Monday, March 31, 2008
If I am right and you are wrong, then you have lost everything, but if you are right and I am wrong, then I have lost nothing! Blaise Pascal.
Whenever a Christian makes an argument based on Pascal's Wager, isn't he acknowledging that Paul was wrong, i.e., that it really isn't all that important whether Jesus really rose from the dead?
Saturday, March 29, 2008
I did not find Bremmer's memory lapse quite so unbelievable. After all, ten hours out of every twenty-hour day was probably spent ignoring the advice of people who knew a lot more than he did. You cannot expect him to remember all the advice he ignored especially when he wasn't paying attention in the first place.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
I think the thing that struck me most was Dick Cheney's performance on Meet the Press on September 2, 2002. He talked about Saddam Hussein's alleged attempts to obtain aluminum tubes in order to build centrifuges with which to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. He cites a story in that morning's New York Times and says "I want to attribute the Times" rather than talking about specific intelligence. Of course, when he cites the New York Times he is really just citing himself because his office was the source of the information in Judith Miller's article.
I find it maddening when people excuse the Bush administration's failure to turn up Saddam's weapons of mass destruction on the grounds that "Everyone else thought he had them, too." Of course, it was the Bush administration that was telling everyone that it possessed the evidence that showed he had them. So in effect, they are pleading as excuse the fact that the administration managed to convince everyone of something that wasn't true.
Of course, the notion that everyone believing a thing is just as good as having evidence for the belief is well known to Christian apologists. The whole "minimal facts" approach to apologetics championed by Gary Habermas is premised on scholars agreeing on certain facts and inferring the existence of evidence to support those facts from scholarly consensus. It is like citing as evidence the fact that 10,000 Cub fans look at the same fuzzy picture in the sports section and conclude that the Cubs had been robbed by an umpire's call. The evidence is still just one fuzzy picture.
I particularly liked the way Wright acknowledged that the Bible can be used to justify revenge. "O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." Psalm 137:8-9. And yet, Wright dared to think that God might be calling man to something higher.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The column began:
As much as I love the association of Obama with that wonderful phrase of Lincoln's, it seems to me that it is only the third of those assertions that I would want him clearly not to believe. I'm not sure that Obama is smart enough to be President if he does not recognize that rich white people have an awful lot of power in this country and that America's foreign policy mistakes have at least contributed to the atmosphere in which radical Islam has flourished.
The important thing about Jeremiah Wright Jr., the inflammatory former pastor of
Barack Obama's church, is not that he thinks America is "controlled by rich
white people," that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were the result of our
"chickens are coming home to roost," or that God should "damn America" for its
sins against blacks. It's that Wright is supporting a presidential candidate who
clearly believes none of these things, but instead puts his faith in what
Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature
Is the suggestion that rich white people control this country really that controversial? Was there any reason other than pleasing rich white guys for the Republicans in Congress to get rid of the estate tax? Wasn't it the rich white guys like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld who got us into the quagmire in Iraq rather than Condi Rice and Colin Powell? Even if you believe that the rich white guys obtained their power by entirely legitimate and democratic means, you have to notice that they have got the power.
I realize it is more controversial to suggest that America might have done anything to piss off the Muslim world that might have made Al Queda's recruiting easier, but can't we be honest? After all, we toppled the government of Iran in 1953 as a favor to the British and installed the Shah. We plotted to overthrow the government of Syria driving them closer to the Soviet Union. We played both sides of the fence in the Iran-Iraq war to keep either one from getting too powerful. We encouraged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam during the first Gulf War and then turned a blind eye when he retaliated against the Shias and the Kurds. I'm not saying that this justifies terrorism, but can't we at least acknowledge that we have sometimes been less than loveable.
Personally, I don't know of anything Wright has said that is any sillier than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blaming liberals, feminists and homosexuals for the 911 attacks and I find it hard to categorically reject all of the claims that are considered so inflammatory. Moreover, if the few clips that have shown up on YouTube are the whole case against him, I have no trouble believing that the hundreds of hours of sermons that I have never seen probably contain many admirable sentiments?
Monday, March 24, 2008
The headline read: Driving—or not—at 16 with the subheadline Car accidents cause 40 percent of all deaths of 16- and 17-year olds. While this seems alarming, it strikes me as akin to the California state legislator who was distressed to learn that half the students in her district were below the 50th percentile in math and reading.
The fact of the matter is that 16- and 17-year olds are unlikely to die of cancer, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimers, and a host of other natural causes that regularly afflict older people. When a teenager dies, it is overwhelmingly likely to be from some form of accident or other preventable stupidity. I see nothing surprising in the most common such occurrence being automobile accidents.
40 percent may in fact be a statistic that gives cause for concern, but it does not do so on its face. We would expect a significant increase in the death rate from auto accidents between the ages of 15 and 16 simply because that is when teenagers start driving and they are in cars more. Without examining whether the decline in the rate between the ages of 17 and say 25 is greater than would be expected by the natural susceptibility to other afflictions that comes with aging, it would be foolish to say that increasing the driving age is going to accomplish much other than requiring teenagers to be ferried around by their parents more.
I don’t wish to make light of the death of teenagers in any way whatsoever, but teenagers have a greater likelihood of dying in car accidents than octogenarians just as octogenarians have a greater likelihood of dying from the diseases of old age. Standing alone, the statistic is not one that dictates any specific course of action and the Tribune should be embarrassed to trumpet it in the way that it does.
