Monthly Archives: September 2016

About Vridar: On Politics, Religion and Propaganda

If you are vain enough to think I am directing my posts about propaganda at you you are probably right. I am certainly revisiting my past and still preaching to myself.

Vridar was the fictional name Vardis Fisher use of the main character in his “autobiographical novel” The Orphans of Gethsemane. Vridar had been raised in a strict Mormon household and had to learn anew the fundamental lessons of life and love only after leaving that faith behind. I found myself identifying closely with Vridar in the novel.

Religion was only one part of what Vridar had to unlearn and come to understand. The same with me. My past experiences left me wondering how I could have been so completely wrong for so long about so many things in life.

As a significant part of my post graduate degree course in educational studies I found myself compelled (willingly) to investigate the difference between education and propaganda. The bizarre irony was that I remained true to my religious faith the entire time of my studies! How is such a double-bind possible? It makes no sense.

But it did happen and as I was breaking away in subsequent years from my faith I often thought back trying to identify how it happened.

I have also told before my disillusionment on leaving my faith cocoon only to find the same processes at work in others and the wider society that had, in concentrated form, led me into my “extremist” religion. The world was not immune. The same processes were all around me, everywhere. The difference being, fortunately, that in the wider world there is also more potential to exposure to opposing views, debate, and the processes that come together to radicalize some individuals are often (not always) in more diluted forms elsewhere.

Propaganda is a topic that is close to my own heart; it is a topic that opens one’s eyes to not only how the wider world works but also to how each of us works. I am no different from anyone else in that respect.

So let’s recap, and I am embracing here previous posts where I have set out a discussion of what Vridar is about:

Vridar is about attempting to understand religion, not simply bash and attack it.

It is about attempting to understand the origins of Christianity and other related faiths, especially the Bible, and is not on any crusade to undermine or attack them, either. Plenty of other sites do that quite effectively.

It is about trying to understand human nature, the way the world works, how our views are shaped, whether those views relate to religion, politics, human values.

It is about understanding anything else from time to time of special interest from history and science or wherever.

I am well aware many readers have left Vridar because of the non-religious topics, especially those relating to Islam and terrorism. That is sad, but inevitable. (Many mainstream religionists, both lay and scholar, have walked away, too.) I know that many people are not interested in exploring why the wider world “thinks” the way it does or how they have come to have the views they do. They are supremely confident that they understand all of these things very well. Just like I was confident that a post-graduate course exploring the nature of propaganda would not shake my faith, because I knew the sure grounds of my faith.

I have tried to make the most of the experiences that led to Vridar in the first place so that those earlier years could be somehow turned to something useful for anyone interested. I don’t claim to have definite answers, but I have learned some lessons and am very interested in learning and understanding, and sharing what I learn and come to understand here.

It is a shame that some readers are more interested in trolling, attacking, etc rather than discussing those things, but that’s how the world works.

How Propaganda Subverted Democracy – the Beginning

Previous two posts: (1) Propaganda in Modern Democracies and (2) “America, the most propagandised of all nations”

—oo0oo—

It began with the emergence of modern democracy. Historians have labeled the few decades prior to World War 1 the Age of Progress (compare the Gilded Age in the US). Business interests boomed and so did working class power. Democracy was on the march in both the UK and US: in 1880 10 to 15% of the population had the vote; by 1920 that figure had advanced to 40 or 50% — although in reality it was more a slogging series of trench battles than a march.

The Fears

It is hard for us today to imagine that two hundred years ago people were arguing that land itself was by nature “the free gift of the Creator to all his creatures, and not the produce of human labour, like money, food, or any other perishable commodity, it can never be a legitimate subject of property.” (Bronterre, The Operative, vol. i., no. 4, p. 1, 1838, cited in Dickinson 1898, p. 145) Bronterre was not alone. Robert Owen was among other prominent voices for the same principle.

Those who owned the property and capital were by and large alarmed by these developments.

[T]o the working class the question of political reform had been from the beginning a question of property. It was misery that made them politicians. They were convinced that all their suffering was due to unjust laws, and that, therefore, the only remedy was the appropriation of political power by the sufferers. Society, as it was constituted, was an organised conspiracy to rob the working class; it was the order of society itself that needed to be reversed, and the means to that reversal was parliamentary reform. . . .

It appears, then, . . .  that the political agitation of the working class was inspired from the first by the keen sense of distress . . .

[A] silent revolution has taken place. By successive extensions of the franchise and redistribution of seats the principle of adult (or at least of manhood) suffrage has come to be so far recognised in fact that a further extension of it is generally felt to be merely the logical corollary of what has been already done. . . . 

But the mass of the people into whose hands, in the course of devolution, the government will fall, are daily becoming more and more aware of what they mean to do with their power. The working class is ranging itself against the owners of land and capital. The nation is dividing into two antagonistic sections, and it is to one of these sections, that which is numerically the larger, that must fall, according to the democratic theory of government, the absolute monopoly of power. It is in this situation that resides the political problem of the English democracy . . . . (Dickinson 1898, p. 131, 146, 153, 159)

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson
Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson

How serious a problem was the extension of democracy?

Universal suffrage . . . would give, it is supposed, to the more numerous of the two classes . . . the unconditional and absolute control of the legislature; they would therefore be able to effect, without further difficulty or scruple, a fundamental change in the tenure of property.

