Wednesday, November 06, 2013

David, Goliath, and the combat myth...

I've recently been listening to some episodes of the "Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean" podcast, presented by Prof Philip Harland. They're not exactly the most professionally made things, most are simply recordings of parts of his lectures at York University (Toronto, Canada), but I find them particularly fascinating. Recently he's been talking about the 'Combat Myth'.

The Combat Myth is an archetypal story which seems to have been prevalent through many, if not all, religions in the ancient middle east. While there are variations in the theme, and embellishments peculiar to each telling, there is a basic pattern to the story which is common to all. Specifically:
  • There is an ancient and monstrous god/creature which represents chaos, or evil in some of the later tellings.
  • The king of the pantheon of gods is unable to control or defeat the monster.
  • For a time, no hero can be found who is willing to step up and attempt to defeat the monster.
  • Eventually a young god (sometimes, but not always, the son of the old king god) steps up, defeats and kills the monster, and claims (or is given) the kingship for himself.
  • Sometimes the young god creates the world out of the body of the slain monster.
This pattern can be seen in the Akkadian myth of Ninurta (the young god) and Anzu (the chaos monster, formerly the servant of Enlil, the old king) which probably goes back at least 2000 years BC, possibly much longer ago. It can also be seen in the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, sometime between 2000 and 1000 years BC, and in the myths of Baal and Yam, and Baal and Mot, from about the same era. There even appears to be evidence of the same story being told of the Hebrew God Yahweh defeating Leviathan (the sea/chaos monster) in the Psalms (74 and 89), although the actual arc of the story is missing in the bible.

Reflecting on all this, I found myself thinking about the story of David and Goliath. Its basically the same story as the Combat Myth, but told as a human story, supposedly in human history.
  • Goliath is a monstrous evil enemy.
  • Old King Saul can do nothing to defeat the monster.
  • For a time, no hero can be found.
  • Eventually a youngster, David, steps up, kills the giant, and ultimately becomes king.
OK, so in the David story he had already been selected as a future king, and didn't immediately depose Saul, but not all the other versions of the story are exact in all the details, either.

It very much looks to me like this is simply a retelling of the Combat Myth as a legend about an ancient hero. So this isn't likely to be a historical event. This seems really quite obvious to me, so I was surprised (after Googling a few relevant phrases) to find that nobody out there on the internet seems to have discussed this parallel. Surely I haven't stumbled on to an original thought...?

I wonder which other stories in the life of the great hero David were invented on the basis of mythic themes?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cold Case Christianity (Part 1)

J Warner Wallace is a 'cold case' homicide detective in California. When he was in his mid 30s he converted from being an 'angry atheist' (his words) to being a 'born again' Christian after apparently applying his detective skills to the gospel accounts. His experience and understanding led him to conclude that the gospels are genuine 'eye-witness' testimony and that they report the true events of Jesus life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.

His book 'Cold Case Christianity' is not his biography, but is an apologetic vehicle, aiming to convince the reader of the truth of Christianity, but through the 'unique' perspective of a detective who is used to sifting though evidence and building a case strong enough to convict a suspect. The methods used by detectives are described, 'real life' examples of how these work in murder cases are given (with all the names changed), and  the methods are then applied to the gospel stories.

My review of this book got unnecessarily long, so I'll review Part 1 of the book in this post, and take the chapters in Part 2 of the book, individually, in future posts.

Given the supposedly unique perspective of this author, its astounding how much of this reasoning and these arguments we've heard before. Most of the first half of this book is standard apologetic fayre, slightly 'sexed up' with the inclusion of 'gritty' detective stories. The actual apologetic arguments are expressed in fairly basic form and it appears that the main contribution of the first half of this book to the debate is the murder analogies, which sometimes distract us away from the biblical evidence rather than supporting the case being made.

But having said all that, there are a few interesting conclusions and claims in here which need some thought.

In what follows, I'll be looking at the apologetic arguments in the first half of the book, without much reference to the detective analogies. I'll take this bit chapter by chapter, starting at the very beginning. I'll deal with the meatier content of the second half of the book in subsequent posts.

In the first section of the book (which makes up almost exactly half of its length), the author goes through ten 'principles' of detective work which can be applied to the gospel stories. There is a chapter for each principle.

The first one is "don't be a know-it-all", that is, don't approach the gospels with your mind already made up or with anti-supernatural presuppositions. There is nothing particularly noteworthy here. 

This is followed by "learn how to infer" in which the author tries to draw a distinction between what is possible and what is reasonable. The claim is that the simplest of a range of 'possible' causes is the most reasonable. The claims are: (1) the truth must be feasible, (2) the truth will usually be straightforward, (3) the truth should be exhaustive, (4) the truth must be logical, and (5) the truth will be superior. We are then led through the usual 'minimal facts' argument of Habermas and Licona and a few 'possible' theories are presented which might explain these. These are: (a) Jesus wasn't really dead when he was taken down from the cross (in which the author states that it was 'the disciples' who 'pulled Jesus from the cross', which is something denied in the actual gospels, but hey... He also makes the claim that the gospels (plural) record the fact of the blood and water coming out of Jesus side. Of course this is only in one gospel...), (b) the disciples lied, (c) the disciples were delusional, (d) the disciples were fooled by an imposter, (e) the disciples were influenced by limited spiritual sightings, (f) the disciples' observations were distorted later, and (g) the disciples were accurately reporting the resurrection of Jesus.

Along the way in here the author says: "I've discovered that the first recollections of the eyewitnesses are usually more detailed and reliable than what they might offer thirty years later. Like other cold-case detectives, I rely on the original reports as I compare what witnesses once said to what these witnesses are saying today." What he doesn't seem to notice is that the thing we are missing in the gospels, even on the most conservative dating and traditional interpretation, is the early recollections. At the very best what we have is the recollections from 40 or more years later.

Of course, the author dismisses options (a) to (f) and concludes that option (g) is the most reasonable, even if it contains the miraculous and supernatural. Somehow he thinks that the simplest solution is the one that invokes the God of infinite possibilities. Given that, by definition, the God of infinite possibilities is consistent with all possible hypotheses, there is no case for concluding on only one here.

It is also worth noting that there is at least one possibility which is not considered - that the stories contain fiction. The disciples lying is considered, but not the possibility that the whole story, including the disciples' testimony, is fiction. Surely that needs considered before it can be dismissed?

The third principle is "think circumstantially", in which we get the classic 'cosmological argument', 'fine-tuning argument', 'argument from intelligent design' and the 'moral argument'. William Lane Craig does each of these better than they are presented here. Along the way he says "Darwinian evolution has great difficulty accounting for the existence of objective moral obligations..." which presupposes, as do many apologists, that if they can show that the Darwinian theory of evolution fails to account for some observation unrelated to the origin of species, that it fails as a world view. Sorry, "Darwinian evolution" is not an entire worldview, only a part of one. Plate tectonics can't explain morality either, but that doesn't invalidate the theory...

The argument that you can build a strong case purely on the basis of 'circumstantial' evidence is one that the author uses extensively later on in the book, so it is worth noting that the 'circumstantial' evidence presented in this chapter isn't that strong. But I think the author wants to get the reader to accept the idea of circumstantial evidence early on, so that we won't question it again later.

The fourth chapter is "test your witnesses" in which the author seeks to explain away the contradictions in the conflicting gospel accounts. Here, for the first time, it is totally clear that the detective stories have been selected to fit the apologetic perfectly, which makes you feel like someone might be trying to deceive you. Were the gospel writers liars or were they telling the truth? The possibility that they might have been sincere but misinformed is never considered (here), the author is convinced that they are eyewitnesses, and says that they (plural) identified themselves as eyewitnesses. Erm, no they don't, except the author of the Johannine appendix, who may not be the author of the whole book of John.

