2021-01-22

Conspiracy theories — true and false and how to tell the difference

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by Neil Godfrey

https://www.ft.com/content/d74de6e2-a740-481e-b377-f4cece7e6288

Colin Dickey has an excellent article on GEN, How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.

He stresses the importance of recognizing that conspiracies do in fact exist. Don’t come across like a condescending know-it-all and lazily resort to appeals to authority (the mainstream media sources, for example). Acknowledge that the conspiracy theorist may be motivated by a genuine concern for real injustices, so by laughing in the face of a QAnon believer in a vast pedophile ring led by the Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden, you can come across as not caring about child abuse. Colin Dickey proposes better ways to approach that kind of conspiracy theorist.

Here I would like to focus on his explanation of the differences between real and hoax conspiracies:

How Real Conspiracies Become Known

Conspiracies are real. Think of Watergate, the Iran-Contra episode, (I would add COINTELPRO and the conspiracy to lead the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq), the tobacco lobby, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. The more widespread a conspiracy the more effort is required into keeping more people quiet.

When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. . . . What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?

After all, even highly organized conspiracies with limitless government backing and resources can’t stay hidden forever.

Successful conspiracies take hard work to keep them secret. The bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved. Watergate became known through a bookkeeper for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, Judy Hoback Miller, who “felt frustrated” that the “truth was not coming out”.

People like Miller [are] the “so-called ‘minor people” — the secretaries, security guards, and other low-level employees who worked behind the scenes for the big players who were often the first to talk. Such people are rarely ideologues nor are they being paid enough. The complexities of QAnon likewise would require a massive number of such minor people; people who, it stands to reason, have no ideological commitment to such horrors but are nonetheless employed in carrying them out. Such people ought to be easy to get to talk. When no such whistleblowers emerge, it speaks to the thinness of the story.

Compare the exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in the early days of the war on terror. This was

documented by none other than hobbyist plane spotters, who noted the tail numbers of flights taking off and landing. 

The more wide-reaching a conspiracy — the more victims it has, the more perpetrators involved, the wider geographical distance covered, etc. — the more traces it will leave. A conspiracy theory that is widely hypothesized and yet unproven, in other words, requires a level of human infallibility that we have never heretofore seen.

 

Hiding 35,000 children

QAnon alleges thousands of victims yet has produced none. Timothy Charles Holmseth, a conspiracist who claims to be part of a (nonexistent) Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, alleged in May that this same task force rescued some 35,000 children from an underground network of prisons beneath New York’s Central Park.. . . . Who are these victims, and where are their families? Where are the obituaries, the memorials, the tearful mothers on the steps of the Capitol holding press conferences, demanding justice? “There’s not one of them out there who said, ‘Yeah, we’re glad our child was rescued from this giant underground war,’” Craig Sawyer, an anti-sex-trafficking activist and critic of Holmseth, told the Daily Beast.

Understanding

Colin Dickey’s article is worth reading for his insights into the psychology of the conspiracy theorist and for becoming aware of smart ways to approach discussions with those who may be part of something like QAnon. I mentioned above one possible concern: that people really are concerned for some injustice or crime or abuse. Another point he elaborates on is the possibility that for some of us, the idea of a vast and highly successful perfect crime is in one sense reassuring: the world is not so subject to the chaos, the randomness, the lack of controls, – the world is thereby, most ironically, made a more tolerable, safer, place.


Dickey, Colin. “How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.” GEN, October 8, 2020. https://gen.medium.com/how-to-talk-to-a-conspiracy-theorist-20122a39ac8a.


 


2021-01-21

The 1776 Report: History as Political Propaganda

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by Neil Godfrey

Thank Clio that Biden withdrew the report on his first day but I still feel some dismay after having read it right through last night. It is the American counterpart of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, a treatise of holy writ as sacred and unquestionable Pat Robertson’s Holy Bible. My initial curiosity was stirred by having read only a few days earlier on page one of Rupert Murdoch’s leading newspaper in Australia a news item about a report by right wing “think tank”, The Institute of Public Affairs, for the incumbent Liberal Party, deeply critical of the way humanities courses are being taught in Australian universities. (The report can be found here.) The 1776 Report is more of the same, in particular more of the same of an earlier IPA report focusing on the teaching of history, or to be even more exact, many pages more of the same type sweeping bromides and absence of substance, ignorance about the nature of history, outright falsehoods about how it is taught and inability to comprehend the outcomes of history teaching today.

The 1776 Report opens by declaring that the United States was founded in “fundamental truths” that must never be abandoned. All political concerns of different sectors of society can be addressed harmoniously by a “proper understanding” of the words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Whether you belong to the richest 1% or are one of the long-term unemployed in a slum area, you are a part of a same nation, one people, and are part of a system that is set up to “promote your happiness” that all “the nations of the world” will envy and want to emulate. The purpose of teaching history is to create a people united in their beliefs about themselves as Americans, who feel “inspired and ennobled” by what they learn about America’s past. The opening sentence points to the spirit of fundamentalism through which it enjoins readers to believe in their history. Despite mistakes and wrongs from time to time, the American people have always been fundamentally good and righteous:

. . . . Americans will never falter in defending the fundamental truths of human liberty proclaimed on July 4, 1776. We will—we must—always hold these truths. [Later, seven times, the documents speaks of America’s “self-evident and eternal truths” — implying their ultimately divine origin.]

. . . the principles of the American founding . . . have shaped our country. . . . [The founders] sought to build America as a shining “city on a hill”—an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice. The record of our founders’ striving and the nation they built is our shared inheritance and remains a beacon, as Abraham Lincoln said, “not for one people or one time, but for all people for all time.”

. . . .

The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history. Controversies about the meaning of the founding can begin to be resolved by looking at the facts of our nation’s founding. Properly understood, these facts address the concerns and aspirations of Americans of all social classes, income levels, races and religions, regions and walks of life. As well, these facts provide necessary—and wise—cautions against unrealistic hopes and checks against pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas too hard or too far.

. . . the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice, which are the political conditions for living well. To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.

. . . America’s principlesare named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time. 

No nation, we further read, has “strived harder, or done more, to achieve” “equality, liberty, justice and government by consent” than America.

It is like reading a holy book, a promise that to “truly” understand American history is to enter a sacred experience and progress towards becoming an ideal citizen, one who is part of showing the world the epitome of universal truths, becoming part of the nation that is the envy of the world.

