2010-05-24

Why I’m doing this

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by Neil Godfrey

Maybe it is not a bad idea to put on record why I’m bothering with my blog posts about biblical studies. I admit it is surely a nerdy thing to be doing. And I do sometimes get a few raised eyebrows from those who know me when they learn that I have such a blog as this.

After I left religion (both relatively extreme as well as the milder forms of it) and belief in God I had to find a new direction in life. After living “for God and the next life” etc all one’s life, and finding oneself no longer with any belief in that God or after life etc, the first thing one has to decide is “okay, what now, where to from here?”

Well after a bit of option weighing I figured that the most worthwhile direction would be to make use of my past experiences and turn them to something positive. The alternative seemed to be to declare all those years a total waste, and to try to start totally afresh without reference to my past as much as possible. That was one option. But I opted instead to use my past bads for something good.

One of the first things I did was to start up something of a support group for others who had been through the cult experience themselves. I called it Cult Veterans support group or something like that. It attracted some ex-(and even a non-ex) Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses and something else I cannot recall. I had done a bit of reading about my own experiences from psychologists viewpoints, as well as other works by ex-cultists on their experiences. We shared these insights in the CV group, as well as comparing our own experiences. The most fascinating thing for us to come to realize more fully was how similar all these cults were on the inside — despite all their protestations that they are each so unique.

It was a little venture, but I think it was useful for a while for a few people in the area where I lived. Being able to place one’s experiences in a broader context is always helpful for self-understanding and a useful step for moving on.

Before this, I suppose I had ventured into using my experiences in a service to my own former brethren.

I had gathered many sources of information giving “the other side” of the cult to which I had belonged, and investing a little sum in posting this information to quite a large number of members around Australia. I did this because I knew that while a member it was very difficult to learn where to find such information. One might be curious to read it but given the tight controls over social networks and the stigma and even threats attached to contacting ex-members, access to such information is near impossible. But I did know that several members would appreciate receiving this information, so I sent out a few hundred letters to different families and individuals with the info.

I was heartened to get a few phone calls in response — most of them anonymous — from members thanking me for the information and asking for more details. Of course I was denounced from “pulpits” around the country for this act of service, and people were told to burn letters from me unopened or to hand them in to the ministry.

Ah, life’s little adventures! I even received a phone call from a minister telling me I was being put out of the church! I laughed at him as I said, But I’ve already been put out of the church! He flustered back, Well, I’m telling you again to be sure you know!  Oh my, to be thrust doubly into the bond of Satan. Not many had that honour I am sure! 🙂

But as for drawing on past experiences to make the most of one’s future, there are not a lot of options when those experiences have been little more than learning about the Bible. I had experience with cult life and could make some contributions in that area, as I did with CV and a few pieces written for a local newspaper.

But the one thing that I felt needed addressing was how people get sucked into cults in the first place. There is a lot of misinformation about this in the wider community. I had sought to broaden my experiences with other points of view after leaving religion, and that even included attending Hare Krishna or some other Buddhist meeting. What struck me was the similarity in techniques being used (with only a few modifications) for cult recruitment across all these sects or whatever.

I had looked back on the steps that led me to believe, or at least accept and live with, nonsense. (There are many complex reasons but I only address one part of one of them here.) I began to notice all the times I had stopped questioning at some particular point, or had accepted some explanation without proper examination. I had naively come to think this was something of a “cult experience” and that when I left it, I would enter a world of normal people who were not so foolish and who did question things or at least had more sensitive bullshit detectors.

Woah. I had to learn not to be so naive. People not in cults, it soon became obvious, were making the same sorts of assumptions and failing to question things as I had done and that got me mixed up in the cult. Not that others were cult-candidates, obviously. But everyone, I soon realized, makes unfounded assumptions, and does not question most of what they believe. People accept bullshit too quickly all the time. They fail to ask questions about the Bible — it has to be treated as an exceptional book of some kind — but not only about the Bible. It extends across all areas of society. C’est la vie.

I began to realize that I had the advantage of an education that enabled me to see this. It was a combination of my experiences and my education that enabled me to know how to question certain things. So I guess I felt I had some responsibility now. Why not use my experiences and education to help others make more informed decisions or understand where we are all at, etc?

Hence my life since then has been involved in causes or activities that do attempt to expose bullshit where it exists in public places, especially if it is clearly doing harm to others. I have been involved in a wide range of community education and information projects (not about religion — usually about social issues and communications media for voices less well heard, etc).

At one time I was arranging public meetings for the State Muslim council to present the public with a better understanding of the Muslim religion and its followers. I was working to coordinate Church groups among others with this project.

When I see academics or any public figure publishing or pronouncing bullshit, I feel I have a responsibility to challenge them if their nonsense impacts negatively on the wider community. I will challenge them to justify their claims, and make it clear to others when they are unable to do so.

And I guess this is where this blog comes in. It is part of a life that has been active in social justice, political and environmental causes. I sometimes think I have done all I can do with exposing the bullshit behind some biblical scholarship, and the more understandable and honest fallacies of other biblical scholarship, and promoting a more consistent and intellectually honest alternative approach to the Bible. I think of leaving it aside and focussing more on the social issues, sometimes. But the responses my blog is getting suggest to me that it is still having a worthwhile presence. And besides, in Singapore as an expat, there is little scope for expressing my other interests.

My experiences have given me a good knowledge of the Bible, and of how bullshit emanates from leaders and spreads, and my education has given me some ability to expose and communicate some of this to some extent. I can either ignore my past experiences and move on, or I can move on by turning my experiences into something I think has something to offer.

And it has been interesting, too. I have a passion for learning as much as I can about Christian origins, the Bible, etc, — as I have a passion for learning as much as I can about “the human experience” both today and in history generally — and I do like to share some of what I learn. (I have learned much about the media and political processes, and how societies and humankind works, too. But many others publish and blog on those far more effectively than I can. My experiences have equipped me best to focus on biblical things, I guess.)