I don’t think I really qualify as a Civil War "buff," but I have watched the Ken Burns’ series several times and I have read Shelby Foote and James McPherson as well as biographies of Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Sherman, Lincoln, and Jackson. I have tried a couple of books on individual battles but I find the detail in them a little mind-numbing. Still, I consider myself a reasonably well informed amateur when it comes to the field of Civil War history.
I think my knowledge of the Civil War contributes to my lack of respect for Christians who claim that the gospels constitute reliable sources of historical facts. When it comes to the Civil War, the wealth of material available to the historian is staggering. If he wants to research the Battle of Gettysburg, he can find letters, diaries, and reports written within days and weeks of the battle by soldiers of every rank in both armies as well as their memoirs written in the years following. He can find contemporaneous articles in newspapers and magazines of every political persuasion. He can examine artifacts and walk the battlefield.
Despite the volume of source material, there are plenty of unresolved questions about the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians aren’t sure how many Confederate soldiers advanced on Cemetery Ridge in Pickett’s Charge. They aren’t sure how General Jeb Stuart and General George Custer happened to wind up in a cavalry fight behind Union lines while the charge was taking place. There are disputes about whether General James Longstreet was purposely slow in carrying out Lee’s orders. There are conflicting reports on what General Lee said at various points during the battle. Even the things historians think they know are subject to revision upon the discovery of new evidence.
Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, think that can know the exact details of Jesus’ life with absolute certainty based on anonymous documents written thirty to sixty years after his death. They think they can take the statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John as irrefutable proof of what Jesus thought sixty years earlier. Not only this, they think that these four anonymous accounts contain absolutely everything anyone could ever want or hope to know about Jesus. They believe that no other document or piece of evidence could conceivably alter or modify the understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings that can be derived from the documents we already have.
Not only that, evangelical Christians think that the gospels are unaffected by any biases. In the years following the Civil War, southerners vilified Longstreet because he became a Republican and criticized Lee’s conduct of the war. In his memoirs, Confederate General Jubal Early deified Lee while blaming Longstreet for the loss at Gettysburg and historians accepted this verdict for almost a century. Only in the last few decades has Longstreet’s reputation as one of the best corps commanders in either army been rehabilitated. If our only knowledge of the battle came from officers on Lee’s staff, we would plainly know little with certainty. But Christians are not the slightest bit concerned that men who thought Jesus was God might have fudged some of the details in their stories to support their thesis.
Evangelical Christians like to claim that the historical evidence for what Jesus did is as good as the historical evidence for any events in the ancient world. What they are really claiming though is that they have historical evidence that is overwhelmingly superior to the historical evidence for almost every event that ever occurred anywhere in history.
Friday, March 21, 2008
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."
I suspect the most surprising thing people learned from Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus was that the story of the woman caught in adultery doesn't belong in the Bible. Apologists are quick to point out that textual critics have long known that this passage does not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts and that it is not written in the same style as the rest of John's gospel. They are equally quick to point out that removing it does not threaten any essential doctrines of the(ir) faith. Still, the average lay person did not know this because no pastor ever explained it when he discussed the passage in a sermon. It was probably pretty jarring for a lot of people to learn that such a wonderful story was not authentic.
It is natural to wonder why the scribes added that story to John's gospel, but the answer seems quite obvious: IT'S A GREAT STORY!! The story epitomizes the characteristics and qualities that make Jesus such a compelling figure and anyone familiar with it could not help but want to see it preserved for all people to hear. As a result, scribes familiar with the story tried to find a place to put it. Some inserted the story after John 21:25 while others found a place for it after Luke 21:38. The fact that scribes did so poses a challenge to the orthodox evangelical understanding of the gospels.
It is not that scribal changes undermines the doctrine of inerrancy because evangelicals believe that this doctrine only applies to the original writings, not to their transmission. The problem is that the scribes felt free to add a story simply because it was such a great story. If the scribes truly believed that John's gospel was the personal eyewitness account of one of Jesus' disciples, would they have had the temerity to add a story just because they liked it? Doesn't their willingness to do so suggest that they understood the gospels to be collections of stories taken from oral tradition by anonymous authors, which could be improved by the inclusion of other stories found in oral tradition? Doesn't it show that the historical pedigree of a story was not as important as its power to inspire and illuminate?
If scribes included stories based on their understanding of Jesus' teachings and character rather than the story's historical pedigree, is there any reason to think that the original writers did not do so as well? Moreover, is there any reason to think that stories might not have been omitted without regard to historical authenticity if the story did not fit the scribe's or author's understanding of who Jesus was and what his life meant? Once that possibility is allowed, you have to allow for the possibility that the oral transmission of the stories prior to the composition of the gospels may have included a series of additions and subtractions based on each person's understanding of Jesus.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I recently posted the following thoughts at Scribblings from My Desk in response to an argument that the writers of the gospels did not identify themselves or their sources because everyone in their community who would have access to the gospel would have known who they were:
I believe there are plenty of examples of ancient writers who understood
the significance of identifying their sources as well as identifying themselves
as the authors of their works. We actually know this from John 21:24 where some
scribe recognized the importance of identifying the author of the gospel as a
witness to events. However, the authors never chose to identify themselves that
As far as different communities being closely linked as members of one
family, that sounds like wishful thinking, too. Travel and communication were
far from simple in those days. From Paul’s letters and the letters of the
apostolic fathers, we know that there were doctrinal conflicts within and
between communities. Despite the travel difficulties, those letters did
circulate as copies were made. I cannot see why the gospel writers would not
have foreseen that their writings might wind up traveling beyond their
It seems obvious (to me at least) that the gospels were written because
their authors realized that Jesus was not returning as quickly as they had
originally thought and they did not trust oral tradition to accurately preserve
the stories. It seems unreasonable to me to think that these men would have
trusted oral tradition to preserve their own identities and sources rather than
putting them in the documents. It seems more reasonable to believe that they
were collecting oral traditions that were known within their community. The
reason that they did not claim to have an apostolic source for their stories is
because their community would have known that it wasn’t true.
