29 January 2009

Marcus Borg on the new atheism ...

Posted by at 11:49 PM

Marcus Borg spoke in Phoenix earlier tonight (the 29th) at the Church of the Beatitudes on 7th Ave and Glendale. This was a very well-attended event (standing room only when the appointed time came, in fact), sponsored and promoted by the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology (AzFCT). I guesstimate that there were at least five hundred people there, mostly older Church of Christ and Methodist congregants, with a smattering of various other denominations (Dr Borg started his lecture with an impromptu headcount, so I'm pretty sure of the distribution :). The place is a mid-size hall with a kind of in-the-round vibe. Tall vertical abstract stained glass serves as the centerpiece adorning the altar. The sound was good.
His talk was basically a cursory critique of what is known these days as the "new atheism," which is a phrase coined to highlight the recent contemporaneous publication of four best-selling books that all argue against traditional religion in general—and Christianity specifically. Borg only mentions three of them, though (more on that in a bit): Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great.
First Borg summarizes the atheist critiques of religion. The first of these is that these writers assert that religion is intellectually indefensible. Borg makes a distinction between, on the one hand, supernatural theism, which is the belief in a person-like super-powerful authority figure who's "out there" and separate from the universe, and panentheism on the other, which is a belief in god not so much "out there" but as the Tillichian "ground of being itself" which encompasses the universe and transcends it. His favorite word for this numinous quality was "isness" tonight. He used it repeatedly. This panentheistic variant of god has been around for a long time, but the "new atheists," Borg said, just dismiss this god as if it was just some new-fangled post-modern mysticism.
Borg does concede that their critique of supernatural theism is valid. In fact he confesses to having abandoned his belief in this punitive god sometime in his twenties, but he calls the atheist writers to task on their neglect of this other more-mystical definition of god.
Next, Borg talked about the notion of infallibility and inerrancy of scripture as stumbling blocks to belief. He readily agrees that when the texts are read in this way (half of the US does by his estimation) they are unbelievable. But he finds a limit in the new atheist critique because "they do not recognize any other way of seeing scripture that has emerged in biblical scholarship over the past few centuries".
The next charge from the atheists is that religion is morally reprehensible. Borg responds to this charge by conceding that religion indeed has been the source of much evil in the world. "One could make the case that religion has been the greatest legitimator of human evil and of unnecessary suffering," Borg says. But he's quick to add that to focus on the bad an not see the multiplicity of good things and good lives it has also produced in parallel is unfair: "And yet religions have also produced some of the most remarkable lives in human history." He refers to the "ambiguity of religion." There is good religion and bad religion, he says, just as there is good music and bad music. Religion goes bad usually when it allies with power, in his opinion (he cites Charles Kimball here).
Religion can also go bad when it becomes idolatrous, continues Borg, but by idolatry he does not mean a trivial concern with "graven images" or "statues." He defines idolatry as "the absolutization of anything finite." Religion becomes idolatrous when it "absolutizes its own teachings" as eternal. Religion beecomes idolatrous when it "claims to be the one true religion." Using similar logic Borg then wonders whether the new atheists' absolutization of empiricism and of science might qualify as idolatrous too. Borg suggests an antedote for idolatry: radical monotheism. I didn't quite get the drift on that one.
There was a brief question and answer period. Sure enough, one of the best questions was on that last point regarding "radical monotheism" and how that might be distinguised from mere "idolatry." I thought it a great question. My own experience tells me that the best audience questions are never quite answered in this kind of setting and this was no exception.
When it was all over I waited in line so that I could ask him my own question. I introduced myself as a longtime reader of his work and of the atheists as well. First I asked him why he didn't count Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell among the works being discussed. He answered that he simply had not read that one. Fair enough. But I asured him it was the best of the lot. Then I told him that I thought he had erected a bit of a straw man when he implied that the reason the atheists didn't engage the panentheistic model was because they saw it as some reactionary novelty. He smiled and looked me straight in the eye, and I think he genuinely appreciated where I was coming from when I told him that if they ignore that theological model, it is not for that reason at all, but instead because as soon as you engage with panentheism, you run into a semantic no man's land where words such as "isness" and "otherness" can be molded to fit any mystic notion, causing a modern empiricist sensibility to exclaim, "What the hell are they talking about??" He smiled and nodded and eventually signed the title page of the book that I had laid on the table in front of him (Jesus In Contemporary Scholarship). We talked for a while. He's a very gentle man with soft blue eyes and a quiet demeanor. I quite enjoyed our conversation. It was cool to shake the hand of a man whose writings I've long admired.


Doubt and a sad eureka . . .

Posted by at 9:09 AM

I watched the film Doubt last night.

The official synopsis:

"Set in 1964, Doubt centers on a nun who confronts a priest after suspecting him of abusing a black student. He denies the charges, and much of the play's quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality and authority..."

Though shallower than I expected (the priest's character was kinda one-dimensional, for one), I still thought the film was somewhat daring. It deals with a subject that is still tabú to a lot of people. In fact, not many things can raise Catholic blood pressure to the degree that a reference to the recent sexual-abuse scandal within the clergy can, so the very existence of this film is bound to bother some, who presumably imagine that the film was made with condemnation built into its very design.

Silly me, I made the mistake of asking some Catholic friends if they had seen this film. One guy kinda freaked out on me, saying that my having seen it revealed "a lot about" me, that he was disappointed in me for having payed money to see such "trash." While he ranted, surprised by the magnitude of his knee jerk, I recollected films from the past that had engendered similar responses from people: The Last Temptation (great), Stigmata (crap), Dogma (good), The Exorcism of Emily What's-her-face (bad)—wondered if he had seen ANY of these. This particular guy is prone to dramatic overtures; I'm used to it, so I didn't freak back at him, but the paroxysm seemed excessive, even for him.

I asked if he had in fact seen the movie?


'Ah! I see ... So you hate a movie you haven't seen. '
I realize at this point that there's nothing that I can possibly say to this guy to talk him down from his uninformed defensive rant, so I just pretty much ignore his anger. But it got me thinking once again about misinformation and about religious paranoia as related to this particular crisis. Misinformation because people refuse to talk about these "unmentionable" events (how can we ever hope learn about preventing them?) Paranoia because every attempt to start a discussion is inevitably deemed an "attack" on someone's beloved church, and results in an angry exchange that can't get anywhere. Not a good place to be, people! Though I accept that we must insist on being fair to the church and to individuals, we have to talk about these things!

This film is not a polemic, dude. But even if it was . . . . how would you know it was?

