2020-11-30

Assange

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by Neil Godfrey


2020-11-26

On Internet Censorship and Mainstream Propaganda, Substance and Image in Domestic and International Political Power

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by Neil Godfrey

I still recall those early days of the internet when it was said to be in some sort of “wild west” stage of development, when we could talk about it being a great democratizing medium . . . but now, in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, the focus is on the new reality of censorship and the forces behind that censorship.

Also of interest: the role of progressives like Bernie Sanders and AOC in the Democratic Party; looking beyond styles to a comparison of what was actually done by the Obama-Biden administration in contrast with Trump’s term; how the different styles have real significance for US power relationships in the world and the perpetuation of wars and harsh treatment of refugees; . . . .

 


2020-11-25

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6

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by Neil Godfrey

Not only are passages from Jewish Scriptures identified as sources of the gospels but we also find interesting overlaps with some of the other Second Temple literature and even the later rabbinical writings. It looks as though those later rabbinical writings originated in the Second Temple era given the striking overlaps with some of the gospel passages. I have noted and linked these references in the tables up till now but mention it this time because there seem to be more than usual in today’s table.

Very often the proposed allusions to passages in the Hebrew Scriptures are not direct but are nonetheless thought-provoking and raise questions about the possible mind-sets of the authors. One of the more interesting associations for me was the associations with Jesus writing in the dust. I know that the passage about the woman caught in adultery has had a checkered history in the manuscripts but here there is a reasonable case for interpreting it as having been composed with the same midrashic imagination as other gospel passages.

Another passage of particular interest was the association of Jesus’ instruction to eat his flesh with the words of Wisdom in Sirach. Not such a “pagan” or “mystery-religion” notion, after all, in that context!

The table below comes with the same notes as the earlier ones, paraphrases in parts, translations are my own, and slight editorial changes here and there. One difference, though — I have colour-coded rows to link together verses addressing the same unit of narrative.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the Transfiguration and preparation for the Passion of Christ

b. signs of the End Times

c. miracles and teachings in Jesus’ last days

d. Last Supper and Betrayal

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6”


2020-11-24

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5

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by Neil Godfrey

I have taken time out to track down and catch up with several of the French works that Charbonnel cites and that has a bit to do with the long time between the last post in this series and this one.

It’s been too long since I visited our French scholars of the Bible so here I continue with part 5 of Nanine Charbonnel’s table setting out the “Old Testament” sources of the Gospel narratives. In Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier Charbonnel is presenting a case for the gospel figure of Jesus Christ being created entirely from a form of “midrashic” type composition in which diverse scriptural texts are woven together into a new story to meet new community needs.

The table below is my own adaptation of Charbonnel’s French-language multi-page table, with a few slight editorial changes and my own translations and summaries.

The work of checking every scriptural reference (they are all hyperlinked for you to check them easily too) has impressed upon me just how totally the gospels are very likely pastiches of Jewish scriptures and some non-canonical writings. There appears to be nothing left over requiring explanation as if from any other source. Jesus walking on water was not an exaggerated retelling of a biographical event where Jesus happened to be walking on a sandbank (as some have said); nor were the healing miracles exaggerations of some real-life psychological power Jesus had over those with ailments. . . . they, everything, was written as a renewal of a sacred saying or scripture. Nor is there anything new about the teaching of Jesus: everything he is narrated as having taught is a re-writing of Scriptural or proverbial teachings of the time of the evangelists.

Jesus is created as a new voice and representative of a new Israel. The kingdom of God has come, the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. Nations, gentiles and Jews, are now one in Him. The gospels are written, surely, as a new set of scriptures through which the old are to be interpreted anew.

