Thursday, January 04, 2018

James, the brother of the Lord

This post is an offshoot from another post that I have half written, and which will emerge in due course. It concerns the 'Minimal Facts' approach to 'prove' the resurrection. One of the main four minimal facts concerns the initial skepticism, conversion, and rise to church leadership of James, the brother of Jesus.

However, I'm not sure this extrabiblical story has any solid grounding in history, so let's look at the character of James in the new testament and in the early church writings.

James in the Gospels

In the gospel of Mark (the first gospel written), James exists only as a name in a list of Jesus' brothers in one verse (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."
That is the only place where James is named in the gospel of Mark. He is also named in an equivalent verse in Matthew (13v55), but is not named in the other two gospels. There is no character of James the brother of Jesus in any of the gospels.

Jesus' (unnamed) brothers do have a very minor role in the gospels. After the wedding in Cana in John chapter 2, Jesus, his mother, brothers and disciples spend time together. No antagonism between Jesus and his brothers is implied, quite the opposite.

However, the (skeptical) character of James in the gospels is inferred largely because of this verse:
"Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him." John 7v3-5
This is a confusing statement, verses 3 and 4 imply that the brothers know that Jesus is doing some form of wondrous works (i.e. they apparently believe in his power), but verse 5 states that they didn't believe in him (in what way did then not believe?). Furthermore there is this story in Mark 3v20-21:
"Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”"
So, by inference, James (assumed to be part of 'his own brothers' or 'his family') thought that Jesus was 'out of his mind' and 'did not believe in him'. From this somebody deduced that James was not a follower of Jesus, and was therefore 'a skeptic'. Sorry, what? Is that really the best we can do? It is really, really unclear to me that we know anything at all about the character of James from the gospels. Surely on this basis we have to list Mary as a skeptic too?

It is interesting to note that Matthew's retelling of Mark's story in chapter 12 omits the verse about Jesus' family thinking he is 'out of his mind'. In Matthew, the family just turn up and want to speak to Jesus, and he ignores them. We learn nothing at all about the character of Jesus' mother and brothers from Matthew. Likewise in Luke.

In Summary, Matthew and Luke have nothing negative to say about James or any of Jesus' other family members, they are really non-characters. Mark names James in a list, and while he does note that Jesus 'family' thought he was out of his mind, there is no explicit mention of James in connection to this. John does not name James anywhere. But Jesus' unnamed brothers do express a very minor degree of skepticism.

Based on gospel evidence, it is far from clear that James the brother of Jesus did anything at all, or had any massively negative views about Jesus or his message.

Before we move on, I'd like to think through this again. The claim made by apologists is that Jesus' brother James was skeptical about his ministry, then later had a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus, changed his mind, became a follower and then became one of the main leaders in the Church in Jerusalem. He was later martyred.

Keep that sequence in mind. At the time of writing of the gospel accounts, generally taken to be post 70AD, James would have been a legend of the early church - one of the pioneering Church leaders, one of the most notable martyrs, someone important. Basically, he'd be considered a core character in any history of the early church that anyone would write. If you want to suppose that Mark was written pre-70AD, the same sort of reasoning applies, but James might still be a key character in the church, having not yet died.

Now consider the evangelists writing their gospels. Knowing who James would become, would Mark leave James as merely a name on a list? Would he mention the apparent skepticism of James in such an oblique way? Would he not have made James more of a character? I think if Mark knew who James would become, he would certainly not write about him in the way presented here. My conclusion - the first evangelist did not know the stories about James, the brother of Jesus, converting and becoming a leader in the Church.

What about Matthew and Luke? If they knew about James's story would they have modified Mark's story to make James even more anonymous? I doubt it. Conclusion, it looks unlikely that Matthew or Luke knew the story of James.

Finally John, who doesn't even name James in his gospel. Did he know about the conversion and rise of this skeptic to be the leader of the Jerusalem church? No. It doesn't look likely at all.

Basically, I think that the gospel stories themselves suggest that James the brother of Jesus was not a key player in the life of the early church. Maybe there was a James who was important, as we will see, but the gospel evidence suggests that this character was not identified with the brother of Jesus.

Before we move on, it is worth mentioning at this point that the gospels list two other characters called James - one the brother of John and son of Zebedee, and the other one the son on Alphaus. These are both characters, not merely names on a list.

