Myths, metaphors, mysteries and making it up: theology meets fiction

(This is another post which first appeared on The Way Station blog).

There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…

On the other side of the “end times”…

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

The incomprehensibility of Trinity

Allan Bevere has recently written a number of posts in the lead up to Trinity Sunday, one of which I feel the need to focus on. Allan has often been a valued colleague on Global Christian Perspectives (currently undergoing a hiatus while we rethink the format), and I generally find myself agreeing with much of what he says, which always has a strong devotional and scriptural basis. Not all, however!

Here, based on his longer appraisal of a work by Nicholas Lash he talks about Christian Theism, and distinguishes it from Trinitarianism. The first thing I note is that he is talking about Theism as a synonym for what we commonly call Deism these days (with authority from Voltaire who, it seems, coined the usage he talks about). However, I find that it was rather earlier used by Ralph Cudworth, whose definition was “strictly and properly called Theists, who affirm, that a perfectly conscious understanding being, or mind, existing of itself from eternity, was the cause of all other things” (from Wikipedia). Cudworth’s usage is, I think, somewhat closer to the way the term is used these days, which includes Monotheism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Panentheism and Deism (among others) as specific instances of the broader term “Theism”, though modern usage does not include the requirement that God be “first cause”.

His first point is this:- “Theism starts with the assumption that there is a “central core” of beliefs about God that makes Christians, Jews and Muslims all theists. The differing beliefs about God are further additions to one’s theistic faith. These further beliefs are where Christians, Jews and Muslims no longer agree. Lash maintains, however, that any belief about God cannot be divided into any kind of “central core” without perverting fundamental Christian, Jewish and Muslim belief about God. Thus a theistic account of God is unacceptable.”

I immediately disagree with this statement. Leaving aside Muslims (who believe in a revelation subsequent to the New Testament), it cannot be that the God of Christianity is different from the God of Judaism; that would be to say that the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures (without which the New Testament is arguably unintelligible and definitely shorn of most of its content) are irrelevant and, indeed, to suggest that they refer to a God different from the Christian God. That is the position of Marcion and of the Gnostics, both of whom were anathematised as heretics.

Indeed, the Apostles’ creed which Lash makes the subject of his book starts “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” (the common alternative, the Nicene creed, starts similarly but states “I believe in one God…”). Everything after that is quite clearly “a further addition to ones theistic faith”. Jews and Muslims both would, I think, find no problem in either formulation up to that point. Thus, I would suggest, the most one could say is that the theistic account of God is inadequate.

He continues “The God of theism is abstract. Without the doctrine of the Trinity (“as it is employed in defining, determining or shaping Christian life, prayer, action and suffering”) “spirit” is an “empty word.” It becomes an abstraction situated in the’ ‘broad framework of Cartesian contractions.” “. In the longer response, he comments that Theism is the “God of the philosophers” – and indeed, I am inclined to agree that Deism (not Theism – neither Judaism nor Islam would consider themselves Deist religions) is very much the God of the philosophers. He also, however, states “Yet Lash maintains that the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility requires us to confess God as mystery at the outset. “

The suggestion that without a doctrine, “spirit is an empty word” is just ridiculous to me; spirit is experienced, so it cannot be an empty word; it designates a real phenomenon. We might well not fully understand it, but that would be entirely consistent with the incomprehensibility of God. In fact, Trinitarianism is itself a doctrine of the philosophers, or at least of the product of Greek philosophy with the experiential truths that God is to Jesus (and to the ancient Hebrews, and to us) Father, and that Jesus incarnated the Word of God (which was God) and that God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit from the beginning and the necessity to continue to pronounce monotheism in the words of the Shema. “God is one”. Two of those three are common ground between Christianity, Judaism and, in fact, Islam. The sticking point between Christianity and either of the others is that neither sees Jesus as incarnating God.

And, indeed, there is no statement of Trinitarianism in our scripture, merely some passages where an ardent trinitarian can discern all three elements (most notably Matt. 28:19, which does not say that all three are God, let alone prescribe any particular relationships between them). Trinitarianism took some significant time to arrive, and it arrived through early theologians steeped in Greek philosophy trying to make sense of the fact that God was one and yet all three statements in the preceding paragraph were correct. If you adopt the philosophical positions of Platonism or Aristotelianism, you may well want to try to jump through the same hoops as did Theophilus of Antioch (the first to use the term in the late second century), Augustine (who developed the concept considerably) or Acquinas (whose “Summa Theologica” is the basis for subsequent Trinitarianism in Catholicism and Anglicanism). Personally I do not, as I do not adopt either Plato’s nor Aristotle’s concepts of how the world works, and neither Augustine nor Acquinas makes sense to me philosophically.

There are many instances of scripture where what are regarded as “Trinitarian heresies” such as subordinationism (an example from John) are made clear and because the doctrine has ended up being impossible to expound to normal people, principally due to modalism being declared a heresy. If I am asked to subscribe to a doctrine, I really do not want it to contradict scripture, nor do I want it to be functionally useless.

There is, however, one really good thing in Lash’s account, which I have already mentioned – the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. The end point of Trinitarian discussion in the Orthodox Church was the Cappadocian fathers, one of whom suggested that in the end the Trinity was not comprehensible, was a “holy mystery”.

I gently suggest that it would have been perfectly adequate to say “it’s a holy mystery” after stating that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and without all the philosophical paraphernalia which has tried to clarify the situation and has ended up back in bafflement. We’d still be Trinitarian, but without all the fuss…

And, in passing, I really do not like the suggestion that the other great religions are idolatrous. If we accept that God is incomprehensible to us, we are in no position to say that any of the others is wrong – and that way lies a total failure to love our neighbours as ourselves – yes, and even our enemies.


Judaism, salvation history

I’ve recently listened to one of the Homebrewed Christianity podcasts in which Tripp Fuller interviews Brad Artson, who is a Conservative Rabbi and a Process Theologian. There are a lot of really good takeaways in this podcast to think of, but perhaps the most important one is this: it is horribly easy for a Christian theologian to step on Jewish toes. We really need to work on dinning into our subconscious the fact that, from the point of view of Jewish history, the Pharisees (who get a very bad treatment in all of the gospels) are the lineal predecessors of the rabbis, and modern Judaism is rabbinic Judaism.

