Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Day Theologians Reacted with Great Seriousness — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 3

Continuing from Part 2 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we followed the way theologians accommodated themselves to the challenges the natural sciences presented the belief in the infallibility of the Bible. They didn’t find it too difficult. After all, the Bible has very little to say about the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth and biological mutations.

A far more serious threat came from the historians:

When doubts began to be case on the historical statements of the Bible, theologians reacted with great seriousness. (p. 67)

Historical statements are central to the Bible. They are not confined to the opening chapters of Genesis.

Many of these [historical statements] were given great prominence in the Bible, and it was felt that they form the heart of the matter inasmuch as it is in and through the events they report that God principally revealed himself and established his redemptive relationship with the world.

Consequently . . . when the historical statements of the Bible came under fire, theologians reacted with great seriousness, and a great deal of attention was concentrated on them. (p. 67)

Historical studies as we understand them are a very modern development. There have been evolutionary changes in the way history has been approached and I will need to follow up this series with further discussions of the influence of postmodernism in New Testament historiography. For now, however, we need to follow Nineham’s concern that we should understand the character of history in the nineteenth century when it first raised challenges to the Bible.

Modern historical studies are generally attributed to Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).

Barthold Georg Niebuhr aus: Meyers 6. Auflage
Niebuhr

Nineham does not explain Niebuhr’s contribution but it is important so I include this from Wikipedia:

More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popularizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies and social traits to the neglect of individuals.

He does encapsulate Leopold von Ranke’s significance:

Deutsch: Leopold von Ranke
von Ranke

von Ranke’s aim [was] to uncover the past . . . ‘as it actually happened‘, in distinction, that is, from the embroideries and tacit interpretations of it in the later sources. In historiography as he and his like understood it, there was a high premium on the discovery and identification of the earliest sources and the discounting so far as possible even in them of all elements of elaboration and Tendenz. (p. 68)

(That famous von Rankean phrase wie es eigenltich gewesen here translated “as it actually happened” has been very often tendentiously misinterpreted quite contrary to its evident meaning in the way von Ranke used it; we see this so often as Tim has been pointing out in his posts: New Testament scholars all too regularly appear to rely upon what they hear others say about the concepts they address without any understanding of what their originators meant. Happily in this passage Nineham is focusing instead on von Ranke’s contribution of a discriminating approach to the sources.) read more »

Damned Lies, Statistics, and Muslims

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Recently a commenter posted a raft of figures supposedly establishing as fact that large segments of followers of the Muslim faith are supporters of terrorist violence. The commenter took the figures from an anti-Islamic hate website. The figures themselves are compiled on Muslim Opinion Polls: A Tiny Minority of Extremists?

I quote here the figures used to support some dire claims about Muslims along with the results of my own cross-checking of the sources for these figures.

Claim

Almost half of Muslims polled in 2006 supported Osama bin Laden (49.9%).

Fact

This claim is a loaded one. We will see that polling indicates that most Muslims in the Middle East refused to believe that bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. That surely is a significant factor that is important for Westerners to understand. More on this later. Meanwhile . . . .

The poll is no longer available online so we cannot check the source and evaluate the figure against the questions asked and how they were framed and what audiences were targeted. But it does appear that the poll was an online one. That is, people check a tick box online. We don’t know if internet users were able to click multiple times from the one computer. Online polls are inevitably problematic in that we have little way to knowing how representative of wider society the respondents are. read more »

Saving the Infallibility of the Bible from the Natural Sciences — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1 of this series. . . .

The traditional use of the Bible

The central point of the previous post was that the Bible came to be viewed as having a singular message that buttressed a comprehensive an entire world view. That is, one’s larger view of the world was believed to rest on biblical authority.

Nineham gives “an example of how such a feeling arose”:

If the Bible spoke of angels, and these were interpreted in what then seemed the only way possible, as a group of hypostases, or entities, then it could easily seem as if the existence of the chain itself was a part of the biblical revelation, or at any rate an indisputable deduction from it. (p. 62)

The challenges of the natural sciences

As we all know, Copernicus and Galileo were the first to challenge seriously the Biblical view of the place of earth amidst the heavens. In the nineteenth century geology and evolutionary biology struck blows at the Bible’s creation narrative. The church’s reactions we also know well:

[I]t is instructive to notice the extent to which, both in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the immediate and passionate reaction of the Church was to try to defend the statements of the Bible in every sphere. (p. 63)

John Keble, 1792-1866.
John Keble, 1792-1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Keble of the nineteenth century has left a useful trivia quote:

When God made the stones he made the fossils in them. (Presumably in order to test the faith of nineteenth century scientists!)

