30 December 2007

slight of hindsight: (it's not in the texts, dude)

Posted by at 2:46 AM
I listened to this debate on the historicity of the resurrection between Richard Carrier and Michael Licona a few days ago. At several points in the debate Licona repeatedly refered to the "fact" of James' conversion from "hostile" to "faithful" as evidence in favor of the historicity of the resurrection. The amateur historian in me winces every time I hear this kind of reasoning. I'm surprised that Carrier didn't call attention to Licona's repeated fallacy.

Let's ask the obvious: What conversion?

I think that arguing from a Jacobean conversion is faulty for various reasons.
First of all, where is this conversion mentioned in the New Testament? One can infer a conversion from the apparent disjunction between two extremes— i.e. on the one hand, from Mark's (3:19–35) portrayal of Jesus' family as essentially antagonistic (they thought him mad), and on the other, from the clear authority that was James' in Jerusalem after Jesus' death (Acts)— but I think that it is only because we are conditioned by tradition that we do this, the texts themselves don't warrant such an inference. Our mind recognizes a logical problem which requires a solution, and the easiest way to resolve this seeming contradiction (for us the faithful inheritors) and to fill in this gap is to posit a "conversion".

We can also infer it from 1 Cor 15 if we wish, but the only thing we really get in that list is a defense of James' right to apostleship as safevouched by his "having seen" the resurrected Jesus; no conversion is described. Part of the problem here is that folks tend to project Paul's christological constructs onto James, and this is something which I think is simply unsupported by the texts. It would be fantastic if we had any extant bits of writing from such early Christians as Apollos or Barnabas or Theclas, so to compare the variegation of christologies as they were being conceived, lived and taught by the apostles, but we simply don't have any of these, and I think it is wrong to ascribe pauline views so universally just because his are the only writings that survived. It's easy to think James was a Christian in the Pauline vein only after being indoctrinated into a formal faith system that presumes to call the meeting between the two leaders the "Jerusalem Council" and which the author of Acts wants you to think ended amicably (yet also conceding to Paul's gentile mission, this despite Yacob's bloodline relation to Jeshua). This is the same kind of pious logic that also anachronistically refers to Cephas as the first "pope".

As a last resort, we may appeal to the weight of "tradition" but then, when we realize that the closest thing to an early reference to a Jacobean conversion that we have available to us is from the second century Gospel of the Hebrews (an excerpt preserved by Jerome), this prospect becomes rather dim.

In short, no conversion of James is mentioned anywhere in the New Testament.

Fast forward a couple of days.

Now even the pope is engaging in this kind of faulty inference:

I finally got around to reading a translation of Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi encyclical. I'll limit my comments on it to just pointing out one of these conditioned (but ill-founded) inferences that he used in it.
Specifically, he included the name of Barabbas in a list of "political activists." My point here is not to engage the pope's main argument in this letter, but to highlight an hermeneutic error. I have always thought that Mark's wording of his very brief description of Barabbas was very vague.

hn de o legomenoV barabbaV meta twn stasiastwn dedemenoV oitineV en th stasei fonon pepoihkeisan.
"And one called Barabbas was being held with the insurgents who had comitted murder during the uprising."

The labeling of Barabbas as a murderer or even as a zealot is not as overt or explicit as one is conditioned to think it is and though he is held "with" the insurgents, he is not necessarily one of them.

But that kind of semantic parsing aside, has it ocurred to the pope that the story of the freeing of Barabbas is most likely fictional? First, no such custom of releasing one Jewish prisoner during Passover, as described in the story, ever existed under Pilate's rule. To hear the gospels tell it, Pilate was afraid of the Jews. On the contrary, the record shows that Pilate was notoriously ruthless in his dealings with them, particularly in his crowd-control techniques. Barabbas is obviously a fictional character. His name in fact is a very good clue to the symbolic function that his character serves in the story. Some of the earliest manuscripts of the gospel include his full name: Jesus Barabbas— Jesus, Son of the father. He's part of a "scapegoat" paralell construction in the gospel. This is clearly a Yom Kippur symbol.

But then again, the pope also refers to Ephesians as though it was an authentic Pauline letter, so it's no wonder that another, more nuanced textual anomally should slide right by him and go over his head.

On a final side note:
I used to respect and admire his predecessor very much, even when I disagreed with his pronouncements.
I cannot say the same thing about this new guy. Basing my opinion on his performance so far, I honestly fear that he might cause more harm than good in his tenure as pope.

I'm hopeful nonetheless.



25 December 2007

carol . . .

Posted by at 5:18 AM

"peace on Earth and good will to all men"
sounds like such a lovely idea . . .