Stated thus crudely and frankly, but not, as I believe, unfairly, this conception appears to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of the whole theory of democracy, so far as it is held in any absolute sense. It is not true, and it never has been and never will be true, that the majority have either the right or the power to do anything they choose, in defiance of the claims or the wishes of the minority; and if ever a serious attempt were to be made to carry out the policy of the Socialists, the only result would be the breakdown of government altogether. Government by the majority is a convenient means of conducting national affairs, where and in so far as there is a basis of general agreement deeper and more persistent than the variations of surface opinion; but as soon as a really fundamental point is touched, as soon as a primary instinct, whether of self-preservation or of justice, begins to be seriously and continuously outraged, the democratic convention gives way.

Fear of “the tyranny of the majority” does sound somewhat crass if those who have the most to lose for the sake of establishing a more equitable and fairer society for all speak about their own interests only. Attention is deflected to a more idealistic cause, one that makes the opponents of majority rule look like white knights  with nought but the interests of others at heart, like religious minorities. (Never mind the fact those opposed to full democracy at other times expressed horror that the advocates for extending the franchise would “destroy all reverence for religion” and roll back the power of the Church!)

No minority, for example, even in a compact modem State, either would or ought to submit to a decision of the majority to prohibit the exercise of their religion. Such a decision could only be carried into effect by force, subject to the contingency of armed rebellion; and orderly government would dissolve into veiled or open civil war. Similarly, and in spite of the optimism of Home Rulers, it is perfectly possible that in the case of a population as heterogeneous as that of Ireland, the attempt to introduce the system of government by the majority might really drive the minority to rebellion. (Dickinson 1898, p. 161f)

The minority with the wealth and industrial power had the means to fight. They also were acquiring the means to fight without necessarily always resorting to physical violence.

The Warnings

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Human Languages Use Similar Sounds for Common Words

Amazing . . . can’t wait for further research to confirm or refute . . .

Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages

(or doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605782113)

Or you can read a short version on the news site where I first learned about it:

Linguistic study proves more than 6,000 languages use similar sounds for common words

Or under a title I thought most apt:

A nose by any other name would sound the same, study finds

Here’s a list of the sounds taken from the original PNAS article (symbols are described here):

signal-summary

Nor can I resist the nice map from the same article:

map

Trying to think through the significance(s) should it be confirmed. . . . .

First, a universal grammar. . . . now this?

 

So Luke did not know Matthew after all?

protomarktomarkSomething is needed to break the impasse between the two sides:

Side 1: Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q.

Side 2: There was no Q: Matthew used Mark and Luke used both Matthew and Mark.

One of the arguments against #2 is that it is inconceivable that Luke would have so thoroughly revised and restructured Matthew (especially the nativity story and the Sermon on the Mount) if he were using Matthew. Opposed to this argument is the claim that such a revision is not inconceivable. I tended to favour the latter.

So on that point the two sides cannot be resolved.

As I continue to read Delbert Burkett’s Rethinking the Gospel Source: From Proto-Mark to Mark I am wondering if the scales can be tipped in favour or one side after all. And what tips the balance? Silence. Roaring silence.

Before continuing, though, I need to apologize to Delbert Burkett for leaving aside in this post the central thrust of his argument. His primary argument is that neither the Gospel of Matthew nor the Gospel of Luke was composed with any awareness of the Gospel of Mark. Rather, all three synoptic gospels were drawing upon other sources now lost.

But for now I’m only addressing the question that Luke knew and decided to change much in the Gospel of Matthew.

Here is a key element of Burkett’s point :

The Gospel of Matthew has recurring features of style that are completely or almost completely absent from . . . Luke. Entire themes and stylistic features that occur repeatedly in Matthew are lacking in [Luke]. What needs explaining, then, is not the omission of individual words and sentences, but the omission of entire themes and recurring features of Matthew’s style. Since the great majority of these are benign, i.e., not objectionable either grammatically or ideologically, they are difficult to explain as omissions by either Mark or Luke, more difficult to explain as omissions by both. They are easily explained, however, as a level of redaction in Matthew unknown to either Mark or Luke. Their absence from Mark and Luke indicates that neither gospel depended on Matthew. (p. 43)

Details follow.

Words recurring in Matthew but not found in parallel passages in Luke

The word “then”, τότε

Used by Matthew 90 times.

Luke parallels 40 of passages in Matthew using τότε but Luke only uses τότε 7 times in those. 33 times he has avoided using Matthew’s τότε.

Not that Luke had an aversion to the word because he uses it in other passages as well, 21 times in Acts and 8 times in places in his gospel that do not parallel Matthew.

“Come to”, “Approach”, προσέρχομαι

Matthew uses this word 52 times. Even though 27 of those passages in Matthew are paralleled in Luke, the word appears only 5 times in those 27 passages. But Luke is happy to use the word 5 times elsewhere in his gospel and 10 times in Acts.

Example read more »

Bayes, Schizophrenia, Autism and Brain Chemistry

A fascinating essay, even if speculative, by Scott Alexander on the brain chemistry behind Bayesian, deductive and inductive reasoning, and light it possibly sheds on conditions like schizophrenia, autism, and being stoned.

