Thursday, March 29, 2018

Richard Dawkins, appearance of design, and the Bible

In the opening paragraphs of "The Blind Watchmaker" (1986), Richard Dawkins states that 
"Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" 
and then goes on to explain that the appearance is misleading, there is no particular designed purpose, and that no designer is required to explain the observed complexity.

Christian apologists and others have given him a hard time over this statement ever since. For the apologists, ID proponents and other evolution sceptics, the apparent face value completely trumps the hidden and complex set of processes which need to be explained to provide the evolutionary story.

So what has this got to do with the bible?

Well, I was thinking about this the other day and I realised that there are several things in the bible which appear to be something at face value, but theologians and apologists have to do a lot of wriggling around to provide complex explanations of why the face value is not the truth.

For example: The literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, a.k.a. the Synoptic Problem. At face value, it looks as though one or more of the gospel writers was copying from the others. These are not independent stories, told by eyewitnesses, these are stories copied from one source to another and edited to fit the agenda of the author. And yet many apologists will totally dispute this, providing complex but 'plausible' sequences of events that could maybe explain how these supposedly independent gospels could have come to look so similar.

Or, for example: The authorship of the Pauline Epistles. Once I read Romans and Ephesians more or less back to back. While the theology of both epistles is broadly similar (as far as I can tell), the writing style is completely different. If you look at it objectively - at face value - the epistle to the Ephesians looks to have a completely different author to the epistle to the Romans. Indeed, even within the epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11 seem to be written by someone with a different style to the writer of the other chapters. The face value appearance, based on writing style, is that if Paul wrote most of the epistle to the Romans (Ch 1-8 and 12-16) then he did not write chapters 9-11, or Ephesians, or Colossians, or the Pastorals, etc. And yet apologists will bend over backwards to provide convoluted theories about how people can change their writing style over time, and what we are seeing here is the difference between young Paul and older Paul. But, as far as I can tell (I'm no expert here), there is little evidence from secular scholars of writing style to support such a radical shift in someone's writing style as they get older. Face value suggests multiple authors, some of whom must be pretending to be Paul.

The thing is, sometimes things are what they appear to be at face value, and sometimes they are not. You can't simply dismiss face value, but then again, you have to take complex and convoluted explanations seriously, because sometimes they might be the way things are. Life isn't simple. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't. And that - in itself - is a complex issue to resolve.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hinge - Episode 8 - Miracles

I've been listening to the "Hinge" podcast and have been meaning to blog about my thoughts on it, but have been so busy recently that I've not managed to write any coherent thoughts down before I've forgotten what they were and have moved on to the next thing. I may revisit this podcast in the future and post some thoughts at a later date, but for now here are my thoughts on episode 8.

I suppose I should briefly explain the setup of Hinge, in case you're unfamiliar with it. Basically its written and presented by two friends, one a pastor, one an atheist (former Christian) who decided to take a year off work and explore the big questions about God and Jesus properly, and then present it in ten podcasts, each about half an hour long. Its been interesting so far, but more than a little frustrating, because you simply cannot do justice to the questions they are exploring in only about five hours of audio.

This week's podcast is a perfect example of how the show doesn't really get to grips with the subject. The topic for this week was basically miracles; do they happen? In the half hour show they discussed three supposed miracles, which I will briefly summarise here:
  1. A situation where a believer was really short of money, did her sums and wrote down exactly how much money she needed to pay the bills, then she prayed about it. Later that week a Christian friend of hers (who knew nothing about the financial difficulty) felt compelled to send a cheque for a specific amount to this woman. When the cheque arrived it turned out to be exactly the same amount of money the woman had calculated.
  2. A situation where a man had a heart attack and the doctors could not resuscitate him, but kept trying for ages. When his wife arrived at the surgery, she prayed and the man's heart started working again. Despite being clinically dead for almost an hour, he eventually made a full recovery, with no brain damage.
  3. A situation where a man was crushed by a car, severing five major arteries and destroying much of his lower intestine. Somehow he survived until the hospital, but his guts were severely damaged and much of them had to be removed. When in hospital, some Christian healer felt compelled to come and pray for the guy and he felt something change in his insides. Some time later an atheist surgeon operated on him and discovered that much of his lower intestine had regrown.
Items 2 and 3 on that list are discussed in Craig Keener's book on Miracles that I really should read some time, but it is massive, so I'll pass for now.

