Monthly Archives: December 2011

Why argue over the meaning of the Bible?

A change of pace here. After an online chat this morning I got to thinking of old thoughts of my conversion from Christianity to atheism.

How quaint and archaic to see in this century otherwise intelligent and mature people debating whether the Bible supports women’s rights, gay rights, civil disobedience, war or pacificism, genetic engineering, smoking and drinking, blood transfusions and medical treatment,  etc etc etc.

Don’t such debates testify our childishness (confused with childlikeness) and fear of intelligence? I don’t think everyone involved in such debates is really looking to the Bible for guidance. I suspect many have come to share the values of their communities and others and are really looking for assurance from the Bible for their prejudices or sentiments. We like the idea of having God on our side.

It’s easier to argue against those whose views we despise that way, too. No need to be too troubled by having to make truly informed decisions or researching, reflecting and constructing educative discussions and debates. Much easier to bring out the Bible and bash away at each other with our favourite proof-texts. Besides, the Bible clearly gives licence from its greatest heroes to freely engage in arrogant declamations and insults when things get a bit heated or the argument is going quite the way we want.

But what happens when people do take the Bible seriously and really do try to set it up as a guide? And what happens if those people are serious enough to be humble enough (self-negating enough) to abandon all sense of personal responsibility towards their fellow human society and decide to let “God speak to them” regardless of where it leads? Not a good idea for the mentally and emotionally unstable or for anyone who has it within them to detach themselves from their natural family and social obligations.

The whole scenario is crass immaturity. The very notion of doing right because an authority commands it is childish, and fickle. What would happen if there were no Bible, no moral authority outside ourselves? The answer is all around us. We know first of all that where the Bible is taken the most seriously we find the higher incidents of domestic violence and child abuse, teen pregnancies and divorce and such. We know that where the Bible is not considered of any importance or relevance culturally in other parts of the world people do get along quite normally and healthily as societies after all. Humans are humans and by nature they have universal standards of right and wrong and social cohesiveness. It’s simply a matter of how we have evolved as social animals.

It’s hard to believe this when one is a believer, I know. When I was faced with the decision to leave God out of my life I truly had no idea where it would lead me. Would I become a murderer? Being a believer had screwed me up so much I no longer knew what it was to be human. I had feared being human. Believers are taught human nature is sinful. How liberating it was to discover people are people, good and bad, with needs and loves, and we all are just doing what we can to make the best of things. For some, perhaps many, that means putting in extra effort to help others along the way and learning to live with and control our faults.

The best part of this liberation was discovering I no longer had to live in a world divided between those in God’s camp, with my beliefs or values and authorities telling me how to live or backing me up, and the “others” out there in the camp of darkness or ignorance, the unsaved and the unwashed. The liberation was in coming to realize we are all one humanity with the same weaknesses and strengths (while not denying there are a few who really are bad news) and that we really are “one”.

The very idea of turning to a book to argue about this or that thing that we should or should not think or do or feel is so immature and symptomatic of inner fears about ourselves and others, surely. Little children need to learn that their bad dreams are nothing to be afraid of.

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Lest we forget never know: The Nakba

From http://zochrot.org/en

A Public hearing at Zochrot, a testimony given by Amnon Neauman, a 1948 Palmach soldier describing the occupation of the Negev villages.

Initiated and organized by Amir Hallel. The testimony was video-recorded by Lia Tarachansky. Miri Barak prepared the transcription. Eitan Bronstein edited, summarized, and added footnotes. Translated to English by Asaf Kedar. Video editing by Zohar Kfir.

 

Transcript

Amnon Neumann: I was in the Second, Eighth, and Ninth Battalions of the Palmach from February 1948 until my discharge in October 1949. I was there for this whole period, except for a few months after I had been wounded and after my father had passed away.

The most significant period for me in terms of the Nakba was April-May 1948, when the battles or clashes with the locals took place, until the Egyptian Army arrived. At first we escorted convoys traveling on the road from ‘Iraq Suwaydan , from Rehovot, [through] ‘Iraq Suwaydan, Kawkaba and Burayr, to Nir-‘Am where our company headquarters were located. Then an armed group of Arabs situated itself in Burayr and didn’t let us through, so we took a different route, from near Ashdod where Isdud was located, through Majdal, Barbara, Bayt Jirja, to Yad Mordechai. From there we drove to Nir-‘Am. Those were the two routes [we used] until the Egyptian army arrived. When the Egyptian army arrived, it was a completely different situation.

