Monday, July 09, 2018

Suetonius and Jesus

I have long been prejudiced against the Romans, but am glad I finally broke down and read the Roman historian (or biographer) Suetonius.  And not only because he confirms my prejudice!  (Though that is always welcome.)

Julius Caesar swings and 
misses at changing the
world for the better.
Suetonius is must-read background for those who wish to understand the time of Christ and the early church.  He begins with Julius Caesar, and relates the lives and "contributions" of twelve Italian tyrants in sequence.  This is just the period during which Jesus lived, Paul preached, and the early Church arose.  I find this a faith-strengthening read, for a variety of reason.

Following Suetonius' own format, I arrange conclusions mostly according to theme rather than chronology.

A. Thank God for Jesus Christ!  To be honest, reading how the ancient Romans lived, especially how they treated one another and subject peoples, it would have been perfectly understandable if God had sent another flood, or a world-destroying Meteor of Death (MOD) instead. 

So Julius Caesar killed a million people on his rampage through Gaul.  So he overthrew the Republic.  His lavish support of "the Games," which meant large-scale human sacrifice for the entertainment of the masses, is in some ways more telling, because even a queasy stomach like that of Suetonius finds few qualms with it.  (Not that he didn't admire the conquest of France as well!)

Even when Suetonius complains about the cruelties of various emperors, he often does, it is a class-based complaint: it's not "Caligula made this man fight to the death on a whim," it's "and he was a respected member of society, not a freeman or slave or foreigner!"

Take this remarkable sequence of thoughts for example, on Titus:

"Nor had any of his predecessors ever displayed such generosity.  At the dedication of his Amphitheatre and the Baths, which had been hastily built beside it, Titus provided a most lavish gladiatorial show; he also staged a sea-fight on the old artificial lake, and when the water had been let out, used the basin for further gladiatorial contests and a wild-beast hunt, 5,000 beasts of different sorts dying in a single day.

"Titus was naturally kind-hearted . . . "

I kid you not, those paragraphs appear in succession!  What a damning indictment of the Roman mind!

Following Caesar and civil war, we get Augustus, who gives Rome a break from the insanity, but solidified one-man despotism.

Tiberius, Suetonius makes it clear, had some talent as a ruler, or general, but was cruel and increasingly desolute after the death of his son.  Enough to say, in this space, that not a single pervert in America abused his power to hurt people nearly as cruelly as Tiberius, if half the stories Suetonius relates are true.  (Which is probably an open question, however.)

Tiberius also helped create Caligula.

Ten pages in, Suetonius transitions from the good to the bad and ugly in Caligula's career with a single effective sentence:

"So much for the Emperor; the rest of this history must deal with the Monster." 

Following Tiberius and Caligula one wishes for a break before Nero, who we know is coming up.  And one gets it, in a way, with the somewhat bumbling but essentially decent (for a Roman) Claudius.   Yet even with Claudius, who gained supreme power by random accident, we get this sort of thing:

"He ruled that all (gladiators) who fell by accident should have their throats cut -- above all net fighters, so that he could gaze upon their death agony."  

If the gladiators didn't provide enough blood, Claudius would force carpenters who worked on the stage, and whose engineering failed, to go out and fight to the death:

"He even forced one of his pages to enter the arena just as he was, and fight in his toga."

Again, bear in mind how ordinary Claudius was for his time and culture.  He didn't have to kill anyone to gain power: he gained it (according to Suetonius) because he was hiding behind some drapes when the assassins who knocked off Caligula needed a new ruler of proper upper-class stock, essentially.

Claudius was not a monster, to Suetonius.  He was just an ordinary bloke.

Ordinary Roman men (and many women) would have been bored by a snuff film.   They liked to see the blood of innocents splashed on the walls for themselves, and hear his last terrified cries.

As for sexual abuse, enough to say that as a Roman emperor, Harvey Weinstein would be noteworthy mainly in limiting his predations to unrelated members of the opposite sex, and in not actually murdering any of his "lovers."

So why didn't God have given such a race the judgement it so richly earned?  Instead, He sent Jesus.

Turn from Suetonius, and re-read the Sermon on the Mount.

Same era.  Same civilization (in its Jewish manifestation.)  

True, there were other good teachers and moral philosophers in the ancient Greco-Roman world: Socrates and the Stoics are a relief.  (Epictetus in partly is a noble teacher.)  The Cynics' anti-disestablishmentarianism, which followed Socrates and presaged the Stoics, is also a breath of fresh air.

But it is impossible for a serious person to deny, reading the New Testament and Suetonius together, than God's mercy on the human race is more than evident in the life and impact of Jesus of Nazareth.  Christ softened this hardened and cruel civilization, as people like the Durants and Stark show.

B. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Ain't it the truth, Lord Acton.  Suetonius clearly recognizes this phenomenon, as well.

C. Where do all these folks come from? 

A common error in critiquing the gospels is to suppose that they were written long after the life of Jesus, thus one hears terms like "generations," "oral tradition," "Chinese whispers."  But Jesus died young, and many of his younger disciples would have lived well past the date at which the gospels were written, as I point out in Jesus is No Myth. 

A common response is to say, "But life expectancy was so low in those days!  People only lived to about 30 on average!  So by the time the gospels were written, the first witnesses would all have passed away!"

This is an error, for one thing because it neglects the fact that that low life expectancy was largely caused by high infant mortality.  The disciples were not infants, and some could have expected to live into what even we see as old age, as John, for instance, is said to have done.

I make those arguments and more in Jesus is No Myth: Suetonius supports them in four ways.

First, he notes the demise of infants frequently, or simply mentions of a family that three children survived.

Second, he notes the long lives of some prominent Romans.

Third, child-birth is encouraged by the Roman state, among Romans, but women do not give birth to, say, 15 or 20 children, as would be demanded by the actuary tables that Richard Carrier relies upon to suppose a forbiddingly high death rate.  In other words, for the ancient population to increase, as it often did, births must exceed deaths.  And if the birth-rate is only moderately high, that implies that death of all causes could not have been so high as to preclude a thriving Roman Empire.  (Since it did thrive, for a very long time.)

