31 August 2008

quote of the day ...

Posted by at 10:50 AM

"Turkeys don't vote for Christmas."

James Crossley
in a debate against Wm Lane Craig

This gave me a goofy good laugh.



29 August 2008

the once and future kings (slight return)

Posted by at 12:30 PM
The eminent Bishop N.T.Wrong has written a post in his excellent blog outlining some similarities between the Arthurian legend and its Jesus counterpart. Food for thought.




28 August 2008

on St.(sic) Cyril ...

Posted by at 4:11 PM

I overheard a conversation about saints among some Catholic folks in a chat room. I offered that saints are just a "Catholic Hall of Fame", but these chatters didn't think my encapsulation was all that funny. They instead described saints as departed people who had led super-holy, super-righteous lives, people whom the church subsequently saw fit to reward after they had died because of this righteousness. I reminded the chatters that there have been people who had been made saints by the church despite a marked lack of righteousness, and I mentioned Jerome and Cyril of Alexandria as examples. "What did they do?", one asked. "Well," I replied, "why don't you look up what Cyril did to Hypatia, for starters."

One chatter (we'll call him Brad), who had been silent during the discussion, took a couple of minutes to respond. He insisted, not unemotionally, that St. Cyril was "above reproach" in the murder of Hypatia and proceeded to quote from the google search results he was obviously reading from.

A little background for those who might not know who the main characters in this drama are:

Hypatia, you may know, was an eminently talented mathematician and philosopher of Alexandria. She was a polymath who ran her own school and was consulted and held in high esteem by the most illustrious scholars and diplomats of her day.

Cyril was the nephew of the bishop of Alexandria. Theophilus. Theophilus had tolerated Hypatia's school, but upon his death in 412, his nephew Cyril took it upon himself, once appointed to his uncle's bishopric after a highly controversial contest, to rid Alexandria of all dissenting views, pagan of Christian. Anything that in his estimation wasn't sufficiently "orthodox" was anathema, damnable, subject to persecution and termination.

In March of 415, during Lent, Hypatia was brutally murdered. The church historian Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian, tells of it:
Her life came to its unspeakably gruesome end when a sect of fanatical desert monks accosted Hypatia on the street one March day, stripped and dragged her into a church, skinned her alive with oyster shells, then dismembered and burned her body.
Brad's defense of Cyril in the chatroom was twofold:
  1. Cyril wasn't there. He didn't kill her, the mob did.
  2. Cyril, in his writings, reveals a piety and a sublime depth of thought that precludes the possibility of his being a murderer. In other words, he was a gentle man who would never do such a thing.
I'll take these in reverse order:
#2. How anyone could say that Cyril was a gentle soul who could never hurt anyone is strange to me. Only someone misinformed (or blind to Cyril's faults) could venture such a claim. By all but the most partisan accounts, Cyril was a nasty opportunist of a man. Here are a few brief citations describing Cyril's character, all from a single search in GoogleBooks:
"Cyril of Alexandria, a man of vehement temper and intolerant, but sincere in his opinions ..."
History of Christian Doctrine

George Frank Fisher
page 152
. . . here's another:
"…the vehement and impetuous Cyril…"
History of the Jewish Nation After the Destruction of Jerusalem Under Titus

Alfred Edersheim

page 513
. . . here's one that ends with a very poignant question:
"Cyril of Alexandria, to those who esteem the stern and uncompromising assertion of certain Christian tenets of the one Paramount Christian virtue, maybe the hero, even the saint: but while ambition, intrigue, arrogance, rapacity, and violence are proscribed as unchristian means -- barbarity, persecution, bloodshed as unholy and unevangelic wickednesses -- posterity will condemn the orthodox Cyril as one of the worst of heretics against the spirit of the Gospel. Who would not meet the judgment of the divine Redeemer loaded with the errors of Nestorius, rather than with the barbarities of Cyril?"
History of Latin Christianity
Henry Hart Milman

But it is not enough, I agree, to take such accusations at mere face value. It is always best to get some specific details of the circumstances surrounding a controversy before c omitting oneself to a position.
With this in mind, here's a more lengthy citation that I think brings the situation into more focus. Particularly weighty are the quotations from Cardinal Newman on the matter (I've highlighted where that is), as it shows that the indictment of Cyril is not a reactionary anti-Catholic position in the least, but it instead informed by the historical facts.