The Egyptian army arrived when we had wiped out all Arab resistance, which wasn’t that strong. It would be an exaggeration to say we fought against the Palestinians… in fact there were no battles, almost no battles. In Burayr there was a battle, there were battles here and there, further up north. But there were no big battles; why? Because they had no military capabilities, there weren’t organized. The big battles started with the entry of the Egyptian army, and those were very difficult problems, especially from May 15th, when we were still an organized army—the Palmach—semi-military. But their soldiers were organized by British methods, they fought like the British. But they had no leadership and they had no motivation. So when they attacked, it was very lousy, they hardly knew how to attack, but they did know how to defend themselves. They knew they were fighting for their lives. But as far as all the rest, it was a fifth-rate army. They had terrible cannons that killed us like hell. They had all kinds of tanks of different types, and they were a problem for us. We didn’t have anything, we had armored vehicles, those fluttering ones that were impossible to fight with, not against tanks and not even against a halftrack, right? But we more or less managed with them.

The villagers’ flight, and I understand this is the main issue here, happened gradually. I only know about what happened from the ‘Iraq Suwaydan road, [through] Majdal, to ‘Iraq al-Manshiyya . We were to the south of this area, and to its north there was the Givati Brigade. The day the Egyptians entered the war, the Negev was cut off and that was mostly our fault, my platoon’s fault… I’ll say more about it later. But that wasn’t significant. The Egyptians’ attacks were significant. They beat the hell out of us and killed us mercilessly.

The villagers’ flight started when we began cleaning these convoy escort routes. It was then that we started to expel the villagers… and in the end they fled by themselves. There were no special events worth mentioning. No atrocities and no nothing. No civilians can live while there’s a war going on. They didn’t think they were running away for a long period of time, they didn’t think they wouldn’t return. Nor did anyone imagine that a whole people won’t return. read more »

The earliest gospels 5 – Gospel of John (according to P L Couchoud)

Continuing here with Couchoud’s views of second century gospel origins. Earlier posts, including explanations for the reasons etc  for these posts, are archived here.

C’s story of John’s gospel begins with a setting in Ephesus, two generations after the feverish hopes for the coming of the Lord that produced the Book of Revelation. The church at Ephesus “preserved the tradition of the pillar apostle who had seen the Lord, for in this lay its claim to fame and to authority.” (p. 223) Apocalyptic enthusiasm had dwindled away and been replaced by a mysticism that experienced Christ as having come in the “here and now” in spirit and in their own flesh. Paul’s teachings about a mystical union with Christ also primary, according ot the evidence of “Ignatius” in his letter to the Ephesians, so much so that Paul’s concept of baptism as symbolic of death and burial had been superseded by the idea of baptism as a principle of a new life in Christ, with eternal life being granted at the moment of emerging from the real “water of life”.

These Christians were “born again” here and now and forever. They lived here and now in Light and Life. They could see and touch here and now the miracles of that divine life in full joy and love. The love was, however, a cultic love for their own brethren and worshiped spirits and not for the world. The prophets were revered, but also tested to see that they were not false and that they carried the same teaching of Christ having come now in the flesh.

They rejected the Marcionites and original teaching of Paul that Jesus had come only in the form of a man. Christ’s body was mystically both heavenly and human flesh and blood. Being heavenly Jesus was not, as Matthew said, born through a woman. The logical impossibility of being both spirit and flesh at one time in one body was resolved by mystic illumination that passes rational understanding. read more »

New neighbour

Here’s a new neighbour I met earlier this week while out for a walk. He likes to impress, but won’t let anyone get too close to him, though.

 

 

The earliest gospels 4 – Matthew (according to P L Couchoud)

Matthew Evangelist. The text also says - Abrah...

Image via Wikipedia

This post follows on from four earlier ones that are archived here. (That is, it’s take on the Gospel of Matthew is entirely my understanding of Paul Louis Couchoud’s analysis of this gospel as a reaction to what he believes to have been the original Gospel produced by Marcion. Quotation page references are from Couchoud’s “The Creation of Christ”. Scholarship has moved on since the 1920 and 30’s obviously, but some of the concepts raised — not all of them uniquely Couchoud’s by any means — are worth consideration nonetheless and have the potential to be adapted to the broader question of Gospel origins even today.)

The Gospel attributed to Matthew was composed in Aramaic speaking regions of eastern Syria and northern Mesopotamia where the Jewish population was numerous and Christians were mostly from Jewish backgrounds, says Couchoud. It was written in Aramaic, among a Christian community that saw itself as literally related to the ethnical Israel, and in response to both the Gospel attributed to Mark, said to have been Peter’s scribe, and the Gospel of Marcion. Mark’s gospel was believed to have been too pro-Pauline and anti-Law for their liking.

This scribe who wrote this new gospel structured it in 5 parts in apparent imitation of Moses’ 5 book presentation of the Law. Each part contained narratives and precepts. (The birth narrative at the beginning and Passion at the end formed a prologue and epilogue to this five-part book. The work was to be attributed to a credible eyewitness, so substituted Matthew, a disciple very well known in the Aramaic region where he and his readers were (Matthew’s tomb was reported as being located there around ca 190), for Marcion’s and Mark’s publican named Levi.

