Monday, July 18, 2016

The focus of worship

I've been being annoyed by the lyrics of worship songs in church on my most recent few visits there.

Increasingly, I've become aware of the rather large number of worship songs which say, in essence, "I thank you God for making me immortal". The emphasis is not, as many Christians probably think, on what God has done, but rather it seems to be increasingly on what God has done for me. And what he has done is dealt with my sin (so, nothing left for me to do), removed my guilt (so, nothing to worry about) and given me eternal life (so, death is not an issue). 

The supposed focus of Christian worship is on Jesus, but I'm noticing more and more that the real focus is rather more selfish. Its pretty distasteful actually.

Its nothing new either. Think of the words of Amazing Grace...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why "But who made God?" is not a stupid question...

Continuing my thoughts on recently read apologetics, I come to Rev David Robertson's dismissal of the "But who made God?" argument in the book "Why I am not an atheist". He basically (and patronisingly) writes off this argument as childish. Well, he says that it is 'the alleged killer problem' for 'many fourth-form school pupils', implying that any mature thinker will see that this is a red herring. Well, its a long time since I was in fourth-form, and I still think this question has value. I've not heard a good rebuttal to it yet, which I guess is why Robertson has to insult the questioner rather than take the question seriously.

He swiftly jumps to the 'Kalam cosmological argument', which he expresses as:

  1. everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence
  2. the universe has a beginning of its existence
  3. therefore the universe has a cause of its existence
"The logic is irrefutable" he says, "The evidence is overwhelming". Hmmm. Not so fast. There are problems with the argument as posed. 

The first (and probably biggest) issue with this line of reasoning is in point number 1. It is missing a very important clause. I think it should be expressed more like this:
  1. everything in our universe of space and time that has a beginning has a cause of its existence in the same universe of space and time...
We might also add an extra clause to the end with the disclaimer: "except quantum events, of course" as those effects apparently occur without causes, even within our universe. Given my modification to point 1, however, point 2 becomes questionable. The universe is not to be found within the universe. Why should the rules that apply within the container also apply to the container itself?

Beyond that, I also have problems with the idea of the universe having a beginning. Certainly it has an origin, in the mathematical sense of the word 'origin', but that is not the same as a beginning. There is nothing before the 'big bang' (or whatever we want to call it) where the supposed initiator could be. There is no time there, there is no space there, there is literally nothing. There is no room for anything to exist, and certainly no non-existent thing could reasonably be said to be an initiating agent. We could redraw the mathematical axes and place the origin elsewhere. The 'origin' doesn't actually have to be at t=0.

I guess most folk imagine the big bang as a single point, a 'singularity' if you will, which then exploded out in three dimensions. Imagine for the moment that the whole three dimensional explosion only occurs in two dimensions. It starts as a point, and explodes in a circle with increasing diameter. Can you picture that? Assuming that the universe doesn't keep on expanding forever, at some point this circle reaches its maximum size, and then perhaps begins to shrink back down on itself, eventually condensing down to a single point again in the so called 'big crunch'. You get a sequence something like this:


Now stack up those circles (viewed almost side on) like this:


What you see (in a very idealised manner) is that the sequence of circles essentially describes the shape of a sphere. Of course, in reality the circles are not discrete, but continuous. So this three dimensional sphere essentially represents four dimensional space-time. 

For us, from our point of view, uncontrollably falling through 4 dimensional space-time on the time axis, there is a clear point of origin, that we imagine is time = 0. But if the observer were not fixed on the time axis like we are (and remember, the apologist is imagining an eternal and timeless agent here), then the selection of our t=0 as the origin is somewhat arbitrary. You could select any point on the surface as origin. Indeed, if the four dimensional existence of the universe is somewhat analogous to a sphere, then what we don't have is a point of origin, rather we have a boundary to the 4D universe. A surface. Not a point in space, but a surface in space-time.

Now stating that the universe has a beginning seems a bit myopic. The universe has a surface. But not everything with a surface has a cause. So the second statement becomes meaningless. And so the conclusion doesn't follow.

Everything that is, is inside the surface of the sphere. There is literally nothing outside of it. Nothing transcends it. It just is. Viewed in 4D, It doesn't change, but change is what happens within it. All cause and effect is inside it. The surface just is.

