Monthly Archives: May 2017

Early Christianity Looked Like a Philosophical School

Continuing from the previous post on Stanley K. Stowers’ chapter, “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” . . .

To pre-empt predictable objections Stowers begins with three riders:

  1. His comparison study does not make claims about origins; he is not arguing that Christianity began as a Hellenistic philosophy.
  2. Comparison or similarity does not mean sameness; he is not arguing that Pauline Christianity was a philosophy.
  3. Similarities with philosophical schools do not exclude similarities with other social groups.

With that ground cleared, following are seven similarities Stowers identifies.

1. Hellenistic philosophies saw themselves as distinctive sects, each focused on a central value/good

There were, for example, Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans. Each of these had its own attitude toward life and idea of what is the single umbrella good to which one must strive.

Stoics taught that virtue was “the answer” to the question of life. Everything else, all the other values and attachments deemed to be good were subordinate to “unitary good” of virtue. Family, possessions, would always take second place in the event of any conflict in following the ideal of virtue.

For Epicureans the ultimate good was freedom from pain and friendship. And so forth.

For Paul, the single, overriding good was “life in Christ”. Other values such as marriage, the household, business, ethnicity, were secondary. Even the commandments of God in the Jewish scriptures were superseded by Christ.

Yes, Paul’s stress upon worship of only one God and not many, and his “apocalyptic intensification” of these beliefs was Jewish, but Paul ripped them away from their ethnic, cultic and legal Judean contexts.

2. Hellenistic philosophies were contrary to conventional thinking

Ordinary civic virtue and conventional values were not the way to “happiness” or the “good life” according to Hellenistic philosophies.

The philosophies taught new ways of thinking, new motivations and desires to cultivate. Asceticism was valued.

In this context Stowers believes it no accident that the founders of the Hellenistic schools were not married and that Jesus and Paul were not married either. Paul challenged both Gentile and Judean norms of culture. The wisdom of God was set in opposition to both Greek and Jewish values.

Again, the structural similarities with the philosophies are obvious. (p. 91)

3. Hellenistic philosophies led to a new life, a new orientation of the self, a conversion

Stoics taught that the conversion was instantaneous.

For a more detailed discussion of the similarity between Paul’s idea of conversion to a life in Christ and the Stoic conversion see:

  1. Paul and the Stoics – 1 (2009-11-04)
  2. Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy (2009-11-08)

Other philosophies apparently ridiculed this Stoic idea of the way to attain virtue and taught, on the contrary, that virtue could only be attained gradually, over time, through a series of graduated steps.

Stowers adds that there is, moreover,

a literary tradition that becomes most prominent in the early empire in which writers give vivid descriptions of the turmoil and changes in the soul of those who convert to philosophy. Paul uses exactly the same language for conversion to the gospel. (p. 92)

4. Hellenistic philosophies required techniques to master and remake one’s self

read more »

Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »

Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion

I have long been intrigued by the second century “church father” Justin Martyr identifying himself as a philosopher, not a “priest” or elder or bishop or other ecclesiastical type of title. He left it on record that he came to Christianity after surveying a range of other philosophies, not religions.

Time-warp forward to 2001 and the chapter titled “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” by Stanley K. Stowers in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and we find a rather solid explanation for Justin’s identification, I think.

Stop thinking of the “Jewish Synagogue” as the model for Paul’s churches

One of the first points Stowers sets down is that

We must remember that first-century Jews were Judeans. Interpreters should not, in principle, segregate Judeans from Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on by creating something suspiciously like a modern religion called Judaism. Even Jews who lived permanently in Rome or Alexandria were Judeans living outside of their traditional homeland and therefore similar to Syrians, Greeks, or Egyptians who lived abroad. (p. 83)

(Steven Mason makes the same point with his preference for the word Judeans in place of Jews in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74.)

