Archive for December, 2009

The Gospel of Thomas: Gnosticism or Early Christian Mysticism?

Link to an article in the recent issue of BAR:

What’s Up with the Gospel of Thomas by April DeConick


The type of religiosity found in the Gospel of Thomas is not all that unusual. You can find references to it in Biblical and nonbiblical literature. It is nothing more than an early Christian expression of mysticism that developed out of an earlier, apocalyptically oriented Christianity that wished for the immediate end of the world. When the end didn’t happen, the Christians were forced to rethink and rewrite their cherished apocalyptic teachings…

We can even locate this mystical form of Christianity historically. It is a form that developed in eastern Syria in the late first and early second centuries, a form of Christianity that was an heir to early Jewish mystical traditions and a precursor to later Eastern Orthodoxy. I think that Thomas’s “place” in early Christianity was misidentified originally not because it represents a type of Christianity unfamiliar to the canonical tradition or deviant from it. The Gospel of Thomas was wrongly identified at first because Western theological interests controlled its interpretation within a Western Christian framework that could not explain its unfamiliar, mystical structure. Yet we now know—in part from manuscript discoveries like the Nag Hammadi collection—that there was a multiplicity of groups, beliefs and traditions in the diverse early Christian communities. Scholars who misunderstood the Gospel of Thomas mislabeled it as Gnostic in order to lump it together with other traditions they thought to be strange, heretical and late.

David Lewis and The Paradoxes of Time-Travel

Although quite unknown among laypeople and even lay philosophers, David Lewis is one of the most prominent philosophers in recent philosophical history. His influence is so widespread in so many philosophical fields that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy said of him, “It is hard to think of a philosopher since Hume who has contributed so much to so many fields.” His daring and imaginative mind led him to some of the most ingenious, logically consistent, yet undeniably counter-intuitive ideas of his generation. Here is his view on a very popular field of science fiction: time-travel. For Lewis, time-travel is entirely logically possible.

External vs. Personal Time

Lewis makes a distinction between external and personal time. External time is what Lewis calls “time itself” or what one might call the time on a timeline. The time between the year 1900 and the year 2000 is, externally, an interval of one hundred years. On the other hand, personal time is the time that one experiences personally (or the time one feels). Or as Lewis states, it is the time that is recorded on one’s wristwatch. Now, in ordinary cases, both external and personal time are the same. But such is not the case in instances of time-travel. Suppose that I travel one hundred years into the future or into the past. In terms of external time, I will be one hundred years removed from where I once was. But in terms of personal time, perhaps only thirty minutes have passed (my biological clock or my wristwatch have only experienced or recorded thirty minutes and not one hundred years). Such is also the case with instances of time travel and special relativity: if one travels fast enough, one may only experience, say, one month pass despite the fact that ten years have passed on earth.

Causal Reversals and Causal Loops

This distinction allows Lewis to clearly state how causal reversals are possible. Causal reversals become possible when the orders of personal and external time disagree. In other words, in cases of traveling back in time, personal time continues to progress from earlier stages to later ones while external time progresses from later stages to earlier ones. Causal reversals then are ultimately instances when, rather than earlier stages causing later stages, the reverse is true: later stages cause earlier ones. Thus, I may travel back in time and show a young Copernicus that the sun is the center of the solar system, which leads to his proposal of the heliocentric theory. Or perhaps I travel back in time with my contemporary clothes, which leads to a revolution in fashion in, say, the eighteenth century. In both cases, a future person with his future knowledge (or accessories) has caused something to happen in the past.

The possibility of causal reversals leads to the possibility of causal loops. Causal loops, as Lewis puts it, are closed causal chains in which some causal links are normal—they run from earlier states to later ones—while some are reversed. To put it another way, they are instances where the causal origin of a series of events can be equally located both in the past and in the future. Thus, perhaps the only reason why I can show Copernicus that the sun is the center of the solar system is because he proposed such a theory in the past and I am merely regurgitating what he once said. Or, on the contrary, perhaps the only reason he could propose his theory in the first place is because I, a future person, traveled into the past and told him. How then do we explain how the Copernican theory originated? Where did it come from? I was aware of it because Copernicus proposed it long ago; he was aware of it because I told him. The answer for Lewis is that there is no answer. The loop as a whole is not explicable despite the fact that the parts are.

Can One Change the Past: The Case of Tim and His Grandfather?

