Vridar

2013/05/04

Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth — Reviewing the review

Edited with a few additional remarks 4 hours after first posting.

BartEhrmanQuestHistoricalJesusThis post is a response to Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. I read this review before I received my own (Kindle) copy of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, so I was dismayed when I began to read the book to find that I had been completely misled as to its character and content. Fear that that same review may influence many negatively towards the contributors of the book is what is compelling me to write this response now. (Apologists like McG are quite eager to lap it up uncritically.)

The review levels five charges against Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth:

  1. “resorting to a personal attack . . . nearly 600 pages of venom and rhetoric . . . full of venom and disgust”
  2. “The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.”
  3. “And Price’s attempts to link the contributors of the volume, in all, and those who support the so-called ‘Christ Myth Theory’ with minimalism is a void one.”
  4. “Price also gives D.M. Murdock too much credit. He is guilty of inflating her credentials in many respects and, while they are friends, it is distracting. He writes, for example, that ‘her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall’, but that is an oversimplification of what Ehrman argues.”
  5. “Also there is a surprising amount of personal correspondence. Frank produces some 75 pages for his first contribution and more than half of it consists of various email exchanges between Ehrman and himself. This troubles me as I am not so sure that such a move is ethical. . . . In my humble opinion, it is wholly unwelcome that Zindler dedicated so much space to these emails and also formulated a polemical argument around them; it is quite unfortunate that this appears in this volume.”

I’ll address these in reverse order.

5. Unethical email disclosures?

I was shocked to read this and feared that Frank Zindler may have overstepped the mark when I read this accusation. So I was particularly keen to read carefully how Frank does introduce these email exchanges with Bart Ehrman. I was greatly relieved to learn that Tom Verenna’s aspersions were entirely misplaced. Here’s what I found. Frank attaches the following note at the point of publishing the first email response from Bart Ehrman:

I thank Professor Ehrman for graciously having granted me permission to reprint here his messages, provided only that I “acknowledge that they were emails, not written intended for publication.”

I do wonder, however, about the ethics of publishing an image of a personal message from Frank to the reviewer. Did T.V. seek F.Z’s permission for this?

4. Giving D. M. Murdock too much credit?

Robert M. Price, we are told, “inflates” the credentials of D.M. Murdock/Acharya S. (more…)

2013/05/02

Islamophobia, the word’s origin and meaning

Filed under: Islamophobia — Neil Godfrey @ 6:10 pm
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I’m no longer desirous of defending myself, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or other public atheists against the charge of “Islamophobia.” It’s been widespread on the Internet these past two weeks, but I’ve ignored it. In the end, I’ve concluded that those charges come from borderline racists themselves: people who think that bad ideas, threats of violence, or religious oppression should be ignored, but only when they come from people with brown or yellow skin. Jerry Coyne fantasizing over what he wishes the source of the ‘Islamophobia’ charge to be. A little effort and he could have learned the facts but, like anything associated with Muslims, he appears much more comfortable rolling around in one-sided media bytes and ignorance.

This post explains the real origins — and meaning — of the word. Scholarly authority on Islam, John Esposito, almost gets it right with the following passage in The Future of Islam (the same source that was the basis of my previous post; formatting and bolding emphasis are mine):

summary“Islamophobia” is a new term for a now widespread phenomenon. We are all very familiar with “anti-Semitism” or “racism,” but there was no comparable term to describe the hostility, prejudice, and discrimination directed toward Islam and the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.

In 1997, an independent think tank on ethnicity and cultural diversity, the Runnymede Trust, coined the term “Islamophobia” to describe what they saw as a prejudice rooted in the “different” physical appearance of Muslims as well as an intolerance of their religious and cultural beliefs.

Origin of the word

Before I comment on the above (as I said, John Esposito only “almost gets it right”), let’s continue with another prominent user of the term and ask how well Jerry Coyne’s fantasy coincides with reality:

Like other forms of group prejudice, it thrives on ignorance and fear of the unknown, which is spreading throughout much of the non-Muslim world. At a 2004 UN conference, “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding,” Kofi Annan addressed the international scope of the problem:

annanWhen the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry — that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with “Islamophobia.” . . . There is a need to unlearn stereotypes that have become so entrenched in so many minds and so much of the media. Islam is often seen as a monolith . . . [and] Muslims as opposed to the West. . . . The pressures of living together with people of different cultures and different beliefs from one’s own are real. . . . But that cannot justify demonization, or the deliberate use of fear for political purposes. That only deepens the spiral of suspicion and alienation.