"Cyril of Alexandria, who presided over the third Council — that of Ephesus — is perhaps, of all those who have been honoured with the title of saint, the one whose character least commands our affection. In the fourth century the title hagios, applied to an orthodox bishop, meant, perhaps, little more than the title 'reverend' applied to a clergyman of the present day. But of the qualities which go to make up our modern idea of saintliness, the only one to which Cyril can lay claim is zeal for orthodoxy. Of the non-theological virtues of meekness, kindness, equity, obedience to law, we find in him no trace. There was no country where religious controversies were carried on with such violence as in Egypt. Cyril had been brought up in a bad school; and he handed down to his successor the traditions of that school with extensive evil developments. His whole career was marked by violence and bloodshed. He signalized the commencement of his episcopate by an assault on the Novatians, whose churches he shut up, seizing their sacred vessels, and depriving their bishop of all his property.* He followed this up by an attack on the Jews — not without provocation on their part. A leading member of his congregation had been punished by the magistrate on a charge brought against him by Jews. Cyril sent for the chief rabbis, and severely threatened them if such molestations were repeated. Riots followed ; and tidings were brought to Cyril one morning that during the night a concerted attack had been made by Jews upon Christians, in which several of the latter had lost their lives. Cyril forthwith took vengeance into his own hands, deciding that there was not room for Jews and Christians in the same city. He put himself at the head of an immense mob, which took possession of the synagogues, plundered the goods of the Jews, and turned them out of the city. These proceedings naturally brought him into collision with the civil authorities, and the relations between the bishop and the prefect became extremely strained. Five hundred Nitrian monks poured down to Alexandria to give substantial support to the cause of the affronted patriarch. They surrounded the prefect's chariot, drove his guards away with showers of stones, and not content with abusive language, one of them, Ammonius by name, struck him with a stone, and covered his face with blood. But the people rose in defence of their magistrate, overpowered the monks, and seizing Ammonius, carried him off to punishment, which, according to the barbarous usage of the time, was so severe that he died under it. Then Cyril set the evil example of canonizing criminals as martyrs. Though there is no reason to suppose that the assault on the prefect was due to direct instigation of his, he made himself an accessory to it after the fact by giving Ammonius a publicj funeral, bestowing on him the title 'Admirable;' and would have even enrolled him for permanent commemoration as a martyr had not the disapprobation of moderate men warned him to drop the design.

But a worse tragedy followed. The belief in Church circles was that the governor would have been on better terms with the bishop if he had not been too intimate with heathens. Prominent among his heathen friends was the celebrated Hypatia, who, in a licentious age, when public life was less open to women than now, exercised the functions of a lecturer in philosophy with such dignified modesty as to command universal respect. One Peter, who held the office of reader in the principal church, collected a band of zealots like-minded with himself, who watched for Hypatia returning from her school, tore her from her chariot, dragged her into a church, and there murdered her with every circumstance of brutal atrocity. It is not to be supposed that this deed had Cyril's sanction; but if a party leader tolerates and profits by the excesses of violent followers up to a certain point, he cannot escape responsibility if they proceed beyond the point where he would have preferred them to stop. If the maxim 'noscitur e sociis' is ever to have applicability, a Christian teacher must be judged of by the spirit manifested by those who have been the most zealous hearers of his instructions.

For excesses of zeal in his warfare against heretics, or Jews, or heathens, Cyril has not wanted apologists who willingly believe that the case against him has been coloured by witnesses too ready to sympathize with enemies of the Church. But there is one chapter in his history with regard to which his line of conduct now finds no defender. I refer to his treatment of a greater saint than himself, St. Chrysostom. I have already said that in reading the Church history of the centuries following the erection of Constantinople into a capital, we must constantly bear in mind the jealousy felt at Alexandria at the encroachments on the dignity of their ancient see by this upstart rival. I have told how Gregory Nazianzen was compelled, by Egyptian opposition, to resign his see. St. Chrysostom's election to the bishopric of Constantinople disappointed an attempt of the Alexandrian patriarch, Theophilus, to place in Constantinople a nominee of his own. From that time Chrysostom had in Theophilus a bitter enemy, through whose exertions he suffered deposition and exile, accompanied with treatment which hastened his death. Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, was his aider and abettor in the warfare against Chrysostom ; and he continued his hostility when, on his uncle's death, he succeeded to the see. The death of Chrysostom did not soften his feelings; and a few years afterwards, when entreated to allow Chrysostom's name to be placed on the diptychs, he replied that this would be as great an affront to the orthodox bishops on the list as it would be to the Apostles if the traitor Judas were reckoned in their number. It was not until ten years after Chrysostom's death that he reluctantly gave way. Now what, in Roman Catholic eyes, makes this conduct inexcusable is that Cyril's obstinacy placed him in opposition, not only to Chrysostom, but to the Bishop of Rome, out of whose communion the Egyptians accordingly remained for twelve years.

