Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2016-11-19

Couchoud’s Creation of Christ: Full Text Now Available Online

by Neil Godfrey

370bee6f5c943e1597730346151434d414f4541Thanks to Frank Zindler the full text of P.L. Couchoud’s Creation of Christ (translated by C. Bradlaugh Bonner, published 1939) is now available online.

Back in 2012 I posted outlines of Couchoud’s work here on Vridar. Since then Frank Zindler has digitised both volumes and made them available for public download.

For future reference the PDF files are on my vridar.info resources website under the heading: “The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity” by P. L. Couchoud.

You can also access them here:


2016-11-15

The Christos Mosaic – A Novel About the Christ Myth Hypothesis

by Neil Godfrey

A new book arguing a mythicist case has been published. If you like your serious intellectual pursuits spiced with vicarious adventure then Vincent Czyz (a winner of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction) has written for you a novel that weaves its plot around protagonists gradually discovering Jesus was less a historical figure than a mosaic of facets of many ancient figures, both mythical and historical. As you can see from the side image we are talking about The Christos Mosaic. One reviewer describes it “a serious tome, which prompts readers to think“, a “scholarly novel that required serious research“.

Earl Doherty appears to have had a similar project in mind when he wrote a novel titled The Jesus Puzzle: A Novel About the Greatest Question of Our Time to complement his formal scholarly arguments. I enjoyed Doherty’s novel because it hit on the main points of his argument in easy to digest doses against dramatic backdrops and in that way producing a true “teach and delight” experience. Czyz’s novel is more action-packed than Doherty’s. It’s a mystery thriller set in the world of the black market for antiquities, peppered with a little sex and a little more violence, with the narrative ebbing and flowing through the main character’s discovery that the Jesus figure evolved as a mosaic of diverse religious ideas, motifs and persons.

Another “Christ Myth” novel that I read was Vardis Fisher’s Jesus Came Again: A Parable. That was first published sixty years ago but getting it published caused the author all sorts of grief back then. Fisher created his own version of the gospel but wrote it as a modern version of how the first gospel appeared to be written: as a parable, not as history or biography.

Perhaps novels like these are “mythicist” answers to apologist authors writing novels about encounters with Jesus or personal takes on what Jesus was like.

Vincent Czyz’s novel contains a “cast of historical characters” in the opening pages to prepare the reader for what is to come. The cast includes names like Judas the Galilean, Philo, Josephus, Simon Bar Giora, Ebionites, Papias, and Father Roland de Vaux. The entry for the last mentioned is:

Director of the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique, a Dominican school based in Jerusalem. Deeply conservative, both religiously and politically as well as reputedly anti-Semitic, he grew up in France and ultimately led the international team that studied a trove of Dead Sea Scrolls and scroll fragments found in Cave 4 in 1952.

This is followed by a historical timeline listing events from 198 BCE (Judea coming under the control of the Seleucids) through to 95-120 CE (the composition of the Gospel of John).

Readers familiar with this topic will be particularly interested in Czyz’s Afterword. It is titled: Mythicists and Historicists. A couple of excerpts:

Clearly the idea that Jesus never existed isn’t new. What is new is that the idea is gaining currency. . . .

If you read Ehrman’s book without the benefit of having made some sort of in-depth study — formal or otherwise — of the Bible, or if you fail to give equal attention to the counterarguments of those who have, Ehrman’s case seems persuasive. It is rather convincingly refuted, however, in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus . . . . In this collection of essays, Frank Zindler, Richard Carrier, and Earl Doherty, among others, take Ehrman thoroughly to task, highlighting some rather unscholarly mistakes and some that are downright embarrassing.

Czyz describes the reading that led him to question the historicity of Jesus, his critical engagement with both mythicist works and mainstream works (e.g. Burkert, Koester) on ancient religions, mythology and the Christian gospels. Robert Price and Earl Doherty are singled out for special influence on his thinking.

The intellectual exploration of the novel takes us through not just Q but the hypothetical earliest layers of Q, Q1 and Q2, the Logos, Philo’s heavenly Adam, Wisdom Sayings, Cynic philosophy, the Therapeutae, the Gospel of Thomas, Mystery cults, Josephus and key figures in the Jewish War, Greco-Roman deities, the Bacchae, and many more.

Finally towards the end we read how the various parts of the mosaic were coming together in the mind of the inquisitive Drew:

But after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the reestablishment of Roman hegemony, Mark sees the futility of a military messiah and cobbles together a spiritual redeemer . . . from pieces of other religious leaders, pagan magicians, messianic figures, and Paul’s letters. Why else does Christ talk sometimes like a Cynic, sometimes like John the Baptist, sometimes like a Zealot, sometimes like James the Just?

Mark’s gospel was not a deliberate deception. It was part of a tradition. It was midrash — religious fiction. Allegory. Entirely acceptable at the time. Wasn’t Serapis a composite god? Weren’t the rites of Mithras grafted onto the Saturnalia? Even the Qumran community did the same thing in its own way: past scriptures were interpreted as though they applied to the first century AD. . . .

After acknowledging Frank Zindler’s hope that he will see in his lifetime “the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth is as much a mythical figure as Osiris or Dionysus”, Vincent Czyz professes to be “somewhat less ambitious”:

I hope this novel will lead readers to do their own research . . . and perhaps heed Emerson’s exhortation to establish “an original relation to the universe.” . . . It is time to stop looking outside ourselves for a savior and start doing work on our own. 

I must confess that the intellectual play interested me more than its fictional stage setting. But that’s probably just me. I have not taken up fiction reading in a serious way for a long time now; non-fiction dominates my personal craving at the moment. There may be an occasional detail in the novel that some readers would find problematic, but that’s the case with most serious arguments that we read. Those details do not sidetrack us from appreciating the main journey and fresh insights into old information.

