Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Awesome Power of Self-Selection

Why I never became a journalist

In my first two years of college, I wandered from major to major — theatre, undecided, political science. One muggy day in the summer of 1979, I realized I was going nowhere. I was working in Columbus, Ohio, for a guy whose business model had something to do with selling frozen meat door to door. My meals consisted mainly of bread, peanut butter, and orange soda (or “pop”).

I was flat broke, with no options. So I decided to join the U.S. Air Force, following in my dad’s footsteps. To make a long story short, my language aptitude scores landed me in Russian language school at Monterey, then on to an overseas assignment. The job was interesting, and living in Berlin was a great experience, but I knew from the outset I was going to stay in only for the minimum four-years stint, and then head back to school.


Ring Lardner

This time I knew exactly which I degree I wanted to pursue: a bachelor of arts in journalism. At the University of Maryland, I bided my time, waiting for seats in the first upper-level journalism class to open up. In the intervening period, I took lots of history courses as electives.

At last I found myself on the first day of my first journalism class. The professor greeted us all and then asked us to go around the room, give a short introduction, and say which kind of journalism we were focused on. Everybody except me and one other guy said, “Radio and Television.” We, the two dinosaurs, had indicated we were interested only in print journalism.

At that very moment, I knew I couldn’t stay. Journalism was now a job for the shallow, pretty people. The beat reporter stabbing away at his typewriter with his index fingers trying to meet a deadline was a figment of my imagination, the ghost of a bygone era.

The power of self-selection

I selected myself out of my chosen field of study. I dropped my classes, switched to history, and never looked back. Since that time, mainstream journalism has gotten much, much worse. Had I stayed, I alone couldn’t have changed anything. But together, the large numbers of people who took themselves out of the mix — who decided not to stick it out and try to stem the tide — might have. Or perhaps not.

The power of self-selection often goes unnoticed. It’s a kind of opportunity cost. What would have happened if such-and-such had not happened? Who gives up? What sorts of people remain? Do they represent a broad section of society, or have the pressures of the system ensured that only certain people who think “the right way” have a voice?

read more »

Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae

diojesusNo, I am not going to argue that Christianity grew out of the worship of Dionysus or that original idea of Jesus was based upon Dionysus. Rather, I am exploring the possibility that the portrayal of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John is in significant measure a variant of the Greek Dionysus myth.

This possibility arises, I suspect, when we bring together the following:

  1. the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
  2. an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
  3. the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
  4. an anthropologist’s structural analysis of myths, in particular the methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss (this brings together key themes and information from the above three areas in a manner that strongly indicates the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of John is a Christian variant of the Dionysus myth.) — And yes, I will take into account the several works of Jonathan Z. Smith supposedly overturning the possibility of such connections.

This should hardly be a particularly controversial suggestion. Most theologians agree that the Christ we read of in the Gospels is a myth. These posts are merely attempting to identify one source of one of those mythical portrayals.

Let’s look first at what Mark Stibbe (John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel) tells us about the literary affinities between the Gospel of John and the Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Though the Greek play was composed five centuries before the Gospel it nonetheless remained known and respected as a classic right through to the early centuries of the Roman imperial era. Moreover, we have evidence that as early as Origen (early third century) the Gospel was compared with the play. See Book 2, chapter 34 of Origen’s Against Celsus.

But Stibbe does not argue that the evangelist directly borrowed from the play. Despite the many resonances between the two he writes:

It is important to repeat at this stage that I have nowhere put forward the argument for a direct literary dependence of John upon Euripides. That, in fact, would be the simplest but the least likely solution. (p. 139)

It certainly would be the simplest solution. The reason Stibbe thinks it is the “least likely” option, however, is the fact of there being significant differences between the gospel and the play. What Stibbe has failed to understand, however, is that literary imitation in the era the Gospel was characterized by similarities and significant differences that generally served to set the new work apart on a new thematic level. The classic illustration of this is the way Virgil imitated Homer’s epics to create the Aeneid. The differences that are just as important as the similarities and that even establish the very reason for the imitation. But all of this is jumping ahead to the next post.

