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Smile: It’s Only a Bible and Religion Discussion

by Neil Godfrey

For a refreshing perspective read Tom Dykstra’s post on his reflections after reviewing books by Thomas Brodie and Bart Ehrman: Humor in Biblical Studies.

the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them

Dykstra’s post begins. . . . .

Almost a year ago I finished expanding my posts on Brodie’s Jesus-didn’t-exist book and Ehrman’s yes-he-did book into an article for an academic peer-reviewed journal, to be published later this year.  As I did more research on this controversy, one aspect of it struck me forcefully: many or most people on both sides of the fence were remarkably intolerant and contemptuous of the other side.

In what you might think of as an “academic” debate why should people get so incensed at and abusive toward those who disagree? . . .

In reading and thinking about this issue I reached a conclusion that may sound counter-intuitive:  the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them. . . . The issue is this:  I see contemptuous and abusive language as evidence that the perpetrator likely has some kind of vested interest in a particular belief about the subject. . . . (my bolding)

He then discusses another one of my favourite scholars, Michael Goulder. Read the thing in full and forward it to anyone you think gets a bit too cranky: Humor in Biblical Studies — and maybe not just to biblical scholars. I’m thinking of course of my recent slap down by a certain evolutionist for my question asking him why he shunned the scholarly approach of his peers towards Islamic terrorism.

Speaking of humour and the “which belief is right” debate, this has just appeared on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site:







The Risks of Understanding and Explaining Evil

by Neil Godfrey

Terrorism is evil. Murder is evil. Torture is evil. Hate crimes are evil. War is evil. Attempt to seriously understand why they happen, however, and one risks being accused of supporting evil.

On this blog I have attempted to share some insights of scholarly research into terrorism and the background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have in consequence mistakenly been thought to be justifying terrorism, of being an apologist for Islam, of anti-semitism and of hatred towards Israel. All of those things are completely untrue but the accusations persist because some readers view my explanations as taking the evil-doer’s side.

Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)

Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)

Why does this happen? Steven Pinker offers a cogent explanation in The Better Angel of Our Nature:

Baumeister notes that in the attempt to understand harm-doing, the viewpoint of the scientist or scholar overlaps with the viewpoint of the perpetrator.

Both take a detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act. Both are contextualizers, always attentive to the complexities of the situation and how they contributed to the causation of the harm. And both believe that the harm is ultimately explicable.

The viewpoint of the moralist, in contrast, is the viewpoint of the victim. The harm is treated with reverence and awe. It continues to evoke sadness and anger long after it was perpetrated. And for all the feeble ratiocination we mortals throw at it, it remains a cosmic mystery, a manifestation of the irreducible and inexplicable existence of evil in the universe. Many chroniclers of the Holocaust consider it immoral even to try to explain it.

Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 495-496). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The Myth of Pure Evil

Baumeister, with psychological spectacles still affixed, calls this the myth of pure evil. The mindset that we adopt when we don moral spectacles is the mindset of the victim. Evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good. The reason that this is a myth (when seen through psychological spectacles) is that evil in fact is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just.

The myth of pure evil gives rise to an archetype that is common in religions, horror movies, children’s literature, nationalist mythologies, and sensationalist news coverage. read more »


Miscellaneous News and Links Updates

by Neil Godfrey


  • I’m not sure what the current status of the Kickstarter for a debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert M. Price is. I have been slow to post on this in part because I did not like the idea of paying Ehrman $5000 (even if he does give the money to charities — I’d rather he be assured by receipts others have already donated to charities of their own or better still just speak for no other motive than the public interest). My other part reason was that from what I have read by Ehrman on the subject and from what I have seen of his manner in some videos when addressing the topic, I really can’t see him making any genuine effort to bring due diligence or seriousness to the debate. I’d rather see a debate with a scholar who undertakes a more professional approach vis a vis the public interest.  Others may disagree, however. 
  • Tim Hendrix published on Scribd a review of Richard Carrier’s earlier book, Proving History, in which he questions Carrier’s use of Bayes’ theorem for historical argument. (I understand that Tim’s research field is Bayesian methods for machine learning.)
  • Jerrel Arkes, a 30 year old atheist from the Netherlands, has opened a new site,, on which people can vote (with social shares) for Science or Religion. The intent (as I understand it) is to start conversation through social media.