But fourth, Suetonius also shows that early deaths were often not natural.  We have assassins.  We have wars.  We have random crucifixions.  We have executions of all kinds, and fires in Roman, and many whimsical murders by our more demented rulers.  We have the ever-popular Snuff Games.

The point is that while these people got sick a lot, the generations that produced the gospels were not dying at random or of diseases at such a rate as to keep peaceable Christians (outside of Rome) from growing up to write gospels in their late middle age or early old age.

D. The following note on the life of Augustus, who ruled Rome during the birth of Jesus, helps make sense of Luke's account of that birth:

"According to Julius Marathus, a public portent warned the Roman people some months before Augustus' birth that Nature was making ready to provide them with a king; and this caused the Senate such consternation that they issued a decree which forbade the rearing of any male child for a whole year."

This law was annulled, Suetonius adds.  But it reflects (1) the willingness of rulers to believe portents about the birth of kings, such as the wise men brought Herod; (2) the casual cruelty of the age; (3) and cheerful willingness to murder babies, which is overwhelmingly reflected in Greco-Roman literature anyway; (4) were a provincial ruler to do such a thing, skeptics aside, the odds against such a trivial event being recorded by uninterested historians would seem small.

E. Michael Grant notes, in his forward:

"The period about which Suetonius is writing is one of the most important, critical, and formative in the history of the western world, and with the exception of the Greek Dio Cassius (who is much later, incomplete and often anachronistic), Suetonius and Tacitus are our only major literary sources for the epoch."

So much for lists by some silly skeptics of all the dozens of Roman and Greek writers who should have talked about Jesus and his movement, but didn't.  And of course Suetonius and Tacitus both do, along with Josephus and the Christian writers themselves.  Grant overlooks them, Philo, and others, thinking primarily of Roman history in the main.  But his point is well-taken: we treasure our sources from this era, because they are few and far-between.

F. Grant also amends or overturns a point repeated, I think, from Matthew Ferguson (though Ferguson may be more careful than the version that came to me recently), about how good or real historians of the era name their sources:

"His employment of literary authorities is hard to reconstruct, because, like so many other authors, he is reluctant to cite them by name."

True, Suetonius names sources far more often than the authors of the Gospels.  But I think Bauckham offers a plausible explanation for that latter fact -- evangelists DO refer to their sources implicitly, but don't name them for fear of causing them trouble.  Anyway, clearly one should not exaggerate the difference, as some skeptics do.  It is of little importance in rating the value of the gospels as historical works.

G.  Were Christians often persecuted?  Candida Moss has made it fashionable to downplay the persecution of Christians in the ancient Roman empire.  But so much that Suetonius writes makes good sense of the traditional emphasis on Christian heroism in the face of systematic persecution.

For one thing, for all his crocodile tears about the "blood-thirstiness" of certain rulers, Suetonius seems to stand forthright on behalf of the Roman establishment when they are persecuting religious minorities.


"abolished foreign cults at Rome, particularly the Egyptian and Jewish, forcing all citizens who had embraced these superstitious faiths to burn their religious vestments and other accessories.  Jews of military age were moved to unhealthy regions, on the pretext of drafting them into the army; the others of the same race or similar beliefs were expelled from the city and threatened with slavery if they defied the order."  

Suetonius seems to approve.  Also:

"Gaius drove from the city the perverts known as spintriae, and could with difficulty be restrained from drowning the lot." 

These were apparently young male prostitutes.  Cracking down on sexual "perverts" is a bit rich, from Caligula.

And then we come to this famous passage:

"Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instance of Chrestus, (Claudius) expelled them from the city."  (Again.)

Grant seems to figure the traditional explanation of this as a reference to Jesus is correct.  One might demur, on the grounds that the Christian faith (as per Stark) would have been very small at this time, maybe only 1500.  But I suspect Stark under-estimated its early strength.

Still, what amazed me is not that there are so few early references to Christianity, but that there are so many.

Anyway, back to the topic of persecution of religious minorities, Suetonius notes a few sentences later:

"Augustus had been content to prohibit any Roman citizen in Gaul from taking part in the savage and terrible Druidic cult; Claudius abolished it altogether." 

So much for the theory that the ancient Romans were tolerant pagans, unlike those intolerant Christians.

But one trembles to ask what caused even the Romans, so promiscuous and gleeful in party-time human sacrifice and murder, to tremble at the "savage and terrible" Druidic cult.  Maybe that's just projection, but the bogs do occasionally spew out evidence to the contrary.

(H) Elsewhere, Suetonius' account also agrees with the biblical account of the times.  For instance, he mentions Marcus Antonius Felix, with whom Luke records Paul had a run-in, and who was known for his less-than-stellar character:

"For Felix (Claudius) had an equally high regard, giving him command of infantry cohorts and cavalry squadrons, and the Governorship of Judaea; this Felix married three queens."

One came to attend Paul's interrogation with her husband.  Not the worst form of entertainment available in Rome!

(I)  On Jews and would-be Jews.  A passage on persecution of the Jews after their rebellion was squashed (by the persecutor's Dad and brother, largely, though he also rode a white horse to Israel) helps explain why Christianity gained market share at the expense of Judaism, and maybe also one reason it was persecuted as well:

"Domitian's agents collected the tax on Jews with a peculiar lack of mercy; and took proceedings not only against those who kept their Jewish origins a secret in order to avoid the tax, but against those who lived as Jews without professing Judaism.  As a boy, I remember once attending a crowded Court where the imperial agent had a ninety-year-old man inspected to establish whether or not he had been circumcised."  

Who wouldn't pick a brand of theism that did not require circumcision, if they could, under those circum -stances?

I'm glad to note that Suetonius says Vespasian was wounded in the attack, and Titus had a horse shot out from under him.  At the Jews put up a good fight against two legions plus under an extremely able commander.

