Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bart Ehrman, multiple attestation and probability

I've just listened to the entire 12 hour audio book of Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" which someone posted on YouTube. I transferred it to my iPod, and listened to it while commuting, of course.

I don't have too much to say about the book. I totally understand why many folks in the "Mythicist" camp are angry at this book, as it does seek not only to counter their arguments, but also makes a number of ad hominem attacks on them, individually, specifically, by name. But I'm not going to defend them here, they've gone as far as to write a whole book in response. I might read that eventually, but I'm in no hurry...

I also don't dispute the central thesis of this book. I'm reasonably convinced that there really was a 'historical Jesus' and that Christianity, at least in part, is based on some of his teachings and actions. I also believe, as explained in this book, that an awful lot of legends have been added to the historical core of Christianity, such that the modern religion is almost certainly something that the 'historical Jesus' wouldn't recognise at all.

But the main thing that annoyed me with Ehrman's book was the sloppy thinking at the centre of his reasoning. During his ad hominem attacks on the mythicists, he made a big deal about the fact that most mythicists (with the exception of Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier) do not have postgraduate degrees in relevant disciplines, and so (in his thinking) the arguments by these people can be largely dismissed. For Ehrman, appropriate qualifications are essential. It is odd, therefore, when he wades into the field of probability - something that he has no postgraduate education in - and bases the main points of his argument on probability judgements. He does not appear to understand how probability works.

The core of Ehrman's reconstruction of the historical Jesus is based on the criterion of Multiple Attestation - put simply this is taken to mean that if a story about Jesus or a teaching attributed to Jesus is attested in multiple independent sources, then it is more likely to be true or authentic than one which is not. Ehrman builds a library of stories and sayings that are multiply attested and concludes that these are most likely historically authentic.

Hang on, do you see what he did there? He takes a statement of relative probability (that Story A, which is attested in two independent sources, is more likely than Story B, which is found in only one source), and assumes it to be a statement of absolute probability. In other words, he seems to equate "more likely than" with "certainly happened". This is very sloppy thinking! An event that has a one in a thousand chance of having happened is more likely than an event which has a one in a million chance of having happened - a thousand times more likely in fact - but both events are still extremely unlikely. Relative probability tells us nothing without some quantification of absolute probability. Just because a story appears in multiple sources, doesn't mean it actually happened. It merely means that more people wrote it down.

Another annoying aspect of Ehrman's reasoning is the way he invents independent sources. I actually can't remember all the sources he claims, but his list of independent sources includes:

Mark; Q; M; L; John; Traditions in Paul; Traditions in Acts; Traditions in non-Pauline epistles; Revelation; and various non-scriptural sources.

This is all very impressive, but Ehrman forgets that Q is a scholarly construct which may or may not have existed. If it did exist, then the claim is that both Matthew and Luke used some of it, in addition to Mark, when creating their own gospels. There is no claim that both of them used all of Q in their gospels, so it seems quite likely that one or both of them might have missed out bits of Q. This means that it is possible that some, if not all, of the M and L material was actually part of Q. In other words it is quite possible that Q, M and L are not independent. Given that this is a real possibility, which we cannot discount, we cannot claim that these are independent sources.

For what its worth, I'm reasonably convinced by the Farrer hypothesis, that Luke used Matthew and Mark when writing his gospel. In this way of thinking, M and Q are reduced to a single source, and Luke (including L?) is not independent of either of them.

How Ehrman manages to justify to himself that the traditions in Acts are independent of L is a mystery to me. Both were written by the same author, it is supposed. And under the Farrer hypothesis, these become not independent from Mark and Matthew.

So I think Ehrman completely overstates his case. Sure there are some stories that are genuinely multiply attested, but not half as many as Ehrman makes out.