 


2016-11-12

David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel

by Neil Godfrey

After too long a hiatus I am excited to at last return to writing about Russell Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

The previous two posts:

  1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible
  2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

The following post is far from what I originally intended, but I am posting it very much in the rough for the sake of getting the ball rolling again.

Comparing the stories of David
David the famous warrior was also renowned as a musician and loved by many (though not by his wife, Saul’s daughter) as a dancer.  In other words, David’s had the attributes of a well-rounded educated Athenian.

At age 18 Athenian males (we’re talking about the elite families) undertook an educational program that prepared them for formal citizenship by the age of 20. The three areas of the curriculum were:

  1. Letters — acquiring skills from the alphabet right through to reading Homer and the classics;
  2. Music — learning to play the lyre and training in voice and song;
  3. Gymnastics — a program of fitness training as well as in the use of weapons; dance was also included as a means of instilling a nimbleness necessary in battle.

Athenian festivals featured athletic and combat contests, military parades and mock battles, and dance.

hoplite

S0038429 David, frontal view. Pre-restoration. Image licenced to Stephen Forsling FORSLING, STEPHEN by Stephen Forsling Usage : - 3000 X 3000 pixels (Letter Size, A4) © Scala / Art ResourceThe David and Goliath conflict parallels the duels between Homeric heroes in the Iliad. Goliath is dressed as a Greek hoplite

  • helmet,
  • greaves,
  • broad sword,
  • long spear (sarissa)
  • and shield carried by shield-bearer.

The large spear indicates knowledge of the transition from the shorter to the longer spear in the Macedonian army from around 350 BCE. David opts to fight as a more agile Greek light infantry soldier (slinger).

David – 1 Sam 16.12; 17.42 – is portrayed in terms of the Greek physical ideal: “lean, athletic male warrior, tanned from exercise in the gymnasium”. “The description of the physique of the warrior hero is mostly absent from Ancient Near Eastern literature. . .” (n. 81 p. 47)

As a figure accomplished by Greek military training, David was also a skillful

  • lyre player (compare the “music therapy” David was able to provide Saul; a trope familiar in Homer and among Pythagoreans as well as in Plato’s Laws.)
  • dancer
  • and songwriter.

These qualities anomalous for a soldier in the Near East but consistent with a youth undergoing Greek instruction in the gymnasium.

Military tales involving David feature

  • familiar aspects of Greek military training:
    • target practice
    • races
    • mock armed contests
  • a familiar Homeric literary motif:
    • gift of armour as sign of friendship

read more »


2016-10-27

Dear Professor Bart Ehrman, Please explain, if you will…..

by Neil Godfrey

Dear Professor,

You wrote on October 21 2016 in your post Mythicists: Did Nazareth Exist? for your paying readers the following:

Mythicists often argue – one of them named Rene Salm has written an entire book arguing – that Nazareth did not exist.  And if no Nazareth, then no Jesus of Nazareth.

I have always found this argument to be not only wrong but flat-out silly.  I probably won’t use the word “silly” in the debate, since I don’t want to insult anyone, but really….

So the reason the argument on this point by the Mythicists is wrong is that it’s been proven to be wrong.  The reason it is silly is this.

Suppose we grant the point that Nazareth didn’t exist (even though it did).  How would that have any bearing on the question of whether the man Jesus was an actual historical being?  Saying that Jesus did not exist because he could not have been born in Nazareth is like saying Barack Obama does not exist because he could not have been born in America.

I find arguing with Mythicists, for the most part, terribly frustrating.   Possibly you can see why. (my emphasis)

I am mystified. Though you “have always found this argument to be . . . flat-out silly” (I agree it is silly) I have never heard René Salm (or any mythicist) make that argument.

In fact Rene Salm nowhere argues that because Nazareth did not exist therefore Jesus did not exist, neither in The Myth of Nazareth (that you read prior to writing Did Jesus Exist?) nor in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (in which he responded to your book DJE? and that you assured us you read “twice”).

mon_coverWhat Salm did write in The Myth of Nazareth in relation to the significance of Nazareth not existing in the early first century was the following:

If Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus, then questions quickly arise: Why did the evangelists place him there? Was there something regarding his real provenance that they found objectionable? What was that provenance? If Nazareth was a persistent and recurrent invention in the gospels, then we leave the realm of error and enter the realm of elaborate fiction. This recognition would require a fundamental reappraisal of the Jesus story, and a paradigm shift in Christianity. . . . .

The implication is . . . irrefutable: if there was no Nazareth before his birth, then Jesus did not come from Nazareth. . . . .

It is not my intention here to question the conventional understanding of Christian origins, that a man by the name of Jesus . . . lived in Palestine in the early first century CE and inspired the religion we now call Christianity. . . . I restrict consideration to the archaeology of Nazareth, with the purpose of showing that the provenance of Jesus, as set forth in the gospels, is not historical.

He — whoever he was (or wasn’t) — certainly was not Jesus “of Nazareth” in Lower Galilee. . . . It remains to be determined why the evangelists found it necessary to invent such a Jesus.

(MoN, pp. xii-xiii, 148, 157-8, 308, my emphasis)

Would you like to explain what has prompted you to now impute such a silly argument to René Salm in particular and inform us who the mythicists are who have published that argument?

Fabricated self contradiction

Dear Professor, you further write to your paying readers:

A Mythicist like Salm argues that yes, it did exist in different periods of history (still exists today as a city, as those of you who have visited Israel know).  But it was uninhabited in Jesus’ day.

