25 March 2008

the end of the religious right?

Posted by at 9:18 PM

The Commonwealth Club of California
San Francisco, CA
Mar 13th, 2008

E.J. Dionne discusses Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

One of our most prolific thinkers, E. J. Dionne argues that the advantage of the religious right is over. He says mainstream America has taken up the causes of social justice, peace and the environment.

Though he expects evangelical Christians to continue to thrive, they are beginning to focus on these issues as well, rather than abortion and gay marriage

24 March 2008

a moment e.e. . . .

Posted by at 2:50 PM


is the






22 March 2008

Easter doubt

Posted by at 9:34 PM
Skepticism is a stimulant, not to be repressed. It is an antidote to smugness and the great glow of satisfaction one gains from being right. You know the self-righteous — I’ve been one myself — the little extra topspin they put on the truth, their ostentatious modesty, the pleasure they take in being beautifully modulated and cool and correct when others are falling apart. Jesus was rougher on those people than He was on the adulterers and prostitutes.

So I will sit in the doubter’s chair for a while and see what is to be learned back there.

from a piece by Garrison Keillor in the Chicago Tribune

(hat-tip to Shuck and Jive)


Que descanse en paz (1918-2008)

Posted by at 11:42 AM
"Music can always make you feel better about things. Classical music, of course, makes one feel very relaxed at a stressful time. Upbeat music is pure happiness, and you want to have a good time. Music is like therapy, and in fact it is beneficial for all parts of the body;I've heard they play music during operations. Hopefully I won't have to have an operation, but if it's serious, I'll want to have music."

Israel "Cachao" Lopez, one of the giants of Cuban music, has died today in Miami.



20 March 2008

rest in peace

Posted by at 11:27 PM

In commemoration of the passing of this great writer, I'd like to share this interview with him regarding God, Science and Delusion.

As I imagine him flying through the æther of eternity now, I can't help but recall the famous line from his landmark work:

"My God, it's full of stars!"


19 March 2008

Ancient NearEast treehuggers?

Posted by at 1:43 PM
When Abraham wanted a a family burial plot, he purchased the field of Ephron. The account in Genesis contains an interesting stipulation that was explicit in the transaction (23:17): Not only did he get the field and the cave, but also, "all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders that were round about, were made sure." This odd preciseness is not just a reflection of fastitdiousness or of shrewdness or business savvy on Abraham's part. This reflects the high value that was placed on trees in the region.

Reinforcing this observation is the study of the Hittite code recovered from the ancient city of Bogazköy (now in modern Turkey). According to the code, trees were so valuable in the ancient Near East that it was standard Hittite practice to enumerate each individual tree that was found on a property on the records of real estate transactions.

Such ancient careful attention to conservation is fascinating.
"Tree hugging" is not just hippy reactionism, it would seem.

16 March 2008

preaching to the choir is easy

Posted by at 12:37 PM
The following is a comment I tried to post on Ben Witherington's blog. I was responding to a fellow commenter who had brought up the points that I touch on.

Witherington declined to publish it, saying it was just a diatribe (an abusive denunciation). Here it is. I 'll let the reader be the judge of how abusive I was. I publish it here now in the interest of full disclosure and to show just how insular these apologist types really are. Shame on him for calling me abusive.


This comment goes out to derek (speaker for the dead)in particular, but if you think that his "assesment" is "fair", then this is for you as well.

You are correct in insisting that Paul's intent was probably not to tell the whole story in his epistles. They are letters to specific communities dealing with specific organizational and doctrinal issues, and as such, we should not expect that he "pass on the whole story" in every letter. This however has no bearing on this argument, for the simple reason that no one (not Doherty, not Carrier, not Wells, not Baur, not Bultmann, not Allegard, not Price, nor anyone else.) has made the argument that Paul must do this in order to support J's historicity. What you are doing, D, here is setting up what is known in the study of rhetoric as a "straw man". (For another germane example of a strawman, read the last paragraph of this comment). But in fact, this is not the kind of corroboration that is needed.
The total pauline silence regarding J's biographical information (or, more importanly-and I see you agree with me on this already-his teaching!) is so important here because, had Paul been familiar with the story of J's life and teachings as outlined in the gospels, he would have reflected some modicum of knowledge of this outline. But, in fact, in some cases, a gospel detail is contradicted by what Paul writes.

