Right-wing news is everywhere

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by Neil Godfrey

Some interesting comparisons of the “left’s” and “right’s” use of social media. Again, citing Ferguson et al, with additional detail from Albright:

In the absence of data transparency, we are reserved about all claims by Facebook, Twitter, Google, or anyone else about what ads they did or did not sell or the uses of the sites; we have trouble understanding why several Congressional committees were so slow to require full public disclosure of exact information, especially once the companies admitted that the ads already ran in public. For the same reason, we are cautious about assertions by Trump campaign workers that they did not find Twitter very useful, though that assertion is potentially very telling, since so many more bots are keyed to Twitter, rather than Facebook (LoBianco, 2017).

We take much more seriously the findings of empirical studies of overall election communication patterns by independent researchers who gathered their own data. Jonathan Albright has attempted to map the “ecology” of both left and right networks in several recent studies. His work emphasizes the unusually dense, ramified character of the right wing messaging networks that developed over the last few years:

“to put it bluntly, ‘right-wing’ news is everywhere: Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, small issuebased websites, large news websites, WordPress blogs, Google Plus (?), Pinterest pages, Reddit threads, etc.” (Albright, 2016).

A Harvard study of the internet in the 2016 presidential election makes a similar point:

“Our clearest and most significant observation is that the American political system has seen not a symmetrical polarization of the two sides of the political map, but rather the emergence of a discrete and relatively insular right-wing media ecosystem whose shape and communications practices differ sharply from the rest of the media ecosystem, ranging from the center-right to the left. Right-wing media were centered on Breitbart and Fox News, and they presented partisan-disciplined messaging, which was not the case for the traditional professional media that were the center of attention across the rest of the media sphere” (Faris et al., 2017).

What’s going on here? Where are the Russians?

26 Note that Breitbart is strongly pro-Israel, as the site explained repeatedly in the wake of Charlottesville. Steve Bannon’s own movies are also quite sympathetic to African-American problems. But these facts hardly exhaust Breitbart or Bannon’s relationships to the substantial segment of the far right that is openly anti-Semitic and white supremacist. See BERNSTEIN, J. 2017. Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate. BuzzFeed, October 5, 2017. Cf. also the discussion in GREEN, J. 2017. Devil’s Bargain — Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, New York, Penguin.

By 2016, the Republican right had developed internet outreach and political advertising into a fine art and on a massive scale quite on its own (Faris et al., 2017) (Albright, 2016). Large numbers of conservative websites, including many that that tolerated or actively encouraged white supremacy and contempt for immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, or the aspirations of women had been hard at work for years stoking up “tensions between groups already wary of one another.”26 Breitbart and other organizations were in fact going global, opening offices abroad and establishing contacts with like-minded groups elsewhere. Whatever the Russians were up to, they could hardly hope to add much value to the vast Made in America bombardment already underway. Nobody sows chaos like Breitbart or the Drudge Report, as the New York Times documented in one Idaho town (Dickerson, 2017).

See the original article onsite for the full detail of the above map: https://medium.com/@d1gi/left-right-the-combined-post-election2016-news-ecosystem-42fc358fbc96

Albright’s comments:

With a few exceptions, the unique “left-wing” sites are basically nowhere to be found on the right-wing side of the network. The graph confirms that, at least as far as connections (hyperlinks) go online, much of the major “left-wing” media appear to be isolated from the most active parts of the news ecosystem.

. . .

Seriously, the “right-wing” sites have Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Reddit, and YouTube in their own network “corner.” Need I say more?

. . .

To put it bluntly, “right-wing” news is everywhere: Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, small issue-based websites, large news websites, WordPress blogs, Google Plus (?), Pinterest pages, Reddit threads, etc.

. . .

Bottom line is, the right-wing sites appear to be linking heavily into most of the left-wing news media, the major news players, and also to each other. However, the “left-wing” media are not linking into most of the “right-wing” sites. To make matters worse, due to the relative lack of diversity in the left media ecosystem (see my last “macro-propaganda” post), there’s right-wing sites in more places across the network. This must have something to do with the “left-wing” news media/journalism “bubble.”

. . .

To make matters worse for the “left-wing” media, the right also appears to be much more active around the “center” of this combined news ecosystem. And what’s the site at the exact center of this L+R network? It’s Senate.gov. NOAA.gov appears to run a close second, though.

Albright, Jonathan. 2016. “Left + Right: The Combined Post-#Election2016 News ‘Ecosystem.’” Medium. December 11, 2016. https://medium.com/@d1gi/left-right-the-combined-post-election2016-news-ecosystem-42fc358fbc96.

