Professor Moles was a Classicist (not a New Testament scholar) but some of his research did overlap with the earliest literature of Christianity. From time to time John Moles and I engaged in email discussion and it was while searching to renew contact just now that I learned that he had passed away last year.
Two themes that he never tired of were puns and Dionysus. No one who had been to a few seminars with him could forget that “Jesus” in Greek is punned with the verb of healing (Iesous/iaomai), and “Christ” with “grace” as well as “anointing” (Christos/charis/chrisma). Dionysus and his cult were often spotted by John in the motifs and language of the New Testament. He would draw attention to Richard Seaford’s article from 1984 on Dionysiac echoes in Paul’s imagery of seeing Christ “through a glass darkly”, and might add, modestly, that he too had written a piece on Dionysus in Acts. While it is not uncommon for scholars to try to cross the lines between Classics and New Testament Studies, it is a rare pearl to find one who combines the depth and breadth of Classical learning that John had, with such professional commitment to New Testament study. Perhaps there were times when some of us thought he pushed the Classical connections too far, but we could only be grateful for being made think in ways we couldn’t or didn’t without our “pagan” friend. And indeed, the prominence in the church fathers of both punning on Iesous and Christos, and of connections between Dionysiac and Christian imagery, lend strong support to some of John’s instincts in reading the New Testament texts.
In email exchanges John expressed several of his views on the Bible, New Testament scholarship, mythicism (he was not a mythicist) and religion (he described himself as a liberal Anglican) — and generally tied back to relationships with the Classical world. At a time I was going through a pretty rough patch with certain biblical scholars posting some rather vile comments about Vridar and me personally John Moles gave me encouragement by sharing some of his personal knowledge of the backgrounds and biases of those involved.
He also emailed me a compliment on a post of mine about one of his own articles — I had attempted to be as honest, writing with as much neutrality and distance as I could, and in return John wrote me in September 2011:
You’ve done a clean job in your posting on ‘Jesus the Healer’. It reflects well on you.
As an amateur that meant a lot to me coming from a Classicist of John Moles’ standing.
I had looked forward to following up with further exchanges and am very sad he is no longer with us.
Though in recent years I have preferred to see the author of the second gospel as a creative writer (with some subsequent editorial additions made to give us the canonical version we know today) my reading has only skimmed the surface of what is available and I remain open to other possibilities. Roger Parvus citedThe Sources of the Second Gospel by A. T. Cadoux as one work that has proposed the Gospel of Mark (GMark) used other earlier gospels as sources. Luckily an old copy of Cadoux somehow found its way into my mailbox so I can set out now the evidence for this hypothesis.
1. Two Accounts of the Feeding of the Multitudes
33 But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. 34 And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. 35 When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. 36 Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.”
37 But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”
And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?”
38 But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
And when they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.”
39 Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. 41 And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. 42 So they all ate and were filled. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. 44 Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.
1 In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.”
4 Then His disciples answered Him, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”
5 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?”
And they said, “Seven.”
6 So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude. 7 They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them. 8 So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments. 9 Now those who had eaten were about four thousand. And He sent them away, 10 immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
These passages look very much like variant accounts of the same event.
For it is not conceivable that a company of me who had taken part in the experience of 6:30ff. should soon afterwards on a similar occasion ask, “Whence shall one be able to fill these men with bread here in a desert place?” (8:4). But the evangelist gives them as two separate events, and this makes us ask how any writer interested in the reliability of his witnesses should represent them as forgetful and obtuse to the point of imbecility. The only answer seems to be that he was a conservative compiler who, finding the same event given with different details in two authoritative sources, took it to be two different events and felt constrained to include both. (Cadoux 1935, pp. 16f.)
Different words are used for “basket” in the two passages, also, a further indication they derive from different sources since there would appear to be no reason for the author to change the word he used for the second account.
That all sounds quite reasonable.
It is, of course, founded on the assumption that unless the author felt so compelled to copy his sources exactly as he found them that he was willing to leave the final product sounding utterly silly. Such dedication to preservation of the originals. One has to ask, then, why the author felt incapable of adding some sort of explanation. A clear explanation of the two different sources would have helped. And if the author wanted to inspire trust why would he withhold his own identity and that of his sources? There are many other passages throughout the gospel that strain the credulity of most readers and that would have been helped in that regard by the mention of some reassuring evidence. That’s how historians of the day helped their readers trust their accounts and some of the reports of divine acts they recounted. But if the author wanted to portray the disciples as dimwitted as the hard-hearted Israelites wandering in the wilderness and giving Moses such grief for forty years because of their lack of faith despite miracle after miracle, then drawing attention to the disciples’ “imbecility” in Mark 8 makes sense.
Cadoux’s assumption appears to be close to those of the faithful, that the gospels were written to preserve real edifying historical events. I think we need to look elsewhere in the gospel for find support for either argument.
2. Extraordinary Syntactical Violence
In 6.8, 9 extraordinary violence is done to the construction of a sentence, which runs,
And he commanded them that they should take nothing for the journey, save a staff only; no bread, no wallet, no money in their purse; but shod with sandals: and put not on two coats.
