Monday, December 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make of all that what you will.

Happy Christmas to everyone who has read this far!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Seekers and the pearl of great price

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Historical Evidence for Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Life beyond belief

It looks a lot like I have written a book.

Or rather, someone else has written a book which, essentially, says everything I would write in a book, if I had the time to actually write a book about my journey through belief in the past decade.

The book is "Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher's Deconversion" by Bob Ripley. Aside from the details that Bob Ripley is about 15 years older than me, is Canadian, has had a divorce and had no interest in science as a teenager, the rest of the story of his loss of faith pretty much mirrors mine. He read similar books, he wrestled with the same issues, many of which came from actually taking the Bible seriously, and he came to the same conclusions - that the Bible is the work of men, not of a God, and that the God described therein is a fiction. There may be a god, but if there is, he isn't the God of the Bible.

He starts with a chapter describing his life, growing up in the church, his calling to the ministry and his life as a pastor, eventually beginning to doubt the words he was preaching. After this, the book deals with various themes, chapter by chapter, as if he dealt with them in turn. I expect that, much like me, many of these doubts were simultaneous and jumbled together, not in a coherent linear progression, but it does make for a more readable book this way.

Chapter 2 dives right in and addresses the subject of the God of the Bible, in all his jealous, bloodthirsty and unreasonable glory, head on. This chapter will be a hard read for many Christians, but as it is completely Biblically based, they will find it hard to actually disagree with the evidence presented, even if they will reject the conclusion. After this comes a chapter where he goes through several bits of the Bible that don't get expounded from the pulpit very often and you certainly don't get in Sunday school. The point being that the Bible is not the 'good book' its cracked up to be.

In Chapter 4 he turns to the New Testament and Jesus and goes through the evidence, such as it is, for a historical Jesus. Here he actually doesn't stray as far from orthodoxy as I was expecting, but still we come away from here with a very human Jesus who wasn't the son of anyone divine. For Bob Ripley, Jesus was a historical preacher who got on the wrong side of the Romans and was executed. And stayed dead.

Following this, we wander through some of the more unpleasant bits of church history - the atrocities committed by believers in the name of God. It is a hard read, and it is very simple to say that these people weren't really Christians, but then again they got their direction from the Bible and the list of offenders includes heroes of the church like Luther & Calvin. A chapter on morality and related themes follows this, showing that you don't need God to exist to know the difference between right and wrong.

Chapter 7, somewhat unusual in a book like this, tackles the subject of prayer. Does it work? How do we know if it works or not? He gets to the feedback loop that I have blogged about before. If the believer prays for something (no matter how mundane) and it happens, the believer's faith is boosted. If the believer prays for something and it 'isn't granted', the believer's faith isn't reduced, so whatever happens, the net effect of prayer is to boost faith, even if there is nobody to hear them. Chapter 8 goes further into this and looks at faith.

Chapter 9 seems to me to be the big mis-step in the book as he looks at science. To me, a scientist, this chapter is a bit simplistic, but after all the good stuff before, and still to come, I forgive this.

The final chapter is the longest and possibly the most interesting. It looks at the question I am still wrestling with; where do I go from here? What is life after belief like? The thing I liked most about this chapter is the very strong defence he gives of the claim that he is still exactly the same person he was as a pastor - he has the heart of a pastor, the generosity of a pastor, the compassion of a pastor, etc. In every way that matters he is exactly the same person as he was 20 years ago. Why should the fact that he considered some facts and as a consequence changed his beliefs change his personality? It shouldn't and it didn't.

In summary, I like this book, it is a little short and doesn't go into as much detail of the issues as I would have liked, but if you want to know what I think about god, the universe and everything, then this is about as good a summary as I could write myself.

If you are a Christian, I recommend you read this book as it shows clearly why some people have come to the point of rejecting faith, and it does it in a clear and easy to read manner. There is nothing anti-Christian in here, but there are some real issues that Christians should really think about.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Apostate's Creed

The Apostles' Creed goes like this:
I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth. 

I believe in Jesus Christ,
his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Suffice it so say, I don't believe all that anymore. I was raised to believe it all, and for a while I did believe most of it, but having looked at the evidence for some of this myself, I just don't see sufficient evidence to persuade me back into belief about most of the above. (Note, I don't think you can make yourself just believe something or, for that matter, just stop believing something. In order to believe something you must either hear compelling evidence or trust that the person who tells it to you has good reasons for believing it.) 

I had planned on going through this creed, line by line, and giving my reasons for why I don't believe each part of it anymore, but I realised that if I started at the start, there would be no logical flow. I didn't shift to a position of agnosticism of much of the above by starting with God the Father, so I'll not start this post there either. I'll aim to cover all of the above beliefs, but not following the original order. Here goes:

I believe in I'm not sure about Jesus Christ
For one thing, I don't think there ever was a man called 'Jesus' who was known as 'Christ' within his lifetime. If you look at the early church (or rather, early churches, as I don't see much evidence for a unified church until the end of the 2nd century) you find quite a range of beliefs about Jesus. One of these beliefs, which appears to be quite widespread, is that Jesus became the Christ when he was raised from the dead. In other words, he hadn't been the Christ before this, so would never have been called Christ within his earthly lifetime. Another belief which can be identified is that Jesus will return as Christ - that is, he isn't Christ yet and won't be until his second coming. So again, he couldn't have been known as Christ within his lifetime. Of course, some will say that those believers were simply wrong and we have biblical evidence that Jesus was known as 'Christ' during his ministry - the gospels say as much. But this is a quite naive conclusion based on only part of the available evidence. If Jesus was widely known as Christ during his ministry, how would the alternative beliefs have arisen so quickly after his death? Its not easy to explain. However, the converse is much easier to explain. If Jesus came to be understood as Christ after his death (and apparent resurrection) it is not unreasonable for some later author, writing his biography, to have (anachronistically) named him Christ when he wrote his gospel. The author knew Jesus as 'Christ' in his time, so he simply called Jesus 'Christ' in retrospect. So as I said above, I think it seems quite likely that the man Jesus, if he ever lived (see below), was not known as Christ during his time on earth. So I don't believe in a historical Jesus-Christ.

Moving on, if there was a historical Jesus (not-Christ), was he believed to be the Son of God during his lifetime? That's a tricky one and involves a lot of discussion about what "Son of God" actually meant to the people in the supposed time of Jesus. See quite a few of my recent posts, including this one. The evidence and reasoning I've read brings me to the point of believing that whatever it was that 1st century 'Christians' thought was meant by the phrase 'Son of God' it was not the 'second person of the Trinity' belief that is held by most Christians today, and appears to be implied in the Apostles' Creed. So I don't believe the 'Son of God' bit either, unless you mean in the sense of a prophet, messenger or leader sent by God, like Moses, David or Elijah, and even then things get complicated when we look at the 'sent by God' bit, see what I say about God, below.

