Saturday, June 14, 2014

Unbelievable adverts: a short rant

I don't know about you, but I listen to the Unbelievable show as a podcast. This means that most of the adverts are cut out and we only get to hear the adverts from the main sponsors of the show.

For the past three years, ALL the main sponsor adverts have irritated me, because ALL of them have been grammatically incorrect in some way. The two main sponsor adverts at the moment are for Biola University and Reasons to Believe.

The Biola advert goes like this:
"Was Jesus really raised from the dead? How can we know that God exists? How do we explain evil, pain and suffering in the world?, and Can faith be reconciled with modern science? Few universities are bold enough to answer 'yes' to all these questions, but California's Biola University is premier amongst them..."
Hang on, only two of those questions can have yes/no answers. For questions 2 and 3, "yes" is a totally nonsensical answer. This is a university that answers reasonable questions with nonsense? Oh dear.

The Reasons to Believe advert is barely any better:
"Do the Bible and science really contradict each other? Is there really a historical Adam and Eve? These are only a few of the questions that seem to indicate an apparent conflict between science and faith, and this is why Reasons to Believe exists..."
So that's two questions. Not 'a few' questions. To be 'a few' questions you'd need more than two. And I don't think anyone out there is asking whether or not there is a historical Adam & Eve, surely the question is whether or not there was a historical Adam & Eve, sometime in history, in the past tense. 

Surely someone grumpier than me must have pointed this out to the folks at Premier Christian Radio before now? Surely someone there should actually care that their sponsors aren't talking nonsense? Maybe next year they'll have a grammatically correct advert... Then again, I hoped that last year, then Biola came along. Sigh.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A couple of books by Amy Orr-Ewing

I've just read a couple of books by UK based apologist Amy Orr-Ewing recently (thanks to Wee Scoops for lending them to me; she commented on the first of these books here). AOE works for RZIM and the OCCA. I have to say, at the outset, that I've heard a few talks by and interviews with Amy Orr-Ewing and she sounds like quite possibly the nicest person who ever lived, ever. No, I really mean that. But being overwhelmingly nice doesn't necessarily mean she's consistently right, or has greater insight into the reality (or otherwise) of Christian faith, so what follows is an honest (yet critical) response to her two books "Why Trust The Bible?" and "But is it Real?" (in the order I read them, not the order she wrote them...) 

I wrote a blog post called 'Why trust the bible?' a couple of years ago, and this question has dominated my philosophical thinking over the past couple of years, for if the Bible is trustworthy, then Christianity is basically true, there is a God and that has massive implications for all of our lives. But if the bible is not trustworthy, then Christianity falls apart. Sure, that wouldn't necessarily mean that there is no God, but it would be good evidence that even if there is a God, the Christian picture of him is flawed at best, and totally wrong at worst. So the question really matters to me.

I have to say that most of my reading and reflections on the bible over the past few years have led me to (tentatively) conclude that the bible isn't really all that trustworthy - it contains errors and makes claims that have little or no grounding in reality. It is not always consistent with history and paints an inconsistent picture of the God it claims to reveal. But anyway, on to AOE's book on the subject.

In "Why trust the Bible?" she addresses 10 questions that she says have been put to her by non-believers countless times over the years. The foreword by RZ and the first few chapters seem to place the focus of the book in a post-modern world where there is no such thing as truth. To be honest, I can't be bothered with such debates; there is truth, the question here is does the bible contain it? The only notable thing in chapter one is the admission that there are basically 3 options concerning the gospel writers (specifically Luke and John, who she assumes to be 'the doctor' and 'the fisherman' respectively) are either that (i) they are honest in their writing, but deluded in their beliefs, (ii) that they are intentionally writing fiction or falsehood, or (iii) that they are honest in their writing and accurate in their beliefs. In this book she never offers any evidence to support or refute any of these options, but merely presents an anecdote about someone coming to faith, because the story is being related by a fishermen - and fishermen are the type of folk who are honest and not easily duped. Huh?

In chapter 2 she keeps on about post-modernism and questions whether we can know anything about history. Then she plays the Nazi card and talks about questioning the Holocaust. Sigh. There is a vast difference between events involving a handful of peasants some 2000 years ago and events involving millions of people across all strata of society only a few decades ago, this chapter doesn't seem to notice this. Having discussed this for most of the chapter, she then misinterprets Luke's words "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" to mean "spoke to eye-witnesses", which is stretching the text a bit. Anyway, she then moves on, in chapter 3, to the NT manuscripts. Yes, there are a lot of them, and yes, they do go back to within a few generations of the alleged events, nobody seriously doubts this. She does tread on some pretty shaky ground in claiming that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments of NT writings, something that has been pretty solidly debunked since it was first suggested in the early 1970s. Of course, she doesn't rely on this as evidence - it would never stand up in court - but by mentioning it, she does imply that this is potential evidence, something I believe it is not.