Let’s look for now at the similarities, similarities that according to Stibbe may well be explained simply by the evangelist’s general awareness of the “idea of tragedy” in his culture.

Water into Wine

It is often noted that Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana reminds us of the myth of Dionysus turning water into wine. Stibbe writes that such a miracle is entirely possible read more »

Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus

Please don’t eat the Bible

I was glancing over at the Exploding Cakemix recently, keeping abreast of the latest mythicist-bashing, and I happened to notice a story about a guy who said:

[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

Now I’ve heard of people using the Bible for rolling papers in a pinch (not recommended), but it never occurred to me to eat it. I know that if you’re stuck on a disabled bus in the wilderness you should eat your boots and the seats before you eat your fellow passengers. But the Bible? I’d need loads of ketchup.

Dr. John Dixon

Dr. John Dickson: Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Anyhow, it turns out this John Dickson guy is a real professor with a doctorate and everything. He teaches real students at a real college university for real cash money. So we should sit up and take notice.

The historical Tiberius versus the historical Jesus

Dickson’s post is the usual litany of supposedly solid evidence that we’ve all seen before. Most of it is of the “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” variety. But there was something new there, at least for me. He writes:

The [sic] Tiberius provides a good example (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified). Our best sources for Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius, both composed eighty or so years after the emperor’s death in AD 37. The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion, ruling out the suggestion that even the basic details of Jesus were part of a process of legendary accumulation.

My interest is piqued. I like Roman history. But what’s this claim from our expert about the “best sources” for Tiberius? Emperors, even mediocre or bad ones, leave big footprints. But sometimes it’s the smallest bits of evidence that persist. Like this one:

Roman Coin: Tiberius Caesar

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus

Moving the goalposts

If you take a few minutes to read the comments, you’ll see that someone mentions the fact that the Romans minted coins during Tiberius’s reign, and that we actually have some that we can pick up and hold in our hands. In the ancient history trade they call that “primary evidence.” He or she goes on to explain why it’s important to corroborate claims in texts with primary evidence.

And certainly the coin is persuasive physical evidence, but, as some guy who goes by the initials RMW explains, it’s like totally unfair. He responds:


read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 6)

Part 6: Criticisms of Schmidt’s Literary Designations

In this post, we’ll cover some of the more recent negative assessments of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s designation of gospel texts as Kleinliteratur versus Hochliteratur.

A cultural insult?

As you recall, the reason Schmidt categorized the gospels as Kleinliteratur had to do with their structure and their core characteristics. It also made sense, given his theory that the gospels arose over time from a religious group. However, here’s what The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (edited by David E. Aune) has to say on the matter.

New Testament texts were categorized as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to the Hochliteratur produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world. The social correlative of this typology was that Christians were thought to have been drawn almost exclusively from the lower classes, a view now widely regarded as inaccurate. The dichotomy between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur derived linguistic support from the widespread opinion current earlier in this [the 20th] century that the Greek language of the first century C.E. could conveniently be divided into two major types, literary and nonliterary Koine. (p. 278, emphasis mine)

But that wasn’t Schmidt’s argument. The gospels, he argued, arose gradually within the community, beginning with individual stories (pericopae) in the oral tradition. Their place in Kleinliteratur had very little to do with social or economic status and everything to do with process and origins.

Richard Burridge, unsurprisingly, takes up the cause and waves the banner as well. In What Are the Gospels? he writes:

Any attempt to ask literary questions about the gospels, and in particular, their genre, is automatically precluded in advance . . . The form critics’ distinction merely has the effect of removing the gospels from any discussion of their context within the first century on the grounds that they do not share some predetermined literary aspirations. However, as Suggs has pointed out: ‘The alleged lack of literary expertise on the part of the evangelists is not a valid objection . . . books of any genre may be poorly written.‘ [He’s quoting M. J. Suggs from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, 1976 ed.] Much more detailed and accurate study of the various genres, types and levels of first-century, and especially Graeco-Roman, literature is needed. (p. 11, emphasis mine)

It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials.
English: Diogenes the Cynic, from Diogenes Lae...