It does not replace religion, though. At least not directly. It lays claim, in effect, to being the one sacred place where one can find the true fulfilment of one’s religion. Religion is given meaning insofar as religion allows itself to become a prophet of the American experience. “God” and “Providence” are mentioned 26 times and Providence in the Project. “Religion” and “religious” 18 and 51 times respectively. “Faith” 29 times. “Christian” and “Christianity” 12 times. “Sacred” 7 times and “divine” 6. Two Bible verses are quoted. Even “miracles” and “miraculous” make mentions — each time to describe the creation of the United States of America.

Some years back I posted on the characteristics of fundamentalism as set out by the scholar Tamas Pataki: 10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism. Among the characteristics are

  • the seeking to restore golden past;
  • the belief that they are part of an elect, a chosen;
  • the narcissistic self-perspective that they are part of something unique, special;
  • the conviction that there is only one true and correct way of life and there is no middle ground: you are either with us or against us;
  • there is a sacred founding book, a bible, (or sacred writings of the fathers,) to which literal obedience is mandatory;
  • the belief that law and authority come from God (or the worlds of nature and reason that God explicitly created as means of revelation of himself);
  • a spirit of nationalism.

I have adapted some points where I believe they apply to the perspective expressed in The 1776 Report but they all apply and so also, I suspect, do the others that I have not listed here.

The idea of fundamentalism is not that one thinks oneself is perfect but that one is “fundamentally good”, and because one is fundamentally good, one’s failures can be minimized, swept aside, excused. So when slavery is discussed it is pointed out very quickly that “slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout history” and that the Western world only began to repudiate slavery “at the time of the American Revolution.” The same discussion takes a curious byway into a discussion of how the pro-slavery senator John Calhoun promoted a “new theory” of “group rights” (those of the slave-owners) that opposed the “unifying” “self-evident and eternal truths” of the Declaration of Independence. It is only when one reads further on and into the section on Racism and Identity Politics and one learns the purpose of this digression:

The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders. The ideas that drove this change had been growing in America for decades, and they distorted many areas of policy in the half century that followed. Among the distortions was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of “group rights” not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers. The justification for reversing the promise of color-blind civil rights was that past discrimination requires present effort, or affirmative action in the form of preferential treatment, to overcome long-accrued inequalities. 

It takes some chutzpah to find a way to compare advocates for affirmative action to Calhoun-type racism. (For a discussion on racism today see Racism (without the hatred).

Other noble movements in the course of American history that have been part of making the United States the “most free” and the “envy of the world” have been

abolition, women’s suffrage, anti-Communism, and the Pro-Life Movement. 

Did you also find yourself catching your breath for a moment when you read some of those programs on a list of “great reforms” that have “come forward [to] improve our dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence under the Constitution”? I don’t think I need to elaborate here. Movements that oppose these, indeed, even today’s generation born from the Civil Rights movement, are condemned as being “fundamentally” anti-American:

More problematic have been movements that reject the fundamental truths of the Declaration of Independence and seek to destroy our constitutional order. The arguments, tactics, and names of these movements have changed, and the magnitude of the challenge has varied, yet they are all united by adherence to the same falsehood—that people do not have equal worth and equal rights.

Stick that, you Black Lives Matters protesters.

The 1776 Report informs Americans that

All the good things we see around us—from the physical infrastructure, to our high standards of living, to our exceptional freedoms—are direct results of America’s unity, stability, and justice, all of which in turn rest on the bedrock of our founding principles.

Clearly, the authors are all well-to-do, live in very nice surroundings and with high standards of living. What of the others? Well, the Project does happily say that Americans who are “down on their luck” (it’s luck that is to blame) are rescued by good religious folks:

Local religious leaders have been a key buttress supporting our communities. Neighborhood and parish churches, temples, and mosques still are the strongest organized centers of help for the local poor, jobless, homeless, and families down on their luck. For generations, neighbors have assisted neighbors through church networks, helping the needy avoid the dehumanization of prolonged dependency on government welfare. Today, countless men and women actively feed and care for the poor, house and speak for immigrants and the disadvantaged, minister to jailed and released criminals, and advocate powerfully for a better society and a more peaceful world, supported by the charitable funding of Americans of all faiths.

Interesting wording. Other more “socialist-inclined” nations consider it society’s responsibility to care for those who have been victims of an economic system that has penalized them through no fault of their own. That society would through the state care for these people is considered by the authors of The 1776 Report to be an act of “dehumanization”.

I could write much more but enough is enough. The 1776 Report is an odious document that would use a particular historical narrative to justify the present power structures in the United States and condemn those who would seek serious change and justice.

History as properly taught is not a single narrative designed to promote tingly feelings of being “the most exceptional people on earth”. There is no justice in promoting “unifying, inspiring and ennobliing” feelings if they hide one from the past injustices that have produced the divisions and inequities we see all around us today. I am not suggesting that one must hate one’s nation. Remember that one of the traps of fundamentalism listed above is black and white thinking. To critically understand and explore the truth, very often too long lost from view, of the past does not have to be an act of hatred but one of determination to make things better. That sort of determination is an act of love, not hatred.

There is much more to address, especially with respect to the emphasis in both the American and Australian reports on “Liberal education” (as in the sense of Classical Liberal). Maybe over time I can post more on why this kind of education is not necessarily the way to “human understanding and liberation” that it is cracked up to be, but why an education in the humanities is indeed an essential part of a just society.

Moreelse’s Clio, Muse of History

 


Armageddon: Another Eric Cline Interview

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s just under 20 minutes long or 18 MB download; about the history of the archaeology of Megiddon or Armageddon:

 Digging Up Armageddon, Eric Clines interviewed by Philip Adams on Late Night Live.


This is the second interview with Eric Cline that we’ve linked to on Vridar. The earlier one was back in 2007: Sensational biblical archaeology — Eric Cline interview

Eric Cline, not to be confused with David Clines whom we have referenced many times here, also.


2021-01-18

The Big Lie: from Germany to Russia to the United States

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by Neil Godfrey

The lie outlasts the liar. The idea that Germany lost the First World War in 1918 because of a Jewish “stab in the back” was 15 years old when Hitler came to power. How will Trump’s myth of victimhood function in American life 15 years from now? And to whose benefit? — Timothy Snyder

Like historical fascist leaders, Trump has presented himself as the single source of truth. His use of the term “fake news” echoed the Nazi smear Lügenpresse (“lying press”); like the Nazis, he referred to reporters as “enemies of the people.” Like Adolf Hitler, he came to power at a moment when the conventional press had taken a beating; the financial crisis of 2008 did to American newspapers what the Great Depression did to German ones. The Nazis thought that they could use radio to replace the old pluralism of the newspaper; Trump tried to do the same with Twitter.

Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.

Totalitarianism in the age of Trump: lessons from Hannah Arendt

Some of his lies were, admittedly, medium-size: that he was a successful businessman; that Russia did not support him in 2016; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Such medium-size lies were the standard fare of aspiring authoritarians in the 21st century. In Poland the right-wing party built a martyrdom cult around assigning blame to political rivals for an airplane crash that killed the nation’s president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban blames a vanishingly small number of Muslim refugees for his country’s problems. But such claims were not quite big lies; they stretched but did not rend what Hannah Arendt called “the fabric of factuality.

One historical big lie discussed by Arendt is Joseph Stalin’s explanation of starvation in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33. The state had collectivized agriculture, then applied a series of punitive measures to Ukraine that ensured millions would die. Yet the official line was that the starving were provocateurs, agents of Western powers who hated socialism so much they were killing themselves. A still grander fiction, in Arendt’s account, is Hitlerian anti-Semitism: the claims that Jews ran the world, Jews were responsible for ideas that poisoned German minds, Jews stabbed Germany in the back during the First World War. Intriguingly, Arendt thought big lies work only in lonely minds; their coherence substitutes for experience and companionship.

In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures. The level of mendacity was profound. The claim was not only wrong, but it was also made in bad faith, amid unreliable sources. It challenged not just evidence but logic: Just how could (and why would) an election have been rigged against a Republican president but not against Republican senators and representatives? Trump had to speak, absurdly, of a “Rigged (for President) Election.”

The force of a big lie resides in its demand that many other things must be believed or disbelieved. To make sense of a world in which the 2020 presidential election was stolen requires distrust not only of reporters and of experts but also of local, state and federal government institutions, from poll workers to elected officials, Homeland Security and all the way to the Supreme Court. It brings with it, of necessity, a conspiracy theory: Imagine all the people who must have been in on such a plot and all the people who would have had to work on the cover-up.

See also

David Cay Johnston

The remainder of Timothy Snyder’s article is most disturbing reading. Trump can disappear but in the present context of disillusionment and loss of confidence in the political system that will open the door to a worse outcome. The potential for national fracturing violence and intimidation in 2024 is real. As per David Cay Johnston of DCReport.org:

We’re Fighting The Second American Civil War

 

 


Lessons From the 6 January Insurrection

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by Neil Godfrey

It will be seen if the ruling elite in the US is capable of responding to the reality in their nation. Otherwise this was a poorly executed first try. The second will be better organised.

An excellent analysis of the deeper national pressures that erupted in the January 6 storming of the Capitol:

Lessons From the 6 January Insurrection

(h/t Brave New Europe)

image from ksusentinal

by Albena Azmanova and Marshall Auerback (the article being produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute).

Highlights

While the majority of Americans deplored the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, it was troubling to see a YouGov poll indicating that 1 in 5 voters approved of the assault. Their attitudes were buttressed by a significant number of House and Senate Republicans who have egged on the matter by continuing to call into question the legitimacy of last November’s election result. This is a sign that the rot in the American political system goes deep.

. . . .

Let this be our wake-up call, America’s “Beirut blast.” The bomb explosion that devastated large parts of Beirut last summer was not an isolated, unfortunate occurrence, but the profound manifestation of decades of incompetence, complacency, and corruption in the Lebanese government—an outcome of the ruling classes’ criminal neglect of essential public needs. . . .

. . . . The focus on the relatively small group that broke into the Capitol as a result of lax security is akin to focusing on the Beirut blast wreckage to the exclusion of all else. Far more significant are the surveys of representative samples of Americans that reveal deepening mistrust of the core institutions and a growing commitment to sectarian interests which have, in many parts of the nation, superseded commitment to the republic itself.

. . . .

. . . . for many the assault on the Capitol was also an insurgency against the entire political class. “All these politicians work for us. We pay their salaries, we pay our taxes. And what do we get? Nothing. All of them inside are traitors”—as a member of the mob stated.

Fading Illusion of Democracy

On this particular point, the grievances of the violent mob and the findings of scholars align: America is an oligarchy, not a functioning democracy, as the detailed study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argued in 2014. Thus, much as this was an assault on American democracy, the storming of the Capitol was also a sign that American democracy had already failed. Surely, these clumsy “revolutionaries” did not storm the Capitol because they are living the American Dream—and they are blaming, unsurprisingly, the whole political class for their malaise.

Whenever economic explanations of this radicalization are attempted, inequality is singled out as the root of working-class discontent. . . . A cross-party consensus is now emerging on fighting inequality through redistribution—from raising the minimum wage to increasing unemployment benefits.

One reason why inequality has attracted so much attention is that it is easily measurable. Indeed, reports of the top 1% . . . easily appeal to our sense of injustice. However . . . many . . . still admire the rich. Additionally, the singular focus on economic inequality obscures another phenomenon—the massive economic insecurity which is affecting broader swathes of the population beyond the ‘precariat’ (those in poorly paid and insecure jobs). While insecurity is not easy to measure and report, it is in fact at the root of the social malaise of Western societies.

Seeing economic precarity as a root cause also helps to better explain why so much of the working-class radicalization has taken a turn to the right. Right-wing populists specifically evoke language that triggers conservative instincts—the evocation of family, a desire for stability, for clinging strongly to what is familiar (“Make America Great Again”) . . . .

Even under recent Democratic Administrations, economic recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown happened through a growth in insecure employment. The services jobs that fueled U.S. economic growth for the past 40 years—until the pandemic began to destroy them—were numerous, but of low quality. . . .

The American economy has begun to resemble a new, modern feudalism with a small technocracy dominated by Silicon Valley tech overlords and Wall Street billionaires at the top, and a large, uneducated, rapidly growing serf class at the bottom with no social safety net to protect it.
Another analyst who describes today’s post-capitalist world as a “neo-feudalism“: Yanis Varoufakis, Designing a Postcapitalist Future in the Midst of the Pandemic:

This system, in which Big Tech and the financial sector yield immense power, and the ultra-rich own almost everything, cannot really be described as capitalism. Techno-feudalism comes closer to capturing the spirit of the present. Under this dystopic post-capitalism, our techno-feudal lords have the power to manipulate our behaviour at an industrial scale advertisers could never even dream of.

