Monthly Archives: May 2012

Proving This! — Hoffmann on Bayes’ Theorem

Alan Mathison Turing

Alan Mathison Turing: Genius, Computational Pioneer, and BT Fan (Photo credit: Garrettc)

Misunderstanding a theorem

Over on New Oxonian, Hoffmann is at it again. In “Proving What?” Joe is amused by the recent Bayes’ Theorem (BT) “fad,” championed by Richard Carrier. I’ll leave it to Richard to answer Joe more fully (and I have no doubt he will), but until he does we should address the most egregious errors in Hoffmann’s essay. He writes:

So far, you are thinking, this is the kind of thing you would use for weather, rocket launches, roulette tables and divorces since we tend to think of conditional probability as an event that has not happened but can be predicted to happen, or not happen, based on existing, verifiable occurrences.  How can it be useful in determining whether events  ”actually” transpired in the past, that is, when the sample field itself consists of what has already occurred (or not occurred) and when B is the probability of it having happened? Or how it can be useful in dealing with events claimed to be sui generis since the real world conditions would lack both precedence and context?

I must assume that Joe has reached his conclusion concerning what he deems to be the proper application of Bayes’ Theorem based on the narrow set of real-world cases with which he is familiar. He scoffs at Carrier’s “compensation” that would allow us to use BT in an historical setting:

Carrier thinks he is justified in this by making historical uncertainty (i.e., whether an event of the past actually happened) the same species of uncertainty as a condition that applies to the future.  To put it crudely: Not knowing whether something will happen can be treated in the same way as not knowing whether something has happened by jiggering the formula.

Different values yield different answers!

I’m not sure what’s more breathtaking: the lack of understanding Hoffmann demonstrates — a marvel of studied ignorance — or the sycophantic applause we find in the comments. Perhaps he’s getting dubious advice from his former student who’s studying “pure mathematics” (bright, shiny, and clean, no doubt) at Cambridge who told him:

Its application to any real world situation depends upon how precisely the parameters and values of our theoretical reconstruction of a real world approximate reality. At this stage, however, I find it difficult to see how the heavily feared ‘subjectivity’ can be avoided. Simply put, plug in different values into the theorem and you’ll get a different answer. How does one decide which value to plug in?

You don’t have to do very much research to discover that Bayes’ Theorem does not fear subjectivity; it welcomes it. Subjective probability is built into the process. And you say you’re not sure about what value to plug in for prior probability? Then guess! No, really, it’s OK. What’s that? You don’t even have a good guess? Then plug in 50% and proceed.

It’s Bayes’ casual embrace of uncertainty and subjectivity — its treatment of subjective prior probability (degree of belief) — that drives the frequentists crazy. However, the results speak for themselves.

And as far as getting different answers when you plug in different numbers, that’s a common feature in equations. Stick in a different mass value in F = ma, and — boom! — you get a different value for force. It’s like magic! Good grief. What do they teach at Cambridge these days?

The proper application of BT forces us to estimate the prior probabilities. It encourages us to quantify elements that we might not have even considered in the past. It takes into account our degree of belief about a subject. And it makes us apply mathematical rigor to topics we used to think could be understood only through intuition. Hence BT’s imposed discipline is extraordinarily useful, since we can now haggle over the inputs (that’s why they’re called variables) rather than argue over intuitive conclusions about plausibility — because truthfully, when a scholar writes something like “Nobody would ever make that up,” it’s nothing but an untested assertion.

Bayes’ Theorem ascendant

If you can possibly spare the time, please watch the video after the page break. In it, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy recounts the story of how Bayes’ Theorem won the day. She tells us how BT is well suited for situations with extremely limited historical data or even no historical data — e.g., predicting the probability of the occurrence of an event that has never happened before. read more »

The Three Brusque-Fakirs — The Jesus Process© Hits the Web

Welcome to the Blogosphere!

Processed cheese Druzhba monument in Moscow, R...

Processed cheese Druzhba monument in Moscow, Russia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like mass-marketed, heavily processed food. Gosh, I do love it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of Velveeta®, Cheez Whiz®, etc., so R. Joseph Hoffmann’s announcement about a blog dedicated to . . . Huh? What’s that? Oh. Processed Jesus. Well, that’s very different.