Chapter 5, "hang on every word" is the first chapter that needs some wrestling with. The idea presented is that you can glean 'evidence' from the way in which a witness presents their story. That is, the choice of words may give insight into the real opinions of the witness, which may sometimes be at odds with what they say. One of the examples given is of a man suspected of murdering his wife. If during questioning he describes the victim as "my beautiful wife" we may learn something about their relationship, if however he calls her "the wife" we perhaps get a different picture of his view of her. Of course, a turn of phrase proves nothing, but it may help as part of a cumulative case.

So when the author points out that John never names 'the mother of Jesus' in his gospel, he claims that this is consistent with the behaviour of an adopted son, who couldn't bring himself to use the name of someone he had called 'mother' for many years. So this observation corroborates the story of Jesus giving the responsibility of his mother to John, while he was on the cross.

But the main issue the author wants to address here is Peter's alleged eye-witness testimony in the gospel of Mark. Papias, and later Irenaeus, made the claim that Mark was Peter's interpreter and the gospel was his recollections of the actual stories told by Peter. The claim here is that this assertion is corroborated by the way in which Mark's gospel is written. Specifically: (1) Peter is the main character after Jesus, (2) Mark is familiar in the way he talks about Peter, (3) Peter is the 'inclusio' character, (4) Peter is painted in a positive light, even when he has shamed himself, (5) some minor details in the story are consistent with a Petrine origin, and (6) Mark's story is consistent in style and content with the teaching of Peter, as recorded in Acts.

Is all that right? Well, some of those claims are obvious, but not necessarily proof of anything. Sure, Peter is a main character, sure, Mark shows some familiarity with him. Neither of those really say anything about Mark's relationship to Peter, just that he is making a collection of 'Peter stories' that he knows. The 'inclusio' thing is not compelling, especially as it isn't clear at all. Yes, Peter features right at the start of the gospel and, yes, he is mentioned again near the end. But only mentioned, not featured. The closing words of Mark are by the angels to the women, with no sign of Peter. 

Point 4 is an odd one, especially as I have heard the exact opposite case made. The author here claims Mark is kinder to Peter than the other 3 gospel writers, but I've heard others claiming that Matthew has softened the scathing text of Mark to make the disciples (including Peter) not look like the idiots the do in Mark. So which is it, is Matthew harsher or kinder to Peter than Mark? If its not clear, then this point is not valid.

Point 5 is so vague as to be useless on its own, and even as part of a cumulative case, I'm not convinced there is any evidence here. And finally, for point 6 to be valid, we have to assume that Luke kept an accurate record of Peter's teaching, which he built into Acts, but then didn't use the same record when compiling his own gospel, for his gospel seems to have different details than the ones in Mark which make this case. And furthermore, many have pointed out that the preaching of Peter in Acts is barely (if at all) distinguishable from the preaching of Paul in Acts, which suggests that no Petrine characteristics are recorded there.

All this suggests to me is that the evidence here supports whatever preconceptions you approach the text with, so really there is nothing in this 'evidence' to build a case on.

Chapter 6 is "separate artifacts from evidence". Here the author acknowledges that the gospel accounts we have are not the originals, but have been edited and changed a bit over time. That is, they contain stories, like the woman taken in adultery, which were not there originally. The claim is that it is possible to identify these "artifacts" and discount them. However, it appears that the author only discounts artifacts for which we have two variant manuscripts, so we can clearly see that something has been added or changed. He gives us no methodology (beyond a vague reference to "textual criticism") for identifying artifacts when we have no variant texts, yet presumably these must exist - it would be amazingly unlikely if we had all the manuscripts we need to identify all the redactions in the bible. So here, I think he is trying to fight off some skeptical arguments, but he does shoot himself in the foot a bit. It is odd that this chapter features no citations at all.

Chapter 7 urges us to "resist conspiracy theories". Here the author rehashes the old claim that the disciples wouldn't have died for their faith if they knew it to be a lie. He says: "None of these eyewitnesses ever recanted, none was ever trotted out by the enemies of Christianity in an effort to expose the Christian "lie"... These men and women either were involved in the greatest conspiracy of all time or were simply eyewitnesses who were telling the truth." He also writes off the movies "The god who wasn't there" and "Zeitgeist" as being conspiracy theories, without giving them any consideration. But, as far as I can tell, we have nothing but legends, and late legends at that, about how the apostles died. They might have been martyred, but maybe not. In the document where we learn about Paul's beheading, he also makes a post-mortem appearance. The second half of that appears legendary, so why take the first part as gospel?

Chapter 8 tells us to "respect the chain of custody" and aims to show that the gospel stories were faithfully and accurately transmitted from the time of Jesus ("1-33AD") to the Council of Laodicea in 363AD, when the canon of scripture was formalised. This chapter serves only as a placeholder, putting ideas in the mind of the reader, without actually discussing any content. We'll get to that in Part 2 of the book. The suggestion made here (with no evidence, that comes later) is that the disciples of Jesus accurately remembered the stories, and faithfully passed them on to their disciples, who faithfully passed it on... and so on. As with chapter 6, this chapter features no citations.

Next we get "know when enough is enough". Basically this chapter is all about what constitutes 'beyond reasonable doubt' and how you don't need to have the answer to absolutely every question before you can decide to accept a particular hypothesis as being probably true. Here we are urged to distinguish our rational (i.e. evidence based) doubts from our emotional or volitional (i.e. not evidence based) doubts. If we can satisfy our rational doubts, the chapter urges us to ignore the other doubts as worthless. The aim of this chapter is to get the reader to dismiss certain of the common issues raised by atheists, such as the problem of evil. Sorry, I'm not convinced that this issue isn't rationally based. But the author tries to use the 'problem of evil' against the atheist by claiming that the existence of evil, or rather, the existence of absolute, objective moral facts, points to a higher power than man.
"In order for an act to be objectively 'bad', there must be some standard of objective 'good' by which to measure it. What might that standard be if not God? Can the standard come from some evolutionary process? Can it come from the slow development of cultural groups? If so, morals are simply a matter of opinion (albeit a largely held opinion), and there is nothing objectively evil to complain about."
Hmmm. I really must do another post on this issue again soon. But anyway, this digression kind of feels out of place in this chapter and doesn't really help the argument.

And so we get to Chapter 10 "prepare for an attack" and the end of Part 1 of this book. The main thrust of this chapter is to pre-empt the challenges of atheists by likening them to the wiles of a defence attorney. The tools employed by a good defence attorney are discussed, and many of them are shown to be ploys to try and confuse or distract the jury away from the evidence. So by analogy, this chapter is claiming that atheists have no real points to make and are just throwing lots of spurious arguments into the mix to muddy the waters and mask the truth. Here the author builds a 'straw man' of his own devising and then tears it apart. Not convinced.

So armed with these ten principles, we are now ready to consider the evidence for ourselves. Or so the book claims. What it has also done is sneakily undermined some arguments before they've even been raised, and subtly suggested to us things about the evidence that might not turn out to be as clear cut as we're being led to believe, but we'll get there in my review of Part 2...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The early Christian belief in the ascension?

In a recent episode of The Bible Geek podcast, a listener asked about passages in the NT which don't appear to have been in the earliest manuscripts, but appear to have been added some centuries later. The most famous of these is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But there are others.

What I had never previously realised is that all the ascension stories in the gospels are late additions. 

Of course, there is no explicit ascension in Matthew or John, but Mark and Luke have it, don't they? Well, I had never really thought about the fact that the ascension in Mark is part of the last bit of chapter 16, which isn't in the earliest manuscripts. But Luke at least has the ascension, doesn't he?

Well, no. It appears not. The single verse (and I had never before noticed that it is only a single verse) in Luke that refers to the ascension doesn't appear in any manuscript until the 3rd or 4th century. So it very much looks like none of the gospels originally had the ascension.


None of the four stories of the life and deeds of Jesus mentioned the ascension, at all? That wasn't a thing worth mentioning? I think if that was the way that Jesus's earthly ministry had actually ended, then one out of the four of them might have mentioned it!