De-Radicalising Muhammad

by Neil Godfrey

Tom Holland

What do the Charlie Hebdo murders and the rise of the Islamic State owe to Islam? It would be comforting to insist, as many have done, that they owe nothing at all; but Holland, in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture, argues that the truth is more complex. The best way to combat jihadism, he proposes, is to recognise the centrality of Muhammad to Islam – and that he comes in many forms. There is the moral leader who swallowed abuse peaceably; and there is the war leader who ordered people who insulted him put to death. How best, then, to de-radicalise the Prophet? Tom Holland is author of In The Shadow of the Sword, Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millenniumand the new translation of The Histories by Herodotus. Chaired by Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times.” — from the Hay Festival program.

Denouncing Islamic State as not representing “true Islam” is a well-intentioned declaration but counterproductive and seriously problematic, according to historian Tom Holland in the inaugural Christopher Hitchens Lecture at the May 2015 Hay Festival. The title of his talk is De-Radicalising Muhummad (available online).

What is wrong with these well-meaning efforts to defuse anti-Islamic tensions?

What it does is imply that there is a normative, authentic Islam, one that embodies ideals that are perfectly compatible with liberal, secular Britain, and then there are misinterpretations of it, distortions of it, that are not really Islam at all. . . . .

Playing the same lethal game as Islamic State

By denying the title of Muslims to Islamic State Western governments are actually playing the same lethal game as the Islamic State themselves. Because what the Islamic State do is to condemn other Muslims as either apostates or heretics — the better then to justify their elimination.

I really don’t think it is for Prime Ministers or Home Secretaries to play that game. Because once you take it on yourself to define what is or isn’t authentic Islam then you are buying into the notion that such a thing as authentic Islam actually exists. 

Now if you’re a believer of course that’s fine. You will accept that indeed Islam was given to you by God and therefore it does have some absolute Platonic essence.

But if you’re not a believer then a religion is just like any other manifestation of human culture. It’s something that is porous, variable, forever mutating, and evolving. It’s a dialogue between people in the present and an inheritance of texts and traditions and people can choose what of those texts and traditions they wish to emphasise. 

So it’s not like religion is the equivalent of a radio station set with a dial and you can definitely find it. It’s a whole series of points on a bandwidth. 

That understanding ought to give us hope, however long-term it may have to be. It certainly ought to contribute to a lessening of social prejudice and a promotion of constructive ways of addressing the problem of violent Islamic groups and individuals.

And obviously what a definition of an extremist is, what a radical is, will depend where you stand on that bandwidth. Because it cannot be emphasised enough that jihadists do not think of themselves as extremists. To them, it’s us, the comfortably secular and liberal kind of people . . . who are the extremists. Jihadists see themselves as models of righteous behaviour. They see themselves as doing God’s will as expressed in the pages of his holy book the Koran and the sayings of his prophet Muhammad. And they also see themselves as obedient to something else — to the example of Muhammad. The Koran is absolutely explicit about this. In the Messenger of God it says you have a beautiful example, an example to follow. 

And so it does matter then, to jihadis no less than to the vast majority of Muslims who would never in a million years set about destroying the antiquities of the Near East, or taking sex slaves, or murdering those who mock the Prophet. But sanction for what they do is indeed to be found within the various biographies and traditions that are associated with the Prophet. 

So what does Tom Holland see as the appropriate response? read more »


What Is Vridar?

by Tim Widowfield

When I started writing for Vridar, Neil pointed out that in one of my book references I had linked to a Google Books page. He said he preferred to use LibraryThing instead. I grumbled to myself, but dutifully created an account and complied with his request.


Vridar — pronounced “VREE-dar”

Why are we here?

Eventually, I came to understand that he wasn’t making an arbitrary demand. Vridar doesn’t funnel people to Amazon hoping to collect a small fee. We don’t show ads — at least not deliberately. From LibraryThing, you can go to whichever online store you want. We don’t make that choice for you.

We’re not looking for Vridar generate income, even if it’s just to break even. Sometime back, when a certain fool nuked our blog and forced us to move to a different host, we deliberately chose a “dot-org” address to show that we mean business, or rather that we don’t mean business. We stand instead for the free and open flow of ideas.

But if that “free and open flow” means anything at all, then you need to know that we aren’t motivated by something else. You should know, for example, that we don’t take kickbacks for reviewing books or for linking to somebody else’s site. Nor will you ever see us block links to other biblioblogs, even when they routinely block us and assiduously pretend that we don’t exist. There are blogs out there whose moderators routinely delete or heavily edit Neil’s comments. We won’t do that here.

