Monthly Archives: June 2010

Dr Who, Jesus and the Blurflurgh

Our family enjoys the BBC’s flagship family sci-fi series Doctor Who (I’m pretty sure, though it is available on the BBC site, you have to be in the UK – I’m told it also airs on BBC America). This I share with several other bible bloggers. It was the end of the series this week, and unfortunately it ended with a staggeringly Blurflurgh plot. A very sad way to end a series with some significant high-points*

On the Imminent Destruction of the Universe

As a student, watching Star Trek, The Next Generation, my friends and I came up with the concept of the Blurflurgh plot. It goes like this:

“Oh no, there’s a blurflurgh!” “What’s a blurflurgh?” “A blurflurgh is the only thing that can destroy the universe, we can’t let the blurflurgh flemmoxate”. “It’s flemmoxating.” “Its okay, I have a praxindoodle, which prevents the flemmoxate of the blurflurgh destroying the universe”. “But the praxindoodle only works in the presence of gamma-umithrons.” “We can desedrify the ship’s jimgraxle to generate a stream of gamma umithrons to power the praxindoodle that will prevent the flemmoxate of the blurflurgh from destroying the universe. But the only button is on the inside of the jimgraxle room.” “But that will kill you.” “Yes, but its a sacrifice I must make. Goodbye everyone” …5 minute FX shot… “Wait, you’re alive? How.” “I realised that the only way to survive the desedrification field is to finally understand the meaning of love.” “Cool – what’s next?”

As you can see it is a pretty lame plot, although by the frequency of its use you would never know. There are lots of subtleties to how bad this plot is (I could, literally, talk for a couple of hours on it), but for today’s lesson, here’s two.

1. It relies on almost nothing you know or could reasonably anticipate. It makes a nonsensical mortal problem in order to provide the heroes with an opportunity to supply a nonsensical solution. All the time having to tell you why the solution solves the problem, because the nature of Blurflurgh plots is that the connection is so arbitrary, you simply could never guess.

2. The ‘twist’ in the tale bears jarringly little relationship to either the problem or solution. It is a form of Deus Ex Machina, only with the Deus being a magical link between the emotional and the physical world. The less egregious Blurflurghs at least make the desedrification-survival-technique use a Trakanemnon Gun that was given to the hero as a token of universe-healing love. The worse skip the Trakanemnon and just make Love itself do the work.

If you think about the Christian atonement story as a narrative structure, it is a Blurflurgh plot. To tell the story, you have to first create just the right kind of God, then describe the fall, then original sin and universal guilt, then the principle of substitutionary sacrifice, then wrap that around Jesus and his untimely death, and the hero saves everyone but dies himself. But no, “Wait, you’re alive? How.” “Because Death cannot defeat perfect love.” “Cool – what’s next?”

If you’ve ever seen the evangelism story using the cross as a bridge, this is the Blurflurgh plot laid bare. 99% of the story is spent telling the hearer of all the invented rules of the fantasy world that make it so the conclusion is understandable.

On the Best Way to Polish a Poor Plot

I have a vivid memory of discussing the first Wheel of Time book with a fan. I found (and still find) this kind of fantasy narrative very derivative, and more than a little Blurflurgh. You have to create a bunch of arbitrary peril, then a bunch more arbitrary solution, and laden the end with cheap and shallow sentimentality. I was trying to explain this to the fan (before I had the word Blurflurgh). They insisted the story was logically compelling, and did make sense, because, you see, Rand obviously had to have no parents, because, as we’ll see later in the series, such-and-such happened to them. And with the Aes Sedai so powerful, that means that he has to stay on the run, and so on. Layers and layers of post-hoc rationalization built around a Blurflurgh plot with the sole purpose of making the underlying preposterousness seem less preposterous.

If you talk about substitutiary atonement enough it can seem pretty normal too. Hell, even I have fallen into the trap of having long, detailed discussions about its minutiae. Forgetting the obvious, and not well hidden truth: it is a preposterous fantasy and by being utterly arbitrary, is also utterly unamenable to reason.

* Among which have been, for me – the question of whether there is knowledge you would want yourself not to know, and the sublime (and I hope intended) statement on the impotence of fame that was bringing Vincent Van Gogh to his own exhibition in the Louvre in 2010, only for him to still commit suicide when returned.


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Theography and Theology

Theography is a term that’s been used in various contexts. The common thread is in rhetorical purpose rather than meaning: it refers to something that the author wants to distinguish from theology. Etymologically it means to write or create visual marks about God.

I want to co-opt the term for an important distinction. As far as I know this use of the term is original, but I’m more than happy to be corrected.