And finally, in chapter 4, we begin to get to the point. Are the NT stories reliable? Here she plays the usual apologetic card that discounting the possibility of miracles is 'closed-minded' and then trots out the usual argument that the disciples would never have died for a lie. There's nothing new here and no new perspectives. Then she does a whistle-stop tour through the non-biblical sources and makes a case that the bible has been faithfully transmitted. I must have read too many apologists recently, as I've heard all this too many times and it seems to me that all this evidence really only supports two things that nobody really doubts: (1) there were Christians who worshiped Jesus as God in the early 2nd century, and (2) we can be reasonably sure what the text of the bible was in the late 2nd century. None of the non-biblical sources tells us anything about Jesus, all of them tell us about Christian belief. Nobody doubts that there were early believers, the question is whether or not those believers had the truth.

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce further distractions away from the main point. Concerning the formation of the canon, she claims that this was an organic process, over a few hundred years, with no human guiding hand. This is at complete odds with the claims of David Trobisch who demonstrates (rather convincingly) that the Canon of the NT was 'published' by a single editor in the mid-late 2nd century. It is also clear to me that the 'Catholic' canon was formed as a response to the earlier Marcionite canon. She then goes off on a tangent to demonstrate that the bible is superior to holy books from other religions. While she may be right, this doesn't render the bible 'trustworthy'; only more trustworthy than other fictions...

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 are other tangents, dealing with the apparent sexism of the bible, the violence of it and the attitudes to sex in it. More than other chapters in the book, it is apparent in these three that the target audience of this book is people who are already Christians, but may be facing doubts raised by others. The message here is 'don't worry, the bible's not as out of date as you think'. These chapters touch lightly on a few important topics, without ever really grappling with the issues adequately, and - obviously - conclude in favour of the standard Evangelical Alliance position on sexual issues. Why AOE feels the need to conclude in favour of 'just war' as against a pacifist stance is unclear, and seems out of context in this book. But I guess, the point is its OK to be a follower of Jesus and support war. That's very murky water to wade through.

And then we get to a conclusion that walks away from evidence-based reasoning to anecdote and emotional reasoning. You can know Jesus 'in your heart'. AOE knows Jesus 'in her heart' and no amount of actual evidence can dispute that.

In the end, this is a book that doesn't adequately address the question posed in the title. It starts off addressing a post-modern view of 'truth' and ends up defending the views of the bible against modern beliefs about sex and violence. But what it never does along the way is provide sufficient evidence to conclude that the bible is actually trustworthy. Anecdotes don't prove anything, even emotive ones presented in a confident and positive manner.

"But is it Real?" comes at the Christian faith from a different angle. The aim here is to dispel the claims that Christianity is a 'delusion' or is simply one of many religions, and no more or less valid than the others. From the outset we're in even more anecdotal territory than we were with the other book. Actual evidence is very scarce here. The objective seems to be to counter every anti-Christian claim or quote with an equal and opposite pro-Christian claim or quote. These effectively cancel each other out, rather than providing any pro-Christian evidence.

Chapter 1 tries very hard to prove that 'Christian experience' is radically different from the 'experience' found in Buddhism and Islam. Probably true. Its notable that the experience of Hinduism, Hare Krishna, Mormonism, or other 'heretical' Christian sects is not considered here. Those alternative religions do have personal and relational deities, yet are not considered. Apparently Christianity is qualitatively different from all other religions in that it alone has a 'personal relationship' with the divine. But this is not really explained or defined here. The fact that talking of Christian faith in 'personal relationship' terms is a modern innovation is certainly never discussed. This terminology would have been meaningless to the average Christian believer even a couple of centuries ago, it only really came in with the spread of Pentecostalism in the early 20th Century. Again, as with all apologetics, the aim of this book seems to be to reassure the Christian reader that their faith is reasonable and justifiable.

Then we enter Dawkins / Hitchens / Harris territory and counter the claims that God is a delusion. This is done using lots of quotes and anecdotes but no real issues or evidence are really presented. I've read better responses to the 'new atheists', this one just dips its toe in the debate. Next she takes on the 'religion is a crutch' idea and challenges Freud. Once again in a fairly superficial manner. She makes claims that if real, Christianity is not (just) a crutch, but doesn't really manage to demonstrate that it is real.

