2019-05-18

If They Treat Their Own This Way, What Hope for Us Outsiders?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m back to blogging again after being seconded to actually do certain household maintenance jobs I had been promising and giving much on-and-off thought to for some weeks now. (I’m a firm believer in not rushing into certain tasks without careful and protracted thought beforehand.)

the real offense of [certain critical biblical scholarship] is . . . that it does its work in public
Robert J. Miller

When I returned to the online world I found that a kind emailer had sent me a chapter from a certain book I am surprised I have not read yet. Even better, I noticed that the local library only a few blocks away has a copy of the whole book. Here is a section of it that addresses a certain theme relating to the world of biblical scholars that I’ve posted about before:

Some critics take a dim view of the [Jesus] Seminar’s practice of voting on the authenticity of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. For example, Ben Witherington complains that only in a country where majority views are assumed to be right and where “truth” is decided by voting could this idea of voting on Jesus have arisen. However, as The Five Gospels explains, the Jesus Seminar got the idea, not from American democracy, but from the practice of various biblical translation committees and from the United Bible Society committees that vote on the critical edition of the Greek text of the New Testament.

Luke Johnson has no objection to translation committees voting because “these votes are carried out privately.” Johnson’s remark is revealing: it shows that for him the real offense of the Jesus Seminar is not that it votes, but that it does its work in public. Numerous snide comments about the Seminar being hungry for publicity show that other critics also resent the public face of the Seminar.

In an attempt to estimate the depth of this resentment, let me pose a hypothetical scenario. What if the same people in the Jesus Seminar had carried out the same project and had come up with the same results, but had done so in a Society of Biblical Literature seminar and published the results in Semeia, the Society’s journal for experimental scholarship? Certainly the public would not have paid any attention, but my question is: how much attention would this project have received from scholars? I suspect, but obviously cannot prove, that the quantity of the critical response would be much less and its quality much better. I suspect also that the sheer nastiness of the insulting rhetoric directed against the Seminar would be much reduced.

The acerbic response of the Seminar’s critics to its commitment to work in public seems to rest on the assumption that academics who speak publicly about religion should keep their views to themselves if they might be unsettling to the beliefs of mainstream Christians. (This assumption explains why biblical scholars have largely left it up to scientists to battle creationism in the public forum.) The fact that journalists who cover religion could register such shock when scholars use words like “non-historical” (or, worse yet, “fiction”) to characterize some gospel passages shows what a good job biblical scholars have done keeping their secrets to themselves.

Miller, Robert J. 1999. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. Santa Rosa, Calif: Polebridge Press. pp. 65f

Then we come to the end of the chapter,

The Conduct of Scholars

The pettiness and nastiness of some of the criticisms of the Seminar shows that the Seminar’s work has drilled into a nerve.

read more »


2019-05-16

Iran and “the problem of peace”

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s something of interest that I read a while ago and marked for future reference. Serious challenges facing the Revolutionary Guard in Iran include “the problem of peace”.

First, the good news:

The threat posed by the United States has been the backdrop for much of the IRGCs career. The organization has relied on the United States to serve as an omnipresent boogeyman bent on destroying the revolution. If the Islamic Republic were to reach a rapprochement with the United States, America would no longer be a viable scapegoat for the repression of Iranians. Within that context, Iranians will expect more out of life and more freedoms from the regime. An argument could be made that a rapprochement with the United States would have an ameliorating effect on Iran’s behavior both internally and externally. Some sectors of the regime, such as the reformists, would probably favor such change.

But on the other . . . .

The IRGC and the hardline camp likely would not. This is because the IRGC’s status in the country is contingent on the existence of existential threats to the Islamic system. If the United States is no longer a problem, the IRGC will need to find a suitable replacement. Threats will need to be found outside Iran and within. The IRGC already sees the social and cultural arenas as a battleground between it and anti-Islamic forces. The need for a threat could see the IRGC place more emphasis on these issues — and other scapegoats such as religious minorities — than it already does. This means further repression of the Iranian people at a time when they will be expecting more liberty, not less.

Ostovar, Afshon. 2016. Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 240
That was before Trump and Bolton. I think “omnipresent boogeyman” is perhaps too fanciful a term in the current situation.