It’s Bayes All The Way Up

“America, the most propagandised of all nations”

This post is a sequel to Propaganda in Modern Democracies

Man is essentially more rational than irrational when he has access to adequate knowledge. When issues are clearly understood, a generally sound judgment is in evidence. The tragic fact remains, however, that he still lives in a world which seldom allows him the full information he needs to display consistently rational behavior. . . . The American man in the street is, as Childs contends, the most propagandized person of any nation . . . (Meier 1950:162)

Nor do other nations that have come increasingly under the influence of the United States have room for complacency and future posts will look at instances where American propaganda techniques have become established in other countries.

Propaganda in a democracy has been most commonly channeled through commercial advertising and public relations.

In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that ‘advertising is peculiarly American’, but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that ‘Hitler … employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilising advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost’ (Dudley 1947:106, 108, cited in Carey 1997:14).

Traditional media deployed: film, radio, TV, even comic strips, and now, of course, our new communication technologies daily vying for our attention.

Recall Jacques Ellul’s definition from the previous post to keep in mind what is at work through these media:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.

There are certain characteristics of American society that has made it particularly fertile ground for the creation of durable emotional symbols charged with power to manipulate public attitudes.

goodevilOne of those characteristics is the historical predisposition of American society to fall in line with a dualistic or Manichean world-view.

This is a world-view dominated by the powerful symbols of the Satanic and the Sacred (darkness and light). A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic. (Carey 1997:15)

Another quality is the pragmatic orientation of US society.

This is a preference for action over reflection. If the truth of a belief is to be sought in the consequences of acting on the belief, rather than through a preliminary examination of the grounds for holding it, there will be a tendency to act first and question later (if at all — for once a belief is acted upon the actor becomes involved in responsibility for the consequences and will be disposed to interpret the consequences so that they justify his belief and hence his action). If it is that American culture, compared with most others, values action above reflection, one may expect that condition to favour a Manichean world-view. For acknowledgement of ambiguity, that is, a non-Manichean world where agencies or events may comprise or express any complex amalgam of Good and Evil — demands continual reflection, continual questioning of premises. Reflection inhibits action, while a Manichean world-view facilitates action. On that account action and a Manichean world-view are likely to be more congenial to and to resonate with the cultural preference found in the United States. (Carey 1997:15)

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September 11 and the Surveillance State

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)

Our world, sixteen years after 11 September 2001, has changed dramatically in both subtle and obvious ways. We scarcely notice one of the most all-encompassing changes, namely the loss of privacy in almost every facet of our lives. Cameras track us everywhere we go. Our credit card payments betray our every purchase. Our cell phones share our GPS locations. We voluntarily tell people where we are, where we’re going, what we’re eating, and what we’re thinking on social media platforms.

Mostly, we relinquished our illusion of privacy without a peep. Our language shows the voluntary nature of our loss: We share with people, and simultaneously, we share with our governments. Once upon a time in the West, we trusted our governments to spy only on suspects. If they gathered enough evidence, they might arrest those suspects. But now our governments “surveil” those whom it deems “persons of interest.” If those persons act “suspiciously,” they may be “detained.”

Presumably, we allowed these changes to occur because of 9/11, specifically, because our intelligence agencies had failed. Surely, if a small band of terrorists could bring down skyscrapers in Manhattan and strike the Pentagon, someone must have failed somewhere. We can’t deny that. But exactly where did that failure occur? read more »

Propaganda in Modern Democracies

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men's Attitudes
Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

It is a remarkable fact worthy of attention that modem propaganda should have begun in the democratic States. During World Was I we saw the combined use of the mass media for the first time; the application of publicity and advertising methods to political affairs, the search for the most effective psychological methods. But in those days German propaganda was mediocre: the French, English, and American democracies launched big propaganda. Similarly, the Leninist movement, undeniably democratic at the start, developed and perfected all propaganda methods. Contrary to some belief, the authoritarian regimes were not the first to resort to this type of action, though they eventually employed it beyond all limits. This statement should make us think about the relationship between democracy and propaganda. (Ellul 1973:232f)

Propaganda began in modern democratic states? Surely those of us who are so fortunate to live in open democracies are free to think for ourselves and make informed decisions for the greater good. We have a free press, publicly accountable education and the secret ballot. After all . . .

In 1942 Henry Wallace coined the phrase ‘the century of the common man’ to epitomize his belief that American (and world) society would come under the influence of the needs and aspirations of the great mass of ordinary people. He foresaw a society where education, science, technology, corporate power and natural resources would, to an unprecedented extent, be controlled and used in the service of large humane ends rather than in the service of individual power and class privilege (Blum 1973:635-40 cited in Carey 1997:11).

Comparable predictions have been made of the age of the internet.

“If you want to see propaganda in action look at North Korea,” we think. The idea that those of us living in free and open democratic societies are influenced by propaganda seems laughable by comparison.

There’s a catch, however. Crude propaganda is a very blunt instrument. It’s the sort of obvious propaganda we could see practiced by the Soviet leadership. It made little use of social science or psychology to shape its techniques and many of its intended targets could see right through it. People would in private roll their eyes or seek out foreign media instead. When the authoritarian system collapsed people no longer had to pretend to believe it. As I’ll discuss in future posts, sophisticated propaganda techniques that did make use of research in the social sciences and psychology began in the United States and they have proved far more effective. Expensive policing, spying and dictatorial intimidation and coercion are not needed. In place of a Goebbels-led Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda we have Public Relations and Human Relations departments. We have the ever-helpful Press Releases put out by corporations and government departments. Media Management has become a major part of political party and corporate business. Not that “information services” are themselves propaganda. There is more to it than that.