Another point worth mentioning here, however, minor, is that again that despite skeptical actuary tables, it was not that unusual for ancients to grow ancient.  If this suspected Jewish gentleman could live to the age of 90, so could St. John.

(J) Josephus.  Suetonius refers to "a distinguished Jewish prisoner of Vespasian's, Josephus by name," who prophesied both his own release and Vespasian's imperial rule.

(K) In general, Suetonius mentions far more miracles than any of the gospels do.  I think they are different in character, though, and far less credible, which is not to insist that none of them could possibly have happened.  Often cited are two alleged healings which Vespasian allegedly conducted in Egypt, the only such accounts Suetonius passes along, despite his general gullibility.  C. S. Lewis already remarks sensibly on these stories, less so some recent skeptics.

(L)  And here's a fascinating prophetic passage:

"An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world.  This prediction, as the event later proved, referred to Roman Emperor, but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, murdered their governor, routed the governor of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle."

There is much to ponder here.  The Jews of course expected a political Messiah in the 1st Century, no question about that.  But was this limited to Jews?  Suetonius seems to think perhaps not.

In any case, Suetonius credits this as being fulfilled by Vespasian, who no doubt saved the Roman Empire from its extreme folly.

It is simply a historical fact, though, that the prophesy was fulfilled far more widely by "Chrestos," who came to rule a much larger portion of the globe, for far longer, and to more dramatic effect, through his teachings, life, death, and resurrection.  I wonder if given wider perspective, Suetonius would recognize that?

(M) Finally, Suetonius also refers directly to the Christian movement under Nero:

"Punishments were also inflicted upon the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief . . . "

The beliefs that the old and decadent Roman Empire so badly needed by this time, the light in the darkness that was an often hellish civilization.

This account comes a page before Suetonius warns his readers,

"I have separated this catalogue of Nero's less atrocious acts -- some deserving no criticism, some even praiseworthy -- from the others, but I must begin to list his follies and his crimes."  

So persecuting Christians was either blameless or even praiseworthy, in Suetonius' eyes.  I gather from his tone that it was probably the latter.

Chesterton wrote, in The Everlasting Man, that in the Greco-Roman civilization, the best of the pagan world had failed by the time Christianity appeared on the stage.  Maybe.  China was cruel, too, still more caste-laden India, still more the vile Central American empires.  And there is much of value and beauty and truth in the schools and artwork that came out of the Greek city-states.

But I find myself agreeing more, reading this account, that Rodney Stark was right, and the Fall of Rome was no great tragedy.  Christianity had clearly brought something great and new and revolutionary into this cruel world.  All the same, good riddance.  

But of course this passage is primarily interesting for the note it makes already of the young Christian movement.   I find that surprising that Christians were already a large enough community even to come within the purvey of Nero's demented Sauron-on-acid eye.

So even aside from such interesting tidbits as that Augustus collected dinosaur fossils, and all the sordid hoopla of half-witted lunatics who ran the Roman Empire into the ground, Suetonius is a fascinating read, for anyone interested in even more important events than he knew were happening around him.

Welcome, Jesus, into this world!  We sure needed you.  But some people seem to have already known that, even before you showed up.

Friday, July 06, 2018

The 30 best movies ever!

It is an indictment of modern civilization that it deems movies like Elmer Gantry among its best.  Bullfeathers.  Who ever wanted to watch Elmer Gantry again?  That's the test.  Either that, or you are so haunted by one viewing that you don't DARE watch the film twice.

Here are my top 30.  I'm not a professional movie critic, and have only seen a fraction of those movies listed by such critics, so you'll probably think these are wrong, too.  (Not to mention my low and easily-satisfied tastes.)

But that's why we've left space below for you to correct me.

(30) The Incredibles.

(29) True Grit (John Wayne version)

(28) Bladerunner

(27) Mission

(26) Casablanca

(25) Elephant Man  (Not one I want to see again, but one I will never forget.)

(24) Lethal Weapon (What can I say?  Mel Gilson and Danny Glover make me laugh.)

(23) Up

(22) Gran Torino

(21) Omega Man

(20) A River Runs Through It

(19) Mrs. Doubtfire

(18) Few Good Men

(17) Return of the King  (Still remember watching this final movie in a theater in Chungking, and the audience breaks into applause as the Riders of Rohan sweep down with horns blazing to save Minis Tirith.

(16) Shawshank Redemption

(15) Lawrence of Arabia (If you don't like the story, just listen to the grand music and sweeping desert scenes.)

(14) Good Will Hunting

(13) Star Wars: Warrior Koalas in the Redwoods

(12) Mary Poppins

(11) Braveheart

(10) Star Wars: Original (That first blast of John Williams let you know it was going to be good.)

(9) Some Like it Hot.   (Here's my version with Donald Trump and that kiss-up pastor in Dallas.)

(8) Matrix (Just the first one.)

(7) Airplane. (Laughs concentrated more tightly than customers on an economy flight.)

(6) Fiddler on the Roof. (Transmutes sadness into joy.)

(5)  Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

(4) It's a Wonderful Life.

(3) Forrest Gump.

(2) Pinocchio.  (Beyond belief that they could create such a beautiful film from hand-drawn cartoons.)

(2B)  (So I can't count!)  Spirited Away.

(1) The Sound of Music.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hector Avalos vs. Jesus, Round IV

Sigh.  It's Bambi vs. Godzilla, all over again. 

Hector Avalos wants to step back in the ring with Jesus of Nazareth.  Never mind what happened when he tried to insist that against all the evidence, "Jesus commands hate."  Never mind his false insinuation that the early Christians murdered Anania and Saphira in Acts 5.  And let's forget how he distorted the speech by Pope Urban that helped launched the First Crusade.

See the source image
Bambi vs. Godzilla: First smelling a skunk. 
Hector wants to go toe-to-toe with The Champ again!  This time to make the case that Jesus, if he ever lived, might have been -- can you guess?  -- some sort of a bigot against Jews.

"I will argue . . . that anti-Judaism can be traced back to Jesus himself, at least as he is portrayed in the Gospels."