Anyway . . . the story took a weird twist (which drove the point home that these things are very real and need urgent attention) later in the day when I decided to Google an old priest friend of mine. I have tried to find him over the years, but he seemed to have fallen off the planet, and my searches always turned up zero. To my surprise, this time I found some info on him. It turns out that my spidey sense was right in suspecting that something was amiss with his disappearance. There on a website devoted to "outing" abuser-priests was a photograph of my old friend, Father D and a corresponding small dossier detailing the nature of the complaints against him.

I had to sit back for a bit and silently absorb all of this. I knew Father D when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I remember him as a kind man. Though generally soft-spoken, he had a passion for his vocation. He had a sense of humor that was suited to the parish he had been assigned to, which is to say that he was a slightly crude Bronx priest with a good heart. The priest in the film could be a thumbnail sketch of him to some degree.

anyway . . .

The website said that he has spent some time in jail. I doubt I could get a note off to him. I wish I could.



27 January 2009

transplant thread (mythicism) . . .

Posted by at 9:40 AM
This post started out as a response to a post in Answers in Genesis Busted.
It got too long for a comment and I didn't want to clutter someonbe else's space.

James McG:

"On the first point, I should have said I don't know of any evidence that appears convincing. :)"
(He was replying to my two book suggestions which posit arguments for Jesus being deified as a figure from the remote past during the time of Paul—he had previously said that he "saw no evidence")
I can dig that.
I am not certain that I buy the theories wholesale either (I am skeptical about skeptics too, not just the credulous)
It's about reasonable doubt, though ...
two points that I can't gloss over:
  1. Irenaeus strongly implies that Jesus was in his mid-fifties at the time of his death.
  2. The rabbinical writings explicitly refer to Jesus as having been killed under Alexander Janneus.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't argue that there are any useful historical data in these. Not at all. But the very fact that people relatively close to the events in question had such widely scattered datings for Jesus, that is, the fact that the matter was open to such varied speculation later by both Christian and Jewish authors, seems a little suspect to me. Paul doesn't date Jesus. The apologist claim that the road to Damascus episode happened a mere five years or so after Jesus' death can only be justified if the late book of Acts is read back into the epistles, which is highly problematic (i.e. bass ackwards).

James seems to agree with me here when he says:
"Historical critical scholarship has not simply investigated what we can know about Jesus and early Christianity. It has raised serious challenges to the reading back into the New Testament of the later church's doctrines and dogmas. That too needs to be part of a critical approach to these questions."

"On the second point, Paul states that there were other Christians, "those reputed to be pillars", individuals more widely recognized as leaders than he was (they seem to have already been leaders when Paul was still persecuting the church), whose work was aimed at a Jewish audience. And so it seems problematic to treat those elements that Paul and his circle introduced as the original characteristics and defining features of the movement."


I have asked the following questions before with no reply:
  • How long had he studied under Gamaliel?
  • What form did Paul's persecution of Christians take?
  • What made Paul turn into such a thug? Was he a zealot? A sicarii?
  • If sanctioned by authentic Jewish authorities. . . Is there any precedent in Jewish history up until that time of such Jewish' persecution of apostate offshoots?
Besides all that . . .
When I lauded Gerd Lüdemann's thesis regarding the dearth of historical information regarding "Christ Jesus" in the Pauline corpus on my own blog, James' response to me there seems to suggest that he accepts that there is not much there in Paul that's relevant to J's historicity after all. (Correct me if I am misreading that, James, please.) If Paul is then talking about a mythical figure . . . . then what other sources do we have to base anything on?

Yes, Paul's epistles do reveal (I agree) Jerusalem as the epicenter of the story (perhaps even of a proto-kerygma) that very likely predates the communities he himself founded and that they looked to the "three pillars" as authorities in some way.
What do we really know about these pillars, though?
  1. They insisted on circumcision.
  2. They insisted on keeping kosher.
  3. They were annoyed at Paul.
  4. Paul kinda resented them in return, even while conceding to their authority.
They sound like pious Jews (more or less).

Do we have any textual (or other) evidence (other than Paul's sometimes-indignant letters) which leads us to believe that they subscribed to any of the christological and or pan-inclusive constructs that Paul was preaching?

Perhaps this continuity between Judaism–Paulinism is only there to those who wish to see it. Perhaps what we have here is a case where a self-appointed franchise started selling a product that was much different than the original.

I think the main problem with a lot of mythicists is that they get stuck on the question of whether Jesus actually existed or not. THis question is a dead end.
Instead, once it is realized that virtually EVERYTHING in the texts has narrative precedents in the Hebrew scriptures or has been synchretically assimilated from precedents in neighboring Pagan traditions (Price's "amazing shrinking son of man" metaphor is an apt one), the question of the historicity of Jesus is reduced to a futile one—indeterminate—like dividing by zero. If it can be demonstrated that the origin of the story is almost purely legendary (whether there was a person named Jesus or not) then the question is moot.
The theological accretions are so thick and so ancient that any attempt to remove them to reveal the form of one human life underneath is futile and self-defeating from the git-go. As analogy, imagine the way that coral and barnacles will grow around a sunken ship, using its general form, its length and girth, as an under-girding matrix. Eventually, though, the wood and metal that once comprised the boat rotted away, and what was left was a rather amorphous crusty outline. The removal of the barnacles and reef destroys the form of the thing we are trying to examine.

Mythicists really need to stop arguing against Jesus’ historicity and instead stress the fact that the story of Jesus is very probably a synchretic patchwork of legendary material.

To conclude by getting back to the James' point on the three pillars and Paul:

If there indeed was a historical Jesus, he would make infinitely more sense to me as a man somehow exalted by this early, very obscure, Jerusalem group. Unfortunately, we know little more about them other than that they were explicitly upset about their messianic figure's cooption by Paul and the goyim.

A messianism based on a person named Jesus is conceivable in pre-Revolt Jerusalem to me. Sure. But, Paul's bravado nonwithstanding, without textual corroboration, it would be quite a leap to attribute pauline christology to this early group of people that we know so little about.

We must be cautious when trying to assign attributes to such an unknown as this.




24 January 2009

self-identity surveys . . .

Posted by at 12:40 PM

That a continuity between Judaism and Christianity can be historically traced to some degree is an appropriate, valid assumption to make, given the undeniable multiplicity of allusions and references to the Jewish matrix in most of the early Christian texts. We must be careful, however, to avoid setting up the religion-then and the religion-now as congruent identities (truth is they are not even close), lest we open the door to presuppositions that are founded on anachronistic comparisons. Any clear mind can see that the structured Temple liturgy of post-exilic Judaism is no longer the normative form of expression of the people of Israel. After the fated siege of Jerusalem, in the interest of the survival of the Abrahamic and Mosaic et. al traditions, the scattered rabbis and people had to confer, reorganize, and thus adapt their expressions to the new limiting circumstances they now found themselves in. Thus were born the Talmudic traditions (Jews are famous for weathering dire strait after dire strait, their resilience is remarkable).