What Stowers is trying to get through to us is that we need to jettison any notion that when Jews were meeting in synagogues they were in some sense being astonishingly different from anyone else, and it therefore follows that scholars should be very careful before suggesting that Paul’s churches (and gentile Christianity itself) grew out of the synagogue.

A synagogue is a meeting place or meeting practices of Judeans. In our language Judeans were an ethnic people. Unfortunately the idea of “the synagogue” as a Jewish church still haunts much scholarship. (p. 83)

Judean worship was similar to the worship of other gods

Stowers argues that before 70 C.E. Jewish worship, even in the Diaspora, was centrally focussed on the temple in Jerusalem. The great temple festivals, tabernacles, pentecost, passover, were celebrated by Judeans throughout the empire. These were agricultural festivals that celebrated the gifts of produce and livestock that God gave his people, of success in trading and in acquiring the blessings of children.

Temple time with its agriculturally oriented calendar shaped the calendar of the Jews (sic) in general. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices was a major feature of the period. Many Judeans of the Diaspora directly participated in the temple cultus sometime during their lives. The temple tax that supported the daily sacrifices in the temple and the first fruit offerings that signified the ancient pattern of reciprocity and divine giving of productivity were among the major yearly efforts of Diaspora communities. (p. 84)

What of the place of the scriptures? It is generally agreed that the reading of scriptures was a very important for the religious life of Judeans. For Stowers,

The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are . . . absolutely dominated by the centrality of the temple, priesthood and cult. The epics and myths of Judeans were about land, people, and socio-economic reciprocity with God and other Judeans. . . For Judeans, unlike for Christians, to study scripture was to be oriented toward an actual temple, a place where reciprocity with the divine was enacted in the imagined exchange of produce from the land and shop, womb and market. (p. 85)

Judean religion was focused on the idea of reciprocal exchange with God. God blessed his people; his people offered sacrifices and gifts and communal worship in return. And the temple was the focus of this exchange. Stowers writes that the religion of a Judean living 500 miles from Jerusalem differed little in principle from the one living 20 miles away.

Other cultural groups, those from places other than Judea, throughout the empire, recognized these Judean religious customs as counterparts to their own.

The dominant activities of the temple were sacrificial offerings of grain and animal products. Judeans shared these practices with Greeks, Romans, and most peoples of the Mediterranean world. Josephus proudly proclaims that Judeans share the practices of sacrificing domestic animals with “all the rest of humanity” (Ag. Ap., 2.137). (p. 85, my bolding)

Pauline Christianity did not look like a typical religion

read more »

Behave, Kid! This Is School!

Today’s Thailand photo — entrance to a primary school!

 

A local Thai tried to assure me that the character is not the badass school headmistress or head prefect but a character from a popular children’s story.

To be fair, I should add that on moving on I discovered a happier figure on the other side of the gate. . . .  read more »

There is ALWAYS another interpretation: even of the Quran

Thou shalt not kill. 

Can’t argue with that, can we. It “speaks for itself”. No interpretation needed, right?

Except . . . .

People do indeed “interpret” the sixth commandment. They interpret it to mean that it does not forbid all killing, only the killing of persons; it does not apply to killing ants and flies. You can kill those. I think it is fair to guess that most believers in the Bible interpret the command to apply to killing that is not state-sanctioned. It is state-sanctioned, and therefore right, for soldiers to kill in war time. I imagine those who disagree with that interpretation and say it means we should not kill any other human under any circumstance are the minority. Pacifists, extremists. We might jail them in wartime or even shoot them.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Again, very clear and unambiguous. There’s simply no way you can “interpret” your way out of the blunt meaning of that commandment. It means you have to kill anyone who identifies as a witch. Christians included it in their Bible so why don’t they obey that command? Paul wrote that witchcraft ranks alongside idolatry which also requires the death penalty. So why don’t Christians put witches on death row along with murderers?

Somehow most Christians do find a way to interpret that command, not to change its meaning, but to relegate it to a status that is not relevant to them today.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you . . . and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them . . . and show no mercy to them. . . . And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them. . . .

