Thursday, April 28, 2005

While waiting for the baby to get to sleep last night, I stumbled upon this paper by Kyle Gerkin which is part of a refutation of Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith. By chance I received an email from an atheist ranting on, by his own admission, in a similar vain about the crimes of Christianity. I would like to write something substantial to show that Christianity has been a vastly good thing despite its very real misdemeanors. My correspondent didn't want to enter into a debate.

So what are the great myths of Christian history. Here's a top ten with links to refutations where possible):
  1. Christianity has opposed the rise of science (refuted).
  2. The Crusades were uniquely destructive religious wars (refuted).
  3. Christianity caused the Dark Ages (refuted).
  4. The inquisition killed hundreds of thousands (refuted).
  5. Millions of witches were executed (refuted).
  6. Hitler was a Christian (refuted).
  7. Jesus never existed (refuted).
  8. Jesus married Mary Magdalene (refuted).
  9. Christians destroyed most ancient literature (refuted) and the Library of Alexandria (refuted).
  10. Christianity is supportive of slavery (refuted).
And on the other side? There is no doubt that Christianity has a history of anti-Semitism. Likewise, Christians have been too quick to accept normal standards of women's rights. Both the inquisition and witch trials are certainly wrong even if they are historically explicable and not as bad as often claimed. But in the end, the enormous force for good Christianity has been for two thousand years cannot be denied by anyone familiar with the real history.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The darkness described by Matthew that occured at the death of Jesus is believed by many scholars to have been a duststorm. Just in case you were wondering, here are some pictures of what they look like. Pretty dramatic but no surprise that ancient historians don't specifically mention it.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kevin Rosero wrote to me about my pages on the Jesus Myth and gave me a link to his new blog, Rose and Rock. It is rather good, if still in a formative stage, and looks like it will develop into an excellent source of moderate Catholic thought. Thanks Kevin.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A couple of months ago, I posted some thoughts on some books about the Old Testament by William Dever and PN Lemche. I have now received a third book from Amazon: Kenneth Kitchen's On the Reliability of the Old Testament (OROT from now on). Kitchen is a distinguished professor of Egyptology who previously made waves by rubbishing the claims of new chronologists like David Rohl. It was clear then that Kitchen is a crotchety individual and the introduction and conclusion to OROT show further evidence of this. He launches into Lemche and some of his colleagues with attacks that really do his case no good at all. He also makes the mistake of labelling Lemche as a 'post modernist' as if this term alone invalidates his conclusions. As I explained in my review (from 13 and 15 March) of Lemche's The Israelites in Myth and Tradition, he is wrong but mainly because he is still using nineteenth century methods and not because he prefers trendy modern ones.

Kitchen is a Christian evangelical and quite fearsomely erudite. Whereas many OT scholars have given up on the Exodus and Conquest, let alone the Patriarchs, Kitchen stands by all of that. As far as he is concerned, the Bible is as accurate a historical text as the Assyrian or Egyptian chronicles. It is, he claims, based on contemporary records which make it biased but not ficticious. He illustrates his points with a quite unbelievable amount of factual data backed up by a hundred pages of footnotes to the scholarly literature. Taken as a whole, this is a prodigious achievement of encyclopedic breadth.

OK, you can't actually read this book from cover to cover. Despite being so long, it is terse and at times almost resembles notes rather than a completed text. It is also not a work for beginners. You will need to know your OT quite well to make sense of it and a passing familiarity with the current issues of Ancient Near Eastern history wouldn't go amiss either. And it helps if you also know who the Assyrians, Hittites, Babylonians and the rest are already. This, plus Kitchen's annoyingly unfocused remarks on other scholars are definitely minus points. Organisation is also rather strange. We start with the divided monarchy, then move on to the exilic period before moving back through the united monarchy, conquest, Exodus and Patriarchs. This can make things hard to find although the index is quite good and a full list of scripture references in provided.

On the whole, despite short comings, OROT is essential to anyone interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. Kitchen does not fall into the Albright trap of finding biblical sgnificance to every pebble in Palestine. When the evidence is lacking, like at Jericho, he says so and explains why he thinks this is so. On issues from pig bones to camels (both matters of debate in OT studies), he gives the lowdown and references to the literature. In summary, this book is about as fun as a trip to the dentist and every bit as necessary.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

One thing is for sure. If the holy spirit was active at the conclave of cardinals, then the spirit of John Paul II certainly was too. The new pope was his chosen successor and the cardinals accepted that.