As far as Luke’s introduction goes, I think it supports my hypothesis. If
he could have identified particular apostles who had told him these stories, he
would have done so because he wanted to convince his readers that his story
should be trusted rather than the ones that other people were writing. Many
scholars translate “delivered” as “handed down” which would indicate that Luke
was acknowledging that he was more than once removed from the
I would not claim that the evangelists did not themselves believe that what
they wrote was grounded in history. However, they have not left enough evidence
for us to reach any conclusions about the extent to which their beliefs were
true. They may have been careful with respect to geographic and historical
details that could be verified, but that may indicate no more than their desire
that their readers understand the context in which the stories were placed. Many
modern novelists do meticulous historical research to achieve the same purpose.
If we are going to go after Barack Obama for his association with Rev. Wright, don't we have to ask how many Republican Senators and Congressman attend churches in which the pastor blamed America's sins for the 911 attacks. We can all recall Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson declaring that the attacks were evidence of God's wrath towards liberals, homosexuals, and feminists. At least Rev. Wright identified the sins of America's foreign policy which is probably not a bad place to look. It is hard for me to see Wright's remarks as any sillier than George Bush's naive declarations that "they hate us because we're free."
I would not hesitate to condemn Wright's idiocy in accusing white doctors of injecting black men with the AIDS virus. However, how many Republican Congressman and Senators attend churches where the ministers regularly make idiotic statements about scientists perpetrating hoaxes in the fields of climatology, evolution, and psychology? Again, in Wright's favor, during his lifetime the United States government carried out a horrific experiment in which black men were allowed to die horrible deaths from syphillis.
The point I took from Obama's speech is that we need to recognize the source of the anger and resentment rather than using some ignorant expression of that anger as an excuse to dismiss people altogether. Moreover, this is an obligation that applies to everyone. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans all need to work at recognizing each others' legitimate greivances without condoning hate and ignorance. He talked to us like adults.
This morning on Joe Scarborough's show, Tucker Carlson displayed the inability to understand nuanced thought that makes me so happy MSNBC cancelled his show. When asked his opinion of Obama's speech, he said he was dissatisfied with it because Obama did not explain why he was still associated with this "nut job." How clueless.
One of the biggest problems is that we use labels like "nut jobs" to dismiss people rather than engaging them and trying to separate their nutty ideas from their legitimate concerns. The fact that Obama wants to find a different way to approach things is what gives me hope.
As important as it is to take this attitude on the domestic front, I think it is even more important in foreign policy. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may indeed be a nut job. However, we cannot hope for any progress unless we can recognize the fact that the CIA overthrew the legitimate govern of Iran fifty years ago because Iran got sick of being cheated out of oil revenues by Great Britain. As abhorrent as his Holocaust denial may be, we can also acknowledge that it was legitimate concerns about both the United States and Soviet Russia that led the Iranians to ally themselves with Nazi Germany during World War II.
I thought Obama's speech was great. I hope his belief that the American people are smarter than Tucker is not unfounded.
Monday, March 17, 2008
The section I find particularly ludicrous is entitled "Physical or Spiritual Resurrection." (TCFTRJ p. 138-141). The discussion focuses on the following passage from 1 Corinthians 15. Playing the skeptic, Strobel quotes only the highlighted verses, but you really have to see the whole thing to understand how disingenuous both he and Licona are being. After Licona's comments, I will try to suggest the questions that a real skeptic might have asked.
35But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" 36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
50I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 1 Corinthians 15:35-54
Now let's see what Strobel and Licona have to say.
"Do these Corinthians passages indicate Paul’s encounter was visionary in nature rather than a bodily, corporeal resurrection?"
Obviously, this was a hot-button issue for Licona. He moved to the edge of the couch and his voice became more animated. “First let’s examine this term ‘flesh and blood,’ he said. For the past thirty years, most experts have concluded that this term was an ancient figure of speech, probably a Semitism, that simply meant ‘a mortal being.’ That’s what it means every time it appears in the New Testament, the Septuagint, and throughout the Rabbinic literature. It’s kind of like when Americans call a person ‘cold blooded,’ ‘hot-blooded,’ or ‘red-blooded.’ They’re not referring to the temperature or color of their blood."
Have you ever heard of context, Mike? Look at the question that Paul is addressing: “With what kind of body will they come?” In any of those other cases you investigated, was the term “flesh and blood” being used in answer to that question? I’ll tell you something Mike. When an American is talking about reptiles and he uses the term “cold-blooded,” he really is talking about the temperature of its blood.
