How Jim West Solves Math Problems

Richard Carrier on ‘Sources of the Jesus Tradition’

I have my own problems with this book.  Especially in light of the other superb books Joe Hoffmann has put together in the past; this one seems to have been rushed.  As someone who had been a big part of the JP for about a year, it’s a shame to see some of the interesting conversations that took place behind the scenes, as well as those papers submitted at the conference (of which, I’ve only seen a few), thrown together in this fashion.

Richard Carrier offers a rather scathing review of this collection of essays.  He writes:

Several months ago the papers of the 2008 Amherst conference finally appeared in print. Sort of. I have a lot of problems with this, and the following is a review of the successes and failures of the new book Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth (Prometheus Books 2010).

I’ve been working on this review for a long time, but too many other matters kept taking precedence (especially a surprising flood of appearances I was booked for this year). This turned out to be helpful, as I had more time to reflect on what went wrong.

via Richard Carrier Blogs.

Definitely worth the read; we can only hope that the rumored second volume, if it is indeed in the works, will be better.

Then again, the volume I coedited (with Th. L. Thompson) is moving through the press quite quickly (faster, in fact, than I had anticipated).  Since it will be the first modern academically-published collection of essays on the subject, I’d recommend that everyone wait until this book appears in print sometime this year (hopefully).

A Dead Liturgical 4-day Giveaway – James R. Davila | Unsettled Christianity

I’m passing this along because I really want this book.  But you should do this anyway; promoting top notch scholarship is quite important since, as Joel notes, there are more books by Joel Olsteen than actual scholars in most public libraries.  Follow these steps to get in the lineup!

1.) Contact your local library and ask them to get a copy of this book in. Note, I cannot and will not actually check on this, so you know, send an email to them or call them or something asking them to get the book.

This is important. Look, I’ll be honest, I won’t know if you don’t, but contacting your local library helps to get scholarship into the library system replacing the likes of Joel Osteen and others whom I know you dislike as well. Putting real scholarship into local libraries is a push for me because I’ve seen what a bad religion/theology section is and I don’t like it. I would rather you contact your county library (or parish) and get them to get a few copies.

2.) Leave a comment – as many comments as you want. Each comment is an entry. That’s right. Leave as many, throughout the month, as you want. Leave one…leave one hundred. No biggie. I don’t care about the substance…

Since some had confusion last time… it could be one word or couple of words in German for all I care. The point of this is to annoy me with pithy or silly comments. You could post the Republican Party platform for all I care or the Libertarian…

3.) The point of this is to get the word out about these books, so post it on your blog for a pingback/trackback. Those count too.

4.) As a side note, if you could, once you’ve read the book, leave a review on or at the very least, your blog.

via A Dead Liturgical 4-day Giveaway – James R. Davila | Unsettled Christianity.

“Religion Created Civilization?” A Response to Brad Hirschfield on Göbekli Tepe

It’s an interesting concept.  Brad Hirschfield writes:

For years, historians, archeologists, anthropologists and pretty much all of the other “ologists” have agreed that agriculture created civilization, including religion, as we have known it for the past 12,000 to 15,000 years. The assumption was that settling down to lives of farming, people built cities, created art and made up organized religions to suit the new needs they faced in the transition from hunter-gathers to farmers. Or not.

via Brad Hirschfield: Did Religion Create Civilization?.

Go read the whole thing.  Then come back.

Back?  Good.

There are some serious problems with this article.  I am hesitant to draw the same conclusions, in the same manner, about the site of Göbekli Tepe that Hirschfield draws here. There are two main arguments that Hirschfield makes: (1) that Religion, not agriculture, was the foundation of civilization and (2) this is due to the inherent human nature to be religious.  Both of these are oversimplified constructs of what the data (we have) actually suggests.  In truth, the information highlights a much more convoluted reality than the one idealistically devised by Hirschfield.