Shredding the Safety Nets

. . . the evisceration of unions, the deconstruction of the welfare state, and the privatization of public services. Most importantly, funding for public services and social programs has been persistently slashed. It is this impoverishment of the public commons that has increased the importance of personal wealth in securing essential goods such as healthcare and education.

Even with political efforts to reduce inequality America will continue to spiral into dysfunction

But no matter how equal society becomes in terms of wealth distribution, without a dramatic government investment in public services, notably education, healthcare provision, and job security, distrust and disillusionment in American institutions will persist, and with that also the rise of militancy by a radicalized underclass.

To underscore the “remarkable indifference” of policymakers towards these trends, Azmanova and Auerback link to an article, the title of which says all you need to read: Trump’s $2,000 Stimulus Checks Are a Big Mistake: Family incomes are not down much from Covid-19, and there is a risk of overheating the economy.


Azmanova, Albena, and Marshall Auerback. “Lessons From the 6 January Insurrection.” Brave New Europe (blog), January 16, 2021. https://braveneweurope.com/albena-azmanova-marshall-auerback-lessons-from-the-6-january-insurrection.


 


2021-01-17

When, Why and How People Change Their Minds

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by Neil Godfrey

I especially loved these words towards the end of the same podcast — I cannot pinpoint a single “straw that broke the back” of my religious beliefs; I look back instead at a series of moments that led me towards atheism. One can also understand why it is so easy to demonize those on “the other side” of a political or religious fence and from there begin to appreciate what it takes for our minds to change.

People are not perfect Bayesian reasoners as much as we would like to aspire to be. People do not have a set of priors that are well delineated and then collect new data and update them according to Bayes’s formula, that’s not what people do. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t change their minds, people change their minds all the time.

soft landing

1:29:48.7 SC: What often happens is something that can be very familiar to physicists who know about phase transitions, the thing that causes someone to change their mind might not be, and in fact, rarely is the straw that broke the camel’s back. There can be a little thing that they get, the little piece of information and experience, whatever it is, that is associated in time with the moment they change their mind. But the actual cause of them changing their mind is a set of many, many things stretching back in time, okay? You have a person with an opinion, with a belief, a credence in a certain proposition, and they get data that is against that proposition, and data in the very broadest sense, it’s not like they’re being physicists, but they get information, experiences, new stories, conversations with friends, that cause them to think about that particular proposition, and then they don’t change their mind immediately, ’cause that’s not how people work, but that has an effect on them. Even if the effect is invisible at the level of their actual beliefs in propositions, hearing that thing can nevertheless affect them at a deeper level.

1:30:56.8 SC: And if they hear something else, and something else, and something else over a period of time, they can eventually be led to change their mind without it ever being possible to associate the reason for that change with a particular piece of information that they got. Not to mention the fact that often, this data in a very, very broad sense is not data. In other words, the thing that is causing people to change their minds is not some piece of information or some rational argument, but something much more visceral, something much more emotional. Realizing that this person who is a member of a group that they have hated and denigrated for years, they meet a member of that group and become friends with them, suddenly maybe their minds change, right? You are against gay people getting married and then you have a child who turns out to be gay and wants to get married, maybe you change your mind, right? For no especially good reason epistemically, rationally, but you realize that, “I wasn’t really that devoted to that opinion in the first place.”

1:31:55.4 SC: There are many ways to change people’s minds, and it really does happen, and all of this is just to say it’s worth trying. It’s not worth trying reaching out to the extremists, to the crazies, but there are plenty of people who are not like that. There are plenty of people who are just not that devoted. And those people might not be wedded to the views that they very readily profess to believe in right now. This is part of the challenge of democracy, those people count, just as much as the most informed voters count. And of course, there are hyper-informed voters who are extremists on both sides, so it’s not just a matter of information levels, but there are people who are, in principle and in practice, reachable and people who are not, and we should try to reach the ones who are reachable. And again, I would give that advice to the other side as well, if the other side thinks that they wanna reach some people who are on the opposite side, they can try to reach me and I’m here to be reached, right?

1:32:54.6 SC: Change takes time. Often it is not a matter of marshaling better arguments, it’s just setting a good example, providing people with a soft landing. One of the hardest things about changing your mind politically is that it is associated with a million other things in your life, your friendship networks, your families, etcetera, your beliefs about many different things. The joke we had back in George W. Bush’s days, I think Michael Berube was the first person who’ve made this joke, but the joke was, “Well, yeah, I was a life-long Democrat but then 9/11 happened, and now I’m outraged about Chappaquiddick.” The point is, for those of you young people out here, Chappaquiddick was this scandal where Ted Kennedy was in an automobile accident and Mary Jo Kopechne, a woman who was in the car with him, and he plunged into the river and she died, she drowned and he was able to swim to shore, and survived obviously, and continued in the Senate. And Republicans were outraged though, this was like a terrible thing, and Democrats made excuses for it.

1:33:57.7 SC: And the joke being that once you change your tribal political affiliation, your opinion about this historical event changes along with it, because these are connected to each other. And so, I wanna mention this in the opposite way also, so not just that all of these other opinions will change along with you if you do change your mind about something, but that in order to get someone to change their mind, you have to make it seem reasonable for them to live in a whole another world, right? For them to live in a world where a whole set of beliefs are no longer taken for granted in a certain way. That’s what it means by offering a soft landing.

Anthony Pinn

1:34:33.9 SC: One of the very first podcast I did was with Tony Pinn, who was an atheist theologian, who reaches out to black communities and tries to spread the good word of atheism to them. And one of the points he made over and over again is that black people are very religious in part because atheism does not provide them with a soft landing. You can make a rational argument that God doesn’t exist, but they need to figure out a way to live their lives and in the lives of many black communities, religion plays an important role, and if you simply say, “Well, we’re not gonna replace that role, you gotta learn to live with it,” then they’re not gonna be persuaded to go along with you. So part of persuading the other side and reaching out to it is making them feel welcome. And again, I get it if this seems hard to do, if you just want these people to be punished and they don’t deserve it, etcetera, etcetera, I get that, but that’s gonna make living in a democracy harder for all of us, if that’s the attitude we all take.