I will admit I would have preferred a pope who was not quite so much a conservative figurehead. The Hitler's Youth business just produces a ready made target for anti-Catholics. On the other hand, they hate the Church for what it is and would never warm to a pope unless he completely sold out to them. And that is something we did not want to see. As for my own predictions, the less said the better....

So what have we got? The finest intellect to occupy the throne of St Peter since... well ever, probably. A first class administrator when the Vatican administration is in a pretty poor state of repair. It is no good being a centraliser if the central machinery is not up to the job. A conservative yes, but one who has already admitted to some of the mistakes of the past. At least I don't have to worry about his orthodoxy.

One issue that I would like Benedict XVI to grasp with both hands is the liturgy. In the English speaking world, this has been on the skids for some time. We foolishly borrowed the Anglican ideas of 'inclusive language' and 'modern terminology' just when the Anglicans had rightly started to ditch the idea. I want to see the English liturgy develop some of the numinous lustre of the Book of Common Prayer, Latin to be used more often (especially Gregorian chant), traditional English hymns to be sung as they are by Anglicans and choirs that dress properly. It is the liturgy that allows most of us to get as close to God as we ever do and it needs to be a top priority. Here, at least, Vatican II was an unmitigated failure. Hard to believe that so much of the world's greatest music is set to the Catholic liturgy. Even Bach wrote a mass and he was Protestant!

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.
Here is a fun site for all British readers wondering who to vote for at the General Election (and do vote or we make a mockery of democracy). I was greatly relieved to find I support the right party. My main disagreement with the Tories is I would keep university tuition fees which they want to abolish. Here's my results:
Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:


Your actual outcome:

Labour -8
Conservative 47
Liberal Democrat -48
UK Independence Party 40
Green 2

You should vote: Conservative

The Conservative Party is strongly against joining the Euro and against greater use of taxation to fund public services. The party broadly supported the Iraq war and backs greater policing and ID cards. The Tories are against increasing the minimum wage above the rate of inflation, and have committed to abolishing university tuition fees. They support 'virtual vouchers' for private education.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group

Monday, April 18, 2005

A statement I am often having to defend is my claim that science arose only in Western Europe.

The usual objection is that science also arose in ancient Greece, China, the Islamic caliphate or anywhere else you care to mention (Mesoamerica is the most original suggestion that I have heard). To this, I would reply that what I mean by science is very specific. It is not just an interest in nature, or observation, or rejecting the supernatural explanation, although all of these feature in science. Rather it is a large bundle of preconceptions, axioms and methods which make up the practice of what we today understand as science. This only really came into being in early nineteenth century Europe and certainly did not exist in all the other civilisations that are claimed to be scientific. I admit we do talk about Islamic science, Greek science or medieval science but these are probably misnomers. But to be clear, when talking about science as we experience it today, I usually try to use the term 'modern science' to try and avoid this conclusion.

Of course, no one can deny that many of the roots of modern science are to be found outside Western Europe. But that doesn't mean that science itself could be found elsewhere. The roots may spread across the world, but the tree only grew in the one soil.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.
I am introducing a new feature to Bede's Library and Bede's Journal as of today. Rather than feedback coming in through email, the feedback form and blog comments, I am going to ask everyone to comment on a dedicated yahoo group. The reason for this is that blogger comments that could start a good discussion get lost in the either, while emails are private so no one sees them. I hope the new group will encourage further feedback and discussion into the issues raised both by this blog and Bede's Library.

I am also disabling the comments on the blog and try and persuade you all to move over to the new group!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Tomorrow the cardinals go into their conclave and before the week is out, we should know the identity of the new pope. Who will it be? Well, I don't know. But the candidate the cardinals choose will tell us something about what they see as the priorities and major challenges to the church.

If they pick a European liberal, then they will see secularism as the biggest obstacle and will be trying to re-engage a Europe that has lost interest in serious faith. Before the child abuse scandals, an American might have done as well but that is now too dangerous a choice. If the cardinals decide that the evangelisation of the Third World is their top priority then expect a South American. Likewise, if poverty is top of the list, a third world crusader for the poor is the most likely outcome. Finally, if they decide the maintenance of sound doctrine is important then a figure like Ratzinger might have a chance, but frankly, I doubt it. Whoever the successful candidate is, he will also have to be a good administrator who is willing to knock the Curia into shape and engage in areas where John Paul had no interest (for instance the liturgy).