You may notice that the argument that it existed but was uninhabited contradicts the argument that it never existed; some of the mythicists are not terrifically consistent in their logic, from one argument to the next.

zindlerAfter you made a similar false charge in DJE? Salm corrected you on this point on page 341 of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. In the Q&A at the end of the Milwaukee Mythicist sponsored debate with Dr Price you assured us all that you had read that book “twice”. So the question arises: Since Salm has made it consistently clear that it is the site, not the town or village, that was uninhabited in Jesus’ day, why you continue to repeat this disinformation.

You have twice read Salm’s explanation:

Secondly, I don’t claim that “the town came to be reinhabited” but that the site came to be reinhabited. It may seem like a minor detail, but the first chapter of my book shows that a settlement indeed existed in the basin in the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was not called “Nazareth” but “Japhia” [MON 53–55]. Again, one wonders if Ehrman paid attention to the book.

Plugging one’s ears . . .

Bart (if I may), you further wrote:

Salm also, I should note, argues that the ancient place of the city could not have been on the hillside where it has traditionally been located but two kilometers away in the valley; he also points out that archaeologists have never dug in this alternative site. But then he argues that therefore it never existed there. Well, if the site hasn’t been excavated, how could there be “evidence” that it never existed?

This representation of Salm’s argument is doubly mystifying because since the publication of DJE? you have been reminded twice that you asked this question of René Salm while researching for DJE? and Salm made the answer clear to you back then, five years ago, as we read in BEQHJN on pages 363-364: read more »


2016-10-26

The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

by Neil Godfrey
For the previous post in this series examining Russell Gmirkin’s new book see Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

—o0o—

Ancient Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic eras loved a good foundation story. Such a story typically began with severe troubles leading to a hopeful solution or escape by sending out a group of people under a divinely blessed leader who became their founder-figure for their new settlement. This founding figure would lead the conquest of the new land, divide up the territory for the new arrivals, set up religious altars and appropriate worship rituals, and write down the new laws to govern the new nation.

You recognize the story type from the opening books of the Bible. The Israelites were suffering in Egypt; the solution was for them to leave under their own leader, Moses; through their new leader God gave them their new religious rites and other laws by which they were to live when they entered their new land; the successor to Moses, Joshua, conquered their new territory and allocated the land according to divine plan to the various tribes. Other versions of this story were known among Jews and gentiles alike — see the box insert for links.

The story of the Exodus and Conquest under Moses and Joshua is in essence a typical Greek foundation story. Especially Greek about it is the way that the laws of the new land are embedded in this founding narrative. The narrative establishes both their divine origin and antiquity.

bermanRabbi Joshua Berman (Created Equal: How the Bible broke with ancient political thought) has argued that the Pentateuchal laws, especially those of Deuteronomy, were far ahead of their time.

Scholars have discussed some of the similarities between Pentateuchal laws [Pentateuch: first five books of the Hebrew Bible] and those found in the Greco-Roman world as well as among Near Eastern states and proposed that the explanation lies in Israel/Judea having been part of a wider world of cultural interconnections spanning the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (e.g. Levinson, 2006. The First Constitution; Knoppers & Harvey, 2007. “The Pentateuch in Ancient Mediterranean Context” in The Pentateuch as Torah).

In the previous post we alluded to the problem that the material evidence of contacts between pre-Hellenistic Greeks (pre Alexander the Great’s conquests) and the Judeans* does not support the likelihood of meaningful philosophical and literary exchanges among those strata of society who would be responsible for the writing of legislation and literature.

[* I prefer to use the term Judeans, following Steven Mason in A History of the Jewish War, because the term correlates to the identity of the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem centred Palestine and their associated diaspora more aptly than the term Jewish.

. . . I shall translate Greek Ioudaioi as Judeans rather than Jews. This is not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. That is the familiar translation . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of Idumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (Ioudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed. Jerusalem was world-famous as the mother-polis of the Judeans. . . .

(Mason, 2016. Kindle version, loc 3268)]

But what if on closer inspection we see that much in the Pentateuch is closer in both broad outline and specific details to the writings about Greek constitutions and laws (especially as found in Aristotle and Plato) than anything we find on the Syrian-Mesopotamian side of Palestine? And what if the earliest external evidence for the Pentateuch places it no earlier than the third century BCE (ca 270 BCE), by which time Judeans were known to be in Alexandria’s Great Library and exposed to the best of Classical Greek writings, including Aristotle’s history and description of the Athenian Constitution and Plato’s discussion of ideal laws?

platocreationhebrewbibleIn the second chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible Russell Gmirkin undertakes a systematic comparison of Greek and Judean constitutions or legal and governing institutions primarily as documented in their respective literature. Comparisons (more often contrasts) are periodically made with Near Eastern counterparts (or their absence). Afterwards he covers the law collections themselves, then the narratives surrounding the origins of the laws, and finally surveys the broader question of the origin of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

How important among the Greeks was their literature about how a state should be governed?

The genre of constitutional law, which described the various offices of government, their qualifications, responsibilities and means of selection, was well represented in literature and inscriptions throughout the Greek world, but was entirely unknown in the Ancient Near East. (p. 42)

For Isocrates the constitution was the soul of the state; for Aristotle it was the state. Writings and speeches about the various forms of government were major topics: Aristotle and Plato produced two works each on constitutional questions; works on the same by Xenophon and a “pseudo-Xenophon” also survive; we have many references in the literature and inscriptions to the writings and speeches of other significant ancient persons addressing questions of how governments should be designed and function.