Similarly, any equating of the early Christian communities with their modern counterparts is bound to be unsatisfyingly incomplete. The evolution of creeds and dogmas in Christian history was such that, by the strict standards of our contemporary Christendom, in fact, the early church would not even qualify as "Christian" today. Trinitarian language was unkown for the first couple of centuries, as were such later 'patches' as 'the harrowing of hell' and even such taken-for-granted things as Jesus' divinity were not as universally professed as some would like to believe. The strictures of modern evangelical orthodoxy would virtually disqualify the earliest Christians from being "Christian.". (So much for sola scriptura and sola fideism!)

But despite the risk involved in such anachronistic comparisons, some insight might be gained from focusing in on human religious behaviors now. I find it interesting to look at how Christians and Jews today define themselves. What does religion look like from within?

A couple of surveys:

Here's a list of key terms drawn up by a class of Christian students who were trying to identify the terms that might be useful to explain to others what it was like to be a Christian:

  • God = Father, Son, Holy Spirit
  • resurrection
  • salvation
  • baptism
  • forgiveness
  • crucifixion
  • conversion
  • confirmation
  • ascension
  • justification
  • scriptures
  • faith
  • love
  • nativity
  • Holy Communion
  • prayer
  • trust
  • fellowship
  • 'born again'
  • obedience
  • eternal life
  • discipleship

The next list was drawn up by a religious Jew who wanted to explain his faith to a group of Christians:

  • God (personal, historical, protean relationship)
  • Torah (the way, instruction, teaching, not law)
  • mitzva ('commandment' = the practical unit of Torah = good deed)
  • avera (transgression, sin)
  • Free Will
  • teshuva (penitence, 'returning' to God)
  • tefilla (prayer)
  • tsedaka ('fairness', 'correctness' = charity)
  • hesed (love)
  • yetser tov ('good impulse' - the innate, psychological, tendency to do good) contrasted with yetser hara (the impulse to do evil; the cause and remedy for unfaithfulness to God lie within the individual)
  • Israel (people, land, covenant)

When I read through these two lists, I am struck by a few things:

First, except for the few christologically loaded terms ('Holy Communion', nativity, 'Son') the terms in the first list are not unfamiliar to Jews, who might well use them too. This reflects the pervasiveness (and permanence) of our cultural symbols and it also reflects the monolithic role that Christianity has had in the shaping of western society.

But notice that the compiler of the second list evidently thought that the terms used to describe Judaism, though some are familiar enough to English-speaking Christians (God, Torah, Israel), needed further annotation, lest they be misunderstood relative to their Christian analogues. Most of the words on that list are Hebrew words which, though easy words in that language, are not so easy to translate into English.

Still, if we parse these explanatory glosses, if we sift through these semantic difficulties, we might be able to see where the two systems overlap, what they might have in common with each other. And where they might diverge, as well.

When we strip away the trinitarian connotations of the Christian meaning of the word (as if it were that easy), the term 'God' is one such overlap. 'Love' and 'hesed' are likewise direct parallels; neither tradition has a monopoly on love and charity ('tsedaka'). Proceeding, we can match the Jewish 'teshuva' with the Christian 'born again' = 'μετανοια'. We can further match most of the terms with some kind of counterpart on the other's list.

One place where I see a distinct dissimilarity, however, is in the stress placed on 'free will' in the second list. The Jewish example of self-identification highlights a dichotomy in the human soul that is at odds with the post-Augustinian tendency to see depravity as man's natural condition, from which only 'grace' can redeem us. To the Christian, the yetser hara is doing the driving most times.

This difference, coupled with the rejection of trinitarianism and christological concerns (and possibly a revulsion stemming from a perceived idolatry) seems to me so far as the best delineator between the two faiths (at least in theory).

Anyway, I thought these lists were interesting to look at.

(They are both from a little volume by Norman Solomon, Judaism: A Brief Introduction).

What I think might be also interesting to look at would be corresponding lists, from these same students, of terms describing what each religion thinks the other is about.



23 January 2009

on religious self-identity #2 ...

Posted by at 9:06 PM

I've been reading, trying to wrestle with questions that deal with the religious self-identity of Jews and early Christians in the first century.

I think this is an overlooked facet of Christian origins. Was there some kind of continuity between Second-Temple Judaism and the birth of Christianity? Almost certainly! -- But let us suspend our inherited assumptions and presuppositions for a brief moment and examine all of the evidence pertaining to the problem of Jewish-Christianity from a scientific hermeneutic (now that we have discovered and invented this useful tool) to try to determine the nature and extent of this continuity. This is difficult, not only because of the evidence is scant, but because what little we have is either passionately apologetic or passionately polemic. As Robert M. Grant put it in a paper on The Social Setting of Second-Century Christianity:

When we listen to ancient writers and try to hear what they may tell us about the social setting of the early church we are likely to be struck by the sound of the axes they are grinding. Statements from Christians or non-Christians reflect presuppositions more fully than observations.
This is why I am so excited by the Jesus Project and what it could potentially contribute to scholarship on Christian origins. It's a bold and ambitious task they have appointed themselves, that is, to try to filter out the noise of the axes with our nifty new methodologies. Who knows, maybe it will turn out to be a dead end, but we'll never know it by stodgily ho-humming on whether such 'atheist' investigations of the early church are proper.

Why wouldn't it be proper?




To the Distant One

Posted by at 10:41 AM

I try to forget, but it is in vain.
I try to go, but I have no way.
There are no wings on my axles,
My head is covered by white hairs.
I sit and watch the leaves falling,
Or go up to the top of the tower.
Shades hover in boundless twilight:
A vast sadness comes to my eyes.

Po Chu I


21 January 2009

religious self-identity . . .