Ferguson, Thomas, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen. 2018. “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election / How Money Won Trump the White House.” Institute for New Economic Thinking, Working Paper No. 66, January. https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/research-papers/industrial-structure-and-party-competition-in-an-age-of-hunger-games.



“How Money Won Trump the White House”

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by Neil Godfrey

From Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen:

As our Table 4 above showed [not shown here], Trump had largely financed his primary campaign with small contributions and loans from himself. As late as mid-May, he remained convinced that his success in using free media and his practice of going over the head of the establishment press directly to voters via Twitter would make it unnecessary for him to raise the “$1 billion to $2 billion that modern presidential campaigns were thought to require” (Green, 2017).

As the convention approached, however, the reality of the crucial role of major investments in political parties started to sink in. Some of the pressure came from the Republican National Committee and related party committees. Their leaders intuitively grasped the point we demonstrated in a recent paper: that outcomes of most congressional election races in every year for which we have the requisite data are direct (“linear”) functions of money (Ferguson et al., 2016). The officials could safely project that the pattern would hold once again in the 2016 Congressional elections (as it did – see Figure 3).56 But the Trump campaign, too, began to hold out the tin cup on its own behalf with increasing vehemence. As we noted earlier, small donations had been flowing steadily into its coffers. Unlike most previous Republican efforts, these added up to some serious money. But in the summer it became plain that the sums arriving were not nearly enough. In many senses, Trump was no Bernie Sanders.

. . . . .

We are able to source the revenues to individual big businesses and investors and aggregate them by sector (Table 6) and also by specific time intervals. Our data reveal aspects of the campaign’s trajectory that have received almost no attention. It is apparent that Trump’s and Manafort’s efforts to conciliate the Republican establishment initially met with some real success. The run up to the Convention brought in substantial new money, including, for the first time, significant contributions from big business. Mining, especially coal mining; Big Pharma (which was certainly worried by tough talk from the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, about regulating drug prices); tobacco, chemical companies, and oil (including substantial sums from executives at Chevron, Exxon, and many medium sized firms); and telecommunications (notably AT&T, which had a major merge merger pending) all weighed in.57

Money from executives at the big banks also began streaming in, including Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo. Parts of Silicon Valley also started coming in from the cold. Contrary to many post-election press accounts, in the end contributions from major Silicon Valley firms or their executives would rank among Trump’s bigger sources of funds, though as a group in the aggregate Silicon Valley tilted heavily in favor of Clinton. Just ahead of the Republican convention, for example, at a moment when such donations were hotly debated, Facebook contributed $900,000 to the Cleveland Host Committee. In a harbinger of things to come, additional money came from firms and industries that appear to have been attracted by Trump’s talk of tariffs, including steel and companies making machinery of various types (Table 6).58 The Trump campaign also appears to have struck some kind of arrangement with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns more local TV stations than any other media concern in the country, for special access “in exchange for broadcasting Trump interviews without commentary (Anne, 2017).”


In mid-August, as Trump sank lower in the polls, the crisis came to a head. Rebekah Mercer had her fateful conversation with Trump at a fundraiser. Manafort, already under pressure from a string of reports about his ties with the Ukraine and Russia, was first demoted and then fired. Steve Bannon took over direction of the campaign and Kellyanne Conway was promoted to campaign manager (Green, 2017). . . . .

Breaking Through

read more »


Review part 7: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

We now come to what I think is Raphael Lataster’s strongest argument yet for being agnostic about the historicity of Jesus. It’s the last part of chapter 6 addressing “problems of Paul”.

Lataster begins by pointing out the well-known divergences between the accounts of Paul and the gospels and what these divergences specifically suggest about the theologically fractious evolution of the Jesus narrative. The argument then moves to what Paul tells us of his relations with followers of Jesus before him, especially James, and the many serious questions his comments raise given the assumption that those followers knew or were even related to an impressive prophetic figure now believed to have ascended to heaven. And that brings the argument to that ever contentious passage in the mythicist-historicist debate, “James, the brother of the Lord”.

Again Lataster’s broader knowledge of religion studies (as distinct from the narrower speciality of New Testament) and the histories of newly developing religions enables him to inform readers of the interesting possibility that biological relationships were created to co-opt pre-existing religious ideas into the new faith. Not that Lataster relies upon mere possibilities. Mainstream biblical scholars — in particular two who are “historicists” — are identified as either disputing the authenticity of the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians or (again with Bart Ehrman) at least provide enough caveats to lead one to have doubts about its authenticity. I think Lataster is on more secure ground when he develops the in full the argument for this passage not being original to the epistle than he is when reminding readers (as he also does) of the various arguments that the phrase has a range of meanings, especially in religious contexts, and does not necessarily point to a biological relationship. Many conservative biblical scholars reflexively recoil from suggestions of interpolation but Lataster is correct to point out that this reflex is in the main a product of religious conservatism. When the broader context of the dates and conditions of our manuscripts are considered, along with what is well-known about literary reproductions (including forgeries and theologically driven “redactions”) of the day, then it is only sensible and fair to be open to reasonable arguments for interpolations.

