Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The first quest of the Historical Jesus... and Christian models of Jesus

I've been slowly working my way through the audio version of Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906), which you can get for free from Librivox.org. I'm nearly at the end of it. Its quite long winded, but comprehensive, thorough and fascinating. It is basically an exhaustive (but not exhausting) critical survey of pretty much everything published in the 19th century on the question of the Historical Jesus. In audio form it comes in at over 21 hours of listening, which is about three weeks' worth of commuting for me.

As I've said before (see this post and other posts tagged with 'Historical Jesus'), the quest for the Historical Jesus is an attempt to strip away the layers of faith from the gospel stories to uncover the real, historical character who was the basis of the Christian religion. The quest is based on the somewhat shaky assumption that some of the gospel material is truth and some of it is fiction.

As I've said before, ad nauseum, on this blog, there is no reliable method for testing any passage in the bible to determine whether or not it is true. If there was, this question (and many others) would have been solved long ago. 

What is clear from Schweitzer's survey is that the quest for the Historical Jesus is really all about starting with the assumption that the bits you can't believe in the bible are, necessarily, false, and the rest is probably true. From that, you whittle away at the passages until a figure emerges, who looks and sounds a bit like a possible historical figure, but actually generally represents the best aspirations of the quester himself. In other words, people go looking for Jesus and are surprised to find their own reflection there.

On the basis of this survey, 19th century Christianity was fixated on a few questions that don't seem to be debated in the church these days. These include: (i) Synoptic gospels vs. John - most of the questers seemed to believe that either John or the Synoptics was 'true', but not both equally, so they would pick the one they preferred and interpret the other through this. (ii) Miracles vs. Naturalism - many Christian questers in the 19th century appeared to have issues with the idea of miracles, OK, for some of them the resurrection was probably true, but the other stuff couldn't be. If anything, the 19th century church sounds a lot more 'rational' than the church is today. I can't help but think that 19th century Christianity in general, and the theologians in it in particular, were a much more mixed bag than current Christianity and current theologians. Christians today probably assume that the church in years gone by was either much as it is today (worship styles aside), or was more 'orthodox' in years gone by, whereas there is an assumed liberalisation of the church today. On the basis of this survey through the church a couple of hundred years ago, the opposite would seem to be the case. People seeking Jesus have always been finding a Jesus who mirrors some aspect of their own culture.

While thinking this over, I realised that this is - essentially - what all Christians do, whether or not they are seeking the 'historical' Jesus. Everyone who believes anything about Jesus, consciously or not, prioritises some bible passages over others (I've said this before too). For most believers its not a question of whittling away the false to reveal the true, but it is more a question of emphasising some aspects and diminishing the others, in order to form a 'working model' of Jesus in their minds. This process of diminishing some aspects and emphasising others is necessary to iron out the inconsistencies, conflicts and contradictions that are actually in the bible. It is impossible to create a 'working model' of Jesus taking all statements about him as being equally valid, but if you can emphasise some and diminish others, then a plausible model of Jesus can emerge. Someone you can really believe in. Someone you can persuade yourself originates in the bible and walked the roads of 1st century Palestine. Someone you can ask WWJD? about. 

The more I think about this, the more I see that this is what most Christians I know actually do. This is why there are so many different denominations of Christianity - each one emphasises different aspects from the others, and diminishes different other aspects. This is why the Jesus of Pentecostal Christianity is vastly different to the Jesus of liberal Anglicanism. Each denomination creates a working model of Jesus that emerges from its own preconceived ideas. None of these is actually the 'real' Jesus, the 'biblical' Jesus or the 'historical' Jesus. They are all, at best, flawed models of Jesus. And none of them can accurately show us what the 'real' Jesus, if there ever was one, was or is actually like. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Juvenile Bible (1804)

Wow. Just came across this blog post. This is amazing. A book for kids that summarises the entire bible in verse; alphabetically! One line of poetry per chapter in the bible, for the entire bible. You can read it all on Google books. Here is the gospel of Mark to give you a taste:
  1. A gospel Mark writes: Christ's baptised
  2. Declares he's sabbath's Lord
  3. Heals wither'd hand, doth devils command
  4. The sower sows the word

  5. Brings dead to life; casts legion out
  6. Five loaves five thousand feed
  7. He makes the ear that's deaf to hear
  8. Sev'n loaves their wants exceed

