Monthly Archives: May 2018

An Embarrassing Fallacy in Many Historical Jesus Studies

Recently I was discussing some of the criteria of authenticity that have been used by historical Jesus scholars to supposedly sift the more likely historical events in the gospels from those that are pious fabrications. I was using David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies as my yardstick. One criterion I did not get to then was that of embarrassment. This little rule says that if an event in the gospels would have been embarrassing to the early Christians then they would not have mentioned it — UNLESS it were an event so well known that they simply could not avoid mentioning it: ergo, the event really did happen. Example: the baptism of Jesus.

There are several fallacies in Fischer’s book that apply to this criterion but I’ll concentrate on just one: the fallacy of false dichotomous questions (p. 9).

Implicit in the criterion of embarrassment is the notion that an early Christian author was faced with either:

  • being compelled to write about an embarrassing event he did not really wish to write about;
  • or fabricating an event that was an embarrassment to himself and his readers.

The latter is obviously very unlikely so the first option wins virtually by default.

Of course the question raised by the criterion excludes all but two possibilities: being compelled by the sheer facts to write or making up a story that is counter-productive to one’s interests.

Yet we know that authors — even the evangelists — are quite capable of avoiding details that are well-known to their audiences (e.g. Luke omitted whole swathes of stories in the Gospel of Mark that he was using), and that human experience teaches us that in real life people are often capable of ignoring reality when it suits. We also know that our knowledge of the authorship of the gospels is very limited. What was embarrassing to the author or his audience? Are there other reasons for the creation of the stories?

To approach questions of historical reconstruction with such a blinkered dichotomy is clearly fallacious.

Other fallacies relating to causation and motivation also apply. But I promised to limit myself to just one for this post.

 

The Day Another Race Likened Me to an Ape

Photo from flickr

My RSS feeds tell me that there’s a scandal in the U.S. right now over a prominent personality tweeting a comparison of an African American advisor to Obama with an ape.

I had my own small taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a comparison a few years back when I was visiting China. It happened when I was somewhere in the middle of the mainland (certainly away from coastal regions like Shanghai and Beijing where foreigners were not an uncommon sight), in Wuhan province I think. I was sitting with my Chinese friend in a large and crowded cafeteria and was slightly amused to notice that so many of the other diners appeared to be focusing their eyes on me. I assumed the reason was that I was the only white Caucasian in the room. I could not help wondering how often any of these people had ever seen a non-Chinese person “in the flesh” before. I mentioned my thoughts to my Chinese friend whose reply took me aback: I was told they were staring at my hairy legs and arms; I was told that they were thinking that I looked like a monkey.

I confess that that comparison took me aback for a moment. I laughed, but something deep down inside me was not laughing. Did I not belong to a race that historically compared others to subhuman species? That’s what “we” did to “them” — what was the real source of the ugly feelings I was feeling deep down inside at that moment?

That was the first time I had been in a country where I was the racial minority figure and being compared with a wild animal. In Australia I had become accustomed to hearing of certain ignorant whites comparing other races, including Asians, to a species less than human. Here I was in China getting a small taste of the tables being turned.

I was able to laugh it off, though, because I had no reason to suspect there was anything more than innocent curiosity and analogy in the minds of my Chinese neighbours. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I suspected they all thought I was literally a less evolved animal.

 

And they told me that God made wings so they worked perfectly the first time

Well that’s what I was taught by the creationist men of God when I was part of their world. Wings had to work perfectly the first time or what use were they? So went the rhetorical question and we were all shook our heads in disbelief at how foolish people of the world were for thinking otherwise.

But a couple of nights ago I could not resist following the build up to watching David Attenborough’s new program, The Empire of the Ants. The catch line that intrigued me was the promise to show how some ants had learned to cooperate with others who were not genetically related to them. (Others, true to expected form, fought unrelated groups to the death for territorial control.) The whole program was absolutely fascinating (as most of Attenborough’s docos are) but one episode in particular thoroughly amused me. . . .