Diogenes the Cynic, from Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives,” 1761 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burridge’s text reads like a scorching indictment, and it certainly would be . . . if it had any contact with reality. Schmidt himself elaborates upon a case of poorly written Hochliteratur. He writes:

Diogenes Laertius was an incompetent biographer, for he haphazardly produced a great number [of] biographies (they were more like rapidly dictated, uneven leaflets!), whereas the gospel tradition was a natural process — not a belabored product but a lush growth. The same standard of judgment cannot possibly be applied to both the gospels and Diogenes Laertius, since he tries to pass himself off as an author, writing a long foreword and naming his sources, and still manages to produce an incoherent work(The Place of the Gospels, p. 5, emphasis added.)

Diogenes Laertius’s work is still Hochliteratur; it’s just bad Hochliteratur. It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials. The evangelists’ supposed lack of literary expertise is indeed “not a valid objection,” so it’s a good thing the form critics didn’t base their conclusions on the gospel-writers’ abilities.

Reassessing Luke

Schmidt, of course, did point out the inadequacies of the evangelists. In particular he disagreed with the current prevailing favorable view of Luke as an author, concluding that “his abilities were strangely unequal to his intentions, that the material imposed restrictions on him.” He quotes Franz Overbeck (Historische Zeitschrift, 1882), who had a slightly higher opinion of Luke as an author: read more »

Flawed and Dangerous: The Popular Notion of “Religious Terrorism”


Richard Jackson is currently Deputy Director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS).

Available online is a Political Studies Review 2009 article “The Study of Terrorism after 11 September 2001: Problems, Challenges and Future Developments” by Richard Jackson “of Aberystwyth University”. (Professor Richard Jackson has since moved to the University of Otago so is not to be confused with the current Richard Jackson at Aberystwyth University who is Professor of Accounting and Finance.)

I am copying an extract from that article here, having changed some of its formatting and added highlighting for easier reading. This section is a damning indictment on the popular notion of “religious terrorism” so I should first quote the far more optimistic abstract of the entire article.

Terrorism studies is one of the fastest-growing areas of social scientific research in the English-speaking world. This article examines some of the main challenges, problems and future developments facing the wider terrorism studies field through a review of seven recently published books. It argues that while a great deal of the current research is characterised by a persistent set of weaknesses, an increasing number of theoretically rigorous and critically oriented studies that challenge established views suggest genuine reasons for optimism about the future of terrorism research.

So there is hope beyond the travesty addressed in the following extract. (I have copied the details of the cited works at the end.)

The Rise of ‘Islamic Terrorism’ Studies

Predicated on the popular notion of ‘religious terrorism’ first articulated by David Rapoport (1984) and galvanised by the identities of the 11 September 2001 attackers and the massive media coverage given to al-Qa’eda, an extremely large literature on ‘Islamic terrorism’ has developed in the past six years (Jackson, 2007a). Silke’s analysis of articles published in the leading terrorism studies journals demonstrates that studies on al-Qa’eda and affiliated groups grew significantly after 1995 and now make up a significant proportion of all terrorism studies published in the core journals (Silke, 2004b).

With a few notable exceptions (see Gerges, 2005; Gunning,2007b; Halliday, 2002), the vast majority of this literature can be criticised for

  • its orientalist outlook,
  • its political biases
  • and its descriptive over-generalisations,
  • misconceptions
  • and lack of empirically grounded knowledge (see Jackson, 2007a).

Rooted in an uncritical and simple-minded acceptance of the notion of a ‘new’ kind of ‘religious terrorism’, this literature

  • typically adopts an undifferentiated and highly exaggerated view of the threat posed by ‘Islamism’,
  • traces a causal link between Islamic doctrine and terrorist violence,
  • attributes religious as opposed to political motives to ‘Islamic terrorists’,
  • fails to differentiate between local political struggles and a global anti-Western movement
  • and assumes that the religious motivations of ‘Islamic terrorism’ rule out all possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy
  • – among others.

