Vridar

2013/07/02

Vridar has moved

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 7:43 am

Hi Everyone,

Vridar is now moving to Vridar.org. You will need to update links and subscriptions.

Further comments on posts can be made only on the new Vridar site. All posts and earlier comments can be found there.

The Vridar blog was deactivated by its hosting company, WordPress.com, in response to my reactivation of a post that I did not realize had been taken down as a result of a reader’s complaint. I have since issued a formal counter-claim and WordPress.com has responded by contacting me to say they have reinstated this blog minus the post in dispute. That post will remain inactive pending a further response from the claimant within 14 days.

For those who are interested in understanding the adventurous details of the jowls and whats behind all this, with all its adventure, sex and gore, there is the short version by Tim Widowfield (Rising from the Ashes) and my subsequent post (What Happened to Vridar).

We have Tim to thank for getting up the new site for Vridar so quickly. Now that we have seen how insecure a controversial blog is on WordPress.com we are moving to where we have more control of our own work.

We really appreciate the fantastic support expressed by so many of our readers — including and especially from some of those with whom we have had strong disagreements.

Neil

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—- One more thing:  It may look odd that we are still using “WordPress” on the new site after what I have just said. Tim explains why we are still using the WordPress open source software on the new site.

 

 

2013/06/25

Scholar Joel Explains Nuance

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tim Widowfield @ 11:48 am
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If you haven’t had a chance to catch Joel Watts’ response to my previous post on his HuffPo hot mess, by all means go take a look. It’s the post with a color photo of the lovely Cecilia Bartoli near the top of the page and a black-and-white self portrait of Joel farther down.

To the charge of reckless disregard for intelligible language, Joel pleads not guilty by reason of “nuance,” and deflects the criticism back at me, writing:

. . . in spite of not needing to answer imbeciles, I wante [sic] to speak to the use of several of these phrases — phrases that cannot be googled.

If Joel or anyone else did not understand me, I regret that I wasn’t clearer. When I read works by talented authors, and I encounter an odd turn of phrase, I endeavor to grasp the meaning. Consider the oft-misquoted line (and title!) from Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Many people will insist on turning the word “gentle” into an adverb. But the master poet used an adjective. Why did he do that? It’s worth digging into, but only because we know that Dylan Thomas was a great writer — an artist, not an oaf hiding behind the fig leaf of “nuance.”

(more…)

2013/06/20

Why Gospels Are Not “Reportage”

Filed under: Gospel genre — Neil Godfrey @ 7:05 am
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Some of the most sensible words I have read about the Gospels are in a 1954 lecture by Ernst Käsemann. Käsemann makes no strained attempt to “explain” how similar the Gospels are to “history” or “biography”. Rather, he works with what we all can see as plain as day: the Gospels are what some scholars have called “faith documents”: they are written to support faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of “the world”. They are written like, well, books of the Bible. Believe or die.

History is only comprehensible to us through interpretation. Mere facts are not enough.

Rationalists, for example, have sought to show that Jesus was an ordinary man like us. That’s all the facts allow us to acknowledge.

Supernaturalists, on the other hand, have sought to show that Jesus is a “divine man” who performed real miracles. The facts allow us to believe nothing less.

But what is the point of either view? If Jesus were an ordinary man like us, so what? Did not Schweitzer show that each scholar saw in that mere man a life just like his own? This observation is said to have effectively put a hold on historical Jesus research in many quarters.

And if the facts told us Jesus really did perform miracles and even rose from the dead, then in what way would he be any different from other lives embedded in other religions that also wielded supernatural powers?

No one has ever been compelled (in the true sense) to make his decision between faith and unbelief, simply because someone else has succeeded in representing Jesus convincingly as a worker of miracles. And nothing is settled about the significance of the Resurrection tidings for me personally, simply because the evidence for the empty tomb has been shown to be reliable.

The handing own of relatively probable facts does not as such provide any basis for genuinely historical communication and continuity. (Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” in Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 19)

And it is here where Käsemann’s insight into the nature of the Gospels makes several modern studies look embarrassingly myopic. (more…)

2013/06/13

Ten Reasons To Lose Your Religion

Filed under: Fundamentalism,Winell: Leaving the Fold — Neil Godfrey @ 10:27 pm

b186526756A minister once told me he wished he knew who or what burned me so badly I left Christianity. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t burned. I evolved. — John

Marleine Winell in Leaving the Fold (See earlier Journey Free post) outlines several reasons leave fundamentalist religious systems in particular, but I think some of the points probably work for why people leave behind any religious faith. Her list is not complete or the result of a controlled study, as she herself explains. The purpose of her book is to support readers who have already stepped outside their old religious worlds and to share with them a range of experiences of others who have been through the same journey.

Marlene writes:

In general, people make changes of all kinds based on integrating information from new experiences. Human beings are “wired” to survive and thrive. Thus when we are disappointed with the methods we are using to meet needs, we are likely after a while to seek new methods. Also, change is more likely to occur if we are frustrated and we have access to information about alternatives. In effect, there are forces that push and forces that pull. Formally religious people find other ways to live, without the intellectual, emotional, and ethical discomforts that had become bothersome. New satisfactions add to the impact of the dissatisfactions, and the combination becomes enough to force the break. Thee multiple influences can be subtle and accumulate without clear awareness. (p. 88)

1. Developmental Change

People are growing, changing, maturing beings. Our development into more complex creatures is most noticeable in infancy, through childhood and youth.

This change is not random, but progressive with increased physical skill, emotional maturity, moral and cognitive development.

Personal development continues through adulthood. We integrate experiences as we change and grow, learn to appreciate paradoxes and shades of grey in our lives, learn how better to deal with situations.

That normal development can, however, be arrested. And that’s what happens when someone is diverted into a fundamentalist, black-and-white, dogmatic belief system.

In cases where a believer puts their trust strongly in a religious leader they make themselves vulnerable to disillusionment, even trauma, when that leader seriously fails.

Leaving such a religion can thus be seen positively as simply resuming one’s personal maturing and evolution.

Sometimes such resumptions of personal development come with a major life transition. Winell cites one woman for whom the birth of a child was such a turning point:

I believed the Bible’s promises and prophecies. I declined my parent’s offer to pay for a college education and devoted my time to studying the Bible and volunteering full-time in the ministry. At the age of 28, as I was expecting my first child, my whole concept of life and of the future collapsed. It was as if I had awoken from a dream state and saw reality for the first time. In the midst of the ensuing confusion I was left with the task normally reserved for adolescents: the search for who I am and what I am to do with my life. The nagging doubts that I had been able to hold at bay for years were finally slipping through. (p. 89)

2. The Bible and Fundamentalist Doctrine (more…)

2013/06/07

Journey Free: education about religious harm and resources for recovery

Filed under: Uncategorized,Winell: Leaving the Fold — Neil Godfrey @ 1:21 pm
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Journey-Free Facebook Page

From the page:

The Journey Free team is a group working to provide education about religious harm and resources for recovering from the effects of dogmatic religious indoctrination. Our office is based in the San Francisco Bay Area where Dr. Marlene Winell, our director, has a consulting practice; most of Journey Free’s recovery retreats are held in this region too.

Dr. Winell wrote the leading self-help book on recovering from religious harm after working in and researching the topic for more then 20 years. In 2011, she named Religious Trauma Syndrome or RTS a form of chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or “C-PTSD.” (more…)

End of Faith and Other Pulp Fiction

harris-atranSam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)

At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.

Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.

Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.

That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.

So it was with some relief that I read a fact by fact rebuttal of Sam Harris’s diatribes against all religions and Islam in particular. The following (as well as the title of this blog post) is based on a section of Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human by Scott Atran.

Fact One: (more…)

2013/06/04

The Distinctive Uses of Names in the Gospel of John

Filed under: Brodie: Quest Origin John's Gospel,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 11:07 pm
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questoriginjohngospelWhoever wrote the Gospel of John knew how to blend geographical and personal names with other-worldly theological symbolism. So suggests Thomas L. Brodie in an appendix to The Quest for the Origin of John’s Gospel.

To address just a few. (I have in other posts addressed several of these already: otherwise unknown places like Capernaum meaning “village of comfort”; Aenon near Salim meaning “springs of peace”; and so forth.)

Sea of Galilee of Tiberias

Only John speaks of the “sea of Galilee of Tiberias” (John 6:1). Brodie comments that this name

is awkward but . . . has a connotation of universality appropriate to the theme of chapter 6. (p. 160)

So I went back to have another look at John 6 and wonder if he might have a point. The setting introduces the miracle of the miraculous feeding of the 5000, a miracle related in all four gospels. But in the Gospel of John there are two named disciples, Philip and Andrew (who is again said to be Simon Peter’s brother), who are addressed in order to initiate the miracle. This gospel also points out that all this happened at the Passover, which is explicitly said to be the Jews’ feast. We are reminded of the end of the gospel where again on the eve of the Passover we read of Philip being approached to Greeks asking to see Jesus. Philip is a Greek name and here at the sea of the Roman Tiberias we have Greek and Jewish names coming together at the meal symbolizing the salvation of the world through Christ’s whose passover flesh and bread will save all those who eat.