An example by way of a serious question:
If, as Rom 1:4, Phil 2:6-11, Acts 2:36, and Acts 3:26 preserve, Christians once (very early on) believed that J had become Messiah as of his resurrection, then all passages that have him claiming messiahship must be judged spurious. One is of course free to harmonize these, but I've yet to see a convincing harmonization on this, one that does not seem contrived, ad hoc, or blatantly apologetic. Such harmonization seems like an escape-hatch approach that solves the problem by convincing itself that no problem exists.


Additionally, had Paul known the gospel story and accepted it as accurate, he would have had no need to expound on some of the things that he so floridly expounds on in his letters, things that are attested to in the gospel story and which therefore should have been presumably settled by J himself.

An example of this, by way of a serious question (and again, there are several):
Why would Paul have needed to update J's ruling on marriage and divorce? (an "update", incidentally, which is really a conceding to the "hardness of heart" that J explicitly attributes to an "old school" of thought-this "update" by Paul is really a regression, a repealment)
"J said it, I believe it!" doesn't seem to be the viewpoint of Christians who you and Dr.W here seem to think already knew the story and therefore needed no refresher from Paul. You can harmonize these if you want, but I've yet to see a compelling harmonization (or even a dispassionate one).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

From this point on I can't quote my comment verbatim because I didn't save the final last couple of paragraphs (I didn't anticipate that W wouldn't publish it—this surprised and disappoint me . . .

So the rest is paraphrased as best as I can remember:

I made some comments about the nature of study-about how study is honest inquiry and not sycophantic acceptance of doctrinal teachings (there will be a quiz on Wednesday and all that jazz). The latter is "training", not "study." One must honestly explore where the trail of evidence leads. Otherwise, though it may be theology, it most certainly does NOT fall under the discipline of "history."

I understand why so many orthodox believers are so alarmed by the implications of the mythicist hypotheses, and I realize that suspending belief is just as difficult as suspending disbelief, and that it sounds abrasive and caustic to the pious, and that it is highly unlikely that this volley will change anyone's mind on these matters.
But, though it might seem like it to someone who is sensitive and defensive in their faith, the mythicist position is not an attack of any kind, but instead it is a realization that the story is even weirder than we had imagined.

Like many of the commenters on W's blog, I find things like Acharya S, and Frieke-Gandy's book, Dan Brown's outright fiction, and the truly horrible Zeitgeist film to be utter crap. But, I honestly feel that the lumping of Doherty (and other more legitimate scholars like Price and Carrier) into the same sloppy-research camp is just misinformed at best and disingenuous and malicious at worst. All it would take on the part of anyone interested in this is to compare Zeitgeist's documented sources with Doherty's bibliography.

In the last paragraph I made reference to a chatter named Pearse who was trying to build a strawman out of an obscure work of Tertullian's.

I assure you it never veered from courtesy (albeit disagreeing) in my comment, so any decision to not publish it was based on something other than belligerence or vulgarity or ad hominems.

Witherington either finds my comment dangerous (which is just silly) and thinks it is worth censoring OR he thinks I am in error about something (in which case, I am not above correction, sir) OR otherwise merely disagreeing is enough to block someone's honest response to an open forum.

Is this what Jesus would do?

I'll not mention him again . . . but the above is a perfect final example of why I think Ben Witherington III is an irrelevant scholar. He's not just transparently apologetic, he is also dishonest.



el malecón

Posted by at 12:30 PM

My friend Brez painted this (60" X 48") and I'm storing it for him on my wall.


12 March 2008

wutherin' depths . . .

