Sunday, May 01, 2016

Did God Really Evolve?

What follows is my review several years ago of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God on the First Things website.   I don't think the question of how faith in God appeared has lost its poignancy or relevance in the past seven years. --DM
Historians of God most often gather to bury, rather than praise, their Creator; Karen Armstrong, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett being recent examples. Robert Wright offers an interesting break in the pattern with The Evolution of God . 
Wright, in his own way, is solidly in the materialist camp. In an earlier book he told how, like E.O. Wilson, he abandoned his Southern Baptist roots when he discovered evolution and recognized its power to tell the story of life. But he left God with regret. And today, it seems, “we need a god whose sympathies correspond to the scale of social organization, the global scale.” Wright looks at religion not with one eye shut and the other twitching down the sights of a Civil War“era carbine (signed personally by Colonel Ingersoll) but with eyes open to both the genius and inhumanity of man. His sketch thus rises not only to the dignity of error, but also to significant flashes of insight. 

The first part of Wright’s story is familiar enough. Humanity first appears in tribes. Our early gods mirror and justify the limit of our social commitments, mainly to kin. But social evolution, like biological, works an alchemic magic whereby selfishness is transmuted into altruism. Through conquest, tribes form into nations, and nations into empires. The gods justified tribal loyalties, and therefore conquest. But imperial religion slowly evolves a new role as a social glue, allowing amicable relations between tribes that now need to do business in an expanding world. 

Gibbon said that in ancient Rome, philosophers saw all religions as equally false, commoners saw them as equally true, and politicians as equally useful. Strident attacks on religion by iconic intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are similarly matched today by popular defenses of the the truth and utility of all faiths. (Huston Smith is probably the ablest modern proponent of the commoner’s position.) 

The genius of Wright’s theory lies in an evolutionary two-step that allows him to look at religion, like clouds, “from both sides, now.” Thus, on how Marduk, city god of Babylon, became “a kind of grand unified theory of nature”:
 For Babylonians bent on ruling Mesopotamia forever, what better theological weapon than to reduce Marduk’s would-be rivals to parts of his anatomy? Or, to put it less cynically: For Babylonians who want to suffuse all of Mesopotamia in multicultural amity and understanding,what better social cement than a single god that encompasses all gods?
The term Wright favors to describe the binding element in that cement is non-zero sum . Marduk makes a “subtle conquest . . . assimilating other gods into his being””allowing his subjects to relate to one another symbiotically as subjects of a cosmopolitan God, without losing the social capital of tribal affiliations. 

While not a completely original idea, it seems plausible as far as it goes. A fair chunk of the Chinese classic The Book of Poetry is, for example, dedicated to proving that the Zhou Dynasty Heaven”now identified with the Shang Di , or “God above,” of the previous Shang dynasty”justified, even demanded, conquest of the corrupt losing dynasty, and that his rule and that of the Zhou has no territorial bound: “This King Wen, carefully and with reverence, served God with intelligence, and by that service secured the Great Blessing. Unswerving in his virtue, he received the allegiance of states from all quarters.” 

Wright fingers King Josiah as the Hebrew king who elevated Yahweh to the position of Supreme deity. The next step came when Jewish intellectuals, exiled traumatically to Babylon, banned all other gods to explain and compensate for the defeat of Israel, thus inventing monotheism. If God punished us for our idolatrous ways, then brought us home, they thought, it appeared that he “controlled the empire that had conquered the empire than had conquered the Assyrian Empire,” and was the One True God. 

My friend Ard Louis, an Oxford physicist who studies protein folding, once compared the origin of life in terms of children’s toys. Find cars and spaceships made out of Legos, he told me, and you’ll be impressed. (And so I will be, having boys who do brilliant things with Legos.) But come into a room and find Legos snapping themselves into complex, coherent shapes, and the wonder is all the greater. Thus evolution itself is (he believes) a subtler but ultimately more impressive expression of God’s creative activity than direct design would be. 

Wright extends the logic of theistic evolution to the evolution of theism. Suppose, he asks, the real God is the purpose or intent, the divine logos behind the evolution of the inferior and no longer believable God of orthodox tradition? 

Wright is like a gardening enthusiast who explains (with dramatic pauses and frequent repetition) how a walnut seed grows into a mature tree. He describes how a seed opens and sprouts, tap root down and shoot up, breaks ground, and spreads its leaves, with all the excitement of scientific induction. He obviously thinks he is telling you something you don’t know (being, no doubt, a rube from the city). His first job is to undermine naive teleological explanations. Nuts fall by themselves, and sprout with spring rains. Like a squirrel, natural selection may plant genes in us, but for its own pragmatic evolutionary purposes, without envisioning the moral tree that will grow up and put all nations in its ethical shade. 

But then, Wright recalls, nuts fall from trees. For those who care to follow the argument (Wright is careful not to overreach here) the existence of a “moral arrow” built into nature may be taken as evidence of some kind of purpose, or even of some kind of God. 

The first serious problem with this story is one Wright shares with Armstrong. Did God really evolve? Early in their respective narratives, both mention the curious phenomena of “sky gods,” concepts of a Supreme God quite like the Judeo“Christian God that appear in hunter-gatherer and herding cultures around the world. (And sometimes survives in more advanced civilizations, like China.) They then move on to other matters”telling how God evolved (“more and more scholars [acknowledge] a gradual evolution of a complex Yahweistic religion from a polytheistic past”)”forgetting that a recognizable God in prehistory renders the idea that God evolved through history unnecessary. 

Marduk, Wright tells us, was Mesopotamia’s “closest approach yet to a universalist monotheism.” He “had sovereignty over the whole world,” named the four quarters of the world, and created humanity. 

But so did the “High God” of many aboriginal tribes. As even so firm a materialist as Emile Durkheim has acknowledged, the Aussie High God was seen as Creator of all, “benefactor of humanity,” and Judge after death. Observers have been offering similar quotes from Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia for close to a century and a half now; Wright mentions the phenomena himself. 

Why do we need modern empires to explain God, if aboriginal nomads reached the same conception just by staring at the stars? And how does Wright know the Hebrew conception of God didn’t fall like a nut from more primitive remembrances? 

Problems deepen as Wright moves to the New Testament. Here Wright’s major concern is to argue that the historical Jesus “didn’t emphasize universal love at all,” unanimous early Christian testimony to the contrary. The problem here is Wright’s evolutionary scheme, which requires that universal morality grow up like a tender shoot, and not flower too early. Like a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian, a premature conception of forgiving enemies, for example, would complicate Wright’s evolutionary scheme. 