The literature of the Runnymede Trust itself is not so willing to claim originality for the term, however. In the 1997 report to which Esposito refers, there is a Foreword by Chair of the Commission, Professor Gordon Conway. There Conway explains: (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…)

2013/04/30

The Awesome Power of Self-Selection

Filed under: Noam Chomsky,Politics & Society,Scholarly Consent — Tim Widowfield @ 11:04 am

Why I never became a journalist

In my first two years of college, I wandered from major to major — theatre, undecided, political science. One muggy day in the summer of 1979, I realized I was going nowhere. I was working in Columbus, Ohio, for a guy whose business model had something to do with selling frozen meat door to door. My meals consisted mainly of bread, peanut butter, and orange soda (or “pop”).

I was flat broke, with no options. So I decided to join the U.S. Air Force, following in my dad’s footsteps. To make a long story short, my language aptitude scores landed me in Russian language school at Monterey, then on to an overseas assignment. The job was interesting, and living in Berlin was a great experience, but I knew from the outset I was going to stay in only for the minimum four-years stint, and then head back to school.

lardner-typewriter

Ring Lardner

This time I knew exactly which I degree I wanted to pursue: a bachelor of arts in journalism. At the University of Maryland, I bided my time, waiting for seats in the first upper-level journalism class to open up. In the intervening period, I took lots of history courses as electives.

At last I found myself on the first day of my first journalism class. The professor greeted us all and then asked us to go around the room, give a short introduction, and say which kind of journalism we were focused on. Everybody except me and one other guy said, “Radio and Television.” We, the two dinosaurs, had indicated we were interested only in print journalism.

At that very moment, I knew I couldn’t stay. Journalism was now a job for the shallow, pretty people. The beat reporter stabbing away at his typewriter with his index fingers trying to meet a deadline was a figment of my imagination, the ghost of a bygone era.

The power of self-selection

I selected myself out of my chosen field of study. I dropped my classes, switched to history, and never looked back. Since that time, mainstream journalism has gotten much, much worse. Had I stayed, I alone couldn’t have changed anything. But together, the large numbers of people who took themselves out of the mix — who decided not to stick it out and try to stem the tide — might have. Or perhaps not.

The power of self-selection often goes unnoticed. It’s a kind of opportunity cost. What would have happened if such-and-such had not happened? Who gives up? What sorts of people remain? Do they represent a broad section of society, or have the pressures of the system ensured that only certain people who think “the right way” have a voice?

(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…)

Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus

Filed under: Apologetics,Historical methodology — Tim Widowfield @ 1:07 am

Please don’t eat the Bible

I was glancing over at the Exploding Cakemix recently, keeping abreast of the latest mythicist-bashing, and I happened to notice a story about a guy who said:

[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

Now I’ve heard of people using the Bible for rolling papers in a pinch (not recommended), but it never occurred to me to eat it. I know that if you’re stuck on a disabled bus in the wilderness you should eat your boots and the seats before you eat your fellow passengers. But the Bible? I’d need loads of ketchup.

Dr. John Dixon

Dr. John Dickson: Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Anyhow, it turns out this John Dickson guy is a real professor with a doctorate and everything. He teaches real students at a real college university for real cash money. So we should sit up and take notice.

The historical Tiberius versus the historical Jesus

Dickson’s post is the usual litany of supposedly solid evidence that we’ve all seen before. Most of it is of the “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” variety. But there was something new there, at least for me. He writes:

The [sic] Tiberius provides a good example (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified). Our best sources for Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius, both composed eighty or so years after the emperor’s death in AD 37. The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion, ruling out the suggestion that even the basic details of Jesus were part of a process of legendary accumulation.

My interest is piqued. I like Roman history. But what’s this claim from our expert about the “best sources” for Tiberius? Emperors, even mediocre or bad ones, leave big footprints. But sometimes it’s the smallest bits of evidence that persist. Like this one:

Roman Coin: Tiberius Caesar

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus

Moving the goalposts

If you take a few minutes to read the comments, you’ll see that someone mentions the fact that the Romans minted coins during Tiberius’s reign, and that we actually have some that we can pick up and hold in our hands. In the ancient history trade they call that “primary evidence.” He or she goes on to explain why it’s important to corroborate claims in texts with primary evidence.

And certainly the coin is persuasive physical evidence, but, as some guy who goes by the initials RMW explains, it’s like totally unfair. He responds:

(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…)

2013/04/27

Flawed and Dangerous: The Popular Notion of “Religious Terrorism”

Filed under: Islamophobia,Terrorism — Neil Godfrey @ 8:32 am
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otago029995

Richard Jackson is currently Deputy Director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS).

Available online is a Political Studies Review 2009 article “The Study of Terrorism after 11 September 2001: Problems, Challenges and Future Developments” by Richard Jackson “of Aberystwyth University”. (Professor Richard Jackson has since moved to the University of Otago so is not to be confused with the current Richard Jackson at Aberystwyth University who is Professor of Accounting and Finance.)

I am copying an extract from that article here, having changed some of its formatting and added highlighting for easier reading. This section is a damning indictment on the popular notion of “religious terrorism” so I should first quote the far more optimistic abstract of the entire article.