Posted by at 1:36 AM
Recently the name of Ben Witherington came up in a dialogue between bloggers. One blogger was pointing out a consensus position on the provenance of Hebrews, and another brought up a Witherington work as a counter-weight, suggesting that consensus views should not be taken too seriously, because of the tit-for-tat, spy vs spy spectrum of NT scholarship. I think that this "equal time" approach to consensus is flawed and at that point I stepped in and suggested that, if Witherington is irrelevant, it is not because he is a "conservative", but because his approach is transparently apologetic and subjective in nature, sometimes even stubborn in its unwillingness to consider anything outside a pre-defined orthodox reading of the materials. Witherington might be a fine exegete in his own right, and if his pious and insightful (I'm told) commentaries help to reinforce people's faith, then, by golly, more power to him, but his transparently apologetic tendencies make him a very bad choice for any kind of objective debate on anything that veers from his faith.

Since then, I came across this post in Witherington's blog, where he tries to deconstruct the mythicist arguments as put forth in Earl Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle. In this post, he lists what he considers Doherty's basic tenets and takes issue with each in a methodological fashion. He does his best to demonstrate the ahistoricity (even "anti-historicity" as he calls it) of each point. This post of his had me shaking my head in several places, and since Michael Halcomb posted some comments with a link to a Witherington/Levine discussion (synchronicity? :), I thought this would be the perfect time to write a post about why Witherington bugs me so much. It would take a very huge post to touch on everything that bugs me . . . :P . . . . . I'll try to be selective in this critique and keep it short and sweet.

Before I proceed, let me say that what I object to the most about this kind of apologetical browbeating is illustrated in the comments section of his post. Young people seeking pious affirmations for their faith just take people like W at his word and obviously have no idea of how contentious some of the things he offers up as historical givens in fact are. This is how misinformation spreads. An "authority" speaks, and the loyal disciples disseminate.
That's the irony in of all this—it's misinformation complaining about misinformation.

I am neither a historian (my academic training was in engineering) nor a full-fledged mythicist, but my point here is not so much to defend mythicism but only to point out the feeble (though vociferous) apologetic argumentation on W's part.

Anyway . . . let's begin:


Here, let me begin by counting a point in Witherington's favor. When I, like him, first read the title of this section used by Doherty, my reaction was to think it was a tad antagonistic. To phrase it like that is to set up a combative accusatory barrier (conspiracies are serious business, no?), and I think that this is an unfortunate mistake on the part of Doherty. It is not helpful, especially because his book is not really a polemic. Witherington points to problems he has with the silence argument:

1) First of all the earliest NT documents chronologically are Paul's letters (written between A.D 49-64 or so) in these letters not only do we hear about Jesus as a historical figure but also Peter, James, John, and a host of others who were eyewitnesses of Jesus' existence, not to mention that there are references that he performed miracles, taught various things and died on the cross.
Yes . . .
we generally accept that Paul's letters are the earliest documents chronologically.
I would however place them in the slightly narrower window of between 51-64, but I suspect this has to do with whether one accepts Galatians or 1 Thessalonians as the earliest Pauline account. It makes no big difference for the argument at hand, though, and only I mention this to point out that sometimes what Witherington states as a foregone conclusion—a given— (his Christian-initiate readers may miss this in their eagerness to accept Witherington's faith reinforcing professions as authoritative) is not as "given" in historical scholarship as he would have us believe them to be. I'll call this kind of misleading presentation the everybody-knows-that clause, and I'll try to point out places in his post where I think he is flagrantly engaging in this kind of thing. In this first case, this slightly contentious point has no relevance to the argument at hand and so I colored it amber (the doozies I'll make red).