When discussing the plurality of religions she makes an odd argument against the oft-asserted statement that your religion is largely a product of where you were born. She seems to assume that this objection to faith is actually in favour of all religions being equally valid paths to God when, in fact, it is almost always used as an argument that all religions are equally invalid - that is, that they are all false.

The chapter on suffering and evil is the first in the book to actually engage with its subject, and is not just a bunch of anecdotes and counter-quotes. Her main point seems to be that you can't use moral reasoning to decide the God question, because moral laws entail a moral law giver, so by posing the very question in moral terms you are excluding the possibility that there is no God. This is a strong argument, but it has flaws. For a start, she simply assumes that if there is a moral law that there must be a moral lawgiver who must be God. I'm afraid I get a bit suspicious of strings of 'must be' type deductions, they almost always lead to a house of cards situation. The claim that there must be a lawgiver because there is a law is pretty much the same as the claim that there must be a creator because there is a creation. The way we form the question frequently seems to entail an answer, but the creator/creation question is still very much open to debate, and so is the law/lawgiver question.

What she never does here (much like many other debates on this issue) is actually demonstrate that there is an absolute moral law. If moral 'law' is merely relative, not absolute, then it isn't really a law at all, more like a trait, an emergent property of a system. And emergent properties of systems don't need lawgivers. Thankfully she doesn't play the "torturing babies for fun" card, which seems to be the only moral absolute anyone can agree on in such debates, but rather than actually try and demonstrate that there are moral absolutes, she goes off on a comparative-religion tangent and tries to show that Christianity is morally superior to other religions. Maybe it is, but this still comes a long way short of answering the question on the cover...

The book then asks why Christians are so bad at being Christians. Because they are. The point seems to be that if there is really a transforming friendship with God, then Christians should be increasingly better at being Christians than they generally are. I have to say that her attempts to explain this one away are the least convincing bit of the book, there's not a good case to be made here.

The subject of hell comes up next and here AOE reveals her true worldview. While the title of the book is "But is it real?" here she shows that she thinks that reality = the teaching of Jesus, with no need for extra proof beyond that:
"Such discussions of hell illustrate the importance of basing one's beliefs on truth and reality rather than on personal preference. If eternal life is at stake, isn't it at least worth examining the claims and teachings of Jesus and making up our minds properly about their veracity, rather than drifting along with society's laissez-faire attitude, hoping it will all pan out in the end?" (p. 90)
Well, yes, but this begs the question of truth and reality - she never presents any evidence or even sound philosophical argument for the reality (or otherwise) of hell. She never demonstrates that the teachings of Jesus relate to a real hell. Indeed, she never at any point in this book gives any evidence or arguments that the words recorded in the bible are actually an accurate account of the words of Jesus. She merely assumes that (a) there was a historical Jesus, (b) that he was the Son of God, (c) that his words are accurately recorded in the gospels, and (d) that his words paint an accurate picture of truth and reality. All four of these assumptions are questionable, yet these questions are never considered. So this chapter fails in its intent, as the 'truth and reality' of hell is never demonstrated, only assumed. Is it real? I don't know. But given the lack of evidence, and good philosophical arguments against it, it would seem reasonable to doubt the existence of hell. She ends the chapter explaining the standard evangelical thinking of what Jesus achieved by dying on the cross, all of which implicitly assumes that the book of Romans is an inspired document. Something else she never demonstrates or even considers to be a question.

Then the word 'fundamentalism' is discussed and skirted around. But there's not much of interest in here. In the penultimate chapter she more or less drops the facade and reveals who this book is really aimed at - people who 'used to believe' but have drifted away from Christianity. Here she considers a few backsliding (a word she doesn't use) stories and explains why such people are being inconsistent and should really come back to faith. In the end she says this:
"...the most important reason to consider returning: Christianity is true and real. Everything else flows from this: If Jesus was who he claimed to be, if he rose from the dead and really does save us from our sins, if he is personally knowable today, then it would be madness to reject him."
Absolutely! I agree totally and wholeheartedly.

IF all that is real and true, then it would be madness to reject Jesus. But IS all that real and true? This book doesn't give enough evidence to decide that question, and never considers some of the main issues, such as do the gospels contain honest and accurate historical reportage or not? She goes on to agree with me:
"If these things are not true and real, it is right to ignore his claims as irrelevant.
        The crucial questions to settle then are: On what grounds have I rejected Christianity? Are these grounds substantial or circumstantial? Shouldn't I examine my presuppositions as well as the evidence for Christ before rejecting something so important out of hand?"
I agree with all of this. But think that she should also consider her presuppositions. Everything in here assumes the gospels are, well, gospel truth.