Posted by at 6:22 PM

What determines whether someone is part of one particular religious tradition as opposed to another? What does it mean to be “Jewish” for instance, or to be “Christian“? This is a question I started asking myself shortly after beginning my studies in Christian origins. Perhaps more important to my thinking recently is: Who gets to decide? —that is, what criteria are involved in the categorizing process? These turn out to be very difficult questions to answer, for there are almost as many ways to believe as there are believers. Faith, being ultimately an individual experience, can be (and has been) expressed in countless ways (a prolific species we are). Our faith connects us to the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence. Symbols are not rigid entities; they are flexible, adaptable to our own individual experiences. We tend to see ourselves, personally, in the myths we adopt as our “sacred“ stories. But even when we bracket this uniquely individual aspect of faith, and we try to focus instead on the community of the “faithful” and how they identify themselves, we run into more variegation. Orthodox. Catholic. Reform. Heretic. Liberal. Fundamentalist. All claim their rightful place within Christendom.
Shia. Sunni. Sufi. Wahabi. All within Islam, no?

Can we condense the essence of our religious identity into a minimum denominator? Is there such a simple prerequisite? C.S Lewis attempted to do this sort of distillation. He called the resultant concentrate “mere” Christianity. Do other religious traditions have analogues to this approach? What is it about a Hassidic Jew that a Reform Jew can recognize and accept as genuinely Jewish despite any number of sectarian disagreements they may have with each other?

It’s a difficult enough question to ask from our mass-information and near-universal literacy perspectives, blessed as we are with access to modern conveniences. But the tragic dearth of relevant historical or archeological materials relating to Jewish practices in the first century C.E. makes this problem especially troublesome if we are to ask what made one a Jew (semantic anachronisms aside) during the centuries immediately preceding and following the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.).

This is one of the problems I have been meditating on lately.



20 January 2009

dancing on Inauguration Day . . .

Posted by at 9:14 PM
Today was the Jones/Gogh ninth cycle sextet clinic.

I thought we would do something bluesy . . . gospely . But When I got there, I got the urge to lay this tune on the guys. It's a tune from Rubén Blades' seminal Mundo recording. Ted has played it with me a handful of times; Dowell once. The rest had not heard it before and were reading from the chart I concocted for it, reacting to my playing of the Celtic melody line on the cuatro.
We did it twice, once at about 12:30 pm . . . and then at about 5:30 pm
The afternoon session has a looser feel. Dowell began playing it as a second-line beat (a distinctly "New Orleans" convention) and we all just kinda fell into the groove.

Primogenio (morning)
"La piel es pura geografía
El alma en cambio es el proyecto universal
Sangre del mundo que nos guia
Del primogenio ser la fuente original

El camino lo abre Elegguá . . . "

Primogenio (afternoon)

Live @ CRAS 20 January 2009
(Gilbert campus)
  • Chris Gogh - piano and organ
  • Mario Mendivil - electric bass
  • Dowell Davis - battery
  • Billy Abdo - electric guitar
  • Theo Belledin - soprano sax
  • me - cuatro puertorriqueño & vox

(Five extra points if you catch the James Brown - "Funky President" reference at the end.)




ding, dong. . . the witch is dead . . .

Posted by at 7:24 PM

Leaflet pasted on to a wall in San Francisco's Chinatown district in June of 2008.




19 January 2009

discovering Heschel . . .

Posted by at 2:12 PM
Recent listening:
  • Bill Laswell — Baselines
  • Bill Laswell — Hear No Evil
  • Caetano Veloso — Fina Estampa
  • Djivan Gasparyan — Duduk Music from Armenia
  • Sly & Robbie — Rhythm Killers
  • Pat Metheny — Watercolors
  • Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
  • King Crimson — Lizard
  • Yes — Time and a Word
  • Yes — Tales from Topographic Oceans
  • Yes — 90125
  • Genesis — Selling England by the Pound
  • Peter Gabriel — Peter Gabriel (#1)
(The last six reflect my recent watching the new BBC documentary on prog rock. I just had to revisit some of the music for a few days)

My current reading has centered on the problem of Jewish self-identification as it relates to the origins of Christianity:

  • Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism
    from the writings of Abraham J. Heschel
  • Selections from the Talmud
  • Jewish and Christian Self-Definition (Vol I):
    The Shaping of Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries

    various contributors—E.P Sanders, editor
  • Dialogue with Trypho
    — Justin of Neapolis
  • Jesus and the Pharisees
    by Donald W. Riddle
  • Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes
    by John Shelby Spong
  • The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity
    by Hyam Maccoby

I'll likely write a long piece on the topic of self-identity soon.
But for now, I'd like to say that I'm very impressed with the writing of Rabbi Heschel. I haven't read any theologian whose prose flows like his in a long time, not since I first encountered the work of Paul Tillich, who he kinda reminds me of. His is a sober reminder to anyone who would mindfully bend Judaism into some archaic, outmoded, legalistic religious relic: If this is your perception of Torah, you have no idea what Judaism in fact is.
Heschel has that rare quality of being an intellectually honest empiricist AND a reverent mystic simultaneously.
The translators of the Septuagint committed a fatal flaw and momentous error when, for lack of a Greek equivalent, they rendered "Torah" with "nomos," which means law, giving rise to a huge and chronic misconception of Judaism and supplying an effective weapon to those who sought to attack the teachings of Judaism. That the Jews considered scripture as teaching is evidenced by the fact that in the Aramaic translations Torah is rendered with oraita which can only mean teaching, never law.
This guy would have made mincemeat of Justin AND Trypho!

Or . . . how about this gorgeous bit on how to identify the divine:
If in the afterglow of a religious insight I can see a way to gather up my scattered life, to unite what lies in strife; a way that is good for all men as it is for me—I will know it is His way.

Why is it that I, a confessed ignostic, find the mystic variety of theologian to be the only kind that is at all satisfying in any significant or credible way? Eckhardt. Rumi. Juan de la Cruz. Tillich. Love them all as poets.

Might this be related to the fact that, heathen though I am, the only Christmas carols that I don't detest are the traditional, deeply religious and symbolic ones? Frosty the snowman could melt for all I care, but the melody of Gabriel's Message is still mildly sublime to my esthetic sensibilities.

I guess you can take the boy out of the Bronx . . . . but . . . .



The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

Posted by at 12:20 PM

A talk with Denis Dutton about his new book "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution." A very interesting development in the continuing relationship between science and the until-recently ineffable aspects of our existence. Very good stuff.



17 January 2009

'misunderestimated' in Spanish ...

Posted by at 2:21 PM
For those who can read it, the excellent El Ñame's coverage of Governor Bush's presidential exit speech is way funny.

Bush Se Despide De La Nación Que Jodió; Solamente Su Perro Barney Asiste A Discurso De Despedida

Washington, D.C. - Luego de ocho años de joder al país, el Presidente de los Estados Unidos, George W. Bush, dio su discurso de despedida a una nación que no ve la hora que Barack Obama juramente como Presidente. En el discurso, al cual solo se dignó a hacer acto de presencia su perro Barney, el Presidente ofreció su perspectiva sobre sus ocho años de presidencia . . .

test driving the Gematriculator ™. . .

