Monthly Archives: June 2013

Joel Watts, Neil Godfrey, Censorship and Dishonesty

This blog is not normally a venue for telling tales, but I really rather angry about this, so I want to document it here.

On June 25, Joel (a doctoral candidate who blogs at Unsettled Christianity) posted the latest retort in an ongoing trade of insults and arguments with Neil Godfrey (a professional librarian and amateur historian who blogs at Vridar – [NB: this is a new address as of today, for reasons that will become clear]). The post is short, quotes another person’s tweet in full, and mostly consists of a series of links.

On June 26, Neil responded on his blog quoting the short post in full and responding in detail to each link. Using unkind language and personal insults which have been de rigour on both sides of the exchange.

Joel, claiming to be concerned merely that Neil had quoted his content in full without permission, issued a Digital Millenium Copyright Act takedown notice. Neil claims not to have received the notification, and so did not respond appropriately, whereupon WordPress suspended his account, and removed Vridar from the web.

So much, so unpleasant. It is highly unlikely that Joel’s copyright infringement claim would have been sustained in the courts, but the DMCA shoot-first-ask-questions-later system means that issuing the takedown notice is an excellent method of censorship. But as is, this could be a case of thin skin and a glitch escalating something that could have been resolved.

But what motivated this post was a trip to the cache. Google’s cache shows that Joel had the following message on the blog post on June 26:

Copyright message as of June 26

Copyright message as of June 26

Sometime in the last few hours, as this issue began to draw consternation, Joel changed the copyright to read:

Copyright message as of June 28

Copyright message as of June 28

This change was not for future posts: he changed it retrospectively, so the old posts, including the one Neil quoted, have this new copyright message.

So Neil quoted a Creative Commons work, Joel decided he didn’t like this, issued a DMCA takedown notice and retroactively changed the license on the work to make it look like Neil did not have the rights to copy it.

This is not acceptable in any way. I would imagine Neil would easily be able to recover any costs and lawyers fees involved from Joel. But beyond that, it is a seriously two-faced way to behave.

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Divine Violence and Natural Disasters

There are a wide variety of interpretations of Natural Disasters among members of religious communities. Among religious groups with a theistic model of God, Natural Disasters require a theological explanation. Most work on the theology of Natural Disasters begins from the assumption that the disaster is an event which is either morally problematic, or at best neutral with effects that are morally problematic. This leads to conclusions that reconcile human moral intuitions about the situation with pre-existing doctrines of the moral character of the divine. Thus natural disasters may be seen as random events in which God comes alongside human beings, or that they are allowed by God to develop human beings toward a greater good, or that they indicate a judgement by God on other moral failings of the victims of the event, or their wider culture.

There is a thread in popular discourse among groups of believers which takes this third explanation and intensifies it, effectively rejecting any consideration of the moral effects on victims. In this rhetoric, God is called upon to inflict violence by means of natural disaster as an indication of God’s moral disapproval on a group. This is a natural, if logically fallacious, extension: if natural disasters are violent retribution in judgement over moral failings, then we would look to God to engage in violence when we perceive moral failings.

This is, unsurprisingly, rather a common theme on the right wing Christian forums and blogs today. Those who feel they have been dealt a moral defeat over Same Sex Marriage are warning (in terms that hardly contain their glee at the prospect), or calling on God to send devastating natural disasters, in violent retribution for the supreme court’s decision.

There are several dimensions to this that are interesting. A more comprehensive study would be fascinating and could go in several directions, including comparisons of this ideology with those that directly engage in violence.

The direction I’m particularly interested in is the interaction between this phenomena and the rhetoric (as opposed to the practice) of human-mediated violence in such groups.

In particular, I’ve been clipping conversations that highlight a link between calls for divine-mediated violence through natural disaster on internal enemies, but state-mediated violence through war on external enemies. There seems a further link (but it is harder to get the evidence) for those who call for individual violence on individual criminals as the primary means of moral judgement. So, under the judgement of God, criminals neeed to be shot (rather than tried or imprisoned), gay rights activists need to suffer tornadoes or earthquakes, while Iranians need to be carpet bombed or ‘nuked’. Natural disasters as divine violence thus forms an interesting exception in the way they understand God to intervene violently to restore righteousness.

It is an interesting and curious enough phenomenon that potentially I think it could make a good paper. But not soon. Too much other stuff to do. Any thoughts on the topic, or how it could be constructively understood?