First things first. I mustn’t forget my manners. Welcome new bloggers! Welcome Blogger Hoffmann, Blogger Fisher, and Blogger Casey! We extend our warmest wishes to the new blog, The Jesus Process©™®, and its founding members. I can say without reservation that I look forward to our future dialogues in which we point out where we disagree with you and you tell us why we’re incompetent, evil, and insane. It’s this kind of honest, cordial give-and-take that makes me happy to get up in the morning.

Origins

I was fortunate enough to grow up during the heyday of Marvel comics, so I know a little something about the thrill of an “origins” comic. The troika at The Jesus Process©™® bring back that same excitement I felt as a 12-year-old boy, growing up in a small town in Ohio back in the 1970’s. Each character is so well-defined, so fully realized. We’ve got the arrogant, unhappy leader (R. Joseph Hoffmann), the arrogant, unhappy mad scientist (Maurice Casey), and the arrogant, unhappy ingénue, Stephanie Louise Fisher. I can’t wait to see their costumes. It’s too early to say where they’ll end up, but they’re off to a cracking good start!

While coming from disparate backgrounds, Joseph, Maurice, and Steph share a common belief in their own intellectual superiority combined with a great deal of impatience for anyone who disagrees with them. This unshakable self-assurance leads them to write the most astonishing things. They’ll present controversial points as if they are facts, and ridicule anyone who doesn’t know that they’re facts. read more »

15. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 15

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The Epistle to the Hebrews (Part One)

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  • God speaking through a Son in a new reading of scripture
  • Hebrews’ Son a heavenly entity like the Logos
  • Hebrews 101: a sacrifice in a heavenly sanctuary
  • an event of revelation at the start of the sect
  • no words of Jesus on earth to be found
  • another motif of “likeness” to humans
  • “In the days of his flesh”: not Gethsemane
  • Christ “out of Judah”
  • Hebrews’ sacrifice in heaven
  • taking on a “body” in the scriptural world

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Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 116-117)

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Reading an historical Jesus into scripture

Those who have become familiar with my writings over the years will know that I have a soft spot for the epistle to the Hebrews. In many ways it is the most revealing of the New Testament documents.

  • It gives us a Son who is entirely known from scripture.
  • It presents a heavenly event that could only have been imagined out of a Platonic application of scripture: a sacrifice by the Son, performed in a spiritual sanctuary, in which he offers his own “blood” to God — a blood which can hardly be regarded as being human, hauled up from Calvary.

Indeed, anomalies like this have increasingly forced modern scholars to take refuge in interpreting Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary as intended by the author to be merely a metaphor for the earthly Calvary event — an interpretation for which there is no justification in the epistle. Most significantly, Hebrews contains two verses which make it clear that its Jesus had never been on earth, two smoking guns that would do any mythicist gunslinger proud.

Ehrman, true to form, simply seizes on any and all words and phrases in the epistle which he thinks could have an earthly or human application and declares them as such. He admits that this epistle, too, shows no knowledge of the Gospels — which he ought to have extended to no knowledge of the Gospel story, whether written or oral — but nevertheless “it contains numerous references to the life of the historical Jesus.

Ehrman itemizes some twenty of them (pp. 116-117, DJE?):

  • Jesus appeared in ‘these last days’ (1:2).
  • God spoke through him (that is, in his proclamation; 1:2). read more »

Neil Godfrey’s response 2: @ Stephanie Fisher

Kakadu Escarpment

Kakadu Escarpment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am continuing here with another quick and easy response because real life distractions prevent me at this time from addressing Hoffmann’s and Casey’s posts against mythicism. I will address both when work and family situations permit. Right now I am relaxing after sharing with family experiences in Kakadu — plan to return tomorrow some time.

I will also probably say more about Stephanie’s criticism of Carrier’s Bayes’ Theorem, too. But for now my response is light and only concerns what she has to say about me.