Posted by at 12:41 PM
I found the gadget at N.T Wrong's blog and tested this blog.
The results:
This site is certified 71% GOOD by the Gematriculator
This site is certified 29% EVIL by the Gematriculator

Wow! I'm only 29% evil? Cool! Not bad for a heathen, eh?

I thought it might be interesting to submit one of the books in the Bible to this analysis. I'm mischievous . . . so I do Revelations:
This site is certified 63% GOOD by the Gematriculator
This site is certified 37% EVIL by the Gematriculator

Uh oh!
Okay, okay. . . I better back off, I figure, and I give the judges an easier, more normative book to digest. Romans is a good choice , a rational, pious, theological discourse:
This site is certified 59% GOOD by the Gematriculator
This site is certified 41% EVIL by the Gematriculator

WHAT?? Romans scored lower than Revelations?
Woah!! What's going on here?

Just to make sure I was being fair to religion at large, I tried inputting the Koran into the reader. Of course, it's too long. The machine choked. So i broke off the first two books and analyzed that. The result?

69% good — 31% evil

So . . . . if my humble little blog is rated less evil than Revelations, Romans and the Koran (and, I might add, less evil than Rev Wrong's blog ;) , who am I to dispute this? I reckon I'm doin' alright.




16 January 2009

pésame . . .

Posted by at 1:08 PM

I just now read that my favorite Statesian painter, the great Andrew Wyeth, has passed away in Pennsylvania at the age of 91.

Goodnight, you beautiful prince.



word of the week... "bafflegab"

Posted by at 12:06 AM

It sounds like a made-up slang thing, I know . . .

  • Encarta Dictionary: “Nonsense. …. pretentious and obscure talk full of technical terminology or circumlocutions.”
  • Wiktionary: “Language whose purpose is to obscure, confuse, or mislead.”
  • “An informal pejorative term for fluent language that sounds impressive but confuses and confounds, and is often associated with politicians."
  • Worldwidewords: “Incomprehensible or pretentious verbiage.”

HT - Open Parachute



14 January 2009

repost for the curious

Posted by at 1:52 PM
For anyone who might be genuinely interested in listening to a pretty good presentation of the mythicist case in three parts. The podcaster is Dr Zachary Moore, who also produced the excellent Evolution 101 podcast.
  1. the arguments from silence,
  2. the arguments from similarity,
  3. the arguments from ahistoricity.

Excuse the loud corybantic intro music
(Is this the time on "Sprockett" when we dance?!?)

These are all hosted on the wonderful site.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


Quixie's maxim #2 . . .

Posted by at 9:18 AM

"Doubt any biblical scholar who persists in referring to Jesus' 'ministry'."





12 January 2009

slumdogs on film . . .

Posted by at 9:56 PM

I watched the film Slumdog Millionaire a few days ago. A slumdog is a homeless child of the mean streets of Mumbay and the other urban centers of India (though I imagine they are not that different from the eight million abandoned kids of Brazil). In a world that considers them sub-human, these children have been abandoned to fend for themselves. They become easy pickings for unscrupulous opportunist adults who see them as commodities to exploit in divers ways. Physical mutilation, forced prostitution, slavery. This film is basically a story of coming-of-age and of redemption against incalculable odds.

It will likely win a bunch of awards. A very dark but well-made film, I recommend it to anyone with the stomach to see what some people are capable of doing to those in society that are weaker, when there is no clear rule of law, no oversight, to stop them from doing it.

Without going into the details of the film, let me say that it has started me meditating on the system of thought that allows for such barbarity to take place.

The caste system in India is no superficial social phenomenon. It is deeply rooted in the Hindu philosophies. In the Rig Veda, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, there is an account of the dividing up of one cosmic person (Purusha) into sections, each section representing a different social "caste." These scriptures can be called on to reinforce a system which is seen as a human reflection of the fundamental structure of the universe, a structure in which there are inherent differences between the castes in terms of function and implied value.

Some questions to consider then:
  • Is equality unnatural? Is the Hindu recognition of fundamental differences within society the logical conclusion from an objective assessment of the natural order?
  • Or is this aspect of Hindu thought simply a later rationalization and justification of what happens when invaders (Aryan) impose their views on a subservient native people (Dravidian)?

Obviously, I think the latter case is the true one. It's not that hard to see once we realize that the word for caste, "varna," means "color." This is racism, pure and simple. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize it.

But how does one combat a racism that is mandated from above? --sanctioned by sacred texts?

This is the kind of thing that makes me sympathetic to the arguments made by Sam Harris and others regarding the evil that religions themselves are capable of engendering. And mind you, Hinduism is not alone in promoting what John Shelby Spong calls the "sins of scripture"; religious texts from around the world are replete with these peculiar embarrassing blunders.

Anyway, those are basically some of my thoughts after watching the film.

Just one more point, though. . .

One particular scene in the film haunts me. It involves Salim, the "lost soul"/"prodigal son" character of the three childhood friends that the story centers around, who has grown up into a hired assassin and mobster. In this scene that I refer to, he is engaging in one of his daily Muslim prayers, on a rug, facing east. He is heard to say, "Forgive me God, for I am a sinner." All the while, the movie audient knows that Salim will probably go out and kill some people as soon as his prayers are done. The irony here is deep. One would think that forgiveness of sins could only come after genuine repentance and a resignation to "sin no more" have been demonstrated. What is it that blinds wishful zealots to this simple truth? In light of recent terrorist activity throughout the world, I find this kind of thing very unnerving.

The film is very thought-provoking and it reveals a side of our world that we seldom get to see from our position of comfort and safety.



11 January 2009

historicity and faith ...

Posted by at 1:40 PM

I've been monitoring a few discussions about historicity (that of Jesus among other things) and have been meditating on a few things that I'd like to blog (I love the twenty-first century C.E. :) :

Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, is a religion that purports to be rooted in history. Churches have been teaching that the Bible is history for a long time. While the extreme literalism of modern Statesian* fundamentalism is a rather late phenomenon, people throughout the history of the Christian tradition have found no need to question whether Moses or Noah or even Jesus were real people whose stories are basically historical. It was taken for granted.

Then came the scientific revolution, bringing with it more-or-less reliable methodical tools with which to observe, measure, compare, and contrast the data all around and within us: Botany, sociology, physics, archeology, geology, psychology, evolutionary theories . . . telescopes, computers, carbon-dating, historical method... I could go on.