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The Impertinent Historical Jesus

Joel Watts has an article in the Huffington Post about the historical Jesus.

The more the mythicist / historicist thing crops up in general readership the more silly it seems. And you can see from the comments on that post.

There are two questions here.

1. The narrow scholarly one about what historical events lead to the texts of the early Jesus movement being written (a question that shouldn’t be about the existence of Jesus, per se).

2. And there’s the one that everyone is interested in, about the validity of Christian truth claims.

Addressing the former in a context where clearly most people are interested in the latter is problematic.

It is rare for scholars to get any public interest in their areas (God knows, Huffpo wouldn’t have printed an article on my research area, even in general terms!), it is tempting to dangle the former question in venues where the latter question is overwhelmingly more important.

At the expense of going Godwin, here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say the nation is being gripped by a rise of politically active fascists. They are aiming to take control of the government and enact laws motivated by their ideology. There is a widespread discussion happening about the suitability of fascist ideology for national politics, with one side pointing out how badly that ended in 1930s Europe, and the other pointing out that Germany was an aberration because it did it wrong, and that Italy wouldn’t have been that bad without Germany and that the evils of Spain were really a reaction against internal unrest, and that ‘true’ fascism is the only way forwards.

In that context, it is hardly surprising that a group of European Social Historians suddenly find that their research on the affectionate courtship of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun has a ready audience. So one (staunch anti-fascist) historian takes to HuffPo to make the point that, while Hitler clearly did some bad things, he wasn’t all bad, and was actually quite nice to his girlfriend.

Is the scholar correct? Yes* Was Hitler an unmitigated demon? No. Did Mussolini make the trains run on time? Who cares? Well scholars do, and they should, the questions are interesting and important in a certain way.

But just because the prevailing social conditions mean there is a popular audience for their research, doesn’t mean the scholarly question is either comprehensible or able to be usefully applied.

What matters is “is fascism evil?”. “But historians can’t answer those questions!”, they might say. I disagree, but even if I didn’t, that objection only reinforces the point: in what way is it sensible to promote Hitler’s affectionate side in the context of our cultural discussion, then?

Back to Jesus. The point simply hasn’t got out that traditional Christian truth claims about Jesus are false. And I think that is often because scholars tend to tread very carefully there. Perhaps because they fear disaffecting their students, perhaps because they lack a certain kind of integrity (in the sense of integrating their scholarly truth seeking with their ‘spiritual’ truth seeking – I don’t mean in the sense of honesty).

I’ve listened to every Historical Jesus course I can find online, and all of them are peppered with these little caveats: “this is what we can tell historically, you’re free to have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, this won’t tell you if Jesus was really God, history can’t tell whether supernatural things occurred” and so on. And not in a “you’re free to believe any crap you like, as long as give the right answer” way, but said with seemingly genuine concern to give permission for students to retain their ahistorical views in the light of the history they will engage with.

Yet I’ve never heard a biology lecture series say “this is evolution from a scientific perspective, of course science can’t tell us what happened supernaturally, you’re free to have faith that it only looks this way, this won’t tell you if God actually created distinct kinds.”

Jesus Christ did not exist. This has been known for 200 years. That some of his legends are based on an obscure wandering exorcist is as unimportant beyond scholarship as the biographical details of Nicholas of Myra are to the question of whether Santa Claus brings presents down your chimney on Christmas eve.

The scholarly question is interesting. But pretending that the scholarly question is the important one in our political context is unhelpful. A sizeable organised polity wants to curtail our freedoms and impose laws on the basis of things that did not happen – is putting down mythicism really the important public battle?

*Yes, for the sake of this analogy. I’ve no idea whether this is actually the case, but that’s not the point.

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Math and the Synoptic Problem

A few years ago I set out to write a blog on applying statistical methods to NT scholarship. It was something I was experimenting with. One of the previous diagrams that I have linked to on this blog came from that effort.

The great quarry for this was a statistical analysis of the synoptic problem.

The synoptic problem comes from the observation that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar, even down to using identical wording in many places. It is the similarity of exact phrases that means that they can’t be just connected by events: they aren’t similar because they are all describing the same story. They are more than that. They must have a literary dependency. There must be copying going on.

So the question scholars want to answer is: what order were they written, and who was copying from what?

