More statesmen, less crucifixion.

The attacks in Paris last night are horrifying in their death toll, the number of those injured and that fact that there was no conceivable offence which the victims had committed, apart, that is, from living in France. My prayers go with the families of those killed and injured, and with the people of Paris and of France who are coming to terms with the shock.

There are already a lot of idiot statements going around the web, and no doubt there will be many more in the future, but before I get to those, I find I am shocked not to have heard anything from the media about the bombings in Beirut and Baghdad before yesterday, and I suspect I might never have heard about them had it not been for the Paris attacks. Our media has failed us in this; lives do not matter less because they are in the Middle East than in Europe, or because they are those of people with a different religion or a different skin colour. Nor do they matter less because Beirut and Baghdad are far less shocked than is Paris, as they are more used to such atrocities – indeed, we should perhaps consider that Beirut and (in particular) Baghdad deserve special sympathy because there, the violence is more frequent and therefore more damaging to morale.

Some of those idiot statements have come from the French President, François Hollande, in various statements. He talks about severe measures, and about a war on terror, and did that even before anyone had claimed responsibility for the attacks. I can understand that a politician will feel the need to capture the mood of his country, and that that mood is one of wishing to have vengeance for the damage. A statesman, however (and I would have hoped that the president of a major European nation might have managed to achieve that status) would seek to guide the people rather than ride the wave of their anger, and precipitate action is one of the things which terrorists most hope to cause. He would acknowledge the anger, state that he shares it and talk about prevention of a future atrocity and taking measured steps against those ultimately responsible.

Let me start with “war on terror”. This is a ridiculous concept, almost as much so as a war on drugs (do I go out and shoot a few aspirin?). Wars are between sovereign nations, and the vast majority of terrorist groups are not acting on behalf of a sovereign state (though the military of many nations may be guilty of terror attacks themselves). Curiously, these attacks are possibly an exception, in that credit has been claimed by IS, who are de-facto a sovereign state, holding a large swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria. I think he would have been justified in principle in declaring war on Islamic State – I am even inclined to think that this meets the criteria necessary for starting a just war under Augustine’s and Aquinas’ principles (jus ad bellum). Of course, no-one wants to recognise IS as a state…

This topic, in fact, came up in last night’s Global Christian Perspectives webcast, in which Allan Bevere went into some detail about just war, and rightly pointed out that it is not just the issue of whether you go to war which is subject to moral principles (originally specifically Christian, but now in theory accepted as good argument in international law), but also whether the war is waged justly (jus in bello). If you cannot wage war justly, even if it is just to start a war, you have no moral alternative but to sue for peace or surrender, according to Augustine and Aquinas. Major principles are that there must be a reasonable prospect of success, and that you must not kill innocents.

There, I think we have huge difficulties, firstly in safeguarding innocents. Certainly, efforts to date in the “war on terror” have resulted in very large numbers of innocent casualties – many more innocents than terrorists, in fact. Unless we change our way of dealing with this (and there is really no alternative to “boots on the ground” given the lamentable accuracy of targeting from the air – this piece of idiocy from Allen West is actually right on point; I might think that he was a liberal speaking satirically if I didn’t know better), we will not possess “jus in bello” and cannot reasonably wage war even against IS.

Secondly, what remote possibility is there of ever declaring success? In particular, what possibility is there of success when we are not prepared to occupy (for an indefinite but no doubt very long period) even the states which we have held accountable for past terrorism? It is, of course, very widely appreciated that where you kill innocents in significant numbers, you actually create new terrorists in greater numbers than the reduction you tend to achieve, and certainly create more sympathy for the terrorists’ cause; certainly the terrorists understand this, and the overreaction is one of the outcomes they most desire. What possibility is there of success when prosecuting the “war” actually makes more new terrorists than it kills, and where significant numbers of them are living in states which have no responsibility for their actions, sometimes our own nations?