The options presented and discussed in the Hinge podcast were the following:
  1. These were all miracle events, brought about by the Christian God.
  2. These were not miracle events, and some natural (but not explained) process must be at work.
That's it. No third option was even considered. 

For me, the answer to these conundrums does not necessarily need an omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. Indeed, if there was such a God involved, I'd expect different outcomes in each case.

Take the first case, what role does God play here? He basically gets the magic number telepathically from the head of one character and inserts it telepathically into the head of another. And the two characters already know each other. You don't need an infinite God to link these two, if you're prepared to speculate, then a simple telepathic link direct between the two would explain it with no divine agent. In one scenario you have two telepathic links and an infinite God, in the other only one telepathic link is required. Occam's razor would prefer the option with no God. Of course, there is limited evidence for telepathy, but then again, there is limited evidence for God.

You think an infinite God is more probable than telepathy? Are you sure about that?

And what this show failed to even mention is what about the many (hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions) of Christians in financial trouble who work out their financial shortfall, pray about it, and then nothing happens? Nobody sends a cheque. What about them? One anecdote doesn't explain why most of the time God seems to do nothing, and occasionally (I've heard a similar story before) people get just the right amount of money given to them in mysterious ways.

Given the law of large numbers, this could simply be coincidence. According to the story, the financial shortfall was a very specific number, and the mysterious cheque had that exact (and obscure) value, but here I must question the reliability of human memory. Suppose the shortfall was $164.07 and the cheque that arrived was $167.95, I have no doubt that the recipient would think those numbers were close enough for it to be a miracle, and as the story was told and retold over many years, the actual numbers could have been forgotten, but only the 'fact' that they were the same was remembered. Or maybe I'm being a bit cynical. I know my memory isn't perfect, I can't assume that everyone else has a perfect memory.

Turning to the medical miracles (and as far as I can tell - without reading it - most or all of the miracles in Craig Keener's book are medical in nature; nobody seems to walk in water or turn water into wine these days), there is one feature of both stories that was not questioned in the podcast - why does God need to work through an intermediary? In story 2, above, no 'miraculous' healing happened until the guy's wife showed up, then things turned around. In story 3, the apparent miracle only happened after the Christian healer guy turned up and prayed. In both stories it appears that God chose to, or perhaps needed to heal through an intermediary. Why didn't/couldn't he heal directly? I've heard this in many other healing stories - some human healer is involved.

Lets speculate again. What if some people simply have innate healing powers, able to cause healing, regrowth, or resuscitation just by laying on of hands, or something like that? Its like the telepathy thing again, in one hypothesis we have a healing individual and an infinite God, in the other we simply have a healing individual. Just because that individual believes that the power comes from God, doesn't actually mean that any God is involved.

And again, the programme doesn't discuss the stories of those who had heart attacks and then died. Or those who were crushed by cars and then died. The stories presented are the tiniest minority of actual incidents. Most of the time miracles don't happen. Some of the time, people just get lucky. Maybe these miracles were just instances of people at the favourable end of the probability bell curve, who happened to pray at some point in the incident. Maybe they are wrongly attributing their good fortune to God, when there was actually no God involved.

The feedback loop of faith is involved here (which I first discussed in this post). We don't hear the stories of dying people who cried out to God and died anyway. Those stories should cause us to reduce our belief in a God who answers prayer, but we don't do that because we never hear those stories. We only hear the stories of the survivors.

And the other thing implied in the show, but the issue was never raised, is that only the Christian God answers prayer and heals in these ways. What about those who call out to Allah and don't die? We never hear about them. What about those who cry out to Krishna? What about the prayers of Mormans, or Moonies, or whatever? The narrow focus on only two possibilities in this show (i.e. option A "The Christian God exists" or option B "There is nothing supernatural") rules out a whole host of interesting possibilities ad speculations. Reality isn't black or white.