Surely this observation is sufficient to deduce that the original stories about Jesus actually didn't feature the ascension. Which suggests that if there was a real Jesus, then he didn't ascend as most Christians today believe he did.

So if he didn't ascend, then where did he go?

That is an important question. If there was a real Jesus, who died and rose again, but didn't then ascend, i.e. didn't physically leave, then where was he in the years that followed, and where is he now? Given that I've got no good answer to that question, then I have to consider the premise of the question. What if some of the details in the story of Jesus in the NT are not true? Well, maybe that explains the lack of ascension. Here's the options as I see them:
  1. Jesus died and rose, but his resurrection was to a spiritual body, and was directly into heaven. Thus all the post-resurrection appearances were really just visions (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15 - Paul makes no distinction between the vision he saw and the appearances to the other apostles - maybe they were all the same, just visions). The need to invent an ascension at a later date, must have followed the shift to make the resurrection a physical thing, also at a later date.
  2. Jesus died but did not rise. However, his disciples believed that he was raised directly to heaven. And so on, as above. There is no way at this late stage to decide between these two options, there is no evidence either way. I guess it is a matter of faith.
  3. There was no Jesus. I don't really want to get into this in this post, but it should still be an option on the table.
So it doesn't matter which way you slice it, no ascension pretty much destroys contemporary Christian belief. But there are two other things to consider.

What about Acts 1?

Well the lack of ascension in Luke actually solves one of the classic biblical contradictions - Luke says the ascension was pretty much immediately after the resurrection, Acts says it was 40 days later. And yet these are supposedly the work of the same author? No ascension in Luke solves that problem. No contradiction.

But the ascension is still in Acts, so it clearly was part of early Christian belief, right? Well, yes, but how early is early? The book of Acts is not independently attested until the late 2nd century. A number of critical scholars believe it was composed in the 2nd century, possibly as part of a response to Marcionites (see, for example, Joseph Tyson) and possibly also as an attempt to unite rival 'Petrine' and 'Pauline' factions in the nascent church (Robert Price certainly thinks this). David Trobisch claims that Acts was composed by Polycarp in the mid 2nd century. If any of this is the case, then the stories of the ascension came into play about a hundred years after the alleged event. That's far too late to have any historical weight, especially since the earlier gospels all fail to mention it.

What about John 20v17?

But is there an oblique reference to the ascension in John's gospel? It says
"Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”" 
So it looks like the author of the 4th gospel was anticipating the ascension, even if he doesn't describe it explicitly. Well, yes, it looks like that in English, but I had a peek at the Greek and discovered that the word translated 'ascended' here is actually a pretty common word, which is usually translated 'went up'. As in "Jesus went up to Jerusalem" or "Jesus went up to Galilee". The word seems to convey physical elevation in some way, but clearly was used to mean simply travelling from one place to another. So here Jesus says he is going or travelling to the Father, and it is only the turn of phrase that suggests elevation. Maybe he just meant he was leaving, but didn't mean anything about flying through the air.

So where does this leave us? With an earth-bound Jesus, or a non-physical Jesus, but not with the one who most Christians believe in today.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

William Lane Craig vs. Lawrence Krauss Debates

Recently, the "world's best apologist" Dr William Lane Craig (who some claim has never lost a debate) took part in a series of informal debates with outspoken atheist physicist Prof. Lawrence Krauss in Australia. These were hosted by a Christian organisation, the City Bible Forum, based in Australia.

The video of these events has recently been made available on YouTube, and links to the various videos can be found here. A recent episode of the UK radio show Unbelievable featured interviews with both speakers after the events to see how they thought it went.

I have been doing a lot of travelling over the past week, so I loaded up the audio of these events onto my iPod and have been listening to them in airports, on planes, on trains, etc. on my travels. I'm not going to review the events in detail, but here are a few comments and opinions on the debates, in no particular order.

The debates all followed a similar pattern. In each case there was a theme, in each event each speaker had about 15 minutes to present their case for or against the motion, then there was about half an hour of moderated discussion between the two speakers, then there was about half an hour where the speakers responded to questions that had been tweeted or texted by members of the audience. The timings weren't precise and most sections of the discussion ran over time in most of the events.

Krauss was up for a fight. Even when the moderator of the event explicitly asked the speakers to be civil to each other and attempt to find common ground, Krauss stuck to his case that religion is demonstrably false and that William Lane Craig is a liar and a fraud. The first of those two is nothing new in such debates, but there was a great amount of ad hominem attacks on WLC, particularly in the Brisbane debate on "Has science buried God?" This might have made Krauss look bad, were it not for the fact that he backed up his statements with audio (or maybe it was video, I don't know I was only listening) featuring WLC, in which he (WLC) made statements (about an upcoming film featuring Krauss), which are demonstrably false. Krauss demonstrated the falseness. We have it on record that WLC bore false witness in some of his podcasts, and furthermore, he did not apologise or admit it when presented with this evidence. So Krauss effectively demonstrated that WLC is a liar. In doing so, I think he basically won this debate.

But. On the whole, Krauss came across badly. He frequently interrupted, wouldn't let his opponent finish his statements and poured scorn on what was said. He also seemed to get irritated and angry quite often, so that he seemed to be reacting from emotional, not rational reasons. Also, while Krauss has a great deal of knowledge and understanding of science, particularly physics and cosmology, his limitations were clearly shown when the discussion moved into the subjects of philosophy, theology, history or the bible. He failed on all these topics so, on the whole, Craig came out looking like he was winning. This should really come as no surprise, as Krauss is a professional scientist, and Craig is a professional debater. Craig knew how to play the discussion, play his opponent, and play the audience. Krauss came off badly against this.

Craig's debating style gets to be quite annoying if you listen to it for any time at all. One. He lists all his arguments numerically. Two. This is really quite annoying. Three. Therefore I'll stop doing it here.

The most clever, yet probably deceptive, feature of WLC's debating style is the way he cites experts to support his case. Generally, he gives quotes from named publications, by named experts, who I suspect the majority of the audience have never heard of, and will never read the publications. It is a blatant argument to authority - he never needs to explain why his arguments are valid, all he does is cite and quote experts who hold the same opinions as himself. But he does it with such confidence that the audience assume the quoted name must be a world leading expert in whatever field, and the theory they subscribe to must be generally accepted by the wider community in which they work. Maybe some of them are, but like most of WLC's audience, I haven't actually looked them up to find out.

There really was nothing new in any of these debates. I think I've heard pretty much all of it before. And the thing is, the arguments on both sides are still not compelling enough to sway the preconceived notions of the audience. The Christians who were there (quite a lot, going by the cheers when Craig made a point) will have left just as sure of their faith as when they arrived. Likewise the atheists (similarly, quite a lot, going by the cheers). So what is the point of it, really? Well, the Christian organisers presumably expect that the Holy Spirit was at work there, so there must have been value, even if they can't see it. But what's in it for the atheists? I think they must have a similar faith in the actions of 'reason'. Reason was at work in that place and some believers must be having doubts as a consequence. Not sure.

Both sides probably saw the events as some form of success. Well, maybe the benefit of the events will be witnessed in eternity. Or not, as the case may be. Hmmm.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The mundane and the supernatural

I listened to another podcast of the Unbelievable show the other day. This one featured J Warner Wallace, author of "Cold Case Christianity", a book I intend to read someday. The basic underlying theme of the discussion on this particular show was how the gospel stories can be treated like witness statements in a police investigation. I remain to be convinced of this point, but I'l deal with that when I read the book.

One thing that was said along the way regarded the supernatural events in the gospels as well as the mundane ones. I don't remember if the word 'mundane' was actually used, but that's the distinction I remember being discussed. The point seemed to be that if you put the supernatural stuff to the side for a bit, the mundane stuff in the gospels can be shown to be accurate history. And the case for historical accuracy is sufficiently strong that you end up realising the supernatural stuff must be historically accurate too. They didn't say it exactly that way on the podcast, but this is my paraphrase.

But then I found myself wondering... what mundane events?