There is no historical person of Jesus behind the narrative. If there had been then there would be some indication of a real person that the narrative had to adapt somehow to scriptures. What we find instead, however, is a figure entirely, entirely, made up of scriptures. Scriptural rewriting is the warp and woof of what he does, what happens to him, and what he says and teaches.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the calling of disciples and sending them out to preach

b. teachings of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

c. miracles of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

d. the fate of John the Baptist and the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5”


Petition for Australian readers re David McBride

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by Neil Godfrey

Invitation to sign the online petition to Australia’s Attorney-General, Christian Porter. — From change.org:

David McBride (Photo from Sydney Morning Herald)

In light of the Defence Dept releasing the Breton Report on the Afghan Files investigation it is even clearer that the Government did everything they could to muzzle David McBride. Mr McBride reported internally the information contained in the newly released report and was effectively managed out of the Defence Dept. After he informed some journalists of what he knew this Government had him charged and he is facing the possibility of a 50 year prison sentence.. We now know heinous crimes have been committed by a small number of SAS members and they will face criminal trials and hopefully time in prison. The stench of this Australian Government corruption is strong.

The Australian people call on the Attorney General to drop the charges pending against David McBride. Some of us are wondering if the LNP went down this path in order to attempt to protect a current sitting member of Parliament. The Attorney General has already conceded charges against the journalists could not be pursued. It is now time to admit the grave error he made by pursuing David McBride.

It was good to read a piece by Geoffrey Robertson

His conclusion:

I know from my own experience of presiding over a war crimes court just how hard it is for witnesses to come forward if threatened with reprisals – especially from “mates”. This takes even more courage than needs to be shown on a battlefield. Each should be given, because they deserve it, an Order of Australia.


2020-11-23

Propaganda Today: New Targets and Deflections

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by Neil Godfrey

Glenn Greenwald has an interesting take on what is happening with mainstream media lately.

In the 1950s and 60s we had

— just as they did in the Cold War with domestic Communism

— and after the Oklahoma City bombing when the Clinton Administration demanded backdoor internet access in the name of stopping right-wing militias

— and again after 9/11 when people like Newt Gingrich wanted to curb free speech in the name of stopping the threat of Islamic radicalism inside the U.S.

Continuing the above pattern, Greenwald fears,

Even with Trump gone, [corporate media in league with national security state and the neocon-backed and corporate-funded Democratic Party] are going to use every FBI tactic to exaggerate the threat of these domestic movements [e.g. QAnon, Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois, “Trump supporters” and Russian social media plants] to keep you in such a state of fear that you acquiesce to whatever powers they claim they need to defeat these forces of domestic right-wing darkness. 

This playbook is as old and obvious as it is pernicious.

An excerpt from the article that shows the coalition of media, corporate and political interests working to maintain America’s military presence in Afghanistan:

This is not the first time the Trump administration has been condemned after unveiling its plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. In July, pro-war Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, led by their Lockheed-and-Raytheon-funded Chairman Adam Smith, partnered with Congresswoman Liz Cheney and her pro-war GOP allies to block the use of funds for removing troops (not only from Afghanistan but also Germany), as part of a massive increase in military spending. The oppositional left-right coalition of anti-war Democrats such as Ro Khanna and Tulsi Gabbard and America-First Trump supporters such as Matt Gaetz were no match for the bipartisan pro-war coalition which attempted to block any end to the war.

A crucial weapon which Smith, Cheney and the other anti-withdrawal Committee members wielded was a widely-hyped New York Times scoop published days before the Committee vote, which — in its first paragraph — announced:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Repeatedly citing this New York Times story, based on the claims of anonymous “intelligence officials,” the bipartisan pro-war wing of the Committee insisted that to leave Afghanistan now would be particularly inappropriate and dangerous in light of this dastardly Russian interference. (Top military officials and the commander in Afghanistan later admitted the bounty program “had not been corroborated by intelligence agencies and that they do not believe any attacks in Afghanistan that resulted in American casualties can be directly tied to it,” but by then, the job was done).

And thus did this union of pro-war Democrats, Cheney-led neocons, the intelligence community and their chosen mainstream media outlets succeed in providing the perfectly crafted tool at the most opportune moment to justify blocking an end to America’s longest war. That is precisely the same coalition that drowned U.S. politics for more than three years in the sustained, monomaniacal disinformation campaign about Putin’s takeover of the U.S.