24 December 2007

irreverence as art . . .

Posted by at 6:37 PM
"Aki no teto romba (tei chintes)."

The year was 1975. Punk was busy being born and dying at the same time (inevitable, really—oh, the irony!).

Picture this:
A tall slender man walks onstage on yard-high platform boots (this was a mere two years after KISS's first record, mind you), wearing not much more than a silver jockstrap and a wig of copious wavy blond hair. Thick campy makeup. A psychotic Goldielocks wielding an oversized guitar body which in retrospect reminds me of Prince's later auto-erotic showpieces.

The song was "White Punks on Dope," a paen to self-indulgent suburbanite teenage Americans. The band was the Tubes. They specialized in the parodying of extravagance in music way back then, before the lure of fame and riches got to them and they themselves comitted the cardinal sin called "selling out."

They understood the value of "shock".

It happened sometime in the late twentieth century. Post-modernism, inasmuch as it can be blamed, was bound to produce artists whose methods relied on "shock" to achieve an asthetic end. Irreverence as a primary color.

I've been thinking about this lately because my friend Rob and I were surfing YouTube videos and happened upon some old Andy Kaufman footage. This got me thinking about Lenny Bruce before him, and about Howard Stern after him, and about the continuity in that chain. These were men who pushed the limits with their appeals to brutal honesty. Such carefree honesty is traditionally reviled.
People were appalled by Lenny's temerity. They were simultaneously weirded out and indifferent to Andy's experiments in the absurd. Though Howard is seen as a kind of pariah by the communnity at large and is avoided by all who fear what being in the crosshairs of his acerbic scorn might be like, he is one of the most successful and highest-paid entertainers in history and has paved the way for countless comedians who now hone their vulgarity and innuendo skills to razor sharpness. In the many Improvs throughout the land, you can pretty much say whatever you want. This is a relatively new phenomenon.

Shock sells when once it didn't.

If the progression could be graphed, it would look like an exponential curve showing increased tolerance for what used to be unmentionable fare. We went from nearly zero to sky's-the-limit in a matter of a few decades. The world has changed so much that Lenny was pardoned by the state of New York posthumously (in 2003—thirty-seven years after the fact) of his indecency conviction (Governor Patakis at the time cited the state's comittment to the first ammendment as the reason for the pardon). It has changed so much that what seemed scandalous in those post-war years is an almost daily occurence, beckoning our passing attention only in extreme cases, like when Michael Richards, in a moment of uncontrolled rage, lost it and went apeshit on a heckler last year.

It's a post-hiphop, post-post-post-Norman-Rockwell world. I think this is a case of Pandora refusing to go back in the box. I don't watch television anymore (it's been a long time now—over fifteen years), so, for all I know, it's even worse than I imagine out there!

Hmm . . .

Anyway . . . in honor of Lenny Bruce, here's an obscure Randy Newman recording from 1968, when the memory of his martyred soul was still fresh in the minds of those that he inspired. I have a thing for songs that can say as much as possible in as short a time as possible. This one clocks in at less than two minutes.

Laughing Boy (realAudio)

Laughing Boy keep movin'
Keep movin', Keep movin'
Laughing Boy keep movin'
Keep movin', Keep movin'

Find a clown and grind him down
He may just be laughing at you
An unprincipled and uncommitted
Clown can hardly be permitted to
Sit around and laugh at what
The decent people try to do

Laughing Boy keep movin'
Keep movin', Keep movin'
Laughing Boy keep movin'
Keep movin', Keep movin'


23 December 2007

Oh, be the music in my head . . .

Posted by at 4:36 PM

. . . . . . . . . Oh, be my rest.


12 December 2007

On the Centenarian Defense as an Apologetic Strategy...

Posted by at 3:23 PM
I'd like to devote this post to a subtle apologetic technique that I've encountered in recent conversations and blogsurfs. Some Christian apologists seem to be fond of citing patristic writings and then linking these citations to specific New Testament characters. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The warning flags fly, however, whenever one claims that the characters "could have" lived to an extremely old age, old enough to have had contact with said patristic writer. A few examples follow:

centenarian #1: John the Evangelist

We are told that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee (and brother of James) is the same person that composed the fourth gospel. We are told that he lived to be over a hundred years old. This would explain how an actual eyewitness to the life of the historical figure of Jesus could have waited until the turn of the century to write down his account of the events that had transpired seven decades earlier (dating the fourth gospel earlier than say 90–100 C.E. would be problematic for various reasons). His having lived to such a ripe old age would also explain how a peasant fisherman from the Galilee would have found the time to take up and master the Greek language to such high degree that he was able to write in a highly advanced poetic style. It would also explain how he could have found the time to develop the elaborate christology that his gospel is so replete with. We know (with a reasonable degree of certainty, we must admit that the consensus is nearly universal on this) that the Gospel of Mark was the first canonical gospel written, followed by Matthew and Luke, and eventually by that of John. So it's just as well if he lived to be over a hundred.
But . . .

problems with this . . .

