Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My solution to the financial crisis

Take the $700bn and use it to pay off the mortgages of the poorest. Instant solvency and liquidity flowing through the system, a Jubilee for social justice, and the bankers aren't favoured over the people they misled.

Black Snake Moan

Outstandingly good; full of orthodox theology and grace. 4.5/5

Thought: Samuel Jackson is God, Christina Ricci is the western consumer, and peak oil is the chain...


So-so sequel 3/5.

Couldn't help but think that the character of Jigsaw corresponds quite closely to how some atheists see God - an arbitrary dictator who provides extravagant punishments for those who don't meet his standards.


Excellent animation. 4/5

Question: how does the humourless atheist describe and evaluate the moral progress achieved by Lightning McQueen? It's because I consider that they _cannot_ that I see humourless atheism as foolish.

No TBTM this morning

Not only was I up before the dawn but the sky was so overcast and rainy that even if I had had a one minute exposure it would have been a very dull picture. So here's one from a few nights ago...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How Canada solved their part of the financial crisis

"In August 2007, it was discovered that Canada, just as the U.S., had a subprime mortgage-backed securities problem. Since the Canadian economy is more than ten times smaller than the American economy, the magnitude of the problem was also smaller, but it was nevertheless acute.

Indeed, Canada's subprime mortgage market was a smaller proportion of the total mortgage market than in the U.S. and mortgage defaults have not been as prevalent in Canada as in the United States. For instance, there has not been a housing bubble burst in Canada. Overall, risky mortgage-backed paper constituted, about 5 per cent of the total mortgage market, while in the U.S., subprime mortgage paper constitutes about 20 per cent of the total mortgage market, and mortgage defaults have been rising dramatically.

Nevertheless, there was some $32 billion (CAN) of non-bank asset-backed commercial paper in Canada. When this market became illiquid after August 2007, as a consequence of the global credit crisis that originated in the U.S., a restructuring committee was assembled in Canada by large pension plans, Crown corporations, banks and other businesses holding the bulk of $32 billion in non-bank asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP) in order to find a solution to the liquidity problem. (Large Canadian banks covered the asset-backed commercial paper that were on their books or in their money market funds). This was the Pan-Canadian Investors Committee for Third-Party Structured ABCP, chaired by a Toronto lawyer, Mr. Purdy Crawford, and created after a proposal that originated from the large Quebec pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt. This was the Montreal proposal.

The committee ended up proposing to restructure the frozen and illiquid securities into longer-term securities. It proposed that ABCP notes, initially intended as low-risk and short-term debt, be exchanged for new replacement notes or debentures that would not mature for years (seven or nine years) while earning interest originating from the underlying primary mortgages. The plan was approved by a Canadian court last June and is scheduled to close by September 30, after Canada's Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal against the plan.

The plan was designed to prevent a forced a fire sale of the asset-backed paper and to restore confidence in the Canadian financial system, especially in the money market funds. And it did all that without the government risking a penny of taxpayers' money.

Of course, those entities that had invested in what they believed to be liquid and relatively high-yield 30- to 90-day debt instruments had to accept new notes maturing within nine years, but most of them thought that this was better than the alternative of outright liquidation. Those investors can hold the newly-issued notes to maturity or they can try to trade them in the secondary market. A market for asset-backed securities was thus indirectly created where none existed before."

Now why couldn't the UK be that sensible? (Via ClubOrlov)


"It is not surprising that it was Plato who took the traditional term for ritual theoria and transmuted it into philosophical theoria, which is not the same thing as what we mean by theory, but is its lineal predecessor."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Show of Hands in Ipswich

Good concert - but not quite as good as the last time I went to see them. Fascinating to see a church used in this way though, set all sorts of thoughts running through my head.


At some point I might Fisk this article: Steven Weinberg 'Without God'.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (28): The fool and his heart

Famously, Psalm 14 begins 'The fool says in his heart "There is no God"'. What is meant by this? Click 'full post' for text.

Is the fool foolish because there is some fact about the world that he hasn't noticed? That is, is this attribution of foolishness akin to calling a flat-earth believer a fool? As if a man is standing in front of the sea and claiming not to see any water? That sort of claim would be an empirical claim. It would be an assertion of some fact about the world, a fact that is amenable to scientific investigation, the formulation of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Then the dispute would be between the community of those who accept the legitimacy of those processes, and those who don't, and the more widespread the acceptance of the processes, the more foolish the objector will be seen as. One definition of the fool: one who stands outside the consensus of the community. And in this example the community will have a particular 'grammar' for how to talk about what counts - what counts as important, what counts as evidence for what is important.

Is this the nature of the Psalmist's claim? Well, let me first ask: are there areas of life where foolishness might be displayed in ways that are not open to empirical investigation? Consider the shenanigans in the Clinton White House involving Ms Lewinsky. When Hillary found out about these matters, would she be justified in calling her husband a fool? It is, after all, a familiar trope in literature when someone is rendered foolish by their passions. Or perhaps when someone is tempted to steal, on the optimistic presupposition that they won't be caught - and they don't realise that all of their actions are being caught on CCTV. Or perhaps the more long term and insidious foolishness of having just one more drink, or 'one for the road'. Or perhaps pouring petrol on a blazing fire. In these examples there might be empirical information that is relevant - certainly to the detriment of Mr Clinton's reputation - but is the foolishness itself empirically observed? Or is it rather a matter of judgement?

Isn't that what foolishness is? An absence of sound judgement, or the impairment of judgement? Either a repeated choosing badly, or, perhaps, an absence of any decision making at all.