Ephraim near the wilderness

Then in John 11:54 we read that Jesus went to another otherwise unknown “city/polis” called Ephraim. This “city” is said to be near the wilderness. Is it significant that the name of this city beside the wilderness means “fruitful”? This apparently rather pointless little detail, of Jesus going to an otherwise unknown village, does little more, it seems, than pause the reader before going on to read about Jesus being anointed for his death and then being hailed as the King of Israel with the “whole world going after him”. Jesus’ words concluding this section are a metaphor: a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die and only then will it bear much fruit in abundance. Ephraim alongside the wilderness?

Bethany beyond Jordan and Bethany beside Jerusalem

The beginning of the Gospel finds John the Baptist preaching at Bethany beyond Jordan (John 1:28).

Then before Jesus is to die we are taken to another Bethany (John 11:1) not far outside Jerusalem (John 11:18) to witness the mournful moment of the death of Lazarus. Jesus is called for but he stays away to let him die for a reason. But where is he?

In John 10:40 the reader is informed that Jesus had returned to the place where John was baptizing. Bethany beyond Jordan, if we recall. Brodie sees here

an ambiguity which is perfectly suited to the Lazarus story: it suggests, when death strikes, that the Lord, who apparently is absent, in fact is present. (p. 161)

Theology outweighs geography

Thus while the theological dimension of John’s cities is strong, their hold on history is often fragile.

A further factor is worth noting. Most of the cities or towns peculiar to John are largely or totally unknown to geographers — Bethany beyond the Jordan, Aenon near Salim, Sychar, Ephraim. Thus while the theological dimension of John’s cities is strong, their hold on history is often fragile. (p. 161, my highlighting)

‘Ello, ‘ello, what’s all this then? (more…)

2013/05/28

Honour Killing (from Inside Muslim Minds)

Filed under: Islam — Neil Godfrey @ 9:35 pm
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insidemuslimmindsI was recently challenged over what some see as my defence of Islam and failure to condemn the many evils is apparently spawns — terrorism, honour killing, sexism, Sharia law, persecution of apostates, denial of free speech — and told I could easily do so without any fear of over-generalizing. I was surprised to find my recent posts being portrayed as a “defence of Islam”, as an apparent attempt to whitewash the religion and to overlook its monstrosities.

What I have been seeking to do in most posts is to provide factual information from reliable sources in order to do my little bit to try to correct what I see as general public misconceptions about Muslims. Of course there is much that is reprehensible in the Muslim religion (as I have said) but my intent is to try to point out that the present wave of Islamophobia (see The Word’s Origin and Meaning) is grounded in misinformed views about Islam, Muslims and Sharia law, as well as about terrorism and cultural heritage.

As an atheist I have no time, personally for any religious belief. Yet not too many years ago I found myself with the State leader of an Australian Muslim community inviting him to participate in a public information session so that anyone willing could hear and question first hand what Muslims believe about themselves and the world. My interest was then, as it is now, in public education and community harmony. (Around the same time I also found myself planning civil rights activism with leaders of the local Roman Catholic Church.)

The reference to honour killings in the challenge pulled me up with a start. I have always understood honour killings to be a horrific practice found among certain cultures (not religions) around the world: northern India (Hindu and Sikh), southern Europe and Latin America (Christian), Australian aboriginal desert tribes and probably a few other similar tribes around the world, and a cluster of Islamic countries (Pakistan in particular). So when I have from time to time heard of critics of Islam citing honour killings as one of the many sins of that religion per se I dismissed the criticism as ignorant or at best only partially informed. No-one that I know criticizes Christianity or Hinduism as being religions that inculcate the practice of honour killings because of the crimes found among their cultural subsets.

The following is based on what Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor Riaz Hassan has to say about honour killings and Muslims in his book Inside Muslim Minds (pp. 200-208).

Honour killing is another ugly label that has come to be associated with Muslim countries. In Pakistan and other Muslim countries, prominent feminist organizations have taken up the cause to stop its occurrence.

Here Hassan singles out Shirkat Gah and Women Living Under Muslim Laws as the most vocal campaigners against the practice and responsible for well researched publications.

shirkatgah-preview_0

Shirkat Gah (SG) (“place of participation”) has a strong web presence:

logo
Women Living Under Muslim Laws similarly:

Hassan refers to UNICEF statements and the following are from my own search across UN publications: (more…)

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 9)

Filed under: Gospel genre,K. L. Schmidt — Tim Widowfield @ 11:42 am
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Part 9: “A searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis”

London Library after the Blitz

London Library after the Blitz

The previous post in this series began a critical analysis of an essay by John C. Meagher, delivered at the Colloquy on New Testament Studies back in 1980, before such well-known figures in the New Testament world as Charles H. Talbert, Vernon K. Robbins, and William R. Farmer. This post continues with Meagher’s “searching critical blitz”* of what most scholars believe is Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s hypothesis.

What Meagher got right

Some of Meagher’s criticisms of Schmidt’s views on the gospels were correct. Schmidt sometimes displayed far too much naive optimism when it came to the fidelity of the evangelists (and the tradents they followed) to the Jesus tradition. It is quite clear that each evangelist altered the tradition to fit specific theological views. Thus, Meagher was right in criticizing Schmidt for asserting that the gospels have a certain intrinsic reliability simply by virtue of their genesis as folk books. He summed up Schmidt’s views in Colloquoy on New Testament Studies:

The content of the gospels was brought to the brink of compilation by a transmissional tradition graced by “the fidelity to the material which characterizes all popular tradition” and it is this that assures its reliability — “that the people as community became bearer and creator of the tradition makes its content reliable.” (p. 207, quoting Schmidt in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, emphasis mine)

While we may correctly view Schmidt’s comments as overly optimistic at times, we should also point out that at other times during his analysis in The Place of the Gospels, he is careful, rational, and properly skeptical.

What Meagher got wrong

However, on the whole, Meagher’s attack on the Schmidt hypothesis fails, because he — for whatever reason — was convinced that Schmidt believed that the gospels were utterly unique, and therefore any investigation into analogous works would be a waste of time because:

. . . the unprecedentedness is of the essence and that the possible analogues can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument. (Colloquy, p 213)

Here is the point at which Meagher went astray. He showed abundant familiarity with Schmidt’s work, as found in the German edition of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature and in Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making (Harper, 1971). Meagher peppered his essay with footnotes and many quotes from both works. Hence it is all the more strange that he continually missed the clear evidence that Schmidt, in fact, did not think that “possible analogues [of the gospels] can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument.”

On the contrary, in Part Two of The Place of the Gospels, which spans 60 pages and examines 12 different literary examples as analogs to the gospels, Schmidt explained the purpose of the section in his introduction by affirming that “analogy is the only sensible and productive method.” (p. 27)

Meagher found Schmidt’s rejection of possible analogs (despite what Schmidt actually wrote) unwise and untenable. Moreover, it was unproductive. In other words, because scholars following Schmidt had thought the gospels were unique and that comparing them to other works would be fruitless, they had focused only on those four canonical books themselves. In Meagher’s words:

(more…)

2013/05/27

Is Sympathy for Terrorist Acts a Muslim Monopoly?

Filed under: Islam — Neil Godfrey @ 7:16 pm
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Reality check here

Question: If Muslim sympathy for terrorism is not driven by religious fanaticism, then why does support for terror seemingly exist more among Muslims?

Answer: Muslims hold no monopoly on extremist views and are, in fact, on average more likely than the American public to unequivocally condemn attacks on civilians.

A [2007] study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 6.41.59 PMContrast those figures with data taken from the same year from some of the largest Muslim countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran.

Agree that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified“: (more…)

2013/05/23

Science and Religion: Four Fundamental Differences

Religion has not gone away since the end of the Europe’s religious wars and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, scientific advances and the rise of secularism may even be largely responsible for religious revivals. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes about current research on religion, including his own. One of his online 2012 articles, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us. Now I used to love Richard Dawkins’ colourful critique of religion. Who could possibly argue with:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (God Delusion, p. 51)

atran

Scott Atran

But Scott Atran is one scholar who is forcing me into a rethink lately. He argues that it is misguided to think that religion will go away if we can rationally disprove all of its beliefs and premises. Fighting religion with reason and facts just doesn’t work because that sort of tactic completely misunderstands what religion is. Religious people know their beliefs are counter-intuitive and do not conform to the commonsense systems of thought that govern our everyday functioning in the physical world. Indeed, Atran argues, that’s the point of religion, and there is a clear benefit to groups and individuals within groups because of this. I will explain the arguments and evidence in future posts.