I recently linked again from facebook to my 2013 meditation on Remembrance Day, and the sentiments there are still entirely valid. If anything, though, the more I read the gospels, the less I think that Jesus would have approved any of the Just War concepts which Augustine came up with; he would not approve war at all. I am not quite at the point of being able to say that I would never support my country going to war in any circumstances (though I thoroughly approve Jeremy Corbyn’s undertaking that if he became Prime Minister, he would never order the use of nuclear weapons, and hope that the right wing and the media are wrong that this makes him unlelectable), but at the least, can we try to adhere to Just War principles?

I now realise that I missed something in my 2013 account. Although I rightly, I think, determined that no war my country had fought in the last 100 years or more had been just with the exception of World War II, I missed the fact that the way Britain fought the war emphatically did not meet just war standards, as we deliberately targeted civilian populations (first with the excuse that the Germans had first bombed London, which it proves was in error when a raid overshot industrial targets). I think I can therefore now say that we have not fought a completely just war at any time in history which I can think of.

I realise that in saying that, I am going completely against a lot of public mood, particularly at present in France. I will also probably make myself unpopular in many circles if I point out that the fact that my country, France and Spain have been targeted by Islamic terrorists follows our own actions in bombing and invading Islamic countries, and killing large numbers of innocent Muslims. It is, no doubt, difficult for someone whose home is bombed and whose family members are killed or maimed to appreciate that we were not waging war on them and that the correct action is not to come and bomb us.

I do not think that I would be inclined to accept the excuse of someone who killed my wife that she was “collateral damage”, for instance, though I would hope that my Christian principles would win out over my natural urge to do them at least as much damage in return, and if not them personally, then their families, their friends or those associated with them, or in paroxysms of grief, those who looked a bit like them or shared their politics or religion – it is scary what the frustration of powerlessness in the face of loss can do to human morality, what depths otherwise civilised people are prepared to sink to. I could here point out Rene Girard’s work on the futility of redemptive violence and his identification of the Crucifixion as the “last scapegoat”, after which we need not look to violence to redeem anything.

War is hell. It crucifies people and nations. We should do everything in our power to avoid it. And, if we are a Christian nation, or a nation whose sense of morality was forged in Christianity even if we have moved on from that belief, we should consider very seriously the injunction to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

France, however, is not feeling much like that at the moment (and who can blame them?). Feelings, however, do not have to become actions, and a statesman might point that out. On the back of that, there are some other stupid statements. “It’s because of all the refugees” is one obvious one. Well, despite the fact that I now hear that a Syrian man who is known to have come via Lesbos may be implicated (and I’m afraid I find that all too convenient to those arguing against the refugees), in general the refugees are trying to get away from the people who do these things. Christianity inherited from Judaism an obligation of hospitality towards the stranger, which Europe is not doing a very good job of upholding so far, and it would be a tragedy if the borders now closed completely, which is certainly what not a few people are suggesting. You might argue that Europe is post-Christian, but it has emerged out of Christianity and in theory still holds to largely Christian principles. It could be that the basic European principle of free movement of people within Europe (to which my country does not wholly subscribe) may be ending here, and that would be a tragedy for Europe and a victory for the terrorists. If you’re in the States, contemplate what the imposition of full border controls between the individual states would do to, for instance, the commute from New Jersey to New York…

Equally damaging is the suggestion that the attacks must be because of security failures, and therefore we should massively increase security measures. One of the things which makes Europe a great place to live, work and holiday in is that it is relatively free, we are not a set of police states, a set of nations obsessed with looking over our shoulders. If we lose that as a reaction to these attacks, again the terrorists have won. We also value free speech, and that would vanish under such a regime – in point of fact that has already been horribly eroded due to previous attacks (such as those on Charlie Hebdo, in central London and on trains in Madrid).

A statesman would say that there is a value in being European, a value created from our common beliefs in justice and mercy, tolerance, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of belief. He would suggest that if we react in such a way as to reduce those values, the terrorists have destroyed us. 8 men with guns and some explosives will have caused the destruction of the dream of a multi-national union of some 750 million people, and we will largely have done it to ourselves.

A Christian statesman might remind us that Jesus said “what you do to the least of these, you do to me”.