So let’s back up and understand what propaganda is.

Harold Lasswell
Harold Lasswell

A leading figure in the development of propaganda in the United States was Harold Lasswell. We’ll talk more about him later. For now, here is his definition:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the technique of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . .

Literacy and the physical channels of communication have quickened the connection between those who rule and the ruled. Conventions have arisen which favor the ventilation of opinions and the taking of votes. Most of that which formerly could be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion. Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of palaver, and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda.

(Lasswell 1927:627-631)

The public may believe it is the ultimate ruler (dictator) in a democracy but Laswell is saying that those in power, business, corporate and political, have the means to shape the public’s values, beliefs, actions by methods far more sophisticated than those used by Goebbels.

Lest the comparison with Goebbels sound overblown, note what Drew Dudley (1947: 107) wrote for the American Academy of Political and Social Science shortly after the war:

It is rather amazing that during all the war years of government advertising, virtually no one raised the cry, Propaganda! One might have expected to hear someone label the use of advertising techniques by government as “Hitlerism.” Actually, Hitler did employ the technique of advertising during the prewar and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilizing advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost.

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Historical Methods: How Scholars Read the Gospels – An Outsider’s Perspective

Professor James D. Tabor (The Jesus Dynasty) has done his field of biblical studies and, most especially, the wider public a great service by setting out the historical methods by which he and critical scholars more generally approach the gospels. The public deserves to know and the field of biblical studies can only benefit from a more informed public. In Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospel Tabor explains that scholars don’t merely “pick and choose” details in the different gospels according to what they feel supports their theories about the historical Jesus or other questions: they apply critical analysis. Example:

Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark . . . ? Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself – if such can be determined.

Notice something else, though. The entire explanation is couched in the an assumption that the gospels contain traditions that in some cases and in some form go back to the historical Jesus himself. In fact, one significant purpose of the critical analysis is to discover what gospel material “might more reliably go back to Jesus himself”.

That is, the gospels are assumed to contain records, however flawed, of event or sayings that emanated from Jesus and/or his followers. The gospels are assumed at some level to be based on a “true story”.

Reasonable assumptions

That is a very reasonable position to take. After all, the gospels are written in an authoritative tone from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. The narrative voice conceals the real identity of the true author and in doing so removes any sense that we are reading a narrative limited by human bias and perspective. Of course, scholars especially are keenly aware that the stories are definitely, even inevitably, written from personal perspectives, and that’s the reason for their need to critically analyse their contents. But the problem is we have grown up in a culture that has taken for granted the authoritative character of the Gospels. Western religious and broader cultural tradition is grounded in the assurance that Jesus was the most important influence on our religious ideas and cultural values. To question this “fact” is as crazy as questioning the rotundity of the earth. Institutions have been built on the belief in Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. The “fact of Jesus” and “Gospel Truth” are part of our everyday metaphors and consciousness. Jesus is held up as a legitimizing symbol for a whole range of social, political, ideological causes.

Further, we have the date of the earliest gospel grounded in our conventional understanding:

Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE – within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

This is taken as a given, again quite reasonably, because it is a near-consensus among New Testament scholars. There are some outliers who place it considerably earlier, even decades earlier, but most (not all) of those who do so are apologists. Even fewer mavericks place it much later.

The problem is that these assumptions are not facts and really are open to question.

Look first at our assumption about the nature of the Gospels, that they are at some level records of a “true story”. Some scholars have argued that many of the narrative units about Jesus are re-writes of Old Testament passages. The raising of the daughter of Jairus is seen by some to be a re-write of similar miracles by Elijah or Elisha. Other scholars (the best known one is Dennis MacDonald and his The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) have even argued that both anecdotes and entire themes in the Gospels are drawn from popular Greek literature. Now other scholars have challenged such interpretations but the point is that such arguments can be reasonably made by specialists who know their stuff. In other words, it is not a bed-rock unquestionable certainty that what we read in the Gospels necessarily at some level owed its origin to “traditions” that were believed to have come from the historical Jesus.

It is not beyond possibility that at least parts of the Gospels originated as creative writing, as literary inventions. Of course some parts were definitely drawn from genuine historical tradition, too. We know that Pilate really was the governor, etc.

So given such a possibility, how do historians decide what is drawn from “historical memory” or even “historical imagination” on the one hand and “literary creativity” on the other?

This question is going one step further than Tabor has addressed. We are not asking what accounts in the Gospels can be traced to Jesus, but how we can tell if anything in a text owes anything at all to history as opposed to being entirely creative literature.

I believe there are ways. Not ways that will guarantee certainty, but that will certainly give us some measure of confidence one way or the other.

How we can write ancient history — breaking through cultural assumptions

The first is to look for independent corroboration. Some scholars see corroboration for their view that Gospel stories such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter above are literary fabrications by pointing to similar accounts in the Hebrew Bible. The critical point is that the corroborating evidence must be genuinely independent.

A second condition is to look at the provenance of both the narrative under investigation and of the corroborating testimony. Do we have clear reasons to trust that a piece of writing is derived from someone who “knew his history” or at least “the historical traditions”? Or do we have reason to believe the author was creative — for whatever theological or parabolic or edifying or entertainment reasons — from the start? So we may not have contemporary written accounts of Hannibal or Alexander the Great but we do have accounts by persons known who identify their sources from the times in question. Of course in theory they could all be lying, but their accounts do cohere with other evidence we see and do explain a lot about the way we can see the world changed so I think they are entitled to have at some measure of our confidence.