But the once-ubiquitous view that the Bible was basically true in all its parts turned out, once these new methodologies and instruments were turned on these sacred stories themselves, to not be true after all.

So I've been wondering: Why is it that despite the geologists telling us that there very probably was no such thing as a global flood in our human history, and archeologists telling us that there very probably was no such thing as a Mosaic exodus or a Hebraic invasion of Canaan as painted in the ancient texts . . . Despite these and countless other things . . . Why didn't the scientific paradigm lessen the Bible's authority in society? One would expect it to. No?

Perhaps it did not because, despite the best efforts of theohistorical apologists like N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Ben Witherington III, Lee Strobel, and others who follow in their wake, people don't seem to require such historical verisimilitude in their faith after all.

Over the last few centuries, people have gradually come to accept that the Bible is a human artifact, subject to the same laws of physics and time and human nature as other artifacts, and they have no problem with knowing that Noah's flood, Jonah's fish, and even Jesus' resurrection, are allegories designed to edify and to pass on moral traditions and not necessarily historical reports. The historicity of Noah is completely unimportant to religion. The fact that it didn't happen in history does not detract from the dramatic, rhetorical functions of the story. The same applies to much in the scriptures. Granted, this gradual process of acceptance is not finished yet, and every once in a while we feel a pang, a tremor in the faultline of our religious commitments (with its accompanying aftershocks—old habits die hard), but, generally speaking, people don't really need their faith to be historically derived.

So why do these aforementioned apologists try so hard to prove things historically? What compels them to go to such convoluted lengths?

Just as the value of St Veronica or St George as symbols does not depend on their historicity—they are not diminished by our deductions that they are very likely legendary fictional characters. The symbol is way more important than the historical matrix that it germinates in. It is the poetry of the narrative that matters. Except among a relatively limited circle of scholars and intellectuals, the modern, scientific, paradigm has had very little impact on religion, as I see it. Higher criticism and its resultant adaption of its christologies and affirmations might be a cool intellectual exercise, but religion is way bigger than the academy. Neither theology nor historiography will help the common earthling raise his kids or order her life, and these more mundane functions the great religions continue to serve, effectively to some degree, for humanity. (Too bad we're still just selfish monkeys - Oh woeful fall! — but i digress :)

I think it is inevitable that religions will continue on for as long as humans are capable of weaving story out of mystery. If the scientific method didn't kill religion, nothing will. And I think that Christianity will survive in some form appropriate to the coming zeitgeist. Eventually, though, I think that YEC fundamentalists (and their Muslim and Zionist counterparts) will go the way of the flat-earthers and phrenologists of old. Bad science, faulty methodology, is just that easy to point out . . . Y'know?

Then again, who can predict these things?

But I think that in the end, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell will be proved right in their relegating all faith systems to the same meaning-seeking impulse in the human heart and mind.

We need stories, even when we know they are just stories.



Early Christian Writings is back!

Posted by at 4:32 AM
I'm happy to see that Peter Kirby's website devoted to Early Christian Writings has been resurrected. I, for one, have missed this invaluable online resource while it was down. Good news indeed.



PBS documentary on historical Jesus ...

Posted by at 4:16 AM

PBS recently finally made its Frontline episode From Jesus to Christ available for streamed viewing on their website. It's a four hour program that's definitely worth watching, featuring scholars like Wayne Meeks, Paula Fredriksen, John Dominic Crossan and a host of other NT scholars.

10 January 2009

from their cold, dead hands . . .

Posted by at 9:28 AM
I'm going to discontinue anonymous comments. I just rejected one for a post, partly because it had little to do with the point of the post, but really because I find that most flamers love the "anonymous" choice on these blogs. They grow muscles they didn't know they had when they can indulge their anonymity this way. This imagined "safe" zone might be similar to the one that allows the freeway driver to give the middle finger to the vehicle next to them if its bumper sticker offends her.

It occurs to me: Geoff Hudson might be nuts, but at least he has enough balls temerity to sign every post and comment he so floridly composes.

Anyway . . . I'd like to share the post here on the main part of a post because I think it illustrates very nicely some of the points I've been blogging about lately. Essentially, it purports to be a film review Here it is in its entirety (my own commentary is in pink):

Critique on film:
Another rip roaring entertainment like braveheart and another grave examination of faith, belief, and reality. (Reality? Would you care to expound on this, madam? In addition to being patently vague, this statement seems designed to say that the film is somehow "anti-catholic," a warning to the "faithful" that the director paints faith in a bad light. But in fact, there is an important scene in which the bishops are all conferring on the day's proceedings, where one particularly wise old priest complains of the kangaroo-court that the trial potentially is. He then refuses to partake in such a charade, and announces that he will return to Rome to give a negative report concerning the treatment given Joan to the pope, whereupon he is instantly arrested by the English military command. Any anti-church propaganda perceived is entirely in Anonymous' head only.)
Thrown all together in the least subtle way possible, The Messenger emerges as a catastrophe of epic proportions. (Again, could you be a little vaguer?)

Very unfortunately, 140 minute running length (and I counted them, every minute. (Really? Did you sit there with a bean counter? Hash marks on paper? Either way, it's no wonder you missed a lot of the nuance in this gorgeous film, then. It happens. When one braces oneself for an impending imaginary catastrophe, one usually appears. Life is poetic like that.)), the story is scant.
Milla Jovovich, who was presumably cast as Joan because she physically resembles a little boy ( and being the main squeeze of the director at the time doesn’t hurt either) (Yes. She was made to look boyish in the film. Isn't that the POINT of casting a film about this historical character?)

The device Besson uses is that of a personification of her conscience, played by Dustin Hoffman. In tight close-ups with a digitally lowered voice, Hoffman hams the Grand Inquisitor role, suggesting that Joan’s “voices” were constructs of her own imagination (What??!!??! Is this even possible??!! . . . . Oh, wait . . . it is??? . . . . . :O . . . . hmm . . . Are you sure?? . . . . I want proof!!! . . . . etc. . o_Ó ) and that her entire campaign is based on bloodlust for her sister’s rape at the beginning of the film (Nice over-simplification, but then . . . you were busy counting minutes, so I'm not surprised that the only scene you focused in on was the sex scene ;). . (The Grand Inquisitor doesn’t seem to remember that Joan talked to voices before the rape. (The grand inquisitor doesn't KNOW much about her voices yet. This is why there is an inquisition in process, madam. Besides: How is the inquisitor's foreknowledge (or lack of) relevant to anything? . o_Ó ) When Joan is not be harangued by her conscience, she is being cross-examined by Church and State officials on grounds of heresy. In a series of familiar fishbowl-lensed scenes, Joan is badgered for repentance, while all she asks is to have her confession heard.

