The Gospels as biography

James McGrath (who is well worth following for his picking up of progressive Christian writers from all over the place) has posted an interesting link to two short essays by Matthew Ferguson on his “Celsus” site. The first of these discusses the conventions of Greek biography of the time, including the more-or-less historical, the completely fantastic and a third genre which falls somewhere between those, “plasma” (not to be confused with a superheated state of matter).

My more conservative Christian friends are keen to say that the Gospels are histories, and at that histories composed very soon after the events described, and have to be regarded as factually accurate as a result. I have tended to point out that even the more reliable histories of the time tend to include events which are almost certainly non-historical, and very often some which are clearly mythological; these two essays give substantial scholarly backing for my view. One thing which particularly stood out to me from the first essay is a quote from a book by Richard Miller, the quote being about Justin Martyr, who was a Christian apologist writing very early in the history of the church (in the early to mid- second century) and is one of the earliest people identified as one of the “Church Fathers”. This reads “Justin Martyr’s First Apology presented the framing contours of the Gospel narrative as having resided within a mythic mode of hero fabulation. Considering the plea’s broader context, one may best summarize the larger argument as follows: ‘We, O Romans, have produced myths and fables with our Jesus as you have done with your own heroes and emperors; so why are you killing us?’ Central to the earliest great apology of the Christian tradition, this grand concession casts a profound light on the nature of early Christian narrative production.”

This was new information to me. If the first, and one of the greatest, Christian apologists was conceding that Christians were making up myths and fables about Jesus, how can we stand here nearly 2000 years later and say that the Gospels are not as Justin thought they were, but are pure history? (I should, I suppose, reiterate that I do not think the category “myth” means that something is without application to our lives or without authority – indeed, myths can govern our lives, as witness the fact that I consider the little pieces of paper in my wallet to have the value of a substantial shopping trolley full of groceries, whereas they are actually only useful as, perhaps, spills with which to light a fire… the value of money is a myth, but one whose more or less universal acceptance makes it possible for us to have a functioning economy. This was made particularly obvious when, some 50 years ago, there was a period when Italian small change became worth more as metal than it was as money, which led to truck-loads of small change vanishing over the French border to be melted down, and a nationwide shortage of small change resulting in shopkeepers wanting to make up small money amounts with sweets.)

As quoted in the essay, Miller goes on to say “Interestingly, the apology did not propose any argument in support of this claim that the two groups of stories were distinguishable by the alleged veracity of the Christian narratives and falsity of the analogous classical Mediterranean narratives; this statement again provided merely an assertion, attempting to assign archaic precedence to Judeo-Christian tradition. The obvious step, were this an attempt at a historical argument, would have been to propose eyewitness testimony attesting to the historicity of such early Christian tales, an argument that may have perhaps appeared compelling considering Justin’s proximity to the region and time period.”

Ferguson goes on to say “And so, both the AR (the Alexander Romance) and the Gospels were equally “novelistic” and “historical.” They were novelistic in a generic sense, due to their their literary conventions (which were atypical of historical biographies), while being historical in the ancient rhetorical sense, due to their audience believing that they depicted real events. Under the modern understanding of historical reliability, however, both texts contain a number of details that modern historians doubt actually occurred within space-time.”

I have also regularly commented that some of the details of the Gospel accounts which my conservative friends consider must be accepted as historical but my scientific rationalist friends consider scientifically impossible (such as the virgin birth, many of the miracles and the resurrection) are details which were incorporated in stories about other historical figures, and notably the Roman Emperors, many of whom were hailed as gods and/or sons of gods. Several of them were credited with miraculous births, as well. If, I argue, I am to take the gospel accounts stating things of this kind as historical, do I not also have to take the accounts of Augustus’ miraculous birth, Tiberius’ divinity or Nero’s resurrection, or the general ability claimed of many emperors to heal by touch, as equally historical?

Ferguson goes on in his second essay to make comparisons with the Alexander Romance. This is actually the extended story about a real person which I most like to refer to as a comparison to the Gospels, as it contains all the elements of miraculous birth, divine parentage and miracles which the Gospels do (although not a resurrection), but suffers from the defect as a comparison that it was composed a lot longer after the events in question. This detailled treatment is fascinating, and again there is a snippet which I was not previously aware of – the presence of a poll tax narrative in all the Synoptic Gospels (including Mark) refers to a tax which was not levied in Palestine until 70 CE, over 30 years after Jesus was supposed to have used such a tax to make a point (“render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…). The fact that that passage also refers to a tax which has to be paid in coinage, and such taxes were not a feature of colonial administration (as there were few such coins in circulation, at least in the early first century, and this would have made the tax doubly difficult to collect) added to that makes me all the more confident that the story was not composed until after 70 CE, and probably in a major centre or population in which payment in denarii would be the norm – so not in Palestine. This very much agrees with what I have long thought on the basis of the presence of a “prediction” of the fall of the Temple coupled with some aspects which were not typical of the early first century but which were perhaps commonplace in the late first-to-early second centuries, for instance the call of the disciples. There was no system in the early first century by which Rabbis attracted students out of the countryside (as wonderfully described by Rob Bell in an extended talk some years ago), but there was a need for that after the fall of the Temple and all its ancillary functions (including education of aspiring Jewish teachers).