Till then, there is a clue to Atran’s conclusions in the following observation:

Thus, a century ago, while visiting the United States, Max Weber (1946:46) observed that even the most hard-headed capitalist would make it his business to advertise his faith in order to display his trustworthiness to others. . . . [P]eople apparently infer that explicit professions of faith carry the implicit message that trustworthiness matters — in the unblinking and forever watchful eyes of God — and commitments will be met even at great cost and even when there is no hope of reward. Science and secular ideology are poor competitors in this regard. (In Gods We Trust, p. 276. )

I expect to post more articles referencing Scott Atran’s works (In Gods We Trust is only one of his titles that I have beside me to read) on the nature of religion in the coming year and more) but till I start in earnest I leave here his concluding distinctions between Science and Religion. (more…)

2013/05/21

Tom Verenna Debates James McGrath

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 7:58 am

Recently I was playing with the time capsule button of WordPress and managed to accidentally relocate an old July 2010 post to today. Since trying to undo and relocate events in time is forbidden by the Time Lords of the universe I quickly deleted it. But a few quick ones did see it and commented favourably — so here it is again:

From http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/jamesfmcgrath?v=wall story_fbid=573473118322

Tom Verenna

Thanks for this James. I’m not certain I really understand your thought exercise though. I could say the same thing about a number of figures from historiographical works which we no longer believe to be historically credible (Lycurgus the Spartan, again, is a good example). But why stop at just people? How many events which we find in historical treatises from the past make little or no historical sense, but for which we cannot prove nor disprove? Exactly how much of those speeches, which make up 24% of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war did he really make up and for how much might we say he had documents handy to copy, or even alter slightly?

The problem with saying, “Well we come to an impasse, so let’s break the impasse by the mere fact that he *might* have existed, possibly…” which is really what this comes down to, doesn’t it? I mean, if we’re just going to make the leap from the more honest position “I don’t know” to “it must have happened,” why should we stop making such logical leaps? Why not just say that, well, no history is repeatable, so let’s just say that everything happened because, after all, there is attestation for it. And where we have conflicting accounts of those things, we should still accept them as historical, but just accept the more plausible one as historical. That’s what all historians should do, right? I hope you haven’t been agreeing this whole time–because this is not what historians should be doing.

Historians are tasked with securing the memories of society’s past. If we were to just accept possibilities as fact, then we are doing society an injustice. Imagine if such testimony was given at a trial hearing? “Well, we have no evidence the defendant wasn’t at the place the crime occurred, so why not?” If you feel that is stretching, you might say that “well we have testimony he might have been there.” But if you examine that testimony, is it really admissible? Are the sources trustworthy? I do not think so. Any evidence of this caliber presented at a criminal hearing would be thrown out. Simply put, I believe the most honest answer is not positive, but agnostic. In that regard, we should never accept a positive until we have adequate reason behind it; otherwise, where would one stop at accepting things without evidence? Given your hypothetical thought experiment, there would be no positive evidence (by your own admission). Likewise, we have no positive evidence of elves, fairies, witches, or dragons–but don’t be so quick to scoff. At least 50% of Icelanders believe in elves yet and at one time a large part of the world believed in fairies, dragons, and witches (so much that they burned innocent people because of it). Do you see why I find your thought experiment a little backwards?

Yesterday at 8:37am ·

James McGrath

Tom, I confess I don’t really understand your objection. There is a lot that is uncertain, and mainstream historians recognize this. No mainstream historian, including those from Iceland, can affirm that Jesus did miracles and expect to be taken seriously within the context of academic historical study. And I’m not suggesting that we argue “No one says Jesus didn’t exist, therefore he existed.” Your caricature (if it is not in fact a deliberate attempt at misrepresentation) doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to what I or any mainstream scholar investigating the historical Jesus argues.

Yesterday at 9:06am ·

Tom Verenna

James, you do realize I’m talking about your recent blog, not your scholarship, right? (more…)

2013/05/20

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 8)

Filed under: Burridge: What Are Gospels?,Gospel genre,K. L. Schmidt — Tim Widowfield @ 12:45 am
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Part 8: Attacking the foundations: The “uniqueness” of the gospels

A meeting of the minds

The form-critical consensus about the nature of the gospels had begun to crumble by the 1970s. No clear new way forward had emerged, but discontent with the current consensus was clearly growing. By the start of the next decade the time was ripe for someone to take a hammer to the rotting timbers and to begin laying the footer for the new structure that would take its place.

Colloquy on New Testament Studies, Mercer Univ Press (1983)

Colloquy on New Testament Studies,
Mercer Univ Press (1983)

On the 5th and 6th of November 1980, the Southwestern Theological Seminary hosted a “Colloquy on New Testament Studies.” (You can read the proceedings in a book by the same name.) An important event in the history of NT scholarship, this colloquy attracted around 200 scholars and students, with many of the field’s luminaries — E. P. Sanders, Bruce M. Metzger, Vernon K. Robbins, and several others — in attendance.

In accordance with the theme, “A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches,” the colloquy’s seminars covered:

  • The synoptic problem
  • Gospel genre
  • Pauline chronology

The first seminar was actually a two-for-one. Part one, led by Helmut Koester, focused on the development of Mark’s gospel. Naturally, the moderator in charge of the synoptic problem seminar, William R. Farmer, made sure his theory of Markan posteriority got a fair hearing. Hence, following Koester, David Peabody presented a kind of Griesbachian rebuttal. Similarly, the second half of the first seminar, “The Purpose and Provenance of the Gospel of Mark According to the ‘Two Gospel’ (Griesbach) Hypothesis,” was followed by a counterargument by John H. Elliot.

The seminar on Pauline chronology received comparable treatment, with a response following the “Seminar Dialog.” It was, after all, only fair to hear both sides of the story.

Enter John C. Meagher

Unfortunately, when it came time to demolish Karl Ludwig Schmidt in the seminar on gospel genre, nobody stepped up to provide a response. When John C. Meagher came forward to not praise Schmidt, but to bury him, no one uttered an opposing word.

By all accounts, the seminar’s moderator, Charles H. Talbert, had made an excellent choice. In selecting Meagher, he had picked a first-rate scholar with three doctoral degrees. If anything, as an expert in Shakespearean literature and the New Testament, with a solid background in the history of literature and widely hailed as a “brilliant” scholar, Meagher was perhaps overqualified.

Talbert writes that the program committee wanted a fresh perspective on the issue; so they . . .

. . . looked for someone who was not already registered on the genre question but who had competence in literary, theological, and exegetical matters. Professor John C. Meagher of St. Michael’s, the University of Toronto, seemed an ideal selection. Meagher was assigned the topic, “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.(Colloquy p. 197, emphasis mine)

(more…)

2013/05/15

How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it. (more…)

2013/05/12

Jesus and Dionysus (3)

Filed under: Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 8:10 am
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Continuing from the Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play . . . .

It would be a mistake to confine our comparison of the Gospel of John’s Jesus with Euripides’ play. Bacchae has no reference to the Dionysian miracle of turning water into wine (see the first post in this series for details) yet numerous commentators on the Gospel’s Cana Wedding miracle of turning water into wine have pointed to resonances with the Greek counterpart.

Further, it would be shortsighted to dismiss any comparison of the Gospel’s Jesus with Dionysus on the grounds that there is no obvious link between Jesus’ crucifixion and the dismemberment (the sparagmos) of the enemy of Dionysus.

Suffering and Power

English: Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacc...

Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, when the god’s enemy undergoes humiliation and dismemberment he is really sharing in or identifying with the sufferings of the god. His name is, after all, Pentheus, with verbal resonances with “pathos” (suffering); and we have seen that the purpose of the god is to come to relieve the suffering of humanity through his gift of wine, and the play itself speaks constantly of the suffering that Pentheus must undergo as punishment for his attempt to thwart the purpose of the god. It is through the suffering of Pentheus (identifying with the sufferings of the god) that the god who comes in apparent weakness, as an effeminate mortal, is exalted — his victorious and divine power is displayed for all!

The “discovery of Dionysiac echoes in John’s story as a whole” (Stibbe, p. 2) — in particular with the miracle of Cana, (the identification, one might add, of Jesus with the vine itself), the binding of Jesus, the dialogue with Pilate and the pathos of Jesus’ crucifixion — requires us to look beyond the tragedy itself and to look at all that the myth conveyed.

Indeed, there are other myths where Dionysus inflicted the same punishment upon others apart from Pentheus. King Lycurgus of Thrace also opposed the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus punished him by sending him into a mad frenzy during which he dismembered his own son; subsequently his citizens pulled him apart limb by limb in order to remove the curse of Dionysus from their land.

An early form of the myth is that Dionysus was originally born to Persephone, queen of the underworld (Hades). (It is not insignificant, for our purposes, that some of the myths tell us Zeus intended this new child to be his heir.) The jealous wife of Zeus (Hera) who had fathered the child persuaded the evil Titans to destroy the infant. Attempting to avoid capture by the pursuing Titans Dionysus changed himself into a bull, but was caught in this form and pulled limb from limb. The Titans then devoured these dismembered pieces of flesh. Zeus punished them by destroying them with thunderbolts, and from the ashes humankind was created, a mixture of the evil of Titans and the divinity of Dionysus.