Let's continue;
Yes, the letters of Paul are generally recognized as the earliest record of Christianity, a historical glimpse into Christian teachings that are the closest to the time period in which Jesus is supposed to have lived. Doherty says that Paul does not corroborate any of the narrative details about Jesus' life as described in any of the gospels. I agree with him. I think that seeing such details in Paul is the sort of 20/20 foresight thing I've described before on this blog. Namely, we read the letters of Paul from a perspective of having heard the full story four times already before Paul is even mentioned in the canon. The fact that the earlier texts follow the later ones in their ordering lends to this confused misperception. It's easy to envisage a historical figure behind Paul's elaborate theological constructs (he surely wasn't the only inventor, but the Pauline school is all that survived) only after accepting the biographical narrative as normative first.
But try this little thought experiment: Forget everything you know about the biographical narrative in the gospels (mischievous grin :) and then read Paul without interpolating any gospel material into it. What you'll find is that the only narrative elements which the Pauline letters and the gospels have in common are the death, the burial, and the resurrection of a guy named Jesus. But it's really only these three details where the overlapping stops. There is no mention of anything biographical prior to these. No quotations from his parables or teachings—not even when they would back up his point! (more on this later in the critique) . If Paul was aware of the basic outline of the story of Jesus' life as later set down in the gospels, he shows no interest in passing down the story to the communities in Corinth or elsewhere.

As a side note: My introduction to the mythicist position was actually the work of a Scandinavian gentleman, Alvar Ellegård, not Doherty, but I think both are right in pointing out that when Paul speaks of Jesus, it is of a Christ-Jesus, something which bears many of the tell-tale markings of a legendary figure who has somehow become historicized and divinized.

Other than the mention of his death, all we have left in Paul is . . . . silence.

Paul does mention a Cephas and a few others who seem to serve some kind of apostolic function in Judea and Syria, but he never makes mention of them as "disciples" of Jesus, and when he mentions "the twelve" (if that is not an interpolation, which I think it might be), he does so apart from these other apostles, explicitly.

Again, bracket what the gospels say about Peter and John and James et. al. . . .

If all that had survived to our day had been the Pauline corpus—if the gospels had not been composed during and after the war—we would have almost no historical information at all on either Jesus or any of those others that Witherington presents as Pauline reference to J's humanity. This is a crucial point that should not be glossed over, and I stress it here because it means that we cannot retroactively interject ideas from the gospels and Acts into Paul's letters without calling into question our reason for doing so.
If we are honest, we see that any such ideas almost completely absent in the letters.

THIS is the silence the mythicists are talking about. It may not be a "conspiracy" but it sure is deafening in spots.

Witherington continues:
2) In the book of Acts written in the second half of the first century we have numerous summaries of the life of Jesus, not to mention clear references to Mary* and the brothers of Jesus as well. Paul also mentions these clearly enough in 1 Corinthians. In short, there is no silence about these figures in our earliest NT documents.

FLAG! — and . . . FLAG!

I'll take those two flags in reverse:
The second flag first: Paul never once mentions Mary in any of his letters.
Ever. And of "brothers" only one is arguable.

The first red flag:
Stating this like this— "written in the second half"— could give the unsuspecting reader the idea that Acts was written somewhere between 50–100. The phrasing here reveals Witherington's tendency to pad the language in favor of "early" dating for canonical works.
First, I think it is fairly easy to demonstrate that even the stodgiest of orthodox scholars place Acts no earlier than about 64–66. But more than that, I wonder if Witherington is aware of the mounting analyses (John Knox, Joe Tyson, Richard I Purvo, David Trobisch and Mikeal Parsons to mention just a few) which posit a later dating of Acts, sometimes even as late as the mid-second century. This red flag is not to argue that case though, but to only to call attention to an everybody-knows-that foul on Witherington's part. The dating of Acts is far from settled. No amount of the kind of scholarly posturing that Witherington engages in will make it "seem" settled.
3) Furthermore, John the Baptist and Jesus are both mentioned not only in the gospels and Acts, but also in Josephus' Antiquities, written in the latter decades of the first century.
Witherington knows that the Antiquities were published around 93, so he acknowledges the fact that it was composed "in the last decades" of the century (f
or this reason—semi-honesty— the flag is not straight-up red), but this is still an instance of padding the language in favor of an early dating of works favorable to one's viewpoint.