Later we read of the dual standards of scholarship in Bart Ehrman’s works. Lataster reminds us how Ehrman’s efforts to argue against the mythicist case in Did Jesus Exist? were very often shots fired at straw men yet in his subsequent books, How Jesus Became God and Jesus Before the Gospels, Lataster shows that many of Ehrman’s arguments suddenly align with the arguments of the mythicists that he earlier regrettably misrepresented or failed to grasp, arguments that he even mocked when they were presented by mythicists!

At this point Lataster drives home the biases of too many biblical scholars by demonstrating how even reputable names among them publish citations that simply do not support their assertions at all. One has always to look up and check the sources cited because so often vague passages are taken and assumed to be saying something specific in support of conventional understandings, and those works are subsequently cited by other scholars as having long settled the matter. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds that such assertions and citations and recycled quoting are all based on vague or irrelevant sources. The specific case Lataster refers to is Dan G. McCartney’s assertion that one of the church fathers “simply accepts that James was Jesus’s younger half-brother”, yet the three sources cited do not even mention James; and then James McGrath is cited as confidently appealing to McCartney’s assertion as having established that point. Worse, a biblical scholar is quoted making assertions about the church father’s views that directly contradict the explicitly stated words of that church father in the same paragraph. Such is some of the worst of biblical scholarship engaged in arguments against mythicism that Lataster exposes.

Lataster’s case for interpolation of the “brother of the Lord” passage is strong, being based on the use of the relevant epistle by the church father Tertullian who was using it to attack a view of a heretic that Jesus was not truly human. Tertullian points out that the heretic had problems with other gospel passages asserting Jesus had brothers but fails to drive home to the Paul-loving heretic that Paul himself claimed to have met “the brother of the Lord” — even though he quotes verses either side of that passage.

The only slight lack in Lataster’s argument is when he raises the question of why an interpolator would not make the “brother of the Lord” passage even less potentially ambiguous than it is. He fails to consider a common source of interpolations, a marginal note made by one scribe that confuses a later scribe who incorporates that note into the main text. read more »


Testing the Water — Dimmericks

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by Tim Widowfield

Longtime readers of Vridar may recall my “Bad Five-Line Poems.” As you know, a true limerick is not simply a poem that follows the form AABBA; it must also be dirty. Since a “clean limerick” is an oxymoron, we must call them something else.

I’ve been writing politically charged bad five-line poems on Facebook for a few years now, using the term “#Dimmerick.” (My wife often calls me “Dim,” and not without reason. Several old friends from my enlisted days still sometimes call me Dimmy or Dimmer.)

At any rate, for various reasons, I now believe that Facebook is a terrible place to post original content. I’m going to try them out here. And if I can find the inspiration, I’ll try to make them a regular feature.

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Review part 6: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 1)

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by Neil Godfrey


I had hoped to cover Raphael Lataster’s sixth chapter, The Problems of Paul, in a single post but real life circumstances have obliged me to spend smaller amounts of time per day here so I’ll break it up into several posts.

I found Lataster’s chapter on Paul to be one of the best sections of his book so far. Lataster avoids common traps too many mythicists fall into when addressing Paul while at the same time he makes sound use of serious critical evaluations and broader questions pertaining to our sources to make what I consider to be very solid arguments without letting their potential controversy deflect him from course.

Some radical scholars have questioned the existence of Paul but Lataster rightly sidesteps that question as a red-herring in the context of asking if Jesus was a historical figure. Whatever we do with “Paul” himself the epistles in his name still need to be addressed.

Physical or Spiritual?

The most fundamental question that is asked of Paul’s letters in historicist-mythicist debates is whether the letters present Jesus as a physical or exclusively spiritual being. Obviously, if our (possibly) earliest sources for Jesus consider him a spiritual entity then the historicity of a Jesus figure has to be questioned. On the other hand, even if we can establish that Paul definitely thought of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being on earth in a recent past then I don’t believe we can conclude that that of itself establishes Jesus as a historical figure. History is replete with stories and legends of people who are believed to have existed yet whom we know to be mythical. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that an earthly Jesus in Paul’s letters will open up the possibility of Jesus being historical more than the alternative.

What is most significant about the evidence in Paul’s writings, Lataster stresses, is its ambiguity, or at least its potential to be subject to alternative interpretations. That is all that is needed to legitimize the question of whether Jesus was historical or not.