Mythicists and bad arguments

There have been a few exchanges on facebook between James McGrath, whose blog “Exploring our Matrix” is justly one of the most celebrated Christian blogs, and Laurence Moran, who blogs at “Sandwalk” occasioned by a blog post by Jerry Coyne commenting on a recent BBC poll indicating that 40% of Britons don’t think there was a historical Jesus. There seems to be, to say the least, a failure of meeting of minds. The link to the Sandwalk blog incorporates some of that.

Coyne, supported by Moran, is of the opinion that there really is no persuasive evidence for Jesus, so the 40% of my countrymen who seem to think that Jesus never existed are on sound ground.

This rests on four foundations, firstly the fact that there is no plausible historical evidence for Jesus outside the Bible; references in Josephus are discounted as forged. Well, there are two references to Jesus in Josephus, in book 18, chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities of the Jews, and in book 20, chapter 9, 1. The first of these is without much doubt partially forged, in that at some point a Christian scribe has added some wording. Scholars vary as to how much wording has been added; those who wish to see the evidence as weak tend to go further than the scholars and consider that if any of the statement is inauthentic, the whole can be discounted, which very few current scholars would agree with.

However, those seeing the evidence as weak generally go on either to ignore the second or to claim (against virtually all scholarship at any point) that it is also a forgery. This is, I think, an untenable position for a serious historian; the second quotation thus establishes the existence of Jesus as the brother of James, about whom Josephus writes at some length. It does not, however, give any other detail about Jesus. Nor do the various references in Roman historians to the early Christians, noted as being a problem from the reign of Nero onward in Rome and Asia Minor, as the mythicists are keen to point out.

They also tend to say that the Romans were assiduous record keepers and nothing about Jesus has been found in Roman records. This is a non-argument, as nothing about any other Palestinian Jew of the period has been found in Roman records either. They may have kept a lot of records, but almost none of them have survived!

The second foundation is to dismiss everything written in the Bible as being without historical value. Generally, this revolves around an attack on the Gospels as written at the least some tens of years after Jesus’ given lifetime and on some accounts as much as 100 years later (an extreme dating for the Fourth Gospel); some further stretch the point and attribute a second or third century date, on the basis that there probably are second and third century alterations to the texts.

In doing so, they tend to ignore the fact that the genuine 7 Pauline letters are virtually incontrovertibly dated to between 40 and 45 for the earliest and 60-65 for the latest, or to dismiss them as having little detail of Jesus’ actual life. That second fact is entirely correct; Paul is depressingly (for a biblical historian) disposed to ignore what Jesus actually said and did in favour of writing about his importance for people at the time of writing.

The snag there is that Paul not only confirms (and is confirmed by) Josephus in referring to James as brother of Jesus, but he also reports a number of pre-existing traditions about Jesus, notably including that he was crucified by the Romans and is worshiped as Lord, this within 10 to 15 years of the date of his death. He is plainly joining what is already a well-established community of believers at that point.

The third foundation is to attack the blatant failures of historical accuracy (such as the census of Quirinius, which could not have had the effect claimed nor have been at the time specified) and the presence of supernatural events (miracles) as entirely removing any credibility from the Gospel accounts. I don’t think we can do that (and neither do 99+% of historians). Certainly, as Dr. McGrath strives hard to point out, historians are going to discount any report involving a miracle (or, indeed, any supernatural event at all) as being too unlikely ever to be capable of historical proof.

(As an aside there, I would note that a historian of thought would not discount those aspects of the gospels, but a historian of thought is merely cataloging what people were thinking and not what actually happened.)

Does the presence of miracles invalidate the Gospels as a source of other material? Not for an historian, as otherwise almost all ancient writers of history would need to be discounted in their entirety, most of them being entirely willing to accept supernatural events or beings as part of history. Neither does some particular factual inaccuracy; historians treat all ancient sources with some suspicion, and are keen to cross check them against other evidence, if there is any. On the other hand, for a source where there is no other evidence one way or another, an historian will tend cautiously to accept that factual claims may be true. Despite the best endeavours of some mythicists to argue that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence (i.e. that events did not happen), this is not historical technique.