Shmuel Bar’s (2006) Warrant for Terror is in many ways emblematic of this popular literature. Based on an analysis of a large number of recent fatwas, or the legal opinions of Islamic jurists that deal with the permissibility or prohibition of actions (Bar, 2006, p. x), Bar’s aim is to explore the role fatwas play in ‘Islam-motivated terrorism’ (p. xiii). read more »

Terrorism Facts, #2: Motivations and Goals,1980 to 2001 . . .

Robert Pape

Robert Pape

What were terrorists doing before they discovered the USA, UK, Europe, Bali?

These tables are for a particular type of terrorist attack, the suicide bombing, from 1980 to 2001, from Robert Pape’s article, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, 2003 (pp. 343-361). The same tables no doubt appear in his book Dying to Win but I don’t have my copy of that with me. Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.08.45 AM

read more »

Terrorism Facts, #1: How Radical Islamists Justify Killing Civilians, even Muslims

Ironically people who identify Islamic terrorists with the “true beliefs of Islam” are (unknowingly) serving as mouthpieces for those terrorists. The fact is Islamic terrorists believe they alone represent true Islam and that the vast majority of those who profess to be Muslims deserve to die. Those terrorists would love nothing more than to hear everyone say it is they who demonstrate what true Islam is really all about! (All other Muslims, far from being “enablers of extremism” or “potential killers themselves” are really on their way to Hell, they say.)

Mohammed M. Hafez

Mohammed M. Hafez

This post shares some of the main findings of an article published in the peer-reviewed Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 364-378, “The Alchemy of Martyrdom: Jihadi Salafism and Debates over Suicide Bombings in the Muslim World”, by Mohammed M. Hafez.

(The terms ‘radical Islamists’, ‘jihadists‘ and ‘Jihadi Salafists‘ are used interchangeably. The terms exclude other Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood movements and Islamic nationalists such as Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.)

This post covers three ways radical Islamists justify the killing of Muslims in their attacks —

  • their redefinition of Islamic piety, apostasy and heresy,
  • how they come to define their acts as martyrdom rather than suicide,
  • and how they unearth various texts of medieval scholars to justify the killing of civilians.

I trust readers will acknowledge the parameters of this discussion and not impute more into it than is concluded and for which evidence is advanced. There is far too much ignorant lunacy and dangerous fear-mongering being spread across the internet — not least from public intellectuals (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and co.) who ought to know better — and this series of posts on Vridar is the first of several that will attempt to shed some light on the actual facts, that is, the findings of scholarly research as published in reputable scholarly media.

The need for justification

We all need to justify what we consciously decide to do. Many of us even know of experiments that indicate we are unaware of the real reasons we decide to do X or Y and that the reasons we express, with conviction, can be demonstrated to be after-the-fact rationalizations. So human behaviour is not always a simple matter. That’s why so many different perspectives can add to the complexity of our understanding of ourselves — sociologists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, economists, biologists . . .


The debate among radical Muslims

M. M. Hafez begins his article by noting that jihadists have, since the 1970s, become increasingly cruel and indiscriminate towards even fell0w (radical) Muslims, and have accordingly had to defend themselves against accusations unjustifiable killing. This has produced a rather bizarre debate among the most radical Islamists themselves!

At the heart of these debates is a central paradox.

  • On the one hand, radical Islamists must anchor their violence in classical Islamic texts and traditions in order to uphold their image as bearers of authentic Islam and as followers of divine commandments.
  • On the other hand, the classical Islamic tradition imposes constraints on many aspects of their violent activism. (pp. 364-5, my formatting)


Classical Islam’s constraints

Against suicide

Quran 4:29-30: ‘Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: For verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful! If any do that in rancor and injustice, — soon shall We cast them out into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah.’

A Prophetic tradition cited in Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari: ‘And whoever commits suicide with a piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the Hell Fire.’


Against killing fellow Muslims

Quran 4:93: ‘If a man kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein (For ever). And the wrath and curse of Allah are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him.’


Against killing non-combatants

Quran 2:190: ‘Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors.’