Wright points out that Mark, the earliest gospel, has little to say about loving Gentiles. In fact, Mark’s Jesus obliquely refers to a Gentile woman as a dog. Wright notes that the “Great Commission” postscript at the end of Mark was added after the fact. (Unfortunately, he overlooks verses in chapters 13 and 14 in which Jesus also says that “the gospel must be preached to all nations.”) 

Throwing out most or all of the early records to save a theory is, of course, poor historical method. (Though nothing that has not exasperated careful New Testament scholars before!) But Wright later sabotages his own argument by reminding us (when he wants us to know Jesus believed in a resurrection) that Paul is a good source for what Jesus said, too: “Paul’s credentials as a witness to Jesus’ teachings are good, as such credentials go. Paul was alive when Jesus died and was attuned to the doctrines of Jesus’ followers.” 

By that criteria, unfortunately, not only Paul, but all Christians who lived within the plausible lifespan of Jesus’ first followers”including the authors of the canonical gospels”were unlikely to be completely mistaken about so fundamental an issue as whether they were to preach to goyim . And by the same criteria, Wright’s second-guessing is late, weak, and contradicted by anything that can be called real evidence. 

Wright has read little New Testament scholarship, and what he has read is mostly by scholars like Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels, and Morton Smith. He even cites the latter’s Jesus the Magician ”failing to recognize that Smith was the real magician, his main legacy being to conjure up the Secret Gospel of Mark out of an imaginary letter from Clement. 

I once wrote a book refuting the Jesus Seminar, but here I could almost wish Robert Funk’s merry gang on Wright. Funk was deeply hostile to Christianity. Nevertheless, he noted that the story of the Good Samaritan “passed the coherence test” because it fit the remarkable portrait of Jesus in all four gospels so perfectly:
 Jesus steadily privileged those marginalized in his society”the diseased, the infirm, women, children, toll collectors, gentile suppliants, perhaps even Samaritans”precisely because they were regarded as the enemy, the outsider, the victim. The Samaritan as helper was an implausible role in the everyday world of Jesus; that is what makes the Samaritan plausible as a helper in a story told by Jesus.
But in the evolutionary story told by Wright, a Jesus who cares for Gentiles and taught the Sermon on the Mount is not at all plausible. Wright’s Jesus, by contrast, is a “fire-and-brimstone apocalyptic preacher” (and xenophobe) who shares “a lot in common” with Muhammad. And here we come to the point of the exegesis. 

To an untutored reader of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Muhammad as described in standard biographies”attacks on neighboring tribes, enslavement and murder of enemies, forcible relations with a woman whose husband his troops had just killed”is less than inspiring. But Wright can hardly leave Muhammad out of his evolutionary tale, and the story must show progress. 

The genius of Wright’s scheme at this point lies in its dialectic. 

The temptation may be to play down violent episodes in the prophet’s life, as Armstrong does in her history of Islam, or to ignore them (in John Esposito’s 700-page Oxford History of Islam , they merit a single sentence). Wright attempts though to view Islam with both eyes without blinking”“at one point Muhammad is urging Moslems to kill infidels and at another he is a beacon of religious tolerance””then integrate that dual vision. 

Wright recognizes that the more savage Quranic revelations come later, when Muhammad is safely ensconced in Medina. But as Muhammad’s tribe grew, it worked the same dialectic of exclusion, expansion, and inclusion that mark the pains of racial tribes growing into empires. “It was a deft maneuver that Muhammad’s successors pulled off: Declare war on a people because of their religion and then, shortly after the conquest, feel tolerance welling up.” Hadiths, like memory stones, mark stages of the path to an inclusive society. And therein lie resources with which to solve our modern dilemma. 

Unlike Marx, Wright sees human beings as free agents, rather than as ciphers to the historical dialectic. Being clever, we pick and choose and interpret our Scriptures according to the needs of the moment. Each of the Abrahamic religions thus bares within it the potential for a humanistic interpretation. The chance for goodwill is an unexpected but inevitable byproduct of expansion, as human interactions become a “non zero-sum game.” (Putting a new spin on Muhammad’s old adage: “the way to paradise is lit by the flash of the sword!”) 

We are the world. For secularists like Dawkins and Sam Harris, theistic religions are the dangerous holdouts”Buddhists and Jains are assumed to be on board. But Wright integrates Abrahamic traditions within a fulfillment scheme leading to a humanism that embraces religious and secular worldviews. Sweetening the pot, he adds that this historical dialectic may even be taken as an argument for God. Wright does not seem to recognize it, but he is at this point trodding almost in the footsteps of Clement of Alexandria. 

Clement is cited early in Evolution of God . Wright credits him for attacking racism and embracing a “monotheism that has an ethical core and is universalist.” He then faults Clement for assuming the Christian God to be utterly different from the polytheistic swarm from which, Wright believes, Yahweh emerged. 

But Clement actually found a more interesting role for Greco-Roman thought in the divine order. “Truth is one,” he insisted. Reminding his readers of Euripides’ racy story of how Dionysius maddened the women of Thebes so they tore their king to bloody pieces, Clement added: “Just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light.” 

Like Clement, Wright views theology as “preparatory instruction” toward a truer conception of God. Wright’s goal is to do to theology what Clement did to Greek philosophy: “ The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell.” 

Wright and Clement differ about which part of the nut is edible, of course. But one hopes that reading Wright, Clement might again be able to affirm: “But all are illuminated by the dawn of life.” 

There are a lot of problems with this book, many deriving from the fact that when it comes to the Christian tradition, Wright often does not know what he is talking about. But truth is one. And surely Wright is onto something in supposing that the history of religion itself reveals the hand of God. It would have been better if he had considered earlier Christian sketches of God’s universal handiwork, from Clement himself, Matteo Ricci, Chesterton’s immortal Everlasting Man , or Rodney Stark’s fascinating recent Discovery of God . Still, Wright usefully challenges believers to tell the “old, old story” of Jesus, and his love, in a broader context”sketching a tree with roots in every tradition, and with leaves and fruit for the healing of all nations. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

New Book: The Trump Bible!

I am pleased to announce my new e-book: "The Trump BIble: Why No Christian Should Vote for Donald Trump."