Dr. Swete (Gospel according to St. Mark, p. 111) says it is “suggestive of the disjointed notes on which the evangelist depended,” though he evidently considers them to be the evangelist’s own notes. (Cadoux 1935, p. 17)
And do notice it’s published in The American Conservative. It’s true, I do subscribe to feeds from a range of media, including those on the opposite side of the ideological room from where I generally feel more comfortable. The article may contain nothing new for most of us, but it is a neat encapsulation of the what and why behind the Sanders-Clinton-Trump show this year, and a neat statement of the pits to which American “democracy” has finally descended.
Peter Van Buren’s conclusion:
Clinton is the ultimate end product of a political process consumed by big money. She is the candidate of the 1 percent. She believes in nothing but the acquisition of power and will trade anything to get it. The oligarchy is happy to help her with that.
Trump is the ultimate Frankenstein product of decades of lightly shaded Republican hate mongering. He is the natural end point of 15 post-9/11 years of keeping us afraid. He is the mediagenic demagogue a country gets when it abandons its people to economic Darwinism, crushes its middle class, and gives up on caring what happens to its minorities.
Both candidates are markers of a doomed democracy, a system that reached its apex somewhere in the past and has only now declined enough that everyone can see where we are. They’re us . . . .
And then I hear a surprising number of young people saying they don’t really care for democracy. Meanwhile in the background our planet’s climate is changing . . . .
Optimism, anyone? Is there any Optimism on today’s menu?
The third paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference(10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) was by Richard Bauckham: “The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory”. Helen Bond followed with her paper on the Gospel of John’s use of Mark (see previous post) and then there was a discussion between the two presenter and audience. It was the discussion that I found most interesting.
Richard Bauckham’s talk was indeed about the psychology of eyewitness memory and with little in the way of specific applications to biblical studies. His primary concern appeared to be to assure the audience that though one often hears how unreliable our memories are, including how unreliable eyewitness testimony so often can be in courtroom situations, nonetheless, when it comes to the sort of episodic memory we are talking about when we think of Jesus’ followers, memories are generally pretty sound for most purposes.
Events that are remembered well are those that
are unique or unusual
are consequential, salient
involve us emotionally
And of course such memories are cemented in our brains the more often we rehearse them.
Very broadly we can speak of three types of memory: procedural, semantic or conceptual, and episodic.
Procedural memory refers to remembering how to ride a bike, etc.
Semantic or conceptual memory refers to remembering concepts, book learning, etc.
Episodic memory refers to events that happen to us, the stuff that makes up major events in our lives.
It is the third type of memory that we are addressing when discussing gospel narratives and their eyewitness source material. That type of memory is more stable than the other two. If you are injured in a car crash you are not likely to think back years later and wonder if your injuries resulted from falling off a mountain.
Many stories highlighting the unreliability of memory derive from laboratory conditions and involve semantic or conceptual memory exercises. There is little real-life relationship to these findings. You life-situations are not so vulnerable to forgetting major or unusual events in your life.
All of that makes sense to me. But of course it does not address directly the reliability of the Gospels. For that question Bauckham referred occasionally to his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
“The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John” by Helen Bond
I will return in the next post to the third and the discussion following. Bond’s topic I find much more interesting.
We can see how the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark: they copied much of it and only slightly revised other parts. But that was not the way authors of that time normally used other texts. Matthew and Luke are unusual. Ancient authors were taught to add material, to omit and to re-arrange their source texts, even if only to produce something distinctively fresh and new. The Gospel of John has much more in common with other literature of the day in the way it uses its source material (Mark) and it is Matthew and Luke that are the outliers.
The blame for scholars in recent decades having had a difficult time accepting the idea that John was indebted to the synoptic gospels, in particular Mark, can be laid at the feet of form criticism. Form critics approached the gospels as if they were fundamentally copy and compilation documents. Their authors were transcribing other source and artlessly sticking them together to look like some sort of narrative. This view has not always been the common one, and once again it is being challenged by scholars who specialize in narrative criticism. Form critics have believed John could not possibly have known of Mark because its story segments are so alien to anything found in Mark. Narrative critics have always seen things differently and read John as a most artful composition, with even its awkward scene changes being the consciously constructed as rhetorical devices. Not that the gospel as we have it now was written in one go since there are nonetheless indications that the author returned a number of times to revise and add to it. Recall the second ending tagged on apparently as an afterthought, for example.
So how could John be so different from Mark yet still be dependent upon Mark? Helen Bond’s answer makes a lot of sense to me. The author of the fourth gospel knew the Gospel of Mark intimately, possibly so well we can imagine he knew it by heart. He had long reflected on Mark; had assimilated it into his own thinking and thought deeply, long and often, about its many facets and themes and messages. He was thus in a position to re-write it inside out, bringing to the fore his own meditations arising from its scenes and sayings.
Thus we find . . . .
John had no need to copy Mark’s exorcism episodes, because he realized Mark’s Jesus was in fact the conqueror of the ruler of the world — all of Mark’s episodic defeats of demons were subsumed under the direct presentation of Jesus as the one who defeated all powers.
John had no need to present John the Baptist as the Elijah because he had arrived at a new eschatology rendering Mark’s obsolete.
John had no need for a transfiguration scene because his Jesus was shown to be the ruler of all throughout the gospel.