Stephanie nowhere addresses my arguments about historical methodology. No-one reading her post would know that this is my main focus in any discussion of Christian origins — and that my focus is on the question of Christian origins rather than mythicism per se. (This latter focus is exactly what Hoffmann himself says he wants to see so one would think that I might be given a little credit for seeing eye-to-eye on such a basic point with “The Jesus Process” folk 😉 I will be addressing Hoffmann’s post as soon as circumstances permit.

R. Joseph Hoffmann appears to be wanting to distance his, Maurice Casey’s and Steph Fisher’s “rebuttals” of mythicism from what they appear to see as crass internet blogging for the ignorant masses — (they pour scorn on the internet and blogging community) — and has presented their posts on his internet blog as a corporate “The Jesus Process”, complete with (unnecessary but pretentious) formal copyright notices. (The “creative commons” license is presumably far too common for these elitists.)

Unfortunately for any hopes that “The Jesus Process” might be taken seriously by anyone but the Hoffmann (threesome?) choir, the hotheaded Stephanie Fisher has been included. Anyone who has observed Stephanie in action with contrary opinions knows she has nothing more to offer than hyperbolic indignation, personal attack, non sequiturs and a stubborn failure to demonstrate any ability to comprehend the views she believes she has to attack.

Misrepresenting Fredriksen?

Stephanie faults me for supposedly quoting Paula Fredriksen’s words out of context. Stephanie at no point presents and dissects my own arguments that relate to mythicist conclusions. Rather, she dregs out issues that bugged her when she was commenting — and finally trolling — on this Vridar blog in 2010 and picks up where she left off. She has learned nothing since, and has no more grasp of what she believed she was opposing back then. She writes:

Atheist blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian ‘meta-data’ librarian (sic), thus plucked her brief comments completely out of context, and cited her in favour of the opposite interpretation.

Baloney. I did no such thing. And Stephanie does not even attempt to demonstrate how my quotation was “out of context” or how I cited her words for a view opposed their meaning. She does explain what Fredriksen’s context was, and that it was to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus’ heritage. Fredriksen is suggesting that the naming of Jesus’ brethren was an artifice to serve this ideological function. And I fully accept her explanation. I always have.

It was because of Fredriksen’s context — in exactly the way Stephanie herself repeats it — that I chose to refer to Fredriksen’s words. Fredriksen indicates that the names assigned to Jesus’ brothers are not “natural” but an artifice to support an ideological view of Jesus. So I wrote and quoted: read more »

McGrath’s “Missing Ending”: What Was Mark’s Story? — Part 3

[This post concludes my review of “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” by Dr. James F. McGrath. You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.]

Fish stories

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the end of part 1, I mentioned that McGrath commits the fallacy of relying on other gospels to shape his expectations of how Mark should end and then magnifies that error by looking for clues to the end of Mark’s “story” in other written gospels. I had to delay this discussion until now, because I spent so much time writing about oral tradition and “orality” in part 2.

The idea that a possible continuation of Mark’s story might be found in the incomplete, apocryphal Gospel of Peter or perhaps in the canonical Gospel of John is not a new one. McGrath reminds us that Burnett Hillman Streeter back in 1924 (The Four Gospels), building on C. H. Turner’s work proposed that very thing.

McGrath writes:

Streeter was of the view that not only the story in chapter 21, but also the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden, were derived from the Gospel of Mark. (See Streeter, 1924, pp. 351-360)

To be fair to Streeter, he presented this notion as a “scientific guess” — a “speculation” he said should not be mistaken for the “assured results of criticism.” While he seemed rather enamored of the idea, he acknowledged that it would be difficult to prove.

Streeter thought that the authors of the Gospels of Peter and John were aware of an earlier version of Mark that contained the appearance to Mary Magdalene and the miraculous fish fry on the lake, and that the later evangelists built on those stories. read more »

14. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.14

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Non-Pauline Epistles – Part One

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  • Apostles with no connection to an historical Jesus
  • Pilate in the 2nd century epistle 1 Timothy
  • 1 Peter knows a suffering Christ through Isaiah 53
  • Christ “hung on a tree”
  • The “flesh” and “body” of Christ and his “likeness” to men
  • The epiphany of Jesus in 2 Peter
  • Reading an historical Jesus into the epistles of John
  • No historical Jesus in Revelation

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Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 113-117)

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Is Ehrman being naïve or deliberately misleading?