Also in a Prophetic tradition quoted in Sahih Muslim: ‘It is narrated on the authority of ‘Abdullah that a woman was found killed in one of the battles fought by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). He disapproved of the killing of women and children.’


The intellectual father of Jihadism and his three arguments

Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the infamous mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the name behind many suicide terrorism attacks in Iraq before he was killed by the U.S. air-force in 2006, is linked to several tracts on suicide attacks that are published on the Tawhid wal Jihad website. [The Tawhid wal Jihad is now archived; perhaps has superseded it? — Neil, 7th August, 2015]. M. M. Hafez has distilled this diverse literature to three fundamental rationales that have become “the basis for Jihadi Salafist violence in the Muslim world”:

  1. their redefinition of Islamic piety, apostasy and heresy, to allocate most Muslims to the categories of “tyrants, apostates, heretics and infidels”;
  2. their defining of their terror acts to mean “martyrdom” instead of “suicide”;
  3. and how they unearth various texts of medieval scholars to justify the killing of civilians, including Muslims.

1. The meaning of Piety and Apostasy in Islam read more »

We Are All Mythicists Now

English: Portrait of Milton Friedman

Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all fill-in-the-blank now

You probably recognize the title of this post as a play on the quotation by Milton Friedman, “We are all Keynesians now.” I hadn’t known until recently that Friedman’s (or Nixon’s) quote is itself a play on the earlier “We are all socialists now,” coined by William Vernon Harcourt back in 1887. The phrase has a tasty ironic ring to it, which is why I suppose it reappears every few years with a new predicate nominative.

And I suppose that’s the same reason it occurred to me while reading Larry Hurtado’s recent post “‘Revelatory’ Experiences and Religious Innovation.” Not that Hurtado is a Jesus mythicist, not at all. However, in a sense, everyone acknowledges that some parts of the Jesus “corpus” are mythical. For example, an inerrantist Christian would identify the Jesus as portrayed in the gnostic gospels as mostly mythic or legendary. A liberal Christian might point to examples closer to home in the canonical books of the New Testament.

Where did the myths come from?

The standard model for the development of Christianity posits a human Jesus who ran afoul of the Roman authorities (perhaps accidentally, possibly on purpose) and was crucified. His followers were stunned and the experience somehow caused them to start seeing visions and interpreting scripture in a radically new way.

The way in which this “post-Easter” sequence of events played out remains a bit murky. You can expect to see lots of hand-waving and hear lots of fuzzy talk. But it’s worth serious discussion in the attempt to come up with a plausible story. The first step, I think, toward plausibility is to describe what kinds of processes must have been at work to create new, mythical representations of Jesus. How, for example, did the view of the risen Christ in heaven come to be thought of as true and real — so real and so immediate, that for someone like Paul it essentially eclipsed the human Jesus?

In discussing the question of how Jesus became a “co-recipient of devotion along with God,” Hurtado points to two processes: (1) revelatory experiences and (2) charismatic exegesis. The first has to do with visions of Christ, the second, with interpreting the Bible in new ways.

While I’m more interested in how the mythical, exalted, resurrected Christ emerged, Hurtado is focused on how the model of worship in which God and Jesus are both venerated could have arisen out of Judaism. We recall a similar question from Hurtado: namely, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? In the current blog post he writes:

read more »

Orientalism, Us, and Islam

Orientalism (book)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most influential publications of the twentieth century was Orientalism [link is to the Wikipedia article on the book] by Palestinian born American scholar Edward Said. The book has been translated into 36 languages and said to have revolutionized Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. Naturally, as with any major revolutionary work that challenges conventional ways of thinking, it has had its critics. I single out here some of Said’s commentary on Western attitudes towards Islam that I believe stand as valid today as they were when first published in 1978 and expanded in 1994. My own comments are in blue italics.

The principle dogmas of Orientalism:

  1. The absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior.
  2. Abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a “classical” Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities.
  3. The Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself, therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically “objective.”
  4. The Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).

Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.

Islamic Orientalism accordingly believes there are still things such as “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.”