Unfortunately we have no idea who wrote the gospels or why or for whom or when (I’ll discuss the “or when” below). They don’t even identify their sources. The prologue introducing the Gospel of Luke is too vague a formula to be useful, and it is also questionable whether it is even meaning to say what most people seem to think it means. That’s never a good start for any historian. The reason we can write a history of the ancient world is precisely because we do have sufficient sources of the type that can be verified or give us some confidence in their historical reliability (imperfect though it may be). We can talk about Socrates as a historical figure because we do have such evidence for him.

When it comes to the Gospels, however, we have no comparable corroborating evidence nor the sort of information that should assure us that they really are attempts to record historical traditions and memories.

We do have evidence that supports the view that they were cut from the cloth of other literature, however.

The ideological influence on the dating of the Gospels

As for when the first Gospel was written, again we see cultural assumptions guiding our interpretations of the evidence. We assume, as we have always assumed and as everyone around us has always assumed, that at some level they are based on genuine history. Given that we believe this is what the Gospels are, it follows that they become the more reliable the closer we can legitimately place their origin to those historical events.

Therefore when we read about the prediction of the fall of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of Mark, it is again reasonable to date that Gospel to some time after that event. But of course we can infer that historical reliability as a rule tends to diminish the further away it is placed from the time it relates. In fact there is no reason I know of (I can be corrected, of course) that the Gospel of Mark might not have been written some time in the early decades of the second century. The earliest independent evidence of its existence appears to be found in a writing by Justin Martyr dated shortly after the Bar Kochba war of the early 130s.

The outsider perspective

James Tabor has done everyone a service by setting out so clearly the critical approaches and assumptions at the core of studies exploring Christian origins. I think we as outsiders can use his post as a springboard to identify more clearly the cultural assumptions embedded in the scholarly methods of critical New Testament scholars.

 

Management of Savagery — The Plan Behind the Terror Killing

najiSeveral times I have urged anyone interested in understanding modern Islamist terrorism to read the manuals and other literature that the Islamist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State have taken as their guides. Recently I went one step further and posted an overview of the seminal Islamist writing by Sayyid Qutb: The Founder of Islamist Extremism and Terrorism.

Another major work whose influence is very clear throughout Islamist writings and public announcements is The Management of Savagery, published online in 2004 under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji.

There is no need to wonder why Islamist terrorists target civilians in the West for horrific deaths. Naji set out the tactic and its rationale for all to read. There is no secret. No mystery.

I will copy and paste a few relevant sections from this manual. The translation is by (oh no, here’s that name again William McCants. The copy I am using requires me to acknowledge the following:

Funding for this translation was provided by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, and any use of this material must include a reference to the Institute.

That’s the formalities covered.

The management of savagery is the next stage that the Umma will pass through and it is considered the most critical stage. If we succeed in the management of this savagery, that stage (by the permission of God) will be a bridge to the Islamic state which has been awaited since the fall of the caliphate. If we fail – we seek refuge with God from that – it does not mean end of the matter; rather, this failure will lead to an increase in savagery!!

I skip the sections where Naji pinpoints times and places of supposedly comparable operations of savagery in history (e.g. resistance by numerous small bands to the Crusades).

A – The first goal: Destroy a large part of the respect for America and spread confidence in the souls of Muslims by means of:

(1) Reveal the deceptive media to be a power without force.

(2) Force America to abandon its war against Islam by proxy and force it to attack directly so that the noble ones among the masses and a few of the noble ones among the armies of apostasy will see that their fear of deposing the regimes because America is their protector is misplaced and that when they depose the regimes, they are capable of opposing America if it interferes.

 Then….

B – The second goal: Replace the human casualties sustained by the renewal movement during the past thirty years by means of the human aid that will probably come for two reasons:

(1) Being dazzled by the operations which will be undertaken in opposition to America.

(2) Anger over the obvious, direct American interference in the Islamic world, such that that anger compounds the previous anger against America’s support for the Zionist entity. It also transforms the suppressed anger toward the regimes of apostasy and tyranny into a positive anger.

And C

(C) – The third goal: Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly.

There is discussion of the appropriate targets of terrorist attacks. The aim is to spread the defensive forces of the State powers so thin as to be effectively useless as a guarantor of safety.

Hitting economic targets will force (the enemy) to goad the regimes, who are (already) exhausted from protecting the other remaining targets (economic or otherwise), into pumping in more forces for its protection. As a result, feebleness will start to appear in their forces, especially since their forces are limited . . . .

Thus, their forces are limited and select and the regimes have to put in place the following priorities:

First: Personal protection for the royal/ruling families and the presidential institutions.
Second: Foreigners.
Third: Petroleum and the economy.
Fourth: Entertainment spots.

. . . . .

There is an important principle which states, “If regular armies concentrate in one place they lose control. Conversely, if they spread out, they lose effectiveness”. . . .

When the best forces are positioned to protect thousands of petroleum or economic locations in a single country, the peripheries (of that country) and the crowded regions will be devoid of forces.

Organization is taken seriously. They are not amateurish hobbyists:

The most important skill of the art of administration that we must use is learning how to establish committees and specializations and dividing labor. . . .

We must make use of books on the subject of administration, especially the management studies and theories which have been recently published . . . .