There is an astonishing naivete to much of Bart Ehrman’s case for historicism. Perhaps it is aimed at a naïve readership, but it must leave such readers wondering if mythicists do indeed suffer from mental retardation or a simple inability to read texts. After all, the way Ehrman presents things, there can be no question that each and every writer in the early record clearly refers to an historical Jesus. Consider this statement:

But even in a letter as short as Jude, we find the apostles of Jesus mentioned (verse 17), which presupposes, of course, that Jesus lived and had followers. (p. 106, DJE?)

Well, it presupposes no such thing. The epistles contain many references to “apostles” who are not in any way represented as followers of a Jesus on earth. The epistle of Jude is only one of several referring to “apostles” that makes no such identification.

Independent Apostles

Paul himself, even in the orthodox view, was such an apostle. His apostleship was the result of a ‘call’ from God (e.g., Romans 1:1) and from ‘seeing’ the Lord Jesus in a vision (1 Cor. 9:1 and 15:8). In 2 Corinthians 11:4-5, in the midst of a diatribe against rival “apostles” who preach a ‘different Jesus’ from his own, he refers to both himself and his rivals as having received their respective kerygmas through the “spirit” (only his own, of course, was the valid one).

No connection here to an historical Jesus.

When he goes on in 11:12-15 to condemn those rivals for “masquerading as apostles of Christ” and being virtually agents of Satan, many scholars (such as C. K. Barrett) recognize that this kind of absolute condemnation is not being directed at the Jerusalem group, but other unspecified “ministers of Christ” (12:23) who proselytize independently, and certainly were not followers of a Jesus on earth.

Ehrman also conveniently ignores that in the entire body of epistles, not a single statement is made indicating that any apostles of the Christ were followers of a Jesus on earth, or traced any authority or correct preaching back to him.

It is impossible to believe that Ehrman could be ignorant of this wider application of the term “apostles” in the epistles, and only a little less difficult to believe that he is ignorant of mythicism’s arguments in this regard. He is either deliberately misleading his readers, taking advantage of their ignorance, or his own naïve reading of the texts is nothing short of an embarrassment. read more »

Neil Godfrey’s response 1 to Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher

Oh the searing intellectual prowess that is being brought to bear against the mythicist case and mythicist bloggers such as myself! How can we withstand this pulverising assault? This shock and awe!

Steph and Maurice have found a post of mine from 2010 in which I explained that though I was a librarian I never saw or touched a book.

One of his statements followed on a shocking earthquake in New Zealand: ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book’.[37] Perhaps this is why he seems incapable of gathering information available in books with any semblance of accuracy.  (Maurice Casey, Mythicism: A Story of Bias, Incompetence and Falsehood, accessed 23/5/2012 – I like the rhetorical touch Casey uses to introduce what he is about to say about me — See my P.S. at the end of this post for a response to the innuendo Casey has planted here.)

It is also apparent he does not read whole books, once claiming on his blog ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book.’[43]  (Stephanie Fisher, An Exhibitions of Incompetence . . . accessed 23/5/2012)

Both footnotes point to my 2010 post, Oh Dear! What Half a Million Books Thrown on the Floor by an Earthquake Look Like .  .  .

The context surely explains that I was speaking about my job — that though I am a librarian I do not work with books but with digital resources — and not about my personal devotion to study and books. But such a distinction is apparently far too subtle for Steph and Maurice, blinded as they seem to be by a compelling need to find fault at any cost in one whose arguments they have diligently avoided addressing.

Maurice’s and Steph’s “exposure” of my supposedly willful bibliophobia is as meaningful as faulting a bank manager for saying he never sees or touches cash.

Or for chastising a computer programmer (who only works at a terminal all day) for saying he never sees or touches a computer.