It makes no difference whether we are talking about a situation in Bangladesh or events in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan or Bedford. The world is facing a threat from a singular religious belief system that threatens Western civilization.

Every facet of societies in the modern Islamic world is anachronistically interpreted through texts like the Koran. read more »

Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 4 — Theologians Re-Enlist the Biblical God

Continuing from Part 3 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we noted the impact of modern historical studies on the traditional view of the Bible as the reliable foundation of Christianity. The problem posed by modern (beginning especially in the nineteenth century) historical methods was that they left large portions of the Bible irrelevant. If God revealed himself in historical events that were the foundation of biblical narratives, and if we could not recover what those historical events really were, then we had a problem.

If the best solution was for scholars to read into biblical accounts “traits and motivations derived from contemporary culture”, then one had to conclude “the impossible”, that the Bible’s religious significance derived in large measure not from the Bible itself but from modern minds! Theoretically there could be as many different interpretations as there were interpreters.

If scientific historical methods were to be applied to the Bible (as many scholars were beginning to apply them in particular to the Old Testament), one had to assume that God did not literally intervene in human affairs to change the course of events.

The only message of the Bible that was left for scholars to pass on was that God was “benevolently disposed” towards the human species,

but nothing more substantial than signals of paternal affection and filial trust and obedience can get through [the window between God and the world to the eye of faith]. (p. 74, quoting T. W. Manson).

The third solution

So Bible scholars were able to bypass the challenge of the natural sciences with relative ease and to meet the challenge of modern historical methods by withdrawing to the bare minimum of what was required of their God to maintain any presence at all among the faithful. But that latter retreat left many of the devout unsatisfied. So there was what Dennis Nineham calls a “third movement”: one that showed God was not just a distant image but a dynamic force in world affairs. This was

a movement back to the Bible which shows God actively doing things in the world to guide history and save men, and offers authoritative interpretations of his actions instead of leaving each man to be his own interpreter. This movement sought to give full weight to its observation that in the Bible historical statements and theological interpretation go closely together. The typical biblical statement, it was argued, is logically of the form: ‘Such and such an event occurred, and it constituted a divine intervention in this world by which God’s redemptive work was carried forward in such and such a respect.’ (p. 74, my bolded emphasis)

English: 100th day of birth of Karl Barth (188...

Karl Barth


We begin with arguably the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth attracted widespread support around the time of the first world war when he expressed dissatisfaction with the view that Bible scholars were, in Nineham’s words, in

unnecessary bondage . . . to the canons of historical study. And that study itself . . . was in bondage to the prejudice that the course of events is always completely uniform, that nothing ever happens for the first time and that nothing can be allowed as having happened in the past of a kind which is not experienced as happening in the present. (p. 75)

In other words, theologians had fallen into bondage to the godless view that the course of battles or public movements can be explained entirely as having human and natural causes.

But that’s not what the Bible says about historical events. If the message of the Bible were even only “partly true” — that God at least sometimes intervenes to disrupt the normal flow of human affairs — then historians were doing “a disastrous injustice to the biblical text.”

We now follow Dennis Nineham as he leads the discussion into a curious direction, yet one well trodden by theologians. He infers that this secular view of how historians view the world derives from a singular and now outdated philosophical school of thought. This view of history, he suggests, can be traced back to Hegel, that is, to philosophical underpinnings that have long since been left behind. Accordingly, all reasonable scholars should, by rights, be fair and give serious consideration to the view that there is a God who intervenes in historical events.

Blaming Hegel read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)

Part 5: More on Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s ideal types

At the close of the previous post in this series I promised we’d talk about the modern critique of Hochlitertur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature), but first I want to explain better why these categories are important to understanding the genre of the gospels. Philip Jordan’s comment on the previous post has convinced me I need to try to take one more crack at it.

Stephen Jay Gould

A photo of Stephen Jay Gould and his opposable thumbs

The Panda’s Thumb

Many of you have probably read Stephen Jay Gould’s great essay “The Panda’s Thumb” (warning: PDF), as well as his book by the same name. In it, he explains that the Panda’s sixth digit (but not really a digit at all) is an evolutionary contrivance.