But the Bishop Wilberforces and Philip Henry Grosses could not win. It became increasingly clear, however slowly in some quarters, that flat denial of what the natural sciences had to come to understand was not going to prevail.

The early chapters of Genesis were at stake. The Bible was supposed to be authored by God and incapable of untruths.

Introducing the “true myth” read more »

Jerry Coyne’s reply, Bangladeshi Muslim Demonstrators, and Atheist Bloggers

I was disappointed, and for some reason even a little surprised, to read Jerry Coyne’s response, Islamophobia again, to my recent post and see that he chose not to deal with the key points I raised. In fact, he merely repeated his own arguments as if my own rebuttal of them was nowhere on record. What was most disappointing was his upfront declaration that he had no interest in engaging with contrary views, even referring readers to a Christopher Hitchens quotation expressing disdain for any opinions but his own and inviting anyone who wishes to challenge those opinions to kiss his arse.

So there is clearly no interest on Jerry’s side to seriously debate the issue. His mind is made up and has no room for anything new when it comes to the question of Islam.

Much of his post is elaborating on the recent events in Bangladesh. At least a hundred thousand demonstrators (estimates vary between 100,000 and 500,000 in the news sources) have come out into the streets calling for the deaths of atheist bloggers. That is how the news has been filtered into the Western media and that’s all there is to the story as far as Jerry and others are concerned. Presumably anyone who has any further information that might change that view of theirs will be invited to kiss Jerry’s arse.

This blog is all about sharing information and inviting readers to look deeper behind what is most commonly presented to the public. Concerning what is going on in Bangladesh, I really did expect intelligent and thoughtful sceptics to be a little more astute and diligent with checking sources before swallowing what they see on mainstream TV news.

So at the end of this post I will present a few facts — facts easily obtainable by anyone with unfettered access to the internet — that Jerry and others presumably do not think are relevant.

 

Jerry writes:

Can you imagine Catholics, for example, rallying by the hundreds of thousands to call for the death of anti-Catholic bloggers? Or murdering them?

Not in this day and age, no. But I do know of some ugly moments in history . . . And that’s Jerry’s problem here. He has assumed a situation in Bangladesh needs absolutely no reference to history there, or to the different religious groups and political roles they have played in recent decades and months, is validly comparable to a Catholic area in the United States. This is the danger of people not knowing or understanding, or not even being interested in understanding, another people on their own terms. Now Jerry has quickly added that what is happening in Bangladesh has nothing to do with colonialism or politics because the demonstrators are clearly saying “Death to the atheist bloggers” in the name of Islam.

That’s it. End of story. Kiss his arse if you want to actually understand some context and background to what has brought those demonstrators out to the streets with those cries, or suggest that this is worth a serious comparison with how Catholics in twenty-first-century America behave.

Jerry completely avoids my argument when he repeats this nonsense:

I still can’t quite understand why it’s sort of okay for atheists to level strong criticisms at other religions (Sam, after all, wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, and I spent an entire week on this site documenting the immorality of the Catholic Church [e.g., here and here]), so long as that religion is not Islam. We’re not accused of Catholicphobia or Baptistphobia, but only Islamophobia. I think this reflects a double standard, for such accusations hold Muslims to lower standards

Rubbish. I have criticized Islam. (Not often, I admit, because my experience is mostly with Christianity.) I have no problems with anyone, not even Muslims, criticizing Islam. There is a lot to criticize, especially given that they have not had the history of Reformations (plural) and Enlightenment challenges that Christianity has experienced. They have a lot of catching up to do.

From time to time since starting this blog I have had a few Muslims (not all!) take great offence at some of my comments or posts. Jerry did not notice or understand my explicit comparison of the sorts of criticisms that are leveled against other religions and those that are lately leveled against Muslims by our leading lights of new Atheism.