  9. Casteth a deaf-dumb spirit out
  10. Check's Zebedee's sons desire
  11. Casts changers out who sold and bought
  12. The vineyard let to hire

  13. Downfall of temple, and the world
  14. By Judas he is sold
  15. He's thrice deny'd and crucify'd
  16. Then rises as foretold
You'll note that everything is presented in four line verses, with each verse within a book beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. The author cheats a bit when books don't have multiples of four chapter chunks by simply extending the final chapter or two out to the end of the verse, using as many lines as needed. Thus Philemon, II John, III John and Jude, despite only having one chapter each, all have a four line verse.

And it includes the 10 commandments too:



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why did Jesus preach?

Why did Jesus preach? 


No, seriously, I mean it, why did he preach?

The gospel stories of Jesus show us many things, but if you read between the lines the following trends appear:
  • Jesus was popular among the people because he healed people and told entertaining stories.
  • Jesus primarily taught in parables which were generally not understood by his audience (and often not understood by his closest disciples).
  • Indeed, Jesus did not want his audience to understand! (Luke 8:10 "He said, 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you [disciples], but to others I speak in parables, so that, "though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand."')
  • At the merest hint of trouble most of his audience disappeared - they had no loyalty to him, he was only a passing entertainment.
  • Very few people had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus, and nobody is recorded as being transformed through hearing his preaching.
  • Jesus recruited his disciples by command ("Come, follow me") not through his preaching.
So what was the point? The end result of Jesus's ministry appears to be a handful of committed followers. They started the church after Jesus was gone, the church was not started by Jesus through his ministry.

Its not even as though Jesus 'planted the seeds' that would ultimately be 'harvested' by the disciples in their later ministry. If Acts is to be believed, the church grew primarily in gentile and diaspora-Jew communities. There is no record of mass conversions among the Galileans. 

The sole purpose of Jesus's teaching, therefore, appears to be the edification of later generations of Christians, who would get to read his words many years later after the gospels were composed, duplicated and distributed. [Note to self: Remember to read "Let the reader understand" by Robert M. Fowler sometime]. In other words, the primary audience for the teaching of Jesus wouldn't be born for at least a century or two after the preaching was done. This doesn't seem to be a very effective way of doing things. If the later readers were really the intended audience, it would have been far, far better if Jesus had written letters or books himself.

I don't think I'm going too far by saying that, as far as the stories presented in the gospels go, Jesus preaching ministry was a complete waste of time. Nobody came to faith, no-one was saved, people were entertained, but then they moved on to the next thing and Jesus was forgotten. It doesn't really read like a divine master-plan.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Unbelievers

Just watched "The Unbelievers" a 2013 film documentary following Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss about at various speaking events (its on Netflix). It had a few interesting moments but was largely pointless. It would have been better to have watched or listened to just one of the Dawkins/Krauss discussions in full than to have watched this series of clips. Indeed, given that I did listen to one of those shows in its entirety, it was more interesting than the film.

But this film has lots of short snippets of other celebrity atheists (Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz, Ricky Gervais, etc.) at the beginning and end, so maybe that makes all the difference.

Does this film make a compelling case for non-belief? No.

Does it even give a coherent scientific message? No.

The entire point of this film is to say "look, there are lots of atheists out there and some of them are very clever and very popular" to the intended audience, which I guess is mostly American atheists. I guess the film makers hope that some believers (of whatever flavour) will watch it too.

Not sure that was 80 minutes well spent though. If I was you I wouldn't bother. Watch a full debate between a theist and an atheist on YouTube, you'll probably learn more.



Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Near death experiences and evidence in support of the theory of life after death

A recent edition of the Unbelievable radio show (on 6th December 2014) looked at near death experiences and out of body experiences. Unusually, for the Unbelievable show, there was no Christian guest on the show. This made the discussion and debate somewhat different from usual, in that there was no defence of the Christian viewpoint in the show. And there was no anti-apologetic either.

The show featured Eben Alexander, a former non-believing neurosurgeon who had a "near death experience" (NDE) while in a coma and has written a couple of books about it. The experience has convinced him that consciousness does not require a functioning brain to exist in, that is, that the conscious mind will exist after the brain ceases to function. In other words, the experience has led him to believe in life after death. But he isn't a Christian. 