Much of the rest of the article is about the power mainstream media and Silicon Valley interests have exerted in censoring social media. Meanwhile, the corporate media giants that were identified as the main propaganda agents in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent are now increasingly seen as bulwarks of “objective news reporting” and guardians of truth against

fringe groups of fat middle-aged guys in the deindustrialized, decimated, deprived interior of the country cosplaying as militiamen, or random, anonymous MAGA and QAnon trolls.

Perspective. I am not sure I have it right, yet. I thought the far right and their alternative reality campaigns are a lot more of a serious threat than Greenwald seems to allow. But at the same time, I cannot deny the ease with which the mainstream media appear to be getting a free pass to spread the propaganda interests a “new coalition of power”:

Here we see the new coalition of power that has formed during the Trump era: hawkish and corporatist Democrats, united when necessary with pro-war/neocon Republicans, Bush/Cheney operatives, the national security state and large corporate media outlets outside of Fox News.

The article is The New Ruling Coalition: Opposition to Afghanistan Withdrawal Shows Its Key Factions


A Vridar Error with Apologies and Corrections

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I confused the author of the argument I was addressing with a certain biblical scholar. I was wrong. I can only apologize and make edits in the previous post to remove any confusion. Better still, I will remove it entirely.

The understandably incensed objection to my goof-up….

What?? Hang on; I have no idea why you thought I was Sara Parks, but I’m not. As the side bio on my blog states, I’m a GP.

(That does explain your statement above about ‘the mainstream view within her field’. I was wondering why on earth you thought general practice had any sort of view on the historicity of Jesus.)

Ouch! I am sorry.


2020-11-21

“In the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.”

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by Neil Godfrey

Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi was an outspoken liberal member of the first Ottoman Parliament, three times Mayor of Jerusalem, an Ottoman diplomat, an instructor and then a professor at the Imperial-Royal Oriental Academy in Vienna, and author of several scholarly works, including the first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary (and one of the first examinations of the Kurdish language on modern linguistic principles). — Khalidi 2009, 68

March 1, 1899, Yusuf Diya, scholar, mayor and diplomat, wrote a letter to Theodor Herzl, leader of the Zionist movement.

Background to that letter:

As a result of his wide reading, as well as his time in Vienna and other European countries, and from his encounters with Christian missionaries, Yusuf Diya was fully conscious of the pervasiveness of Western anti-Semitism. He had also gained impressive knowledge of the intellectual origins of Zionism, specifically its nature as a response to Christian Europe’s virulent anti-Semitism. He was undoubtedly familiar with Der Judenstaat by the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, published in 1896, and was aware of the first two Zionist congresses in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 and 1898. (Indeed, it seems clear that Yusuf Diya knew of Herzl from his own time in Vienna.) He knew of the debates and the views of the different Zionist leaders and tendencies, including Herzl’s explicit call for a state for the Jews, with the “sovereign right” to control immigration. Moreover, as mayor of Jerusalem he had witnessed the friction with the local population prompted by the first years of proto-Zionist activity, starting with the arrival of the earliest European Jewish settlers in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Herzl, the acknowledged leader of the growing movement he had founded, had paid his sole visit to Palestine in 1898, timing it to coincide with that of the German kaiser Wilhelm II. He had already begun to give thought to some of the issues involved in the colonization of Palestine, writing in his diary in 1895:

We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.

Yusuf Diya would have been more aware than most of his compatriots in Palestine of the ambition of the nascent Zionist movement, as well as its strength, resources, and appeal. He knew perfectly well that there was no way to reconcile Zionism’s claims on Palestine and its explicit aim of Jewish statehood and sovereignty there with the rights and well-being of the country’s indigenous inhabitants. It is for these reasons, presumably, that on March 1, 1899, Yusuf Diya sent a prescient seven-page letter to the French chief rabbi, Zadoc Kahn, with the intention that it be passed on to the founder of modern Zionism.

The letter:

The letter began with an expression of Yusuf Diya’s admiration for Herzl, whom he esteemed “as a man, as a writer of talent, and as a true Jewish patriot,” and of his respect for Judaism and for Jews, who he said were “our cousins,” referring to the Patriarch Abraham, revered as their common forefather by both Jews and Muslims. He understood the motivations for Zionism, just as he deplored the persecution to which Jews were subject in Europe. In light of this, he wrote, Zionism in principle was “natural, beautiful and just,” and, “who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine? My God, historically it is your country!”