ETA: Maybe I should add that I never bother arguing with Christians or attempt to argue anyone out of their faith. We are all at where we are at, and that’s that. There is such a thing as respect and tolerance for other viewpoints, and social propriety.  I am always conscious that I have believed weird things, so can’t help but be a little compassionate and understanding of others who do so, too.

64 Comments

  • 2010-05-24 20:29:30 UTC - 20:29 | Permalink

    Good point. It’s those who are asking the questions who, if my own experience is any guide, appreciate the opportunity to see that there is an alternative to a lot of the nonsense that comes out from religion scholars.

  • 2010-05-24 19:27:20 UTC - 19:27 | Permalink

    I’d like to add that, as QualiaSoup and TheraminTrees have said on their Youtube videos, one of the main points of making such “godless” material is to help doubters to find reality, not to attack people who are completely sure about their beliefs.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-05-25 04:44:16 UTC - 04:44 | Permalink

    What is ‘true spirituality’? Is it having an imaginary friend?

  • Steven Carr
    2010-05-25 05:08:02 UTC - 05:08 | Permalink

    Why do you drop Islam from the list of Abrahamic religions? Is it because they are not Christian enough for you?

    Don’t ‘redemptive relationships’ sleep furiously, like colourless green ideas do?

    And do you need an imaginary friend to have a redemptive relationship with?

    Or just an ability to proclaim that your Old Book is a True Old Book, unlike other Old Books?

    • irishanglican
      2010-05-25 05:24:15 UTC - 05:24 | Permalink

      Steven,

      I cannot judge the interior heart and life of Ratzinger, nor can you. But we can make some judgment about his work and life as a priest and pastor. I have been very hard on the papacy myself for their lack in their “house” for many sins, both for sexual sins, and other problems.

    • irishanglican
      2010-05-25 05:46:12 UTC - 05:46 | Permalink

      The Catholic and Reformed faith is “Incarnational”, and not just a religion or faith of a book. But certainly the lasting authority is certainly “Biblical” and confessional to the Judeo-Christian revelation. Remember, I am an Anglican (Thirty-Nine Articles, etc.)

  • Steven Carr
    2010-05-25 05:10:38 UTC - 05:10 | Permalink

    ‘6.And the true Christian life is also a spirituality of redemptive suffering!’

    How much suffering has Ratzinger had in his life?

    Enough to redeem his many and various sins? Or has Ratzinger not redeemed his sins yet?

    How much suffering do you think Ratzinger should do to redeem his sins?

    • irishanglican
      2010-05-25 05:26:54 UTC - 05:26 | Permalink

      Sorry, got that answer out of sink.

    • irishanglican
      2010-05-25 05:37:43 UTC - 05:37 | Permalink

      Steven,

      I have been an Anglo-Catholic, and also close to E. Orthodox in the past. So I am close to some of these issues. Not to mention I was a Roman Catholic Benedictine (noviciate) for a few years in my 20’s (many years now). But, I see myself within something of the classic Reformed soteriology now. Also I was raised R. Catholic in Dublin, Ireland.

      • 2010-05-25 10:31:11 UTC - 10:31 | Permalink

        “But, I see myself within something of the classic Reformed soteriology now.”

        So you’re one of the devil worshipers that believes free will doesn’t exist? Real nice. There’s something to be proud of. There’s some “real spirituality” there. Thank God for guys like Pelagius who put your ilk in their place.

      • 2010-05-25 10:55:44 UTC - 10:55 | Permalink

        My spiritual journey has gone from ‘orthodox’ Christianity to Pelagianism to Marcionism. So obviously I’m not afraid of the big bad ‘h’ word. In my estimation ‘orthodoxy’ is ‘heresy.’ After all, anyone who actually reads Isaiah 7 and 8 can see that the prophecy must take place in Ahaz’ lifetime since the child to be born of the virgin is a sign of when the two contemporary kings will be defeated. And chapter 8 has Yahweh literally point Mahershalalhashbaz out as the promised child. There is no way that prophecy can be about Jesus, and therefore all forms of ‘orthodox’ Christianity are ‘heresy.’ They are formed by twisting the OT and contorting it to make Jesus the Christos (Messiah) when he was actually the Chrestos (Morall Excellent one). Besides this, the Torah is an antisemitic book, as I have recently shown on my blog, and therefore everyone who links Jesus to the Torah in a positive way is calling Jesus an antisemite, and therefore they are ‘heretics.’

      • irishanglican
        2010-05-25 10:44:24 UTC - 10:44 | Permalink

        Yes, I stand with Augustine also. Man has “responsible will” in common grace, but “free will” is a human myth. And Pelagius was simply a humanist; as Pelagianism is considered a hersey in both R. Catholicism and Reformational and Reformed Christiamity. You better do some more biblical and also better historical study!

      • irishanglican
        2010-05-25 11:01:02 UTC - 11:01 | Permalink

        Rey,
        Then again, I guess not? You are certainly not “historical” anything. But again keep reading..

  • rey
    2010-05-25 10:36:19 UTC - 10:36 | Permalink

    Neil, for what its worth I think your blog is the most scholarly blog on Christian origins I’ve seen to date. You actually do reviews and analysis of major scholarly works rather than just pontificating your position, and there are quite a few works I simply might not have even known existed if it weren’t for you. So I have to thank you for blogging about the Bible.

  • irishanglican
    2010-05-25 03:49:28 UTC - 03:49 | Permalink

    Neil,

    I just wonder myself, what you think of someone like John Henry Newman’s life? For scholarship without the depth of true spirituality, and here is also personal truth itself, means next to nothing. But, I can say as both from being Roman Catholic and Protestant, that Newman’s heart & mind gave me great help and direction at some critical times. One of the problems today with moderns (so-called) is their lack of mentors. And the go it alone mentality. But maybe you have not read Newman?

    • 2010-05-25 21:42:46 UTC - 21:42 | Permalink

      I know next to nothing about John Henry Newman apart from what a few times I have quoted him (not always flatteringly) and seeing his name on the spine of many books in the library. I don’t understand what is meant by “true spirituality”, or what “personal truth itself” means.