What mundane stories in the life of Jesus are there? Everything he is recorded as doing has a supernatural component. He was born, mundane enough, but of a virgin, which makes it supernatural. He was baptised in water, but then a supernatural dove comes down and a voice speaks from out of thin air. Even when he's just asking a woman for water from a well, he exhibits supernatural knowledge and insight. I actually can't think of any mundane events in the gospels other than the teaching passages, most of which come without any specific geographical or historical setting, so we can't really learn anything about history from them.

But if there are no mundane events described, then the line of reasoning that leads to acceptance of the supernatural events is a false one. 

But probably more on this issue when I get around to reading the book. Don't hold your breath though, I have several other books lined up to read before that.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Do I have to study Koiné Greek?

Following my recent comments about debates on the Historical Jesus, I went away and listened to a couple more debates. One was between Dan Barker and Mike Licona on the resurrection - did it happen? You can find the audio of it here.

I'm not going to get into the details of the debate or the old 'minimal facts' argument that Licona used (expressed in a very 'appeal to consensus' manner here) in the debate. But what irked me the most about the debate was that it, once again, degenerated into an argument about the precise meaning of words in Koiné Greek (the language that the New Testament documents were written in).
2 Timothy 2:14 says "Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen."
Indeed. At one point in the debate Licona got Barker to say how long he'd formally studied Greek for. Barker said "two years". Licona casually dismissed two years of study as being 'basic to intermediate' level, and then trumped Barker by claiming to have formally studied Greek for five years, and so he therefore understood Greek at an advanced level, and therefore his interpretation of a given word was correct and Barkers was wrong.

They were arguing whether the nuances in this particular Greek word for 'raised' implied that Jesus was raised purely spiritually or raised physically.

Hang on, it takes 5 years of study to be able to resolve this question, and even then it all hangs on an ambiguous word, so ambiguous that someone who had studied for only 2 years would misunderstand it?

If that's the case, then the original ambiguous word couldn't be inspired by a God actually trying to communicate a message.

Sorry, I simply don't have the time or money to take 5 years out of my life to devote to the study of an ancient language. If it takes 5 years of study to be sure of the interpretation of some crucial verses in the bible, then I will never have a correct interpretation or understanding of some of the bible, and therefore will never be able to decide for myself what to believe. The only option open to me is to trust the opinion of one expert or another, so how should I choose?

If correct understanding of nuances in the original Greek is required to understand the original message of the NT writings, then the original intent of those writings will be forever lost to me and to billions of others, whose salvation apparently depends on it.

And yet, Christian apologists want me to believe that an omniscient and omnipotent God would inspire a book which is ambiguous on some pretty important things. For me, that is a truly unbelievable claim. If there is a God who intends to convey a message to his creation through a book, he would have done it in an unambiguous way.

Thus I can't help but conclude that if the finer points of an apologist's argument rely on a correct understanding of subtleties in the text, then that argument is invalidated, by default.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Historical Jesus Spectrum

I've read a few books and listened to a number of debates and discussions on 'the historical Jesus' over the past few years. The debates are always frustrating. This morning I realised just why they are largely a waste of time. The problem is this, the two opposing viewpoints generally presented in these debates are too far apart on the spectrum of belief for anyone to ever have their point of view changed by them.

As I see it, the spectrum of belief in the historical Jesus and the gospel stories goes something like this:
  1. The bible is completely accurate and therefore Jesus was and is the divine Son of God.
  2. The bible stories are mostly accurate, although some minor mistakes and embellishments have got in there, due to the human writers, but all the essential stuff is true, therefore we can be sure Jesus was and is the divine Son of God.
  3. The bible stories are based on what happened in history, but some legendary and mythical content has been added along the way. Jesus was and is the divine Son of God, and we can still learn all we need to know about him for salvation and righteous living from the gospel stories.
  4. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, a holy man or prophet, sent by God, and we can learn how to live and how to approach God by following his teachings.
  5. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, he was a good man who believed he was sent by God. He may even have believed he was in some way divine. Obviously some of the stories in the gospels are outright fictions and he couldn't have done all those miracles, but we can still learn something about right living from his good moral teaching.
  6. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, he was a charismatic political leader who lead a movement against Rome and was executed as a consequence.
  7. The bible stories are a collection of mythical stories and wise teachings which have been fictively attributed to Jesus, who was a real man in 1st century Galilee/Judea. But the legends almost completely obstruct our view of the real Jesus, so we don't really know who he was.
  8. The bible stories, including tales of Jesus the saviour, are a collection of mythical stories. At some point these were historicised, but the character of Jesus was never a real person.
The problem with debates between Christian scholars and atheist scholars is that Christians, by definition, must hold to one of the first three options on this list, while atheists, by definition, must discount the top four options. Generally debates are between someone holding to Option 1 or 2 and someone holding to Option 5 or 6. But these viewpoints are sufficiently far apart on the spectrum that there is almost no common ground between them. The only really meaningful debates on the topic of the historical Jesus are between those holding to options 4, 5 or 6. That is, it is only people who agree to a high amount of embellishment that can reasonably debate these points, Christians are pretty much excluded from meaningful debate on this topic, and thus the conclusion that Jesus was actually divine in some way is pretty much off the table.

The thing is, I really don't care which option out of 5 to 8 is true, or which option out of 1 to 3 is true. But I really do care whether the truth lies in options 1 to 3 or in options 5 to 8. Option 4, being a very uncertain place, when it comes to Jesus, is not something I want to conclude, because where would that get me? Yes there is a God, but no Jesus wasn't his Son. Yikes. I'll leave that possibility alone for now.

For me, the only thing that matters about the 'historical' Jesus is this: Was he the Son of God or not?

If he wasn't the Son of God, it doesn't matter to me if he existed or didn't. It doesn't matter to me if he was a political leader, an apocalyptic prophet or a freedom fighter. It doesn't matter to me whether or not he believed he was the Son of God or not. If he wasn't actually the real Son of the real God, then I really don't care who he was.

But if he was the real Son of the real God, then this fact should influence everything in my life.

So my problem with all the debates, discussions and books on the Historical Jesus is this - none of them helps me decide whether or not the gospel stories contain the truth.

But I am persuaded that there are errors and human embellishment in the gospels, so Option 1 is off the table for me. So the battle ground is really on Options 2 and 3. If it can be shown that the embellishments and fictions in the gospel stories are in the minority, then the possibility that Jesus was and is the Son of God is still a live option.

I've read, seen and heard plenty of stuff that suggests that the majority of material in there is legendary. But its only a suggestion, not a 'beyond reasonable doubt' proof.

Then again, I've not heard any particularly compelling case for the authenticity of the apparently legendary material in the gospels, so the balance of evidence seems to be supporting the skeptical side. But its just not conclusive for me.

And that bugs me.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Original here:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Proving History?

So I finished reading Richard Carrier's book "Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus" which I mentioned in the previous post.

A few things to say about Richard Carrier before I make comments on this book in particular:
  1. Carrier is an intelligent guy who thinks things through in greater detail than many people do.
  2. He also comes across as quite arrogant in interviews and in some of the things he writes.
  3. His logic appears to be sound and his conclusions generally appear to be justifiable.
  4. He has a clear idea of who his audience is, and tailors his writings to that specific audience.
Starting with that final point, I don't think I am the audience Carrier is writing to in this book. In many of the books by 'new atheists' which I have read, I've realised that the authors are generally 'preaching to the deconverted', as it were, and are not realistically expecting many believers to be reading their books. 'New atheism' books are aimed to give ammunition to atheists. Of course, the flipside of that is that most apologetics books are aimed at Christians to reinforce their beliefs, and not to try to convince atheists to believe...

So, point number one in this review, I don't think any Christian is going to be swayed by the arguments made in this book, even if they (the arguments, that is) are logical, justified and, indeed, correct. But, of course, this book doesn't really set out to sway anyone with its conclusions about history, the main point of this book is to demonstrate to its (mostly non-mathematically inclined) audience that the mathematical technique of Bayes's Theorem is appropriate in historical investigation, and furthermore is the best method to use in historical investigation. I think the book manages to do that, but as conclusions go, its not a very exciting one. The much more exciting and dramatic conclusion comes in Carrier's next book, which isn't out yet.

