Monthly Archives: March 2010

BC or BCE, AD or CE?

In scholarly circles it is almost universal to refer to dates as CE, or BCE these days.

The use is based on an objection to the meaning of the more common BC and AD. BC means ‘before Christ’, where ‘Christ’ of course refers to Jesus. But this isn’t just saying ‘Before Jesus’, it is saying ‘Before the Messiah’. So that is kind of presumptuous for the majority of the world who might recognize that Jesus was born around the right period, but would would beg to differ that he was the Christ. Similarly ‘Anno Domini’ is “The Year of Our Lord”, which really assumes that Jesus is your Lord. BJ and AJ would be better, although BJ might be unsuitable for younger readers…

But I have a real problem with BCE and CE. Because they mean ‘Before the Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’. Which is a problem because the birth of Jesus doesn’t define a ‘common era’, it is a highly specific cultural fluke cemented as a majority position by a combination of church hegemony in Europe and the European industrial revolution. If China had been first to widespread industrialization, we might have a very different view of what the ‘common’ era is.

But I realise I’m not going to come up with a practical alternative. So I amuse myself in calling BCE and CE “Before the Christian Era” and “Christian Era” to point out that the dating is specifically Christian, and that anyone else using the dating is only doing so because a certain group of western nations hooked their chronology so strongly to the birth of a peasant from Galilee who they thought was desperately and cosmically important.

Ultimately any ‘common’ calendar is actually an exercise in cultural imperialism. A necessary one, of course, but we should be a lot less squeamish about recognizing as such.

Pretending the birth of Jesus is somehow a ‘common’ epoch-making event is as much of an insult as defining the first 14 billion years of the existence of the universe ‘before Christ’.

Of course, the best solution is to create your own calendar. That’s fun. Mine’s a lunisolar calendar with weeks based on phases, months on new moons and years on the equinoxes. But then I’m really pathetic like that.

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Why Arguing Matters

Every reasonable person admits that some of their beliefs may be wrong. But no-one knows which they are, for if they did, they would no longer be beliefs. It is only in the robust clash of honest argument, that we see their weaknesses exposed.

I like argument. Constructive argument. I like receiving criticism, though I reserve the right not to accept it. This quote more than any other summarizes why.

I strive to be someone who can reject former beliefs when new arguments refute them. I strive to be someone who seeks out the strongest arguments to face. I don’t always succeed, but that would be my goal.

At various points in my life I’ve wanted to be a believer. Sometimes I have succeeded, at least for a while. But fundamentally my atheism comes down to this: atheism just seems to have the stronger arguments.

The quotation above is somewhat elusive. I thought I remembered it. I may have made it up. If I did remember it, it is likely to be John Stuart Mill (It seems consonant with his views, and is related to the line of argument he uses for free speech in “On Liberty”). But I can’t find it exactly, even searching with various combinations through his writings. And I may be thinking of him simply because I share most of his views, and would want to hang such a cool sentiment on him. If you can tell me where it comes from, please do. Otherwise I’ll claim it as my own!

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What is the Best Bible Commentary?

I was asked this weekend what commentaries are worth using, for folks who don’t want to drink the Kool-aid of evangelical bible propaganda. Its a tricky question.

I’m not a huge fan of commentaries generally, as many give the false impression that the bible means something, usually that it means something very similar to the religious prejudices of the reader’s church tradition. If you want to be told what to believe, or to be told how the bible backs up everything you already believe, then there are lots of resources for you, but I’m not going to be able to help you find them.

There are, however, various commentaries that are serious, scholarly, and address the text on its own terms. Unfortunately it isn’t easy to know which is which if you’re just looking for something to help with your study.

One more caveat, before I give you my top three. I do not read or use one-volume commentaries. The bible isn’t one book, and so I don’t see how you can write a commentary on the whole thing. Particularly not a critical commentary. You may as well get yourself a good study bible (such as the Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition). The commentaries below are serious works, and they are therefore large. I don’t have anywhere near the complete set (which would run to hundreds of volumes for all three), but it is worth buying a volume on a particular book, if you expect to be studying it in depth. It looks like my study group will be embarking on an analysis of Acts, for example, so I will use this opportunity to catch up on recent scholarship on those books, and these commentaries are useful to set the groundwork for reading papers or monographs.