Queen ants about to fly away to establish a new colony are heavy with fat reserves and swollen ovaries and have sprouted wings just for the new occasion — their maiden flight to mate then start a new colony. They climb to the top of a plant to get some height for a take-off, but often times they make complete fools of themselves trying to make respectable use of their wings. We are shown footage of queen ants starting lift off but quickly tilting backwards or sideways and falling back down to the ground. Why didn’t God give them wings (and the instinctual know-how using them) that worked and got their heavier bodies up and away the first time?

Gracelessly tipping abdomen over antenna after getting air-born for about one second.

It’s not as if they would need the wings afterwards. Once they had found their new space they had no need for the wings anymore and naturally wanted to get rid of the encumbrances. Again amusing footage showing the poor things struggling to dislodge their “back-packs” with nothing but legs! God lacked the forethought to arrange at least two of those six legs for that purpose. Those queens were obviously struggling with even more difficulty than a child trying to figure out how to dry its back after a bath.

Out! Damned wings!

Sam Harris’s Immoral Arguments for Israel’s Treatment of Palestinians

Hello Vridar, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. I’ve been far afield exploring new ideas and old. Time to leave self-indulgence aside for a moment and return to share a few of them. (Though my hiatus was not all self-indulgent insofar as some of my time was also taken up exploring new ways to be actively involved in various causes that I care about.)

Marcus Ranum describes himself as “a computer security specialist, consultant, gamer, crafty artist, photographer, soap and cosmetic experimenter, and all-around surrealist” but whatever one makes of that we all owe him a huge thank you for the enormous effort he made to take on point by point Sam Harris’s justification of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, most recently on display on the Gaza border while leaders congratulated themselves on the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. I have attempted to take on Sam Harris’s arguments in small bite-sized morsels, addressing just one or two salient details at a time. But Marcus Ranum has had the tenacity, the patience, the stamina, to take up each one of Sam Harris’s points that he made in another one of his rambling, contradictory, mealy-mouthed justifications for any bloody action taken against Muslims on Israel’s border. (“Mealy-mouthed” because he will drop in contradictory phrases in hopes you won’t notice the barbarism implicit in his words and that will enable him to protest that you were “taking him out of context”. Marcus R dissects it all leaving Sam H stark naked in the end.)  See

Sam Harris on “Why is That You Never Criticize Israel?”

Bookmark the page now but be sure to return to it when you have a good hour to digest it slowly as it deserves. Needless to say, my complaint is not personal. Sam Harris is a nobody who is given way too much publicity for no clear reason as far as I am concerned. My concern is that Sam Harris is articulating the arguments that are all too common everywhere else and whose assumptions and inhumane values, along with outright ignorance, bigotry, not to mention simple logical deceit, need to be addressed and smacked down.

Some of the points addressed (you’ve heard them all before): read more »

Part 2 of Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians

This post continues my assessment of the claims made in a doctoral dissertation by Michael Zolondek (supervised by Larry Hurtado and Helen Bond of the University of Edinburgh) that Jesus scholars use the same methods as historians of other fields. The sorts of methods he is addressing are specifically the “criteria of authenticity”. Though challenged by some scholars today, many biblical scholars continue to defend them as tools by which they can sift historical core “facts” or “events” about Jesus from theological or mythical overlay in the gospels. One such criterion is “multiple attestation”: the criteria that if an event is found in multiple (independent) sources there is strong likelihood it is genuinely historical. Another is the criterion of “double dissimilarity”: this criterion states that if a saying has no parallel in either early church teaching or in ancient Judaism then it very likely originated with the historical Jesus himself. And so forth.

On page 98 of the published version of the dissertation, We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question, Zolondek states that the examples found in a chapter by biblical scholar Stanley Porter of historians whose background is in ancient history are evidence that ancient historians do indeed use some of the same criteria of authenticity as historical Jesus scholars. Porter actually presented those particular examples of ancient historians to demonstrate that they do not use the biblical scholars’ tool of criteria of authenticity but Zolondek disagrees with Porter’s claims. Before I discuss those three examples and (unlike Zolondek) go beyond Porter’s article to the more detailed writings of those three ancient historians themselves I want to highlight another significant point made by Porter that is entirely overlooked by Zolondek.

