Monthly Archives: November 2011

Noam Chomsky Interview with Phillip Adams (and others)

Thank God for Podcasts. They mean I don’t have to miss out on a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting interview with “the most important intellectual alive,” Noam Chomsky of course.

What was especially interesting this time — and different from other interviews — was the extent to which he opens up about his personal life from childhood on and how he came to be where he is today.

I copy here a few of the comments from the Late Night Live webpage with the audio links, and some other videocasts:

Chomsky’s speech on receiving the Sydney Peace Prize and other (more political) interviews at the Sydney Opera House are also linked.

read more »

Matthew’s Jesus crafted from the story of Isaac

I forgot to conclude a series I began some weeks ago so let’s at least start to bring this one to a close. I was discussing Leroy Huizenga’s thesis that the Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew has been crafted from the Jewish stories of Isaac. Two reasons this has not been noticed before are suggested. Matthean scholarship has been

  1. “fixated on the formula quotations to the exclusion of other forms of Matthean intertextuality”;
  2. “redactional-critical, not narrative-critical”

. . . thus, scholars miss the cumulative narrative force of the many allusions to Isaac. (p. 70, The Matthean Jesus and Isaac in Reading the Bible Intertextually)

The previous two posts in this series covered various Jewish views of the sacrifice of Isaac in the pre-Christian and early Christian eras. Isaac came to be understood as going willingly and obediently to his sacrificial death, offered up primarily by God himself, with his sacrifice having a saving or atoning power. All this happened at Passover and on the Temple M0unt. Some of the following post will make more sense if those two previous posts are fresh in mind.

(In what follows I single out some of the more striking features of the argument and am not attempting to reproduce all of the facets and nuances Huizenga addresses. Much will be assertions of examples of intertextuality with only a little of the argument for them. This post is an outline of a chapter that is a synopsis of a thesis.) read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 3 — the pre-christian date

How old is the Gnosticism described in the first two posts?

Schmithals holds that the Apophasis (c.f. Apophasis) attributed to Simon and from which (or from a summary or paraphrase of which) Hippolytus apparently drew his information was not itself written by Simon — at least according to what we can understand from the way Hippolytus speaks of it. Three points are singled out:

  1. New Testament quotations are included in the Apophasis [VI.9.10 = 137.11ff; VI.14.6 = 140.3.4; VI.16.6 = 142.23 ff.]
  2. The second century Galienus is perhaps used [VI.14.8 = 140.15 ff.]
  3. The Apophasis appears not to have been a unitary work in all respects.

I don’t have access to a copy of Hippolytus with either of these numbering systems so am unable to pull out the quotations. The NT ones in particular could be significant — are they from Paul’s epistles or elsewhere?

But the question is not the age of the Apophasis but the age of the system of Gnosticism described in it. And that is the theme of this post.

Schmithals begins with another account of Simon’s teachings that they share the terminology we find in Hippolytus’ account but that differ significantly in other respects. read more »

A rational foundation for investigating the mythicist (and Christian origins) question

I have been attempting to engage a biblical scholar in a discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of how historians can know if an event or person in ancient times were truly historical or a mere fiction.

Here was my initial proposition:

The theoretical underpinning of the historicity or factness of the contents of any report, document or narrative is that those contents can at some level be independently corroborated. This is a truism we learned as children: don’t believe everything you hear. This theoretical principle operates in our legal systems, in our media reporting culture, in our research investigations, in our everyday lives.

Let’s take a birth certificate as a case study. This contains information about the parents and birth time and place of a person, but also official seals or stamps and logos and names of the issuing authority in order to establish its authenticity. People who invented birth certificates recognized the need for independent corroboration of the contents contained in it, so they decided to add all this sort of information to it to make it more than just a blank piece of paper (that anyone could have written) saying so and so was born to x and y at this place here, etc.