"Now you can’t equate that with what Luke reports Jesus as saying when he appears to the disciples: “Hey, I’m not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He said flesh and bones, not flesh and blood."
So what? Are you really trying to tell us that the phrases “flesh and bones” and “flesh and blood” are so completely unrelated that Paul couldn't have meant something similar to what Luke meant?
"What about the way Paul contrasts the words natural and spiritual?" I asked.
"I recently analyzed each time these words appeared between the eighth century BC through the third century AD. These words have multiple definitions, but what’s really interesting, Lee, is that I never found a single instance in which the Greek word translated 'natural' meant 'material' or 'physical.' Never. Not once."
Context, Mike, context! When Aretha Franklin sings “You make me feel like a natural woman,” I know she isn’t talking about the same thing as Quaker Oats is when it calls its cereal “100% natural.” The important thing is the whole song that Aretha is singing. Try analyzing the way the word fits into this passage.
"It’s also important to see how Paul uses these terms elsewhere, especially in the same letter. A few chapters earlier, in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, referring to spiritual truths, Paul writes that the ‘natural’ man rejects and cannot understand the things of God, because they are ‘spiritually’ discerned. But, he adds, ‘spiritual’ people understand them."
"So when we come to chapter 15, Paul gives a number of differences between our bodies. They’re sown in weakness, they’re raised in power. Their sown in dishonor, they’re raised in glory. They’re sown perishable, they’re raised imperishable. They’re sown natural—bodies with all their fleshly and sinful desires and with hearts and lungs—but raised and transformed into a new body with spiritual appetites and empowered by God’s Spirit. There’s no thought about a contrast between physical and spiritual."
You must really think that I’m dumber than a bag of hammers, Mike. Are you really going to tell me that Paul wrote this passage because the believers in Corinth were arguing about what kind of appetites they would have after the resurrection?
"And here’s one other thing: if Paul had meant to draw a comparison between material versus immaterial, he had a better Greek word at his disposal, which he had already used a few chapters earlier with a similar analogy of sowing. He doesn’t use that word here, though, that’s more evidence that this has nothing to do with material versus. So to claim that Paul is saying that the Christians will have an immaterial body in heaven is not longer sustainable."
I am not sure the analogy is all that similar. In that earlier chapter Paul is arguing that he has the right to expect support from the community even though he does no work. “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?” While I will grant you that Paul might have used that word again, are you going to tell me that there were no other words available to him that might have made the meaning you prefer clearer? Are you really trying to tell me that a single word choice controls the meaning of the entire passage?
"When we come across a passage with an ambiguous meaning, we’re required to interpret according to other passages by the same person that are more clear. So if Paul is referring to a bodily resurrection elsewhere—as the does in at least three other places—then its irresponsible to translate this passage in a manner that has Paul contradicting himself."
"So Paul is not saying this is merely a spiritual resurrection?"
"No, and I think the evidence is so obvious. In 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul is clear that he regards Jesus’ resurrection as a model for our future resurrection. He says in Roman 8:11 that ‘he who raises Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” And he stresses in Phillippians 3:21 that the Lord Jesus Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
Doesn't Paul explain that model in the forty-fifth verse Mike? “So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” Why should we go hunting in other letters to see what Paul meant when he explains right here that the resurrected Jesus is "a life giving spirit." What possible reason could you have for quote-mining Romans and Phillippians when the answer is right there in front of your face?
Aren't you really counting on your readers being too lazy to look up the passages for themselves? After all, Paul isn't even talking about the resurrection in Romans 8. He is explaining how the Holy Spirit transforms the believer in this life rather than anything that happens after death. And doesn’t the passage from Phillipians just beg the question of what kind of body it is that Christ has after the resurrection? Aren’t you just desperately flailing to avoid the plain implications of what Paul has written in 1 Corinthians 15?
The real capper to this discussion comes in the next section when Licona tries to explain away Paul's failure to mention the empty tomb while listing the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
“Still,” I pressed, “why didn’t Paul specifically use the words ‘empty tomb’?”
For Licona, the answer was all too obvious. “It was unnecessary,” he said. It would be redundant after he said ‘resurrection.’”
“But can you blame people today for wishing Paul had been even more explicit?”
Licona shrugged. “Maybe the skeptics want to have it spelled out for them in the twenty-first century, but Paul was writing this in the first century. They all knew what resurrection meant. To them, Paul was plenty explicit. He’s clear in his own letters. Moreover, when Luke reports Paul stating in Acts 13:37 that Jesus’ body ‘did not see decay’ readers surely understood that his physical body had been raised—and if the body was raised, the tomb was empty. This is early Apostolic tradition.
In the end, I had to admit: this made sense to me too.
Does it Lee? If so, than you are an idiot. If not, then you are simply matching Licona shovel for shovel.
The question is obvious to any real skeptic. If Paul expected his readers to understand exactly what “resurrection” meant in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, why the hell would he spend 1 Corinthians 15:12-54 explaining what resurrection meant? Hell, nobody understands what resurrection means now. How would Greek pagans in Corinth know the meaning of resurrection in Judaism? How can you even pretend that Paul thought his readers understood this? Why would he have bothered to write the letter?