Also on the show was sceptical psychologist Jane Aspell, who thinks that Alexander's experience was purely a creation of the mind, and not evidence of consciousness outside the brain. Aspell contends that Alexander's 'journey' was, essentially, a creation of his subconscious mind as he was coming out of coma, not an experience he had during the time he had "no brain function".

Apparently (according to Eben), the visions he had must have coincided with the time he had "no brain function" because the vision included six people who were there when he was in the coma, and who weren't there at a later stage. Well, actually, only five of the six were there during his coma, the sixth wasn't there, but is apparently relevant, for some reason not explained in the show. I'm afraid this sounds a bit like special pleading. A vision of six people which supposedly corresponds to a visit of five of them doesn't sound like great evidence. Maybe it is, but Eben's response to questioning on this issue was "buy my book, I've discussed all the evidence there", which doesn't make for great debate.

So the discussion was inconclusive. Alexander had a vision, but didn't manage to persuade the audience that it had to have been during his "no brain function" period, so the jury has to be still out on that one. Meanwhile Aspell's explanation for the whole thing sounds compelling and really quite reasonable.

Also on the show was Graham Nicholls, an out of body experience (OBE) researcher who claims to have been having out of body experiences all his life. He is also not a Christian. He gave some hand waving examples of 'real' out of body experiences he has had, but came across as quite a credulous chap. Basically, willing to believe almost any story of 'evidence' that is presented to him.

What he (and Alexander) seem to think is that evidence which is consistent with a hypothesis necessarily lends support to that hypothesis. For example, Nicholls' remote viewing of a cathedral in Tallinn (I think that's where it was) was taken by him as 'proof' that OBEs are real.

The issue is that this is only half of the rigorous scientific method. In order to count as 'evidence' for any given hypothesis, an event or observation must also count as evidence against any and all rival hypotheses. If an observation is equally consistent with all possible hypotheses, then it lends no weight to any of them. This is the essence of Bayes's Theorem, which I've blogged about before.

In other words, if someone claims to have had an OBE, the story of their experience only counts as evidence if it contains elements which are inexplicable by 'natural' explanations. In Nicholls's story of the OBE involving Tallinn cathedral, the 'observation' of the scaffolding on the hidden side of the cathedral could only count as evidence in favour of OBE if there was no physical way that Nicholls could have seen the scaffolding before, and no way that anyone could have mentioned it, and no way he could have seen something about it on TV or the internet, etc. Given that it is almost impossible to prove that one doesn't know something, or didn't know about it before a given point in time, this hardly counts as evidence.

The possibilities in this case are (a) that Nicholls had a genuine OBE, and therefore OBEs are real, or (b) that Nicholls hallucinated the whole thing, possibly based on things that he 'knew' prior to the hallucination (perhaps he only knew these subconsciously), or (c) that Nicholls is an intentional fraudster. Note that neither (b) nor (c) entails that OBEs are either true or false.

The 'evidence' of the story as presented in the Unbelievable show is entirely consistent with all three hypotheses, so really counts as evidence in favour of none of them. Given that we have quite a lot of other evidence for people being fraudsters or deluded, but limited evidence in favour of OBEs, our reasonable conclusion cannot be in favour of the existence of OBEs based on this. Maybe other evidence will present itself, but certainly nothing presented in this radio show was strong enough to give support to the OBE hypothesis.

No evidence is not proof against any theory. No evidence is simply no evidence.

Finally, I have to comment about the flawed reasoning behind the premise of the show. It seemed to be taken as read that evidence of out of body experiences, or brain activity during the "no brain function" period, or other 'near death' experiences would in some way count as evidence for the possibility of life after death. Why should this be? The thing is that NDEs are always recounted by people who return to conscious life after the experience, similarly with OBEs, the people telling the stories are always back in their own bodies and clearly not dead. The conscious mind is always tied to the body which it inhabited before the experience. We know nothing, precisely nothing, about what happens once the link between conscious mind and living body is actually severed. Maybe the conscious mind can continue (somehow) after this, maybe not, but as far as I know, we have no way of investigating this. Well, not by talking to the living anyway...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Faith is extrapolation...