God commanded the native inhabitants of Canaan should all be killed, too. A few extremist Jews do still believe in that command and when opportunities permit carry it out. You can’t fault them for their understanding of and obedience to the Bible. But no-one except the extremists themselves would suggest that they speak for “true Judaism” today.

No doubt most adherents of the Jewish religion acknowledge the terror in that command, but at the same time the plain evidence before our eyes tells us that most of them do not interpret that command in a way that obligates them to kill all Palestinian Arabs today. A few do boast that they believe in keeping both the spirit and letter of that command and they do kill Palestinian Arabs when opportunities permit. But they are the newsworthy exception. We do not judge the entire religion of Judaism according to those few Israeli terrorists.

But what is the “correct interpretation”?

read more »

3 Common and 1 Surprising Reason for Paul’s Silence on the Historical Jesus

I recently drew upon a chapter by William O. Walker, Jr. in Some Surprises From the Apostle Paul to argue for the likelihood of interpolations in Paul’s letters: Why Many Interpolations in Paul’s Letters are Very Likely.

But that was only one late chapter in Walker’s book. Explanation 4 below is another “surprise” he writes about:

Paul on the Historical Jesus

Just one detail: Commenting on the passage in Romans (that some think is an interpolation, by the way!) that Jesus was descended from David, W points out that

this may be more of a theological affirmation than a historical fact: in the minds of some, the Messiah was supposed to be a “son of David,” so Paul, like some other early Christians, may have simply assumed that because Jesus was the Messiah he must have been descended from David.” (Kindle version, loc ca 384)

Walker points to what most readers here know: that Paul says precious little about the historical Jesus. I won’t address the points that Walker interprets as references to a historical Jesus but will list some of his evaluations of the proposed reasons for Paul’s “relative silence”.

Explanation 1: Paul could presuppose his readers already knew the basic fact of Jesus’ life; no need to repeat what they already knew

W’s objection 1

To say that [Paul] must have talked [previously] about the life and teaching of Jesus really means little more than that [the scholar] himself, if he had been in Paul’s position, would have talked about the life and teaching of Jesus. In other words, [the scholar] thinks Paul should have talked about the life and teaching of Jesus. Be we certainly do not know that Paul did in fact talk about the life and teaching of Jesus when he was present in the churches; he may have, but we do not know this. (loc ca 442)

W’s objection 2

Even when Paul wrote a very lengthy letter to the church at Rome — a church he had never previously personally visited — he still had next to nothing to say about the life and teaching of Jesus.

W’s objection 3

Paul could assume that his readers already knew about the death, resurrection and expected parousia of Jesus, yet he talks a great deal about these, especially his death and resurrection.

W’s objection 4

Many times (e.g. eating meat sacrificed to idols, importance of love, not seeking vengeance, not judging one another) an appeal to a teaching of Jesus could have bolstered his own argument.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Explanation 2: Paul was so focussed on the cross that everything else about Jesus simply paled into relative insignificance

W is more sympathetic to this explanation for Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus. As a comparison he directs our attention to the Apostles’ Creed which likewise

shows at least an equal lack of interest in the life and teaching of the historical Jesus. 

Recall that the Creed jumps straight from Jesus’ birth to his suffering and death.

Explanation 3: Paul says little about Jesus because he knows very little about his life and teaching

Again W is somewhat sympathetic to this explanation. He even reminds us that Paul spent very little time with those who had known Jesus and in Galatians 1:12 declares

that the gospel he preached came to him not from a human but rather “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (loc ca. 487)

(Be still, my pounding brain. Do not ask why a good number of scholars will insist, when talking with outsiders who ask questions, that that Galatians passage means that Paul was saying he really did get his gospel from human traditions.)