 


2019-05-15

Alan Kirk: Misremembering Bultmann and Wrede

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by Tim Widowfield

Alan Kirk

In a recent post, Neil cited a paper by Dr. Alan Kirk called “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” While Kirk does an adequate job of explaining the current state of play in memory theory, I couldn’t help but notice yet again some misunderstandings in the ways Memory Mavens remember German critical scholarship in general and form criticism in particular. I’ve been putting off this dismally inevitable task, but the time has come to offer some corrections and commentary.

Pale Residues

First, Kirk takes a swipe at William Wrede. He writes:

. . . Wrede’s bifurcation of Markan tradition into surviving elements of empirical history on the one hand and Easter-engendered dogma on the other, with the latter occluding the former, was precursor to the form critics’ model. Of a “historical view of the real life of Jesus,” wrote Wrede, only “pale residues” survive. (Kirk 2011, p. 809-810, emphasis mine)

Kirk argues that the form critics, taking their cue from Wrede, believed memory and personal eye-witness recollections were synonymous and that the Jesus traditions which effectively buried those recollections were something entirely different.

While memory traces of this sort lay at the origins of the tradition, they were a residuum, largely inert with respect to developments in the tradition itself. The salient image was of so-called authentic memories of Jesus coming to be buried under multiple layers of “tradition.” Tradition, in other words, had little to do with memory. (Kirk 2011, p. 809)

How does Kirk’s analysis square with what Wrede actually said? Kirk’s wording may lead the casual reader to infer from the first citation above that Wrede was referring to the general state of Mark’s sources or, to put in another way, the overall character of the various streams of oral and written tradition available to the author of Mark.

But that would be wrong. read more »


Another request

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by Neil Godfrey

I seem to be asking for a lot of help, lately. This time, it’s for those with access to the Greek text of Polybius’s book 12 of his History and with the means of locating without much trouble the word συμπλοκή

The occasion is the following passage about ancient historians:

The existence of different voices or interpretations of a past which have the “right” to exist side-by-side shows that the accurate reporting of past events was not necessarily on the agenda of societies and their authors in Antiquity. Leaving to readers the decision of what really happened tells us much about the nature of the societies we are dealing with (Polybius, who expresses a rationalistic approach to the past, knew how to tackle this by suggesting that history should be viewed as a symploke, [intertwining]; see his Book 12).

Mendels, Doron. 2008. “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? (And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?).” In Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Gregg Gardner and Kevin Osterloh, 132–51. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. (p. 142)

I read Book 12 in an English translation and failed to notice any discussion of the sort of idea I think Doron Mendels is addressing. What would help if I knew what passage(s) in Book 12 Polybius uses συμπλοκή or some form of it.

The idea that I thought Mendels is addressing is the recording of inconsistent versions of events in historical narratives. I know that some ancient historians do this, but it appears from the reference to Polybius that I should find a discussion by an ancient historian on the fact that historians do set side by side contradictory (or at least inconsistent) narratives.

Anyone able to help with this one?

Thanks.

 


2019-05-13

Sam Harris still appealing to the equally bigoted

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by Neil Godfrey

I haven’t the patience to sit through any more of Sam Harris’s ignorance and special pleading so I’m glad PZ Myers has done the “honours” or at least has cited some one else who has done the (surely painful!) work:

Sam Harris’ very special pleading

(Who IS this Sam Harris fellow, anyway? Why does he even have a platform alongside names I can understand being of some note, like Richard Dawkins?)


Deadly Duet: Islamists and the Far Right

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by Neil Godfrey

Scott Atran

I like Scott Atran‘s work on terrorism so was looking for his viewpoint after Christchurch and Colombo. I just hope to hell that what he had published in The GuardianFrom Christchurch to Colombo, Islamists and the far right are playing a deadly duet — will be proven wrong:

How should we make sense of the Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people and wounded 500? Now that Islamic State appears to have claimed responsibility for the attacks, the question arises: is this merely the latest symptom of an epidemic of Islamist violence, motivated by a belief in offensive jihad (“holy war”)?

The answer is complex and not necessarily in line with public perceptions. Islamist terrorism has been decreasing globally, and particularly in the west, since its peak in 2014-15 when Isis established its caliphate. In recent years, however, far-right supremacist terrorism has risen sharply, to more than one-third of terror attacks globally, even accounting for every extremist killing in the US in 2018. Yet it was more likely to be overlooked or tolerated by western polities, because of cultural history, familiarity and legal protections extended to domestic groups (such as US constitutional safeguards for freedom of speech and the right to bear arms). Thus, attacks by Muslims between 2006 and 2015 received 4.6 times more coverage in US media than other terrorist attacks (controlling for target type, fatalities, arrests).