Logicians among you will recognize what I did in those first three paragraphs: it's called "poisoning the well."  I've been deliberately trying to prejudice you against Dr. Avalos' thesis, before we even look at the evidence that it's based upon.

Which need not be irrational, because in historical inquiries, evidence isn't everything.  For every historical claim, warrant for that claim combines not only the evidence one finds for or agaSee the source imageinst it, but also prior probability, factors that mitigate in favor of or against it even before we look at the evidence.  For instance, if I say, "Yesterday I had lunch with my boss," you would probably not be too astounded.  But if I said, "Yesterday I had lunch with an alien from a galaxy far, far away" before we even discussed evidence, most of you would rationally look askance at my claim.  (I have my own prior reasons for thinking this of you: few readers here, so far as I can tell, subscribe to scientifically-naïve New Age notions about easy astral travel.)

To determine if Jesus really was an anti-Semite, in the end I suppose we should probably look at the evidence.  But before we do, I see it as rational to take the claim with at least seven big grains of salt:

(1) Jesus was himself Jewish.  Of course it is possible for a Jew (like Karl Marx) to despise his own race, but in the context of the First Century, when the Jews were struggling to survive against Hellenic, then Roman domination, it is highly unlikely that a Jewish rabbi would gain a following boisterous enough to get him killed by the Romans, on a platform of national self-loathing.  Imagine a Korean preacher under Japanese occupation whipping Koreans up to a passion of warm support by thumbing his nose at Korean culture and all his neighbors.  That's a long-shot.  It is far more credible to see him as getting in trouble with a portion of the Jewish, then Roman leadership, as the gospels generally depict.

(2) Most of Jesus' earliest followers were also Jews, which increases the force of (1).  This "anti-
Semite" Jesus, Stark argues, somehow won Jews to faith in him, including intensely Hebraic Jews like Matthew, Paul and the author of Hebrews, not just in that first generation, but for centuries.  

(3) Jewish prophets had been laying into Israel's political leaders, religious leaders, and common people, for centuries, in a vigorous internal debate that might sound like loathing of their own nation to outsiders, but was actually predicated on love and desire for Israel's well-being.  So if Jesus were the last such prophet, and come to "fulfill the Law and the Prophets," his lively rebukes of Jewish leaders and commoners might sound "anti-Semitic" to outsiders, but would be understood internally from within that tradition, and make perfect sense.

(4) It is tempting to anachronistically read the New Testament from the modern perspective, as people who have witnessed the Holocaust, or at least the pogroms.  That temptation must be resisted.  The New Testament must be read in the context of its own time and cultures.

(5) One does not need genuine anti-Semitism in the Bible to explain its occurrence later in European history.  As Exodus, Esther and Daniel reveal, the notion of genocide against the Jews had been floated more than once, hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.  There was persecution of Jews in the Roman Empire, and it has occurred outside of Christendom since then as well.  Stark explains the phenomena, as does Girard with a different twist.  In times of stress, people often seek scapegoats, and vulnerable minorities of a different race and religion scattered around a civilization under pressure from outside, often are the unlucky targets of violence at times like that.  Stark points out that anti-Semitic pogroms thus occur in Europe and the Islamic world at just such points of international stress.  Other races have been victims at other places and times, such as China, America, or Rwanda.  It is no coincidence or even surprise, sociologically, that some early Crusaders attacked Jews on their way to defend "Christendom" against Islamic incursion, for instance.

(6) The New Testament often flaunts its Jewishness.  Jesus tells his disciples to go first to the "lost sheep of Israel" rather than to Gentiles.  He weeps over Jerusalem, "How often I have wished to gather you under my wings, like a mother hen gathers her brood, and you would not."  Paul even offers his soul for the salvation of his people, if it will help.  And the New Testament is chock full of references to the Jewish scriptures much more positive than anything, say, Richard Dawkins has ever said about them. 

The idea that Jesus comes to "fulfill" the Old Testament is not just tacked onto Matthew, but is a central theme of all the gospels marked by places (crossing the Jordan), references to heroes (David, Abraham, Moses, etc), types, customs like Passover and blood sacrifice, woven into parables, and denoted by several verbs including "teleo" as well as "plerou" among others.  If Jesus hated his people or tradition, it is extremely bizarre that his first followers described such an intricate tapestry of affirmation and fulfillment between his life, teachings, death and resurrection, and the story of the Old Testament.

(7) Finally, we have Avalos' habit of grotesque over-statement and misrepresentation in defaming Jesus and his followers.  (Follow links above.)

So even before looking at Avalos' case, I would expect the following:

I would expect Jesus, as a prophet, to make hard-hitting comments about the Jewish leaders and ordinary Jews of his time, as earlier prophets had done.

I would expect Jesus nevertheless to make it clear that he wishes his fellow Jews well, and hopes they will turn from their sin to acts of righteousness and love.

Some of what Jesus says might no doubt be interpreted by outsiders, especially in the hyper-sensitive modern world, as anti-Semetic.   But we cannot read the ancients anachronistically.

We must not cherry-pick materials to make a simplistic case that Jesus was merely positive or merely negative towards his own culture and neighbors.  If Jesus was the greatest of the prophets, which I think is the bare minimum one can reasonably allow, one must expect him to recognize the complexity of the situation, and to call people from their sins back to God using the vigorous language typical of the prophetic tradition.  But if we are going to be fair and reason as good historians, criticism of Jewish people or leaders must be balanced and understood in the context of the good Jesus does his Jewish neighbors, and teaches his disciples to do.   (Which fill the pages of the gospels.)  

Given all these factors, if Avalos doesn't hit a home run with his first pieces of evidence for "Jesus the Anti-Jew," I don't think we need to put up with too much of it.  

As it turns out, just take a few steps, and you realize that Avalos is not inclined to give fair consideration to these prior concerns, or to the full panoply of data in the gospels that show what Jesus thought of his people and their traditions.  And while sometimes subtle, Avalos is still playing tricks with exegesis, creating a "canon within a canon" as he has put it before, that undermine his interpretation of the New Testament from the get-go.