Explanation 4: Paul feared the teaching and example of Jesus would be seen as a new Law to be followed to earn salvation by works

W’s fourth explanation is a new one to me, “a surprise from the apostle Paul” indeed. In a subsequent chapter in the book Walker discusses the current debate among scholars over Paul’s meaning of “justification”. One “surprising” point he makes is that Paul does not talk about “repentance” or “forgiveness”. Though we are familiar with these fundamental requisites of the Christian conversion and life from the gospels, Acts and the Pastoral epistles, they are alien to Paul’s thought.

For Paul, salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned. Walker suggests that Paul may well have not wanted to appear to have given his followers any excuse to replace the Mosaic law with a new law or standard of conduct from Jesus.

I might discuss W’s argument in more depth in a future post. It is the point of his second chapter in Surprises.

I do really like the idea of a Christianity without focus on repentance. Godless atheist that I am, I cannot deny that I have come to view that repentance and need constantly to strive for perfection thing as responsible for a lot of messed up, guilt-ridden lives.

—o0o—

One might object that Paul does set down a lot of rules of conduct in his letters so why wouldn’t he point to Jesus as a model or why would he dismiss entirely the need for good works as a condition for salvation. In response I seem to have some recollection that most of the “laying down of the law” passages in Paul have been argued (by Winsome Munro) to be later pastoral interpolations into Paul’s letters. (e.g. Pastoral interpolation in 1 Corinthians 10-11)

—o0o—

 

 

Mudskippers — Today’s Thailand post

I got terribly distracted today while lunching at one of scores of river or canal restaurants in southern Bangkok. I was fascinated by the mudskippers just below from where I was sitting. They are common enough to the locals but to me, they set my mind imagining various ways such creatures as this could be seen as the evolutionary link between sea and land fauna.

I will have to rely upon someone else’s uploaded video for this one.

And there are some more fascinating videos following on from the one above. It was cute the way some of them would simply fall over all the time as they tried to walk on the mud. You can see that happening in the video above and in some ensuing ones. And I once let myself fall for the line that “legs” or “wings” or “eyes” etc would have to “work perfectly” the very first time or the creature would never survive. Balderdash.

And that back fin. I could not but help recalling from my childhood fascination with dinosaurs that image of the dimetrodon. For one of the first dinosaurs we know of it sure looked a rather dumb and boring thing compared with the T Rex.

 

 

 

 

Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths?

The Red Sea Exodus certainly did not happen as the Bible relates it, but many find a way to keep the story as “true” by rationalizing it: a smaller number of Israelites waded through at low tide, for example.

King David may not have ruled over a great kingdom as the Bible tells us, so he was probably a local bandit warlord at the very least.

Jesus surely did not heal merely with a command, so we believe he healed by means of ancient rituals which had some psychosomatic power.

The disciples obviously could not have literally seen Jesus alive after his death, so we must conclude that they had either some sort of hallucinatory experience or an inner conviction that convinced them he was resurrected.

In such ways many of us today find ways to cling to mythical tales. We discard anything that is contrary to our everyday experience and find a natural way to more or less explain how less sophisticated people came up with such mythical tales that are so important to us.

One example of an ancient philosopher doing just that very same thing is Palaephatus, someone who had been taught by Aristotle.

Look at how he rationalized the myth of Pandora:

The story about Pandora is intolerable — that she was fashioned out of earth and imparted her shape to others. It hardly seems likely to me. 

Pandora was a wealthy Greek woman: whenever she went out in public, she would dress up in her finest and rub her face with a cosmetic made of earth [i.e. white lead that Athenian women used to whiten their faces]. It was she who first discovered how to apply such cosmetics to her skin. Nowadays, of course, many women do so, and none of them gains any special renown because the practice is so common. 

This is what happened; but the story was twisted in an impossible direction. 

(Palaephatus, 34.Pandora, in J. Stern (1996), translator and commentator, On Unbelievable Tales / Palaephatus. Wauconda, IL, Bolchazy-Carduzzi.)

Only a fool would believe a human being could literally turn to stone:

They say that Niobe, a living woman, turned into stone on the tomb of her children. Anyone who believes that a human being turned into a stone or a stone into a human being is a fool. The truth is as follows. 