Theology is discourse about a particular view of God, as such it is distinct from Philosophy of Religion, Comparative Religion, or the various Religious sciences (religious history, historical criticism, sociology of religion, religious anthropology, etc.). If you do orthodox Christian theology, you start with some notion of the triune orthodox Christian God, and use that to work out implications for doctrine, for practice, for liturgy, for social justice, or whatever else you are concerned about. One can talk about ‘a theology’ as being such a consistent working out from a single concept of God and some set of concerns. We might produce ‘a feminist theology of grace’, for example.

Theography is the study of theological thought. To publish a commentary on Barth is to do theography. One could talk about western theography: the cultural legacy of nearly 2000 years of theological thought and writing. Which allows us to see that theographies too might be specific nouns: western theography, liberation theography, feminist theography. Each of which is a set of methods, shared assumptions and structures that form the infrastructure of any amount of theological work.

Why is this distinction important? Because it brings to theology a distinction that I find important in historical thought. Very much the same distinction arises between history and historiography.

Theography provides a term for the meta-level of theology: consideration of method, of voice, of scope and of purpose. Having a word for this is important, because theography has been, by and large, folded into theological thought. So much so that often Theologians don’t seem to understand themselves whether they are doing theology or writing about theology.

There is a job of theography to do before you can start to do theology. One has to understand and relate one’s own position to the work that has gone before. If one is bringing new methods to bear, then one has to elucidate and criticize the methods they are replacing or augmenting. Theography is the hard business of being a theologian.

There are armchair theologians by the million. It is as easy to do theology as it is to do history. It is easy to wax lyrical on the causes of the second world war or who shot JFK. But it is much harder to do history based on a consistent, compelling and rigorous historiography. The same is true of theology. There is lots of theology around. The web is full of it. But it is only at the level of its theography that we have the tools for sorting out what is good theology, and what is opinionated piffle.

I majored in theology for my undergraduate degree (actually it was a dual major, the other half being Artificial Intelligence), my wife majored in History. She didn’t get taught much history in her course, but she was inducted (inculcated, even?) into academic Historiography. The historical questions she was lead to consider were merely training grounds for learning the historiographical rules. Likewise, I didn’t get taught much theology either, in hindsight. But I was exposed to theography.


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Give us this day our ………. bread. — Matt 6:11

Fill in the gap.

The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most famous passage from the whole bible. Certainly in the UK where many folks grew up saying it every day in school. But the funny thing is we don’t really know what should fill the gap.

The greek word is ἐπιούσιος (epi-OO-sea-os). Which is a very odd word. It doesn’t appear in other greek literature, and it doesn’t appear elsewhere in the gospels except in the two versions of the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4). So we have no absolute way of knowing what it might mean.

But it seems to be pretty obvious. The Greek splits into two parts: “ἐπι-” (epi) is a common prefix in Greek that means “upon”, or “over”, and by analogy “beyond”, “more-than”. We have it in our word “epidemic”1 where “-demic” is again related to a Greek root meaning people (c.f. words such as demographics or democracy). The second part of the word “-ούσιος” is a common morpheme in Greek with meanings of “substance”. Hence the debate in the early church between whether Jesus and God were “homo-ousios”: of the same substance.

So using this analysis, we get “Give us this day our super-substantial bread”. And this is exactly how it was translated in the Latin Vulgate (“supersubstantialem”), and in some of the earliest English bibles. But, of course, if you are a protestant, “super-substantial bread” is unacceptably reminiscent of “trans-substantial bread”. And Jesus praying a Catholic prayer? Unconscionable!

Instead you can kind-of make a contrived Greek derivation through a misspelling and odd contracted verb form of ἔπειμι (EP-eye-me) “to come upon”, which is often used along with the word for day (“ἡμέρα” herm-EH-ra) to mean “on the following day” (if you’ve read much of the gospels you’ll recognize that phrase, that’s what it is translating). So it could be that we are meant to read “give us this day our following day’s bread”2, with a spelling mistake and a missing word (the missing word isn’t uncommon, it must be said). From there with a squint we could end up with “daily”. Phew. We’ve avoided sounding Catholic! Hoorah! Let’s not mention the fact that there are perfectly reasonable ways of saying “daily” in NT Greek (such as “κατά ἡμέρα” and “πᾶς ἡμέρα” both using the word for day “ἡμέρα”), so that this construction would be an obtusely strange way to say “daily”.

So early protestant translators used “daily”, even though there is very poor evidence for it3. The King James Version, and practically every English version since has used “daily”. I can’t find who originally used this form of words. It is present in Luther’s 1545 version (“täglich Brot”), was written back into the lexicons, and has passed into most other languages from there (“pain quotidien” in the French Louis Segond, for example, and “日々の食物” in the Japanese Living Bible [specially for Sabio]).