Specific stories and sayings in Mark are broadened out in John to large thematic discussions. Mark’s Jesus spoke of serving all to be the first of all; John has a whole scene demonstrating this — the foot washing. Similarly the eucharist and baptism and holy spirit narratives in Mark are replaced by lengthy discussions of the meaning of the eucharist, of baptism and of the holy spirit.
The crucifixion scene in John takes up and develops ideas that are only muted in Mark. Example, Mark has the titulus crucis declaring Jesus to be the King of the Jews while John takes this detail and makes it a controlling metaphor of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.
It is often said that John’s trial scene owes little to those found in the synoptics but Helen Bond disagrees. Rather, the argument is advanced that the “Synoptic Jewish Trial” is scattered throughout John:
Mark’s Sanhedrin trial (prior to Jesus being sent to Pilate) is the source of John 11’s portrayal of the Sanhedrin condemning Jesus after the raising of Lazarus
Mark’s witnesses accusing Jesus of threatening to destroy the temple is expanded in John 2 with Jesus declaring just that
Jesus announcement that his judges would see the Son of Man in the heavenly realm is transferred in John to chapter 1.
Bond compares the viewpoint of the renowned Raymond Brown who argued that John’s trial scene was more historically accurate than those in the synoptics because the author of John had to have relied upon eyewitnesses, whereas in the synoptic versions we know that the disciples had fled the scene and could not have relayed the events that are written there. The synoptic authors instead cobbled together a more convoluted trial scene(s) by drawing upon recollections of disparate scenes throughout Jesus’ life. (Brown apparently was so steeped in form-critical assumptions and unable to seriously consider John as a creative author rewriting Markan themes that he argued that he only knew of the cleansing of the Temple story from an isolated account on a single leaf or sheet and not as part of a narrative — hence his placing it at the beginning of the gospel and not at the end as in Mark.)
Helen Bond believes that John could only have used and played with Mark these ways if he knew Mark intimately and had pondered it deeply.
In sum, to the best of my understanding (and there is considerable external noise in the video) here is Christine Jacobi’s main argument.
Paul’s was indebted to a Jesus tradition conveyed by eyewitnesses and others but what impressed him the most and formed the foundation of his and his community’s identity was the Christ Event itself. This enabled him to justify certain rulings that were in keeping with the meaning of that event and the needs of his churches as they identified themselves with that Christ event, even if those teachings contradicted specific sayings that the tradition attributed to Jesus himself.
Christine Jabobi’s thesis: Pauline letters are part of the early Christian memory of Jesus although Paul was not interested in the earthly Jesus. With traditional materials and his own reasoning, the apostle subordinated the Jesus tradition that was known to him to a comprehensive overarching interpretation of the Christ Event. Paul did not care for historical distinctions between early original material and later interpretations.
Romans 12:14-21 is believed by many scholars to indicate that Paul did know of the Jesus tradition that later found its way into the gospels. The NIV translation:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Jacobi explains that many scholars believe Paul took these ideas from those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus and who were preserving and teaching the words they had heard Jesus speak, the evidence for this being found in the gospels; Luke 6:28
28 Bless those who curse you . . . .
Did Paul take the words of Jesus that he heard from the eyewitnesses of Jesus and did those eyewitness traditions eventually catch up with the gospel authors who set them in writing? Jacobi rightly argues that the evidence can just as validly support the argument that Paul adapted the teachings from other traditions, especially Jewish wisdom literature such as the Book of Proverbs, and that the evangelists who wrote the gospels took the words from Paul and adapted them to make them the words of Jesus.
One scholar, Dunn, argues that Paul could mix the “remembered” words of Jesus with his recollections of Jewish Scripture and use them both as if they had equal authority. Jacobi thinks it unlikely that Jesus’ words would have had such authority so early.
But Jacobi points to other passages in Paul’s writings that explicitly contradict the words of Jesus that the gospels indicated came from the “Jesus tradition”. We are familiar with Paul’s disagreement with Jesus over marriage and divorce. Paul additionally rejected the right, even thought it had been made explicit by Jesus, to be supported by the people he served in his ministry.
I Corinthians 9
14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.
Compare Luke 10
7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.
What is going on here? If Paul knows of the same Jesus tradition that is said to emerge later in the gospels then why does he short-change it? Notice that even in the Romans 12 passage on blessing one’s enemies Paul does not appeal to the same carrot that Jesus held out to motivate his readers. Jesus promised those who acted this way a great reward in heaven. Paul, rather, in other passages in his writings appeals to his followers to identify with God himself and to be like the God who revealed himself in the Christ event — that is, to be like the God who revealed himself in the flesh and forgave others before and after ascending to heaven.
In other words, Paul subordinated the words of Jesus to something far more important, far bigger, than discerning their exact form.
What is surprising to Christine Jacobi is that such a hypothesis would mean that the earliest accounts available to us that contain memories of Jesus are highly interpreted and adapted for contemporary needs while the later evidence, the gospels, contain the words of Jesus in a less interpreted and a more original form. One would normally expect to find the reverse in the extant evidence: the earlier containing the more primitive account and the later evidence the more highly interpreted and adapted forms.