Is Jesus Lord? Well, that's a matter of perspective. I believe that Jesus is Lord for all Christians who believe in him and follow his teachings. This doesn't actually entail his existence. Krishna is Lord for millions of people who follow him, and so on. So when the Apostles' Creed says 'our Lord', it is true, from the point of view of the Christian saying it. Is Jesus Lord over all the universe? Well, that's a different question that I'll deal with when I get to the issue of God, the Father.

I believe in I'm really not sure about the Virgin Birth
This is one of those red herring debates that is simply not worth getting into. There is precisely zero evidence that Jesus's mother was a virgin before (and, indeed, after) his conception. The gospel stories are just that; stories. There is no conceivable way to verify the claim, and some do argue that the gospels themselves don't actually mean to say that Mary was a virgin. So if it can be shown that Jesus is/was divine, then maybe it becomes reasonable to start wondering about this, but if Jesus's divinity is in doubt, then his virginal conception has to be even more in doubt.

I believe that I don't know if he suffered under Pontius Pilate
This starts with a big if. If there was a first century preacher at the root of all the gospel stories about Jesus, then yes, it appears likely that he suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. But there are some odd lines of evidence to suggest that this isn't as definite as some folk, including the vast majority of Christians, think. Whichever way you slice the NT evidence, it is clear that none of the earliest epistles to be written know about Pilate. He only appears as a named character in one of the Pastoral Epistles, which many people are convinced are pseudepigrapha, that is, Paul didn't write them. Most people who acknowledge that Paul didn't write the pastorals are also reasonably convinced that these were written late - either very late 1st century, or even well into the 2nd century. Either way, these letters probably get their information about Jesus's sufferings from the gospels, not independently of the gospels. Which, of course, brings us to the gospels.

It is clear that the very earliest gospel, Mark, has Jesus suffering and dying under Pontius Pilate. Most folk (other than apologists) seem to think that this gospel was written somewhere between 70 and 90 AD, and probably written in Rome. Other documents from about the same time (e.g. 1st Clement) have the same opinion expressed. It is just a bit odd that none of the earlier NT writings, all the 'authentic' Pauline letters, Hebrews, etc. have a historical setting for the crucifixion. Richard Carrier has just written a big book (which I have yet to read) presenting and explaining all the evidence that points to an early Christian belief in a non-historical, mythical crucifixion event, which was then historicised in the very late 1st Century (by Mark, followed by others) as events which had happened a couple of generations earlier. I don't know if I am yet convinced by this case, but at least I am convinced there is a case to be made, so I face two rival hypotheses, one that the stories of Jesus are based on what happened to a man circa 30 AD, and one that the stories of Jesus are a fiction, based on earlier myths, written at the end of the 1st century. At present I don't know all the facts, so actually can't choose between these two options. For now, this really has to stay in the realms of I don't know...

If he was crucified, it is pretty likely that he also died and was buried, so I don't really need to get into any debate there.

I believe that I'm not sure if he descended to the dead
Oh Hell! Hell is such a tricky subject. If Jesus descended to hell, that would, of course, be reliant on there actually being a hell to go to. I mean, if there is a hell, and it is a place that some dead people go to, then it is not unreasonable to assume that Jesus might have gone there if he died. Coming back out of hell is a different matter entirely, but we'll get there in a moment. But first I want to question the reality of hell.

Why should there be a hell? What kind of a God would devise such a place? And, most importantly, do we have any evidence of hell's existence?

Well, with regard to the third question there, no. We have no evidence. We have claims of visions, both inside the bible and outside of it, but nothing beyond that. Furthermore, if the evidence of near death experiences actually counts for anything (and I'm not sure it does, there's a big difference between nearly dead and actually dead), then pretty much all accounts of the afterlife are happy and positive things, seemingly irrespective of the prior beliefs of those who have the experience. I've never heard tale of a NDE where the 'returning' person emerges talking of the horrors of hell. But even if there are such stories, it still wouldn't provide any real evidence for the reality of hell, beyond the human imagination, that is.

Why should there be a hell? Well, I think that the whole hell concept emerged when people were trying to reconcile the injustice observed in the world with the idea of a just God. Something bad needs to happen to bad people who had enjoyable and luxurious lives, right? Well, only if you think that the world is, or needs to be, a just place. If you accept that there is no justice, then there is no need for hell. Probably no need for heaven either, as the two go hand in hand. If there is some kind of afterlife, it is probably more of the same, neither heaven nor hell. For what its worth, I don't think the idea of hell is actually consistent with a God of justice, as no finite amount of badness can ever balance with an infinite extent of hell. In other words, if hell is the punishment, then the punishment never fits the crime.

I believe that I very much doubt that on the third day he rose again
Dead people stay dead. Of course, some people who have been technically dead for minutes or occasionally hours can be resuscitated. This has nothing to do with resurrection. The Christian view of resurrection is not that Jesus was simply reanimated, but rather that he returned to life in a transformed body that was radically different from the body he had before. In his new body Jesus can sometimes walk through walls, but sometimes eat solid food. He can appear and disappear, apparently at will, and he can fly into the air. Of course, there is no actual evidence for all of this, merely stories, and somewhat contradictory stories too. Does the story of the empty tomb provide evidence for the resurrection? Well, not really, the story tells of people who hadn't previously been to the tomb finding an empty tomb two or three days after the crucifixion event. What is more likely, that they went to the wrong tomb (and found an empty one) or that someone who had been dead for three days came back to life in a transformed body? Any way you slice it, it is far, far, far more likely that fallible humans made a mistake and found an empty tomb, while the filled tomb lay still occupied nearby. I'm not saying I believe that happened, I'm merely saying that we know people make mistakes and/or make stories up, so either of these possibilities are far more likely than resurrection, which we're pretty certain doesn't happen in every other circumstance.

I believe that I very much doubt that he ascended into heaven
Given that it is highly unlikely that he died, it is also highly unlikely that he ascended. When I looked into this a couple of years ago, I found that there is no ascension in Matthew, Mark, some manuscripts of Luke, John or any of the epistles. It is only in Acts and some manuscripts of Luke, and even there only in a single verse. In the epistles, by the way, the resurrection and ascension seem to be merged into the single concept of Jesus being 'raised' - apparently directly from death to the right hand of the Father. Or rather, given that the epistles came first, it seems that Matthew, Mark & John reinterpreted Paul's "raised" to mean resurrected back to life, and Luke-Acts was the one that split the concept into the two components.

