Daily Archives: 2016-04-05 13:27:59 UTC

Sorry, but try to understand human sacrifice is necessary to maintain social class order

Elaborate ritual killings such as being crushed under a newly built canoe and decapitation after being rolled off a house laid the foundations of class-based structures in modern societies, a new study of Austronesian cultures suggests. — http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-05/human-sacrifice-may-have-helped-build-social-class-structures/7297460

The source article is Ritual Human Sacrifice Promoted and Sustained the Evolution of Stratified Societies in Nature magazine. I see from its first paragraph that it uses our old favourite, Bayesian analysis.

James Cook witnessing human sacrifice in Tahiti c. 1773 -- Wikipedia

James Cook witnessing human sacrifice in Tahiti c. 1773 — Wikipedia

Egalitarian societies are a good thing.

Don’t we see even in class societies that no longer practice human sacrifice the upper classes expending the blood of the lower classes in other ways — all buttressed by noble and praiseworthy ideologies, of course.


Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome?

Josephus lays the blame for the Jewish rebel movement squarely on the shoulders of Judas the Galilean who led some sort of movement to oppose Roman taxes around the time of the infancy of Jesus — 6 CE. From this Judas arose what Josephus labels the “Fourth Philosophy”. The other three were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Fourth Philosophy is depicted as an undesirable conglomeration of upstart rebels who brought down ruin upon their nation.


Professor James S McLaren

Recently I was posting about my doubts concerning the evidence for Jewish messianic movements prior to the First Jewish War (66-73 CE) and Giuseppe alerted us to a study by James S. McLaren in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. McLaren’s chapter is “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas“, pages 90-107. Thanks, Giuseppe. Until I read that chapter I never quite knew what to make of Judas the Galilean because though scholars often say he led the first military rebellion against Rome I have not been able to find unambiguous evidence for that claim in Josephus. It seemed some historians were simply repeating the hearsay of their guild. Hence I have held back from commenting on him when I have discussed other rebels and bandits on the Judean stage either side of the time of Jesus. McLaren’s chapter is the first work I have read that squarely confronts and addresses the ambiguities and inconsistencies that have bothered me in Josephus’s account.

Conclusion: Josephus created Judas the Galilean as a foil to bear the responsibility for the humiliation of the Jewish defeat. I’m not saying that Judas did not exist (though he may not have) but that Josephus has been forced to modify his account with each retelling of his role in starting the rebellion. These variations indicate that Josephus is creatively rewriting history to deflect blame for the war from his own class of aristocratic priests.

This study shows that we can no longer assume that this Judas presented by Josephus is an historical figure who engaged in some activity in 6 CE. It is not simply a case of claiming that Josephus may have exaggerated the account of Judas’s career and its impact by adjusting a few details here and there. Rather, Josephus’s apologetic has constructed Judas, making him a vital part of the explanation of what happened in Judaea in 66-70 CE. Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities. (108: bolded emphasis is mine in all quotations)

Now McLaren is working like a real historian — a welcome change from some of the tendentious works we have discussed elsewhere. He examines the nature of his source material before deciding to take its claims at face value — and that means literary analysis . . .

This discussion will be presented in three parts. In the first, I offer an analysis of the textual location of the references to Judas.

and study of provenance:

The second part will be devoted to a reassessment of the geographical and socio-political location of Josephus in 66 CE and in the years that followed the revolt. The third and final part will outline how these locations result in Judas being presented as a scapegoat by Josephus. 

Further, he understands the necessity of evidence external to his source material for corroboration.

Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities.

These are the methodological principles I have been saying ought to be applied to the gospels even if the result might lead to the conclusion that a central character has possibly been a creation of the author rather than a true historical figure. I notice that McLaren’s background is strong in ancient history and not restricted to biblical studies.

So what are McLaren’s arguments? I’ll take them in the same order as McLaren with this post covering McLaren’s analysis of the respective locations of Josephus’s references to Judas.