James in Acts

Next we go to Acts. What does it tell us about James the brother of Jesus after the death of Jesus? Nothing. 

None of the mentions of any character named James in the book of Acts explicitly refer to him as the brother of Jesus. None of them.

James the brother of John is killed in Acts 12v2. After this there are three references to someone called James who is a leader of the church in Jerusalem. The book of Acts does not tell us who this James is; if this is James brother of Jesus, or James son of Alphaus. But given that Luke-Acts has never even mentioned that Jesus had a brother called James, our only reasonable conclusion is that the second James in Acts is the only other James previously mentioned, James son of Alpheus. Luke-Acts gives us no other character to assume. It would also make sense if the James in question was one of the disciples, not some non-character who hadn't been on the scene or part of the story before. If the other James was an outsider from the original apostle group, surely the writer of Acts should have introduced him in some way?

James in Paul

So from where do we get the idea that the leader of the Jerusalem church (after the death of James son of Zebedee) was James the brother of Jesus? We get it from one reference in Galatians 1v19:
"18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie."
That's it. About three years after his conversion, Paul met someone called "James, the Lord's brother" in Jerusalem, and he lists him in the same breath as mentioning the apostles.

No other mention of James in the writings of Paul specifies which James he means. In fact, it sounds as if Paul thinks there is only one James of note. Poor James son of Zebedee and poor James son of Alphaus, if Paul means the other one. Paul, it would seem, doesn't rate them.

In the creed at the end of 1 Corinthians, someone called James is named as being one of the recipients of a post-resurrection appearance of Christ. It doesn't say which James. Again, if you read Paul, it looks like he only knew of one James. Paul knows of no James who was martyred and then replaced by another James. Paul's writings only refer to one James, and aside from the Galatians verse above, he doesn't add any describing words.

It looks to me like somebody, sometime after the writing of the epistles and the gospels, contrived the skeptic-appearance-church leader story out of this very limited information. Apparently that is enough to make it a 'fact'. It all hangs on one verse in Galatians.

But let me go back to that one verse again before I move on. The plain reading of the verse is confusing. It suggests that the James under discussion was not an apostle. Paul plainly says "I saw none of the other apostles". These verses might have said 'the only apostle I saw was Peter, and I also saw James, the brother of the Lord'. What can we do with this? On one interpretation it suggests there was a character called James, who wasn't one of the original disciples, the group now known as apostles. This fits with the story. Or maybe this verse should be read the way it traditionally has, something like 'I saw none of the other apostles, except James, the brother of the Lord, I did see him', which would label this character as both a brother of Jesus and as an Apostle.

The creed in 1 Corinthians 15 says:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
There is a parallel here between verses 5 and 7. V5 has "to Cephas, and then to the Twelve" whereas V7 has "to James, then to all the apostles". Were the apostles and the Twelve different groups of people? I've heard it suggested that they were. The Twelve (a symbolic name, I guess, because if the gospel accounts are accurate, then Judas was gone by this time) were the disciples who knew Jesus during his lifetime, the apostles were those who claimed to have post-resurrection visions of Jesus. These need not be the same groups of people.

I've also heard it claimed that this creed was an early attempt to unite two rival branches of early Christianity - the one that viewed Cephas and the Twelve as the founding fathers, and the one who viewed James and the apostles as the original guys. By putting both groups in the same creed, with equal standing, the author of this creed (pre- or post-Pauline? Certainly not Paul himself) tried, successfully as it seems, to unite the two rival proto-religions into one big happy family that became the Catholic (universal, i.e. unified) church.

James beyond the NT

If we go beyond the NT, the sources muddy the water quite a lot. There are snippets in Eusebius (3rd/4th century), some of them attributed to Hegesippus (mid/late 2nd century), whose writings are now lost to posterity, other than the quotes in Eusebius.

There is also one reference in Josephus (late 1st century) which, if judged to be authentic, would be the closest in time to the real character, if there was one. This is in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, where it says:
"so [Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned"
This passage doesn't tell us much about James, or about Jesus, other than that James was considered by the sanhedrin to be a lawbreaker and was executed by stoning. According to Josephus, this execution was unpopular and led directly to the removal of Ananus as high priest and the appointment of someone called Jesus ben Damnaus as high priest.