The key takeaway point makes the third point here the one to think about the most:

 


Applying Bayesian Reasoning to Trump’s Claims of Election Fraud

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by Neil Godfrey

From the transcript of Sean Carroll’s Mindscape program, 129| Solo: Democracy in America [h/t Bob Moore]

0:15:13.8 SC: . . . . the idea that the election was stolen was made by a whole bunch of partisan actors, but it was also, I think, importantly, taken up as something worth considering, even if not necessarily true, by various contrarian, centrist pundits, right?

0:16:32.1 SC: . . . . So the answer I would have put forward is, “No. [chuckle] It was never worth taking that kind of claim seriously.” . . . . We like to talk here about being Bayesian, and in fact, it’s almost a cliche in certain corners of the internet talking about being good Bayesians, and what is meant by that is, for a set of propositions like the election was stolen, the election was not stolen. Okay, two propositions mutually exclusive, so you assign prior probabilities or prior credences to these propositions being true. So you might say,

      • “Well, elections are not usually stolen, so the credence I would put on that claim my prior is very, very small.
      • And the credence I would put on it not being stolen is very large.”

So we collect the data that will help us assess which proposition is the more likely. If the data is not what we would expect if X were true, then we revise our estimation that X really did happen. If the data we collect is exactly what we would expect to find if X were true, then we can be confident that X is indeed most likely true.

0:18:51.0 SC: . . . . So in a case like this where a bunch of people are saying, “Oh, there was election fraud, irregularities, the counting was off by this way or that way. It all seems suspicious.” You should ask yourself, “Did I expect that to happen?” The point is that if you expected exactly those claims to be made, even if the underlying proposition that the election was stolen is completely false, then seeing those claims being made provides zero evidence for you to change your credences whatsoever. Okay? So to make that abstract statement a little more down to earth, in the case of the elections being stolen, how likely was it that if Donald Trump did not win the election, that he and his allies would claim the election was stolen independent of whether it was, okay? What was the probability that he was going to say that there were irregularities and it was stolen?

0:20:19.6 SC: Well, a 100%, roughly speaking, 99.999, if you wanna be little bit more meta-physically careful, but they announced ahead of time that they were going to make those claims, right? He had been saying for months that the very idea of voting by mail is irregular and was going to lead to fraud, and they worked very hard to make the process difficult, both to cast votes and then to count them, different states had different ways of counting, certain states were prohibited from counting mail in ballots ahead of time. The Democrats were much more likely to vote by mail than the Republicans were, they slowed down the postal service, trying to make it take longer for mail-in votes to get there. There’s it’s a whole bunch of things going on in prior elections in the primaries, Trump had accused his opponents of rigging the election and stealing votes without any evidence.

0:21:15.3 SC: So your likelihood to function, that you would see these claims rise up even if the underlying proposition was not true, is basically, 100%. And therefore, as a good Bayesian, the fact that people were raising questions about the integrity of the election means nothing. It’s just what you expect to happen.

Oh someone claimed that something’s going on, therefore it’s my job to evaluate it and wait for more evidence to come in.

The data we need to see in order to take the claims of fraud seriously:

If you really want to spend any effort at all taking a claim like this seriously, you have to go beyond that simple thing, “Oh someone claimed that something’s going on, therefore it’s my job to evaluate it and wait for more evidence to come in.”

You should ask further questions, “What else should I expect to be true if this claim was correct?” For example, if the Democrats had somehow been able to get a lot of false ballots, rig elections, you would expect to see certain patterns, like Democrats winning a lot of elections, they had been predicted to lose different cities where or locations more broadly, where the frauds were purported to happen would be ones where anomalously large percentages of people were voting for Biden rather than Trump.

0:22:28.3 SC: In both cases, in both the idea that you would predict Democrats winning elections, they had been predicted lose and places where fraud was alleged to have happened would be anomalously pro-Biden it was the opposite. And you could instantly see that it was the opposite, right after election day.

      • The Democrats lost elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate that they were favored to win.

So they were very bad at packing the ballots, if that’s really what they were trying to do.

      • In cities like Philadelphia where it was alleged that a great voter fraud was taking place, Trump did better in 2020 than he did in 2016.

So right away, without working very hard, you know this is egregious bullshit, there is no duty to think, to take seriously, to spend your time worrying about the likely truth of this outrageous claim, all of which is completely compatible with every evidence, the falsity of which is completely compatible with all the evidence we have.

0:23:32.2 SC: So just to make it dramatic, let me spend a little bit of time here… Let me give you an aside, which is my favorite example of what I mean by this kind of attitude because it is very tricky. You should never, and I’m very happy to admit, you should never assign zero credence to essentially any crazy claim. That would be bad practice as a good Bayesian because if you assign assigned zero credence to any claim, then no amount of new evidence would ever change your mind. Okay? You’re taking the prior probability multiplying it with the likelihood, but at if the prior probability is zero, then it doesn’t matter what the likelihood is, you’re always gonna get zero at the end. And you should be open to the idea that evidence could come in that this outrageous claim is true, that the election was stolen, it’s certainly plausible that such evidence would come in.

0:24:21.9 SC: Now it didn’t, right, when actually they did have their day in court, they were laughed … out of court because they had zero evidence, even all the way up to January 6th when people in Congress were raising a stink about the election not being fair, they still had no evidence. The only claim they could make was that people were upset and people had suspicions, right? Even months later, so there was never any evidence that it was worth taking seriously. But nevertheless, even without that, I do think you should give some credence and therefore you have to do the hard work of saying, “Well, I’m giving it some non-zero credence, but so little that it’s not really worth spending even a minute worrying about it.” That’s a very crucial distinction to draw, and it’s very hard to do.


2021-01-16

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Before returning to the Johannine stories containing the words and deeds of Nicodemus, I must digress briefly to discuss the issue of dependence. The Gospel of John contains countless mysteries, many of which can keep a scholar busy for a lifetime. Who actually wrote the gospel? What were his sources? Who is the Beloved Disciple? Can we find seams (aporias) that might reveal both sources and later redaction?

These puzzles may entertain the mind, but they can often become dark, twisting, endless rabbit holes. I would offer here a rather imperfect analogy to the so-called hard sciences in which we may not understand certain things (yet), but rather than beat our heads against the wall, we measure what we can and try to derive workable models and submit modest predictions. With that in mind, let’s look at larger patterns — looking less at syntax and semantics and more at pragmatics and narrative frames.

Literary Dependence

Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.
The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, 1310–11 (Wikipedia)

As you probably know from my previous posts on Vridar, I believe that the author of John knew the Synoptics — especially Mark — and used them as source material. Anyone who argues for absolute independence must either ignore or explain the astonishing fact that John re-invented the gospel genre. We have discussed in earlier posts the ways in which John follows narrative boundaries already laid out in Mark.