Vridar posts addressing the “born of a woman” passage in Galatians: The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that Jesus was “born of a woman” and that would seem to end the discussion as to whether Paul thought of Jesus as a literal human being — except that Lataster points readers to Bart Ehrman’s discussion of this passage in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture which notes

a) there is compelling evidence in the writings of the earliest church fathers that while surrounding passages in Galatians were well known the particular passage with “born of woman” is not in evidence at all, even though it would have served decisive blows in the theological arguments those fathers were attempting to make;

b) that the word translated “born” is not the usual word for “born” but another word that carries ambiguities about the actual process being described and which has significance for various theological debates in the second century.

Lataster further raises the possibility that the passage was originally meant to be understood allegorically but I find the arguments raised for that possibility seem to be slightly strained against the natural reading of the text. (I have the same difficulties with Richard Carrier’s case along the same lines in On the Historicity of Jesus.) The allegorical portion of the text is made explicit and it appears to me to be introduced to inject a certain meaning into “real events” in the preceding verses. But that’s all a minor detour.

On the same question as to whether Paul’s writings speak of a human or exclusively spiritual Jesus Lataster further addresses a more general point that I find to be otherwise largely overlooked in this debate: read more »


Time to Return

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by Neil Godfrey

Street Art — Pixabay

I took some leave from blogging, quite unplanned, but it was a compulsive digression. I have been reading, almost non-stop, book after book and article after article, trying to get a firmer handle on what has been happening to make the world (specifically, our “democracies” in the USA, Europe, Australia) what they are today. I knew something big was changing back in the 1980s and then through the 1990s but you know what it’s like, one is busy getting on with life and carries on like all the other frogs (cooking, washing, driving, working, watching tv) who are in the pot that is slowly coming to a boil.

It all started when someone here posted a video of an interview with Noam Chomsky. I had seen the video before but this time for some reason I took notice when Chomsky directed his interviewer to a study on the influence of corporate dollars on the political system. So I looked it up. It was a book published way back in 1995 by Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.

The central argument of the book is that political parties are not primarily out there trying to win most votes. That’s a secondary exercise and one that falls into place after achieving their first priority: winning the financial backing of whoever can financially back them the most. In its simplest form the idea can be illustrated this way. (I use the issue of unionized labour because that was Ferguson’s illustration; I thought of changing it to the question of carbon emissions and global warming.)

Imagine 97% of the electorate want strong labour unions to ensure job security and fair compensation. These are the ordinary people with only the basic incomes to get by reasonably happy.

Now imagine 3% of the electorate oppose unionization of labour entirely. These are the rich factory owners who employ everyone else.

Election time comes. None of the 97% has the private means, the money, to stand for election. It costs money just to get around from venue to venue and more money to take care of basic income to support one’s family while doing that, etc etc. But one person hits on an idea of how to get money to do everything necessary to campaign for votes. The only people with the money are the 3%. So our would-be candidate asks them to fund the campaign. Some of that 3 % are willing to do so but only on the condition that the candidate promises not to support unionization, but even oppose the idea.

Another would-be candidate finds a few among the 3% who are willing to allow just a small amount of unionization, say for only 5% of the workforce.

Come election day, assuming the two candidates had equal advertizing and equal coverage of the electorate, that is, they each had the same amount of funding, the best that the 97% of the electorate would get out of the election is a representative who will support no more than the unionization of 5% of the workforce. They would not even be likely to get that candidate if he or she only got a fraction of the campaign contributions as their rival.

Obviously real life is more complex than that simplest of models but Ferguson and his colleagues who study the complexities of funding find the rule works essentially every time: to understand who rules look for who has the gold. That’s the golden rule.

Earlier I posted on what I believed to be an insightful article by Nancy Fraser, From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump — and Beyond. Thomas Ferguson’s work is coming from the same direction. But Golden Rule is old. Published 1995. So I looked for more recent work. And that’s where I’ve been the past several days, reading and following up more recent studies by Ferguson and by others he cites and others who appear to be working from the same datasets of evidence.

The most dramatic shifts have happened with the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, of course, and that’s where I have been trying to catch up with. What the hell is going on? It’s not completely alien to human experience, though. One recent study even sent me back to reading the 1973 edition of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published 1948). (That was to revisit other historical alliances of what Arendt calls “the alliance between mob and capital”.)

It’s been a fascinating, though troubling, journey, covering shifts and divisions in the corporate class, propaganda manipulations, and, I think, a deeper understanding of how this complex and confusing world works. Once again one finds scholarly research tackling questions that have traditionally been forbidden in their field and the need for those pioneers to branch out into interdisciplinary studies before eventually making significant inroads into the conventional wisdom.