In the penultimate chapter she lists (in bullet point form) the claims of Christianity that we need to make a decision on. Here's my paraphrase of them:
  1. Jesus really did die on the cross. 
  2. Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb.
  3. The disciples were disheartened following his death.
  4. The testimony of women is crucial; nobody would make this stuff up.
  5. The tomb was empty; this is "universally" acknowledged.
  6. The preaching in Acts is inexplicable if there was no resurrection.
  7. The disciples were transformed.
  8. Loads of people including sceptics, opponents and 500 at the same time saw the resurrected Jesus.
  9. The resurrection of a single man, not at the end of the age, is unprecedented in Jewish thought.
Let's pose the 'But is it real?' question at these claims... All of these claims rely entirely on the four gospel accounts, one of Paul's letters, and the book of Acts. There are no non-biblical sources to support any of these. All non-biblical sources reveal that Christians believed (some of) these things a couple of generations after the alleged resurrection, they give us no access to the actual event, if it happened. For example, the transformation of the disciples from point 3 to point 7 is all part of the gospel story and has dramatic effect; this doesn't make it true. Indeed, it actually suggests that it might be a literary invention to make a stronger story - this is how fiction works.

Most of these individual claims can be (and have been) rebutted with equal and opposite arguments. What the case for the reality of these claims has to do is demonstrate that the gospels are accurate history books, not fictions. This is something this book never even attempts to do. So in the final analysis the answer to the question 'But is it Real?' has to be 'we don't know...'


I think I'll not read any more apologetics for a while. There really is noting new under the sun, and nothing particularly compelling in anything I've read. But there may be a couple more posts looking at other apologetics books, as I've read some that I haven't commented on yet...

The argument from reason...?

The 'argument from reason' has cropped up a few times on the Unbelievable show, and reared its head on last week's show again. The argument is basically this: Reason cannot emerge from non-reason. In a naturalistic worldview, reason (i.e. our cognitive ability to reason) is the end result of a non-rational process (i.e. evolution by natural selection). We know we are reasonable. Therefore, the naturalistic worldview is false. Of course, there's more nuance to it than that, but that's the gist.

There are two thoughts I have on this.

The first is to question the first premise of the argument. Why can't reason emerge from non-reason? Evolution theory has shown, quite convincingly, that complexity can arise from simple systems. The ability to infer from evidence gives us a huge evolutionary advantage over instinct-driven creatures. Why shouldn't this ability have evolved?

The other is to point out that, whichever side you take in the belief/non-belief debate, there would seem to be a vast number of people in the world who do not exhibit total rationality. If there is a God, and there is evidence of his existence, then all non-believers are non-rational. If there is no God, and the evidence is nothing of the sort, then all believers are non-rational. Either way, non-rationality is rampant in the world. The apparent existence of rationality in the small subset of people who happen to infer the same things about reality as me should not be taken to imply that people are generally rational. Quite the opposite. People are generally irrational. Is this design or is this the end result of an evolutionary process?

Inferring the existence of God on the basis of a characteristic which might be found in a small subset of people (and might be found in nobody; I can't prove that anyone is rational) is a very shaky argument. Maybe we're all non-rational?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Luke-Acts and the atonement

I've just discovered a debate that theologians have been having on and off for decades. The debate concerns whether or not the author of Luke-Acts believes that Jesus death had atoning power or not.

I'll admit, this came as something of a shock to me. While I've known for years that each of the gospel writers has their own agenda and their own take on who Jesus was and what he came to do, I actually thought that they all basically agreed on what Jesus death on the cross was all about. But apparently not.

For some time I've been meaning to read up on the things that Matthew changed when he expanded on Mark, and the things that Luke changed when he expanded on Mark, but had never really found the time. Now, quite by accident, I have stumbled upon this astounding claim:

When Luke used Mark to create his gospel, he deliberately removed verses that said that Jesus death was an atoning sacrifice. 

Specifically, the debate hangs on a few verses:
  1. Mark 10:45 says "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Luke uses much of Mark in his gospel, including material from immediately before and immediately after this, but omits this verse.
  2. Luke 22:19-20 says "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." but some manuscripts only have "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body.'" that is, some manuscripts miss out the bit that suggests there is some atonement going on. I've just been reading Bart Ehrman (in 'The orthodox corruption of scripture') giving a very compelling case for why the shorter reading is the original. This is the only verse in Luke that suggests that Jesus's death has atoning power.
  3. Acts 20:28 says "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." This is the only verse in Acts that suggests that Jesus's death has atoning power, and much like the verse in Luke, there is a good case to be made that these words were not part of the original.
Without Luke 22:19b-20 and Acts 20:28 there is no concept of atonement in all of Luke-Acts. When Jesus died, according to Luke, it wasn't on behalf of sinners.