While I accept that there existed a certain John "the Elder" who was a highly esteemed presbyter who was remembered as an influential figure in the Christianity at the turn of the century, I am convinced that this is neither the same John who wrote the fourth gospel, neither is it the same John who was one of Jesus' closest companions. I remember the moment I grasped this fact; I was reading chapter 3 of Loisy's "Origins of the New Testament" some years ago.

Adding to the problems raised from equating the three Johns, there is some internal evidence that suggests that John (Bar Zebedee) was martyred alongside his brother James sometime between Paul's writing his Epistle to the Galatians (the 50s) and the author of Mark's writing his gospel (circa 70). — (Galatians speaks of meeting with the "three pillars." Mark (10:30–41) implies that John died along with his brother—if you frown at this suggestion, ask yourself if Mark would have made reference to the death of John along with his brother—verse 39— had John not already suffered martyrdom?)

There is also some external textual evidence (e.g. Papias by way of Eusebius, Philip of Side and George the Sinner) that suggests likewise.

As R. Alan Culpepper points out in his "John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend" (2000, Fortress Press, p 174):

"The cumulative weight of the references just considered has been enough to keep alive the possibility of the early martyrdom of John but not sufficient to override the tradition of his long residence in Ephesus. As the tradition of the Ephesian residence becomes more suspect there has naturally been renewed interest in the testimonies regarding John's early martyrdom. It is not necessarily an either/or choice, however, between the traditions of a long residence in Ephesus or an early martyrdom in Jerusalem. Both may be legendary, and the circumstances of the death of John may simply be unknown, as are the circumstances of the deaths of most of the other apostles."

centenarian #2: Mary

A Catholic apologist recently insisted to me that the extant letter of Ignatius to the "virgin" Mary (and her reply to him, also extant) are quite possibly genuine Ignatian works, arguing that she could have lived to be a centenarian and thus "could have" (there's that magic phrase again!) communicated with Ignatius in this way.

problems with this . . .

First of all, the fact that neither Eusebius nor Jerome makes the least reference to these letters is a pretty good indication that they are spurious articles, written much later (in fact, the oldest manuscript of these letters dates to the 12th century).

That smoking gun aside, I reminded this fellow that, if Mary was about 15 years old when she gave birth to Jesus in approximately 4 B.C.E., and if Ignatius wrote his letters in 110 C.E., then Mary would have had to have lived to the age of at least 129! After pointing this out to my Catholic friend, he merely huffed and puffed and walked away. I haven't heard from him since. I wonder if he still believes those letters are genuine. Personally, I doubt that any of the Ignatian letters are genuine, but that is for another post altogether on another day.

centenarian #3: Jairus' daughter

I came upon a reference to Quadratus (a 2nd century apologist) the other day on a particularly pious blog that I sometimes read. The gist of the post was about Quadratus' testimony (preserved in Eusebius) that some of the people that Jesus had healed or brought back to life during his lifetime were still living at the time of his (Quadratus') writing (circa 125 C.E.). This blogger then went on to enthusiastically suggest that Jairus' daughter was likely who Quadratus was refering to.

problems with this . . .

Jairus asks Jesus in GMark to heal his "little daughter", so I'm guessing she was maybe 7 years old (give or take a year). This episode occurs early on in both the GMk and GLk narratives, so let's say for the sake of argument that it happenned somewhat early in Jesus' career—say the year 27. Therefore, in 125 C.E.—the time of Quadratus' writing—she would have been approximately 105 years old. Add to the probabilities involved in all of this the fact that the name "Jairus" can be translated from the Hebrew to something like "he will be raised", which suggests a mythic origin of the story.
Talitha cum, indeed.

Quadratus uses the plural too ("many of those healed"); I wonder who else was still alive at the time of Quadratus.
Maybe Lazarus?
Maybe the Gerasene demoniac? How old do you suppose HE would have been?. . . o_O

conclusion . . .

While I don't discount that a couple of the earliest Christians probably lived fairly long lives, I see a big red flag whenever I hear the "could have"-been-a-centenarian defense of some apologetic point or another. It all seems like special pleading to me. (If Mary lived to be 129, why has no one mentioned it?)

Anyway, I won't belabor this point further.

