Monthly Archives: September 2010

Messiahs, Mary and Misogyny

Reading Sabio’s post about Da Free John, messiah and spiritual teacher, got me chasing a thread of research about his New Religious Movement and its history. One of the things that didn’t at all surprise me about the history of his Adidam faith, was his so-called “Garbage and the Goddess period” in which he sought to free his followers of the expectation of societal norms and the assumption that social contracts and conventions are somehow intrinsic.

Noble, you might think. Sure. And one of the ways he chose to do this was to sleep with the attractive women of his devotees, and teach a convenient form of sexual “liberation” which revolved around his own desires for his own and his followers sexuality.

This is, of course, a very common thread among messianic figures in New Religious Movements. When they begin to exercise a degree of control over their devotees, the temptation is obviously hugely strong to use that power to fulfil their own sexual needs. This is not only the case for self-declared messiahs like Adi Da, however. Powerful religious leaders of all kinds often (quite reasonably) extrapolate from their very real sexual needs, and their very apparent ability to hear the communication of God, to the obvious conclusion that God wants them to get laid more. Of course it is abusive, but it is also entirely understandable.

In a train of thought I then got to thinking again about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Certainly we can be reasonably confident that she had a level of intimacy with Jesus that later Christians found convenient to redact, and further that her role in the Jesus cult was systematically rescinded in favour of the eternally virginal Mary. Even to the extent of making her conventionally a prostitute and adulteress (neither of which have the slightest textual or historical evidence, but both of which are largely cemented in the popular understanding of her). I would go further and say that Christianity was initially quite a gender-egalitarian sect, and that by the end of the first century this was causing enough waves to see a highly traditional gender-role backlash. Women in our earliest gospel, for example, are the only reliable disciples. Mark’s male disciples remain unredeemed ignoramuses and unreliable jackasses throughout the book. His female disciples are there at the foot of the cross, they are the only ones there at the resurrection (everyone else has fled), and in incidents such as the anointing of Jesus with oil, they are the only ones who understand his needs.

I don’t want to suggest that I think Jesus had a religious hareem. There’s simply no evidence for that, and no real way I can see of making that case. But I’m wandering gently through a whole bunch of gender related issues at the moment, and it does make me consider the what-ifs.


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The Attraction of the Almost Perfect

Some more musical theory, because the last one went down so well 🙂

Musical harmony is all about notes played together. When two notes with frequencies in particular ratios are played together, the results are pleasing. So play two notes, one double the frequency of the other, and you get notes an octave apart. Notes an octave apart sound so familiar we treat them as the same note (they might both be an A, for example). Three times the frequency and you get notes that are an octave and a bit apart. If we take the high note and half its frequency, then it brings it down by an octave, so we can see the ‘bit’ on its own. The ‘bit’ is called a ‘perfect fifth’.

(Bear with me, this is going somewhere)

Writing this in numbers we can say that 2x frequency is an octave 3/2x (i.e. 1.5x) is a perfect fifth. The next interval is the gap between that fifth and the next octave up, which is 4/3x (i.e. 1.333…x) the frequency. And in fact, the intervals build up in this way. So the “major third” (the interval between C and E) is 5/4, and the minor third 6/5.

Now we can do some maths. For example, to find the difference between one interval and another, we use division. We did this above, we took the 3x frequency, and divided it by an octave (2x), to get the fifth (3/2 x). So the difference between a fourth and a fifth is 3/2 divided by 4/3, which is 9/8, this is called a “whole tone” or just a “tone”. Division allows us to subtract intervals, and multiplication allows us to add them. So to add a fourth to a fifth we do 3/2 x 4/3. The threes cancel, giving us 4/2, or 2/1. So add a fourth onto a fifth, and you get an octave. Fun eh?

(No, really, there’ll be a moral eventually)

So here the problem creeps in. Any pianist will know that if you put 4 minor thirds stacked on top of one another (a so called “diminished 7 chord”), you’ll span a whole octave. So 6/5 (the minor third) to the power 4 gives 2 (the octave). Only it doesn’t. Well, not exactly. It gives 2.0736. Slightly out. Similarly 3 major thirds stacked (an “augmented chord”) gives you an octave, but 5/4 to the power 3 actually gives 1.953125. Again, slightly out.