My prediction: Cardinal Hummes of Sao Paulo covers the most bases. I think a Vatican insider is unlikely and I also think that the cardinals will be keen to appoint a non-European. Still, more likely is someone we have not heard of who the Holy Spirit has already decided on. Ideally, the Cardinals should keep their own thoughts at the back of their minds and stay open to the direction from God.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A new blog in town. Ken Olsen, a darling of the Jesus Myth tendency because he believes Eusebius forged the Testamonium Flavium, has a new blog. His theory about Josephus was badly mauled by Chris Price but he is basing his PhD on it, so we will have to wait and see what new ideas he has turned up.

His second article is supposed to be a parody of conservative scholarship: : Top 10 Reasons to Accept the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as Historically Reliable. I think he has missed the boat entirely. The fact he fails to mention is that no one has ever called the Infancy Gospel genuine. It appears in no ancient lists of canonical writings and is never referred to by the fathers. This makes all the other criteria irrelevant as we only bother apply them when we have ancient authors telling us to take a particular document seriously. Why does Olsen think all the fathers accept the four Gospels and reject any others? The reason is that they had very good reasons for trusting those four and not the others. True, liberal scholars have tried to expand the list of genuine writings to include non-canonical Gospels like Thomas's. No conservative is silly enough to do this as we realise that Thomas's Gospel was not accepted as genuine by the early church who were in a much better position to know than we are. Thus, Olsen's real target must be the Jesus Seminar rather than sensible scholars for whom the Infancy Gospel never even reaches the start line.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Unsurprisingly, secularists are beginning to fight back against the wave of regard for the late, great John Paul II. (See two opinion pieces in today's Guardian). This is especially to be expected in England where a certain group of people have always regarded the Catholic Church with unmitigated loathing. This isn't just your usual busy bodies with a bee in their bonnet about religion in general but is specifically aimed at Catholics. Partly, this is cultural. Until very recently, properly educated English men and women learnt that our history was a desperate struggle to keep Papism off our shores. More recently, the IRA have done their best to ensure that the image of Catholics as enemies at the gates of civilised society was maintained. When I speak about the anti-Catholic prejudices of any properly brought up Englishman, I am not quite joking.

Today, Catholic bashing is no longer quite politically correct. This was partly because the Prime Minister is married to one, partly because they edit half the press and partly because the late Cardinal Hume was generally recognised as a saint. But the biggest change has been that the evangelical wing of the Church of England (the only wing that matters outside Oxford and Cambridge colleges) has embraced the Catholic Church as a vital ally. Alpha courses are now run out of both. When, five years ago, the rector of Holy Trinity Brompton described the Pope as "that most holy man of God" I almost fell out of my chair. Even ten years ago such language would have been unthinkable from a evangelical Protestant. But now evangelicals see Catholics as allies on the question of woman priests and homosexual acts, and that has overcome the old animosity.

When it comes down to it, the argument between secular society and the Church is about sex. Secular society is dominated by sex and can talk of little else. The aim of life is a great shag and almost everything is subsumed in pursuit of this goal. We are made to feel grossly inadequate if we are not sexually fulfilled at all times. In contrast, the Church rarely talks about sex unless it is asked by journalists or those with an agenda. (Admittedly, this happens a lot because many people want to preserve the myth that the Church thinks about sex as much as they do). This mutual incomprehension is likely to continue but I do expect some relaxation, in practice at least. Expect condoms to be allowed among married couples if one or other is HIV positive. Expect some relaxation on clerical celibacy. Eventually expect some movement on the state of divorcees. But do not expect the slightest change on abortion , homosexual acts or women priests. The Church should not end up being forced to endorse secular society's priorities. Part of John Paul II's greatness was his refusal to do this. If only Rowen Williams was as strong.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Michael Turton has gone to a great deal of trouble to show how Mark's Gospel follows a chiastic structure.

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device whereby the author arranges his work such that phrases or words are placed in a structure where the initial use of terms is reversed in both position and meaning to give greater contrast. Here’s an example from Cicero:

“Romans hate private luxury but public display, they love.”