The book chapter we are looking at is Stanley Porter’s “The Criterion of Authenticity” published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). On pages 700-701 Porter writes:

[S]everal of the criteria seem to violate the kinds of historians’ fallacies that David Fischer has brought to the attention of historians.21 These include (and some are discussed further below)

the criterion of double dissimilarity possibly violating the fallacy of many questions (e.g. by asking two questions at once, begging the question, or framing a complex question that requires a simple answer) or of contradictory questions (e.g. when the two distinctives create an anomaly of a human unsuited to any world);22

the criterion of least distinctiveness violating the reductive fallacy in demanding a linear approach to the development of literary forms, or generalization;23

and the Semitic language criterion having potential problems in question framing, including question begging or creating a false dichotomy.24

_______
21 D. H. Fischer. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper, 1970).
22 Ibid., 8, 34.
23 Ibid., 172 – 175.
24 Ibid., 8-12.

(my formatting)

I have posted on some of the common fallacies listed by David Fischer several times now, including,

So I find it interesting that a prominent biblical scholar such as Stanley Porter turns to the same book. (Richard Carrier also makes good use of it in Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus.) Zolondek ignores the relevant section of Porter’s chapter. read more »

Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians (Part 1)

Damn. I fell for it (again). A professor promoted a new book as “making the most sense of the crucifixion” and “making a fresh contribution to studies of the ‘historical Jesus'” so I made a rush purchase and read it the same day it arrived. Silly me, I should first have checked the University of Edinburgh Library’s open access policy and archive of dissertations because it is sitting there free of charge for all to read. Access is also online through the British Library. There are only slight modifications of wording and more truncated bibliographic references in the published version.  Sadly both versions make it clear that the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh is responsible for some very crude fundamentalist-level apologetics posing as serious scholarship. I expected better from the University of Edinburgh.

The first difficulty I had with the book (We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question) was lack of clarity over its aim. It often sounded as if the author, Michael Zolondek (=MZ), was arguing that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah in some absolute sense that Christians today could claim was “the” identifier of Jesus. That is, we today should think of Jesus as a genuine Davidic Messiah just as surely as we think of him as a Jew or a male (or god in the flesh?) — quite independently of what anyone else thought of him (passim from p. xiv to p. 143). Other times MZ narrows the question down to suggest he meant he was the Davidic Messiah in the eyes of the disciples specifically (chapter 5). Does he mean the reader to understand that the disciples’ perspective is “The Truth” that readers of the gospels should also embrace? Confusion of terms bedevils other areas as well. For example, at one point MZ appears to acknowledge that the criterion of multiple attestation has value only if each witness is independent (p. 92) but other times he implies that multiple attestation has value even when the witnesses are not independent (p. 98).

But my interest in this post is one particular detail about the book that I found quite curious. On at least three separate occasions in his chapter on “methodological issues” MZ stressed that biblical scholars such as himself really are following the same methods as historians of other fields. By the third time I had to ask if MZ doth protesteth too much.

Another strange feature of this doctoral dissertation was a bizarrely irrelevant and quite misleading comment about Jesus mythicism. I can post about that quirk another time.

Before I get into the discussion of the fallacious foundation of MZ’s argument here let me quote one passage that at first glance appears to contradict what I have just said:

The most significant of these [methodological issues] is, in my opinion, the fact that often times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would. (p. 98, my emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

It turns out that what MZ means here is that Jesus scholars “often times” are working by far stricter standards than anything followed by “ancient historians normally”, and that if only more Jesus scholars would lower their standards to be consistent with those found in Classics and Ancient History departments at universities they would, lo and behold, find their job much easier and be able to reconstruct and prove all sorts of things about Jesus. Further, in his discussions of historical methods MZ cites sources that actually discuss the philosophy of history and debatable questions of historiography and problems in creating historical narratives, apparently confusing them with discussions of research methods brought to bear in evaluating sources and discovering certain facts about the past. I believe that these are generally distinct areas of study that MZ appears to have confused as I will also discuss below or in a follow up post.

Here are MZ’s more insistent claims that Jesus scholars use the same methods as other historians: read more »

Taking your family with you, whether to hell or paradise

It was a terrible week. A man shot to death his four grandchildren, wife and daughter then himself here at Margaret River, Australia. Then parents blew up their children and themselves, along with any targeted strangers in churches and a police station in Surabaya, Indonesia. That’s the first time I seem to have heard of terrorists involving their whole family, their children/parents with them, for paradise.