Donald Trump claims that he "reads the Bible more than anyone."  What Bible is he talking about?  Here, from the sands of western Egypt, is unearthed the book that actually inspired Donald Trump.

Part satire, part jeremiad, and all impassioned plea, The Trump Bible is a call to the American Church to wake up and stop an anti-Christ from harming the world, American young people, and the cause of Christ.  

Please help pass the word along!  Let's stop this vile man from representing the Republican Party or the United States of America.  Help me persuade Christians to not disgrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by supporting this shameless libertine, liar, bully, and in short, a person whose personality and actions so far in life make him the near-opposite of the man we Christians call "Lord!"

Thanks to Lewis Wawa for his great cover illustration, and to Albert Mcllhenny for technical assistance.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Into Africa: John Marshall serving in Ethiopia

Note: This is the second part of the little biography I wrote of my father a few years ago.  It will, no doubt, be mainly of interest to family and friends. Here's Part I. -- DM

Chapter Two: Year in Ethiopia

The Greek historian Herodotus puzzled at length about the Nile River.  What was its source?  He followed it by boat for many weeks, then quizzed those who seemed most knowledgeable, but not even the locals seemed to have a clue.  That it flowed through Libya, and some place he called Ethiopia, was clear.  That there was a big lake, he knew, but no word came from beyond the arid and seemingly empty desert past that.  

And why did the Nile act like no other river?  In particular, why when other rivers were at their driest in August, did the Nile begin to flood?  Herodotus floated three popular theories: that the Nile was part of some “world current” and drew its source (somehow) from the ocean, that winds pushed the waters up somehow, or that the Nile flooded from snowmelt.  This latter theory, which seemed most prosaic and sensible (held by Euripides and later Ptolemy, among others), Herodotus nevertheless pronounced the most daft of all: everyone knows Libya is too hot for snow, how could regions further south be any colder?  Herodotus’ own theory was the most complex, and perhaps daft for so commonly sensible an observer, of all.  

The truth is the Nile forks, and 90% of its flow comes from the Blue Nile, which flows out of modern Ethiopia.  Western Ethiopia, which rises in places to over 14,000 feet, gets quite a bit of rain, especially in July and August, up to eighty inches a year in some places.  (And yes, even a little snow, in the Semien Mountains.)  

It would be in northern “Ethiopia” (now Asmara, the capital of modern Eritrea) that John would be stationed during much of his army service.  He was attached to a large base (see long, thin buildings in Google Map photo of Asmara below, which I believe were the barracks, still apparently in use.  The present US Embassy may be that building with the donut hole at middle top) around which now spreads a city of some 630,000 people, about as large in population as Seattle.  (Though then doubtless much less populace.)  The city lies at some 7300 feet, and therefore has a pleasant, warm but not hot climate which gets usually two mildly rainy periods a year, and two dry periods.  

Kagnew Station was a key listening post during the Cold War, operated by the US Army (at first with permission from Britain) from 1943 to 1977.  Originally the site had been an Italian radio station – the Italians having invaded Ethiopia, left some of their best architecture behind in Asmara.  

One soldier who was stationed there recalls an even finer article of Italian origination.  An Italian movie director brought his crew to Asmara to make a film.  When the leading lady appeared, dipping in and out of a swimming pool he was at, everything else went hazy for a while.  She was an 18 year old Italian beauty whose name, he recalls, was Sophia.  Later she would acquire the last name of Loren.  

John was assigned to vehicle maintenance for the Second Signal Service Battalion.  It was a prosaic job, but the landscapes, and his adventures there, would haunt him forever.  A soldier stationed at Kagnew in the 1960s commented romantically:  “It was a place in which a story took place which would require a Shakespeare to write, in a landscape which would require a Rembrandt to paint.”

Stan had been the first to join up.  In April of 1946, Stan enlisted in the Army, learned aviational electronics, and served in the Signal Corps in towns across Alaska, including Fairbanks and Barrow.  After or between tours in Korea and Vietnam, Stan was stationed for a time with the Air Defense Missile Command at one of several batteries protecting Seattle from Soviet bombers, based in Redmond, "before Microsoft was thought of."  These batteries included the Nike Ajax (1956) and later Nike Hercules missiles, prepared to shoot down subsonic Soviet bombers should they stray into the Seattle area:

"A double launch site with twice the missiles of a usual launch facility, was in operation from September 1954 to March 1974.  In June 1958 S-13 and 14 became Nike Hercules sites.  The control site was at 95th Avenue NE and 172nd and today is a National Guard facility with the former barracks and administrative buildings in use."

 The launch site, pictured above, was a mile and a half east.  The control site would play a small role in the life of a later John Marshall, an airplane-loving grandson who would attend Civil Air Patrol meetings on this site.  

