Friday, October 28, 2005

The Gospel Hoax

I have received (with thanks for the kindness) and read a proof of Stephen Carlson's The Gospel Hoax and thought I should note a few thoughts. If the etiquette is not to comment on books before they are published, then I apologise, but everyone else seems to be doing it.

Stephen has, I believe, proved beyond reasonable doubt that the Secret Gospel of Mark is a modern forgery or hoax. He does this by an analysis of the handwriting of the manuscript using the methods that are applicable for spotting forged signatures and other documents. On the Textual Criticism yahoo group Stephen has also produced expert testimony supporting his conclusion. Secret Mark is written on the flyleaf of a seventeenth century book which was smuggled into the monastic library where Morton Smith found it. This was dead easy to do because all security in libraries is planned against taking books out, not smuggling them in. Only a few months ago, forged documents were found to have been lodged in the UK National Archives (story from the Daily Telegraph). So Secret Mark has no value at all for scholarship and tells us nothing about Jesus or Clement of Alexandria.

Stephen also tries to pin the blame for the hoax on Morton Smith, the man who claimed to have discovered the manuscript. He is certainly the prime suspect and Stephen thinks he has found some clues to confirm the identity of the forger. Here, I am less sure. Yes, I think Smith did the deed. But Stephen's clues appear a little to clever and a little hard to swallow. I'll let you read the book and make your own mind up on this question. For me, the important point is that Secret Mark is now forged Mark. Who was responsible is a secondary issue. If it was Smith, he took the truth to his grave in 1991.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lightning Rods and the Church

One of the many stories of the great myth of the conflict between science and religion is that the Christians tried to prevent the use of lightning rods. Whenever I asked for a reference, all I ever got is Andrew Dickson White (extract here) so I knew that there was something fishy going on. However, all serious histories were silent on the subject. I nosed around to see if there was any academic work on the question and dug up an article by IB Cohen called "Popular Prejudice against the Introduction of lightning Rods" (Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 253, pp. 393 - 440, 1952). It is rather revealing.

White is correct to say that ringing bells was a popular way to scaring off lightning from church towers. But the it was also known to be dangerous and the Church disliked the practice because it was deemed superstitious (as long ago as the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine condemned it).

The real problems that caused late adoption were two-fold. Firstly, the working of the rod was not fully understood. It had to be grounded to work, otherwise it just attracted lightning. Abbe Nollet, a French scientist and rival of Franklin, wrote a critique based on this and other misunderstandings that did have some effect on the rods use. But Cohen states that "his objections were grounded in scientific concerns."

Second, ordinary people were not convinced by scientists saying that attracting lightning and sending it into the ground was harmless. After all, lightning was scary stuff and scientists were as arrogant about popular concerns then as they are today. But, Cohen states "slowness in adopting the new invention did not proceed from ecclesiastical ban or dogma." but from local concern about whether the rod worked. In fact, even Pope Benedict XIV had been a supporter of the use of rods. St Mark's in Venice had one as early as 1766. As Cohen summarises: "Even though the ringing of church bells during lightning storms continued in Catholic Countries long after the invention of the lightning rod, it was by no means the case that the Church as an institution was opposed to the new invention."

Another myth bites the dust.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Possible interruptions to availability of Bede's Library

I am, once again, changing web space provider in an effort to find someone vaguely reliable. You may have noticed various features (feedback form, search facility etc) not working. Fed up with trying to persuade my current provider to fix all the problems, I have scheduled tomorrow (Monday) for the move. This may lead to the web site disappearing for a while and emails not getting through. Hopefully, it won't take too long but if you fail to get a reply to an email within a week or so, don't be afraid to send it again. Those of you with my college email address should be unaffected by this.