Personally, I don't think these miracle claims are enough to demonstrate that the Triune God of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the only way to explain the weird stuff discussed. But I also don't think that Hinge takes seriously the possibility that weird stuff can happen without there being a God. From observation and from reading I am quite sure that weird and inexplicable stuff happens all the time, and our current understanding of the universe simply cannot explain it. But that doesn't mean we need to jump straight to God as an explanation.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Resurrection and the 'Minimal Facts' approach.

James, brother of someone.
I've recently read "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus" by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, and discussed that book on a weekly basis with one or two Christians for a few weeks in November last year. The case presented in this book seems to be the best case that Evangelical Christianity has that the resurrection of Jesus was a true, historical event.

I've touched on this subject before (in these blog posts from 2012: 1, 2, 3, & 4), but that was over 5 years ago and I have read much more on the subject since, so it may be worth revisiting my thoughts on the subject now.

The case rests squarely on the shoulders of four or five 'minimal facts', and the discussion goes from there. I guess we need to start by asking what 'facts' are. Dictionary.com defines fact as:
  1. something that actually exists; reality; truth
  2. something known to exist or to have happened
  3. a truth known by actual experience or observation
  4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened
This doesn't help us much as the final definition of 'fact' includes the possibility that a fact may, in fact, not be true. To claim that something is a fact, is not necessarily to demonstrate that it is true!

The astounding thing about the 'minimal facts' presented in this argument, is that Habermas and Licona do not, at any point in this book, set out to prove that the minimal facts are, in fact, true facts. There are layers of reasoning and explanation and 'proof' for various things in this book, but they are all based on the assumption that the four (or five) minimal facts are true.

The argument goes like this, if these four (or five) facts are true, then the resurrection appears to be more probable than the alternatives. For the most part I agree with this argument. Where it falls down, of course, are the four (or five) alleged facts.

So what are these 'facts'? Well they are:
  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. After this, his disciples believed that they saw him alive again
  3. Paul, the persecutor of the church, became a Christian following what he believed to be an encounter with the risen Christ
  4. James, the skeptic brother of Jesus, became a Christian following what he believed to be an encounter with the risen Christ
  5. Jesus's tomb was found empty
The last of these is put out of sequence, because this is the least attested 'fact' in there and is not relied upon in the book. Habermas & Licona's case is made using the first four 'facts' and the fifth is simply used as the icing on the cake, as it were.

For Habermas & Licona, these are established as 'facts' because the majority of biblical scholars hold them to be true, irrespective of their personal beliefs. That is, even skeptical and non-believing scholars hold these to be true.

I think that there is a huge selection bias in this. What sort of person becomes a biblical scholar? Only someone raised in a Christian context, who probably began their studies as some flavour of believer. Even if they then abandoned their faith, they most likely started their study of the bible with presumptions that some (at least) of the biblical stories were true and historical.

If you took a thousand Islamic scholars and asked them if Mohammed encountered the angel Gabriel in a cave, I'll bet that the majority think this is historical fact. Just because a majority believe something does not establish it as fact. 

I'll bet if you took all the religious leaders in Judea in 40AD and asked them if Jesus was the son of God, the overwhelming majority would say no he was not. Would that establish the truth? No. So why should a headcount establish historical truth here?

The 'minimal facts' argument is only a valid argument if you can defend the four (or five) facts without an appeal to authority or majority. Habermas and Licona do not do this, so their case is still unproven.

So why don't I believe these supposed facts? Lets take them one by one, starting with the last.

The Empty Tomb

What evidence have we for the empty tomb? Only the gospel accounts, or later texts which are derivative of them. So the empty tomb can only be considered a historical fact if we can accept that the gospels contain historical information. Habermas & Licona don't even attempt to prove that the gospels contain historical information. They simply assume it, noting that some biblical details can be verified from secular historical sources. Then they go further in suggesting that if there is a historical claim in any book in the bible that cannot be verified from secular sources, we should give the bible the benefit of the doubt and take it on trust that the biblical facts are true. Huh? What kind of historian does this? "The Bible" is a collection of 66 books by multiple authors, many of whom are unknown to us. Even if some of those authors included reliable historical facts in their books, this tells us nothing about the reliability of the authors of the other books. If the book of 2 Kings contains historical information, does this imply that the book of Jonah does? Of course not.