Terrorism studies is one of the fastest-growing areas of social scientific research in the English-speaking world. This article examines some of the main challenges, problems and future developments facing the wider terrorism studies field through a review of seven recently published books. It argues that while a great deal of the current research is characterised by a persistent set of weaknesses, an increasing number of theoretically rigorous and critically oriented studies that challenge established views suggest genuine reasons for optimism about the future of terrorism research.

So there is hope beyond the travesty addressed in the following extract. (I have copied the details of the cited works at the end.)

The Rise of ‘Islamic Terrorism’ Studies

Predicated on the popular notion of ‘religious terrorism’ first articulated by David Rapoport (1984) and galvanised by the identities of the 11 September 2001 attackers and the massive media coverage given to al-Qa’eda, an extremely large literature on ‘Islamic terrorism’ has developed in the past six years (Jackson, 2007a). Silke’s analysis of articles published in the leading terrorism studies journals demonstrates that studies on al-Qa’eda and affiliated groups grew significantly after 1995 and now make up a significant proportion of all terrorism studies published in the core journals (Silke, 2004b).

With a few notable exceptions (see Gerges, 2005; Gunning,2007b; Halliday, 2002), the vast majority of this literature can be criticised for

  • its orientalist outlook,
  • its political biases
  • and its descriptive over-generalisations,
  • misconceptions
  • and lack of empirically grounded knowledge (see Jackson, 2007a).

Rooted in an uncritical and simple-minded acceptance of the notion of a ‘new’ kind of ‘religious terrorism’, this literature

  • typically adopts an undifferentiated and highly exaggerated view of the threat posed by ‘Islamism’,
  • traces a causal link between Islamic doctrine and terrorist violence,
  • attributes religious as opposed to political motives to ‘Islamic terrorists’,
  • fails to differentiate between local political struggles and a global anti-Western movement
  • and assumes that the religious motivations of ‘Islamic terrorism’ rule out all possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy
  • – among others.

Shmuel Bar’s (2006) Warrant for Terror is in many ways emblematic of this popular literature. Based on an analysis of a large number of recent fatwas, or the legal opinions of Islamic jurists that deal with the permissibility or prohibition of actions (Bar, 2006, p. x), Bar’s aim is to explore the role fatwas play in ‘Islam-motivated terrorism’ (p. xiii). (more…)

2013/04/26

Terrorism Facts, #2: Motivations and Goals,1980 to 2001 . . .

Filed under: Pape: Dying to Win,Terrorism — Neil Godfrey @ 8:15 am
Robert Pape

Robert Pape

What were terrorists doing before they discovered the USA, UK, Europe, Bali?

These tables are for a particular type of terrorist attack, the suicide bombing, from 1980 to 2001, from Robert Pape’s article, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, 2003 (pp. 343-361). The same tables no doubt appear in his book Dying to Win but I don’t have my copy of that with me. Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.08.45 AM

(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…)

2013/04/23

We Are All Mythicists Now

Filed under: Hurtado: Jesus become God,Larry Hurtado — Tim Widowfield @ 12:40 am
English: Portrait of Milton Friedman

Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all fill-in-the-blank now

You probably recognize the title of this post as a play on the quotation by Milton Friedman, “We are all Keynesians now.” I hadn’t known until recently that Friedman’s (or Nixon’s) quote is itself a play on the earlier “We are all socialists now,” coined by William Vernon Harcourt back in 1887. The phrase has a tasty ironic ring to it, which is why I suppose it reappears every few years with a new predicate nominative.

And I suppose that’s the same reason it occurred to me while reading Larry Hurtado’s recent post “‘Revelatory’ Experiences and Religious Innovation.” Not that Hurtado is a Jesus mythicist, not at all. However, in a sense, everyone acknowledges that some parts of the Jesus “corpus” are mythical. For example, an inerrantist Christian would identify the Jesus as portrayed in the gnostic gospels as mostly mythic or legendary. A liberal Christian might point to examples closer to home in the canonical books of the New Testament.

Where did the myths come from?

The standard model for the development of Christianity posits a human Jesus who ran afoul of the Roman authorities (perhaps accidentally, possibly on purpose) and was crucified. His followers were stunned and the experience somehow caused them to start seeing visions and interpreting scripture in a radically new way.

The way in which this “post-Easter” sequence of events played out remains a bit murky. You can expect to see lots of hand-waving and hear lots of fuzzy talk. But it’s worth serious discussion in the attempt to come up with a plausible story. The first step, I think, toward plausibility is to describe what kinds of processes must have been at work to create new, mythical representations of Jesus. How, for example, did the view of the risen Christ in heaven come to be thought of as true and real — so real and so immediate, that for someone like Paul it essentially eclipsed the human Jesus?

In discussing the question of how Jesus became a “co-recipient of devotion along with God,” Hurtado points to two processes: (1) revelatory experiences and (2) charismatic exegesis. The first has to do with visions of Christ, the second, with interpreting the Bible in new ways.