Richard Carrier observes that if the clause 'who was called Christ' is removed from the Josephus passage, the story still makes sense but has a different spin - James the brother of someone called Jesus is executed, and as some form of recompense for this someone called Jesus is promoted to high priest. It makes a lot of sense if these two Jesus characters are actually the same character. Carrier supposes that some reader of this text added a marginal note "who was called Christ" (perhaps even questioning this?) at some point and when this document was copied, the scribe, thinking that this was an omission from the earlier document, inserted it into the text. Its possible, and has certainly happened in the transmission of other ancient documents.

Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius, says this:
"James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him."
Does this sound at all like the child of a carpenter from Nazareth? Whoever this James was, he was raised as a Nazirite, and became the high priest - the only one permitted to enter the holy place in the temple; so he must have come from a priestly family.

Were it not for the 'the brother of the Lord' clause in the above passage, we would not consider this description as in any way coherent with the descriptions of Jesus' brothers in the gospels. Hegesippus' description leaves no room for the skeptic-turned-believer hypothesis - the James described here was holy from before he was born!

I suspect what we have here is a legend of a Jewish (not necessarily Christian!) holy man, possibly a high priest, called James. This is coherent with my supposition above that the James named by Josephus was brother of Jesus ben Damnaus, who must have also come from a priestly family as he became the high priest.

At some point along the way though, possibly due to Hegesippus himself, this character was merged with the largely unknown character of James, the brother of Jesus, who had just been a name on a list until then. My suspicion is that Hegesippus co-opted the well known character of James the Just, and made him a Christian saint, by identifying him as the brother of Jesus.

If that's not the case, then either Hegesippus is wrong about the character of James the brother of Jesus, or the gospels are wrong about him. We can't keep both as reliable historical accounts of the man, that's doublethink.

Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd/early 3rd century) also briefly mentions James the Just, claiming that following the resurrection, Peter, James & John deferred to James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem. While the whole notion of a 'bishop' in Jerusalem immediately following the resurrection seems a bit anachronistic, this shows that James the Just and James the brother of Jesus were clearly identified as the same person by the late 2nd century (which is consistent with Hegesippus as well). However, this is fully a century after the alleged guy lived!

In conclusion

So it looks to me like this:
  • The earliest Christian documents (Paul's letters) know of only one character called James, who is a leader in the Jerusalem church. Only one verse in Galatians 1 identifies him as the brother of Jesus.
  • The other early Christian documents (the gospels & Acts) know nothing about the character of James, the brother of Jesus. This seems inconsistent with later claims about his character.
  • From the mid 2nd century onwards, James (the brother of Jesus), James the Just (a 1st century priest and holy man) and James (the 'bishop' of Jerusalem) were merged into one character.
Were it not for that verse in Galatians, the whole thing simply looks like a legend that has grown in the telling. So what are we to do with the verse in Galatians?

Robert M. Price, in his commentary on Galatians in "The Amazing Colossal Apostle" (which I am still reading and will review on this blog eventually), agrees with the claims of W.C. Van Manen (1842-1905) that Galatians was written not by Paul, but by Marcion in the early 2nd century. This claim appears to be largely based on the observation that Tertullian wrote that Marcion 'discovered' the letter of Paul to the Galatians, that is, this epistle was unknown to the church before Marcion. Price's analysis suggests that Marcion wrote the core of the epistle, but that the 1st chapter - including the verse we are discussing here - was added at a later date, by another editor, which places this verse squarely in the mid 2nd century. This coheres with all my suppositions above, resolving the problem in the chronology.

So there you have it. A very long winded rebuttal of one of the five 'minimal facts' used as part of Habermas & Licona's apologetic. For this one at least I am convinced that this isn't a 'fact'. But I guess I have a long way to go to bring down the whole argument!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A guy walks out of a tomb...

Just listened to the recent Unbelievable show featuring 'Science Mike' and a more conventional Christian called JD Walters. I don't have much to say about the show except that on a few occasions Mike referred to the resurrection using phrases along the lines of "Jesus walked out of the tomb..."

Maybe I've been getting the wrong end of the stick all these years, but I always thought that the whole point of the stone being rolled away was to demonstrate that the tomb was actually empty, not to facilitate the risen Christ leaving? Jesus has no problem in the post-resurrection stories of simply appearing in locked rooms, so I had always assumed that the idea was that he could and did vanish (bodily) out of the tomb, and then appeared wherever later on, like on the road to Emmaus.

