Thursday, August 26, 2004

I have just found out something very interesting about the way big libraries (and small ones too, I imagine) work. This was the result of a meeting with an extremely kind and helpful lady who is a librarian (among other roles) here in Cambridge. You might think that the catalogues that are published, put on the web or placed on card indexes in the reading rooms are the sum total of the information available on the contents of libraries. Not a bit of it. There are lots of lists that librarians over the years have made which might be of help for particular research if only you could get your hands on them. One at Cambridge is the list of books containing the signature of the Cambridge magician, John Dee (he had a lot!). I'm interested in annotations made to science and maths books by certain owners. The technical term for an annotated book is adversaria or ADV for short and these are often catalogued separately. My next task is to go through the Cambridge lists and see if they include annotations by anyone I am interested in. A lot of work - but better than having to check all the books individually!

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The debate at Infidels on whether science has held back religion is now over. I must admit to being rather disappointed by it all, firstly because JLK did not have very much to say and second because he did not write in English paragraphs but preferred short notes with lots of quotations. He was also obsessed with debate tactics which is often a sign that the subject was getting away from him. I must be the only person ever to be accused of both whiggishness and relativism at the same time. This all makes the debate unsuitable for publication on this site which a pity, as this was part of the reason that I wanted to do it in the first place. I'll leave it up to any readers who want to look through it rather than summarise the content here. There is a peanut gallery at infidels but there has been so little activity there that it seems even the usual atheist cheerleaders couldn't bring them selves to support their man. To be fair, JLK had a very tough assignment - he had to defend a position rejected by all the experts in a subject he knew very little about. Perhaps next time I'll play devil's advocate and so at least make sure the anti-religion case gets a fair hearing.
Thank you all for the good wishes on my birthday. I had a lovely day and the party in the evening went very well. Yesterday we went and looked around John Nash's interiors at Buckingham Palace which take the breath away. I was not surprised to hear that he was sacked by parliament for overspending. There is enough gold leaf to cover the dome of St Paul's.

Also, there has been some comment on Mark. Thanks for all these comments too - it is great to provoke someone to putting fingers to keyboard. In reply to one of these I would say that I find it unlikely there were two feeding miracles although that is possible. But John, independently of Mark, only reports one and he is probably the best witness we have. Also, as a correspondent has pointed out, the idea of Mark an artless compiler is reinforced by what Papias has to say about him about 110AD:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he
remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or
deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But
afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions
to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular
narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing
some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not
to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the
I would suggest this backs up the idea that Mark's Gospel is an effort to repeat everything he can remember with only a loose narrative structure thrown in. I cannot accept that he is the subtle writer for whom everything has a purpose and meaning. The text just doesn't support that contention.

Friday, August 20, 2004

It's my birthday today! I'm rather busy preparing for a small gathering of friends this evening but I did just want to say another word about Historical Jesus ("HJ") studies. Regular readers will know I think that the whole scholarly subject is seriously flawed. One aspect of this is the continuing insistence of HJ scholars to read far more into the text of the New Testament than it can bear. Every jot and tittle is carefully considered for significance with obscure theological import attached to the tiniest aspect of the Gospels, even things which are probably just slips of the pen or copy errors. Furthermore, Mark, whose Gospel is written in crude Greek and is clearly not an author of great skill is elevated to a genius who cleverly molded together his sources with constant subtle references to the Old Testament. All rubbish. Mark's Gospel is a hodge-podge of sayings and stories thrown together into a slightly coherent narrative by a man with no sense of art or editorial control whatsoever. He even includes the feeding miracle twice because he does not have the critical facilities to realise he has heard the same story from different people. Trouble is, when academics study something for ages (and nothing is as studied as the Gospels) they always start to believe the authors think like they do. So Mark has to become an author whose ability is worthy of the attention paid to him, when clearly he isn't. If you see someone lauding Mark's literary abilities you will know that they have got the bug bad and you should treat their speculations with extreme scepticism.

Another effect of recycling the same material over and over again is that pretty much anything has to be tried in the effort to produce original research. Thus, as it is my birthday, I present Bede's Laws of Historical Jesus Research.
  1. Anything that can possibly be said about the Historical Jesus will be said.
  2. It already has been.

Perhaps all the intellectual energy spent on this subject might be better directed elsewhere. Leave the Gospels to theologians who know that they are not doing history.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Two weeks of intensive Greek tuition here at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and I've learnt a good deal about the language. The funny alphabet it uses is actually much easier to master than I expected and I can read it without any trouble now. However, holding words in mind to look them up in the dictionary is not always easy, especially if they are long. Greek is a language that is spelt almost exactly as it is spoken so you don't have to worry about odd pronunciation rules. This might sound like making things easier but it doesn't. It makes things very hard indeed.

In English, we basically all spell the same way regardless of how we speak. Regional variations in accents hardly figure in standard written English. Similarly you can read Chaucer off the page without too much trouble, but if someone reads it out loud with fourteenth century pronunciation, it initially sounds like utter gibberish. Greek is not like this. It also has loads of local dialects and the way it was spoken evolved over hundreds of years. But while in English we left the spelling well alone, Greek is always written as it is spoken, so each dialect (be it Ionic, Attic, Doric or whatever) is spelt to reflect the differences in speech. This is understandable, but it gets even worse. Over the centuries syllables and even words can get slurred into each other. Written Greek accurately reflects this too, so verb forms that would be completely regular change because they result in two vowels next to each other. Rather than just accept that the spelling will deviate from the spoken word, the written verb forms are contracted to fit the spoken word. Likewise, if one word ends in a vowel and the next word begins with one they are merged together which makes looking anything up in the dictionary an absolute nightmare.