From what I have heard and experienced myself in the past I think I can understand a little of the motive of the Australian family murderer. (He had never really recovered from the suicide of his son and was faced with the news of the death of a second son to disease.) One comes to a place of such dark despair that death is the “only logical or natural” next step. But to alleviate the suffering that such a step would involve for others left behind, it is easier for them if they “come with you”. [I am speculating on the motives of the 61 year old grandfather who killed his family along with himself but do so on the basis of published interviews with his son-in-law and on recollections of times in my own life when (years ago) I felt myself to be at a similar brink.]

And hard on the heels of this horrific story comes the news of two, by some accounts three, families taking themselves collectively “to paradise” by murdering representatives of a society that their parents and older sons found personally intolerable.

The former found no meaning in this world. The latter, likewise, but filled that lack with a symbolic life in death.

And then a fictive family in the Middle East escalated killings of long evicted neighbours who themselves felt they had nothing left to lose.

It’s been a terrible week.

 

 

Jerusalem and savagery

Palestinians who got shot to death yesterday have a lot to answer for. Those who killed them cannot be blamed.

Or maybe those killed cannot be held truly responsible. After all, those who went out and got themselves killed obviously were not like us, normal people who can think and act for ourselves and have our own experiences and self-directed intentions. Someone only has to say to them, “Go” and they all like crazed mindless hate-filled creatures get up and go to kill — obviously they only planned to kill — those who have tried so hard to be so good to them and give up so much to make peace with them.

It is impossible for normal people like us to ever truly understand such sub-human creatures. If only they had a religion that taught love then they would live happily and in peace.

And I used to believe progress was inevitable over the years. How naive I was.

Ex-Muslims On Islam and Identity

Ex-Muslims of North America: Normalizing Dissent

Islam & Identity

I found the speakers here worth listening to. The video runs for 1 hour 47 minutes but after the first 50 minutes it is question time.

Key points I took from the talks (not in video order — not even in a coherent order: just as jotted down at the time and/or recalled afterwards): read more »

Turning Defeats Into Great Mythologies

Recall a few posts ago that I quoted some lines from a BBC/SBS episode The Celts

Professor Alice Roberts: The defeat was total. Boudicca’s entire army was wiped out. According to Tacitus only 400 Romans were killed that day compared with 80,000 Celts. The last great Celtic rebellion was over.

Neil Oliver: We’re told Boudicca survived the battle but poisoned herself shortly after, and with her died any hope of another Celtic uprising and an end to Roman rule in Britannia.

Alice Roberts: Boudicca disappeared from history and entered into national mythology, a martyr to the idea of a free Britain. 

This time I have highlighted a different section.

I was reminded of Australia’s annual observation of Anzac Day that emerged as something of a repeated national funerary ritual for the defeat at Gallipoli. It became a time, however, when Australians would remind themselves how unique they were in that they celebrated a defeat as the beginning of their “nationhood”. A glance at the Wikipedia article falls on a cluster of quotes:

 it has been seen as a key event in forging a sense of national identity.[20]

The Gallipoli campaign was the beginning of true Australian nationhood. . . . the Gallipoli campaign was a defining moment for Australia as a new nation.[21]

This Short History of Australia begins with a blank space on the map and ends with the record of a new name on the map, that of Anzac.[15]

Anzac Day now belongs to the past and during the war all energy was concentrated on the future but the influence of the Gallipoli Campaign upon the national life of Australia and New Zealand has been far too deep to fade… it was on the 25th of April 1915 that the consciousness of nationhood was born.[17]

The popular belief that the Anzacs, through their spirit, forged Australia’s national character, is still today frequently expressed.[18] For example, in 2006 the Governor-General of Australia, Michael Jeffery gave an address in which he said that although the Anzacs lost the campaign they created a lasting identity for Australia:

We are summoned to recall the battle sacrifices of Australian farmers and tally clerks, teachers and labourers and to commemorate outstanding courage and strength of character in the face of sustained adversity… [The campaign] won for us an enduring sense of national identity based on those iconic traits of mateship, courage, compassion and nous.[18]

The Spirit of the ANZAC continues today in times of hardship such as cyclones, floods and bush fires. At those times Australians come together to rescue one another, to ease suffering, to provide food and shelter, to look after one another, and to let the victims of these disasters know they are not alone.[2]

And the worship of a man who dies but whose death is vindicated by an exaltation to heaven and the salvation of those who identified themselves with him.