[As an aside, I do not mean that all the interpretations of modern-day Judaism are those which would have held sway in the first century when the earliest Christian scriptures were being written, despite the widespread Jewish view that all their subsequent interpreters have done is noticed what was already there from the beginning (the concept of an oral Torah being given by Moses alongside the Pentateuch is widespread, but in fact the oral Torah is the product of some thousands of years of theological development). However, where I refer approvingly to Rabbi Artson’s views on salvation and supersessionism later in this post, I have the backing of the New Perspective on Paul, and in particular E.P. Sanders’ book “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”.]

I witnessed an awful example of stepping on Jewish toes (happily there were no Jews present)  on a recent Sunday, when a preacher worked from the text of Luke 6:1-11, a challenge parable about Jesus involving gleaning grain on the Sabbath. In his account, the Pharisees were spiritless literalists who added to scripture extra provisions regarding the Sabbath which were just a millstone round people’s necks. Yes, the Pharisees  had added clarification of the actual commandment that you do no work on the Sabbath, but not out of any intent to make things more difficult, rather out of the impulse to do more fully that which God has commanded. Here’s a link to illustrate this process. There is, of course, the principle of “building a fence around the Torah”, i.e. making sure that you do not disobey commands by extending the scope of what you don’t do so that you don’t inadvertently stray over the line, but even there it must be remembered that the impulse is “God has commanded this, I wish to do what is pleasing to God, so I do it – and indeed do more if possible”.

Rabbi Artson also usefully mentions Jewish exegesis, and in particular the principle that while you can interpret fairly freely, the basic meaning of a text (the Peshat) should not in principle be contradicted by what you produce by Remez (a hidden or symbolic meaning), Derash (an extended meaning often drawn from comparisons with other texts) or Sod (a mystical or deeply symbolic explanation). Readers who have read all of my blog posts will perhaps remember that I tend to take the view that an earlier text cannot be completely thrown out of the window (unless this is done completely explicitly) by a later one, i.e. when interpreting the New Testament I need to consider what the Old Testament, and particularly the Torah (the first five books) says on the subject; I assume, of course, that the New Testament writers were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, regarded them as authoritative and would only supersede them by  clear direct statement (such as Mark 7:19) and not, as it were, by stealthy suggestion.

Of course, Rabbi Artson has a problem with at least some expressions of the Christian concept of salvation through Jesus (which is often labelled “salvation history” or “redemption history”). That is a problem which I share (and I’m not alone there), and I cast a lot of the blame for that on Paul’s interpreters (and a little on Paul himself). As the Rabbi says, in terms of Judaism there is no such thing as “original sin”, and redemption or salvation is through the simple process of repenting sin and turning to God. The whole of chapter 18 of Ezekiel deals very explicitly with this; the only additional point I make is that to repent, in Judaism, means not only to be sorry and to resolve to change your future behaviour, but to strive to make good any damage you have caused. As he points out, any sacrificial offering made thereafter in compliance with Levitical law, is evidence of that repentance and of the decision to turn back to God and to God’s commandments, it is not payment for the sin.

Of course, a very common message of Christianity has for much of its history been something like the Evangelical Christian’s standard formula (which I generally see presented as “the gospel”):-

God created a perfect world (and saw that it was good), but by disobedience, Adam messed things up and, as Paul says “sin entered the world through one man”, making us all subject to “original sin” and destined for eternal punishment. God then gave the Mosaic Law, but (again as Paul says) this was ineffective to save mankind from sin (Gal 3, Rom. 10), so there is a need for salvation by Christ, effected by means of his sacrificial death interpreted as “atoning”; we can then accept that salvation by praying the sinners’ prayer; at that point we are “saved”.

Here’s a clip of a rather longer account from the evanglical preacher R.C. Sproull. His talk is entitled “City of God” and, indeed, it is Augustine’s work of the same title which introduced the concept of “original sin”.

Anything beyond that is really somewhat disconnected from the basic fact of being saved, and I not infrequently hear “once saved, always saved”. Unless, I hear it said, every part of this very short story (compared with, for instance, any of the actual gospels) is correct, Christianity is a nullity. Here’s an example from an Evangelical source arguing on that basis that Adam must be historical, effectively because his historicity is necessary for the “salvation history” account. I see this creeping into other theological arguments – salvation history must be maintained, so (for instance) Catherine LaCugna criticises the standard philosophical Catholic background for the Trinity as not allowing adequately for Jesus’ saving activity.

There are many problems with this abbreviated account, not least that it doesn’t these days provide a good basis for evangelising. As has been pointed out, “I have good news: you’re a hopeless sinner and are destined for Hell” doesn’t tend to retain an audience. Unless people are already convicted of sin with respect to God, they are unlikely to respond to this. I say “with respect to God” as a sizeable group will respond that they have sinned against other human beings, but that is a matter between them and those they have sinned against and, even if they believe in God, do not think that God has the first (or sometimes any) interest in that. In fact, Paul adverts to this: “On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law”. Many people these days, who have not been brought up with a concept of needing to comply with “God’s Law”, will think that this rendering of “the gospel” is giving a solution to a problem which they don’t have. Again, this account frankly renders both Jesus’ lifetime ministry and the resurrection irrelevant. All his life needs to provide us with, in this account, is a demonstration that he was sinless, and it is his death, not his resurrection, which effects the release from sin.

It is commonly at this point in an argument that someone raises the issue of Hebrews 9:22, and suggests that there cannot be any forgiveness without the shedding of blood. This is not, of course, the case: the passage reads that one might almost say that, or that there is nearly no counter-instance, though Leviticus 5:11 clearly allows the substitution of an ephah of flour for the impecunious, and the argument of Hebrews is that we are effectively embarrassed in presenting an adequate sacrifice due to the lack of blood of sufficient worth. I pass over the possible suggestion in Hebrews that the covering (atonement) is equivalent to forgiveness, because this would in this combination be equivalent to denying the processes of forgiveness set out in the Hebrew Scriptures (such as Ezekiel 18). I suggest as a start point for interpretation that the thrust of Hebrews is linking Jesus’ death to the actions in a Heavenly parallel of the now destroyed Temple of Jerusalem, and thus appropriating the sacrificial language – and not seeking to argue that God could not forgive sin without the spilling of blood, which would be contrary to previous scripture.