As a side note, I'm glad that Carrier settled on consistent use of "Bayes's Theorem" rather than "Bayes Theorem", which I find acceptable, or "Bayes' Theorem", which is clearly not acceptable to anyone who understands grammar. Of course, he abbreviates it to "BT" for most of the book, which gets around the problem of the apostrophe. But anyway...

On the whole, this is not a very interesting book. It has interesting bits in it, and makes some interesting conclusions along the way, but I can't really recommend this to anyone as a good read. I doubt even Carrier thinks this book is particularly interesting, but it probably is required before we get to the meaty stuff in the next book. And therein lies the problem, this is clearly the build up to the much more interesting work which is to follow, and may be required reading to understand that second work, but by itself this is a bit dry.

I guess I should explain what Bayes's Theorem is. Put simply, it is a mathematical method for updating your beliefs in the light of new evidence. As used by Carrier, it is a method of assessing the probability of one or more historical hypotheses by considering one or more pieces of evidence. The method provides a framework for determining whether our confidence in a given belief (hypothesis) should be increased or decreased as new evidence presents itself. (I should note here that I have used Bayes's Theorem in my work for over a decade now, so I am fairly familiar with it, and thus am far from the target audience of this book.)

The point of this book is to convince the reader (who Carrier expects to be a non-mathematically inclined person with an interest in history) that Bayes's Theorem is a sound and justifiable method for coming to historical conclusions. He wants everyone to share this belief. If he gets everyone to share this belief, then everyone will have to accept any historical deduction he makes using Bayes's Theorem. And in the next book (I expect) he will end up using Bayes's Theorem to show that Jesus was not the Son of God and, furthermore, probably didn't exist. But in order for that argument to work, he has to get you to accept the method.

The fundamental problem in this kind of reasoning is this, that faced with an anti-Christian conclusion derived using Bayes's Theorem, the non-mathematically inclined Christian historian who accepted BT on the basis of this book will reject it again after the next book, because their acceptance of the truth of Christianity is so much stronger than their acceptance of the truth of Bayes, that the only conclusion they can come to is that Bayes's Theorem must be flawed, even if in some way that is not immediately apparent. So I fear that the end result of this will be an insufferably smug Richard Carrier, who knows - beyond reasonable doubt - that he has proved that Jesus didn't exist, and a bunch of Christians who have read this, who know that Carrier must be wrong.

But Carrier does an excellent job of demonstrating that Bayes's Theorem is a valid way of estimating historical probability, and a pretty good job of demonstrating that it is the best method of estimating historical probability.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is Chapter 5, where he looks at the various criteria used by historians involved in the 'quest' for the 'Historical Jesus' and either demonstrates that each criterion reduces to Bayes's Theorem, or is invalid as a method. Thus the point is proved, Bayes's Theorem is the fundamental valid method underlying all other historicity criteria.

Taken one by one:
  1. Dissimilarity: demonstrated to be invalid.
  2. Embarrassment: similarly invalid. Carrier deconstructs this one at great length, indeed, it is the largest part of the chapter by far. Along the way, he makes a very interesting statement that I must investigate further sometime:
    "Its worth remarking here, ..., that everyone literate enough to compose books in antiquity was educated almost exclusively in the specific skill of persuasion: that is what all writing was believed to be for, and how all literate persons were taught to write." (page 134)
    Thus, everything in an ancient book was there for the purpose of convincing the reader of something, so nothing embarrassing which hindered this purpose would be included.
  3. Coherence: shown to be invalid.
  4. Multiple attestation: shown to be invalid.
  5. Explanatory credibility: consistent with Bayes, but can only exclude, never confirm.
  6. Contextual plausibility: similarly consistent with Bayes.
  7. Historical plausibility: again, consistent with Bayes, but is incomplete.
  8. Natural probability: consistent with Bayes, but doesn't make as strong a case as could be formulated with Bayes, so Bayes supersedes this method. 
  9. Oral preservability: consistent with Bayes, but can only exclude.
  10. Crucifixion (the theory has to explain why Jesus was deemed worthy of crucifixion): not valid.
  11. Fabricatory trend: consistent with Bayes, but can only exclude.
  12. Least distinctiveness: of limited use, but consistent with Bayes.
  13. Vividness of narration: shown to be invalid.
  14. Textual variance: invalid.
  15. Greek context: invalid.
  16. Aramaic context: invalid.
  17. Discourse features: invalid.
  18. Characteristic Jesus: invalid, as it relies on many of the above invalid methods.
Wow. I hadn't realised there were so many rubbish criteria in use by Historical Jesus scholars. Carrier shows that most of them are useless and the rest of them are poor-man's versions of Bayes, so to use Bayes directly is better than using any of them.

Anyway, I think I've said all I need to here. There's an interesting Jesus vs Daniel thing that I'll maybe pick up in a future post, but I'll not go into it here.

In summary, I agree with Carrier's conclusion: "Historians should be Bayesians". We'll see what happens when Bayes is applied directly to Jesus in the next book by Carrier.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Historical probability and the Son of God

I'm currently reading Richard Carrier's book "Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus". A proper review may follow in due course, when I've finished reading the thing. Carrier is currently working on another book in which he aims to prove that Jesus never existed at all, using the methods he establishes and validates in the earlier book. But we'll have to judge that book on its own merits, when it comes out.

Here, as the title makes clear, Carrier uses Bayes's Theorem as his primary method for assessing historical hypotheses in the light of historical data. Now, I'm no stranger to Bayes's Theorem, it was the fundamental foundation of my PhD thesis (in Engineering) after all, and I'm very interested in the subject of Jesus, historical or otherwise, so I really had to read this book. 

Currently I'm about 1/3 of the way through the book, so I can't comment on where Carrier ends up, but I have a nagging doubt about the applicability of the use of Bayes's Theorem, or indeed any method of estimating historical probability here.

The problem is this. It doesn't matter which way you slice the issues, or which pieces of evidence you consider or neglect, you will never, ever reach the conclusion that Jesus was the Son of God by historical methods.

Almost by definition, Jesus, if he was the unique Son of God (whatever that means in this context), was just that, the unique Son of God. There was only one of him who ever lived. That means that historically there is only a 1 in 100 billion (approx number of people who have ever lived) chance that any given person in history was the real Son of God. Now those odds are so vanishingly small that any probabilicist would quite happily neglect that chance and simply say the chances of it are zero.

In other words, historically speaking, the chances of anyone being the Son of God are zero. Therefore, in terms of historical probability, we can say with a great degree of confidence that nobody was the Son of God, therefore, Jesus was not the Son of God. QED. Probability does work like that. But the question is whether or not reality works like that? 

My doubt is that if Jesus actually was the 1 in 1011 Son of God, then historical reasoning will never give us access to that fact. We simply cannot ever get there through historical method.

So when it comes to Carrier proving mathematically that Jesus was not the Son of God and, furthermore, did not exist at all, then that really proves nothing. The issue will be completely settled for a number of atheists who believe it anyway, but it will change nothing for even mathematically minded and rational believers (yes, they do exist), because there is always a difference between a 'vanishingly small' probability and actual zero. And it doesn't matter how small 'vanishing' is, Bayes's Theorem will always leave a tiny hole for that chink of light to shine through, for those who believe in the light.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Heart or head?

For some reason I've been reflecting on the idea of believing something 'in your heart' compared to believing it 'in your head'. What happens when heart and head don't agree on what they believe? Can your heart-belief cause your head-belief to shift, and vice versa?

Fundamentally, and this is an issue I've been struggling with for several years now, what happens when you believe something passionately with your heart, yet become convinced that it can't be true in your head? What happens, as far as I can tell, is that the heart simply has to follow the head eventually.