It would be nice, however, if apologists dropped the centenarian "could-have-been"s, which only serve to reveal a sense of urgent anxiety in the face of the enormous dearth of evidence regarding the apostolic period.


on relics . . .

Posted by at 8:13 AM

On Saturday, the 23rd of February, of the year 155 C.E., Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, one of the most venerable and outspoken Christian heresy-bashers of that early period, was put to death by the local authorities. The details of his martyrdom, "preserved" by Iraneus, speak of a miracle happenning just then; according to the legend, he was bound and readied for being burned alive at the stake, but when the pile of fuel was ignited, the flames did not consume his body. Seeing that the fire would not take him, a guard was then ordered to pierce him with a lance, whereupon a dove appeared out of the blue and a prodigious amount of blood flowed out of him, extiguishing the fire beneath him. After his death, the fire was relit and his body was cremated and his reliquiae (remains) were collected by his devoted followers, who conducted a burial ceremony so that they could annually celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom at his grave.

As a result of numerous similar incidents, the remains of the bodies of saints (or portions of them) came to be venerated as avenues of miraculous benefits and divine grace. In time, any object associated with a key figure in Christendom was jealously guarded as a wonder-working relic.

Veneration for relics, and the consequent search for the oldest of them, took on frenzied proportions during the medieval period. Skulls, teeth, rings and personal articles were especially sought after. Inevitably, the whole of Christendom became obsessed with relics linked to the New Testament account of Jesus' own life.

The chalice that Jesus supposedly drank from at the Last Supper thus became the Holy Grail. So much wood from the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified was collected, in fact, that an entire ark, capable of carrying two of every animal on earth, could probably be built from it (with enough left over to burn yet another martyr perhaps).

Most scholars doubt that any such handed-down relic is genuine, yet thousands of them are still displayed to this day—the most famous example being the Shroud of Turin—for the "edification of the pious."

Fast forward to our modern day . . .

The above photograph shows a lock of John Lennon's hair that was sold for approximately $48,000 today.

I can't help but be mildly amused at the veneration that people extend to celebrities. There is a queer irony here. In 1966, John Lennon caused a furor with his passing comment that the Beatles had become "more popular than Jesus." In the wake of this comment came numerous condemnations, criticisms, and even mass record-burnings. How dare he say such a thing?

Yet, here we are, forty years later, placing undue value on such things as a lock of the man's hair. I doubt that anyone will be praying over it (at least I hope not), or even hoping for some kind of vicarious benefit from it. Still, the adulation that things like this receive boggles the mind.


10 December 2007

barefoot servants too . . . (another polaroid)

Posted by at 6:06 PM

When I was seventeen years old I lived in the Bronx. The stomping grounds went from the upper 190s north along the Grand Concourse (starting from around Poe Park) and then hang a right at Bedford Park Boulevard, all the way to the Botanical Gardens. The gully between Decatur and Marion Aves. was one of the regular hangs.

I was recently contacted via email by one of the people I knew back then. We used to call him Pinhead, not in any pejorative way, it was just a name he had acquired in grade school, long before we had met him—something about a haircut gone awry.

He was a good kid; always a smile and a kind word to even the stranger.

I haven't seen this guy for probably twenty years. In his email, he asked me what I have been up to in recent years. I made the mistake of mentioning my decade-long interest in all manner of scholarship regarding the birth of Christianity, describing myself as an atheist Jesus freak in that first exchange. I didn't intend to stir up a hornet's nest; it was just a brief mention of one of my interests.

Shortly after that, he showered me with email after email after email (thirty of them in total) of citations (he is particularly fond of Jerome and the canonical Epistle to Titus). I wasn't expecting this barrage of questions or biblical citations. It struck me as a little odd, but I figured it would only be fair to at least try to respond. I addressed a few of the points he made in his first emailing spree and managed to send it off.

His messages were full of really bad apologetics.
It's hard to refute really bad apologetics, not because it contains any compelling argument, but because its proponents are not really interested in listening to counter-arguments. The art of apologetic is really the art of preaching to the choir (read an insightful essay on this phenomenon here by Robert J. Miller). It is a way to persuade adherents to a faith system that that system is not only acceptable theologically, but is also rationally and logically plausible. I think that people, once sold, are sold, period; it is almost impossible to deconvert the pious (which is why I admire people who manage to break free of the chains of dogmatism so much) and would rather defend their religion than listen to another's pitch.

Anyway, I quickly realized that Pinhead, my long-lost friend in adolescence, has become a pious Jehova's Witness convert. And it was obvious that he didn't appove of some of the things I might write about from time to time in this blog.