*** ************************ ***********************

The Anti-Jewish Jesus:    Socio-Rhetorical Criticism as Apologetics

Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

Avalos sets the stage by describing a volume entitled Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament, by Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky.

"The book was prompted by the belief that anti-Jewish statements in the New Testament or by later Christian interpreters have led to violence against Jews . . . People have been murdered because of these words.  Whether it be Chrysostom in the fourth century, Martin Luther in the sixteenth, or Rudolf Kittel in the twentieth, one can trace a steady stream of anti-Judaism in Christian thought and culture."

But such scholars do not wish to believe that the "anti-Judaism" in Christianity came from Jesus -- if there was such a person, Avalos hastens to add.

Borowsky proposes that the New Testament be sanitized for the public, while the original version be used by scholars in their research!  Avalos rightly finds this proposal ridiculous:

"What is being proposed here is nothing short of a paternalistic deception. Borowsky and like-minded scholars believe that parts of the New Testament endorse and promote hateful and violent speech against Jews, but instead of denouncing the ethics of Jesus and other New Testament Christian voices, they simply want to revise the ethics expressed, at least for the hoi polloi. The masses will get the sanitized Bible constructed for them by scholars, and only scholars will have the version that best corresponds to the original meaning."

t's good to see we agree on one thing, before the inevitable flood of disagreement.

Avalos also correctly places the modern debate in the rather anachronistic context of reaction to the Holocaust:

"All such efforts to address the anti-Judaism in the New Testament received new impetus because of the Nazi Holocaust."

Avalos then takes a few pages to deal with the arguments of the Catholic scholar, Luke Johnson.  Johnson surveys both Greek and Jewish philosophical schools in the ancient world and finds a lot of lively rhetorical abuse flying in every direction.  It turns out, Johnson says, that the insults in the New Testament are actually pretty tame by comparison.  Everyone does it.

Not good enough, Avalos responds.  And here Avalos tries his first dirty trick -- the kind of hostile eisegesis which I have chronicled before in his work (in fact this closely parallels his trick with Martin Luther that I debunked previously). 

Avalos offers the following two quotes to compare:

Α. ‘Existence impels the Jew to lie, and to lie perpetually just as it compels the inhabitants of the northern countries to wear warm clothing’.

 Β. ‘You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires...When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies’.

Then Avalos concludes: 

"Rhetorically, both statements center on Jews being liars by nature."

Cut!  What did you just say, Hector?

A, which Avalos is about to reveal comes from none other than Adolf Hitler, does indeed "center on Jews being liars by nature."  There is no doubt about that.

But Avalos' "read" of B tempts me to say HE is the "liar by nature" at this juncture in exegetical history.  (Though more generously, one must at least say he has focused on one side of the evidence to the exclusion of all that undermines it.)

Who is Jesus speaking to in John 8?  Is he making a generalization about "Jews?"

The chapter is admittedly a bit confusing.  At times, Jesus is debating with "the Pharisees."  At times he is directing his arguments and rebukes to "the Jews."  But a group of "Jews who believed in him," and another who sought to kill him, are also mentioned, and strangely mixed together, in the transition from 31 ("Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him") to 33 ("they answered him").   But then in 36 Jesus speaks of those whom "the son makes free" and are "free indeed," following that with "I know that you are Abraham's descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you."

So it appears that Jesus is talking to a mixed crowd.  Some in the crowd believe him, while others are hostile in the most existential and physical sense.

That some of his hearers might form a lynch mob is hardly incredible, given that Jesus was, in the end, killed.  (And more generally, that outdoor preaching has often been a hazardous sport, and must have been more so in the incendiary atmosphere of 1st Century Roman-occupied Palestine.)

In verse 40 again, Jesus refers to a sub-set of Abraham's physical descendants who "seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God.  Abraham did not do this."

And this leads up to the "you are of your father the devil . . . He was a murderer from the beginning . . . he is a liar . . . " accusations.

The term "the Jews" is used twice more in the passage, leading up to the great "I am" declaration.

The following chapter contrasts a blind Jew whom Jesus heals, and who "sees" the significance of that healing with particular clarity, with "the Pharisees" or "the Jews" who do not.   The blind man recognizes that Jesus must truly be from God.

It should be fairly obvious from this context that while John is sometimes using the term "the Jews" to refer to those of the Jewish leaders who reject Jesus and seek his harm, he also recognizes that some Jews do recognize Jesus and seek to follow him.  John could, perhaps, have used synonyms less fraught with the ominous future.  (Though one can only blame him for knowing that some day Christians were going to have the power to persecute Jews, if one assumes his Gospel is divinely-inspired, if then.  The conversion of Constantine was more than two centuries in the future when the gospel was written, and Christians were few and scattered.) 

But Avalos gives this passage an even more dubious spin:

"By Johnson’s logic, in both statements ‘the polemic signifies simply that these are opponents and such things should be said about them’.   Yet, I wonder if one would say that about Statement A once one learns it belongs to Adolf Hitler, the foremost modern practitioner of anti-Jewish rhetoric.  Indeed there is not much difference between Hitler’s statement and Statement B, which is uttered by Jesus in Jn 8.44-45."

In fact, there is a world of difference between these two statements:

(1) Jesus was a Jew engaging in internal debate within his own culture: John clearly recognized Jesus' Jewishness.  Hitler was Austrian German.

(2) Hitler was clearly talking about all Jews; in context, Jesus the Jew was most credibly addressing himself to a specific sub-group of Jews.

(3) Hitler would show what he meant by trying to murder all Jews.  Jesus showed what HE meant by healing, forgiving, teaching, and dying on the cross for the sins of all Jews.  Hitler never healed a Jew that we know of.  Jesus never so much as slapped one in the face, that we know of.  (Aside from when he drove the money-changers out of "My Father's House" with a whip, which while painful to a few Jews, was a pretty radical affirmation of Jewish tradition, at the same time.)