I think it is necessary, therefore, to interpret Paul’s language in Romans not as having overturned God’s previous system of forgiveness of sins, but to be a midrash (derash) looking to extend understanding. Indeed, as Paul points out in Rom. 3:25-26, God had left sins unpunished. What he is complaining of is his (and by extension our) inability to stop sinning. This is, of course, what was picked up by Martin Luther and extended to the principle that we are naturally incapable of acting without sin. Now, I note with interest that Robert Sapolsky identifies Luther as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is not difficult to see how this condition could generate a theology of inability to do the right thing; it is a feature of the disease. Forgive me if I find myself incapable of accepting a theology which grows out of a mental disorder from which I do not suffer (the state of my desk is ample witness to that!).

I could wonder whether the same aliment afflicted Paul, and was his “thorn in the flesh”, or at least a part of it, but see no other evidence in his writings. However, there may be a sufficient explanation in the “fence around the Torah” concept, which can spur the very devout to constant addition to the burden of things they must adhere to without an actual mental disorder. In fact, every Orthodox or Conservative Jew I’ve ever exhanged views with has confirmed to me that in fact, it is not particularly difficult to adhere to all of the Law (against what Paul seems to be saying in Romans), including not only those extended provisions which had been deduced in the first century, but all those which have since been deduced. This does not mean, however, that Judaism teaches that we can be perfect and avoid sin completely; it assumes that we will sin in some way, as Judaism has it’s own teaching that with Adam, i.e. in our original formation, we acquired a will towards evil (yetzer ha’ ra) as well as a will towards good (yetzer ha’tov) – but that the process of repentance and making amends is sufficient to restore our relationship with God (and man).

Paul’s position has been a vexed question for a very long time. Kurt Willems has recently started an excellent podcast series, the early parts of which briefly describe the problems of interpretation and some of the attempts at a solution. 20 years ago, it would not have been a problem for me, as I was then of the opinion that Paul had pretty much wrecked the message of Jesus and could safely be ignored. Now, however, I have to acknowledge both that Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian writings, that they form the majority of the Christian Scriptures (at least in the West) and that they are accepted as authoritative. So where do I go with this?

Firstly, while I accept that Paul was at least on occasion inspired (F.C. Happold identifies him as a Christian mystic), I ask myself whether the whole of what he wrote was inspired, and find that in at least one case he explicitly states that something he writes is his own opinion. Generally theologians have taken that to mean that wherever he doesn’t say that, he IS inspired, but I consider it to cast doubt on the inspiration of other parts of his writings.

Secondly, it is clear that in the relevant parts of Romans and to a lesser extent Galatians which found the “salvation history” narrative, he is doing theology rather than recounting a vision or, more explicitly, a revelation from God.

I therefore approach these bits of Paul as early theology, which I can criticise if I find his method lacking – and clearly it was lacking if only in that it failed to advert to a quite clear mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel 18 etc). However, I also find it lacking in that the portrait it paints of God is one where God delivers to Israel a huge set of rules and regulations (the Law) which is completely useless  as an adjunct to the covenant he makes with Israel – and that would be a God I would find it very difficult to follow. God then compounds the situation by waiting through at least a millenium before putting forward a solution (and yes, I know that Christian theologians have attempted to make Jesus’ sacrifice retroactive, but that does not form consolation during their lifetimes for those who have observed the Law). I’m with Peter Enns in considering that Paul does not do anything like a good enough job of substantiating his claims that the Law is nevertheless good and useful and yes, I might even agree that Paul is “winging it”. But I do not think that Paul intended to give this impression, particularly in the light of his comments, Rom. 3:1: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way” and Rom. 7:7, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” .

So what is Paul actually attempting to say in his midrash here (because I am convinced that it is a midrash, i.e. an extension of scripture done according to at least loosely rabbinic principles)? It cannot be that, in truth, we are unable to avoid contravening the Mosaic Law (as this is demonstrably not the case), nor can it be that there is no mechanism for restoring ourselves to a right relationship with God absent faith in Jesus in any simple sense (as there was a perfectly adequate mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures already).

I think the issue is this. Judaism is concerned, as per Rabbinic tradition and the New Perspective, with maintaining faithful inclusion in the Mosaic covenant which, by birth and (in the case of men) circumcision they are already part of (and, as a mark of devotion, doing it better and better); Paul is not talking about that. He is talking about freedom from the Yetzer ha-Ra, the evil impulse, which is what causes people to sin. Judaism accepts that humanity is subject to that, and that the resulting sin can be dealt with through teshuvah (repentance and restoration) even if the further “atoning” sacrifice is no longer available in the absence of the Temple (and, incidentally, the writer of Hebrews is putting Jesus’ death in the position of a once-for-all atoning sacrifice which deals with that absence, just in case the rabbinic arguments were insufficient; it should not in my view be read as indicating that it was absolutely necessary, as clearly under the Hebrew Scriptures it was not).

Paul, as I have said, was a mystic. Furthermore, he was a Christ-mystic, reading the base mystical experience as an experience specifically of Christ. He talks at length of “being in Christ” “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1) and, again, Gal 3. He talks equally about “Christ in us” (Gal. 2:20). This is, for Paul, an unitive experience; he perceives himself as united with Christ, and inasmuch as this is the case, he is immune from the yetzer ha’ra; a more modern Jew might say that he is identifying Christ with the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse towards good. As a God-mystic myself (my own experiences have not had any particular favour of being “of Christ”), this makes perfect sense; inasmuch as I can hold on to union with God, I do not have any impulse to sin. Of course, Paul also complains that on occasion he wishes to do good but in fact sins; I would identify this as being when he has lost his unitive connection for a time.

Paul is therefore aiming at an entirely different target from that which has commonly been thought; he is aiming at the perfection of the individual will such that it is in complete conformity with the Will of God (interpreted in his case as the Will of Christ). This, I am reasonably confident, his mystical experience delivered to him – and it was marvelous to him, just as a similar experience was marvelous to me, and it changed him radically, just as a similar experience did me.

However, I think he makes a mistake common to quite a lot of mystics, and one which I made myself for quite some time; he assumes that because his own experience is this, anyone else can have the same experience. Sadly, I have found with many years of trying that very few people appear to be able to have an absolute peak mystical experience; at least, not without a lifetime of effort.

