax: 011 966 1 4612061

Huda Jawad is a writer for, a weekly publication in North America.

The irony

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I know of many Jews (Israeli and non-Israeli) who label their fellow Jews who are critical of Zionism and the ethnic cleansing and expansionist policies of successive Israeli governments as self-hating Jews. That charge would seem a bit hard to sustain in this instance.  The irony is twisted even further when one learns that the founders of Zionism (who flourished alongside other racially based nationalisms in their most rabid late nineteenth and early twentieth century phase) were in many cases nonbelievers who nonetheless openly proclaimed that they found their mandate forceful expulsion of Palestinians and ever expanding takeover of their lands in the Bible.

Why post this? Because I am appalled at the outrageous bias in mainstream western media reporting and anything that might graphically help expose its one sidedness is not a bad thing. Imagine the western media addressing the Palestinians in Gaza as the product of documented ethnic cleansing and expulsion policies, represented by a democratically elected government that had offered to recognize Israel’s existence along the terms of the Saudi peace plan, and whose citizens and leaders are routinely kidnapped and jailed in a foreign country, and that has been imprisoned by land, sea and air to the point of humanitarian catostrophe. . . .  But that will never be said in the mainstream western media. At least not unless it is callously hidden behind the pseudo-impartiality that insists on giving equal time to state sanctioned official lies and half truths.