Now let’s take the Romance of Alexander as another example. read more »

Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

I was reminded of Luke’s prologue (again) when I recently read (again) the prologue of Roman historian Livy. Stream of consciousness takes me immediately to Loveday Alexander’s argument that Luke’s prologue is very “unlike” the prologues of ancient historians and to my own pet notion (anathema to most interested classicists, I am sure) that Luke’s second volume, Acts, is structured around the founding myth of Rome: both narrate the voyage of a hero from the east, via Troy, to establish a new (imperial/spiritual) headquarters in Rome. But I do take some courage in that at least one scholar, Marianne Palmer Bonz, has written an exploratory book, The Past As Legacy: Luke-Acts As Ancient Epic, expressing the same theme. (I call it “exploratory” because I am still seeking more specific details to support the argument.)

So I collate the different possible explanations of Luke’s Prolog in this post. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 2

Continued from post 1.

To sum up the significant themes I will sometimes paraphrase and sometimes repeat the words of Walter Schmithals on pages 39 to 40 of Gnosticism in Corinth.

The Gnostic system described in the previous post is attributed to Simon (i.e. the Simon Magus of Acts 8:9ff).

Hippolytus tells us that all of this was written out in a work attributed to Simon, the “Apophasis Megale” or Great Revelation.

In this Revelation Simon speaks with divine authority: “To you then I speak what I speak and write what I write. The writing is this.”

“His authority is of the great power in general, which he himself is as well.”

Now we know from Acts and other early sources that Simon is infamous for having claimed to be the great power. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 1

Last week my copy of Gnosticism in Corinth by Walter Schmithals arrived in the mail and the first thing that hit my attention about it was a discussion in the “Introduction A” chapter of pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism. This looks interesting for the obvious reason that it just might throw some light on one particular interpretation of the New Testament epistles — that they know only a spiritual Christ who bears no relation to the Jesus of the Gospels.

Schmithals’ is always a densely packed read so I know I need to step out of character and be patient and read this slowly. And since I know I’m not the only one interested in this I have decided to take the time to type up blog notes as I go through this section. (I sometimes freely copy phrases of the translated Schmithals in what follows.) This topic is new to me and understanding gnostic thought is not easy. I welcome feedback about any mistakes or misunderstandings in what follows.

One interesting remark by Schmithals reminded me of the question of Paul’s knowledge of details of a Christ myth. He writes:

In general one may say that an excess of mythological speculation is always a sign of diminishing existential tension — and conversely . . .  (pp. 29-30)

Food for thought here, I think, about the question of the emerging mythological details that accrued around the Christ Jesus as the years progressed.

Schmithals describes what he sees as a pr-Christian system of Jewish Gnosticism.

He begins with a discussion of the thought system of Simon (Simon Magus in Acts) as described by Hippolytus. This surprised me since other scholars (e.g. Birger Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism) dismiss the account of Hippolytus as a description of a much later — very post-Christian — development of Simon’s thought. But Schmithals does present a number of reasons to think that what Hippolytus is depicting is, rather, very early — pre-Christian — Jewish Gnosticism. (I am sure Pearson has read Schmithal’s works so I would like to read his responses. If anyone can point to his or other reviews I’d be grateful.)

Schmithals then describes similar Jewish Gnostic systems that he sees as related to the thought-world of the Simonians and shows how they embraced a Christ idea that is quite unlike the concept of Christ in the later (very Christian) Gnostic thought. Schmithals shows the way the Jewish Christ was reinterpreted to identify the Primal Man, or the Great Power that generated all.

It is difficult not to see overlaps here with passages in the Pauline letters. (But Schmithals clearly distinguishes Paul’s thought from that of this early Gnosticism.)

I don’t know if I will finish all of Schmithal’s discussion in a few blog posts but I can at least start with good intentions. read more »

Why and how I came to question the historicity of Jesus

This is a continuation from my previous “little bio” post.

An earlier version was accidentally published about half an hour before I had completed it. This is the completed version.

It never occurred to me that the historical existence of Jesus could be questioned until I came across Earl Doherty’s website. Till then I had been a happy atheist for quite some years, still fascinated by the Bible and its place in our society, so much so that I continued to study it from a range of perspective — literary and historical — in order to understand and share what I learned about its original nature and origins. I was particularly interested in sharing information about cults, the damage they can do and the tricks tactics they use to win members. Personal experience was a cruel but effective teacher. The thought of questioning the historical existence of Jesus never crossed my mind — until I stumbled across Earl Doherty’s Jesus Puzzle site.  (It had a different domain name then. Oblio something.) read more »

It is good to question biblical scholars: a little bio, 1

It is good to question any scholar, biblical or otherwise, but my focus here is on those who specialize in biblical studies.

