Monthly Archives: August 2010

Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels in our NT are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels. They share a lot of material, and it seems very clear they were written with a great deal of mutual influence. Unpicking the particular pattern of influence is a tricky puzzle, commonly called the “Synoptic Problem”. Currently the most widespread view is that Mark was first (known as “Markan priority”), then both Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source, along with another shared source (known as “Q”, short for the German “quelle” which just means “source”) that Mark did not have access to. I’m not so sure, I tend towards a more complex picture that is somewhere between this and the “Farrer” hypothesis, which says that Mark was first, then Matthew used Mark, then Luke used Matthew*.

These debates are played out based on the patterns of sharing between the gospels. Obviously the same stories are found in multiple gospels (although, surprisingly very few are shared between the Synoptics and John – other than a couple of key events, John seems to have a conspicuously different life of Jesus). But beyond the same stories, the exact same words are often used, in idiomatic ways that are very unlikely to be coincidence. There are other clues: signs that one writer has copied another. The Fatigue argument** shows how writers can copy, intending to make a change to the copied text, but then get bored and revert to a straight copy. For example in the well known parable of the talents, Luke (19:17) has the servants given “cities” initially, but is obviously copying the same text Matthew uses (Matt 25:21 doesn’t say specifically what they are given), because by the end of the parable Luke has reverted to calling them talents as Matthew does.

When you learn about the synoptic problem, your homework is to colour in synoptic parallels: versions of the gospels printed with the same story from each gospel printed side by side. In this way you can see the material and the phraseology that is unique to each gospel, that is shared between each pair, and that is common across all three.

Now in the modern age, we can program computers to do our homework for us. And behold: a complete colour map of the synoptic gospels.

In this map the three columns represent the three gospels, Matt first, then Mark, then Luke. Each small square (2×2 pixels) in the diagram is one Greek word (from the Nestle-Aland 27 critical edition), so the size of the column tells you the relative size of the gospel (Mark is by far the smallest). The words are from left to right and top to bottom, just as you’d expect.

The color of the pixels tells you whether the word is shared in that story between the gospels (so there’s some complicated matching behind the scenes to compare equivalent stories, no matter which order they appear, and then map them back out into the proper order for diagramming). The color key is:

Red – Matthew’s gospel only.

Green – Mark’s gospel only.

Blue – Luke’s gospel only.

The other colors are combinations of Red, Green and Blue light:

Red+Green = Yellow – Matthew and Mark only.

Red+Blue = Magenta – Matthew and Luke only (so called “Double tradition” material, normally associated with the Q source).

Green+Blue – Cyan – Mark and Luke only.

And finally all three gospels agreeing is shown in black (I know, it should be white, but white is difficult to distinguish from the Yellow and Cyan).

So the diagram tells you an awful lot about the gospels: it shows that virtually none of Mark is unique to Mark. It shows the big block of magenta material near the start of Matthew and Luke which is the sermon on the mount and other so called “sayings” material of Jesus – the stuff that is thought to come from Q. It shows there is a lot more Yellow than Cyan, so Matthew sticks to Mark far closer than Luke does. And it shows there is more Magenta than Cyan, so Luke sticks far closer to Matthew than to Mark (giving further credence to the idea that Luke used Matthew who used Mark). You can also see that the birth narratives at the start of Matthew and Luke are very different, and that Matthew and Luke also have a number of other large blocks of original material.

So the colouring scheme used here is based on words in stories. there are other ways of dividing this up. In particular you can divide it just by which stories are shared. This doesn’t tell you as much historically, since we can’t tell if the stories were copied from one another or just in common circulation. But if you colour that way you get very different amounts of each color. You get much more black, for example – which is to say that the gospel writers often all write the same story, but in quite different words.

The final thing to say is about John. I said John is very different. How different? Well I couldn’t put John in the same diagram as above, because I didn’t have enough distinct colours to clearly show the 15 different patterns of sharing between 4 gospels. But here is John on its own. In this diagram the brown color is the stuff that is only in John. The other colors are as before: the stuff that John shares with Matthew (red), Mark (green), Luke (blue), Matthew and Mark (yellow), Matthew and Luke (magenta), Mark and Luke (cyan), and all three of them (black). Clearly John is a totally different beast.

Anyway, I’ve written enough on this. I love diagrams like this – diagrams that are incredibly complicated and specific, but that the overall patterns can be seen from those details.

* If you know anything about this topic, then it might not surprise you to know that I was a student of Mark Goodacre, who is one of the most longsuffering proponents of the Farrer hypothesis. I’m not sure I totally agree with Farrer, however, the Q arguments still sway me somewhat.

** The fatigue argument, one of the most elegant synoptic arguments, in my opinion, is also due to Mark Goodacre.


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Celebrating Salvation

I have had a long struggle to understand what Christians mean by salvation. No two Christians seem to really think of it the same way, and it is a pliable concept that is rolled out to apply to almost anything, a kind of fit-all platitude.

So some salvation talk is about salvation from Hell. Although this isn’t really being ‘saved’ per se, as we aren’t in hell at the moment. Maybe being saved from our destiny in hell, say. Which, I have to say, is the definition that fits least well for me, since penal theories of hell are deeply inconsistent and illogical (not to mention stupid).