I started writing this post ages ago, following an Unbelievable show featuring Peter Boghossian and Tim McGrew. It languished in a semi-finished state for a few months. I thought I may as well finish it and post it now. Apologies if it seems half-baked. It probably is.

I'm not going to say too much about that show as it was simply annoying, Boghossian (the atheist) grinding his axe the whole time, while McGraw repeatedly pointed out that it wasn't an axe, it was something else. Or something. Anyway, the discussion was fairly pointless, as it never really got beyond a dispute about what the word 'Faith' actually means.

Boghossian asserted (without evidence) that faith really means "believing something even though it is not supported by evidence"and "pretending to know things you don't know".

McGrew pointed out that the dictionary definition was more along the lines of absolute trust, and made a few examples of faith that is basically putting your trust in something where you have no control of the outcome, but choose to trust someone or something; for example taking a parachute jump - you trust the guy who packed the parachute, with your life... you get the idea.

Anyway, I don't think that the majority of believers use the word 'faith' the way that Boghossian claims, but neither do I think that believers generally use the word the way that McGrew claims either. The truth is somewhere in the grey area in between.

So what is faith? Or rather, what is religious faith? 

I'm currently putting my faith in the chair that I'm sitting on. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith. When I go to the dentist I put my faith in his ability to detect decay in my teeth, and occasionally have to put faith in his ability to fix the decayed bits. But that doesn't tell me much about religious faith either. One of the problems here is that we have the same word used in different contexts and there are nuances to the word that we miss if we assume it means exactly the same in all instances. It doesn't.

"Faith", without a given object of faith is not a useful concept to debate. If someone says "I have faith" or "I'm a person of faith" it means nothing without saying what it is they have faith in. Even saying "I have faith in God" doesn't help much, because to understand your meaning for that phrase, I have to understand your concept of God, or more importantly, your interpretation of what your God has apparently promised to do.

Most of the Christians I know (so we're talking about British evangelicals, for the most part) use the word faith to mean something like this:
In situations where I do not know what the outcome will be, I will act in a way consistent with my past experience and my understanding of what the biblical promises say the outcome will be.
That is, the believer essentially extrapolates from their understanding of the bible and their understanding of reality and, if exercising faith, will behave as if this extrapolation is true.

Of course, a good many Christians would omit 'past experience' and 'reality' from that if you asked them. The promises of the bible should trump experience. In theory, given enough faith, they can move mountains or walk on water - the bible explicitly says that they can do this - but experience and reality tend to temper those biblical principles, so nobody really expects mountains to fall into the sea if commanded to do so.

So its not a question of believing without evidence, its a question of deciding to take a particular course of action, when there is no evidence (or, perhaps, when the evidence is not known by the person taking the 'leap of faith').

Occasionally Christians use the word faith to mean this:
I will obey the commands of scripture, as I understand them, even though my past experience and understanding of the situation would suggest that this isn't the best course of action, from a human perspective.
This is, of course, what most Christians mean by living by faith, even if few Christians actually exercise this kind of faith regularly. Note that this version of faith doesn't claim to know anything without evidence, it just seeks to trust a promise of God more than an expectation. And even if the expected outcome happens, and the action leads to loss of respect, loss of money, or loss of something else, the Christian may still feel that it was the right thing to do because God may be at work in some hidden way.

Problems arise for the believer when evidence or experience suggests an outcome that is contrary to biblical promises and there is no divine hidden agenda apparent. I guess this is most apparent in the 'snake handling' churches in the USA. Mark 16v17-18 says:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
So there are some minority churches who practice handling poisonous snakes as part of their church services. And you know what, most of the time, the snakes do not bite the people. And sometimes when a snake bites a person, they don't die. All of this confirms the promise of scripture. Of course, occasionally someone is bitten and they do die - does this disconfirm the promise of scripture? No. It shows that the person who died didn't have enough faith! And so the snake handling continues.

Here its easy for a person with even a vague understanding of snake behaviour, venom toxicity and probability to realise that when you do all the calculations, there's pretty good odds of survival from handling a poisonous snake. Faith doesn't need to come into it at all. I've commented on this before. For the believer, there is no negative feedback loop (here and here). Failed promises are explained away or reinterpreted. But if this happens again, and again, and again, then the honest believer will end up having to question the promises. When the evidence consistently goes against the faith, then faith will begin to erode. Of course, probabilistically speaking, faith will sometimes be validated and sometimes not. It really comes down to how often faith 'gets lucky'.