So we’ve ended up with “daily” bread. More through historic accident and sectarianism than through good Greek.

So let’s use the obvious Greek parsing “super-substantial”, via a more common English phrase “supernatural” (which is further from the Greek, of course, I’m not suggesting the author meant supernatural, just that supernatural is the nearest reasonably common word in English). We get the Lords prayer (following Matt):

Our father in heaven:
May your name be holy;
May your kingdom come;
May your will be done,
As in the heavens4, so upon the earth.
Give us today our supernatural bread.
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive sinners5.
Do not bring us to temptation, but from hardships draw us to yourself.6
—Matt 6:9-13 (tr. mine)

So all together we have a prayer which is about the life in the new Kingdom. It doesn’t talk about prosaic things. And using “daily bread” stands out therefore, where “supernatural bread” works fine.

But of course, when you have such an iconic translation, the translation becomes more important than the ‘original’ (or even first 1500 years of) meaning of the text.


[1] My first thought for an example was “epididymis” which is the coiled tube that pipes sperm out from the testicle. It has a more amusing derivation “epi-” meaning “beyond”, of course, but “-didymis” is also greek, and in fact you may know it from a character in the NT, Didymus Thomas. Didymus means “twins”. So the epididymis, is “beyond the *nudge-nudge-wink-wink* twins”.

[2] Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, mentions that the (now lost) Gospel of the Hebrews had “bread of the morrow” here, so the sense of the following day’s bread is not entirely new. But Jerome concludes the “of the morrow” translation doesn’t work in context and makes little sense. He wisely goes with the Greek. He doesn’t mention “daily” as a possible translation.

[3] Interestingly, the Syriac translation (Pesshita) of the NT uses “neccesary”, although it isn’t clear what parsing of the Greek they were using to arrive at that. This is sometimes pointed to as supporting evidence for the use of the “daily”, though that is a huge stretch even then, since the Syriac used is definitely not that for “daily” – as in the Greek, there is a perfectly normal way of saying “daily”, used elsewhere in the Pesshita, but it is not used here.

[4] I’ve taken a liberty here of pluralizing the Greek singular word ‘heaven’. The plural form is very common as well, both in Greek and Hebrew and doesn’t seem to have much of a semantic difference. Here it just reads more smoothly.

[5] My translation of ‘sin’ here is a bit sneaky. Sin would be correct in Luke’s version, but in Matt he uses the normal word for debts. It is pretty certain, however, that it is being used metaphorically, to mean spiritual debts, and this is the sense in which Luke obviously takes it. Not many folks would argue that the gospel writers want you to understand that Jesus is talking monetary debts here. Particularly since Matt 6:14 goes on to have Jesus explain that he was talking about sin. Of course, if Jesus were to be taken as asking you to pray for the forgiveness of your monetary debts, then it would dent my suggestion that the Lords prayer is all about the kingdom.

[6] The “For thine is the Kingdom” bit at the end is not considered authentic. It is only found in some text traditions and has numerous variations in other texts, so I have omitted it in accordance with the recommendation of Nestle-Aland. — I’m sure that would be yet another reason why conservatives hate the NA text.


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Imagine with me a spiritual experience.

Imagine spending the next five minutes breathing deeply.

How profound an experience would that be? How long would it stay in your memory, and how much would it alter the course of your life?

Now imagine spending that five minutes alone, focusing on your breathing. With every deep inhalation you visualise the positive influence of the cosmos streaming in and filling your body, the unlimited possibility of what can be, and the sustaining power that gives you the ability to achieve it. Then you pause, and through pursed lips you exhale deeply, expelling your failings, worries, and character flaws, discarding them like the spent carbon dioxide from your lungs.

Now imagine spending some time preparing for this spiritual experience. There is somewhere you go. You tidy that space, making it ready. You light a set of candles and arrange them in a circle. You kneel, weight rested on the balls of your feet, lit only by the candles. With this space readied you begin to breathe deeply.

Now imagine spending time preparing yourself. After making the space ready, you go to your bathroom and shower thoroughly. Physically ridding yourself of the grime and debris of your life, just as you are about to rid yourself of your spiritual burdens.

Now imagine how you take out a special white robe and slip it over your shoulders. It is clean, crisp and soft to the touch, decorated sparsely but beatifully in gold thread. It is a robe reserved only for this purpose: to be worn as you enter the circle of light to find your spiritual strength.

Now imagine that, up to now, you have not been allowed to do this. You have spent two years preparing, learning about your spirituality and the deepst truths of the spiritual realm. You have now received the blessing of your spiritual mentor: you are ready to take this step. The circle awaits and now is your time to enter it.