So, if you enjoy overblown period-piece spectacles with no consistency of tone or theme, rush thee out to see The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. If you do not, then I, at least, forgive you and absolve you of all responsibility for seeing this film. (Does this last sentence stink --and I mean a "to-high-heaven" kind of stench-- of self-important smug posturing to anyone else but me?)

peace to all!

"anonymous" (Of course!)
It's amazing how such a passionate paroxysm can be so petty and empty of real substance. Some people seem to think that haughtiness can substitute for content.
To relate it to the scene in my original post: ...
Why does something tell me that this anonymous commenter chooses the last miraculous possibility as to how the sword got to the field as the only allowable one? Call it a hunch.




08 January 2009

quote of the day - Bentov's law . . .

Posted by at 8:49 PM
One's level of ignorance increases exponentially with accumulated knowledge. For example, when one acquires a bit of new information, there are many new questions that are generated by it, and each new piece of information breeds five or ten new questions. These questions pile up at a much faster rate than does the accumulated information. The more one knows, therefore, the greater his level of ignorance.

Itsahak Bentov
Stalking the Wild Pendulum


07 January 2009

On presuppositions . . .

Posted by at 2:51 PM
One of my favorite films in recent years was The Messenger, the dramatized story of Joan of Arc starring Milla Jovovich as Joan. A fantastic film. There is a scene near the end of the film, after she has been arrested and after her trial has already commenced, where she finds herself alone in her cell. She uses the chains on her wrists to carve a crude cross upon the wall, whereupon she begins to pray—desperately, chaotically. Suddenly, we see a hooded man in her cell who had not been there previously. It is the figure that represents her "voices," in this case played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman, who proceeds to interrogate Joan as to why she thinks that her mission was divinely inspired.

  • (Joan) - The sword lying in the field. That was a sign.
  • (her Voices) - No, that was a sword in a field.
  • (JºA) - No. No! That was a sign.
  • (V) - No, that was a sword in a field.
  • (JºA) - It can't just get there by itself, huh? It can't! A sword just doesn't get there by itself. It can't just get there by itself!
  • (V) - Proof! Every event has an infinite number of causes, so why pick one rather than another. There are many ways that a sword might find itself in a field.

(At this point, the scene changes to show a montage of various possible scenarios in which the sword could have ended up in the field, which her Voice enumerates in a calm and rational manner. The first brief scene in the montage shows a group of horsemen speeding through the field. They come to a small creek, a mini ravine, which they each jump over in sequence, without stopping or slowing down. When the last of the four or five soldiers has done so, we can see that the jump has jostled his sword free from his saddle and we see it fall, unnoticed, on the ground.)

  • (V) - Seems like a perfectly valid explanation. But how about this one:

(The scene changes to a battle between two swordsmen in the field. They are engaged in heated battle, whereupon one soldier's sword goes flying from his hand as his foe delivers the fatal blow.)

  • (V) - But then again, there are other possibilities:

(The next piece shows a man running from some soldiers that are pursuing him. In his panic and desperation, he drops his sword and keeps running.)

  • (V) - Or even faster:

(A man is shown similarly running from soldiers at a distance. One of them positions himself to shoot an arrow at him. The arrow finds its mark and the fugitive man drops his sword and falls to the ground.)

  • (V) - And that's without counting the inexplicable:

(Here we see a man calmly walking through a field alone. For seemingly no reason that we can discern, he simply tosses his sword to the side into the open field.)

  • (V) - Yet from an infinite number of possibilities, you had to pick this one:

(We now see a beautiful, mystical-looking sky, from which a big bright ray of light is coming down upon the field, inside of which a horizontal sword slowly descends down to the ground while angelic choirs sing in the background. — Cut to Joan's face, which reveals deep anguish, with tears welling in her eyes. She is distraught by the truth of what the Voice is telling her.)

  • (V) - You didn't see what was, Joan. You saw what you wanted to see.

I have been reminded of this poignant scene many times since I first saw this film, particularly when I encounter Christian apologists who insist that the resurrection of Jesus must have happened literally the way it was portrayed in the gospels, or when I encounter those who insist that the proto-creed embedded in 1st Corinthians 15 must be an accurate historical record of Jesus having appeared in the flesh after his resurrection to over five hundred people simultaneously.

This was the case a few days ago. Responding to a post on NT Wrong's blog in which he offered a tenable rational explanation to trace why the stories of J's resurrection seem to have evolved from stories about appearances to indivuduals to stories about appearances to whole crowds (a very good theory, I might add, involving the concepts of genre and analogue and rejecting a literalist exegesis), a commenter said the following:

“It is a presupposition against supernaturalism to say that one is more likely than the other …”

In much the same way that I object to a defense of the historicity of the resurrection that appeals to “the blood of the martyrs” as evidence . . . . it irks me to hear this kind of thing. Such a statement implies that supernaturalist hermeneutic is equivalent to a naturalistic one, and that to choose one over the other is just as subjective as selecting a pair of socks to wear on a given day. Personally, I think that such a presupposition against supernaturalism is a useful one when trying to make sense of evidence, and is furthermore a good and healthy one for people to possess in general.

I can understand why an apologist (whose aim is to defend her faith at all cost) could close her mind to this kind of rationalization, but a thing that intrigues me to no end is that, when an apologist makes this kind of claim, the reasonable scholar who rightly chooses the naturalistic explanation over the "magical" one almost invariably denies having a naturalistic presupposistion. They reject such a notion. Is this something that is stressed in the schools or something?

Why is it such a bad thing to hold to a naturalist hermeneutic when trying to methodologically and scientifically study ancient texts?

I just don't get it.




05 January 2009

haiku for a stormy night ...

Posted by at 9:19 PM
Rain falls in torrents
Echoes the songs of ancients
. . . Electrons rumble

(for Mr. Grand, my 9th grade science teacher, wherever you may be).



04 January 2009

Marcus Borg coming to Phoenix . . .

Posted by at 10:44 AM
The topic:
Beyond Atheism:
The Truth and Limits of the Atheist Critique
Thursday, January 29, 2009, 7:00 pm

Church of the Beatitudes
555 W Glendale Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85021

$20 ($18 before 1/15)
$15 Family member
$ 5 Student

co-sponsored by the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology (AzFTC)


or call 480-488-6453



03 January 2009

Rei Momo

Posted by at 11:54 AM

I had a bone to pick in the past year ( & ) with Ben Witherington (W), one of the most active and best known conservative apologist cum scholars living. I have absolutely nothing against the man personally. I just have a low tolerance for bad history that tries to disguise itself as authorative. I have been listening to a series of podcasts from an Australian radio show in which the issue of the historicity of Jesus is discussed from varous perspectives. One of the episodes features Mr. W being interviewed by the host, a man named Cameron Reilly. True to form, the good professor waxes decisive and infallible on things that have been openly contentious in academia for centuries.