On his first point, problems persist.  Very little of the site has been excavated overall (about 5%) and though that is still quite substantial, there is more work to be done and I doubt that we will have a great understanding of the site for at least a few decades more.  So it is a little presumptuous on the part of Hirshfield to claim:

The evidence from Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion is both more real, and more human, than is often admitted. The ultra-orthodox in both camps in the ongoing debate about what religion “really is,” where it came from and what purposes it serves may find this difficult to accept.

I fail to see how the existence of a cultic complex dating to the pre-neolithic revolution somehow points to a ‘more real, and more human’ meaning to religion. The evidence suggests nothing of the sort. If anything, what this site shows is that there was, at this point in time, a religious caste which must have yielded some power. The real value to this site is that it exists without a permanent settlement. This implies that a group of hunter gatherers journeyed to this location for a ritual purpose (but maybe not so much ‘religious’) of specific intent rather than settle first and build later. But this does not imply that cultivation, in some form, was not practiced.  Instead the presence of obsidian and flint tools at this location has led to the determination that cultivation did take place–not after the building of the cultic structures, but around the same time.

But there is a darker reason why I feel Hirschfield might want to reconsider his argument.  Under the alter of one of these cultic buildings is evidence of hundreds of human and animal remains.  If we were to place the start of civilization on the shoulder of religion, we must also accept that this was the start of human sacrifice, the start of war.  Agriculture has, for the better part of the past century, taken the burden of these dreadful human faculties–particularly the faculty to wage war–onto itself.  And it has done this under the reasonable observation that once man became stationary, began to plant seeds and grow crops, it needed to protect that land from other hunter-gatherers, other scavenger animals and also required land to feed more people, to provide better protection from predators.  This is where civilization ‘sprouted’.  First permanent dwellings, fortifications, and other communal structures were built.  From here, deity-worship developed along with the crop-growth (something like: God is mad, so poor crop yield and less food; God is happy, so great crop yield and more food).  But what Hirschfield is suggesting is that religion should actually be bearing this burden.  If he were to accept that claim, I might be more inclined to accept his.

But it needn’t matter in the scheme of it all; according to his second argument:

The evidence from Turkey suggests that the pilgrimage impulse, the collective worship impulse, the sacred space impulse, are all supra-natural, if not super-natural. There is something within us, not necessarily from outside us, which compels the building of Gobekli Tepe and places like it. That “something” is not simply accounted for by the usual explanations which seek to explain, or, too often, explain away, people’s attachment to religious expression.

The word ‘impulse’ is quite misleading in the manner that Hirschfield uses it.  Humanity has an ‘impulse’ yes, but not to worship (I wonder if Hirschfield’s rabbinic training is leading his conclusion in this direction).  Our evolutionary psychological reason is either to follow or to lead.  What this site demonstrates is the human propensity to form into social groups and use those social groups or castes to its own advantage. In this instance, ‘religion’ has just replaced ‘government’, but that does not mean man has an ‘impulse’ to create governments!  Next we’ll be told man has a ‘impulse’ to be a member of a political party.  Worship is a form of ritual, it is not the worshiping itself that is the impulse.  That is to say, people don’t have an impulse to worship.  Rather the ritual–or the participation in a ritual–like the desire that baseball players have to perform tasks they feel will help them win, before the game is the impulse.  When a sports figure does things a certain way he feels will give him an edge over something, he doesn’t do these for any spiritual figure (unless, of course, that sports figure participates in a ritual prayer), they just exist as part of a function that man has gained through the process of evolution.

And I am not so certain ‘religion’ has anything to do with it anyway, as Philip Davies reminds us:

Many scholarly books mention the “religion” of “Israel” as “Yahwism.” As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a “religion of Yahweh”? There was no “Baalism” “Mardukism,” or “Elism.” Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word “religion” to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their “religion” was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one “religion.”