Wikipedia tells the story of Kagnew base:
“In March 1941 Roosevelt administration declared Ethiopia eligible for the military aid program known as the Lend-Lease program.  This was done to support the British troops in Libya and Egypt which were fighting Germany's Afrika Korps.  The focus of the lend-lease program was in Eritrea, a former Italian colony which strategically bordered the Red Sea. British forces had established a communications base at the former Italian radio communications base named called Radio Marina, which was located in Asmara, Eritrea.  The British used the former Italian name for the base, Radio Marina.  The United States received access to the base from the British beginning in 1942.  The United States would initially call the former Radio Marina the "Asmara Barracks," but the name "Radio Marina" would become the more enduring name for the base until the base was officially named "Kagnew Station."  In 1943 a seven-man detachment refurbished the former British facilities and began testing the new equipment they installed. Eritrea's geographical location; 15 degrees north of the equator at an altitude of 7,600 feet (2,300 m), was excellent for sending and receiving radio signals.  Early testing proved so promising that the War Department moved to expand operations before Asmara Barracks officially opened.
“On June 1, 1943, two officers, one warrant officer and 44 enlisted men began intensive training at Vint Hill Farms to man Radio Marina. In December, 4 officers and 50 enlisted men staffed Radio Marina, a base located on an arrowhead-shaped tract of land, designated as Tract A by the U.S. Military. While the United States had access to base since 1942, a formalized agreement to permit the United States use of the site did not exist until 1952 when the Ethiopian government, the federation of Eritrea and the United States signed an agreement.
“In 1953, the base officially acquired the name of Kagnew Station.
“Kagnew was supplied by planes from the U.S. Airbase in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and by ships docking at the Red Sea port of Massawa.  Its chapel had a seating capacity of 220 and an over-flow space to accommodate 150 more persons. The Guest House had eight rooms, a lobby and a kitchen, all made of concrete-block construction. The Roosevelt Theatre seated 320 patrons and was equipped with a CinemaScope screen and the latest sound and projection equipment. The gymnasium had a regulation basketball court with bleachers, retractable backboards and an electric scoreboard. It also housed ten bowling lanes, a boxing ring, gymnastic equipment, a locker room and shower rooms.  The Dependent School had 17 classrooms, a large auditorium, science laboratory and library.  A combined laundry-and-dry-cleaning plant could clean 50,000 pieces a month.  KANU TV and KANU Radio provided television and radio services.  Kagnew also had the usual Commissary, Post Exchange, snack bar and post office.  The base Service Center included a music room, craft shop, photography darkroom, library and an auto shop.  A football field, softball field and an indoor pool were also available.  Children could play golf on the $22,000 miniature golf course; and adults played on the 18-hole golf course.  Kagnew Farms, located northwest of Tract E, on the old Radio Marina Transmitter Site, became a recreation and picnic are known as Kagnew Farms until construction of STONEHOUSE at the same site in 1964. Kagnew Farms contained a skeet range, a small-bore rifle and pistol range, the Afro-American Racing Club's banked-dirt oval track (Used for car races, motorcycle scrambles and gherry cart races.), and a large picnic area.
“The military passed off Kagnew Station as a "telephone relay station" to disguise its real activities.  The secret of Kagnew Station was kept not by hiding the equipment but by openly displaying the equipment and passing it off as something innocent: a telephone relay station and deep space research site.  In 1964, an 85-foot (26 m) dish and a 150-foot (46 m) dish arrived in Massawa and were brought up the mountain in sections to Kagnew Station.  The dishes were used at Stonehouse the military's "Deep Space Research Site," which was a joint project of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Army Security Agency (ASA).  Other agencies operating at Kagnew Station included the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Army Security Agency (ASA), the U.S. Strategic Communications Command (STRATCOM),the Navy Communications (NAVCOMM) and a signal research unit. Located on nearly the same longitude as the Soviet deep space command center in the Crimea, the large Stonehouse antennas were used to monitor telemetry from a variety of Russian spacecraft . . .
“The United States spent 77 million dollars building Kagnew Station.  In terms of 2006 dollars, Kagnew Station would have cost 495 million dollars to build . . .”
Unlike most expensive government projects, Kagnew Station came to an eventual end:
Fighting between the Eritrean resistance and the Ethiopian government forces began affecting operations at Kagnew Station in the 1970s. In March 1971, 3,500 Americans remained at Kagnew Station, 1,900 personnel (1,700 of whom were military) and 1,600 dependents. By July 18, 1972 the U.S. Personnel at Kagnew Station was reduced to 900 personnel. In March 1974, only 100 civilian technicians remained to operate the residual communications facility, along with their families, and eight to ten U.S. military personnel.
“On the night of January 31, 1975, heavy fighting broke out in Eritrea and incoming rocket-propelled grenades landed inside the Tract E compound. This began a season of frequent nighttime firefights between the Eritrean resistance and the Soviet-backed Ethiopian forces. On 14 July 1975, gunmen abducted two Americans and four Ethiopians from Kagnew Communications Station. The Americans, Steve Campbell and Jim Harrel, worked for Collins International Service Company (CISCO), a government contractor. On Friday 12 September 1975, the ELF raided the US facility at Asmara, kidnapping a further eight people, including two Americans.
“On February 12, 1976 a meeting at the White House Situation Room took place discussing Kagnew Station. Lt. General Smith stated, "Right now fleet operations are dependent on Kagnew. The Navy has a strong interest in keeping it. They have reaffirmed to me that if they don't have Kagnew they would need a similar site elsewhere." At one point in the discussion, Mr. Noyes said, "Yes. If we didn't have Kagnew there would be communications delays 25% of the time.
“By December 1976 the only critical function appeared to be Mystic Star. In the same memorandum, DOD stated, "It recommends closing Kagnew by September 1977 if Mystic Star can be relocated . . . “
I asked if Stan found more to talk about with his younger brother after John enlisted in the Army too.  They were doing different kinds of work, he pointed out, and while John was with the Army Security Agency, he was in automotive support.  Even if he overheard any secrets, which he was not cleared for, he could not have talked about them.

So John never talked about his work in Ethiopia, or about the work his unit did there, but about hunting trips, visits with missionaries, sometimes about the people, and sometimes using a few words of Italian he had picked up.  (Not, presumably, from Sophie Lauren.)  

John often recalled a hunting trip during which, as the hunters neared their destination towards dusk, their guide warned in Italian of “leopardo.”  John recalls his fear that a ferocious wild cat would spring on them suddenly from out of the bush.  Later he learned (he would say) that leopardo actually meant “rabbit” in Italian.  (On-line dictionaries say the word for rabbit is coniglio, so I am unsure exactly what the guide was trying to say.)

The main animals John recalled seeing, were jackals, wild pigs, and antelopes: he mounted the head of one of the latter on his study wall in Seattle.  Apparently American soldiers put quite a dent in the antelope population around Asmara, because an on-line site speaks of them vaguely in the past tense.  

John especially enjoyed visiting missionaries who were working in Ethiopia.  I think this had a life-long impact on his thinking about the world, broadening his mind and opening his vision up to God's work around the world.  West Side would be a missions-minded congregation, and perhaps was already.  The son of their friend Ron and Connie, Larry Burke, would work with Wycliffe in the neighboring country of Chad.  John and Pat were on the West Side missions committee for some years, partly because of my work in East Asia, but also because they felt a genuine interest in the work of God around the world, and a kinship with people like Don and Martha Wilson, and Paul and Margaret Brand, that developed into warm friendships.  

When he moved to Alaska, as we shall soon see, John also naturally fell in with the same sort of people - wonderful missionaries who would become life-long friends.  

John sometimes recalled with sadness, however, that one of the most seemingly vibrant missionaries he knew in Ethiopia later committed suicide.  