This may seem obvious, but elephants in small rooms should not be ignored.  That is one of Dr. Avalos' bad habits.

And here stampedes a whole thundering herd of pachyderms.

(4) Hitler was not talking about or to people who were trying to kill him: Jesus was.  The technical name for someone who kills an innocent man is "murderer."  That is not hyperbole, that is not vitriol, it is an accurate description of the audience to whom Jesus was speaking, or at least the part of it to which that comment seems to have been addressed.

(5) Jesus was, in fact, murdered.  Is it a sin to call someone who murders a murderer?  I think not.

Avalos then hops over to Matthew to make his next point:

"Jesus describes the consequences of not catering to his followers: ‘And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”. Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25.40-41).

Dr. Avalos makes it sound as if this comment expressed an ego trip on Jesus' part, as he built up his religious kingdom.  "Cater" is what you do for a feast, not what you do with a million hungry children in the Sudan, for instance.

But who are "the brethren" Jesus refers to, who appear in the guise of the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless?  Obviously not his physical brothers.  And just as obviously, he is not limiting himself to one gender.

Does he mean only Christians?  Or only Jews?  The text refers to "the nations gathered before (God)."   Again, remember that this was written when Christianity was a very minor faith among a few mostly Jews scattered in one small corner of the world.  (And Jews of the time were aware of India, Africa, Europe, southern Russia, and probably China - indeed Herodotus gives a survey of the three great continents centuries before John wrote -- so John knew that "the nations" included places where no Christians had yet arrived, most likely.)  So unless Avalos wishes to concede that Jesus already knew about the worldwide spread of Christianity in advance, it seems most likely he is telling his disciples, as indeed we have generally interpreted it, that WHOEVER comes before us in need, is in this sense our "brother" or "sister."

Or has Matthew (always so careful with his structuring) forgotten what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount?  If someone sues you for your jacket, give him your coat.  Give to whoever asks of you.  Love your enemy, and pray for the person who persecutes you.

Obviously Jesus was not just talking about catering to Christians.  This is obvious to the Jesus Seminar, for instance, which stressed Jesus' concern for those on the margins, such as Samaritans.

Consider, for instance, Jesus' famous story of the Good Samaritan in Luke.  The whole point of the story is that the Samaritan is an outsider, and that we are to learn from him by caring for our "neighbors," meaning whomever we meet, even heretics belonging to hostile cultures.

What about the warning of punishment after death for those who ignore the hungry and homeless?   Is that reminiscent of Adolf Hitler?

Don't make me laugh.

Adolf Hitler did not warn people of God's wrath if they failed to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and visit those who were in prison!  In fact he made visiting the millions he put in prison rather difficult.

Is it so hard to distinguish between a man who went to prison and death for others, and a man who sent others to prison and death by the millions?  How willfully blind are we supposed to make ourselves, to find Dr. Avalos' exegesis of Scripture plausible?

And I think we'll stop here.  Ad Hitlerum arguments tend to be bad as a general category, but accusing the most famous Jew in history of being Hitleresque, against so much evidence, is particularly lame.  We're on a train to nowhere, and we might as well get off now.  

Bambi is still no match for Godzilla, however he sharpens his horns and practices his 50 yard dashes and long jumps.  In fact, rather than growing adult-deer antlers, he seems to have turned into the skunk.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Richard Carrier and Germs

Sometimes it takes me a while, but reading the Mark passage about washing hands this morning on the roof of my apartment, it suddenly occurred to me how I should have answered Richard Carrier's challenge (and on-line argument) on this subject, several years ago when we debated in Huntsville, Alabama. 

Maybe this will help other apologists next time you meet it!  Or maybe not!

Carrier's argument, which had often occurred to me, is that Jesus really shouldn't have told his disciples not to wash his hands before eating!  Exactly the wrong example to set in an ancient world full of virus and bacteria, in which people died like flies (and via flies) from communicable diseases.  Never mind the ceremonial aspects of washing hands: how many millions of lives would have been saved if Jesus had said instead: "Use soap and warm water before every meal and after every potty break!"  Didn't God know about germs?

Carrier also uses this argument in Why I am Not a Christian, Carrier's worst book, if not quite (against stiff competition) one of the worst books on religion ever written (see my Amazon review.)  But I actually feel the force of this argument, though one can brush it aside in various ways. 

Here's what I should have said . . . maybe.

"Yes, I wish Jesus had taken the opportunity to emphasize the need for good hygiene, however peripheral to his point.  But I see no historical evidence that any community followed this passage in that half-literalistic half out-of-context way which would actually lead to sloppy hygiene and mass communicable deaths.  If you have such evidence, please point it out, using all 17-odd steps of critical exegesis you require when one is employing the "Criteria of Embarrassment."  (Which if rigorously followed, would ensure that no one could ever possibly know what Jesus was really thinking, even if we have his words!) 

"But while that one passage cannot reasonably be interpreted as a general ban on washing hands, the whole weight of Scripture is against promiscuous sex.  (Here add "of the sort you have been publicly practicing and promoting for the past many years" as context and conscience allow.) 

"How many millions of lives have been saved from death of syphilis, AIDS, etc, and how many tens of millions of lives not been broken or disfigured, by people following Joseph's example and Paul's command and fleeing sexual temptation?  How much communicable disease has not been communicated?

"And how many broken families, torn and bleeding hearts, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, homeless children, not to mention disease and even death, have been brought into the world by people following your example instead?   And how many abortions and broken hearts and maybe even physical sicknesses has your life of sin brought about?"

I don't know if I would have survived the debate, if I'd said such a thing on stage at a university.  But next time, maybe I will. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Mom and the Bible

The Stream just published a short piece I wrote about Mom and the Bible -- right before Mother's Day!  Happy Mothers' Day to those of you who are.   It made me think about the sort of legacy I would like to leave to my children -- I'm afraid I haven't measured up to my own parents on this score.

That's the second defense of the Bible I've published at The Stream in the past few weeks.  The first was mostly about the literary value of the Old Testament, though also hints at its spiritual genius and truth-telling.

