Category Archives: Uncategorized


Historical versus Spiritual Eyewitnesses

by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Ferguson has posted an excellent outline of how ancient historians and biographers testified to their sources or eyewitness testimony in ways we scarcely find in any of the New Testament writings: Eyewitness Recollections in Greco-Roman Biography versus the Anonymity of the Gospels. It’s a topic I’ve addressed here before but not for a while now and Matthew goes into much more detail than my earlier posts.

To move from sublime historical methods and understanding into the …. “spiritual”, let’s say …. On the Jesus Blog Rafael Rodríguez discusses some difficulties he has with Arthur Dewey’s chapter, “The Eyewitness of History: Visionary Consciousness in the Fourth Gospel”, in Jesus in Johannine Tradition. RR’s post is “eyewitness” in Johannine tradition.

I am very willing to admit I may have misunderstood key points (it is written in jargon that theologians apparently find meaningful) but it sounds to me as if the arguments is that an eyewitness in the Gospel of John is someone who has not seen the events with his or her own eyes but has been given spiritual understanding of the meaning of a story he or she read or heard about. Or at least if what they have heard or read about is the crucifixion of Jesus.

On the other hand, if someone did see the crucifixion with their own eyes, they would NOT be an eyewitness because the Spirit of God did not give them an understanding of the theological meaning of that event.

Somehow I’m reminded of Edmund Cohen’s The Mind of the Bible Believer and where he discusses the “logicide” of the faithful. To make the Bible “meaningful” and “good” for today’s readers the meanings of words have to be turned inside out. So “love” and “hate” are reversed; so are “death” and “life”, and so forth. Looks like theologians also have the ability to turn an eyewitness into someone who was not an eyewitness. And that this sort of “spiritual insight” comes packaged in an essay with “history” in its title . . .  well, someone else might be able to find the words to express a coherent thought.



Jerry Coyne on Jesus Christ Again (per RR)

by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne is no doubt upsetting the biblical scholars whose living (and more often than not their personal faith) depends upon Jesus having been a historical figure @ Not much evidence for a historical Jesus. (He insists he speaks as a scientist and as such is not very impressed by theologians claiming he should respect the consensus of theologians; I do wish he’d approach Islam scientifically, too!) He’s referring to Historical Evidence For Jesus by Rosa Rubicondior.

(As an afterthought, I also wish theologians would not botch the theory of evolution by unscientifically saying that it is compatible with Old Earth Creationism.)


Where religious beliefs come from

by Neil Godfrey
Tylor and Frazer

Tylor and Frazer

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Sam Harris: Wrong (again) about Religion and Radicalization
  2. Religion: It’s more than we often think
  3. Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

Since we tend to take it for granted that beliefs in spirit beings and associated myths were invented to explain the world around us I was surprised to read in Pascal Boyer‘s Religion Explained that this assumption is problematic and no longer accepted by all anthropologists:

[T]he theme of religion-as-an-explanation was developed by a school of anthropology called intellectualism, which was initiated by 19th-century scholars such as Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer and remains quite influential to this day. (p. 15)

It is not true, Boyer argues, that humans naturally try to find some speculative explanations for commonly experienced phenomena that they lack the conceptual means to understand.

The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general “urge to move around.” Animals never move about for the sake of changing places. They are in search of food or safety or sex; their movements in these different situations are caused by different processes. The same goes for explanations. From a distance, as it were, you may think that the general point of having a mind is to explain and understand. But if you look closer, you see that what happens in a mind is far more complex; this is crucial to understanding religion.

There’s a lot to think about here. Certainly for me there is. Boyer gives an example of one of the most common everyday experiences of every healthy person that is very hard for us to think requires any explanation at all.