By the early 1950s, “Johnnie came marching home again,” or riding home, and was ready to settle down, like a proper soldier, with a beautiful girl by his side.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Mike Bastin Kisses Up to Tyrants and Throws America Under the Bus

China Daily is a propaganda rag, which I stop in a local Starbucks to read for the news (mostly straight), interesting cultural pieces, and sports summaries.  My eye often however drifts to the opinion page, which is a mixture of North Korean-style rants, and more nuanced pieces. 
What is most disturbing is to find some of those rants are by westerners who are willing to sell their soul to a propaganda organ to vent their bile at their own country, or at their perceived enemies in America.  
This is particularly obnoxious because China Daily never airs any of the many grievous short-comings of the Chinese dictatorship.  While disasters are mentioned, the paper's coverage of their own bosses, aside from those targetted for corruption, is universally fawning.  Always the fault lies entirely with whatever country China is having a hard time playing well this week -- whether the US, or Japan, Taiwan, or even the Phillippines.  
It is reprehensible for a westerner, who surely knows the truth, to feed the appetite of such a propaganda outlet for anti-American propaganda. 
Today, for instance, I found an article on the faults of American democracy ("democracy") by an economist named Mike Bastin.  I should have been an easy audience to please, because Bastin was attacking Donald Trump, and I'm a sucker for attacks on Trump.  But in his rush to paint his own country in the darkest colors, Bastin couldn't even bother to get his most basic facts correct.  (Most of the present generation of Chinese communist propagandists do better than his piece.)
In the following rebuttal, I will include all of Bastin's article, which is fairly short, so no one can accuse me of quoting him out of context. 
"Even though US presidential candidate Donald Trump's rivals in the Republican Party appear to be gaining some kind of momentum, it still looks as if the billionaire businessman is about to secure the nomination to contest one of the most powerful positions on the planet."
Accurate enough so far, except that rather than "one of" the most powerful positions, "the most powerful position" would probably be more accurate.  
"What is at stake? Is it Trump's often nonsensical and barmy rhetorical rants? Or, is it yet again the phony, money-centric system of democracy that defines the United States?"
So America's democracy is "phony?"  What about China's "democracy?"  (One of the twelve "core socialist values" the government is pushing is "Democracy.")  Are you going to say anything critical about that -- like, that it's a complete illusion?  That more than 1.3 billion people are completely disenfranchised from choosing their own leaders?  
No, of course not.   
Obama didn't have much money.  Neither does Bernie Sanders, nor did Ben Carson.  Their popularity was based not on huge finances, but on the support of millions.  Could a Ben Carson rise to contest the presidency of China?  
Don't make me laugh.
"The answer is the latter.
"Trump relies on one thing and one thing only: financial fortune (most of which was inherited from his late father). 
Two grotesque errors, here. 
In fact, what propelled Trump to the lead in the Republican race was not his money -- he hasn't spent much of it, actually -- but his pithy if, yes, 'barmy' rants.  Lots of people like the bastard.  I don't, but in fact he hasn't won by spending the most money -- if money settled everything, then Jeb Bush would be the Republican winner. 
And no, most of Trump's money was NOT inherited.  
"Not that Trump is the only one. All the presidential frontrunners rely on huge amounts of money without which any hopes of power would be a pipe dream."
Yes, just as power in every country relies on money -- even North Korea.  This is just an inane Marxist truism, dressed up to sound cynical and cutting.  If you want to sell Coke, you need to spend money on advertising.  If you want to convince voters Bush or Sanders or Trump is the best guy, you also need to pay for advertising.  And the Core Socialist Values campaign also spends a massive amount of money.  
Welcome to the real world.  
It is neither moral nor immoral, but intrinsically necessary, that it takes - has always taken - a lot of money to communicate to hundreds of millions of people.  
"The presidential race, and Trump's presence in particular, also highlights the gross unfairness of wealth distribution across the US. All the frontrunners that appear so regularly on our television screens are white, middle class. Where are the African Americans?  Where are the Asian Americans? vIncumbent President Barack Obama's election appeared to break the mold and herald a new dawn but clearly little, if any, progress has been made with regard to equality of opportunity."
Either Baskin has not been paying attention, or he has a very short memory.  Ben Carson, a black surgeon, was the front-runner in the Republican campaign for a while.  Why did he slide?  Because after the Paris attacks, he was perceived as being too uninformed and gentle for the job.  (Trump is also uninformed, but so far no one has accused him of being too gentle.)  
The Republicans also have had two leading Hispanic candidates this session, along with a female businesswoman.  The leading candidate on the Democratic side is a woman, for the first time.  
What, in a country where one in eight are black, now all the candidates should be black, or something?   Or else this is "clear" evidence that "little progress has been made to equality of opportunity?"
And last round Herman Cain, a black businessman, similarly did well until his weaknesses as a candidate were exposed.  
By contrast, when was the last time a Tibetan or a woman was elected to supreme power in China?  
"Money talks in the US and Trump does a lot of talking.  In fact, another feature of US-style "democracy" is the incessant, fatuous drivel spouted by all those running for power.  Rarely do we see a serious debate on serious economic and/or social issues affecting the US and the wider world.  Instead, we are tortured by Trump's tirades against rival candidates (both Republican and Democratic) and jovial jingoistic "God bless America" sound bites and little else."
"Even the live telecasts of debates descend into farce, nay nonsense, with each contender trying desperately to score cheap brownie points against the others."
I watched several Republican debates, and this is simply false.  The debates were often highly substantive.  Admittedly, the one at which Trump failed to show up was probably the best, but that's not the fault of his rivals.  
There has been a great deal of debate over policy towards Iran, Israel, China, and so forth, as well as economic debate.  Bastin either did not watch the debates, or only managed to notice what he didn't want to see.  
And what is "jingoistic" about "God bless America?"  A jingoist is someone who wants to start a lot of wars.  One  can hope God will bless one's country without wishing for more wars, and one can start wars -- as Chairman Mao did, in all directions -- without invoking God. 
"Perhaps most disconcerting of all is the fact that Americans cannot find anyone better.  It appears that Trump really does embody many of the personality traits shared by a large number of Americans."
On this point, I actually agree.  And I would say the same, even more so, about Chairman Mao's continued and disconcerting popularity in China, despite his willingness that one third of Chinese die in a global nuclear war, if such were needed to ensure the victory of communism -- not to mention his millions of actual murders.  Surely China could have found someone better? 
Or better than the present Xi Jinping, who seems to want to start trouble with most of his neighbors?  (Not while invoking God, but while tearing crosses off of churches?) 
Little mute on that subject, are we, Bastin?  Yet this stage you're mounted on, the official Chinese press, is dedicated to the propaganda that makes the likes of Mao a continued national hero, and puffs up Xi all day long.    
"Even Trump's claim to be a "self-made man", personifying the "American Dream" is without foundation. A cursory examination of Trump's business career reveals an inherited foundation marked by his numerous blunders."
While again, I'm easy on Trump criticism, this is, again, lazy.  Most of Trump's money, he did not in fact inherit. Trump exaggerates the extent to which he is a self-made man.  The solution to lies is not to tell opposite lies, but to tell the truth.    
"While we can only hope Trump is finally trounced and roundly rejected by the American people, his apparent popularity among voters is also a disturbing feature of US-style "democracy". Americans appear to fall under the spell of the most outspoken, raucous, aggressive presidential candidate regardless of what they actually stand for."
A plainly false generalization.  The last Republican candidates were named Romney, McCain, Bush, and Dole.  Raucous rabble-rousers?  Baloney.  
Obama might be accused of that, but he tried to sound competent and reasonable when he was running for president.  
"Not that the other candidates represent anything less hypocritical. The Bush family and the Clinton family appear to believe they have an automatic right to power and, in effect, abuse this putative "democratic" process."
Actually, there are no provisions in the American Constitution that deny the sons or wives of former presidents from running for public office.  Does Baskin suggest that there should be?  Or merely that they should run without confidence?  
Was it a tragedy that John Q Adams, or Franklin D Roosevelt, were elected president, thanks to family fortune and fame?  Baskin is confusing "freedom" with "equality."  
But now here's where Baskin shows his true colors: 
"Fortunately, and what also appears to escape these most unworldly US presidential frontrunners, the American influence around the world continues to decline - a downward spiral that will only accelerate under the presidency of any of the frontrunners."
So here's the good news, world.  China will increase, and the United States of America -- which won World War II, won the Cold War, defended numerous countries against totalitarian and Islamic aggression, and rebuilt Europe and Japan, is now fading into the sunset.  
So my bosses in Beijing (after killing millions of innocent people in their own country, destroying much of the world's great art and architecture, and sucking the soul out of Chinese culture) can do whatever they like to Taiwan, or punish Japan or the Philllipines, in a few years.  And they can continue to feed their people with any lies they like, with no fear of competition, or tear down churches, or torture cultists. The whole world should breath a sigh of relief!  No one will be around to constrain the mad Kim family in North Korea, or Islamic terrorists!  
"So until then let's content ourselves with the belief that Trump's political career will at some stage in the future come to an end and let's also try to advise this charismatic candidate on a life after politics: Surely a promising career beckons in the world of TV shows, for leadership and diplomacy are a totally different cup of tea."
Or he might try his hand at flattering the prejudices of tyrants, like you do, Mr. Baskin.  He seems to admire Putin.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Descent of Jesus Criticism