Returning to the neolithic site, the size and the weight of these structures, including the sculptures and roof supports, suggests that this was not something built over a few days, or by any small number of people.  This was a herculean effort, wherein plans were probably ‘drawn’, and these structures did not come about ex nihilo.  There must have been a gradual build-up to these sorts of structures and, also, they must have left a legacy on the region of the ancient Near East.  We know of a few other sites which resemble PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) sites like this in Anatolia.  So there must have been a social reason for the construction of these complexes and this social reason seems to be limited to the PPN.

And it seems as though this sociological stimulus (possibly predicated on the origins of agriculture and crop cultivation and the start of caste structures that are seen possibly in sites like Göbekli Tepe) lasted for only the PPN.  In fact during the PN (Pottery Neolithic), the 3,000 or so years following PPNB, communal ritual goes away almost completely and is replaced by a smaller amount of rituals, almost always domestically.  The social structure during this period might rest upon the growth of communities to large sizes relative to the size of their structures and the inward turn of importance from the communal setting to domesticity and family life.  Even burial rituals, though communal in the PPN, became domestic practices during the PN.  As a consequence of this data, the ‘impulses’ to collectively worship and make pilgrimages seems to completely disappear and leaves Hirschfield with more problems than solutions.

So did religion create civilization?  No, of course not.  Civilization grew out of a complex web of dynamic social situations which were flourishing based upon a number of factors relating to climate change, the availability of food, the discovery of cultivation (even squirrels plant seeds, for goodness sake!), and sure, even ritual and deity worship.   Göbekli Tepe does indeed change our understanding of the human world and does alter what we thought about the Neolithic Revolution, about agriculture, and about the state of human ritual before the tenth millennium BCE.  But it does not, in any way, suggest that religion created civilization, nor does it suggest that without religion, civilization wouldn’t have come about on its own.  Clearly the perception of the social setting of that period is going to shift as more data comes available.  Hirschfield has attempted to throw his understanding of religion and worship anachronistically at these prehistoric peoples.  The idol that needs to be smashed is not,  as Hirschfield suggests, the failure to accept the deeply religious and the human impulse as one, but the blanket claims such as ‘religion created civilization’.  To say this is to prove how completely simplistic ones understanding is of the ancient past.

Further Reading:

Schmidt Klaus. Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. In: Paléorient. 2000, Vol. 26 N°1. pp. 45-54.

Verhoeven Marc. Transformations of society : the changing role of ritual and symbolism in the PPNB and the PN in the Levant, Syria and south-east Anatolia. In: Paléorient. 2002, Vol. 28 N°1. pp. 5-13.

Children: The Unforeseen Victims of Family Radio

And let’s be blunt about this:  Adults have the ability to make rational decisions with their lives, their money, their property. This includes adults who recognize the farce that Camping was running, the dilettantism, the failure of his predictions.  Children, however, are far less capable of determining the difference between fiction and reality.  And unfortunately they are the victims of this whole fiasco, more than the adults who should have known better anyway:

Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, 89, had predicted that the rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, at 6 p.m. based on time zones. Not many people took Camping’s claim seriously, including workers at his Family Radio. But some of his devout followers emptied their bank accounts to pay for ad campaigns warning about the day.

Among his followers on the East Coast is the family of Adrienne Martinez, 27, who decided not to attend medical school after she listened to Camping on Family Radio. Martinez and her husband, Joel, quit their jobs and moved from New York City to Orlando to spend the last supposed year they had on Earth reading the Bible, distributing tracts and spending time with their two-year-old daughter.

And what of this unborn baby?

‘Judgment Day’ came and went on Saturday, and John Ramsey hasn’t been able to sleep.

The 25-year-old Harrison, N.J. resident had rearranged his life in recent months to devote himself to spreading a fringe California preacher’s prediction that May 21 would bring worldwide earthquakes and usher in a five-month period of misery before the world’s destruction.