I have not infrequently argued that it would not in fact be beyond the bounds of possibility for Jesus actually to have predicted the fall of the Temple, given the situation in Palestine in the 30s CE, with zealots and sicarii attacking Romans and Roman sympathisers and, by that time, already at least three revolts by putative messiahs. The writing was on the wall, as it were, particularly given Roman governors as brutal as Pilate. Jesus might well have said something of the sort – but it would be irresistible for people writing after the actual fall of the Temple to have picked up on any gentle suggestion and made it into a prophecy.

All of this, from Justin Martyr to the manner of taxation, just reinforces my view that the initial subversive identification of Jesus as Lord (as opposed to Caesar as Lord), which is very early indeed (witness Larry Hurtado’s “One God, One Lord”) prompted followers to imitate the kind of stories told about the Caesars in an equally subversive way. I don’t think they remotely thought that they were writing fiction as we’d understand that term today, I think they thought they were telling stories about their leader designed to underline his importance in exactly the same way as the Romans told stories about theirs. And, of course, the question which Miller restates Julian as asking “so why are you killing us?” is easily answered – it was a question of loyalty. Only the Emperor (or the previous world-spanning emperor Alexander) could be talked of in these terms, and if you talked of someone else, particularly an obscure Galilean tekton, in that way, you were being subversive, potentially revolutionary – and Rome did not brook revolution.

The slave of the passions

There’s an interesting article on David Hume I’ve chanced on recently. It’s well worth reading generally, but one thing stood out to me, his dictum ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’

I am, I have to admit, very much a rationalist. Indeed, I struggle not to be a reductive scientific-rationalist materialist, i.e. someone for whom everything is ultimately reducible to physics, and physics is best expressed in mathematics. I was, let’s face it, once planning a career in Physics, and have a degree to prove it, which has been useful since then mainly in meaning that I’ve been asked to change plugs and fuses everywhere I’ve worked – and my response that it was Theoretical Physics, and I am thus qualified to tell someone else how to change plugs but not to do it myself hasn’t generally been appreciated… OK, in fact the experience I got in labs did end up facilitating one of my various part-time occupations since retiring, namely being a sort of research assistant doing research Industrial Chemistry, but until retirement? Plugs and fuses.

A number of things hold me back from the completely reductionist materialist position. The first is, I suppose, the old dictum “To a man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Science has a toolkit for explaining things (with the assistance of mathematics, which, it has been said, is unreasonably effective in modelling the real world), and anything which is not amenable to the methods of science may be being ignored.

The second is a form of epistemic humility – there is no viable reason I can see justifying the idea that the whole of what exists can be effectively modelled using human brains. Of course, these days I need to modify that, and substitute “human brains assisted by supercomputers”, and to add that there are now supercomputers whose functinality is not actually understood by those who built them. The principle remains, however.

The third is the observation (perhaps linked with the previous one) that, in order to produce scientific explanations for phenomena, we have always simplified situations so that an intelligible mechanism can be proposed. We have then complicated those explanations where necessary, but some measure of simplification may not be able to be eliminated (and what if the basic mechanism is not reducible in this manner?).

The fourth is the fact that physics now appears to have demonstrated that, at root, everything we see is based on uncertain ground (with thanks to Heisenberg’s Unicertainty Principle) and that whatever it is which is matter (or energy) at the smallest scale we can observe (which, due to the same uncertainty principle, may well be the limit of how small a scale will ever be observable) is, to say the least, weird. The maths works, by and large, but actually conceiving of what the things are which the maths describes has so far defeated physicists.Though there are physicists who would argue the point.

The last is the observation that “some really odd things do occasionally happen”. My scientific instincts rebel at this – it seems too much like the “God of the gaps”, who has been progressively vanishing as science explains more and more of what we observe, and the set of observational defects humanity suffers from (many of which appear in this list) could, maybe, explain the rest. There is, however, no reason to state dogmatically that science can explain everything – back to epistemic humility.