Christianity makes emotional sense to me. So many things that are done in church seem to work on an emotional level. And not just on an emotional level, but on a practical level too. When the church gets it right, being part of that church is a real blessing, it provides real community, real emotional and practical support, real companionship, conviction in unity, a reason to be altruistic, for some a reason to keep living at all, it gives a real sense of the presence of God and an apparent pathway into transcendence which is almost impossible to convey to someone who has never experienced it.

Put simply, as I have said on this blog before, worship works. Church works. Corporate prayer works. All of this can be a great and life-enhancing experience. Put together, it is more than enough evidence to make the heart believe in the truth of Jesus and the claims of Christianity.

But. Is there a reality beyond the psychological experience? Christianity makes promises for what you can get in this life, and in the life to come. Indeed, Christianity promises a life to come. For a great many people in 'good' churches, Christianity delivers on its promise for this life. But, of course, what it can't do is demonstrate - at all - that it can deliver on its other promises. Good feelings now cannot imply anything about whether there is a post-mortem existence or reveal any aspects of that existence, good or bad. This disconnect is a problem for my head.

Meanwhile, my head has been looking at the evidence for the historical reliability of the claims in the bible. And the claims are simply not historically reliable. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is just as much of a disconnect between the historical claims of Christianity and contemporary experience as there is between contemporary experience and the promise of life to come.

To summarise, Christianity seems to work in practice in the present, but it is wrong about the past, and it cannot demonstrate that it knows anything about the future.

Inevitably, the shifting beliefs of my head have pulled my heart into a disconnect with its former emotional beliefs. I no longer feel the unity of church or feel the transcendence of worship. But to get that back would mean having to simply switch off all my critical reasoning and reject or forget what I believe to be true about reality.

If you've never been at this crossroads in your life, you really can't know what its like. Any comments from confirmed atheists about it being a clear and obvious choice are irrelevant. Because they don't know. I can totally understand the situation of that character in the original Matrix movie who chose to opt back into the Matrix system, because he wanted the taste of the food there, even though he knew it was false. I've taken the red pill, I've seen what the outside is like, yet the fiction of the inside is very appealing still. 

No conclusion to all this. Not yet... Even if the end is inevitable, there's still some wrestling to be done.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

...the reason for the hope that you have...

1 Peter 3:15 says: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
Its a famous verse, often quoted and applied by Christians. The thing is, in my experience, Christians usually seem to interpret the verse to mean something other than what it actually says. What it does not say is always be prepared to explain or defend why you believe what you believe, what it says is be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have.

So what is the hope that Christians have, and in what way is this hope different from the hope of non-Christians?

You see, I think pretty much everybody in the entire world hopes that when they die physically, that  this won't be the end of their consciousness, and that they'll go somewhere pleasant, possibly somewhere better than here. Pretty much everyone hopes that this is true, even if they don't actually believe it.

Hope and belief are totally different things. You can hope for many things that you may believe to be unlikely or impossible.

Why do we hope that death is not the end? Because we're human. And we worry about the future and the unknown. We hope that the future will generally be full of joy and happiness and relatively free from pain and suffering. We hope that this applies on this side of our inevitable death, but of course we hope that it continues beyond that too. 

So the Christian hope is really no different from the hope of everybody else. 

What Christianity (and other religious systems) brings to the table is a fear that there is potentially pain and suffering after death. For eternity. So adopting the Christian world-view actually increases the potential of worry for the future. (Likewise for other religions.) In a purely naturalistic world-view, there is probably the belief that death is the end of consciousness, and the faint hope that maybe its not, and there might be something nice beyond. But no real fear of death. (As Woody Allen said "I am not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." As someone else said "Where I am, death is not, where death is, I am not" - why should you fear something which, by definition, you won't be there to experience?) But the real fear of judgement and possible damnation after death comes purely from a religious world-view.

The Christian hope for salvation in the hereafter is predicated on Christian belief in judgement and hell. Without the latter, there is no meaning in the former. The 'good news' of the gospel relies on acceptance of the bad news inherent in the gospel first. 

So the Christian, attempting to give a reason for their hope in Christ for salvation, first has to give a reason why they fear the possibility of hell. And the reason they fear hell is that they have been convinced by the bible or the church that they are inadequate and don't deserve anything but hell. They've been convinced that they are sinners. Which literally means that they have 'missed the mark' and having missed the mark, they don't deserve a prize, but rather actually deserve punishment. What sort of a system convinces people that they are bad people, failures and inadequate? Only one that seeks to control people. If God is good, the message would be one of empowerment, but it really isn't.

Last time I heard a time of 'open prayer' in church I was struck by how many people there prayed about their own inadequacy and weakness. The message of Christianity, and this is reinforced in the believer in many ways, is not only that they are weak and inadequate, but more than that, that they have to be weak in order to be saved.

So ultimately, the reason the Christian hopes in salvation through Christ is because they believe they are inadequate, don't deserve anything good, actually deserve punishment, and all they can do is admit weakness and hope on the grace of God.

I'm not sure that is really good news.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Jesus is alive...

We sang a song in church last week, for which the main focus of the lyrics and the 'hook' of the tune was the words "Jesus is alive!" This phrase, in a variety of languages, has been one of the main declarations of Christian worship for the best part of two thousand years. But singing it this week made me question why. Why is this phrase a primary article of worship? Its not a statement about something Jesus has done (for us), but is rather a statement of belief in an attribute of Jesus.

In contemporary Christian understanding of Jesus, he has been alive for all of eternity past and will be alive for all of eternity future. Yes, there was that brief three day period when he was apparently - in some sense - dead, but that's barely a blip in an eternity of life. I realsed, when singing those words last week, that the message of the song wasn't 'Jesus is alive again, having been dead', it wasn't a celebration of resurrection 'Jesus is risen', but it was simply a statement of belief that the Christian God is a living God, not a lifeless one like the idols of the pagans.

Then I realised that this statement of worship pre-dates Christianity. Its all through the Old Testament too. God is 'the living God' (e.g. Deut 5:26; Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26; etc.) and oaths in the OT were sworn 'as surely as Yahweh lives' (e.g. Judges 8:19; Ruth 3:13; 1 Samuel 14:39; etc.). I found myself thinking that the Christian declaration 'Jesus is alive' is basically an update of the OT statement about God. Then I searched and found that the phrase 'Jesus is alive' (or something equivalent) does not actually occur in the NT!

The most common phrasing for a similar thought that I found in the NT is Jesus / Christ 'has been raised', although there are a few 'has risen' type statements in the gospels. But the most common type of phrasing describes an action that was done by God to Christ - God (the active participant) raised Jesus (to whom no action is attributed) from the dead. The statement is not about something Jesus did or about his attributes. So if that's the NT way of thinking, then why has the 'Jesus is alive' type thinking come to be so dominant?

This return to OT-type thinking seems to be a post canonical shift. Its as if the OT thinking about God has been transferred onto the NT character of Jesus, making him the active participant. This looks like a harmonisation of Christian thinking and Jewish thinking. Some speculate this happened in the 2nd century resulting in the emergence of the 'Catholic' variety of Christianity.

Once again, I can't help but think that the conflict between nascent Catholicism and Marcionism is hiding somewhere in here. In Marcionism (the earliest form of Christianity we know much about!) the Father God who raised Jesus from the dead was emphatically not the same God as the God of the OT. This religion was completely distinct from Jewish thinking. Meanwhile, as Margaret Barker suggests, there was a popular non-monotheistic version of Judaism which meshed well with Christian thought - that Yahweh in OT times and Jesus in NT times were the same character - the son of Elyon, the Most High God. If this is true, then Yahweh, the living God, became Jesus, the God who is alive. Throw all this into a melting pot and fight it out until only one 'orthodox' hybrid religion emerges, and it is easy to see how the idea of Jesus as the living God could win out. Maybe.

Worth thinking about though.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Bow or rainbow?