Every authority, political,  professional, intellectual, should be held to account and made to justify itself. Most recognized intellectual authorities have little trouble doing this but there have been instances of fraud nonetheless.

But I am addressing biblical scholars in particular because they can be seen as important contributors to our knowledge and understanding of the Bible and Christianity, and it is the Bible and Christianity that enjoy central places in Western culture. And the Bible and Christianity have most definitely played vital roles in my own life, both for good and ill, which is probably true for most of us. read more »

The Best Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus (as good as an argument for the lost civilization of Atlantis)

A map showing the supposed extent of the Atlan...

Atlantean empire: Image via Wikipedia

As a contributor to The Resurrection of Jesus William Lane Craig attempts to tidy up some looseness in the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus made by N. T. Wright in his voluminous opus, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

I quote here Craig’s recasting of Wright’s argument in a “more perspicuous” structure. He precedes his recasting with this:

[A]ttempts to explain the empty tomb and postmortem appearances apart from the resurrection of Jesus are hopeless. That is precisely why skeptics like Crossan have to row against the current of scholarship in denying facts like the burial and empty tomb. Once these are admitted, no plausible naturalistic explanation of the facts can be given.

He then presents the freshly polished argument: read more »

John the Baptist became (or came from) a god?

Oannes

Image by Krista76 via Flickr

In my recent post I referred to an old view that John the Baptist may possibly in some way have originated from the Babylonian water god, Ea. Another scholar who also saw a link with this god was Robert Eisler, but he took the contrary view: that a historical John the Baptist was in some way eventually identified with Ea. He suggests the possibility in his 1920 book, Orpheus — The Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Early Christian Cult Symbolism. Eisler’s views have always been controversial and I find many of them imaginative discussion-starters rather than convincing conclusions. So it is in that context that I share here what he says about the possibility of John the Baptist’s link with the pagan god.

Eisler is dogmatic in his insistence that John the Baptist was a historical person and flatly denounces the contrary claim by two early Christ Myth proponents, Dupuis and Drews:

It is more than a century since Charles Francois Dupuis, the famous Parisian lawyer and professor of rhetoric , first declared that John the Baptist was a purely mythical personage and his name the equivalent of that of the Babylonian fish-clad divinity Iannes or Oannes. Quite recently the same theory has been repeated in Prof. Arthur Drews’ much-discussed book on the so-called ‘Christ-myth,’ . . . . read more »

Sifting fact from fiction in Josephus: John the Baptist as a case study

Palace of Machaerus

Machaerus: According to Josephus it was controlled by Herod's enemy but the same Josephus? says Herod still used it as his own! Image by thiery49 via Flickr

The Jewish historian Josephus writes about both genuine historical persons and events and mythical characters and events as if they are all equally historical. Adam and Vespasian, the siege of Jerusalem and the last stand at Masada, are all documented in a single work of ancient historiography.

Is there some method or rule that can be applied to help us decide when Josephus is telling us something that is “a true historical memory” and when he is passing on complete fiction?

Is Genre the answer?

We cannot use genre as an absolute rule. Genre can offer us some sort of guide to the intentions of the author. But Josephus is no better than Herodotus or the historical books of the Jewish Bible when it comes to freely mixing mythical accounts and historical memory within the same ostensibly historiographical scrolls. Genre can deceive the unwary. The myth of Masada has long been accepted as “historical fact” largely because it forms a literary and ideologically aesthetic conclusion to the demonstrably historical report of the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Some information used by Josephus is known without any doubt to be historical because it is independently witnessed by both archaeological remains and external — “controlling” — literary witnesses. But archaeology has also given us reason to believe that the numbers of sieges and conquests of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century was doubled for literary-theological reasons. read more »

Are Atheists Wrong?

An online debate is hosted at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bigideas/stories/2011/3361417.htm Anglican archbishop Peter Jensen, Tracey Rowland and Scott Stephens argue the affirmative and Dr Tamas Pataki, Jane Caro and Russell Blackford the negative.