This scribe (to be called Matthew) expressed his own view with the parable of Jesus teaching that the new faith is a precious mix of the new and the old. So he did not discard the old as Marcion had done.

Matthew’s primary purpose was to demonstrate far more clearly than Mark had done that Jesus was the Messiah who was the fulfilment of Old Testament scriptures. He liberally adds OT quotations to make his point. read more »

The earliest gospels 3 — Gospel of Mark (according to P.L. Couchoud)

Couchoud’s take on the Gospel of Mark follows. This post should be seen as a continuation of the previous three. (That is, it’s take on the Gospel of Mark is entirely my understanding of Paul Louis Couchoud’s analysis of this gospel as a reaction to what he believes to have been the original Gospel produced by Marcion. Quotation page references are from Couchoud’s “The Creation of Christ”.)

Like Marcion’s gospel there is no mention of an author — “unless ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ is intended to give the author” (p. 170). Couchoud earlier made the point that Marcion’s gospel was likewise anonymous and if pushed his followers would say it was “Christ’s” gospel.

It is possible that this gospel was written in Latin (Ephrem’s note), or was composed with a Latin and a Greek version. The surviving manuscripts are in poor condition with the original ending lost. (I do not believe the original ending was ever lost, but I am keeping my own views quiet while I focus on staging those of Couchoud for now.) read more »

A fallacious argument for Jesus’ historicity

Dr McGrath in a recycled youtube presentation Did Jesus Exist? argues that Jesus was a historical figure in these words:

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.

In other words, the argument for the historicity of Jesus is, “No-one would have made it up.” This is in effect an appeal to ignorance. If one cannot imagine (without really trying) why someone would make it up, it must be historical.

The argument as expressed is, however, quite implausible. Stop and think. read more »

The earliest gospels 2 — the Gospel of Basilides (according to P.L. Couchoud)

The Gospel of Marcion, continues Paul Louis Couchoud, was fascinating reading but received outside Marcionite churches only after appropriate corrections. The first of these was in Alexandria by the gnostic philosopher Basilides.

The works of Basilides have been lost. We know they consisted of 24 books making up his Gospel and Commentaries. From Hegemonius we know the gospel of Basilides included Marcion’s parable of Dives [the Rich Man] and Lazarus. In Marcion’s gospel this parable addressed the Jews exclusively. The place of torment and place of refreshment (for those who obey the Law and Prophets) were both in “Hell”. Heaven is the bosom reserved only for thoBase who belong to the Good God (who is greater than the Jewish creator god).

Basilides’ gospel did not have Jesus actually crucified. For Basilides, who may have been influenced by Buddhism, all suffering is the consequence of sin, even if for sins committed in a former life.

Basilides taught that Jesus somehow was confused with Simon of Cyrene and it was this Simon who was crucified in his place. Jesus, being supernaturally related to God or Mind was able to change his appearance at will, and so escaped crucifixion and was taken, laughing at how he had deceived mere mortals, to heaven. Thus the Pauline theme of the mocked Archontes/Rulers was maintained, but in the process the crucifixion was denied — a denial we see repeated in the Acts of John and in the Koran of Islam.

So Basilides was extending the original notion found in Marcin’s gospel that Jesus had no real human body.

Basilides is apparently responsible for the institution of the festival of the Epiphany of Jesus and of his Baptism on January 6.

This makes us think that according to Basilides the manifestation of Jesus as a god took place at a baptism similar to the water festival celebrated at Alexandria on January 6, but in honour of Osiris. (ppp. 169-170)

Next post, the Roman reaction: the Gospel of Mark

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The earliest gospels 1 — Marcion’s gospel (according to P.L. Couchoud)

This post follows on from the previous one outlining Couchoud’s thoughts on Gospel origins. It starts with highlights from what he believes (generally following Harnack) Marcion‘s Gospel contained; looks at the next Gospel written apparently by Basilides; then at the way our canonical Gospel of Mark took shape and why, followed by the Gospels of Matthew, John and Luke.

The Gospel of Marcion

The authorship was anonymous. (p. 138)

It was placed with the letters of Paul and a commentary, the Antithesis, as a replacement for the Jewish scriptures.

There is nothing of a connected narrative in it. (p. 139)

It was composed of some sixty anecdotes, or pericopes, detached fragments without any connection between them. (p. 139)

Jesus was not born but descended from heaven and the gospel begins: read more »

Another explanation of Gospel origins from a Christ Myth perspective

Marcion Displaying His Canon

Image via Wikipedia

Edited last paragraph re Mark and Basilides ca 6 hours after original.

As to why a gospel was written about a “mythical” Jesus, here is a take by Paul Louis Couchoud from the 1920’s and published in English in 1939 as The Creation of Christ. (For other thoughts on this theme see discussion comments here.)