It is, in fact, a good example of foolishness to try and make these second sorts of foolishness - let's call them moral - fit into the first type of foolishness - call them empirical.

And the question I want to ask is: which sort matters more? Which sort is most destructive of a fully human life? And what sorts of habits and attitudes help us avoid foolishness and pursue what is wonderful?

So what does the Psalmist mean? Well let's put the quotation into context:

"The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."

It is common in the psalms to have a verse repeating the same sentiment in two different ways, and that applies here - the fool saying that there is no God is the same sentiment as no one doing any good. In other words we have here a practical description of behaviour. We are not here dealing with an empirical claim, we are instead dealing with the realm of morality. The claim of foolishness is not that the fool isn't seeing the world correctly in some scientific fashion, rather, the fool is acting as if there is no accountability and no consequence to his actions. The fool who believes that there is no God is the same as the amoral actor who has no care for the consequences of his choices. This is the grammar of the language.

To say that the fool says in his heart there is no God is to describe the disposition, the shape of the heart of the fool. It is an undisciplined heart; a heart that is not accountable; a heart that is selfish and unconstrained. The word 'God' has its meaning in this context - it is the lynchpin of the entire system - for God is precisely that which orients a heart correctly, to which the heart is accountable, which is able to rightly discipline and enable the heart to judge correctly between what is just and what is unjust.

I have talked elsewhere about the problem with science and the positivist culture that has been so influentially humourless for the last century or so - it is asophic, it is blind to wisdom. It is asophic, and as a result, it says in its heart there is no God.

Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away. Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest...My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." (Hosea 4)


Honor, empathy and the limits of political virtue.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

From the Old to the New

NT Use of the OT -- Test Your View!
Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view You seem to be most closely aligned with the Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view, a view defended by Peter Enns in the book “Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (edited by Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, Nov. 2008). Since the NT writers held a single-minded conviction that the Scriptures point to and are fulfilled in Christ, this view suggests that the NT writers perceive this meaning in OT texts, even when their OT authors did not have that meaning in mind when they wrote. It should be noted, however, that advocates of this view are careful not to deny the importance of the grammatical-historical study of the OT text so as to understand the OT authors on their own terms. For more info, see the book, or attend a special session devoted to the topic at the ETS Annual Meeting in Providence, RI (Nov. 2008); Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns will all present their views.
Fun quizzes, surveys & blog quizzes by Quibblo

Very interesting quiz (h/t Peter Kirk)

Holy War

a) we are doing God's will
b) let us pray that we are doing God's will

Remarkable how the difference between those two is not understood from a secular perspective.
(H/T John Hobbins.)

Reasonable Atheism (27): An Apt Analogy

Scott Gray left this comment at James' blog:

"sam doesn't want god to be thought of in definable aspects. he wants the nature of god to be kept up in the air by the juggling of several models, or metaphors, at once. while it makes understanding the nature of god interesting, it doesn't help with a definitive understanding. with the non-stop juggling of metaphors and models, there can be no 'articulate, categorical thought.' and sam likes it this way. from a physics perspective, he doesn't want the 'god' wave-function to collapse to anything measurable. he refuses to open shroedinger's box to see anything definitive about 'god.'

this is the difference between theology and critical inquiry. in critical inquiry, we want to know the true nature of things. in theology, we are happy to juggle metaphors forever without any articulate, category-oriented thought."

And I responded


That's exactly right. I've been thinking about writing a post on this theme, and this is such a wonderful analogy. I think something is lost when a determinate understanding is sought - that's what all the language about idolatry is all about, it's really about cultivating intellectual humility, and radically embracing 'I could be wrong'.

Thank you. For once I feel really understood :o)"

In due course I will unpack this.


Time for some campaignin'
(H/T Phil's Treehouse)

I took over 80 photos this morning, some of which I was really pleased with, but I chose this one because, even though it's not photographically ideal, it gives you a good idea of what I saw on leaving my front gate today! I generally now take more photos than I post on the blog - they get posted on my flickr account (link to the right), normally in a bundle about once a month. But I'll post some more from this morning now.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cyber loss

Various comments in the blogosphere about the passing of Tom Allen, better known as the Big Bulky Anglican - see here for the eulogy at his funeral. Not someone I'd ever met, but I read him regularly and feel that I had really got to know him (and I know he read this blog). It raises the question about on-line relationships. They're remarkably real, even if they aren't fleshly. A bit like heaven then?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


The facial frontier.


V is for humour

One of my favourite books and films, and prescient too - but this is funny.

Some political confessions

I thought I'd throw up some bullet points on my political perspectives, because, although I would describe myself as a conservative, there are various ways in which that might be misleading, particularly in the US context.