The fourth foundation, and that which seems to be a stumbling block in the discussions I link to, is the argument that the existence of an historical person called Jesus who in fact did not turn water into wine or rise from the dead, or say quite a lot of the things he is reported to have said (if we believe the Jesus Seminar who, to be fair, are not too much more sceptical than the bulk of NT scholars) would not be sufficient to say that there was an historical Jesus. The only way you can say that there was an historical Jesus, according to this argument, is if he actually was God incarnate, claimed to be the Son of God, performed miracles and rose from the dead. Dr. McGrath entirely correctly points out that historians could never say that any of these things was an historical fact, and indeed my reading of him for some years indicates to me that he probably thinks that supernatural causes did not operate in the first century any more than they operate today, which is to say that they very probably never did operate.

The argument is very much that in order to say there was an historical Jesus, the person identified must have substantial identity to the Jesus described in the Bible, and if you cannot say that, you cannot say that there was an historical Jesus. This is, it seems to me, a foolish argument. We do not, for instance, say that because it was said of Augustus Caesar that he was son of God and God, and that he was miraculously conceived, then there was no historical Augustus Caesar. Equally, we do not say that because a lot of people have seen Elvis after the date of his death, then Elvis never existed. We equally do not say that as (say) ancient historians writing of a battle must be discounted in total because they got the date of the battle wrong some years after the event (or because it was not, according to archaeological evidence, the unmitigated success which the winning side claimed, or because the numbers of troops involved prove to have been massively inflated).

Any suggestion these days that there was no historical Jesus, on whom the stories in the New Testament were based, is, frankly, an insult to generations of scholars, many of them atheist, agnostic or non-Christian, who have spent years of study piecing together an account of a real person who was called Jesus and was crucified by the Romans in around the year 30. It cannot be argued that they were serving an apologetic end, either, as generally their efforts to use historical method have resulted in howls of protest from conservative believers and often loss of position or reputation. Yes, it can be argued that different scholars see different patterns in the evidence, some emphasising the Jewish wisdom teacher, some the mystic, some the social radical, some the apocalyptic prophet. Actually, it is entirely possible for all of those to be aspects of one complex personality.

The situation is, I think, rather well summed up in this article; in particular I share the embarrassment of the author that as many as 40% of my fellow countrymen are so badly historically educated. However, I do not share the opinion that Christianity must fail completely if it could be shown that there were no historical Jesus (any more than Buddhism would fail if it could be shown there was no historical Gautama Buddha). Christianity, to my mind, rests far more on the actual experience of Christians, and Christians experience Jesus here and now – and it is not really relevant to the survival of the religion how exactly it is that they experience Jesus. I could certainly live with a determination that there was in fact no historical Jesus myself!

The thing is, if there in fact were no historical Jesus, there would have had to be an invention of Jesus. Richard Carrier (who is notable as being one of only two or three mythicists with advanced degrees which actually relate to the area) has addressed this issue in a talk.

Carrier is superficially plausible in this talk; his quantity of study time definitely shows. However, we must remember that in that video he is making a case, not presenting a dispassionate view. I ought, I suppose, to be more impressed with Carrier – I do not, for instance, have any relevant degrees myself. However, I am a retired lawyer, and making, countering and assessing arguments is part of the professional expertise of a lawyer.

Starting with Philo is particularly powerful, as Philo’s writings, in my view, have to have been the basis of the thinking of the author of the Fourth Gospel; the author was taking a set of concepts which Philo developed and applying those to the person of Jesus. That said, Philo does not, of course, identify his angelic figure as being called “Jesus”, he merely refers to a passage from Zechariah which deals with a high priest called Joshua (granted, that is another anglicisation of the Hebrew form of Yeshua).

I am much less impressed with the collection of dying and resurrecting gods which Carrier outlines. These are in every case fertility gods, representing the cycle of the seasons with rebirth in spring and death in winter; this is a motif strikingly lacking from anything in the New Testament, and suggestions that the Osiris cult may have involved personal salvation may well be arguing that result is cause and vice versa, as I see no evidence that this tendency existed in Osiris cults before the late first century. I also see no significant evidence that the cults of these gods involved a real historical incarnation, at least not before the concept was current in the nascent Christianity.