Twice Born, from Below and Above

Through all of that chaos one piece of Dionysus was rescued, his heart, which was returned to Zeus. Zeus used the heart (the myths and means by which he did this vary) to give Dionysus a second birth, so he became known as the “twice-born” god.

A later version of the myth, the one that lies behind the play by Euripides, is that Zeus had fathered Dionysus with the mortal woman, Semele. Again Hera sought to kill the child, this time before it was born, by challenging Semele to see Zeus in all his glory. When Zeus showed himself in all his godliness Semele, of course, was struck dead. But Zeus rescued the child from her womb and sewed it into his thigh until it was ready to be born a second time, from the god himself.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John does not need to be reminded of Jesus explaining the mystery of being born a second time from above. (more…)

2013/05/11

And inspiring news from another Muslim nation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 10:28 pm
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Since a good number of Westerners have been led to fear Muslims as a whole partly because of the publicizing of violent events in Bangladesh, it is worth drawing attention to the actions of the overwhelming majority of an even larger Muslim nation.

Courageous Pakistani Muslims have been defiantly standing up against the murderous Taliban terrorists, risking their lives for the sake of democratic institutions and voting in democratic elections in their country.

About half of the 70,000 polling stations have been declared at risk of attack from Taliban who have warned Pakistanis to boycott the election. It hasn’t stopped voters from turning out to support the democratic process.

Read the news article from Michael Edwards and watch the video interview. It’s inspiring and encouraging news.

Pakistanis brave Taliban threats to cast their votes (more…)

2013/05/09

Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play

Filed under: Gospel of John,Stibbe: John as storyteller — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
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This post continues from my earlier one that concluded with Mark W. G. Stibbe’s “very broad list of similarities” between Euripides’ Bacchae (a play about the god Dionysus) and the Gospel of John. Stibbe discusses these similarities in John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel.

What Mark Stibbe is arguing

0521477654Stibbe makes it clear that he is not suggesting the evangelist

necessarily knew the Bacchae by heart and that he consciously set up a number of literary echoes with . . . that play (p. 137)

What he is suggesting is that

John unconsciously chose the mythos of tragedy when he set about rewriting his tradition about Jesus and that general echoes with Euripides’ story of Dionysus are therefore, in a sense, inevitable.

Stibbe firmly holds to the view that the Gospel of John is base on an historical Jesus and much of its content derives from some of the earliest traditions about that historical Jesus. The evangelist, he argues, was John the Elder, and he has derived his information from

  • a Bethany Gospel (now lost) that was based on the eye-witness reminiscences of Lazarus, who was also the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel;
  • a Signs Gospel (now lost);
  • the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

His final chapter in John as Storyteller consists largely of a point by point argument that the events of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel are based on historical events.

At the same time, Mark Stibbe is arguing that the author, John the Elder, is constructing his supposedly historical source material in a quite literary manner. He has chosen to write about the life and death of Jesus as a tragedy, argues Stibbe, and this was quite a natural thing to do because, we are assured, Jesus’ life and death just happened to be acted out in real life like a tragedy. It was a natural fit.

That’s where Stibbe is coming from.

Mark Stibbe, a vicar of St Mark’s Church at Grenoside (Sheffield) and part-time lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Sheffield when he wrote this book, writes from the limited perspective of formal New Testament studies. So he writes from the viewpoint of a Christian studying why the Gospel of John wrote about the very real founder of his faith, Jesus, would echo aspects of a Greek tragedy.

What this post is questioning

I’m interested in a different perspective. A proper study of religion from a scientific perspective would be through anthropology, I would think. New Testament studies are primarily about analysing and deconstructing and reconstructing biblical or Christian myths. The end result must always be a new version of their myth, if we follow Claude Lévi-Strauss.

I last posted along this theme in 2011:

Since I began this new series I have found another who takes a similar perspective. Frank Zindler writes: (more…)

2013/05/08

Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?

Filed under: Islam — Neil Godfrey @ 9:19 am
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Untitled 2

Associate Professor Rahim

This morning there was a radio interview with Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the University of Sydney about her new book, Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within. You can listen to the interview or download it (it’s only a few minutes) from this RN page here. Where I depart from the interview itself I use grey font.

In sum, Lily Rahim argues the significance of the five most populous Muslim nations — India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh — thriving in either full or hybrid democratic state.

Most Muslim majority states today were originally conceived as secular or quasi secular democracies. But since the mid twentieth century many of these states have moved closer to the Islamic state paradigm — that is, with the onset of Islamization and political Islam that swept through the Muslim world in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

A return to the Caliphate?

The interviewer asks if it is not a fact that the Caliphate, the union of religion and the state, that is at the heart of Islam.

Rahim argues (along with other scholars, including Muslim scholars) that the “Islamic State” is really a modern-day twentieth century construct and that the seventh century Caliphate was a phenomenon unique to that period. The Caliphate thus cannot be repeated. The Islamic states that have arisen in more recent times are not replications of the Caliphate. Rather, they are modern attempts to legitimize ruling elites.

Failure of theocratic and secular autocracies (more…)

2013/05/05

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 7)

Part 7: The Uniqueness of the Gospels

What Schmidt said

Joseph B. Tyson

Joseph B. Tyson

While researching this topic, I found an unexpected great source (for this and for other topics) in New Synoptic Studies: The Cambridge Gospel Conference and Beyond, edited by William R. Farmer. Inside, an essay by Joseph B. Tyson entitled “Conflict as a Literary Theme in the Gospel of Luke” provides one of the clearest, most succinct, and correct summaries of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s view of the gospels I have seen in print. He writes:

The conception of the gospels as distinct from literary texts was made in the early part of this century, perhaps most convincingly by K. L. Schmidt in 1923. Schmidt’s fundamental contribution was his distinction between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. Hochliteratur is literature that displays some authorial consciousness and some attention to aesthetic style and organization. (p. 305, emphasis mine)

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Where so many scholars stumble over misconceptions about what they think Schmidt said or what they want him to have said, Tyson pretty much hit the nail on the head.

For Schmidt, not even Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana may be compared with the gospels. In it, the author speaks directly to the readers and does so throughout the book; he sets forth the complete plan of the work at the beginning, and he refers to the oral and written sources he used. That is to say, Philostratus’s book belongs in the classification, Hochliteratur, because it displays authorial consciousness. It is a literary biography, which genre has a strict form, one that emphasizes literary merit often at the expense of historical accuracy. (p. 305, emphasis mine)

Tyson has read Schmidt’s work and understood it. I could almost weep.

By contrast, Kleinliteratur is basically folk literature, a form of literature made up of material that had initially circulated orally. A writing of this type is largely a compilation of unconnected traditions. In Kleinliteratur there is little sense of structure, and the chronology is vague, consisting only of such phrases as “after that,” “later,” “on another occasion,” etc. (p. 305, emphasis mine)

Exactly so. Schmidt identified a combination of key attributes — lack of authorial presence, the disjointed narrative, etc. — that demonstrate that the gospels are “folkbooks,” not biographies. Tyson continues:

(more…)

2013/05/01

Why Haven’t Muslims Condemned Terrorism?

Filed under: Islam,Terrorism — Neil Godfrey @ 10:13 pm
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And it’s not just a handful of extremists, either: it’s the legions of “moderate” enablers who, through either intimidation or cowardice, refuse to decry their co-religionists. No surprise given that the penalty for apostasy is death . . . . (Jerry Coyne accusing Muslims of not speaking out against acts of terrorism)

esposito

John Esposito

Coyne is advertizing his ignorance and fanning the same among his readers. The following comes from The Future of Islam by John Esposito, an authority on Islam. Pages 29-33 —

Muslim Denial

The level of disbelief [that Muslims were responsible for 9/11] among Muslims was and is astonishing — families of the hijackers in Saudi Arabia reportedly stating that their children were in fact still alive and Arabs insisting that no Arab could learn how to fly planes into the Twin Towers.

Many Muslims and Arabs have remained in a state of denial over this: the U.S. government failed to provide hard evidence that Muslims were involved; Israeli intelligence were behind the attacks; there was a cover-up of some sort.

Media Distortions

What sells are stories of confrontation and conflict, crises and tragedy.

A small but vocal minority that celebrated the attacks [of 9/11] as “payback time” for failed American foreign policies in the Middle East enjoyed widespread media coverage. Some Palestinians celebrating in the streets were featured over and over again on major stations.

Overshadowed were the shock and concern of many mainstream Muslims.

book_argue_200-300

Deborah Tannen demonstrates that the principle followed by news media is “no fight, no story”. The media’s goal is not balanced coverage but to focus on conflict and tragedy. (Image links to Tannen’s site)

In fact the Gallup Poll found that 91% of Muslims interviewed believed the attacks were morally unjustified.