The contrast is between hate and love; private and public wealth. The word chiasmus comes from the Greek letter chi, which is a cross. You can invent phrases that exhibit this easily enough. Generally speaking, in an inflected language, like Greek and Latin, where you can alter word order freely, producing this sort of thing is even easier than in English. Around the turn of the last century, when critical editions of the classical poets were still up in the air, chiasmus was one of the things debated ad infinitum in august journals such as the Classical Review. If a chiasmus was alleged that didn’t quite work, then scholars would suggest another reading on the strength of it.

So the two central features of a chiasmus structure are the inverted order and the opposite meaning. You can do it with phrases too:

“John entered the room;
He sat down at the table;
He got up from the table.
He left the room.”

This is pretty clumsy and ugly and underlines just how hard a rigid phrase driven chiasmus is going to be. To make it look nice, you would have to relax the rules but that means your chiasmus is not going to be recognised easily and there is absolutely no point in doing it. Worse, interpreters can also relax the rules and start finding chiasmus all over the place where they don’t really exist. A common way to relax the rules is to expand from the normal ABBA structure to ABCCBA or ABCBA or even ABCDCDCBA. Another way to do it is to allow the different clauses to be radically different lengths. Finally you can completely relax the meaning of antithesis.

Here’s an example, plucked at random from The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (1991), page 321:

A: Fond of delight,
B: A satyr standing by gave it a kiss
C: as it like sweet had been
C: Feeling forthwith the outward burning power Wood with the smart,
B: with shouts and shrieking still He sought his ease in river, field and bower
A: But for the time his grief went with him still.

Ok, so I’ve destroyed the scansion but that is not a problem in prose. Likewise the clauses are not equal, but that is OK too according to the relaxed rules. But I’m pretty pleased with the antitheses between ‘delight’ and ‘grief’, ‘standing/kiss’ and ‘shouts and shrieking’ and ‘sweet and ‘burning’. If all this seems a bit feeble, bear in mind that there really is no chiasmus here, I have just invented it.

Let me now to the alleged chiasmus structure in Mark’s Gospel, presented by Michael Turton. He has had to relax the rules quite considerably more than I did above to create his chiastic structure. So much so that no one before him as unravelled it. This is immediately a huge red flag. Are we to believe that Mark has gone to all this trouble to create something that no one prior to Turton has noticed?

All the rules have been relaxed. First we have ABBA, ABCCBA right the way up to ‘L’. We also have a few ABCDE(AB)F(AB)DCBA type structures which must break a record for complications. Turton needs to produce at least a dozen different patterns to get Mark’s Gospel to fit and even then he admits to being stumped by a few passages. As we are dealing with prose, metre is not an issue so Turton can break lines up as he pleases. There is nothing wrong with him doing this, but it does mean we lack a control we would have in poetry. We also have sections in a single chiastic structure that vary in length from less than ten words to almost eighty. In the whole piece, phrases go from five words to over a hundred. This massive variation in the length of his phrases means Turton has been able to avail himself of the near infinite number of permutations that he could have split Mark’s Gospel into. Given such a vast sample, it would be surprising if he could not come up with some sort of pattern, especially as he allows himself to use lots of different patterns in quite a short piece of prose.

Finally, we note that Turton interprets ‘antithesis’ in an extremely wide way. We are asked to believe that (to pick an example at random) “They began to be sorrowful and to say to him ‘Is it I?’” is the antithesis of “And he said to them ‘This is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many’”. Or “When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives” is the antithesis of “And they went to place called Gethsemane” despite the fact that Gethsemane is on the Mount of Olives. I could go on, but the point is easily illustrated by picking things at random and asking if they can be described as antitheses. Remember, these phrases have been picked out by Turton from the near infinite number of permutations possible, and still the effect is feeble.

In short, it is clear that Turton has done nothing except split Mark’s Gospel up into lots of sections without actually managing to produce the promised chiasmic structure. His method is to find two statements that might be said to be antitheses and then shoehorn everything else in to create the desired pattern. Given the flexibility he allows himself, this cannot be all that hard to do. All his effort simply forms a terrible warning that, as the Good Book does not say, “He who seeks for patterns, will find them”.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The questions of personal identity have been keeping philosophers happy for centuries. It does seem to me that we need to answer this question before we can speculate on which part of us might survive death. Lots more questions are raised by the teleportation thought experiment, but I was merely suggesting that if you don't mind being teleported, then you can have no logical problem with an afterlife even without a soul.