No adverts here

Recently, I received an email that was part of a PR campaign for celebrating 50th anniversary of the New International Version (NIV). This translation of the Bible began with a meeting of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) back in 1965. The lady who wrote the form letter encouraged us to share certain stories with our readers to help or enlighten them. Obviously, the PR firm who got our email addresses hadn’t read the countless times in posts wherein we’ve slammed the NIV as one of the worst English translations available, if you care about what the text actually says. She wrote: read more »


Historical Sources, Independent Sources, and the Need to be Quick

by Neil Godfrey

In the last twenty four hours two remarkable posts have appeared arguing from a scholarly (as per New Testament scholarly) perspective that the historical sources we have for Jesus are about as abundant, rich and “in-your-face” as anything we might have for any other person in ancient times — let’s say, Julius Caesar.

But before I had a chance to position my fingers on my laptop’s keyboard an rss feed barges in to tell me Richard Carrier has already been approached for his view of one of these posts. So no thunder here. But I’m pleased I had the opportunity to catch up with the much more vital post on Otagosh (see previous post) instead.

The post to which Carrier responds is Darrell Bock’s Sources for Caesar and Jesus Compared. The other is by James Bishop, Introduction to Our Independent Sources for Jesus’ Life, and Why They Are Important, on the Historical Jesus Studies blog. I am sure a number of Vridar readers can anticipate what I would say in response to each. (I’d like to find a way to making the fundamental arguments of logic and elementary historical methods and source analysis more widespread.)

Anyway, I do want to respond to both of these posts myself so have chosen not to read Carrier’s own remarks beforehand lest they spoil the flow of my own perspective. I still have more to write from the work of Henige, in particular in relation to historical sources, which should enrich my previous arguments.

Till then, let Carrier do Carrier. My little contribution will appear in good time.




New: Christian Origins Clearing House

by Neil Godfrey

Peter Kirby has revamped his Christian Origins website so that it consists of updated headers of Biblioblog posts. He includes a special biblioblog search engine covering these blogs and various online discussion archives. And more. . . .

Brilliant! Thanks, Peter!


Peter has some comments on what he has done on the earlywritings forum.

read more »


Just to prove the “bad Jesus” point . . . .

by Neil Godfrey

Right on cue — following the previous post “the bad Jesus” — comes a fundamentalist’s defence of Bible ethics:

  • Yes, slavery is not wrong at all if the system is run by “good people”, no doubt the Christians. Indeed, the implication is that slavery is a good way to treat people who have been guilty of “misconduct”.
  • The Bible’s laws on slavery were designed to “mitigate evil”. Of course. No-one was allowed to beat a slave so severely that he actually died within a day or two of the flogging (Exodus 21:21).
  • The down side of slavery is that “in a fallen world” there is a certain “imprudence” to give non-Christians such powers over another. The worst that can happen, it seems, is that such masters might stop the slave worshiping God.

And what sort of god does the Triablogue author lament the slaves are unable to worship?

  • God is allowed to commit barbaric and genocidal acts because he is God. Only God can kill a baby to punish a parent or snuff out whole populations. Only God can do such things and still be Good and worthy of our worship so that we all willingly submit ourselves to him as his slaves.

Meanwhile the Pope, the Great Whore of the Apocalypse, quite rightly protests: Pope Francis Calls Right-Wing Christian Fundamentalism a Sickness.

But isn’t the sickness itself the consequence of lending public respectability to the same sort of unverifiable faith-based reasoning that Pope himself defends?




Vridar Housekeeping and Security Update

by Tim Widowfield

For those of you who may have noticed a little glitch just before midnight (Central Daylight Time), with a “Server Unavailable” warning, that was me.  I updated our WordPress instance to the latest version, which is supposed to fix many security issues.

If anyone out there is still getting unwanted pop-ups, let us know, and please give us as much detail as you can.  I want to be sure we haven’t been seriously hacked.

Sorry for any problems you may encounter here, and thanks for reading Vridar.