Such in summary is my memory of Christine Jacobi’s conference presentation. Jacobi’s hypothesis is built upon the assumption that the gospel authors inherited memorized traditions from eyewitnesses of Jesus. There is no reference in her paper to any arguments that challenge the view that the gospels have written down oral recollections rather than having borrowed from other literature (e.g. Henaut 1993; Brodie 2004). (Although Jacobi does claim, if I caught her words correctly, that Paul’s/Jesus’ teaching to “Bless those who persecute/curse you” is a new form of pre-existing teachings and not directly found outside the Jesus tradition.)
Is it not a simpler hypothesis that Paul adapted teachings from Jewish and Hellenistic literature and that the gospels reframed many of his words and placed them in the mouth of Jesus? Does not this simpler hypothesis account for the same data we find in both the letters of Paul and the Gospels while raising fewer questions about why Paul went to such extreme lengths to distance himself and his words from any acknowledgement to “the historical Jesus of Galilee” whose life was, after all, integral to “the Christ Event” that so completely consumed Paul’s focus?
Chris Keith’s paper essentially outlined the introductory points he has published previously about the nature of the social memory approach to Jesus studies but with an emphasis on defending the originality of what it has to offer New Testament scholars today. Much of the criticism of memory theory in New Testament studies, he begins, even criticism that has passed through the peer-review process, has been inaccurate. It has mischaracterized what the approach is about and failed to engage with the theory and its methodology.
The main point Keith emphasizes is that past events are not remembered (individually or collectively) in a “pristine” state as if preserved whole in a time capsule for our benefit, but are always remembered through the filters of earlier interpretation of the event that we have inherited and our present interests, needs, circumstances, environmental or cultural influences. As a long-time student of history I see nothing controversial about this statement. It strikes me as little more than a truism for any serious historian.
However, I do wonder what such a process of “remembering” means for Chris Keith when he cites as a case study by David Parker(?) the pericope adulterae or passage in the Gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. The manuscript evidence informs us that this story was not part of the original Gospel yet the story is such a part of our heritage that it inevitably influences the way we read and think about the gospels and the historical Jesus. Knowing that it was not part of the original accounts does not remove its influence over the way we think about Jesus.
I question that claim. If I understand the point correctly, I cannot accept that it is true. Surely scholars have written their own views on the historical Jesus that have no place at all for this story. Traditionally many scholars have attempted to reconstruct the teachings of Jesus entirely by means of comparing data in the synoptic gospels and leaving the entire Gospel of John (not just the pericope adulterae) out of their view completely.
Parker’s (and Keith’s) claim that the story inevitably influences how we think about Jesus is true at a general cultural level; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman is part of image of Jesus that has come to us through our cultural heritage. But anyone who is interested in a serious study of the gospels by normative scholarly means can indeed construct a “historical Jesus” that allows no place for it.
Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. I am open to being corrected.
Misunderstanding Historical Positivism and Mnemohistory
Later Keith argues that memory theory turns traditional historical positivism on its head. Again, I find myself questioning his presentation. To begin with, he offers what to me is an inadequate definition of what positivism means as an approach by historians to the past. In Keith’s view as I understand it historical positivism is the belief that the historian can and should “get behind the sources” to recover a purely objective truth or fact of what actually happened. From this point Keith argues that since the past must always necessarily be interpreted to be remembered at all, then it can never be “truly objective reality” but always some form of narrated “myth”.
To justify this view Keith refers to the work of Jan Assmann on mnemohistory. I have addressed Jan Assmann’s interest and what he means by mnemohistory in Tales of Jesus and Moses: Two Ways to Apply Social Memory in Historical Studies and show why comparing Assmann’s history of how historical figures were remembered with other historical tasks such as understanding, say, the origins of the French Revolution (or the origins of Christianity) is seriously misguided.
What Jesus scholars aspire to do (however unrealistic their hopes) is comparable to what Egyptologists do when they uncover and analyze the data in order to find out as far as possible “what happened” in the days of Akhenaten; Assmann’s interest is entirely different. His mnemohistory is a survey of the various cultural myths that appear to have arisen in the wake of the Akhenaten revolution. The two types of historical inquiry are completely different. Both are valid, but they each have quite different agendas.
To see a fuller explanation of historical positivism and how historians have both embraced and moved away from it see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, originally published 1946 but printed and released many times since.
It seems to me that with an oversimplified view of historical positivism Chris Keith has thrown out the baby with the bath water. Historical positivism originated as an attempt to set historical inquiry on a scientific footing. To this end historians believed that they should first establish the “facts” as a scientist establishes the facts, and from that starting point hypothesize and test laws to explain the relationships between those facts. By turning to Assmann it looks to me as if Keith has begun with a view of history that has no interest in the historical origin of a myth, that is, uncovering “the original facts” (this being considered an impossible quest), but only in the various ways the myth came to be “remembered” and mutated through the generations and again in his own time.
But even when mainstream historians rejected positivism (the belief that they could establish historical laws or principles from “the facts”) they did not reject the belief that they could find some form of real substance or “true events” in the past. Of course everything is necessarily interpreted. That again is a truism that needs no elaboration — at least to most historians I know of. (It only seems to be “big news” among some New Testament scholars, it seems to me.) But interpretation of an event does not mean that the event does not have some form of objective reality. We all have our interpretations of World War 2, of Churchill and Hitler. We cannot avoid them. But that does not remove the possibility of knowing that Churchill and Hitler really did do and say certain things, made certain decisions, and that very real and objective events that we can know about did follow as a result. Yes, we view those events through our interpretations. We know that people in other cultures and nations will have different interpretations, but no-one can deny that certain events are real and really did happen.