The thing is, faith works. I know plenty of folk who live 'by faith' and get by just fine. Along the way, some of them have experienced some very fortuitous situations, and their faith is boosted. But even to those who didn't get unexpected windfalls of cash at "just the right moment", living by faith seems to work. I'm just not sure that there needs to be a God behind it, sending 'good luck' at all the right moments. When you consider every fortuitous event as a blessing and every hardship as character building and a challenge, the net effect is a faith boost and a confirmation that living by faith is the right thing to do. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The package deal of faith

I seem to have heard or read a few discussions / debates / articles touching on the subject of "what is faith?" recently. Generally, atheist types claim that faith means something like "claiming to know things you don't know", while Christians tend to emphasise the role of evidence and reason in faith.

I've found myself thinking recently that 'faith' is more of a kind of package deal than most Christians (and probably most atheists too) actually realise. Christian faith (and I guess this applies to other religions too, but I'm just talking about the belief system I have been part of) contains beliefs about many different things which all seem to come lumped together into the package of faith. Some of the individual beliefs are things for which there is (or may be) evidence. But there is no evidence at all for others, those must be taken 'on faith'. What I have noticed in the various debates, etc., that I have been reading and hearing is that Christians (generally) don't seem to notice that there are different categories of belief within faith. Just because some aspects of faith can be evidence based, it doesn't follow that all aspects of faith can be evidence based.

Here is a list of ten (randomly selected) beliefs that form part of the faith of most Christians that I know (different beliefs are available within what some define as Christianity, but lets not go there just now):
  1. Jesus Christ is the Son of God
  2. Jesus was crucified and died
  3. Jesus was bodily resurrected
  4. Jesus is now (physically, in a body) in heaven
  5. Jesus is part of the everlasting Trinity
  6. Jesus was the agent through whom the universe was created
  7. Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his followers; you can experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit today
  8. Followers of Jesus will go to heaven after they die
  9. Those who don't follow Jesus will go to hell after they die 
  10. Jesus acts in the world today to heal people, transform lives and do other miraculous things
I would argue that most of that list is a package deal. As a teenager I was already a believer in a few of those points (by upbringing), but it was when I came to believe in 10 and 7, on the basis of evidence, that I finally decided to become a Christian. I casually accepted the rest of the package without much scrutiny, it all just came as part of a package - if 2, 3, 7 and 10 were all true then (I assumed) 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 must also be true.

It was only a few decades later that I came to question individual beliefs in isolation and realised that there are no good reasons for believing most of the things that are part of Christian faith.

Looking back at that list, I now realise that, for example, item 2 is a matter of history. Given sufficient historical data it would be possible to confirm this belief. (I'm not going to get into the issue of whether or not there is sufficient data in this post.)

Item 7 is a different matter. This is something which is, or should be, testable in the present day. Experience should provide evidence to support or deny this claim. And I think there is evidence to support this claim (whether the same evidence also supports alternative beliefs is a different question, which I will address in the next post). Item 10 is much like it, although with an unseen causality chain built in. Someone's life being transformed is not necessarily evidence that the transformation was due to some action by Jesus.

But there can be no evidence to allow us to decide on the truth of claims 4, 5, 6, 8 or 9. Not just that there is no evidence, but there actually can be no evidence. These are articles of pure faith. Which have to be either accepted or rejected with no evidence. It is impossible, literally impossible, for us to know what will happen in the future. We have precisely no data on what happens to people after they die (note: Near death experiences don't count; I'll be addressing them in another post soon). You believe this as part of a package deal, or you don't. That's it. Future prophecies are unconfirmed, by their very nature, and thus don't provide evidence for anything. What happens after death must be taken entirely on faith.

What happened at the origin of all things is also something that is forever beyond our reach. There is no contemporary evidence that can prove, one way or another, whether any god was involved in the initiation of our universe, let alone give us any evidence as to which god it was. Again, belief in any creation or creator is a purely faith based position.

For the Christian, the only 'evidence' for the majority of claims made as part of the Christian faith is the words of the bible. "The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" as the saying goes.