So do the gospels contain historical information? Well, certainly there are characters in the gospels who are known to secular history - two Herods, Pilate, and John the Baptist, but that's about it. Aside from the census, recorded only in Luke, there are no historical events in the gospels that can be confirmed using independent sources. Not even the death of Jesus, as we'll see below. So we really have no way of knowing if most of the stories on the gospels have any connection to real historical events.

However, the main problem with the empty tomb is that we would never have heard of it had it not been part of the larger story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not independent data. Given that, we can't use this as evidence for the 'historical' resurrection of Jesus as it only exists as part of a story that makes this claim. Trying to argue from the empty tomb to the resurrection is like trying to prove that the exhaust ports on the Death Star were badly designed, using the evidence that Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star by firing a torpedo into it. The two 'facts' are part of the same story and you can't have one without the other. If one of them is questionable, the other must also be questionable.

There is also no case to be made for multiple attestation within the gospels here, as a couple of centuries of textual criticism have convincingly demonstrated that the account of the crucifixion in Mark is dependent on the Psalms, the accounts in Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, and that the account in John is probably dependent on Luke. The crucifixion looks like a literary construct, and the empty tomb forms part of the same (fictive?) story.

It doesn't matter if a whole heap of biblical scholars believe this to be history, I'm not convinced.

The death of Jesus by crucifixion

Let's jump to the first (and least contested) of the minimal facts next; Jesus death by crucifixion. Pretty much everyone accepts this as true, right? Indeed, but it suffers from the same problems as the empty tomb - there are no stories of the death of Jesus that don't go on to involve the resurrection. All accounts of the death of Jesus are followed by major miracle claims, and claims that Jesus is or was divine. You really can't separate one from the other. If the stories of Jesus dying on the cross are taken as facts written by reliable historians, then the resurrection is also a fact written by a reliable historian! You can't assume one to be a fact of history, and the other to be questionable. If the resurrection is questionable, then Jesus death by crucifixion is just as questionable. If one is fact, the other should be assumed to be fact. We have no independent data about one that does not also concern the other!

All secular references to the death of Jesus are entirely dependent on the stories told by believing Christians. And as far as we can tell, the earliest believers believed that he was raised just as much as they believed that he died. If they were wrong about one, they could equally be wrong about the other. The observation that one story is miraculous and the other non-miraculous is irrelevant here. In a story containing many unbelievable and impossible events, we can't simply take all the mundane and possible events as probably true.

To establish that Jesus died by crucifixion we would need an account of his life and death that did not feature miracles and did not feature any resurrection claims. As far as I know, no such evidence exists. Literally everything we know about the life and death of Jesus comes to us from the accounts of those who fundamentally believed that he had triumphed over death and had risen. If they were wrong about that, what else were they wrong about?

The conversion of James

I'm even less convinced by this claim than by the empty tomb, even though more biblical scholars are apparently convinced by it. The problem with this 'fact' is that it is not part of the biblical story, even if it is apparently derived from there. I wrote so much on this 'fact' that I decided to make it a separate blog post in its own right, which you can read here. Suffice it to say that I very much doubt the 'fact' of the conversion of James from skeptic to church leader.

The conversion of Paul

This is probably the strongest of the five minimal facts. Most people, even those who doubt the existence of Jesus, believe that there was a guy called Paul in the 1st century, who wrote epistles. That guy claimed, in those letters, to have been a persecutor of the early Christians, and that he had a transformative experience of the risen Christ, becoming an apostle and firm believer in the resurrection.

I read Hermann Detering's book "The Fabricated Paul" a few years ago (indeed, I have an unpublished, half written blog post about it, which may surface eventually, although considering it has been half written since 2013, it may never see the light of day). In this book, Detering makes the case that none of the epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by anyone called Paul. While I'm not entirely convinced by Detering's argument (he makes an excellent case that several of the epistles were written by different authors from each other, but can't really prove that none of them was authentic), I do accept that some of the other epistles were definitely not written by the guy who wrote 1 Corinthians. I'm currently working through Robert M. Price's "The amazing colossal apostle", which makes much the same case, but goes one step further than Detering in claiming that there was no Paul at all. I'll possibly offer some thoughts on that once I get to the end of it.