So my list:

3. The International Critical Commentary (ICC – Books titles begin with “A critical and exegetical commentary on …”) has been around for over 100 years. The first set of books are now out of copyright and available on archive.org (here’s a search for scans from the University of Toronto library — tweak the search for other versions), but scholarship has moved on and many of the books in the series have been recommissioned. For a preview of the commentary on Acts, here it is on Google books. The series is currently published by Continuum Press (under the T & T Clark imprint). The series list is available on the Continuum site

2. The Continental Commentary Series, by Fortress Press is a smaller series that is intended to bring major masterworks of international commentary to the English language. It is here you’ll find Westermann’s seminal (and epic) commentary on Genesis in three English volumes. The coverage tends to be very, very deep, but not very wide. In other words, the series only covers a small part of the biblical text (no Acts for me, for example). The list of the 20 current titles are on the Augsburg Fortress site.

But my default go-to critical commentary series is:

1. Yale University Press’s Anchor Bible Commentary series. Okay there are reports of some duds here (I’ve not found one myself, but I only have a selection). But there are also highlights such as Ray Brown’s work on the Johannine community, and a rather good book on First Isaiah. You can buy these in epic library sets from Yale directly ($2660 for OT, NT and OT apocrypha), or book by book from Amazon. Again the books are thoroughly scholarly (though less linguistically complex than the ICC, I find), but they tend to be much more concise than the Continental series. The series listing is on Yale Press’s site.

Anyone else got any favorite scholarly commentaries?

[Edit 2010-03-30: So I'm not American, and I kinda gave that away writing Coolade for Kool-aid. Thanks for the spot, Sabio]

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My Religious Symbol

Φ

When I was in high-school I invented a new religion with some school friends. This was its symbol. We called it ‘phionism’. It was primarily a metaphysics of ethics, using Hook’s law (that the force in a spring is proportional to its compression or extension) as an analogy about why it is so hard to be ‘good’. It was terribly unsophisticated, but it was my first attempt at recreational religion building (yes I was a bit of a religion geek even at 14).

I forgot it for more than 20 years, but recently I have re-adpoted it, There are a bunch of reasons why it carries semiotic weight for me now:

  1. The most obvious and most facile: it is a greek letter. I like greek.
  2. It is the first letter of (and has often been used to symbolise) philosophy. Though I don’t pretend to have any real competence in academic philosophy, the word itself is a greek compound meaning “love of knowledge”. That sits very well with me!
  3. It has two components: The round circle to me represents the world, the real world, the objective world (it is kind-of O shaped, for Objective). The world that we can glimpse through careful study and analysis. The universal reality that we share in common. The vertical line represents me as an individual, (it is I shaped for Individual, and resembles a standing figure). This is the subjective world of my experiences, my feelings, my experiences, the bounds of my life, even (though I hate to use the word because of its unhelpful overtones) my spirituality. I see the world through this twin lens, and I try to value each equally. I’ll say more on this in future posts…
  4. It is a Celtic cross with the cross bar removed, a symbol of the cultural and regional (i.e. Wales) connection I have with Christianity, but the fundamental disruption in my understanding of religion that means I cannot accept the existence of the Christian savior. This meaning signifies that any religious understanding or spiritual experience I have stands relative to my understanding of Christianity, since that has hegemony over my culture, my theological grammar, and my study of religion.
  5. It reminds me of that first foray into religious creativity I had when a teenager. I remember my mum ridiculing my invention and my naivity in thinking I could even try. It reminds me that anyone can try, at 4, 14, 40, or 104. Building your own understanding of your religious experience seems to me to be a woefully under-used basic right. This symbol reminds me to exercise that right.

Are there particular symbols that you feel drawn to invest with your own meanings?

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The Birth Narratives and Dating

There are two stories about Jesus’s birth in the NT. One at the start of Matthew, the other at the start of Luke. They are very different in many regards. I wrote more about these in other places at Christmas, so I won’t recap too much about their content.

Because the stories are in some ways similar and in others completely different (and contradictory – unless you jump through some bizarre exegetical hoops) they give us a lot of data. From a source critical perspective, when you have two different accounts of the same thing, you typically divide the story into three sources: those sources that belonged to each individual (Matt and Luke) and the sources they both knew and drew on.

In this latter category, for the birth narratives, seems to be a set of interesting features, including:

1. Jesus came from Nazereth.
2. The Messiah comes from Bethlehem.
3. Jesus is the Messiah.
4. Jesus was born around the turn of the CE.
5. Jesus’s parents were named Mary and Joseph (Miriam and Yosef if you degreekify them).

Clearly 1-3 are a problem! And so many scholars believe that the birth narratives are motivated by the desire to resolve 1-3. To show how, even though everyone knows Jesus comes from Galilee, he must have been born in Bethlehem. And this is where the common source gives out. Whatever it was, it didn’t resolve the issue, because Matt and Luke each take a stab at squaring the circle and do so in different ways.