The author of the Fourth Gospel has built his own road, but he was clearly following already established paths. As an example, we have the narrative “Dead Zone” between Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. The curtain closes as the tomb is sealed. Nothing happens in the story for about 36 hours. The curtain lifts, the sun rises, and the truth is revealed.

Many scholars posit the existence of “traditional material” that lies behind the Fourth Gospel. They insist that John’s usage of such unknown, unseen, never-referred-to sources is more likely than John’s appropriation of and embellishment upon existing Markan frames. Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.

However, I would argue that the silence in the Dead Zone represents a Markan frame adhered to by John. We can more simply explain it as an artifact of literary dependence than as a coincidence among pre-existing (yet somehow always magically independent) sources. The silence signals dependence. Yet despite this shared silence, we can find clues that John ached to say more.

The Raising of Lazarus and the Dead Zone

In fact, we can find the missing action between the burial and Sunday sunrise somewhere else. What are we missing from Jesus’ resurrection stories in Mark and John? Continue reading “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)”


2021-01-14

But then it got privatized

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by Neil Godfrey

Getty image: from Bari Weiss’s article

We were promised the Internet would be better than democracy. But then it got privatized. Corporations own it. There is no online bill of rights. There is only the frenzy of the mob and fickle choices of a few billionaires.

Please spare me the impoverished argument about the free market and private companies not being bound by the constitution. Barring businesses from using online payment systems; removing companies from the App Store; banning people from social media — these are the equivalent of telling people they can’t open a bank account or start a business or drive down a street. (To my mind, David Sacks, who has spent his career building and funding tech companies, has been articulating this more powerfully than anyone out there. Follow him here.)

That almost every credentialed journalist and liberal public intellectual appears to be cheering on this development because it’s happening to the Bad People is grotesque. They will look like fools much faster than they realize.

Bari Weiss – The Great Unraveling: The old order is dead. What comes next? 

David Sacks: Mend it, don’t end it  . . . .

. . . . .

A Path to Peace

Fortunately, Dorsey and Zuckerberg will get a second chance to sue for peace when they are hauled before the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 17 to discuss how Section 230 could be meaningfully reformed. This could be an important moment for the entire internet and Dorsey and Zuckerberg should meet it by offering the terms of a peace treaty in which they pledge the following:

1. We will protect any speech that is protected under the First Amendment. Rather than trying to improvise our own policies with respect to speech, we will instead focus on operationalizing these First Amendment principles based upon established Supreme Court case law.

2. We will double down on our authenticity rules and procedures. To say anything on our platforms, you must really be who you say you are. We will crack down on impersonation, fake accounts, “sock puppets”, or any kind of foreign interference.

3. We will provide users with the tools they need to curate content for themselves. For instance, we will give users the ability to hide or delete offensive comments to their posts. By having users regulate speech instead of us, it preserves neutrality because all users have an equal opportunity to decide for themselves what speech they do and don’t want to encounter on our platforms. User curation will reduce offensive content, without the need for censorship.

4. We would welcome further guidance from the Supreme Court as to when and how hate speech can be regulated. If the Supreme Court were to define a segment of hate speech not currently covered under the existing First Amendment exceptions and declare it unprotected, then we would regulate that speech on our platforms according to their guidance. But we realize that as the de facto public square, we are better off adopting the First Amendment as our standard than trying to improvise our own, and don’t want to arrogantly substitute our judgment for that of the Court, who has a more than two-century head start on us in grappling with difficult speech issues. The Court’s history shows that there will always be hard cases when applying First Amendment principles, but at least we can all agree on what those principles are.

5. While we are proposing to abide by First Amendment guidelines voluntarily, we understand if you insist on binding our hands by altering the language in Section 230(C)(2) to require it. This will put the First Amendment in its rightful place as the arbiter of acceptable speech in the public square. Once those changes are made, we hope you will agree that the rest of Section 230 has been a boon to online innovation and diversity that is worth keeping in place. To paraphrase Bill Clinton on the subject of affirmative action, “mend it, don’t end it.”

Conclusion

Such a set of proposals could really improve the perception of Facebook and Twitter, in Washington and throughout the United States. In the short run, it will lower the political temperature and tamp down calls for Section 230 repeal. Long term, it will make life as a social media platform so much easier. No more will the C-suites of these companies have to white-knuckle it through every election cycle, worried that some decision they made or didn’t make will get them blamed for the end of democracy. Yes, politicians will still “work the refs,” and ambiguous cases will present themselves, but if the First Amendment always gets the last word, everyone will have to respect that. What is the point of Twitter and Facebook taking so much flak for creating their own standard of protected speech when one already exists that has been chiseled into the granite of American custom, tradition, and law?


2021-01-11

Why was the Gospel Narrative set around 30 CE?

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by Neil Godfrey

I cannot prove that the gospel narratives are deliberately set in the time of Pilate so that the death of Jesus occurs a generation of forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE but I do think there are several reasons for suspecting that this setting was a conscious decision for theological reasons.

The first question that arises is this: How can we think that the gospels set the time of Jesus’ crucifixion forty years before the destruction of the Temple given that there is no explicit claim in the gospels to lead us to this conclusion?

I’ll begin by noting the existence of two implied prophetic timetables that are easily overlooked because the texts do not explicitly draw our attention to them.

  • Adam / Year 1
  • . . . .
  • Exodus from Egypt / Year 2666 (= two thirds point)
  • . . . .
  • Rededication of temple / Year 4000 (164 b.c.e)

One: Nowhere in the Old Testament books do we read that the Temple was to be rededicated after the Maccabean revolt 4000 years after the creation of Adam. Yet scribes appear to have edited the chronologies of the books in order to make the beginning of the new Israel in 164 CE to occur a neat 4000 years after God began his project with the creation of Adam. For some reason those editors did not feel a need to explicitly advertise the presence of this remarkable chronology but there it is. (For an explanation of this chronology which is taken from Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past see The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel — or if you are pressed for time there is a shorter earlier version, The Meaning of Biblical Chronology).