Few media outlets, then as now, covered the statements of Muslim leaders and organizations that did speak out, quickly issuing public statements, denouncing the terrorist attacks and expressing their condolences. Why were these voices not heard?

Muslims condemning violence and Islamic extremists simply don’t make it into the news headlines. This is why much of the public simply assumes that Muslims have not condemned terrorism.

Thus the actions of a dangerous minority of Muslim extremists and terrorists become the distorting prism through which all Muslims and their religion are seen and understood. . . The media’s failure to provide balanced coverage, thus compounding the problem . . . .

Even New York Times current affairs columnist Thomas Friedman declared the day after the London bombings that “no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” Yet in fact, the New York Times itself on October 17, 2001, published a full-page ad from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty proclaiming:

Osama bin Laden hijacked four airplanes and a religion

along with published statements from some of the world’s most prominent Muslim leaders condemning the attacks, including:

  • The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Senior Ulama (Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Shaik
  • Principal of the Muslim College in London (Zaki Badawi)
  • Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai of Pakistan
  • King Abdulla II of Jordan
  • The Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Earlier, September 14, 2001, the BBC reported condemnations of the 9/11 attacks as acts of terrorism by a significant, influential and diverse group of religious leaders ranging from

  • Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar University and Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque (viewed by many as one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam)

to

  • Ayatollah Kashani in Iran.

Others also strident in their condemnations:

  • Mustafa Mashhur (General Guide, Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt)
  • Qazi Hussain Ahmed (Ameer, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, Pakistan)
  • Muti Rahman Nizami (Ameer, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Bangladesh)
  • Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (founder, Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas], Palestine)
  • Rashid Ghannoushi (president, Nahda Renaissance Movement, Tunisia)
  • Fazil Nour (president, PAS — Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Malaysia)
  • forty other Muslim scholars and politicians

All the above signed their names to the following:

The undersigned, leaders of Islamic movements, are horrified by the events of Tuesday 11 September 2001 in the United States which resulted in massive killing, destruction and attack on innocent lives. We express our deepest sympathies and sorrow. We condemn, in the strongest terms, the incidents, which are against all human and Islamic norms. This is grounded in the Noble Laws of Islam which forbid all forms of attacks on innocents. God Almighty says in the Holy Qur’an: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (Surah al-Isra 17:15).

Fatwa against Osama bin Laden (more…)

2013/04/29

Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae

Filed under: Gospel of John,Stibbe: John as storyteller — Neil Godfrey @ 10:45 pm
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diojesusNo, I am not going to argue that Christianity grew out of the worship of Dionysus or that original idea of Jesus was based upon Dionysus. Rather, I am exploring the possibility that the portrayal of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John is in significant measure a variant of the Greek Dionysus myth.

This possibility arises, I suspect, when we bring together the following:

  1. the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
  2. an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
  3. the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
  4. an anthropologist’s structural analysis of myths, in particular the methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss (this brings together key themes and information from the above three areas in a manner that strongly indicates the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of John is a Christian variant of the Dionysus myth.) — And yes, I will take into account the several works of Jonathan Z. Smith supposedly overturning the possibility of such connections.

This should hardly be a particularly controversial suggestion. Most theologians agree that the Christ we read of in the Gospels is a myth. These posts are merely attempting to identify one source of one of those mythical portrayals.

Let’s look first at what Mark Stibbe (John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel) tells us about the literary affinities between the Gospel of John and the Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Though the Greek play was composed five centuries before the Gospel it nonetheless remained known and respected as a classic right through to the early centuries of the Roman imperial era. Moreover, we have evidence that as early as Origen (early third century) the Gospel was compared with the play. See Book 2, chapter 34 of Origen’s Against Celsus.

But Stibbe does not argue that the evangelist directly borrowed from the play. Despite the many resonances between the two he writes:

It is important to repeat at this stage that I have nowhere put forward the argument for a direct literary dependence of John upon Euripides. That, in fact, would be the simplest but the least likely solution. (p. 139)

It certainly would be the simplest solution. The reason Stibbe thinks it is the “least likely” option, however, is the fact of there being significant differences between the gospel and the play. What Stibbe has failed to understand, however, is that literary imitation in the era the Gospel was characterized by similarities and significant differences that generally served to set the new work apart on a new thematic level. The classic illustration of this is the way Virgil imitated Homer’s epics to create the Aeneid. The differences that are just as important as the similarities and that even establish the very reason for the imitation. But all of this is jumping ahead to the next post.

Let’s look for now at the similarities, similarities that according to Stibbe may well be explained simply by the evangelist’s general awareness of the “idea of tragedy” in his culture.

Water into Wine

It is often noted that Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana reminds us of the myth of Dionysus turning water into wine. Stibbe writes that such a miracle is entirely possible (more…)

2013/04/28

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 6)

Part 6: Criticisms of Schmidt’s Literary Designations

In this post, we’ll cover some of the more recent negative assessments of Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s designation of gospel texts as Kleinliteratur versus Hochliteratur.

A cultural insult?

As you recall, the reason Schmidt categorized the gospels as Kleinliteratur had to do with their structure and their core characteristics. It also made sense, given his theory that the gospels arose over time from a religious group. However, here’s what The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (edited by David E. Aune) has to say on the matter.

New Testament texts were categorized as Kleinliteratur, in contrast to the Hochliteratur produced by and for the educated upper classes of the Greco-Roman world. The social correlative of this typology was that Christians were thought to have been drawn almost exclusively from the lower classes, a view now widely regarded as inaccurate. The dichotomy between Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur derived linguistic support from the widespread opinion current earlier in this [the 20th] century that the Greek language of the first century C.E. could conveniently be divided into two major types, literary and nonliterary Koine. (p. 278, emphasis mine)

But that wasn’t Schmidt’s argument. The gospels, he argued, arose gradually within the community, beginning with individual stories (pericopae) in the oral tradition. Their place in Kleinliteratur had very little to do with social or economic status and everything to do with process and origins.

Richard Burridge, unsurprisingly, takes up the cause and waves the banner as well. In What Are the Gospels? he writes:

Any attempt to ask literary questions about the gospels, and in particular, their genre, is automatically precluded in advance . . . The form critics’ distinction merely has the effect of removing the gospels from any discussion of their context within the first century on the grounds that they do not share some predetermined literary aspirations. However, as Suggs has pointed out: ‘The alleged lack of literary expertise on the part of the evangelists is not a valid objection . . . books of any genre may be poorly written.‘ [He’s quoting M. J. Suggs from The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, 1976 ed.] Much more detailed and accurate study of the various genres, types and levels of first-century, and especially Graeco-Roman, literature is needed. (p. 11, emphasis mine)


It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials.
English: Diogenes the Cynic, from Diogenes Lae...

Diogenes the Cynic, from Diogenes Laertius’ “Lives,” 1761 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burridge’s text reads like a scorching indictment, and it certainly would be . . . if it had any contact with reality. Schmidt himself elaborates upon a case of poorly written Hochliteratur. He writes:

Diogenes Laertius was an incompetent biographer, for he haphazardly produced a great number [of] biographies (they were more like rapidly dictated, uneven leaflets!), whereas the gospel tradition was a natural process — not a belabored product but a lush growth. The same standard of judgment cannot possibly be applied to both the gospels and Diogenes Laertius, since he tries to pass himself off as an author, writing a long foreword and naming his sources, and still manages to produce an incoherent work(The Place of the Gospels, p. 5, emphasis added.)

Diogenes Laertius’s work is still Hochliteratur; it’s just bad Hochliteratur. It isn’t the quality of the finished product that defines the category. Rather, it’s the author’s intent, his process, and his raw materials. The evangelists’ supposed lack of literary expertise is indeed “not a valid objection,” so it’s a good thing the form critics didn’t base their conclusions on the gospel-writers’ abilities.

Reassessing Luke

Schmidt, of course, did point out the inadequacies of the evangelists. In particular he disagreed with the current prevailing favorable view of Luke as an author, concluding that “his abilities were strangely unequal to his intentions, that the material imposed restrictions on him.” He quotes Franz Overbeck (Historische Zeitschrift, 1882), who had a slightly higher opinion of Luke as an author: (more…)

2013/04/25

Terrorism Facts, #1: How Radical Islamists Justify Killing Civilians, even Muslims

Filed under: Islam,Terrorism — Neil Godfrey @ 12:24 am

Ironically people who identify Islamic terrorists with the “true beliefs of Islam” are (unknowingly) serving as mouthpieces for those terrorists. The fact is Islamic terrorists believe they alone represent true Islam and that the vast majority of those who profess to be Muslims deserve to die. Those terrorists would love nothing more than to hear everyone say it is they who demonstrate what true Islam is really all about! (All other Muslims, far from being “enablers of extremism” or “potential killers themselves” are really on their way to Hell, they say.)