These guys are shameless. That's the only thing that's obvious.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
As noted in a recent post, Paul's is the only eyewitness testimony we have to the resurrection in the New Testament. Although some scholars disagree, most would seem to hold that it is Paul saying in Corinithians 15 that Jesus appeared to him. In addition, Paul himself tells us in several letters that he personally persecuted Christians before this remarkable experience. We cannot eliminate the possibility that Paul may have exaggerated his earlier activities in order to make his conversion all the more remarkable, but we still have to take seriously Paul telling us personally that he went from persecutor to believer.
With James, on the other hand, we ain't got squat. In the single letter attributed to him in the New Testament, he says nothing about any initial skepticism towards Jesus. He says nothing about any resurrection appearances and says nothing about his own conversion. The entire skeptic to believer narrative has been conjured from a couple of vague references by the anonymous authors of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. The attempt to blow this up into something comparable to Paul's conversion is ludicrous.
The first proof of James' skepticism offered by the apologists comes in Mark 3:21-23: "Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind.'" I am not sure what the connection is between crowded houses and insanity is, but Mark 3:31 says, "Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him."
Finally, Mark 6:1-4, tells the story of Jesus coming home and preaching in the synagogue. 1Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples.
When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heardThis passage is also found in Matthew 13:53-57 with the interesting difference that "among his relatives" is omitted from Jesus' final comment. These parallel passages seem to be the only two that refer to James the brother of Jesus by name (I confess to somewhat hasty research), and neither one gives any information about his skepticism or his abandonment of skepticism.
him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this
wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the
carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Josezs,
Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his
own house is a prophet without honor."
So what do we learn about James skepticism from Mark? We never hear anything about what James said, thought, or did individually. The references are all to Jesus' family as a collective group. Speaking as one with eight siblings who have had their disputes over the years, there is never one single opinion held by every member of the family about any other member; everyone has their own take on it. More importantly, Mary the Mother of God is fully implicated in all this. She is clearly part of the group that goes out to take charge of Jesus based on the belief that he is out of his mind. Whatever skepticism you attribute to James has to be attributed to Mary as well. Given the fact that the gospels repeatedly confirm Mary's belief in her son, I just don't see how you can claim that James' skepticism differs from hers.
The next passage cited is John 7:1-5.
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from JudeaThe nature of the skepticism of the unnamed brothers is far from clear as they seem to acknowledge that Jesus had already performed some wonderful acts . Licona surmises that they were taunting Jesus, (TCFTRJ p. 121) which may be as good a theory as any, but I can't see this as particularly compelling evidence of what James thought individually even if he was part of this group.
because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. But when the Jewish
Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave
here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do.
No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing
these things, show yourself to the world." For even his own brothers did
not believe in him. In this passage as in the entire Gospel of John,
James is never identified as Jesus' brother.
Licona finds one more reason to believe that James was a skeptic.
At the crucifixion, to whom does Jesus entrust the care of his mother?Personally, I would find this reasoning pretty silly even if I accepted the Gospel of John as an accurate historical document. The reason John got the nod is that he was there. A guy hanging on a cross is not in a position to extract promises from people hundreds of miles away. Jesus wanted his mother taken care of so he asked the guy who was there to take care of her.
Not to one of his half-brothers, who would be the natural choice, but to John,
who was a believer. Why on earth would he do that that? I think the
inference is very strong: if James or any of his brothers had been believers,
they would have gotten the nod. (TCFTRJ p. 121)
The evidence of how James lost his supposed skepticism is just as flimsy as the evidence that he had it in the first place. There seem to be several sources who say that James the brother of Jesus was the head of the Christians in Jerusalem, which would certainly require him to be a believer. Apologists argue that he became a believer as the result of the resurrection appearance mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, but Paul says nothing about James ever being a skeptic and says nothing that would indicate that James' opinion was changed by that appearance in any greater degree than anyone else.
In sum, we have a decent amount of evidence from Paul's own writings that he was a persecutor of Christians before he became a believer. We have very little evidence about the course of James' beliefs. The idea that his conversion from skeptic to believer is a "minimal fact" on a par with Paul's transformation is maximal crap.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
The best line comes at the beginning when Strobel explains how "I learned quickly as the legal affairs editor of the Chicago Tribune never to reach a conclusion based on hearing only one side of the case. " (TCFTRJ p. 128) I hope that regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I usually avoid using profanity, but we all have our limits. WHAT COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT!!! In his Case for books Strobel NEVER interviews any "expert" who is ever going to give his readers anything other than the conservative Christian side of the case. The only exception occurs in the The Case for Faith with evangelist-turned-agnostic Charles Templeton, who was in his eighties and suffering from Alzheimer's at the time of the interview. Strobel was very proud of the fact that he got the old guy to sob and admit that he "missed Jesus."
Of course, Strobel pretends that he himself is presenting the other side of the case. "I wanted to test his five facts with the most cogent arguments of critics and see whether Licona's answers would really hold up. This wasn't a game of 'gotcha'; it was a genuine desire to see how the resurrection would fare against its latest critics." Wow! I bet Licona was as nervous as a Klansman being questioned by a Mississippi sheriff in the 1930's.
So who might Strobel consider to be the latest critics? The Muslims and the Koran! That's right, Strobel challenged Licona's magic book with the next oldest magic book known to man. After, dispensing with Islam, Strobel decided to challenge Licona with Michael Baigent, the author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, from which Dan Brown lifted much of The DaVinci Code. Is this really the best you could do Lee? Licona wasn't even breaking a sweat. Why not hit him with Scientology, too?