Ours is an age of demogogues in both politics and scholarship.  What counts in a media-saturated era, which has lost patience for substantial debate, and has been infantalized by pop culture, is the sound bite, the crudely startling meme.  Thus a man with no accomplishments, a left-wing ideologue who beats up on America's allies and kisses up to her enemies, is elected to the presidency twice, despite the utter failure of his policies.  But he possesses a voice of smooth modulation and pitch, and speaks with confident, "coolly" derisive tones.  The scum rises to the top on the other side of the aisle now, with a demogogue who (among an endess list of taudry untruths) falsely accuses the former president of his own party of deliberately lying to get us into a war with Iraq -- without a hint of evidence to back up that accusation.  Such antics have put him at the top of the polls. 

Jesus Skepticism has followed a similar downward path of devolution, enabled by Internet memes and self-publishing, along with the sheer bravado and emotional power of the empty bluff. 

The Jesus Seminar was bad enough.  As I showed in my 2005 book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, the scholars who constituted that colloquium committed twelve systematic errors which degraded their scholarship.  They also overlooked numerous qualities in the gospels that make them historically-persuasive texts.  Still, the work of Funk, Crossan, and Borg (less Mack) contained a great deal of value, too: recognition and a keen description of Jesus' spirit of celebration, his fondness for people on the margins, the background of social revolution and oppression in the Roman Empire, even Borg's concept of a "spirit person."  Such scholars were grossly mistaken on many counts, and subject to systematic blindness, but still, they were largely serious men and women who while they misplaced the historical Jesus, did find traces of his footprints in the sand along the Sea of Galilee. 

Then Richard Carrier came along, an Internet sensation and a self-published author.  Carrier earned a doctorate in the History of Ancient Science from Columbia, and talked an academic publisher into printing his twin works on the historical Jesus.  As Machen predicted long ago, liberal scholarship was bound to give rise to extreme skepticism -- the Jesus of the Gospels is simply too much for atheists to take even in small doses.  Carrier thus overlooked not the elephant in the room, but a whole thundering herd of elephants of fulsome evidence within the gospels, in his determination to overthrow the scholarly belief that Jesus was a real person, if nothing else. 

Carrier is at least intelligent and well-read.  His thesis seems, however, to depend on his readers never picking up the books he refers to, because they often simply do not say what he represents them as saying.  His work is perfect for an Internet Age, an age in which original texts are widely available, but few are bothered to read them.  Thus today a lie gets all the way around the world (not just half-ways, as before) while truth is putting her boots on. 

Reza Aslan then wrote the Number One Best-Seller in America, a hatchet-job on Jesus that revealed the "best-selling scholar" not as merely a rookie, but as a phony.  Aslan claimed to have done 20 years of research on the historical Jesus, though there was little evidence of any previous work from him on the subject.  Aslan showed that he didn't even know that the Sea of Galilee was made of fresh water -- among other remarkable whoppers in his best-selling book.

Still, Aslan can at least play a serious scholar on TV.

Yet another step down this slope is Matthew Ferguson, whose scholarly failings I have chronicled here and here.  Even worse was Raphael Lataster.  These young men are graduate students who seem to be learning wrong lessons about scholarship, from the wrong people.  Ferguson compares the Gospels to an obscure work called The Contest of Hesiod and Homer -- an embarrassing and silly comparison, which I skewered here.  In the process of implying that The Contest is a more credible work of history, Ferguson fails to so much as mention that the work was written most of a millennium after the "facts," or that unlike the Gospels, it doesn't even pretend to be historical!  Failing to mention two such game-changing facts is scholarly malpractice of the highest order.  Not to mention dozens of other differences between the Gospels and The Contest which demonstrate why the former are believable and the latter are not -- including some which even members of the Jesus Seminar recognize.  But my most basic criticism of Ferguson is that, for all his study, including in Greek and Latin, he does not seem yet to have really learned how to read and understand what he is reading well

Ferguson at least seems to me to show more intellectual promise than Lataster.  In my critique, I therefore spoke at times as a teacher correcting an errant younger scholar.  Ferguson seemed offended by my tone, no doubt feeling that I was striking an artificial posture.  But as an experienced teacher, I do see the immaturity of Ferguson's work, as well as his potential.  So this was no mere rhetorical posture: were he to learn from the criticism I offered, I believe Ferguson could become a better and more potent critic.   

I saw much less potential in Raphael Lataster's first book, self-published and crude to an extreme degree, but shockingly popular. I don't think I found a single impressive English sentence in the entire book -- or as much as I could stand to read of it.  Even his footnotes were a mess.  His thesis was repudiated emphatically by his own professor.  Yet he managed to get published on the Washington Post website. 

The decent continues, unimpeded it seems by any self-critical sense on the skeptical side. 

A couple weeks ago, I posted a somewhat slap-dash critique of one R Carmona, who posts on a blog called Academic Atheist.    Despite the title of his blog, R. Carmona, an undergraduate student aiming to go on to graduate studies, did not appear in the post to which I responded to have done much if any original research on the historical Jesus.  There was little sign that Carmona had read much ancient material for himself.  I found no original thesis or carefully thought-out methodology.  Rather, Carmona had scanned Ferguson's blog, and taken his arguments as "gospel." as they say.  (Along with some readings, again, from Carrier.) 

Carmona's biggest error was to describe his site as "academic," yet parrot the work of immature, untested, and fringe "scholars" with barely a trace of critical inquiry. 

In short, Carmona wrote an old-style, pre-reform SAT essay, which I am trying to teach my 17 year old students to grow beyond.  He cited two marginal and unproven scholars who think, like Trump, that because they stand outside the "establishment," their motives must be pure, and they alone have found the truth.  He offered a thesis and some slap-dash "evidence" to support it, without worrying about opposing arguments or evidence that might undermine that thesis.  Attack the right enemy with sound-bites that sound good, and the merest patina of what looks at a glance vaguely like scholarship, and many young fools predisposed to your biases seem eager to buy your thesis hook, line, and sinker. 

Real scholarship addresses boldly and fairly the best in opposing positions.  It seeks truth in work that is not personally amenable.  It tests one's thesis not with ad hoc observations, but with an objective and pre-determined set of criteria.  (As I did in critiquing Carrier and Ferguson -- my criteria for doing so were published already in 2005, long before I had heard of either gentleman.  I took on the best of liberal scholarship in doing so, and respectfully pointed out what seemed valuable in the work of Borg, Funk, and Crossan, as well as what I saw as mistaken.)

So I posted 47 criticisms of Carmona's argument on this site several weeks ago. 

Carmona responded at first with outrage.  He began with an obscenity and by misunderstanding my interest in Matthew Ferguson's on-line articles. 

Now he has posted a longer rebuttal, gentler in tone but of little more value in substance. 

I will not pretend to treat Carmona as a debate partner.  He is even younger that Ferguson or Lataster, and looking at his "arguments," I don't find any that are intellectually interesting, still less represent an educational challenge.   He seems to be under the silly impression, for instance, that "arguments from authority" are logically fallacious or inappropriate, a bias that would prove deadly to scholarship in general (and to the Law, not to mention Medicine, and therefore to patients) were it to be accepted.   ("What do you mean, Dr. Crockpuss says I have malaria?   Don't you know it is a logical fallacy to appeal to authorities?") 

Carmona attempts to answer, it appears, even one of my points, without admitting anything or learning anything.  I have no intention of going over them all again.  But I do wish to point to five comments that illustration this general trend.  It is not that Carmona is stupid (as I am afraid Lataster may be), but that atheism has taught him to be arrogant, to assume that his status as a "bright" makes up for his palpable ignorance and lack of skill -- neither of which would be unbecoming in a student, were it not for that error-forcing arrogance. 

(1) Carmona insists, after reading my demurral, that "If the Gospels are shown to be historically reliable, this does not imply that Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is historical."

Of course it does.  If Arrian's account of the death of Alexander is historically-reliable, then it does follow that Alexander's death, as depicted by Arrian, is historical.  In fact, this is a tautology, and it is hard to know what Carmona means by denying it.  He doesn't explain.

(2) I say "there is a great deal of evidence (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and just wait for my new book!) that the gospels DO present eyewitness accounts."

Carmona responds at length:

"What evidence? Give me something to field, something to consider. What are his arguments? How does he support them? Does he engage with scholars who disagree with him? This is essentially a Courtier Reply. This is the same thing John Loftus called you out about. You claim to have read so much and yet you never prove to have any understanding of what you read–even in cases like this one where an understanding of your sources would help to strengthen your presentation. This just looks as though you’re citing Bauckham because the title of his book agrees with your view. It adds no force to your “rebuttal.” Also, there’s no need for self-promotion here. If your book is that great, let it speak for itself when it is published.

"I’m sure Christians think the consensus says otherwise, since many of them seem to have done nothing but indulge their confirmation bias and read what conservative Christian scholars have had to say about this matter. Like the evangelists and first readers, these scholars want to confirm the Christian faith. They never intended to conduct honest research."

How tedious, and how utterly childish. 

I am briefly listing 47 errors in Carmona's article in an informal blog post, between more important projects.  I am not going to spend the time to prove every point I offer: I have better things to do with my time.  But what I say here is true, and it is Carmona's thus-far rudimentary education alone that makes my comment appear false to him. 

Carmona claimed that "the gospels do not present eyewitness accounts" of Jesus' life.  That is a shoddy claim, because it fails to take into account or deal with an extensive work by a major scholar that has won plaudits from (and seems to have convinced) other leading scholars, arguing with a great force of evidence to the contrary.  Mature scholars don't or shouldn't make such glib remarks.  If their claims are contested by leading scholars like that, they should deal with or at least admit the controversy. 