When Niobe’s children died, someone made a statue of Niobe out of stone and set it on the tomb. Passersby would say: “A stone Niobe is standing on the tomb. We saw her ourselves.” . . . . That is how it was, but Niobe herself did not turn into stone. 

(Palaephatus, 8:Niobe)

And so on and so forth.

Interesting to note the assumption that there must have been historicity, something historical, behind the myths. It is as if it were inconceivable that anyone would “just make up” such stories. Some form of evolving “social memory” is surely the source of significant cultural heritage. A wise man like Palaephatus would analyse the narrative and “discern” the most plausible “historical reconstruction” behind it.

And theologians have continued the tradition up to the present day, yes?

 

 

Why do professional scholars blog this sort of vacuous nonsense?

A number of biblical scholars appear to be afflicted with something akin to the Red Scare or the Yellow Menace of the old Cold War days. They don’t need to know much about communism to know that it’s bad and evil and a threat to everything decent and that it appeals mostly to benighted minds in undeveloped nations. Similarly with rumours they hear about those who suggest there are valid reasons to question the historicity of Jesus: they don’t need to know much about it, only that it is a threat that supposedly only appeals to godless amateurs.

Now Jonathan Bernier is a very intelligent man but he sometimes writes about things of which he is evidently poorly informed. Indeed, he offers no evidence of having ever read any work of Price or Doherty or Brodie or Carrier or Wells yet claims to offer insights into mythicist motivations and reasoning that he suggests they themselves may not have considered.

I am referring to a blog post he published on 22nd April (Eastern Standard Time, Australia) titled Mythicism as Christian Mythology. (His blog is Critical Realism and the New Testament. I have had this post in draft for some time but see that now I am about to post about his article JB has removed it. C’est la vie.)

Without offering any citation of, or reference to, any mythicist author Bernier begins his criticism thus:

the standard mythicist appeal to comparative mythology. . . .

The mythicist argument is that the accounts about Jesus are just like those of all sorts of other gods or heroes in the ancient world. . . .

The mythicist argument that the accounts about Jesus are just like those of all sorts of other gods or heroes posits a process that we don’t tend to find elsewhere.

“Accounts of Jesus are just like those of all sorts of other gods?” Where did he get this idea from? Scoffing gossip and rumours repeated in staff wine and cheese parties?

Several of the works I have read by Christ Myth authors inform me that they draw upon mainstream critical biblical scholarship to explain the origins of many of the gospel narratives. Well recognized common literary practices (mimesis, intertextuality) among Greek, Roman and Jewish authors of the day are the primary explanations for the accounts of Jesus among authors like Price, Doherty, Carrier, Wells, Fitzgerald and others.

Next comes the sinister atheism association. Mythicists are equated with atheists, and of course we know by contrast that most good biblical scholars are in their own way exploring and defending their godly faith, don’t we. (Tongue in cheek.)

I think it well and good to describe it [mythicism] as a peculiar form of atheist Christology. . . . . 

if they indeed do not think that God exists in the first place. . . .

If that is the case, given that their attested interests in this matter tend to relate to their atheism. . . .

Something fundamental about their apprehension of the world and themselves is at stake. . . . 

Price calls himself a Christian atheist . . . . And the more I think about it, the more that I wonder if that term should not be applied to all mythicists. 

Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, you are both hereby excluded from those who argue for a Christ Myth foundation for Christianity. Your problem is that you are not atheists like Robert Price and you remain stubbornly Christian, so your Christ Myth arguments do not count.

Moreover, prominent mythicist authors who have expressed the highest respect and even admiration for Christianity, even though some of them no longer call themselves Christian, have no place in Jonathan Bernier’s very narrow, most ill-informed, state of the literature. I’m thinking of names not only like Price, Brodie and Harpur above, but also Couchoud, Brandes, Rylands, Detering, Carotta, Freke and Gandy, van der Kaaij among others. To assume that mythicism can only be spawned by god-hating atheists who seek to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth only points to an ivory tower removal from all awareness of the real world.

