Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Starting point?

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step..."

Lao Tzu
Famous, wise words. But not entirely true, because before the first step you've done something else, which influenced (at least in part) the first step. And before that you did something else, which in some way influenced your choices, and so on, back and back. The first step is never really the first step. You may think you're taking the first step onto a new venture or a new journey, but all the stuff that has gone before has influenced your reasoning, your choices and your actions.

I've been thinking recently about starting points. For me, in my life and worldview, the starting point was a basic belief that the Bible was, in some way, the Word of God. From before I can remember I was taught bible stories, and more than that, I was taught that these stories were true, Beyond that, I was taught that these stories were important. That appeared to be the starting point for me. The bible is the foundation upon which every other bit of belief (at least, every other bit of belief relating to eternal metaphysical realities) was built. The bible was unquestionably true. Sure, you could choose to disobey or disregard the bible, but that would be a choice to wilfully disregard reality, the reality which I knew to be true.

I never questioned this starting point for the first thirtysomething years of my life. It was the starting point for my parents, my grand parents, and so on back through my family history as far as anyone knows. (Note, in my family, mine is the first generation for at least six not to contain any church ministers...) Somewhere, back in long forgotten family history, one of my ancestors first believed the bible to be true. This was probably so long ago that almost everyone in the country would have been believing the bible to be the Truth (with a capital T). So they probably had good reasons, or at least a good excuse for taking the bible to be their starting point. But we live in a very different world than they did. Here and now I think there is a very good reason to ask:

Why should the Bible be our starting point?

What is it about this book that might make it appropriate to have as a foundation?

Well, if there is a God, and this book is the 'Word of God' then that would probably do it. But you'll note that there are two conditionals in that last statement, as well as a poorly defined term. This book is not a good starting point if there is no God. And even if there is a God, this book is not a good starting point if it did not originate with that God. And what do we mean by 'Word of God' anyway?

So really, it seems to me that there needs to be some sort of process of scrutiny of the bible before we can decide if its a suitable 'foundation' to use as a starting point. But how can we decide if the bible is the Word of God? What would the Word of God look like?

Well, for a start, you should expect it to be historically reliable. That is, assuming God is not the author of confusion, you would expect that any and all historical details recorded in it would be consistent with what actually happened in history, and probably consistent with other historical accounts outside of the bible. (Although, if they are not inspired, then they may be subject to a greater degree of human error, so the non-biblical histories might contain errors, omissions and factually inaccurate stories.)

Here the New Testament, at least, appears to do quite well. Characters like Pilate, Herod, Festus, Felix and even John the Baptist are attested in secular histories and the timescale presented in the NT is reasonably consistent with secular historians like Josephus. Of course, it could be that the historical NT writings (Gospels and Acts) were written late enough to be dependent on Josephus, but that's irrelevant to this post. Here, all that really matters is consistency.

Of course, when we get to the OT, we start to run into problems. For a start, for large parts of the OT there are no secular histories to compare it with, so we need to test the narrative against hard evidence, like archeology. Sometimes there appears to be an agreement, sometimes not. And the further back we go, the less reliable the biblical history seems to be. While historians are still arguing over whether or not there was a King David, one thing is certain - that his kingdom wasn't as extensive or rich as the bible claims it to be. And if we go further back we find that the Exodus did not happen as described. There was no mass movement of a nation from Egypt to Israel by any route consistent with the biblical narrative. If there was an exodus, it was only a handful of people, not a nation. Its not just that there is no evidence for such an event, its that there is evidence that no such event occurred. Archaeologists can identify caravan routes through the desert from thousands of years ago, but none of them was forged by a mass exodus.

So it appears that the bible may not be a totally accurate history. But even supposing it is, giving it the benefit of the doubt, surely the Word of God should be more than just a good history?

If God is really speaking through this book, we'd expect it to have greater insight into the human condition than secular writings of the same age or holy books of other religions, which presumably are not inspired. In other words, it would have to transcend human wisdom. It doesn't appear to do this. The wisdom sayings of the OT, while undeniably containing some very wise sayings, are not significantly more wise than Hindu or Buddhist or other 'sacred' writings from about 3,000 years ago. And some of the 'wisdom' in the bible is not very wise at all, like Jesus telling his disciples not to wash their hands before eating, because nothing that goes into a man can make him unclean. Maybe it doesn't make a man ritually unclean, but it can give him food poisoning. (See this blog post for some related thoughts.)

You might also expect the Word of God to be full of great moral guidance. And in places this book is, but only in some places. In other places we get instructions to force rapists to marry their victims, commands from God endorsing slavery, including sex-slavery, and commands from God demanding genocide. And its not just the OT, even in the NT there's some dubious morality espoused.

At this point it is possible to conclude that some of the material in the bible (the wise and historically accurate bits) is the Word of God, and some of the material (the morally dubious and inaccurate bits) is stuff that comes from human sources and is not the Word of God. For several years I tried to reconcile this view of the bible with reality, but in the end I realised that this view simply doesn't work. We have no way of determining which bits of this book (if any) come from God, and which bits come from people. OK, so it is clear that some bits have human origins, but there are few (if any) bits that must have come from a divine source. In the end, and after much internal debate, I grudgingly came to this understanding: either all of the Bible should be considered the Word of God, or none of it should be. There is no middle ground.

The problem with the former option is all the issues I have raised above. Suppose this book is the inspired Word of God, what does the book reveal about the God who inspired it? Inspired all of it, that is. You can't just create a picture of God out of the bits you like, you have to include the genocidal bits and the outright lies (see 2 Chronicles 18 and 1 Kings 22) that God inspired the prophets to speak. God is sometimes loving, sometimes hating, sometimes truthful, sometimes deceitful, sometimes he plays games with his people, and so on. This is an inconsistent God. How can we follow such a God? Well, the way most Christians manage to do this is by ignoring or explaining away some of the more problematic passages. Look for guidance in the Psalms, the nice bits of (some of the) prophets, or -best really- stick to the New Testament, maybe omitting Revelation. If you do this, you can find guidance.

So what is there about this book that makes people base their lives upon it? Well, on a practical level, it seems to work as a source of guidance. Christians all over the world pray about questions in their lives, read the bible, see something in the passage that they've just read that can be interpreted as being relevant to their situation, and act accordingly. The fact that others in other religions do the same with their holy books and are able to do the same with their holy books is generally overlooked. The bible works, and if you only read the bible (and books that support this view of the bible) then you can go for years, maybe an entire lifetime, trusting this book and finding that it does offer support when you need it and guidance when you need that. Of course, this doesn't necessarily entail that this book has a divine origin. It could simply be a collection of wise sayings that were collected and passed on from generation to generation precisely because they work for comfort and guidance.

The (undeniable) fact that the bible works for some people is not evidence that it has a divine origin. If it was, then this would also imply that the Koran has a divine origin, and the Hindu Vedas do, and so on. So I think we have to conclude that no holy book is the divine Word of (any) God, and that none of them are particularly justifiable as a starting point for belief, or in life.

But if you take away scripture, what have you got to build your worldview on? To be honest, I can't see a firm foundation anywhere, which is why I envy those who can still use the bible as their firm foundation. It appears to work, if you don't question it too much. The alternative is having to admit there is no good starting point and no solid foundations (note, science is built on untestable axioms too, and while it appears to be internally consistent, it doesn't have a fully firm and absolute objective foundation either).

Being cast adrift on uncertainty isn't all bad though. Its probably better than having certainty in something that is wrong...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bart Ehrman, multiple attestation and probability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus - some thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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