Accordingly, Cardinal Newman here gives Cyril up. 'Cyril, I know, is a saint ; but it does not follow that he was a saint in the year 412.' ' Among the greatest saints are those who, in early life, were committed to very unsaintly doings.' 'We may hold Cyril to be a great servant of God without considering ourselves obliged to defend certain passages of his ecclesiastical career. It does not answer to call whity-brown white. His conduct out of his own territory, as well as in it, is often very much in keeping with the ways of the uncle who preceded him in his see, and his archdeacon who succeeded him in it.' I hope I am not ungrateful for so much candour if I say that if it does not answer to call whity-brown white, neither does it answer to call black whity-brown. Dr. Newman himself asks the question, ' Is Cyril a saint ? How can he be a saint if what has been said above is matter of historical truth ? ' His chief reason for giving a favourable answer is one that has not much weight with us. 'Catholics must believe that Providence would have interposed to prevent his receiving the honours of a saint, in East and West, unless he really was deserving of them.' ' It, is natural to think that Cyril would not have been divinely ordained for so prominent an office in the establishment of dogmatic truth unless there were in him moral endowments which the surface of history does not reveal to us.' And he suggests, that as we hear very little of Cyril during the last few years of his life, it may charitably be believed that he had repented of his early violence ; and he thinks that as ' he had faith, firmness, intrepidity, fortitude, endurance, these virtues, together with contrition for his failings, were efficacious in blotting out their guilt, and saving him from their penal consequences.' Now I am sure you will understand that if I pronounce a man to be undeserving of the title of Saint, I do not mean to deny that he may have repented of his sins, and have entered the kingdom of Heaven. In giving honours to historical characters we can only be guided by those 'moral endowments which the surface of history does reveal; 'and I count it to involve a degradingly low estimate of the Christian character if we hold up as a model of saintly perfection one in whom history only enables us to discover the excellencies and failings of an able and successful, but violent and unscrupulous, party leader. If Cyril changed his character towards the end of his life, his contemporaries do not seem to have been aware of it. Here is the language of one of them on hearing the news of his death : ' At last the reproach of Israel is taken away. He is gone to vex the inhabitants of the world below with his endless dogmatism. Let everyone throw a stone on his grave, lest perchance he may make even hell too hot to hold him, and return to earth.' ' The East and Egypt are henceforth united : envy is dead, and heresy is buried with her.' "

The Infallibility of the Church
George Salmon
pp. 304 --309

Any defense of Cyril in this matter (especially one appealing to his gentle, pious demeanor) can only be based on some previous commitment to defend one's church's party line—"my team: right or wrong"—and NOT to reality.

Now back to Brad's defense point #1.

By way of illustration, here's a quasi-contemporary analogue:
We know that Gladys wasn't there. We are also not certain of whether she ordered the action or knew about it beforehand.
We ARE certain of two things, however.
It was definitely the Pips who committed the crime.
Cyril never condemned the act as barbaric or otherwise wrong, as any man of God surely would.

In this case, I'm afraid that where there's smoke, there's fire.

And, if I may close with yet another humorous non-sequitur...

Hypatia was at least twice the man that Cyril ever was!




23 August 2008

20 August 2008

new word of the day: ignostic

Posted by at 4:34 PM
I just yesterday heard the word ignosticism.

Nutshell definitions:
  • An atheist is someone who doesn't believe that there is a "God."
  • An agnostic is someone who thinks that "God" is inherently unknowable.
  • An ignostic is someone who thinks that, until an adequate definition of the word "god" can be formulated in the first place, the question itself is not merely unknowable, but ultimately meaningless.

Hmm. . .
I guess I'm an ignostic.

far out!

I would like to add that I don't see this liberation from theological concerns as a liberation from ethical obligations. One has nothing to do with the other, in fact.



19 August 2008

1000 years of Darkness

Posted by at 11:49 AM
This video is very poignant in its description of what can (and DID) happen when science is repressed or impeded.

HT - Conspiracy Factory




18 August 2008

who the heck is J.P.Holding ...

Posted by at 4:15 PM

. . . and why does he hate me?