But the main reason I doubt the ascension is that there is nowhere up there where Jesus could have flown to. Its a long way to the moon, or to Mars, or wherever, but there is certainly no physical heaven for him to go to, so the idea of a physical ascension is utterly meaningless.

I believe that I doubt that he is seated at the right hand of the Father and will return as judge
This doubt really follows from all the others, so doesn't need any particular justification in and of itself. We'll get to the issue of God the Father in a moment. The thing about the second coming and the final judgement arises out of an apocalyptic view of history that seems to pre-date Christianity, but wasn't originally part of the ancient Hebrew religion. As far as I can tell from what limited reading I've done on the subject, the apocalyptic worldview became merged with Jewish thinking following the return from exile in Babylon. It was originally part of the Zoroastrian religion, which the "exiles" were indoctrinated into, and which they apparently borrowed bits from when they "re-established" (perhaps reinvented) Judaism in Judah on their return.

So that's about it for Jesus, the supposed 2nd person of the trinity. Let's think about the 3rd...

I believe in the Holy Spirit
The eagle eyed readers among you will have noticed that I haven't done that thing in the heading there, scoring out one bit and highlighting another. That is because I do believe in the Holy Spirit. But perhaps without the capital letters. I see no reason to doubt the existence of the holy spirit, because you can see the evidence of its existence in the lives of Christians. Yes, I said 'its' there, not 'His'. You see, while I believe that there is something there, that Christians call the 'Holy Spirit', I'm not convinced it is a person in any meaningful way, and I have no reason to suppose it is divine. The holy spirit is simply that consensus, or unity, or harmony, or one-ness, or whatever, which emerges where Christians are gathered together to worship. It could be purely psychology at work. It could be a lot more than that, but I don't know. The spirit apparently provides guidance to some, and purpose to others, and strength to others, but actually has a pretty poor record of giving anyone accurate insights into the future or actually doing the miraculous.

When Christians get together to worship, and all believe the same things and sing the same songs, with conviction, and believe that God is present, there is a sense of elation, there is a feeling of something transcendent. It may be nothing more than a sense or a feeling, but the experience is real, and I'll call that the holy spirit.

Now take this concept back before the dawn of Christianity. I expect people had similar experiences back then. They experienced the 'Spirit of God' or the 'shekinah' and this confirmed their belief, not in the third person of the godhead, that concept hadn't evolved yet, but of the first... God the Father.

I believe in I'm not sure about God the Father and that he is the creator
I think the ancient belief in God (the Father, although that bit was added later) arose pretty much out of the experience of what I've called the holy spirit, above. People experienced something they though was divine and started telling stories about this 'person' God. I think belief in this God arose out of experience long before anyone thought about the concept of creation, but when the idea of a beginning to all things emerged, then God must have been there before the beginning, and therefore must have been the creative force. Its easy to see how that belief could have developed.

I'm not convinced by modern apologetics arguments that claim various philosophical proofs that God must have pre-existed the big bang and must have been the first mover. There are holes in all the arguments. That's not to say that I have a hole-free argument for the origin of all things myself, but if there was an origin of all things, then it must have been the origin of all things, including any transcendent life forms that may or may not exist. To speak of God (or anything else) existing before time and space came into being is meaningless. If there was no time, there was no, erm, was. There was no time or space for God to exist in, and no time during which he could do any kind of creative act. If there was a time in which he was able to create, then the creation wasn't the beginning of all things and so we need to go up a level of reality and find the beginning of that... and so on. God doesn't offer a solution to the mystery of beginnings, he merely shifts the mystery up a level. I think it is better to say "I don't know" than to postulate an agent with no explanation for how that agent came to be.

I believe in the Catholic church, although it isn't very holy
Nuff said.

I believe in the communion of the saints
I do. It is the same as the holy spirit I talked about up there. The other bits of the creed aren't really worth discussing here, so I'll leave it at that. So here's my creed:
I'm not sure about God,
or in what sense he is supposed to be the Father almighty,
or, indeed, if he created anything. 

I'm not sure about Jesus Christ,
if he was even a real person,
how he was conceived,
although I doubt he was born of a Virgin.
He might have suffered under Pontius Pilate,
and if he did it is likely that he was crucified, died, and was buried;
but I'm not sure what 'descended to the dead' even means.
On the third day he probably stayed dead;
I doubt he ascended into heaven,
and there is no seat up there for him to be sitting on,
given that, it is unlikely that he will come back to judge the living and the dead. 

I'm not sure about the Holy Spirit,
although there is something that Christians experience,
but probably not the third person of the Trinity,
I believe in the catholic Church, although it isn't very holy,
there might be something in the communion of saints,
I believe in forgiveness, but not necessarily in sins,
I doubt the resurrection of the body,
and nothing lasts forever. Erm, amen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Papias and the gospels

I've been listening to apologetics again. Every now and again in debates, an apologist pulls the 'evidence' of Papias out and muddies the debate waters considerably. Generally the debate gets bogged down at this point and no resolution is ever reached. The apologist thinks they have won.

Papias, you see, appears to offer early evidence in support of the claim that the gospel stories were written by eyewitnesses. His (early 2nd century) writings (now lost, but quoted by others) tell us that there was a written gospel by someone named Mark, who was a companion of Peter's, and whose gospel was a  record of the stories Peter used to tell, and also a written gospel by a disciple called Matthew, who was one of the original 12 apostles.

Apologists love this as it basically destroys all arguments that the gospels were written late and with no connection to the original disciples.

But I have a problem with the evidence of Papias used in this way, and it surprises me that I've never heard this rebuttal of Papias used in a debate. The thing is, Papias's description of the gospels of Mark and Matthew does not cohere with what we know about the two gospels we call by those names.

Papias says that the gospel of Mark he knew about was written in Greek but was not written in order. He also says that the gospel of Matthew he knew about was written in Aramaic, then translated into Greek, and was in order.

Over 200 years of textual study of the gospels have shown us that the order of events on our Mark and our Matthew are broadly the same, and also that our Matthew used the (Greek) text of our Mark as the basis of his gospel, which must have been composed in Greek. Also, as Matthew used Mark as the basis for all of his gospel, it looks quite unlikely that Matthew was himself an eyewitness. Why would an eyewitness use non-eyewitness material in preference to his own recollections?

In other words, if the gospel we know of as Mark is the same as the one Papias called Mark, then the gospel we call Matthew is not the gospel Papias knew as the one written by the disciple Matthew. If that gospel ever existed, it has been lost to history.

And furthermore, if our Mark is Papias's Mark, and Papias was right, then all three of our synoptic gospels are built on the wrong chronology of Mark's gospel.