Finally, Strobel did give Licona a chance to display his apologist's sleight-of-hand by citing a genuine skeptical scholar, Richard Carrier. Strobel starts out by quoting Carrier's explanation for Paul's vision on the road to Damascus, which appears in the book Empty Tomb.
Licona responds that "it's not a very good historical hypothesis." "Why not?" queries Strobel.
I can hypothesize four conjoining factors: guilt at persecuting a
people he came to admire; subsequent disgust with fellow Pharisees; and
persuasion (beginning to see what the what the Christians were seeing in
scripture, and to worry about his own salvation); coupled with the right
physical circumstances (like heat and fatigue on a long, desolate road); could
have induced a convincing ecstatic event--his unconscious mind producing what he
really wanted: a reason to believe the Christians were right after all and atone
for his treatment of them, and a way to give his life meaning , by relocating
himself from the lower periphery of Jewish elite society, to a place of power
and purpose. (TCFTRJ p. 137)
Because at best it can only account for Paul's belief that he had seen theWheeee!!! What a trick! Did you see Licona pull that nickel out of that kid's nose?
risen Jesus. It doesn't account for the conversion of the skeptic James,
and it doesn't account for the empty tomb. And it doesn't explain the
beliefs of the disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus. You've got to
account for what changed them to the point where they were willing to suffer
continuously and even die for their beliefs that they had seen the risen
Jesus. So it's a bad historical hypothesis.(TCFTRJ p. 137)
According to Licona, Carrier's hypothesis is bad because it only explains what it sets out to explain. Carrier's explanation for why Paul did what he did doesn't explain why James did what he did. It also doesn't explain why Hitler invaded Russia, why the Cubs haven't made it to the World Series since 1945, or why Mike Licona's dog licks its own balls. How does that make it a bad hypothesis? The fact of the matter is that Carrier's writings do address all the other issues that Licona cites. This is pure misdirection.
Several pages later, Licona plays this trick again when addressing Carrier’s theory that the other disciples had hallucinations of one form or another. “At best, that would only account for the belief of the disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus . . . It would not account for the conversion of Paul.” (TCFTRJ p. 143) Woo?!?! Sorry Mike, the trick is not nearly as impressive when the audience knows how it is done. The explanation for Paul’s experience does not have to explain anyone else’s experience just as the explanation for anyone else’s experience need not explain Paul’s. By the way, your dog licks his balls because he can.
Of course, Licona thinks that Carrier's hypothesis doesn't explain Paul's actions very well either.
Paul is crystal clear about why he converted: he says he saw the risenWheeee!!! Did you see Licona pull that argument out of his own ass?
Jesus. So we have his eyewitness testimony of what happened. On the
other hand, what do we have for Carrier's view. There's not a shred of
evidence to support it. Paul's writings don't indicate that he converted
because he felt guilty or that he secretly admired Christians or that he had
disdain for his fellow Pharisees. This is pure conjecture on Carrier's
part. He's reading things into the text that simply aren't there. (TCFTRJ
Now Carrier's alternative explanation for Paul's conversion is bad simply because it is an alternative. By this logic, there can be no explanation for Joseph Smith founding his religion other than that the angel Moroni really appeared to him and really told him where he could find the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon. After all, Smith didn't say that he had some other reason. It is pure conjecture to suppose that he might have been nuttier than a fruitcake.
Apologists also blithely ignore the problems with the earliest source for the traditional authorship of two of the gospels. Writing fifty years earlier than Irenaeous, Papias discussed books written by Matthew and Mark, but he never quoted from them and the descriptions he gave do not line up all that well with the books that appear in the Bible. It is not clear whether he had seen these books or simply been told about them. Moreover, none of Papias’ writings have survived. Most of what we know about him comes from the church historian Eusebius writing early in the fourth century and Eusebius did not think that Papias was a very bright guy.
Like Irenaeous, Papias wrote some goofy things. For example, he did not believe that Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus. Instead, Judas lived and became so fat “that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself.” In addition, Judas’ genitalia spewed out “flowing pus and worms.” He also quotes Jesus as prophesying individual vines “each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes,” eventually producing 6.2 x 1021 gallons of wine. See Was Papias a Reliable Witness?
This comes to mind because I have been taking a look at a book called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. (I am indebted to Steven Carr whose comments on a book review at Chris Tilling’s blog provided me with some valuable insights.) I had seen Bauckham cited by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy in Lord or Legend? and in a series of posts on Mark Robert’s blog. The issues that stimulated my interest had nothing to do with Papias, but it turns out that Bauckham devotes several chapters to Papias in his efforts to establish the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Personally, I think he fails and his tap dancing with Papias typifies his arguments.
In a technique that I suppose must be taught in Apologetics 101, Bauckman deals with Eusebius' assessment of Papias as “a man of very little intelligence” by summarily dismissing it. “There is no reason why we should adopt this prejudiced attitude towards Papias” writes Bauckman. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p. 12-13. Of course, there is no reason to reject it either. After all, Eusebius apparently had read Papias’ entire five volume work and was in a much better position to form an opinion than Bauckman. What we really lack is a reason for is adopting Bauckman’s description of Eusebius as “prejudiced” since it seems to be a case of judging rather than prejudging. The only reason for rejecting Eusebius appears to be that Bauckman’s thesis depends on Papias being a credible source of information.