Flag aside . . .
I think that everyone who is at least cursorily familiar with historical Jesus studies is aware of the contentious debate regarding how much, if any, of the Testimonium Flavium is authentically Josephan. To go into it here would be unnecessarily silly.
Even if authentic, though, it is hardly a contemporaneous mention of J. To present it as evidence of his historicity is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

Moreover, as Paul doesn't mention John the baptizer at all, and as Mark's gospel is the very first mention of a connection between these two prophets, it seems plausible (at least defensible) to me that a known historical figure could have been coopted by the authors of the NT to lend credence to an evolving story of a god-man that was desperately in need of such biographical milestones to lend credence to faith, just as they coopted other aspects of Jewish prophetic lore in the process—other examples of this technique in the NT would include Quirinius, Pilate, and Gamaliel.
4) To this we may add the testimony of Tacitus who refers not only to Jesus but to his execution under Pilate.
First, calling the Tacitus quote "testimony" is a little laughable, considering that Tacitus was a Pagan. This again reflects W's tendency to pad his language to favor an "orthodox" worldview.

Second, the Tacitus reference dates to the latter part of Tacitus' life (106–116 C.E), which, again, disqualifies it as a contemporaneous account.

Beyond that, some people have suggested that this passage could be a later addition by Christian scribes.
After all, no early Christian writers refer to Tacitus even when discussing the subject of Nero and Christian persecution, although this is an argument from silence.
Still, Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo make no reference to Tacitus when discussing Christian persecution by Nero. It's a fact.
Can we gloss this over?
Once again, I object to Witherington's grandstanding as though the issue was somehow decided in his favor by some imagined consensus. Again, the unsuspecting reader might miscalculate his posturing certitude as authoritative.
But before I give off the impression that I am arguing against Tacitean authenticity here, let me stress that this is not my point here, but only to demonstrate how, by using a condescending castigating tone and an inflated sense of surety, Witherington conceals the contentious nature of some these issues (some of them burning for centuries now).

But, even if the passage is authentic, Tacitus is obviously only repeating what he has heard some of the Christians saying about Jesus. To infer that Tacitus is vouching for the historicity of this Christus (if he had known of Jesus as a historical figure, he surely would have realized that "Christ" was not a name but a title given to him by his later followers) is a huge logical stretch—see piece 4 below.

W closes his "conspiracy of silence argument" with an air of haughty authority:
In short, there is no conspiracy of silence about such matters, but rather plenty of evidence.
To this should be added the fact that the canonical gospels, which are already known and cited by church fathers in the second century, were all extant in the first century A.D. and are written either by an eyewitness ( the fourth gospel) or by those who had contact with the eyewitnesses (Mark, Luke, and someone who knew Matthew). This is perfectly clear from the testimony of Papias at the end of the first century A.D. (see Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses).

In short, Mr. Doherty has completely failed to do his historical homework on these matters.

Let's take care of the amber flag first again:
He's taking for granted here precisely that which he purports to prove, i.e. that the gospels were complete and in circulation in the first century.

Beyond this . . .

I have read Bauckham's book. I found it underwhelming in its argumentation and transparent in its apologetic function. Like all apologetic works, it will only be persuasive to those who already accept the premises it portends to "prove."
While Bauckham has tried in this ambitious work to raise a theological proposition to the level of a historical one (see the last red flag above) I'm amused by Witherington's championing of him as some kind of final say.
When Witherington says, "there is no conspiracy of silence about such matters, but rather plenty of evidence" this may or not be true, but Witherington provides no compelling counter-argument to Doherty's.
Does "doing one's historical homework" consist of accepting Backham's flimsy theses?
I'm afraid that posturing and "sounding" authoritative doesn't really do much by way of argumentation, but instead make Witherington look rather silly and partisan. There's even seems to be a certain desperation to it.