This has been a constant problem for music and musicians. If you pick one interval and make it sound perfect (the major third, for example), the other intervals will be slightly out (the octave will be too small). Pick a different one (the minor third), and all the other intervals will change (the octave is now too large). There is mathematically no way to add multiple copies of one beautiful interval and arrive exactly at a larger interval. I’ve read some things that claim that harmonies are a problem when you have more than one musical key (you can play in C major or G major, for example). Well, that’s true. But it misses the point. Even in one key, you can’t make your intervals add up.

(And, onto the tenuous point)

So the solution we’ve settled on, as a musical culture, is to compromise every interval. To try to distribute out the errors, so that they are as small as possible. Mathematically this is called the ‘equal temperament tuning’ (ET) and in theory this does keep pure octaves. But even that isn’t what is really used. In a regular piano tuning, for example, the octaves are slightly stretched out, because strict ET on a piano sounds flat for the high notes and sharp for the low notes (because our ear is drawn to the other compromised harmonies that don’t quite sound right). The result is a mixed bag, where everything makes sense compared to its neighbours, but nothing is quite accurate. And when you play the result as a whole, there are no pure ratios sounding. And this means you loose the full force of waves reinforcing one another. You lose the power and purity of the harmonies. The quality of natural harmony, the real world of vibrations and frequencies, is lost against the need to have scales, predictable intervals, key signatures, and regularity.

And that, dear patient readers, is what the frameworks of religious dogma feel like to me: stretching out the harmonies and natural beauty of reality in countless little compromises to have it fit in a neat, structured, controllable, but ultimately discordant scheme. You can play any melody you like, but nothing quite gels together into a convincing whole.

(*bow* thank-you, thank-you very much, I’m here all week, try the veal)


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That Doesn't Quite Add Up

I realise this will be a “well, duh!” for many of you, but this struck me this week, listening to comments on the Pope’s visit to England and Scotland.

So on the radio and TV here, the media have been doing a reasonable job of giving voice both to the faithful and to skeptics and opponents of the catholic church. And, of course, to those who want to go further and rebut the skeptics. Overall I think people of faith have acquitted themselves well in this.

But one thing that I heard, over and over, was a justification of belief in God that goes something like “I believe in something beyond myself”, or “in a creative force behind the universe” or “in the ground of all being”, or “a higher power”. These are interesting, and I don’t know about you, but I can also believe in those things (though I wouldn’t assign them any supernatural qualities). But isn’t this a total bait and switch? You see, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and so on, subscribe to this:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God of God, light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets. And one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

But this week I haven’t heard a single person defending this. Not one. Not one spirited rational defence of the virginal conception, or baptism for the remission of sins, of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father, or of biblical prophecy.

I understand that many (maybe even most) adherents to Christianity don’t actually believe the creed, not in its prima facia sense, anyway. But still, I think the incongruity needs to be pointed out ever more strongly: Christians, when challenged, defend something quite different from Christianity. They defend something that even an atheist like me can accept.

The quote is a translation of the Nicene creed, in the form that it was amended and extended in 381 at the council of Constantinople. It is the creed that almost all trinitarian forms of Christianity share in common.


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Happy Birthday to Me

Well, its my birthday today. And I got a shiny copy of a bunch of Gnostic and Apocryphal early Christian texts. A lunchtime spent with the Gospel of Philip and I’m already bursting with potential blog posts. One great passage that resounded with my wife and I:

Some say that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. They are in error. For what woman ever conceived by a woman?

We were talking about the masculinisation of the holy spirit the other day, amongst other feminist topics. Anyway, more on this when I’m not supposed to be working…


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How the Bible Came To Be

One of the most fascinating topics in Early Christianity is the process by which Christians came to chose what went into the New Testament and what was excluded. This is a complex process that takes many centuries, and is characterised (like much of Early Christianity) by division, name-calling and power plays.

I've created a simple timeline with the dates of the people in this post. Click to download (PDF format).

Initially there were just individual books and letters. Some of the things we now refer to as letters (such as Hebrews) were other things (a sermon, probably in this case). Other things were compilations of texts (2 Corinthians is likely to have been 2 letters originally).