There is a paradox in discussions on time-travel known as the Grandfather paradox. The paradox asks the question: can a person (call him Tim) travel back in time and kill his grandfather? For the paradox to work, one must assume Tim travels back to a time before his grandfather had any children, namely, Tim’s father. So let’s assume that Tim travels back to his grandfather’s teen years in the 1920’s. Can Tim kill his grandfather? The paradox arises when one considers that it would seem impossible for Tim to kill his grandfather because of the fact that Tim’s existence is entirely contingent upon his grandfather surviving long enough to have children. But it also seems entirely possible for Tim to travel back in time, buy a gun, and shoot his grandfather. After all, if his grandfather is in clear view and Tim has his finger on the trigger, could he not quite easily pull the trigger?

In this situation, Lewis concludes that there is a sense in which Tim both can and cannot kill grandfather. This is because the word “can” equivocates. He can kill grandfather in the sense that there is a set of facts that are all compatible with him getting the job done. He has the motive to kill; he has the right sort of weapon; he has the proper training; his environment is of the proper sort; and so on. He can kill his grandfather just as easily as anyone else can. There is nothing about him being a time traveler that makes his gun or his training incapable of killing someone such as his grandfather.

The problem, however, is that the events of the past—the events that Tim is now witnessing—have already happened. His grandfather has already lived a full life in which he bore children who, in turn, bore further children (including Tim). The fact that Tim is even alive to contemplate killing his grandfather means that Tim cannot kill grandfather. It is logically impossible for him to do so despite the fact that he has what it takes because it is logically impossible to change the past. Thus, although there are various facts that are compatible with Tim killing grandfather, there is a more inclusive set of facts in which killing grandfather is not compatible (namely, that he was not killed).

According to Lewis, something must happen that prevents Tim from killing his grandfather in light of the very fact that his grandfather did not die. Tim gets cold feet, the gun jams, Tim is stopped by a policeman, the bullet hits his grandfather but is not lethal, and so on.

Suppose that the bullet hits grandfather and sends him to the hospital. Further suppose that it is here that grandfather meets his future spouse (she is a nurse). This would, again, be an example of what Lewis calls a causal loop: Tim appears to have set in motion a causal chain that will lead to his own birth. For Lewis, no matter how bizarre this may seem, it is entirely possible.

Bible In Five Statements

12/10/2009 2 comments

I would like to give a shout-out to Kristen who tagged me. Here’s the task I was given:

Summarize the Bible in five statements (fifteen words).  The first statement – one word long, the second two, the third three, the fourth four and the last five words long. Or possibly you could do this in descending order. Tag five people.

I don’t tag people so ignore that last part.

My first attempt:

Obviously false
Horribly mistaken dogma
Why believe this nonsense?
Seriously, who believes this crap?

I felt something was a bit off however, so I decided to give it another shot. My second attempt:

Exceedingly influential
Misunderstood for generations
Historically unreliable, theologically brilliant
Should the canon be closed?

Categories: Miscellaneous Tags: ,

The Conservative Bible?

So apparently Conservapedia has decided to construct their own version of the Bible. Their argument and motivation for doing this goes something like this. Bible translators are, by and large, university professors. The majority of university professors are political liberals. Therefore, the Bible has been shaped over the years by politically liberal attitudes. The aim of Conservapedia then is to combat this liberal influence by constructing a more conservative-oriented translation.

Those not familiar with the issues involved in biblical translation might wonder how translators could shape the text in such a way so as to promote their own political agendas. So let me address a couple of those issues that translators face and where Conservapedia thinks they have gone wrong.

First, there is the problem of deciding which English words to use in place of their Greek or Hebrew (original) counterparts. This is a problem any translator faces of any text, whether they are translating Spanish to German, German to Greek, or Greek to English. Conservapedia blames “defective” Bible translations for using various liberal-biased wordings. For instance, instead of combating harmful addictions by using the word “gamble,” some translations use “cast lots.” This and various other changes of a similar sort are unconvincing, however. For one, it is not the job of a translator to combat addictions. For two, if the purpose of using “gamble” instead of “cast lots” is to combat addictions, that is clear evidence that one’s language choice is based upon the promotion of a particular contemporary agenda. Thus, far from solving the problem that they set out to solve, Conservapedia is actually just adding to it. And third, would the use of “gamble” really help combat addictions? If we replaced “cast lots” with “gambling,” this would seem to promote rather than condemn gambling in light of the fact that the people of God do this quite frequently in the OT.