I was googling, trying to reference an essay that I had written some time ago, when I came across a man named J.P. Holding's very brief comment about my essay. It was a year ago, but I only today just saw it:

Another stupid Skeptic repeats the same old canards about the resurrection.

That was his post in its entirety.

Now, I don't know who this guy is, but you would think that he would have some reason for thinking my essay "stupid". Right?

So I re-read what I had written then (read it here) and though I would probably rephrase a sentence or two for the sake of clarity, I think the piece is a pretty good response to Craig's kind of apologetic rhetoric, and I'd be glad to defend it against Mr. Holding or anyone else who might want to demonstrate where I strayed into "stupid" territory in it. I'm certainly not above correction, after all.

All I have to go by is Mr Holding's choice of words:

  1. stupid
  2. canard

A canard implies that I'm deliberately trying to mislead people. Hmm. Does he think I have some stake in the outcome of a refutation of a demonstrably thin argument like Craig's "Four Irrefutable Fact" theorem? Why he would attribute malicious intent to me is a little disturbing.

Anyway, he never engaged any of the points I raised in my 5,000 word essay.

It is simply all just "stupid old canards".

It's cute. I'm once again reminded that all vitriolic rhetoric (every instance) reflects more the speaker . . . than the subject of the rancor.

Every time.

And if I may say . . .
What a strange person!

Does anyone know if this Holding guy has any kind of prestige in apologetic cliques (in which case, Gosh help apologetics) . . . or is he just an isolated curmudgeon militant case?



17 August 2008

Open Question for NT Scholars #1

Posted by at 11:45 AM
I'm going to start a new feature on this blog, in which I will ask some of the questions that are the most problematic for me as a student of the materials relevant to the study of the historical origins of Christianity.

They will be asked in all seriousness and I would greatly appreciate any and all responses that are given in earnest by anyone who might have some insight on any of these questions.

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

Open question #1: Jesus on Psalm 110 (c.f. Mark 12:35–37 & Matt 22:41–46 & Luke 20:41–44)

These verses, where Jesus is described as citing Psalm 110 in defense of the validity of his messiahship (along with the Isaiah servant song that begins at chapter 52 and into 53) are seen as "the" slam-dunk passages by a certain kind of fideist missionary to "prove" that the Hebrew scriptures "prophesize" the coming of Jesus in the future.

After discussing them one day with a street evangelist here in my town (whose name was, ironically enough, Mark), I became interested in this Psalm. This guy was sure that after studying the matter, I could only concede the "fact" of this fulfillment. For a brief moment, I thought he might have something here. If these passages really could be seen as referring to Jesus, then I could understand why so many people could believe that Hebrew prophecy predicted J's messianic role in history. I try to not just dismiss things out of hand. When confronted with such challenges, I take them seriously; I resign myself to examine them to the best of my abilities.

The problem in this case, though, was that while I have a rudimentary grounding in the Greek language and can usually work my way through Greek NT texts (with the aid of my textbooks and a handy Grammar), I am completely hopeless in the Hebrew language.

What to do?
Answer: What I always do in such cases when I can't access the texts myself—consult an expert!

So I scheduled a meeting (which turned into two—so engrossed was I with this Psalm) with a local rabbi. These meetings turned out to be one of the most significant episodes in my search for answers regarding the origins of Christianity so far. They have influenced my thought on these matters more than you can imagine.

The King James reads:
"The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool."

Pretty straight forward, right? Both instances of the word "Lord" are capitalized, highlighting the odd anomaly of David calling a future descendant "Lord," implying that "Christ," the son of David, is greater than David. This is pretty deep stuff, right?

When I spoke my concerns about this to the rabbi, he smiled gently and brought forth from his shelf an interlinear Tanach (English/Hebrew), opened it, and said, "You don't know a lick of Hebrew, do you?"

"No, I don't; that's why I came."

"Let me show you something," he said, holding the book in front of me with one hand and pointing at the relevant passage with the other. "Here's the first occurence of the word "Lord." I looked and sure enough there was the familiar Tetragammaton which I had seen before and which I recognized as the traditional name for God: "YHVH." I nodded my recognition. He then said, "now, here's the second instance of the word 'lord', " and he pointed again, only this time I had no idea what the word was. But it wasn't the same word at all. He told me that the word in this case was "l'adoni."

To make a long story short (we spoke for over an hour that day) he pointed out the difference between "Adonai" and "l'adoni."