Couchoud attributes the first gospel to Marcion.

To make sense of this one must understand that Couchoud dates the letters of Clement of Rome and Ignatius to around 150 c.e. One recalls here the more recent ideas about the Ignatian letters by Roger Parvus. This leaves us with the common observation that “the half century from 70 to 120 is the most obscure period in the history of Christianity” (p. 110).

Couchoud argues that before that gap there was Paul, Jerusalem apostles and prophets. They all lay claim to visions of Christ. The Book of Revelation (dated prior to 70 and the fall of Jerusalem) is the outcome of a prophetic vision of one who is starkly opposed to Paul’s theology and visions. “Paul alone understood that the Son thus revealed was a crucified God.” (p. 132)

Couchoud relies heavily on Harnack’s interpretation of Marcion, an interpretation that has more recently met a trenchant challenge with Sebastian Moll’s The Arch-Heretic Marcion (2010). Moll says Harnack was anachronistically trying to make Marcion too much like an ideal Protestant reformer. But in this post I will let Couchoud have his say from his perspective in the early twentieth century.

Whereas many (including myself) have attempted to argue that the gospel narrative was an indirect response to the crisis of the first Jewish war that witnessed the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, Couchoud places more emphasis on the events of the second Jewish war — the Bar Kochba rebellion (Bar Kochba being hailed as a Jewish Christ and being responsible for persecutions of Christians) and its suppression by Hadrian who erected a pagan temple on the site of the old in the early and mid 130s.

So of what had Christianity consisted up to this time? Couchoud considers how the Christian scene looked to Marcion: read more »

Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis

This post looks at the rise of the dominant scholarly hypothesis that the Old Testament came together through the efforts of various editors over time collating and editing a range of earlier sources. The structure and bulk of the contents of the post is taken from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The complete set of these posts either outlining or being based on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, are archived here.

Before the Documentary Hypothesis there was Spinoza.

Spinoza

Let us conclude, therefore, that all the books which we have just passed under review are apographs — works written ages after the things they relate had passed away. And when we regard the argument and connection of these books severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

The whole of these books, therefore, lead to one end, viz. to enforce the sayings and edicts of Moses, and, from the course of events, to demonstrate their sacredness. From these three points taken together, then, viz. the unity and simplicity of the argument of all the books, their connection or sequence, and their apographic character, they having been written many ages after the events they record, we conclude, as has just been said, that they were all written by one historiographer.

So Spinoza was led to conclude (from the common style, language and purpose) that there was a single author (albeit one who used earlier source documents) and he opted for that author being Ezra.

Debt to Homeric Criticism – and left in the dust of Homeric criticism

read more »

Bible Origins — continuing Wajdenbaum’s thesis in Argonauts of the Desert

This post continues with further introductory themes in Dr Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert. The posts are archived here.

How late was the Bible? And who really wrote it?

It has become a truism that the Bible, or let’s be specific and acknowledge we are discussing the Old Testament or Jewish/Hebrew Bible, is a collection of various books composed by multiple authors over many years. All of these authors are said to have “coincidentally” testified to the one and only true God of the Jewish people. The mere fact that multiple authors spanning generations wrote complementary works all directed at the reality of this God working in human affairs is considered proof that we are dealing with a cultural and religious heritage, a common tradition belonging to a single people over time.

A few scholars have challenged that thesis and the most recently published of these is Philippe Wajdenbaum. He writes:

To have a single writer for Genesis-Kings, and possibly for other biblical books, contradicts the idea of the transmission of the divine word, and of a tradition proper to a people. (p. 11)

The idea of a single author does not conflict with the understanding that the sources of the Bible were drawn from archives of Israelite and Judahite kings as well as Mesopotamian and “Canaanite” and other sources. WP claims that the traditional scholarly hypotheses of authorship and origins of the Bible are in fact secular rationalizations of cultural myths about the Bible. But I will discuss this in a future post. read more »

Illusionist discusses psychic powers – and his link between Christianity and scepticism

Tim Minchin’s hymn to Jesus included a line about Derren Brown, and being from the other end of the world I had to Google to see who he was. This led me to an interesting series of interview of his with Richard Dawkins.

2. Do psychics really believe? read more »

Alternative view of Christmas through A Hymn to Jesus (WoodyAllenJESUS)

But do read Tim Minchin’s own take on his experience in producing this song @ I’m Not On The Jonathan Ross Show.

And the Lyrics have been transcribed by an online friend:

Jesus was a Jewish philosopher
Had a lot of nice ideas
About our existential fears
Much admired by his peers
Short and Jewish and quite political
Often hesitant and very analytical

Praise be to Jesus
Praise be to Woody Allen Jesus
Woody Allen Jesus! read more »