I'm afraid that, for me, that doesn't settle it anymore. When I came to realise that some things in the bible were outright fiction and some biblical prophecies have (demonstrably) failed to come true, I had to give up on a bible-based faith. It took a long time (best part of a decade) for me to work through the implications of that realisation. But finally the package deal fell apart and I realised that most of what I had been taught to believe was based on false premises. One by one I have had to reassess and give up on my old beliefs. I'm afraid not much is left.

So where do you go without faith? Well, onward into the unknown. What I found when I lost the certainty that comes with faith, was that the uncertainty left behind leads to all the same places. The same sun shines down, the same rain falls, just as many bad things happen, just as many good things happen, I 'get lucky' just as often, and oddly enough all this is quite comforting. There's a big unknown 'final frontier' out there. Might as well boldly go where no-one has gone before...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2 Corinthians 11-12: Is it pure sarcasm?

In 2 Corinthians 11v24-27 Paul gives a very potted autobiography of his life (NASB):
"Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure." 
I have never heard anyone suggest that these verses are anything other than Paul giving brief but true account of his missionary life. Well, I had never heard anyone suggest otherwise until I read "Profit with Delight" a few weeks ago (see my previous post). In an offhand comment in that book, Richard Pervo asserts that Paul was talking sarcastically here and giving an extremely exaggerated, if not entirely fictitious autobiography here. Pervo implies that the author of Acts took these comments as true and based several incidents in Acts on these comments, but that Paul did not intend these to be taken seriously.

On re-reading the passage in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, I think I see what Pervo is getting at and I'm amazed that I've never seen this before or heard or read anyone discussing this issue before. Let's think about the context.

Paul is comparing and contrasting himself to the "super apostles" (NIV) or "most eminent apostles" (NASB) or "great apostles" (NCV). From context it is clear that various stories about these 'super' apostles are circulating and some of the stories make the apostles out to be more than mere men. They are portrayed as super-heroes, doing amazing deeds and enduring amazing persecutions, etc. Reading between the lines here it is also apparent that no such stories are circulating about Paul, so he comes out of all the gossip looking like an inferior apostle. What he says in these chapters is to set the record straight and put himself on an equal footing with these "super apostles" - if he can't bring them down to his level (reality) he's going to need to boost himself up to their level!

Look at the language he uses:
"I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me." 
2 Cor 11v1 - he starts out here admitting that his readers will have to bear with him while he indulges in "a little foolishness". What foolishness? Well in the verses that follow he starts boasting about all he has done for the Corinthian Church. He boasts about how he was not a burden and how he is not inferior to the super apostles. The foolishness is the boasting. There is nothing amazing in here, all this reads like fairly reasonable and unremarkable events are being described. He lives, works and preaches. Nothing much to boast about, but he has dropped humility and considers this foolishness.

In the midst of all this foolish boasting he says a few very cutting things about the super apostles - that they are false apostles, deceitful workers and servants of Satan (2 Cor 11v13-15).

So when Paul is talking foolishly, he does normal things that he boasts about and the super apostles are knocked off their pedestals.

But he doesn't stop there... he goes beyond foolishness and into the realms of the "insane"  (2 Cor 11v23). It is in the context of speaking as one who is insane that he gives the biography that includes beatings, floggings, shipwrecks, starvation, etc. In other words, Paul himself says that only an insane person would claim that all these things happened to him! In other words, Paul is saying these things did not happen to him. He is fabricating a super-biography to make stories about himself equal to the stories about the super-apostles. But these are the words of someone who is insane, and by implication he is saying that these things did not happen to any of the super apostles either.

Wait a minute! The implications of this are that 2 Corinthians shows that the amazing stories about Paul in Acts are complete fiction! Scripture is disproving scripture!

But Paul doesn't stop there... he drops back from insanity into boasting and recounts the story of when he was lowered in a basket over the city walls in Damascus (2 Cor 11v32-33). So maybe this is the only 'amazing' story in this biography which is not insane - maybe the rest was made up, but this was true? Maybe.

But having said this, he doesn't stop there... he "goes on" (beyond boasting?) to "visions and revelations of the Lord." Are these mere boasting or are we back in the realms of insanity again? Is the famous vision of the "third heaven" (2 Cor 12v1-6) boasting or insanity talking? We can't tell. And given that, given the context, we must consider this claim of a vision to be suspect. Maybe Paul is saying that this kind of vision is the sort of thing claimed about the super apostles. Maybe not.