I've blogged before about the problems inherent in the story of Noah and the flood (indeed, it was my very first doubt on this blog). But when thinking about the difference between the scientific method and the religions method the other day, I found myself thinking about the rainbow after the flood. Science does a pretty good job of explaining why there is a rainbow when the sun comes out, after the rain.

What I find interesting about the religious explanation is that the majority of Christians these days don't seem to understand the symbolism that is in the original text, and so they misunderstand the original intent of the story, as far as I can tell.

Modern translations tend to say something like this: "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13 NIV).

Older (and more literal translations) say something more like this: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13 KJV).

Not much of a difference, you're probably thinking, 'bow' and 'rainbow' are basically the same thing, aren't they? Well, no. A rainbow is a rainbow, but a bow can mean a rainbow, or it could mean a weapon, as in a bow and arrow. Indeed, this appears to be the primary meaning of the word as used in the OT Hebrew.

What has just happened in the biblical story? God has warred against humanity and pretty much wiped it out. The appearance of a rainbow is explained as being a symbol (or maybe the real thing) of God putting down his weapon as a token that he is at war with us no more. So whenever we see the bow in the sky, we know that it is not in his hands, ready to unleash death on us again.

But by translating Genesis with the word 'rainbow', the entire message of this verse is lost. The bow switches from being a sign of war (albeit war ended) to being a sign of peace.

A very minor thought, but I thought I'd share it... I wonder how many other subtleties like this have been lost in translation?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Science and Religion...

Yet another post inspired by a recent Unbelievable podcast, I really must think for myself some day... 

Anyway, these thoughts spring from the show on "Can the Bible be retold as science?" featuring a discussion between Russell Stannard (Christian and Physicist) and Steve Jones (Atheist and Geneticist). Jones has recently published a book saying that the bible is really an early attempt to explain the world in a kind of semi-scientific manner, and the show discussed this. The fact that most of the bible clearly isn't anything like this at all didn't really come into the conversation.

This was one of the rare shows on Unbelievable where the usually impartial host Justin Brierley clearly picked a side to be on. Obviously, we know he's a Christian, but here he definitely sided with Stannard more than he usually does in such debates.

But anyway, the discussion eventually landed on the 'non-overlapping magisteria' theme. Brierley and Stannard were quite emphatic that there were some questions that science cannot answer, but religion can. Jones appeared to grudgingly agree with them. But they never got into the meat of how this actually happens. The whole discussion was expressed in terms of 'science' does this, and 'religion' does that, without actually asking the important question of how either of them answer anything.

The 'scientific method' is well established and basically goes like this:
  1. Propose hypotheses
  2. Carry out tests or observations to either confirm or refute hypotheses
  3. Discount refuted hypotheses, perhaps modify unrefuted hypotheses
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 until hypothesis is confirmed by a reasonable amount of testing and is not refuted.
  5. Always be willing to let new evidence refute an 'established' theory...
In this way, science establishes 'facts' and increases our knowledge of the universe.

But what about religion? What is the 'religious method'?

There is a science vs religion flowchart that you've probably seen that caricatures religion is basically being a set of ideas that are unchangable, irrespective of how much contradictory evidence there is. That is simplistic and in many cases outright wrong. But the question remains, how does religion answer the questions of life?

In listening to the Unbelievable podcast, I couldn't help but think that most of the time when the folk were talking about 'religion', what they actually meant was 'theology', but even then that didn't help me in my line of thinking; how does theology answer the questions of life?

On reflection, I think there are three basic methods which 'religion' uses to establish truth:
  1. Observation, hypothesis testing, etc. - that is, basically something like the scientific method.
  2. Philosophical deduction, often linked with meditation on holy texts or traditional thought.
  3. Revelation.
Of course, in religious thinking, revelation trumps philosophical deduction, which in turn trumps the scientific method. In other words, any 'facts' established by revelation are considered to be outwith the realm of scientific enquiry, and no amount of contradictory evidence can ever refute them.

To the scientific mind, of course, this line of reasoning is nonsense. If an established 'fact' can be refuted (beyond reasonable doubt), then we should dispense with it, irrespective of how the fact was established in the first place. Indeed, if the evidence refutes the 'fact', then this leads the scientific mind to question the validity of the method that established it in the first place. So not only is the 'fact' dismissed but the process of revelation is also given less weight, or is dismissed altogether. 

On thinking through these issues I have come to realise that pretty much everything asserted by religion (well, I'm thinking specifically of Christianity here, but presumably this goes for all the other religions that I don't know as much about) eventually can be traced back to some claim of 'revelation' or 'inspiration'. It may be revelation to someone a long time ago, which was then written down, which then became scripture, which was then meditated upon, which was then interpreted, which then became doctrine, and so on, but at the end of the day, if you follow the chain of thought back, somewhere we end up with inspiration or revelation, however implicit this is.

So, once we strip all the layers away, what religion is left with is claims of revelation. Within any given religious group, these may be taken as authoritative, but viewed from the outside, these are almost certain to be taken as worthless, irrespective of whether the outside observer is an atheist or a theist of another flavour. Indeed, even within a religion, say Christianity, large groups of adherents would consider certain claims of revelation or inspiration made by other groups to be worthless.

For example, the church I grew up in was very skeptical of the 'gift of tongues', so any message received by someone through the 'gift of interpretation of tongues' on hearing a 'message' delivered in an unknown language would have been completely dismissed by them. This revelation pathway would not be accepted as valid. Indeed, for the church I grew up in, the only valid revelation pathway is the existing bible. They firmly believed that God has nothing new to say that hasn't already been said in the bible or through Jesus. But other parts of the church don't hold to this kind of belief and the revelation pathway remains open.

But if an 'inspired revelation' today is not possible, then why should a similar revelation 2000 years ago be any more valid? We actually know less about the historical revelation pathway than we do about the modern one. In modern times we can find out about the person 'receiving' the inspiration, we can assess their trustworthiness, etc. Going back to biblical times, in many instances we don't know who the people were or anything about their trustworthiness, and we really don't know how faithful the transmission of the information was from the moment it was first 'received' (or conceived) until it was recorded in written form in the bible. To be honest, there are even questions about the accuracy of the written transmission in some instances.

Basically it boils down to this: how can you validate a revelation? And I think the answer has to be, unless it happens to you, you can't. (And even if it does happen to you there may be room for doubt.)

So what we find is that science has a tried and tested and justifiable method for establishing facts about the universe, while religion doesn't.

Friday, June 07, 2013


I love this little piece of forensic textual criticism. Not sure what weight I'd give it, but it is a little bit of evidence in favour of something or other...

John 3:23 says "Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized."

Fine. The only problem with this is that none of the other gospels or any other historical source records a place called Aenon. The place is simply not there. It was claimed to be near Salim/Salem, which is attested elsewhere, but not only is there no mention of Aenon in history, there's no suitable location in geography or archaeology either. 

So it appears that John either knew of a place that nobody else knew of, or his source gave him false information. Of course, if the writer of the fourth gospel was fed false information, he can't have been an eyewitness, as some claim, but we came to that conclusion by other means long ago on this blog.

Anyway, assuming that John is working with false information, where did he get this wrong information from? The amazing thing is that textual criticism offers a fairly compelling case for the source.

As you probably know, not all the manuscripts of the new testament documents agree in every detail. Sometimes a 'jot' or 'tittle' is different between two otherwise identical manuscripts, sometimes the odd word has been changed here or there.

One passage in Luke's gospel (3:18) is generally rendered thus: "And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them." Its the word 'exhorted' here that is of interest.

In the 'Textus Receptus' (i.e. the generally accepted manuscript of the NT), the Greek word here translated as 'exhorted' is 'parakalon' (sorry for transliterating the Greek into Roman letters, but Greek letters confuse me), but in one variant manuscript (Codex Bezae) the word used is 'parainon', which has basically the same meaning, but is clearly a different word.

