Ethics of Conspiracy Theories

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by Neil Godfrey

As a follow on from my recent posts on conspiracy theories here is a discussion from another slant:

The ethics of conspiracy theories

The page includes a link to the full audio interview with philosopher Patrick Stokes.

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23 thoughts on “Ethics of Conspiracy Theories”

  1. Conspiracies are just like anything else: It’s a matter of degree. There is nothing inherently improbable about conspiracies taking place. “Conspiracy” just mean some people got together to put forth a false account of what really happened. Some conspiracy theories are outlandish, and others are not.

  2. Jesus – an imaginary person created by fiction-writers for deceptive purposes of their own – quite a conspiracy, possibly the most successful in history!

    1. Do we have any reason to think Jesus was a conspiratorial creation any more than were Moses, Romulus, Osiris? The evidence in the Gospel of Mark is that he was created as a symbolic figure. Prior to Mark he was another celestial deity.

  3. If there was a lot of evidence Jesus’s story was a conspiracy, it wouldn’t be much of a conspiracy. I don’t know of any credible New Testament scholar who would say Mark’s Jesus was a purely symbolic figure, or that he was a celestial deity prior to Mark.

    1. I’m more interested in what “the evidence in the Gospel of Mark” itself testifies. New Testament scholars on the whole, according to the explicit testimony of members of their own guild as I have quoted several times, are primarily interested in exploring their own personally believed religious myth and as such, it can be argued, are not really qualified to address questions from a methodological approach and interest usually found among trained historians, classicists and literature scholars.

      1. I tend to trust the consensus of an academic discipline. I’ve always felt Jesus protesting his place in God’s plan in the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane seemed historical: “Take this cup away from Me” (Mark 14:36).” If Mark was just inventing Jesus as a divine character, you would think Mark would portray Jesus as a paradigmatic follower of God, shrugging off the temporary threat of suffering of the cross with the knowledge there would be a speedy resurrection. But Jesus is in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane – hardly a divine, mythical being.

        1. The guild of “biblical scholars” have never addressed the historicity of Jesus. They have always assumed it because it is the fundamental article of faith in their personal religion. Talk to members of other academic disciplines about them and they’ll raise their eyebrows in dismay at what goes in in “New Testament Studies” and passes as history.

          Your own reasoning in the preceding comment is taken straight from the apologists’ mantra and would find no place whatever in any other historical discipline.

          No historian interprets a plausible narrative alone as evidence of historical veracity — that is only ever found among biblical scholars. And when you point that out to them and see they react with insult then you know they have no idea whatever about how history is done elsewhere.

          Ehrman even claimed to have been the very first of his guild to have actually investigated the historicity of Jesus and look at the fallacious work that is.

          I find much of use and value in biblical scholarly works but it all helps me understand the origins and nature of the texts. When it comes to justifying historicity of events they commit the most elementary blunders in fallacious logical reasoning — such as “I can’t imagine an author writing X if he wanted to make up the story.”

          1. “Take this cup away from Me” (Mark 14:36)” contradicts the thesis that Mark’s gospel is presenting a symbolic unfolding of a mythical hero undergoing God’s plan. It is, rather, a story of a fallible human being struggling to exist in a plan that scares him. The prayer in the Garden is a vivid portrayal of the emotions Jesus was going through: “33And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. 34And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” 35And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by (Mark 14:34-35).” The mythicist’s thesis is simply wrong.

            1. Neil Godfrey says: “I don’t find the portrayal of Jesus as “real” or in “convincing detail” at all. He is two-dimensional, without personality or character, a mere cardboard figure who speaks and acts according to theological requirements of the author.”

              The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane contradicts this. Jesus is vividly portrayed as a man in agony.

              1. Some consistent personality is surely reflected in the humor of the parables and the sharp repartee, whether reports of actual utterances by a fairly smart person or persons unknown or fictional artistry by other persons unknown but even smarter. There is even a practical joke in the “fetch me a coin” story; I don’t recall offhand any literary source plagiarized in this case by “Mark”.

              2. Yes, there is humour, there is wit, their is anguish — but they are not woven into an integrated portrait of a character. They are all discrete scenes with no larger character interest. Contrast the wit and humour expressed by Aesop (Lawrence Wills compares the Aesop character with the gospels and Jesus.) A swallow does not make a summer. The wit is there for a theological function pure and simple.

                I know some people say, Look, here is a line of humour, and here are some lines of wit, and here a scene of anguish — and try to say that this all makes Jesus a rounded, interesting character. Their interpretation is very mechanical and lacks any appreciation for what is understood by an author writing a story “about a character” — Jesus is not such “a character”. He is a mere mouthpiece or puppet to present certain lessons and points to readers.

                Compare http://vridar.info/xorigins/Markparable.htm

            2. ” the thesis that Mark’s gospel is presenting a symbolic unfolding of a mythical hero undergoing God’s plan. It is, rather, a story of a fallible human being struggling to exist”

              Firstly, Mark’s gospel is not such a presentation and I have never thought it to anything like what you have portrayed here. Mark’s gospel is not a portrayal of Jesus as a “mythical hero”. I have tried to be clear that I think Mark’s gospel is not “about Jesus” as any sort of person or character as we find in a novel or biography (even/equally ancient ones) at all.

              (And this is not a “mythicist” idea. I have seen it pointed out by “historicists”, too.)

              Secondly, the various expressions of Jesus at points along the narrative are all theological / prophetic functions and we learn nothing of Jesus as a real person.