While I’m more interested in how the mythical, exalted, resurrected Christ emerged, Hurtado is focused on how the model of worship in which God and Jesus are both venerated could have arisen out of Judaism. We recall a similar question from Hurtado: namely, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? In the current blog post he writes:

(more…)

2013/04/22

Orientalism, Us, and Islam

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

2013/04/20

Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 4 — Theologians Re-Enlist the Biblical God

Filed under: Nineham: Use abuse of Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 8:25 pm

Continuing from Part 3 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we noted the impact of modern historical studies on the traditional view of the Bible as the reliable foundation of Christianity. The problem posed by modern (beginning especially in the nineteenth century) historical methods was that they left large portions of the Bible irrelevant. If God revealed himself in historical events that were the foundation of biblical narratives, and if we could not recover what those historical events really were, then we had a problem.

If the best solution was for scholars to read into biblical accounts “traits and motivations derived from contemporary culture”, then one had to conclude “the impossible”, that the Bible’s religious significance derived in large measure not from the Bible itself but from modern minds! Theoretically there could be as many different interpretations as there were interpreters.

If scientific historical methods were to be applied to the Bible (as many scholars were beginning to apply them in particular to the Old Testament), one had to assume that God did not literally intervene in human affairs to change the course of events.

The only message of the Bible that was left for scholars to pass on was that God was “benevolently disposed” towards the human species,

but nothing more substantial than signals of paternal affection and filial trust and obedience can get through [the window between God and the world to the eye of faith]. (p. 74, quoting T. W. Manson).

The third solution

So Bible scholars were able to bypass the challenge of the natural sciences with relative ease and to meet the challenge of modern historical methods by withdrawing to the bare minimum of what was required of their God to maintain any presence at all among the faithful. But that latter retreat left many of the devout unsatisfied. So there was what Dennis Nineham calls a “third movement”: one that showed God was not just a distant image but a dynamic force in world affairs. This was

a movement back to the Bible which shows God actively doing things in the world to guide history and save men, and offers authoritative interpretations of his actions instead of leaving each man to be his own interpreter. This movement sought to give full weight to its observation that in the Bible historical statements and theological interpretation go closely together. The typical biblical statement, it was argued, is logically of the form: ‘Such and such an event occurred, and it constituted a divine intervention in this world by which God’s redemptive work was carried forward in such and such a respect.’ (p. 74, my bolded emphasis)

English: 100th day of birth of Karl Barth (188...

Karl Barth

 

We begin with arguably the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth attracted widespread support around the time of the first world war when he expressed dissatisfaction with the view that Bible scholars were, in Nineham’s words, in

unnecessary bondage . . . to the canons of historical study. And that study itself . . . was in bondage to the prejudice that the course of events is always completely uniform, that nothing ever happens for the first time and that nothing can be allowed as having happened in the past of a kind which is not experienced as happening in the present. (p. 75)

In other words, theologians had fallen into bondage to the godless view that the course of battles or public movements can be explained entirely as having human and natural causes.

But that’s not what the Bible says about historical events. If the message of the Bible were even only “partly true” — that God at least sometimes intervenes to disrupt the normal flow of human affairs — then historians were doing “a disastrous injustice to the biblical text.”

We now follow Dennis Nineham as he leads the discussion into a curious direction, yet one well trodden by theologians. He infers that this secular view of how historians view the world derives from a singular and now outdated philosophical school of thought. This view of history, he suggests, can be traced back to Hegel, that is, to philosophical underpinnings that have long since been left behind. Accordingly, all reasonable scholars should, by rights, be fair and give serious consideration to the view that there is a God who intervenes in historical events.

Blaming Hegel (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

Why Christians and Jews were for so long indistinguishable — even after the flight to Pella

Cover of "Border Lines: The Partition of ...

Cover via Amazon

Warning. Dr Larry Hurtado and others embracing a similar perspective disagree strongly with the views of the scholar to be discussed in this post. I will address some of Hurtado’s criticisms of Dr Daniel Boyarin at a later date. But now you know that what I am covering here is not a consensus view. But it offers ideas that deserve exploring and thinking through, whatever position arrive at in the end.

I am sure I am not alone in having wondered at some time how it can be that Roman authorities, as we are told, could not easily tell Christians apart from Jews in the early days. One group was dominated by those who worshiped Jesus and did not keep the Jewish customs and the other by those who cursed Jesus and did keep the Jewish customs. So when in Acts we read of authorities being prepared to dismiss complaints of either party because they thought the issue was merely over legalistic quibbles, something does not sound quite right — or “coherent”, as a scholar interested in criteria of authenticity might say. Something’s missing from this equation.