This sentence is sometimes cited, in isolation from the rest of the letter, to represent Yusuf Diya’s enthusiastic acceptance of the entire Zionist program in Palestine. However, the former mayor and deputy of Jerusalem went on to warn of the dangers he foresaw as a consequence of the implementation of the Zionist project for a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. The Zionist idea would sow dissension among Christians, Muslims, and Jews there. It would imperil the status and security that Jews had always enjoyed throughout the Ottoman domains. Coming to his main purpose, Yusuf Diya said soberly that whatever the merits of Zionism, the “brutal force of circumstances had to be taken into account.” The most important of them were that “Palestine is an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and more gravely, it is inhabited by others.” Palestine already had an indigenous population that would never accept being superseded. Yusuf Diya spoke “with full knowledge of the facts,” asserting that it was “pure folly” for Zionism to plan to take over Palestine. “Nothing could be more just and equitable,” than for “the unhappy Jewish nation” to find a refuge elsewhere. But, he concluded with a heartfelt plea, “in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.”

Herzl’s reply: Continue reading ““In the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.””


2020-11-20

Understanding Historical Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

Steve Mason

Speaking of Steve Mason’s historical inquiry into what we can reconstruct of the origins of the Jewish War from Josephus, here are some quotations I marked as I read his second chapter. I hope to post one more time on this book, sharing some specifics of how he approached Josephus’s writings as historical sources. I began an archive listing key posts on historical methods and the nature of history more generally but Ouch!, I see that I haven’t worked on it since the day I started it! I need another time out but not from illness or injury this time. I’ll be adding this post there before the archive is finished.

Anyway, here are the things Steve Mason has to say about principles of historical research. There’s nothing new here for many of us, but they are points worth keeping in mind and sharing with others who are less familiar with what it’s all about.

Don’t just dive into a historical source and grab hold of whatever statements in it look useful tidbits for telling us what happened. First examine the source, see what sort of writing it is. We can’t merely assume a work that looks like history really is what most of us think a work of history should be. In Mason’s words,

In principle all survivals from the past, material or literary, need first to be understood for what they are if we are to use them to answer other questions. (60)

Don’t dismiss literary analysis of a source as irrelevant to your search for historical information in a source. Literary analysis at some level must come first before one knows how to interpret what one reads. That’s true even at the most basic level: e.g. is our source a diary or a parable?

A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. (61)

Here are “the most basic principles underlying this inquiry into the Jewish War.” The bolding and sometimes the layout are mine.

1. “Until someone can show otherwise, I am happy believing X. …”

1. Outside the academy, history seems most often to be equated with the past itself or with supposedly authoritative records. (61)

The past no longer exists. We need to interpret sources and with those interpretations re-imagine bits and pieces of the past and continue to revise our imaginations of the past as we learn more.

Each historian uncovers a new angle and offers it as a better key to understanding, but this very activity of constant reimagining means that we are not in a position simply to learn the facts and lessons of history. We are required instead to think, explore, and judge: not to hear what the past is itching to tell us but to investigate for ourselves.

History, then, is the process of methodical inquiry into the human past. (62)

Continue reading “Understanding Historical Evidence”


2020-11-19

What Caused the Jewish War of 66-74 CE?

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by Neil Godfrey

Forget any notion of an anti-Roman “nationalism” yearning to be free from Rome. Forget messianic hopes and a desire to be ruled by God alone. . Steve Mason proposes in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74 causes much more common to wars more generally:

The Judaean-Roman conflict broke out … not from anti-Roman ideas or dreams among the uniquely favoured Judaean population, but from the sort of thing that more commonly drives nations to arms: injury, threats of more injury, perceived helplessness, the closure of avenues of redress, and ultimately the concern for survival.

(Mason, 584)

Further, there was no massive Judean wide uprising against Rome. Most Judeans either quickly demonstrated their loyalty to Rome or fled for their lives as Nero’s general Vespasian approached. Prior to the siege of Jerusalem, Vespasian’s army “faced little or nothing in the way of combat” (412). [Some readers will immediately be wondering about Joseph Atwill’s account and in particular the “battle of Gadara” will come to mind. At the end of this post I add Steve Mason’s description of that massacre and its context in the “wider war”.]