Nervous_systemNow, expressed in this blunt and general manner, the statement is plainly false. Many phenomena are both familiar to all of us from the youngest age and difficult to comprehend using our everyday concepts, yet nobody tries to find an explanation for them. For instance, we all know that our bodily movements are not caused by external forces that push or pull us but by our thoughts. That is, if I extend my arm and open my hand to shake hands with you, it’s precisely because I want to do that. Also, we all assume that thoughts have no weight or size or other such material qualities (the idea of an apple is not the size of the apple, the idea of water does not flow, the idea of a rock is no more solid than the idea of butter). If I have the intention to lift my arm, to take a classic example, this intention itself has no weight or solidity. Yet it manages to move parts of my body. . . . How can this occur? How could things without substance have effects in the material world? Or, to put it in less metaphysical terms, how on earth do these mental words and images pull my muscles? This is a difficult problem for philosophers and cognitive scientists . . . but surprisingly enough, it is a problem for nobody else in the entire world. Wherever you go, you will find that people are satisfied with the idea that thoughts and desires have effects on bodies and that’s that. (Having raised such questions in English pubs and Fang villages in Cameroon I have good evidence that in both places people see nothing mysterious in the way their minds control their bodies. Why should they? It requires very long training in a special tradition to find the question interesting or puzzling.)

That illustration got me thinking and wondering. Is it too clever? I can certainly see myself as one of Boyer’s English pub companions thinking there is “nothing mysterious” at all about the process. But of course that’s his point. Then I recalled the (apocryphal) story of Isaac Newton wondering why the apple he had just seen fall from a tree did not instead fall upwards or hang suspended.

If we can throw things up skyward why do they decide at some point to come back down again?

Why does food appease my hunger but then too much food make me feel sick?

Why do babies grow up and not just stay as babies? Why do we get weaker as we age? Why do we age?

Why do we and every other living thing have matching right and left sides?

It takes a little effort at first, but once one starts on that track it does seem there is a point here. And I can only think of some of those questions because I need first to refer to what I have learned from my reading of science. Religious explanations are indeed limited to only certain types of stories and never touch many potential questions for the pre-scientific mind.

The more I think about it the more I think it is true that our minds are not “general explanation machines”.

Boyer’s point is that the mind consists of lots of specialized explanatory engines or “inference systems”. I have hummed and harred whether to set out my own explanations and have finally opted to quote more of Boyer’s own words but with my formatting:

Consider this:

It is almost impossible to see a scene without seeing it in three dimensions, because our brains cannot help explaining the flat images projected onto the retina as the effect of real volumes out there.

If you are brought up among English speakers you just cannot help understanding what people say in that language, that is, explaining complex patterns of sound frequencies as strings of words.

People spontaneously explain the properties of animals in terms of some inner properties that are common to their species; if tigers are aggressive predators and yaks quiet grazers, this must be because of their essential nature.

We spontaneously assume that the shape of particular tools is explained by their designers’ intentions rather than as an accidental combination of parts; the hammer has a sturdy handle and a heavy head because that is the best way to drive nails into hard materials.

We find that it is impossible to see a tennis ball flying about without spontaneously explaining its trajectory as a result of a force originally imposed on it.

If we see someone’s facial expression suddenly change we immediately speculate on what may have upset or surprised them, which would be the explanation of the change we observed.

When we see an animal suddenly freeze and leap up we assume it must have detected a predator, which would explain why it stopped and ran away. 

If our houseplants wither away and die we suspect the neighbors did not water them as promised—that is the explanation.

It seems that our minds constantly produce such spontaneous explanations.

Inference Systems

read more »


How the Roman World Received the News of Jerusalem’s Destruction

by Neil Godfrey

Just as I finished reading Steve Mason’s A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74 an article Why Did Vespasian and Titus Destroy Jerusalem? by David Gurevich appeared in (h/t Jim Davila’s PaleoJudaica). Gurevich’s views make an interesting comparison with Mason’s.