  • I was (with caveats) in favour of the invasion of Iraq, and on balance I still think it was the right decision
  • I think the Bush administration has been culpably incompetent (and radically anti-conservative) and Bush and Cheney should be impeached
  • I think the Bush administration has been actively evil in its support for torture and that Bush should be excommunicated from the church
  • I firmly believe that the truth about 9/11 has not been told, though I am not persuaded that Bush was personally involved in that (I have only come to negative conclusions about this subject, not positive ones)
  • I do believe that radical Islam poses an existential threat to Western Civilisation. I see the standard left-wing consensus - such as it is - as manifestly inadequate for defending western civilisation, and this is one of my main objections to Obama (for an example, see the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
  • By the way, in case it isn't obvious, I believe very strongly in free speech
  • I believe that the Bush administration, whether by active design or inadvertence, has laid the foundations for a new feudalism in the United States
  • I think there is a non-trivial possibility of a far-right Christian fascist autocracy forming in the United States within the next ten years, and a similarly non-trivial possibility of Civil War. My main reason for thinking that those things won't happen is that the suffering will hit the cities more than the countryside, but I could easily be wrong
  • I find Obama's vote on abortion abhorrent, unconscionable and unfathomable
  • I am in favour of stem cell research
  • I find McCain's position on Georgia (shared by Obama) unrealistic and seriously frightening. I would certainly not invite Georgia to be a member of NATO (an institution that is now past its use-by-date)
  • I think the United Nations is, by and large, a waste of space
  • I am strongly in favour of full secular equality for homosexual couples (and I'm phrasing it that way because 'marriage' raises theological questions that are a red herring here)
  • I don't expect any politicians to be saints; it's just a question of the degree of corruption. I find it remarkable how little investigation there has been of Obama's background, competence and voting record which seem to me to be much worse than Palin's
  • I don't think either candidate has a clue about the nature of the storm engulfing the US economy, nor do I think there is much that either candidate can do about it. I still think the fourth turning is a very good guide to what we are seeing
  • For all his faults - and his faults aren't lonely for long - I see McCain as more able to exercise an independent perspective than Obama. I'm not convinced that there is anything there with Obama, that is, anything which marks him out as something other than a product of his context
  • I think that George Romero is a prophet, particularly of the US

Reasonable Atheism (26): Evidence for God's existence

One often reads comments like this one: "...there is no convincing evidence that God exists."

The first problem with this is that it assumes that the existence of God is something that is open to empirical investigation (which is normally the only admissible form of evidence), and that rather begs the question as to the nature of God. It assumes that God is some sort of fact about the world, in the same way that there are other facts about the world, and this is a simple theological error. That is not the correct way to think about God's existence.

So what is the correct way to think about God's existence? Well, it's not about any fact in the world - it's about how all such facts are understood. Consider the famous duck-rabbit:

Is there a rabbit in this picture? For someone who only sees the duck, no amount of pointing out particular lines or dots in the picture will make the slightest difference. You have to 'see' that there is also a rabbit.

Similarly, to try and explain God's existence in terms of 'evidence' is to mistake the nature of what is at stake. Belief in God is about an interpretation of the whole; it is the claim that the whole is meaningful, and purposeful, and that our existence can share in that meaning and purpose. There is no possible empirical evidence to sway the matter.

All we have is the language of saying 'look at it like this'. Look at it like a rabbit. But if the notion of rabbits is completely alien; if the notion of rabbits is bracketed off with 'fairies at the bottom of the garden'; then progress is impossible. We just have to wait until something in a person's life - often the experience of suffering - convinces them that life is meaningful, and they are then compelled to seek a language to explore it with. Then we can discuss religion.
"Life can educate one to a belief in God. And also experiences can do this; but not visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the 'existence of this being' - but, e.g. Sufferings of various kinds. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, - life can force this concept on us." (that man again)


60 tips for public speaking.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Fallout (Andrew Anthony)

Readable story of political awakening by a formerly left-wing Guardian journalist. His understanding of foreign affairs was mugged by 9/11, and his attitude to crime was mugged rather more violently. As he says, to be in favour of gay rights and free speech now marks you out as a right wing lunatic Islamophobe. It's nice to have the company.

Faith of my fathers (John McCain)

Picked this up on a whim in the bookshop last week. A fascinating read, with some remarkable passages, but you do have to wonder how far the presentation is being tweaked for electoral purposes. Even so, he has clearly learnt some personal humility from his experiences, and that can only be a good thing. It has made me want to find a really good biography of him, to see how far his emphasis on personal honour etc is reconcilable with the Keating scandal. Well worth reading.

(NB I now plan to read Obama's autobiography as well, just to be fair!)

The Lives of Others

Truly remarkable and uplifting character study. I want to watch it again already.


Back from retreat a day early, for various good and bad reasons.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (25): Why Jesus' existence is beyond reasonable doubt

I provoked something of a spat at Stephen Law's site by commenting on one thread that "To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind." (See subsequent posts, with comments from me, here, here, here etc)

In this post I want to unpack that comment and indicate why Jesus' existence is beyond reasonable doubt. Click 'full post' for text (warning: 5500+ words)

Preliminary remarks
My first preliminary remark is simply to point out that the overwhelming consensus viewpoint of academic specialists in the relevant disciplines is that there was a historical Jesus. Indeed, according to the highly esteemed and respected historian E.P. Sanders, in his 'The Historical Figure of Jesus', "There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus' life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity." Sanders goes on to list a sequence of facts which in his view are "almost beyond dispute":
"Jesus was born c. 4 B.C.E., near the time of the death of Herod the Great; he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; he was baptized by John the Baptist; he called disciples; he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); he preached 'the Kingdom of God'; about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; he created a disturbance in the Temple area; he had a final meal with the disciples; he was arrested and interrogated by the Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate".
My argument here is that if these details (and there are others) about Jesus' life and ministry are 'almost beyond dispute' then the simple bare fact of Jesus having existed is beyond reasonable doubt.

Two further preliminary points. The first is that it is conceivable that there was no historical Jesus, that the figure of Jesus Christ was, for example a literary creation developed subsequent to, say, Paul having a vision of some sort. So the argument that I am going to be making here is not one for 100% certainty that Jesus existed. In the nature of the case that degree of certainty is not available and the desire or request for the degree of certainty is simply a sign that the nature of the question is not understood.