While I basically agree with Ehrman's conclusions, I think his overly exaggerated claims of authenticity don't do his case much good. The same case could be built on more sober and reliable reasoning.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus - some thoughts

I've recently listened to the Librivox audio book of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Lucius Flavius Philostratus. I don't intend to review it here, but here are a few thoughts on the content of this book, and their implications for how we should read the gospels and Acts in the New Testament...

Apollonius is one of those characters who gets mentioned in theist-atheist debates as a sort of messiah-figure who was approximately contemporary with Jesus. He apparently lived in the late 1st century CE. What we 'know' about him we know from the biography written by Philostratus in the early 3rd century. Philostratus claims his primary source was a biography of Apollonius written by one of his disciples, Damis, but this work has either been lost to posterity or is an invention of Philostratus's own.

The main point of interest here, for me at least, is that this book is a biography of a miracle-working 'son of god' character, and so any parallels with the gospel accounts might be of interest and might be able to tell us something about the gospels. I don't think this necessarily goes any further than a might, though.

So here are a few thoughts on Apollonius that might be relevant to our reading of the NT stories as well:

The introduction is much like Luke's introduction
Philostraus introduces his work in pretty much the same way that the (anonymous) writer of the third gospel does, although Philostratus is much more wordy and 'Luke' more concise:
"It seems to me then that I ought not to condone or acquiesce in the general ignorance, but write a true account of the man, detailing the exact times at which he said or did this or that, as also the habits and temper of wisdom by means of which he succeeded in being considered a supernatural and divine being.And I have gathered my information partly from the many cities where he was loved, and partly from the temples whose long-neglected and decayed rites he restored, and partly from the accounts left of him by others and partly from his own letters. For he addressed these to kings, sophists, philosophers, to men of Elis, of Delphi, to Indians, and Ethiopians; and in his letters he dealt with the subjects of the gods, of customs, of moral principles, of laws, and in all these departments he corrected the errors into which men had fallen. But the more precise details which I have collected are as follows." (Book 1, Chapter 2)
This is broadly similar to Luke who says:
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1)
Both authors are disappointed by the current state of knowledge, cite their sources (vaguely), and claim to be writing a true and orderly account. As we will see, Philostratus doesn't appear to be writing something that is either true or orderly, so we should perhaps question Luke's accuracy here too?

Both feature miracle-working healers
For the most part, Apollonius does few actual miracles in the book, but there is an interlude from Book 3, chapter 38 and following, where all of a sudden lots of sick and demon-possessed people suddenly appear and all of them are healed, one by one, very much as in the gospels. As is common in Philostratus, he gives a much more detailed back story for each of the characters being healed than any of the gospels do. The purpose of all these healings, which are clearly legendary in nature, is to demonstrate the divine-man nature of Apollonius. Why should we assume the similar stories in the gospels are real and not merely fabricated to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus?

The (lack of) distinction between the narrator and the characters
It is clear that Philostratus frequently uses the character of Apollonius to make the philosophical points that he (the author) wants to make. But he also makes many philosophical observations as the narrator. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether or not Apollonius is saying something or the narrator is - they speak with the same voice. In other words, Philostratus puts his own words into the mouth of Apollonius. Biblical scholars have made the same observations about the fourth gospel in particular. Consider, for example, the famous passage in John 3:
"Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." 
At what point in this passage does Jesus stop talking and the narrator take over? Most translators opt to stop the quote by Jesus just before the most famous verse, and attribute that to the narrator, but there's nothing in the original Greek to suggest a change of voice there. Both Jesus and the narrator speak with the same voice - could it be the narrator putting his own words into Jesus's mouth, much like Philostratus does with Apollonius?