During the course of this interview, he says a few things that are so untrue that it saddens me. It saddens me to hear them coming out of the mouth of someone who is seen as a respectable expert in his field by the many students under his tutelage, who naturally assume he is being honest. Now, I'm not talking about contentious matters such as the dating of Mark, or whether there is any evidence of eyewitness reporting, or whether Q was an actual document that was used by the authors of Matt and Luke—these kinds of things are arguable and I'll not comment on them except to say that W invariably takes the orthodox view on all of these. No, what bugs me is the outright falsehoods that he let slip out in his passionate rhetoric during this interview. Moreover, not only are they egregious falsehoods; they are stated so haughtily, so smugly, that it makes them doubly shameful to my eyes.

Again, I have nothing against W personally, and I normally would have just let my annoyance at his usual bedside bad manner slide . . . But then I saw that N.T. Wrong posted the list of 50 top bibliobloggers for December . . . and, who should be holding the top spot for two months in a row? Surprise! It's none other than our man W.

Since I doubt that any of the parade attendees at his crowning will call him on any of his guile (nice suit you got there, dude!), I will.

whopper #1

First Whopper comes at about the 15 minute 20 second mark in the interview. At this point the conversation centers on whether the various near-contemporary Pagan sources are useful historically:

  • Q — Did Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, [or] Pliny actually claim to have seen Jesus?
  • W — They claimed that there were Roman records that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and you don't have records about crucifixion of people that didn't exist. I mean, that's just absurd. They don't just make up those kind of Roman records. There's no reason for them to do so. So, it's an absurd point of view to start by asking' Did Jesus exist?'. Of Course he exists!

Okay, let's take a brief looksee at what these ancient pagan gentlemen actually said; shall we?:


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not cease. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life. For the prophets of God had prophesied these and myriads of other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still up to now, not disappeared.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.63


Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Annals 15: 39–43


[...] as the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.
. . . . . . . .
Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition
Life of Claudius


Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
Letter to Trajan

Now, where exactly does any of these historians claim "that there were Roman records that [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate"? As a historian, W is entitled to speculate on where they might have gotten their information from. He is completely justified in saying something like: 'It has been suggested that Tacitus [etc] may have used one of Pilate's reports to the emperor as the source for his statement that "Christus" had been crucified by Pilate.' But W is not entitled to assert what he does say. Phrasing it like he does —"they claim that there were records"— makes his statement an outright lie, in my opinion. And yet folks just keep bestowing him with honors and a platform in which to spread the crap around, all the while praising the cut of his fine threads.

whopper #2

My second example of a whopper comes at about 42 minutes 45 seconds into the interview. At this point the conversation centers on whether Josephus' reference is authentic or an interpolation:

  • Q — There's the fact that Origen, who was very well aware of Josephus' writings, makes no mention of this passage [Josephus' Flavium Testamonium] as support.
  • W — That's not true. That is absolutely not true. I had a patriscic seminar this summer. He certainly did mention this passage.
  • Q — Where does Origen mention it?
  • W — In his Gospel of John. No question. He certainly did. So, I'm sorry [but] that's not true.
  • Q — So, tell me where Origen mentions this. Because this is news to me.
  • W — It's in the commentary on the Gospel of John. There are fragments of the commentary on the Gospel of John. The person to ask about this is Warren Smith at Duke University. He's a patristics expert. He came and did a seminar for us.

This particular whopper floored me. I'm not going to bother to cite Origen here. I will only say that nowhere in his extant work does he suggest what W says he does. Not even in his commentary on John. This is just plain bullshit.

Like in the previous example, the good professor would be justified in saying something like, 'There are those, such as Warren Smith over at Duke, who believe that a case can be made that Origen knew of the Josephan passage.' But, instead, what W says is "No question! He certainly did!" This makes him a liar, in my opinion, and his poor students keep obliviously taking notes, not knowing any better. (There'll be a quiz on Wednesday, and all that jazz.) This is professionally irresponsible.

In closing . . .

Allow me to digress and address something which is not necessarily a complaint about W specifically, but is instead a complaint about the tendencies of NT scholars in general (including W) when it comes to discussing the ultimate fate of the disciples of Jesus. It is wonderfully illustrated by W when he says (somewhere around 17 min 20 sec into it):

  • W — The earliest disciples of Jesus, who very clearly are depicted as flawed human beings during the ministry of Jesus—they ended up betraying, denying, or even deserting him in his eleventh hour. And yet after the death of Jesus, after the crucifixion, the most shameful way to die on planet Earth—after that, they became world leaders. They went out and promulgated the fact that they had seen the risen Jesus, and they were prepared to die for their conviction. Now, what kind of person is it, who promulgates a fraud, and is then prepared to die for the fraud? I don't know anybody like that. And I certainly don't know of any ancient persons who went around selling fictitious stories and then were prepared to be martyred for them.

This canard is so pervasive in the literature and collective subconscious of its adherents that it absolutely astounds me that no one bothers to point out the big elephant in the middle of the room. Namely, the fact that, other than a passing reference in the Acts of the Apostles (a Christian document) regarding the execution of James the son of Zebedee, there is absolutely NO contemporary or near-contemporary textual evidence regarding the death of ANY of Jesus supposed disciples. None. This is a fact. The closest thing we have to it is a vague reference to Peter's (and Paul's) "witness" in the first letter of Clement, which is an anonymous work dating from roughly around the turn of the century, according to the current majority view (though I would argue that no one really can say with any degree of certainty and that such a date is a wishful surmise at best).
The continuing dissemination of such bad apologetics underscores for me the main thesis of Hector Avalos' excellent book, The End of Biblical Studies, which, in a nutshell, is that the field of religious studies (and New Testament and historical Jesus studies in particular) is rapidly disintegrating before our eyes into a dance of self-congratulatory circularity. I think he's spot on.

I realize that I can never hope to affect the bad habits of academia in any way with a simple blog post.
But hey!, I can call it like I see it. :)

Finally, if Ben Witherington is a paragon of scholarship in the field of academic NT studies, like his rating in the biblioblogosphere suggests, then I'm afraid that NT scholars are in big trouble, and may even indeed be in need or prayer.



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