In another standard apologist’s dodge, Bauckman simply ignores the goofy things Papias wrote that might have been the basis for Eusebius’ assessment. For example, in the Gospel according to Matthew 27:5, the evangelist tells us that Judas hung himself shortly after betraying Jesus. If Papias was actually familiar with the same book that currently appears in the Bible, why did he think that Judas had lived on for many years and become disgustingly obese? You might think that anyone who was going to put any weight on Papias would want to answer that question. Bauckman doesn't.
In a technique that may not be covered until Apologetics 102, Bauckman assumes that the absence of evidence about Papias supports his conclusion. The fact of the matter is that Papias' original writings have been lost and we just don't know what he had to say besides those few things quoted by later writers. Or do we? Bauckham is apparently certain that all those lost writings would support his thesis that Papias is a credible source.
Why do writers who knew Papias quote so few of these traditions? Because most ofAnother explanation is that Eusebius was right about Papias and his books were full of loony drivel similar to the fat Judas story. What Bauckman really means is that he knows of no better explanation that supports his thesis. For the apologist, this is more than sufficient.
them paralleled material in the canonical Gospels and they had no interest in
quoting such material. For them, the canonical Gospels were a better source of
this material, so why bother with Papias? What they quoted was interesting,
otherwise unknown or otherwise paralleled only in apocryphal sources, material.
I know no better explanation of why we have so few quotations from Papias’s
book. See Bauckham Responds.
If time allows, I hope to further examine the apologetics techniques that Bauckham uses in some of arguments. Unfortunately, I obtained his book through interlibrary loan and I may have to return it before I can devote much more time to it.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
There’s hardly anything, believe it or not, that gets me more upset than when IHer latest tirade was inspired by the fact that high school students taking AP English in north suburban Deerfield had been assigned Angels in America. Personally, I can think of little more absurd than talking about high school students being “raped of their innocence” by being exposed to literature that discusses sex and sexuality.
see our children in public schools targeted as objects of mind altering, of
sexualization, of absolutely having their innocence robbed and raped from
them. I don’t think that “rape” is too strong of a word.
The reason I find this so exhausting is that I, unlike Rios, like to have some command of the facts before I express an opinion on some issue. I am currently reading Censoring Science by Mark Bowen because I want to know what is really going in the field of climate science. I have also been working on a couple of books about evolutionary science just so I can be confident that I understand the issues. Now, I feel like I need to do some more reading about the psychology of sexuality so I can address those questions as well.
Sandy Rios, on the other hand, does not like to clutter up her opinions with pesky facts. When factual information is needed, she either invents it, as she does in the field of Constitutional law, or she finds some expert with no qualifications whatsoever to invent them for her. In order to back up her claim about the homosexual agenda in the schools, Rios interviewed Linda Harvey of Mission America, who according to Rios is “probably one of the nation’s leading experts on this subject.” And what are Harvey’s qualifications in this field? A PhD in psychology or education might be nice, but no. Harvey has a BA in English from Miami of Ohio, has done some graduate work, and used to be an advertising executive. However, God had “led” her to speak out on the issue of homosexuality. What more could Rios want?
The main target of Rios and Harvey’s ire on Monday was the upcoming April 25 observation of the “National Day of Silence” in schools to protest bullying, name-calling, and discrimination directed against, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and cross gender-students. According to these two homophobes, the real purpose behind this is not social justice but the outright advocacy of homosexuality and the silencing of opponents. According to Harvey, “anyone of course who opposes homosexuality, that means Christians, conservatives, like sane people are put in the box of the haters and people provoking violence.” The problem Harvey sees in this is that “it really puts the onus on those who object to it.”
The “onus” that Harvey and Rios seem most eager avoid is the very one that they should most surely be required to bear, i.e., the onus to produce any objective facts, evidence, logic, or research to support their views. I don’t have the expertise to know the best way to teach children about issues of sexuality or the best age at which to do it (although I am confident that both my children could have handled reading Angels in America in high school English). Nevertheless, I suspect that Harvey has no basis whatsoever for asserting that any acknowledgement of homosexuality can “rip out” a third grader’s “basic security of their personhood.” Moreover, I have read enough to know that homosexuality is not, as Rios asserts, “a very changeable and creatable desire.”
Whatever decisions are made about school curriculums should be based on the best research available in the fields of education, psychology, and sociology rather than the unqualified opinions of religious bigots based on their peronsal interpretations of their magic book.
Monday, March 10, 2008
One possible source of fantastic stories is victims of religious persecutions. If you take a look at the witch hunts that took place in the 1600’s both in Europe and North America, you will find many sober respectable citizens convinced that witches were casting spells, consorting with Satan, changing themselves into animals, and doing all sorts of fantastic things. These beliefs were founded both on the confessions of the accused and the testimony of informants.
I would not think it controversial to postulate that religious persecution is not generally conducive to inter-faith understanding. By this I mean that persecutors often do not have a very accurate understanding of their victims’ beliefs and practices. For example, Roman persecutors believed that early Christians engaged in incestuous relations based on the fact that they called one another brother and sister. Throughout the ages, there have been Christians who believed that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian babies in order to use their blood in religious rituals. Religious persecutors usually seem more interested in finding fantastic stories that justify the persecution than they are in an accurately understanding their victims’ faith.