Secondly, accepting the historical existence of Jesus has no necessary theological consequence. His existence can be accepted as a fact by people of all different faiths and none - indeed his existence is so accepted. However, the converse most emphatically does have theological consequences. If it could be shown that Jesus did not exist then Christianity as it has been known for the last 2000 years collapses. It is impossible to claim that God became incarnate if the person claimed as an incarnate deity didn't exist. This feature of the argument is, I believe, the best explanation for why some atheists attribute dubiety to Jesus' existence - their motivation is to attack Christian faith, and showing that Jesus may not have existed would, if justifiable, be a nuclear device lobbed into the middle of a church - nothing would be left. Fortunately their doubt is neither justifiable nor reasonable, as I shall now attempt to show.

The relevant evidence concerning Jesus' existence is textual. Whilst there are archaeological findings from later centuries testifying to the existence of the Christian church there is, to my knowledge, no direct archaeological evidence of the historical Jesus. This should not be too surprising. Archaeological evidence that identifies particular individuals tends to be restricted to those who exercised prominent leadership at the time; for example, one could reasonably expect to find coinage imprinted with the name of the Roman Emperor during whose reign such coinage was manufactured. The career of an itinerant Jewish healer was not one that would be likely to produce such evidence, so it is not an argument against Jesus' existence to point out that there is no such evidence. (Though it is an argument to say that the evidence available is not as good as that for, say, one of the Roman Emperors. On historical grounds we can be more confident that there was someone named Julius Caesar than there was someone named Jesus of Nazareth. The issue is whether we can still be confident that there was someone called Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of such evidence that we do have).

Non-Christian evidence
Such evidence is primarily textual and produced by Christian communities, but not exclusively so. There are a handful of references in other ancient texts which offer some degree of corroboration for the evidence of the Christian texts. In Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny there are references to controversies caused by Christian groups, but these don't specifically reference Jesus as such (though Tacitus does make a reference to crucifixion). They offer evidence that there was a Christian group in Rome and elsewhere by the middle of the first century AD - which is an historical fact we will come back to - but they do not directly advance the case. The one reference that probably does is that of Josephus. In his 'Antiquities of the Jews' the contemporary historian Josephus (a Jew) has two references to Jesus, one long, one short. The short reference is to James the Just, "the brother of Jesus called the Christ" and that reference is largely undisputed. The more significant reference, however, is mostly seen as having been corrupted by later Christian scribes. In its existent form it reads:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Antiquities of the Jews xviii 3.3, tr: William Whiston (from Wikipedia))
The majority of scholars believe that, although we do not now have the text, there was a reference here to Jesus which has been amended subsequently. Geza Vermes has offered a possible unaltered text, which strips out the more obvious theologically-driven wording, and there is also a reference in an Arabic text to Josephus which gives very similar wording. Whilst this is not ideal, there is then some non-Christian evidence for the existence of Jesus as an historical person.

The Christian evidence
The vast majority of textual evidence for the existence of Jesus is that preserved by the Christian church. Once more, this is the situation that might reasonably be expected, as these are the people and communities with the most interest in preserving such information. Does this make the information necessarily compromised? No historical text is free of bias, and it is a mistake to imagine that a bias-free text exists. However, it does mean that the historian investigating these texts needs to be aware of the bias that the Christian community would bring to their production of these texts, and develop judgement and discrimination concerning the historicity of the events variously reported. This is, of course, the standard practice for all historical investigation.

The major historical texts are the four gospels, most especially Matthew, Mark and Luke which are collectively known as the 'synoptic gospels', as they share much in the way of narrative structure and language. John's gospel stands alone and is significantly different in a number of ways from the synoptics. In addition to the gospels themselves, there are various other documents which are relevant: the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John; Hebrews and the Apocalypse of John included in the canon of the New Testament, and also the various non-canonical letters and documents such as the works of Clement and Eusebius. There are thus a great many distinct textual sources that provide evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus; even when we consider the Pauline corpus as a single source, we are still into double figures: Paul, James, Mark, John, Matthew, Luke/Acts, "Q", Peter, Hebrews, Jude, the writer of the Apocalypse, Clement and so on. There is much debate in the academic community over the proper dating of the various texts but in broad terms the earliest texts are Pauline letters, from the late 40's AD, the gospels were written c.70AD - 100AD, with the apocalypse being possibly the latest document written at perhaps 110AD.

Now one objection that could be raised is that, as all these sources are Christian, they should all be considered as a single source. This would be unfair, not least because of the vigorous disagreements in the Christian churches that the documents record. Imagine that Socrates had four different pupils, each of whom was as prolific as Plato, and each of which recorded various teachings of Socrates, some of which overlapped, some of which was in conflict. The existence of these varied documents would in fact give us much greater confidence in being able to distinguish the historical Socrates from the Socrates-as-presented-by-Plato. In the same way, the number and quality of sources about Jesus - significantly better than for Socrates - provides great confidence that we can learn information about the historical Jesus, taking into account the varied biases which the different writers, especially the different gospel writers, bring to their accounts. We know, for example, that Luke was very interested in questions of social justice, and we can bear that in mind when we consider his birth narrative, where the Magnificat and Benedictus tie in to that agenda very strongly. We can, therefore, be more confident about the existence (and nature) of the historical Jesus because of the diversity of the accounts, not less.