The Long Good-Bye

Recently I finished reading Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. He makes the point Christianity and Judaism as we understand them did not really come into their own, that is, separate as truly distinct religions until the fourth century. (He cites scholarly works, of course.) What led to that clear demarcation between the two as opposing religions was the work of the heresiologists on both sides. There arose a situation where it became necessary for Christians who had achieved some political power and status to draw clear boundaries to define who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Jewish authorities were correspondingly obliged to do the same.

I am in the early stages of reading Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Fate must have led me to this book just after reading Tom Holland’s because Boyarin expresses the very same view of the late definitive separation between the two religions. (I don’t really believe in Fate, by the way.) As would be expected given the different themes of the two books, Boyarin goes into more detail than Holland to make his case. He addresses the long-established conservative view that the final break between the two happened after the first Jewish War, or certainly no later than the second in the 130s.

Pella, Jordan 2000

Pella, Jordan 2000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The real meaning of the Pella legend?

One of his interesting points is made in relation to the legend of the early Church fleeing to Pella. That has often been interpreted as the final breach between Christianity and Judaism. The Jerusalem Church fled the city to escape the imminent conquest of the city by the Romans. Eusebius even links this with a heavenly voice heard in the Temple saying “Let us remove hence!” (Quaint translation of “Armaggedon outta here”.) Later Ebion was believed to have arisen from among these Christians and founded the “Ebionites” — Jewish Christians who had truly separated themselves from Judaism.

Boyarin puts a fly in the ointment of the legend that this event might be interpreted as the final rift between Judaism and Christianity. (more…)

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
Tags: ,

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…)

2013/04/15

The Day Theologians Reacted with Great Seriousness — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 3

Filed under: Nineham: Use abuse of Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 7:51 pm
Tags: , ,

Continuing from Part 2 of this series. . . .

In the previous post we followed the way theologians accommodated themselves to the challenges the natural sciences presented the belief in the infallibility of the Bible. They didn’t find it too difficult. After all, the Bible has very little to say about the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth and biological mutations.

A far more serious threat came from the historians:

When doubts began to be case on the historical statements of the Bible, theologians reacted with great seriousness. (p. 67)

Historical statements are central to the Bible. They are not confined to the opening chapters of Genesis.

Many of these [historical statements] were given great prominence in the Bible, and it was felt that they form the heart of the matter inasmuch as it is in and through the events they report that God principally revealed himself and established his redemptive relationship with the world.

Consequently . . . when the historical statements of the Bible came under fire, theologians reacted with great seriousness, and a great deal of attention was concentrated on them. (p. 67)

Historical studies as we understand them are a very modern development. There have been evolutionary changes in the way history has been approached and I will need to follow up this series with further discussions of the influence of postmodernism in New Testament historiography. For now, however, we need to follow Nineham’s concern that we should understand the character of history in the nineteenth century when it first raised challenges to the Bible.

Modern historical studies are generally attributed to Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831) and Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).

Barthold Georg Niebuhr aus: Meyers 6. Auflage

Niebuhr

Nineham does not explain Niebuhr’s contribution but it is important so I include this from Wikipedia:

More than all, perhaps, since his conception of ancient Roman story made laws and manners of more account than shadowy lawgivers, he undesignedly influenced history by popularizing that conception of it which lays stress on institutions, tendencies and social traits to the neglect of individuals.

He does encapsulate Leopold von Ranke’s significance:

Deutsch: Leopold von Ranke

von Ranke

von Ranke’s aim [was] to uncover the past . . . ‘as it actually happened‘, in distinction, that is, from the embroideries and tacit interpretations of it in the later sources. In historiography as he and his like understood it, there was a high premium on the discovery and identification of the earliest sources and the discounting so far as possible even in them of all elements of elaboration and Tendenz. (p. 68)

(That famous von Rankean phrase wie es eigenltich gewesen here translated “as it actually happened” has been very often tendentiously misinterpreted quite contrary to its evident meaning in the way von Ranke used it; we see this so often as Tim has been pointing out in his posts: New Testament scholars all too regularly appear to rely upon what they hear others say about the concepts they address without any understanding of what their originators meant. Happily in this passage Nineham is focusing instead on von Ranke’s contribution of a discriminating approach to the sources.) (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…)

2013/04/12

Saving the Infallibility of the Bible from the Natural Sciences — Use and Abuse of the Bible, Part 2

Filed under: Nineham: Use abuse of Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 8:47 am
Tags: , , ,

Continuing from Part 1 of this series. . . .

The traditional use of the Bible

The central point of the previous post was that the Bible came to be viewed as having a singular message that buttressed a comprehensive an entire world view. That is, one’s larger view of the world was believed to rest on biblical authority.

Nineham gives “an example of how such a feeling arose”:

If the Bible spoke of angels, and these were interpreted in what then seemed the only way possible, as a group of hypostases, or entities, then it could easily seem as if the existence of the chain itself was a part of the biblical revelation, or at any rate an indisputable deduction from it. (p. 62)

The challenges of the natural sciences

As we all know, Copernicus and Galileo were the first to challenge seriously the Biblical view of the place of earth amidst the heavens. In the nineteenth century geology and evolutionary biology struck blows at the Bible’s creation narrative. The church’s reactions we also know well:

[I]t is instructive to notice the extent to which, both in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the immediate and passionate reaction of the Church was to try to defend the statements of the Bible in every sphere. (p. 63)

John Keble, 1792-1866.