I’ll attempt a very general overview of what Mason proposes were the steps that led to the war. Doing so means I necessarily gloss over the detailed reasons for each point he makes and for his setting aside the conventional view that Judean resentment against Rome was on the boil until it reached a point where open rebellion was inevitable. So take the following as an invitation to read the book or follow up with further discussion wherever appropriate.

The theme to look out for running through each of the following stages is the tense relationship between Judeans and their neighbours.

Before Rome

Before the Roman period Judea was a regional hegemon. This had been the work of the Hasmonean dynasty that cowered neighbours — Samaria, the Mount Gerizim temple, cities of the Decapolis — into submission by conforming to Jewish ways or destroyed them.

Rome Enters

The Roman Pompey was thus greeted as a liberator from Judean domination. Pompey reduced Judea to little more than its pre-Hasmonean extent.

Not long afterwards, however, Herod was made a client king of Rome and Judea once again became the regional hegemon. (Mason argues that Judea was not a Roman province at this time but was an ethnic region of southern Syria. Syria itself was a Roman province. Judea did not become a Roman province until after the Jewish War.)

So Herod’s Kingdom of Judea was permitted to extend even beyond what it had been during Hasmonean times. Unlike the Hasmoneans, though, Herod did not attempt to Judaize his neighbours. Samarians and Idumeans were permitted their own institutions, cultures and cults.

Herod Dies

Herod died and the Roman emperor Augustus respected his will that his kingdom be divided among his three sons:

Blue: to Archelaus. — Purple: to Antipas. — Brown: to Philip (Map from Wikipedia)

Archelaus turned out to be the black sheep of the family and soon lost the support of key groups among his subjects. Pleas to Augustus for his removal succeeded.

(IN)SIgnificance of Judas the Galilean

Josephus informs us that after the removal of Archelaus there arose (6 C.E.) “a certain Galilean fellow by the name of Judas” who attempted to instigate a rebellion and calling for no ruler but God alone! Mason challenges the common view that this Judas marked the beginning of Judea’s “nationalist” movement for freedom from Rome:

Solomon Zeitlin put the standard view succinctly: “The Sicarii were the followers of the Fourth Philosophy which was founded by Judas of Galilee in the year 6 CE.”170 To untangle the knot of assumptions behind this, we must reconsider the evidence. Fortunately, there is little. (Mason, 245)

Mason focuses on the timing of the protests. That a protest movement began soon after the removal of Archelaus and the incorporation of Judea into the province of Syria (an event that would have entailed a census on Judea) is not likely coincidence. It is not likely that anti-Roman feeling suddenly flared up at this point after having been in effect for seventy years by this time. The other regions where there was no change, those that continued under Antipas and Philip, saw no uprising.

No, according to Mason, any form of revolt at this time is best understood as a change in the status of the Judeans as they were incorporated into the province of Syria and their centre of administration moved to Caesarea. That involved a major shift in relations with neighbouring ethnic groups as we see in the next section.

turning point — Caesarea and a samarian force dominate

With the removal of Archelaus the centre of administration shifted from Jerusalem to Caesarea.

Herod’s army had been a “multi-ethnic” organization but with the removal of Archelaus the armed forces that were the means of maintaining order lost their large Jewish component and became predominantly Samarian.

In other words, with Caesarea now the administrative centre, a Samarian force was set over the Judean population. Continue reading “What Caused the Jewish War of 66-74 CE?”


2020-11-17

Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Since recent posts have in some way drawn me into the question of the historicity of Jesus once again let me set out where I stand. There is nothing new here.

I have never, as far as I recall, set out an argument that Jesus did not exist. The reason? I have no interest in doing so. My interest has long been to understand the nature and origins of the biblical texts. And what I have learned so far is that the gospel narratives can most economically and comprehensively be explained as inventions woven from other texts without any need to introduce oral traditions going back to a historical Jesus.