One thing is clear when reading Philostratus, his primary objective in writing the book is not to tell us about Apollonius, but it is to use the character and story of Apollonius as a means of showcasing his own ideas of the 'ideal philosopher', his own opinions, and his own knowledge on various topics. It is reasonable to suppose that all the 'wisdom' and 'facts' expressed here come not from a single human (or divine) source, but come from many different sources, which the author has compiled together, and are only presented as being the wisdom of a single man. Apollonius is portrayed as the ideal philosopher, and while there is a consistency in the things attributed to Apollonius, there is no reason to suspect that the historical Apollonius said all those things. Is the same possibly true of the bible? Could some or all of the 'wisdom' attributed to Jesus or Paul have originated from other people? There is no compelling reason to think not. Certainly, as I mentioned in a previous post, the 'quotes' of Peter and Paul in Acts seem to originate from the same source, not two distinct characters - such that there is actually no reason to suppose that either Peter or Paul was the original source...

Miracles and legends
Apollonius is presented as being a miracle worker and healer, there are no two ways about this. What is surprising to me is that there is an awful lot of narrative in which he doesn't actually do any miracles. For the vast majority of the books, his 'miraculous' deeds are mostly his wisdom on certain topics and the way he seems to know things in advance of them actually occurring (on one occasion he produces a letter to give to someone he met for the first time, which was exactly what was needed, and which he apparently wrote in advance knowing he was going to meet the guy). It is clear that the author thinks that wisdom and following the lifestyle of a philosopher are much more important than the miraculous stuff, but yet the miracles are included to demonstrate the divine character of the man. In the gospels, the ratio of miracles to teaching and narrative is much higher.

It seems like a collection of material from other sources
One thing that surprised me in the Apollonius stories was the section in Books 6 and 7 where the author gives up on trying to create a coherent narrative for Apollonius and simply strings a list of random stories about the philosopher together, joined by phrases like "And it is said that he also did..." and "On one occasion he said..." and so on. This very much suggests that Philostratus was not the author of all the stories, but really was trying to compile a full account of his subject, by collecting all the various (and occasionally contradictory) stories about him. So maybe all this stuff does pre-date Philostratus, and he is merely the compiler. That would put the original (highly legendary) stories back much closer to the time of the "actual events". I'm sure if there were Apollonius Apologists, they would use this to demonstrate the reliability of the material and the truth of the stories...

Interviews with leading authorities
In Books 7 and 8, Apollonius travels to Rome and is imprisoned, then is brought before the Emperor and pleads his case. It reads very much like the stories of Peter and Paul in prison, then being brought before the (local) authorities, etc., where the central character then gets the opportunity to make a public defence of their way of life or beliefs, commonly confounding or surprising their audience. Was this just a genre convention of the time?

Miraculous release from prison
In Acts, both Peter and Paul on separate occasions get released from prison in miraculous ways. Their chains simply fall off and they are able to simply walk out of their cells. In Book 7, chapter 38, Apollonius also miraculously steps out of his shackles, demonstrating that he could leave at any point if he chose to do so (although, in this instance he doesn't). Is this another genre convention? If so, it suggests that the miraculous escapes of Peter and Paul are no more real than the miraculous ability of Apollonius to remove his chains.

The ability to appear and disappear at will
In book 8, chapter 7, having been acquitted by the emperor, Apollonius vanishes into thin air during his trial, thus confirming - for the first time in the book - his completely divine nature. This is followed by a sudden appearance by the philosopher in an (implicitly) closed room, very much like the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the upper room in John. Thus Jesus's post-resurrection ability to appear and disappear at will appears to be shared by Apollonius. Given that nobody really believes that Apollonius had this ability, why should anyone believe that Jesus had it either?

The death of the main character
The death of Apollonius is not recorded, although several conflicting stories are mentioned. This is, of course, quite unlike the gospels, but it strikes me that it is broadly similar to Acts, where the death of Paul is alluded to, but not described. Perhaps another genre convention?