John Keble, 1792-1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Keble of the nineteenth century has left a useful trivia quote:

When God made the stones he made the fossils in them. (Presumably in order to test the faith of nineteenth century scientists!)

But the Bishop Wilberforces and Philip Henry Grosses could not win. It became increasingly clear, however slowly in some quarters, that flat denial of what the natural sciences had to come to understand was not going to prevail.

The early chapters of Genesis were at stake. The Bible was supposed to be authored by God and incapable of untruths.

Introducing the “true myth” (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…)

2013/04/09

Use and Abuse of the Bible – Part 1

Filed under: Nineham: Use abuse of Bible — Neil Godfrey @ 8:28 pm
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useabusebibledennisnineham-e1364031520159

Dennis Nineham, The Use and Abuse of the Bible

There are many useful and interesting insights into the way the Bible has come to be (mis)used by scholars and laity alike in Dennis Nineham’s The Use and Abuse of the Bible (1976).

One cameo that attracted my attention (over half way through the book) was what Nineham had to say about the New Testament evidence for Christian origins. Being consistent with his opening arguments Nineham acknowledges that we know nothing of the “history” behind the mythical narrative of the “Christ event” in the Gospels. All we know “historically” is that, whatever the historical or biographical reality of Jesus was, it must have been remarkable enough to spawn new communities imbued with a whole new sense of the divine.

The bottom line of the argument is this:

  • Christians appeared on the historical landscape.
    • And we “know” from the Gospels that the first Christians were transformed from fear and weakness to a people of courage and dynamism as a result of what they proclaimed to be the resurrection.
  • Therefore, God had done “something” (we don’t know what, exactly) most remarkable in the life of Jesus Christ in order to have caused this emergence of Christian communities.

One might think that the hypothesis is thus declared true because faith in God and the Bible permits no other hypothesis. (Nineham writes as a Christian and makes clear that his belief in God is bound up in his belief in “the Christ event”.) That’s not how Nineham explains it, however.

Non-Christian scholars of earliest Christianity today sometimes echo a mundane (cynical?) version of this argument: There can be no better explanation for the origins of Christianity than a failed life of yet another common healer/exorcist, preacher of platitudes and false prophet. (This latter explanation probably requires a greater miracle to make it work than the Christian explanation.)

True, Nineham does make passing mention of “extremists” who have proposed alternative hypotheses, but he dismisses these as quickly as he mentions them because the conventional wisdom does not accept their views. Ironically, in the first chapter of his book, “Cultural Change and Cultural Relativism”, he explains clearly why unconventional hypotheses, in particular those that affect the way we view the Bible, have such a hard time being taken seriously.

Before addressing the details of Nineham’s argument relating to Christian origins I’ll highlight some of his main insights into the ways the Bible has come to be misread and misused, and why, up to his own day.

Traditional use of the Bible

We know the Bible has for centuries been regarded as a sacred book, invested with infallible authority, wrapped in a mysterious quality and virtual sanctity. Its formal title accordingly Holy Bible.

What does this mean, exactly? These are the particular beliefs that have long accompanied readers of the Bible since late antiquity: (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…)

2013/04/03

What is the difference between a quest for the historical Jesus and (just about) any other historical inquiry?

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 10:35 pm
relic

Authentic hand bones of John the Baptist on display in Constantinople.

I have once again suffered the all too familiar pain of reading a quite modern scholarly article by a historical Jesus scholar who appears to be quite confused over how New Testament studies of the historical Jesus compares with other types of historical inquiries. When I say I am pained I mean that in the sense of regret and loss because the scholars is clearly very brilliant and I really do love to read works by biblical scholars that I find rewarding and thought-provoking. And I have read many of these and discussed aspects of their works positively on this blog.

So when I come across a scholar who demonstrates a particular flaw that seems to be institutionalized in the entire field of New Testament studies I do believe it is right and necessary to draw attention to the problem. Not that I presume that anything I say will change the world, but I do believe it is a good thing for anyone to help promote awareness, understanding and questions. I know from personal experience (also very painful) how easy it is to be wrong; for that reason I write for anyone else with a similar willingness to always question their foundational assumptions.

Next week I hope to discuss the problematic article in some more depth. For now I am merely raising the issue. I have drawn another graphic to illustrate the problem. (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…)

2013/03/31

The Evolution of the Resurrection Appearances

Filed under: Resurrection appearances — Neil Godfrey @ 11:02 pm
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Here’s an Easter post. Never let it be said I ignore the season.

