Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Faking Skepticism: Robert Conner tells Fish Stories About Jesus

Image result for robert conner new testament
Robert Conner has written an article entitled "Faking Jesus" which purports to thread the needle between radical skeptics like Richard Carrier and those silly Christian apologists.  The basic idea is, while some fellow probably did wander around the Middle East 2000 years ago putting on a miracle show, we really can't know anything much about him, because the sources are all so bad. 

I decided beforehand that I would limit myself to finding 30 problems with Robert Conner's article.  I think the main suspense in this article may be whether I can keep to that resolution! 

Woman and the other Prophets

Men with charisma often use that charisma for sexual advantage.  This is a major theme of Indian guruism and Japanese monasticism, and has cost the Catholic Church billions.  It would be na├»ve to assume all the women in such relationships are entirely blameless. 

It is peculiar how little of that comes up in the works of the prophets, whose fiery, passionate, poetic sermons are the very elixir of the charismatic guru.  The only prominent sexual relationship featured that involves the prophets' personal lives, is Hosea's quixotic marriage to a prostitute, representing Israel, gone "whoring" after other gods.  The prophetic writings often invoke that analogy.  But the passion the prophets express is usually not over their personal fortunes, which are often sad, but over the fate of their nation, often pictured as a young woman who makes terrible choices in her personal life, and over the actual widows, young women who are raped, and mothers of children who starve or are killed by foreign armies.  The "daughter of Zion" has drunk bitter water to the dregs, and the faces of the prophets are full of tears for their fate. 

Yet the prophets also look forward to a time of return, and enter into the joy that men and women will equally experience when Israel comes home. 

As usual, the prophets use brilliant poetic imagery to make their points.  Their words are on fire with a passion for justice, and compassion for the weak and helpful, the oppressed, the sorrowful, along of course with indignation over idolatry and over oppression, which I believe has changed the world.  Our focus, however, excludes most of the most brilliant passages. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Women as Isaiah and Jeremiah see them.

The works of the Jewish prophets carry deep significance for the status and well-being of women (and men) around the world.  The prophets were on fire with divine passion against injustice and oppression.  No one ever wrote with greater eloquence on behalf of the marginalized.  One hears powerful echoes of the Old Testament prophets in the speeches of Martin Luther King, for instance.   But more importantly, Jesus should be seen as the last and greatest of the Jewish prophets.   Jesus quotes from Isaiah when he announces his ministry:

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Women and King Solomon

Solomon doesn't say much about women in Ecclesiastes.  The book is brilliant philosophy, and in my opinion of great spiritual value, but when it comes to women, its author is saving his fire.  Like Job and Psalms, most mentions are in passing, and conventional -- with one shot of misogyny, and then one far more positive image, one of the book. 

Song of Solomon, by contrast, is a beautiful love poem.  While its imagery is sensual and imaginative, and little is said about the purported author's sexual morality (which is questioned elsewhere in the Old Testament), I believe the poem has the emotional effect of calling polygamy into question perhaps on a more visceral level that formal protests elsewhere in the OT. 

Woman in Wisdom Literature

We have come to the middle of the Old Testament, and a change in genre.  Up till now, most of the Bible has related the grand story of Israel, from the Creation to the Exile in Babylon and the beginnings of return.  Space has been made for the stories of two heroic women -- Ruth and Esther -- who played important roles in the establishment and salvation of Israel.  We have also seen long stretches dedicated to legislation -- the legal code of ancient Israel, which included quite a few sexual boundaries.  (Some still recognized today, while others have fallen out of favor.) 

Now we come to Israel's Wisdom Literature.  And it is magnificent. 

Chesterton compared the Book of Job to a secret treasure that the Jewish people had kept hidden from the ancient world.   Admittedly, the hero in this case being male (no luck to him!), while Job is one of the longest books in the Bible, there is not much about women specifically in it.  (Beyond a famous line from a depressed and depressing wife, a few imprecations to take care of widows, one of two strictures in the Bible against lust, and the like.) But the themes of the book transcend gender: the mystery of suffering, how not to counsel a man who is suffering, and then the glory of creation which, if nothing else, gives us something happier to think about.  And the poetry is magnificent, with many lines from Job memorable to this day. 

Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, but also only occasionally touches directly on gender relations.  Again, the themes it does emphasize: the glory of God, the call to all creation to worship, the hiddenness of God, salvation of Israel in the face of its enemies, the king, pleas for or recognition of divine help -- are universal. 

Proverbs is another matter.  A set of maxims and guidance for youth, presumed to be male, some of that advise centers on what kind of woman to seek, or avoid.  Young men are advised to avoid adulterous women for their own sakes.  But wisdom is also imperonized as a woman who, parallel to the adulterous woman, calls out to the young man, calling him to happiness not tragedy.  The book ends with a magnificent description of the successful, strong, intelligent woman. 

Most of these passages are self-explanatory, so I will not make notes on each and every passage.

Friday, May 26, 2017


Image result for queen esther xerxes
Tough life, being Xerxes: first Queen Vashti
embarrasses him at his party, then King Leonidas
embarrasses him at Thermopylae.
We have now essentially told the Old Testament story of the rise and fall of Israel, highlighting the role of women in that story.  Personally, I am finding the sequence of anecdotes fascinating.  I honestly had no idea that women played such a huge role in that story, nor of how many heroines can actually be found in the Bible.  The answer given by one feminist, "none," now seems laughable as the claim that it never snows in the Cascades.  Heroines are concentrated in these pages like snowflakes on an alpine fir. 