And not only books on administration . . . .

— General books on the art of war, especially guerrilla wars . . .

Section three, page 28:

Section Three

Using the Time-Tested Principles of Military Combat . . . .

Following the time-tested principles of military combat will shorten for us the long years in which we might suffer the corrupting influences of rigidity and random behavior. Truly, abandoning random behavior and adopting intellectual, academic methods and experimental military principles and actually implementing them and applying military science will facilitate our achievement of the goals . . .

Page 31 brings us to our main interest:

Section Four

Using Violence

Those who study theoretical jihad, meaning they study only jihad as it is written on paper, will never grasp this point well. Regrettably, the youth in our Umma, since the time when they were stripped of weapons, no longer understand the nature of wars. One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring——I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them.

“Not about Islam”? “One should not confuse them”? That should not be surprising after reading Qutb’s Milestones. Qutb set out in black and white clarity the difference between Islamism and mainstream Muslims.

But never mind for now, let’s pick ourselves up and move along as if we never read that bit. . . .

We are now in circumstances resembling the circumstances after the death of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) and the outbreak of apostasy or the like of that which the believers faced in the beginning of the jihad. Thus, we need to massacre (others) . . .

Media savvy

A large section of Management is devoted to media management. Example scenarios (e.g. hostage taking) are presented and appropriate ways to communicate with the media/public before, during and after such an operation.

Therefore, the first step in putting our plan in place should be to focus on justifying the action rationally and through the sharia and (to argue that) there is a benefit in this world and the next (for undertaking the plan).

That justification, as implied in the above words, means stressing the idealistic motives, the conformity to “true Islam” (contrary to mainstream “apostates”) — the appeal to win more idealistic jihadis.

Why Attack the Innocent?

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Two Caliphate Myths

dulac-rubaiyat03It’s time to confront a Muslim myth that has widespread currency even among Westerners who are not favourably disposed towards the Muslim religion. And for good measure for the benefit of those readers who seem to think the historical Caliphate was the ideological precursor of Islamic State, I will toss in a second measure of historical fact. The subtext here is that certain facts pull the rug from beneath certain myths embraced by certain Westerners who have certain negative attitudes towards Muslims. Don’t get me wrong. I have no love for the Muslim faith any more than I do for any other religion. And yes, there is no doubt that Islam has a long way to go to catch up in all respects with contemporary Western values grounded as they are in humanism, secularism, rationalism, what have you. (I’m speaking idealistically of Western values, of course. I also roll my eyes sometimes at the hypocrisy of some anti-Muslim Westerners given that Westerners themselves have only oh so very recently come to some of their own more enlightened perspectives.)

Fact one: there is no evidence to support the story that the seventh century Arab conquests were inspired by Muhammad and with the goal of spreading the Muslim religion. None. Zilch. Forget that porky you have carried around for years now that says the Muslim religion was born and weaned in bloody jihad. There is no evidence to support this claim.

Abbasids850Some Zionist Jews cling to the myth that God ordered their ancestors to kill off or expel all native inhabitants of Palestine and that the Bible records this command and first (incomplete) effort to carry it out. This myth validates their contemporary efforts to push out and replace the Palestinians from their West Bank holdings. Historians know the original story is a myth, so where did it come from? I personally side with the scholarship that places the emergence of this myth to the Second Temple era in order for the new settlers (settled at the behest of the Persians) to justify their displacement of the locals. But that’s another story for another time. My point is that the story of Arabs mounting their horses and riding out with swords raised to conquer the bulk of the Middle East and North Africa all in the name of Allah and Muhammad his prophet with the intention of converting every male to praying five times a day and every woman to wearing the burqa is without any foundation. It’s a myth. The story is a religious myth, a little like the story of Joshua conquering Jericho and the promised land. I say “a little like” because there is some truth there. Only one has to pull apart the story to find it. I have posted about this before, so permit me to quote myself at this moment:

So were the Arab conquests inspired by Muhammad and their zeal to spread the Muslim faith? For that we have no evidence. I don’t mean there is no evidence for the seventh century Arab conquests. They are not doubted. But what is open to question is whether these Arabs were adherents to Islam at that time. Or did the Muslim religion appear subsequent to those conquests? When the Romans or Persians conquered territories they left indisputable evidence of who they were and what they believed. When the Arabs conquered both Christian and Jewish peoples they left no evidence that at that time they belonged to any particular religion. Apparently some Christians feared they were in league with the Jews because they allowed Jews to return to some of their places of prayer. Particularly curious is that there is no mention of Muhammad in any of their coins or other records pertaining to this period. Another curious datum from the documentary (not in the interview) is that the earliest known mosque in the Palestine region is not facing Mecca, but east, for prayer. The first coin with the name Muhammad on it does not appear until around fifty years after the conquests of Palestine.

Check the original and related posts for the details. Or if you’d rather simply disbelieve any of this and prefer to repeat stories of the bloody and barbaric intrinsic nature of the very essence of the Islamic religion itself then please go away and do something more useful with your time than fuming in anger over what you are reading here. Okay, now what about this business of “the ideology of the Caliphate” as if the Caliphate is some apocalyptic foreshadowing of Islamic State with all its beheadings and other obscenities and horrors towards women, men, young, old, everyone….?