      I don’t know what you mean, exactly, by mentors, either. I accept personal responsibility for what I think and do, and while I am interested in learning from others, I don’t think of any others as “my mentors” in any absolute or generic sense. I have wasted too many years in the past letting myself “be mentored” by a select few viewpoints, and when I see the same thing happening in others (as appears with Steph here who appears to have chosen Casey as some sort of “mentor”) I think how sad it is that someone can opt to narrow their perspectives like that.

      When I decided to leave religion, the mentors I selected were the from the multiple manifestations of life itself. I soaked up anthropological publications and presentations to come to learn and appreciate the variety of human existence. I soaked up findings of naturalists about other species to learn and appreciate what we all have in common. I observed the way “life” functioned in neighbourhood birds (Australia has some very wonderful and intelligent birds with very “human-like” social relations (or are we bird-like?)), fish, lizards, mice, other animals — and even trees, plants of all kinds. That was where I came to construct my perspective of “me” and where and what I was in this world as a living creature. I attempted to see and understand myself within the context of all life.

      If you talk to me about “spirituality”, “God”, “redemption” — those concepts are meaningless to me. I have no idea what any of them means, really.

      Obviously many people find great fulfillment through them. That’s fine. I accept that, and have attempted to understand it too — from an evolutionary perspective. But I know how leaving the coffin of religion behind has freed me to live a far fuller life than I knew in any of the religious states of mind I had in the past.

      Obviously religious people are going to say that I must not have known the “true spirituality” or whatever, but my reply will only be that we each have our own paths to live. I have heard sentiments like that expressed so often — and used to express them myself of those who “left the faith” — and see it now as an expression of well-meaning arrogance and ignorance. Not that ignorance is always a crime, and arrogance can often fool us with its disguise of humility.

      I am what I am as a result of my experiences, as we all are. Live and let live.

  • Evan
    2010-05-25 12:09:58 UTC - 12:09 | Permalink

    Neil, I love what you are doing and feel that without your site my life would be poorer. Working on this blog must be a tremendous drain at times. I just want you to know that I read everything you write and find nothing but edification in almost every sentence. Your treatment of Doherty has allowed me to view him in a much more balanced context than I was reading him previously, as I had always suspected there were legitimate arguments against his position. I also appreciate your detailed discussions of your past, as I share some of the same history and feel some of the same issues about what to do with all the work I put in to get the point I am today. Anyway, thanks!

  • imarriedaxtian
    2010-05-25 12:22:28 UTC - 12:22 | Permalink

    Hello Neil,

    I normally do not comment if I have nothing to add to the conversation. So mostly I lurk.

    But I feel that I need to echo the sentiments of rey and to encourage you to continue blogging your ideas vigorously. You have opened my mind to a new way of viewing the bible.

  • irishanglican
    2010-05-25 05:00:47 UTC - 05:00 | Permalink

    Well “true” spirituality in the Judeo-Christian sense would be redemptive relationship first, simply.

  • irishanglican
    2010-05-25 05:06:53 UTC - 05:06 | Permalink

    And the true Christian life is also a spirituality of redemptive suffering! (2 Cor. 4:10-11) Sadly, this is quite lost in today’s emergent church.

  • irishanglican
    2010-05-25 05:16:08 UTC - 05:16 | Permalink

    Steven,

    Islam is not attached to the Judeo-Christian in my belief. And certainly “Christ” is the “relation” for the whole mystical Body of Christ!

    • rey
      2010-05-25 10:37:54 UTC - 10:37 | Permalink

      I’ve been a Christian all my life and I still don’t understand where people come up with these kinds of meaningless psychobabble statements or why they think they are at all profound or worth stating. “And certainly ‘Christ’ is the ‘relation’ for the whole mystical Body of Christ!” Whatever happened to speaking English?

      • Steven Carr
        2010-05-25 15:15:10 UTC - 15:15 | Permalink

        They are indeed meaningless psychobabble statements….

        But not as meaningless as Biblical claims that people will be fired with salt or salted with fire, or whichever way round it is.

        Using language that is meaningless to outsiders gives people a feeling that they are special – that they know things that others do not.

        Mark’s Gospel is full of things which outsiders are not expected to understand…

        Mark 8
        Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
        “Twelve,” they replied.

        20″And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
        They answered, “Seven.”

        21He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

        All this sort of thing makes Christians feel self-important, full of secret knowledge that the world does not have.

      • irishanglican
        2010-05-25 10:56:03 UTC - 10:56 | Permalink

        Rey,
        I can see that you don’t “do” theology mate. But keep reading..who knows?

      • irishanglican
        2010-05-25 23:34:12 UTC - 23:34 | Permalink

        Steven,

        That is miserable interpretation, not even exegesis in Scripture. Talk about “psychobabble”! One must read with an open heart & mind, at least as best they can. Try again mate.

  • irishanglican
    2010-05-25 06:12:24 UTC - 06:12 | Permalink

    So in this blog “Why I am doing this?” We cannot remove the subjective and relational, as Steph has mentioned. We are all subjects to our life history, upbringing and experience.

  • 2010-05-25 22:01:34 UTC - 22:01 | Permalink

    Thanks for the most unexpected compliments, folks. It’s nice to know that I can use a few of my experiences and skills for something positive. If I was back in Australia I’d probably be a lot more involved in other social and political activism of some kind and have less time for this blog, or else redirect it to something more political. (But from a few clues I have picked up I am not sure I’d go along with Vardis Fisher’s politics — I’d probably return to “sweeTreason”.)