So what is the cross all about according to Luke-Acts? Let's have a look at the preaching of Peter and Paul in Acts.

Peter's preaching in Acts 2 has this basic message:
Jesus was a man sent by God. We know he was sent by God because of the miracles. According to God's plan he was killed. God raised him to life. God made him Lord and Messiah. God gave him the Holy Spirit, which he now pours out on his followers. In order to get the Spirit you need to repent and be baptised in Jesus's name. The process of baptism forgives your sins.
The objective of Peter's message here is that you get the Holy Spirit. There is no atonement in Jesus's death. Forgiveness comes through repentance and baptism.

In Acts 3, Peter's preaching touches on similar themes, although here forgiveness comes through repentance and baptism isn't mentioned.

In Acts 4, Peter's message to the Sanhedrin is that salvation is found in Jesus, but this appears linked to his exalted current status, not to his death.

In Acts 5, Peter's words suggest that God gave Jesus the role of Saviour after his resurrection, so it was neither the death or resurrection that has saving power, but rather Jesus's current exalted status.

Stephen's preaching in Acts 7 doesn't actually include a 'gospel' message, but it is clear that it is the power of the risen Jesus that matters.

In Acts 8, the thing with Simon the Sorcerer is all about how you get the Holy Spirit. Again, this seems to be the objective of preaching in Acts. 

Again, in Acts 10, in Peter's preaching to Cornelius, it is what God did to Jesus after his ascension that matters, and believing in the risen Jesus is the way to receive the Holy Spirit.

The same basic message features in the preaching of Paul in Acts 13. Jesus was a good man, wrongly killed, vindicated by god, raised, and then made Son of God and Saviour. Some of the same is in Paul's famous preaching in Acts 17.

Throughout all the preaching of the apostles in Acts, the same basic message is evident: Jesus was a good man, wrongly killed. He was vindicated by God and raised from the dead. He became the Son of God and Saviour. He can forgive the sins of the repentant and give the Holy Spirit.

There is no atonement in the preaching in Acts. The cross is not central. There is barely any future hope of heaven or resurrection either. The gospel message in Luke-Acts is for now and it is this: repent, be baptised in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. That is all.

How come I've never noticed this before? How come millions of Christians haven't noticed this either?

The 'gospel' of Luke and Acts is different to the gospel of the epistles and the other three gospels.

Another nail in the coffin of inerrancy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Something had to happen...?

I've just been listening to last week's Unbelievable podcast, featuring a debate between Bart Ehrman and Simon Gathercole on the subject of "How God became Jesus". I don't have much to say about the debate as a whole, but there was one claim made at about 55 min into podcast which I found to be interesting. While talking about the resurrection and the start of Christianity, the host Justin Brierley said: 
"...you need something to explain why suddenly these very radical views about Jesus were coming from"
To which the guest Simon Gathercole responded:
"I think... everyone thinks that you have to have some kind of 'big bang', because if there wasn't something, then Christianity... the Jesus movement would have fizzled out, just like the Theudas movement fizzled out, just like the Judas the Galilean movement fizzled out, to cite two other sort of messianic, or semi-messianic movements. So yes, certainly something had to happen which kept the movement alive."
Really? Something had to happen or the religion would never have kept going? And everyone thinks it? By that token, Joseph Smith really had to have had a visitation from the angel Moroni, or Mohammed really had to have had revelations from the angel Gabriel, and so on. 

Not all religions start with an actual supernatural event. Indeed, almost by definition, all religions (except possibly the 'one true religion') must have started without any supernatural event. Why should Christianity be the exception to that? Why did Christianity need an actual resurrection to get going while the Mithras religion didn't, or the Zoroastrian religion didn't, etc.? Are the claims of Christianity so much more unbelievable than the claims of other religions that it couldn't possibly get going without some grounding in reality, but the others could, because they are somehow more believable? I doubt it.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Drops of blood?

39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. 
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Luke 22:39-46
The verses in the middle of this passage have always bothered me. Verse 44 in particular, but verse 43 is odd too. I don't think I've ever noticed the footnote that is included in the NIV which notes that "Many early manuscripts do not have verses 43 and 44." 