Then there’s salvation from sinfulness. Which never sits well with me, because Christians are at great pains to point out (normally) that they aren’t sinless. So maybe it is salvation from the consequences of their sinful action. Only they don’t get to escape those either (plenty of broken relationships in Christendom, and plenty of Christians in jail). So maybe just the consequences of their actions that are psychological – that the Christian can actually influence themselves. Funny that. Not a huge reason to praise God, really, seems a pretty minor achievement to make us feel a little better about our screw-ups.

There is another psychological track. Salvation from the destructive thoughts and psychology that Christians claim they once had. Again this is convenient because it is psychological and therefore under the person’s control to some extent anyway. And the salvation is usually partial or temporary, at least in the cases I have observed at close hand.

More rarely I’ve heard Christians claim they were saved physically. A miracle of protection and deliverance from a dangerous situation. Now Christians as a whole don’t survive more often than anyone else, but individuals can interpret their lucky survival as salvation (more normally there was originally very little danger, but it becomes mortal danger and a miraculous salvation in the retelling).

But the last three of these are odd because Christians would normally affirm that Jesus alone has the power to save. Yet all three of these types of salvation can be afforded in other ways. Other people have the power to save. For some people it is their job.

So it was with pleasure I saw the stained glass window above. The photo is taken from inside All Saints Parish Church in the South Wales town of Oystermouth (as the name suggests it is famous for its fishing). This is a church justifiably well known for its stained glass windows, ancient and modern. This one celebrates lives laid down by Lifeboatmen, brave souls who go out in the worst weather to save people from the clutches of the fickle sea. Here they are immortalized in a modern window of a 900 year old church. And looking around the other stained glass windows, of the Christ in Majesty, of Jesus Blessing the Children, of Moses the Lawgiver, the Lifeboatmen stand out for me as the only true Saviours depicted.


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Building a Mosque Two Blocks from Ground Zero

Sorry about the recent hiatus on blogging, I’ve spent the last week pretty busy working in LA. I did meet a very cool new friend, however, who I’ll post on probably tomorrow.

I do want to say something about the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, though. Because it has been occupying mine (and most of the country’s) mind this week. If you haven’t heard, the controversy is over the plans to build a Islamic mosque and cultural centre in Manhattan a couple of blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center towers, attacked and destroyed by Islamists on 9/11. Some articles and pundits have been claiming that the mosque will be ‘on the site of 9/11’ or ‘overlooking Ground Zero’. Neither of these are true: the site is 2.5 blocks away without direct line of sight. The controversy is over whether the mosque should be allowed, or whether it is insulting to the memory of those who were murdered 9 years ago.

And right there is the problem, slipping in on that last sentence. Unnoticed by almost every pundit I’ve read.

Should the mosque be allowed, or is it insulting? Erm… Yes.

The mosque should be allowed. Nobody is talking about a state-run mosque. The mosque authorities have to buy the site, build their building, obey all local ordinances. They have the right to the free exercise of their religion, and their free speech rights allow them to declare their message anywhere they choose. The mosque should absolutely, 100%, be allowed on that spot. This, from a careful reading of his (politically naive, IMHO) speech, is what Obama was saying when he endorsed the right for the mosque to be built.

The mosque will be an insult to a large number of people. Okay, the mosque administrators and many liberals claim that the purpose of the mosque is to be a beacon of moderate Islam, to counter the radicalised caricature that poisoned the terrorists’ minds. Well, okay, fair enough, nice intention, I guess. But the mosque will be an insult to a large number of people. No-one has the authority to tell people whether they are allowed to be insulted. And the fact is, overwhelmingly, people who are polled find the idea insulting. You may want to change that, great. But that doesn’t change what is current reality. The mosque will be an insult to a large number of people.

Now, in the US, you have no right not to be insulted. The constitution is very clear that the rights lie with the person doing the insulting. That’s the way it goes. If you feel insulted, tough. You have no comeback on the person doing the insulting.

But someone who goes around insulting people: doing something that in advance they knew would cause insult; while pretending that they don’t want to cause that insult; well, that person is a dick. You have the legal right to be a dick, but that doesn’t make being a dick into a good thing. It just means you are a dick.

So, why isn’t this clear? For the country right now, with feelings and prejudices and emotions as they lie, right now, building the mosque on this site is a dickish thing to do. But let’s not forget that everyone in the US has the constitutional right to be a dick.


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One Small Step on the Long Road

Congratulations to California for having a temporary reprieve from the tyranny of the majority. Of course it is a somewhat pyrrhic because nobody on either side believes this is going to end before the Supreme Court gets to rule, no matter how any of the intermediate rulings go. If it had gone the other way the process would still have moved inexorably upwards. There are no dead-ends that can be taken – this will be judged by SCOTUS in due course.

Still, I am cheered by the fact that, hopefully, those gay folks wanting to get married soon should have a window of opportunity. I also know some folks who will continue to refuse to marry until that right is won by all: and I appreciate their stand too.