All this having been said, I still expect everything to be rationally explicable, at least in principle, and Hume’s suggestion that reason is, and even should be, the “slave of the passions”, which are pretty much immune to reason, is very difficult for me to swallow.

However, it’s easier for me to swallow following my recovery from a 17 year depression which, for at least six years, more or less completely demolished my ability to have passions. The technical term is anhedonia. It is difficult to explain this adequately to someone who has never suffered it. I have joked that it isn’t a matter of, as t-shirts sometimes state “Spock was too emotional”, but “Data was too emotional” – and, for those not versed in the Star Trek world, Data was an android, a completely synthetic being ostensibly without the mechanisms of neurology which, in us and many animals, produce things like pleasure. It led to me trying to make decisions, and while I was largely just as able as before to work out what the potential consequences of any course of action would probably be, there was no reason to prefer one outcome over another. I wouldn’t, for instance, “like” having money to spend more than I’d “like” suffering a traumatic injury. This may seem really difficult to understand – but insofar as I had any input from emotions, it was “it’s all horribly WRONG”, and beside that, the contemplation of a traumatic injury seemed insignificant. This extended even to really trivial things – on one occasion my wife was in hospital, and returning from going to see her, I noted that I hadn’t eaten that day. It seemed that a rational person would eat at this point, so I called in at a Chinese takeaway on my way home – and was confronted with a menu with at least 60 dishes to choose from. And I couldn’t. I could remember that there were some dishes which I’d had in the past, but there was no memory of “liking” that dish associated with seeing it on the menu, and no anticipation of “liking” it if I were to eat it now. Eventually, after maybe half an hour, the counter staff bullied me into making a choice, and I duly bought the dish I’d plumped for more or less at random, took it home and ate it. And didn’t enjoy it. But then, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed anything else on the menu either.

[This inability to remember liking things (or, indeed, anything connected with strong emotions in the past) seems not to be a standard feature of anhedonia; it is generally labelled as a defective autobiographical memory. It seems to have persisted to some extent after the depression, and the anhedonia, lifted; I am still having difficulty remembering past events as if by reliving them, and am sometimes surprised when some such memory does surface.]

In the light of this, I can see that reason has to be at the very least assisted by “the passions”. Otherwise, there’s really no basis on which to do anything, other than a set of rules (I was hugely assisted during that period by two things, some rules of behaviour which I adhered to because that’s what reasonable people did (and which I’d always tried to adhere to in the past), and by considering what a reasonable person with emotions would be likely to do in various circumstances). I admit that I still recoil at “slave of”, though. I did from time to time experience my reason being truly the slave of my passions before the depression reached it’s deepest point, and that was a little like having the rational side of me tied up in the back seat of a car driven by a lunatic – all it was able to do was to suggest slightly less unreasonable ways to reach the objective on which the lunatic, i.e. the emotional side of me, was fixated – and not inevitably being listened to. There’s a strong possibility in my mind that it was experiencing the negative results of this inability to exercise any rational control on my actions which resulted in me suppressing emotion to the extent that it was inaccessible – hence the anhedonia. It’s just an idea, though – I don’t know of any psychological backup for the theory.

I can do without reason being the slave of passions – but I can’t do without there being some emotion. Aside anything else, it is just too time consuming and exhausting trying to work out, without the aid of autobiographical memory, what the right thing to do is. The better course, and one I’m now able to pursue, is that reason and emotion should inform each other, but neither should completely shut out the other.

One result of this experience is that I find suggestions that there should be a purely logical basis for morality or ethics slightly laughable. It now seems to me that pure logic is never going to be able to give answers in these fields.

Another is a worry I have that true artificial intelligence may be just unfettered rationality, if it can exist at all, given the very probable lack of endorphins, seratonin and oxytocin, or anything remotely like them. And I know from personal experience what unfettered rationality can mean.

I just hope the set of rules for living for any future AI is very complete…

Killing bodies

There is an excellent short talk by Philip Clayton at Catacombic Machine. In it, inter alia, he says “we do live by killing bodies – that’s a lesson I learned from Jain friends”. It’s notable because listening to that is the first time I’ve heard a significant Christian theologian expressing that point of view.