I expect to be posting more along the lines of these sorts of studies.


many of them tribal

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by Neil Godfrey


Of course, the Arab or Kurd is only ever in it for the money and tribal warfare is their way of life. How happily enlightened we are.


On an “Independent” Mainstream Media Standing Up to Trump

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by Neil Godfrey

The Lesson of the Watergate affair:

The major scandal of Watergate as portrayed in the mainstream press was that the Nixon administration sent a collection of petty criminals to break into the Democratic party headquarters, for reasons that remain obscure. The Democratic party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community. Nixon’s actions were therefore a scandal. The Socialist Workers party, a legal political party, represents no powerful interests. Therefore, there was no scandal when it was revealed, just as passions over Watergate reached their zenith, that the FBI had been disrupting its activities by illegal break-ins and other measures for a decade, a violation of democratic principle far more extensive and serious than anything charged during the Watergate hearings. What is more, these actions of the national political police were only one element of government programs extending over many administrations to deter independent political action, stir up violence in the ghettos, and undermine the popular movements that were beginning to engage sectors of the generally marginalized public in the arena of decision-making. These covert and illegal programs were revealed in court cases and elsewhere during the Watergate period, but they never entered the congressional proceedings and received only limited media attention. Even the complicity of the FBI in the police assassination of a Black Panther organizer in Chicago was not a scandal, in marked contrast to Nixon’s “enemies list,” which identified powerful people who were denigrated in private but suffered no consequences. As we have noted, the U.S. role in initiating and carrying out the first phase of “the decade of the genocide” in Cambodia entered the Watergate proceedings only marginally: not because hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were slaughtered in the course of a major war crime, but because Congress was not properly notified, so that its privileges were infringed, and even this was considered too slight an infraction to enter the final charges. What was true of Congress was also true of the media and their investigative reporting that “helped force a President from office” (Lewis) in what is held to be a most remarkable display of media independence, or arrogance, depending on one’s point of view.

History has been kind enough to contrive for us a “controlled experiment” to determine just what was at stake during the Watergate period, when the confrontational stance of the media reached its peak. The answer is clear and precise: powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether. This is why Nixon could go so far, lulled into a false sense of security precisely because the watchdog only barked when he began to threaten the privileged.

Exactly the same lessons were taught by the Iran-contra scandals and the media reaction to them. It was a scandal when the Reagan administration was found to have violated congressional prerogatives during the Iran-contra affair, but not when it dismissed with contempt the judgment of the International Court of Justice that the United States was engaged in the “unlawful use of force” and violation of treaties—that is, violation of the supreme law of the land and customary international law—in its attack against Nicaragua. The sponsorship and support of state terror that cost some 200,000 lives in Central America in the preceding decade was not the subject of congressional inquiries or media concern. These actions were conducted in accord with an elite consensus, and they received steady media support, as we have seen in reviewing the fate of worthy and unworthy victims and the treatment of elections in client and errant states.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. 1994. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. London: Vintage. pp. 299-300



OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Okay, I give in. Here’s one more. Feel free to remind or alert me to any that I have forgotten or overlooked.

Intertextuality Table for Mark chapters 2 and 3: read more »


The OT Sources for Mark 1

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark is shaped out of a re-weaving of Jewish Scriptures. If you want to know its sources then they are, principally but not exclusively, in the “Old Testament”. I have posted on the identification of 160 such scriptures in chapters 11-16 of the Gospel as identified by Howard Clark Kee. (There are more that could be added to that post, especially relating to chapter 12.)

I thought of going through the earlier chapters to make a similar list but the task is simply too much to get through right now. Instead, I have limited myself to a general overview of some of the more obvious allusions to Jewish Scripture in the first chapter only. I’d like to add other chapters over time.

The following table is not exhaustive even for chapter one. More allusions could be identified but some require more explanation that takes more time to present. So I’ve kept the list at a somewhat general level. Notice the story of the leper is a direct transvaluation rather than a more direct reworking of the original. Jesus and the leper are humble foils of Elisha and Naaman. If in the gospel of Mark the original text said Jesus was indignant (as opposed to the more widely attested “moved with compassion”) when the leper knelt and suggesting Jesus could heal him, there may be some significance related to the amount of indignation that runs rife through the 2 Kings narrative: both king Ahab and the leper Naaman at different times become enraged or indignant over the processes involved that led to the cleansing of the leper. Maybe something is missing from our text of Mark, or maybe “compassion” was original to the text after all.)

Here’s the table: read more »


Review part 5: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – 2, Sources)

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by Neil Godfrey

I discuss here my reading of Chapter 5 of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus. Here he looks at the problematic nature of the gospels and extra-biblical sources for Jesus.