    I was prompted to write this post when one commenter reminded me of what others also have accused me of — some sort of anti-Christian vendetta. One thing I don’t think anyone will find on this blog is an anti-Christian tirade or anything similar. I simply could not be bothered, am not interested, in “attacking Christianity” or Islam or any other religion. I think some people for whatever reason “need” their religion, and in some respects there are positives from it all. (I think Dawkins and Harris are misguided in some ways — mixed bags of pros and cons — and have addressed that view of them in earlier posts here.) I am much more interested in harmony and multiculturalism. (I’m not denying the negatives, though. I will address damaging specifics of what fundamentalist (and even not so fundamentalist) mindsets in particular, and also biblical scholars who should know better and have a greater responsibility as educated leaders, are responsible for.) My focus is on trying to make the most of my mis-spent past, and contribute opportunities for anyone interested to gain another perspective and to see through the nonsense that even some academics (e.g. Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery) recognize comes from their peers.

    And I do love exploring Christian origins and understanding anything else central to where we are all at.

  • irishanglican
    2010-05-25 23:16:43 UTC - 23:16 | Permalink

    Neil,

    Thanks to read and reply. I was looking to see if you had any real “Christian” (Christ-like) consciousness, past of maybe present? And it appears that you do not. And yes, it is my opinion that you have never known real Christian regeneration. So you have left nothing, but “religion”, and not really Christ. Note, how the real Jesus, His historical life (the Gospels), and certainly His real historical death, are not known. The latter is also seen in the Epistles, in doctrine & theology. As St. Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ.” (Phil. 1:21)

    But thanks for the exchange.

    Fr. Robert

    • irishanglican
      2010-05-26 03:44:36 UTC - 03:44 | Permalink

      Neil,

      Before I leave the scene, I wanted to say a word about Austin Farrer. You had mentioned liking some of his work. Yes, indeed Farrer was in many ways perhaps one the brightest and best minds the Anglican world has seen in modern time, he was only 64 at his death in 1968. He was a decidedly Anglo-Catholic in “spirituality” and theology. And here he was also basically a Thomist. See the bio sometime if you find it: ‘A Hawk among Sparrows’, by Philip Curtis. And one of my favorite books by him is his commentary on, ‘The Revelation of St. John The Divine’.

      Perhaps his best effort at the mystery of the divine & human, is his Christian thought of ‘double agency’, that the work of human actions are somehow fully our own but also are the work of God, though it is also somehow hidden. Here he calls God the ‘intelligent act’. (See his ‘Faith and Speculation’).

      See also his:

      ‘Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited: an essay on providence and evil’.
      ‘Refective Faith: essays’..
      ‘The End of Man’
      ‘The Brink of Mystery’
      ‘Interpretation and Belief’
      And perhaps another fav for me: ‘The Freedom of the Will, finite and Infinite and Faith and Speculation’

      He was again, at good man and profound Christian, and BTW a close friend of C.S. Lewis. He gave Lewis the last sacraments before his death.

      I could not pass without making comment of this again profound and I feel great man, Austin Marsden Farrer (1904-1968). One of my “mentors” certainly!

      Sincerely,
      Fr. Robert

      • irishanglican
        2010-05-26 05:39:14 UTC - 05:39 | Permalink

        And just a note for Steph, who is working on her Ph.D., but Farrer also believed in dispensing with the idea of the Q.

  • mcduff
    2010-05-26 13:05:18 UTC - 13:05 | Permalink

    You run a very goodblog here Neil.

  • mrRob
    2010-05-26 20:49:20 UTC - 20:49 | Permalink

    irish anglican wrote :”Islam is not attached to the Judeo-Christian in my belief”

    there is a surah in the koran which reads ” Say: He is Allah, the One and Only! Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not nor is He begotten.
    And there is none like unto Him.”

    orthodox jews believe that this surah represents thier belief in yhwh.judaism is well connected with what this surah says. now where did you get “judeo-chrsitian” from when we all know judaism is allergic to what is central to your christian religion? judaism and islam are a well connected couple,but these 2 couples consider your religion a filthy blasphemy.

    • irishanglican
      2010-05-26 23:05:46 UTC - 23:05 | Permalink
    • rey
      2010-05-27 11:48:23 UTC - 11:48 | Permalink

      Perhaps by Judeo-Christianity he means the heresy known as ‘orthodox’ Christianity as opposed to Chrestianity (i.e. Marcionism). Its an admission that Christianity is a bastardization of an earlier religion with closer roots to heretical Judaism (like Malachi’s opponents in the book of Malachi) than to ‘orthodox’ Judaism which is normally simply thought of as Judaism without qualification.

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  • 2011-01-22 05:25:15 UTC - 05:25 | Permalink

    Just came across your blog today. Thanks for writing it. I believe the Bible but your studies promise to offer information and worthwhile perspective. Thanks for writing.

    • 2011-01-22 09:29:01 UTC - 09:29 | Permalink

      Hi Mike. I note your blogpost that is an open letter to Bart Ehrman. I concur with your first three criticisms of Ehrmnan’s scenario. As for point 4, there is no question of authors lying. As for point 5, this is an entertaining tale worthy of any Hellenistic novel. But more to the point, Ehrman’s scenario is one that is widely repeated, and one that Associate Professor James McGrath once insisted upon here. (Unfortunately each time he was asked for evidence to support the claim that there was such a pervasive expectation of a conquering Messiah to come he trotted out the vague “read this book” response. When he was informed that that book had indeed been read and that it failed to support his claim, and when other scholarly views and (more importantly) actual evidence were introduced, he failed to sustain his argument with any evidence.)

      The concept of a slain messiah is found in Daniel and 2 Samuel, and the liberating power of the death of a messiah is found in Leviticus. Add to this the views of some Second Temple Jews who understood that Isaac had literally been sacrificed and his blood had a salvific and atoning power over all Jews, and we do find strong precedents for the NT messianic concept.

      • 2011-01-22 20:26:27 UTC - 20:26 | Permalink

        “As for point 4, there is no question of authors lying.” Please elaborate.

        • 2011-01-22 21:47:38 UTC - 21:47 | Permalink

          The stories within the gospel narratives can be untrue without being lies. I have recently posted a few times on Spong’s views of how the gospels came to be crafted, and while he is emphatic that many of the stories are not historically or literally true, he certainly does not think they are lies:

          • 2011-01-22 22:58:27 UTC - 22:58 | Permalink

            Neil, perhaps we are laboring without a common definition for lying. Take, for example, the following excerpt of your words from one of the posts to which you directed me.