I think at some point Paul also realised this, as he elsewhere gives instructions as to what the “fruits of the spirit” should be, and  suggests that people should cultivate these. Those gripped by a peak mystical experience, the effects of which do not wear off quickly, would not need instruction. However, the other thing experience has taught me (and, drawing from this, it may also have taught Paul) is that the “act as if” principle does have some validity; if you act as if you’re spirit-filled, or in union with Christ, or in union with God, or (as I think Jesus was using a different term to describe the same condition) as a member of the Kingdom of God, eventually the outward actions form the inward reality.

And who knows, maybe the impulse to do the outward actions more and better will also grip you. Sounds almost Jewish, doesn’t it? But it isn’t “works righteousness”…



Freedom with or without property?

“Property is freedom” (Proudhon)
“Property is theft” (Proudhon)
“Property is impossible” (Proudhon)
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” (Thoreau) (the four quotations assembled by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson as a chapter heading in “Illuminatus”).

Proudhon, sometimes called the father of anarchism, was not actually being quite so inconsistent as those quotations suggest. However, his “Theory of Property “ makes for extremely tedious reading, so tends to get forgotten apart from those highlights!

I started thinking about this post on reading a meme shared by a friend, attacking the ability of government to tax people. In essence, it says that people cannot delegate to government a right they do not have themselves, and they have no right to rob their neighbour. That led me to wonder quite how well the idea of private property aligns with Biblical and Christian principles; it was not immediately apparent to me that there is, for instance, a right not to be “robbed” by ones neighbour, nor that in the natural state of things there is no right to “rob” ones neighbour, if that be interpreted as taking and using yourself something your neighbour is not using themselves. There isn’t even truly a right not to have something you’re using yourself taken away unless either you have the force to prevent it or there is a system of government and law to give you redress for someone else taking it.  Rights are non-existent in the absence of such a system (and, I remark, such systems have to be paid for). It is perhaps in this sense that “property is impossible”.

It seems to me that in the world as we now find it, private property is increasingly seen as a “right” (at least for those who have it). Margaret Thatcher praised the “property owning Democracy”, and although private property is not one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, it seems to me that it might as well have been. It is absolutely foundational to the modern capitalist system. Thatcher had a point; if you own property, you are at least somewhat more secure (level 2 on Maslow’s hierarchy); you are at least to some extent free to say “no” to demands that you do something for someone else; you are not forced to work in order to eat (which destroys any semblance of an equal bargaining position with those looking for workers); you have some degree of power inasmuch as there is an exchange value of your property. This is Proudhon’s target in saying “property is freedom”.

I wrote recently about the deeply anti-Biblical nature of money, the ultimate form of property which is nothing but exchange value, so I will not go much further into property which is money. There are, however, two major other divisions of property, moveable and immovable – the second category is land, together with what is built on it.

To have land may mean you have a house (and therefore shelter, part of level 1 for Maslow). If you have enough land, you may be able to farm it to provide yourself with food, answering both a level 1 and a level 2 need (I remark that very few people in the UK have that much land; that is probably the case in most developed countries, but in the States seems to be a dream which is very much alive, even if not actually given to most to realise). The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of this when they allotted land to each tribe by lot according to their size (Num. 26:55-6) though clearly from the Jubilee provisions they anticipated that individuals (patriarchs of families) within those tribes would have their own allotment, and instituted provisions to return land at a Jubilee so as to prevent people losing this freedom; the Jubilee also freed slaves and cancelled debts, thus removing debt-slavery as another means of denying basic needs. It should be noted, however, that the basic allotment was to the tribe, not to individuals, so land was at the most basic level a common asset.

There is a common theme through the Hebrew Scriptures that water (much prized in the generally arid landscape of the Middle East) was in particular provided by God – Isa. 55:1, Psalm 107:33-36, Psalm 23:1-3, as merely a few or many instances, thus strongly suggesting that basic utilities should be common to everyone (and that water resources in particular should not be in private ownership). Of course we also should not forget Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”.

Land is thus a particularly difficult thing to categorise as naturally being “private property”, as it clearly belongs to God, and not in general to man. One factor in this is that by and large, you cannot “use up” land (though you can certainly make it very unattractive for others by, for instance, polluting it or strip mining it). It’s still going to be there when you’re dead and gone, and a lot of farmers, owners of stately homes and even those of us fortunate or unfortunate enough to live in an old and interesting building will testify that to a great extent you don’t own the property, the property owns you.

In addition, of course, land is habitat for a lot of species apart from humans. If we have a “right” to land, do not other species also have rights to it? Are owners of land not responsible for their alteration of its characteristics such that, for instance, what was forest fixing large amounts of CO2 becomes arable land (or worse, desert) which fixes none, often in the process burning the trees to produce more of the CO2 which needs to be fixed?

The ancient Israelites were maybe getting at something like this in not permitting land to be sold off on a permanent basis; the only way you could alienate it was for, at most, 49 years until the next Jubilee. You could in the meantime use it, and I’m inclined to think that “use value” rather than “exchange value” is a better measure of land.

So, how should we use it? A common argument for long term ownership of land is that the land has been “improved”, for instance by reducing it to arable land from wood or scrub, or irrigating or draining it. I have to question whether these can truly be regarded as improvements. I’ve mentioned the problems of deforestation already, but should underline that any intensive human use is massively damaging to land as habitat for other species, and when we farm it we are tending to introduce monocultures which severely damage biodiversity. One man’s improvement is, therefore, another man’s damage or destruction.

“The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). The Biblical witness in Genesis 1 is that God made it, and saw that it was good as he made it. While yes, God is seen here as giving mankind rule over it, a ruler does not destroy that which he rules, he tends and protects it – and the vegetation is clearly given to both mankind and the rest of the fauna on earth to eat.  We should, I think, not see ourselves as owning land, but being stewards of it – and, perhaps, being owned by the land. Does the fact that God “gave man dominion over” created things (Gen. 1:26) mean that man should be less solicitous of the welfare of the rest of creation than is God, who “saw that it was good”, or rather “in the image of God” every bit as caring as God, for whom even sparrows are important?

Although the writers of the Pentateuch envisaged that land would in fact not be held communally, they did make provision for (for instance) the poor to be able to glean from the fields ; margins were to be left so they could do this. Genesis 1:30 clearly states that God gave vegetation to animals to eat; should we therefore not prevent them from eating, and do they not therefore have rights in “our” land?