Now imagine bringing to mind the long history of this ritual. How the great exemplar of your faith, hundreds of years ago, instigated it. How it enabled that person to finally carry out their destiny, to reach their full potential and to achieve complete spiritual enlightenment. Imagine your feeling as you are now free to follow their path and to join your spiritual quest to theirs.

Now imagine that this act can only be carried out in one place. High on this particular mountain deep in the rocky wilderness. You have saved your money for years to be able to be here, in this  place more sacred than any other, where your great spiritual ancestor kneeled and found their fulfilment. You flew out with nervous anticipation, felt the unreserved warmth of your fellow pilgrims, and have now arrived at the point you have imagined for so long. You are washing and donning your robe in preparation to kneel on the same rock, worn smooth now by thousands of devotees before you.

Now imagine that this act can only be carried out on one morning, on one day of the year. It is the most sacred of days. Once every year this day appears. Around the world people are observing the day in meditation and prayer, but you are here, on this mountain, on this sacred night, waiting for the first glimpse of morning over the horizon to tell you it is time for the ritual to begin.

Imagine spending that five minutes breathing deeply.

How profound an experience would that be? How long would it stay in your memory, and how much would it alter the course of your life?

What are the factors that make rituals significant? How do we invest actions with meanings? How do we maximise the enjoyment of our own psychologies? Could the profundity of this kind of experience be available to those who don’t believe in ‘spirit’? Would you want it if it were?


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How to Start a Mega-Church in 7 Steps

  1. First think about yourself. To succeed you need to build a major corporation with a dedicated and loyal customer base. To do this you need to be professional, and powerful. They are your two watchwords. Being informal is akin to being random. Being weak is unattractive. Build a persona for yourself around these two words. It is fine to deliberately shift the focus from yourself (God is powerful, I am weak), as long as you don’t believe it yourself. It is up to you to do this thing. If you dress like a bum, then go and hire a personal shopper. You shouldn’t end up looking like a Mormon, but you want to exude power. Learn to shake hands firmly and look men in the eye as you talk to them (this is more threatening to women, but they matter less for your success, as we’ll see). Oh, and be male and able-bodied.
  2. Get up to date demographic information for your city. Find the up-and-coming area. Ideally it should be growing quickly, mainly through settlement by young adults. These people are attracted to areas with lower housing costs (because they don’t have large amounts of housing equity), yet have good disposable incomes. They bring in their middle class values into an area. And aspirational middle classes are your prime market. The same areas are historically not as middle class (or are not residential at all), meaning you have less competition. If you’re really serious about this, look for the same data for the whole country, or whole world. The biggest mega-church planters have been willing to move anywhere to maximize their success.
  3. Plan to run a commissioning service for three months down the track. Your first month goal is to recruit a small group of people to support you. You will find them particularly at smaller local churches just outside the area you are targeting. Go to churches, attend services. Seek out key people, ex-members of the leadership team (they often are disenchanted with their churches progress). Make it clear that you are planting a new church in an under-served area, and need prayer support. Ask them to pray. Take details. Contact them. Ask them if they’d be willing to join with a group of others in a short time of communal prayer for you as you “reach the next stage” of your outreach. You will, of course, expect these people to jump ship as soon as possible, but initially make it clear that you are just looking for prayer and moral support. Get 10 or 12 of these  people together regularly to pray for you, if some drop out, find more. During those times spend the majority of your effort on enthusing them. Motivating them to believe in this great work. Talk lots about what this new church will look like and feel like and how it will reflect the desires and the plan of God. You need to capitalize on the fact that 99.9% of churches are staid, repetitive and have no desire to act on their ‘vision statement’.
  4. Hire a great graphic design company (or better yet a talented religious designer willing to work on the cheap). Get a great flyer, website, and logo going. This will be your major calling card for the next 3 months. You will use it in your ‘outreach’ (see below). Don’t ever settle for crappy communications, professionalism is your lifeblood. Most of your target market will be used to corporate style professionalism. Cooky and home-grown might be cute, but won’t take you far. If you can write, then write a small book on how it is time to really move forward, fulfil the promises of your creed, and win the world to God. Focus entirely on the what, not the how. Self-publish it through Lulu, or a similar service. Have a bunch of copies to give to folks who might become your supporters.
  5. Recognize that most of your churchgoers will be currently attending other churches (you’ll typically have less than 1/5 new converts). Your ideal recruit will be an existing churchgoer and male (because men still typically have more money, and have more say over their family finances, and if a man goes to a church it is much more likely that his whole family attends). Keep that in mind, and take your message door to door. Eventually this will be self sustaining. But initially you have to talk to people. This isn’t evangelism. You don’t need to worry about converting people. Ask if they are church people. If they are, make a joke about not targeting them (to put them at their ease), give them a flyer and enthuse to them about what new great work you are going to do with your church. How amazing it will be. And how much it is divinely endorsed. Ask them about their religious and work experience (keeping an ear out for potential supporters), and ask them to pray about your ministry moving forwards. If you find folks who aren’t already into church, it is fine to just introduce yourself and move on. The goal is to get your potential market excited about the church, and hearing about it. Your goal is to make them want to “come and see”.
  6. Make sure your first year of church is super-professional. Accept no amateurish compromises, even if you have to spend like crazy, or cut something out. Find some great musicians. If you can’t find them willing to do it for nothing, hire them. Music has to be top notch from day one. It is a main driver for visitors to feel ‘wowed’ and to feel that your church is better than theirs. Invest in a good PA and lighting. Find a venue that you can quickly outgrow, preferably in the first month. Plan an initial sermon series about what a great work God is doing in the area. Follow the basic rules of TV series: hint at what is to come but don’t tell them. Make sure they know that the “Really Big Thing that will change this corner of the World” will be revealed later. At this point your church hasn’t failed to live up to anything, so you can make your sermons unremittingly ambitious for what the Church could be. People love success, and love to be involved when success is easy. Give them this ground-floor opportunity. An opportunity to change their religious lives. Remember most of these folks are in other churches, so you need to tell them what you will be doing differently. How you will support them (they will feel under-supported in their local church), how you will empower them (they will feel week), how your church will show the real power of God (they will feel underwhelmed by their religious experience). Power language attracts men. Never explicitly try to recruit them, but make the grass way greener on your side.
  7. From the very first service you need to be thinking about revenue. Initially it isn’t a hard sell. If you’ve done your job right, you’ll have a bunch of people excited about what you’ll do. They realise it needs resources. Appeal for support after your big sermons about changing the world. Appeal to folks to become subscribers, partners in your ministry. Have the relevant documentation to hand, and ask your helpers to get the signatures there and then. Don’t talk about tithing or sacrificial giving, talk about how God is going to change the world, and they will be the people to make it happen. People don’t respond well to being begged for money, but they will put money into buying something, something like a major work of God. They will buy the idea that this church will put into practice what they’ve been told to believe, but have failed to see materialize in the past.