I firmly believe in 50 years we’ll look back on this struggle as our generation’s great social justice issue. Here in the UK we still have a long and hard battle to fight. It is legal for same-sex couples to join in “civil partnerships” (similar to the situation in New Jersey), but not “marriage”. And what is more, to pander to the overinflated egos of the established church, the legislation on civil partnerships means that it is illegal for a same-sex couple to have *any* religious content in their service. Regardless of whether they are religious, or whether they belong to a religion that has no problem with homosexuality. The tyranny of the majority. Okay, Britain is past the position where a gay person can be systematically deprived of the next-of-kin rights their partner wanted them to have. In that way we’re ahead of 44 out of 50 US states. But make no mistake, bigotry in the big institutional churches runs deep and dark. Hell, the Church of England has only just decided to allow women into positions of authority over men!

I for one, am happy to be standing on the right side of this battle. At least as much as I can from my safe little bunker of a state-endorsed heterosexual marriage.

[Edit: It seems that the ruling stays the repeal of Prop 8 pending an appeal. So there isn’t a window of opportunity at all :(]


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Meme 01 – For Writers

I don’t tend to do the meme stuff – nobody seems to be bothered to tag me. But here’s an interesting one that is hereby leaped onto the blogosphere from email. It is aimed at folks who love writing, or who fancy a go at some creative exercise.

In 250 words, describe the protagonist of your next novel.

Okay, you might not ever write a novel. That’s fine, its a device, you see 😉 Just write 250 words of description of an intriguing fictional character. Bonus points for how efficiently you paint the entire mood, setting and genre of the imaginary novel. Stick to the task though, no slipping in bits of the plot or taking the focus off the main character (incidentally there is a genre of micro-fiction that deals in 250 word short stories, not to mention the burgeoning Twitter fiction scene).

I’ve had a go, and it was a lot of fun. But I will only post my attempt if at least one of you has a go. Either ping me back so I find it or leave a comment with a link. This will also be a good opportunity for other readers to stumble across your blog. Feel free to repost and continue the spread.

PS: As far as I can tell tracing back the email, this started as an exercise in a creative writing class.

PPS: This blog post, according to WordPress, is 250 words long. Including both of these postscripts and the title of the post.

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Serious Arguments in Silly Guises

I often read complaints that atheists tend to be a bit lazy in their arguments, relying on name-calling and silly references to make their point. This is, unfortunately, true in many cases. One shouldn’t assume that an atheist is any smarter, any better informed, or have thought in any more depth about their arguments as anyone else. Nope, most of the time everyone just recycles the arguments they’ve heard that make most sense to them. If you look carefully, there are often interesting arguments on all sides.

So here’s a very initial attempt to collect some atheist throwaways and express the significant argument under the hood.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster – The Flying Spaghetti Monster is an argument about rationalization. Take a particular theological belief and find an adherent who can rationalise their belief. You will find that they have various detailed arguments to support their belief. But if you look closely those same kinds of arguments would support other beliefs. Maybe just minor modifications of the same, but often leading to more and more remote positions. In fact, because almost all rationalization is post-hoc, you can apply the very same arguments to a farcical theology, such as the flying spaghetti monster (or the invisible pink unicorn, if you prefer your parody divinities to be female). There is no part of the doctrine of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that can’t be defended by robust rationalization. And this should clue us into the fact that rationalization itself is suspicious. Christianity may be a warranted belief (according to Plantinga, for example), but that merely means there are post-hoc rationalizations for holding it. In the very same terms (using the same arguments, in fact) faith in the FSM is also warranted. Which tells you all you need to know about the validity of ‘warrant’ in the pursuit of theological knowledge.

Woo – Woo-woo is a term of uncertain origin. It represents the opposite problem to FSM: a lack of reasoning and rationality. A belief that is woo is inherently unreasonable or unreasoned. This can range from a simple logical fallacy, through to the introduction of a whole bunch of dependent but undetectable properties of the universe. So if someone justifies the existence of auras by telling you that they’re caused by angels, then you’re talking big-style woo. As a piece of rhetoric, it should be taken as saying: your story is getting far-fetched and needs grounding in something we can all sense. Unfortunately, one person’s reasonable is another’s woo, and so woo gets used as a general term of disapproval (I’ve been called a woo, for example, for not thinking that all religious people are crazed idiots with genocidal tendencies).

Conspiracy Theory / Conspiracy Theorist – This is an argument from the historical inability of people to keep important things secret. Many arguments rely on the fact that a crucial piece of evidence has been intentionally hidden. The evidence we all know should be there, but isn’t. So the advocate of the position posits that the lack of evidence is evidence of a conspiracy: further reinforcing their world-view. This is the right time to call Conspiracy Theory. Conspiracy theories are a double edged sword. The same conspiracy theory argument that suggests 911 wasn’t an inside job could also be used to suggest that Jesus’s early disciples weren’t pretending the resurrection happened. At some point conspiracy theory arguments become arguments from the majority viewpoint, and that is dangerous ground. Remember the adage: just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me!

Please suggest some more… I’m stuck after these three.


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