Both align with the view that the emperor Vespasian presented the destruction of Jerusalem as a major victory against a most significant threat to the Roman imperium in the East so that both he himself and his successor son Titus would be feted as the preservers of Roman glory and even as the ones who expanded her empire. The year 69 is infamous as the “Year of the Four Emperors”, being blighted by civil war in the wake of Nero’s suicide, and since Vespasian was from a social class lower than the aristocracy he was not the obvious choice for the one who would restore order and stability to the empire. But by presenting his and his son’s destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and by his subsequent establishment of Judea as a brand new province, Vespasian was able to present himself as not only the restorer of a stable peace but even as the pair who expanded Roman power and grandeur.

In reality ….. well, let’s not dwell upon the reality at this moment of the excitement of restoration of peace and expanding imperial fame.

Before CNN, Al-Jazeera and Twitter emperors relayed their messages through public displays, monumental constructions and coinage.

Public Displays:

Triumphal marches through the city of Rome were not awarded for the mere police-duty of bringing a few wild dogs to heel. But if such a police-duty could be presented as something much more than that, as even an expansion of imperial boundaries and the defeat of an existential threat from the barbaric Orient, then one would have to be supra-human to resist such a temptation. Triumphal processions displayed graphic images of the mighty Roman armies destroying the cities, homes and persons of the aliens; they displayed the vast wealth of treasures captured; and the displayed prisoners, including the enemy leader who was doomed to be executed at the end of the Triumph.


Monuments: read more »


Happy Birthday Earl Doherty

by Neil Godfrey

Today, or whenever Thursday 4th August catches up with you, is, according to my Facebook reminder, Earl Doherty’s birthday. Earl has had a major impact on the understanding of many people about Christian origins whether or not they agree with every detail. And even among those who flatly oppose his views he managed to ruffle feathers and raise concerns over the questions many more people are asking.

Some years back in personal exchanges with Earl I found my awareness of the need for constant testing of one’s ideas against logical validity and evidence becoming increasingly honed. I was especially inspired by the grace, cool calm, sharp logic and vast knowledge of the scholarship and sources that he applied in his first foray into discussions with biblical scholars on Crosstalk despite the unprofessional responses of a few names there. Everything he has written on Christian origins is worth reading and thinking about.

And I am particularly grateful for him introducing me to Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man series of novels (a graphic sits on the top right corner of this blog), from which I branched out to further read Children of God.

Anyway, enough of the speech. Have a great day, Earl.



Don’t call me spiritual

by Neil Godfrey


A prominent social researcher Hugh McKay was recently discussing the topic “Spirituality in a secular age” and claiming for the word spiritual a whole lot of stuff that I think surely belongs to chemistry, biology and various other specialist branches of science.

At one point McKay acknowledged that to some people (he must have been thinking of me!) the word “spirituality” has become as debased and meaningless as the word “organic” today. I do agree.

Is not our propensity to find meaning in “something bigger than ourselves” an extension of the contingencies of our very social nature. I doubt too many would consider our sense of identity with our families, local communities, ethnicity, gender, various other groupings (military, workplace, school, sports teams, political party), our nation, our species ….. as “spiritual”. But no, I’m jumping ahead here. Some people really do use “spirituality” to describe a person’s sense of one-ness with humanity.

When asked about my “spirituality” I used to say I believe in poetry, in metaphors, to describe very “physical” feelings of awe and wonder. Why not? No doubt the most “awesome” emotional experiences can all be identified via a CT scan.

If I wished I suppose I could go over the top and accuse the Hugh McKays of this world of ontological imperialism, of imposing their own belief constructs on others in a way that denies them their own identities. But nah. Too little time. Life’s too important. (Besides, I do respect Hugh McKay himself since he knows well the boundaries between his own assumptions and those of others, etc.)

It’s just one of those things that pushes the button that causes my eyes to roll.





What was Marcion’s gospel all about?

by Neil Godfrey

Rene Salm is currently doing a series of exploratory posts on that early “heretic” Marcion and asking what was the nature of his gospel. We tend to think of a gospel as a written story of Jesus, as in our four New Testament gospels, but the word has often been used in its other sense in the earliest Christian literature — that is, to refer to the message of good news that the earliest Christians (or whatever they called themselves then) preached.