The other form of property, and that which is beloved of those making simplistic arguments for property rights and thus capitalism, is things which we make (or buy).  Or find and collect, or extract from the earth, or grow in the earth, or (in the case of livestock) collect, allow to breed and then utilise in some way.

It tends to seem obvious that when I do something which places an object in my possession, unless I have stolen it, it is mine (and remains so). This is particularly the case when I have done something in order to make it – in the case of a miner, dug it out of the ground, a farmer prepared ground, planted seed, weeded, fertilised and irrigated it and finally reaped it, in the case of a hunter chased down an animal and killed it, in the case of a craftsman taken materials and formed and/or assembled them into something new. This is the case, for instance, for Marx, for whom the human labour which goes in to something is the sole form of value which it should have (neglecting the use of land or equipment which may not belong to the labourer); it is doubly the case for capitalist economists, who would value the land and equipment first and the labour only second (if at all – the pure capitalist regards labour as an irritating cost to be reduced by all means possible). For both of them, value has been added, and their dissent is merely as to how that value should be apportioned.

I question this view. It seems to me that what I most truly own is actually just those things which I am currently using – as Heidegger put it “zuhanden”, i.e. “ready to hand”. The skilled workman acts as if the tool he is using is an extension of himself, and to a great extent, it is; he can reasonably be said to own it while using it in this way. Something which I am not using is at best, in Heideggerian terminology, “vorhanden”, i.e. present to hand – and much of what I tend to think of as “mine” is not even actually present to hand – it isn’t even immediately available for use. This is a form of valuation  purely by use-value (which both Marx and the capitalist economists both acknowledge), but one which is more restricted by suggesting that potential use-value isn’t yet really value at all. As an aside, if potential use-value is considered a value, use for one purpose should surely be regarded as destroying (or at least reducing) the value of all other potential uses.

After I started writing this, my wife bought bones for our two dogs. The older of the two persistently tried to corner both the bones, and when he managed it would growl fiercely at the puppy to warn him off “his” bone. Of course, he could not eat two bones at the same time, and he was depriving the puppy of “his” bone (we had to keep intervening to take one of the bones off the old dog and give it to the puppy). Before saying that this was just clearly theft, consider whether, to the dogs, we are not in effect in the position of God, giving abundant food (or at least the opportunity and circumstances to cultivate it) and then seeing one person cornering it and denying it to others. I was reminded of seeing a homeless man begging outside a plush restaurant; he was hungy, and those inside had more than enough. Was that not also a form of theft (Proudhon’s second meaning)? Of course, Jesus preached against this attitude in Luke 12:13-21 (the parable of the rich fool), in which a man with abundant grain builds more storehouses, but does not live to enjoy their contents.

I could argue that unless I am in the process of using something, if someone else would benefit by using it, this might be equivalent to a form of theft. Before dismissing this argument too quickly, recall that a major argument for settlers having a claim to land over and above migratory people who only occasionally used the land is just that; that they settled on it and actually used it. Another is, of course, that they improved the land, for instance by making it cultivable, but as examples such as the deforestation of the Amazon and the creation of the mid-west dustbowl indicate, the term “improvement” is very debatable.

In a similar way to the “improvement” of the mid-west, I might also argue that when someone takes, say, wood from a forest (thus destroying living trees), works it and produces, say, a chair, this should really be viewed merely as adjusting the form of something, and not as creating something (and if, for instance, there is a glut of chairs around, the chair produced has frankly near-zero value for either use or exchange value, whereas the tree it came from has value merely by existing as part of the ecosystem, and indeed the chair might have negative value as waste needing to be disposed of). The intuition in Genesis and the Psalms that God alone is the Creator is valid here; man does not create, he merely rearranges.

I suspect that by this point many reading this will think “this goes massively too far”, and I would agree. It’s an extreme. For there to be no real private property (Proudhon’s third suggestion) is also the position someone is in when society has broken down and there is no trust or fellow feeling between individuals; what you “own” is, if it goes beyond what you are actually currently using, what you can by force or intimidation prevent others from taking. “But we don’t live in a society like that”, I hear. Well, conditions like that occur regularly in places like childrens’ playgrounds and prisons, where individuals either haven’t yet learned to respect the conventions of society or have wilfully rejected them. I suggest that this is a more natural state than is the society of property owners, in fact. A friend recently alerted me to the fact that the Founding Fathers contemplated in the Declaration of Independence expressing a God-given right to property ownership (in fact, they substituted “the pursuit of happiness”); I think that they were entirely correct to reject this as a natural right. It has to be said, however, that having some property does contribute to Maslow’s second level, security (although there too, Jesus would comment “do not worry about tomorrow”).

However, if you add to a society an ethos of compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself” as a general value,a mix of private and communal property becomes the most natural way to organise things, always in the consciousness that everything originates from God, and that we are mere stewards of it (or, in the case of food or drink, recipients of a gift).

There is one final thing. As I mentioned earlier, very many people I talk to who own a large house or a large area of land (perhaps a farm) say that they do not really feel that they own it, they feel that it owns them. They may well also say they are merely custodians, evidencing just that attitude of stewardship which I commend. Some people with (for instance) vintage cars will gladly confess that they are slaves to keeping it in pristine condition and good running order. Fewer people with large bank balances and multiple investments will say that they are owned by their possessions – but it seems to me that they are. They are defined by being a millionaire or a billionaire, and their primary energy goes to retaining that status and increasing it.

When Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, he was not asking him to damage himself, he was suggesting that he free himself. Just as an addict or an alcoholic is enslaved to their addicting substance or activity, so possessions can enslave us. Let’s be free!

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.


Messiahs and their aftermaths

I’ve just read an interesting article on what you might call “other Jewish Messiahs”. I wouldn’t argue with the conclusion that Bar Kochba probably did the most damage to Judaism of all of the 50 or so candidates.

However, I think the article misses the point of why modern Judaism considers Jesus to have been the most damaging. That’s because the result was a major rift in Judaism which produced a new religion which was considered non-Jewish, or at least it was following a rather painful process of separation which is dealt with in a very compelling way by Daniel Boyarin in “Border Lines” and in “A Radical Jew”. There are strong hints of the early stages of that process in Paul’s letters and in the book of Acts, but the process probably didn’t become complete until well after that, probably around the middle of the second century, much aided by Justin Martyr seeking to clarify an identity for Christianity as against Judaism.