Here's the gist:
"Adonai" denotes the God of Israel. It is attested about 450 times in the Tanach.
"L’adoni", however, is never used in the Hebrew scriptures as a divine reference. It instead denotes a human superior. It basically serves a similar function as the English analogue "my lord" in the royal sense.

When I told him that I saw the difference but was still confused as to what the passage might mean in this case, he imparted to me the most important lesson regarding the study of the Hebrew scriptures that I have had in my life. Sublime in its simplicity, it's one that I will find useful for as long as I keep studying this stuff.
Namely, he taught me that when trying to determine the meaning of any passage, the question we must always keep in mind is . . . .

"Who is speaking here??"

After some reflection, I told him that I didn't really know who is speaking here . . . "David . . . right?"

He smiled once more and said, "No."
He went on to give me some background on the form and function of the Psalms as a literary genre. In a nutshell:
David, though he was one of the most beloved kings of Israel, was denied the task of building the Temple (which he had always longed to do) because he had blood on his hands (even "just war" was enough to disqualify him for the task—such purity was required by God to build his house of worship). God however promised him that his son would be the one to build it. Undismayed and undaunted, though David wasn't to build the temple, he made all manner of preparation for the future building of the Temple (by Solomon): by gathering construction materials, composing liturgies and songs to be read by the levi'im (priests). The Psalms were thus composed to be sung from a platform long after the death of David by these levi'im to the people gathered below.

It all suddenly made sense to me.

Who was speaking here?

The Levite priests.

"The Lord (God) said unto my lord (no capitalization—David) , sit down at my right hand until I make thy enemies into thy footstool."

This was a moment of catharsis for me. This was not some strange convoluted veiled reference to a future messiah at all!

So, when I went back to re-read the evangelist passages with this citation, I suddenly realized a few things . . .
first - that the use of this Psalm in the gospels reveals some theologically-tinged partisan exegetical sleight-of-hand on the part of the respective authors . . . . and
second - that the episode where J challenges the Pharisees with this enigma never actually happened as a historical event.

I can assert this last point with a reasonably high degree of certainty for a couple of reasons:
  1. Jesus, reported to have been a highly devout Jew who was versed in the Hebrew language and scriptures, would have known better than to say such a thing.
  2. Had he said such a thing, the Pharisees whom he said it to— fanatical in their study of the scriptures, and prone to long midrash on this and all other Psalms— would have immediately corrected his mistake on the spot. Anyone with a perfunctory understanding of Hebrew could have. Yet, in this gospel narrative, his mere citing of this Psalm is enough to make them all speechless and mute in astonishment. In reality, this would never happen in the world of rabbinic discourse.
Here I am reminded of an old Jesus film that I once saw, in which the scene of the woman caught in adultery is depicted in a similarly unfeasible, untenable way.
The mob, about to stone the woman, become suddenly submissive and awestruck and drops their stones at once at Jesus' mere "cast the first stone" statement. Jesus speaks and the whole universe falls on its knees, like E.F. Hutton.


Only a naive and pious need to "believe" could convince one to think that the human psychological tendency to correct an error (religious errors in particular) could be suspended so easily by the rabbis that Jesus addresses. Jesus could have won an argument with his detractors, for all we know, but an argument must have ensued. This simplistic depiction of instant pharisaic submission is completely unrealistic. It's a cartoon.

Anyway . . .
I realized after my meeting that any insistence that this Psalm is a reference to either a messiah generally, or to Jesus specifically, could only be based on theological needs and motives.

And if I may project this further, I must confess that not only do I see exegetical error here, I also see the faint outline of guile and deliberate obsfucation in the telling of this story—either that or a complete misunderstanding of the Judaic context of the citation. The insistence on the capitalization of both "lord"s in the psalm is a red flag to me, as is the sudden silence of the Pharisees in the gospel narrative; they are stumped by something that would have been easily refuted by any literate Jew.

These verses set my mind to thinking . . . .




01 August 2008

good versus bad mythicists

Posted by at 1:33 PM
I came across this interview of Richard Carrier (the episode of the show "Faith and Freethought" is titled "How NOT to Argue the Mythicist Position").

I think that any fair-minded person will instantly recognize that Carrier is a far cry from the lunatic fringe that can easily be caricatured. Lumping all mythicists together as sensationalist fluff is convenient but ill-advised. There's none of the resident mockery here. His honesty and relative objectivity (and his "expertise", I might add :) are quite impressive.

How Not to Argue the Mythicist Position



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