He then reprises the accusations he says he regularly hears against new Atheism and its association with Islamophobia. I don’t know if he really hears all of these arguments, because his first point, “it’s racism”, fails to grasp what is actually being said about Islamophobia. Islamophobia is not racism in the normal sense of the word, but it does take negative racist stereotypes and imputes them into a whole religion, and inevitably that implies all adherents of that religion. That’s a neat way of enabling one to claim the odd Muslim (or Jew or black man) that one knows really is a nice person without detracting from the general collective demonization or dehumanization.

Is this dehumanization?

When anyone imputes to other groups the potential to act in a way that is not normally ‘human’ — e.g. on the mere say-so of an authority, and for no other reason or unusual conditioning, go out and kill others; or believe that parents en masse threatened to kill their children in order to gain entrance into a first world country (we once had a Prime Minister here who had much/most of the nation believing just this about some Muslim refugees!) — then one is dehumanizing them.

Jerry also says his critics argue that Islam is no worse than any other religion. I don’t know what others say, but there is no doubt Islam has some major problems that are not faced by Christianity today, and that has to do with history as mentioned above. But let’s stop using abstractions for people. Let’s talk about adherents of religions. That’s where the conflict and any future solution lies. It’s the adherents who define the religion in real terms. And critics of Islam need to know a lot more about Islamic populations than they glean from mainstream media soundbites.

And Jerry misses the point completely about the question of “not all Muslims being violent”. Jerry is not listening — he tells people to take a ticket and go and . . . . — so he keeps repeating the same old the same old the same old. I don’t know how I could have made the point any clearer in my previous post but (or therefore?) he ignores the real argument completely.

2013 Shahbag protesters opposing Jamaat-e-Islami — Wikipedia photo

Bangladeshi Demonstrators Calling for the Deaths of Atheist Bloggers

No doubt anyone with his or her mind made up will only find in what follows validation for their Islamophobia. But for others . . . .

An Agence France Presse release:

There has been vociferous debate between staunch atheists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh’s social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered. read more »

Use and Abuse of the Bible – Part 1

Dennis Nineham, The Use and Abuse of the Bible

There are many useful and interesting insights into the way the Bible has come to be (mis)used by scholars and laity alike in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible (1976).

One cameo that attracted my attention (over half way through the book) was what Nineham had to say about the New Testament evidence for Christian origins. Being consistent with his opening arguments Nineham acknowledges that we know nothing of the “history” behind the mythical narrative of the “Christ event” in the Gospels. All we know “historically” is that, whatever the historical or biographical reality of Jesus was, it must have been remarkable enough to spawn new communities imbued with a whole new sense of the divine.

The bottom line of the argument is this:

  • Christians appeared on the historical landscape.
    • And we “know” from the Gospels that the first Christians were transformed from fear and weakness to a people of courage and dynamism as a result of what they proclaimed to be the resurrection.
  • Therefore, God had done “something” (we don’t know what, exactly) most remarkable in the life of Jesus Christ in order to have caused this emergence of Christian communities.

One might think that the hypothesis is thus declared true because faith in God and the Bible permits no other hypothesis. (Nineham writes as a Christian and makes clear that his belief in God is bound up in his belief in “the Christ event”.) That’s not how Nineham explains it, however.

Non-Christian scholars of earliest Christianity today sometimes echo a mundane (cynical?) version of this argument: There can be no better explanation for the origins of Christianity than a failed life of yet another common healer/exorcist, preacher of platitudes and false prophet. (This latter explanation probably requires a greater miracle to make it work than the Christian explanation.)

True, Nineham does make passing mention of “extremists” who have proposed alternative hypotheses, but he dismisses these as quickly as he mentions them because the conventional wisdom does not accept their views. Ironically, in the first chapter of his book, “Cultural Change and Cultural Relativism”, he explains clearly why unconventional hypotheses, in particular those that affect the way we view the Bible, have such a hard time being taken seriously.

Before addressing the details of Nineham’s argument relating to Christian origins I’ll highlight some of his main insights into the ways the Bible has come to be misread and misused, and why, up to his own day.

Traditional use of the Bible

We know the Bible has for centuries been regarded as a sacred book, invested with infallible authority, wrapped in a mysterious quality and virtual sanctity. Its formal title accordingly Holy Bible.