Post-mortem visitations to opponents
Following his death, Apollonius miraculously appears to one character in a striking vision, which is not totally shared by those around him, although they realise something miraculous is going on. Furthermore, this vision is not delivered to one of Apollonius's disciples, but rather to one who is largely against them and disputes the teachings of the philosopher. Of course, the vision transforms the man from skeptical opponent to fervent believer. Does that sound vaguely familiar? Sounds a bit like Paul's Damascus Road experience to me. Why should the Paul stories be considered fact and the Apollonius story be considered a fiction? Seems to me quite likely that they both emerge out of the same literary genre conventions.

Conclusion?
So there you have it. A few comments on the semi-parallels between the NT writings and the stories about Apollonius of Tyana. Given that the Apollonius stories are definitely later than the gospels (even acknowledging the least-conservative opinions on gospel dating out there), it could be that the stories of Apollonius have simply incorporated parts of the gospel stories, so we could be dealing with literary borrowing here. But I don't think so. Certainly, the author of the Apollonius stories has no interest whatsoever in any Jewish wisdom. While Apollonius travels widely to India and Ethiopia and Rome, he never stops in Israel or makes any mention of the Jewish people or religion. The view of the gods in Philostratus is exclusively Greek in outlook, and the only foreign philosophies deemed worthy of consideration are those of India and Egypt/Ethiopia. There is no evidence of the influence of the teaching of the gospels in Philostratus at all.

It seems to me more likely that the gospels and Philostratus emerge from the same milieu of stories, rather than that there is any direct literary borrowing. But if the memes in these stories have a common ancestry, then that implies strongly that the NT stories about Jesus and Paul are not necessarily original, but descend from earlier stories of the same type, which were not necessarily about Jesus. In other words, Jesus was not unique.

Of course, this is only a mild inference from a single pass through a text, not a detailed study. Others have inevitably gone through this in much greater detail than I ever will, and I expect that there will be a whole range of opinions out there among those who have studied this more. But for me, this has added weight to the hypothesis of the non-uniqueness of the gospel stories, which further undermines my trust in the biblical stories.

Apollonius almost certainly wasn't a miracle working son of god who lived on after death and made post-mortem appearances. The evidence seems to suggest that Jesus wasn't that either.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The problem of evil and a better world?

I've just listened to the Unbelievable show from a few weeks back where Christian apologist Clay Jones engaged with atheist philosopher Richard Norman on the question of "Why does God allow evil?"

For the most part, it was fairly standard stuff, but I found the challenge laid down by Clay Jones (about half way through the podcast) to be interesting, and worthy of some thought. He said that he frequently found in his debates with atheists, that they often said that God should have been able to create a world that allowed free will, but also limited the suffering of innocents in some way, yet atheists (in his experience) never seem to be able to define such a world and end up saying "I'm not God, but he should have been able to do this...", which Jones pounces on and uses against the atheist. Its a clever argument, but fails as soon as the skeptic comes up with a plausible world description. So here's my answer:

A world in which free will is retained, but its consequences for harming the innocent are reduced would be a world in which there is no death (or, at least, no premature death for humans) and where there is no such thing as unbearable pain. Pain is necessary and important for people, but I can think of no reason why unbearable pain is necessary, and I can think of no reason why the ability to kill people short of their allotted span (three score years and ten?) should be a required aspect of free will.

So there you go, why couldn't God have created that world?

The odd thing is that as soon as I had that thought, I realised that that 'actually' is the world that the bible says God created. Death and suffering only entered creation as a punishment for the very first exercise of free will (well, depending on which interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis you adhere to). So not only could God have created that world, Christians claim that he did! The only thing that would need to be different between that world and this, is that death would not be the punishment for sin.

So what do you think? Could an all powerful God have created that world? If not, why not? If so, then why didn't he do that?

Beyond this challenge, Clay Jones relied almost entirely on the 'unseen infinite' solution to the problem of evil, which is really not a solution to anything. At one point Jones said that if someone died young as a Christian, that he "guaranteed" the believer was in heaven now. How can he guarantee any such thing? Sure, he believes it. Yes, it is his future hope. But it certainly falls short of being a guarantee...

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.