I am not obliged to prove Bauckham's point, to show that Carmona is writing carelessly.  If Carmona wants to know what Bauckham argues -- and he should, if he deigns to write on this subject -- he should read his book, as of course I have, despite Carmona's sleazy insinuation that I merely "claim" to "have read so much" without having any real understanding, and throw out a helpful-sounding title to support my case. 

Indeed, if Carmona were more careful (a scholarly virtue) and did a few moments worth of research (research for scholars is fun, like eating almonds mixed with chocolate for other people), he would have found that exactly four years ago, I reviewed Jesus and the Eyewitnesses on Amazon in enough detail to demonstrate that I had actually read the book.  (Winning, so far, 14 out of 14 "helpful" votes from other readers, one of whom posted to say he bought the book on my recommendation, and found my representation of it accurate.)  So Carmona's snide insinuations about my lazily citing a book I probably had not read because I liked its title, only suggests that Mr. Carmona is himself at present something of a lazy fool.  (A combination of conditions which I sincerely hope he overcomes.  I wish the best to his teachers!) 

Again, Carmona sleazily accuses "these scholars," apparently including me, of never even "intending" to conduct "honest research," which apparently (the boundaries of the accusation are puffy) means we Christians generally don't read opposing points of view.

Yet I met "Carmona" on John Loftus' blog.  John complains not that I don't read his books, but that I do, and post devastating (not that he uses that word) reviews of them on Amazon.  He even tried to "buy me off" by offering to delete one of his reviews of my books, if I would delete my review of his new book. 

The claim that I "never prove to have any understanding of what  I read" is just more childish nonsense.  My reviews on Amazon, largely critical reviews of some of the most important books by writers of many persuasions (including numerous atheists), have received some 13,000 "helpful" votes so far.  Reviews of my books by informed scholars have gone out of their way to say that I describe opposing positions fairly -- even Loftus has admitted that, once or twice.  (While, admittedly, saying the opposite at other times.) 

(3) "Curiously enough, you allude to something important: “they were written when Christians were persecuted.”  That says much about their allegorical style.  Also, your insight meshes better with the idea me and Matthew endorse, namely that the Gospels were written to confirm Christian faith.  More specifically, they were written as means of communication between believers and not as histories to be passed down the centuries."

This is how scholarship goes downhill.   Ferguson may think that a book written during a persecution is likely to be "allegorical:" I haven't seen that particular argument, but I have seen many of a similar confused nature from him.  Allegory is a genre, which can be written under any set of political circumstances: C. S. Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress, for instance, was written in England between the wars, when Christians were not persecuted severely.   But Carmona has picked up some claim of a link between the literary genre and the political condition from Ferguson, it seems, and forgotten that he needs to at least explain, if not defend, this rather magical and not-at-all-obvious link.

Young scholars often make that mistake: they forget that their readers can't read their minds, and don't see the links they think they recognize as self-evident. 

The gospels obviously are not "allegorical."  As an authority on allegory (yes, this is an appeal to authority), Lewis scoffed at that absurd claim.  But wide reading in various genres will affirm (for those who undertake it) Lewis' point.  Read Pilgrim's Progress, or Regress, and then the gospels, and most minimally-literate people can recognize the mountainous differences between these genres.

Ferguson compares the gospels to "histories," but that is his error.  Scholars often now describe the gospels as bioi, or Greek biographies, not as histories.  Of course they were written to confirm the Christian faith: they are public depositions, as they say themselves.  The fact that someone writes to say something is true, obviously does not by itself imply that it is not true. 
(4) Now notice this sneaky little gambit.  First, Carmona quotes Matthew Ferguson:
The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, to confirm the faith of their communities.
Then he says in his own words:

"Even conservative scholars like Craig Blomberg accept this conclusion, so if you’re the type of Christian to bypass that and say the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might as well continue in your delusions."

I expressed my doubts about this quote:

"What, the author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and The Historical Reliability of John?  I think Blomberg's true views are being misrepresented here. A direct quote would help."

Carmona now provides such a quote:

Craig Blomberg states:

“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” Strobel’s The Case for Christ (p.22)

This is the sort of game I hope this young man will learn not to play, so the world can have another honest scholar, rather than another cheap trickster. 

What does "this conclusion" in his first line in blue above refer to?  That the gospels are anonymous?  That their anonymity is widely accepted?  Or that the gospels were written "in distant lands" after a "substantial gap in time" and all the rest that lies in the paragraph after the claim to anonymity? 

Carmona doesn't seem to realize that the most likely referent for his claim about Blomberg's opinion is not the first claim in the prior paragraph, but the whole bloody paragraph.  And the quote he now offers in no way even begins to support that whole paragraph as something Blomberg would accede to. 

Carmona also doesn't seem to recognize the relevance here of Bauckham's demonstration that the gospels used exactly those names archeology shows were most frequently in use in Palestine during the time of Jesus, with remarkably exact coincidence in frequency.  He shrugs that fact off elsewhere in his "rebuttal," arguing (in effect, not an exact quote), "that just shows that people were using those names at that time."  But if the gospels were written in other languages, as he (and Ehrman, for instance) claim, and in lands distant from that in which Jesus lived, why would these fifth or tenth generation copyists manage to reproduce the exact same NAMES used in 1st Century Palestine among Jews of that time and place, in almost precise mathematical frequency? 

The whole scenario goes up in smoke.  Clearly, the gospels were closer to the facts than either Ehrman or Carmona insinuate. 

And (having read and had interaction with him), I think Blomberg agrees with that fully.

Carmona should also know that "strictly speaking" implies even by itself that Blomberg does not think the gospels really are anonymous in a less-strict sense.  If Carmona wants to be a scholar, he should get in the habit of representing opposing views accurately, and not quote-mining and ignoring what Blomberg says next . . . and what is that?  Come on, man, be honest even if you DON'T keep on calling yourself a scholar.  Cite sources fairly and in context.   What did Blomberg say next?  And read my criticism the same way, not culling one early sentence out of the full paragraph to which Blomberg's comment would most naturally refer.

That is what happens when young pups rely on other young pups like Matt Ferguson, who themselves rely on the likes of not-quite-so-young-anymore pups like Richard Carrier, who perceive themselves as radical rebels against an already radical status quo represented by sloppy liberal scholars like Bart Erhman and the Jesus Seminar. 

None of these men need be fools.  But all of them, IMO, need at this point to take active steps to arrest their slide into the mire, the feet of one pushing the back of the next and sending the whole troop cavorting down the slope into intellectual (at least) ruin.