Further along, Atran’s comment reminds me of the “manifestos” like Naji’s Management of Savagery.

The spread of this transnational terrorism, whether Islamist revivalism or resurgent ethno-nationalism, is fragmenting the social and political consensus globally. That is precisely its aim: to create the void that will usher in a new world, with no room for innocents on the other side, and no “grey zone” in between.

Now it’s the Right’s turn, and they have learned from the Islamists:

Far-right terrorism has increasingly co-opted key jihadist precepts and tactics (although it tends to involve lone actors linked mainly through social media). In 2007, the supremacist group Aryan Nations proclaimed an “Aryan jihad” to destroy the “Judaic-tyrannical” system of “so-called western democratic states”. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, made his own link. Responding to a court examiner, he said he was “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people … the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret”. As a prelude to the Christchurch attack, the suspect posted a manifesto citing Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed scores of leftist youth in 2011, as inspirations. It adopts a version of the jihadists’ reasoning to justify mass killing as moral virtue: appealing to a transnational brotherhood in a clash of civilisations that pits one global identity (the white race) against another (Islam) in a fight to the death for survival, with no place for bystanders or fence-sitters.

We hear of relief and jubilation in areas that have been liberated from the Isis Calipate in Iraq-Syria but depressingly Atran’s research suggests that that is not the whole story. read more »


2019-05-12

An Interesting Perspective

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by Neil Godfrey

A short article in the online scholarly magazine Aeon:
“It draws an interesting link between the establishment of year dates by the Seleucids as a continuous series of advancing numbers and the phenomenon of apocalyptic thinking in and around the eastern Mediterranean.”

The Questions We Permit Ourselves to Ask

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by Neil Godfrey

In historical research, we evaluate the plausibility of hypotheses that aim to explain the occurrence of a specific event. The explanations we develop for this purpose have to be considered in light of the historical evidence that is available to us. Data functions as evidence that supports or contradicts a hypothesis in two different ways, corresponding to two different questions that need to be answered with regard to a hypothesis:

1. How well does the event fit into the explanation given for its occurrence?

2. How plausible are the basic parameters presupposed by the hypothesis?

. . . . .

[A]lthough this basic structure of historical arguments is so immensely important and its disregard inevitably leads to wrong, or at least insufficiently reasoned, conclusions, it is not a sufficient condition for valid inferences. Historical data does not come with tags attached to it, informing us about (a) how – or whether at all – it relates to one of the two categories we have mentioned and (b) how much plausibility it contributes to the overall picture. The historian will never be replaced by the mathematician.23

23 This becomes painfully clear when one considers that one of the few adaptations of Bayes’s theorem in biblical studies, namely Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), aims to demonstrate that Jesus was not a historical figure.

Heilig, Christoph. 2015. Hidden Criticism?: The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. pp. 26f


2019-05-11

Looking for Communist Christ Mythicist Publications

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by Neil Godfrey

One blogger is looking for old communist-era publications explaining Jesus as a mythical figure. I have had a similar interest in the sorts of things that were said about Jesus and Christian origins in the Soviet Union. I know Engels wrote something and that Drews impressed Lenin enough for him to propagate his views throughout the new Russia. See, for example, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.slq.qld.gov.au/stable/309549

For some reason Kalthoff comes to mind but I can’t recall any specific link between his work and education in the Soviet Union.

If anyone knows specific works that directly answer this query please do leave a notice in the comments. (That is, I am only interested in links that identify titles/names that were published as arguments for the nonhistoricity of Jesus for readers/students in communist nations.)

My request is much the same as our blogger friend whose post, in translation, reads:

. . . . I pray for your help. . . . . During the time we lived in Romania, I visited the antiques as many times as I had the opportunity. Once (I think in Sibiu) I entered an antique shop that had some books on religion from the time of the communist period. I found them interesting but strange, presenting Jesus as a purely mythological person with traits and characteristics taken over from previous mythological people and gods. Then I did not foresee any occasion in which I would need communist propaganda like this and so I left the books on the shelf and did not buy them.

Now, I’m sorry for that decision.

Since then, between English speakers, this idea of ​​communist propaganda has become very popular in Internet communities. It would be the case for somebody (either I or others) to write a history of this idea that involves the crusade against Christianity during the Cold War.