Then there is the motivation. Mind-reading once again leads the way.

read more »

“True stories that didn’t happen” — OMG!, do stop the silly word games

Bart Ehrman has been blogging about the quaint way too many biblical scholars (himself included) play games with the meaning of “myth” in relation to the gospel narratives. The message strikes me as being something like saying Aesop’s fables are true stories because they contain useful lessons.

Why can’t they just say, yes, Aesop’s fables and the Bible stories are fables or myths or fairy tales but they contain valuable lessons or moral guidance?

Why try to give the stories a fabricated status of “truth” simply because they supposedly contain what some people consider worthwhile lessons?

Two more pics from Bangkok

And taken with permission, one of the most ubiquitous of scenes but one I always enjoy encountering …..

Why Many Interpolations in Paul’s Letters are Very Likely

Some Surprises from the Apostle Paul by William O. Walker, Jr. contains an interesting chapter about interpolations. Walker does not agree that most scholars should remain sceptical regarding many proposed interpolations in Paul’s letters.

They see no way to identify such interpolations with any certainty, and they tend to regard arguments for interpolation as highly speculative and almost inevitably circular in nature. (Kindle ed, loc ca 1575)

Walker disagrees. He argues that there are “sound a priori grounds for assuming the presence of interpolations — probably many interpolations — in the Pauline letters but also that such interpolations can sometimes be identified with a fair degree of certainty.”

Interestingly there is one set of passages that Christ mythicists sometimes rely upon that Walker believes were probably not penned by Paul so maybe that little detail might encourage some of us to open up to the possibility he might be right. 🙂

Walker points to two reasons we should expect to find interpolations in Paul’s letters.

  • Scholars have identified numerous interpolations in other ancient texts — “Homeric, Classical, Hellenistic, Jewish and Christian.” We know of interpolations in letters by ancient philosophers to their followers. Even in the Gospel of Mark we have the little disputed interpolation of the final chapter, 16:9-20; and in the Gospel of John there is the episode of the woman taken in adultery found in 7:53 – 8:11. And in the gospels of Matthew and Luke we find that huge chunks have been interpolated into the gospel of Mark. So if we know for a fact that texts were very often expanded with inserted material then we should surely be surprised if Paul’s letters proved to be the exception.

Walker’s second reason for expecting interpolations throughout Paul’s letters involves what we know of their literary history: read more »

“We do not believe in God, but he nonetheless promised us Palestine”

Part of the Uganda Protectorate that was transferred to the British East Africa Protectorate was at one time under serious consideration as a homeland for Jews.

Odd, don’t you think, that primarily secular Jews have led the Zionist movement while pointing to the Bible as the justification for their “return” to Palestine. When the Zionist movement was founded in the nineteenth century it was opposed by religious and most orthodox Jews. Zionism’s founder, Theodore Herzl, argued for a site in east Africa as the best place for a Jewish homeland for the foreseeable future. So what happened?

It was the British who were in large measure responsible for Palestine becoming the designated homeland. Protestant Britain, informed by Western Christian scholarship in a time of colonialism and imperialism, contributed to strong support among non-Jews for the Zionist movement focused on Palestine.

Most religious Jews argued against Zionism, insisting that the Jews were meant by God to remain outside Palestine and return was unthinkable without the messiah.

The secular early Zionists quoted intensively from the Bible to show that there was a divine imperative to colonize Palestine,  or in their discourse, to redeem Eretz Israel. But in fact the Bible is not a very useful text for reinventing a Jewish nation: the father of the nation, Abraham, was not from Palestine, the Hebrews became a nation in Egypt and the Ten Commandments were given to them in Egypt (the Sinai). . . .