Now we can conceive an 'eternal' (whatever that means) 4D universe, that doesn't need a cause, because it just is. It is only because we perceive by the arrow of time that we think there is a beginning.

It is only if you are fixated on the time axis, that you need a prime mover. You can call that prime mover 'God' if you want, but he'd just be a blip on the surface.

By the way, this reasoning still holds, I think, if you don't agree with the big crunch idea. In that eventuality, the universe is not a sphere but a parabolic cone. But still a surface...

Monday, June 27, 2016

The bell curve of belief

Where do you fall on the bell curve of belief?

I've been reading apologetics again, and midway through reading yet another argument about the fine tuning of the universe, I suddenly realised that all apologists are to be found right at the end of the bell curve of belief. And for the most part, all anti-apologists are to be found at the other end of the bell curve of belief. People in the middle, or within a couple of standard deviations of the middle of the curve, don't write apologetics books (or anti-apologetics ones).

One end of the bell curve is absolute and total belief in God. The other end of the bell curve is absolute and total belief in naturalism, with no possibility of a spiritual aspect to the universe. Much apologetics (and anti-apologetics) seems to assume that every thinking person must fall into, or close to, one of those two camps. 

Most people don't have that kind of certainty about everything. I certainly don't. Indeed, there's not much certainty in that 'certainly don't'. But the apologists on both sides seem to want to persuade everyone into one of the absolutes. But the weird thing is that they don't seem to target the people in the middle, they each take their aim and fire their shots at the opposing end of the bell curve.

They also target the people who are ever so slightly nearer the middle of the curve than they are. These are the folk who are not absolute believers in something, but aren't too far away. At the Christian end of things, these people are the Bible-believing Christians who have never really asked some of the big questions, but simply assume that the church's teaching is basically right. These are the people who accept the package deal of faith, without question. The goal of apologetics is to keep these people from considering to the 'wrong' sort of arguments and to keep them from shifting closer to the middle of the bell curve. At the atheist end of the curve are the non-believers who simply don't believe, but have never really considered the claims of Christianity in any significant way. A few random acts of kindness on the part of Christians could shift these people closer to the middle, so the anti-apologists seek to bolster the non-faith of these people and pull them outward.

I'm somewhere in between. Not in the middle, as I climbed off that uncomfortable fence some time ago, but certainly not near either end. Apologetics is happening all around me (mostly by my personal choice) but the arguments are just not working on me, because they're not really aiming at me.

How about you?

Monday, June 20, 2016

"No longer a friend of Narnia"

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” 

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’” 

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.” 
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

From "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis
I'm going to assume you know the context of the passage quoted above. If you don't, you really should read all of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Yes, all of them. You'll find this baffling exchange in the final volume, but it won't make much sense unless you've read the others.

The question this passage poses to the reader is how Susan Pevensie, who lived for many years as Queen of Narnia ("Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia") in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and returned again to Narnia in Prince Caspian, who was there when Aslan was killed by the White Witch, and who was one of only two witnesses to his resurrection, who spoke to Aslan in private at the end of Prince Caspian, how she could come to believe all that was merely "funny games"?

In the context of the Narnia stories, this change of heart is utterly inconceivable. It should be impossible for someone who has been through all that to reject it as fantasy. And yet, Susan apparently does.

I've read that Lewis did not think that this passage from The Last Battle was the end of the story for Susan, but that her journey beyond this point was an adult one, and not one that he wanted to cover in a children's book. But he never told anyone the actual story he had in mind, or if he ever developed it.

Of course, the allegory in the Narnia stories is well documented, and its easy to jump to conclusions of the meaning of this passage. "No longer a friend of Narnia" is analogous for 'no longer a Christian', right? Hmmm. Would that it were so simple. I think Lewis is quite clear that Narnia is somewhat akin to the faith of a child, and at the end of The Last Battle, Aslan leads the characters in the story from Narnia into something bigger that transcends it, and characters from our world into something bigger that transcends it. Something more grown up. All the characters in the book go beyond an attachment to Narnia, not just Susan, its just that she takes a different path.

I suppose it is telling that Susan is never described as "no longer a friend of Aslan". That would be something different. Did Susan lose faith in Aslan? I guess if she thought that all the adventures in Narnia were simply "funny games" then maybe she did. Maybe she never did learn to find Aslan by the 'different name' that he has in our world.