The New Testament does not go into great detail about Paul’s persecution of the earliest Christians, but it at least seems reasonable to ask whether these activities would have given him a particularly accurate picture of what those early Christians believed about Jesus. He no doubt questioned suspects to determine whether they were followers of Jesus. He may have used informants to identify who the Christians were and what they believed. He may have used torture to obtain confessions both from Christians and from suspects who had been falsely accused of being Christians. It is difficult for me to see how Paul would have been able to tell the difference between a victim or informant who gave him accurate information about Jesus and his followers and one who made up some fantastic story because he thought it might be what Paul wanted to hear.
Isn’t it at least reasonable to think that when Paul had his experience on the road to Damascus, his picture of the earliest Christians' beliefs about Jesus might have been tainted by some factually inaccurate information? Then, when his vision convinced him that he should become a Christian himself, wouldn’t that factually inaccurate information have become part of Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings, and in turn part of Paul’s preaching and teaching?
According to Christian apologists, 2 Corinthians 15:3-7 reflects the earliest creed of the Christian church:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ diedAssuming that this was written by Paul (some scholars think it was inserted by a later scribe), there is still the possibility that this understanding arose out of Paul’s persecution of the early church rather than unbiased reports.
for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised
on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the
brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have
fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of
all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Evangelical scholars like Gary Habermas insist that Paul received the creed from Peter and James in a visit described in Galatians 1. 18-19. "Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother." However, these scholars tend to ignore Paul's insistence a few verses earlier that he never received anything from anyone other than the Lord himself. "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Paul seems to be pretty emphatic that his understanding of Christ's activities and purposes pre-dates his encounter with the original apostles, which takes it back to his encounters as a persecutor of the early church.
I cannot help but think that Paul would not have been terribly concerned if the stories that Peter and James had to tell did not match up with the conclusions he had already reached. After all, Paul was a well-educated man who had already enjoyed considerable success in preaching the gospel as he understood it throughout the region while Peter and James were uneducated men who were still in Jerusalem. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine that Peter and James would have worked very hard to straighten out Paul’s misunderstandings. Paul was a charismatic and convincing man who did not have a reputation for tolerating dissent.
I would welcome any comments on this hypothesis. It would not surprise me to find that qualified scholars had already considered whether Paul's picture of Jesus was shaped by information obtained during his early persecution of Christians. However, I have not run across it myself.
Friday, March 7, 2008
Daly pointed out the interesting fact that Billy Graham, Josh McDowell, and Wes Craven all graduated from Wheaton College. The apparent point of this tidbit was to comfort parents whose children rebelled against the faith by pointing out that some people go wrong even though they have every opportunity to learn what is right.
I was inspired to post the following comment: "At least Craven used a little bit of imagination to come up with his scary stories. McDowell and Graham just scared people with the same hell stories that religion has been using for thousands of years."
I can't say they didn't warn me. "While we are eager to facilitate conversation by publishing most comments, we may withhold one from time to time if we deem it offensive, vulgar, overly personal, cynical, disrespectful, irrelevant, redundant or unnecessarily contentious." I was pretty sure there would be a flag on the play. I just wonder which penalty they called.
(1) "I saw it happen."
(2) "Bill saw it happen."
(3) "Bill says he saw it happen."
Only the first is an eyewitness claim. The second is a claim that someone else was an eyewitness. The third is a claim that someone else claims to be an eyewitness. Only the first is a claim by someone that he himself saw something. In a court of law, only the first would be admissible to prove that "it" happened.
So how many eyewitness accounts of Jesus' resurrection does the New Testament contain?
I count one.
That's it. In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul says that "he appeared to me." Other than that, not a single New Testament author writes that he personally encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead. The gospels are all written in the third person. None of those authors put themselves in a position to see the events they describe.
What brought this reflection to mind was the following statement, which I ran across on an evangelical Christian's blog: "on one occasion alone over 500 claimed to have seen him." In fact, we have no account of these claims. In fact, we have Paul's claim that 500 people saw him. That is a very different thing. It is one claim rather than 500.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Claims that the Bible says something about itself assume that the Bible is a single unified message, but in fact, it is a collection of writings from different authors at different times. None of those books and none of those authors make any claims about the collection of books that we know as the Bible. Some of the authors quote other books that appear in the collection and some of them refer to other books as scripture, but none of them identifies any particular collection of books as comprising scripture, and, as far as I know, none of them identifies his own writings as being part of such a collection. The Bible never says that it is "the Bible."
How the Christians refer to the Bible when speaking to each other is certainly no concern of mine, however, when a Christian claims to be defending his or her faith in a discussion that includes unbelievers, I think that Christians need to prove that "the Bible" says anything. If they are not prepared to do so, they should limit their statements what "Paul" says or what "the Gospel of John" says.
When I have raised this objection, I have not found any Christians that are very well perpared to defend their notion that it is "the Bible" that is saying things rather than the individual books or authors. I suspect this is because they simply take for granted that the issue is whether the Bible is the word of God. They have never given much thought to what the justification might be for thinking of the Bible as a single unified document. I suspect that most have no justification or than their assumptions.