I’ve spent the last month or so researching how mega-churches (defined as churches with more than 2000 attendees) get started. Those that are started from scratch follow a remarkably similar model. This list is drawn from that reality. Almost no new mega-churches fail to head this. It is pretty basic marketing, really.

Edit – June 11, 2010: A small bibliography of stuff I’ve read on this:

Eiesland, Nancy L. 1997. “Contending with a giant: the impact of a megachurch on exurban religious institutions.” In Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader., ed. Nancy L. Eiesland and Penny Edgell Becker, 191–220. Walnut Creek: Altamira.

Einstein, Mara. 2007. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. 1st ed. Routledge, September 18.

Hoover, Stewart M. 2006. Religion in the Media Age. Routledge.

Lynch, Gordon. 2007. Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture. I B Tauris & Co Ltd.

Thumma, Scott. 1996. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: The Megachurch in Modern American Society. Emory University, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (PhD dissertation).

Thumma, Scott and Dave Travis. 2007. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches. Jossey Bass.

Thumma, Scott. (ed.) 2010. Database of Megachurches in the US.  Online at

Zook, Thomas. 1993. An Examination of Leadership Practices in Large, Protestant Congregations. Emory University, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (PhD dissertation).

The Zotero RDF is here.

These are all more or less credulous, but are quite reasonable in comparison with the huge literature on Church Growth which, by putting the emphasis on the actions of a God, miss the point of why big churches really happen. Also it is worth saying that these resources relate to the (mainly protestant, mainly US) Christian phenomenon of mega-churches. Please let me know of any resources for other religious groups.


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A Quick Request

Please, if you have 30 seconds of free time, have a go at this.

Its a piece of research I’m helping with, looking at the differences in people’s perceptions of common words. You can do it multiple times!

And feel free to cross-post etc. Thanks.

Leave a comment

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The Historical Jesus

This is a post that’s taken a long time coming. I’ve written in several times, and still am not 100% happy with it. Still, here we go…

A Prelude

In the archaeology of ancient Israel there are two famous schools of thought. The minimalists contend that there is no evidence of the kingdom of Israel described in the majority of the Old Testament. Most minimalists claim that the OT only gains some semblance of historicity when at or after the time of the exile. By contrast, maximalists would claim that, for example, the kingdom of David and possibly even the period of the Judges were broadly historical.