Similarly for the New Testament epistles. We do not need to introduce a historical Jesus to understand their contents.

It’s really as simple as that.

–o0o–

Why don’t I begin with the assumption that the gospels are historical or biographical accounts, even if exaggerated, of a historical Jesus? Because as far as I am aware that’s not how any other historical inquiry works. We need to apply the same methods to the study of Christian origins that we rely on for any other inquiry.

Here’s how valid historical inquiry works across the board, whether studying ancient, medieval, modern, eastern, or any other history. I copy from another page where I have discussed this some time back….

A historian needs to establish some fundamental facts about the sources at hand before he or she starts pulling out data from them to make a historical narrative or argument. Let’s take the gospels as one set of sources to be used in investigating the question of Christian origins. What does any historian need to establish about these — or any — sources?

  • We need to know when they were written.
  • We need to know by whom and why. (“By whom” means more than the name of the person: it refers to where the person is from, to what social or political entity he or she belongs — “Who is this person?” — that is more important than a mere name.)
  • We need to know what they are, what sorts of documents they are. Their genre, if you like. This will include knowledge of how they compare with other literature of their day.
  • We need to know something about their reception at the time they were written and soon after.
  • We need to know something about the world in which they were written — both the political and social history of that world and the wider literary and philosophical cultural world to which they belonged.
  • We need to know a little how the documents came into our possession. Through what authorities or channels were they preserved and what sort of manuscript trail did they leave.

That’s the first step. We can very broadly classify all of this knowledge as the provenance of the documents.

If we draw blanks on any of these questions then we need always to keep those blanks in the foremost of our minds whenever we read and interpret the gospels. Those blanks will help remind us of the provisional nature of anything we draw from the gospels.

So for the first point above, the date of the gospels, we can do no better than accept a range of year in which they were written. A combination of internal evidence and the evidence that they were known by others leads us (well, me at least) to a period between 70 CE and the mid-second century (possibly known to Justin, certainly to Irenaeus).

Those who argue for a date prior to 70 CE fail to take into account the apocalyptic character of the gospels. Apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel) is known to be about events in the recent memory of the readers. The pre-70 date also fails to take account of the internal evidence for an audience facing persecution, including persecution from Jews. There is no confirmable evidence for such persecutions of Christians until post 70 CE. If some dispute this and argue for a much earlier date then I’m happy to address those arguments, too; I would be willing to change my view if they proved to be plausible and if the scare Caligula gave with his threat to install a statue in the Temple was the best explanation for other features in the Synoptics.

The question of who wrote the documents is of primary importance. Just saying the author was a Christian is way too broad and tells us nothing except the obvious. It’s no more useful than saying a work of history was written by a Greek historian. So what? We need to know what sort of Christian, where, when and why — whom was he writing for? why? Since we know none of these things — speculations and educated guesses change with the tides of fashion — we are at an enormous disadvantage in knowing how to interpret or understand the gospels.

Is what we read a composite document composed over several editorial hands? That, too, is a most important question to answer. Again we are at a real disadvantage here.

The above gaps in our knowledge of the gospels ought to pull up every historian short and make them wonder if it is worth even continuing to work with these documents. Certainly any historian worth his or her salt will always be tentative about any conclusions and data taken from them.

The second step. Continue reading “Interlude: Why I Doubt the Historical Existence of Jesus”


2020-11-16

Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters

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by Neil Godfrey

Dnipropetrovsk special psychiatric hospital

This is the final post covering my response to Tim O’Neill’s interview on MythVision. For other posts, parts one, two, three.

In 1959 Khrushchev declared that there were no political prisoners in the USSR, only mentally ill people (Bukovsky).

Arrests and trials became their last resort . . . . The authorities preferred other means, from psychiatric confinement and defamatory campaigns . . . .

Publicly branding dissidents as having some psychological issue had the desired effect:

I remember how, emerging from the psychiatric hospital in 1965, I suddenly discovered that all my “thaw-time” friends had disappeared somewhere, as if they had melted away. When we met by chance in the street, they would hurry away, clutching folders or briefcases or, even better, wheeling a pram. Sorry, old man, they would mutter without stopping, eyes lowered, I have to defend my diploma, dissertation, get my candidate’s application approved. Or I need to raise my children first. Then they would speed off, looking neither left nor right.  . . . 