But the question remains, how could someone who has experienced Narnia in all its wonder, come to view it all as a fiction? Or rather, if I can turn this into the real question that I am really addressing, how can someone who has experienced the reality of the Christian life, who has felt the power of the Holy Spirit, who has had a personal relationship with Jesus, how can such a person come to view all that as fiction?

The reality is that this happens all the time. People who were real Christians lose faith and turn away from the Church. I've listened to and read quite a lot of interviews with ex-Christians recently, it happens again and again. To understand the issue I think we have to consider the three basic possibilities:
  1. Option 1 is that Christianity is true and these people were once real Christians who believed in and experienced the real thing. 
  2. Option 2 is that Christianity is true, but these people never really experienced the real thing. They only ever had a fake faith, and never tasted the real thing.
  3. Option 3 is that Christianity is not true, and these people once believed it, but came to see that their beliefs didn't square with reality.
People who abandon their faith generally come to see the world as though Option 3 is the truth. Its certainly where I find myself these days.

Christians who see their friends and family leave the faith generally end up believing Option 2 - its so much easier to believe that than Option 1. For a Christian to believe Option 1, they have to invoke the devil and lots of deception going on. But believing Option 1 also entails lots of concern that the same could happen to the believer, so they must remain vigilant to the attacks of the evil one, and not ever consider any evidence that suggests that Option 3 might be true. For the believer, Option 2 is a place of security, because of course, every believer believes that their own faith is real, not fake.

In the context of the Narnia stories, Susan falls into category 1. Narnia was real to her, and somehow she has been deluded into thinking that it was all just nonsense. Even in the fictional world of Lewis's books, where animals can talk, I find that hard to believe.

But in the real world, where am I? I once believed in Christianity. From my point of view, it was a real faith, and just as real as Christianity is for everyone who still believes. I'm now of the opinion that Option 3 is the truth. Christianity is not, and never has been true. Either I'm right, or I'm deceived. Part of me still holds that as a small possibility, but on the whole I think I need to dismiss that, as it raises far more questions than ever it answers.

So am I no longer a friend of Narnia? I guess so. But I still do love the stories as the fiction they are.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

But can it explain your destiny?

In the closing chapter of "Why I am not an atheist" (which I have just finished reading), Ravi Zacharias summarises part of his own book "The End of Reason" (which I have not read), and among other things, makes the following claim:
"A world view basically offers answers to four necessary questions - questions that relate to origin, meaning, morality, and hope that assures a destiny. These answers must be correspondingly true and, as a whole, coherent"
He then spends most of the chapter explaining how the Christian worldview succeeds better than an atheist worldview at answering these questions. He never questions the questions. 

Why must a worldview answer all these? Why are they necessary

Surely that biases our opinion in favour of or against certain worldviews by definition, before we've even got to consider them?

Let's start in the middle - Morality. I think I agree with Ravi that our worldview has to give us some guidance as to how to live; what ought we to do? However, I'm not sure this is an 'ought' - we each simply do live according to our worldviews. Anyone who lives in a way apparently contrary to their own worldview, generally does so because they do not fully understand their own worldview, or have not adequately or honestly expressed it. (The first example of this that springs to mind is the huge number of Christians who have sex with people to whom they are not married. They say 'true love waits' is part of their worldview, but actually then mitigate that idea with concepts of a God who'll forgive anything, and so they do it anyway, because they want to. But anyway, I digress...)

So, fundamentally, our morality does flow from our (honestly expressed and fully defined) worldview, because it can't do anything else. But there is no way of judging worldview against worldview here, my morality is fully consistent with my worldview, yours is fully consistent with your worldview. But there are no objective standards outside of either worldview to judge which is better, are there? If your morality is inconsistent with my worldview, does that make my worldview correct? No. It doesn't validate your worldview either.

What about Meaning? Must our worldview offer meaning? The search for a meaning in life is something that only really begins once the questioner has attained a certain amount of leisure and comfort in life. Those who struggle to survive don't need any meaning other than survival, and don't generally have time to think about it anyway. I am convinced that life is better than non-life, so survival itself could be all the meaning that there really is. Does there need to be someone or something greater than me to bestow meaning on my life? I don't think so. We find ourselves in a universe that is far more massive, complicated and interesting than we can possibly comprehend, so if we need to find some meaning for ourselves, it shouldn't be too hard.