Some of these documents began to be copied and circulated in groups. The letters of Paul being the earliest documented example of an anthology. But these collections were just ad-hoc collections. They didn’t have the status of a canon of scripture: a set of absolutely ‘right’ books. Some gospels (we’re not sure which) are mentioned as being revered at the turn of the C2 (95-105 ish) but not in canonical terms, only as valuable works.

The first person to suggest a canon was the heretic Marcion in the mid C2 (140ish), who took a sample of Paul’s letters, and added selected extracts from Luke’s gospel. The word ‘canon’ means ‘measuring stick’ and it was intended as a core of text from which doctrines or practice could be measured. But this approach didn’t catch on with mainstream Christian communities.

It is about the same period when we start to get writings that clearly favour the four gospels as more reliable. Iranaeus, for example, refers to this as the ‘Tetramorph’ (“4 forms”).

Origen, 50 years later, returns to the idea of a canon. His choice is recognizable as a NT, but has some differences, lacking James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and including the Shepherd of Hermas. The latter is a very widely revered book among early Christians that was in serious running for the NT for a long while, along with another text, the Didache. Both these texts featured in many of the canon lists of the next 100 years, where the books of Hebrews, James, 2 peter, 2 and 3 John and Revelation were often omitted because of dubious provenance.

In 325 the Church changed for good. The council of Nicea marks the end of the Early Christian period and the start of Christianity as a state religion (of the Roman Empire). This period is marked with numerous codifications on all kinds of levels: from doctrines, to church hierarchies, from membership lists to lists of canonical texts.


Athenasius of Alexandria. Credit: Wikipedia

In 367, Anthanasius is the first to suggest exactly our 27 New Testament books. He posited a two-level scriptural authority, with the 27 books in his canon, and a further supplementary set of 6 books (including the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas) in a kind of ‘required reading list’.

Athenasius’s 27 may be nothing more than a coincidence, since his Old Testament Canon isn’t that which was later adopted. Nontheless, in the following thirty years the canon lists seemed to iterate around this set and finally at the North African Synod of Hippo in 393 (some 360 years after Jesus, let’s not forget, and almost 300 years after the books were written), the New Testament Canon became an official part of Christian doctrine. And despite the efforts of Athanasius and the devotion of so many early Christians, books such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas began their slide into obscurity.

As with all these things, there was opposition, so the decision had to be made again at both the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 418. After 420, the canon was pretty much stable, although in the western Catholic church, the debates rumbled and the canon wasn’t made part of the dogma of the church (i.e. the official infallible core beliefs that all Christians must hold) until 1546.

By and large these debates were minor, the only serious challenge came in the reformation. Luther saw even the composition of the New Testament as an option for his reforming hand, and removed Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (a set of four books that had been dubiously included originally and long been poorly thought of by theologians). This was a reform too far, however, and it never caught on outside certain branches of German reformed theology. Still, in some German language bibles today, these four are grouped separately after the rest of the New Testament.

Evangelical Christian theology is based on the New Testament being the absolute Word of God, of course, which poses a difficult historical problem for the Canon. It was such a messy and debatable process, and the arguments used by all sides are so obviously factional (and certainly not evangelical in any sense), that this has caused some difficulty. To resolve this Evangelical theologians have put forward a set of 4 ‘criteria’ for determining if a book is part of the canon, it should be of apostolic origin (either directly by an apostle, or by one of their disciples); it should have been universally accepted by the early church; it should be documented as being used in liturgy; and it should be consistent with other Christian writings.

The joke of this is, of course, that these were never the criteria used to determine the Canon. And (conveniently) Evangelicals aren’t campaigning to have any books removed or added from Athenasisus’s 27. So you have to see these criteria as post-hoc rationalizations. Certainly it can be argued very strongly that the pastoral epistles aren’t really consistent with much of the rest of the NT, Revelation likewise, but for other reasons. John’s gospel is highly inconsistent with the others. The Didache was often used liturgically and had (at one time) universal acceptance, which is more than can be said for James and Hebrews. And we now know that very little of the NT had anything to do with any of the apostles, save the authentic letters of Paul.

Still, for the sake of those who believe that all authentic teaching must only come from the canon, and further that their canon is therefore the right one, it is better not to know too much about the fickle and contingent process that gave rise to the New Testament. Canons are like sausages and laws: for sanity’s sake it is better not to dwell on how they are made.


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