William McCants
William McCants
Fact two: I am compelled at this point to quote someone who is highly respected author and scholar, William McCants. I have read two of his books, Founding Gods and The ISIS Apocalypse, and several of his published articles and have cited him several times before on Vridar so can assure you he won’t bite, so it’s safe to read his stuff. Here is an extract from a post in which he reminded his more well informed readers about the “historical caliphate” (excuse my own bolding):

But take a look at the Islamic State’s propaganda, and you will see that from its founding the group has sought to restore the glory days of the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad, especially the era of Harun alRashid of 1,001 Nights fame. “Know that the Baghdad of alRashid is the home of the caliphate that our ancestors built,” proclaimed an Islamic State spokesman in 2007. “It will not appear by our hands but by our carcasses and skulls. We will once again plant the flag of monotheism, the flag of the Islamic State, in it.” That same year, the Islamic State’s first ruler, the aptly-named Abu Umar al-Baghdadi announced IS’s claim to the city: “Today, we are in the very home of the caliphate, the Baghdad of alRashid.” Even after the Islamic State established its primary base of operations in Syria’s Raqqa province, once home to Harun alRashid for several years, and captured Mosul in Iraq, its spokesman still referred to “the Baghdad of the Caliphate” and “the Baghdad of alRashid.” poemswinerevelryThe Islamic State’s plan to revive the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad has two problems. The first is ideological: Harun alRashid was not terribly pious — he enjoyed poetry about wine and young boys — and his court valued unfettered intellectual debate and pagan Greek learning, which are anathema to ultraconservative Salafis like those running the Islamic State. But it is alRashid’s power the jihadists remember, not his impieties. The second problem is demographic, which cannot be resolved by selective memory: most of Baghdad’s inhabitants are Shi’a. They will not give it up without a fight. Neither will Baghdad’s patrons in Iran.

Tales of the Arabian Nights, poetry, wine, young boys, Baghdad itself . . . . not quite the template of today’s Islamic State! Time is long overdue for a few more Westerners to learn the facts and kick aside their former ignorance and blind-hostility to the mere echo of the word “Muslim”, or “Islam”. And of course Qutb could have learned a bit more had he lived to read the critical historical works available today. But what good would reading have done if his mind had been as closed as the minds of many Islamophobic (perish the term!?) Westerners today! Arabian-Nights-Edmund-Dulac-Illustrated

“Welcome on Board!”

I’ve been flying more than usual lately, and I can’t help but notice this new way of welcoming people aboard aircraft. Though not yet universal, at least half the time (presumably when following the company script) flight attendants smile and say, “Welcome on board.” The use of the locative instead of the accusative case sounds odd to my ears. It’s as strange as saying . . .

"Welcome in Sherwood!"
“Welcome in Sherwood!”

I have to remind myself, of course, that the phenomenon of case collapse has been slowly marching forward for decades, if not centuries. We still have, for example, the accusative forms “whither” and “thither,” but they sound so hopelessly old-fashioned that we rarely use them.  read more »

Religion Explained: How to Make a Good Religious Concept

fsmLet’s try to understand what religious beliefs are. What makes a religious belief work, take hold, and are found across cultures and generations? In these posts I’m continuing to focus on Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer whose explanation is grounded in cognitive theory. That is, this is a cognitive explanation for religion.

Religious beliefs — gods, ghosts, virgin births, etc — are not randomly fabricated nonsense. (I included ghosts as an example of religious beliefs because I’m discussing religion in its most generic sense and not confining myself to mainstream Western religions.) Religious concepts actually follow certain rules or recipes. They have specific types of properties. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, on the contrary, is a concoction made to look like “randomly fabricated nonsense”; the ingredients that go into the making of real religious concepts could scarcely produce a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I cannot possibly explain in depth how this recipe works in a blog post. To get the details one ought to read the first two chapters of Boyer’s book. I will try to hit key highlights. (And of course the terms used in describing cognitive processes are necessarily metaphorical.)

There are two essential ingredients that go into making a viable religious concept, and they need to be mixed in the right proportions. Boyer discusses the experimental research behind it all but I won’t address any of that here.

Take the overall understanding of what we all have by the idea of “animal”. We have all constructed since infancy an common set of ideas of what being an “animal” means, such as:

  • animals grow and die
  • animals have typical shapes or body plans
  • animals need food to survive
  • animals reproduce “after their own kind” or species

In fact we have “minitheories” about what it means to be an animal. As soon as we understand something is an animal we immediately infer many things about it that we do not need to check or test each time: e.g. it consists of the same sorts of innards, digestive tract, nervous system, as any other animal; that it will have a symmetrical shape; that it eats to survive — either plants or other animals; that if it kills and eats other animals it does so because it gets hungry, and so forth.

If you never heard of an Invisible Rail but were told it was an animal creature of some sort, then you would instantly know all of the above about it before even knowing what sort of animal it was or what it looked like.

An animal category in our heads enables us to make sense of “natural concepts” and to make all sorts of inferences about their behaviour without ever being told such details again each time we learn about a new animal.

In other words, we have a whole range of expectations that come into play whenever we are told about a new animal. If you heard that an Invisible Rail laid eggs from which baby Invisible Rails hatched you would not be surprised. If in addition you learned that it had wings, you would know it is a bird, and you would assume it has a beak and feathers. All of this would be consistent with the sorts of details you would have expected to hear about a something belonging to the animal category of knowledge.