There must be an Origin. I agree with that. But does my worldview actually need to have a coherent answer to the question of where we came from before it can be taken seriously as a viable worldview? I'm not sure it does. "I don't know" is a perfectly valid answer to the question of origins. Indeed, I think it is more than that. I think it is "I don't know and neither do you!" You may believe something about the origin of all things, but you certainly can't claim to know in any meaningful way. The more I think about the big questions of life, the more I understand that we really don't know very much about anything with certainty. You can have belief about something. You may even have some philosophical reasoning to justify that belief. You might even have hints of evidence that make a case. But what you can't have is sufficient justifiable certainty to attain knowledge of anything that happened millions or billions of years ago - what happened then is so far beyond our experience horizon that we can only guess, estimate, and hypothesise. So maybe your hypothesis is consistent with some observation of reality, that doesn't prove it, or disprove any other hypothesis, for that matter.

Fair enough, if your worldview offers a story of origins which is inconsistent with reality, then we would be right to challenge and dispute that worldview, but if your worldview offers no answer to the question of origins, it can't be shown to be false in this regard. Its more justifiable to hold to a worldview that doesn't have an explanation of origins than to hold to a worldview that does have an explanation that seems inconsistent with reality. Postulating a pre-existent, transcendent, everlasting, timeless deity as creator actually has far more problems cohering with reality than admitting "I don't know" does. 

Finally, what of Destiny and Hope? Certainly a worldview that "assures" a destiny seems, on the face of it, more appealing than one that doesn't, but what if the future is actually unknown and unknowable? In reality, we don't actually know what will happen in the future. Sure, we can observe trends and make general predictions about large systems, like the weather, for example, but we can't make specific and accurate predictions about that. Will it rain on my garden at exactly midday tomorrow? We can't see that. More importantly, questions like "will I live to see my 50th birthday?" cannot be answered, not in your worldview or in mine. Hope? I hope I live to see 50. Destiny? It isn't written yet. You might think that it is written and pre-planned somewhere, by some God, but you can't know what is going to happen to me, on this side of death or on the other. If there is an 'other' that is. So much of religious worldviews of destiny relies on there being some life post-mortem - your worldview requires it to give hope to those without hope. But is there any evidence for it? No. All you have are (interpretations of) biblical promises that you will never find out the reliability of until after death, if you are able to find out anything after death, that is. My worldview says "I don't know" on the life after death issue too. Does that make your worldview better than mine? Ravi Zacharias thinks it does, but I think his criteria for judging between worldviews are simply begging the question.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Atheist pastors within the church...?

I've recently discovered the "Life after God" podcast. This is what Ryan Bell of "Year without God" fame started after his year without God ended and he decided to carry on with the rest of his life without God.

I've only listened to the first three podcasts so far, so am the best part of a year behind, but the first couple of interviews on the podcast have intrigued me, and confused me.

The first interview comes in Episode 2, and features Gretta Vosper, a minister from the United Church of Canada who is an atheist, and yet still leads a congregation within the United Church of Canada. Hang on, what?

That's right. The United Church of Canada employs an atheist pastor to lead one of their congregations. 

The short version of the story is that Gretta didn't start out as an atheist pastor, she started out as a liberal Christian pastor, and along the way came to realise that she didn't believe in a personal God. She started expressing this to her congregation in 2001 and found (to her surprise, I think) that she wasn't immediately thrown out as a heretic. Over the course of the next decade the focus of her church changed and there was a general outflow of Christians and a small inflow of skeptics, doubters and outright atheists. In 2013 she went the whole hog and finally admitted to being an atheist. The congregation carries on being a place for people of all beliefs. Last year, the United Church of Canada began a process of looking into this ministry to see if they should get rid of her or not. As far as I can tell, she's still there for now.

I'm kind of with the Church here. The Church exists to worship God and preach His (with a capital H) message and it seems to me to be entirely reasonable that the Church should seek to root out and remove people within its ranks who do not follow this agenda, indeed, who go entirely against this agenda.

What surprised me about the conversations on the Life After God podcast was the attitude of Ryan Bell (the host), Gretta Vosper and David Hayward (the "Naked Pastor", interviewed on Episode 3) to this situation. All of them seemed surprised that the Church should be seeking to remove an atheist pastor from post! All of them seemed to think she should remain in post. The argument seems to be that the atheist pastor is doing a good work... but I think that this good work is entirely at odds with the agenda of the Church. Why are they surprised? Why is Gretta intent on remaining a pastor within a Christian organisation, when she doesn't accept the divinity of Christ, or anyone else for that matter? I just don't get it.