If I have misunderstood Chris Keith’s point I am more than willing to be better informed.
The difficulty with historical Jesus studies that has given rise to this misguided view of history as being completely beyond reach is that our earliest sources for Jesus, the letters of Paul, write about nothing but the myth of Jesus. Jesus, and what is sometimes referred to as “the Christ event”, is to Paul an entirely theological construct. The same is true of the later sources, the Gospels.
We only come to historical constructs (as distinguished from theological/mythical ones) in the next lecture in the conference, “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi. However, as we shall see, those earliest historical constructs — the model of Jesus teaching and his words being remembered and passed on in various forms until they are set down in the Gospels — are entirely hypothetical. They are entirely extrapolations from the myth itself.
I suspect Chris Keith would respond by saying that all records of history are by nature, inevitably, some form of myth because they must be interpreted in order to be narrated. My response is that yes, but interpretation does not deny the reality of events or persons. Recall my example above referencing the facts and persons of World War 2. We can know there was a real person Akhenaten and series of events that really happened around him — independently of the myths that those events generated.
It does not logically follow that there was no historical Jesus at the start of it all or that Jacobi’s historical construct is wrong. What does follow, in my view, is that it is pointless to ask questions about what the historical Jesus was like or what he said. We simply have nothing beyond the myths to inform us. The only question that the available evidence allows us to ask, as I see it, is how are we to understand the nature of the earliest evidence and how do we account for its origins.
To answer that the historian needs to inquire into not only the character of the world from which our sources emerged but also into attentive literary, redactional and other analyses that deepen our understanding of the nature of those sources.
New Atheism . . . must recognize the humanity in religion while maintaining a candid dialogue about deep-rooted conflicts between reason and faith. A matured New Atheism is needed more today than ever before . . .
It sounds like they are saying New Atheists need to show a little more tolerance and understanding in the way they approach the religious, in particular the Muslims:
New Atheism may have inched into the Islamic world, but it has not found deep roots. And its current approach isn’t well-suited to further penetrate Muslim societies. The condescending speech of New Atheists—calling religious people delusional, for example—is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change.
Jerry Coyne and other NA enthusiasts still speak of “the nature of Islam” as if Islam is a palpable force with an animate nature; and to support what is effectively a demonization process they generally take as representative of all Muslims polls in developing countries, especially the “Dark Orient” and the “Dark Continent” where the native populations skin colour happens to be as “dark” as their Islamic beliefs.
No kidding! Of course other New Atheists obsessed with sputtering bile about Islam, speaking of it as some ectoplasmic monster that demoniacally possesses its mostly dark-skinned acolytes, are not impressed by these three maverick NAs. Jerry Coyne, for example, protested that New Atheists don’t go around calling religious people delusional.
Seriously, how many New Atheists call the faithful “delusional”? I don’t often hear that. Boo!
How deluded can a New Atheist be? Immediately preceding that shockingly renegade suggestion that insulting people is not good for serious dialogue was a paragraph about the impact of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The response of Jerry Coyne’s followers was to play the cute self-justifying word-game that insists a belief can be delusional without implying the believers themselves are delusional. So Coyne’s followers echoed his sentiments, disapproving of the Time article where it criticized NA approaches and magnifying beyond recognition of the original article where it made positive comments.
C Posted September 16, 2016 at 3:02 pm
Of course it is rather weird of the authors to write that bit (“calling religious people delusional … is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change”) directly after saying this:
“The Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, has been downloaded ten million times, and pictures of people holding it while overlooking Mecca are remarkably commonplace given the draconian penalties for doing so—ranging from ten years imprisonment to death.”
HH Posted September 16, 2016 at 3:30 pm
I feel like that part of the article should have been left out completely as it makes the whole thing pointless. If NAs are the only ones who have made genuine in-roads because they’ve pointed out the falsity of religious beliefs, who exactly is going to take up the baton if they can’t take it any further?
It seems to be a bit of an apology to the religious for criticizing their (delusional) beliefs after they’ve just acknowledged that N. atheists are the only ones who’ve really got anywhere.
Is it really credible that NAs have had such “genuine in-roads” into the Arab Muslim world or that they have been “the only ones who’ve really got anywhere”? The Time article itself is more modest in its claims:
New Atheism may have inched into the Islamic world, but it has not found deep roots. . . .
The fact is that several publications have appeared since 9/11 about atheism and apostasy in the Islamic world that demonstrate how long-standing such conflicts have existed there, long before September 2001. That Richard Dawkins’ book was downloaded so often in those quarters testifies to the ready-demand existing there prior to its publication. Recall the Arab Spring when Muslims took to the streets often at risk to their lives to call for secular democratic governance. NAs surely evince a little hubris if they believe they are the ones who, as the “best (most rational) of their breed” have taken up Kipling’s “white man’s burden” and been responsible for exposing supposedly Islam-benighted souls to the pure light of reason.
Did you know that the world is round?
The Time article calls for more moderate and understanding strategies to open “candid dialogue about deep-rooted conflicts between reason and faith.” I can’t complain about new strategies but I do question the emphasis on demonstrating religion’s incompatibility with science.