His family nervously huddled in their apartment living room Saturday, holding their Bibles open, switching between CNN, Facebook and Google for news of quakes in the Pacific.On Sunday, a dejected Ramsey said he faces a “mixed bag.”He has to find a new job. So does his mother. His 19-year-old brother, who had quit high school the year prior (“It’s pointless to graduate,” the brother had said), is thinking of re-enrolling or finding employment.

His wife, Marcia Paladines, had come to accept that she might never meet her unborn baby, whom she and Ramsey had named John Moses. Now, she’s praying for a healthy birth. The child is due as early as Friday.

“Life goes on,” Ramsey said Sunday. “I get to live. I get to be a dad.”

Personally, and this is just my opinion, anyone who puts his family in this sort of predicament should never reproduce.  Now his baby will be born into a state of near poverty, unless a miracle happens–but then we have to ask, does this person deserve such a favor?

“It’s not [Camping’s] fault,” said Ramsey, who added he also won’t ask for his money back. “Nobody held a gun to my head. I read the Bible. The math added up. I don’t think anybody would do something like this without meaning it.”

What about your child?  Did you ever stop to think that your actions had consequences?  That, if this prediction turned out to be wrong, you might not be able to provide for your family, your child?  How selfish.  And finally, you’re a dilettante.  Reading is easy; exegesis is not so easy and requires schooling, knowledge, reasoning skills, something that Camping doesn’t seem to have.  “The math added up.”  Yes, and what it adds up to is a negative balance in your bank account and your failure as a parent.  Next time put your trust in scholars who know better.

And just last week I learned of this (dated but relevant) incident:

Absolutely tragic.

Family Radio’s New Homepage

Can anyone say… “Well, that was fast!”

Click for Larger Image

Notice three things:

  1. It was updated on May 22, 2011.
  2. No mention of judgment day.

Quote of the Day – Mark Goodacre

I was explaining to Mark that I had recently been asked to reinput Greek text from the unicode (which I had supplied) to SPIonic because this individual could not see the unicode script.  For those who don’t know, SPIonic is a Greek font that was put out by SBL’s publishing wing (now defunct) known as Scholars Press (hence the ‘SP’), but this was over 12 years ago.  It can still be obtained (for free, though God knows why anyone would want it, here).

Here is Gal. 4.8-9 in SPIonic:

Alla_ to/te me\n ou0k ei0do/tej qeo\n e0douleu/sate toi=j fu/sei mh\ ou]sin qeoi=j: nu=n de\ gno/ntej qeo/n, ma~llon de\ gnwsqe/ntej u9po\ qeou=, pw~j e0pistre/fete pa&lin e0pi\ ta_ a)sqenh= kai\ ptwxa_ stoixei=a oi[j pa&lin a!nwqen douleu/ein qe/lete

And here it is in unicode:

Ἀλλὰ τότε μὲν οὐκ εἰδότες θεὸν ἐδουλεύσατε τοῖς φύσει μὴ οὖσι θεοῖς νῦν δὲ γνὸντες θεόν, μᾶλλον δὲ γνωσθέντες ὑπὸ θεοῦ, πῶς ἐπιστρέφετε πάλιν ἐπὶ τὰ ἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχα στοιχεῖα, οἶς πάλιν ἄνωθεν δουλεῦσαι θέλετε

If you cannot see the Greek text (should resemble the unicode above, but look slightly different in style) and only see a bunch of garbled words, that is because (a) you don’t have the font (follow the link above to obtain it, and do so at your own risk to your sanity) and (b) because it is a pain to use and completely unruly.  Unicode works so much better overall and is much more useful.   I was explaining my frustration towards this, to which Mark replied:

 SPIonic is a nightmare….  It’s like being asked to take something from a flashdrive and transfer it to VHS!

So true.  So true.