Of course, our Matthew cannot be the same as Papias's Matthew, as it wasn't written in Aramaic, which must also give us pause to question whether or not our Mark is the same as Papias's Mark. We don't really know.

Whichever way you slice it, Papias is not good evidence that the synoptics are built on eyewitness testimony. All we can really learn from Papias is that there were written gospels in circulation in the early 2nd century, but that we have probably lost them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Thomas L. Thompson and the Myths of History

I've been reading Thomas L. Thompson's 1999 book "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel" (also published as "Bible in History: How writers create a past"). It looks like a fairly slim book in the edition I'm reading, but it has small text, narrow margins and thin pages, so has taken me a long time to read it. There's a lot in there.

Thompson is an "Old Testament Minimalist" and makes his case in this book that you can't really use the OT stories to construct a history of Israel as they weren't actually written to narrate that history. In other words, he ends up concluding that we actually don't know very much for sure about the history of Israel, the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Furthermore he, basically, claims that we have been reading the entire bible wrong for thousands of years, and have therefore completely misunderstood it. It was intended as literature, not history, and to read it as history loses all sorts of important stuff.

I don't really intend to do a review of the book here, but here are a few of my thoughts about the book, and some of the things said in it, in no particular order:

No References!
I'll start with my biggest complaint agains this book. There are no references. None! He cites nobody. He doesn't even give a bibliography or name other authors along the way. As far as the reader can tell, this entire book could have been fabricated by the author. There is some irony here given that this is essentially what Thompson is claiming about the Bible... If any of this is true, or at least plausibly true, the reader needs some more info than this book provides to be convinced. Thompson mentions various archaeological and historical findings along the way, but without any citations the (amateur) reader does not know and cannot judge whether or not his claims about the meaning of certain historical 'facts' are based on sound reasoning or wild speculation.

So while this book is very interesting and seriously challenges many preconceptions about the biblical canon, without supporting documentation or information it must be taken entirely with a pinch of salt.

Anyway, on with the things that actually are in the book...

The purpose of the OT writings
Why are the stories in the OT actually there? Because they suited the purpose and agenda of whoever compiled and edited the 'canon' of the OT. If that editor had access to stories that didn't fit with this agenda, they would not have kept them in the collection. The stories we have mostly show theological points through apparently historical events. Not everything that ever happened in Israel had theological meaning. So the stories of mundane and not apparently divinely guided events would not have been retained by the collection editors. What fraction of actual historical events clearly show the Hand of God at work? Probably only a small minority, so the vast part of real history will not have been retained for inclusion in the Biblical canon. What we are left with is, at best, a fragmented history. Perhaps some of the key historical events are simply not there at all.

And what happened if the editor of the collection had a story that nearly, but not quite, made the theological point he wanted to make? He could either discard it or modify it to fit his purposes. How can we tell the difference between a real story with theological overtones and a modified story with theological overtones?

The Bible is a theological work and if we understand it as such, we have to realise that not much actual history will have survived the editing and compiling process intact.

The timing of the compilation
When was the OT compiled? (And by who?) Most scholars seem to agree that the compilation and editing of most of the books of the OT that we have was done after the exile in Babylon. That is to say, the OT was compiled to make sense in the time following the exile to the people who returned from exile (or possibly a few generations later). Thus the purpose of the compilation exercise was to answer questions like "who are we?", "who is our God?" and "why did God send us into exile?" and so on.

Once again, if the editor had an agenda, then any stories that did not fit the agenda would be omitted or modified to fit.

In a couple of places in this book, the claim is made that the bible chronology has been rewritten in the time of the rededication of the temple in 164BC. It is claimed that the chronology was designed to make the time from creation to that date equal 4000 years. The claimed reason for this is so that the bible narrative would essentially demonstrate that this rededication of the temple was a pivotal moment in history, indeed, it was the culmination of the entire history of Israel before it.

The claim is nothing less than that people rewrote history to suit the purposes of their own time. The agenda of the compilation and editing of the Bible was not to preserve history, but actually to change it!

If this claim is true, then -essentially- the entire bible is false history!

As with other claims in this book, this is an extraordinary claim, and thus (as is now widely quoted) extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. Sadly, this book doesn't provide the evidence, extraordinary or otherwise.

An invented religion?
On page 169 Thompson makes a staggering claim. He says that the Assyrians (the people who appear to have taken the Israelites into exile, and resettled some of them back in Israel and Judah some years later) had a practice of moving peoples about in the empire as a means of maintaining control of the migrating people. But one of the things he says they did was to tell the people they were moving that really they were returning them to the land of their ancestors, when in reality they were not. Furthermore, he claims that the Assyrians would "invent" gods and tell the people they were resettling that these gods were the gods worshiped by their ancestors.
"The invention of new ancestor gods was an Assyrian imperial policy that helped create religious ties between societies around regional and local deities. Its counterpart was to develop legends about the 'return' of 'old' long-neglected and forgotten gods."
What he is essentially claiming is that the 'exiles' who 'returned' to Jerusalem had probably originated elsewhere in the empire and were not in any way descended from the Israelites who had been taken into captivity some decades earlier. Those exiles were presumably resettled somewhere else.

Furthermore, he is claiming that the Jewish religion was an invention, given to the 'returning' people as part of the resettling process.

In other words, he is claiming that both the Jewish people and the Jewish religion were fabricated by the Assyrians. There was no continuity between pre-exilic and post-exilic peoples and no continuity between pre-exilic and post-exilic worship. This is such a staggeringly big claim that I can hardly believe it comes hidden in the middle of a chapter on something else! If this is true then all of Judaism and all of Christianity is based on a lie!

And here, again, we get to the problem. As I said above, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. But we are given hardly any evidence here at all. Nothing more than an anecdote really. He alludes to another instance where we 'know' that this sort of thing happened in Ur, where the neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus established (or re-established?) the worship of the god "Sin" (nothing to do with the Christian concept of the same name) by building (or re-building) a temple there in about 550BC. But the book doesn't discuss the evidence. It isn't even presented properly, just mentioned in passing as if the reader should be fully aware of these events. Its not proven that this invention of a god happened in Ur, so its even less clear that it could have happened in Jerusalem.

I really want to read and know more about this, but Thompson doesn't give enough detail, or references for further reading. Doing a quick Google search suggests that the consensus opinion among scholars regarding Nabonidus and the temple was that Nabonidus was a follower of Sin before he became king, and that he was simply using his status in society to promote the worship of his preferred deity. In other words, the consensus view knows nothing of the creation or promotion of false gods, only the resurgence of belief in an already worshipped god.