I don’t think you need the Jain perspective in order to arrive at that realisation, though. All you need is a sufficiently powerful mystical experience. OK, perhaps all you need is the sufficiently powerful mystical experience plus the freedom to apply a panentheistic interpretation to it. A relatively weak mystical experience may dissolve the boundaries between you and other humans – that will probably boost your empathy, possibly to painful levels. A stronger one, though, will dissolve the boundaries between you and other life – and, if sufficiently strong, this may result in the conviction that even insects – no, even microbes – are part of you (actually, a really strong one will dissolve the boundary between you and the whole of existence, so even the non-living is included). Science has, of course, now realised that we cannot function without a vast quantity of microorganisms within us which are not ultimately “part of us” but for all sensible purposes are (and if a reader doubts this, consult one or more yoghurt adverts which talk about replacing good bacteria in your gut…).

It was well before I looked at the Jain beliefs in any detail that I arrived at this perspective (and, like any metanoia, it is one which once experienced cannot be undone), and I had already wrestled with the ethics of killing in order to live, if it be only plants and animals (and formerly living things form the overwhelming majority of what I live on). I’d considered vegetarianism, but the dissolution of boundaries in my case was so strong that I could no longer see a hard and fast dividing line between animals and vegetables (which was many years later bolstered by finding that I am over 60% genetically similar to a banana), and indeed a dividing line between the human and the bacterium. Being a rather sickly adolesccent at that point, I needed to make a decision about taking antibiotics as well, and came down firmly on the side of taking them and continuing to live through several episodes of pneumonia. (I hadn’t at that point discovered fruitarians, some of whom will only eat things which have already fallen from trees and are therefore arguably already dead, but living as one was wholly impractical, and didn’t make any dent on my wholesale slaughter of bacteria…)

The Jains do try very hard not to take life, including both vegetarianism and, in the case of really devout members of the religion, sweeping the path in front of them lest they inadvertently step on and kill an insect. They cannot, however, ever hope to avoid “living by killing bodies” in an absolute sense. They “have to draw the line somewhere” (see my earlier posts with that title) and draw it in a place much closer to real nonviolence than I do, but they nonetheless draw a line. I’m not actually sure I do draw a line any more – there is an increasing level of reluctance in me to kill something the nearer is is to being human, but while I consider it always to be a wrong to take life, I am stuck with taking life of some kind in order to live myself, and I need to make a value judgment in every specific case. Given no greater wrong which would arise, I will even avoid wholesale slaughter of bacteria by washing down the kitchen with bleach… It is not necessarily a wholly comfortable thing being a mystic!

There is one aspect which I haven’t discussed, and that is that the mystic will typically see the wholeness, the One with which boundarioes have dissolved, as being God. By killing to live, I am therefore killing God on a daily basis. There are, in Christianity, two symbols which lend themselves particularly to this. One is communion, in which you “take and eat; this is my body, broken for you” – and, of course, this becomes literally true as well as symbolically true.

The other is the death of Jesus. Forgetting all of the Christian interpretations of the cosmic significance of that event, we (that is to say human beings) killed him. Nietzsche wrote “God is dead, and we have killed him”, though he had something more than just the death of Christ in mind, but in the narrowest sense, he was also correct. I’ve written before about my rather literalist interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46; what we do to any other person we are literally doing to God. Including killing him.

Just for today, I will kill God as little as I can.

Connecting with Jesus?

A friend of mine has posted these observations, which were in turn put to her by a long term acquaintance. I thought I’d give answering them a shot.

1) “You’ve had all this time to reach intimately into yourself and your relationship with God and that sense of presence. Bear in mind what you say won’t make sense to most people, and you could lead them astray by describing how you live and what you see.”

I do bear in mind that what I say won’t make sense to most people, if only because I find that most people haven’t had a peak mystical experience, and a fair proportion of those who’ve had more moderate mystical experiences have largely dismissed them as “one of those things” (or, as one atheist friend beautifully put it “a brain fart”). I’m acutely conscious of the fact that if I do something to take apart someone’s existing belief structures, I can’t give them their own mystical experience on which to build. That is either given (as in my case) or acquired through a long process of practice. Possibly also via the use of pharmaceuticals or other radical ways of adjusting the brain, but I’ve no competence to suggest those.

That leaves me thinking of “No disassemble” from “Short Circuit” and the picture of a child surrounded by mechanical or electronic parts which he or she (usually he) has taken apart and has no idea how to put back together.

I do have some ideas about how to put things back together, but they take a lot of time (disassembly is far quicker!) and I made a decision many years ago that I didn’t want to be in the position of a guru. In part that was because I considered myself unfitted for that role, in part it was because I was scared of being the focus of a huge weight of expectation, and of what that might do to me.

Those who ask me what I really think, however… eventually, I’ll answer them truthfully, even if by doing so I’m taking them down the rabbit hole with no expectation of them ever coming out of it. It seems to me that the original speaker is terrified of that happening to them…

There is, of course, an implication there that the speaker thinks my friend is woefully misled herself. But hey, I think the speaker is woefully misled, and probably needs to listen long and hard to what my friend has to say.