How many ethnic Jews actually ended up following the new religion of Christianity is a hotly disputed subject; the standard Orthodox Jewish response would be that vanishingly small numbers of Jews, if any, would have accepted the Pauline disintegration of ethnic distinctives, those things which actually made Jews a people. There is probably now no way of establishing what the truth of the situation actually is; the New Testament witness would argue that significant numbers joined the new movement (I don’t say “converted”, because at the time I don’t think most would think there was a need to “convert”, seeing Christianity as a natural development within Judaism), but is clearly susceptible to allegations of bias. Rome too, it seems, had difficulty distinguishing the two, considering the very early reports of the Jews agitating at the instance of someone called “Chrestus” (Suetonius, writing probably around 100CE).

However, if one can assume that there were indeed significant numbers who joined the new movement (and, of course, all the very early members were Jewish), the fact that a new religion (and one with massive staying power) was thereby started would, I think, rank Jesus as the greatest threat. One has to recall that, for many Orthodox Jews, conversion to any religion other than Christianity is a failing, but becoming a Christian makes someone dead to Judaism (and funeral rites are not infrequently performed in absentia); conversion is thus seen as a form of genocide. Boyarin thinks, and I agree, that this attitude is a part of the increasingly acrimonious split which on the Christian side became antisemitism; I cannot now think that had it been Judaism which had achieved ascendancy there would not have been a major possibility of similar treatment of Christians, given the recent history of a resurgent nationalist Israel.

This thinking, however, leads me to posit a different ranking, based on which messiah figures came closest to instituting a new religion. Sabbatai Zvi has third place after Jesus there; there were at one point a very large number of followers and commentators at the time were concerned about the possibility of that becoming a majority in Judaism. However, the Sabbatarians proved not to have staying power, particularly after the forced conversion of their leader to Islam.

Second place, however, has to go to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is perhaps politically skated over by the article (though, to be fair, he cannot be blamed for many, if any deaths). He was the last Lubavitch Rebbe (and earlier Lubavitch Rebbes had also been hailed as messiah to a lesser extent). His followers are extant as Chabad Lubavitch, who have a very prominent presence in conservative Judaism to this day (running many Jewish educational establishments inter alia), and having a substantial proportion of people who still hold that the late Rebbe was Moschiach, and that any prophecies not actually fulfilled by him in his lifetime will be fulfilled in a second coming (some followers say “right idea, wrong guy” to Christians). Of course, they are not officially a separate religion – but not a few Rabbis think that they should be, as they follow someone who, from the strict point of view, is another failed messiah, as he did not fulfill ALL of the prophecies deemed messianic by Judaism. (A note for my Christian readers – these are not necessarily the same prophecies as Christians consider fulfilled or to be fulfilled by Jesus).

To my mind, Chabad escaped being declared a separate religion by the skin of their teeth in the late 20th century. If you were to ask me “Why?”, I might guess that by the time the problem was realised, Chabad actually had too large an influence in Judaism (Christianity might have had were it not for the elimination of most of the Jerusalem Church in 65-70 CE) and also by the fact that there was no-one in Chabad with the interests of Justin Martyr in distancing them from the rest of Judaism.

If nothing else, I think a study of Menachem Schneerson and Chabad casts an interesting light on how Christianity might have developed.

The value of a life in “The Bridge”

Following my previous post, which dealt with boundaries we draw when considering moral issues, and attempted to problematise where we draw some of those boundaries, I watched an episode of “The Bridge” which brought up some linked thoughts.

I hasten to say that I don’t usually enjoy having to read films and TV programmes (the series is in Swedish and Danish with subtitles), particularly when the language is close enough to my own to keep making me think that if I listened just a bit harder I would understand it (I live in a part of England with a lot of dialect and accent influence from Scandinavia), but I got sucked in by a somewhat bizarre start point (which got more bizarre before the end of the first episode) and by the interplay of two detectives with hugely different characters, one of whom is “a bit diferent”.

In that episode, the background is that an apparently socially conscious serial killer has kidnapped a bus full of schoolchildren and has promised to let them go, but on the condition that buildings belonging to five companies all of whom profit from child labour (in effect, slavery) are burned (slightly complicated by the fact that the perpetrator has identified them only by what they sell…). This becoming public, various people duly go and commit arson, and there’s a nailbiting finish as there’s a fire at a chocolate factory moments before the deadline runs out, and the box saying “chocolate” winks out; in the newspaper offices where this is being watched, a cheer goes up – and the viewer is inclined to cheer with them.

The thing is, even in that episode, you have to think that the background is that everyone dealing with those companies has been contributing to child slavery; why is it that five schoolchildren of the same nationality have to be in danger of dying in order to focus people’s minds on the destruction of the lives of many more children in other countries? Why do we think that very significant acts of arson against private property should be celebrated, and do we think that those five children’s lives are worth enough to justify this criminal behaviour? Why especially as, in order to save a little money ourselves, we have been buying from the slave-labour companies?

Earlier episodes, in fact, highlighted the lack of concern of many people to the death of several homeless people, an immigrant and the ambivalence of the slow, public death of a very violent robber and bully by the draining of his blood.

One cannot avoid thinking that there’s huge concern about five children, but very little about those homeless people, an immigrant and the violent guy. We may, perhaps, say that all life is sacred, but we act as if children are more valuable than adults as long as those adults are people we don’t identify with or who aren’t of specific economic benefit to us (there’s an issue in a later episode about how a rich guy who has killed someone by drunk driving has got away with it, for instance). We act as if the mere fact of the life of a child is valuable, but the quality of the lives of a greater number of children is not.

In fact, we seem to think that children, including the unborn, have infinite value (as long as they’re fairly much like us), but adults have a specific financial value, and those who are socially marginal have little or none. At least, we do outside the realm of the UK courts, where the value of a human life is routinely assessed based largely on earning potential; this tends to result in fairly low figures for infants, whose earning potential cannot be assessed. Things are somewhat different in the US courts, where damages are assessed by juries; I’ve occasionally suggested that as the value of a life is incalculable, the States puts a mind-blowingly high value on it, while the UK basically says it has no value in and of itself, just what it can be predicted to provide for others in the future.