Today I learned through a new Jerry Coyne post that The Baffler has posted a beautifully written article by Sam Kriss, Village Atheists, Village Idiots, making the same point in a much more interesting way. He compares the distinguishing NA strategy with the decision of a lunatic to repeat over and over “The world is round” to prove his sanity. No-one can disagree with that statement, he reasons, but of course he only manages to demonstrate that he fails to appreciate the contexts in which he is attempting to make his point, gets into bigger trouble, then protests that he is being persecuted for proclaiming nothing but the obvious truth!
Jerry Coyne, unfortunately, cannot grasp the point (to do so would require some uncharacteristic self-reflection) and in his typically open-minded style chooses to cut out the entire journal from his life for this one article: Idiot compares atheists to village idiots.
Everyone knows that religion and science embody irreconcilable understandings of the world. We don’t say insects are wrong because they are not plants. Or rabbit is stupid because it’s not a tree. Probably every child being reared by a family who believes God created everything (whether thousands of years ago or billions of years ago, whether by suddenly making fully formed species appear or by guiding evolution) and that science is either not the whole story or is the completely wrong story. No one needs to tell Religion that it does not agree with Science.
When anti-theists complain about the unscientific nature of religion they are really advertising their ignorance of what religion is, why it is, how it seems to have come about. New Atheists need to do their homework instead of merely shooting fish in a barrel for fun.
So when Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Phil Torres call on NAs to recognize the humanity in religion it sounds to me as though they are on the right track that leads eventually to a genuine understanding of what they are dealing with.
Understanding reality and how humanity works
Stubbornly oblivious to their dishonest claims about their past lives our three authors appeal to NA favourites Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz as guides to follow. Their flaws might be many, but NAs can nonetheless cherry-pick their writings to compile several worthy principles to follow. One of these:
Atheism, Ali points out, is a logical step that comes after Enlightenment values like rationalism and tolerance, and the liberties of a free, open and secular society are in place.
But to act on this most logical of precepts would mean actively protesting against our own Western governments who are propping up the regimes that violently crushed the Arab uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East not very long ago. Or in Syria it would mean calling on our leaders to withdraw all support for the Islamist thugs trying to replace the Assad regime and then throwing every effort into supporting the original Arab Spring leadership. Somehow I cannot see such genuine support for the building of “free, open and secular societies” coming from people like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. That’s a narrative that does not sit well with their view of Islam itself is the unregenerate evil to be confronted. Real people who actually make their religion (insofar as each of them has a religion) what it is are reduced to a mere shadow of the Beast of Islam itself.
I suspect the influence of “ex-Muslims” or “atheist-Muslims” of questionable character and tactics is at best limited in the Muslim world more generally. Changes are most likely to come from within the Muslim communities themselves. Muslims in countries like the US and Australia have in the main adapted to Western ways. Problems that persist are generally among the new generations, the “in-betweens” of the second generation feeling neither part of their traditional heritage nor at one with their parents’ new home. But that’s how it has always been with migrant families including the Greeks, the Italians, and then more recently the Vietnamese. We know that such conflicted worlds do eventually pass.
In an interview as well as in a book co-authored with Sam Harris Maajid Nawaz said something about Islam that I have seen few NAs notice: Islam is neither a religion of war nor a religion of peace. It is whatever people make it. That statement demolishes Islamophobic claims by many NA supporters that Islam is a force or power that is “by nature” evil. Naturally we all want to see the day when there will be no more human rights violations in the name of religion, but at the same time we need to understand what we are engaging with. Religious practices, however much they stand in opposition to human rights (and Christianity is still trying to move beyond its primitive days, too, let’s not forget) are not the same as terrorist ideologies. It is a mistake — and contrary to all serious research into the nature of radicalization and violent Islamists — to treat the two as if they are all part of the one package that contains a monolithic force for evil. As classic cultural imperialists NAs decide for themselves how to interpret the Qur’an and accordingly believe in the reality of their imaginary dragon spitting out terrorist flames at random. A more productive approach is to “recognize the humanity in religion” and listen to what all those living in the Muslim world (everyone from sceptics and rationalists to conservative, Western, Eastern and reformist imams) and those ideologically committed to the Islamist world are themselves saying.
I am glad I did not mention it here at the time now because the page became more interesting in the following week with an exchange between Carrier and Einhorn. Lena Einhorn points out that she feels her “hypothesis itself is largely left unexplored” in Carrier’s review.
Lena further draws attention to the apparent irony of her work gaining attention by those who favour the Christ Myth theory since her own argument is that Jesus did exist, only not in the time setting found in the gospels and not as the sort of person portrayed in them either. This raises the problematic question of what we mean by “Jesus” whenever the question of his historicity surfaces. We need to have some idea of how to recognize the person we are looking for and the only guides to help us are the canonical gospels, yet we know the gospels portray a theological construct and not a historical figure! It is inevitable, therefore, that most people who look for the historical Jesus do look for someone resembling the mythical Jesus of the gospel narratives. Lena Einhorn breaks this circularity by identifying reasons to believe that the core events and persons found in the gospels match those of a couple of decades later according to the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.