Knowledge about the Gospels
The first thing to note about the gospels is that they are all written in Greek. This has important implications – Jesus spoke in Aramaic, so (with a few exceptions) we do not have any direct record of Jesus’ actual words, everything has gone through one translation already. Furthermore, the use of Greek indicates the Hellenistic context within which the gospels were composed, making it probable that the authors were educated people living in or around one of the Greek cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, the gospels exhibit a common structure (which is why they can be called gospels in the first place): they all describe various events in Jesus’ life, particularly stories about healing, and include passages of Jesus’ teaching, often in parables; they all describe Jesus’ subsequent trial and crucifixion, and then conclude with an account of the resurrection; importantly, they are all anonymous. Finally, they are each concerned to show Jesus in a particular way, that, in the opening words of Mark’s gospel, ‘This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. In other words, they are primarily theological texts. They were composed by believing Christians in the early Church, and they cannot be understood apart from that context. To import modern historical standards into our assessment of these texts is anachronistic – they weren’t designed to be compared to modern works of historical scholarship. This is not to say that we cannot glean historically useful information from them, only that if we assess them purely on one criteria and find them wanting, we will mistake their character.

It is now commonly accepted that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be composed. There are a number of reasons for this. To begin with, a comparison of the text of Mark compared with the text of Matthew shows that some 90% of the verses in Mark are repeated or echoed in Matthew; and similarly much of the material in Mark is also in Luke. This observation gives rise to what is known as the ‘synoptic problem’ - what is the relationship between these gospels? If we were teachers in a school, and pupils handed in work showing this degree of overlap then we would be confident that there had been some level of collaboration between the different authors. In the same way, contemporary scholars are convinced that there is some form of literary dependence between these gospels, that one gospel writer copied material from another. Which way did the dependency flow? The main arguments for saying that Mark came before the other two synoptic gospels are these:
  • Mark is the shortest gospel, and does not contain important material, eg the birth narratives, the Sermon on the Mount or descriptions of the resurrected Jesus;
  • Mark has much more of an ‘eye-witness’ feel, in the sense that there is more concern with incidental detail, (eg Mark 2.2-4);
  • if we imagine that one writer deliberately changed another’s wording, then it is more intelligible to think that Matthew changed Mark, in the interests of improving the Greek or simplicity and clarity;
  • an argument could be made for saying that Mark’s gospel is less theologically developed, although this argument is controversial; and finally
  • the order of events in Mark seems to be determinative for the other two, and not the other way round. In other words, Mark’s order of events is always followed by either Matthew or Luke, and it is never the case that Matthew and Luke agree on the ordering of an event against Mark.
This gives an indication of the way in which biblical scholarship tries to establish a perspective on the gospels, by examining internal evidence from the texts themselves, comparing it with external evidence (if any) and then coming to a conclusion. The question then arises, how did the gospels come to be written in the first place?

The first and most obvious point to be made is that the gospels were written after the events described within the text itself. Mark’s gospel is generally believed to have been composed between AD65 and AD75, the first gospel to be written, some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Secondly, the gospels were the products of Christian communities, in other words those who viewed Jesus in the light of the resurrection. Following the first Easter, stories and beliefs about Jesus were circulated by the remaining disciples, and we have records of some of the most primitive statements of belief preserved within some of the texts of the New Testament itself. As a result of being the product of a Christian community, the gospels contain much material that was used by the communities, either liturgically in worship, or for teaching. The gospels therefore contain material that has passed through a process of adaptation. The author of Luke's gospel explicitly states this as his intention - to review the various documents and sources and put together the best collection. What we have, therefore, in the gospel texts as we have them, is a collection of material that has been collected (redacted) into the form it has now, and one of the skills developed by the historical study of the gospels is learning to sift the accounts to try and distinguish between what the evangelist might have written themselves, and what they might have taken up from their sources. To put this process into a crude framework, we can say the following: the gospels as we now have them will show traces of three stages of development. The first is material that (ex hypothesi) could be traced back to Jesus himself; the second is material that was preserved and cultivated within the oral tradition; and the third is material that was added to the text by the author of the gospel, the evangelist, himself.

A number of criteria are employed to assess how reliable information contained in the Gospels is, and can help to determine, for example, at what stage of development certain elements of the gospels were formed. These are five common criteria:
  • multiple attestation – if something is said about Jesus which comes from a number of different sources (eg in Mark and in Paul) then it is more likely to be authentic;
  • dissimilarity, or uniqueness – if something is said about Jesus which is strikingly original in the context of first century Palestine, then it is quite likely to have come from Jesus himself;
  • coherence – if an aspect is either strikingly against the grain of the narrative, or against the purposes of the evangelist, then it is more likely to be authentic. Conversely, if it fits too easily with the purposes of the writer, particularly if it ‘demonstrates’ a particular doctrine, or evidence of a ‘Post-Easter’ faith, then we need to exercise caution;
  • Aramaic style – if an aspect can be shown to derive either from Aramaic language or customs then it is more likely to be authentic; finally
  • Enemy claims – if an aspect is included as part of a criticism of Jesus voiced by people hostile to him, and that material corresponds to other elements, then it is more likely to be authentic.
I want to explore one element of historical criticism in a little more detail as it will give a good idea of the sort of judgement used by historians. This is the material which is embarrassing to the early church and which therefore requires explanation if the stories were entirely made up. There are several examples of this - the crucifixion itself is one - but the one I'd like to explore is the story of Jesus' own baptism by John the Baptist. This episode is referred to in each of the gospels and, if we accept the consensus chronology for the dating of the gospels then we can see a more and more intense desire to explain why this should have had to happen. For if Jesus was, as the church claimed, the Messiah sent by God, why would he require a baptism from John who was, by definition, inferior in the divine hierarchy? So in Mark's gospel we have a simple description of Jesus being baptised, with theological colouring and the reference to the Holy Spirit. In Matthew we have the addition of a conversation between Jesus and John where John expresses bafflement at what he is doing, "I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?". Finally in John we have a heavily theologised text where John the Baptist declares Jesus to be 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'