I’m posting on this topic because of imarriedaxtian’s comment in the previous post. I said that we can use the birth narratives as evidence of the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though few scholars think they are anything but mythological inventions. This is point 4, above.

We can deduce 4 because the *rough* dating is common, and therefore likely to be an earlier tradition. I say rough because, as is commonly pointed out, the disparities in the two accounts mean that they can’t both be exactly right – the dates just don’t line up. This has been pointed out many times, and is a favorite tool of ridicule by some atheists, who unfortunately stop right there and fail to think through the issue.

Having the dates not match exactly is not really surprising if you follow the standard model described above – both writers (or sources only they knew) are making up their birth narratives much later.

What is significant is that they both plump for the same kind of period. Imagine if you read two accounts of the birth of a famous man from the middle twentieth century. One places his birth in 1920, the other in 1926. From that I think you can probably say that the evidence points to a birth somewhere in the early 20s. Clearly the evidence does not support a birth in the 40s. You could deduce further that the two accounts don’t agree, they both can’t be right, and it may be that neither is correct. But the balance of probabilities suggest that the 1920s is the most likely period.

So the birth narratives give us evidence on the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though we don’t trust the specific dating that either gives us.

Of course, as I said in the previous comment, there are other threads of evidence for the dating of Jesus’s birth – just as (if not more) speculative, but contributing to a consensus view that Jesus was born somewhere around the turn of the CE.

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Factions in the Corinthian Church — 1 Cor 1:11-12

The Temple of Apollo at Corinth

The temple of Apollo at Corinth, with the city

Yesterday my eye was drawn to something intriguing at the start of 1 Corinthians. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he founded in Corinth which has grown and matured to some extent, but is gripped with some serious infighting and factional disputes. Some scholars (I’m thinking particularly of Dale Martin’s excellent “The Corinthian Body”) posit that these disputes line up on class lines, making the division basically a class war. Paul’s message can then be seen as giving succor to the majority, lower class position the church.

But what interested me was the list of names, Paul writes:

My brothers, some of Chloe’s folks have told me that there are quarrels among you. In other words: one of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
- 1 Cor 1:11-12 (trans, mine)

The first thing that is amusing is the little gossip you get – word of the infighting came to Paul from a spy in the camp: “Chloe’s people” (this could mean members of her household, or her friends, or the house church that met with her). Lots more could be said about Chloe, but she’s a sideshow for this post!

The thing I noticed here is the four names mentioned. I wonder if that suggests four, rather than two factions. We know, for example, that Peter and Paul were at odds (read Galatians 1 for Paul’s rather arrogant take on their disagreement, and Acts for the official version that tries to smooth over the cracks!). For some of 1 Corinthian’s debates, such as the eating of food sacrificed to idols, I can imagine Paul and Peter lining up on opposite sides. We know further that Apollos was a follower originally of John the Baptist, rather than Jesus, but was converted later (Acts 18), but we don’t know of any theological differences here. Tradition also has it, via Jerome, that Apollos was so discontent with the split at Corinth, that he left the city and retired to Crete.

But most tantalizing to me is the faction who traced their teaching direct to Christ, I wonder what they believed.

I also wonder if the various problems Paul addresses (sexual abstention, food sacrificed to idols, speaking in tongues, etc) were distributed among those other three factions. Is he taking on all comers here? Trying to assert his theological dominance as the head of the community. Or was it basically a two-sides dispute as Martin, convincingly, argues.

Certainly something must have worked, because in a later letter Paul seems to have fewer debates he wants to win. (I’m referring to the first part of 2 Cor – the second part of 2 Cor, chapters 10-13, is a separate letter, and may even be the “letter of tears” referred to in 2 Cor 2:4).

I’m going to need to read more about it, obviously. I’m particularly loose on the early church traditions around Apollos. Any particular book suggestions would be welcome.

One of the reasons I love studying just one compilation of texts in detail is that you notice and take off on these new flights from time to time. The text doesn’t change (much!) but there are always new questions to research, and new insights to be had.

I know Shakespeare scholars who feel the same way about their text. For various historical twists of fate, the New Testament is my personal playground.

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What Do You Say at a Funeral?

It was my friend’s funeral today. And I have to say it was one of the worst experiences I have been through. There was no way it could be otherwise, of course, some things just have to be endured.

I’ve been to funerals before. Several of them. But none for a relatively young man who died for no reason. None for someone I loved in quite the same way as I loved him. I found that I payed more attention to what was being said.