If that is what actually happened in Ur, then we have no evidence for the promotion or creation of false gods in Jerusalem. In order for Thompson's case to be convincing it needs to actually present the case! As it stands, it appears that this is mere speculation, and wild speculation at that.

The wrong people?
Thompson goes on at length to make the claim that there never was a group or nation who would have self-identified as "Israelites" until after the 'return' from exile. All stories told about the pre-exilic nation of Israel should be understood as fiction:
"In writing about the historical developments of palestine between 1250 and 586, all of the traditional answers given for the origins and development of 'Israel' have to be discarded. The patriarchs of Genesis were not historical. The assertion that 'Israel' was already a people before entering Palestine whether in these stories or in those of Joshua has no historical foundation. No massive military campaign of invading nomadic 'Israelites' ever conquered Palestine. There never was an ethnically distinct 'Canaanite' population whom 'Israelites' displaced. There was no 'period of the Judges' in history. No empire ever ruled a 'united monarchy' from Jerusalem. No ethnically coherent 'Israelite' nation ever existed at all. No political, ethnic or historical bond existed between the state that was called Israel or 'the house of Omri' and the town of Jerusalem and the state of Judah. In history, neither Jerusalem nor Judah ever shared an identity with Israel before the rule of the Hasmoneans in the Hellenistic Period."
He then goes on to claim that the only people who should really be described as 'Israelites' are those 'enemies of Benjamin and Judah' who turn up in Ezra chapter 4 and are rejected by the 'Jews' because they were "Samaritans".

Once again, a staggering claim which, if true, would basically render the entire Old Testament untrue. The claim, once again, is that the Bible stories were written and compiled well after the exile, and that the stories were intended to create a history for a people who didn't really ever have one.

There's loads more in this book along the same lines. Thompson wants to destroy the idea of the bible as history. The problem is he doesn't present enough data to support his conclusions. He might be right, but I have no way of judging that, and Thompson doesn't give me any way of judging it.

So in the end, while this is a mostly fascinating book, I have to take it all with a very large pinch of salt, and look for answers to these questions elsewhere.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Question Mark, Part 2

The Gospel of Mark starts with a verse that contains so much it needs its own blog post:
"The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God"
Mark 1v1; NIV
As far as Mark (or whoever the anonymous author was, for simplicity I'll just keep calling him Mark) is concerned, the "good news" about Jesus starts here. Mark gives no birth stories for Jesus, he tells us nothing here about Jesus's mother. So, on the assumption that this book was written before Matthew and Luke, who added birth stories when they rewrote Mark later in their own gospels, we have two options. Either Mark did not know the birth stories of Jesus or he did not think they were important. Either way, they are not part of his 'good news'. Furthermore, Mark does not trace the 'beginning' of his story back to the creation of the world, like John does. John's story starts with a pre-existent Christ, Matthew and Luke start with the immaculate conception of Jesus, Mark starts here, with a fully grown man, called Jesus. What happened before this point seems to be irrelevant to Mark. It sounds like the 'good news' is about what Jesus did, not where he came from.

Next, we have to consider what the "good news" (εὐαγγέλιον; euaggelion) actually is. This is a word that is actually used less frequently in the gospels than you might expect. Neither Luke or John actually use the word. Matthew uses it only four times, and each of them is in content he borrowed from Mark. Mark uses the word seven times (there is an eighth in the non-Markan bit at the end of Chapter 16, but we'll ignore that for now), and in most of them the word refers to the message that Jesus himself actually taught. In other words, the message spoken by Jesus, not the message about Jesus. Here, in verse one, the word cannot refer to Jesus's teaching as he hasn't said anything yet.

I think Mark is being quite clever here (and this thought is not original to me, I get it from Robert Fowler's book "Let the reader understand" which I have recently read, and which will get several future mentions in this series of posts), what he is doing is intentionally muddying the waters so that the reader - from the outset - comes to consider this written 'good news' as being synonymous with the preached 'good news' of Jesus. So when we read later on that "The good news must first be preached to all the nations" (Mark 13:10), we subconsciously think that it is this book, this message, which is the thing that must be preached all around the world. Mark is covertly claiming ownership over the gospel message.

Up until Mark writes, in the early history of the church, as far as we can tell, the "good news" was the message preached by Paul. The epistles use the phrase 'good news' far more frequently than the gospels actually do. Here Mark is attempting to co-opt the gospel. To make it his own. I think he managed it. We hardly ever refer to the writings of Paul as 'gospels' we always refer to the four story books of Jesus by that name. Right from the word go, Mark has taken the gospel away from Paul, even to some extent away from Jesus, and made it his own.

I think that might be important. Is Mark a rival to Paul? We know there were many factions in the early church, much more separate in doctrine and ethos than contemporary divisions in the church, who were in competition with each other. Is Mark writing to a different one than Paul was?

But who is this Jesus that Mark tells us about? From the outset, Mark makes the claim that Jesus is both 'Messiah' and 'Son of God'. But what did he mean by those phrases?

He never actually explains what he means when he uses these words. He either expects the reader to know what he means, or he expects the reader to work it out as they read. What he does not do, at all, in this gospel, is explain things.

I'm going to start with "Son of God" and come back to "Messiah".

Did Mark even originally write 'Son of God' here? This wording is not in some of the many manuscripts we have - was it removed from them by someone who objected to this phrase, or was it added to the others by a later redactor with a point to make? I don't know. We'll keep both possibilities in mind here.

A few characters in the gospel of Mark say that Jesus is the "Son of God", but not the ones you might expect. In 3:11 and 5:7 evil spirits say this of Jesus, and both times he rebukes and silences them. In 15:39, just after he has died on the cross, a Roman says "Surely this man was (the) Son of God" (the Greek contains no definite article, so the reader does not know if the Roman thought Jesus was 'the' son of God or merely 'a' son of (a) god). On two occasions (1:11 and 9:7) a voice out of thin air says "this is my son" but the speaker is never explicitly identified as God. Finally, during his trial (14:61), he is asked if he is the son of "the Blessed", which implies God, to which Jesus responds "I am". That's it for this gospel. Aside from the opening verse, the narrator never calls Jesus 'Son of God' and aside from the answer in his trial, Jesus never says this of himself. Also of interest is that the disciples never, at any point, say that Jesus is the Son of God, not even at the Caesarea Philippi confession by Peter (he does in Matthew, but not here in Mark).

So the title "Son of God" features in the first verse, which implies it is important, but then doesn't feature much in the rest of the gospel, which suggests otherwise. And it must be noted that this gospel is written such that all the important material comes from the mouth of Jesus or the voice of the narrator, and secondary characters in the story usually get things wrong and make wrong statements. So when "Son of God" is mostly to be found on the lips of the demonic enemies, we have to wonder whether "Jesus is the Son of God" is actually a message the author is trying to convey. (Especially if he didn't originally have it in verse 1.)