In other words, it is not so strange to imagine people latching onto a defeat, a death, to create a myth of martyrdom, of a higher victory or salvation as is sometimes suggested. (I’m thinking, of course, of the claim that the crucifixion of Jesus had to be historical because no-one would make up such a “myth”.)

The Greeks developed the genre of tragedy to dramatize that very characteristic of humanity: an exploration of how the death of a hero can be cathartic, a victory of spirit, and not the nihilistic end it might logically seem to be.

Is there is any national or religious history that lacks a glorious martyr? I just looked up the story of the invented national hero William Tell and see that even his death was tied with efforts to save the life of a child. Is it possible to imagine such a hero dying pointlessly in a mundane accident or comfortably of natural causes? We even see the same mythologizing at the personal level. The unbearable pain of the loss of a child often finds relief in taking up a cause to somehow give meaning or purpose to the child’s death.

 

 

Vridar Maintenance

Please note that we’re updating the WordPress theme right now. Things may look a bit “off” for a time. Thank you for your patience.

–Tim

Trump Should Get the Nobel Peace Prize

The idea that Trump might be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has been bandied about (even if forged). I like the idea. It’s one time my eyes have not rolled to the back of my head over some new thing associated with the dangerous idiot. Awarding it to Trump would, I believe, bestow some much needed levity on the reputation of the prize itself ever since it was awarded to war criminal, mass murderer and assassin Henry Kissinger. That day in 1973 brought satire itself to an end, as many said at the time. Trump is buffoonish enough to restore that satirical edge to the Nobel Peace Prize award. But it has to be awarded quickly. Before he has time to start serious scale human slaughter in Iran or elsewhere. Once that happens a Trump Nobel prize would be robbed of all levity and possibility of satire once again.

 

 

Still True After All These Years

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

From George Orwell’s 1945 Preface to Animal Farm

It surely applies to more than just the media industries in countries like the UK, USA, Australia . . . . .

 

Anonymous Gospels

I would like to thank Larry Hurtado for his recent post Anonymous Gospels. Hurtado draws attention to a feature of our four canonical gospels that he believes is too often overlooked: the fact that they originally were anonymous and even the titles they later acquired are not declarations of authorship but rather statements about whose point of view each gospel represented (e.g. The Gospel according to Matthew / Mark / Luke / John.)

In particular, Hurtado refers readers to a 2008 article written by Armin D. Baum

Baum, A. D. (2008). The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient near Eastern Literature. Novum Testamentum, 50(2), 120–142.

The article is accessible on JSTOR: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25442594. Anyone interested who is unable to access that article or too short on time to read it in full might be interested in previous blog posts here discussing its contents:

The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?

Why the Anonymous Gospels? Failure of Scholarship in Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

The Arguments For and Against the Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels

For and Against the Anonymity of the Gospels — without table format

I’ve addressed the question of gospel anonymity in other posts, too, such as An Explanation for the Gospels being Anonymous.

But in thinking back on the question after perusing Hurtado’s post a related gospel feature suddenly took on a new significance for me. There can be little doubt that many of the gospel stories are kinds of re-writes of narrative episodes in the “Old Testament”. (An adjective widely used to describe this type of adaptation is “midrashic” but I have since come across Roger Aus’s suggestion that a more appropriate term might be “etiological haggada“.)

For example, it seems fairly obvious that John the Baptist in the first two gospels is based on Elijah. It is in 1 and 2 Kings where we find the lone prophet in the wilderness wearing rough animal skin clothing. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan followed by his forty day time of trial in the wilderness is evidently a reminder of the Exodus of Israel and their forty year wandering through the Sinai. The calling of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark reminds readers of Elijah’s calling of Elisha. And so on right through to the final six chapters in which Howard Clark Kee counted 160 allusions to Scripture (and Karel Hanhart knows he missed at least one). See the posts on Mark 13, Mark 11-12, Mark 14-16.

What does this have to do with the anonymity of the gospels? read more »