Gmirkin compares the interests of this distinctive Greek form of literature with the topics of interest in the Pentateuchal law codes and related narratives and I set out his points in table format for easy reference: read more »


2016-10-16

Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

by Neil Godfrey

platocreationhebrewbibleRussell Gmirkin in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible draws attention to striking similarities between the Pentateuch (the first five books of the “Old Testament”) on the one hand and Plato’s last work, Laws, and features of the Athenian constitution on the other. Further, even the broader collection of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible — myth and history, psalms, wisdom sayings, moral and religious precepts, all presented with the aura of great antiquity — happen to conform to Plato’s recommendations for the sorts of literature that should form the national curriculum of an ideal state.

The idea that the Jewish scriptures owe their character and existence to the Hellenistic era, a time subsequent to Alexander’s conquests of the Near East, jars hard against traditional views of the origins of the Bible. Yet Gmirkin shows that many significant laws in the Pentateuch as well as the narrative style of their presentation are indeed closer to later Greek ideas than those found among Israel’s/Judea’s Syrian or Babylonian neighbours.

The key to this close linkage is the Great Library of Alexandria. Past studies exploring possible cultural contacts between the Greeks and Judeans prior to the Hellenistic era (that is, the period following Alexander the Great, from around 320 BCE) have generally shown that exchanges were primarily limited to trade and had minimal impact in the literary and philosophical sphere. On the other hand, we do know that Jews and Greek culture met in Alexandria. The history of the Athenian Constitution was available in the works of Aristotle there; Plato’s reflections on the ideal state and laws were also stored there. And the Hebrew Bible was said to have been translated into Greek there. Moreover, there is no external evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch prior to the Hellenistic era. In an earlier book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, — see earlier Vridar posts — Gmirkin likewise argued that the Pentateuch was composed around 270 BCE and he introduces his new book as a sequel to Berossus and Genesis.

The main stimulus for Gmirkin’s new study is a desire to examine more closely some of the parallels presented by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. (Again, see earlier Vridar posts on Argonauts.) According to the Acknowledgements in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible it was Thomas L. Thompson who suggested this study to Russell Gmirkin, and Gmirkin explains that his focus was on Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuchal laws as the most persuasive section of his book.

While on the Acknowledgements, I have to refer to one other detail that struck me: read more »


2016-10-07

Something Rotten in the Lands of Islam

by Neil Godfrey

The survey of Muslim religiosity was carried out in

  • Indonesia,
  • Pakistan,
  • Malaysia,
  • Iran,
  • Kazakhstan,
  • Egypt
  • and Turkey.

It included statements on the respondents’ image of Islam. The survey listed forty-four items that examined religious beliefs, ideas and convic­tions. These statements were generated by consulting some key sociological texts on Muslim societies by authors such as Fazlur Rahman, Ernest Gellner, William Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Arkoun and Fatima Mernissi. Respondents were asked to give one of the following six responses to each of the statements presented: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, strongly disagree, or no answer. More than 6300 respondents were interviewed. (Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 48)

This is post #5 on Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan. We are seeking an understanding of the world. If you have nothing to learn about the Islamic world please don’t bother reading these posts since they will likely stir your hostility and tempt you into making unproductive comments.

We have looked at a historical interpretation of how much of the Muslim world became desensitized to cruel punishments and oppression of women and others. But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Here Hassan turns to a study explained in the side-box. Each question was subject to a score between 1 and 5, with “very strong” being indicated by 1 or 2.

Following are the 20 questions (out of a total of 44) that generated the highest mean scores.

Overall the results tell us that Muslims feel strongly about “the sanctity and inviolability” of their sacred texts. There is a strong belief overall that all that is required for a utopian society is a more sincere commitment to truths in those texts.

In other words, there is a large-scale rejection of modern understandings of the genetic and environmental influences upon human nature.

The evidence indicates very strong support for implementing ‘Islamic law’ in Muslim countries. (On “Islamic Law” see Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?) Respondents strongly support strict enforcement of Islamic hudood laws pertaining to apostasy, theft and usury. The purpose of human freedom is seen not as a means of personal fulfilment and growth, but as a way of meeting obligations and duties laid down in the sacred texts. This makes such modern developments as democracy and personal liberty contrary to Islamic teachings. The strong support for strict enforcement of apos­tasy laws makes any rational and critical appraisals of Islamic texts and traditions unacceptable and subject to the hudd punishment of death. The strength of these attitudes could explain why hudood and blasphemy laws are supported, or at least tolerated, by a significant majority of Muslims. Strong support for modelling an ideal Muslim society along the lines of the society founded by the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs is consistent with the salafi views and teachings discussed earlier. (p. 54)

But notice: read more »


The Poisonous Cocktail of Salafism and Wahhabism

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsContinuing from Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism . . . .

According to Abou El Fadl, characteristic features of salafabism (combination of salafism and wahhabism) include the following:

  • a profound alienation from institutions of power in the modern world and from Islamic heritage and tradition
  • a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeat­ism, disempowerment and alienation
  • a belief in the self-sufficiency of Islamic doctrines and a sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the ‘other’
  • the prevalence of patriarchal, misogynist and exclusionary orien­tations, and an abnormal obsession with the seductive power of women
  • the rejection of critical appraisals of Islamic traditions and Muslim discourses
  • the denial of universal moral values and rejection of the indeter­minacy of the modern world
  • use of Islamic texts as the supreme regulator of social life and society
  • literalist, anti-rational and anti-interpretive approaches to reli­gious texts.

(Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 46, my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

There is little room for me to go beyond Hassan’s own outline of El Fadl’s account:

Salafabism has anchored itself in the security of Islamic texts. These texts are also exploited by a select class of readers to affirm their reactionary power. Unlike apologists who sought to prove Islam’s compatibility with Western institutions, salafabists define Islam as the antithesis of the West. They argue that colonialism ingrained in Muslims a lack of self-pride and feelings of inferiority.