What did the early readers of this gospel understand by the phrase "Son of God"? The challenge here is to not read too much later belief into the earliest days of the Church. What is clear is that Mark doesn't mean "second person of the Trinity" here. As far as I can tell, the Trinity concept wouldn't come along until after John was written. Here we are most likely dealing with the belief that God is the only one monotheistic God, and Jesus is, in some sense, his son.

As far as I can tell, ancient readers of this phrase would have understood this in one of two ways: either he was the son of God in the same manner as King David was in the OT - God's chosen, appointed and beloved agent, or it was understood in the same manner as Hercules was the son of God - literally the offspring of a sexual liaison between a god and a human woman, a semi-divine demi-god. I can see no third option in ancient thinking. Once again, the problem the reader of Mark has is knowing what exactly Mark means. He doesn't say. I suspect the lack of interest in Jesus's mother in Mark might suggest that the demi-god option is less likely, but we  can't be sure.

Finally we get to the word "Messiah" and again we need to avoid two thousand years of Christian thinking clouding our thoughts about this word. Insofar as there was messianic expectation in the time that this was written (and some have claimed that there wasn't half as much messianic expectation as Christian theologians would have you believe), the expectation was for a conquering king to arise and throw the oppressors out of Judea and restore 'true' religion to the temple in Jerusalem. There was no expectation of a 'messiah' who could be killed, who wouldn't throw out the Romans and, furthermore, who would allow the Romans to utterly destroy the temple. None of that was part of messianic expectation. So when Mark says Jesus is the Messiah, his readers can only understand that this is the guy who has come to smash the Romans. So  when the Romans smash him, the reader should be shocked. This defies all expectation. But in some ways I think that is the intention of Mark - he sets the reader up with some expectations and then pulls the rug out from underneath.

One of the main things I've taken away from Robert Fowler's book is that Mark doesn't tell the reader things directly, he wants the reader to make up their own mind, but sometimes he provides contrary statements and allows the reader to choose. Is Jesus the messiah? The Son of God? Is  this message even good news? Mark actually doesn't tell us.

But let's dive in and see some of the things he does tell us... next time.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Why are (young) people leaving the church?

A recent Unbelievable show discussed the 'problem' of young people leaving the church. It followed the pattern of other similar discussions I have heard in the past, whereby it turned out that the 'ex-christian' made a lifestyle choice or had a sexual orientation which was seen as incompatible with the teaching of the church they attended, and so they felt alienated and had to leave. In this case, the guy was gay and believed he had to make the choice between being part of a church or having a meaningful sexual relationship with another man. His natural urges for sex and companionship won, as you might expect. So he left the church and lost his faith in God, more or less in that order. It wasn't the lack-of-faith issue that was the reason he left, it was kind of the other way about.

I've heard interviews with other ex-christians, like John Loftus for example, where the pattern was broadly similar. In Loftus's case (as I recall), he had an affair with a woman in his church, then was surprised to discover that the church rejected him rather than accepting him as the sinner he was and trying to bring him back into the fold. He left the church, somewhat disgruntled, and it was this that ultimately pushed him towards rejecting Christian belief.

This pattern of people leaving the church is broadly what the church wants to hear. People leave because of their own moral shortcomings. In other words, its not the church who is at fault, is is the unrepentant sinner. The initial sin (nothing to do with belief) is followed by other bad choices and further sins that so cloud the former believer's way of thinking that they eventually become deluded and ultimately reject the God they used to believe in.

For many Christians, this is the only deconversion sequence that really makes sense. Indeed, I once heard a minister, when he heard of someone in his congregation losing faith, whose immediate reaction was "I wonder what he's been up to...?"

I suppose, within the Christian mindset, this is the only option that makes sense. Someone who truly believes in God, and furthermore has a real personal relationship with him, cannot, simply cannot come to believe that the God they know does not exist. Well, they cannot, unless they are deceived and deluded, and that will only happen if they are a habitual and unrepentant sinner...

The thing is, there are others, who haven't 'fallen' into sin, who haven't had affairs and who haven't made lifestyle choices that are incompatible with the teachings of the church, who still lose faith. The church doesn't really know what to do with them.

If they truly seek to fix this problem, the church inevitably starts looking for the faults within the church that are the reason the people leave. Of course, the faults must be within the church, for there is no way that it could be the God concept that is flawed. The church can't really ever face the possibility that the leavers could be right and those who stay are in the wrong. As soon as they admit that possibility, the collapse is inevitable. Or at least it was in my case.

With hindsight, the greatest single factor that contributed to my eventual lack of faith was simply considering the possibility that I could have been wrong about God. As soon as I questioned God himself, things began to unravel.

Why are (young) people leaving the church? Maybe they've honestly considered the central beliefs of the church and found them lacking. Maybe they're right to leave. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Question Mark, Part 1

It is a long time since I read an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. It is even longer since I studied an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. Last time I did either of these two things, I read and studied the various books of the bible under the assumption that I was reading the Word of God. 

Over the last five years I have slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, come to the understanding that the bible is not the Word of God. The bible was written by human people with human motives, and while some of them might have felt inspired to write these words, there is no strong evidence that any divine being had any part in the composition and compilation of this book. (Note: the question of whether or not there is a divine being is an entirely separate one - the lack of divine inspiration of the bible does not entail that there is no God.)

Sloughing off the assumption of divine inspiration or authorship leaves me with a different set of assumptions when I read the text of the bible. It means I come away from reading the book with different questions and different conclusions. Its almost like reading a different book.

So I want to return to a few books of the bible and read/study them again, through different eyes. Before I would read the bible to learn something new about God or to find guidance in its pages, now when I read the bible I have a whole load of new questions to ask: Who wrote this? What was their purpose in writing it? Who were the intended audience? Did the author intend these words to be taken literally? Was the source material reliable? Is any of this true? Has anyone edited or rewritten these words since the original author wrote them? And so on. Previously the answers would always have been: God; To instruct me; Me; Yes; Yes; No; etc.

So I am returning to the Gospel of Mark, to read it through new eyes. My intention is to post my thoughts and questions here as I go along. Maybe I'll come to some conclusions along the way, maybe not. We'll see.

Why Mark? Well, because it is generally held to be the earliest of all the gospels we have, and the others are somewhat derivative of it. Some hold that Mark is actually the very first gospel. So its a good starting point. Also, it is quite short. So let's begin.