Another “corruption” said to be contained within some modern translations involves the usage of gender inclusive language, such as “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” or “fisher for people” instead of “fisher for men.” (One might wonder why Conservapedia would so readily admit that the fight for gender equality that lies behind the decision to use gender-inclusive language was and is a fight instigated by liberals). For my part, I have no problem with including or excluding gender-inclusive language. Excluding it is certainly more faithful to a literal translation of the text, but then again, including it doesn’t affect much of anything, especially if the translators make note of when they are using it (as any good study Bible does). I should also mention here that Paul often uses “brothers” when referring to his congregations. But even he likely means “brother and sisters” seeing as he taught equality between the sexes in all facets of life. So in these instances, the gender-inclusive language is probably a more accurate rendering.

The second problem translators face is the problem of deciding what the original biblical manuscripts actually contained. For instance, we have over five thousand different NT manuscripts, some consisting of entire books, others consisting of small, hand-sized fragments. The problem is that these manuscripts are not the originals but copies of copies of copies, and so on. To compound the problem, these manuscripts do not agree with one another. When scribes copied these manuscripts, they often made unintentional mistakes and intentional changes. Translators have the difficult task of looking through all of these manuscripts and attempting to determine what the originals looked like and what later scribes added or subtracted. So when creating modern Bible translations, the translators have to make a decision whether or not to include a number of disputed passages. Any respectable Bible (usually study bibles) will always footnote or bracket the disputed passages.

Conservapedia’s claim is that liberal scholars encourage some of these disputed passages by including them in their translations. To use an example cited by Conservapedia, Luke 23:34a is a quote by Jesus that he says while looking down upon the crowd from the cross. The words are well known: “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This passage, they claim, is disputed and not found in some of our earliest manuscripts. That is true. But they then go on to claim that this passage is a favorite among liberals but don’t cite any evidence for this being the case or for why this would even be the case. Presumably, this is a favorite among liberals because it seems to support the view that people are ignorant of their evil deeds and should therefore be shown mercy and perhaps given a second chance. Of course, this is just silly. If liberals want to support that view using the Bible, they have plenty of other undisputed verses to choose from, many of them coming from the same author of the book of Luke. (cf. Acts 3:17; 7:60; 13:27; 17:30 for other instances of pardonable ignorance. It should be noted that the theme of pardonable ignorance found in Acts and the general character of Jesus found in Luke are actually arguments in favor of the authenticity of Luke 23:34a. Not to mention, this passage is found in some of our early manuscripts and may just as likely have been deleted by later scribes as it was added).

In any event, why is Conservapedia combating what they see as a form of deception (including disputed passages) by using a form of their own (not including the disputed passages)? Why not do what most study bibles do with disputed passages: mark them with a footnote or bracket and tell the reader that this or that passage is disputed?

One of the major problems of this entire project is the fact that it is not conducted by learned scholars who have worked with these various manuscripts for decades, who have studied the required ancient languages for decades, and who have conversed with one another for decades. Rather, this is a project conducted purely by amateurs: amateurs who will have to construct their newly revised conservative translation either by relying on the very English translations that they despise (which would be ironic) or by heavily utilizing Strong’s concordance.

As Timothy Paul Jones—professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky—put it, this is merely a misguided effort to read contemporary politics back into the text by a group of individuals “who have probably never looked at an actual ancient manuscript.”




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Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (Birth of Jesus)

This will be my last example (at least for now) as to why historians think that the NT gospels are primarily comprised of theologically driven myths.

Question: what events transpired around the birth of Jesus?

Only Matthew and Luke give us accounts of the birth of Jesus. Here’s a brief synopsis of Matthew’s birth narrative. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Three wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem asking where this king of the Jews was born. Herod hears about this and asks his scholars to look into the matter. They tell him that the birth is to take place in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly meets with the wise men to find out the exact time when the star appeared to them. The wise men tell him and he tells them that Jesus is to be found in Bethlehem. So the wise men leave, find Jesus at the house of Joseph, bestow some gifts on Jesus, and then leave. Shortly afterward, an angel tells Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod plans on killing Jesus. So they leave. Meanwhile, Herod has all the children in and around Bethlehem two years and younger killed because the wise men had informed him that the star appeared to them two years prior. After Herod’s death, Joseph and Mary attempt to return to Judea (apparently they were returning to Bethlehem) but then, out of fear of Herod’s successor, move north to Nazareth, Galilee.

In contrast, here’s a brief synopsis of Luke’s birth narrative. This story starts in Nazareth with Mary being told about the child she will give birth to. Joseph and Mary are then forced to leave because of an empire-wide consensus decreed by Augustus in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone is supposed to return to the place of his or her ancestors. Seeing as Joseph is said to be a descendant of King David, Bethlehem is their destination. They arrive; Mary’s gives birth to Jesus; and they place him in a manger because there is no room for them at the inn. Shortly after, an angel appears to some shepherds who are told about the child. They make a brief visit and then leave. After eight days, Joseph and Mary go up to Jerusalem (not far from Bethlehem) and present Jesus to the temple. They then return to their hometown, Nazareth.