Note: If you have more information you’d like to pass on, like screenshots, please send them to us:

Tim: widowfield [at] gmail [dot] com

Neil: neilgodfrey1 [at] gmail [dot] com

Hidden Meanings and Memories

by Neil Godfrey

It’s not always a happy experience to get to know too much about some of our favourite talents. Forgive my latecomer status to this little bit of knowledge — but I have just learned that Alice in Wonderland contains a number of scenes that were inspired by the author’s disdain for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) was as reactionary as one could get in Victorian times. Thanks to Rachel Kohn’s Radio National program, The Spirit of Things, for alerting me to the “low down” on this work and its author: Decoding Alice in Wonderland. That led to David Day’s article, “Oxford in Wonderland.” Queen’s Quarterly 117.3 (2010): 403+

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_21One of the historic turning points in human intellectual history in this new era took place a few hundred yards from Lewis Carroll’s residence. This was the famous 1860 Oxford Darwinian Debate in which the bombastic anti-Evolutionist Wilberforce was verbally eviscerated by the rational pro-Evolutionary Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Huxley’s victory became emblematic of the triumph of progressive rational science.

In Wonderland, Carroll’s satire of the Darwin debate takes place in the strange smoke-filled Kitchen of the Ugly Duchess. The Oxford counterpart of the Duchess’ Kitchen is one of the grand sites of the university: Cardinal Wolsey’s Great Kitchen. Built during the reign of Henry VIII, Oxford’s Great Kitchen has a massive hearth for roasting entire pigs and, like the Duchess’ Kitchen, was frequently filled with smoke.

The Great Kitchen was also the one part of the university that was directly under the authority of the Bishop of Oxford. Samuel Wilberforce, the son of the anti-slavery movement’s “Great Emancipator” William Wilberforce, was known to parliamentarians and political pundits as “Soapy Sam” because of his brash and illogical debating style. He was the perfect model for the logic-chopping, moralizing, and argumentative Ugly Duchess.

In this fantastic “Kitchen of Creation,” one can imagine these insane cooks mixing up a mad biological soup. Evolution is gone berserk. Uniformed fish and frog footmen seem to have just stepped out of the primordial ooze. A constantly shape-shifting baby appears to demonstrate “survival of the fittest” by preferring beatings to affection. Strangest of all, Alice’s attempt to nurse this child results in a strange backward form of evolution: from a boy into a pig.

Well, I always hated that ugly duchess and baby scene anyway!

Speaking of parallels there was an interesting article a while back on Εις Δοξαν looking at the eleventh labour of Heracles in which he was ordered to recover some golden apples:  read more »


Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?

by Neil Godfrey

I’d like to comment on one section of the inaugural lecture of Prof Chris Keith, Chair of the New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. Its title is ‘Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: Assessing the First Decade.’

Keith is a co-blogger of The Jesus Blog. Both Tim and I have previously addressed facets of Keith’s views and co-publications.

Keith’s postmodernist perspective on the gospels offers a valuable critique of traditional “historical Jesus” scholarship but it also leaves untouched and builds upon a fundamental blind spot in that scholarship.

Around the 47th minute into the address Keith expresses regret that other scholars who have criticized the social memory approach have failed to address the pioneering work of Jens Schröter. No doubt Chris Keith will be gratified to see that in the interests of public religious literacy Vridar has outlined and critically engaged with a core feature of Schröter’s arguments: see the Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”.

Following is a transcription of a few minutes of Keith’s talk. I have bolded sections I find of particular interest for good or ill.

It is notable that recent criticisms of social memory applications in gospel studies fail to engage his work altogether.

In very general terms Schröter proposes that every approach to the historical Jesus behind the gospels has to explain how these writings could have come into being as the earliest descriptions of this person.

Insofar as this approach grounds historical Jesus inquiry in the past as portrayed in our extant sources, it is similar to what Assmann labeled mnemohistory which also foregrounds the text in traditions as they stand before historians. Related directly to this fact, Schröter insists that one cannot neatly separate past from present, history and interpretation, due to their intertwined and mutually interdependent natures of commemorative activity.

Keith’s/Schröter’s point is that the past is lost to us and the best that the historian can do with respect to Jesus or the “Jesus tradition/s” is to attempt to understand how/why the Gospels came narrate their respective lives of Jesus.

The comparison with Jan Assmann‘s mnemohistory (history of memories) is not quite apt but Keith does say that Schröter’s approach (and by extension Keith’s, too) is “similar”. Actually a comparison with Assmann’s work raises serious questions about Keith’s approach and I’ll address those toward the end of this post.

Notice in the last sentence above that Keith refers to Schröter’s words about “commemorative activity”. read more »

Award for Public Religious Literacy

by Neil Godfrey

Westar Institute Inaugurates Award for Public Religious Literacy

In a move that embodies its conviction that knowledge about religion is essential to healthy public discourse, the Westar Institute has inaugurated a new award to honor members of the public who demonstrate an outstanding commitment to fostering religious literacy. The new Advocate for Public Religious Literacy (APRL) award seeks to recognize the courage, commitment, and contributions of people who cultivate thoughtful discussion and disseminate learning about religion in their communities. Westar invites nominations at this time. . . . 