For salafabists, there are only two paths in life: the path of God (the straight path) and the path of Satan (the crooked path): The straight path is anchored in divine law, which is to be obeyed and which is never to be argued with, diluted or denied through the application of humanistic or philosophical discourses. Salafabists argue that, by attempting to integrate and co-opt Western ideas such as feminism, democracy or human rights, Muslims have deviated from the straight to the crooked path. (pp. 46-47)

And it gets worse . . . . read more »


Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism

by Neil Godfrey

This post is the third in my notes from Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan.

The second response among Muslims to their experience of colonialism and its aftermath is salafism.

Response 2: Salafism

muhammad_abduh

Abduh

Whereas apologetics was a direct response to colonial rule, salafism emerged out of apologetics but in the post-colonial era. When independent nations experienced the failure of their ruling elites to bring about the reforms and better life — “jobs, economic development, welfare for citizens and equality of citizenship” — that they had promised.

Building on apologetic thought the salafists concluded that this failure was the consequence of using secular laws instead of the laws of God.

sayyid_dschamal_ad-din_al-afghani

Al Afghani

Some of the founding ideologues of the salafist movement were Mohammad Abduh, al-Afghani, Muhammad Rashid Rida and (one that we have discussed on Vridar before) Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi.

rashid_rida_1

Rida

Like the apologists these early salafists believed that the Islamic religion was entirely compatible with modernism. Recall that the apologists argued that modern western ideals like democracy, constitutional governments, socialism etc were all to be found in early Islam. What was required of modern Muslims was to interpret their sacred texts in the context and according to the needs of adapting to the modern world. Moreover, there was no single interpretation that could demand a monopoly on “the correct interpretation”.

Salafism as it originally developed maintained that, on all issues, Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and interpret them in the light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound by the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations. In this respect, it was a distinctive intellectual project. Salafism advocated a kind of interpretive community in which anyone was qualified to return to the divine texts and interpret their messages. . . . [I]t was not hostile to competing Islamic juristic traditions, Sufism or mysticism. (p. 43)

Further, read more »


2016-10-06

Islam and the Rise of Barbarism

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsSuch violent, repulsive and publicly visible acts could be interpreted as  the by-product of social malignancies that have festered for a long time. Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl—an eminent Islamic jurist . . . . —provides a succinct description of how historical and social conditions interact to form a particular mentality . . . .

[W]hen we speak about the meaning of Islam today, we are really talking about the product of cumulative enterprises that have generated communities of interpreta­tion through a long span of history. (p. 37)

The shocking injustices and brutality in the Muslim world that we hear about far too often are not isolated acts of a few troubled psychopaths. They are systemic and carried out with considerable (though fortunately not always unanimous) popular support.

Such acts take place because of social dynamics that have desensitized and decon­structed a society’s sense of moral virtue and ethics. Theological constructs and social responses that tolerate the commission of acts of cruelty are the product of a long process of indoctrination and acculturation. Indoctrination facilitates their com­mission; acculturation mutes or mitigates the sense of outrage over the offensive behaviour. (p. 37)

Boiling the frog

Each act of barbarism becomes a historical precedent for further similar acts and for increasingly easier public acceptance. (As for indoctrination, we are also looking at how that works first hand.) Each act becomes another topic of community discussion; explanations and interpretations that emerge become part of the social group’s identity and moral foundations. Theological perspectives of these same events are meanwhile being transmitted through generations of families, communities and institutions. The point is that community interpretations and practices adapt, evolve, change emphases and focus over time and that’s true of most societies throughout history. So the question that arises is, What historical changes have been emerging in “recent” history in the Muslim world? And when we say “recent” we are reaching back to the eighteenth century when European powers made their first takeovers of large numbers of Muslim populations (e.g. India, Egypt).

Three responses to Western colonialism

To make sense of the incidents described, we need first to analyze three streams of Islamic consciousness that developed under the historical conditions faced by Muslim societies over the previous few centuries. Under the conditions of economic underdevelopment, technological backwardness and powerlessness prevailing today in the Muslim world, elements of these three streams have somehow fused to give rise to a new hybrid Islamic consciousness: salafabism . . . . (p. 38, my formatting and highlighting in all quotations)

As we saw in Jason Burke’s historical narrative Saudi Arabia used its windfall from rising oil prices in the 1970s to propagate its vicious brand of wahhabist Islam. In addition to wahhibism Fadl points his finger at two other strands of Islamic thought, the first being apologetics. Let’s take them in order.

Response 1: Apologetics

A common feature of most Muslim societies is a shared history of colonialism under European dominance. This sociopolitical experi­ence was accompanied by a culture of orientalism: an assumption of Western superiority combined with a condescending trivialization of Islamic cultural achievements. The onslaught of these processes led not only to loss of power by political and religious elites in the lands of Islam, but also to the devaluation and deprecation of Islamic beliefs and institutions. The dominant intellectual response of Muslims to this challenge from around the mid-eighteenth century came from the apologetics. (p. 39)

Conquered peoples typically find ways to resist their conquerors even if only by symbolic means. Recall the way some Jewish leaders responded to the conquest of Judea by the Greco-Romans who justifiably took great pride in their cultural achievements. “Plato is so wonderful?” some Jews (and subsequently some Christians) challenged. “Ha! Plato filched all of his ideas from Moses!”

Among the conquered and humiliated Muslims were those who responded in a similar way to their Western overlords. Anything of value that the Europeans had produced was thought by Muslim apologists to have owed its origins to Islamic science or philosophy or political ideas.