I was willing to play along and answer some of the questions he raised, most of them are quite easy to tackle. I even saw it as an interesting way to focus my thoughts on these topics through the lens of my own critical mind. After absorbing both the liberal and the conservative literature of the last century, I think I have a pretty good idea of where current scholarly consensus lies in any given controversial question regarding early Christian history.

I won't go too deeply into the bad apologetics he showered me with; one example should suffice:

He insisted that the Gospel of Matthew was completed by the year 41, before the Gospel of Mark, in "Palestine" (whether he means Judea or Samaria is unclear, but this kind of anachronistic shape-shifting is used in all of the apologetic material).

I tried to point out a couple of things which make such an early dating of Matthew improbable from a historical viewpoint. Some of the things I touched on were:

  • The obvious reference to the destruction of the temple
  • The almost universal scholarly consensus that Mark must have preceded both Matthew and Luke by at least a decade
  • The fact that some of the redaction from one gospel to the other makes no sense at all if the direction of redaction is from Matt to Mk (especially in light of the fact that some of these redactions would even be anathema to the nascent Ekklesia — I'm thinking Mk 3:19 here)
  • etc
So, I gently tried to show him that the apologetic stuff he was citing was mostly written by theologians and not by historians, which is okay, but any claim that Matthew was written in 41 is just simply historically unsupported and is just a pious desire for the text to be earlier than the evidence supports. I have no such need and so it doesn't bother me at all that Mark seems to have come first.

Anyway, like I said, I was willing to play along and go point by point. But one of the email subject lines caught my eye: "Expletives."

I skipped over the long list of emails and opened that particular one. It was a request that I refrain from using "expletives" in my responses. I guess that in my long expositions I must have thrown in a Bronxism or two. Lord knows I'm no vulgarian, but I'm not a prude either. Prudes are a red flag to me.

It kind of shocked me. It set me to meditating on the meaning of all this for some few moments.

This changed everything. It became obvious to me that Pinhead was acting in the role of missionary here.

I decided then to remind him where we both came from. I proceeded to remind him of who we had both been during those days when we hung out together on the streets of the Bronx. We did things together that would be considered scandalous in those days, even profane things, like rolling joints with paper from a Bible (the thinness of the paper is perfect for the task—those were the days). I'm not boasting here. I realize we were just stupid kids. My point is that people should not put on "holier-than-thou" airs, is all.

We had grown up in the Bronx, for God's sake! And now he was asking me to please not use the word "shit."

The nerve!

I'm not really sure what he expected me to respond with to his manic fanaticism—in hindsight, I realize that only a conversion would have satisfied him—but what he got from me instead was a scolding. What had been a pair of expletives slipped in for frivolous effect in my previous note were now intentional less-than-polite exhortations to mind the logs in his own eye.

"Let me get this straight:

You want me to adopt the religion that you espouse because you feel that it is somehow superior to the one I already may or may not have . . .

does that sound about right?

. . . hmmm . . . I see . . .""

What makes it all sad, is that he really is a sweet guy, generous and genuinely caring. Too bad he can't keep his preaching to himself. I wouldn't take that from my own mother, much less from one of my adolescence buddies.

Sorry, man. I love you, but the last thing I need in my life right now is a fanatical Jehova's Witness droid up my ass, dude. If you can't see beyond your religious pretensions to reach out and talk to ME (not some potential convert), there's just no point to it.




Posted by at 1:09 AM
I that saw where ye trod
     The dim paths of the night,
Set the shadow called God
     In your sky to give light;
But the morning of manhood is risen, and the
     shadowless soul is in sight.

The tree many-rooted
     That swells to the sky,
With frondage red-fruited
     The life-tree am I;
In the buds of your lives is the sap of my leaves; ye
     shall live and not die.

But the Gods of your fashion
     That take and that give,
In their pity and passion
     That scourge and forgive,
They are worms that are bred in the bark that falls off;
     they shall die and not live.

—Algernon Charles Swinburne


05 December 2007

weedeater . . .

Posted by at 8:51 PM

Sifting through a stack of CDs, I came across a promotional compilation of music from Louisiana ( Music: The Language of Louisiana — vol.1 ). One of the artists represented in this collection is a band with the name of Weedeater. I googled the name and found nothing more from these folks (there IS a newer heavy metal group with the same name now, but it's obviously not the same people). The seeming disjoint between the sound and the look of this group inspired me to blog about this. This little blurb is all I know about these fascinating musicians. Clink on the link below the foto to hear why (in realAudio) I find it so fascinating.

That's the liner note blurb. Below is their tune from the anthology.
Whoever these people are. Wherever they are. I love them for their originality and temerity.

Travel well, friend.
Godspeed to you.

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