What does this mean, exactly? These are the particular beliefs that have long accompanied readers of the Bible since late antiquity: read more »

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 3)

Part 3: K. L. Schmidt: Placing the Gospels

When it comes to the form critics, NT scholars don’t know Schmidt. But to be fair, for a long time — all of the twentieth century in fact — they had a reasonable excuse. None of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s works had been translated into English, and unless you could grapple with his dense, rambling, arcane German prose, you had to rely on reviews and summaries from bilingual scholars.

The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature
The Place of the Gospels
in the General History of Literature
Karl Ludwig Schmidt

An act of parricide

In 2002, however, one of Schmidt’s major works became available to the English-speaking public. Anyone with an interest in the gospel genre debate now has easy access to The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature at popular prices. I’m assuming it didn’t sell well, because right now it’s going for $2.45 (US) at Amazon, and when my copy arrived back in February, it had a black mark across the top. It has landed in the book equivalent of the cut-out bin.

If you have any interest at all in form criticism or NT German scholarship, John Riches’ introduction alone is worth the price of the book. Riches notes that it took an unconscionable amount of time for The Place of the Gospels to be translated into English.

The appearance in English, nearly eighty years after its first publication, of one of the major works of early-twentieth-century German gospel criticism, represents yet another triumph of the persistence of the few over the indifference and hostility of the many. In this way, Schmidt’s article in the Eucharisterion Festschrift joins William Wrede’s Messianic Secret (1901: 1971) and Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921: 1961) as works that have waited too long before they were made available to those without easy access to German. This leaves Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu [The Framework of the History of Jesus] as the last of the major works of the form critics still to be translated. Is this too little too late, or is there still an opportunity for a serious appraisal of the form critics? (p. vii, bold emphasis added)

We’ll save Riches’ strong criticism of current scholarship for a later post.  For now, let me pique your curiosity with some choice words about how the work of the form critics has been twisted to serve antithetical purposes. read more »

Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists

Disclaimer: this post expresses my own view entirely. Others who also have posted on this blog may or may not think quite differently.

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Time to get dirty hands and write about something important. Something unhealthy has been happening in the name of criticizing “tenets of religious belief . . . bad ideas and behaviors.” Prominent public intellectuals, in the name criticizing harmful religious beliefs, have become mouthpieces for ignorance and intolerance.

Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.Murtaza Hussain

Jerry Coyne, who has written probably one of the best books for generalists arguing the case for evolution, and whose blog I check from time to time for updates in the sciences, also from time to time posts disturbingly ignorant articles about Islam or Palestinians. Richard Dawkins, whom I respect and love as much as anyone does for his publications explaining evolution, was not very long ago interviewed by a Muslim on Al Jazeera and unashamedly threw off all his scientific training by relying entirely on anecdotal and media portrayals of Muslims. I have previously criticized Sam Harris for doing worse. Chris Hitchens, as much as I admire his works on Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his all-round wit, was guilty, too.

Over the last few days Jerry Coyne has been posting his disapproval of anyone suggesting his views on Islam (shared by the other names above) are Islamophobic. See Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon, Playing the Islamophobic Card and New Attacks on New Atheists (and one defense). He accuses such critics of quoting the likes of Harris out of context, of not defining what they mean by Islamophobia, of fallaciously accusing them of guilt by association with neo-fascists, and worst of all, of failing to address any of their actual criticisms of the Muslim religion.

After reading the several articles and related links to which Coyne and Harris have been responding (Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists; Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia) I believe that Coyne’s rebuttals do not stand. Coyne, Harris and Dawkins, for all their intellectual magnificence in other fields, are fanning social attitudes that facilitate bigotry and popular support for war.

Why are their criticisms of the Muslim religion wrong?

I am an atheist. I have experienced some of the best and worst of religion. I wish for a world where humanity has discovered that religion is long past its “use by” date. I believe that the Abrahamic religions in particular are responsible for immeasurable sufferings and torments among societies and individuals. I have no time for their belief systems. The sooner we all outgrow our awe of our holy books the better. (None of this means I believe in attacking individuals for their beliefs. There is a difference between criticizing belief systems and targeting individuals over their personal faith.)

I have compared different varieties of Christianity today with the various drugs on the market. Vapid Anglicanism is a mild aspirin. Happy Pentecostals are the happy marijuanas. I know of a few cults that are the deadly heroins. (They really do reduce addicts to ill health, poverty, anti-social life-styles and death, literally. Suicides, untreated illness, ignorance within and without the cults.)