Now we examine a new era in which the Jewish people, or at least literate elite, has been taken captive in Babylon.  Two Old Testament books most famously tell that story in narrative form: Esther, and Daniel.  The former is also the second book in the Old Testament that is largely about a woman, or a pair of female friends, in the case of Ruth.  The story is not about gender relations, however: it is about something even more modern, the salvation of Israel from enemies who would like to obliterate it in a fiery fit of genocide.  It just so happens that a beautiful young woman, in one sense more powerful than Wonder Woman but in another more emotionally and physically vulnerable, plays the lead role in that story.

While enjoying the story, we shall of course pay attention to clues about gender roles -- without letting them choke the plot. 

Women and the Jewish Kingdom

If tribal society such as is described in the three books following the Pentateuch was a kind of Wild West, with the establishment of the Jewish kingdom, Israel "normalized" and began to conform to the larger civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Indeed the Jewish people brought the analogy up themselves, when they demanded a kingdom of the prophet Samuel: "Appoint a king over us to rule us like all the nations."  Samuel pointed out, in response, that what the people were really asking for was higher taxes, conscription, and loss of their best youths to an overweening federal bureaucracy.  In his illuminating book The Discovery of God, sociologist Rodney Stark offers an even "starker" description of the great empires of the time, which were highly oppressive, treated kings like gods and citizens like chattel.   God tells Samuel, "The people have not rejected you, they have rejected me."  

The next six books, the Samuels, the Kings, and the Chronicles, tells the story of the centralized state of Israel, then the two daughter states in which it split. These books thus cover a less free-wheeling epoch than the period of the Judges which came before.  One of the "innovations" which kings soon introduce (Solomon being most guilty) is enormous harems.  God warns about the harm this innovation would bring, and indeed, the trouble begins even with the great King David and his lovers.  Later reigns are described more briefly, while I and II Chronicles reprises the story from a court perspective, with less gossip about women.  Finally, Ezra and Nehemiah tells the story of Israel's return from exile in Babylon. 

Israel, the historian Donald Treadgold argued, proved freer even as a kingdom that any other Middle Eastern state.  I believe the institution of the prophet is one of the chief reasons Israel managed to keep free even with a king and bureaucracy.  The Word of God to these flamboyant individuals was a like a bridge across which liberty passed into ancient and then modern states.  In addition, monotheism allowed less scope for deification of earthly rulers: a check on monomania.  Therefore the West could gain the best of both worlds: the security of a modern state, and the freedom of tribal society, which became what Burke called "little platoons" or the seeds of civil society. 

By my count, these eight books contain a total of 46 stories about women, counting (in two cases) repeats of earlier stories.   

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Women in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth

The next three books of the Bible tell stories set in Israel during the period of tribalism and chaos before the establishment of the kingship under Saul, David and Solomon.  Joshua tells of the conquest of Israel, and Judges of a series of heroes and (for our purposes more important) heroines who arose to defend the Jewish tribes against their pagan enemies.  Ruth, the first book of the Bible dedicated to a private family, surprisingly makes the hero of that story a mother-in-law, a class of persons who remain marginalized and reviled to this day! 

The Pentateuch, we saw, contained some 65 stories or pieces of legislation involving women.  These three books contain thirteen more such stories, including a whole book premised on the warm friendship between two women.

Women in the Torah

We continue our series on "How Jesus Liberates Women."  We are presently going through the Old Testament, to see how the Jewish tradition saw females.  The first post on the Old Testament analyzed 23 passages in the Book of Genesis involving women.  We found a wealth of fascinating stories, beginning with the creation of woman ("bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh"), the calling of Abraham and his wife Sarah, the love story between Isaac and Rebekah, sordid affairs and treachery of many kinds, polygamy, and then the final heroic figure of Joseph, the one man in the family who seemed to manage his love life reasonably well.  The overall impression, on my mind at least, is that women are no less heroic and no less involved in the establishment of God's kingdom in this world than men.  Indeed, while a few women so far are villains, and most are as flawed as the men, many are portrayed with sympathy.  I would say overall, the women come across better than the men, if one must make comparisons.  And they are no wall flowers.

We now look at the four other books of the Pentateuch.  About half of this material consists of stories, like Genesis, while the other half consists of laws and moral imprecations.  A total of 42 passages are cited and briefly analyzed in this post.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Peter Boghossian's obscene satire dismantles the New Atheism

As author of one of the first (and best, some say) books critiquing the New Atheism, I have criticized Portland State philosopher Peter Boghossian on this site before, here and here, and here and here.  I found his book on how to broadcast atheism ignorant and over-the-top: I challenged him to debate what he calls "faith" even before that book came out, and he responded petulantly (See first link). 

The man is full of bombast, but I have to admit he has a certain style. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Was Jesus Illiterate (II)?

It has become popular, among skeptics who admit he existed, to claim that Jesus could neither read nor write.  After all, they say, Jesus was a lower-class peasant or worker in an era in which 95% of Jews were illiterate.  Christians sometimes too easily go along.