            “There is not the slightest indication anywhere in any of the Gospels that they, or any portion of them, were to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, or whatever. The fourth gospel, John, stresses at the end that every word it contained was an “eyewitness” account. Luke’s prologue is surely an attempt to invite readers to accept that everything to follow was the testimony of multiple witnesses.”

            I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve written here. Yet, I do not understand why you do not call this lying if you do not believe that they were telling the truth about what happened.

            • 2011-01-23 05:47:46 UTC - 05:47 | Permalink

              I’m glad I prefaced that statement with “I think I agree with Spong’s critics, in particular Powell.” I’m not sure I do quite fully agree with what I wrote.

              But that aside, and taking my original statement there as the starting point, I am always wary of the either/or arguments, the missing middles, the false dilemmas. I don’t think Justin Maryr was lying when he found details of the life of Jesus in the Jewish scriptures. He believed the life of Jesus could be found by revelation. If “history” or the past was something that could be revealed then I don’t think that is lying in our sense of intentionally and knowingly seeking to mislead someone.

              There is certainly evidence of ‘lying’ among early Christian authors, but I don’t think we know nearly enough about the origins of the gospels to be able to say that their authors were lying. We can’t read their minds or make assumptions when we lack confirming evidence.

              Even if an evangelist told of a miracle by Jesus beccause of its metaphorical message I can’t say that the author was lying.

              Maybe he was. But I’d rather try to explain narratives in the light of the evidence we do have. The evidence in both the canonical and extra-canonical writings, I think, points to sincere belief that the past about Jesus is revealed. I don’t have any evidence that the authors were lying.

              As for John’s eyewitness, there are so many questions in the literature surrounding this that I don’t think we can be dogmatic about any one particular interpretation.

              • 2011-01-23 08:04:15 UTC - 08:04 | Permalink

                Neil, I suppose you feel like I am trying to press you into a corner on this “lying” issue; I am not. I myself don’t like false dichotomies or obscured nuances. And I certainly don’t like being forced to make an unnecessary choice. However, I am genuinely befuddled at how you can give the gospel writers a pass on this issue.

                Giving every benefit of the doubt I could say that the collection of written “midrashic creations” wouldn’t necessarily be lies. But if a writer, as you say above, “invite[s] readers to accept that everything to follow was the testimony of multiple witnesses,” then how can that be anything but deceit?

              • 2011-01-23 10:41:56 UTC - 10:41 | Permalink

                Mark nowhere makes any such claim. Nor does Matthew. And there is debate about the originality of Luke’s prologue.

                The evidence of the early Church Fathers and NT epistles is that there were many “liars” out there, and one wonders about the integrity of Tertullian and Eusebius themselves sometimes. Sure the gospel authors might have been lying, but how can I know on the basis of anything I have understood — and that remains unknown — about them?

                As a humanist I am slow to judge my fellow creatures negatively 🙂

                If you are not happy with my agnosticism over the minds of the author/s of the original gospel narrative then so be it.

                Some apologists seem to want me to argue that the authors were liars in order to argue for historicity on the strength of their integrity. My interest is attempting to understand how and why the gospels were created. That’s a big enough task without attempting to read the minds of authors about whom I know next to nothing.

              • 2011-01-23 14:25:26 UTC - 14:25 | Permalink

                It’s not that I’m unhappy with your agnosticism. Rather, I’m trying to ascertain its boundaries.

                I’m completely perplexed, for example, by your last two sentences. Either one, by itself, makes sense. However, the two sentences written together by the same author seem to contradict one another. That is, how can you come to “understand how and why the gospels were created” while eschewing all speculation about what was in the mind of their creators?

              • 2011-01-23 17:19:58 UTC - 17:19 | Permalink

                I am perplexed by the point of your question in relation to normal historical inquiry. If you insisted on pursuing this sort of questioning in a nonbiblical history class I imagine you would be asked to take your topic to a moral philosophy or theological classroom.

                We are talking about lying and innermost motives. I cannot read the minds of people I know let alone those dead 2000 years.

                Let’s remove the questioning from the gospels and apply it to, say, a modern historical topic such as the phenomenon of social bandits in Latin America. This should help us remove any potential emotive issues that might underly the discussion. We do, after all, want to study Christianity and its narratives by the same basic principles we study any other historical topic.

                Now historians have discovered that detailed narratives grew up about social bandits have had no basis in historical fact, even though many people in the regions believe the contrary. Some narratives are even said to be by eyewitnesses, yet have been found to be without substance historically. Now do historians put on their judgmental hats and write up that so and so was lying? Or do they not, rather, ascertain the truth of the matter, and seek to understand why the narrative was created and took off with such a life of its own? What needs did it meet in the community for it to have attained to such an important part of their beliefs?

                Those are the historical questions. And those are the sorts of questions that interest me in the origins of Christianity and the gospel narratives.

                Moralistic questions about “lying” are not relevant for this historical inquiry any more than they are for an inquiry into the creation and spread of narratives (eyewitness ones even) about social bandits.

  • 2011-01-22 20:29:33 UTC - 20:29 | Permalink

    “As for point 5, this is an entertaining tale worthy of any Hellenistic novel.” – Again, please elaborate. (I’m just getting to know you and your site so I don’t have “history” with you to tell me which way you’re going with these comments.)

    I want to address your second paragraph, but will wait for your answers before attempting it. Thanks.

    • 2011-01-22 22:10:32 UTC - 22:10 | Permalink

      I discussed the genre of Acts in a series of posts exploring Richard Pervo’s book, Profit with Delight. The posts are archived here:

      The Damascus Road scenario is based on the conversion of Heliodorus in 2 Maccabees as part of this Hellenistic novel-like narrative.