I also need to think more about “could lead them astray by describing how you live and what you see.” I recoil at the idea that anyone should ever be told that sharing their experience or their perspectives (“experience, strength and hope” if you like) is a bad thing. I do self-censor when talking to people whose beliefs I judge to be fragile – and rigidity and brittleness often go together – but as an overall objective, I think there’s little better than being able to share about how you got where you are, what assisted you in getting there and how you now view the world at large.

2) “When you hear people talk about their own spiritual experience you need to connect them up specifically with Jesus, in case they get deceived by other spirits. It’s all about that name – the man on earth who died and rose again.”

My goodness, how many ways is that statement bad? There’s the magical thinking of there being power in a particular name (which, of course, wasn’t actually “Jesus”, but something more like Yeheshua, or if you like Joshua). There’s the equally magical thinking of seeing a world of disembodied spirits, which is (with thanks to Walter Wink in “Naming the Powers”) pretty definitely not how Paul, the writer of most of the early attempts at theology on which the speaker probably relies, saw spirits – the Hebrew concept was that no spirit could ever be disembodied. There’s the issue of ignoring Matthew 7:22-23 “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”.

Then there’s the concept of The man on earth who died and rose again”. Concepts, unlike mere words, do have some power (and OK, words might have power inasmuch as they are signifiers for a concept). What a horrendously denatured version of the gospel! Implicit in that is the idea that at root, Christianity is nothing more than an escape plan (and, of course, “Jesus” is its label).

It’s almost enough to make me think that deconstructing such a belief would be a good thing irrespective of whether you could construct something better to take its place (and get that to take root in the consciousness of your interlocutor…)

3) (In the context of mentioning mutual friends of mine who are 10 years older than me…) “…we can be in turmoil as we reach the last part of our lives, because we are being prepared for eternity.”

There’s the escape plan again. Now, in my own perspective, our whole lives are preparation for “eternity”, inasmuch as we don’t manage to taste it during our lifetimes – and I can think of no gift greater than being allowed to taste it ante-mortem (or from Luke 9:27 ,“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”) given that I don’t actually know what happens post-mortem (and I don’t think anyone else does either). By “eternity” there, I obviously mean the concept rendered in the original as “zoe aionios”, which is usually translated as “eternal life” – but that is a terrible translation. It might mean “the life of ages” or “the life of the aeon”, but I think the true sense is more like “the fullness of life”.

If I’m right about that, the implication of “prepared for eternity” is that they are being persuaded that the life they are actually living is worthless in comparison to that which they can anticipate after death, and that is, to my thinking, a deeply immoral thing to suggest to anyone.

4) (I mentioned 7 chakras in eastern thinking, and how they were about balance and energy, which I said I found helpful in dealing with my faith at a level beyond words.) “Words like ‘chakra’ should be avoided because they belong to another way and there is only one way (Jesus) that leads to God. ”

Again, we have the magical thinking that words have power in and of themselves, coupled with an implicit equation of what is almost certainly one of the “many mansions” of John 14:2 and the “other folds” of John 10:16 with (and there is no way of putting a finer point on it) Satanism. This is the kind of thinking which, were I to put a cover saying “War and Peace” on my Bible (as I might, in some circles, be slightly embarrassed to be caught reading the Bible), I would have in some way changed the contents. OK, I did originally think of using the cover of, say, The Bhagavad Gita, but I don’t have a Bible thin enough to fit that dust cover… though, come to think of it, Crowley’s “Magick in Theory and Practice” would fit on my RSV.

Back, I think, to Matthew 7.

As it happens, I am very much with the Dalai Lama on this point. If someone is using the language of chakras (whether in conjunction with other Hindu, Buddhist or Jain concepts or not), I am far more disposed to try to assist them in being the best Hindu, Buddhist or Jain that they can be than to persuade them that they are following the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire, as Shakespeare put it. If they’re merely using them as a language (and set of concepts) to assist healing, I might even point out that there are much wider systems of concepts into which that language fits, and which they should probably be exploring. (The Dalai Lama has famously told many people that, rather than converting to Tibetan Buddhism, they should strive to be a better practitioner of the religion they grew up in).

Actually, of course, the Dalai Lama’s point rather indicates that those from the West who are talking about chakras should maybe be exploring traditions more native to them, and that is something I am always keen to mention. I suppose, in so doing, I’m actually going to be “connecting them up with Jesus” for some value of those words. Probably not the value my friend’s acquaintance had in mind, though!