Feel free to pass these on, if you like them!
A dozen or so years ago, by Mendanhall Glacier in our old stomping grounds.  Mom is staying in a downstairs 
apartment with my sister Laurel and her husband Rand, as mentioned in the article. 

Sunday, May 06, 2018

"Marshall is a Cowardly, Moronic Atheist."

Those of us who are Christians should care deeply about truth.

That is one reason I am not fond of a common Christian argument which cites The Encyclopedia of Wars to make the claim that only 7% of wars are caused by "religion."  This is usually mentioned in rebuttal to some atheist who trashes "religion," usually ineptly and from a depth of historical ignorance.

But two wrongs don't make a right.

And the 7% argument has many flaws:

(1) The authors, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, appear to be authorities on war, not religion.  Given that the argument is often presented as an Argument From Authority, their lack of expertise in one central field about which they are making a claim limits the force of that argument.  We do not properly cite Richard Dawkins on philosophy, do we?

(2) The term "religion" is not well-defined, as I recall.  Peter Berger notes that definitions of religion fall into two categories: based on the substance of a faith (what one believes), and based on the function of a religion (its effects).  For instance, Marxism may either be considered a mere ideology, given that it denies the existence of supernatural beings (at least in theory), or it can be seen as a religion, since it serves the same social functions as faiths with which it competes: creating power structures that enforce codes of morality, appealing to supposed ultimate truths inscribed in "holy books" and taught by messianic figures, and so forth.  The same is true of Nazism, Radical Environmentalism, Objectivism, Freudianism, and other "ultimate concerns," as Paul Tillich described them.

If one defines "religion" broadly -- as some religion scholars prefer, and that seems to make sense when talking about motivations for warfare -- a vastly larger number of wars would appear to have "religious" roots: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Civil War, the Nazi invasions, Mao's attacks on his neighbors, and many others.

(3) I see no reason why any Christian should put himself or herself into the position of being an apologist for "religion."  Much of the Bible warns against the evils of "religions," such as human sacrifice, libertine sexuality, and oppressive social structures.  In my view, caste Hinduism, Islam, and Central American sacrificial cults often had a terrible effect on the societies that accepted them, not even counting Nazism and Communism.  While I would gladly admit, contrary to radical atheists, that religions besides Christianity have also sometimes done the world a lot of good, I would agree with them that wrong worship often leads to bad consequence.  We follow Christ.

(4) Causes of war are often complex.  It would often be simplistic to reduce an outbreak of fighting to one single cause, and identify that cause as either "religious" or as "non-religious."

Take the American Civil War as an example.  We all know that war broke out as a consequence in some way of a quarrel over slavery and states' rights, and as a clash of cultures as well.  But books like Uncle Tom's Cabin fed into the abolitionist sentiment of the north that led to the clash.  And Uncle Tom's Cabin is almost a Bible study with a story attached: Harriet Beecher Stowe argued that Scripture, read properly, is incompatible with ownership of slaves, certainly with how slaves were being treated in the South.

So it would be simplistic to say the Civil War either was or was not "religious" -- and as no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln pointed out, "both sides prayed to the same God."  (Though he was clearly of Stowe's mind about the ultimate incompatibility of a biblically-informed theism with southern slavery.)

Yet I'm pretty sure the American Civil War was listed as non-religious in origin.

(5) This points to another over-simplification (in how the study is interpreted, whether or not the authors thought this): the notion that war is an absolute evil, and always wrong.  Clearly that is not true.  If Christianity finally helped inspire America to throw off slavery, as I am confident it did, even if that led to war, to paraphrase Lincoln again, that would be no stain on the honor of divine providence.

I think aside from the Crusades, many wars have been partly inspired by religious motives, and often righteously.  Read The Song of Roland or G. K. Chesterton's Lepanto, or Pope Urban's speeches before the First Crusade.  American preachers also played a commendable role in rallying troops against Hitler, Stalin, and arguably, King George.

(6) The survey, as I recall, also makes some odd omissions.  For instance, as I recall it didn't make any mention of the devastating Tai Ping Rebellion that eventuated in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese during the 19th Century.  The Tai Pings had started their own religion, joining elements of Christianity, Confucianism, and folk beliefs into a potent blend.

For all these reasons, I think it would be foolish to try to too quickly dismiss the impact of "religion" on human warfare.

Ironically, when I recently mentioned my skepticism about this argument, one believer at least showed that he was inordinately eager to take to the rhetorical war path and go hunting my scalp.  (In all the wrong places, never on my actual head!)

Marshall's Atheistic Slanders

A day or so ago, someone cited the Encyclopedia of Religions, whose authors (he said) showed that only some 7% of wars were religious in nature, half started by Muslims, and that atheists had killed more people than all religions in the 20th Century alone.

I posted skeptically, emphasizing point (1) above:

"I'm tired of that Encyclopedia of Wars citation. The authors are expert in war, not in religion."

I added that I considered the analysis in that book "shallow," and that the authors "don't know what religion is or what role religions played in wars."

When challenged to prove my point, I was admittedly a bit coy and cheeky, pointing out merely that the original claim involved an Argument from Authority without further evidence, and since I'm more an authority when it comes to religion than the authors are, "in this field (my authority) trumps theirs," and no evidence was needed to check a claim made without any evidence.

Most responses to these comments were level-headed, however.

The owner of the site, who apparently at some point in the past invited me as a Facebook friend, took my comments personally, however, blasting me as a cowardly, lying atheist: 

"And finally, that COWARDLY NONSENSE about why you don't have to provide evidence proves to me that you're not any sort of expert at anything at all, just a moron who has diarrhea of the mouth.  If you want respect, show some professionalism.  You're asserting that a major publication is faulty; you have to prove it. Until you do, the evidence in our hands says that religion is not a major cause of war.

"Put up or shut up. 'Cause let me tell you, pal, out here in reality, some of us who actually care about scholarship are sick and freaking tired of lying atheists eager to slander religious people by making unsupported and unsupportable assertions about "all the wars caused by religion," but never lifting a finger to produce even a half-hearted enumeration."