I'm going to begin by not assuming anything, insofar as I can. We don't know who Mark was. We don't know if he was called Mark. Mark was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, so this name could have been added to make it the gospel of everyman. The gospel according to Joe Bloggs. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark (for simplicity, I'll continue to use the traditional name) is the same as the character of John Mark who makes a brief appearance in Acts. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark was an eyewitness of the events presented, or even knew eyewitnesses. 

Another thing we don't really know is when the gospel was written. Some hold that it must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Some hold that it must have been written after that event. I've even heard some claim that the work was written in the early 2nd century, not the late 1st century. And some, who see Marcionite content in the gospel, say that it is Marcionite in origin, which forces it a decade or two into the 2nd century, at the earliest. But let's just start by saying we don't know when it was written and go from there.

We also don't really know where it was written or who it was written to, although various theories have been proposed over the years. It is written in Greek, but was it originally in Greek or is the earliest version we have a translation of an earlier version? These are all questions we will address as we go.

So let's start with something I am reasonably sure of. I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we are able to read nowadays is pretty much unchanged since the mid 2nd century, which is when the NT documents began to be duplicated on mass, and widely distributed. The transmission chain may go back much earlier than that, but we can't be totally sure what happened earlier than the mid 2nd century.

I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we now have is basically a copy of a copy of a copy (etc.) of the gospel that was 'published' and distributed in the mid 2nd century. Prof David Trobisch says Polycarp was probably responsible for the compilation, duplication and publication of the NT canon, and who am I to argue with him? I find his case compelling.

What happened before this 'publication'? Well there are various theories. If we put all the possibilities together, we get a chain of events that could be as long as this:
  1. Events occurred. 
  2. Stories about these events were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  3. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  4. Some of the stories may have been lost.
  5. Other stories were made up.
  6. The fictional stories were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  7. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  8. Someone (lets call him Mark) collected some of these stories and wrote a gospel of Jesus out of them.
  9. He may have invented some scenes in the gospel to provide a bridge/narrative framework between stories he got from his sources.
  10. He may have also invented some stories that fitted his agenda and added them to his gospel to flesh it out. We now have what some scholars refer to as "Ur-Marcus".
  11. This gospel was used by a community of people somewhere.
  12. As the needs of the community changed, stories could have been dropped, edited or added to the gospel.
  13. This could have happened several times.
  14. It may have been picked up by other communities, with different agendas to the first, who may have modified it to fit their own purposes.
  15. Eventually the gospel came into the hands of the final editor, who may have modified the gospel to make it consistent with the other books in his collection.
Some claim there may even be more steps in the chain than that.

I'm not saying that I believe all these steps happened. This is a compilation of all the theories that I've heard. I think it is highly unlikely that all these steps occurred, but probably some of them did. The most conservative evangelical view is probably that 1, 2, 8, 11 and part of 15 occurred, while 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, etc. didn't. The most radical critical view is that 1-4 did not happen and everything started with the made up stories at point 5 or 10. I expect the truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Occam's razor would have us shave away all the 'unnecessary' items on that list. So as we go through the book of Mark I'll highlight things that might suggest that some of those items are 'necessary', or at least possible, and should not therefore be discounted out of hand.

So having said all that, let's begin with Mark, chapter 1, verse 1... (in a future post)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The idiot apostles...

I'm currently reading "Let the Reader Understand" by Robert M. Fowler. Its pretty technical and theological stuff for bed-time reading, but some of it is really fascinating. Its basically an analysis of the gospel of Mark, but keeping its eyes firmly on questions like "what is the author trying to achieve here?" and "what effect does this passage have on the reader?"

The bit I've just read discusses the pairs of miracle stories in the first half of the gospel and points out something I'd never noticed, or even considered, before.

Take, for example, the "feeding of the five thousand" in Mark 6:30-44 and compare it with the "feeding of the four thousand" in Mark 8:1-10. I've heard various theories about why both stories are actually included in fairly short a gospel. The reader knows what Jesus can do after the first story, so why repeat it a couple of chapters later?

The most mundane explanation for including the story twice is because it happened twice. Possibly more than twice. Could be, but in a short gospel, where the author had to have left out some stories, why repeat this? Surely once is enough?

A more compelling explanation for the repetition of the story is that this is not to tell us something about Jesus (one telling of the story could do that), but rather it is to tell us something about the disciples. For the disciples behave in a completely incredible manner here. Or rather, they behave in a totally believable manner in the first telling of the story - stating, quite rightly, that a few small loaves and fish cannot be used to feed thousands of people - but then behave in a totally unbelievable manner the second time, because they do the same thing twice. The point is that they have learned absolutely nothing whatsoever from the first miracle and so can't comprehend the possibility the second time around.

This is the plain explanation here. Mark deliberately sets out to make the disciples look like idiots here. Well, either that, or the disciples really were idiots and this really happened, exactly as described. The problem is that nobody is actually that stupid. If the disciples really had seen Jesus miraculously duplicating food for 5000 people on one occasion, on a second very similar occasion, not long afterwards, it is literally inconceivable that none of them would have said something to Jesus along the lines of "we have a small amount of food, can you do that miracle again and turn it into lots of food?"

The only option we are left with is that the author of this gospel intended to make the disciples look like idiots. That is the only agenda in the repeated story. By itself, this is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this gospel contains fiction.

But the thing that Robert Fowler points out in his book, which I had never noticed before, is that the two stories have been carefully constructed to emphasise the stupidity of the disciples.

Story 1 (Mark 6:30-44) goes like this:
...many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
The story is told from the point of view of the disciples. And the disciples are shown here as sensible and practical people; they suggest the people need to go home and find food, and they calculate how much it would cost to feed the multitude, when Jesus instructs them to do something unexpected (get the people to sit down), they go along with this.

So the disciples come out of the first story quite well. However, when we turn to story number 2 (Mark 8:1-10) it goes like this:
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied.
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
Note that this story is told from the point of view of Jesus. We get his feelings towards these people in a direct quote from him, not in third person as in the previous story. Here, before the disciples have even suggested that the people be sent away, as in the previous story, Jesus explains why this would be a bad idea. And then the idiot disciples demonstrate that they have no recollection whatsoever of the earlier incident.

This change of point of view is mirrored in other pairs of stories in Mark. Each time showing the disciples favourably the first time, from their own point of view, and as idiots the second time, from the point of view of Jesus.

I'm convinced. Not only is the author of this gospel a much cleverer writer than I had previously thought, he really wants to convey to us that the disciples were idiots.

Were the disciples really idiots? Probably not. If there was a real Jesus, and if he recruited real disciples, and if he actually discipled them, then they must have learned from the master. That is what 'disciples' do. A real disciple cannot be a real idiot. So what we have here is not history but polemic. And not polemic against people outside the church, but polemic against the supposed founding fathers!