So it doesn’t take a scholar to see there’s a continuum there. From believing that the bible is historical from C12 BCE, through to believing it is only feasible from about C5, say (there are obviously far more extreme positions than this, including full biblical inerrancy, but few if any scholars would argue for them). But it sometimes doesn’t get treated as a continuum. Instead you get each side painting caricatures of the other, pushing them back as far as possible to try to make their position untenable. Most OT specialists I know are pretty sensible about the reality being in the middle (more towards the minimalist end, it so happens), but there’s something about the labels that brings out tribalism and unhelpful debate. This, unfortunately is the way of the agon.

The Jesus Continuum

There is a similar continuum in understanding the historicity of Jesus. At one end is the view of some confessional scholars who think the gospels are largely historically accurate. They may want to diminish some miracles, or they may reject certain passages (the dead rising in sympathy with Jesus’s resurrection seems a popular one), but broadly they are historical.

On the other hand there are a growing number of folks who want to insist that the gospels are pure fiction. One might compare them to the legend cycles of King Arthur, for example. This extreme is also rare among scholars, but is the darling of atheists online, it seems.

Most scholars, and in fact most thinking people generally (excluding the people who’s only thoughts on it are what they’ve been told to think), are not at the extremes.

For example, I believe that there are reasonable chunks of the gospel that are likely to be historically accurate. Why? Based purely on the balance of probability.

It could be that there was no historical Jesus, sure, but it is more likely that there was a preacher around whom the mythology coalesced. Stories that seem perfectly reasonable, culturally and psychologically, got reinterpreted, emboldened, and surrounded by flights of fancy.

On the other hand, it could be that there is a God who miraculously took human form to pay an atonement to himself to prevent himself from punishing his creation for the sin that he programmed into them from the start. Sure, it is possible. But it is more likely that the Jesus movement got embroiled in endless theological debates that wrapped ever more far-fetched layers of dogma around the words of a Galilean preacher.

So I’m in the continuum, and much more towards the minimalist side. It seems obvious to me that a large amount of the NT is fantasy based on scientific ignorance and conventions of mythology. But to claim that there is nothing in it that traces back to any historical figure; that it was all invented from nothing? That seems a more extraordinary claim. Faced with the scant evidence we have, it is safest, I think, to take the tentative position I have. But the evidence is so scant, that I would admit to finding quite a broad range of the continuum possible.

But what happens when talking about the Historical Jesus online, is that folks from both sides want to paint you into the opposite corner. So those folks who are on the mythological extreme want to paint me as a credulous, wannabe believer. Those on the other end would claim I don’t believe Jesus even existed. This is internet debate here, remember, not academic debate.

This has an interesting effect on some scholars. They seem to be somewhere else in the continuum than where they really are. Take folks like James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix, or Mark Goodacre at NT Blog. Reading their academic work, I am pretty convinced they are not far from me in the continuum, towards the minimalist end. As, in fact, are almost all critical biblical scholars I know (I don’t, it has to be said, know any biblical theologians well – I get the sense they are further along). But James in particular has expended a lot of energy trying to defend his position from the mythicists, so he is perceived as defending some variety of orthodoxy. Mark has an unswervingly common-sense attitude to questions of historicity, but clearly is one of the ‘establishment’ if you’re of the Mythicist persuasion. On the other hand in “The End of Biblical” Studies, Hector Avalos (who I am almost certain is also pretty close to me on the continuum) sails his rhetorical ship in the other direction, in order to make the starkest distinction between himself and those at the maximal end.

But I’ve also come across folks who call themselves “Mythicists” but basically agree with my position. They want to claim that the Jesus Christ portrayed in orthodox Christian doctrine is a myth (well, duh!). You can believe that and be far more to the maximal side than most biblical scholars. If that is Mythicism then we’re all Mythicists.

The labelling and name calling is a shame because, as for the archaeology of the ancient near east, the desire to seek out and exploit labels hampers people getting a clear sense of your position. And they hide the fact that the vast majority of critical scholars of the NT are really pretty close together.

NB: I couldn’t fit this observation in the main text, but it is worth noting that the phrase “Historical Jesus” has been used for scholarly efforts to reconstruct a complete character of Jesus largely excluding miracles and other anachronism. This places scholars such as John Dominic Crossan (and the Jesus Seminar more generally) much further towards the maximal end than me. They share most of my disbelief in the supernatural elements of the story, but think that they can construct a coherent picture of what Jesus was really like. I think they are mistaken. And I think it is obvious they are when you see that none of them agree what Jesus was really like. That is not to undervalue their scholarship, however, because I think a lot of it (particularly some of the analyses of phrases or stories that should *not* be considered authentic) are very useful.