I invoke Gould’s name and cite his work not to argue the merits of natural selection, but to ask a simple question:

“When is a thumb not a thumb?”

Functionally, this little appendage behaves like a thumb. The panda uses it to grip bamboo shoots and strip off the leaves. But what exactly is it? From a strict anatomical perspective, a true thumb is a digit with internal phalanx bones. By that definition, the panda’s sixth digit can’t be a thumb, because its internal skeletal structure is composed of a modified radial sesamoid.

But why would it matter, one way or the other? Well, in ordinary speech, it doesn’t matter. It’s a thumb. But if you wanted to learn anything “scientific” about the panda’s thumb, and you started from the analogy of a primate thumb, you’d be way off track. As we said earlier, the true thumb is a modified digit that opposes the other four fingers. The panda’s thumb is physiologically different. It arose through an evolutionary process quite distinct from our own.

Here we see plainly illustrated the important difference between a functional description of an object and a thorough analysis of that same object. We can categorize objects according to visible characteristics as well as their usage in the real world. Such categorizations are valid, but only in a superficial way.
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Why Christians and Jews were for so long indistinguishable — even after the flight to Pella

Cover of "Border Lines: The Partition of ...

Cover via Amazon

Warning. Dr Larry Hurtado and others embracing a similar perspective disagree strongly with the views of the scholar to be discussed in this post. I will address some of Hurtado’s criticisms of Dr Daniel Boyarin at a later date. But now you know that what I am covering here is not a consensus view. But it offers ideas that deserve exploring and thinking through, whatever position arrive at in the end.

I am sure I am not alone in having wondered at some time how it can be that Roman authorities, as we are told, could not easily tell Christians apart from Jews in the early days. One group was dominated by those who worshiped Jesus and did not keep the Jewish customs and the other by those who cursed Jesus and did keep the Jewish customs. So when in Acts we read of authorities being prepared to dismiss complaints of either party because they thought the issue was merely over legalistic quibbles, something does not sound quite right — or “coherent”, as a scholar interested in criteria of authenticity might say. Something’s missing from this equation.

The Long Good-Bye

Recently I finished reading Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. He makes the point Christianity and Judaism as we understand them did not really come into their own, that is, separate as truly distinct religions until the fourth century. (He cites scholarly works, of course.) What led to that clear demarcation between the two as opposing religions was the work of the heresiologists on both sides. There arose a situation where it became necessary for Christians who had achieved some political power and status to draw clear boundaries to define who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Jewish authorities were correspondingly obliged to do the same.

I am in the early stages of reading Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Fate must have led me to this book just after reading Tom Holland’s because Boyarin expresses the very same view of the late definitive separation between the two religions. (I don’t really believe in Fate, by the way.) As would be expected given the different themes of the two books, Boyarin goes into more detail than Holland to make his case. He addresses the long-established conservative view that the final break between the two happened after the first Jewish War, or certainly no later than the second in the 130s.

Pella, Jordan 2000

Pella, Jordan 2000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The real meaning of the Pella legend?

One of his interesting points is made in relation to the legend of the early Church fleeing to Pella. That has often been interpreted as the final breach between Christianity and Judaism. The Jerusalem Church fled the city to escape the imminent conquest of the city by the Romans. Eusebius even links this with a heavenly voice heard in the Temple saying “Let us remove hence!” (Quaint translation of “Armaggedon outta here”.) Later Ebion was believed to have arisen from among these Christians and founded the “Ebionites” — Jewish Christians who had truly separated themselves from Judaism.

Boyarin puts a fly in the ointment of the legend that this event might be interpreted as the final rift between Judaism and Christianity. read more »

Losing our sense of the tragic and the human bond

What depresses me most about debates like the recent discussion over Western attitudes towards Muslims is the black and white view so many people have. “If you disagree with us you can only be wrong and not worth listening to.” “I can’t hear you because you are arguing against something I strongly believe and the way I view the world.”