Do you think he walked out of the tomb?

I always thought that the tomb was empty before the stone was rolled away. Jesus didn't need the stone to be moved in order to get out. The rolling away of the stone was only to allow the witnesses to see an empty tomb.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Other boats?

There is a peculiar detail in Mark's gospel that I've never noticed before. It is found as part of the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark 4:
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Have you ever noticed that short statement at the end of v36? Jesus and his disciples are in one boat, travelling across the sea of Galilee, but there were other boats travelling with them. These other boats explicitly do not contain members of 'the crowd' as v36 says they left them behind.

These other boats play no further role in the story, and appear to be entirely absent by the time of the storm and the miraculous calming. So why mention them at all? Matthew (ch8) and Luke (ch8) omit this detail of the story in their tellings of it.

This is one of the peculiar details in Mark that may reveal something about the sources Mark used for his gospel. Mark is clearly adapting an earlier story to present here. It looks like the earlier story included multiple boats, and even though Mark's telling of the story does not require the other boats for the narrative to make sense, he keeps the short statement about them anyway. Matthew and Luke, realising the redundancy of this statement, remove it.

So what possible function could the other boats have in the earlier story, the one that Mark adapted? A few options seem reasonable. It could be that these other boats were lost in the storm, and only the boat containing Jesus was saved. That would make narrative sense, and also be a good theological analogy. But that's an analogy that Mark doesn't make, so perhaps that suggests that this is not the original story.

Dennis R. MacDonald makes a compelling case in his book "The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark" (which I am reading at the moment) that this story about Jesus is based on a story about Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey.  I won't detail the parallels here, but suffice it to say there are clear narrative and vocabulary parallels between one specific passage in the Odyssey and this passage in Mark. In Homer, there are other boats, and these do play a minor role in the story. If MacDonald's case is true, then Mark used elements of a story about Odysseus, which which many of his readers would probably be familiar, as the basis for a story about Jesus. I've read elsewhere that this was actually fairly common in ancient literature (written in Greek), writers adapted well known stories so that they could highlight certain features of their hero (in this case Jesus) - that is, showing the ways in which their hero is like the well known hero, and sometimes highlighting the ways in which their hero is even better than the well known hero. Here Jesus is shown to be better than Odysseus, as the latter merely survived the storm, but the former demonstrated power over it.

The question for us, however, is whether or not events told in this way actually happened or not? Was there a real story about Jesus which has been told 'through the lens' of Homer, or is this a story of Homeric origin which has been fictionally recast with gospel characters to demonstrate just how much of a hero Jesus was to a Greek-literate audience?

We actually face this question again and again in Mark, the story as presented reveals details of an older source text, so is the source text the sole origin of the story, or is Mark's telling of the story a fusion between an earlier Jesus story and an older written document? This question becomes most important when we get to the crucifixion narrative. Is that a fusion of an earlier story about Jesus with the framework of Psalm 22, or is it a work of midrash, fictively expanding on Psalm 22? I'll leave that quandary for another time.

For now the question is whether the stilling of the storm story is a fusion of a Jesus story with an Odysseus story, or is it a fictive riff on the Odysseus story to show how Jesus is better than the Greek hero? How could we even tell? If we had access to any pre-Markan Jesus stories set on lakes, then maybe we could parse this story, but as it happens we do not, and therefore cannot.

I'm reasonably won over by MacDonald's thesis that the Sea of Galilee stories of Jesus are fictive attempts to put Mark's Jesus into similar situations as Odysseus. Indeed, it would seem that before Mark wrote his gospel, nobody ever referred to this small lake in the 'Holy Land' as anything other than a small lake. It was never a 'sea' before this. Mark, it would appear, beefed up the designation of this lake to a 'sea' so he could set Odysseus-style stories on it. The 'other boats' are just a little editorial oversight that Mark forgot to remove for his retelling of the story.

Of course, all this could be waaaay off the mark. Maybe the other boats had a completely different origin in Mark's non-Homeric source. I'd love to hear other opinions about what these boats are doing in this story.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Question Mark, Part 4

Welcome back to the world's slowest Bible study... two years ago I began slowly going through the gospel of Mark and so far I have managed to get to the end of... verse 1 of chapter 1. You can read the first two posts here and here. Hang on, you might be thinking, the title of this post says 'Part 4', what happened to 'Part 3'?