Now the problem here, for those who allege that there was no historical Jesus, is to explain this material. There would be a consensus amongst the historians that the account of the baptism has gone through a process of adaptation, so that John's account is carrying out a particular polemical purpose (eg against those antagonistic to the early church who were using Jesus' baptism by John as an argument against Jesus being the Messiah). Yet a core part of this historical analysis and explanation of John's purposes would precisely be that there was a general awareness and acceptance in the community of the time - both Christian and Jew - that Jesus had been baptised by John the Baptist. This constituted an 'awkward fact' which the Christian community had to overcome. Yet this awkward fact presupposes the existence of the historical Jesus. Those who allege that there was no historical Jesus, that he is, in effect, a literary creation, have to offer some sort of explanation as to why these various awkward facts are included, when they don't have to be on their hypothesis. The conventional, simple and consensus account would say that they were included because everybody knew these facts to be true and undeniable - leading to embarrassment for the early church. Thus, this fact - that Jesus was baptised by John - is seen as being one of the most historically robust facts it is possible to know about Jesus.

It is on the basis of considerations like these that textual scholars debate the historical evidence, and come to the conclusions that they do. On that point, it is worth quoting something that Ed Sanders says: "New Testament scholars spent several decades - from about 1910 to about 1970 - saying that we know somewhere between very little and virtually nothing about the Historical Jesus. Excess leads to reaction, and in recent decades we have grown more confident... We know a lot about Jesus, vastly more than about John the Baptist, Theudas, Judas the Galilean, or any of the other figures whose names we have from approximately his time and place."

The alternative hypothesis - literary creation
I mentioned above that those who deny, or doubt, the existence of the historical Jesus need to argue that the figure described in the gospels is a literary creation (or something even less tenable, eg an agglomeration of several literary creations). There are a great many problems with this hypothesis, not least the absence of any evidence for it. Now it is generally true that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but in this context it would be reasonable to expect such evidence. For example, we know that there was conflict and then schism between the early Christians and the wider Jewish community, leading to persecution and then the ostracism of the Christians from the synagogues. In this conflict an argument that there was no historical Jesus in the first place would have been an extremely strong one, and one that we would expect the wider Jewish community to deploy. We have evidence from the Talmud of the sorts of criticisms that were made against the Christians (which, of course, gives supplementary evidence that Jesus existed) but this argument was not made. The simplest explanation as to why this argument was not made is that - as with Jesus' baptism by John - Jesus' bare existence was a matter of common and agreed knowledge.

Which leads to the wider points about credibility. For this story to be a literary creation we need to develop some sort of explanation as to why the people who were alive during the events being described would not simply disconfirm it by their testimony. After all, we are talking about this textual evidence being composed, in the case of the gospels, within living memory of what is being described and, in the case of the Pauline letters, within twenty or so years of the events described. The alternative hypothesis also needs to explain, in addition to the details of the stories that we now have, and the references in Paul and so on, the existence of Christian communities themselves. Given the reference in Tacitus, in addition to the testimony of the texts themselves, especially the Pauline letters, we have very good reason to believe that there were communities of Jews in various parts of the Roman Empire, talking about a crucified victim-redeemer, in the latter part of the first half of the first century AD. The alternative hypothesis needs to offer some sort of explanation as to how this could come about, within a decade or so after the events described in the texts, when crucifixion was seen as shameful and evidence of being cursed by God, when there were lots of contemporary witnesses alive to disconfirm the story, and when there is a wealth of supplementary evidence confirming the outline of the story itself. In this context, when the explanation accepted by the academic community fits all the known facts, gives a coherent explanation for them and how they fit together - and when the alternative hypothesis does no such thing - it goes beyond gullibility to accept the alternative hypothesis; it represents, rather, an abandonment of rational judgement. To account for all the details that are known about the communities, the texts, and the wider historical context, the advocate of the alternative hypothesis has to offer up such a sequence of historical improbabilities that belief in miracles seems straightforward by comparison. Which leads to the final issue.

Problem of miraculous invalidity
The truth is that any proposition can be doubted - such doubt takes no intellectual effort and can be adopted simply as an intellectual pose. Rational doubt, however, requires grounds for doubt, as Wittgenstein shows in On Certainty. The historical grounds for doubt are untenable, but there are wider philosophical grounds for doubt that might be adopted. One such is what I call the argument from miraculous invalidity, which runs as follows (taken from Stephen Law ):
1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

2. There is not extraordinary evidence for any of the divine/miraculous stuff in the NT documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there's excellent reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there's pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth (as illustrated by the Bert case*).

5. The NT docs combine extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus.

6. There's no pretty good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there's pretty good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.

* The Bert case: if my friends say a stranger called Bert visited them last night, I'll rightly take their word for it. But if they say Bert did amazing miracles in their front room before leaving - turning the sofa into a donkey, dying and then coming back to life, etc. - well then their claim that these things happened is now no longer nearly good enough evidence even for the claim that any such person as Bert exists, let alone that he did any of the things they claim.
Propositions 1,2,3 and 5 are uncontentious (and I'm arguing here that proposition 6 is straightforwardly false) but the weight comes with proposition 4, which deserves a more detailed response, on three grounds - that the judgement involves anachronisms, that it is historically jejune, and that the analogy breaks down.