              The Gethsemane scene is a moment of expressed anguish in the gospel but if you think it depicts a plot development of a character in a story then I invite you to compare it with any other ancient story of a lead character who goes through personal anguish. There is no comparison in terms of character depth or development or interest. Once the scene has served its function it is over and that’s that.

              The Gethsemane scene serves a theological function and instruction for readers as much as does the preaching of the parables.

              Read any other literature about a mythical or historical hero and simply compare.

              I invite you to read my fuller discussion of this point at http://vridar.info/xorigins/Markparable.htm — especially the section on “Characterization in Mark”.

              1. Happy to go into this further – have only looked at Matthew Ferguson’s blog re Aesop. There is a subjective factor here no doubt, but Jesus comes across to me as a personality in/behind the synoptic accounts, no doubt as do Sherlock Holmes and Just William, based however to
                some degree on people known to their authors.

              2. To me it is not a debatable point. It is not a mythicist point, either — it is squarely acknowledged in the mainstream scholarship, too. I am content to simply agree to disagree with you and John on this. Easier than getting into discussions on literary appreciation for which it’s best to simply read lots more and compare.

              3. Now able to print your valuable essay on Mark. I shall order a library copy of the expensive book by Mills (who wrote the Jewish commentary on this gospel I quoted). We must agree to disagree, while each learning more as we go along; Popper not Pyrrho.

        2. Yeah, but biblical “scholarship” in the main is more about theology than Scholarship. If an Author is writing fiction, it’s generally the idea to make the work seem plausible, but often just out side the bounds of normal, everyday life. Greek literature, which is what the NT is, afterall, is replete with examples of this.

      2. Mark is not the only documentary evidence of a supposed “ecclesiastical conspiracy” and not necessarily the earliest gospel. Why second-century or late first-century Gentiles would seek, at all, to create a first-century “real” teacher in Judea-Galilee in such “convincing” detail out of relatively thin air is the $60,000 question. And if they used packets of pre-70 material, what could it have been?

        For a fair account of Mark’s “plot” and therefore a clue to the authorial “purpose”, here is a shortened summary from a recent non-Christian commentator, from an introduction well worth complete perusal: “In keeping with [Isa 52-53, Ps 22 & Wis 2-5]…Jesus suffers a downward spiral of being abandoned by those around him….a conflictual relationship with Pharisees, Herodians, and scribes…[but also rejection] by Jews and Gentiles: family…townspeople…Gentiles who witness his healing power…Peter…disciples…chief priests and Sanhedrin, and the ‘crowd’…those who ‘passed by’…two men crucified with him…and, finally, even God” – Lawrence M. Wills, in “The Jewish Annotated New Testament”, ed. Amy-Jill Levine & Marc Zvi Brettler (OUP 2011) p.56.

        Incidentally, Wills remarks on the dramatic irony of the narrative, and its similarity to Greek and Roman genres with “model of virtue” themes. Personally I think Dennis R. MacDonald, “Mythologizing Jesus” (2015) makes a good case (maybe some examples overstated) for Homeric parallels. The literary quality of Mark has been overlooked partly because of its deceptively terse simplicity.

        1. I don’t find the portrayal of Jesus as “real” or in “convincing detail” at all. He is two-dimensional, without personality or character, a mere cardboard figure who speaks and acts according to theological requirements of the author.

          And far from the story being created out of thin air it can be shown that nearly every pericope is drawn from OT and other Second Temple Jewish and Greco-Roman texts. The overall theme or plot elements are also taken from common OT and classical tropes. (Joseph, David, Saul, Moses, Elijah, Elisah, Aesop (Wills), Odysseus. . . )

          I see nothing great or clever in his creation. His appearance was almost inevitable given the literary culture of the day mixing with the catastrophe of 70 CE.

          1. Fair enough. But cultural “inevitability” and authorial “creation” need to be synthesized, because these texts were not just stories but written for a purpose that included some active worship and missionary organization. Leaving aside coincidental literary features (we all live, eat, talk and die), the full development of your final sentence, based on your extensive reading, of both Classical and Biblical literature, in a extended article, would be worthwhile and appreciated.

  4. I’m sure “conspiracies,” happen all the time. It is a part of normal human interaction to sometimes want the real reasons as to why something happened to be withheld. This is probably sometimes true of religion too. Seneca famously said “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.” For example, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), was cleverly instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.

  5. Minimalist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament) often consider much of the Tanakh/Jewish Bible to be a pious fiction, such as the conquests of Joshua. Borras, Judit, Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, BRILL, 1999, p 117: “.. the overwhelming consensus of modern scholarship is that the conquest tradition of Joshua is a pious fiction composed by the deuteronomistic school”

    The historiography of the Pentateuch is considered a noble lie. Stanley, Christopher, The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Fortress Press, 2009, p 123: “Minimalists begin with the fact that the Hebrew Bible did not reach its present form until well after the Babylonian exile … most the that the story was formulated by a group of elites who wanted to justify their claims to dominate … In other words, the narrative [of the Hebrew Bible] is a pious fiction that bears little relation to the actual history of Palestine during the period it purports to narrate.”

    The Book of Daniel has also been described as a pious fiction, with the purpose of providing encouragement to Jews. Carson, D. A. For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, Good News Publishers, 2006, p 19: “Many critics doubt that the account of Daniel 4 is anything more than pious fiction to encourage the Jews.”

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