It seems that most modern translations of the bible err on the side of caution when it comes to verses that aren't in some manuscripts. The assumption seems to be that it is more likely that some scribe would have accidentally missed out some words or verses while copying a passage, than that some scribe would have intentionally added in extra words or verses while copying. So all 'occasional' passages are included in the bible. I suppose the intention is to make sure that our modern bibles contain the entire 'Word of God' and don't inadvertently cut some bits of divine inspiration out. I guess there is also an element of assuming that ancient copyists had modern evangelical values as well - the vast majority of Christians today wouldn't dream of adding something they'd made up and trying to pass it off as inspired scripture.

But what if some of the occasional passages were really scribal inventions, and not part of the original? Well then, some of what we read cannot be the inspired Word of God. (Of course, the whole thing may not be inspired, but that's a debate for a different post.)

I've been thinking about this as these verses were quoted twice in church today, and I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" (which is basically the longer and more scholarly version of his book "Misquoting Jesus") and I've just (last night) read the bit where he discusses these verses. Its almost like somebody is trying to draw my attention to the fact that these verses aren't part of the original.

Ehrman makes a very compelling case (which apparently is a summary of another of his publications) for the inauthenticity of verses 43 and 44. The verses are not only out of character in Luke as a whole, they actually break the literary pattern of the passage and appear to go against the flow of the message Luke seems to be trying to make.

With these verses in context, the passion account in Luke is similar in theme and emphasis to the passion accounts of Mark and Matthew, where an anguished Jesus agonises about the ordeal he is about to undergo. But without them, Luke's passion loses all of its, well, erm, its passion. All of a sudden we get a story of a very calm and collected Jesus who accepts his fate with serenity and seems totally in control of the situation. Much more like John's Jesus, in fact, although John has no prayer in the garden.

All very interesting. But to me this highlights the different agendas of the different gospel writers. And, indeed, the different Jesus characters they present. The more I read the gospels and the more I read about them, the more I see that they are not unified with a single gospel message.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The God of all possibility?

I've just been listening to a debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll on the Unbelievable podcast. I think Carroll won. Indeed, he wiped the floor with WLC, but anyway.

What I found myself thinking (other than 'what the heck is a Boltzmann brain?') was this:

If there is a creator God who can do anything and everything, and therefore can create any universe, then any conceivable universe (and indeed any inconceivable universe), including a universe where there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for God, is consistent with the existence of God.

So evidence becomes utterly meaningless in the search for God. It doesn't matter what you observe (or fail to observe) in the universe, anything is consistent with this definition of God. So if you believe in that sort of God, then there is no evidence to dissuade you from your belief...

So given that a great many believers of several religions actually do believe in this sort of God, then there is little point in attempting to reason them out of that belief on the basis of evidence.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The first edition of the New Testament

The second book I read from New College library was 'The First Edition of the New Testament' by David Trobisch. This is a relatively short book with a simple (if incomplete) point to make. The point is this - most of the early manuscripts of the New Testament that we have suggest that they originate from a common, edited, source. There are commonalities in style in manuscripts of the letters of Paul, or the gospels, or Acts, etc., which demonstrate that these come from a compiled book, and did not circulate for long as discrete and independent documents.

What this book does not do, however, is identify the time of the compilation, or who the editor was. (The author went on, some years after the publication of this book, to claim that the editor was most likely Polycarp, and the complication was most likely in the middle-late 2nd century, but that is not discussed here.)

What this book does do is make a very compelling case that, very early in the life of the church, there was a published and widely distributed 'edition' of the NT, and that it was compiled with a clear and definite agenda. The most compelling piece of evidence for the common source is the 'Nomina sacra' - a style of abbreviating certain holy names (God, Jesus, Spirit, etc.) that is common in the majority of early manuscripts we have. It is highly unlikely that Paul, Matthew, John, etc. would independently invent such a distinctive style like this, and it is not pre-Christian, yet the writings of these diverse authors use the same style. Trobisch's conclusion - that someone compiled each of these documents into an edited book with a common style throughout, and then this 'edition' was copied and distributed.

So I'm convinced, someone compiled and published a New Testament book with all 27 of the books we have in our modern NT in place, sometime in the 2nd century. This is earlier than most scholars seem to think the canon was complied, but so what? What difference does it make?

Well, here is where Trobisch implies a lot but doesn't spell it all out explicitly. The important thing about the fact of the first edition is the editorial intention. Why were these 27 books compiled and published? Why were other books excluded? (It is notable that some extra-canonical writings like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were included in some early (3rd/4th century) editions of the NT, but were not in this 'original' edition, and were subsequently booted out of later editions. Why did they not fit?) Trobisch demonstrates (quite compellingly) that the editor of the NT had an agenda, and it was this - to put Peter and Paul on an equal footing.