I would not be surprised if I ever learned that I could do the same with the faiths of Judaism and Islam. read more »

What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke

Witnesses of the Resurrection
Witnesses of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

The most solid argument I have read about what the word in Luke 1:2 translated as “eyewitnesses” actually means is by John N. Collins: see the post What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? Collins presents a cogent argument that the word really means officials who have the responsibility for the writings/library of the community: it is their job to assess and preserve the authenticity of the documents entrusted to them — they are “specially authorized guarantors of the traditions.”

But in this post I am backtracking and working from the assumption that the word does convey the idea of one who sees firsthand some event. What I am saying here is this: What if the word really did express the idea of a witness? What does such a witness mean for Luke?

Norman Perrin answered this question nearly forty years ago in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus.

Firstly, Perrin begins by reminding modern readers that they must leave behind their modern conceptions and make an effort to enter the world of the biblical authors. Get out of your heads any modern notion of what the word “eyewitness” means to us today who are familiar with the concept from our newspaper reports and court proceedings:

If we resolutely ban from our minds . . . what a modern writer would mean by an ‘eyewitness’ and ask ourselves what Luke meant by the expression . . . . (p. 27)

Perrin’s conclusion?

Luke considers Paul an eyewitness!

Perrin explains: read more »

What is the difference between a quest for the historical Jesus and (just about) any other historical inquiry?

“Authentic” hand bones of John the Baptist on display in Constantinople.

I have once again suffered the all too familiar pain of reading a quite modern scholarly article by a historical Jesus scholar who appears to be quite confused over how New Testament studies of the historical Jesus compares with other types of historical inquiries. When I say I am pained I mean that in the sense of regret and loss because the scholars is clearly very brilliant and I really do love to read works by biblical scholars that I find rewarding and thought-provoking. And I have read many of these and discussed aspects of their works positively on this blog.

So when I come across a scholar who demonstrates a particular flaw that seems to be institutionalized in the entire field of New Testament studies I do believe it is right and necessary to draw attention to the problem. Not that I presume that anything I say will change the world, but I do believe it is a good thing for anyone to help promote awareness, understanding and questions. I know from personal experience (also very painful) how easy it is to be wrong; for that reason I write for anyone else with a similar willingness to always question their foundational assumptions.

Next week I hope to discuss the problematic article in some more depth. For now I am merely raising the issue. I have drawn another graphic to illustrate the problem. read more »

Final of “Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius”: Tackling New Questions

Links to all posts in this series are collated at: Roger Parvus: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius

This post continues from The (Apellean) Gospel of Peregrinus and concludes the series.

TDOP = The Death of Peregrinus by Lucian. Harmon’s translation here.

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In posts two through six I showed why Peregrinus should be regarded as the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. In posts seven through eleven I argued that he was an Apellean Christian.

In this post I will tie up some loose ends, adding some thoughts regarding the date of his letters, and taking a somewhat speculative last look at his community, the Apelleans.

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Apelles: Canvas Poster Print

Contents of this post

WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?

  • Terminus ante quem
  • Terminus post quem
  • ca 145 CE?
  • Or late 130s?

MODIFYING THE LETTERS: WHEN? WHY? WHO?

  • Between Irenaeus and Origen
  • How did he come by the letters?
  •  The evidence pointing to Theophilus of Antioch

WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEAN GOSPEL?

  •  Basis of the Gospel of John?
  •  Gnostic threads in the Gospel of John
  •  Opposing views of the world in the Fourth Gospel
  •  Why the Gospel’s hostility to the Jews and Judaism
  •  Why no Passover or Baptism in John’s Gospel
  •  The missing Ascension in the Fourth Gospel
  •  Identifying the Paraclete (the mysterious witness to Jesus) : The Holy Spirit or Paul?
  •  Identifying the Beloved Disciple: Paul?
  •  Paul not a persecutor
  •  Paul (“little one”) the boy disciple?
  •  Paul or John?
  •  Affairs at Ephesus and Smyrna

AND WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEANS?

  •  Identifying the woman taken in adultery?
  •  Returning to the fold

CONCLUSION

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WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?

Using the chronological indications that Lucian provides in his sketch of Peregrinus, the year of the would-be martyr’s arrest can only be very roughly pegged to have occurred sometime between 130 and 150 CE. read more »