Yes, I understand how hard it can be for someone who has served as a pastor in the church for their whole life to find something secular to do after leaving the church, but I don't understand them fighting for the right to remain a pastor within the church. 

It sounds like Gretta has a largely non-believing congregation anyway, so they are presumably financially able to pay a reasonable salary for her if they left the United Church. So why don't they simply leave and form an atheist community somewhere outside the Church? The whole thing strikes me as very odd.

Interesting to listen to the discussion on the podcast though, so I'll listen to a few more shows at least.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What apologists believe... (a.k.a. "I don't have enough faith to be an apologist")

I've been reading apologetics again. More of the same old, same old, I'm afraid. The writer of Ecclesiastes was right, there is nothing new under the sun.

One thing that I have noticed this time around, though, is one particular belief that many apologists seem to share: they believe that everyone has to believe in something

Fundamental to their message is that those people who don't have faith in the Creator God of the universe, must have faith in some other impersonal process that caused the universe to come into existence and ultimately is responsible for the instigation of and evolution of life on earth.

I can't really see a good reason for them to hold this belief, but several apologists I have read recently have made the same basic case; that the atheist must have faith in some process or other, for which there is little or no evidence, and this is (apparently) less reasonable and rational than having faith in God.

It seems that, for apologists, the opposite of faith-in-God must be faith-in-something-else.

I don't agree. The opposite of faith-in-God is doubt-in-God.

I think what is happening here is that all apologists have a great central belief at the very heart of their worldview, and they can't imagine what life would be like without that central belief. So they impose a similar worldview onto others, taking the central belief in God out of the picture, and leaving a big hole that simply must be filled with something.

The thing is, for many non-believers, the lack of certainty in where we came from and what happens after death, and such topics, is not a big deal.

We are here now. How did this come about? Well, actually, I don't know. Various people have come up with various theories, with various amounts of evidence or reasoning which support them. Apologists are among those who have selected one of those theories, placed their faith in it, and (as an article of that faith) have dismissed all the other theories as being invalid. I'm currently in a position of agnosticism with regard to the various theories of origins. I have looked at evidence and reasoning for God, and the evidence and reasoning for other theories, and (at present) can't see compelling reasons for selecting one of the various theories on offer as my preferred 'belief'. I certainly can't see any compelling reason to put faith in one.

Apologists, particularly the sort that claim things like "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist", seem to think that everybody must choose to put their faith in one or other of the various competing theories.

Nah. Not choosing is quite a reasonable position to take.

The standard evangelical Christian worldview requires its adherents to believe in certain things. Belief is seen as the way to salvation. Other worldviews do not actually require adherence or belief.

I just wish some apologists would understand that. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mary and Joseph. No, not them, the other ones...

The synoptic problem fascinates me. I'm not sure we'll ever get to a complete resolution to the problem, but as of now I am reasonably convinced that Mark is the earliest gospel we have, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary source when writing their own gospels. Matthew (probably written before Luke) certainly used Mark as the basis and template for his gospel - he includes almost all of Mark and some of it is even word-for-word the same. But in writing his own gospel, Matthew sometimes leaves some bits of Mark out (presumably because he does not like them), modifies some bits of Mark (presumably to make them more coherent with his own beliefs) and then adds in lots of other stuff that Mark doesn't have. Some of this may have come from other sources, some of this may have been the invention of Matthew.

One of Matthew's additions to Mark regards Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary, mother of Jesus only appears in one verse in Mark:
Mark 6v3: "Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him."
There is another character in Mark who is often assumed to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, but this character is never named as such, or even implied to be such in the gospel. This Mary is "Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph" (Mark 15:40), "Mary the mother of Joseph" (Mark 15:47) and "Mary the mother of James" (Mark 16:1).

There are a few possibilities here. One is, of course, that this Mary was actually the mother of Jesus, and that James (the younger) and Joseph were two of Jesus's brothers. The problem here is that Mark, who quite often calls a spade a spade, never says so. Why would Mark place the mother of Jesus at the tomb scene and not say directly who she was? Is this one of those places where Mark is trying to make the reader work things out for themselves? I don't think so. There is no great insight to be gained by working out that Jesus's mother was at the tomb. So I find myself considering another possibility.