Two: Josephus in Antiquities indicates that he believed that the 70 weeks of the prophecy in Daniel 9 ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Antiquities X, 11, 7 — Beckwith, 533 ff). However, when we read in his earlier work about the Jewish War about the death of a high priest being responsible for the fall of the city, we find no explicit direction to suspect that either of these events had any connection with Daniel’s prophecy. Josephus writes about the death of a high priest without an explicit link to Daniel, but once we know from the later work what he believed about Daniel’s prophecy, then we are compelled to read the death of the high priest as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the “anointed one” who was “cut off” and whose death led to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem as the culmination of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Josephus doesn’t spell out the connection for readers. He is so quiet about it that one can say “only those in the know will know” the prophetic significance (the end of Daniel’s 70 weeks) of what he has described.

. . . an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. — Daniel 9:26

“I should not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city [= 70 CE] began with the death of Ananus [= 66 CE]; and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Jewish state dated from the day on which the Jews beheld their [anointed] high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. . . . But it was, I suppose, because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire, that he thus cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection” (War IV, v, 2, 318. 323 — Beckwith, 535 f).

So there is no rule that requires that a fulfilled prophetic time can only be validly found in a text if an author spells it out directly. Do the gospels contain inferences that their setting in the time of Pilate has been fabricated to make the Jesus event happen forty years prior to the fall of Jerusalem?

The Book of Jubilees pre-dates the gospels. In the view of a good number of scholars (although challenged by Davies and Chilton) Jubilees 17:15-18:19 associates the (“would-be”) sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. The Jubilees passage speaks of the twelfth day as the day on which the episode of testing Abraham’s loyalty to God begins, and “the third day” after that being the time of his offering of Isaac, that is, the 15th Nisan. The objection of Davies and Chilton appears to have been refuted on the evidence of Qumran texts according to Geza Vermes:

These views [associating the Binding of Isaac with Passover as early as the second century BCE] have found general favour among scholars during the last three decades, with the exception of Philip Davies and Bruce Chilton, who set out in an article published in 1978 to substitute for them ‘a revised tradition history’. I believe that in the light of the evidence from 4Q225 their counter-argument can be finally refuted. (Vermes, 144)

The Gospels do not always draw attention to their allusions to “Old Testament” themes and motifs and for most part rely on the knowledge of readers to make the connections. So the significance of Christ enduring 40 days in the wilderness is only recognized by a reader who is familiar with the story of the generation of Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness.

The remainder of this post is based heavily on an article that I have had in my collection for quite some years now but unfortunately the name of the author is missing from my copy. The title is Sub Pontio Pilato: The Chronological Analogue of Supercessionism? The last words are only Trondheim, November 2008, M. W. N. If any reader knows who the author is and where the article was published please do get in touch. From the article (p.2):

Compare the many references to “this generation” in Luke: 7.31; 11.29; 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17.25; 21.32

And yet there are indications within the NT that the time of Jesus’ entrance into public activity may have been pinpointed only after the destruction of the Second Temple, so as to reaffirm the central doctrines of Christian beliefs. Forty is, after all, a symbolic number that appears several times in the HB and NT. One could hypothesize tentatively that the number forty had symbolic significance in the gospel chronology, too. But this is not what is meant here. In Mark 8.38 the following words are attributed to Jesus: ‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation [έν τη γενεά ταύτη τη μοιχαλίδι και άμαρτωλφ], of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’. The designation ‘this generation’ and related phrases allude to Deuteronomy, where Moses relates how God eventually swore that not a man of ‘this evil generation’ would look upon the Promised Land (Deut. 1.35; see also Deut. 32.5, 20; Num. 14.11, 27, 35; Ps. 95.10).6 This language, according to J. N. Rhodes, is ‘an important rhetorical vehicle for evoking the history of Israel as one of disobedience and failure’.7 Since God had condemned the wilderness generation to wander in the desert for forty years, the associations inherent to the phrases, as used in the Synoptics, are strengthened by the chronological claim that Jesus made his appearance forty years before the disastrous events of 70 CE. The underlying premise seems to be that, by rejecting Jesus, the inhabitants of Jerusalem provoked God’s anger in a similar way as the wilderness generation had done in ancient times.

6 See U. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963).
7 J. N. Rhodes, The Epistle of Barnabas and the Deuteronomic Tradition (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 162- 163, n. 86.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Image from Catholic Exchange

All of that may be suggestive but is there more? Our unknown author makes some interesting observations about Parable of the Wicked Tenants. I highlight what I take to be the key sentence:

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (123; 135), Christians are said to be ‘the true Israelite race [γένος]’. This commitment to Christian supercessionism is scarcely justified by the vague argument that, in the gospels, the authority of Jesus replaces the guidance of the, Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests (cf. Matthew 5-7). However, the idea that the Church supplants the Jews is expressed more explicitly in the gospels than might be supposed at first sight. This conclusion presupposes the position that Jesus’ harsh words on ‘this generation’ would not have been intelligible in a pre-destruction context.

The parable presupposes that the destruction of Jerusalem was the result of the killing of Jesus. As a direct consequence God slew that generation and replaced them with a new people, a new Israel.

If read allegorically, the parable presupposes that the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE came as a Divine reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The parable may therefore be taken as an indication that early Christians adopted and expanded on an already established idea, namely, that the fall of Jerusalem came as a Divine reaction to sin. This idea, variants of which can be found in several contexts outside the NT, has a scriptural foundation in Deuteronomy, which states that disobedience to the commandments will bring war, famine, pestilence, and exile (cf. Deut. 28.15-68). Josephus, for instance, held that the fall of Jerusalem started in 68 CE, when the high priest Ananus was killed by zealots (War 4.5.2).

If the parable alludes to the Fall of Jerusalem as a consequence of rejecting Jesus then “this generation” likewise . . . Continue reading “Why was the Gospel Narrative set around 30 CE?”


2021-01-10

Really Hoping this Professor is Wrong

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Neumann is in my library (The Strategy of Terrorism, Radicalized, Bluster) and I have briefly referred to his words in earlier posts (Radicalisation and On how to be completely wrong…). I’ve mostly found him to be right, though. Hope he’s wrong about the future, though.


2021-01-06

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Longtime Vridar readers may recall a post from 2013 in which I discussed an argument put forth by William Wrede regarding the priority of Mark’s gospel. Wrede noted that when Matthew took over Markan accounts, he sometimes condensed or rewrote his source, which led to oddities in the finished product. It turns out Volkmar and Wrede described this evidence of “inaptness” of the text well before Mark Goodacre discovered editorial fatigue.

Editorial Clues in the Burial Story

Vienna – Plaster statue of Burial of Jesus with the Nicodemus and Joseph from Arimathea in Michaelerkirche, Vienna.