It would appear that these two accounts differ quite significantly. In Matthew, it appears that Bethlehem is the hometown of Joseph and Mary. The narrative begins in Bethlehem without any implications that they had just arrived or that they were only supposed to be there temporarily. In fact, they must have been there for an extensive amount of time because the wise men had presumably been traveling for a couple years. Moreover, the wise men visit Jesus in his house, not at an inn or some backyard barn. Joseph and Mary then make a long journey to Egypt because of Herod’s infant hunt, finally relocating in Nazareth for reasons of safety.

Contrast this with Luke: Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and only go to Bethlehem because of Augustus’ consensus, quickly make a stop at Jerusalem, and finally return to their hometown of Nazareth. There is nothing about a consensus in Matthew and nothing about Herod’s infanticidal actions in Luke. In Matthew, the journey from Bethlehem to Egypt, waiting for Herod’s death, and the journey to Nazareth would have taken a long time. In Luke, from what historians can devise, the entire journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Nazareth took around thirty days. In Matthew there is nothing about wise men from the East and in Luke there is nothing about shepherds. In fact, there are very few similarities whatsoever.

Furthermore, the accounts themselves are highly implausible. Take Luke’s story of the consensus. How would the men of the empire know who their distant ancestors were? Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem because Joseph is apparently a descendant of David, who was born there one thousand years earlier. But how would he know that David was his ancestor, how would Luke know, and how would the rest of the empire know where to go? If such a consensus were to happen today, would any of us know where to go? And why is there no record of this mass migration (for that matter, why is there no record of Herod’s mass infanticide in Matthew)?

Just as problematic is Luke’s historical knowledge. He tells us that his story is taking place in the days of Herod of Palestine. Because Herod died in 4 B.C., this means the story takes place at or around that time. But Luke also tells us this story takes place during the reign of the Syrian governor Quirinius. But according to Josephus and Tacitus, Quirinius was not governor until ten years after Herod, in A.D. 6. Many Christians consider Luke the first Christian historian. If so, he’s not a very good one.

His historical shortcomings notwithstanding, Luke was a good theologian. And so was Matthew. What can be said about their motivations for creating these mythological accounts of the birth of Jesus? What seems to be happening is that they are both aware the Jesus was known in his own day as being from Nazareth. The problem, however, is that some Jews thought that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). So both Matthew and Luke create an account that satisfies both of these facts. They need to devise a way for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem but grow up in Nazareth. Both authors accomplish this in different ways, Matthew telling us that Jesus’ parents were from Bethlehem but later relocated to Nazareth, Luke telling us that his parents were from Nazareth but were forced to Bethlehem for a short time, only to return to Nazareth.

The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Judas)

Here’s a second example as to why historians suspect that the gospels are not historically accurate narratives but theologically driven myths. This example not only reveals a theological motivation behind the text but is also an example of how authors will sometimes weave stories into their accounts in order to explain other well-known facts (like the name of a person or place).

Question: what happened to Judas?

In Matthew, after Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus, he tries to return the thirty pieces of silver to the Jewish leaders who paid him for betraying Jesus. But they don’t accept it. Judas then throws it on the ground and goes off to hang himself for his dirty deed. The Jewish leaders collect the money but refuse to place it back into the Temple treasury, for it is blood money. Instead, they use it to purchase a potter’s field. The author of Matthew then tells us that this is why the field is still, to this day, called the Field of Blood (because of the blood money used to purchase it). Matthew then claims that this fulfilled a prophecy spoken by Jeremiah (some manuscripts read Zechariah, some Isaiah), which turns out to be some odd conglomeration of some passages of Jeremiah and Zechariah (Jer. 18:1-3; Jer 32:6-15; Zech 11:13). As usual, Matthew is playing very loose with the Hebrew Scriptures in order to get them fulfilled.

In the book of Acts (the second volume of Luke) we get a different story. Here it is Judas himself who purchases the field with his “reward of wickedness.” He thus obviously makes no attempt to return it to the Jewish leaders. Furthermore, it does not appear that Judas hangs himself. Rather, he falls—presumably from a cliff of sorts—and bursts open in the middle, his bowels rushing out (it is unclear as to whether or not this insinuates a suicide). Luke goes on to tell us, contrary to Matthew, that this is the reason why it is called the Field of Blood (because Judas bled all over it). Luke also remarks that scripture has been fulfilled, quoting the Psalms.