Marcion, you will recall, was that early second century religious leader from Asia Minor (Turkey) who gained a following across much of the Mediterranean world and who taught that Jesus was not sent by the Creator God of the Bible but by a higher God, a hitherto unknown God of love unlike the Jew’s God of law and punishment. He also claimed Paul was the only true Apostle, that Jesus’ original followers failed to understand their Master, and that Paul’s letters had been corrupted, that is interpolated, by the “proto-orthodox” church led by Roman bishops. He also is thought to have had a written gospel that was an early form of our Gospel of Luke.

Rene Salm is not satisfied with scholarly attempts to reconstruct what they believe Marcion’s “pre-Lukan” gospel looked like. He argues that Marcion’s gospel was entirely and only the message of grace and love, and was never a written narrative about a life of Jesus at all.

One of the several strands of argument he follows is that since Marcion’s Jesus was never truly a flesh and blood human, it follows that he could have no earthly life or career for anyone to write about. I am not so sure. We do have stories, but Jewish and “pagan”, of non-human deities or spirit beings appearing on earth as if they are human, with those they encounter believing them to be human, and who do have narratives written about them.

One example is Dionysus, the god of wine and frenzy. A very famous play was written about him by Euripides. In that play Dionysus was mistaken by his opponents and the uninitiated as just another person. They even took hold of him and tied him up. Or at least Dionysus allowed them to do so, knowing that he could escape at any time he chose.

In the Gospel of Luke there is a story of Jesus being taken from a synagogue by a mob wanting to kill him. They take him to the edge of a cliff and are about to throw him off when it is said that he simply turned around and walked away from them. Strange scene. I don’t think such an episode requires a real flesh and blood Jesus to work.

Jewish angels can also enter this world and be subject to narrative adventures. Recall the angels who came to rescue Lot and who faced an menacing mob. Recall the acts and travels of Raphael in the Book of Tobit. And of course the Book of Acts and Letter to the Hebrews remind us of gods and spirits who were entertained by humans believing them to be human creatures just like themselves.

But that is only one detail of Rene Salm’s argument. For those interested in the Marcionite question and related quests for gospel origins, his posts begin at: Questioning the Gospel of Marcion.


Organized but with a full in-tray

by Neil Godfrey

Once I decide a fly in the house needs to get out or die everything stops till my crazed obsession is finally satisfied. Likewise once I started organizing my digital files with a very cool open source system everything stopped till the last pdf was in its proper place, complete with metadata for easy retrieval. Accordingly I now bask in the pleasure of worthwhile achievement. The way I feel now reminds me of how I felt when at the end of the day I used to look out over the lawn around my house that I had just spent some hours mowing.

Meanwhile I have been building up a lengthy to-do list in response to so many things that have been in the news lately, and in response to so many new resources and ideas that have been appearing through the networks, …. but I am sure I won’t have time to post about them all. I will make a start, though…..


Turkey’s Attempted Coup in Context

by Neil Godfrey

rahimIn July 2013 I posted a anthropologist’s analysis of today’s conflicting visions of secularism in Turkey:

Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory?

That was 2013, exactly two years ago to the month. Then, I wrote of Christopher Houston’s view:

There are other “secularists”, however, who fear the democratically elected Muslim party is attempting to “Islamize” the nation by stealth, and these people are increasingly expressing disenchantment with Western-style democracy on the one hand, and a preference for a military coup on the other. Though a minority, they do have close ties with key military figures who are sympathetic to their views.

We saw what happened in Egypt, and before that, in Algeria, when democratically elected Muslims found themselves removed by the military. Both coups appear to have had significant popular support.

Christopher Houston

Christopher Houston

Further, Houston wrote:

Militant laicists are searching for a revolution geared toward a takeover of state power to reimpose their program of militant laicism from above.