The point of the first edition of the NT writings was to stamp out anti-Pauline feelings in one 'part of the church' and stamp out anti-Petrine feelings in another 'part of the church' and get both sides to accept the heroes of both camps. It is implied that several of the books in here (particularly ones that include cross-references to other books, such as 2 Peter or Paul's pastoral epistles) were written (or significantly edited) at the time of the compilation, to fit the editorial agenda. Acts in particular was constructed or edited to ensure that Peter and Paul have equal billing - basically there is nothing that Paul does that Peter doesn't also do, and nothing that Peter does that Paul doesn't do: miraculous escape from prison? both manage this; face-off with a magician? both do this again; miraculous healings? check; preach the same gospel message? yes; evangelise gentiles? yes; and so on... I've heard somewhere that it's possible to do a tally of the things that Peter does, and you can basically tick off a list of what Paul does. They both do everything, and neither appears superior to the other. This can't be an accident. This must be an intention of the author or editor of Acts. Trobisch implies that the author/editor of Acts is also the editor of the first edition. If this happened in the 2nd century, we can pretty much rule out Luke as the author of Acts. Does that mean we have to also rule him out as the author of the gospel of Luke? Hmmm.

So, given the fact that the 1st Edition goes to a lot of bother to reconcile the Peter fans with the Paul fans, what does this tell us about 'the church' in the days before the publication of this book? Well, it clearly suggests that there were at least two factions before that which were not united. Above I described these two factions as 'parts of the church', but were they really two parts of some larger whole before this book was created to bring them together? Traditional views on church history suggest that there was one true 'orthodox' original from which heretical sects and ideas occasionally broke away from. Yet the creation of this book suggests that 'orthodoxy' was created by the fusion of two (or more) diverse factions. Was either of them the original orthodox? There is no compelling reason to suggest this. What if Christian orthodoxy really is a creation of the 2nd century? What if before that there were people who really did 'follow' Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12 and 3:4) and reject Peter, and vice versa? What if Christianity doesn't go back to Christ?

There's some big things to think about in there. I wish Trobisch wasn't so implicit about everything. The implications are massive, but the discussion is incomplete. Sigh. More reading to do, I guess...

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Margaret Barker, The Lost Prophet, and 1st temple worship...

I recently discovered that, as a member of staff at the University of Edinburgh, I have access to the New College library, one of the biggest theological libraries in Europe. So rather than waste that opportunity, I went and borrowed some books.

The first one I read, largely because it was the slimmest of the books I borrowed was "The Lost Prophet" by Margaret Barker. I've previously read her book "The Great Angel" and found it fascinating, and really want to read her first book "The Older Testament", but sadly New College don't have that, so I settled on this.

The book is an examination of the ancient book of 1st Enoch. Exactly how ancient it is is one of the conundrums of the book. It is in five parts, four of which were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, making those parts pre-Christian. The other part is only found in later, Christian, documents, so it is unclear if this bit is pre-Christian or not. This is a bit annoying as this part contains a lot of material about a character called "The Son of Man". If this could be shown to be pre-Christian then this book might yield understanding of what Jesus and the early church meant when they used the phrase.

Conventional thinking about this book is that it is later to, and derivative of, the Old Testament writings. Barker makes the opposite case, that the book of Enoch could be contemporary with some of the Old Testament books, perhaps even earlier. She makes a good case for, at the very least, not assuming the priority of the OT books, just because they're in the canon. The OT books, like Daniel and some of Isaiah, could basically be products of the same kind of thinking that also gave us the book of Enoch. That is to say, in evolutionary terms, that they share common ancestry. 

Barker claims that if we read the New Testament through the lens of this Enochic view of the world, then we can gain insight into many parts of the NT, not just Jude and 2Peter, which refer to it explicitly, but also all the Son of Man stuff in the gospels and some of the thinking of the epistles.

Its all interesting stuff, and might give insights on a few obscure passages, but its not going to set the world on fire...

What I am much more interested in, having read this, is the content of her earlier book, and the thesis contained therein. You see, Barker claims that the stories, rituals and beliefs, etc. of the pre-exilic period in Israel and Judah have been deliberately modified and rewritten with a different agenda in the post-exilic period when the OT was compiled. The Old Testament, she claims, misrepresents the first temple period and, essentially, rewrote history saying that what they did back then was the same as what we do now...

Barker believes otherwise. She seems to hold that the first temple worship was directed to more than one divine being, and that the King was considered by his people as divine and literally the Son of God.