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The End of Biblical Studies – Part 1

I got my copy of ‘The End of Biblical Studies’ by Hector Avalos today, after a run in on Sabio’s blog where I got the wrong end of the stick.

I know the title is provocative, but I don’t like it. I do like biblical studies. It is fun, challenging and intriguing. I do like the book, however. I think I’ll post some responses. First to the summary to the introduction.

Biblical studies as we know it should end. We should now treat the bible as the alien document that it is, with no more importance than the other works of literature we ignore every day.

I understand more what Avalos is saying here. And I think it is to an audience for whom the bible does have substantial purportive authority and is used to exert political control. That isn’t the case in the UK to the same extent, so before I missed the obvious subtext (which we’ll see below). So although I now understand why he says this, I still disagree: I don’t want to see the bible ignored. But that’s not because I think it is intrinsically important in any way.

Biblical studies should be geared to helping humanity wean itself off of the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world.

Yes, amen brother. The most important task for biblical scholarship is to combat the malevolent forces of bibliolatrous fundamentalism. But after that task is won (and please God, let it be*), I still think biblical studies will be an interesting field of study.

Focus then could shift to the thousands of other ancient texts still untranslated and unread.

This would be great. I’m all for this. 100%.

But the Bible would still be important for one crucial reason. It is by far the most researched, analysed and semantically tagged piece of literature in existence. One of the things it allows, I think, is the ability to build tall, in scholarly terms. Taller than perhaps any other canon of literature. For example, I’ve done some work analysing the text of the NT using statistical linguistics. That was only possible because folks have literally gone through the bible word by word and annotated every word for part of speech, root, sense, variation, etc. Folks have catalogued all known uses of the (non-trivial) words in the NT among a huge range of other ancient texts, for example. That kind of resource just doesn’t exist elsewhere, at least not to the same degree, and it allows unique kinds of questions to be answered. Questions that translating another Oxyrhynchus papyrus just wouldn’t. For that reason, while I hope those other works get translated, we shouldn’t be ashamed to take one text (it wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t the bible, but the groundwork has been done) and really see what our science can do with it.

One day, the Bible might even be viewed as one of the curiosities of a tragic bibliolatrous age, when dependence on a text brought untold misery and stood as an obstacle to human progress.

I really, really hope so. Again, we’re switching from scholarly to humanistic arguments here. And I’m back to being with Avalos again 100%. Uncritical adherence to the bible has caused and will continue to cause untold suffering. Biblical scholarship has a big role to play in fighting that, I think. I have said it many times, but I think there is no better atheistic tool than detailed, honest scholarship of the bible.

We might then study the Bible as a lesson in why human beings should never again privilege any book to this extent.

This is a third thing, I think. In the Utopian rational days of the future when the forces of evil religion have been defeated, we might want to use the bible (and so called biblical religion) as an example to our children. Yes. But in much the same way as a textual scholar might do valuable scholarship into Mein Kampf while a teacher across the street uses Hitler as an anti-role model in a history lesson; the task of educating our children against religious tyranny is orthogonal to biblical studies as I understand it.

* I hope you didn’t need this footnote to explain this was facetious.


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Ananias and Sapphira — Acts 5:1-11

Acts 5:1-6 has a famous story of the deceit of Ananias and his wife Sapphira:

A man named Ananias, and Sapphira his wife, sold their property. But they kept back part of the price (his wife having full knowledge of it). He brought just a part of the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the holy spirit, and to keep back part of the money from the land? While you had it, was it not yours? and after it was sold, was it not in your control? why have you thought to do this? You have not lied to men, but to God. On hearing these words, Ananias fell down, and died: and a great fear came on all who heard it.
— Acts 5:1-6 (tr. mine)

Next Sapphira arrives and Peter asks her about the money. She too lies, and she too dies.

Now this passage is interesting because it is one of the few incidents of a negative miracle: a miracle of condemnation, rather than of grace. Peter is the focus of this story; obviously the story is a morality tale about lying to the church, but it is Peter who engineers this situation. He acts pretty shabbily, particularly to Sapphira.

Clearly this is a bizarre account. The theme of being struck dead for lying to God isn’t developed elsewhere. So we have to recognize that this story is an isolate. And that bizarre quality would have been apparent to the early readers too.

Most scholars think that this story is probably an earlier pericope that Luke weaves into Acts after the story of a man (Barnabas) who sells his land and gives all the proceeds to the church. Luke talks about Barnabas and sees the opportunity to weave in another folk-tale from the early church. That seems likely to me too.

So where did the pericope come from?