Witherington refutes the notion that Jesus probably should have been mentioned by any of a few quasi-contemporaneous historians thus:
I have already responded to these mistaken notions above, to which can be added Tacitus was not writing the annals in 115 A.D. and shows no evidence whatsoever of having close contact with any Christian community. (
ed. - Isn't the fact that he's mentioning them now evidence that he has in fact had some contact? This is a silly claim on several different levels. :D )As for Josephus those scholars who are experts in the 'Antiquities' are quite clear (ahh . . . I see . . . those who just happen to reinforce his assertion are the experts—the others are not experts at all! . . . they are all obviously hostile to THE truth . . . . I see . . .) -- the references to Jesus in this work cannot simply be written off as later Christian insertions, even in Testimonium Flavianum, where there were some later Christian additions. Doherty's claim that it is 'universally' recognized is simply a canard, which shows he hasn't bothered to even read the scholarship and text criticism on Josephus' work. Far from the Josephus' references being inconclusive, this evidence is decisive. ( OK, Ben, as long as YOU say so ;) Considering that Jesus never wandered from the immediately [sic] vicinity of the Holy Land it is no surprise at all in an age before the internet that he is not widely attested in the first century. Indeed, the surprise is that he is attested both by a Jewish and a Roman historian who had no axes to grind in the matter.

Well, except that he's not attested to the degree Witherington implies. To say that he is is simply to overstate a very tenuous case. Doherty is perfectly justified in calling the Testimonium Flavianum "inconclusive" in light of the historical controversy surrounding its veracity. To express such shock at this suggestion seems like so much grandstanding to me.

Witherington's passing comment regarding the date of the Annals escapes me. If by it he means that the Jesus reference was written while he was working on his Historiae (circa 106), that doesn't change the fact that it is too late to qualify as a contemporaneous reference.
Other than that, I'd like to add here that, while it doesn't surprise me that none of Jesus' contemporaries mentions him, it does, however, bother me that none of the contemporaries mentions a slaughter of innocents . . . or a night of the living-righteous-undead (

Silence does speak sometimes— if we listen carefully.

In this section, Witherington objects to Doherty's argument that Paul speaks of Jesus in mythical themes that have no grounding in any historical or biographical information:
This must be seen for what it is-- a bald faced assertion which completely ignores the evidence. Gal. 4 in Paul's earliest letter written in A.D. 49 or so we hear these words " but when the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law to redeem those under the Law." In one of his latest letters we hear: "for there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all."
Is he seriously suggesting that "born of woman" is a biographical reference? With all due respect, this is a laughable notion. The rest of that last quote is obviously just a theological rumination. The fact that Paul here calls Jesus a man says nothing about J's historicity. (Heracles was a man too, no?—just a thought)
In short, Doherty seems to be channeling the misinformation of the later Gnostic gospels, not the earlier and far more historically grounded canonical ones. Not only does he badly misread Paul, he equally misreads the canonical gospels on these very matters. It is precisely these sorts of remarks which show such ignorance of the earliest Christian sources which lead NT scholars of Christian faith, Jewish faith, and NO faith to completely ignore the pure polemics of Doherty--- he is no historian and he is not even conversant with the historical discussions of the very matters he wants to pontificate on.
Needless to say, I disagree with the notion that Doherty's is some wildly radical misreading of Paul. But more importantly, I fail to see why Witherington would suddenly leap into invective language right here, calling Doherty "pure polemic" out of the blue, without leading up to that ad hominem conclusion with any kind of argument whatever.
Am I the only person who finds this a little weird?
Unless, of course, by "polemic" he means that it doesn't accept a traditional orthodox viewpoint.