Well, I'm now about to annoyingly jump over ten verses and think about verses 12 and 13 of chapter 1. I'll come back to verses 2 to 11 in 'Part 3', which will follow at a later date. For now let's look at:
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Hmmm. That's not how you remember this story is it? You remember all the details of the temptation from Matthew's expansion of this story. This version is really short in comparison, and seems fairly pointless.

First we need to talk about the word "πειράζω" or "peirazō", translated in the NIV (above) as 'tempted'. As far as I can tell, the word here translated tempted generally means 'tested'. In this context it is clear that Jesus is being tested to show that he is up to the task that lies before him. Here Satan is fulfilling the divinely appointed role that he has in most of the OT, he is acting on behalf of God to test someone to see if they are truly righteous or not. Satan here is not God's adversary, but rather seems sent by God to test Jesus.

There are four characters in the story here: Jesus, the Spirit, Satan and the angels. God the Father, having popped up in verse 11 has again vanished off the stage and plays no active role here.

Jesus was directed by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tested by Satan. We are not told the nature of the tests, we are not even told if Jesus passed the tests! The reader actually has to make up their own mind about what they think happened. I guess this is why Matthew felt the need to be explicit about the nature of the tests and to be explicit in showing that Jesus passed them. Mark feels no such need to explain anything. Once again I am reminded of Robert M. Fowler's book "Let the reader Understand" - Mark doesn't give his audience everything, he expects them to work things out for themselves.

Maybe we should rephrase my comment above about the four characters in the story, there are actually five witnesses to the events - Jesus, the Spirit, the Satan, the angels, and the reader.

But why was the testing necessary? Did God the Father need to do this in order to find out that Jesus was up to the task? Well, that very much depends on your pre-conceptions of the Father. Did Jesus need to know for himself that he could pass the test? I don't think the angels really needed to know. Whether Satan needed to know would depend very much on your pre-conceptions of Satan. But really, I think, the main audience who need to know if Jesus passed the test are Mark's readers themselves. This story is for them. Nobody else in this story needs these events to have happened. That, in itself, should put a very big question mark over the actual historicity of this event, the event itself presupposes an audience, but as presented there was no audience present.

If we take for granted the Trinity, as generally believed in modern Christianity, this story makes no sense. Why would one member of the Trinity need to get another member of the Trinity to direct the third member of the Trinity to the place of testing? In this concept, God the Father must already know that God the Son is up to the task set before him, as they have been in communion together for eternity past. God the Father does not need to test God the Son, and certainly does not need the direction of God the Spirit to assist in this. From a Trinitarian point of view, the only way we can make sense of this passage is if Satan is the devil, and the point of the exercise is to demonstrate to the devil just who Jesus is. This seems to be the way that Matthew understands the story, but it is not at all clear in Mark's version. Various theologies in other parts of the NT rely on the assumption that the devil did not know who Jesus was, so they, at least, are inconsistent with this view of this event.

Put aside the idea of the Trinity for a moment, though, and the story makes a whole lot more sense. If God in heaven had chosen a righteous man, Jesus, to become his Son, and had poured his Spirit into this man (that's something to be discussed in the part of this study that we have temporarily jumped over), then he'd need to be sure that the man he had chosen was up to the task. From a non-Trinitarian (and, indeed, an adoptionist) point of view, this passage makes perfect sense. Here God is simply double checking that he made the right choice. And so from here on in, the reader can be sure that God made the right choice too.

I think this is the lens through which we need to view the rest of the gospel of Mark. Jesus is just a man, chosen and empowered to be the Son of God, but not part of the Trinity and not pre-existent.

Thinking in this way also makes this passage make sense from Jesus's point of view as well. Jesus himself needs to know that he can pass the test. He needs to know the power of the Spirit which is now within him. Having been through this, Jesus himself now knows that he is ready for the rest of the gospel, and so does the reader.

Before we move on, one final comment that, I think, contradicts what Matthew will later do with this passage when he expands it. Nothing in this passage suggests that Jesus is without food. Indeed, the angels 'attending' him would imply that they brought him whatever he needed, including food. For some reason this short passage makes me think of 1 Kings 17 where Elijah is ministered to by ravens, who bring him food. Perhaps it is even closer to 1 Kings 19, where an angel brings Elijah food. Either way, if this inference is correct, then Matthew's story, in which Jesus has no food for 40 days, contradicts this.

So there we have it, I think this short passage is clearly non-historical, and reveals an underlying theology which is at odds with current Christian belief.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why eyewitnesses remember things wrong...

This could be an interesting journal article, if only I could get it out from behind the paywall:

Sunday, July 09, 2017

God is not the answer

Reflecting on some apologetics I've been listening to recently, and on a book I'm reading at the moment, I have realised that quite often "God" is not an adequate answer to the question posed.

For example, how did life emerge out of non-life? Or how did consciousness arise out of non-consciousness? Or where do 'objective' morals come from?

In each of these questions, and many others like them, the apologist finds the answer in God. But God is not a satisfactory answer to any of these questions. God cannot explain the origin of life, because we assumed that God is and has always been living - God merely gives inanimate matter a property he already possesses. Similarly with consciousness, it is assumed that God has always been conscious, so consciousness really has no origin. Likewise, God has always been moral, so morals never began anywhere. 

So the God answer does not actually answer the question. In each case, proposing God as the solution is really saying "you're asking the wrong question, that thing you think had an origin really didn't and has always been." So the question is never answered.

The next layer of questions, however, are never asked. How did God become living? When did God become conscious? How did God develop his morality? The believer assumes that God never became living, or conscious, and he certainly didn't ever develop any of his attributes.

For the believer, therefore, the fundamental essence of reality (i.e. God) has always possessed a complex set of attributes and properties. Kind of like the so called 'fine tuning' of the universe, a set of fundamental properties that must have been there since the outset, and could not have changed or developed.

So which is it, did all of reality start out with a complex set of improbable parameters, or did all of reality start out with a complex set of improbable attributes and personality traits and sentience?

Both options seem ridiculously improbable, and yet here we are. What I can't see is a good reason why the complex personal set of attributes should be more likely than the complex impersonal set of parameters. Indeed, if I had to weigh up the two seemingly improbable options, Occam's razor might suggest we should cut off the 'more complex' option including personhood. But there's not a lot in it.

Where we end up is one of those places where 'I don't know' is a perfectly valid answer. Indeed, it is impossible to truly 'know' one way of another, using only this line of thinking. But with regard to this issue alone, there is no compelling reason to choose theism over atheism.

By the way, "42" is not a satisfactory answer to the questions either...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


I've heard a lot of debates between Christians and atheists where the Christian has presented the options for the origin of life on earth as being either (a) intentional design by a creator, or (b) an accident. That is, the word 'accident' is used as if it is the opposite of the word 'design'. I don't think it is, and I think this is a biased way of phrasing the question.

The word 'accident' carries with it loads of negative connotations. People die or are injured in car accidents. Accidents are generally when something goes wrong. The word accident does not just convey the idea of a random event, but it carries the connotation of an unfortunate random event. The word actually implies that there is some right-occurrence which could have happened, but did not happen, and the wrong-occurrence happened instead. The claimed dichotomy between design and accident is false.

The naturalistic atheist does not claim that life evolves by a sequence of unfortunate random events, if anything, the opposite is true. Live evolves because of beneficial, positive random events. Not accidents. There is a better word for this: Serendipity.

Of course the question remains, is life the product of design or serendipity? But that is a better question than is usually presented in these debates.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Meaning and purpose in life?

I was listening to a podcast earlier that touched on the old question of where do meaning and purpose in life come from? The usual Christian/apologetic argument is that without a creator or a higher being, there can be no meaning or purpose in life, and thus your life, and indeed the entire universe would be without meaning and purpose if there was no God.

Quite often the atheist debater in such discussions concedes that there is no 'ultimate' meaning or purpose, but sometimes we can define our own meaning and/or purpose in life. The Christian apologist usually doesn't think much of this and prefers to believe in a God who gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

This morning I found myself wondering if God himself (herself, itself, whatever) has a meaning and purpose in His life? I'm sure most Christians would claim that God does. So where did God get this purpose? From His creator? From some higher power? Or did he just give the meaning and purpose to Himself?

I'm sure that most Christians faced with this question would have to admit that if God has any purpose in his own existence, that he somehow devised this purpose Himself. In other words, beings can give themselves purpose without a higher power.

If God can give himself purpose, why can't we find meaning and purpose for ourselves? Why do we need a higher power when He does not?

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 6)

Dear D.,

We're getting near the end of your book now, having worked our way through eight chapters of your book [1-3, 456-7 and 8], and now we come to Chapter 9: Maranatha. I think this may be the first chapter in this book with no actual apologetics in it. You're in preacher mode throughout.

You talk about the end of the world, heaven and hell, and your only justification in believing in any of these claims is that Jesus spoke about them in the Bible. Jesus said it, you believe it, that settles it.

I guess you'll not be surprised to find that many skeptics (or is it sceptics, I'm never sure?) don't find this line of reasoning particularly compelling. Why should there be any life after death? You don't explain. Is there any life after death? You offer no evidence. Why should the Christian explanation of heaven & hell be preferred to any other (after-)world view? You don't justify it. This is not an intellectually challenging or satisfying chapter.

This chapter, as with many discussions of heaven & hell that I've read, ends up simply quoting C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Truly, the best explanations of heaven and hell are to be found in fantasy fiction. Why should the version presented in Matthew's gospel (you don't notice this, but all your 'Jesus' quotes about heaven and hell come from Matthew's pen, not the other gospel writers) be any more real than the version presented in "The Last Battle"?

Have you ever noticed that Matthew is obsessed with heaven and (particularly) hell, in a way that Mark, Luke and John are not? And have you ever noticed that hell is (almost) entirely absent in the Epistles of Paul? Paul's message is one of salvation for those who are in Christ, but not one of damnation for those who are not.

Anyway, let's move on to the climax of your book, Chapter 10: Magnificent... where you remain in preacher mode and basically explain why apologetics only gets you so far. Indeed, you appear to dismiss the value of apologetics, which is odd in a book of apologetics. You also go in for a bit of atheist bashing, but I'm not really interested in that.

So you present no further evidence or argument for your case, but just list lots of theological reasons why Jesus is important to you. I suppose that's fair enough, but I'm sure adherents to other religions could give similar lists about Krishna, or Bahá'u'lláh, or Sabbatai Zevi, or Haile Selassie, or whoever. The justification for all your reasons is, essentially, because it is in the Bible.

Your book repeatedly takes the stories and claims of the Bible at face value, without question, and this is the greatest weakness (as I see it) of your case. It would appear that you've never needed to justify to yourself that the Bible is an authority, so you don't really need to justify it to your readers either.

For me, it was not the debates between science & Christianity, or by consideration of the big philosophical arguments for or against God, but the failings in the Bible itself that ultimately led to the erosion of my faith. The Bible is factually wrong in places, the Bible is internally inconsistent in places, the Bible records as history things that cannot have happened (and in some instances demonstrably did not happen) in history. The Bible tells stories about God and Jesus. If it is wrong about the other stuff, we have to at least consider the possibility that it is wrong on these subjects too.

After much study, I came (somewhat grudgingly) to the conclusion that the Bible is an errant book, and was written by human authors with human agendas. In your book, you have shown that you base your life on the Bible, but you haven't managed to convince me that the Bible comes from God. You've not even shown me why you came to that conclusion.

Your magnificent obsession concerns a man who comes to you through the pages of a flawed book. I agree, if the stories about Jesus are true, then he is worthy of this obsession, but for now at least I have reasonable doubts about the truth regarding Jesus, so I think your obsession is misplaced.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 5)