So it turns out, surprisingly enough, that:

(1) I am an atheist.  (Because I don't like one particular argument for "religion.")
(2) I am also a cowardly
(3) liar
(4) guilty of speaking "nonsense."  (Nonsense is distinct from lying because it can't scrape together enough coherence even to be false, presumably.)
(5) I also have "diarrhea of the mouth."  (Though my comments had been mostly succinct.)
(6) And don't care about scholarship.  (Because I poured cold water on one argument cited from that "major publication," the Encyclopedia of War -- it certainly sells for a major price on Amazon, more than $300!)
(7) I "slandered" religious people.  (Because I said the authors of this encyclopedia, whose religious beliefs I have no more knowledge than this poster had of my beliefs, were wrong about one single issue.  Though I didn't call them "liars" or "cowards," pardon my negligence!)
(8) Furthermore, my assertion is "unsupportable."  (Never mind the support I give it above.)
(9) And I didn't "lift a finger" to defend my position -- well, now I have.

If I had been a real atheist, I don't think I would have found these rebukes very convicting, since the fellow rebuking me fits errors into a paragraph like sardines in a can, packed fin to snout.

My critic adds:

"Me, I'm betting that 'religion expert' David Marshall can't actually name three genuine religious wars apart from the Crusades without firing up Wikipedia."

Or I could fire up the paper I wrote 20 years ago on one of them for my MA.  

When another poster suggested that my critic "chill," he told him to "go jump in a lake.  What I have written, I have written (Pontius Pilate!) . . . I have no tolerance for dishonest fools."

Well, I suppose one can chill by jumping in lakes.

The sad thing is, this brother seems to think his lack of tolerance, patience, or even willingness to listen carefully before reacting angrily is a virtue!   He's so righteous for truth that he makes a fool of himself by casually tossing out incendiary accusations that bear not the fainted relations with reality.

I wonder how often the more sincere sorts of real atheists have to put up with those kind of wild attacks?  I hope I don't work myself into such a fine lather too often.

Friday, March 23, 2018

That evil Bible, again.

Neither do car repair manuals usually mention the
Makah Indians or totem poles.  What could they  
possibly be for?   
Image may contain: text

As in most memes, inanity and error battle for supremacy here.

Regions mentioned in the Bible -- North Africa, the broad designation "Ethiopia" (which seemed to mean "Africa, south of the deserts" to Greek historians), Southern Europe, Arabia, Asia Minor, perhaps tribes beyond - certainly constitute more than 1% of the world's land area.  And unlike, say, the Alexandrian Romance, or probably China's Classic of Mountains and Rivers, you can actually match up most biblical name-places to something in the real world. You can learn some geography from the Bible: not that that is what the book is for.

Of course the Bible doesn't cover World History or American History.  Who ever said it did?  Take Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time as a text for your Civil War class (it at least has the word "history" in its title), and see how you do.  A meaningless point.  Especially since, again, you can learn things about history from the Bible which you can't learn anywhere else, in such detail.  (Hundreds of facts recorded in Acts have been verified in other sources, for instance.

When it comes to biology, the Bible pre-empts modern racists (some very Darwinian) by pointing out that all races are human.  And it pre-empts silly modern radicals by saying God only created two sexes.

Biblical cosmology involves a beginning, and the universe out of nothing.  That's something, or two things, physicists have recently learned, and Christians knew all along.

But King David said, "When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers . . . "  As if it were a good thing to look at Nature and ponder its character and meaning. And Solomon said: "It is the glory of God to hide a matter, and of the king to find it out."  In his influential arguments for reviving or creating empirical science, Francis Bacon quoted Solomon's words at least twice. So the Bible intends not to teach cosmology, but to inspire the study of the stars, as indeed it helped to do.  (As scholars who have studied the history -- Chapman, Landes, Hannam, Stark, etc -- have often pointed out.)

But the parade of inanities proceeds.  The Bible isn't a medical book! Of course not. But it has inspired thousands of hospitals and probably billions of cures (I have met some of the doctors, like Dr. Paul Brand, who with his wife and colleagues helped millions of the disabled, and who wrote books with titles from Psalm 139.).

What about ameliorating the effects of war? Henry Dunant, winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize, whose work led to the Geneva ("Calvin was here!") Conventions, is described on Wikipedia in part as follows:

"Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1828 as the first son of businessman Jean-Jacques Dunant and Antoinette Dunant-Colladon. His family was devoutly Calvinist and had significant influence in Geneva society. His parents stressed the value of social work, and his father was active helping orphans and parolees, while his mother worked with the sick and poor. His father worked in a prison and an orphanage.

"Dunant grew up during the period of religious awakening known as the Réveil, and at age 18 he joined the Geneva Society for Alms giving. In the following year, together with friends, he founded the so-called "Thursday Association", a loose band of young men that met to study the Bible and help the poor, and he spent much of his free time engaged in prison visits and social work."

Well isn't that weird. They studied the Bible, and then went out and helped the poor and imprisoned, just like Jesus said. And then Henry went and tried to save the victims of warfare from dying.

The Bible does once say, "Spare the rod, and spoil the child," true.  Anyone who takes this as a license for child abuse is a fool and it ignoring the tenor of the NT in general.  Anyone who thinks a parent who spanks a miscreant mildly when needed, should be put in prison, is a tyrant and also a threat to society.

The modern conception of Human Rights grew out of a Christianized culture, and the example of Jesus.  In this forum, I have traced the lines of influence from Jesus to some of the world's greatest reforms.  Time prevents me from doing the same with others, but such reforms are going on around us today.

The author of this meme (as of most memes) appears to know little of history or theology, and is intellectually unjust, besides.  He or she is part of that vast modern ignorance, of skeptics flailing against the ground on which they stand, cursing the tree from whose remoter branches they swing.
Could someone cut down this tree, please?  I can't see those cherry blossoms over there.