If you’re asked while driving if you want to share a beer and you say No, do you expect to be understood as saying that you are a teetotaller?

read more »

Earl Doherty’s Response to Maurice Casey

Maurice Casey has posted his foray against mythicism on R. Joseph Hoffmann’s blog. This post is Earl Doherty’s initial response. It has also been sent to Hoffmann’s blog but at the time of this posting on Vridar it is awaiting Hoffmann’s approval to be posted there.

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I see Casey’s basic ‘arguments’ against mythicism, and me in particular, as:

A — More unworkable reasoning to justify why Paul and all the other epistle writers have nothing to say about an historical Jesus. Casey thinks we should not expect to find “later Christian tradition” in the writings of Paul, ‘later tradition’ like the fact that Jesus was crucified on earth, by Pilate, that he taught anything about loving one another or any of the ethical teachings of the Gospel (not even inauthentic ones), that he performed miracles, prophesied the End-time, and so on.

Boy, what an HJ that leaves to champion! Imagine devoting one’s professional life to protecting the existence of such an undetectable mundane figure, no matter what the cost in surrendering one’s scholarly principles!

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B — Of course, in a “high context culture” no one, not a single writer of the non-Gospel/Acts New Testament and several non-canonical ones, felt the slightest urge to mention anything that was said or done by Jesus on earth, even in support of key arguments and debates they were engaged in, even when describing the genesis and ongoing forces within their movement. They so lacked such an urge that they routinely speak of that genesis and ongoing force in ways which exclude such a figure. All their readership and audience were so “high context” that they never expected, let alone demanded, any reference to the words and deeds of the historical figure they believed in and regarded as Deity incarnate.

I guess mythicists, in their misguided expectations, are all of us “low culture” idiots.

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C — Absolutely everything in the Gospels (even the titulus on the cross!) was so thoroughly known to all of Paul’s and other epistle writers’ readers, in every corner from Galatia to Rome, that it would have been a sin and an insult to even mention a single one of them. read more »

Barking Owls

New neighbours have moved in for a few months — two owls who think they’re dogs and bark instead of hoot.

Discovered them recently when I heard dog-barking sounds coming from up in a tree. That experience always requires investigation and this is what I found. Unfortunately I could not get a video of them but I captured the sound nonetheless.

Here’s the Wikipedia article on Barking Owls.

The last few days I’ve only ever seen the one perched in the tree. Hope the explanation is that its mate is hidden in a fork of a nearby tree caring for eggs.

Related articles

John Loftus (Debunking Christianity) “is done”

I’m probably the last person to find out about this but for anyone else who is a tail-ender John Loftus of the Debunking Christianity blog has called it quits. He writes in his last post:

I have no more desire to engage Christians. They are deluded, all of them. I have never been more convinced of this than I am now. I have better things to do. I spent 39+ years of my adult life on a delusion. If I add the years of my childhood that’s almost my entire life. Yet this is the only life I will ever have. It’s time to move on, or at a minimum take a very long hiatus. I just finished what may be my last book, on The Outsider Test for Faith, to be published by Prometheus Books early next year. How many times do I need to kick the dead horse of Christianity? I don’t think I need to say anything more. If what I have written isn’t good enough then nothing is good enough for some Christians. What I intend to do is turn this blog over to a few qualified people. I’ll still be a part of it and I suppose I’ll post something from time to time. But I see no reason to waste large chunks of my time on this delusion anymore.

And adds for clarification the following comment:

Thanks for everyone’s comments, especially the encouraging ones.

What I said may be harder to do than I think. I’ve been blogging every day for over six years. I’ll be around, just cutting drastically back for a while. It’s definitely been a love-hate relationship. read more »

13. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.13

Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 3: 1 Clement (with Addendum on the Epistle of Barnabas)

San Barnaba

San Barnaba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Issue of authenticity of 1 Clement
  • Does 1 Clement know any Gospels?
  • Christ speaking out of scripture
  • Clement knows of the Passion through Isaiah 53
  • Christ’s sacrificial ‘blood’ and ‘flesh’ belong in the mythical dimension
  • Prophecy in scripture not fulfilled in history
  • Epistle of Barnabas: still lacking a written Gospel
  • Barnabas points to scripture as his source
  • New Testament math: 0 + 0 = ?
  • A progression from mythical to historical

Is 1 Clement in any way authentic?