I would start this project, but I encountered a problem. I do not have access to the necessary books because of the mistakes made many years ago in an antique shop in Romania.

I did not write this blog post just to advise you not to make the same mistake. I hope that some of my relatives and friends in Romania, or your friends and acquaintances, have some books like this, or to guess where I can find them either in a library or in an antique, in a personal collection.

That’s two of us now with the same request.

. . .

As a footnote, I am reminded here of the same blogger’s (somewhat amusing) response to my reference to Eric Hobsbawm’s point about historical methodology:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific [hero, person] merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. 

In the context of our controversial topic those words by Hobsbawm sounded like the methodology of a communist propagandist to our friend:

You (and Hobsbawm) are free to adopt this approach, of course, but might Hobsbawm’s desire to rewrite the legacy of Communism suggest that his statement has more to do with ideology than mainstream historiography?

Interesting to compare another historian’s comment on the soundness of Hobsbawm’s methods as a historian.


2019-05-10

Ideological Preparation for the Expulsion of the Palestinians, Continued

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by Neil Godfrey

Previous posts in this series covering Nur Masalha’s book, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948: . . .

  1. Zionist Founding Fathers’ Plans for Transfer of the Palestinian Arabs
  2. Redemption or Conquest: Zionist Yishuv plans for transfer of Palestinian Arabs in the British Mandate period
  3. The Weizmann Plan to “Transfer” the Palestinians
  4. Zionist Plans for Mass Transfer of Arabs: Alive But Discreet
  5. Pushing for Mass Transfer of Arabs & Warning of “Rivers of Blood”
  6. Compulsory Arab Transfer Necessary for a Jewish State
  7. The Necessity for Mass Arab Transfer
  8. Expulsion of the Palestinians – Pre-War Internal Discussions
  9. Expulsion of the Palestinians: Caution and Discretion during the War Years
  10. Expulsion of the Palestinians: Insights into Yishuv’s Transfer Ideas in World War 2
  11. Expulsion of the Palestinians, Part 11

. . .

Zionist leaders were always alert for opportunities to work with Arab countries that neighboured Palestine in hopes they could assist with plans to transfer the Arab population out of Palestine. Earlier we saw one such attempt to negotiate a plan with Jordanian leaders (1937), and in 1939 another hopeful meeting to work with the Saudi Arabian king was organized.

The plan was to promise King Ibn Saud a major role in a future Arab federation and more immediately to provide him with substantial financial aid to resolve economic hardship his kingdom was at that time enduring.

To approach the Saudi king the Zionist leaders happily found willing support from Harry St John Philby, British orientalist and advisor to the king [see the Wikipedia linked article for his “colourful” career and that of his son]. Philby’s contact in London was the famous British historian Lewis Namier who was closely associated with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and was the political advisor to the Zionist Jewish Agency led by Moshe Shertok.

The 6 October, 1939 meeting

read more »


2019-05-09

Denialism (Afterword)

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by Neil Godfrey

From the previous discussion it can be established that denialism does not mean disagreement with the majority or even with the “everyone else” in the field or for having stand-alone “politically incorrect” beliefs: it is possible to disagree with “everyone” yet not be a denialist. How so? Richard Evans explained it by comparison of David Irving with another prominent historian I have also discussed from time to time, Eric Hobsbawm.

Further to the right of O’Brien, the columnist ‘Peter Simple,’ writing in the Daily Telegraph, considered it a “strange sort of country” which could consign Irving to “outer darkness while conferring the Order of Merit on another historian, the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, an only partly and unwillingly repentant apologist for the Soviet Union, a system of tyranny whose victims far outnumbered those of Nazi Germany.” Leaving aside the numbers of victims, and ignoring the fact that Hobsbawm was not awarded the Order of Merit, which is in the personal gift of the queen, but was appointed a Companion of Honour, which is a government recommendation, the point here was, once more, that Irving did not lose his lawsuit because of his opinions, but because he was found to have deliberately falsified the evidence, something Hobsbawm, who in his day has attracted the most bitter controversy, has never been accused of doing, even by his most savage critics. (Evans , 238f)

 


Understanding Denialism

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by Neil Godfrey

What is a denialist?

I have heard the term used to describe Holocaust deniers, creationists (the young-earth kind), climate change sceptics, anti-vaxxers, and probably some others that don’t come to mind right now. (Oh yes, now I remember. Some people apply the term to those who are not convinced that Jesus was a historical figure.)