As historical investigators, what are we to conclude? Did Judas return the money or not? Where did the Field of Blood derive its name? What scriptures were supposed to be fulfilled? Depends on what account you read. Furthermore, did Judas hang himself or burst open in the middle? Some scriptural reconcilers have argued that both are true: he could have hung himself over a cliff followed by the rope breaking and his midsection bursting open upon hitting the ground below. I suppose that’s possible, but neither account says this. Matthew mentions nothing about his bowels, nothing about falling, and it is difficult to even understand what Luke is saying.

Again, here are two different accounts that seem to construct their facts depending on the theological points they want to make. They are thus not historically reliable documents even if it happens to contain some historical data (e.g. the historical Judas may have actually betrayed Jesus).

The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Jesus)

Most Christians maintain that the NT gospels are historically reliable documents that were written for the very purpose of relaying the actual teachings and actions of the historical Jesus. Few biblical historians today accept such a claim. The prevailing view among historians today is that the gospels are primarily myths. However, most historians nowadays will not use “myth” as a descriptor for the gospels because of the connotations that have been linked to it in the twentieth century. In contemporary society, a myth refers to something that is false: usually a false claim made about something or someone. Thus, it would be a myth that Christopher Columbus and his fellow compatriots thought that the earth was flat before setting out on their famous expedition.

Traditionally, myths were not understood this way. Instead, myths referred to a story about the past (i.e. a history) that conveyed religious truths. These stories, however, were not actual historical accounts, not the sort of accounts we get from Tacitus or Edward Gibbon or professional historians of today’s society. Rather, they were made-up stories with the purpose of teaching a deeper truth. If taken as actual historical accounts, such myths could, I suppose, be considered false. But, in most cases, that wouldn’t be saying very much. How many thousands and millions of individuals have cherished the writings of Homer, of Virgil, of Dante, while at the same time knowing full-well that such accounts were not telling them what actually happened in the past? The fact is, most of us realize that such accounts are not historically reliable even though they may contain some historical datum (Archeological digs have shown that Troy actually did exist and that it may have been sacked by outsiders around the time of the traditional dating of the Trojan War). The problem is, most people don’t realize that the same is true of the NT gospels. While it is true that the gospels may also contain some historical datum, most of what they contain are theologically driven myths (understood in the traditional sense). Here is one example for why historians suspect that this is the case.

Question: when did Jesus die?

Before I address that question, let me explain something quickly. For Jews in the first century (as is still the case among contemporary Jews), a day did not begin at midnight or even at sunrise. The day began after the sun went down. Thus, the Sabbath (Saturday) begins Friday night and goes through the morning and afternoon and ends Saturday night (apparently at the moment you can see three stars).

With that in mind, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to go ahead of him to prepare the Passover meal. The Passover meal involved the slaughtering of a lamb. This was done on the Day of Preparation on the afternoon just prior to Passover. So this is evidently what Jesus is telling his disciples to do. That evening (Thursday night) the Passover meal was to be eaten. Mark tells us just this: in the evening, the beginning of Passover, Jesus and his disciples have the meal (now called The Last Super). Afterward, Jesus goes to pray in Gethsemane, is eventually arrested, and tried before Pilate. This all happens the night of the Passover. Jesus is then sentenced to crucifixion and is crucified at 9am the next morning (Friday morning).

Things are a little different in John. In John, Jesus never tells his disciples to go and prepare a Passover meal. There is a Last Super but this is not the Passover meal but just a regular meal where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:1). Eventually, Jesus is arrested and put on trial before Pilate. Unlike in Mark however, the Jewish leaders refuse to enter Pilate’s (a Gentile) headquarters for worry that they will defile themselves before the Passover (18:28). Jesus is then convicted and crucified at noon on the Day of Preparation for the Passover (19:14). It appears then that Mark and John give us differing accounts as to when Jesus was crucified. Was it after the Passover meal (Mark) or before (John)?

Some will no doubt wonder why this is such a big deal. A difference of one day? That’s it? There is theological significance in this difference, however. For John, unlike the Synoptic Gospels and unlike Paul, Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Is it a mere coincidence then that John is the only gospel to have Jesus killed (sacrificed) on the Day of Preparation at or around the same time when all the actual lambs were being slaughtered for Passover? I doubt it. Here is a clear case where history is shaped (read: made up) by the author to make a theological point.