      I have also posted quite a lot on the date of Acts (Pervo, Tyson, Knox) and have little doubt it was composed within the context of a Marcionite challenge in the mid second century.

      As for the rest of my paragraph about Jewish messianic understandings and expectations, you can see background to my thinking at:

      On Jewish beliefs in some quarters of the atoning value of Isaac’s sacrificial blood, this has been addressed in some posts in my archive on Levenson’s “Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son”:

      • 2011-01-22 22:45:34 UTC - 22:45 | Permalink

        Thanks, Neil.

        Before I comment, let me see if I have an accurate summary of Spong’s and your view of the New Testament: While Spong believes that there was some kind of historical Jesus of Nazareth, he also believes that the accounts of that life were embellished and exaggerated by the writers of the NT based on existing Jewish perceptions of Messiah in the OT – your point of departure from Spong being that you don’t believe there was even a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

        Do I have this right?

        • 2011-01-23 05:58:32 UTC - 05:58 | Permalink

          Spong goes further than saying that the life of Jesus was “embellished and exaggerated”. He says episodes were made up. The trial of Jesus was not an embellishment. It was a “midrashic fiction”. So were the walking on the water and stilling the storm, the birth stories, the resurrection. Judas and Joseph (both father and undertaker) were “midrashic” creations.

          Episodes of Jesus’ life were created (not embellished or exaggerated) out of Jewish scriptures.

          • 2011-01-23 08:13:44 UTC - 08:13 | Permalink

            Neil, one of the things I really like about Spong and you is how you bring out the OT element of what takes place through Jesus in the NT. This is an emphasis that is widely overlooked and it’s refreshing to see attention brought to it. This gives rise to the question, how were the gospel writers – being fishermen, tax-collectors, and such – were able to arrive at these perspectives. Certainly, some of them were circulating among Jews of those times. However, some of them most certainly were not, else, for example, the Jewish authorities would not have crucified Jesus for fear of confirming that He was the Messiah. It’s with regard to the understandings that weren’t commonplace that I’m concerned.

            Relying on Occam’s razor (which I’ve seen you extol elsewhere on your blog), I take the apostles at their word that they way they came to these many understandings was that Jesus taught them after He was raised from the dead. How do you and Spong explain them?

            • 2011-01-23 08:56:35 UTC - 08:56 | Permalink

              Occam’s razor encourages us to accept the simplest theory until there is compelling evidence to think otherwise. It does not mean we should accept testimony at face value, whether it’s from an eyewitness or from an anonymous author writing several decades after the fact.

              Suppose you have an employee who comes in late to work one day. When you ask him why he says, “Aliens abducted me last night, but I finally tricked them into bringing me back to Earth — albeit at 11:30 AM.”

              Taking him at his word means you have to believe that aliens exist, that they visited the earth last night, that out of billions of humans they picked him to abduct, that nobody else noticed it, and that he outsmarted them. Your working theory should be the simplest possible answer: He overslept. He might be telling the truth, but we would tend not to believe such an extraordinary claim without evidence.

              Taking what you believe to be the apostles’ word (i.e., what we read in the New Testament) — especially that they were taught “many understandings” from a resurrected savior who was in some way both human and divine — would fly in the face of Occam’s razor.

              Any other possible explanation that does not rely on theophany, miracles, and other supernatural phenomena would be preferred. It doesn’t mean that it cannot be true; it’s just that supernatural events are exceedingly rare (even if you believe in them).

              • 2011-01-23 10:06:42 UTC - 10:06 | Permalink

                I don’t misunderstand Occam’s razor, nor am I misapplying it. I am saying that of all the explanations I have heard the apostles’ telling the truth is the simplest and the most plausible. If you have another explanation for how the New Testament documents came to be, I am all ears. But simplying saying that any natural explanation is more likely is not giving an explanation.

              • 2011-01-23 12:25:09 UTC - 12:25 | Permalink

                “But simplying saying that any natural explanation is more likely is not giving an explanation.”

                I didn’t think I was attempting to provide an explanation. And you are misapplying Occam’s razor.

                Occam’s razor is simply a rule of thumb that says if you’ve got two competing hypotheses that explain the phenomenon, you should prefer the one with the “fewest moving parts.”

                Let me be blunt. Giving a supernatural explanation is “not giving an explanation.” If it were, then under Occam’s razor any competing hypothesis that involves gods, angels, or demons would likely always be preferred since it’s simpler. The theory of plate tectonics explains earthquakes quite well, but so does Job’s theory that God gets angry and shakes the earth. The latter has fewer moving parts; the former is more complicated, but happens to be true.

                You can call me a naturalist, if you like, but that’s OK. I consider it a compliment. But the main point I’m trying to make here is that supernatural explanations are excluded from science and history, because a proper hypothesis does not rely on skyhooks and spirits.

              • 2011-01-23 14:47:52 UTC - 14:47 | Permalink

                To say that the apostles were telling the truth in what they wrote is not a supernatural explanation. There is nothing supernatural about reporting what you’ve seen. You either saw it or you didn’t; you either wrote the truth about what you saw or you didn’t.

                So, let’s jump to the heart of the issue: it sounds like you are unwilling to accept any report of a supernatural event (such as the resurrection of Christ from the dead). If that’s the case, you can only apply Occam’s razor to a subset of the possible scenarios – rendering it useless for this discussion. For if you decide a priori that any natural explanation is to be preferred over any supernatural explanation, and if you make no attempt to provide a specific natural explanation, then you have no competing hypotheses to which you can apply Occam’s razor. However, for one who is willing to accept the truth whether it is natural or supernatural, and who is seeking the truth by searching for the best explanatory hypotheses, then indeed there may be the opportunity to apply Occam’s tool.

              • 2011-01-23 14:59:59 UTC - 14:59 | Permalink

                I may have misunderstood you. When you say “the apostles were telling the truth,” what does that mean? I took it to mean that you really thought there were people whom Jesus sent out and that they wrote the New Testament. Is this what you believe?