The characters in the story are idiots, not real disciples. The real disciples of Jesus (as far as this author is concerned) are the author himself and the implied reader of the text. This work is clearly written by someone from some rival faction of the early church - a faction opposed to the faction which claimed the disciples as its founders.

You certainly don't get taught that in Sunday school!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Omnipresence and relationship with God?

Just reflecting on the garden of Eden story. Here's a chunk of it:
Genesis 2:18-20
"The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for the man no suitable helper was found."
Why was the man alone? Wasn't he in the (omni)presence of God all the time? There was no sin blocking him from God. In current evangelical thinking, he should never have known what it was to be alone, he should have been basking in the presence of God and shouldn't have needed anything else.

The man should have had an intimate and personal relationship with God, which should have been fully satisfying. So why was the woman necessary? 

I guess Genesis wasn't written by an evangelical...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Family completeness in heaven...?

I've just been listening to a recent Unbelievable show on the question of "Why does God allow suffering?" featuring a discussion between Vince Vitale (Christian) and Julian Baggini (Atheist). Most of it was the same old stuff and not much worthy of comment. But one comment made by Vince Vitale made me pause for thought.

I can't remember the exact wording now, but he was talking about a Christian family who had experienced the pain and suffering of a late-term miscarriage. The gist of his comment was that the family who lost the baby gained comfort through the knowledge that their child would not be lost to them forever, and that their family would be complete in heaven. In other words, the miscarried child would go on to eternal life, and would be part of their family in the world to come.

Its a great thought, and one that I'm sure would give some comfort to a grieving family, but only makes sense if you don't think it through. If you stop and think about this, there is no reason why this should only apply to late-term miscarriages. It would have to apply to early miscarriages too. Including those that occur before the couple even know they are pregnant. Indeed, there's not really any reason why this shouldn't happen in the case of a fertilised egg that doesn't implant.

Statistically speaking, about three out of four conceptions do not lead to babies. The majority of these do not implant or 'miscarry' before there are any signs of pregnancy. But put this in the eternal context imagined by the Christian family above. This would mean that for every child you actually have, in heaven you will have an extra three, on average. That is to say, that only a quarter of the human population of heaven will actually have had a life in this world.

Whichever way you slice it, this idea makes no sense in the light of salvation theology. Did Christ only die for a quarter of humanity and the rest get a pass to heaven? Indeed, if we follow the reasoning that children who die very young (and in the womb?) get a free pass into heaven, then the implications are inevitably that the souls of all miscarried children will outnumber the souls of people who lived on earth and got saved many, many times over. As only a fraction of the quarter who make it to term will be saved.

Stop and think about it for a moment. It just makes no sense.

But now, stop and think again. What sense is there in putting a dividing line in at the moment of birth? If a baby has a soul after birth, they must have had one just before as well? And a month before that? And before that? There is no dividing line that actually makes sense. The reality of miscarriage actually makes the claims of heaven and salvation sound nonsensical. Doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The first quest of the Historical Jesus... and Christian models of Jesus

I've been slowly working my way through the audio version of Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906), which you can get for free from I'm nearly at the end of it. Its quite long winded, but comprehensive, thorough and fascinating. It is basically an exhaustive (but not exhausting) critical survey of pretty much everything published in the 19th century on the question of the Historical Jesus. In audio form it comes in at over 21 hours of listening, which is about three weeks' worth of commuting for me.

As I've said before (see this post and other posts tagged with 'Historical Jesus'), the quest for the Historical Jesus is an attempt to strip away the layers of faith from the gospel stories to uncover the real, historical character who was the basis of the Christian religion. The quest is based on the somewhat shaky assumption that some of the gospel material is truth and some of it is fiction.

As I've said before, ad nauseum, on this blog, there is no reliable method for testing any passage in the bible to determine whether or not it is true. If there was, this question (and many others) would have been solved long ago. 

What is clear from Schweitzer's survey is that the quest for the Historical Jesus is really all about starting with the assumption that the bits you can't believe in the bible are, necessarily, false, and the rest is probably true. From that, you whittle away at the passages until a figure emerges, who looks and sounds a bit like a possible historical figure, but actually generally represents the best aspirations of the quester himself. In other words, people go looking for Jesus and are surprised to find their own reflection there.

On the basis of this survey, 19th century Christianity was fixated on a few questions that don't seem to be debated in the church these days. These include: (i) Synoptic gospels vs. John - most of the questers seemed to believe that either John or the Synoptics was 'true', but not both equally, so they would pick the one they preferred and interpret the other through this. (ii) Miracles vs. Naturalism - many Christian questers in the 19th century appeared to have issues with the idea of miracles, OK, for some of them the resurrection was probably true, but the other stuff couldn't be. If anything, the 19th century church sounds a lot more 'rational' than the church is today. I can't help but think that 19th century Christianity in general, and the theologians in it in particular, were a much more mixed bag than current Christianity and current theologians. Christians today probably assume that the church in years gone by was either much as it is today (worship styles aside), or was more 'orthodox' in years gone by, whereas there is an assumed liberalisation of the church today. On the basis of this survey through the church a couple of hundred years ago, the opposite would seem to be the case. People seeking Jesus have always been finding a Jesus who mirrors some aspect of their own culture.

While thinking this over, I realised that this is - essentially - what all Christians do, whether or not they are seeking the 'historical' Jesus. Everyone who believes anything about Jesus, consciously or not, prioritises some bible passages over others (I've said this before too). For most believers its not a question of whittling away the false to reveal the true, but it is more a question of emphasising some aspects and diminishing the others, in order to form a 'working model' of Jesus in their minds. This process of diminishing some aspects and emphasising others is necessary to iron out the inconsistencies, conflicts and contradictions that are actually in the bible. It is impossible to create a 'working model' of Jesus taking all statements about him as being equally valid, but if you can emphasise some and diminish others, then a plausible model of Jesus can emerge. Someone you can really believe in. Someone you can persuade yourself originates in the bible and walked the roads of 1st century Palestine. Someone you can ask WWJD? about. 

The more I think about this, the more I see that this is what most Christians I know actually do. This is why there are so many different denominations of Christianity - each one emphasises different aspects from the others, and diminishes different other aspects. This is why the Jesus of Pentecostal Christianity is vastly different to the Jesus of liberal Anglicanism. Each denomination creates a working model of Jesus that emerges from its own preconceived ideas. None of these is actually the 'real' Jesus, the 'biblical' Jesus or the 'historical' Jesus. They are all, at best, flawed models of Jesus. And none of them can accurately show us what the 'real' Jesus, if there ever was one, was or is actually like.