In fact, things are different in a lot of other places and cultures, from the far lower amounts which some systems allocate to any lives to those which are still operating (if not notionally, then on a cultural level)  according to the kind of rules which operated in Biblical times, when children were basically of no value at all until they’d reached the age of a month and were a possession of their father thereafter until some arbitrary age when they were decreed adult (if male) or married off (if female) – or even those of still earlier times when unwanted children were just discarded, exposed to the elements and the local wildlife which was in those days generally entirely capable of eating a baby or three.

We also seem to have an elevated view of the character of children – “innocents” is the watchword there. I don’t think this is due to Jesus’ statements in Matt. 19:14 or Matt. 18:3, either; both were largely ignored in the notionally Christian western Europe until at the earliest the early 19th century. However, psychological studies seem to demonstrate that the very young are fundamentally sociopathic narcissists, who think only of self (once they form the idea that “self” is not continuous with the rest of the world) and are born manipulative; my own observation of children doesn’t disagree. Only later do a sizeable proportion become socialised and fit to be regarded, in my eyes, as fully human. Some, of course, avoid this socialisation and become criminals or company executives.

We then proceed to have a confused idea of when to promote people to having full adult responsibility. Not infrequently, we allow teenagers to fight for us, but not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco; ages of consent for sex vary vastly depending on what country you are in, as do ages of legal liability for criminal offences and ages when the punishment of offenders is upgraded to “adult”. In this week’s Global Christian perspectives, Elgin Hushbeck bemoaned the fact that we allow teenagers freedom without responsibility, but we also impute some of them with responsibility without freedom. It is hardly surprising that many of them seem confused as to what they actually are!

It seems to me that we are operating by taboo when we so protect the very young, a taboo which I think was born of Victorian sentimentality (which, on the good side, also ended child labour). We are not operating logically, nor are we operating out of the Christian value of valuing life irrespective of its utility to society or conformity with social norms. What motivates us is taboo, prejudice and, sometimes, xenophobia. This really will not do.

Personally, I think this is an area in which we have to make hard moral choices, as indeed some of the cast of “The Bridge” are presented with. We could say that the mere existence of human life is a good so great that anything else should be sacrificed in comparison. In that case, we would also, in order to be rational, have to forswear capital punishment, war and lethal force in self-defence or even law enforcement. I suggest that rationality would also demand that we then also collectively provide for every human life within our society to at least a basic level, say level 2 (so that both physiological and safety needs are provided for everyone); maybe even level 3, providing also for love and belonging. The mere presence of life, it seems to me, is not sufficient when that life is going to be, as Thomas Hobbes put it “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Alternatively, we can attempt the extremely difficult task faced by the courts in cases of civil actions for wrongful death, and value every life as dispassionately as we can. And if we do this, as the experience of the courts shows, the very young and the very old have very little value.

What price the busload of children under that paradigm?


Atonement – God is not a dick

The deaths of the Maccabean Martyrs are described at some length in the book of 2 Maccabees. Antiochus Epiphanus (Epiphanus, a self-given title, meaning something close to “God with us”, and a tyrant who eclipsed anything the Romans were doing as at the early years of the first century) persecuted the Jews very generally, and a lot of martyrs are recorded as being killed for not being prepared to abandon various of the Mosaic commandments, frequently those forbidding contact with pigs. Seven in particular (together with their mother and teacher) are remembered especially. In the somewhat later 4 Maccabees the writer takes things a step further:-

“When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”  (4 Maccabees 6:26-29)

The tyrant [Antiochus IV] was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated. (4 Maccabees 17:21-22)

Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by mortals, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace …” (4 Maccabees 18:3-4)

4 Maccabees dates from either the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE, probably early. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the writers of the New Testament knew not only the story (the Maccabean restoration had already given rise to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah) but also this interpretation. It is also the only event recognised within Judaism in which humans are killed and this is considered an atonement.

As a result, when  I read the NT writers and see any mention of “atonement”, my initial assumption is that they are referring to the template of atonement set out in 4 Maccabees. This does not seem to occur to anyone around me, though. The Maccabean martyrs have, it seems, been virtually completely forgotten in the protestant West (they are actually venerated as martyrs in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly the former).

It is, of course, an integral part of the story of Maccabees that following the martyrdoms, things improved immeasurably for the Jewish population. History does seem to indicate that this was mostly due to the revolt of the Maccabees, which eventually forced on Antiochus the grant of some self-rule, which led to the eventual restoration of an independent state. Against this background, it is easy to see how some of Jesus’ followers would have seen him as a new Judas Maccabeus rather than a new Eleazar, and expected a revolt, but the template of Eleazar, the widow and her seven sons was still there.

It seems to me that with this background, there is no real need for other atonement theories. Granted, the text as it is might be some support for an exemplary atonement (Abelard), fits reasonably with Girardian end-of-scapegoat thinking and could readily have a Christus Victor interpretation added. It also contains the words “ransom” and “for the sin of the nation”, and thus is not completely inconsistent with the fairly early “ransom” theory, sharing the problem that it is unspecific who the ransom is paid to – though a naive reading might indicate that it is paid to Antiochus (and one might equally argue that Jesus’s death was “paid to” Caesar). The early proponents of the theory considered the debt due to Satan…

There is no suggestion of Anselm’s concept of assuaging an insult to God’s honour, nor yet of paying to God the (infinite) price of disobedience through sin in a Lutheran penal substitution manner. I note in passing that while the other concepts are somewhat enhanced by a resurrection, satisfaction and penal substitution are if anything undermined – it would seem, naively, that a death which is only temporary is of considerably less worth than a death which is permanent.

There is also no suggestion that God “provided” the Maccabean martyrs to enable him to forgive in circumstances in which he could somehow not otherwise bring himself to display his primary characteristics of love and mercy (markedly failing in the process to display omnipotence). That, I suspect, is entirely the fault of some infelicitous wording by Paul in Romans 3:25: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–“.