But if you hear that an Invisible Rail had the ability to suddenly materialize anywhere and anytime when a child was deeply distressed, that would be unexpected information. That ability would violate all that you know about the properties of physical bodies. It would not be something your understanding of animals allowed to happen.

In fact, you would almost certainly recall that unexpected detail about the Invisible Rail because it is so unusual, so unexpected. You would imagine the Invisible Rail is a very unusual sort of animal.

But at the same time everything else about the Invisible Rail — laying eggs, feathers, wings, beak — would be exactly as you expect.

A religious concept consists of these two things:

  1. it violates certain expectations from what we call “ontological categories”
  2. it preserves other expectations.

There are a few more rules surrounding these two details, but first let’s understand “ontological categories”. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 17: Mark and Proto-Mark

John before Herod; Jesus before Pilate
John and Herod; Jesus and Pilate

For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity

One problem with accepting Mark as a Simonian/Pauline allegory (see the previous post) is the role it gives to John the Baptist. As it stands canonical Mark seems intent on presenting John as the foreshadower of Jesus. His preaching of repentance foreshadows the preaching of it by Jesus (Mk. 1:15) and then by Jesus’ apostles (Mk. 6:12). The rejection of John’s authority by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (Mk. 11:27) foreshadows the rejection of Jesus’ authority by the same. John is the end-time Elijah whose suffering and mistreatment foreshadow what happens to Jesus as the Son of man (Mk. 9:12-13). And John’s execution, as recounted in one of longest episodes in Mark (6:17-29), foreshadows that of Jesus.

The story of John is the only section in the gospel which is not specifically about Jesus. Even this, however, is narrated because what happens to John points to the one who follows him — as did the earlier section about John at the beginning of the gospel. John’s death foreshadows that of Jesus: there are even similarities in the stories, since both John and Jesus are put to death by political rulers who recognize their goodness, but who are described as weakly giving in to pressure. (Morna D.Hooker, The Gospel According To Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, pp. 158-159.)

Mark would have us believe that the resemblance between the ministries of John and Jesus was such that “people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead,’” (Mk. 6:14) a sentiment which is also put on Herod’s lips: “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.” (Mk. 6:16)

The Baptist passages contain problems that scholars have recognized for some time. . . . we should remain open to the possibility that the problems were caused by a reworking of the text.

Now, I have a hard time accepting that a Simonian/Pauline allegory would devote that much attention to John. Neither John nor Elijah is ever mentioned in the Pauline letters. There is no indication in the letters that Paul believed Elijah had recently returned and prepared the way for Jesus. Paul reproaches the Jews for their unbelief but never brings into it their failure to accept the preparatory testimony of John the Baptist. If John was an important figure to Paul, I expect that failure would have been a normal part of his upbraiding. But no, Paul seems to have little time for Jewish history or figures, whether recent or not. He skips that and instead connects Jesus with pre-circumcised Abraham.

Must we abandon then the thesis that Mark is a Simonian/Pauline allegory? I’m not yet ready to do that, for it seems to me that there is a decent possibility that the Baptist passages were not originally part of Mark. They do, after all, contain problems that scholars have recognized for some time. The usual way to deal with the problems is to claim that Mark was probably working with various earlier traditions and his weaving of them into his narrative was not always smooth. Perhaps, but since for various reasons the tradition scenario itself is questionable, I think we should also remain open to the possibility that the problems were caused by a reworking of the text. A Simonian/Pauline allegory featuring a Jesus who foreshadowed Simon/Paul may not have been acceptable to a rival Christian. He or she may have reworked it to set Jesus up with a different hero, John the Baptist.

We may be so accustomed to how Mark begins that we fail to realize how strange it is.

So let’s look at the passages in question, the first of which occurs right at the beginning of Mark:

1. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God, 2. as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way. 3. A voice crying in the wilderness — Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ 4. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

We may be so accustomed to how Mark begins that we fail to realize how strange it is. No sooner is Jesus Christ named than attention is immediately shifted to John the Baptist. And the shift occurs not by naming John — that doesn’t happen until verse 4 — but by quoting verses from Scripture. And Mark presents the verses as being from Isaiah, but in fact verse 2 appears to be a combination from Exod. 23:20 and Mal. 3:1. In Matthew and Luke that verse clearly has the Baptist in view, but in their gospels it turns up later as part of a passage often assigned to Q. And in their gospels it is not attributed to Isaiah.

In regard to the misattribution of verse 2 scholars offer various explanations:

Mark may have taken over the combination of texts from Christian tradition — possibly already gathered together in a testimony book (i.e. a collection of Old Testament passages used by the early church) — and perhaps wrongly assumed that the whole of what he was quoting came from Isaiah. Or perhaps he chose to mention Isaiah because it was of special importance to him. Another possibility is that Mark quoted only the passage from Isaiah, and that v. 2 was added later. (Hooker, p. 35)

.

Whose voice?

Thus some scholars acknowledge that verse 2 may be an interpolation. But even if it is, does it really matter much? After all, verse 3, with its “voice crying in the wilderness,” surely does refer to John the Baptist, no?

I’m not so sure. According to Robert Guelich, in all other instances when the expression “as has been written” is used as an introductory formula, it always refers back and never forward in its context (“The Beginning of the Gospel — Mark 1:1-15,” Biblical Research 27; 1982). Unless one is prepared to argue that we are dealing here with an exception, whatever quotation followed the expression should refer back to Jesus Christ mentioned in verse 1, not forward to John the Baptist in verse 4.

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