For the rest of us, maybe it is easier to ask what we are not. We are not just the particular atoms that make up our brains. We know this because these atoms are replaced by different ones quite regularly (as radioactive material injected into our system has demonstrated). Neither are we wholly detached from our bodies as shown by many neurological experiments. They show we need a body to be conscious and interact with the world. This means the Bible is probably right to say that the afterlife will have to involve our having new bodies. John Polkinghorne suggested that we are a pattern that presently just happens to be made out of material atoms but could, in theory, also be contained in another medium. This is quite close to materialism and he also goes on to say that immortality might be being remembered in the mind of God.

On the other side of the equation is the brute fact of freewill. I have previously shown how freewill is a necessary quality of consciousness. If we cannot will then we cannot do anything. And if we are not doing anything then we don't exist. This is what some people admit when they say consciousness is an illusion. In other words, they go even further than Descartes when they say that they even doubt their own existence. This leaves me feeling that materialism, that has no room for freewill, is inadequate as an explanation for mind.

I think that Thomas Aquinas gives us the best answer when he describes the immortal soul as growing with the body and giving it the capacity for freewill. The soul is an enabler and catalyst that needs the body in order to fulfill its potential. Deprived of sense experience and the machinery of thought it can do very little. So perhaps we should step back from Cartesian dualism and return to Aquinas's more subtle analysis. It is worth noting that Aquinas also rooted the emotions and desires firmly with the body and not the soul. Thus he would have been unperturbed by research that shows the brain doing a lot of what Descartes might have reserved for the soul. Also, he accepted that the body/soul relationship was a two way process and that the soul is formed from its experience in our earthly body. It grows and adapts as we grow and adapt. When we die, it is our ability to will that survives and which is given a new body. The mystery that Aquinas leaves us with is how to connect the body and soul. This mystery remains and I welcome suggestions!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The sad death of the Holy Father this weekend showed how he was in control right until the end. Previously popes were always said to be well right up until they were dead. But John Paul II wore his ailments with pride and his handling of his last few days was also intended to teach an important lesson.

When old people die they are expected to do so in private without disturbing the peace of mind of the rest of us. Shut away in hospices, the final days of incontinence, feeding tubes, organ failure and infection can all take place without anyone else having to worry about it. Then the undertakers move in and illusion of a serene passing is maintained. Life and death are not like that. John Paul II was not going to let us imagine some beatific vision of a saint passing on (although some of the media did try to cling to this image). Rather the Vatican's health bulletins pulled no punches and every detail of the last days of a dying man was starkly public. This, he said to us, is how we die and no amount of trying to ignore it will change that. Only faith can offer us hope beyond a dreary end in a hospice with a crowd of relatives wishing we would just hurry up and get on with it.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Here is a famous thought experiment. Imagine a teleport machine that reads the precise make-up of your body and then beams the information to another machine on Mars which reassembles a perfect copy of you. Unfortunately, the original you is destroyed by the reading process although you don't feel this happen. Would you be happy to step into the teleporter? Neurologist Paul Broks says almost all his colleagues would have no problem. They are materialists and as we are only an arrangement of matter, we remain the same person even if the matter is arranged somewhere else. Certainly, they say, the new you on Mars would not realise anything had happened beyond their appearing in a different place.

But this means something else. Materialists can also have no logical problem with an afterlife. We Christians believe we will be resurrected after death in new bodies. This is done by God who, we presume, will have no problem remembering how to fit the bits together (the advantage of omniscience). He can even make the necessary adjustments to maintain our personalities while also curing them of Alzheimer's or any other mental illness. While the new me will not have any direct link to the old me, the new me will feel they are the same person. So as far as Brok and his colleagues are concerned, a purely material mind can be resurrected without problem. If God exists, all the discoveries of neuroscience interpreted in a materialistic way, have no impact on the doctrine of the afterlife.

For us Christians there is something slightly dodgy about this. We do think there is some sort of continuity between our earthly selves and the resurrected self after death. But then, we are not the ones saying that science makes life after death absurd. Clearly, it does not.

Of course, my thoughts and attention are directed towards Rome this morning. I find myself praying that the Pope is comfortable and without fear. He, at least, has no reason to be afraid.