And I struggle to see how the words could bring comfort to anyone. The minister preached on Lazarus. Yes, exactly, the raising of the dead Lazarus. I seemed to be the only person who felt this was incredibly insensitive to a family who’s son wouldn’t be raised from the dead after 4 days in the tomb. I also found the continual quoting of “I am the resurrection and the life, … whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die” (repeated at least 4 times) to be rather offensive. And I could not join in the hymn “How Great Thou Art” in seeming celebration of this cruel event.

Up to this point I have been very content to let my funeral be however my family want it to be. That would probably mean some liberal Christian service. After all, I’m not going to be around in my funeral, it is for their benefit.

But tonight I am quite angry. I don’t want the story of Lazarus at my funeral. I don’t want my death to be an excuse for blithe bigotry. I don’t want my family to find comfort in singing of the pre-ordination of my demise.

But I don’t know what I do want. Well, I’d end with Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, but beyond that I don’t know.

But if I can muster up some coherent final wishes, I might now have the courage to make them known.

Any ideas?

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Mythicism and the Problem of Sources

Sorry for the sparse posting, folks, its been a tough week!

This post is a follow-on from the Jesus, The Mirror post, and the discussion that got into the question of the historical or mythical Jesus. Since that is buried away in a comment, I want to give my source-criticism based view of the NT.

A selection of imaginary sources for the NT texts.

This is a *made-up* source diagram for the contents of the synoptic gospels and Paul's letters (I've added sources like Jesus's Uncle to reinforce the fact it is not meant literally). Although this is a fiction, I think it is probably at least as complex as the actual source tradition that our text traces back to Jesus. There seem to be some pretty short hops, through eye-witnesses or disciples, and those are the ones we are able to figure out. Other routes may be much longer and more involved, with no hope of ever being reconstructed. Many routes trace back to non-Jesus sources, such as literature, mythology or debating positions among early Christian apologists.

Source criticism is a form of historical criticism that tries to trace a text back to the sources on which it is based. Just about everything is based on some sources. Even pure fiction is inspired by previous work, or has characters that have loose connections with real individuals. In many cases we can be almost certain of the source patterns among texts. It would be very hard to argue against the theory that Mark was used as a textual basis in the writing of Matthew and Luke. Mark, in this regard, is a source for both Matthew and Luke. But it is equally certain that Matthew and Luke had other sources, at least some of which are held in common.

Despite the fact that source criticism is a distinct way of doing textual study, it is also used extensively in all other forms of criticism. Even textual criticism (which is sometimes, justifiably, described as the ‘foundation’ on which others grow) is informed by our knowledge of the developments of the text through various sources.

It may be because it is the field that most intrigues me, but I think source criticism has the central role to play in questions of historicity.

So how does this relate to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus? Well the idea is that we can trace back the way sources were used and reused, and at one point of this process we end up with a substantial source of material that believably describes a Galilean itinerant preacher, who seems to have been called something like Yeshua (Jesus in greek). Now, few historical critical scholars think that the version of Jesus in the text isn’t dramatically enhanced by speculation, wishful thinking, mythologising and possibly downright lies. But the fact is that there is a core source, and we have to decide what to do with it.

One scholar might doubt the integrity of the source and might make an argument why it should be split into two prior sources. We might, for example, say that the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus were accretions from another source. That’s a good argument to make, and it has some merit. And these kinds of arguments have been made consistently for the last century. Robert Price’s book title is quite apt in this “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” (though I disagree with his conclusions)

But it would be difficult to argue that none of those sources was based on a real person. And so far I haven’t seen any mythical-Jesus proponent make that argument in the crucible of peer-review.

Incidentally the image above is Creative Commons Attribution licensed (3.0, UK, in case it matters). Use it as long as you make it clear it is intended to be fictional. It was very easy, and done with open source tools, so if you have actual source hypotheses you want in this form, drop me a comment and I’ll explain how.

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No Fear of Death

A very close friend of mine died this week. I’m struggling to come to terms with it. This post isn’t about him.

A few years ago someone I knew died while at work. I’d met him at a couple of conferences, and he’d been a patient and skilful reviewer of one of my books. I can’t honestly say I got to know him well, but he was well liked and respected in the community and gave his time generously.

He died of heart failure. He was single, with no dependants. None of his colleagues even knew he was ill.

In the wake of the tragedy, it emerged he’d known about the condition for a while. He’d been told that a transplant was his only option. He’d asked not to be put on the waiting list. There were too many tragedies like his, he thought; men and women who would leave parentless-children, financial hardship and familial devastation. He didn’t want anyone to delay their chance at life to wait for his.

I don’t know if he had faith or not. At the time it happened, the events caused me to suspect he did. Now I suspect he did not. Regardless, his motivation is irrelevant: I know I would not have had the moral courage or selflessness to make the same decision.

Would you?

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