Where his argument is strongest, however, is in the entirely correct observation that the earliest witness, Paul, does not talk about details of Jesus’ life, merely his death. This is, to my mind, the biggest single argument against the process suggested by Carrier. Yes, there was an incentive to revitalise Judaism following the destruction of the Temple (which, I point out, occurred some years after Paul’s death), but were you trying to do this, you would not choose as an historical referent someone who would be likely to be remembered by people still alive, and you would definitely not choose someone about whom the main historical fact claimed was that he had been crucified by the Romans. That fact by itself negated any claims of being the messiah for mainstream Judaism (and still does); reference to the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah ignores the fact that in Judaism before and since, those passages were not seen as being messianic and referred to the nation of Israel as a whole; the messianic connection was made by followers of Jesus looking for foreshadowings in previous scripture (and yes, I accept Carrier’s statement that the early followers were doing a form of pesher on the scriptures with that in mind). As Paul says on more than one occasion, this is a stumbling block to Jews.

I think it is worth mentioning here that an experienced advocate will use ridicule (as Moran does with this reference to Humpty Dumpty and Carrier does with his reference to space aliens) in only two circumstances (as otherwise he weakens his argument). The first is where he really does not have a strong case and is grasping at straws. The second is where he is insulting the intelligence of his audience, as I note often occurs (and fairly frequently works) in jury trials. Personally, I do not appreciate having my intelligence insulted.

There is a further major point, however, which Carrier completely ignores. To start with, as James McGrath points out, the historical move which is apparent from careful study of the New Testament documents is actually from an historical figure (albeit one worshiped from a very early stage) to a more divine, cosmic one, and not from angel to historical figure. Granted, the earliest writer, Paul, talks almost exclusively about the significance of Jesus as a cosmic figure rather than as an historical person, but this is relatively quickly corrected by the three synoptic gospels, or at least by the materials used by the evangelists to construct their writings, which may well have predated Paul.

As I mention above, supernatural claims, such as divine status and miraculous birth, were often attributed to historical figures such as Augustus and his successor emperors. Alexander the Great was a notable earlier example, and some earlier Greek healers who were probably historical were credited with miraculous healings. So too in Judaism were a number of early Rabbis (such as Eliezar and Honi the Circle Drawer) credited with miracles. The mindset of the time demanded that great men were not like common beings, but had something of the divine about them, and this resulted in such stories. Indeed, that mindset has not completely left us, as witness Elvis still being alive according to some!

This is a known, natural progression. I would therefore choose this as a probable mechanism over any suggestion from Carrier that a pre-existing godlike figure was alleged without any historical basis to have existed for a time in first century Palestine. That, however, raises another issue. How is it that a relatively insignificant Jewish carpenter’s son, killed as, in effect, a terrorist, started having this kind of story told about him within at the outside ten years of his death, and more probably during his lifetime?

The only viable answer to that question which I can see is that there was indeed an historical Jesus, and that he was an entirely exceptional man, capable of inspiring remarkable devotion among his followers. Yes, not everything which was later written about him is historically true, and not everything which he is claimed to have said is at all likely actually to have passed his lips, but he must have been unique (and he became more unique in the hearts and minds of his followers over the next 350 years to the point at which the Roman Empire became Christian).

And that brings me to my last point. Carrier refers to Cargo Cults as a reference for how strange beliefs can arise; I find that wholly unconvincing. However, within my lifetime there has been a Jewish Rabbi who became hailed as “King Messiah” by his followers, and still is after his death, with a “second coming” anticipated by some; I refer of course to the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I consider him a far better parallel for how a Jewish messiah figure can arise and gain a large following which persists after his death. The Rebbe was indeed an entirely exceptional man, and had he lived in the first century, I have little doubt that he would be said to have performed many miracles. In point of fact, he IS said to have performed miracles. He is also said to have pre-existed his mortal lifetime.