Despite doubts going back to the Dutch Radicals of the late 19th century, Ehrman accepts the non-canonical epistle 1 Clement as authentic in regard to its ostensible purpose (a letter from the Christian community in Rome urging the settling of a dispute going on in the community in Corinth) and its traditional dating (the last decade of the first century), though its attribution to a Clement reputed to be the fourth bishop of Rome remains highly dubious.

With all of that I would agree, and have defended this degree of authenticity against a continuing radical view that the work is a much later forgery designed to encourage other Christian communities to acknowledge the hegemony of the Church of Rome. This issue need not be addressed here, except to say that I find the arguments for such a view quite unconvincing and unnecessary. (See the reasons given in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, note 169.) However, I will hereafter refer to the author as “Clement.”

Does 1 Clement know any written Gospels?

Some of those reasons will be evident in the present discussion. Ehrman makes the following admissions for 1 Clement:

The letter quotes extensively from the Greek Old Testament, and its author explicitly refers to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But he does not mention the Gospels of the New Testament, and even though he quotes some of the sayings of Jesus, he does not indicate that they come from written texts. In fact, his quotations do not line up in their wording with any of the sayings of Jesus found in our surviving Gospels. (p. 104, DJE?)

If we agree on a reasonable dating of the 90s of the first century, or even the first decade of the second, we find here a similar situation to that of the Ignatian letters. At this period, even in Rome, there is no sign of actual written Gospels available in major Christian communities. When we see the same situation existing for Papias even later, we know that there is something wrong with the traditional view of the Gospels as historical documents all written before the first century was completed.

What does Clement know about a life of Jesus on earth? 

Despite this situation, Ehrman argues that “the author of 1 Clement, like Ignatius and then Papias, not only assumes that Jesus lived but that much of his life was well known.” The latter two writers may indeed have made such an assumption, but there is little sign that either one of them knew very much about their assumed Jesus’ life or teachings. As for 1 Clement, both of Ehrman’s claims are suspect. Here is what he offers as evidence that the author is speaking “about the historical Jesus” (I’ve altered Ehrman’s order for better efficiency in addressing them):

(1) Christ spoke words to be heeded (1 Clement 2.1).

This is first of all a misleading translation. Literally, it is “you paid attention to his words,” which eliminates the image of Christ standing before one and speaking. In any event, considering that spiritual figures such as Wisdom and the Holy Spirit are often presented as conferring advice and guidance, this statement in any form could easily apply to a spiritual figure. read more »

12. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 12. Three Voices . . . Ignatius

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Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 12

Three Voices on the Historical Jesus – No. 2: Ignatius of Antioch

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch

    Martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Are the Ignatian letters forgeries?

  • What does “truly” mean for Ignatius:
    • anti-docetism?
    • historical fact?
  • Ignatius knows no Gospels, even in 110 CE or later
    • implications of this
    • rumours of an allegorical tale interpreted as history
    • no teachings of Jesus, no miracles,
    • no apostolic tradition
  • Why did docetism arise in Ignatius’ time?
    • two reactions to the historical Jesus
  • A Christ myth in Ignatius’ Ephesians

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Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 101-104)

Ignatius of Antioch

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Did Ignatius write the Ignatian Letters?

Bart Ehrman seems to assume the authenticity of the story that Ignatius was caught up in a persecution of Christians at Antioch around 107-110 CE, was condemned to death and sent to Rome under military escort to die in the arena. Along the way, he wrote letters to six churches in Asia Minor and one to bishop Polycarp of Smyrna.

Many doubt the feasibility of such an enterprise, including the likelihood that the authorities would have undertaken to send him all the way to Rome for execution. But that is the story told in later tradition, and it is to be found within the letters themselves.

I will not go into the arguments for and against authenticity here, but if they are later forgeries (that is, the versions known as the “Shorter Recensions” which have traditionally been considered the originals, with the Longer Recensions coming much later in the century and filled with obvious insertions based on the Gospels), such forgeries cannot have been made much later than a decade or two after Ignatius’ death. (I myself might opt for forgery, but I will continue to refer to the writer as “Ignatius.”)