Lataster discusses how historical Jesus scholars attempt to get around the problem that there are no primary sources for a historical Jesus. This absence leads scholars to focus on

1) the character and limitations of presumed oral traditions that bridge the gap between the gospels and the historical Jesus;

2) memory theory, what we theorize and know about social and individual memories.

Both of these studies do indeed raise awareness of problems for a historian’s access to a historical Jesus and Lataster cites numerous scholars who have contributed to our awareness of these problems. I suggest, however, that much of the discussion is at best a footnote to a debate over whether there was a person of Jesus at the start of Christianity. After all, the problems relate to the reconstruction of such a Jesus. If Christianity had some other origin then memories or oral traditions cannot have any relation to “a historical Jesus”.


For an annotated list and links to discussions of the Testimonium Flavianum on this blog see Jesus in Josephus: Testimonium Flavianum

The most famous extra-biblical reference to a historical Jesus is the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus. Lataster’s discussion is a thorough coverage of the weaknesses of attempts to salvage even a smaller core of the surviving sentences, again citing a range of recent scholars who have expressed serious reservations about Josephus ever having said anything at all about our Jesus. I was pleased to see a detailed quotation from a publication by a distinguished professor in the field of linguistics, Paul Hopper. (Interested readers can see the quotation in an older post here.) As for the second passage in the Antiquities of Josephus, one which appears to be an after-thought reference to a Jesus related to a certain James, Lataster highlights Richard Carrier’s argument that the Jesus referred to is Jesus son of Damneus. (See David Fitzgerald Responds for details of the argument.) Carrier’s view makes some sense but I am not entirely sure it resolves all questions and for that reason I prefer Earl Doherty’s original discussion as the more satisfactory. But either way, there are significant problems with the view that Josephus identified James as “the brother of Jesus, the one called Christ”, both in syntax and context. It is important to address both Josephan passages but as Lataster notes,

it is important to realise that even if authentic, these verses do not necessarily confirm the existence of the Historical Jesus.

(Lataster, p. 200)

Josephus is writing decades after the supposed historical Jesus and adds nothing to what is known from other sources, the implication being that there is no reason to suspect that either passage had any source other than Christians, either as Josephus’s late first century source or as later copyists of his work.

Other sources

Lataster’s comprehensive discussions of other ancient sources mentioning or interpreted as alluding to either Jesus or Christ — Tacitus, Pliny, Thallus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, and the Talmud — draw in both scholarly rebuttals and common answers that as far as I am aware have never been countered by anyone attempting to use them as evidence for a historical Jesus. A new point concerning Pliny’s letter about Christians to emperor Trajan is also covered: Enrico Tuccinardi has applied a stylometric analysis that strongly indicates the entire passage is a forgery.

Scholarly “confessions”

As for the canonical gospels, Lataster reminds us of the major obstacles to accepting them as sources for a historical Jesus. They are late documents, at least forty years after the narrated crucifixion, and they are accepted by critical biblical scholars as mythical or theological narratives of Christ, not a historical person. Whatever the form of Jesus behind them — historical or mythical — they are nonhistorical elaborations that have come to hide whatever that original concept was. Lataster buttresses his point with citations from critical biblical scholars. One such noteworthy name is that of the pioneer of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk:

As an historian, I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations… In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only prob abilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings.

(Robert Walter Funk, “Bookshelf: The Resurrection of Jesus,” The Fourth R 8, no. 1 (1995): 9., in Lataster, p. 219)

Given the prevailing near consensus that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel it is reasonable to consider the possibility that all subsequent references to and portrayals of a historical Jesus can go back to that gospel. Lataster cites Bart Ehrman to this effect:

If there had been one source of Christian antiquity that mentioned a historical Jesus (e.g., Mark) and everyone else was based on what that source had to say, then possibly you could argue that this person made Jesus up and everyone else simply took the ball and ran with it.

(Lataster, p. 220, citing Erhman from https://ehrmanblog.org/gospel-evidence-that-jesus-existed, accessed 05/04/2017.)

If it all begins with Mark . . . 

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The Mind of the Trump Supporter

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

by Neil Godfrey

This post is about propaganda and how it works, and how it is working today in an unhealthy way in the United States — as perceived by me, an Australian.

When I was struggling in my last days in a religious cult I picked up The Mind of the Bible-Believer by Edmund Cohen and I hated so much of what I read. My copy of the book is riddled with pencilled notes that do sometimes tick and underline stong agreement but at other times asterisk outraged disagreement. It was early days for me. Take the fourth chapter, The Evangelical Mind-Control System. Its first subsection is headed Device 1: The Benign, Attractive Persona of the Bible. I have a pencilled note against that heading:

No — Bible is an open book. In fact many without in depth study of the Bible say it is very unattractive.