Rolad Boer: ‘The Unbearable Idealism of Biblical Scholarship’

Roland raises some very important concerns about idealism in the Academy in a new article on Bible and Interpretation.  I have to admit, I’m an idealist (and an optimist–a deadly combination!), and I often find myself self-reflecting on the value of my own research.  This part of his op-ed struck me as important:

The problem is that idealism seems such a natural position, especially for intellectuals like biblical scholars. Indeed, biblical scholars are by default idealists. Why? We work with texts and opinions and arguments all the time. We read, teach, write, speak, and persuade. We have been trained long and hard to believe that what we think and say and write will change people, or at least change the accepted opinion concerning the understanding of a text. We hold that the interpretation, say, of Aaron’s rod, or of the daughters of Zelophehad, or of Elisha’s floating axe, or of Ezekiel’s smelly loin-cloth, or of Paul’s remarkable ability to resist snakebite, or whether Paul communed in the seventh heaven with Philo or the Stoics, or of the advisability of a little wine with our dinner, is absolutely vital. And we spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing the texts themselves, checking what others have written about these texts, and arguing endlessly about them. Ideas are our stock and trade, so we assume that the world operates in the same way.

We also like to think that we are far more important than we really are.

via The Bible and Interpretation – The Unbearable Idealism of Biblical Scholarship.

A lot of scholarship is about the scholar presenting the past.  In other words it is egocentric.  The presenter portrays the past as they understand it, as they interpret the data.  But that doesn’t mean that they are wrong; simply that a lot of the author or the lecturer will inevitably be interconnected with the past they are presenting.   And this sort of interconnection is dangerous indeed; when that history is challenged, how can the historian or Biblical scholar not feel immediately attacked?  After all, an attack on their presentation will also be an attack upon themselves.

Roland has a great way of getting his reader to challenge their own preconceptions about themselves.  Here, too, he has accomplished this.  Please read the whole thing.

Artifacts and the Media: Lead Codices and the Public Portrayal of History

I have a new article published at Bible and Interpretation.  Here are some snippets:

Two months ago an article hit the media streams hard and fast, announcing that new artifacts had been discovered by a Bedouin containing the earliest known Christian writings, possibly even the words of the figure of Jesus himself.1 With a headline like that, anyone with even a modicum of academic interest in the historicity of the figure of Jesus would have looked over the article for any mention of a peer reviewed journal where they could read about the discovery, any translations of the script, or any dating methods used. To their dismay, they would have found nothing of the sort.

More scandalous is the complete lack of journalistic integrity, honest research, and thorough fact-checking. These codices might never have been heard of if the authors of the reports for BBC and Fox News (among others) had just checked with the academic community before publishing the “find”. At the very least, the journalists might have used less authoritative language, expressed more caution, and exposed the controversy rather than simply stating, as if doing so made it fact, that these codices were “the earliest Christian texts” and that they held “early images of Jesus.”

via The Bible and Interpretation – Artifacts and the Media: Lead Codices and the Public Portrayal of History.

Many thanks to those involved in the email group for their useful contributions not only to this article but to the investigation into these lead codices as well.  Everyone dedicated a lot of time and effort over the past few months and it has definitely paid off.

Timaeus…of Copenhagen?

Timaeus, it seems, was an early minimalist!

Timaeus says that the greatest fault in history is want of truth;and he accordingly advises all, whom he may have convicted of making false statements in their writings, to find some other name for their books, and to call them anything they like except history. . . .

For example, in the case of a carpenter’s rule, though it may be too short or too narrow for your purpose, yet if it have the essential feature of a rule, that of straightness, you may still call it a rule; but if it has not this quality, and deviates from the straight line, you may call it anything you like except a rule. “On the same principle,” says he, “historical writings may fail in style or treatment or other details; yet if they hold fast to truth, such books may claim the title of history, but if they swerve from that, they ought no longer to be called history.” Well, I quite agree that in such writings truth should be the first consideration: and, in fact, somewhere in the course of my work I have said “that as in a living body, when the eyes are out, the whole is rendered useless, so if you take truth from history what is left is but an idle tale.”

via Polybius, Histories, book 12, Timaeus On Divination.

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