Its frustrating reading this between the lines of this book when, I guess, she makes her full case for this in her earlier book. Must read it.

Anyway, I've also listened to a couple of talks by her on YouTube. Here she implies the same sort of ideas, again without fully spelling them out. One of the most fascinating ideas that she mentions in the talks and also in this book, is the idea that the Adam and Eve story is a relatively new addition to the OT, and that this picture of the origin of the world, sin, etc. was not part of first temple thinking. She points out something surprising - after the first few chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve are never mentioned again in the OT. This is one of the things which suggests that this is a late story, even though it comes first in our book. She suggests that all the Abraham and the patriarchs stuff is much older.

But her main thesis is that the system of worship from the first temple period has been written out of the bible, and only teasing hints remain. I think her basic thinking goes like this:

The 'reforms' of Josiah's day changed the Jewish religion. The rewriting of the story, as told by post-Josiah and post-exilic writers, says that God instructed Moses in a particular system of monotheistic worship, in the tabernacle, which was later set in stone, as it were, in Solomon's temple. But Solomon and those who came after him allowed 'foreign' worship of other gods into the temple, which corrupted the original, pure monotheistic system. So Josiah's reforms were, as seen from a 2nd temple viewpoint, the restoration of the old ways and the expulsion of the foreign gods.

Barker claims otherwise. She notes that in 1 Enoch, it is the 'reformers' who are portrayed as the bad guys who corrupted the original system. Not the original Mosaic system, which may be a later invention, pushing 2nd temple thinking back into a fabricated history, but rather the original Abrahamic and Messianic system of worship where the King was The Lord and The Lord was the King, and where the divine goddess of wisdom, Ashera or Astarte, was worshiped alongside Yahweh and his anointed one, the King.

Barker goes on to claim that these ideas, while written out of the priestly history books, were not written out of public belief, and that these ideas formed the basis of Christianity, with Jesus as the divine messiah, wisdom personified as the Holy Spirit, and the temple 'rebuilt' out of the living stones of believers. Its a shocking thought.

But where Barker doesn't go, is to explain why this way of thinking gets lost from the New Testament. Why don't we know this stuff? Why do we not believe what Barker claims the early Christians did believe? Here's where I have to speculate. What if this stuff got written out again in the 2nd century during all the battles between orthodoxy and heresy? The 'catholic' Christianity that emerged at the end of the 2nd century seems to be a fusion of different strands which went before - what happens if you try to fuse a Christianity based on 1st temple thinking, with a 2nd temple Judaic way of thinking? Something would have to give. Something would have to get left out, or changed, or rewritten. We might very well end up with what we have now.

Of course, nothing is proved here, this is all speculation, but it is fascinating speculation...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Myths and timelines...

I've been thinking over some apologetic lines of reasoning recently. I'll deal with them in more detail in future posts, but for now consider the following two statements:
  1. Thirty years ago Perseus tamed and rode the flying horse Pegasus.
  2. Yesterday Hercules captured the three headed dog Cerberus.
According to some lines of apologetic reasoning, the second of those statements is more likely to be true and accurate than the first. Apologists think that the closer the writing of the story to the date of the alleged event, the more likely it is that the description of the event is true. 

Well that sounds reasonable, at first glance, but I think if you consider the example given above, the line of reasoning is quite clearly flawed. Neither of those events happened (at least not in recent history!), so neither is more likely than the other. The timing of the writing about the event is entirely unrelated to the factual accuracy of the story. Or in other words, a mythical event remains a mythical event even if it is claimed to have happened in very recent history.

The same, presumably applies to eyewitness claims:
  1. Thirty years ago I saw Perseus taming and riding Pegasus.
  2. Yesterday I saw Hercules capturing Cerberus.
Which of those is more likely to be true?

So when it comes to the gospels, the apologists think they have won the argument if they can demonstrate that the (eyewitness?) gospel writers were doing their writing within a generation of the resurrection of Jesus. Surely a document written in 60AD, a mere 30 years after the resurrection, is going to be pretty accurate, certainly more accurate than a late document written in the early 2nd century? Well, not if the document describes an impossible or mythical event. If the resurrection didn't happen, and a book was written one day after the claimed date of the resurrection, then such a book would be no more likely to be true than one written yesterday.

All this basically to say that arguments for an early dating of the gospels prove nothing. 

All our experience tells us that in reality people can't walk on water, transmute water into wine, kill fig trees with a single word, and that executed men do not come back to life after being dead three days. All our experience tells us that these things can happen in fiction. A very, very early date for the gospels can never be sufficient evidence to prove that the impossible happened.