Carrier stresses his own conviction that the evidence is best explained without any need to postulate a historical Jesus at all. Einhorn replies:
The problem in comparing a hypothesis such as mine (“Jesus existed, albeit in another time, and this is the evidence”) with one suggesting he never existed, is that the latter is built largely on Evidence of absence. What I do in my book is line up evidence for his presence in the 50s (and for the New Testament as a historical text of the Jewish rebellion, lying hidden underneath a literary/devotional/supernatural narrative). It would have been a somewhat knotty exercise for me to challenge Evidence of presence with Evidence of absence (“what I just showed you never existed”).
She adds further explanation:
No, the time shift theory is not built only on the numerous similarities between Jesus and the messianic leader Josephus calls “the Egyptian” (the large following, the prophecy of the tearing down of the walls of Jerusalem, the betrayal to the authorities, the violent reaction of the authorities, the pivotal events on the Mount of Olives, previous time spent in Egypt, and in the wilderness). It is built on a slew of additional parallels between the Gospels and Acts, on the one hand, and events Josephus places in the 40s and 50s CE:
*The activity of robbers, lestai
*Known crucifixions of Jews
*An insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19)
*A messianic leader gathering people on the Jordan river, who is subsequently decapitated by the authorities
*An attack on a man named Stephanos (Stephen) on a road outside Jerusalem
*Two co-reigning high priests
*A conflict or war between Galileans and Samaritans, limited in time
*Galileans on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals being stopped in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56)
*A conflict between the Roman procurator and the Jewish king (Luke 23:12)
*A Jewish king with a prominent and influential wife (Matthew 27:19)
*A procurator slaughtering Galileans (Luke 13:1)
*A procurator and a Jewish king sharing jurisdiction over Galilee (Luke 23:6-7)
*Likely noms de guerre such as “the Zealot”, “Boanerges”, “Bariona”, or “Iscariot”
*The death of Theudas (Acts 5:36)
*A messianic leader who had previously spent time in Egypt, and in the wilderness, who prophesies about tearing down the walls of Jerusalem, and who is defeated by the authorities on the Mount of Olives
The 20s and 30s are – not only according to Tacitus, but also according to Josephus – a period when no robbers, no crucifixions, and no Jewish messianic leaders are reported. To name only a few discrepancies.
But most of it is there in the late 40s and 50s.
One of the illustrations Lena Einhorn posts in her reply to Richard Carrier:
Terrible déjà vu hit me as I recently watched the BBC doco Return to the Most Hated Family, also known as The Most Hated Family In Crisis (sequel to The Most Hated Family in America) with interviewer Louis Theroux. Australians at least can catch the documentary over the next few days at iview. My own cult was never as offensive as the subject of this film: we certainly never publicly demonstrated at funerals gloating over dead soldiers in the belief we were righteously rejoicing in God’s judgments. But I could understand how these devout believers could bring themselves to do just that.
But that’s not the point of this post. What really pained me was the way Theroux was able to expose the deep human tragedy inflicting these people trapped in their conviction that they were doing God’s will.
Parents had thrown their children out of the church for “choosing the way of the world/Satan”. Mothers, fathers, they were clearly straining with all their power to put on a stoical front, to not buckle emotionally, to show the world that they were truly so God-fearing and God-loving that even when their own children were “the lost” they still “rejoiced in the judgments of God”.
Of course they had to give their suffering meaning and that’s the only way they could do it. But Theroux’s questions were so compassionate and direct that the camera could not deny viewers the signs — gestures, facial tensions, slight voice quavering — of deep pain denied.
Among Theroux’s concluding remarks was a line that went something like this: “People who deny their own feelings believe they have a right to trample on the feelings of others.” And I was reminded of the pain I had caused my own parents when I joined a cult.
A few days earlier while driving I was listening to a local radio interview of a woman compassionately talking about her late Bible-believing mother. They had been a military family so always on the move, never having the opportunity to build long-lasting relationships with others. The mother’s strong devotion to God, the daughter suggested, had become a substitute. It was her one constant and close friendship. To me that came across as a moving attempt to understand her mother, to avoid judgment that could have come so easily. And that’s how I remembered dark years of my own past (don’t misunderstand — my entire life was certainly not spent in the cult and I experienced other far more benign forms of Christianity as well before becoming an atheist): we loved others, were bonded to others, as they themselves were bonded to our God. Ties could be severed as quick as an axe blow once they lost hold of the centre that was their God. But that was not this woman’s experience as far as I know. It was enough to suggest that her life lost in God was in fact a sad symptom of an inability to establish a comparable relationship with her own kind.
In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.
I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.
On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.
Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.
In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. Continue reading “What Is a Prophet?”
Historian Tom Holland has made a public confession that when it comes to his morals and ethics he is “thoroughly and proudly Christian”. (Tom Holland is a very talented writer and historian whose study of the rise of the Arab empire and birth of Islam I have discussed here. I was also fascinated by another work of his, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom — a period of history I specialized in when studying history as an undergrad.)
Now Christian blogs are crowing that the renowned historian has “come out” in defence of Christianity. The Enlightenment philosophes got the Church all wrong, he implies.
Holland tells us of his younger fascination with the great empires and generals of ancient history (an interest he says morphed out of his boyhood love of dinosaurs) and how they made the Bible’s heroes looked so anemic in comparison.