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

Friday, October 21, 2005

Some good news on the culture of death. The parents who have been trying to lift the court imposed death sentence on their handicapped daughter have finally been successful. One interesting point is that previous reports have always stressed that the parents were committed Christians (and hence, by implication, nuts) but now they have been successful in quashing the order, reference to their religion has quietly been dropped. Of course, the court order should never have been issued and we need a change in the law to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.
Here's the latest on the Holy Blood/Da Vinci Code lawsuit. I am wondering if this might have a big effect on academics. If the HBHG crew win (assuming they don't admit their book is fiction), it means that historians own their hypotheses and can expect compensation if someone else exploits them. That would be a bizarre situation and all of a sudden citation would become a legal and not moral duty. Let's see how it pans out. Personally, I don't give the HBHG crew a hope.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2005

My wife, fresh from reading the Da Vinci Code, demanded to know why I hadn't written it. After all, she reasoned, I knew a great deal more about religious history than Dan Brown and any vaguely literate human could write better than he does. I'm proud enough to agree with the first point but do think that the thriller writers' craft requires more skill than we often give them credit for. That said, pseudo-history sells. The current master of the genre is Graham Hancock who has had his own TV shows and a shelf of books to his name. His latest goes out as editor's choice in History Book Clubs and finds a comfortable niche in the bestseller lists. Of similar ilk are David Rohl (who actually has a PhD in Egyptology) and Graham Phillips. We could add the dedicated band who insist that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare or aliens visited early man (or aliens wrote Hamlet?!?), the pyrimidiots and our favourite Jesus mythologists. Yes, there is money in these old canards and the latest batch is hot of the presses for Christmas.

Of course, scholars cannot be too smug. Conservative New Testament experts got egg from the ossuary on their faces. Of rather more long term significance was the vast amount that poured from the pens of liberal scholars over the Secret Mark hoax. I'd be surprised if Dom Crossan will ever be able to look in the mirror again.

Would it be morally wrong to write a work of fiction, like the Holy Blood and Holy Grail or Hancock's latest knowing full well that people would take it seriously? I think it is and certainly, if you have to lie during interviews to defend your work, you are on the wrong side of the fence. But in some ways it is tempting. All the boring stuff about sources, evidence and logic can be thrown out for a thrilling story that your readers will enjoy far more. My only hope is that by writing about the way Christianity helped bring about modern science, I can produce a revolutionary narrative that has the added bonus of being true...

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lord Winston, Robert to his friends, is a clever chap. He is a world renowned surgeon who has since become a presenter of various scientific programmes of varying quality. A year ago he came and talked to us at Cambridge about 'Science and Religion', saying some reasonably sensible things. It seems he has a new TV show and book out soon that investigates why we are religious. He thinks it is a good thing that must have helped man survive. This should be pretty obvious. If religion was as bad as the anti-Christians suggest, they should think that evolution would have got rid of it! I'll be interested in what Lord Winston has to say and how it fits with the book I am reading at the moment, Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away.

George Monbiot who, unlike Lord Winston, is a nutcase, had an amusing article in the Guardian today. He's picked up on some badly flawed research that claims to show that religion is bad for morality. It claims that the more Christian a country, the higher the incidence of teenage pregnancies and murder. Monbiot, of course, is dancing around with this like a kid with a lollipop because its exactly what he wants to hear. Sadly, it's rubbish and proves that it is easy to lie with statistics. You can read the actual article here. Take the United States out of the equation and there is pratically no correlation. In fact, take the most deprived communities in the US out of the equation, and I expect the correlation disappears as well. So we are trying to make a case from a single example. Why does the US have a high homicide rate, a high abortion rate and a high teenage pregnancy rate? Good questions. Almost as good as why the religious Irish and Italians seem to have lower rates and the secular British have higher rates. I expect you need to look for political and economic answers to these questions rather than try and pin the blame on religion.

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

As rare a sight in these parts as the Large Blue butterfly or the Great Awk is the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverand Richard Harries, standing up for a traditional moral teaching of the church. But this weekend, teams of dedicated bishop watchers gawped in awe at the appearence in the Observer of a column doing just that. Yes, the leader of the sex-for-all wing of the Church of England has come out against euthanasia. This is doubly surprising because most 'progressive' opinion is firmly in favour of slapping a 'use-by' date on human beings. Indeed, the Guardian's leader column, a text that Harries treats with all the reverence his more traditional colleagues reserve for the teaching of our Savior, is very much in favour. We shouldn't forget that Harries actually signed up to an open letter from Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins on the teaching of creationism. If that is not jumping on anti-Christian bandwagons, I don't know what is.