According to apologists, Islam

  • liberated women,
  • created democracy,
  • endorsed pluralism,
  • protected human rights
  • and introduced social welfare

long before these institutions ever existed in the West. One implication of this orientation was that, since Islam had invented most modern institutions, there was no incentive to engage in any further thinking or analysis, except on very marginal issues. (p. 40)

So it was that Western orientalists (those who looked down upon oriental culture, ways and beliefs with a certain contempt) found themselves mirrored by Muslim apologists who in turn looked down upon Westerners with the same disdain. That’s one time-honoured way of a defeated people holding on to their self-worth and dignity.

But that kind of response has a serious down-side: it ossifies one’s religion.

Religion is no longer an evolving and adapting system that is constantly being critically studied and subject to adaptation in the face of new circumstances. An idealized construct is created, and this is sanctified and set in stone as a foundational golden age. Anything that falls short of that ideal is the fault of the enemy. Trying to cope with the humiliation that came with European conquest and hegemony some Muslims found refuge in a conviction that their ancient texts, ways, beliefs had from the beginning of time been superior and well in advance of anything associated with their new rulers.

So for Muslim apologists the superiority of Islam became a mirror reaction to their European masters’ presumptions of superiority. As cultural arrogance made it impossible for Europeans to bend and adapt so the same arrogance of apologists made it impossible for them to analyse and adapt their own traditions and belief systems.

Apologists treated the Islamic tradition as if it had fossilized at the time of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Companions (the four Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad).

And if there is nothing to reflect upon except to bask in the superiority of one’s beliefs then anyone can become an authority. The true Muslim intellectuals are marginalized into irrelevancy. The door is open to anyone becoming “the voice” of “truth”. The solutions become easy. If the Muslim peoples are under the boot of the aliens, unable to match the Westerners in political and military might and so liberate themselves, it is because Muslims are not faithful and devout enough.

The way to liberation and self-respect, apologists believed, was to become more fervently dedicated to the myth of the old ways. And those old ways proved to have even preceded the best the West had to offer such as democracies and human rights.

Islamic apologists were ultimately motivated by nationalistic aspirations for political, social and cultural independence from the West.

Islam thus came to be seen as a kind of anti-colonialist resistance ideology capable of restoring Muslim pride and political power. Political liberation anchored itself in a religious orientation that was puritanical, supremacist and opportunistic. (p. 41)

That was one response. The other two I’ll cover in another post. We also need to examine the empirical evidence of how these different types of responses took hold in varying degrees in different regions of Muslim peoples and fused into an ugly ideology. We will see that those differences can be correlated with respective historical experiences with the West.

 


2016-10-05

Understanding Muslims and Barbarism

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimminds My first post covering a little of what I learned about the Muslim religion (Sharia) and its global applications did not get off to a good start. I have already posted three times on Rahim’s Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within so this post is based on a key theme in the third of the works I found most useful in my attempt to understand the Muslim world, Riaz Hassan’s Inside Muslim Minds.

I won’t repeat the horrific news we have all heard about beheadings, stonings, amputations, honour killings though Hassan describes in some detail several of the more shocking cases of these in the pre-ISIS era, especially from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Worse, since the introduction of these laws that were supposedly intended to

protect honour, life and the fundamental rights of a citizen, as guaranteed under the constitution and to ensure peace and provide speedy justice through an independent non-discriminatory Islamic system of justice (p. 23)

the long term consequences have been the reverse. Instead of fewer accusations against blasphemy and sexual offences the numbers of incidents of these brought before the courts has only been avalanching:

In such a society as Pakistan, with its deeply embedded patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, the hudood laws in general and the law pertain­ing to zina (fornication and adultery) in particular have been widely and recklessly abused. In particular, they have become an instrument of oppression against women. . . .

The hudood laws and their successors have severely eroded and undermined the constitutional guarantees of life and liberty for all citi­zens. Instead of protecting ‘honour, life and the fundamental rights of a citizen’, these laws have become instruments of oppression.

The hudood laws, far from creating a just and equal society, have succeeded only in imprisoning half of the country’s population ‘in a web of barbaric laws and customs’.  (pp, 23, 27, 28)

Developments like these do disturb more enlightened Islamic scholars:

According to some Islamic scholars, the introduction of these laws represents an ugly blot on the divine purity of Islamic doctrine. In a carefully researched book, Dr Mohammad Tufail Hashmi, a well-known Pakistani Islamic scholar, argues that, in conferring supposed ‘divine’ status on the Islamic hudd laws as well as on sup­porting laws laid out in the Pakistan Penal Code, the hudood ordi­nances violate the sanctity of the divinely ordained laws of Islam. They also convey a flawed and unworthy image of Islam to the world. In Islamic juristic tradition, punishing an innocent is a greater and more serious sin than acquitting a guilty person. According to Hashmi, the enforcement of hudood laws in Pakistan is a perversion of Islamic law and is perpetuating a warped image of Islam. (p. 28)

And the Pakistan slide into this kind of barbarism is symptomatic of what has been happening in other Muslim countries, too. Pakistan is not alone.

Of course not all Muslims approve of these sorts of laws. But as Hassan points out,

the fact that a significant proportion of Muslims at least tolerates them indicates a troubling level of moral lethargy in the col­lective life of contemporary Islam. (p. 35)

But let’s be fair to Mr Hyde and not overlook the undoubted humanity of his other Dr Jekyll nature:

It is also important to emphasize that the examples described above coexist with a pervasive sense of common humanity, kindness and genuine concern for the well-being of others and the under­ privileged in Muslim societies. (p. 35)

Having spent some time getting to know a few Muslim countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey) I can certainly vouch for that side of the Muslims. Natural disasters, refugees, orphans, the poor — generosity among the ordinary Muslims wanting to alleviate suffering of those affected is often truly inspiring. Muslims I have known in Indonesia, even around the region of Solo that was until recently infamous as a hideout region for Islamic terrorists, really do have human souls, too.