What if Mark 6:3 is not original to Mark? We know that the text of the gospels has been modified as it passed through the hands of those who copied it. Sometimes they inserted stuff. What if this verse was one of the insertions? Well, why would anyone do that? Before I get there, think what the implications would be for Mark's gospel if 6:3 was not there - the story of Jesus would never mention named family members, the only place they would show up would be in chapter 3, where they get instantly dismissed as irrelevant, and Jesus doesn't interact with them. If Mark 6:3 was not part of the original, then Mary the mother of James and Joseph would only be described in this manner to distinguish her from Mary Magdalene, there would be no connection to Jesus implied. She was just some follower, who happened to be called Mary. Maybe James and Joseph were important people when the gospel was being written, so that's why she is designated this way? (e.g. "OK, so our guy James wasn't important in the Jesus story as it happened, but look, his mother was right there at the centre of things...")

So why would anyone insert Mark 6:3? Well, to big-up the role of James and the other brothers! (e.g. "OK, so our guy James wasn't important in the Jesus story as it happened, but he was his brother!") By adding in this verse the gospel editor makes James and Mary his mother become major players. So there's a possible agenda here which would add the verse in.

So, for the rest of the post I'm going to assume that Mark 6:3 is not part of the original, and was added early on, before Matthew got his hands on the copy of Mark that he would modify into his own gospel. I can't prove this point, I don't necessarily believe this point, but I'm going to speculate on the assumption anyway. Sometimes that takes you interesting places.

But before we go on with speculation about Mary, we need to do some other speculation about Joseph.

Joseph, husband of Mary and presumed father of Jesus does not feature in the gospel of Mark. He is simply not there, and there is no role for him to play in the story. The only two Josephs in Mark are Joseph, brother of James and son of Mary, who is named in the gospel but doesn't feature as a character, and Joseph of Arimathea, who appears abruptly in Mark 15:43-46 asks for Jesus's body and buries it, he has no other role in the gospel. It is possible that these two Josephs are the same character. Indeed, without Mark 6:3, there really is no need to specify Joseph as the son of Mary unless he has some role to play in the story or in the early church. (NB, James certainly has a role in the early church, but Joseph...?) So it seems possible that Joseph is introduced (in Mark 15:40) as Mary's son, just before he appears in the story to play his part in the story.

I don't think I'm over-stating my case too much to say that the two most important characters at the end of the gospel story, one involved in the burial of Jesus and one (actually two) involved in the discovery of the empty tomb, were Joseph and Mary (two Marys). Let me just say that again. The two named characters at the end of the gospel who oversee the burial and find the empty tomb are called Mary and Joseph. Other sources say these are the names of the parents of Jesus, there at the very beginning of the story: Mary and Joseph at the start and Joseph and Mary at the end, what's the chances of that? Well, pretty slim if this is a real story, but not at all unlikely if there is any literary invention going on.

My conjecture is this: that between the writing of Mark's gospel, and the writing of Matthew's gospel, the Jesus story grew in the telling (possibly in written form as a modified version of Mark, or as a proto-Matthew, now lost), and new characters called Mary and Joseph were invented to 'bookend' the gospel, to match the Joseph and Mary at the end.

Why call them the same names? Well, because the writers of books in bible times (old and new testaments) loved writing in "chiastic structures" (see Wikipedia for an explanation) to give their stories symmetry. That is, the first part of the story is mirrored by the last part, the 2nd part is mirrored by the 2nd last, and so on. Mark's gospel has no birth story to mirror the death story, so someone invented it, and simply used the two names that were already there at the end to mirror in the beginning. Having named Jesus's mother as Mary in this way, it now makes sense to tie up the loose ends by inserting Mark 6:3 and implying that James's mother Mary is the same as Jesus's mother Mary, which only goes to boost the profile of James.

So by the time Matthew and Luke write their gospels, tradition has it that Jesus mother was called Mary and his presumed father was called Joseph.

It is interesting to note that both Matthew and Luke have Mary the mother of James at the empty tomb, but don't join the dots to make her Mary the mother of Jesus. Meanwhile (or possibly much later) John has "the mother of Jesus" at the crucifixion, not the empty tomb, but never calls her Mary.

Make of all that what you will.