I am assured that once you have mastered all this and have thoroughly assimilated the rhythm of the language, Greek is actually easier than classical Latin. But I have a very long way to go before I get to that stage. Another saving grace is that the Koine Greek of the New Testament, which is what I am really interested in, is a whole lot easier than the classical Greek that I'm learning now. Whatever happens, there will be a lot more hard work before I'm picking up Plato to read on the beach!
Thank you to everyone who has been making comments on this blog. They are all very interesting. May I remind anyone who would like to discuss the matters brought up here that they are cordially invited to the Ebla forums. I'm a moderator there and it is where I do most of my on-line interaction. This blog has become the second most popular feature of Bede's Library so it seems to be a success. The Library as a whole is rapidly approaching 20,000 page views a month which is a whole lot more than I imagined when I started.

Monday, August 09, 2004

An excellent new website has just appeared which I'd like to heartily recommend. It belongs to Justin Martyr who penned this brilliant article for me about Paganism and Christianity debunking a few old and new canards. His new site is Liberal Christian Research where he brings his professional training as a classicist and ancient historian to bear on biblical studies and Christian doctrine. When Justin says 'liberal' he means it in the sense I do - an orthodox Christian but not one who takes a conservative view of issues like evolution, inerrancy and some traditions. So do have a read of his essays and let him know if you think they are any good.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The scariest 'true' ghost story in London, which is full of them, is the monster at 50, Berkeley Square, Mayfair. In the nineteenth century, this terrible apparition was actually scaring to death people who stayed in the haunted room on the fourth floor. The tale has been spun, adapted and changed ever since (the house itself, in particular, wonders around Berkeley Square to number 10 or 52 or where ever) but the original details are suggestive. The victim wakes up in bed faced with the most horrible apparition imaginable which attacks them.

We are often told that lots of Americans think they have been abducted. This is not strictly true and the story comes from research done by the Roper Organisation which found one in fifty Americans had experiences that could be interpreted as abduction. Among those experiences are:

Do you remember waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or
presence or something else in the room? Do you remember having seen, either as a
child or adult, a terrifying figure-- which might have been a monster, a witch,
a devil, or some other evil figure-- in your bedroom or closet or somewhere

This sounds much like those nasty goings on in Berkeley Square which suggests, if nothing else, that either the aliens have been around a while or else they have nothing to do with it. Many myths, from fairy abduction to the Black Annis of Scotland may have their origins from similar experiences.

So what is going on? Well, I know of what I speak and as we were sitting last night, drinking and watching bats chasing moths over a little river here in Lampeter, both my companions knew as well. The answer appears to be that we sometimes suffer from an uncommonly severe form of sleep paralysis that is discussed by Susan Blackmore in the Sceptical Enquirer. We wake up paralysed in bed and in the presence of something extremely nasty that means us harm. The wisest thing to do if this happens to you is keep your eyes tightly shut and try to winkle a finger. In serious cases the monster can seem to rip the sheets off the bed or attack. One friend who foolishly opened his eyes during such an experience has simply refused to talk about what he saw. Certainly though, the appearance of the monster seems to be culturally determined. When I was very young I saw a ghost, complete with sheet over its head, but now I have no intention of finding out what my adult imagination can conjure up. Modern Americans seem to see aliens.

Susan Blackmore, who is a scientific reductionist, sees all this in terms of brain function. I'm not so sure. While the appearance of the beast is certainly determined by our own imaginations, that could simply be the brain trying to make sense of a class of experience it has no equipment to comprehend. Whatever else, for those of us who go through this sort of thing, it seems a lot more real than the blathering of neuro-scientists.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

I mentioned a while back that one of the problems with historical Jesus studies was that it was being done by theologians and not by historians. There seems to be a related problem with people examining the historicity of the Old Testament. Here the split is between archaeologists and literary critics. Actually, this is not entirely fair as this article in Biblica by Ziony Zevit shows that the biblical minimalists (who claim the entire OT is fictional and was all written in the Hellenistic period) are a tiny minority. But they do get undue attention as what they say is iconoclastic and winds up mainstream scholars no end. However, as Zevit shows, the minimalists are simply using some of the wilder ideas of post structuralist literary criticism on the bible and seeing what comes out. Unsurprisingly it is the same thing that comes out of all radical post structuralist enquires: that the text is a product of whatever political interests the enquirer started out thinking it was. For this reason I can't say that I am going to devote much attention to biblical minimalism for a little while yet.

Monday, August 02, 2004

The great debate has begun. You can read the first two posts from JLK and me here. I will refrain from commenting, beyond what goes in the debate itself, until it is over.

Presently I'm in Lampeter doing a two week summer school course I mentioned a while back. It is hard work but very rewarding to be able to devote some time to the subject and make real progress. I doubt my greek will ever be up to reading Ptolemy but I do one day hope to be able to use it for New Testament studies and looking at science in the Byzantine Empire.