Before beginning to analyze historically and empirically what accounts for the ugly side of so many Muslim countries Riaz Hassan raises the following question:

Do the laws and practices described at the beginning of this chap­ter negate not only the humanitarian traditions of Islam but also the essential message of the Qur’an, which enjoins believers to establish a viable social order on earth that will be just and ethically based? Only the most deluded or self-absorbed Muslims could remain unconcerned by the sheer quantity and ugliness of the incidents described earlier. The hudood and blasphemy laws of Pakistan, the seriously flawed judicial systems and the rampant oppression of women and the poor (who are the main victims of the hudood ordi­nances and other similar laws) cannot be attributed to an aberra­tional fanaticism considered marginal and unrepresentative. The evidence suggests instead a pattern of abusive practice. The Qur’an is full of warnings to Muslims that if they fail to establish justice and bear witness to truth, God owes them nothing and will replace them with other people who are more capable of honouring God by estab­lishing justice and human equality on earth. (p. 36, my own bolding)

What has led to this state of affairs?

People do not just wake up one day and decide to commit acts of terrorism, kill in the name of ‘honour’, or behead someone for possessing an amulet—in the name of Islam. They are not naturally inclined to sanction acts by religious establishments of the state that prevent young female students from escaping a school fire, or humiliate vic­tims of rape and injustice—in the name of Islam. Such acts take place because of social dynamics that have desensitized and deconstructed a society’s sense of moral virtue and ethics. (p. 37)

Hassan’s explanation draws most heavily upon the writings of Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl. I’ll try to do the account of Fadl and Hassan justice in the next post.

khaled_abou_el_fadl_professional_headshot

Khaled Abou El Fadl


2016-10-03

Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?

by Neil Godfrey

Most objections to my posts on terrorism seem to fall back on arguing how frightening or horrific the religion of Islam is. Because I don’t “blame Islam” for terrorism (I distinguish between Islam and the political ideology of Islamism that originated with Maududi and Qutb) some readers assume I am trying to “whitewash Islam”. Not so. I have frequently tried to point out that I have no time for any religion personally and acknowledge that much of the Islamic world in particular has a long way to go in terms of meeting modern standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time I reject absolutely the view that the Islamic religion is some sort of monolithic demon that has the power to possess and dehumanize anyone who succumbs to the teachings of the Quran.

whospeaksBefore I studied terrorism I tried to learn a little about Muslims and Islam. Apart from reading the Quran and engaging with local Muslims I sought out a more comprehensive understanding of Islam globally from a range of sources. The ones I found the most useful are in bold type (though the others are worthwhile, too):

  • Esposito, J. L. & Mogahed, D. (2007). Who speaks for Islam?: what a billion Muslims really think. New York, NY: Gallup Press.
  • Harris, S. (2015). Islam and the future of tolerance: a dialogue. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Hassan, R. (2008). Inside Muslim minds. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press.
  • Negus, G. (2004). The world from Islam: a journey of discovery through the Muslim heartland. Pymble, N.S.W.: HarperCollins.
  • Rahim, L. Z. (2013). Muslim secular democracy: voices from within. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Saikal, A. (2003). Islam and the West: conflict or cooperation? New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

I want to post some of what I learned from the above. In this post I will limit myself to just one section from Esposito and Mogahed’s Who Speaks for Islam? This volume is the result of a Gallup research study between 2001 and 2007 interviewing tens of thousands of Muslims in hour-long, face-to-face interviews in more than 35 nations. The sample included young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, urban and rural. The sample represented more than 90% of the world’s Muslims and at time of publication was “the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done”. Results are statistically valid within a +/- 3-point margin of error.

Should Majority Support for Sharia Make the West Panic?

We would be surprised if most Christians said they did not support the Sermon on the Mount and if most Jews claimed not to support the Ten Commandments. But Sharia?

Sharia has been equated with stoning of adulterers, chopping off limbs for theft, imprisonment or death in blasphemy and apostasy cases, and limits on the rights of women and minorities. The range of differing perceptions about Sharia surfaced in Iraq when Shia leaders, such as Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for an Islamic democracy, including Sharia as a basis of law in Iraq’s new constitution. (Esposito & Mogahed 2007, p. 49)

Then came the invasion of Iraq and the setting up of a committee to draft a new constitution. A Christian Iraqi member of that committee, Yonadam Kanna, warned that “making Sharia one of the main sources of law” would lead have dire consequences, especially for women.

Nevertheless, more than 1,000 Iraqi women rallied in support of Sharia in the southern city of Basra in August 2005 in response to another rally opposing Sharia in Baghdad a week earlier. (p. 50)

Many in the West confuse Sharia law with a theocracy or rule by religious clerics but the two are quite separate things. Citing Gallup Poll data Esposito and Mogahed explain:

Although in many quarters, Sharia has become the buzzword for religious rule, responses to the Gallup Poll indicate that wanting Sharia does not automatically translate into wanting theocracy. Significant majorities in many countries say religious leaders should play no direct role in drafting a country’s constitution, writing national legislation, drafting new laws, determining foreign policy and international relations, or deciding how women dress in public or what is televised or published in newspapers. Others who opt for a direct role tend to stipulate that religious leaders should only serve in an advisory capacity to government officials. (p. 50)

Women, equal rights and the data

In the West, Sharia often evokes an image of a restrictive society where women are oppressed and denied basic human rights. Indeed,women have suffered under government-imposed Sharia regulations in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Sudan, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. However, those who want Sharia often charge that these regulations are un-Islamic interpretations. Gallup Poll data show us that most respondents want women to have autonomy and equal rights. Majorities of respondents in most countries surveyed believe that women should have:

■ the same legal rights as men (85% in Iran; 90% range in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Lebanon; 77% in Pakistan; and 61% in Saudi Arabia). Surprisingly, Egypt (57%) and Jordan (57%), which are generally seen as more liberal, lag behind Iran, Indonesia, and other countries.