Ideologically driven closed-mindedness can be found on both sides, of course. But bloody hell, what’s wrong with trying to maintain a sense of humanity and tragedy in the whole discussion? We are all human and talking about the fate of other humans, and there is a strong tragic streak running through the whole human condition on this stage.

Someone here recently said he found Muslims are no different from us in their everyday concerns. That such a statement was thought worth pointing out (and it is!) speaks volumes for how semi-barbaric much of the discussion has become.

There are anti-war activists who have sons and daughters on willing active service (volunteers) in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a good number of those I have reason to believe they are very close to their children despite ideological (or generation) differences.

There are Muslim parents who will mourn to their graves their loss of a son or daughter to a suicide-bombing recruiter and families of those who lost loved ones in 9/11 who have visited some of those Muslims.

It would be good to keep all those sorts of families in mind when engaging with supporters of one side or the other.

The world is not black and white. There is no iron curtain or tentacle-extending behemoth. Except in our fears. There is evil that needs to be faced. Sometimes that means having the courage to be sure we ourselves are not the proverbial evil we have projected onto others. Tragedy needs a catharsis, or it truly will become unbearable.

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)

Part 4: Hochliteratur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature)


To understand Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s argument concerning the genre of the canonical gospels, we need first to understand his usage of the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. These terms are difficult to translate into English, because we lose the nuance of the German words, while picking up unwanted baggage from their English equivalents.

Literally, they mean “high literature” and “low literature,” and that’s exactly how they’re rendered in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature. However, in some translations of form critics’ works, you’ll see them left untranslated. Sometimes you’ll see Kleinliteratur translated as “folk literature” or “popular literature.” The translator of our text, Byron R. McCane, chose to translate the terms literally, since for him to leave terms untranslated is an admission of defeat. I’m not sure I agree with that position, but at least he has his reasons. There’s no right or wrong approach, I suppose.

No new thing under the sun

McCane is certainly wrong, however, about the origins of the terms.  He writes:

Many scholars who discuss Die Stellung [i.e., The Place (of the Gospels)] choose not to translate these German terms. They are, after all, neologisms created by Schmidt to designate specialized literary categories. (p. xxxii, emphasis added)

Martin Dibelius

Martin Dibelius

The terms are not neologisms; they predate Schmidt. As far back as 1919, Martin Dibelius used Kleinliteratur in From Tradition to Gospel. In the first edition (Tübingen, 1919) he wrote:

In erhöhtem Maße wird dies alles von der sogenannten Kleinliteratur gelten. (p. 1, emphasis added)

In the English translation this sentence reads:

What we have said is true also in humbler forms of literature(p. 1, emphasis added)

You can find the terms in discussions of literary works dating as far back as the late 19th century. A quick survey of Google Books reveals that Hochliteratur and Volksliteratur were in use at least as far back as 1891. Conceptually, then, the terms and the concepts behind them had been current in German academia (viz., history of literature, literary criticism, etc.) for a couple of decades before Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels was published.

McCane is hardly alone. I can only guess that most people who have read (or claim to have read) Dibelius are familiar only with the second edition of From Tradition to Gospel (1933), and are unaware of the first edition (1919). It’s also a bit hard to trace the usage of these terms, because when translators convert them into English, you never know what you’ll get — Low literature? Folk literature? Folk tales? Popular literature? Humbler forms of literature?

Ideal Types

The ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.

Before we continue, let’s review the concept of ideal types. If we were to envision the ideal parliamentary democracy, we would list the defining characteristics — some integral, others peripheral — generally held in common. We would not expect any particular, real-world parliamentary democracy to have every one of these characteristics. That does not mean they are something else. Nor does it mean that our ideal type is invalid. On the other hand, if a nation-state coincidentally shares a few peripheral characteristics or partially shares one of the core characteristics, that doesn’t mean it has magically become a parliamentary democracy.

Likewise, if we created a list of all the defining characteristics of Hochliteratur or Kleinliteratur and compared that list against extant works of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world they won’t all correspond perfectly against the ideal types. That’s because, as we all should know, the ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality. read more »