Regarding Doherty's credentials as a historian:
I think that Witherington's implication that one needs an advanced degree in history to study these matters is essentially elitist grandstanding.
It's ugly.
Two thoughts for him on this.
  1. "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." —some folk singer
  2. If it's a doctorate you need to take an mythicist argument seriously, then don't worry, just wait a few months until Richard Carrier completes his PhD review (in history, no less :). Judging by what I've read and heard so far from this young man, I have a feeling that whatever book he produces on this particular subject will probably be groundbraking. At the very least it will render fideist (at heart) rants like Witherington's obsolete and completely ineffectual.
And, moreover, since my understanding of the definition of the word "pontification" involves speaking in a pompous or dogmatic manner, and since I do not find Doherty engaging in this sort of browbeating rhetoric, and since I can instead find Witherington engaging in it repeatedly throughout his post, fitting the definition of pontification to a "T", in fact, I'm left with the impression that Witherington is quite probably psychologically projecting his own sins on Doherty here.


Here, Witherington counters Doherty's claim that Paul understood the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection to have happened in some "spiritual realm":
Here again this sort of assertion betrays a complete lack of understanding of Paul's writings, and indeed of early Jewish demonology. In early Judaism demons and evil spirits are involved in the human sphere and in the human realm, as well as in the heavenlies. It is not an either or matter. Paul certainly does not suggest Jesus was crucified and rose in the spiritual realm. To the contrary, Paul recites the early Christian creed in 1 Cor. 15.1-5 that Jesus died and was buried like any other mortal, and then was seen alive on earth after his death. Since Tacitus as well stresses Jesus died a mundane death at the hands of Pilate, on the basis of his knowledge of the Roman records, it is quite impossible to dismiss such evidence, or project it it into a merely spiritual realm. Furthermore, the book of Hebrews is perfectly clear that Jesus suffered and died in Jerusalem, not in some spiritual realm ( see E.G. Heb. 13, or Heb. 7-11). It does refer to Jesus going to heaven after his death and ascension into heaven. But his death is said to be a sacrifice on earth, like that of a passover sacrifice. Once again. Doherty has totally failed to interact with any of the experts on either Paul or Hebrews, and chooses to make up his interpretations as he feels led
Okay, one at a time.

First amber flag:
This is too strong a judgement on Doherty considering that, because almost complete dearth of textual data concerning the theological or practical beliefs within Pharisaism (or any other brand of Judaism for that matter), nobody—not even Witherington—can so smugly claim such expertise on ancient Judaic demonology.

First red flag:
Just a continuation of the flag previous, only red this time to reflect my annoyance at his claim to a high understanding of Jewish demonology with the kind of certitude that only serves cover up for the fact that it is based on his own (and others' apologetic works) exegetical parsing and not much else. This kind of confidence I can take from one like Jacob Neusner. From Witherington it just seems to me to be so much grandstanding.

Witherington's understanding of early Judaism is a result of his theological convictions.

Second red flag (and a biggie):
Two points regarding Tacitus (again).
  1. Whether he wrote the reference to J in 106 or in 115, either is simply too late to matter much in corrobarating J as a historical figure.
  2. Claiming that Tacitus got the information he relays in his famous reference to J from some official Roman records is very problematic. Here's just a couple of crucial reasons why (there are many more):
    • In no civil or census record would a historical Jesus be listed as "Chrestus."
    • No official Roman document would have refered to Pilate as a procurator.
    • It is simply more likely that he got the information from Christians —i.e., it explains more with less reliance on elaborate rationalizations or conjectures, such as that Rome would hold on to archival documents for damn near a century (I'll call this . . . the Ockham's razor approach :)

I think I'll stop here, lest this post get any longer. But I could go on all night . . . . his post is rather long and it is FULL of unsupported claims like the ones I highlight above.

But I hope this gets my point across.

As a final note, if you think I am too harsh in my assesment of W's stodginess, ask yourself why he is so reluctant to adopt the modern scholarly convention of using BCE and CE when dating events and people.

How does the old expression go?
"The devil is in the details."




08 March 2008

Flaws In the Iraq WMD Estimate

Posted by at 7:34 PM

National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar expounds on flaws in the Iraq WMD National Intelligence Estimate.