I see now in hindsight that I was missing the point of the argument. But let’s get to the point. This post is a follow up to Characteristics of Trump Supporters. I once posted The Benign, Attractive Persona of the Bible. Let’s compare the mind-control methods that trap the bible-believer with the propaganda of Trump.


Device 1: The Benign, Attractive Persona of Trump

He’s a winner. He promises his supporter’s they’ll get sick of winning. And he’s an underdog, a mere outsider, and boasts that the outsider can change the system. And Fox cable TV is sexy.


Cohen began his discussion of the Bible thus,

The best things in the Bible are superficial. Another way of understanding the kindly, philanthropic, and surprisingly tolerant old-time religion we described earlier is to note that its proponents took the lovely surface impressions of Jesus in the Gospels and built a whole new religion out of them alone.

. . . .

What I mean by the persona of the Bible, then, is an apparent relevancy of teaching and promise of benefit that finally turn out to have totally different meanings from what the new inductee was led to think. We will encounter it many times, as our analysis unfolds. Little by little, newcomers are brought along to understand the teachings to mean something altogether different from what appeared on the surface—

(pp. 170, 171. My bolded highlighting)

What comes to mind here are points such as “draining the swamp“. That phrase once meant shutting down the ability of rich and powerful elites from using their wealth and power to catapult them to even more wealth and power. We have seen in the last few days how a President who has used his office to benefit his own companies and those of his family (Trump enterprises and those of his daughter and wife) while attacking political opponents (e.g. Joe and Hunter Biden) who appear to have been doing much the same.


Device 2: Discrediting “The World”

Edmund Cohen writes, p. 172:

We earlier covered representative biblical teachings requiring the believer to distrust and to disparage reliance on his own mind for knowledge.

Trump continually pounds the message that nothing said by his critics has any credibility. They are all making up “fake news”. The Democrats are motivated by an inability to accept that they lost the 2016 election and that’s why they continually look for ways to attack “your favourite president”. They even “make up fake sources” for their stories. read more »


Characteristics of Trump Supporters

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

by Neil Godfrey

If it fits. . . .

I live in Australia but some things I have seen of ardent Trump supporters seem . . . not entirely desirable. Am I mistaken for thinking that there is a certain clamorousness, a certain closed-mindedness against the views of “the other”? Back in 2007 I posted 10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism and earlier today I ran through the points and wondered. . . .

1. They (fundamentalists) are counter-modernist. It (fundamentalism) manifests itself as an attempt by “besieged believers” to find their refuge in arming themselves with an identity that is rooted in a past golden age. And this identity is acted out in an attempt to restore that “golden past”.

My impression: They (Trump supporters) are opposed to “liberals” and what we might see as progressive liberal values, yes? They like the idea of tossing aside all that PC speak, for example, and just going back to the common-sense world of the old days, — Americans, tell me if I’m right. Also, to get America back where it was when it “was great” — with car manufacturing jobs etc abounding again. And what’s with all the rules trying to stop people driving SUVs and dumping waste into rivers? It even extends to envisioning some sort of biblical Israel restored at their behest.


2. They (fundamentalists) are “generally assertive, clamorous, and often violent”.

Oh yes. I don’t think there is much doubt there, is there?


3. They are “the Chosen”, “the Elect”, “the Saved”. And as such, they are “privileged” or “burdened” with a special mission on behalf of their deity and for the benefit of the world. . . . “To be chosen is to be marked for a superior fate; one is marked by virtue of being superior“. 

Those are religious terms. Is it fair to think there is an analogy, though? They certainly seem to me to look down upon those who are still somehow lost in the “extreme left”, “liberal values”, “Democrats…”, so much so that they don’t need to listen to them seriously. And we do have “white supremacists” among the Trump supporters. America should be for Americans, yes, so a wall is needed to keep out those not part of “the elect”.


4. Public marks of distinction are needed to maintain their sense of superiority and distinctive identity. Not only for the purpose of maintaining that distinctive identity, but also as “part of the narcissistic struggle to be considered unique and special.” (p.30)

Do MAGA caps count?


5. There is only one true religion and one correct way of life; and these must be defended against inroads from other religions and secularism.

And that true way of life sure as hell doesn’t include “PC nonsense”. And it has to be defended against criminals and other subversives from over the southern border; and from “socialists” and “greenies”, and “the deep state”, and the “fake media”.


6. There is an inerrant holy book, prophet or charismatic leader to whom literal obedience is mandatory.

No holy book or Mein Kampf can come from a semi-literate. And can the leader do any serious or real wrong? It seems not. Accusations to the contrary are entirely fake, we are told. And the only view worth listening to, it appears, is the leader’s. All others are “fake”. Simply ignore them. Deny them. Mock them.