Warning: the following post is for those with a serious interest in the question of Josephus as a historical source. read more »

Is Religious Freedom Intolerable? (The Consequences of Sam Harris’s Arguments)

If beliefs determine what we do it follows that no society can allow people freedom of religion or conscience. If religious beliefs cause some people to perpetrate terrorist carnage then we have to say good-bye to the West’s short-lived experiment with secular Enlightenment ideals. That is the conclusion (and I think it is correct) of Marek Sullivan in The New (Anti-) Secularism: Belief Determinism and the Twilight of Religious Liberty.

According to Harris, ‘Belief is a lever that, once pulled, determines almost everything else in a person’s life’ (12). This is why he thinks religious profiling may be a good idea (see below), that the ‘war on terror’ is fundamentally a ‘war of ideas’ (152), and that ‘Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them’ (52-3). Since what people believe determines what they do, the battle against religious violence is fundamentally a matter of doctrine, not guns or bombs (though guns or bombs are handy if the belief is dangerous enough). Rather than struggle with a torrent of violence, it is more effective to challenge the spring of belief before it metastasises into action. [Page numbers refer to Harris’s The End of Faith.]

Harris does indeed acknowledge (sometimes at least) the implications of such views:

If belief really does determine behaviour as a lever triggers a mechanism, then absolute liberty of conscience makes no ethical sense. Second, anyone familiar with Harris’s writings will know he does not always talk about the necessity that freedom of speech and thought be safeguarded. In fact he often seems to be talking about the opposite, as, for example, when he claims ’the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss’ (2005: 15).

It follows that the principles of liberty of conscience and religious equality have to go.

And it’s less easy today to hide forbidden thoughts than it has ever been before. The internet is potentially storing all the things we have been thinking about whenever we have browsed the web or communicated online.

Philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers once coined the term ‘extended mind’ (1998) to describe the way technologies of information production and circulation (paper, pen, books, computers, the internet) blur the boundaries between self and world by extending human consciousness into the external domain. For them, our cognitive dependency on these technologies (e.g. as problem solvers or memory supports) makes it hard to tell where humans end and technology begins; this technology becomes, quite literally, us.

What are the implications for human freedom of an extended subjectivity, grafted onto personhood through the prostheses of email accounts, internet histories, and Facebook, and accessible to state powers? Can liberty of conscience and the invulnerability of the private sphere survive a situation where not only is belief ‘not simply in the head’ (Clark and Chalmers 1998: 14), but the government can peer into the extended self at the click of button?

Why not take Islamist terrorists at their word?

Sullivan poses the question: read more »

Blinded by the Trivialities of the Mythicist-Creationist Comparisons

I believe Professor James McGrath is quite sincere in his inability to grasp why it is that Jerry Coyne (as one example of a mainstream public intellectual failing to be convinced by the claims of biblical scholars that Jesus existed) cannot see that mythicism is any different from creationism. McGrath has demonstrated repeatedly an apparent cognitive inability to actually comprehend and directly address mythicist arguments, invariably focusing instead on trivial objections, on red herrings, on straw men, on blatant misrepresentation. McGrath makes no secret of his visceral loathing of mythicism and of those who argue for it, and especially of those who attempt to hold him to account for his own arguments both against mythicism and for the historicity of Jesus. He is not alone. Colleagues of his have publicly appreciated his efforts to rid the world of a challenge to their fundamental assumptions about the evidence we have for Jesus.

So McGrath elects to write the following as a riposte to Jerry Coyne’s musings on the failure of biblical scholars to convince him that we have sound evidence for the existence of Jesus:

I’m always surprised at how much rancor is directed toward “creationists”—those who deny that evolution, whether on the macro or micro level, is the best explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. I’m also surprised at how certain many biologists are that evolution occurred (Jerry Coyne, to give a prominent example).

Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in science, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible evidence for the reality of evolution, and that arguments can be made that evolution is a purely mythological notion, derived from earlier ideologies, which gradually attained “facthood.” As a historian, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that evolution occurred as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all scientists to that view. It’s almost as if rejecting evolution brands you as an overly strident religious person, one lacking “respect” for science. There’s an onus against creationism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.

What McGrath demonstrates with these words is a failure of his to grasp the fundamental arguments of the mythicists. Unlike creationists, mythicists do not appeal to divine revelation or dogma to explain the evidence before them.

Creationists pose no threat to evolution; mythicism, on the other hand….  read more »