None of this means that Rebbe Schneerson was not a real historical person.

The trouble with the arguments of the mythicists is that they are just that, arguments. They have to be seen as you would view the statements of counsel for the prosecution (or defence) in a trial; they make the best case they can for their chosen position. In a trial, you always have the adversarial point of view presented, and must then make up your mind whether one or the other is correct, or whether the truth actually lies somewhere between the two. I should therefore point out that what I write here is not the case for the other side; neither are the posts of James McGrath  I link to or the whole book on the topic written by Bart Ehrman (who is neither a Christian nor, indeed, a believer). All three of us are weighing the evidence on both sides and attempting to reach a measured conclusion; the case for the other side is that of those who claim that everything in the Gospels is historical, of which you can find many.


A plague on both your tribes

Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a lot of very favourable words written by left-leaning sources firstly about Pope Francis and then about Bernie Sanders, followed by some push-back from people who don’t think they measure up to the ideal of a leftist which the commentators would like. I grant that in neither case is that criticism anything like notable compared with the howls of conservative anger, but it is definitely there

Francis, for instance, is criticised for not pushing the church in the direction of equality for women, abortion or homosexuality.  I have no idea whether he would want to, and frankly that doesn’t matter to me; the fact is that he is saying some things about poverty, climate change and global capitalism which I think are thoroughly in accordance with the teachings of both Jesus and his sainted namesake. Even if he wanted to move towards a more liberal position on sexual equality or abortion, he has stirred up quite enough controversy in the traditionally very conservative halls of the Vatican already, and to stir up more would be distinctly a bridge too far.

Bernie Sanders has similarly received criticism for not being left wing enough. (Yes, for my US readers, Sanders is in fact not very left wing at all by international standards). He’s not, apparently, sufficiently loudly in favour of black Americans, nor is he a wholly believable anti-Zionist. (Actually, I think he’s adequately to the left on those issues, just not rabidly so). Apparently, in order for “liberals” to support him, he needs to tick every possible liberal-progressive-radical box, just as does Francis. (Incidentally, I’m using “liberals” in the US sense there – “liberals” in the UK are centrists, often with a somewhat anti-big-government tinge to them).

I really have no time for this “bounded set” thinking, where unless you tick every box, you’re not “one of us”. I far prefer the idea of a centred set, where there are one or several markers, and anyone who is moving toward any of them is a member, even if they may be slightly further from the absolute centre on other points. The left should thank it’s lucky stars that they have in Francis and Sanders two people who are moving closer to their ideal location than has been seen in either of their institutions in generations. If the left regards itself as a tribe with rigidly defined boundaries as to who is out and who is in, they will never succeed; if they regard themselves as following general directions, they will find a lot of people walking in the same direction.

I say that as someone who by US standards is definitely well to the left myself – though in UK terms, I’ve been a centrist since my teenage years, although the centre of gravity of UK politics has moved a long way right over that time and I haven’t.

My irritation here is not by any means confined to the left, however. The right, and particularly the religious right, also do it and have been doing it for a long time. I spare some thoughts of sympathy for the Reverend Rob Schenck, whose credentials as a conservative evangelical are stellar, and with whom I disagree on almost every subject. Rev. Schenck has recently taken the entirely logical step of deciding that if he is against abortion in any form due to a high view of the sanctity of life, he must therefore also be in favour of gun control. Many of the conservative evangelical tribe are busily disowning him. Apparently in order to be a conservative Christian in the States, you also need to be in favour of unrestricted ownership of deadly weapons, and he is not any more.

There is absolutely no danger that the progressive left tribe are going to take him to their bosoms and welcome him into the fold of true believers, as this is only one of the many markers he would need to adopt, so he is left in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle.

Uncomfortable, that is, only if you feel the need to belong to one of the two tribes (both of which would prefer to see everyone as one or the other). Actually, just like Francis and Sanders, Schenck is in the position of most of us, not agreeing with everything which either extreme puts forward.

Welcome to post-tribal humanity, where you can (and should) look critically at all the sacred cows of both left and right!