Putting the stories of Acts to one side for a moment, and merely considering the passage in 2 Corinthians, it seems reasonable, if not entirely likely, that the 'insane' passage is not biographical, and that any stories like this which are told about Paul or any other apostle, must be considered to be exaggerated gossip, at best, or pure fiction, at worst. So any such stories we read (such as Acts, and the various non-canonical apocryphal Acts books) must be considered with a pinch of salt.

When Paul boasts, he boasts in the mundane. Clearly his own biography actually was mundane, characterised by ordinary preaching and teaching, without miracles, signs and wonders. Everything else is was made up by his biographers to make him into a 'Super Apostle'...

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The book of Acts: historically accurate or literary fiction?

I've just read the book 'Profit with Delight' by Richard I. Pervo. Not the greatest surname I've ever come across, but the guy certainly seems to know the book of Acts inside out and upside down. I think this book (written in the mid 80s) is basically a rehash of his PhD thesis (from Harvard, no less). Nothing wrong with that, of course. I've always meant to turn my PhD thesis into a book...

So what is his thesis? Well, his central thesis is that the book of Acts should be considered as a novel, not as a historical record. Yes, it may contain history, but it also contains fictional episodes and events which were written purely to entertain, and which have no basis in what actually happened.

The structure of the book is rather odd, at least I found it so. After a short introductory chapter, the author goes through the book of Acts in exhaustive detail, listing and discussing every story in the book which he thinks show signs of having been invented purely to entertain. In Chapter 2 he discusses all the scenes invented (according to his theory) to make the book an adventure story, in Chapter 3 he discusses the other entertaining features, such as the funny stories. Then, and only after he has discussed the above in detail for over half the book, does he address the question of what a novel actually is, in the context of the 1st and 2nd century setting. It would have made more sense to me to put this first and then ask "does Acts conform to this genre?" rather than start with the presumption that it does, and then answer the question towards the end of the book. Chapter 5 is a discussion of various novels from the period, including Acts, and then the book concludes.

My issue with the book is not the central thesis of the book. Pervo does a great job in Chapters 2 and 3 in convincing me, the reader, that many stories in Acts are inventions of the author (assumed throughout to be 'Luke'). No, my main issue with the book is the thing it assumes but never demonstrates, which is stated in these two quotes:
"Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain." (p 86)
and
"My thesis is that the canonical Acts are best explained as an example of one type of historical novel. [...] I hope that it is now clear that relating Acts to ancient novels is hardly a means for writing the book off for being fiction, least of all, pure fiction." (p 122)
Pervo insists on several occasions that Acts is a book of history, containing historical details from pre-Lukan sources, and although it contains fiction, it isn't all fiction. But how does he know this? He gives no evidence. He presents no method for distinguishing the fact from the fiction.

I have to admit that the first of those quotes, which comes at the start of Chapter 4, caught me totally off guard. Having read all the discussion of the episodes which Pervo says are clearly fiction, I had assumed he was coming to the conclusion that this book is a work of pure fiction. But he denies this, with no justification.

Its similar to the assumptions I have noticed in the work of Bart Ehrman and others regarding the gospels. They view some of the gospel stories as clearly fiction (usually the miracles or other 'impossible' stories) but then assume the non miraculous stories contain kernels of history. Why?

If a work of writing clearly contains fiction and fabrication in numerous places, how can we assume that the other bits are in any way reliable? What if Luke simply made the whole thing up? How can we distinguish between a book that is 50% fiction and 50% fact, from one that is 75% fiction and only 25% fact, from one that is 100% fiction? Pervo doesn't give us this method. Neither, as far as I have seen or read, does Ehrman. They just both assume there is some truth in there.

But we know that Peter and Paul, etc., were real historical people, don't we? And so a story told about them, even if heavily embellished, must contain some truth, mustn't it? Well, no. And Pervo seems to know this. Regarding Jewish novels he notes that:
"Jewish novelists did not invent their characters. They elaborated figures and events from myth, legend, Scripture and history." (p 120)
The novels he's talking about here are pure fiction. But in a historical setting with historical characters as the main characters in them. Why can't Acts be one of these? No reason given.

So Pervo comes away from this study content to believe that Acts is an embellished history book, but I'm afraid that I come away from this study thinking that most, if not all, of Acts is not history.