While both the above books possibly go further than I am willing to go, I am convinced that some of the epistles by 'Paul' were written by others (later) in the name of Paul. That is, some of the epistles are forgeries and pseudepigraphal. That probably entails that some of the historical or biographical 'facts' in some of the epistles are fictional or, certainly, were related by persons who were not there and did not witness any of the events claimed.

Given that, it is tricky to piece together a coherent picture of what the 'real' Paul did, said, experienced, wrote, etc. Even if we take the epistles as all being authentic, it is quite hard to piece together a biography of the letter writer. In what way did he persecute the church? This is unclear. When did he do this? Also unclear. What made his stop the persecution? Fairly unclear. To iron out the uncertainties in the life of Paul, most folk turn to the Acts of the Apostles and find his story there. But there are good reasons not to take Acts as a reliable history. For one thing, it actually contradicts things said in the name of Paul in the epistles. For another thing, it presents Paul and Peter as basically having parallel lives - for every miracle Paul experiences, Peter has an identical experience; their preaching is virtually indistinguishable from each other; they say the same things and do the same things. This is not history, this is someone trying to level the playing-field by demonstrating that these two characters are equal. The Acts seminar's primary conclusion was that the book of Acts was a 2nd century fiction, containing virtually no historical data. If they're right about that, then we really know nothing about Paul's 'pre-conversion' life and persecution of the church, and we hardly know anything about his 'conversion' or 'post-conversion' life either.

Was Paul transformed from anti-Christian-persecutor to believing-Christian-apostle through a visionary experience? Maybe. Is there any link we can make between this experience and the real historical Jesus guy who may have died on a cross a few years earlier? Nope.

So what we are left with is a claim of the conversion of someone from one religion to another. That happens all the time, and in no way provides evidence for the truth of the religion that the person ends up believing in.

The resurrection appearances

Finally we get to this one. I find that this is where Habermas and Licona, and others using this argument completely over-state their case to the point of absurdity. The claim is that all the disciples experienced resurrection appearances.

Really? Well, the gospels and Acts chapter 1 have the disciples encountering the risen Jesus. But none of these writings are first-person claims. As far as I know, we have no writings from Andrew, or Thomas, or James son of Alphaeus, or Thaddeus, or Phillip, or whoever relating their alleged experiences. Of course, Paul does, but he never saw Jesus during his lifetime, so he has nothing to confirm that his vision in any way relates to the real Jesus.

We have a few letters claiming to be written by Peter. None of them relate any post-resurrection experiences. They are far more concerned to claim that the author saw Jesus when he was alive the first time. So that doesn't help us. And of course, the authenticity of these letters is debated, so we really have no data supporting the claim that the author of these letters actually had a post-resurrection experience of Jesus.

Once again, the 'fact' of the resurrection appearances really turns out to be simply an unverifiable claim of early Christians which has been repeated many, many times over the past two thousand years.

We don't know what the 'original' disciples experienced, because they did not tell us. And the stories relating what they apparently did experience (and the stories of their subsequent lives, ministries and martyrdoms) are at best second or third had accounts, and quite possibly works of fiction.

In conclusion

So there you have it, for me, none of the five 'minimal facts' stands up to scrutiny. They are all just unverifiable claims, most of which rely on a particularly orthodox reading of the source documents. I'm not sure any of the "facts" approach the standard of 'balance of probability' let alone 'beyond reasonable doubt', so these claims do not prove that the resurrection happened.

Christianity, to be proven true, needs better evidence. I've been looking for it for years and still can't find it.






Thursday, January 04, 2018

James, the brother of the Lord

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

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

James in the Gospels

In the gospel of Mark (the first gospel written), James exists only as a name in a list of Jesus' brothers in one verse (Mark 6v3)
"Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him."
That is the only place where James is named in the gospel of Mark. He is also named in an equivalent verse in Matthew (13v55), but is not named in the other two gospels. There is no character of James the brother of Jesus in any of the gospels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James in Acts

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

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

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

James in Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James beyond the NT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A guy walks out of a tomb...

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

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

Do you think he walked out of the tomb?

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Other boats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Question Mark, Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why eyewitnesses remember things wrong...

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



Sunday, July 09, 2017

God is not the answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Accidental

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

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

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

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