I found this bit particularly disturbing:
"This will sound harsh, but the terrible NIE that has been blamed for having had such a deleterious impact, in fact was read by almost nobody. It's really quite striking. Because of its classification—it had to be signed out. So, we know that hundreds of people claimed that they were misled by something that they hadn't read. I haven't figured out the explanation for that yet."

Oh, brave new world!



03 March 2008

theology is dead, long live theology

Posted by at 4:23 AM
Over at Faith and Theology there was a post about an interview with Richard Rorty. At the end of the post a question is asked:
Is this not, in fact, the precise goal of many theologians (e.g. Cupitt, Spong) – “to produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore”?
The comments section of that post have made me realize just how much of a persona non grata Spong is to a big cross-section of evangelicals, who tend to brush him (and Cupitt) off as some wild-eyed radical bent on destroying Christianity.

I think this is most unfortunate. I've read some of the work of both of these gentlemen and I feel that whoever would say that their "precise goal" is to discourage people from becoming Christian has simply not read their work. Either that or maybe folks just find such honesty so unnerving that they reflex and react by charging it with heresy, throwing darts at it, so revolting they find it. Ad hominems fly.

When rhetoric becomes vitriolic, though, I am convinced that it invariably reveals much more about the speaker than it does about the object of the scorn.
Every time.

Spong's work belongs in the tradition of people like Cupitt (who was actually formally tried for heresy—he was vindicated), or like Meister Eckhardt (who was formally charged with heresy as well—he was also vindicated—if you ever get a chance to read his response to the charges, do yourself a favor and read it, it is very good) or like Paul Tillich (who wasn't formally tried that I know of, but who Spong is clearly deeply influenced by).
I highlighted something of Spong's not too long ago which I think goes right to the heart of the matter:
" ... the inadequacy of the explanation does not invalidate the reality of the experience. Paul, like anyone who dares to speak of God, discovered that there is no such thing as a god language with which to process a God experience. The language we use is human, culturally conditioned, and incapable of doing more than pointing to that which it can never fully embrace. To attribute ultimate reality to the constructs of our language, to make religious claims for the human explanations for the God experience is to become idolatrous, and foolish. ...[...] ... The church must recognize that its first-century biblical explanations, its fourth and fifth-century creedal explanations and its later developing system of doctrines and dogmas are human creations, not divine revelations and none of them is either finally true or eternally valid ... [...] ... The ultimate heresy of Christianity lies not in its inability to explain adequately the Christ experience. It lies in the claim uttered through the ages that human words could not only define for all time something called orthodoxy, but that the ultimate and saving truth of the God experience could actually reside in the theological explanations."
I happen to think that he's absolutely right on the mark there. If that makes me a liberal in the eyes of anyone, then, as my friend Drew says, "Flame On!" - :)

And I would add that anyone who would find the work of Spong or Cupitt "heretical" is probably that kind of "word-worshipper", the kind of "explanation-worshipper", that Spong is talking about.




01 March 2008

pig latin . . .

Posted by at 5:46 AM
Have you ever noticed how when someone calls you a "liberal" disdainfully, they have a weird sadistic gleam in their eye as though that word was a pejorative?
I think the best strategy is to smile and ask them if they know what the word actually means. They won't—if they did, they wouldn't be using it that way.

Remind them:

1 - favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties

2 — favorable to progress or reform

3 — free from prejudice or bigotry

4 — open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas

The word's etymology is :
c.1375, from O.Fr. liberal "befitting free men, noble, generous"

Being called a liberal is a compliment. It is a positive word, an honorable word.

I resent the cooption of a perfectly fine English word by polemicists!! Why are they messing with my beautiful language???!!?? (argh!!!!)

. . . . ok . . . I feel better now.


Regarding the word "conservative":
I can't recall who it was that, when asked if he considered himself conservative, said, "What's there to conserve?", but that viewpoint resonates strongly with me.



(This post started off as a response to a post on Notes From Off Center, but I figured I'd post it here as well)
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