Happy Christmas to everyone who has read this far!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Seekers and the pearl of great price

Matthew 13:45-46
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it."
This parable bothers me. It is a story that has clearly been distilled down to its essence before it ended up in the gospel, but even given that, this is only half a story. What happens next? The merchant has nothing but a pearl. No food, no house, no clothes (other than those he is wearing, I suppose), etc. Nothing but a pearl. The options are basically that either the merchant goes on to sell the pearl (at a profit, this is his job, after all!) or he keeps the pearl but has nothing to live on and so, ultimately, dies. Neither of these options are the point of the parable, as it is preached in many sermons, and probably as it was originally intended. The point, surely, is that the pearl is worth giving everything else up for. But it is actually a pretty poor parable for that. The immediately preceding parable in Matthew is much better as there the man in the story finds treasure in a field, buys the field, and hence becomes rich. This one doesn't really seem like a well thought through parable, not very divinely inspired.

But it leads me on to thinking about 'seeking' and 'finding'. Have you ever been in a 'seeker friendly' church? The word 'seeker' is generally used in a positive sense by Christians to refer to a non-Christian who is looking for spiritual fulfilment. A seeker friendly church is one which avoids anything which might put the 'seeker' off the idea of church, so is welcoming, modern, warm, avoids too much ceremony, generally plays contemporary worship music, etc. Behind the idea is that once the seeker finds Jesus, they will stop seeking, and stay in the church.

In some ways, I think I'm a seeker who has carried on 'seeking' beyond the church. The church can't really cope with that, of course. It assumes that there can't be anything greater or better, but it has never actually looked. Once upon a time I found a pearl of apparent great price. But ultimately I found it to be unsatisfying, and very possibly a fake - although a very attractive and impressive fake. I don't want to sell the pearl on, but I've come to realise that there probably is a greater pearl out there, somewhere else. The merchant in the parable doesn't know if the pearl he has found is the greatest pearl there is, he doesn't look. 

Surely, in the quest for truth, even if you think you have found something of value, you never know if you have found everything, so you have to keep seeking? Anything else is just giving up.

I looked under chairs
I looked under tables
I'm tryin to find the key
To fifty million fables
 
They call me the seeker
I been searchin low and high
I won't get to get what I'm after
Till the day I die
The Who - The Seeker (1970)

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Historical Evidence for Jesus

I recently read G.A. Wells's book "The Historical Evidence for Jesus", which was written back in the early 80s. Considering some of the books I have read in the past few years, this was basically 'more of the same' with a few interesting nuances and insights along the way.

Wells believes that there was no historical person at the origin of the Jesus stories. Rather he, along with a number of other 'mythicists' hold that the gospel stories are myths made into history, rather than history wrapped in legends.

The book is exhaustive and goes into all the relevant 1st and 2nd century writings, as well as going completely off at a tangent and asking questions about the Turin Shroud. But when its on track, the book is interesting, even if much of this has been said in other ways many times since then (and a few before). 

Wells sets out a timeline of the early writings, beginning with the letters of Paul, then going through some of the later epistles, including some non-canonical ones, the gospels, the church fathers, and so on. 

The strongest part of his argument is in the parts he talks about Paul. It is quite clear from this analysis that Paul (or whoever wrote the 'authentic' Pauline epistles) says very little about any historical Jesus. The highlights of this are those passages where Paul is writing to whichever church and issuing advice for right living, etc. Sometimes, indeed most of the time, he does not claim these instructions come from Jesus, and there are several instances of things Paul is trying to convince his readers of where it would have been very useful if he could have quoted Jesus, but doesn't. But funnily enough, in the gospels, Jesus addresses those issues in clear and unambiguous ways. Wells's case is that if Paul knew of these sayings, he would have used them. He doesn't use them, so he didn't know them. Which suggests either that there was a lot about Jesus that Paul simply didn't know, or that those stories about Jesus were not in circulation at the time of Paul, perhaps because those stories about Jesus had not been devised yet.

In this I am convinced, it is clear that Paul had no knowledge of some of the gospel stories. Does that mean there was no historical Jesus? No it does not. It only means that Paul did not know the stories and, assuming he had interactions with Peter and James, as claimed in the epistles, it suggests that they did not know or did not pass on those stories.

So I am convinced that the gospel stories grew and developed after the time of Paul, and that Paul does not know or care much about a historical Jesus. I remain to be convinced that there was no Jesus.