See the Westar site: (The Westar Institute is best known for its Jesus Seminar led by Robert Funk some years ago; since then a work on Acts has been published and posted about here.) 

It will be interesting to see who does win the award.

Can anyone think of any blog-authors who deserve to be nominated! 😉

But then again I think the world deserves an honest discussion about religious and biblical scholarship. Too many scholars shun any public engagement that does not foster the parameters of the conventional wisdom as we have experienced.



Truth and History

by Neil Godfrey

Come on, Bart. You can do better than this. Think through this postmodernist jargon.

In my recent post in which I made a paean to memory – which will be the way I end my current book dealing with memory and the historical Jesus — I said the following.

MY REMARK:  “The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is when they tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true, and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading.  My sense is that many readers will find it puzzling or even disheartening that I find this view puzzling and disheartening.   But I do.

Please call me a prophet if you must, but I would like to point out that a number of readers on the blog did indeed find my view puzzling and disheartening.   Mainly puzzling.   The following was a very well reasoned response from a reader, to which I would like to reply:

READER’S COMMENT:  Indeed, stories that aren’t true are no less worthwhile to read. The Bible most definitely is an important part of literature that should be read and studied (I wouldn’t want you to be out of work!). However, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the word ‘truth’. To me (and I am not a native English speaker so maybe this is a linguistical problem), truth has always meant something that corresponds to reality. If a story didn’t happen, I don’t see how it can be true. The very definition of a true story is that it happened. It can still be important, have significance in our lives, etc, but I don’t see how it can be called truth.

I completely understand this point of view.  It is a point of view that I myself had for a very long time.  It’s not one that I hold now, and I want to explain why.

In my view, there can be true stories that never happened. . . . 


That’s postmodernist semantic confusion. (The remainder of the article turns on the example of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, but you have to donate to Bart’s own favourite charities in America to read this.)

To say a story that never happened is nonetheless a true story renders the word “true” meaningless. I know what is meant. The moral of the story is relevant to the readers, for example. Aesop’s fables tell us about many true real-life principles. The story of Pinocchio teaches the “true” principle that lying can lead to trouble. I learned in primary school that tales about talking animals and lies causing noses to grow embarrassingly long are not true. I also learned to enjoy these stories and knew well the “truths” they taught: that I should beware of tricksters, be prudent and not tell lies.

As Paul Boghassian has observed [in another context]: “To say some claim is true according to some perspective sounds simply like a fancy way of saying that someone, or some group, believes it. (Cited in Richard Evans, In Defence of History, p. 220)

I recall years ago Christians expressing abhorrence at the relativism being espoused by postmodernism. That was quite some time ago. I have since seen Christian scholars embracing postmodernism as their own intellectual saviour and defender. It enables them to argue for the relevance of the Bible by means of semantic confusion such as Ehrman is recycling.

Let’s not lose grip of semantic and logical coherence and consistency.


But WHY Does It Not Convince?

by Neil Godfrey

An unexplained or unjustified phrase that I encounter with depressing regularity in works of Biblical scholars is “so and so’s argument does not convince” or “is not persuasive” — and the various equivalents of these, of course. This blot is too often found even in what can be the most informative of academic works. Of course I don’t have a problem with someone not being persuaded by an argument but I expect from scholars an evidence or logically based rationale to justify their reaction to a colleague’s assertions, conclusions or arguments. The unfortunate guilty piece of writing that has most recently crossed my path is an aspiring scholar’s blog review of Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. This post’s criticism is not targeted at the author but at the all-too-common practice found throughout the literature of his field.

Dennis MacDonald’s controversial thesis is that the Greek epic poems of Homer, well known among both the literate and non-literate populations of the Greek speaking Hellenistic and Roman worlds, can explain many of the narrative details in the Gospel of Mark. (If you are unfamiliar with the idea and are interested in an overview I have posted details at The Gospel of Mark & Homer’s Epics on

The blog review in this instance, as many other reviews have done, outlines MacDonald’s list of six criteria that he uses hopefully to establish whether a literary passage has been shaped in some way by the author’s awareness of a completely different work. (In a more recent work MacDonald has since added a seventh criterion, “ancient and Byzantine recognitions”.) So far so good, but when it comes to the details we slip in the mud.  read more »