D. Paul Glaue ("Der alteste Text der geschichtlichen Bucher des Neuen Testaments," Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kude der alteren Kirche, Vol 45, 1954, pp. 90-108) pointed out that it looks like the author of John was using an early manuscript of the 'parainon' variant text of Luke as a source and misunderstood the meaning. Remember, he was reading a document which was written all in capital letters, with no spaces between words. So when faced with an unusual letter combination, he wouldn't necessarily know how to break the words apart. Splitting the letters into 'par'  (in the vicinity of) and 'ainon' (springs; fountains) gives the text an entirely different meaning, something like: "And [he did] many other things, in the vicinity of Ainon, he [preached] the good news to people." So it looks like John mistook Ainon as a place name, and inferred from it that there was water there, and so it was a good place to do some baptising...

Make of that what you will.

But if it is true, then this is evidence that the author of John copied from the gospel of Luke.

[For more info, read this.]

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Science and Faith...

Just listened to an interview with 'the Pope's Astronomer' Brother Guy Consolmagno over on the Unbelievable podcast. He comes over as a nice and intelligent guy who knows science and who knows faith, and sees no conflict between the two.

I found his outlook on life very interesting, and he made one comment which I must share with you here...

He said: "Faith is what you do when you don't have the facts and you have to make a decision anyway."

Fascinating. For him, "faith" is an action, not a belief. Its not 'blind faith' but rather a way of using your belief structure (presumably at least partially based on experience and evidence) to make decisions in contexts where you have no information or insufficient evidence. Of course, people of all belief structures have to do this, whether theists, atheists, or whatever. By this definition, atheists use faith all the time. Hmmm.

Anyway, I also found his general outlook on life and reality interesting, if slightly frustrating. Without using these words, he has a 'presuppositional' approach to reality. He says that he starts with the fundamental belief in God and then studies the universe (he is an astronomer, after all) on the understanding that all of it is God's creation; he sees it 'through the eyes of faith'. Nothing he has observed contradicts his fundamental presupposition. His world view appears to be self-consistent. He also admits that he has friends who start from an atheist presupposition and have managed to construct entirely self-consistent atheistic world views. In other words, he is happy to believe that the all the evidence that the universe has to offer is simultaneously consistent with the presumption that there is a creator God and with the presumption that there is not. Fundamentally this means that he believes that study of the universe itself cannot be used to give evidence to answer a question 'is there a God?'

I don't know about you, but I find that mindset quite frustrating. For me, if there is a God, it should be evident in 'His' creation. If a detailed and thorough study of the universe cannot lead an honest seeker to an answer about whether there is a God or not, then what is the point? How can anyone justifiably believe in a God? Is it really just a matter of arbitrarily deciding to believe or not, and then living consistent with that? Surely there must be objective evidence one way or the other?

Brother Consolmango seems to think not: "One of the things I see as a trait of God is he always gives us plausible deniability, every time he makes himself known he also says 'if you don't want to believe in me, you don't have to, its your choice'".

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Richard Carrier's very human Jesus

I've just been listening to a debate on YouTube between the noted atheist Richard Carrier (pictured) and an apologist called David Marshall. You can watch it here. Its fair to say that Carrier wins this debate. Its also clear that one of his arguments against Jesus being divine is very strong and appears not to have an adequate rebuttal by Christian apologists. The argument is basically as follows (my summary):

Jesus is depicted in the gospels as having direct revelatory knowledge from the creator God. He is also depicted as being someone who cares about people and miraculously heals some of them. Given these two observations, why does Jesus do nothing to inform his disciples of a few health related things which could prevent disease? For example, he could have instructed his disciples in the merits of properly washing your hands before eating. He appears to actually do the exact opposite to this, by telling them that hand washing before meals is not important (Matthew 15:1-20). We know (from science) that washing is important and this simple action can prevent disease and infection, etc. Jesus does not know this. He appears to have no conception of germs. This is no surprise if he was merely a human being, but is very surprising if he was sent on a mission - which involved healing - by the creator God.

Furthermore, Carrier claims, the three most prevalent fatal diseases in the first century CE were tuberculosis, malaria and typhoid. Jesus is never recorded as healing anyone with any of these. Also, there are simple steps which can be taken to minimise the risk of catching these, such as mosquito nets and avoiding stagnant water. Jesus does not advise these actions, so clearly he has no divine knowledge of disease transmission.

Carrier has more to say, but you get the gist. I have to say that it seems like a very strong argument to me. But there are apologetic responses to it, for example this one.

As I see it, if Carrier is right, then there are only two options:
  1. Jesus was a man with no divine knowledge, or
  2. God doesn't care about the life and health of people.
When I say "doesn't care" what I mean is that God must have another - more important - agenda that would be hindered by healing more people and giving them advice that would prolong their lives and ease their suffering.

Let's think about these options, I'll take the second one first.

Healing and God's Agenda
The standard apologetic argument to the problem of pain is that God must have a morally sufficient reason for allowing this, and that even though we can't know what this reason is, we should trust God for other reasons and leave this in the hands of faith. I must say, this strikes me as yet another instance of the 'unseen infinite' argument that I've blogged about before. If prolonging people's lives and easing their suffering is not part of God's plan, then why does Jesus heal anyone? Why feed thousands of hungry people, why raise some from the dead? Again, apologists and preachers will tell you that Jesus did all these things to reveal aspects of the character of God, to reveal the heart of God - to show that God wants to heal. But if God wants to heal, then this must be part of his agenda. And if healing is part of his agenda, then he should have been able to do more, much, much more than is recorded for us in the bible.

But suppose we look at this the other way around. If God's agenda was not primarily to heal, but was to come to earth and suffer and die, and in this way to bring about post-mortem salvation for people, then surely he didn't need to spend 30 years doing nothing worthy of note, then up to three years of ministry in which he did not explain that this was his agenda. Why didn't he just come quickly, die quickly, and also hasten the deaths of all people, so that those who he would save would get to heaven more quickly?

Clearly, this is not consistent with what Christians believe, or what the bible apparently teaches. So I think we can say with reasonable certainty that Jesus simply did not know any more about disease and illness than his fully human contemporaries, and that if a modern day doctor were able to be transported back in time to the 1st Century, then they would be able to do many more kinds of 'miraculous' healing than Jesus is recorded as doing - because they have a far greater understanding of illness than Jesus. Which brings us to the second option.

Jesus was just a man
Is it conceivable that Jesus was genuinely divine in nature, but had no divine knowledge? We can discount the option that he had no inherent divine knowledge but God revealed things to him, using the reasoning above - if God revealed his agenda to a human Jesus, then we face the same problems as we have above with the question of God's agenda. If God only revealed part of his agenda and didn't empower Jesus to heal many multitudes of sick and dying, then we end up with a truly unbelievable or evil God. So barring this possibility, the only option we are left with is that Jesus simply didn't know more than his contemporaries about disease, and also didn't know any more than them about God's agenda. If Jesus was just a man without revelation, then nothing he said or did had divine authority, even if he truly had a divine nature. In this option, all of Jesus' teaching goes out the window as worthless, and all of his commands and life examples become meaningless. He becomes just an ordinary guy, and no more worthy of following than anyone else. Any good teaching he gave and any great insight he had came from human means, and other humans have just as much access to such wisdom as Jesus had. Indeed, the flip side is true, Jesus could just as easily have been wrong about a great many things. Even if he was right about some things, we have no reason to trust his claims about things he could not demonstrate, such as what happens after death. he knew no more about that than you do.

No, if the words and works of Jesus have any value, then he must have had knowledge and wisdom which transcended those of humanity. But in that case, we see a God who can only heal in limited measure or doesn't value the health and wellbeing of his people.

I can't see a way out of this conundrum except to say that the claims of Christianity about Jesus must be false or at least very flawed. It is much easier to suppose that these stories are simply that: stories, and that Jesus was no divine Son of God.

Jesus, if he lived at all, was just human. No more than that. If following his teachings bring you joy and happiness in this life, then all's well and good, follow him. But if following his teachings leads you into suffering and possible death, then be careful, because nothing promised after death is anything more than guesswork or wishful thinking.