I can’t recall where I first was introduced to the fact that the Gospel resurrection scenes show a distinct development of details according to the relative dates of the Gospels. Look at how each one appears to build on or surpass what had been written before.

Take One: Off-stage

Not Jesus' tomb, but a tomb none the less.

Not Jesus’ tomb, but a tomb none the less. (Photo credit: callmetim)

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel, actually has no resurrection scene at all. The women come to the tomb, see a young man in the tomb, then run off in fear. (Bibles that continue the story past verse 8 are incorporating what most scholars acknowledge is a passage that was not original to the Gospel. Someone much later attempted to cobble details from both Matthew and Luke to create what they presumably thought was a more satisfying conclusion.) The young man does tell the women that Jesus can be seen again in Galilee if they go there. And that’s it. There is no actual appearance of a resurrected Jesus in this Gospel.

[5] And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
[6] And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
[7] But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
[8] And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

Take Two: On-stage (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
Tags: , ,

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…)

2013/03/28

The (Apellean) Gospel of Peregrinus

Filed under: Parvus: Letters Ignatius,Roger Parvus — Roger Parvus @ 7:38 pm
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This post continues from The Author of the So-Called Ignatians was an Apellean Christian

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 the letters of Peregrinus there are some passages that concern his gospel. If, as I have proposed, he was an Apellean Christian, we can expect to find here too some rough-edged and clumsy corrections by his proto-Catholic editor/interpolator.

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—0O0—

TO THE PHILADELPHIANS 8:2 – 9:2

8:2. But I exhort you to do nothing in a spirit of faction—instead, in accordance with the teachings of Christ. For I heard some saying, “If I do not find [in] the archives in the gospel I do not believe.” And when I said to them, “It is written,” they responded, “That is what is in question.”

But my archives are Jesus Christ; the inviolable archives are his cross, his death, his resurrection, and the faith which is through him. It is by these that I desire to be justified, with the help of your prayers.

[9:1. The priests are good, but better is the high priest who has been entrusted with the holy of holies; he alone has been entrusted with the secrets of God. He is himself the door of the Father, through which enter in Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and the prophets and the apostles and the church. All these combine in the unity of God.

9:2. Nevertheless]

The gospel has a distinction all its own, namely the appearing of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering and his resurrection.

[For the beloved prophets announced him, but the Gospel is the completion of imperishability. All these things are good, if you believe with love.]

It seems incredible that Christians would not believe in the gospel if it could not be located in the Old Testament, so scholars have proposed radical alterations to the text.

gospel_christ_old_testament_detailThe above passage begins by relating part of an exchange the prisoner had with his Judaizing opponents. There is almost universal agreement that the “archives” in the second sentence refers to the Old Testament. And most scholars are in agreement as to the general sense of the verse: The Judaizers were Christians but insisted that the gospel meet some Old Testament-related requirement of theirs. But beyond that, there has been much debate about the punctuation and precise interpretation of the verse. The biggest problem is that at face value it seems to say that if the Judaizers’ requirement is not met they do not believe in the gospel.

It seems incredible that Christians would not believe in the gospel. So, to avoid such a radical interpretation, a number of alterations have been proposed.

Some have wanted to simply delete the words “in the gospel” as a later gloss. Others, to arrive at the same result by another route, argue that the verse in question contains implied words that are lost in a literal translation. William Schoedel for example, proposes that

“the object (‘it’) should be supplied in the second part of the sentence just as it is in the first. And something like the verb ‘to be’ (or ‘to be found’) can also easily be supplied” (Ignatius of Antioch, pp. 207-8).

Thus Schoedel’s translation is:

“If I do not find (it) in the archives, I do not believe (it to be) in the gospel.”

In this way the Judaizers are made to reject only those parts of the gospel that are not found in the Old Testament. Michael Goulder, for one, considers that solution “implausible” (“Ignatius’ ‘Docetists’” in Vigiliae Christianae, 53, p. 17, n. 4), but to Schoedel it is definitely preferable to accepting at face value the statement that the Judaizing Christians do not believe in the gospel.

He writes: (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…)

2013/03/26

The free-will myth: further evidence that conscious “decisions” are made unconsciously in advance

Filed under: Ethics & human nature — Neil Godfrey @ 5:14 pm

Jerry Coyne has published another post discussing another recent experiment that stacks more evidence against the notion of us freely making conscious choices.

It is based on a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Predicting free choices for abstract intentions.

Jerry raises the obvious social implications for this theses, including one that has particularly interested me for some years now — the foundations of our entire legal system, based as it is on the concept that lawbreakers/anti-social criminals are freely (consciously) responsible for their actions, and the requirement to punish for making decisions that cause harm.

On the other hand, the enforcing of rules with threats of punishments is a fundamental part of all social behaviour in probably all social species. Is it possible, or is it even really ethical, for us to be able to accept that our Jack the Rippers should be treated and cured — as opposed to punished — when caught? I hardly think so.