Mohammed M. Hafez

Mohammed M. Hafez

This post shares some of the main findings of an article published in the peer-reviewed Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 364-378, “The Alchemy of Martyrdom: Jihadi Salafism and Debates over Suicide Bombings in the Muslim World”, by Mohammed M. Hafez.

(The terms ‘radical Islamists’, ‘jihadists‘ and ‘Jihadi Salafists‘ are used interchangeably. The terms exclude other Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood movements and Islamic nationalists such as Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.)

This post covers three ways radical Islamists justify the killing of Muslims in their attacks —

  • their redefinition of Islamic piety, apostasy and heresy,
  • how they come to define their acts as martyrdom rather than suicide,
  • and how they unearth various texts of medieval scholars to justify the killing of civilians.

I trust readers will acknowledge the parameters of this discussion and not impute more into it than is concluded and for which evidence is advanced. There is far too much ignorant lunacy and dangerous fear-mongering being spread across the internet — not least from public intellectuals (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and co.) who ought to know better — and this series of posts on Vridar is the first of several that will attempt to shed some light on the actual facts, that is, the findings of scholarly research as published in reputable scholarly media.

The need for justification

We all need to justify what we consciously decide to do. Many of us even know of experiments that indicate we are unaware of the real reasons we decide to do X or Y and that the reasons we express, with conviction, can be demonstrated to be after-the-fact rationalizations. So human behaviour is not always a simple matter. That’s why so many different perspectives can add to the complexity of our understanding of ourselves — sociologists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, economists, biologists . . .

.

The debate among radical Muslims

M. M. Hafez begins his article by noting that jihadists have, since the 1970s, become increasingly cruel and indiscriminate towards even fell0w (radical) Muslims, and have accordingly had to defend themselves against accusations unjustifiable killing. This has produced a rather bizarre debate among the most radical Islamists themselves!

At the heart of these debates is a central paradox.

  • On the one hand, radical Islamists must anchor their violence in classical Islamic texts and traditions in order to uphold their image as bearers of authentic Islam and as followers of divine commandments.
  • On the other hand, the classical Islamic tradition imposes constraints on many aspects of their violent activism. (pp. 364-5, my formatting)

.

Classical Islam’s constraints

Against suicide

Quran 4:29-30: ‘Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: For verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful! If any do that in rancor and injustice, — soon shall We cast them out into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah.’

A Prophetic tradition cited in Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari: ‘And whoever commits suicide with a piece of iron will be punished with the same piece of iron in the Hell Fire.’

.

Against killing fellow Muslims

Quran 4:93: ‘If a man kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein (For ever). And the wrath and curse of Allah are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him.’

.

Against killing non-combatants

Quran 2:190: ‘Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors.’

Also in a Prophetic tradition quoted in Sahih Muslim: ‘It is narrated on the authority of ‘Abdullah that a woman was found killed in one of the battles fought by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him). He disapproved of the killing of women and children.’

.

The intellectual father of Jihadism and his three arguments

Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the infamous mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the name behind many suicide terrorism attacks in Iraq before he was killed by the U.S. air-force in 2006, is linked to several tracts on suicide attacks that are published on the Tawhid wal Jihad website. M. M. Hafez has distilled this diverse literature to three fundamental rationales that have become “the basis for Jihadi Salafist violence in the Muslim world”:

  1. their redefinition of Islamic piety, apostasy and heresy, to allocate most Muslims to the categories of “tyrants, apostates, heretics and infidels”;
  2. their defining of their terror acts to mean “martyrdom” instead of “suicide”;
  3. and how they unearth various texts of medieval scholars to justify the killing of civilians, including Muslims.

1. The meaning of Piety and Apostasy in Islam (more…)

2013/04/22

Orientalism, Us, and Islam

Filed under: Islam,Islamophobia,Said: Orientalism — Neil Godfrey @ 8:47 am
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Orientalism (book)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most influential publications of the twentieth century was Orientalism [link is to the Wikipedia article on the book] by Palestinian born American scholar Edward Said. The book has been translated into 36 languages and said to have revolutionized Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. Naturally, as with any major revolutionary work that challenges conventional ways of thinking, it has had its critics. I single out here some of Said’s commentary on Western attitudes towards Islam that I believe stand as valid today as they were when first published in 1978 and expanded in 1994. My own comments are in blue italics.

The principle dogmas of Orientalism:

  1. The absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior.
  2. Abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a “classical” Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities.
  3. The Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself, therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically “objective.”
  4. The Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).

Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.

Islamic Orientalism accordingly believes there are still things such as “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.”

It makes no difference whether we are talking about a situation in Bangladesh or events in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan or Bedford. The world is facing a threat from a singular religious belief system that threatens Western civilization.

Every facet of societies in the modern Islamic world is anachronistically interpreted through texts like the Koran. (more…)

2013/04/19

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 5)

Filed under: Gospel genre,K. L. Schmidt — Tim Widowfield @ 12:33 am
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Part 5: More on Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s ideal types

At the close of the previous post in this series I promised we’d talk about the modern critique of Hochlitertur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature), but first I want to explain better why these categories are important to understanding the genre of the gospels. Philip Jordan’s comment on the previous post has convinced me I need to try to take one more crack at it.

English: A photo of Stephen Jay Gould, by Kath...

A photo of Stephen Jay Gould and his opposable thumbs, by Kathy Chapman online. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Panda’s Thumb

Many of you have probably read Stephen Jay Gould’s great essay “The Panda’s Thumb” (warning: PDF), as well as his book by the same name. In it, he explains that the Panda’s sixth digit (but not really a digit at all) is an evolutionary contrivance.

I invoke Gould’s name and cite his work not to argue the merits of natural selection, but to ask a simple question:

“When is a thumb not a thumb?”

Functionally, this little appendage behaves like a thumb. The panda uses it to grip bamboo shoots and strip off the leaves. But what exactly is it? From a strict anatomical perspective, a true thumb is a digit with internal phalanx bones. By that definition, the panda’s sixth digit can’t be a thumb, because its internal skeletal structure is composed of a modified radial sesamoid.

But why would it matter, one way or the other? Well, in ordinary speech, it doesn’t matter. It’s a thumb. But if you wanted to learn anything “scientific” about the panda’s thumb, and you started from the analogy of a primate thumb, you’d be way off track. As we said earlier, the true thumb is a modified digit that opposes the other four fingers. The panda’s thumb is physiologically different. It arose through an evolutionary process quite distinct from our own.

Here we see plainly illustrated the important difference between a functional description of an object and a thorough analysis of that same object. We can categorize objects according to visible characteristics as well as their usage in the real world. Such categorizations are valid, but only in a superficial way.

(more…)

2013/04/17

Losing our sense of the tragic and the human bond

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 9:04 pm

What depresses me most about debates like the recent discussion over Western attitudes towards Muslims is the black and white view so many people have. “If you disagree with us you can only be wrong and not worth listening to.” “I can’t hear you because you are arguing against something I strongly believe and the way I view the world.”

Ideologically driven closed-mindedness can be found on both sides, of course. But bloody hell, what’s wrong with trying to maintain a sense of humanity and tragedy in the whole discussion? We are all human and talking about the fate of other humans, and there is a strong tragic streak running through the whole human condition on this stage.

Someone here recently said he found Muslims are no different from us in their everyday concerns. That such a statement was thought worth pointing out (and it is!) speaks volumes for how semi-barbaric much of the discussion has become.

There are anti-war activists who have sons and daughters on willing active service (volunteers) in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a good number of those I have reason to believe they are very close to their children despite ideological (or generation) differences.

There are Muslim parents who will mourn to their graves their loss of a son or daughter to a suicide-bombing recruiter and families of those who lost loved ones in 9/11 who have visited some of those Muslims.

It would be good to keep all those sorts of families in mind when engaging with supporters of one side or the other.

The world is not black and white. There is no iron curtain or tentacle-extending behemoth. Except in our fears. There is evil that needs to be faced. Sometimes that means having the courage to be sure we ourselves are not the proverbial evil we have projected onto others. Tragedy needs a catharsis, or it truly will become unbearable.

2013/04/16

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 4)

Filed under: Gospel genre,K. L. Schmidt — Tim Widowfield @ 4:15 pm
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Part 4: Hochliteratur (high literature) and Kleinliteratur (low literature)

Translations

To understand Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s argument concerning the genre of the canonical gospels, we need first to understand his usage of the terms Hochliteratur and Kleinliteratur. These terms are difficult to translate into English, because we lose the nuance of the German words, while picking up unwanted baggage from their English equivalents.

Literally, they mean “high literature” and “low literature,” and that’s exactly how they’re rendered in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature. However, in some translations of form critics’ works, you’ll see them left untranslated. Sometimes you’ll see Kleinliteratur translated as “folk literature” or “popular literature.” The translator of our text, Byron R. McCane, chose to translate the terms literally, since for him to leave terms untranslated is an admission of defeat. I’m not sure I agree with that position, but at least he has his reasons. There’s no right or wrong approach, I suppose.