What is a 1st or 2nd century historical novel? Well, its a story that generally contains themes of adventure, travel, sea voyages, companionship, persecution, apparent death (which the hero then recovers from), and so on, generally with religious or magical themes and overtones of love and sex. Hmm, apart from possibly the sex angle, Acts has all of that in bucket-loads. But if the sea voyages, travel, persecution, etc. were all just invented out of genre convention - apparently this was what 1st and 2nd century readers wanted in their books - then we know virtually nothing about what Paul or Peter, etc. actually did. Paul may throw us a few hints in his letters (but see the next post I am writing!) but they're not really enough to build a biography on.

Hmmm, yet another part of my once strong faith comes crumbling down. Which is either very sad, or about time too, depending on your viewpoint.

If anyone out there knows of any defence of the historicity of Acts, please point me in that direction. Even better, if anyone can offer a reliable means of detecting historical facts in stories containing fictional elements, I'd love to read about those! 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Conversion and deconversion

Despite the fact that numerous conversations, events and internal ponderings all contributed in some way to it, I can pinpoint a specific time and place when I made the transition from not being a Christian into being a Christian. It was on a train (somewhere near Falkirk), on a specific Saturday evening in October 1988 (26 years ago! Eeek!). That was the moment of decision. That was when I made the transition from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. That was when I made my decision. That was when I was 'born again'. That was when I was saved. That was when I converted. That was, as far as I was concerned, when I became a Christian.

And it rather narked me for several years afterwards when I had conversations with Christians of more liberal leanings than I was who would make comments to the effect that I was 'on the right track' or 'on the journey of faith' or whatever, before that time.

As time went on I began to soften my views a bit and came to realise that the process was important - the process that began a long time before 'conversion' and continued to play out for a long time after it. (See this blog post from 2007 to see where I was in terms of thinking about this back then.) The 'moment' of conversion was one step on a journey or one rung on a ladder, but there were many steps before it and many steps after it.

So while once upon a time 'conversion' was pivotal in my spiritual journey, over the years its influence has diminished, I think.

Why am I raising this issue now?

Well, I'm wondering if there is an equivalent pivotal point on the path of deconversion? Once again it is a journey of many steps or a ladder with many rungs, but is any one of them the definitive transition point where you go from being a 'born again' believer, to a 'dead again' non-believer? If there is such a step, how do you know when you take it?

Basically I'm trying to work out if I have 'deconverted' yet. (In another blog post back in 2007, I addressed this question and concluded at the time that I hadn't deconverted.) I'm not so sure now.

Two weeks ago in church I took communion - should I still be doing this? Am I still part of that 'community' body? As far as I am concerned, I have never stopped following Christ and his teachings, but I have come to doubt the authenticity of those teachings and the historicity of the man who allegedly said them. I suppose Romans 10v9 is clear on this one: 'if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved' - well, its a while since I actually believed that in my heart and I haven't been confessing that either for a few years, so by that token I am not 'saved'. But saved from what? The need for salvation is one of the many things I doubt.

There has been no 'Damascus Road' experience on the way back. No moment of decision not to follow. So there has been no moment of deconversion. I don't think my heart has changed. I do think my beliefs have changed. That's all down to evidence and understanding. You can't make yourself believe something that goes against the evidence. Your beliefs have to follow behind what you know.

A year or two ago I had the shocking realisation that if I had known back in 1988 what I know now, I would never have made the decision to become a Christian in the first place. I now know too much to make the decision that I made back then, because the decision I made back then was a (relatively) naive one, based on few facts and a lot of claims that I now have good reasons to doubt.

Given that, I think I probably have deconverted somewhere along the way, even if I can't pinpoint the place and time. I am no longer a Christian (except in the most liberal definition of the word, and I've never chosen to be a liberal Christian!). So what am I? I really would quite like to still be a Christian, because I really would quite like it all to be true. Then again, I really would quite like to discover a doorway to Narnia in the back of my wardrobe too. What I want has no bearing on what is true, or even on what I believe to be true.

My Facebook profile says I am a 'Christian Humanist' (whatever that means) and I have certainly never decided to become an 'atheist' at any point. I don't need to 'come out' as an atheist. But as to what I am? I guess your opinion will be different from mine, but I'm OK with that.