The archbishop even claims that refusal to consider Jesus as the answer for your life is akin to being a flat-earther. I could single out some others, too, so unfortunately the quality of the debate is not uniformly high. But some may be interested in such a debate nonetheless.

Monkeys, Typewriters and Evolution

The Blind Watchmaker

Probably most people curious enough to read a blog like this will know well enough already Richard Dawkins’ answer to the creationists’ analogy of the probability of monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare being used to debunk the idea of evolution.

But for the benefit of the random reader (as remotely likely and also possible as 2 monkeys with two typewriters typing two 2 character words — don’t forget punctuation keys, spaces, capitalization, numbers, etc) who has not encountered what is probably the simplest rebuttal of all of this “works-of-Shakespeare-typed-by-a-million-monkeys-at-typewriters” analogy, here is evolutionist Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal. He kind of substitutes weasels for monkeys as the main focus of attention, and then switches their roles from actants to objects, but no matter. The point is to demonstrate something real by means of a real (i.e. legitimate) analogy, and monkeys can still be kept in there as the behind-the-scenes typists.

So if we postulate that the primary mechanism of evolution is natural selection, then we will understand that natural selection favours certain genetic configurations over others. Those particular configurations that it favours for survival will be more likely to survive than the others. This is the classical model of the theory of evolution.

So with a nod to rationalwiki here is Dawkin’s monkey (sorry, WEASEL) analogy:

So much for single-step selection of random variation. What about cumulative selection; how much more effective should this be? Very very much more effective, perhaps more so than we at first realize, although it is almost obvious when we reflect further. We again use our computer monkey, but with a crucial difference in its program. It again begins by choosing a random sequence of 28 letters, just as before:

WDLTMNLT DTJBKWIRZREZLMQCO P

It now ‘breeds from’ this random phrase. It duplicates it repeatedly, but with a certain chance of random error – ‘mutation’ – in the copying. The computer examines the mutant nonsense phrases, the ‘progeny’ of the original phrase, and chooses the one which, however slightly, most resembles the target phrase, METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. In this instance the winning phrase of the next ‘generation’ happened to be:

WDLTMNLT DTJBSWIRZREZLMQCO P

Not an obvious improvement! But the procedure is repeated, again mutant ‘progeny’ are ‘bred from’ the phrase, and a new ‘winner’ is chosen. This goes on, generation after generation. After 10 generations, the phrase chosen for ‘breeding’ was:

MDLDMNLS ITpSWHRZREZ MECS P

After 20 generations it was:

MELDINLS IT ISWPRKE Z WECSEL

By now, the eye of faith fancies that it can see a resemblance to the target phrase. By 30 generations there can be no doubt:

METHINGS IT ISWLIKE B WECSEL

Generation 40 takes us to within one letter of the target:

METHINKS IT IS LIKE I WEASEL

And the target was finally reached in generation 43. A second run of the computer began with the phrase:

Y YVMQKZPFfXWVHGLAWFVCHQXYOPY,

passed through (again reporting only every tenth generation):

Y YVMQKSPFTXWSHLIKEFV HQYSPY

YETHINKSPITXISHLIKEFA WQYSEY

METHINKS IT ISSLIKE A WEFSEY

METHINKS IT ISBLIKE A WEASES

METHINKS IT ISJLIKE A WEASEO

METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEP

and reached the target phrase in generation 64. m a third run the computer started with:

GEWRGZRPBCTPGQMCKHFDBGW ZCCF

and reached METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL in 41 generations of selective ‘breeding’.

There is a little macro or whatever at http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Dawkins_weasel#cite_ref-1 where you can see this evolutionary process in action for yourself. One time I tried it I almost thought I saw only 7 iterations (i.e. generations) to complete the process. But obviously that is the sort of “luck” that defies anything we might expect in the real world. So try it again and see how many times it takes more than 70 iterations to achieve the goal!

I think this scientific response to the creationist analogy has more persuasive power than any efforts by befuddled theologians (e.g. James McGrath on Exploring Our Matrix) who are offended enough to modify the analogy to have monkeys use mere 4 key typewriters!

The Dawkins’ explanation is from his book The Blind Watchmaker

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