What will a social species do when or if it is eventually confronted with the evidence that the decisions of its members are somehow determined and concluded before those decisions register in the consciousness?

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…)

2013/03/23

An Unusual Mix of Beliefs in the Letters of Ignatius Peregrinus

Filed under: Ignatius,Parvus: Letters Ignatius,Roger Parvus — Roger Parvus @ 4:53 pm

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This post continues from Writing Ignatius into History (How the Peregrinus thesis solves many problems)

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

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

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II. THE AUTHOR OF THE LETTERS WAS AN APELLEAN CHRISTIAN

In my previous posts I have presented my case for identifying Peregrinus as the real author of the so-called Ignatian letters. That case—if I may say so myself—is a strong one. And going forward, when I speak of the author of those letters it should be understood that I am referring to Peregrinus.

I want now to continue on to the second part of my theory and identify, from other passages in the letters, the branch of Christianity that was his.

To make that identification it is indeed the letters and not TDOP that must be examined, for Lucian simply calls Peregrinus a Christian. If he is aware that there were different types of Christians he doesn’t show it. He does not devote much of his treatise to what Christians believe, and the only Christian beliefs he mentions are ones that would apply to many of the various types:

They still worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. . . The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. (TDOP 11 & 13, Harmon)

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The unique assortment of beliefs expressed in the letters can be closely matched with the known beliefs of one particular Christian church that existed in that same time period.

In contrast to TDOP, the seven letters provide information about their author’s beliefs that is more detailed. And the letters show that he and his confreres subscribed to many beliefs that were not held by proto-Catholic Christians, at least not in the combination that is found in the letters. I think the distinctive combination of those beliefs can reveal to which brand of Christianity Peregrinus adhered. The original letters, assuming I am correct in my identification of Peregrinus as their author, were written sometime between 130 and 150 CE, for based on the information provided by TDOP the arrest of Peregrinus almost certainly fell within that period. I will argue that the unique assortment of beliefs expressed in the letters can in fact be closely matched with the known beliefs of one particular Christian church that existed in that same time period.

In this post I will make a start by looking at some of the peculiar beliefs found in the letter collection. (more…)

2013/03/20

Why did Paul need to write letters?

Filed under: Oral Tradition,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 8:03 am

Another provocative (and thought-provoking) Carr-ism, this one recently posted as a comment on Questioning Paul’s Letters. . . .

But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence.

Why did Paul need to write letters? We already know that oral tradition was enough to answer questions by Christians about whether Jesus had turned the water into wine in Galilee or in Jerusalem, and to answer Christian questions about who exactly the 12 disciples were and to answer Christian questions about what Jesus had preached about divorce.

But strangely, as soon as it comes to answering Christian questions about practice in churches or all the other problems that Paul had to deal with, these oral channels suddenly become unavailable, and Paul has to write letters answering these questions. Those problems could not be dealt with by oral transmission.

And as soon as Christians stop asking questions about practice in churches or other stuff Paul deals with, and start to ask questions about what Jesus had told people to pray and whether or not Jesus had preached about giving tithes, these oral channels open up again, and Paul has no longer a need to write letters. Those problems could be dealt with by oral transmission.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Comment by Steven Carr — 2013/03/20 @ 7:53 am

2013/03/18

How to Think and Write Like an NT Scholar: Part 1

Filed under: Criteriology,Historical methodology — Tim Widowfield @ 1:34 am

This post inaugurates what I hope will be a long-running, informative (albeit tongue-in-cheek) series. In it, we’ll attempt to shine some light on the inner workings of the New Testament scholar’s brain.

There is no reason to doubt . . .

New Testament scholars fall back on stock phrases when they’re pushing a weak argument, presenting poor evidence, or stating an opinion as fact. Ironically, the stock phrases they pull out of the old filing cabinet usually have the opposite effect from what they intended. That is, they draw attention to the problem.

Not in This Stove

He’s not in this stove!

We might call this the Oz Distraction Disorder (ODD), as in: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It could be an act of desperation, or perhaps it’s a subconscious thing. Maybe they want us to figure it out, much as Bugs Bunny purposely drew attention to the bank robbers he’d stashed in the gas stove.

One of the most common ODD phrases is: “There is no reason to doubt . . .” (TINRTD) Whenever you see this phrase, you should be on the lookout — the author is probably about to describe something you ought to doubt. We’re apparently supposed to shut off the skeptical parts of our brains when we hear this magic formula, triggering a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion.

Here are some fine examples.

Lukan parables that “must be” authentic

Klyne Snodgrass, in his book, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, writes:

With Jülicher and most others there is no reason to doubt that these two parables are genuine words of Jesus. (p. 385, emphasis added)

Snodgrass pulls the TINRTD card when considering the authenticity of Luke’s parables of the Tower Builder and the Warrior King. Snodgrass snorts:

(more…)

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