7. Law and authority come from God.

Evangelical supporters of Trump think Trump is God’s agent. Other secular supporters appear to think that they subscribe to a “higher law” that has the right to thumb its nose at the way things have always been done, at the Constitution and legal procedures, the latter being redefined according to the will of Trump. There is clearly an authoritarian streak.


8. Female sexuality must be controlled and clear impassable boundaries must be established between men and women.

Abortion is now deemed to be a crime.


9. Sexual behaviour is a major concern of all fundamentalists — Christian, Jewish, Islamic — without exception. Especially the fear of and opposition to homosexuality.

I don’t know if there is anything of note here apart from the Fundamentalist church groups who support Trump. Trump has known how to align with this demographic. Is homosexuality an issue beyond the Christian supporters?


10. Fundamentalism and nationalism converge. The moral life according to the will of God can only be fully lived in a society of fellow-practitioners of the belief. This can only be achieved through God’s rule — through the national executive and legislature itself. Hence the importance of bringing about a government that will prioritize the right morals and right culture for the nation — relegating other (economic) functions to a secondary place.

Oh yes. Definitely.


Review part 4: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Agnosticism – I, Methods)

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

by Neil Godfrey

After reviewing the efforts of Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey to present their respective cases for the historicity of Jesus we now come to chapter 4, Inadequate Methods. By way of summing up the previous discussion Raphael Lataster writes

The recent defences of Jesus’ historicity by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey lack lucid and competent methodologies, rely on highly questionable documents, and further make use of sources that no longer exist, if they ever did. They are polemical, occasionally vulgar, and often resorted to cavilling, focussing on tangential arguments of the more amateurish mythicists. They unquestionably failed, and this may have something to do with my introductory thoughts on just what sort of scholar should be investigating the issue; analytical philosophers seem much more suited to the task. (p. 129)

In response to the objection that “ahistoricists” or “mythicists” do not have an alternative explanation for Christian origins Lataster is blunt:

This is similar to the agnosticism over God’s existence. Those agnostics do not need to have evidence that God does not exist. They just need to be unconvinced by the lack of good evidence for God’s existence. In other words, my case for Historical Jesus agnosticism does not need to rely on good alternative hypotheses, though it certainly can be strengthened by them. (p. 129)

History is done differently when it comes to Jesus. And those doing the history on Jesus are, in the main, theologians or “biblical scholars” of some stripe who cannot deny that

. . . most people know of Jesus because of the historical reality of religious faith. (p. 131)

It’s like saying “Most people know about the massacres of Aboriginals in the Frontier Wars because of what they’d been told.” So how do we go about finding the fact of the matter?

I bypass here Lataster’s discussion of the respective appeals to “insider” and “outsider” sources (those of believers and those of outsiders), or the little controversy over the Jesus Project initiated by R. Joseph Hoffmann that he also addresses.

Lataster begins the core argument of this chapter with the theoretically correct point, “History Concerns What Probably Happened.” I find such arguments too theoretical. Indeed, one of the historians Lataster cites in this section expresses my view exactly:

That history as record is “relative,” may be admitted, in the sense that deriving as it does from the perception and testimony of men [sic – published 1946], it often borrows shape and color from the subjective medium through which it passes. Furthermore, the objective facts are perhaps never reproduced in their full range of authentic detail. But it is folly to leap thence to the conclusion that nothing can be absolutely known about the historical past. That Napoleon Bonaparte existed, that he fought Europe, was worsted at Waterloo, and died at St. Helena, are facts which we can be said to know absolutely. On the other hand, that his personality was such or such, that he was dominated by this passion or that, may very well be matters about which we have not, and probably cannot have knowledge that is final and irreversible. . . .

But “probability beyond reasonable doubt,” if we overlook the contradiction involved in this statement, is equivalent to certainty. What we hold “beyond reasonable doubt,” we hold with certainty. . . .

Although the historian can never attain the same certainty which is attained by the mathematician, the physicist, or the chemist, nevertheless, especially in the case of converging lines of evidence, he is able to reach such moral certainty as is the basis of nearly all our actions. (Freeman, Methods of History)

(Garraghan, pp. 78, 79)

If we cannot see evidence that persuades us “beyond reasonable doubt” that Jesus existed then we are compelled to maintain reasonable doubts and not deny them. Juries are required to find a defendant guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” and not be content with a “probably guilty” verdict.

As for the sources historians study, they fall into two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources are generally understood to be contemporary with the events being studied, secondary from a later time. Both types of source must be subject to the same scrutiny and Lataster cites Garraghan three times in the book on this point: read more »