■ rights to vote: 80% in Indonesia, 89% in Iran, 67% in Pakistan, 90% in Bangladesh, 93% in Turkey, 56% in Saudi Arabia, and 76% in Jordan say women should be able to vote without any influence or interference from family members.

■ the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home. Malaysia, Mauritania, and Lebanon have the highest percentage (90%); Egypt (85%), Turkey (86%), and Morocco (82%) score in the 80% range, followed by Iran (79%), Bangladesh (75%), Saudi Arabia (69%), Pakistan (62%), and Jordan (61%).

■ the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels. While majorities in the countries surveyed support this statement, respondents in Saudi Arabia (40%) and Egypt (50%) are the exceptions.

45 Carroll, J. (2005, February 25). Iraqi women eye Islamic law. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved September 14, 2007, from http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0225/p07s02-woiq.html

While Sharia is commonly depicted as a rigid and oppressive legal system, Muslim women tend to have a more nuanced view of Sharia, viewing it as compatible with their aspirations for empowerment. For example, Jenan al-Ubaedy, one of the 90 women who sat on Iraq’s National Assembly in early 2005, told The Christian Science Monitor that she supported the implementation of Sharia. However, she said that as an assembly member, she would fight for women’s right for equal pay, paid maternity leave, and reduced hours for pregnant women. She said she also planned to encourage women to wear hijab and focus on strengthening their families. To Ubaedy, female empowerment is consistent with Islamic values.45 (pp. 50-52, bolded text is repeated in box quotes in the book)

What Do Muslims Mean when they say they Support Sharia?

read more »


2016-09-22

Richard Carrier & Lena Einhorn’s Discuss Shift in Time

by Neil Godfrey

Followers of Richard Carrier’s blog will have known of Richard Carrier’s review earlier this month of A Shift in Time by Lena Einhorn:

Lena Einhorn on the Claudian Christ Theory

I am glad I did not mention it here at the time now because the page became more interesting in the following week with an exchange between Carrier and Einhorn. Lena Einhorn points out that she feels  her “hypothesis itself is largely left unexplored” in Carrier’s review.

Lena further draws attention to the apparent irony of her work gaining attention by those who favour the Christ Myth theory since her own argument is that Jesus did exist, only not in the time setting found in the gospels and not as the sort of person portrayed in them either. This raises the problematic question of what we mean by “Jesus” whenever the question of his historicity surfaces. We need to have some idea of how to recognize the person we are looking for and the only guides to help us are the canonical gospels, yet we know the gospels portray a theological construct and not a historical figure! It is inevitable, therefore, that most people who look for the historical Jesus do look for someone resembling the mythical Jesus of the gospel narratives. Lena Einhorn breaks this circularity by identifying reasons to believe that the core events and persons found in the gospels match those of a couple of decades later according to the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.

Carrier stresses his own conviction that the evidence is best explained without any need to postulate a historical Jesus at all. Einhorn replies:

The problem in comparing a hypothesis such as mine (“Jesus existed, albeit in another time, and this is the evidence”) with one suggesting he never existed, is that the latter is built largely on Evidence of absence. What I do in my book is line up evidence for his presence in the 50s (and for the New Testament as a historical text of the Jewish rebellion, lying hidden underneath a literary/devotional/supernatural narrative). It would have been a somewhat knotty exercise for me to challenge Evidence of presence with Evidence of absence (“what I just showed you never existed”).

She adds further explanation:

No, the time shift theory is not built only on the numerous similarities between Jesus and the messianic leader Josephus calls “the Egyptian” (the large following, the prophecy of the tearing down of the walls of Jerusalem, the betrayal to the authorities, the violent reaction of the authorities, the pivotal events on the Mount of Olives, previous time spent in Egypt, and in the wilderness). It is built on a slew of additional parallels between the Gospels and Acts, on the one hand, and events Josephus places in the 40s and 50s CE:

*The activity of robbers, lestai

*Known crucifixions of Jews

*An insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19)

*A messianic leader gathering people on the Jordan river, who is subsequently decapitated by the authorities

*An attack on a man named Stephanos (Stephen) on a road outside Jerusalem

*Two co-reigning high priests

*A conflict or war between Galileans and Samaritans, limited in time

*Galileans on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals being stopped in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56)

*A conflict between the Roman procurator and the Jewish king (Luke 23:12)

*A Jewish king with a prominent and influential wife (Matthew 27:19)

*A procurator slaughtering Galileans (Luke 13:1)

*A procurator and a Jewish king sharing jurisdiction over Galilee (Luke 23:6-7)

*Likely noms de guerre such as “the Zealot”, “Boanerges”, “Bariona”, or “Iscariot”

*The death of Theudas (Acts 5:36)

*A messianic leader who had previously spent time in Egypt, and in the wilderness, who prophesies about tearing down the walls of Jerusalem, and who is defeated by the authorities on the Mount of Olives

The 20s and 30s are – not only according to Tacitus, but also according to Josephus – a period when no robbers, no crucifixions, and no Jewish messianic leaders are reported. To name only a few discrepancies.

But most of it is there in the late 40s and 50s.

One of the illustrations Lena Einhorn posts in her reply to Richard Carrier:
image2

Carrier subsequently responds to Einhorn’s argument that “the coincident character of the patterns” points to specific intent by the authors of the gospels. read more »


2016-09-18

What Is a Prophet?

by Tim Widowfield
Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. read more »