No new thing under the sun

McCane is certainly wrong, however, about the origins of the terms.  He writes:

Many scholars who discuss Die Stellung [i.e., The Place (of the Gospels)] choose not to translate these German terms. They are, after all, neologisms created by Schmidt to designate specialized literary categories. (p. xxxii, emphasis added)

Martin Dibelius

Martin Dibelius

The terms are not neologisms; they predate Schmidt. As far back as 1919, Martin Dibelius used Kleinliteratur in From Tradition to Gospel. In the first edition (Tübingen, 1919) he wrote:

In erhöhtem Maße wird dies alles von der sogenannten Kleinliteratur gelten. (p. 1, emphasis added)

In the English translation this sentence reads:

What we have said is true also in humbler forms of literature(p. 1, emphasis added)

You can find the terms in discussions of literary works dating as far back as the late 19th century. A quick survey of Google Books reveals that Hochliteratur and Volksliteratur were in use at least as far back as 1891. Conceptually, then, the terms and the concepts behind them had been current in German academia (viz., history of literature, literary criticism, etc.) for a couple of decades before Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels was published.

McCane is hardly alone. I can only guess that most people who have read (or claim to have read) Dibelius are familiar only with the second edition of From Tradition to Gospel (1933), and are unaware of the first edition (1919). It’s also a bit hard to trace the usage of these terms, because when translators convert them into English, you never know what you’ll get — Low literature? Folk literature? Folk tales? Popular literature? Humbler forms of literature?

Ideal Types

The ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.

Before we continue, let’s review the concept of ideal types. If we were to envision the ideal parliamentary democracy, we would list the defining characteristics — some integral, others peripheral — generally held in common. We would not expect any particular, real-world parliamentary democracy to have every one of these characteristics. That does not mean they are something else. Nor does it mean that our ideal type is invalid. On the other hand, if a nation-state coincidentally shares a few peripheral characteristics or partially shares one of the core characteristics, that doesn’t mean it has magically become a parliamentary democracy.

Likewise, if we created a list of all the defining characteristics of Hochliteratur or Kleinliteratur and compared that list against extant works of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world they won’t all correspond perfectly against the ideal types. That’s because, as we all should know, the ideal type is a fiction: a tool that we use to help us better comprehend the issues at hand. It’s a subjective model of the problem domain, not an objective definition of reality.

(more…)

2013/04/13

Damned Lies, Statistics, and Muslims

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

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

muslimOpinPolls

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

Claim

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

Fact

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

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

2013/04/10

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

Filed under: Islam,Islamophobia — Neil Godfrey @ 10:24 pm
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I was disappointed, and for some reason even a little surprised, to read Jerry Coyne’s response, Islamophobia again, to my recent post and see that he chose not to deal with the key points I raised. In fact, he merely repeated his own arguments as if my own rebuttal of them was nowhere on record. What was most disappointing was his upfront declaration that he had no interest in engaging with contrary views, even referring readers to a Christopher Hitchens quotation expressing a disdain for any opinions but his own and inviting anyone who wishes to challenge those opinions to kiss his arse.

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

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

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

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

Jerry writes:

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

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

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

Jerry completely avoids my argument when he repeats this nonsense:

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

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

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

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

Is this dehumanization?

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

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

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

POWER_OF_LIGHT

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

Bangladeshi Demonstrators Calling for the Deaths of Atheist Bloggers

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

An Agence France Presse release:

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

2013/04/08

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

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

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

The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature

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

An act of parricide

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

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

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

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

(more…)

2013/04/06

Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are their criticisms of the Muslim religion wrong?

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

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

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

2013/04/04

What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke

Filed under: John N. Collins,Luke-Acts,Oral Tradition — Neil Godfrey @ 12:13 pm
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Witnesses of the Resurrection

Witnesses of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

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

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

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

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

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

Perrin’s conclusion?

Luke considers Paul an eyewitness!

Perrin explains: (more…)

2013/04/02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apelles

Apelles: Canvas Poster Print

Contents of this post

WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?

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

MODIFYING THE LETTERS: WHEN? WHY? WHO?

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

WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEAN GOSPEL?

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

AND WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEANS?

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

CONCLUSION

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WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?

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

2013/03/30

Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem — notes on the reading Tom Holland’s “In the Shadow of the Sword”

Filed under: Historical sources,Holland: Shadow of the Sword,Islam — Neil Godfrey @ 10:32 pm
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shadowA few weeks ago I posted Islam – the Untold Story as a response to my introduction (through a radio program and an online video) to narrative historian Tom Holland’s controversial book on the rise of the Arab empire and the origins of Islam. I was interested in some of the comments expressing Muslim viewpoints but not having read the book, and not having studied Islamic history in any depth, there was not much I could say in response.

Now I can at least make a few comments on Tom Holland’s approach to the question after having read his 58 page introduction.

(Coincidentally today I heard another radio interview with Tom Holland, one in which he discusses the way he writes history, the modern relevance of his other historical works, Millennium and Rubicon, as well as further comments on In the Shadow of the Sword.)

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But first, let me confess my bias: I believe the most reliable way for any historian to work is to begin with data that can be tested for its genre (hence likely authorial intent), its provenance, and the independent verification of its content. As a result I have come to lean towards the views of those scholars who are derisively labelled “minimalists” and who question the authenticity of the Bible’s account of Israel’s origins and the course of its kingdoms of Israel and Judah. I have also been persuaded by the view of at least one of those “minimalists” who — again via the same touchstone questions concerning sources — has come to think the Gospel narratives of Jesus are as fictitious as the the Old Testament’s narrative of Israel.

I approach the origins of Islam with the same set of questions about sources.

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Tom Holland knows how to surprise a western reader who has been fed a diet of Islamophobia. In the front pages we read words attributed to Mohammad from which the title is drawn:

Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance, and remember that the gates of Paradise lie in the shadow of the sword.

Another quotation, this one at the beginning of the Introduction, is by Salman Rushdie. It will strike a chord with anyone interested in what we know of Christian origins, but it serves the cause of irony — and a warning that the nature of historical evidence is not always what it seems — since we know that the wealth of detail taken for granted about the life of Muhammad will soon be shown to be nothing more than a facade.

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Two Voices

Tom Holland writes with two voices, as he explains in his latest Radio National interview, and together they make for gripping reading. He writes as the historical researcher of cause and effect, commenting on the degree of certainty or less so of our knowledge, guiding readers to the raw materials and current scholarship upon which his narrative is built. At the same time he writes as a novelist, entering into the experiences of the actants, named and anonymous alike, drawing the reader into their world as inevitably as a Spielberg movie.

He knows how to write history for both popular and informed audiences.

Two Worlds

Historians don’t write history the way they used to. (more…)

2013/03/29

The Mysterious John of Revelation

Filed under: Gospel of John,Revelation — Neil Godfrey @ 8:48 pm
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Curiously only one of the five books in the New Testament attributed to John bears the name of John. Many believers and conservative scholars maintain that the Gospel of John, the first, second and third letters of John, were authored by the apostle John despite the author’s name nowhere appearing in those texts.

It is of course the nature of religious history that people will believe it without necessarily having the kind of source-based authentication that generally historians are looking for. And so there is always a tension between what a religious tradition may say about the past and what the historian may say about the past. (Tom Holland, in John Cleary in conversation with Tom Holland, about 26 mins)

And so it goes. Tradition has assigned the name of John to the Gospel and three letters of the New Testament. Perversely, it may seem, the book that does claim to be written by John is one that critical scholars doubt came from the same pen as anything else attributed to John.

A study of the authorship of the Book of Revelation opens up a number of interesting methodological curiosities of New Testament scholarship. But for most part here I will set out the reasons why critical scholars widely believe the book of Revelation is not from the same author, or even “theological school”, responsible for the Gospel of John.

Saint John on Patmos

Saint John on Patmos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Book of Revelation makes unambiguous claims about the identity of its author. It came from God via Jesus Christ who commanded John to write it all down:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John . . . .

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter . . . .

The setting on the isle of Patmos and the identity of an author (or scribe) as a persecuted exile appropriately sets an atmosphere of fear and dread, relieved by a moment of seclusion to be with God alone and to receive his messages uninterrupted. He identifies himself as one of the saints who is being trodden under foot — another motif common to this genre of literature. This is all part of the literary conceit of another Daniel (or any persecuted visionary prophet) being pulled aside by God and struck down to humbly soak up the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms that would leave lesser mortals dead. The setting is as much atmospherics as are the eyes like fire and the seven headed beast. Yet New Testament scholars will so often be found referring to the author being a persecuted exile on Patmos as if this were a veritable fact of history.