I note the variety of translations here. “Set forth”, “purposed”, “preordained”, “publicly displayed”, “proposed”, “presented”. It is clear that the various translators have had some challenges in finding an adequate term for the Greek “proetheto”, which has the literal meaning of “before-placed”. So God placed this event before us as an atonement, did he? That does not, I think, mean that his primary purpose for Jesus’ entire life was that he be a sacrifice, even a willing one. In part, at least, I would think that this is strongly suggested by the fact also relayed to us by Paul that Jesus was divinised on his resurrection, just as in 4 Macc. 18…

If that were not sufficient argument, however, note the words “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness”. The purpose is explicit; God wished to show US that he was righteous, that so great a self-sacrifice could not be left without a corresponding action of God’s, namely acceptance of the atonement (and, I would suggest, resurrection and elevation of Jesus). This, of course, clearly has to be “recieved by faith”, as there is no evidence that God treats the death in this way apart from the apostle’s word and, perhaps, the resurrection (although that could potentially have some other cause).

In my thinking, it also has to be “received by faith” as that is how the psychological mechanism works which permits us to feel better about ourselves when some member of our group acts heroically or when our leader does something commendable (the latter, sadly, being in somewhat short supply these days). The inverse, of course, also operates – I am invariably embarrassed when hearing of the idiocies or bigotries of other Christians, just as the Muslims of my acquaintance are embarrassed by the actions of ISIS.

I do, on occasion, note that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (which seems the only concept of atonement which my church understands, along with most evangelical and conservative Christians in the West) is actually the only one of the atonement theories which has real power to effect that psychological mechanism in a group of people notably including many in recovery from addiction and many with serious criminal records. This is unfortunate; I would, absent that, be suggesting that we wipe all mention of PSA from our theology books, our rituals, our speech and our thinking.

Why? Because, in the inimitable words of Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity, God is not a dick. The god-concept which is required for either satisfaction or PSA is of an unmerciful, legalistic, self-righteous prig. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the God I experience and worship.

But it does look a lot like Antiochus Epiphanus, who, if we follow through the logic of the “ransom” theory, was functioning as the embodiment of Satan.

The situation of Badiou

In my last post about Homebrewed’s Paul course, I complained a bit about feeling targeted by remarks about liberals and progressives. Another session, and I’m not feeling less targeted – and it’s going to get worse as we move onto Badiou’s snarky remarks about Pascal’s mysticism. Let’s face it, I’m a mystic as well. I do note that F.C. Happold identifies Paul as a mystic, with the assumption that mysticism founded Paul’s career, so sidelining that aspect may be a mistake.

Time for some pushback, I think. I started this book (Paul, the Foundation of Universalism) with some expectations – Badiou is, after all, a French public intellectual. What I therefore expected was an Atheist Marxist who tried hard to come up with some provocative remarks, dressed in a stack of obscure language  – and Badiou manages to be boringly conformist to this stereotype despite being somewhat dismissive of postmodern situatedness. His “provocative remark” is to centre his fantasy on a theme of Paul on the Resurrection, which is clearly an entirely unacceptable idea to an Atheist Marxist, particularly a French one (as Atheism is pretty close to being the state religion of France – they haven’t got over elevating reason to the status of goddess in 1792, a fairly short lived experiment but one which has coloured all French republics since then).

Sadly, Badiou goes to some lengths to stress that it’s an unacceptable idea, even a “lie”. Paul, however, almost certainly believed implicitly in the resurrection (I reference the first talk), and I do not hear from Badiou any clever argument like Pete Rollins’ in “The Divine Magician” (where it is crucial that the thing wished for does not in fact exist) nor “I know that it didn’t happen like this, but I know this story is true” to adjust the standard opening of some native storytellers.

I say “fantasy on a theme of Paul” as in truth it bears as much resemblance to an analysis of what Paul actually said as do the Christian theologians who Niezsche’s complained about in Taubes book, finding the cross in every mention of wood in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For one thing, Badiou concentrates on the resurrection. However, what is clearly for Paul a “scandal to the Jews and a foolishness to the Greeks” is actually the crucifixion, not the resurrection (see 1 Cor. 1:23). In fact, although to Badiou’s atheist eyes the resurrection is the stumbling block, to the eyes of Jews and Greeks (or Romans) a resurrection or revivification wasn’t an impossibility. Both traditions could accommodate such an event, and in theological developments over the next century or so, arguments were put forward which bent Jewish and Greek presuppositions minimally if at all.

What was an impossibility was a messiah who was crucified rather than leading the Jews to reestablishment of their nation in glory, or a son of God (like Caesar) who was put to death as an insurrectionary rather than elevated to rule the known world. It was absolutely scandalous that Jesus should die an ignominious death and not reign forever. Perhaps even more so that God would not intervene and save him, which has the potential still to be a scandal for about 90% of the Christians I know. God either does not care, does not wish to or cannot intervene? Not a popular sentiment in churches I’m acquainted with.

So, of course, his followers put that right by demoting the crucifixion to a temporary blip and (after some time) positing that he would return to do all the things which were expected of a Jewish Messiah or a Roman Caesar. If there hadn’t been a resurrection, it would have been necessary for his followers to invent one.

Oh, wait… the overwhelming probability is that they did – or, at least, that’s what I’d expect to hear from a psychoanalyst. Granted, the psychoanalyst might not go so far as Badiou and describe it as a “lie”, just as hallucinations brought on by cognitive dissonance reduction and wish fulfillment, perhaps with a side order of deindividuation. (I should maybe point out for my more conservative readers that just because we can identify psychological mechanisms which could well have produced resurrection experiences doesn’t actually mean there wasn’t more to them than that.)

Badiou does, of course, mention Pauls main other shockingly transgressive set of statements, but the French Marxist Atheist is not shocked by the dissolution of Jewish exceptionalism (by rendering circumcision and dietary laws irrelevant), abolition of patriarchal attitudes to gender or the denial of the master-slave relationship, which would have been truly shocking to Jew and Greek alike whereas resurrection, which Badiou is shocked by, would maybe have raised an eyebrow or two. It was, indeed, sufficiently transgressive that the pseudo-Pauline epistles and the Fourth Gospel (in particular) did their utmost to undo Paul’s good work, to deny the event.

Similarly, the French Marxist Atheist finds nothing particularly startling to mention  in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s preference for the poor, women, children, lawbreakers, the irreligious and other contemptible people, even so far as religious opponents (the Samaritans) and outright enemies (including Romans). This, however, still has the power to shock. (In the USA not by any means least when couched as “affirmative action”.) Autre pays, autre moeurs, as they say.

I wonder, would Paul, today, say “In Christ there is no theist and no atheist”? Would Jesus say “Blessed are those who do not believe in anything”?

Que M. Badiou soit beni.