(Bukovsky, Judgment in Moscow)

In the US, by contrast, political power is not necessary. The mainstream merely needs to publicly shame dissidents in the free press:

In this respect, America is an amazing country. On the one hand, publishing slander is recognized as the sacred right of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. On the other hand, America is a country of extreme conformists, where any criticism in the press, even if it is genuinely slanderous, renders a person unacceptable . . . . Note that it is the victim of slander who becomes “controversial and not the slanderer

(ibid)

From Wikimedia Commons

Recall from the previous post one biblical scholar’s observation of the conservative mainstream in his field of study:

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

What is the aim of this labeling? . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you

For original citation references see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

One biblical scholar who was viscerally hostile against Christ mythicists, Maurice Casey, was very willing to employ the above tactics to discredit anyone who dared disagree with his views or those of his doctoral student and partner at the time. I responded to Casey’s assertions with the Who’s Who page of anyone identifying with or merely open-minded towards the Christ myth theory in order to demonstrate that his accusations were without foundation. His psychological analyses of mythicists — they were by and large disturbed ex-fundamentalists — was baseless slander.

Tim O’Neill in his MythVision interview resorted once more to the same tawdry psychoanalysis of mythicists (he allowed for a “few” exceptions). In his online statements he has added outright character defamation and some of the ugliest humiliation to his characterization of Christ mythicists. I have invited O’Neill several times to engage with my criticisms of his work but only on condition that he refrain from verbal abuse and he has declined. Rather, he has written that he finds my criticisms too petty to bother with. That’s another way of telling his followers to stay clear of my responses to his posts or to read them with a condescension that guarantees they will be dismissed from the outset.

Psychoanalyzing and humiliating mythicists 

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters”


2020-11-15

Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

At about 57 mins of the MythVision podcast O’Neill underscores the importance of Paul’s claim to have met James the “brother of the Lord”. Not only is Paul’s claim from a contemporary of Jesus but it is even from one who is opposed to his source:  Paul is saying, says O’Neill, “Yeh, I have met the brother of Jesus and he’s a dick.” Now evidence from contemporaries, especially contemporary adversaries, is certainly strong evidence for historicity, but at this point, O’Neill tosses aside and out of sight the most fundamental principle he said was the basis of all good historical inquiry: a need to acknowledge ambiguity in the evidence. O’Neill’s first task, therefore, is to characterize any interpretation that allows for ambiguity to be outright nonsense.

Basic historical methods applied to Paul meeting “the brother of the Lord”

Writing against Christ Mythicists, A. D. Howell Smith in Jesus Not a Myth: “There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics.” (p. 76)

Yet there is an even more fundamental rule for any historian examining sources that O’Neill never mentions: study the context of the source and the information in it!  It’s this simple:

  1. Acknowledge the fact that that “met James the brother of the Lord” phrase is unknown to Church Fathers who would dearly have loved to have known it to win their theological debates against “heretics” (– I was first informed of this fact by an honest author who was arguing against the Christ myth theory);
  2. Stop and think how bizarre it is that there are no other early Christian accounts that record that one of the leaders of the Christian church at Jerusalem was the very brother of Jesus! Is it really plausible that this one passing reference in a letter of Paul, a letter that was the focus of so much controversy in the early church, should be the only evidence we have from the early days of the church that Jesus’ brother became the new leader alongside Peter? Not even the Book of Acts, which portrays James as a noble head of the Jerusalem church, leads anyone to suspect that that James was a brother of Jesus.

For further details discussing the above context of this passage see

O’Neill emphasizes that a historian must be open to ambiguity when studying the sources. Indeed. There are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in which Paul says he met the “brother of the Lord” was added some time in the second century in order to better assist “orthodox” Christians argue against their theological opponents. Further, fundamental questions arise when we try to understand how a brother of Jesus could have become the church’s leader without any other contemporary or near contemporary indication that anyone knew about it.

It is “bad history” to take a passage as testimony to a “historical fact” without first testing the authenticity of that evidence.