Do all of those groups share something in common that earns them the label “denialist”? What is it that each of those ideas has that sets them apart from intellectual positions that cannot be seen as “denialist”?

With this question in mind I had a closer look at Holocaust denial. I had accidentally come across a movie about the David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt trial and that led me to reading as a follow-up . . .

  • Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books.
  • Lipstadt, Deborah E. 2006. History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. New York: Harper Perennial.

I liked Richard Evans’ book on history as a discipline and the challenges it was facing with certain postmodernist inroads, In Defence of History (1997), so I was especially interested in his reflections on his experience as the specialist historian witness in the Irving trial. (I’ve addressed aspects of Evans’ In Defence of History several times on this blog.)

Some years back I was curious to understand what Irving’s arguments were about the Holocaust so I purchased second hand copies of Hitler’s War and The War Path and was bemused. I couldn’t see what people were complaining about. I failed to realize that all the fuss was about his second edition (1991) of those books. I had read the 1977 and 1978 works.

David Irving can be considered the “father” of Holocaust denial. So what is it about his work that makes it so? I select passages from Richard Evans’ conclusions about Irving as a historian. I highlight sections I find of special interest. read more »


2019-05-08

Interesting Poll

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by Neil Godfrey

Through a Haaretz article by Amir Tibon I learned of a new Pew Research Center Poll: U.S. Public Has Favorable View of Israel’s People, but Is Less Positive Toward Its Government

One might hope that the title alone of the results of that survey will go some way towards demolishing the slur that criticism of Israel’s governments’ respective policies is a subtle form of anti-semitism.

Disappointingly predictable was the finding that Christians (notably the evangalical side of Christianity) are more likely than Jews and the “religiously unaffiliated” to approve of Trump’s hardline stance in support of Israel’s policies (presumably towards Palestinians).

Overall, it showed that 48 percent of Christians – including 61 percent of Evangelicals – have a favorable view of the Israeli government. However, a plurality of Catholics – 49 percent – have a negative view of the Israeli government, and so does a big majority – 61 percent – of Christians who belong to the historically black church. (Tibon)

Evangelical Protestants are more likely than non-evangelicals to express a favorable opinion of Israel’s government (73% of evangelical Republicans vs. 55% of non-evangelicals) (The Report)

As I’ve experienced in other areas, more Catholics than fundamentalists are on the side of liberalism, social justice and support for oppressed populations, and the support for Trump’s position towards Israel is less among Catholics than among fundamentalists and evangelicals. Bring on Armageddon, I can hear the latter half-silently hoping. “God will bless those who bless the descendants of Abraham!”

  • Among Evangelical Christians, 72 percent think Trump’s policy strikes the “right balance,” and only 15 percent think he is too favorable to Israel.
  • Among Catholics, 34 percent think he is too favorable to Israel, and 51 percent think he has the “right balance.”
  • In addition, 33 percent of the respondents who belong to the “historically black” church said that Trump’s policies are too favorable to Israel, and 40 percent of them said it has the right balance.

Interesting that American blacks even today appear to continue to identify in some sense with the Palestinians. (That notion of identification on the part of American blacks has been a controversial question in the past.)

Jews are not quite as totally gung-ho:

Among Jewish respondents, 42 percent said that Trump’s policies were too favorable to Israel. Only 6 percent said that his policies were too favorable to the Palestinians, while a plurality of 47 percent said the policy struck the right balance. Among Christian respondents, meanwhile, only 26 percent said Trump’s policies were too favorable to Israel, while 59 percent said the 45th president has the ‘right balance.’

The sample size was about 10,500 and error margin estimated at 1.5%.

 

 


Strange book packages

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by Neil Godfrey

Sometimes a book is delivered in the post to me in packaging that is, well, curiuous.

I recently received a huge cardboard carton that felt very light and wondered what on earth it could be. I opened it to find at the bottom a very, very thin book that a publisher had sent to me for reviewing. (A task I have still to do.) Why? presumably it was oversize by height and/or width for normal packing so the next extreme step was the only alternative.

But yesterday was something else. This was one of those bags that you imagine is used for a sack of potatoes but it was marked “Swiss Post”. It was tied up in the middle with one of those plastic twist ties and delivery label and down at the bottom of the bag was the book you see beside it in the photo.

It’s a heavy book. Perhaps that had something to do with it. But strange. Very strange indeed.