But heaven rejoiceth and all, so we should be happy for any sign of Christian life in Oxford. Perhaps, now that he has decided against killing the very old and ill, Harries might also come out against killing the unborn too.

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

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Thanks to the readers of this blog who have been lending a hand over at the Sec Web. My main opponent is getting steadily more annoying as he shifts and changes his position while still refusing to admit he's wrong about anything. Still, he did point out an error I made ages ago in a short article on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books. That's the danger of a large website: you forget what you wrote and so errors can sit around for ages. Whatever you do, don't believe a word I say!

I've just finished Rodney Stark's Rise of Christianity and I have to say it is a much, much better book than his latest effort For the Glory of God which I was forced to trash despite agreeing with its premises. The reason Rise of Christianity is so much better is that it is a work of sociology and Stark is a lifelong sociologist. Thus he is writing in his field rather than as a amateur historian. Why, he asks, did Christianity manage to destroy paganism in the space of four hundred years? To answer this he uses the tools of the sociology of religion which he honed during his first hand studies of modern religions and cult movements. Thus, his method is perfectly scientific. You take your theory formed from the data you can observe firsthand and see how well it fits another area where you cannot directly see what happened.

We had a brief discussion about Stark's calculations of the number of early Christians on Bede's yahoo group but that is not much relevant to his larger themes. His aim with the numbers was simply to show that mass conversion and miracles are not necessary to explain the growth in the numbers of Christians. He also dismisses the Marxist idea, now much loved by sceptics, that Christianity simply out muscled the other religions and won out using the force of the state. His own answers are much more interesting.

Christianity succeeded because it provided the spiritual goods that people needed and pagan religions did not provide. It also provided a moral system that greatly benefited its converts and meant that they could breed faster than pagans. This included the banning of infanticide and abortion as well as the improved status of Christian women compared to pagans. Also, Christians nursed each other when sick which significantly enhanced their survival rates during the plagues that periodically swept the Empire. Finally, paganism was dying on its feet anyway because it was not a mass movement but simply a series of religious shops that one could visit as required. Paganism may have been easy going but conversely you didn't get much out of it.

Not everything Stark says will please everyone. Sceptics will like his naturalistic account of the rise of Christianity but not the fact that he insists that Christianity succeeded because it was a good thing - certainly better than contemporary paganism. He is especially strong on the misery of ancient urban life and how Christianity could enhance the life experience of converts. Christians might find the wholly naturalistic emphasis unnerving. On the other hand, Stark insists that Christian doctrine was important and a huge step forward compared to pagan mores. We Christians can rest comfortable that Christian morality is found in the preaching Jesus rather than the rationalistic thinking of the pagan philosophers AC Grayling thinks so fantastic.

Finally, Stark is a very fine writer who was able to bring me, a complete ignoramus, up to speed on sociological terminology and theory without it making my brain hurt. I wholehearted recommend this book to absolutely everyone.

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

Monday, October 03, 2005

Once again, I've been wasting my time trying to argue that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. Here's the thread at Internet Infidels. It's been a while since I visited there and I'd not come across a couple of the people debating before. Needless to say, things had not improved much although I did note that a few more participants than usual seemed to be reading what I posted rather than just quoting Andrew Dickson White as if anyone believes him any more. At least no one is claiming that the church tried to ban zero....

It all started when an excitable soul posted a link to a website of truly stunning awfulness called Jesus Never Existed. "Christianity...Fraudulent and Evil ROTTEN – from beginning to end" it says. Not even JP Holding can be bothered to do a full refutation of this one. Every anti-Christian myth is exhumed and dressed up by the web master, Kenneth Humphries. He claims to have been originally inspired by Freke and Gandy, GA Wells, Earl Doherty and Acharya S. Clearly scholarship is not really Humphrey's cup of tea. Wikipedia calls him "a researcher into Christian origins." I see he also has a book coming out. It's not that I mind people posting rubbish on the web, what worries me is that believe it.

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