The argument is anachronistic in the sense that what are now seen as extraordinary (miracles understood as a violation of physical law) were not seen as extraordinary in the same way at the time. For a text from this context to refer to miracles is simply an authentic expression of the culture of the time. Miracles were part and parcel of the culture of the Ancient Near East and, not only that, but the following two things are true: i) Jesus' opponents were also credited with 'miraculous' powers (eg the Pharisees) and ii) you could be understood as a divinely inspired prophet without having miraculous powers (eg John the Baptist). So there is no need to invent stories out of whole cloth in order to establish a divine imprimatur on a teaching ministry.

What is not in dispute, from an historical point of view, is that there has been some literary embellishment involved in the telling of the stories about Jesus, and that this creation enhances the theological significance of Jesus. Yet there is quite a large step between exaggerating a claim about someone and inventing the entire story about that someone in the first place (for reasons outlined above).

By way of comparison, if there was an ancient text that referred to the movement of the moon and the sun in Ptolemaic terms (ie geocentrically) would that make the text _necessarily_ invalid? No, because that is the language and understanding in use at the time. It would, in fact, be strong evidence for the fabrication of the text if there was a heliocentric reference (other things being equal). Similarly, the fact that the writers of the gospels describe events occurring in a certain fashion is primarily testimony about how they understood those events. It does not preclude an alternative explanation of the events being offered, eg one that diminishes the theological significance, one that 'rationalises' the miraculous.

Building on that, my second point is that the perceived invalidity of parts of the text is insufficient to doubt the entirety of the texts to such an extent that they are seen as a creation in toto. I would accept that, other things being equal, the incorporation into a story of unbelievable elements would undermine the credibility of the story as a whole. Here, though, other things are not equal, for there are elements of the story (eg Jesus' baptism) which we have very good reason for considering authentic. For the alternative hypothesis to be true, these wider elements, including the major parts of the stories relating to the last week of Jesus' life, must also be created. Which is more plausible: that a man existed, did the sorts of publicly observable things described, and whose followers slowly developed his story over time leading to the mix of the historically credible and incredible that we have - or, that this story was created out of whole cloth, with all the credibility problems discussed above still included?

Which brings us to the Bert case. I would pick out the following elements:
- the story takes place in the present day;
- the testimony is from a limited number of 'friends';
- the testimony involves something which is considered impossible (ie against the laws of physics) by both friends and listener.

In contrast to this, the stories about Jesus take place in an extremely different culture; the testimony is from a large and diverse number of people; and it does not involve something which is considered impossible in the same way by both friends and listener. The analogy has been constructed so as to maximise the tension between what is conventionally believed today and what is being claimed, yet, for these reasons, the tensions are very much less. In other words, in the context of the time, the 'miraculous' claims are very much less extraordinary than they would be today.

However, it is worth emphasising that the stories about Jesus do involve some claims that would have been understood as mind-bogglingly extraordinary at the time - foremost amongst them being the claim that someone who had been crucified could be seen as approved of by God. This was not simply anti-intuitive at the time, it was something that went against the clear sense of Scripture, as Deuteronomy describes anyone hung from a tree as cursed by God. Again, as with the example of Jesus' baptism, this is an 'awkward fact' and it is not at all likely that an invented story about a Jewish Messiah would have been constructed in this way.

Conclusion: "beyond reasonable doubt" and sanity
What I would like to emphasise in conclusion is that the notion that there was no historical Jesus, even if couched in terms of 'neutral doubt', is an extreme position to hold. It is a position which doesn't simply doubt that the gospels are wholly reliable; it doesn't just doubt that the miracles happened; it doesn't just treat the gospels as theological propaganda - it is a position which, without evidence, alleges an astonishingly creative conspiracy with powers that border on the miraculous. The conventional explanation for all the various facts and evidence, which explains what we know in a straightforward fashion, is that there was an historical Jesus, the outlines of whose life we are in a position to know a reasonable amount about. Various elements within this story are more or less open to doubt - that is, indeed, what the scholarly community in this area spend their time arguing about - but the bare existence of an historical Jesus is beyond all reasonable doubt.

To posit that the story has no basis whatsoever in historical fact is placing oneself outside of the academic community which studies this area. Of course, it is not absolutely certain that the academic community is correct - one hundred thousand lemmings might be wrong - but what it does mean is that the person arguing for doubt about an historical Jesus has to work extremely hard to show that their position is not, eg, being pursued for reasons other than simple concern for historical accuracy. The burden of proof lies upon those who would allege doubt about what the historians of all faiths and none would consider to be a comparatively well attested group of facts. Where such proof is not forthcoming, eg an alternative explanation which gives some sort of explanation for at least the majority of the undisputed facts (eg Tacitus' references), then it is reasonable to conclude that the sceptical viewpoint is not being advanced on rational grounds.

I continue to believe that that, to use my words which sparked this conversation off, "To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is ... a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind."


Important work can be done while daydreaming.

Of course. Dave Walker is living proof.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin humour

"Sarah Palin will give birth to the man who will lead humanity’s war against the machines".

There are loads of these circulating around at the moment, but I thought this one particularly amusing.


The future of Star Wars.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


P!$$-poor and pointless. 2.5/5

Alaskan values and the character of leadership

Following Monday's paean to Palin I've been musing a little bit further about why I think she is a good thing, despite having serious disagreements with some of her political stances (NB the creationism allegation seems to be a bit of an untruth - see "When reporters attack").