Basic historical method guards against circular reasoning

David Hackett Fischer

O’Neill next engages in a very common failing of many historical Jesus scholars: circular reasoning. That failing is not unique to biblical scholars, though, since it is one of the fallacies pointed out in a famous book from 1970 by historian David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. A hypothetical example might help to clarify the point. A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?
Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.
(Tacit Assumption ) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.
Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Absurd as this fallacy may appear in a hypothetical way, it is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship.

(Fischer, 49)

petitio principii : a fallacy in which a conclusion is taken for granted in the premises; begging the question.

Dietary laws

One of several examples of this fallacy that O’Neill offers (paraphrasing):

In the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus addresses the Jewish dietary laws. This makes sense if there was a historical Jesus who was saying those things about the dietary laws that the church (at the time the gospel was written) no longer followed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jesus didn’t exist.

O’Neill here is uncritically repeating an argument found among some mainstream biblical scholars. It makes just as much sense on the assumption that the Jesus of the gospels was a literary figure created to express the view of the church.

Clark Kent to Superman

By excising all evidence to the contrary some exegetes conclude that the Jesus behind Mark’s gospel was mundanely human.

At this point the host, Derek Lambert, interjects with another piece of circularity common among too many mainstream biblical scholars (again, my paraphrase):

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus appears like a Clark Kent but by the time of the Gospel of John he is Superman. The evidence is so easily explained if there was an original guy who wanted the temple brought down, and then that happened, but because it didn’t get rebuilt, the Christians had to change the prophecy of Jesus into one where he claimed to be speaking about the temple of his body.

Yes, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus at the start, then we can indeed say that the subsequent evidence can be explained by that same historical Jesus. That’s circularity. The same logic can be used to say that if we assume that the gospel authors portrayed a Jesus who fitted the time of those writers, then we can explain the later changes to the gospels as the result of adapting to changing circumstances and beliefs. Question begging works any way you want to use it.

Besides, O’Neill ought to have picked Derek Lambert up on his factual error (another one common among many biblical scholars) that the Gospel of Mark portrays a relatively ungodly “merely human” Jesus. A man who walks on water and commands the storms to cease just like the Yahweh in the Psalms is not a “merely human” figure. Nor is the range of emotion imputed to Mark’s Jesus “merely human”: anger, for instance, is a very common godly emotion. For further details see

From Nazareth or Bethlehem?

Another very common instance of circularity appears in discussions about the birth narratives. The assumption is that there was a historical Jesus who was born in Nazareth, and since everyone supposedly knew he came from this tiny village “no-one had ever heard of”, the gospel authors tied themselves in knots trying to explain how he was really born, according to the messianic prophecy, in Bethlehem.

About the 1 hour and 10 minute mark O’Neill says, quite rightly, that later (noncanonical) gospels sometimes harmonize the earlier gospels. Matthew and Luke offer contradictory, even incompatible, nativity stories. This makes sense, he rightly says, if we assume that the authors were each independently struggling to work out their own narrative to explain how Jesus came to be known to be “from Nazareth” even though he was born in Bethlehem. I say “rightly” because yes, it does make sense if we assume the premise we are trying to prove is true from the outset.

It makes just as much sense to say that the authors of both Matthew and Luke were trying to establish a legend that Jesus was born at Bethlehem (according to the messianic prophecy) while at the same time attempting to remove an embarrassing epithet by which the earliest sects of Jesus worship were known, the “nazoreans” or “nazarenes”. (The Arab and Muslim world still today refer to Christians by a cognate of that same term.) The Gospel of Matthew at 2:23 bizarrely twists a scripture and grammatical Greek to make it give that title a new meaning.

Thus the evidence of Matthew is that the early evangelists were struggling with a title they no longer felt comfortable with and decided to hide its original meaning by re-interpreting it as meaning “from Nazareth”. Luke most likely re-wrote Matthew to give a better narrative account.

By setting aside the fallacy of assuming a historical Jesus at the outset we open ourselves to a much richer scenario in accordance with all of the evidence.

Nazareth did not exist — “a stupid idea”?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults”