Friday, December 30, 2011

The Christian Delusion - Review

Having just read a large volume by NT Wright (review/thoughts coming soon), and seeking to hear the opinions from the other side of the debate, as it were, I have been reading a book called 'The Christian Delusion' edited by John W. Loftus.

The title of the book deliberately nods to Dawkins's 'The God Delusion' (which I still haven't read) but this book is more focused in its aim - to demonstrate that (specifically) the Christian faith is unreasonable and irrational, rather than Dawkins's attack on religious belief in general - and is written by a number of different authors, with different viewpoints and specialities, the majority of whom once were bible-believing Christians, but for various reasons have now rejected their former beliefs. I'm far more interested in their opinions on Christianity than on Dawkins's as he never saw Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) from the inside.

The collection is edited by John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical preacher and church pastor. The foreword is by Dan Barker, who also used to be an evangelical preacher and church pastor. What drives such people out of the church? What causes them to reject a belief in God? Could it be that belief in God is really a delusion?

This seems to have, unintentionally, turned into a very long blog post, sorry about that. Below you'll find comments on all of the chapters individually, but I think I'll summarise the main points and my conclusions here. So, if you want to read the whole thing you can, but if not, you'll get the gist here and can skip the remainder.

So, in conclusion:

This book is a very mixed bag. It contains a few chapters of really fascinating and thought provoking stuff, a few chapters of responses to Christian/Apologetics stuff which does not make for great reading if you haven't read the original books or articles, a few chapters on interesting but largely irrelevant topics and a few chapters which have clearly just been added to bulk the book up. As I read the Kindle edition, I couldn't see how thick the book looked anyway.

So, is this a Christianity killer? Well, if anyone in Churches (other than me, of course) actually reads it, it could do some damage. In the midst of this there are a couple of excellent anti-Christian arguments that I don't think have decent pro-Christian rebuttals. I'm specifically thinking of chapters 6 & 7 (see my comments below). Between them they do a pretty good job of demonstrating to the reader that (a) the bible is flawed, contains errors and fabrications and is certainly not inspired, and (b) that the history of Christianity demonstrates that if there is a God then he cannot communicate to his people at all.

The weight of all the other chapters certainly adds to the overall case that the Christian worldview is not consistent with the actual world in which we live, and so, I suppose that this is strong evidence that Christianity actually is a 'delusion'. No proof here, of course, but some of the arguments are compelling.

So where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me confused (as ever) and even less sure who Jesus was than I was before I started reading this. The writers of this collection of chapters have all gone the whole hog, departing Christianity and turning to atheism. I'm not there. This book does nothing to convince me that there is no God. However, it does go a long way to convincing me that if there is a God, then he isn't Yahweh/Jesus, at least not as presented in the Bible. (Interestingly enough, in Loftus's follow up collection of writings "The End of Christianity" there is a chapter called "Can God exist if Yahweh doesn't?" - I suspect the author comes to the answer 'no' but I'll be interested to read it anyway.)

So should I give up calling myself a 'Christian'? I'm not sure. Should I stop going to church? Likewise undecided. There's more to read on both sides of the debate, and a lot of thinking to be done, before I make any big life changing decisions. I have to 'count the cost', again. But I am not the sort of person who can choose to believe things that are contrary to the evidence. I need reasons to believe. I'm still looking for those reasons. Keep reading the blog to find out what happens...

And now the full review:

Part I: Why Faith Fails

Chapter 1: The Cultures of Christianities by David Eller, PhD
The first thing to say is that most of the chapter authors in this book have 'PhD' after their names. This is quite unnecessary and is only there to say "look, atheism is an intelligent position, we have doctorates here, you should be impressed". I have a PhD too, and know just how little that can mean regarding intelligence... but anyway.

This chapter sets out to demonstrate a few things:
  1. That Christianity is just a culture like any other.
  2. That Christianity itself is aware of this and uses it to its own advantage in mission / evangelism.
  3. That actually it is not one culture, but a collective name for a widely diverse collection of cultures, many of whom would not include some of the others under the same collective umbrella as themselves. i.e. there is no such thing as Christianity, there are only Christianities.
  4. That Christianity, much like other religions in other pars of the world, has such power over culture because it is institutionalised and has cultural dominance over birth, death, marriage, sexual practice, etc.
So, its fairly interesting, but nothing really ground breaking. I wasn't sure where the book was going to go from here, this seemed like such an odd start. And, indeed, the book doesn't really progress in a coherent and inter-linked way.

The chapter concludes with an interesting quote which is the most memorable thing in it, and which I'll repeat here:
"Christians are not easily reasoned out of religion, since they are not usually reasoned into it."
Chapter 2: Christian belief through the lens of cognitive science by Valerie Tarico, PhD.
Yes, another PhD, I'm still not impressed. This one is a psychologist. She makes a case that humans are not rational and that certainty is a feeling which is independent of truth or facts. She also demonstrates that the 'born again' experience is not unique to Christianity and actually is replicated in many other religious and non-religious contexts. I found this chapter more interesting than the previous one and more compelling in its reasoning against the case for faith. I don't really have much to say on the issue though, so I'll just give a few interesting quotes from the chapter:
  • "Arriving at belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself."
  • "Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken."
  • "it is not enough to be well intentioned - even joyfully, generously so. We also have to be right."
Basically, the chapter shows how people can come to any one of the range of religious beliefs, and believe passionately in it, without any of them being actually true. This doesn't mean that there is no God or Christianity is false, but it does mean that there is an alternative explanation for why there is Christianity without the need for there to be a God.

Chapter 3: The malleability of the human mind by Jason Long, PhD
I really have to add 'PhD' to the end of my name on all things I write, it would give them such gravitas. Anyway, this is more psychology. The chapter starts with this quote, which is quite parochial in its scope:
"Why do the majority of Americans believe in the ability to predict specific details in the distant future, the existence of winged messengers living in the sky, the worldwide flood as told in genesis, and the resurrection of a man who had been dead for over a day? How can these people believe they are enlightened enough to insist upon the veracity of these outlandish beliefs when studies show they know so little about them? They believe simply because they want to believe, they believe because they always have believed, and they believe because others around them believe. The vast majority of those who believe such things will stick to those beliefs throughout life despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary"
Hmmm. This chapter basically claims that the majority of believers of any variety are indoctrinated into it, usually in childhood, then have the belief reinforced, so that when the belief is eventually challenged, the default position is to defend the belief rather than question it:
"If the Christian were genuinely interested in the truth, he would analyze the argument critically and thoroughly to see if it adequately addressed the points of the skeptical objection. But he is not questioning, he is defending."
The chapter goes into cognitive dissonance and that sort of thing and shows, once more, how reasonable people can believe weird things. He even quotes Michael Shermer's well known line:
"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."
This chapter by itself is nothing astounding, but this book is clearly aiming for a collective impact from all the different strands tied together.

Chapter 4: The outsider test for faith revisited by John W. Loftus
No PhD? This chapter must be worthless then. This is where you realise this book is not intended to be a stand-along work. This chapter does not really present the 'Outsider test for faith' (OTF), which comes from Loftus's earlier book, but seeks to defend it from the attacks made after the earlier book. It would really help at this point if I'd read Loftus's previous book, which I haven't.

The basic point of the OTF is that if you seriously want to question the Christian faith (or any other faith, for that matter) then you must do this from outside of the preconceptions of the faith itself. That is, view it as an outsider would. If you do this, then you start to see some doctrines, etc. as entirely arbitrary and start to see the holes in some pieces of reasoning.

I don't really have much to say here, except that this is pretty much what I am doing on this blog at the moment. However, the way the chapter is constructed makes it seem like it is part of an ongoing debate, of which I haven't heard all the earlier bits. Which is slightly a shame. I'd have preferred it if this was a presentation of the OTF, taking the earlier criticism into account. Nice quote in here, in passing is: "If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby" (David Eller).

Part II: Why the Bible is not God's Word

Chapter 5: The Cosmology of the Bible by Edward T. Babinski
Another with no PhD, sigh. This is an odd chapter. It makes its point clearly, but I think the majority of Christians out there would think "so what?" about this. The point being made is that the view of cosmology is entirely contrary to modern science. Basically, the writers of the bible (both old and new testaments, but more clearly in the old) believe the earth to be flat, the sky to be something solid (the 'firmament'), which the stars are fixed onto, and above which are 'waters' (which sometimes leaks through, hence rain). The earth is supported upon pillars, and there are waters under this, and so on. God is presented as living in 'the heavens' which is up in the sky, hence the way the floor in heaven is presented as being sapphire (the sky is blue, after all).

The point is that the writers of the bible present the world in a way which is entirely consistent with the beliefs and views of the surrounding cultures, and there is noting 'inspired' here, and certainly nothing 'infallible'. By itself this argument will not achieve very much, but when heaped with all the other chapters it piles up to make the overall argument (that the bible has no divine author) seem more compelling.

Chapter 6: The bible and modern scholarship by Paul Tobin
This chapter sets out to demonstrate 5 points, that the Bible:
  1. is inconsistent with itself
  2. is not supported by archaeology
  3. contains fairy tales
  4. contains failed prophecies, and
  5. contains many forgeries
The chapter makes its points fairly well. Part 1 quotes several contradictory pairs, including the following two verses: Romans 3v28 (A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law) and James 2v24 (A man is justified by works and not by faith alone). And I basically agree with the point, while many of the contradictions can be explained away, the best explanation is not that they come from one infallible inspired source, but rather they come from a diverse bunch of people with contrasting and contradictory opinions.

In part 2 he demonstrates that there is no evidence for the Israelites alleged stay in Egypt, or the subsequent exodus. Furthermore, while there are stories in the bible that can be tied to real places or events, the chronology from the bible is totally at odds with the chronology from archaeology. For example, Abram came from 'Ur of the Chaldees' about 800 years before there were any Chaldeans, as far as we can tell from archaeology. The point made seems to be that almost all of Israelite history before the return from exile is totally out of sequence, exaggerated, or just plain made up.

Parts 3, 4 and 5 all do their jobs very well as well, but I don't need to give details here. Suffice it to say that this chapter is a very strong case for the non-inspiration of the bible.

The chapter ends with an interesting and, again, fairly strong argument against liberal Christianity as well. I think the author feels that he has dealt a death blow to Evangelicals (to be fair, he pretty much has) and so might as well attack the other branch of Christianity as well.

This chapter is basically a summary of Tobin's book "The Rejection of Pascal's Wager", which I think I'll read sometime (although, it is the best part of £30, so I'm in no hurry to buy it). The summary is quite interesting, thought provoking, and challenging so the full book should be worth a look.

Chapter 7: What we've got here is a failure to communicate by John W. Loftus
This chapter is also pretty compelling. The basic idea is that the history of Christianity clearly demonstrates that Christians (as a collective, not necessarily as individuals) are generally unable to hear from God. If God were able to communicate clearly to his people, then there are certain events in history that simply would not have happened, for example the many wars and persecutions between Protestants, Catholics and Anabaptists in the aftermath of the reformation - if God's message had been clearly conveyed, none of this would have happened. Furthermore, what about things like polygamy or slavery - the bible is at best ambiguous on these issues and generally seems to be in favour of them, and yet most Christians today would be strongly against both practices. So is the inference in the bible the message from God or is the evolved modern practice which goes against it really what God wants? Of course, there is a lot more in this chapter, which only serves to strengthen the case.

The chapter also considers all the usual explanations used to explain away these observations, and shows why none of them is particularly compelling. In summary:
"Christian theologians cannot even come to a consensus on what the Bible requires them to believe - that's why there are so many denominations and 'cults'. They cannot even come to a consensus on how to interpret the Bible in the first place. What is the best explanation for this? In the light of such confusion and disagreement, can anyone take seriously the idea that God communicated his perfect will to his believers?"
Chapters 6 and 7, by themselves, are the heart of this book. They make a very strong and compelling case against the inspiration of the bible, by using the bible itself. The rest of the book is just supporting evidence.

Part III: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good

Chapter 8: Yahweh is a moral monster by Hector Avalos, PhD
This chapter is a response to something I haven't read written by Christian author Paul Copan. Avalos demonstrates that OT morality is not significantly different from, or superior to the morality expressed in the Code of Hammurabi (Summerian law code) or various Hittite law codes we know from the time of the OT and earlier. Indeed, Avalos contends that the Bible is actually inferior to the other codes. The bible (or at least parts of it) condones genocide, infanticide and child sacrifice amongst other immoral things. The chapter makes its points clearly and compellingly, and then degenerates into a direct criticism of Copan's writings, rather than promoting its own message. Which makes this chapter fairly pointless if you read it in isolation.

Chapter 9: The Darwinian Problem of Evil by John W. Loftus
I've heard this argument before. I've heard it responded to before. But this is a clear and compelling discussion of the issues around animal suffering. Basically the point is that animals, through no moral fault of their own, suffer and die, all the time, sometimes in pretty horrendous ways. The question posed is basically 'What sort of creator would design this?'

The chapter states and then refutes the eight main arguments used by theists to defend the creator for causing or allowing animal suffering. The theist arguments are basically as follows:
  1. Animals were herbivores before the fall. That is, man is morally responsible for animals eating each other.
  2. Satan corrupted the beasts before the fall of man.
  3. Animals have no souls and don't feel (much) pain.
  4. God doesn't care about animals, why do you think he should?
  5. God is indifferent to animals as he is much more interested in human soul making. Animals and their suffering are merely by-products of this process.
  6. Its OK, as animals will be resurrected to a heavenly afterlife.
  7. That animal predation and suffering is necessary to create the right environment for human development and moral decision making. (I'm not clear how this differs from number 5 above)
  8. We simply don't know.

All of these are discussed, taken apart and more or less refuted. Loftus makes a good case and I've not really heard a good response by a Christian (in debates, etc.) yet.

Part IV: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God

Chapter 10: Jesus, Myth and Method by Robert M. Price, PhD
This chapter is another response to something else that I haven't read. In this case, its "The Jesus Legend: A case for the historical reliability of the synoptic tradition" by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy (which is on my 'to read; eventually' list...). The book is Boyd and Eddy's look at 'The Christ Myth Theory' (CMT) which, of course, they reject. Price is, of course, one of the most vocal proponents of the CMT and some of his reasoning is compelling. However, this chapter is mostly a response to Boyd and Eddy rather than a straight defense of the CMT.

As with the other 'responses' in this book, this would be much better if I had read the original book. As a stand alone it makes a few points, and makes then well, but is not -by itself- particularly a compelling case for anything much.

Chapter 11: Why the resurrection is unbelievable by Richard Carrier, PhD
This chapter basically expands the often repeated statement that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' and demonstrates (fairly well, I must say) that the evidence for the resurrection is actually rather mundane, and is not sufficient to warrant belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

He starts with discussing the story of the Persian Wars, written by Herodotus about 50 years after the event. Herodotus was well educated and claims to have consulted eye witnesses in compiling his accounts, and yet there are fantastic claims in there of magical things happening.

Compare this to the gospel accounts - written some decades after the events, by well educated men, who claim to have consulted eye witnesses, and containing fantastic claims of miraculous events, the greatest of which is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus.

If you dismiss the former stories, why do you still believe the latter ones?

Carrier lays out the evidence we have for the resurrection, in detail, and then demonstrates that this evidence is insufficient to be compelling. The implication being that if you believe this reasoning that you are a bit gullible and have been convinced of something that you shouldn't have been. He appears to have a point.

Chapter 12: At best, Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet by John W. Loftus
This chapter takes the surprising presupposition that the New Testament is historically reliable and that Jesus existed, pretty much as described. From there it shows that the NT presents Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, who clearly predicted the end of the world was coming within his own generation. Given that we are looking at this nearly 2000 years later, it is clear that this didn't happen and therefore Jesus was (at best) a failed apocalyptic prophet.

Its a good point, well made, and certainly adds to the weight of the evidence of some of the other chapters in this book.

The problem with this chapter is that it treads on the 'historical Jesus' debate, which I've touched on in other posts, where only some of the main opinions of Jesus claim that he was an apocalyptic prophet. But this chapter is not written as part of that debate, this chapter was written to be read by Bible-believing Christians, and so - assuming any of them ever read it - it kind of works in that context.

Part V: Why society does not depend on Christian Faith

Chapter 13: Christianity does not provide the basis for morality by David Eller, PhD
Finally we come to three chapters that feel a bit like a 'grab bag' of an appendix. The moral argument doesn't fit in anywhere else, so is thrown in here. The chapter explains how morality and religion are different and don't depend on each other. It also shows a few examples of immoral things done in the name of God/Christianity for good measure. But, for me at least, this is not that interesting.

Chapter 14: Atheism was not the cause of the Holocaust by Hector Avalos, PhD
Can I just say, I never thought it was? But the chapter makes a good case for the Holocaust being the end result of centuries of Christian antisemitism, not the end result of any form of atheism. Indeed, Hitler was not an atheist but a Catholic with some strange views. Other important figures in the Nazi party had other theistic viewpoints. This chapter is just here for bulking the book out.

Chapter 15: Christianity was not responsible for Modern Science by Richard Carrier, PhD
And finally, a chapter that does exactly what it says on the tin. It overturns the quite common Christian belief that the advances of science in the past two thousand years are in some way dependent on Christianity, without which they would never have happened. On the contrary, the chapter demonstrates that at certain points in history, Christianity has hindered scientific advances, meanwhile 'pagan' cultures have promoted scientific advances. Again, this is interesting stuff, and adds to the overall weight of the argument, but I'm not sure this chapter was particularly essential.

And there you have it. My conclusions were near the beginning of the post, if you can remember that long ago. Thanks for reading to the bottom. You really are a glutton for punishment! (Hello Mike!)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What kind of God...? (#1)

Someone at church last week shared a story of 'what God had been doing in their life' recently.

I don't need to give many details here except to say that they had experienced an unlikely and unusual sequence of positive events in reasonably quick succession, and attributed this to the goodness of God. People in the church were also thanked for their prayers.

Don't get me wrong, I think its great that this sequence of events happened to this person. But are we right to attribute this 'lucky streak' to the goodness of God?

What kind of God rewards one of his people with a string of minor blessings (like getting extra items delivered by accident in an online shop, which the store then did not reclaim) and larger blessings like a better paid job, while countless thousands of Africans, some of whom also claim to be Christians, live in poverty and die of starvation?

Furthermore, what kind of God apparently does this (shifts blessing towards a particular person) as a consequence of the number or quality of people praying? If nobody was praying, would the blessings have been withheld?

What kind of God with the will and the ability to bless, would withhold this blessing just because not enough people asked for it?

In the light of the answer that you have formed in your mind to the question above, what is the point of prayer? If it truly moves the hands of God, which otherwise would remain idle, then I'm not sure that sort of God is the sort of God I'd want to pray to...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Synoptic Problem and some Solutions...

I seem to have circled around the issue of 'The Synoptic Problem' on this blog for a year or two, without actually devoting a whole post to it. Given that my thinking about the Synoptic Problem led directly to to my current way of thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything (to be explained in a forthcoming post, which is taking a long time to write), I feel I should write something. So here goes, using the Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm:
  1. write down the problem
  2. think very hard
  3. write down the answer
The Problem Defined

So, some of you might be wondering what the Synoptic Problem actually is. Basically, the issue is this: There is a relationship between the three 'synoptic' gospels. There are some similarities in structure, order, content, and even word use. The question is which, if any came first? Is one (or more) of them directly dependent on one (or more) of the others? If so, which?

If you were to split up each of the three synoptic gospels into its constituent 'pericopes' (that's per-ih-co-pay not perry-cope; its the technical term scholars use for the individual, stand alone, stories or sayings that make up the gospels) and compare notes between the gospels you would find the following:
  • There is an awful lot of overlap between all three gospels. The stuff that's in all three is (not surprisingly) known as 'Triple Tradition' material.
  • There is quite a lot that is common to Matthew and Luke, but is not in Mark. This stuff is called 'Double Tradition' material.
  • There is not much at all that is unique to Mark. So little that scholars don't really have a name for it. Lets call it 'Special Mark' material.
  • There is more stuff that is unique to Matthew. Scholars generally call this stuff the 'M' material.
  • There is also a lot of stuff that is unique to Luke. This is commonly called 'L'.
  • There are also some places where Mark and Matthew agree, but Luke has no equivalent.
  • Likewise there are a few (but not many) places where Mark and Luke agree, but Matthew has no equivalent.
Look, somebody from the internet has helpfully drawn a diagram of this:

As far as I can tell, this issue has been keeping a good few theologians awake at night for the best part of four centuries now, so I'm not sure that any solutions I come to here will be final or definitive... but that's no reason not to try! Here goes...

The Proposed Solutions

As far as I can tell, there are basically four proposed solutions to the problem, there may be others, but they are generally just slight modifications from one of the main four. The solutions are:
  1. Independent inspiration (i.e. there is no problem)
  2. The Griesbach hypothesis (Markan posteriority)
  3. The two source hypothesis (Markan priority, plus the Q source)
  4. The Farrer hypothesis (Markan priority, but no Q)
So here's my thoughts on each of these possibilities.

Independent Inspiration

This view is really that there is no Synoptic Problem. The three Gospels (and indeed the gospel of John) were all inspired by God, and the evangelists wrote them down, independent of each other. Any similarities in the text of the gospels is entirely due to God and nothing to do with the men who wrote them down.

I suppose that's a fair belief, but it is a belief which is imposed onto the texts themselves, certainly not one that emerges from any study of the texts. It raises the question of what sort of God would word-for-word inspire the gospels such that in some places there is an exact wording match between Matthew and Mark, while in other places the gospels directly contradict each other, and in others the meaning is left confused and confusing?

I personally don't think this reasoning is particularly compelling. Given the apparent human character of much of the writing in these gospels, I think it is entirely justified to look for a 'human' solution to the synoptic problem. That's not to say there was no inspiration, only to say that if there was inspiration, then it was channeled through human actions.

The Greisbach hypothesis

This is the oldest solution to the problem. It basically proposes that Matthew and Luke produced their gospels first, and independently, and that Mark came along later and combined the two into one - shorter - document, by chopping out all the material that was unique to one or other, and only retaining the material which was common to both.

Of course, if you look at the pie charts above, you'll see that it can't have been that simple. 21% of Mark has no parallel in Luke, so if this theory worked, then Mark must have included some M material and got the Special Mark material from somewhere else. In other words, Mark had more sources than just the two Gospels and he had some means of selection other than just the material of overlap.

There are a few other problems with this theory. For me, the two compelling reasons not to believe that this is the way things were are the quality of the writing and the good stuff that Mark would have apparently thrown out. By quality of writing, I mean that there are passages in Mark and Matthew that are remarkably similar, except in that Matthew has better and more 'polished' use of Greek grammar, etc. Meanwhile Mark's version of the same story is expressed in clumsy wording. It makes no sense that Mark, when he was copying from Matthew, would introduce so many mistakes, yet it makes perfect sense, that if Matthew was copying from Mark, he would improve the text. Then there are things like the beatitudes and the Lord's prayer. There are versions of both in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. The Greisbach hypothesis assumes that Mark threw out such classic passages because of only minor variations between the texts. And instead of these classics, Mark introduces a small number of unique but weird things like the guy who runs away naked in the Garden of Gethsemane.

As far as I can tell, the solutions to the synoptic problem which start with Mark make much more sense.

The Two Source Hypothesis

This is the most widely held solution to the problem. Basically, it assumes that Mark's gospel came first ('Markan Priority') and was used by both Matthew and Luke when they came to write their gospels, perhaps some decades later. Additionally, this theory supposes Matthew and Luke had access to a second document, generally known as 'Q', which is now lost, and that they both used Mark and Q to compile their gospels.

Numerous theses and books have been written about Q, with some people holding that it must have been a written document, some holding that it must have been largely oral tradition, some insisting that it must have been a written document, based on oral tradition, etc. There have even been several studies looking at the development of Q, and identifying various 'strata' in the hypothetical Q document and such like. Which is all very impressive for a book which doesn't exist and is only inferred by studying other texts.

The theory goes that Q had no narrative order, it was just a collection of sayings with no nativity and no passion narratives. This explains why Matthew and Luke's order of events are in good agreement when they also agree with Mark, but why their Q material is in completely different order to each other.

My favourite Q studies are the ones which discuss the Mark-Q overlaps. Which is interesting, as - by definition - Q is the stuff that is in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. But you can study anything, it doesn't have to be real... (it just has to be funded!)

Anyway, there are good and sound reasons for holding that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the backbone of their gospels, and added material from one or two other sources, which may have included Q.

By the way, sometimes the two source hypothesis is called the 'Four Source' hypothesis - referring to Mark, Q, M and L. but aside from that, the theory is exactly the same, as far as I can tell.

The Farrer hypothesis

Finally, we come to the Farrer hypothesis. This also supposes Markan priority, but does away with the need for Q. Basically the theory is that Matthew used Mark and some other material to write his gospel, and Luke used both Mark and Matthew, plus some other material, to write his gospel.

Using Occam's Razor, this theory is probably the most compelling as it only requires three sources, Mark, M and L, without the need for Q. Most of the problems associated with this theory (for example, why would Luke break up the sermon on the mount and spread it around his gospel at apparently random points) can be explained using plausible reasoning. That's not to say that any of the reasoning is completely compelling, but at least it is plausible.

The Final Solution

And so we come to the point - what do I find to be the best solution to the problem? Well, having read quite a lot and listened to a lot of podcasts and lectures on the topic, I am completely convinced that Mark's gospel came first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their own gospels. Thus I disregard the Greisbach hypothesis and the independent inspiration theory.

Beyond that, I am unsure. It is clear that both Matthew and Luke had access to a supply of material other than Mark's gospel. It wouldn't be particularly surprising to find that Matthew and Luke both had access to one collection of sayings that we call Q. Then again, it wouldn't be that surprising if Luke also had access to Matthew - he does start off his gospel saying 'Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us' (Luke 1v1), so it is clear that he has access to more than two gospels or proto-gospels which he used to compile his own gospel.

The implications of all this...

Actually, I don't really care if there was or wasn't a Q. For me, the most important thing to have come out of me wrestling with the synoptic problem is the realisation that both Matthew and Luke disagreed with Mark and changed his gospel to fit their purposes and beliefs. There are places in Mark where Jesus behaves in a human manner or shows evidence of limitations (e.g. Mark 6v5 where Jesus 'could do no mighty work') which Matthew or Luke rewrites (e.g. Matthew 13v58 where Jesus 'did not do' any mighty works). This one observations blows the whole case for inspiration out of the water - if Mark was inspired, then Matthew and Luke were not, and vice versa. The rewrites of Mark by the other two demonstrate that these books were written by people with human agendas, who were quite happy to change details in their sources to make the stories fit with their own beliefs. We know they did this with Mark, we can only assume that they did this with their other sources as well!

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with three different accounts of three different Jesuses, at least two of which (and we can assume the third likewise) have been modified by the writers to make the character and message of Jesus conform to their own beliefs. Thus, if the real Jesus said or did something that the authors didn't like then this will have been changed, modified or omitted.

Its not that the gospel writers believed in Jesus and tried to conform themselves to his image, it appears that they took Jesus and made him conform to their image! Thus, our only route of access to the real Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee (NB, not the 'historical Jesus' - that's a different concept altogether) is forever broken.

This brings us back to the popular question WWJD? Because of the above I now believe that we cannot know the answer to this. Sure, we can say what the 'Jesus of Luke' would do, or the 'Jesus of Mark', but not the real Jesus. So, by looking at the synoptic problem, I've led myself not to a solution, but to an even bigger problem. Sigh.
"The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know"

Saturday, December 03, 2011


I was reminded of this quote this morning:
Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
C.S. Lewis
On reflection, and I think this is probably true for the vast majority of people who consider this quote, I think that I live as if Christianity and Christ were moderately important. I know many people who live as if it was of no importance, and hardly anyone who live as if it was of immense importance.

I suppose that is part of all the questioning I've been going through on this blog. I know I'm in the untenable moderate middle ground, and I need to find the reasons to jump one way or the other...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Absolute objective morality?

Following on from my recent comments on the William Lane Craig tour, I feel the need to challenge the 'moral argument' for God.

The moral argument basically states that there are 'absolute objective morals' and these must originate from a transcendent being.

I agree with half of that. I'm just not sure that there actually are absolute objective morals.

So, if you believe there are, please tell me some.

Specifically, please leave a comment telling me some absolute objective morals that do not involve violence by one person on another.

From observation of these debates, the only 'absolute morals' specifically discussed involve violence among humans - generally the strong attacking the weak. But if there are absolutes, they can't only apply to humans, can they? So show me a non-violent absolute moral...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

William Lane Craig vs The God Delusion

This post is a few comments on the event held on 25th October at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and broadcast on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast from Premier Christian Radio. You can also watch the entire event on YouTube.

The event wasn't a debate like other events in Dr Craig's recent UK tour, but was a response by Dr Craig to Richard Dawkins's now infamous book 'The God Delusion'. Dawkins was invited to attend the event and defend his book, but he declined. The defence of the book, such as it was, was provided by three short presentations by three other atheist/agnostic Oxford dons.

The format of the evening was basically a 45 minute lecture by William Lane Craig, followed by the three 8 minute responses by the others, followed by another response by Dr Craig, then a Q&A session with questions from the audience.

As Dawkins's book (which I still haven't read) is an attack on the very concept of God, rather than a specific attack on the Christian God, the lecture by Dr Craig stayed firmly in the 'God of the Philosophers' territory - the only time the event strayed towards the specifically Christian God was in the Q&A session at the end.

This post is not a review of the event, and I don't intend to go into this in as much detail as I went into for the debate between Dr Craig and Dr Law. These are just some comments and thoughts on what I heard. In the mean time, I have also listened to another debate featuring Dr Craig (vs Peter Millican) and I may comment on that sometime too.

The Cosmological Argument

This was the core of Craig's lecture and is clearly his primary argument in favour of the existence of God. He presented it in much the same way as in previous debates. Basically, as the universe began to exist, it must have had a cause, and the cause must have been God.

Most of this argument is reasonably watertight, except Craig's leap of reasoning (about 14 mins into the YouTube video) that the transcendent first cause is "plausibly personal". He claims the personhood of the cause is implied by its "timelessness and immateriality". He then claims that the only entities able to have these properties are either (a) "abstract objects, like numbers", or (b) an "unembodied mind". Because the first cause obviously wasn't something like a number, it must therefore have been an unembodied person.

There is some clever sleight of hand going on here, and none of the other speakers picked up on it. Option (a), the 'abstract object, like a number' is there in the role of a straw man - it is only put there to be torn down. It is only put there to make option (b) seem like the only reasonable choice. Yet option (b) is not reasonable either. Craig offers no supporting arguments for there only being two options here, or indeed for there being any options here. He offers no justification for believing that an unembodied mind is actually anything other than science-fiction.

In other words, we know of no objects, entities or concepts that actually are immaterial and timeless. None. Not one. So to say that an immaterial and timeless thing must be one of two options is a cheat - it is nether of them, because we have no evidence that it is even possible, let alone plausible or probable.

Later on, Craig claimed that this timeless, changeless, eternal, infinite, unembodied yet personal entity must have had freewill in order to bring about the first cause. I think there's a logical flaw in that reasoning. In order to use freewill, the personal entity must make a decision and act. In order for a decision to be made there must be a 'time' or state 'before' which the decision was made (i.e. the entity's mind was not yet made up) and a 'time' or state 'after' which the decision had been made. Similarly with the action. A changeless entity cannot transition from one state to the other. I'd go as far as to say that personality requires change. If something is changeless, it cannot be a person and if something is a person, it cannot be changeless.

Basically I think the whole concept of God (or a god) existing outside of time is absolute bunk. (As I've said before, if it is even possible to have a being outside of time, then that being must be morally neutral - neither good nor evil.)

All this leads me to the point of concluding that if there was a timeless 'first cause' it remains so far outside of our understanding that we can't really know anything at all about it. The message of Jesus is 'God with us', God presented, as a person, in a way that we can understand. The philosophical first cause is so far removed from the person of Jesus, that I can see no justifiable way of connecting the two. If Jesus represents God for us, then the first cause is not God, and vice versa.

The ontological argument

This argument is the most bunk spouted by apologists. It dates back to Anselm in the 11th Century, although it was refined by Descartes and others. It goes like this: we can conceive of a God who is a "supremely perfect being" and who holds all perfections. One of the perfections we can conceive of is the perfection of existence and, thus, God must exist. There's more to it than that, but that's the gist.

The thing is, nobody who does not believe in a God will be persuaded by this reasoning. Its only function is to make theist apologists sound clever to their own supporters. Philosophers can tie themselves in knots over the logic, but no rational person will accept the claim that the existence or otherwise of God depends on whether or not we can conceive of him. It also relies on a lot of 'omnis', and I have very big issues with claiming that a God with all the omni-characteristics is actually compatible with reality as we observe it.

The responses

The responses were mostly adequate but not really up to the task of taking down Craig's assertions. Craig has being doing this style of debate for decades and the opponents were simply not in the same rhetorical league.

The only miss-step by Craig came in the Q&A session when he (incorrectly) claimed that God never commanded the Israelites in the old testament to kill women & children in the 'Canaanite Genocide' - the story says quite clearly that he did. Furthermore, Craig claimed that the Israelites were never told to hunt down and kill all of the Canaanites, only to drive them out. Well this is broadly true, but what of the Amalekites? The OT is quite clear, the Israelites were commanded not to allow an Amalekite to live. However, the format of the evening did not give Craig's opponents the opportunity to follow up on this, and I suspect none of them were well enough versed in the OT to actually know this anyway.

But enough of this 'brief' comment... I have some books to review for you sometime soon...

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The explanatory power of the unseen infinite

I've listened to a few debates on topics like 'Is there a God?' recently. One thing I've noted in the arguments of apologists is the use of what I'll call the 'unseen infinite' to explain the way the world is.

For example, consider the issue of suffering, one common argument against the existence of God is that there is too much suffering in the world for there to be an all-powerful, all-loving God.

The standard apologetic rebuttal to this is essentially that, in the light of an eternal life of bliss and joy, the present sufferings are as nothing.

In other words, to outweigh the known, visible, but finite amount of suffering in the world, you invoke an unknown, invisible and infinite amount of joy.

The problem with this is that the existence of the future, everlasting happiness cannot be demonstrated. There is simply no evidence for it, because future events have not happened. And we even have no evidence that people who have died in the past have gone anywhere happy (or otherwise, for that matter).

The reasoning is emotionally compelling, we want to believe it, but it is intellectually indefensible.

Almost any problem can be addressed by invoking an unseen and infinite reality, and apologists do this all the time. But its not really justifiable. If you have to invoke an unseen infinite to answer a problem, you might as well admit that your case is weak.

But what about God, is he just another unseen infinite?

Monday, October 31, 2011

William Lane Craig vs Stephen Law Debate - Does God Exist?

Just listened to a debate between 'the world's foremost apologist' William Lane Craig and atheist Stephen Law, editor of the philosophical journal 'Think' and provost of the UK branch of the Centre for Inquiry. The debate was hosted by Premier Christian Radio and can be downloaded from their website.

The subject of the debate was "Does God Exist".

In his opening statement in favour of the existence of God, Dr Craig made three basic points:
  1. The universe cannot be eternal and infinite, therefore it must have an origin, therefore a cause, thus a creator.
  2. There are absolute morals, thus there must be an absolute morality, which must come from a transcendent being.
  3. Jesus must have been raised from the dead, if the story was made up the first witnesses would not have been women.
That's it? That's the best the world's leading apologist can offer?

In my opinion, and I'm trying not to take sides here (I'll critique the atheist argument too, below), all three points are flawed.

Well, actually, I agree with most of point 1, except that exactly the same line of reasoning may be applied to demonstrate that God cannot be either infinite or eternal. So Craig is shooting himself in the foot here, or should have been if Law had picked up on this. Also, in this part of his presentation he got bogged down in a pointless discussion of the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter which relied on the assumption that both Jupiter and Saturn had been orbiting in their current orbits for eternity - as far as I know, nobody believes this, so it is a complete 'straw man' argument.

Point 2 is more slippery. What is an 'objective' absolute moral? The reasoning (and this was more or less shared by Law) is that there are certain things which are universally morally wrong. Because this wasn't really challenged in this debate, there were no examples given, so it all became a discussion (this became the main issue in the rebuttals, see below) without a well defined subject.

I've thought through this issue a few times recently and am most of the way to convincing myself that there aren't actually any universal, objective, absolute morals. The most commonly cited (at least in the debates and discussions I have heard recently) example of something that is objectively morally wrong is the act of torturing children for fun. So lets take that and think about it. Is it absolutely, objectively, universally, in all times and places, morally wrong? Well, certainly I am against it, but I don't think its universal - there are, after all, many places and times where there are and have been no people, hence no children. But ignoring that rather trivial objection, is it ever justifiable? Well, no, but does that make it objective? And fundamentally, how does that fact require us to invoke a divine source of morality?

As I see it (at the moment, this may change) this sort of morality is a product of society and doesn't actually require a higher level moral agent. That's not to say that there is no God, only that I don't think the moral argument works as a proof of God. Society is greater than the individual and I think it is entirely reasonable to see morality as an evolved product of an evolving society. And of course, all philosophers who point to an absolute moral code which transcends culture and the individual are philosophising about life from within this society. I'm not narrowing this down to 'Western' society, but rather going to a higher level and picturing all human society as being the context of morality.

Why then is torturing children for fun morally wrong? For two primary reasons, firstly it harms the child, who would otherwise grow to be a functioning part of the wider society, and secondly because it further corrupts the harmer, further enhancing an anti-societal element in society. I believe this is a highly evolved system, but falls a long way short of requiring a divine moral code.

All other 'absolute' morals I can think of also fit the context of hindering or (with regard to good morals) enhancing human society at its highest level.

By this line of reasoning, many things we consider to be absolute morals in this day and age were not, and would not have been considered absolute morals in ages past. One of the newest absolute morals to go was racism. Contemporary society is harmed and hindered by it, but that wasn't the case in ages past, when a healthy skepticism of others not like yourself actually allowed the status quo of society to be maintained. Similarly with slavery, it is morally wrong in our society, yet was an absolute requirement of the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, and so on. The issue of slavery in the bible is not a moral issue, because it was not a moral issue in society back then, it is only as society has evolved, that slavery has become a moral issue.

Thus, by my reckoning, the moral argument only requires a collective society that is considerably greater than the individual, it does not require a divine being that imposes morality on humanity. (By the way, why would God impose a morality on humans and not on any other creatures? The human/animal distinction is an artificial one, which even Dr Craig skirted around in one of his rebuttals, see below).

Craig's third point concerned the resurrection, and very simply put asserted that the resurrection event must have happened, because if it hadn't nobody would have believed the story, given that it rests on the testimony of female witnesses. I've heard a few rebuttals of this over the past few years, several of which question the basic premise - that the witness of women was scorned in 1st century society. But even leaving that aspect of the argument aside, the fact is that the women being the first to discover the lack of body in the tomb is merely part of the larger narrative, and that larger narrative was preached as gospel by men - men who themselves claimed to have seen the risen Christ. So the testimony of women objection is a bit of red herring, by itself it proves nothing. Craig made no particular further defense of the reality of the resurrection.

I agree that if you could prove (beyond reasonable doubt) the historicity of the resurrection, then that is considerable evidence in favour of the existence of God, the Father of Jesus. The problem is, in this debate Craig doesn't even attempt to do this, so his 3rd argument fails.

But what of his opponent?

Dr Law's opening statement focussed on two main points:
  1. There is an immense amount of suffering in the world, in particular animal suffering - the whole eco system of the world relies on animals killing and eating each other and some of those killings involve a ridiculously high degree of suffering. Beyond that, for most of human history, almost half of human children have died before the age of five. This is the way of the world, and does not point towards the existence of a benevolent creator god.
  2. The evil god hypothesis. Basically, this argument turns usual apologetics on its head and uses the same reasoning, as used by apologists, to propose that there is a supremely powerful but evil god as creator of the universe. The idea is to demonstrate that nobody will accept this hypothesis, so why should they accept the equal and opposite hypothesis for a good God?
This defense of atheism was less slick and less well delivered as that of Craig, so Stephen Law was up against it from the word go. Craig seemed more compelling. Also, it would appear (from the applause and general murmuring of the audience at various points in the debate) that the majority of the audience was essentially on Craig's side (the venue was a church, after all). But were the arguments any good?

The argument from suffering is quite compelling, but fails (in my opinion) because it attacks a very narrow god concept. I agree (in general terms) that the argument does a good job of demonstrating that if there is a god then he cannot be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. The reasoning goes like this: If god is is omniscient, then he would know the level of suffering in the world, if he is omnibenevolent, then he'd want to alleviate the suffering, and if he's omnipotent, then he'd be able to alleviate the suffering. Because the suffering is not alleviated, then it follows god cannot be all three omnis. QED.

However, the argument stops there. It does not do anything to demonstrate that there is no conceivable god. Yes, it does provide good evidence against the God of fundamentalist Christianity, but it leaves room for the God concepts of several branches of more 'liberal' Christianity and other streams of belief like open theism (basically an admission that God is not omniscient).

The evil god hypothesis is also quite a compelling argument, but again attacks a very narrowly defined God concept. The argument should lead to the conclusion that there is no omnipotent, omniscient, omnimalevolent deity, and by analogy that there is also no omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity either. But that's as far as it goes again.

So, all in all, Law made two compelling arguments against a very narrow god concept, none of what he presented was really good enough to question the existence of a transcendent deity in general, and certainly did not and could not address the question of origins. Why are we here? Law had no answer for this.

1st round of rebuttals

Following this, Craig had an opportunity to respond to Law's statement. And this is where, in my opinion, Craig won the debate (the podcast version gave no indication of whether or not a vote was taken before or after the debate). His response to Law was flawed, but was done so well and with such apparent authority that Law's case never recovered.

Craig's rebuttal of the animal suffering issue was twofold: firstly he asserted (with appeal to named experts) that there are three forms of pain and that only humans experience type three pain (please excuse my simple summary of his argument, I wasn't taking notes when listening) and so the suffering of animals is a non-argument. Further to that, he explained that the 'predation' of some animals by others was essential to have a functioning eco-system. It was an excellent response, even if it was all a distraction away from the main point.

If he'd picked up on it, Law could have attacked this line of reasoning by picking at Craig's passing comment that suggested that other 'higher primates' as well as humans experience this type three pain. This was basically Craig blurring the line between humans and animals, and many of his moral arguments could be attacked by exploiting this. But Law went on the defensive, and didn't follow through. Furthermore, Law could have appealed to the pet owners in the audience, all of whom know, yes know, that their pets experience pain and even give them reproachful looks at the vet when they see you have allowed them to feel pain. That line of attack would have sunk Craig's assertion, at least for a portion of the audience.

Craig's response to the evil god hypothesis bolstered his case, without actually dealing with the main points of the argument. His attack was again twofold: firstly that, by definition, god is good, so an evil god is not a god. Of course, that's just an argument of semantics, but Craig was winning by this point, so it didn't matter to him. The second strand of his attack on the evil god concept was essentially his argument from morality again - there is an objective morality, in order to have this, there must be a good god providing that morality.

I think Craig's rebuttal was weak, but it didn't really matter as he was beating Law by this point and he knew it.

When Law had his chance to rebut Craig he made a considerable misstep by not responding to Craig's cosmological argument. He zeroed in on the issues surrounding morality and got bogged down in his evil god hypothesis again.

Both speakers had a second chance to rebut the other. Craig, who must have been patting himself on the back by this point, simply pointed out that by not responding to his cosmological argument Law had more of less conceded defeat on this issue. Furthermore he used Law's evil god hypothesis to suggest that Law believed in this god, hence was not really an atheist. Craig managed to muddy the waters on this issue so much that Law never managed to get back out of it, even through the whole question and answer session. Craig managed to keep the rest of the discussion bogged down in the same issues, going round in circles, and hence came out as the clear winner - not because his argument was any better, but because he knew all the tricks of making your opponent look like a fool.

Law's second rebuttal was slightly more considered and attempted to actually meet all Craig's arguments head on, but his assertion that Craig hadn't managed to demonstrate the existence of a God sounded fairly hollow.

So, all in all, it was a good debate, at least from Craig's point of view. Many believers will have gone away from that debate feeling that their beliefs were somehow validated, while the atheists will have gone away with their tails between their legs. I'm not sure anyone will have had their minds changed by the debate, but I'm not sure that's actually the real objective of these debates.

I've recently heard the opinion that apologetics is not about evangelism, its really about boosting (or maintaining) the faith of those who are already believers. I kind of think this is the case, whatever the sales pitch of these events actually is (e.g. "bring a non-believing friend").

Anyway, this made me think, and there'll be a spin-off blog posting from this along in a day or two.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Quotes of the day

I heard/read two fascinating quotes today, so I share them with you, dear reader:
"It is better the world perish with the truth than be saved with lies"
from 'The Last Temptation of Christ' by Nikos Kazantzakis

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"
by Bertrand Russell

Friday, September 23, 2011

The archetypal hero

Just read a fascinating summary of an old book called 'The Hero' by someone called Lord Raglan. Published in 1936, the book is a study of many of the great mythical heroes from various civilizations. The book identifies a list of the 22 main characteristics common to these mythical heroes. None of the stories of the heroes actually contains all 22 elements, but each of these is common to several heroes. The list is as follows:
  1. He is born of a virgin mother.
  2. His father is a King.
  3. The father has a unique relationship with the mother.
  4. The circumstances of the child's conception are unusual, often humble.
  5. He is reputed to be the son of a god.
  6. There is an attempt to kill the child/god shortly after birth.
  7. He is spirited away, escaping a premature death.
  8. The child is raised by foster parents in a far country.
  9. We are told virtually nothing of his childhood years.
  10. On reaching manhood, usually at age 30, he commences his mission in life.
  11. He successfully overcomes the most severe trials and tests.
  12. He marries a princess.
  13. He is acknowledged as a king.
  14. He rules.
  15. He prescribes laws.
  16. He loses favour with the Gods or his subjects.
  17. He is forcibly driven from authority.
  18. He meets with a violent death.
  19. His death occurs on the top of a hill.
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
  21. His body is not buried conventionally.
  22. He has one or more holy resting places.
Does any of that sound familiar?

The Jesus story echoes 19 out of these 22 points. This is more than Hercules who only scores 17 and Robin Hood only manages 13 of them. Oddly enough, Moses manages to outscore Jesus, managing 20 out of 22 and Oedipus is the highest scoring myth with a whopping 21 out of 22.

By contrast, the highest scoring definitely 'historical' person is Alexander the Great, who only scores 7.

If this analysis is in any way valid (and I'm not really claiming that it is) then it would imply that Jesus is either a mythical character entirely, or that a great many legendary stories have been added on to the real Jesus.

As usual, the problem becomes how to filter the truth from the legend.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fixed points?

As I may have mentioned, I'm working my way through N.T. Wright's magnum opus, volume 1: "The New Testament and the People of God". Its a big book and I have to say, for the most part has felt like an extended introduction to the next book ("Jesus and the victory of God") rather than a book in its own right. Perhaps all of the background is necessary, but I'm sure NTW could have been a bit less wordy at some points.

I'm nearly at the end, and its just getting interesting. At least, interesting in relation to my current doubts. These are about the origins of Christianity: how did it get started? how accurate is the 'history' presented in the new testament? what did the early Christians actually believe? how did they look at Jesus (and how does that differ from how we see him now)? and so on.

Fundamentally, I'm interested in the question posed (and apparently answered in the negative) by Richard Carrier's book "Not the impossible faith" (which I haven't read yet, but its on the list) - Did the church need the resurrection of Jesus in order to start? If the church could have got going and growing by 'natural' processes, then is it justifiable to hold to the Christian faith today? Is it justifiable to believe the New Testament writings? That's where I'm wrestling at the moment.

Anyway, NTW presents a chain of events in the early church which are attested by non-canonical (and thus historically reliable?) sources from the 1st & 2nd centuries. These 'fixed points' are:
  • AD155 - Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • AD110-117(ish) - Letters of Ignatius and his martyrdom
  • AD110-114(ish) - Pliny's persecutions of Christians
  • AD90(ish) - Domitian's investigations of Jesus's relatives
  • AD64 - Nero's persecutions of Christians after the fire of Rome
  • AD62 - Death of James in Jerusalem
  • AD49 - Expulsion of Jews in Rome due to Christian disturbances
NTW adds two further fixed points, which are the ministry of Paul in Corinth and Ephesus (circa 49-51AD) and the crucifixion of Jesus in AD30, but I'm not sure these are well attested by non-canonical writings. And I'll come back to them in due course.

Unfortunately for us, the earliest five of those fixed points, and the information they provide only really tells us:
  1. There was a group of 'Christians' established in a specific place at a specific time. The earliest reliable fixed point is the death of James in 62AD, as the AD49 incident was related to the followers of 'Chrestus' which may or may not have anything to do with 'Christ'.
  2. There were clashes of some variety between the Romans and these Christians, resulting in sporadic persecutions and occasional executions.
  3. They were accused of anti-social behaviour and were generally despised, but the history accounts don't really tell us why. They seem to be mostly lower class and uneducated (as far as the Romans are concerned).
That's not much. There was a group of people with a name that could derive from the word 'Christ'. They were disliked and occasionally small numbers of them were persecuted and killed.

So in attempting to piece together a picture of what the early Christians believed, the earliest evidence with a fixed date is the writings of Ignatius, and that is some 80 years after the death of Christ.

Of course, most people agree that the majority of writings in the New Testament were written between about 50AD and 100AD. But I've read and heard (via podcasts) a lot recently, questioning the early date of the canonical writings and, possibly more importantly, various evidences of how many of the canonical writings were edited (changed? combined? added to? had bits removed?) in the early and mid 2nd century.

Even if Paul wrote some of the letters in the 50s AD, if these have been tampered with, how can we get back to what was originally written? I'm sorry, but I'm not able to naively accept that the versions we have are the originals because 'the church wouldn't have changed them' or some such assumption. If there's evidence of tampering, its likely that tampering has occurred...

Anyway, Ignatius. He wrote some letters. As far as I know, these don't have much in the way of signs of tampering, so if he refers or alludes to New Testament writings, then it would imply that at least these bits of the NT date back to the 1st century, and gives us some evidence for early dates of (at least) the original 'strata' of the NT writings.

So I'm off to trawl through the epistles of Ignatius and I'll comment on what I find out in due course.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paul, Marcion & the Church Fathers

Here are a few statements that (I think) can be widely agreed by scholars on all sides of the various fences as being 'facts':
  1. Marcion (or his followers) compiled the first collection of 'New Testament' books. This consisted of one Gospel and ten letters attributed to the Apostle Paul. This was in the early part of the 2nd century.
  2. The Gospel used by Marcionites (and which they thought was by Paul) was similar to the gospel we now call 'Luke' although it was considerably shorter than the canonical version of Luke we are familiar with today.
  3. The Epistles used by the Marcionites were, likewise, considerably shorter than the canonical versions of Paul's letters as we know then today. They were: Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Laodiceans [our "Ephesians"], Colossians, Philemon and Philippians.
  4. In the late 2nd century (and later), the Church Fathers had access to longer versions of the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke and compared these with the Marcionite versions.
  5. There is no documentary evidence of any pre-Marcionite Pauline Epistle or pre-Marcionite Gospel of Luke.
It is tricky to reconstruct what might have happened way back then.

The orthodox view is that:
  • Paul wrote the Epistles, pretty much as we have them today. Someone else wrote Luke, pretty much as we have it today.
  • Marcion took them and edited them to suit his own purposes.
However, given the lack of evidence, at least two other possibilities should be considered. First that:
  • Paul wrote the Episles and Marcion used them without editing. Similarly with Luke.
  • An anti-Marcionite edited them to conform to the emerging 'catholic' worldview. Rehabilitating Paul (and Luke) in the process.
Or, possibly:
  • Marcion wrote the Epistles (and gospel, perhaps) and attributed them to Paul.
  • An anti-Marcionite edited them to conform to the emerging 'catholic' worldview. Rehabilitating Paul in the process.
How can we choose between these options? I don't think we have any evidence to refute either of the latter two. All we can do is appeal to the majority - most people believe the orthodox view, so it is more likely that it is the truth. The problem is, that most people believe the orthodox view, because it was the orthodox view that won in the battle of the ideologies. The winner in a contest isn't always the 'right' one.

The water gets further muddied when you consider 'redaction criticism' - in many places it does look like the epistles of Paul have been edited or partially rewritten by later writers. I have on my shelf a copy of J.C. O'Neill's commentary on Romans. In it he pulls the book of Romans to bits and attempts to reconstruct the 'original' Pauline letter. His reconstruction is less than a third of the canonical version. I must say that I find it implausible that quite so much additional material was added to Romans in the space of a few decades, apparently by several different editors, and that no traces survive of earlier (less edited) versions of the letter. However, many of his points are valid, and it certainly looks as if someone has padded out Romans with some additional material. Bultmann referred to this person as the 'Ecclesiastical Redactor' and David Trobisch has claimed that this was Polycarp in his book "The First Edition of the New Testament".

So does the 'fact' that the canonical letters of Paul have apparently been edited lend any support to either of the later options? Well, possibly yes, although all it really casts a question over is whether the canonical letters of Paul are the same as when Paul wrote them. The evidence seems to indicate someone has edited them - presumably with a purpose. And presumably that purpose was to either remove offending content (i.e. content that disagreed with the view of the editor) or to add in sanitising content (i.e. content representing the views of the editor, which softens the blow of some other content, which has been retained).

I've not really got a conclusion here. Except to say that I can't see a strong case for believing in the orthodox transmission route. Someone wrote the Epistles, this much is clear. Some later person edited them, this is probable. Some of the content is not from the original writer, possibly. So how can you justify using these writings as a guide for living? Well, for the most part, it works. You could choose to simply be pragmatic and live by a system that has been shown to work. But what if its not true? This is where the buck stops for me. Not whether it works or not, but whether its true.

Still don't know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Apologetics vs the Scientific Method

I've listened to a lot of apologetics lately. I mean a lot.

It has left me very frustrated. Apologetics is, or should be, a defense of the Christian faith. It really should stem from 1 Peter 3v15:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (NIV)
I find it interesting that the word 'reason' features so centrally in that verse. For it is the lack of reason in apologetics which is annoying me.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a tried and tested way of using evidence (generally, but not always, in the form of experiments) to confirm or refute hypotheses. The process goes something like this:
  1. Propose hypothesis or range of hypotheses. These may be based on prior knowledge or may be pure speculation.
  2. Carry out experiment or make observation which is able to provide evidence relevant to the hypotheses.
  3. Attempt to falsify the hypotheses using the evidence.
  4. Hypotheses which are refuted (shown to be falsifiable) by the evidence are dismissed.
  5. Hypotheses which are unable to be falsified are considered to be reasonable and are held to be valid until further evidence is found.
Stage 3 is crucial in the scientific method. It is only by attempting to falsify each hypothesis that its worth is ultimately found.

Apologetics also considers evidence and hypotheses. However, the chain of events is somewhat different:

Apologetic Method
  1. Start with a range of hypotheses (i.e. beliefs), generally derived from the bible or church tradition.
  2. When new evidence is presented, formulate a plausible argument which can be used to explain why the evidence is consistent with the prior hypotheses.
  3. If no plausible argument can be found, attempt to discredit or refute the evidence. In extreme cases, simply ignore the evidence.
  4. If none of that works, simply get the argument bogged down in really technical theories so that the audience is bamboozled or loses interest.
  5. Assert that the hypothesis is validated.
There are two basic problems here. The first is that the apologist assumes, from the outset, that the hypotheses are true. The apologist is convinced of that, so in the event of an apparent tension between hypothesis and evidence, it must be the evidence, or our understanding of it, which is at fault. The validity of the hypotheses is never seriously considered.

The second problem falls in the plausible argument. Just because an argument is plausible, doesn't mean that its probable or actually true.

The crux of the issue is that when there is a tension between hypothesis and evidence, science assumes that the hypothesis is flawed, while apologetics assumes that the evidence is flawed.

Of course, the evidence could be flawed. But apologetics will never lead to refinements in the hypotheses, thus will never take us closer to the truth about reality. Science just might.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The God of Moses and Joshua (and his implications)

Every now and then, books or articles I read touch on the question of the (apparent) immoral behaviour of God as presented in the early books of the Old Testament - particularly the stories of the conquest of Canaan.

God, as presented in these books, commands his people to slaughter entire towns and nations, not merely killing the soldiers involved in battles, but killing women, children and even animals. Sometimes it is implied that the women and children of the defeated enemies may be kept as slaves, sometimes even sex slaves. But it goes beyond that, God is also presented as enacting extreme vengeance on his own people - sometimes commanding groups of them to slaughter other groups of them, and sometimes sending disease, poisonous snakes, etc. among them.

What are we supposed to do with these passages? Ignore them, explain them away, believe them, in some way base our own behaviour on them? Did these events actually happen? Did God command these events?

Here are all the possible options, as I see it (if there are others, please comment and tell me):
  1. It happened more or less as recorded. God did and commanded these things. His people carried out genocide in his name. This makes God (and the people who obey his commands) morally responsible for the actions and would mean that the bible contains accurate history and theology.
  2. The events happened; the people did the genocide. But not all of the events were commanded or enacted by God. This makes the people morally responsible, but lets God off the hook. This would mean that the bible contains accurate history but inaccurate theology.
  3. God commanded such things, but the people did not carry out the genocide. This makes God morally responsible, lets the people off the hook, and would mean that the bible contains inaccurate history but accurate theology.
  4. God did not command such things. The events did not happen. This would make the bible neither historically accurate or theologically accurate.
Ever since I first wrestled with these issues, I have kind of assumed that option 2 was the closest to the truth. That the (later) writers of the biblical accounts knew the events in their own history and theologised them by inserting the commands of God into the story to explain or defend the behaviour of their ancestors.

The reason for this choice was basically based on the presupposition that God is good. And therefore God could not have commanded such acts. The story (as presented) seems inconsistent with the known character if the loving God, so there must be something wrong. God could not have issued these commands, so they must be insertions of the authors, not historical events.

The problem with this assumption is that it reduces the biblical accounts to being simply wrong on the question of what God is like. I never really grasped the consequences of this belief before, but if the bible is wrong on this issue, then we have no basis for knowing what God is like from any parts of the bible. If this bit is wrong, why should we expect that (for example) Isaiah or Jeremiah are any more accurate, and what about Matthew or Romans?

Pretty much all we know about the character of God comes from the bible. So here all I was doing was taking the picture of God as presented in one part of the bible, and assuming that to be true, and using it to dismiss an alternative picture of God, given in another part of the bible. I never, until recently, noticed the flaw in that reasoning. Put simply, there is no way of knowing which of the pictures of God presented in the bible is the true one. Indeed, there is no way of knowing if any of them are true.

But if we can't distinguish between them, how can we have any faith? I think there's three options:
  1. Choose to believe that all of the biblical pictures are able to be reconciled and that all, equally, paint an accurate and true picture of God. This is the view of most conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists and is more or less the view I was raised to believe. However, it is now a view I have to reject. The more I read, the more I reflect on these issues, the more I see that the bible does not present a uniform and reconcilable picture of God, rather it presents multiple pictures which, quite simply, do not present the same God. At best, the bible presents multiple flawed views and misunderstandings of the real God. At worst, it could be that none of the views contain enough truth to be trustworthy. Which brings us to point 2.
  2. Chose to disbelieve all of the biblical pictures. If none of the pictures can be shown to be trustworthy, then all should be rejected. This way, inevitably, leads to agnosticism. Possibly the whole way to atheism. The more I read (on all sides of the discussion), the more compelling this option seems to become. Perhaps this is the only truly rational choice. But its a choice I haven't made (yet?).
  3. The final option, as I see it, is to pick your favourite view of God, as presented in the bible, and run with it. I think that's what most believers do in practice anyway, without actually thinking about it, but it is possible to be intentional about it too. This seems to be what certain denominations do by defining a statement of faith, etc. For example, in a recent sermon from The Meeting House, they expressed the opinion that their whole belief system is intentionally viewed through the lens of the Gospels. In other words, they start with the words of Jesus and if they encounter anything that seems to disagree with that picture, the Jesus picture trumps the alternative. Jesus trumps Paul's opinions, Jesus picture of the loving Father trumps the OT God of vengeance, etc. The problem for me is that this leaves you with the problem of how to choose which picture to follow? There is no compelling reason to choose one over another. Yes, choosing the Jesus picture is more consistent with contemporary morality than choosing the Moses/Joshua picture, but that doesn't make one more true or accurate than the other. It really does boil down to picking a favourite, or, in most cases, accepting (or never questioning) the picture that you were raised with. I'm no longer sure what to believe, and I'm also not sure if I can justify (to myself) deciding to believe one option, when the evidence for any of them is so slight.
But back to the original question of the Canaanite genocide.

The more I've read on the subject recently, the more things point to options 3 or 4 (from the first list up there) being closer to reality. There is no archaeological evidence that these events actually happened. Indeed, a close look at the biblical evidence (the list of unconquered lands at the end of Joshua) makes it clear that the genocide never happened either - the unconquered lands after the alleged genocide include several of the lands which should have been wiped out already.

So, either God commanded genocide, but the Israelites did not follow through, or God did not command any such thing, so it never happened.

Believing either of these options is to acknowledge that the bible is wrong. The stories are not history, they are reduced to tall tales of the olden days, which may contain nuggets of events which actually happened, but most of the story, including the commands of God, are embellishments, added by storytellers around the campfire or added by historians with an agenda to push - perhaps bolstering the claim that the Israelites were ethnically different from the Canaanites ("We must be, there's none of those guys left...").

This leads us to the point of acknowledging, once again, that some of the stuff in the bible is simply not true. Perhaps, in some cases, it is deliberate fiction. This brings us, of course, again, to the question of how you can distinguish the truth from the falsehood, and if there is any truth in there at all. And I'm slowly coming to the realisation that you can't.

Its an all or nothing thing. Accept all of the bible as true and accurate (yes, I know that some of it is poetry and some is allegory, so some of it can't be true or accurate within its own genre type) with regard to history and with regard to claims of the character of God. Or. Reject it all as true or accurate.

Problem is, I can't accept it all without rejecting reason, logic and common sense, but I don't want to reject it all. I am more than slightly concerned that "can't" inevitably trumps "don't want to", which leads to only one inevitable outcome. Maybe I have to make that choice eventually. But not yet.