In a similar fashion, in a post back in 2018, we considered the possibility that a grammatical error in Mark 8:27-30 might indicate a redactional seam that may hold clues to the original (hypothetical) source material. Recently, I became interested in whether such inconcinnities might be found in the narrative layer of the Fourth Gospel. Specifically, I wondered if we might find hints in the empty tomb story of editorial fatigue, which could have been caused by the intrusion of the Nicodemus legend in the burial story.

Recall that Mark’s burial story neatly pre-answers several continuity questions posed by the women-at-the-tomb story.

  1. Q: Why did the women wait until Sunday morning?
    A: Jesus died and was buried on the Day of Preparation (Mark 15:42). They rested and waited on the Sabbath.
  2. Q: Why were they bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body?
    A: Joseph of Arimathea had quickly wrapped the body and buried it in a tomb. (Mark 15:46)
  3. Q: Who’s this Joseph guy?
    A: A member of the Sanhedrin who was seeking the Kingdom of God. (Mark 15:43)
  4. Q: So Pilate just gave him the body? How did that happen?
    A: He was really brave. He demanded it, and Pilate relented. (Mark 15:43-45)
  5. Q: If the women didn’t participate in the burial, how did they know where to find the tomb?
    A: They followed Joseph and watched from a distance. (Mark 15:47)

The Stone

However, as Sunday morning rolls around, we begin to see some substantial inconsistencies in John’s account.

Mark’s attention to detail in the empty tomb story extends to the stone that blocks the tomb. As an afterthought, the women wonder how they’re going to move “the” stone that’s blocking the entrance. What stone would that be? Continue reading “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)”


2021-01-05

Spit at a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Eric Eve

Last month I posted Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? but this morning I was reminded of an article I read and posted about some years back that surely calls for a date soon after 70 CE. That article does not address the date per se but it does raise difficulties for a date very much later than the days of Vespasian’s reign: 69-79.

The article is Spit in Your Eye: The Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Blind Man of Alexandria by Eric Eve (if a nearby library subscribes to Proquest you might be able to access it at no cost there) and my derivative post is Jesus out-spitting the emperor. I won’t repeat the details I set out there except where they overlap with a few points I will highlight here. (See that earlier post for the extracts from Suetonius and Tacitus describing Vespasian’s healing miracles.)

In short, the core of Eric Eve’s thesis is that the author of the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian propaganda that promoted him as a healer and as such either possessed by or strongly favoured by the god Serapis to be the rightful ruler of the world. Vespasian, you might recall (the details are in the earlier post), is known to have “miraculously” healed a blind man through the use of spittle while he was in Egypt and preparing to return to Rome to claim the emperorship.

Since Vespasian was not from the Roman aristocracy he relied heavily on propaganda programs to justify his aspirations to replace Nero and subsequent short-lived rulers. Roman historians, especially Tacitus, inform us that

while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria. . . many marvels occurred to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him (Hist. IV. 81)

The god Serapis was a composite deity constructed some generations earlier by Egypt’s post-Alexander Hellenistic rulers to encourage the unification of different peoples: (you will note the similarity with other posts suggesting the reason for the creation of Jesus was likewise to encourage a certain unity of Jews and gentiles in another context …. but we leave that for another discussion)

Serapis (Liverpool Museum)

The Egyptian cult involved the worship of the sacred bull Osiris-Apis, or Osarapis, which became Sarapis in Greek translation. It may have been this god’s connections with the underworld and agricultural fertility that made him appear particularly suitable for the grafting on of Hellenistic elements. Sarapis took on the attributes of a number of Greek deities including first Dionysus and Hades, and subsequently Zeus, Helios and Asclepius [my note: Asclepius was the god of healing]. He may originally have been intended as a patron deity for the Greek citizens of Ptolemaic Alexandria, but he became particularly associated with the royal family, and thus, perhaps, with a ruler cult. Although Sarapis was probably intended to unite the Greek and Egyptian populations (of Alexandria, if not of Egypt), he failed in this purpose, since he never caught on with the native Egyptian population. He proved more popular with the Greek inhabitants, although his popularity declined towards the end of the Ptolemaic period. By the Roman period, Sarapis’s popularity seems to have been on the rise once more, and his cult had long since spread well beyond Egypt, aided, no doubt, by the fact that he was the consort of Isis; both deities had cults in Rome by the time of the late republic. That said, the major rise of the cult of Serapis was to come about through Flavian interest in the god. Vespasian arrived in Alexandria at a time when association with an aspiring emperor could benefit an aspiring god as much as the other way round; the Sarapis cult’s support for Vespasian helped both parties, and that may well have motivated the priests of Sarapis to play their part in the Flavian propaganda campaign. 

The healings carried out by Vespasian seem designed to demonstrate the close association between the new emperor and the god. Healing was one of the powers long attributed to Sarapis, and the first healing miracle to be attributed to him was restoring sight to a blind man, one Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician. . . . In some minds Vespasian’s two healings might be taken as a sign, not simply that Vespasian enjoyed Sarapis’s blessing, but that he was in some sense to be identified with the god. This is in part suggested by the ancient Egyptian myth that the kings of Egypt were sons of Re, the sun-god, and is further borne out by the fact that Vespasian was saluted as ‘son of Ammon’ as well as ‘Caesar, god’ when he visited the hippodrome only a short while later.

Presumably the main targets of this propaganda were the population of Alexandria and the two legions stationed there, whose support Vespasian clearly needed to retain. No doubt different people will have understood this cluster of events in different ways. Some may have seen Vespasian as quasi-divine, others as a divinely aided thaumaturge and others as an exceptionally lucky man smiled on by fortuna and the gods. In any case the healing miracles and their association with Sarapis seem to have been designed more for eastern than western consumption

The classicist and specialist in Suetonius, David Wardle, is more direct with the reason for Vespasian’s miracles: Continue reading “Spit at a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?”


2021-01-04

“Oh my god” sums it up — what relief!

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by Neil Godfrey

I had been following the trial over the past months and got the impression that the judge was scoffing at Assange the whole time. So this has been a very tense day. I was glued to the tweets (from Mary Kostakidis) second by second and have copied them here “as it happened” — they need to be read in reverse order, from the bottom and up to the top. It was a nerve-wracking read in real time, expecting the worst.

 

 

Meanwhile there is a break apparently pending a decision on bail. It’s not over yet, but my god what a wonderful surprise that decision was today!