            • 2011-01-23 11:37:09 UTC - 11:37 | Permalink

              Not speaking for Spong, my own view is that that we have as much reason (and evidence) to believe the twelve disciples themselves are literary creations as Spong has reason (and evidence) to argue that the parents of John the Baptist are literary creations without basis is historical fact.

              They make their grand entrance in Mark in the wake of a narrative that strongly suggests the author had the narrative of Moses and the Exodus of the twelve tribes in mind. Jesus’ life is threatened, he leaves towards the sea with a vast “mixed multitude” (Mark 3:6ff). Mark combines this with motifs from the “second exodus” of Isaiah – it is a moment of healing and liberation with the presence of the kingdom of God. Just as God in the days of Moses, from the mountain top, ordained the twelve tribes to be his own holy nation, so Jesus here, acting in God’s role, calls twelve to him on the mountain and chooses them to symbolize the beginning of the new Israel.

              We have no evidence that the twelve had any presence outside the gospels or the gospel narrative. (I am treating Acts as a continuation of Luke.)

              The twelve had no influence on Paul as far as we know from his letters. In Acts they don’t even really do anything much more than pray. There’s a reference in one of Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 15:5) to Jesus appearing to the twelve (presumably in vision, since Paul says he appeared to them in the same way he appeared to him), and that’s it. There they have no more significance than the 500 brethren who are said to have had the same experience.

              I take the narrative of the gospels as a narrative without making presumptions about the historical sources or intention of the authors of the narrative. I agree with those biblical scholars (Schwartz, Schweitzer, Thompson, Davies, Clines) whom I have quoted several times and who point out that we cannot take at face value the claims of a narrative as if it were a true story (or based on a true story) without some supporting evidence external to the narrative itself. The self-testimony of a narrative alone cannot be accepted. I don’t think anyone takes the self-testimony of the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Pilate or the Life of Aesop or the Cyropedia at face value. We apply external controls to make appropriate assessments on their value as history. Modern historians do the same. Even narratives that claim to be by eyewitnesses need to be tested with external controls.

              So I believe it is only a question of treating the gospel narratives with the same consistency we treat nonbiblical texts, ancient and modern, that leads us to suspend judgement about their historical value.

              Once having suspended judgement, we look to see what evidence there is that might enable us to go further. I believe that in the case of the gospels we do find evidence external to the gospels that does give one reason to argue that their narratives are derived from the materials of, to a large extent, the Jewish scriptures.

              That to me is applying Occam’s razor in the same way we apply it to the Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Pilate, Life of Aesop, etc., including modern narratives claiming to be eyewitness accounts. If I took the gospels or any of these texts at their word in the absence of supporting controls I would have to imply a host of other hypotheses to sustain that assumption.

              • 2011-01-23 15:05:02 UTC - 15:05 | Permalink

                You said, “The self-testimony of a narrative alone cannot be accepted,” and I accept this principle. Thus, I see the letters of Paul and other testifying to the gospels, Luke testifying to Matthew and Mark, and so on. Moreover, the Old Testament testifies to them all.

                Given your position that the apostles were literary creations and not the actual writers of the New Testament texts, who do you think wrote them and why? (As you’ve said elsewhere on your blog, “My interest is attempting to understand how and why the gospels were created.”) And, secondly, from what source were they able to produce so many “midrashic creations”? Or to phrase the question in mirror image, how did it come to be the OT would support such “midrashic creativity” as to sustain the portrait we have of Jesus of Nazareth?

                Please be sure to read my first paragraph here not as setting up an argument but merely my being straightforward about my position on these things. That is, I won’t try to be coy with you. And be sure to read my second paragraph not as argumentative, rhetorical, or polemic; I’m genuine curious about what you think, especially since you’ve studied and thought about it so much.

              • 2011-01-23 17:34:11 UTC - 17:34 | Permalink

                As for your first question, I will let Albert Schweitzer answer it:

                Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.(Quest, 2001 ed. p.402)

                I think I have made it clear that I do not know who wrote the gospels, and the “why” can only partially be answered by their contents.

                Schweitzer also complained that in his day the level of debate tended to be superficial. I would like to avoid discussions that repeat that mistake:

                In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

              • 2011-01-23 18:22:03 UTC - 18:22 | Permalink

                To a mind committed to honest inquiry, it is disappointing indeed to see you invoke Schweitzer and adopt a similarly high-minded condescension toward those who would inquire of you.

                As to your comment at the end of 19. where I was prevented from responding there, you said, ” I am perplexed by the point of your question in relation to normal historical inquiry. If you insisted on pursuing this sort of questioning in a nonbiblical history class I imagine you would be asked to take your topic to a moral philosophy or theological classroom.”

                I can’t imagine such a thing happening at all. First of all, if I’m in a history class, I expect the texts to be nonfiction and not fiction. Secondly, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask – and is commonly asked – what might be the biases of the author. Indeed, authorial bias is the basis upon which histories are revised or rewritten – or at the very least, viewed in various ways.

                No, we can’t read an author’s mind – whether he wrote 2,000 years ago or whether he wrote last week. If, however, the writer takes his thoughts from his head and puts them down with ink then we can know at least those thoughts – whether 2,000 years ago or whether last week. To profess ignorance about an author’s thoughts when he has proclaimed them is very strange behavior.

              • 2011-01-23 18:49:47 UTC - 18:49 | Permalink

                And I just posted a comment complimenting on your civility. But you have blotted your copybook with your accusation that I am adopting some “high-minded condescension” to you? That is uncalled for. As with gospel authors I am not so quick to judge motives or thoughts of others as many Christians seem to be.

                (You can still comment on #19 – the technicalities will not go further than 10 nestings deep, that’s all. Just click on the previous ‘reply’ link.)