The biggest potential problem that I see does in fact lie with the issue I emphasised before - energy. Palin is clearly someone saturated with Alaskan values - the hunting, shooting, fishing, Moose-burger-eating red-in-tooth-and-claw element of US society. You could say that these values are frontier values, and what I would point out is that these values were formed where there was no sense of a limit to abundance, where nature could cope with whatever humanity threw at her. This is clearly the ground from which Palin offers scepticism about anthropogenic global warming, because such values don't meet immediate counter-evidence in the Alaskan context (despite Alaska suffering from the melting of the permafrost). This value set is not viable or appropriate in the context of a politics of scarcity, which is what Peak Oil and the associated problems will induce.

However, I think that Palin shares these values with a significant element of the US electorate and there is another set of values which I see as even more important, and still relevant to a position of leadership. One of the features of being heavily involved in these various outdoor activities is that you become quite attuned to reality. For example, if you are careless about the weather you can end up getting stranded and exposed; if you are careless about sea conditions when sailing you can end up getting capsized; if you are careless about hunting your bear then you risk your own life - and so on. There is, in other words, a more fundamental orientation towards reality which is cultivated by this outdoor lifestyle, which provokes important spiritual values such as humility and the Old Testament Heart.

In other words, whilst I can see her present positions on issues such as global warming and energy as being typically under-informed (typical for a US politician that is) I see her as having the character to respond correctly to better information - and I have no doubt that this better information would be conveyed to her if she gets elected, both through briefings and through regular intrusions of reality.

Which really points out the principal reason why I think she is a good choice - she has displayed character, and I continue to maintain that the contrast with Obama strongly reinforces the arguments in her favour. Both in her personal life and her political life she has taken risks and absorbed costs in order to maintain her own reformist agenda. Where, for example, has Obama taken on his own party in order to bring reform? Where, for example, has Obama shown courage in investigating wrong-doing in his own party? Where, for example, has Obama, shown leadership in initiating legislation to clean up the political process?

Obama is a machine politician with a fresh face and fancy words. Palin has walked the talk. And remember - this is a contrast between a Presidential candidate and a Vice-Presidential candidate! On the question of who has displayed the most character between the presidential candidates, Obama isn't even in the race.

UPDATE: someone else saying something similar: Obama, in short, is long on brains and short on guts.


No TBTM yesterday as the weather was atrocious - strong horizontal rain that soaked me to the skin and I didn't even walk back from church along the beach!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hurricane Gustav, Sarah Palin and why McCain will win the General Election

I gave a cheer when I discovered that Palin had been chosen by McCain as his VP candidate. A while ago I came across an article talking about 'outrider' candidates for VP and Palin seemed a really good choice, mainly along the lines of a) being a breath of fresh air, b) being a classical conservative, especially on the fiscal front, and c) had shown character and courage by taking on vested interests.

It's a choice that has made me a bit more comfortable about hoping for a McCain victory (I don't have a vote, tho' occasionally I ponder the steps I would need to go through to gain one). I felt McCain's response to Russia's invasion of Georgia was unrealistic, and if he had chosen someone like Romney for VP - as he was rumoured to be considering - then I'd have not been bothered whether he had won or lost. Choosing another middle aged man in a suit would have represented politics as usual - rather as Obama's choice of Biden does.

The canard about Palin being inexperienced is meaningless. As a VP candidate she has more relevant experience - and has done more with that experience and shown greater competence - than the Presidential candidate of the Democratic party. One of the beauties of this choice is that the argument about experience, and preparation for office, which will continue all the way through to the election, is now going to be comparing Obama to Palin - which elevates McCain above the fight and makes him untouchable on this front. In other words, anyone who is worried about Palin being inexperienced as a VP will end up being more worried about Obama as a President.

I also suspect that, whilst there is a short-term attraction to it, there isn't much mileage in ex-Hillary voters from choosing Palin. Their characters are just too different (and, again, to Palin's advantage). I see Palin as primarily chosen a) to reinforce McCain's connection with the conservative base, and get out lots of foot-workers (which she has clearly succeeded in doing) but also b) to reinforce McCain's credentials as an independent and reformist - a reputation which he has had historically but which has been a little blurred of late. It's now quite clear that McCain is serious about reforming Washington. (Which is one of the things to bear in mind when establishment figures start criticising Palin - these are the 'good ole boys' she will be taking on).

However, all of that is pretty conventional and not an excuse for yet another half-baked political post. I wanted to say something else a bit more specific, which might not have occurred to a great many people. One of the most salient aspects to Palin's candidacy is that she has developed a track-record as a) an opponent of 'Big Oil' and b) an advocate of drawing on the resources of Alaska for oil (eg ANWR). There is a clear distinction between the Dems and GOP on this.

Now the long-term context for this debate is Peak Oil (obviously) but there is a specific short-term context as well, being the run-down in gasoline stocks in the United States this summer. For some time readers of the Oil Drum have heard warnings that any interruption to supply in the southern US (eg imports from Mexico, plus hurricanes impacting the Gulf facilities) could cause physical shortages of gasoline in parts of the US, and even if that doesn't cause a panic, it does mean that the supply of oil will become a major talking point - possibly even a defining issue - in public debate about the presidency. Now on that issue the electability and credibility of Palin trumps anything that Obama can offer.

So here's my prediction: due to the choice of McCain and the credibility of Palin on the energy issue, the rise in salience of energy as an issue affecting voters, especially following the damage done to facilities in the Gulf by Gustav, will mean that McCain gets elected in November. Not by a landslide, but not by a whisker either.

UPDATE: obviously the collapse of Lehman brothers two weeks later rather compromised this analysis!!