Further, much of their rhetoric suggests that they are not immune to the seduction of political violence or terror; and most of all they are not committed to, or even feel threatened by, “democracy” and legal reform, because it appears to dilute their political and economic domination. (Houston, p. 259, my emphasis)

Robert Fisk has written up a less panglossian (if that’s what it is) portrayal of Turkey’s reconciliation of democracy with an Islamist party in power. Al Jazeera has published interviews with a number of Turkish citizens. It’s all too murky at the moment, at least to me, to know what is really happening right now.

Houston, C. (2013). “Militant laicists, Muslim democrats and liberal secularists : contending visions of secularism in Turkey”, in Rahim, L. (Ed.), Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.


Dear Bart Ehrman, Others are noticing that you have not been on the top of your game lately . . .

by Neil Godfrey

apocprophetRichard Horsley on Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium:

In a presentation intended for a wide audience, Bart Ehrman basically reverted to Schweitzer’s century-old picture of Jesus as a “Jewish apocalypticist.” . . .  Ehrman either ignored or dismissed much of the scholarship [since Schweitzer]. . . . 

Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel, Kindle Version, pp. 25-26


Rafael Rodríguez on Bart Ehrman’s Jesus before the gospels: how the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of the Savior

beforeEhrman too often relies on insinuation and unanswered rapid-fire rhetorical questions that are framed so as to make disagreeing positions seem unreasonable, when often enough the questions themselves are problematic (e.g., pp. 24–25). This . . . is usually a sign that [an] argument is not as clear or as precise as [one] would like it to be. “You don’t really think such-and-such, do you?” is not a helpful historical argument, even if it is often effective, and Ehrman retreats to this rhetorical device too often.

More problematic, in my view, is Ehrman’s dependence on sources. He reveals to his readers that, “[f]or about two years now I have spent virtually all my free time doing nothing but reading about memory” (p. 2), but his citation of memory studies seems to me rather anemic. . . . The majority of [memory studies he does cite] he cites only once, and on more than one occasion those citations are misleading (e.g., he cites Schwartz’s approbation of Maurice Halbwachs’s claim that memory adapts the past to “the beliefs and spiritual needs the present” [p. 7, citing Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, 5] without mentioning that Schwartz also critiques Halbwachs on this very point . . .  Perhaps even more problematically still, Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory. . . . There’s no mention of scholars such as Chris Keith, Alan Kirk, Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, Michael Thate, or myself. (Chris Keith is mentioned in the acknowledgements, but none of his works appear in the endnotes.) When he mentions Dale Allison, Richard Horsely (sic), or Werner Kelber, he does not address their engagement with memory studies. This is especially worrisome when Ehrman complains that New Testament scholars, as a group, have largely ignored memory studies. When Ehrman does engage media studies among New Testament scholars, he draws attention to the form critics, whose work is largely seen as out-of-date. . . . .

I do not think he has accurately grasped even the current state of memory and the New Testament.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)


existBradley Bowen reviewing Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

. . . Ehrman has presented a FACT FREE argument for the existence of Jesus, which is completely contrary to his claim that he thinks “evidence matters” and completely contrary to his goal to pursue the historical question of whether Jesus exists “with all the rigor that it deserves and requires”. Ehrman promised devotion to evidence and he promised scholarly rigor, but what he delivered is pure BULLSHIT, at least with his argument concerning Agreements Between Seven Indendent Gospels. . .


Meeting the Hispanic Atheist

by Neil Godfrey

What an enjoyable read! I have caught up with Luciano Gonzalez’s latest response in our little exchange and found myself appreciating overall where he is coming from as an atheist and with his earlier comments. I am sure our different perspectives are primarily the product of our different cultures. I cannot say I would not embrace the same approach as Luciano were I living in a Latin American and/or Bible Belt culture. No doubt being an atheist in Australia is a strikingly different experience.

We may have different views relating to the psychology that is related to religious beliefs and ways of living, but that is a minor issue in the context of this exchange of views.