Grizel linked me to some work online that applies simple statistical tests to this question. There was some similar work done on the authorship of Isaiah, out of BYU. That study wasn’t controlled at all well, statistically. The study in the link above is a little better designed. As part of my NT Math project, I also ran a statistical analysis of the synoptic problem, using a slightly different method that looked at larger phrases (a wider n-gram), but was basically the same. My results were very much the same as Dave Gentile’s.

The results show that, statistically, there’s almost nothing one can say about the synoptic problem beyond some minimal statistical evidence for Markan priority: i.e. it confirms that Mark came first and was used by Luke and Matthew.

His study shows that the bits that are shared between Mark and the others are a fraction more similar, linguistically, to the bits that are unique to Mark, than to the bits unique to either of the others. So the bits that Mark shares with the others are much more likely to have been written by Mark. Good result.

But Markan priority has long-since been settled in the academy anyway, so the rather weak statistical result is unlikely to set the world on fire.

The interesting question is whether Luke used Matthew, or whether both used a lost source. (The ‘Farrer’ hypothesis says the former, the ‘Q’ hypothesis the latter). And Dave Gentile, and I, both found that the error in our statistical analysis was far too great to make any conclusion on that. The experiment neither confirmed or denied either hypotheses. And, as Dave points out in his analysis, there are many many other possible situations with intermediate forms of the gospels which the statistics are also consistent with.

So one of those (very common) statistical experiments where the results tell you nothing of interest. Which is a shame.

I came to the conclusion that the decisive arguments were likely to arise out of close analysis of textual patterns, like Mark Goodacre’s beautiful fatigue argument for Markan priority, rather than from coarse aggregate statistics.

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Can We Make a Modern Messiah?

I’ve been studying Scientology more over the last month, reading books and articles about its history and doctrines. It is fascinating stuff. Fascinating for both its totalitarian structure, and for its pseudo-scientific theology. But most fascinating is the story of L Ron Hubbard, the man who founded the religion.

I won’t detail the story here, because it is far better told elsewhere. The key part that interested me is the mismatch between the official church biography of the man, and the independent historical evidence: such as official records, his own contemporary diary entries, and reports of his colleagues and friends.

The official story is thoroughly messianic. LRH was a prodigious rider, breaking broncos by three years old, a blood brother of the Blackfeet tribe while still a child, the country’s youngest eagle scout. He was travelling the orient on his own in his mid-teens, being schooled in ancient wisdom from gurus and lamas. He was one of the first nuclear physicists, and lead vital scientific expeditions to the amazon. On the eve of war he enlisted and a meteoric rise saw him commanding a fleet of ships into WWII. He was gravely wounded in battle, and healed himself totally of his injuries using the techniques he developed. He made numerous hollywood movies to support his research, before his breakthrough Dianetics book made him fabulously wealthy. He then spent his life discovering the true nature of reality, dodging persecution, and creating the world’s first complete and workable religious technology. When he could no longer continue his research in his earthly body, he deliberately left it behind, to continue his work as an eternal soul. But he will return again in the future and lead mankind onwards once more.

Messianic indeed.

I suspect the same process is at work in all messianic biography-building. Historical Jesus studies point to the clearly mythological extrapolations and exaggerations in the gospels. Critical works on the biographies of Muhammad likewise focus on the likely distance between the myth and the real man.

But, by and large, we have no direct evidence that Jesus wasn’t a virgin-born sinless miracle worker who fed thousands with a few fish, commanded storms to still, and rose from the dead two days after his execution. Even for relatively recent messianic figures (say Baha’u’llah, the messiah of the Baha’i faith), we have limited ability to go back and check.

But that’s not the case for anyone born now. The chances of anyone reaching adulthood without a sizeable information trail is pretty slim.

LRH certainly hasn’t got away with it. There’s too much evidence that basically none of the above information is true. Where kernels of truth exist they have been stretched out of all recognition. We have the records. The church of Scientology claims they are fabricated, of course, but they are well documented and well disseminated.

Now there have always been polemic and insinuations against messianic claimants. There have always been counter-evidence. But the kind of information density we have today is something that has never existed before, not even nearly. It is no longer the case that the only systematic information someone can easily access about a messiah, is the claims of that messiah’s followers.

I wonder if it is possible to construct a messiah now, for anything but a tiny number of adherents. I wonder if the empirical power of data means that building a religion around a super-human figure isn’t a much harder task.

What kind of messiah could we create nowadays? Is it naive to think the era of the ‘big messiah’ is lost to the era of ‘big data’?

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