(Pappe, I. (2016). “The Bible in the service of Zionism: “we do not believe in God, but he nonetheless promised us Palestine” in I. Hjelm and T. L. Thompson, eds., History, Archaeology and the Bible Forty Years After “Historicity”, 1st ed. Oxon, Routledge, p. 206.)

Eventually a few religious Jews did come to accept Zionism with Palestine as their focus and argued that the time of God’s punishment was coming to an end, that return to Palestine without the messiah was the new divine will.

Despite the several weaknesses of the Bible as a justification for claiming Palestine as the natural homeland of the Jews, the Bible was used to win support from among both Jews and gentiles (especially the British and Americans).

Several studies have shown that the gravitation towards Palestine as the epicentre of Zionist visions and aspirations was facilitated, among other factors, by a very keen and intensive Protestant interest in connecting the Jewish colonization of the “holy land” with divine and apocalyptic Christian doctrines, which saw the return of the Jews as precipitating the second coming of the Messiah. 

The orientation of Zionism towards Palestine followed European scholarly preoccupation with biblical Israel in the age of colonialism and imperialism. (Pappe, p. 207, my bolding)

That scholarship had a strong religious bias. Palestine was viewed as a land that rightfully belonged to Israel and other peoples inhabiting the land at different times were there either illegitimately or temporarily. Essentially non-Jews in Palestine “didn’t count”, Arabs were seen as nomads, and consequently the land was in effect empty, just waiting to be reinhabited by a people without a land.

At the same time, scholarship came to invent a Jewish nation with ancient roots as the rightful occupants. Despite archaeological evidence to the contrary (see, for example, The Archaeological Evidence for Ancient Israel) Jerusalem was depicted as a major centre for a viable Israelite empire from the days of David and Solomon.

A religious narrative was embraced by many secularists as a historical charter of birthright and nationhood. read more »

Quran, Bible — both are powerless without interpretation

Scott Atran wrote the following four years ago in response to Sam Harris’s insistence that Islam per se, the Quran in particular, were to blame for terrorist violence. I think such views expressed by Harris are seriously misinformed and potentially harmful.

Context-free declarations about whether Islam, or any religion, is inherently compatible or incompatible with extreme political violence – or Democracy or any other contemporary political doctrine for that matter — is senseless. People make religious belief – whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and so forth – compatible with violence or non-violence according to how they interpret their religious beliefs.

And how people interpret religious injunctions (e.g., the Ten Commandments), as well as transcendental aspects of political ideologies, almost invariably changes over time.

For example, on the eve of the Second World War, political and Church leaders in Fascist Italy and Spain claimed that Catholicism and Democracy were inherently incompatible, and many Calvinist and Lutheran Protestants believed that God blessed the authoritarian regime. As Martin Luther proclaimed, “if the Emperor calls me, God calls me” – a sentiment that Luther, like many early Christians, believed was sanctified by Jesus’s injunction to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Nevertheless, the principles of modern liberal democracy first took root and grew to full strength in The European Christian and Colonial heartland. As Benjamin Franklin expressed it in his proposal for the motto of the new American Republic: “Rebellion against Tyranny is Obedience to God.”

Or, as the Coordinating Council of Yemeni Revolution for Change put it, an Islam of “basic human rights, equality, justice, freedom of speech, freedom of demonstration, and freedom of dreams!” (National Yemen, “The Facts As They Are,” Youth Revolutionary Council Addresses International Community, April 25, 2011).

That there is a cruel and repugnantly violent contemporary current in Islam, there is no doubt. Factions of the Christian identity movement, the Tamil Tiger interpretation of Hinduism as necessitating suicide attacks against Buddhist enemies*, Imperial Japan’s interpretation of Zen Buddhism as a call to a war of extermination against the Chinese, all have produced cruel and barbarous behavior that has adversely affected millions of people.

(Bolded emphasis is mine)

* Since 2013 we have seen the rise of murderous violence by Hindus and  Buddhists against Muslims in India and Myanmar/Burma.