Dear D.,

Following my comments on the first seven chapters of your book [here, herehere, and here], we come to Chapter 8: Modern. I came to read it following a few weeks break after reading the last ones, so I was pleased to find you started the chapter with a recap. The problem with the recap is, however, it doesn't just recap the stuff you've already established in earlier chapters, but sneaks a few extra things in there to make it look like you've already provided more of a case than you actually have. Your recap covers:
  1. God, the creator
    You've not actually gone there yet. You've not even tried the cosmological argument. Up until now, God the creator is a presupposition underlying everything else in here, but you've not even tried to justify or defend this presupposition. Now you're implying that we can take this for granted? Sorry, you still have work to do here.
  2. Made humans in His own image
    Similarly, I don't recall you justifying or defending this claim either.
  3. Freewill and the fall of man, bringing creation down with us
    You've gone into the issue of sin a bit in previous chapters, but have provided no case that we have freewill. You've certainly not explained or justified the claim that the sin of man could ruin all of creation. Why should that follow?
  4. God's redemption plan: Jesus
  5. Jesus: his miraculous birth
  6. Jesus: taught God's message
  7. Jesus: showed God's power
    Ok. You definitely have covered these. I'm not convinced, but I'll grant that you went there.
  8. Jesus: died our death and suffered our hell
    Yes, you went there, but let me remind you that Jesus descending to hell isn't actually in the Bible.
  9. Jesus: raised from the dead, and ascended
    Have you talked about the ascension? I don't remember that bit.
  10. The Holy Spirit
    Yes, we've touched on it, or is it Him?
Hmmm. So while your focus in the book thus far has been almost exclusively on Jesus, you basically want us to take God, the Father and Creator, as a given. Not sure that's how apologetics (a defence of the faith) actually works. To defend something, you need to actually defend it, not simply presume it or assert it. But anyway, on with the chapter...

Your aim in the first part of the chapter is to show that Christianity isn't dying out and isn't bad or irrelevant. You take swipes at hypocritical Christians, celebrity atheists, Bono, Stalin and Hitler along the way. Your trump card here seems to be a quote from Matthew Parris, an atheist, who observed that Christianity is making a positive change in parts of Africa because Christianity changes lives in a 'real' way. Of course, you can't prove anything by anecdote, but this seems to you to settle the question.

Sometimes, converting to Christianity is hugely beneficial for people and makes them better, kinder, more hopeful people. Does that mean Christianity is true? Not necessarily, it simply means that the Christian worldview is better than their previous worldview. Maybe there's a better one beyond Christianity that they could move on to? Then they might be even more kind and even more hopeful. Maybe.

Of course, the flip side of all this is all the miserable Christians that we've all met. And the useless ones who are 'too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good', and the ones who are downright horrible people and yet use Christianity, the Bible or God to justify this. For every anecdote there is an equal and opposite anecdote.

All you've really done here is show that for some people, being a Christian is a positive thing. I don't deny that. But that doesn't mean that Christianity is true, just that it can work as a positive worldview.

You claim that the Church is growing, and that where it is growing, it is growing particularly through attracting young people. I can't deny either of those facts, viewed worldwide, there is a definite trend towards church growth in superstitious societies. People who believe in all sorts of nonsense are coming to believe the Christian message, because it is more rational than the thing they believed previously.

But. Have a look at societies where Christianity has been dominant for a long time, there the picture is different. When I was young, in the 1970s, I seem to recall that about 12% of Scots were regular church attenders. When I was a student, in the 1990s, the number had dropped to about 10%. Now, in 2017, the latest numbers show that only 7% of Scots regularly attend church. Following that trend, I fully expect that we'll see numbers below 5% within 20 years, and maybe as low as 3% in our lifetimes. The Church in Scotland is dying. In particular, the established church (CofS, Scottish Episcopal, etc.) has pretty much already lost all its young people and is slowly losing members as its congregations die off. Of course, you will offer statistics that show that some churches are growing. Indeed. An increasingly smaller number of non-traditional churches are growing. They're growing primarily by hoovering up all the younger Christians who still believe, but have become disillusioned by the traditional church. The church I still attend has a congregation of about 200 folk every week, where 3/4 of the congregation are families with school age kids. But it is the exception, not the rule.

And finally I want to get onto the question of church growth through attracting young people. Of course this is happening. Evangelistic campaigns aim to attract young people. Some of those young people convert. This is mostly a matter of psychology. Young people's minds are still 'plastic' - they can adapt to new ideas and belief systems much better than older people. As we age we do get more set in our ways. It is much easier to change the mind of a teenager than it is to change the mind of a retiree. That's a matter of human nature. So evangelistic organisations work primarily among schools, universities and other groups of young people. Thus it is not surprising that those churches which are growing by conversion (a tiny minority of churches in my UK-based experience) are seeing this growth among young people. Its because they don't aim for conversion of older people, and would find it harder to do if they tried.

Fundamentally, what you've shown in this chapter is that Christianity works as a worldview, and works better than some other worldviews, and may be justifiable in comparison to some other worldviews, but haven't in any way demonstrated that it is true.