A face-value reading guided by the light of church tradition leads many readers concur with the following: (more…)

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 2)

Filed under: Burridge: What Are Gospels?,Gospel genre — Tim Widowfield @ 1:02 am

Part 2: Two Parables

Before we discuss Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s views on the genre of the canonical gospels, I want to present two parables that I hope will drive home some basic concepts. A review of the recent scholarship on the subject reveals a distressing amount of misunderstanding here. I hope the following illustrations will help clarify two of Schmidt’s fundamental ideas.

The Platypus

Imagine for the moment that Richard Burridge has a younger brother, Bucky Burridge, who is an up-and-coming zoologist. One day while visiting an Australian museum of natural history, he comes face to face with a stuffed and mounted platypus. He has never seen a platypus before, and he is struck by its features. In many ways it is like nothing he has ever seen, but after careful consideration, he believes he knows the proper classification of this so-called “mammal.”

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anat...

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anatinus (platypus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bucky hunts down the curator of the museum and asks for a few minutes of his time. “Did you know,” he asks the curator, “that you have classified a duck as a mammal?” The curator is confused, so Bucky drags him back to the exhibit of the platypus.

He points at the display case, tapping the glass. “The placard identifies this duck as a mammal!” says Bucky with a frown.

The curator pauses to make sure Bucky is serious, then tactfully asks, “Why do you think it’s a duck?”

(more…)

2013/03/27

The Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 1)

Filed under: Burridge: What Are Gospels?,Gospel genre — Tim Widowfield @ 10:07 am
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Part 1: A Sea Change

Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.

Published in 1989 by SCM Press, Studying the Synoptic Gospels remains one of the best resources for learning about the first three books of the New Testament. Not a week goes by that I don’t take it off the shelf and refer to it. Sanders and Davies cover most of the important subjects related to synoptic studies, and they do it in an engaging and evenhanded manner. Each subject receives appropriate coverage, with suggested “further readings” that can take you even deeper.

Studying the Synoptic Gospels

Studying the Synoptic Gospels

Studying the Synoptic Gospels treats the question of genre quite seriously, devoting one chapter for each gospel. The chapter on Matthew for example, continues for 14 pages, touching on its various features — how it resembles different forms of known, contemporaneous literature, how it uses the traditional material, etc. In the end, the authors conclude:

The most satisfactory definition of the genre is ‘a theodicy about the creation and recreation (see palingenesia, ‘new world’, 19.28) which is centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’ (p. 264, italics original)

The authors contend that although in some ways Matthew’s gospel resembles a βίος (bios), it also has some striking differences, and in the end it is a wholly inadequate description. Mark has even less in common with ancient literary biographies. They write:

The form of the Second Gospel is, however, even less like a Hellenistic biography than that of Matthew. It does not begin with birth stories, and, if 16.8 is the original ending, it is quite without parallel. (p. 267, bold original)

The authors grant that Luke has even more in common with Hellenistic biographies than the first two gospels.

It is fair to say that Luke-Acts could not have existed in its present form without knowledge of Graeco-Roman texts. . . . But, to return to the preface, the truth for which the work offers Theophilus assurance is not just the accurate reporting of past events, nor the discernment of patterns of history, nor the exact depiction of a holy community worthy of imitation or admiration, but the story of the creator God who repeatedly offers people salvation, through prophets, through Jesus and through his apostles, and whose sovereignty is about to be finally established by replacing the kingdom of Satan on earth with that of God. Historical motifs are swallowed up by eschatological, and history is understood from the perspective of creation and recreation. (p. 297, emphasis added)

Ultimately, the problem with identifying the genre of the synoptic gospels as Hellenistic biographies or Graeco-Roman histories is that these terms are insufficient to describe their form, genesis, and purpose.

Fortress Introduction The New Testament

Fortress Introduction The New Testament

Now compare Sanders’ and Davies’ careful, detailed, and sober conclusions to this quote from the Fortress Introduction to the New Testament by Gerd Theissen:

The gospel is a variant of the ancient ‘life’, which was widespread in the non-Jewish world: the gospel is an ancient bios (a better term to use than ‘biography’), though a bios of an unusual kind. (p. 16, Nook edition, 2004, bold and color emphasis added)

Theissen notes that writings centered on a single person were quite unknown in the Old Testament. How did a sect that started within Judaism come to employ a genre that was so unlike anything known in Jewish religious writings up to that point? He says:

(more…)

2013/03/25

The Ignatian Letters Written By A Follower Of Apelles? (Part 1)

Filed under: Ignatius,Parvus: Letters Ignatius — Roger Parvus @ 8:07 pm

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This post continues from The Author of the So-Called Ignatians was an Apellean Christian

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

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When I presented my first contention — that the real author of the Ignatians was Peregrinus — I argued that a proto-Catholic editor/interpolator later, probably around 200 CE, made changes to the letters to disguise Peregrinus’ authorship. To make the letters acceptable for use by his church he had to remove the apostate Peregrinus from them.

In the last two posts I have begun to argue my second contention:

That the branch of Christianity to which the author of the letters belonged was Apellean.

If this second contention is correct, it is to be expected that the proto-Catholic editor/interpolator had also to make some doctrinal modifications to the letters. For although Apellean beliefs, compared to those of Marcion, were definitely closer to those held by the proto-Catholics, some would have still been unacceptable, especially to the proto-Catholic church of the year 200. Doctrinal positions had hardened in the 50 years that had passed since Peregrinus wrote the letters. The church was becoming more dogmatic as is evidenced by the appearance of the so-called Apostles Creed sometime toward the end of the second century.

Thus the need for occasional interventions in the letters to make them safe for proto-Catholic consumption.

The changes made to remove Peregrinus from the letters were often remarkably careless. We will see that some of the doctrinal corrections were careless too. (more…)

2013/03/24

The Author of the So-Called Ignatians was an Apellean Christian

Filed under: Ignatius,Parvus: Letters Ignatius,Roger Parvus — Roger Parvus @ 6:04 pm
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This post continues from The Teachings of Apelles, Marcion’s Apostate

All posts so far in this series: Roger Parvus: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius

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From this survey of the teaching of Apelles it can be seen how closely his doctrine matches the combination of beliefs exhibited by the author of the letters. The most straightforward way to account for this is to conclude that their author, Peregrinus, was an Apellean.

Explanatory power of the thesis (more…)

The Teachings of Apelles, Marcion’s Apostate

Filed under: Ignatius,Parvus: Letters Ignatius,Roger Parvus — Roger Parvus @ 10:19 am
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This post continues from An Unusual Mix of Beliefs in the Letters of Ignatius Peregrinus

All posts so far in this series: Roger Parvus: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius

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In my previous post I called attention to the assortment of unusual beliefs held by the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. That assortment and the description of his Judaizing and docetic opponents have convinced me that he was a follower of Apelles, and that the churches he addressed in his letters were Apellean.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with that little-known early Christian and his sect I will start by reviewing what the extant record says about them.

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Marcion’s Deserter

Apelles, the founder of the Apelleans, was at first a disciple of Marcion. If, as is thought, he was born early in the second century, he could have been Marcion’s disciple as early as the 120s, assuming Marcion was already actively proselytizing at that time. It is not known how long Apelles was associated with Marcion, but at some point he broke with him and adopted doctrinal positions that were at odds with those of his teacher. Tertullian says the break was sparked by Apelles’ rejection of Marcion’s rigorist teaching regarding celibacy:

Apelles . . . deserted Marcionite chastity and withdrew from the presence of his most holy master to Alexandria. Returning after some years, he was in no way improved except he was no longer a Marcionite. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 7).

Their differences went beyond the issue of celibacy, however, and the split was likely not an amicable one. Apelles abandoned Marcion’s dualism and returned to belief in one supreme God. He repudiated Marcion’s docetism, emphatically insisting on the real and non-phantasmal nature of Christ’s body. From Marcion’s canon he retained only the Apostolicon, replacing Marcion’s Gospel with one of his own. He did continue to view the Old Testament negatively, and in a way his position in regard to it is, as will be seen, even more negative than Marcion’s. But on the other hand, Origen concedes that Apelles

did not entirely deny that the Law and the Prophets were of God (Commentary on Titus).

In breaking with Marcion, Apelles adopted new beliefs that unquestionably moved him closer to doctrinal positions held by the proto-Catholics, but his new beliefs still differed from theirs in significant ways. No complete exposition of his teaching has survived. Tertullian wrote a treatise against the Apelleans but it is no longer extant. However, the early record does contain enough information to permit at least a partial reconstruction of what Apelles taught. Elements can be found in the following:

  • Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ, On the Prescription of Heretics, On the Soul, and an extant fragment of Against the Apelleans (Migne’s Patrologia Latina, 42, 30, n. 1)
  • Pseudo-Tertullian’s Against All Heresies
  • Hippolytus’ The Refutation of All Heresies
  • Origen’s Commentary on Titus and Against Celsus
  • Eusebius’ History of the Church
  • Epiphanius’ Panarion.

For my quotes from the Panarion I will use the translation by Frank Williams in his The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Quotes from the other sources are either my own translations or those of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. (more…)

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