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Arguing for a “true” life on earth

One of the principal purposes of these letters is to attack fellow Christians who espouse doctrines and practices Ignatius cannot countenance. Ignatius makes a set of claims about Jesus which he declares to be true, in opposition to those who deny them. The fullest statement of these claims is found in the epistle to the Smyrneans (as translated by Ehrman):

For you are fully convinced about our Lord, that he was truly from the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born from a virgin, and baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him. In the time of Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh. . . [Smyrneans 1-2]

How does Ehrman (and scholarship traditionally) interpret a passage like this? What is Ignatius arguing for and what is the position of those he criticizes? According to Ehrman, the latter are

. . . Christians who insisted that Jesus was not a real flesh-and-blood human. These opponents of Ignatius were not ancient equivalents of our modern-day mythicists. They certainly did not believe that Jesus had been made up or invented based on the dying and rising gods supposedly worshipped by pagans. For them, Jesus had a real, historical existence. He lived in this world and delivered inspired teachings. But he was God on earth, not made of the same flesh as the rest of us. (p. 102)

In other words, Ehrman sees Ignatius’ opponents as docetists (from the verb dokein, to seem), holding the doctrine that Jesus only seemed to be human, only seemed to possess a body of human flesh. In reality, this was only an illusion; he was and remained in spiritual form, so that he did not partake of human nature and did not suffer on the cross.

But is this the meaning that can reasonably be taken from some of Ignatius’ statements? read more »

McGrath’s “Missing Ending”: What Was Mark’s Story? — Part 2

[This post continues my review of “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” by Dr. James F. McGrath. You can find Part 1 here.]

Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish, in the...

Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish, in the Sea of Galilee, by Raphael (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why might Mark’s original audience not have thought the Short Ending was problematic?

Last time we discussed why the Short Ending (SE) of Mark is considered problematic. Now we’re going to look at the possibility that ancient audiences might not have felt the same way we do, i.e. wondering: “Where’s the rest of it?”

Why might they have reacted differently? Why might things be not so bleak as they seem? McGrath offers two reasons:

  1. The disciples could have stumbled back home to Galilee on their own, “leaving open the possibility of their fulfilling Jesus’ command inadvertently.
  2. [G]iven the primarily oral cultural context of early Christianity, it is appropriate to reflect on the significance of the fact that Mark was presumably telling a story which his readers already knew, and thus the end of his written Gospel need not have represented, either for him or for them, the end of the story.

For McGrath, the written Gospel of Mark is simply one recording of many possible live performances. He imagines that tradents in the Christian community (probably centered in Galilee) performed the gospel from memory. Presumably, each time they recounted the “story” they changed it to fit the audience, responding to feedback. read more »

If Human Rights Aren’t Your Highest Priority, What Does That Say about You?

The Bush Junior years — 2000 to 2008 — were interesting times, politically, here in the U.S. When Dubya’s positive polling percentage hit 29%, some of my conservative friends came out of the closet, so to speak. “Tim,” they told me, “I’m really more of a libertarian than a conservative or a Republican.”

“Don’t lump me in with those Neocons.”

Of course the realization that they no longer identified with the national G.O.P. (Grand Old Party) had more to do with the disenchantment with the Neocons than anything else. Specifically, it had become apparent that the Iraq War had been a tragic mistake — what kind of mistake exactly depends on whom you ask. Was it ill-conceived from the beginning and based on fabricated intelligence, or was it simply poorly executed? Either way, lots of weary Republicans all over the country were distancing themselves from a very unpopular president.

So now when I read news stories about the ballot initiative against gay marriage in North Carolina last week, or yesterday’s disgusting vote in the Virginia House of Delegates, I wonder what all those self-styled libertarians think. I know many libertarian-leaning people are appalled by government intrusion into citizens’ personal lives, and I wouldn’t doubt most Republicans I have known (the ones with university degrees and most of their teeth) aren’t homophobic. Will they distance themselves from this madness, too? read more »