Well, the fact is we can’t possibly know. Anything is speculation. But sometimes speculation is fun. And this week I came across:

Menoud, Phillipe H., “La mort d’Ananias et de Sapphira, Actes 5, 1-11″ in Aux sources de la tradition chretienne. M. Goguel (ed.), Delachaux & Niestlé, 1950.

And that paper contains some wild speculation that is particularly fun. Menoud suggests that Ananias and Sapphira might have been the first Christians in the Jerusalem church to die. Now we know from elsewhere in the NT (1 Thess is particularly concerned with this) that there was angst in the early church when members started to die, because they believed Jesus would come again in their lifetime (as the gospels clearly portray him teaching).

So Ananias and Sapphira die, and this is a major blow to the church. The way in which they rationalise it (and the way in which some modern churches still rationalise misfortune) is to claim some spiritual dimension. Some deeper, darker (and, of course, unverifiable) reality behind the observable facts. They make the death of these believers into a deserved punishment. Everyone would have known Ananias and Sapphira were generous donors of the church. So the story was started that they could have been more generous, but were skimming their own donations, and God took his divine retribution, through the authority of Peter.

This is fantasy, of course. We simply cannot expect to find evidence to confirm or deny it. And if you search for citations of that article, you get a selection of worthly scholars telling you how unverifiable it is. But it is interesting, feasible with what we know about the early church, and it is psychologically realistic. And, of course, it is 100% more likely than the story of their death by divine fiat after holding back some of their donation!


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From Whence Cometh the Mind?

I wanted to return to the topic I broached in my series on “God Does Exist, After All” last month. That mini-series didn’t really go down well (so much so I didn’t complete part 4, I felt the wheels came off on the debate about uniqueness). And I’ve been trying to work out why. One, very good, possibility is that the whole idea sucks. Possible, but I find it very difficult to accept, though I’ve been trying. Then I read Dawkins again this weekend, and found some solace…

Dawkins wrote two great books on evolutionary biology: The Selfish Gene, and The Extended Phenotype. The Selfish Gene has become phenomenally successful. The Extended Phenotype not so much. On the back of my copy of The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins encourages bookstore browsers: “it doesn’t matter if you never read anything else of mine, please at least read this”.

In high-school biology I was taught that natural selection operates on the level of the individual. Individuals compete for resources, individuals get to reproduce or not. Individuals are the units of evolution.

The Selfish Gene challenges that. It breaks apart the individual to find mini-individuals within. Different, of course, from the whole. The units of replication and evolution are the genes. The individual is significant primarily because it locks a bunch of genes together in a firm way (at least for one generation).

The Extended Phenotype also challenges the view that individuals are the units of evolution. It looks beyond the individual to find meta-individuals without. Different, again, from their constituent creatures. If the genes are the units of replication, then it makes sense to look at larger groupings where genes are locked together. Not locked as tightly as an individual, but connected nonetheless.

Why is the Selfish Gene a bestselling book, while the Extended Phenotype has sold a fraction of its units? Why, when Dawkins himself, seems more proud of the conclusions and implications of the latter model?

Let’s talk about the mind. It is simplest to associate one mind with one brain (I’m ignoring the fruitless suggestion that minds aren’t just what the brain does – if you want the spiritual debate, hit the comments). That’s basic biology, psychology and common sense.

But we’re also used to thinking about minds as smaller units: the unconscious mind; the mind of the left-brain and the mind of the right; our work-mind and our family-mind. From Freud to Marvin Minsky, a serious amount of ink has been spilled on the minds within our mind. Sabio, for example, at Triangulations, has done an excellent job of developing a mini-mind model of religious belief.

To me it seems clear that the smallest units capable of thinking are smaller than our brain. The mind we perceive, is made up of lots of these thinkers bolted together.

The analogy should be clear. If a group of thinking units grouped together becomes a mind, then why stop at those thinkers that are most tightly bound? Thinkers distributed over multiple people have as much claim to be a mind as genes distributed over multiple individuals have of giving rise to a phenotype. Those thinking units may have slower communication links (via language rather than direct electrical stimulation, say), but does that matter? I don’t think so.

I’m not terribly excited about the mini-minds. But I do think the meta-minds are fascinating. Fascinating and under-considered. Like their evolutionary analogues, meta-minds suffer from our natural tendency to reductionism: to looking for smaller components, rather than larger scale effects.

James Lovelock put forward the idea that one can think of the whole earth as a living organism, which he named Gaia: it is autopoietic, homeostatic (within bounds), and potentially self-reproducing. A certain group of people, with a particular predisposition, decided that the meta-organism Gaia was worthy of worship. Lovelock’s academic reputation has largely been muddied by the credulous spiritualization of this group.

Its a salutary lesson, I think. For the purpose of being clear, I don’t have any desire to worship or have anyone else worship the meta-mind.


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