                One common tactic of Christians who have come here to argue a point in the past is that they begin with one set of words but through the discussion they shift ground. Can I ask you to be aware of that tendency? We were talking about lying, and now in your last sentence here you are implying I am unable to assess the thoughts of others even when they have been proclaimed. That is not what we were discussing, and my replies surely made it clear I do not think any such thing. Did you read my analogy of historians investigating narratives about social bandits? They do not know if they are reading or hearing fact or fiction until they investigate the supports for the narrative. You seem to be sidestepping this basic analogy. It is best to get our methods clear on a nonbiblical topic first, one that does not arouse faith and emotive issues, and then seek to objectively use the same method and logic in studying the gospels.

                And I was thinking at last I have discussed with a Christian apologist who is not going to take parting shots. . . .

              • 2011-01-23 20:24:00 UTC - 20:24 | Permalink

                Mike Gant (assuming he is no longer interested in commenting here and is not reading this, so I am addressing whoever is reading) does not know me yet he professes to read my innermost attitude:

                To a mind committed to honest inquiry, it is disappointing indeed to see you invoke Schweitzer and adopt a similarly high-minded condescension toward those who would inquire of you.

                So I wonder. Mike does not know me, but he does know the Bible very well, I am sure. And the Bible does say in Romans 12:16:

                Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.

                So I am led to think that Mike’s choice of words of judgement upon me is influenced by this and similar passages in the Bible. He has chosen and adapted the very words of the Bible to pass judgment on my attitude without knowing me.

                Perhaps there were warning signs of this before now, with his Bible-taught humility that was regularly expressed when, for example, he addressed me in terms declaring how he esteemed me to be more “sophisticated” in my understanding of the Bible while he was more down to earth (humble).

                I am reminded of my Christian days, and maybe I’m describing myself as I was rather than Mike. But I do know that many of my Christian friends in those days did have the same attitude, and I doubt it has changed much since I left the faith.

                I hesitate to speak of humble arrogance, but that is what I know I and other Christians did possess: we felt in our “humility” that we were wiser than the wisest of the world who “did not know God”. The Bible said we were! Unbelievers, we read in the Bible, might be wiser in mere worldly things, etc, and were puffed up because of it, etc. — that was the way we thought.

                These are the negative ways that Christianity bedevils so many of its faithful. Sure there are many good people who are also Christians, just as there are many good people who belong to other faiths and belief systems, too, and even some of us atheists are not all bad either.

                And sure there are many whose lives have been “rescued” by Christianity, and by Islam, and by Buddhism, and by escape from religion, too.

                It is not Jesus Christ who saves. It is people’s faith in Jesus, or in some other deity, or in themselves, that does the trick.

                But one advantage of atheism over a religious belief such as Christianity whose holy book has so much to say about dividing people between sheep and goats, about sin and guilt, about judgment and forgiveness, about crucifying or mortifying normal healthy emotions and feelings and “putting on” a “different person” from outside, — those who take all this side of it too seriously are not the happiest and most relaxed people. (But they do “put on” a spiritual joy from God to compensate.)

                I am speaking from my own experience. If it doesn’t fit you or Mike, then that’s great. But most of us who have tasted Christianity with any serious commitment know this.

                This is probably one of the several reasons I was so interested in Christian origins. What was it that led to a faith that has such a negative impact on people despite the good that is also done in its name?

                The best explanation I have read so far, I think, was in Burton Mack’s “Myth of Innocence”.

                The Bible has many taliban-like commands, and the New Testament, if taken seriously, does mess up minds. Committed believers are obliged to embrace contradictions and values that run against the grain of civilized progress.

                Even biblical scholars who are Christian have publicly written that they believe the Enlightenment was a huge mistake and that we should return to an “age of faith”.

                Part of me can’t help liking and feeling for Mike. I think I know where he is. I have been there too.

                One of the reasons for this blog was to air thoughts and readings that others who are interested can appreciate and think about. It’s not for believers. It’s for those who are more interested in exploring questions than in evangelizing answers.

              • 2011-01-23 20:47:34 UTC - 20:47 | Permalink

                Neil, I could defend myself against the way you have described me here but in the interest of pursuing my original objective I’ll forego that.

                My objective is to understand your point of view better so that we perhaps can have a productive exchange of ideas. As I’ve said at a couple of points before, I need to understand you better before I offer you my specific thoughts.

                So, are you saying you are an atheist? I had thought you were saying you were an agnostic. I’m just looking for clarification here. If neither of those categories accurately describes you then describe your view in some way you think I can understand.

  • 2011-01-23 15:08:44 UTC - 15:08 | Permalink

    @Tim (The blogging platform wouldn’t allow another indention above so I’m responding here.)
    You said, “I may have misunderstood you. When you say “the apostles were telling the truth,” what does that mean? I took it to mean that you really thought there were people whom Jesus sent out and that they wrote the New Testament. Is this what you believe?”

    Yes, but my point is that this is not a supernatural explanation of how the New Testament came to be written – which was the question being discussed.

  • 2011-01-23 20:35:49 UTC - 20:35 | Permalink

    Neil, I was not taking a parting shot and I apologize for using “high-minded” which, in retrospect, I see was excessive and made it look like I was taking a parting shot.

    While I am for Christ, I do not call myself a Christian and do not want to be identified with them. (Just think of me as fellow human being.) I did not come to your site to debate you; I came to bring you news that I thought might encourage you. I quickly realized that I couldn’t cubbyhole your views so, ever since, I’ve been trying to understand you.

    I have not shifted ground. My focus has been constant: to discern what you think about the NT authors, who they were, why they wrote, and how they wrote.

    Perhaps the Latin Amnerican social bandit story doesn’t work for me because I’m unfamiliar with it. However, I don’t deny that legends can arise. And if your point is that the New Testament documents are writing about a legend then I want to understand that more. For this reason, I dealt with the opening sentences you used to introduce the social bandit story.

    I was prepared to drop the conversation because it seemed clear to me that you did not want to continue it. However, the conversation has now been extended and it’s become personal. I hope my apology ends that phase. If do want to continue to engage with me on the subject matter, I’d be glad to do so. But if you’d rather not, then I do not want to pursue it. Therefore, the choice is entirely yours.

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