I confess I had assumed from the outset that Luciano was a “card-carrying” Atheist+’er because of his Freethought Blog (FtB) platform, but he has said he is not. So there we go. Never judge a post by its blogging platform. I also admit my interpretation of Luciano’s original post was coloured by recent exchanges I had here over my “no extras atheism” post as well as the flurry over developments in the FtB circle having to do with Richard Carrier. I loathe the way the knives come out publicly, the slander and character attacks, and especially the self-righteous justifications for the same. I am referring to both sides of that sort of issue, and to its history – the Carrier episode is not the first. (There are other more respectable ways to administer discipline in a group. The Atheist+ MO looks to me to be even worse than some of the ways the religious cults handle their wayward members.)

Anyway, this is just to say Hi again to Luciano, and to say I’m glad I’ve made your acquaintance. I strongly appreciate your perspective now that I understand more fully where you are coming from. I wish you a happy and fulfilling adventure as an atheist in your thickly religious environment.


Previous posts in this series:

What I “want” as an atheist — Luciano

What I want as an atheist a human — Me (Neil)

Vridar response — Luciano

Another blog post on gospel genre

by Neil Godfrey

Another Freethought Blog to cite, this time Jon Cavaz writes a neat introductory piece on Gospel Genre highlighting the ahistorical character of the gospels:

Gospels as Legendary Biographies

I’m of a different opinion but my views are probably more technical and interested in nuances of little relevance to most of the real world. Check the Genre of Gospels, Acts and OT Primary History: INDEX if you want to get into the inner belly of what has been covered here so far.


Comparing the Lazarus story in Luke with the Lazarus story in John

by Neil Godfrey

I am posting this as a sort of appendix to Tim’s Bowling with Bumpers or How Not to Do Critical Scholarship. Unfortunately time prohibits me from expanding on the chart anyone interested in the relationship between the Gospels of Luke and John can read the author’s (Keith L. Yoder’s) own full account at From Luke to John: Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in the Fourth Gospel. The chart is taken from Keith’s presentation at that site. Keith has other interesting papers on the relationship between Luke and John at his site, Selected Works of Keith L. Yoder, and much more. He’s a Research Fellow at the University of Massachusetts with a special interest in applied statistical analysis and biblical studies. So if you’re interested in arguments for/against interpolations and intertextuality have a look for more articles there.


Luke’s Mary

and Martha

Luke’s Rich Man

and Lazarus


John’s Raising

of Lazarus

John’s Anointing

of Lazarus

1. “Village”


11:1 (30)

2. “Mary, Martha, sister”


11:1 (5)


3. Mary “sitting”



4. Mary “at the feet”



5. Jesus is “Lord”

10:39 (40,41)


6. Martha “serving”



7. Martha speaks first



8. Mary silent/shadow





9. Incipit “a certain”





10. “Lazarus”




11. Lazarus “died”


11:14 (21,32)

12. Lazarus silent/passive




13. “lifted up his eyes”



14. “and said, ‘Father’”



15. “five brothers”




16. Petition to raise/send back Lazarus



17. Petition denied/granted



18. Resulting disbelief/belief




Vridar response . . .

by Neil Godfrey

Luciano has written a new post — Vridar Response — responding to my response — What I want as an atheist a human — to his post — What I want as an atheist. (Should I explain that with a diagram?) It’s been a very busy day and I haven’t had a chance to read Luciano’s response yet, apart from his opening paragraph:

I enjoy being a morning bird. My writing isn’t extremely well-known, but I get the occasional response and sometimes I manage to be awake as they are published. Today is one such day. My post about what I as an atheist, “wanted” was seen by Neil Godfrey of Vridar, and got a response from him. I really liked his response but there are certain things that I think deserve a response. The ending is directly addressed towards Neil, but as usual I welcome any comments and or thoughts on the post and hopefully on a greater discussion about skepticism and atheism. I want to respond to individual bits and pieces before responding to the overall post (the last few paragraphs are where I respond to the overall post). So with that little bit of context, let’s get started!

I look forward to reading what he has to say, but till I get that chance some readers here might like to check out his comments and comment there, here, before I do.