He had long embraced the view of history bequeathed us by the Enlightenment era (via Gibbon, Voltaire, etc) that Christianity ushered in an age of intolerance, superstition and ignorance. One had to look further back to the ancient “classical era” to find values more worthy of humanist ideals.
His epiphany dawned over time as he reflected upon the barbarism of Sparta and Rome:
The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
For once I can say something I have never written before and never imagined myself saying. A historian from outside the guild of biblical studies can learn something from a Professor of New Testament; in this instance the professor is Gregory J. Riley. (There are surely many others; but as an outside amateur I think of Riley as the most well known scholar addressing the contribution of ancient “classical” values to Christianity.)
Christianity was not born mysteriously out of a womb unrelated to the body of which it was a part. Every human creation is a product of a human environment. It would be unique, unnatural even, if Christianity emerged from a virgin birth.
By way of explanation I think the titles of two of the following posts on Gregory Riley’s works should tell the story, though the titles are also hyperlinked to their original content:
Then there are the scholarly works addressing Paul’s debt to classical ethics with nary a word of credit to Jesus. I mention just a handful that I can identify quickly from my own collection:
Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2006). Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12-13: The Role of 13.1-10 in the Argument. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 163–172. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072836
Lee, M. V. (2009). Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Malherbe, A. J. (1989). Paul and the popular philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Rasimus, T. (2010). Stoicism in early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
Thorsteinsson, R. M. (2006). Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 139–161. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072835
Julius Caesar and Leonidas were not the only figures to speak for ancient values. Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, if my memory serves.
And as for the utter callousness of Caesar’s treatment of the Gauls and Sparta’s legendary treatment of helots, yes, it would be soul-destroying to think humanity has made no progress in two thousand years. Yet we do ourselves a serious injustice if we fail to recognize that our Christian nations have on the whole fully approved the extermination of entire cities of innocents for what they believe was the purpose of saving the lives of their own soldiers, and continue to approve of the slaughter of innocents in order to achieve specific national and strategic goals.
Tom Holland might be advised to turn his attention to historians of modern realities (his compatriot Jason Burke comes to mind) and learn that enormous strides in propaganda and hypocrisy have possibly exceeded advances in morality. No, that’s not quite fair or true. It really is a lot harder today for national leaders to do what they want without regard for public opinion and I have little doubt that leaders today really do have consciences more refined than those of their ancient counterparts (except for the psychopaths, of course). But, but…. it does pay sometimes to look behind the headlines.
At any rate, there’s a lively discussion going on in Heather’s comments section, and Neil Godfrey has shown up, arguing, as he always does, that the role of Islam in Islamic terrorism is much overrated. I’m just glad he’s inflicted himself on Heather and not me.
It baffles me that nearly every nonreligious ideology—Nazism, Stalinism, racism, and so on—can be seen without opposition as a source of horrible acts, but when you get to religion, well, nope, it never inspires anything bad. (Of course, those same folks will tell you about all the good it inspires.)
Of course Islamists terrorists used their religious beliefs to justify their terrorist program. Of course National Socialism and Stalinism inspired wicked things. So is “socialism” to blame for the Holocaust? the genocide of the kulaks? I recently wrote a post referring to Robert Owen and his socialist ideas. It’s utterly absurd to suggest socialism itself is responsible in any way for Hitler’s rampage in the name of National Socialism or anything done by Stalin.
Nazi and Stalinist ideologies are to socialism as Islamism is to Islam — as my recent posts on the origins of Islamism make very clear in the words of the Islamists themselves.
Who the hell is this Neil Godfrey anyway that Jerry Coyne should bother to even make reference on his blog post to my comment on Heather’s site?
I kept thinking I was listening to a madman, that the interview was a practical joke, that a highly imaginative author was discussing his ideas for a fantasy movie or children’s story. Trees really do talk to each other? have feelings? memories? recognize and teach their young? learn? please don’t tell me they have brains….!!!!!
But a brain? For there to be something we would recognize as a brain, neurological processes must be involved, and for these, in addition to chemical messages, you need electrical impulses. And these are precisely what we can measure in the tree, and we’ve been able to do so since as far back as the nineteenth century. For some years now, a heated controversy has flared up among scientists. Can plants think? Are they intelligent?
In conjunction with his colleagues, FrantiSek BaluSka from the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany at the University of Bonn is of the opinion that brain-like structures can be found at root tips. In addition to signaling pathways, there are also numerous systems and molecules similar to those found in animals.34 When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli. The researchers measured electrical signals that led to changes in behavior after they were processed in a “transition zone.” If the root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones, or saturated soil, it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. The root tip changes direction as a result of this communication and steers the growing root around the critical areas.
I just said ‘Don’t tell me that.’
Right now, the majority of plant researchers are skeptical about whether such behavior points to a repository for intelligence, the faculty of memory, and emotions.
That’s a relief.
Among other things, they get worked up about carrying over findings in similar situations with animals and, at the end of the day, about how this threatens to blur the boundary between plants and animals. And so what? What would be so awful about that? The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. . . . .
You can listen an interview with the author, Peter Wohlleben, at The Secret Life of Trees. Since hearing that program yesterday I found that any web search on the name Peter Wohlleben will bring up a wealth of other articles, videos, what have you. His book: