Look! Scientists trying to be Historians Again! Silly Scientists…

Richard Carrier blogged this today:

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.”

Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist! | Richard Carrier Blogs.

Overall, I agree with him on the initial point that Scientists are not historians or theologians and don’t generally have a grasp on the function of our texts. We run into this problem on occasion when Scientists claim they can pinpoint the date of the crucifixion through tracking earthquakes because one of the Gospels mentions an earthquake, or we can determine how the Reed Sea was crossed because a gust of wind can sustain itself for a long time and permit the waters to part.

Read the whole thing.  It is worth your time.  And woe to anyone who really thought this scientist was on to something…



Abolishing the Laws and the Prophets: A Discussion of the Moral Dilemma of reading Matthew 5

I always was curious about the way people argue clear cut concepts away.  The example that came to mind recently involves the law of the Old Testament–I was reading through James McGrath’s recent blog post and saw the reference to Deuteronomy there, where the law commands that 10% of everything be given to the poor every third year.  But many Christians might say, “Well that is the Old Testament and we don’t need to follow that.”  This argument however fails to take into account Jesus’ own words (as portrayed by the evangelists).

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5.17-18)

Some might say, well that passage (or some variant from another Gospel, e.g. ) was fulfilled with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that doesn’t quite add up.  I recognize that this might be the standard apologetic argument.  But consider a few things first:

(1) The Gospel authors are not writing as witnesses (certainly not as independent witnesses) to a historical Jesus.  They were writing some decades later, having gone through a war with the Romans, seeing the Temple looted and destroyed, watching their people die.  The evangelists were probably not writing through a mindset that the Old Law had been fulfilled.  As apocalypticists, the writers of the Gospels saw the end as coming–in the future–which is why they predict Jesus will return.

(2) If Jesus existed, these are probably not Jesus’ real words.  As authors removed by some distance (both time and location) from the 30’s CE, they are portraying events which they understood through a tradition contemporary to their own time (at least that is the hope, since this is the best case scenario).  So why would the evangelists portray Jesus as saying this?  It seems out of place; if Jesus fulfilled these things at his resurrection, why does he not mention it then?  Why in the middle of the narrative after a conversation about the law? And why does the abolishing happen at the world’s end?  Again, a very apocalyptic statement–the world ends (along with the destruction of the old covenant) and a new one (with the new law established by the return of Jesus) takes it place.  But until that happens, the old laws remain in place.

(3) It is worth mentioning also that Jesus did not fulfill the law.  He did not complete the role of messiah.  There were things he needed to accomplish that he had not yet done–one of which, perhaps the most important, was to bring about the end of the world with his subsequent return.  Clearly the end had not happened yet, though it seemed like it was due to both the Gospel writers who, when they wrote this line, also wrote that he would return within the lifetimes of those who were reading their good news, and to Paul who believed Jesus would come quickly.  So the function of this passage in Matthew, and subsequent passages like it, is to reenforce the political and theological position that despite all the tragedy, nothing would change–not yet–until Jesus returned.

(4) The concept behind the denouncement of the old laws really stems from Paul, not Jesus.

But for the modern man, removed by 2000 years, I can understand why there is an aversion to the old laws.  After all, we don’t really want people going about stoning disobedient children (proving once more that even in antiquity, people had trouble tolerating crying babies at the theater, at markets, other public venues) or killing someone for working on the Sabbath, right?  At least most of us don’t want that.  And so it has become, for fundamentalists most of all, a bit of a hard decision.  Do they manipulate Jesus’ words and his actions in order to ignore the command to obey the old laws or do they follow them and lose face with the public?

And this is the moral dilemma.  For many people, they believe Jesus will be coming back, so does that mean they should start looking to the Old Testament and the 613 mitzvot for answers?  But I don’t believe we can simply accept this verse in Matthew as something that can be dismissed or ignored.  It is there.  It means what it means.  But that is partly why I believe that we need to look at the Bible for what it is (that is to say, not a book about laws relevant for our current age) rather what we want it to be (a book of laws relevant for our current age).  In other words, we can continue to appreciate the Bible, but recognize that it stands at a place and time different than our own.  The Bible cannot help us sort through our modern day problems–at least not in the way many evangelicals or fundamentalists would like us to believe.  We may look to it, as well as other ancient texts, for some engagement of the morality–not all of it is bunk (though what is left has been said better by others throughout the history of writing, both prior to and after the canonization of the texts).  But we must look inside ourselves, at our problems now, with a clear eye towards the future.




It Came From Godfrey’s Blog! Aggggghhhhh!

This whole blog post was sparked by a conversation in Godfrey’s comments under this blog post (which I was alerted too through a hit on my stats counter) and I saw this little gem from a poster there:

Verenna’s latest piece of free advice to James McGrath on the finer points of rhetoric. Apparently saying “many mythicists, those who are determined to be denialists” is “accurate and erudite. And fair.” Thanks Tom for your erudite instruction, you must be pleased as punch at your own wise erudition about “denialism”. Does that accuracy and fairness mean that denying the Historical Jesus is akin to denying the Holocaust, or maybe just denying climate change or evolution? Seems Tom and McGrath are in furious agreement that denying the Historical Jesus is as bad as creationism. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. Toady to apologists, lose any integrity. And Carr thinks the author of such craven self-puffery deserves apologies?

This blew me away; I almost fell out of my chair after read this.  But then again this particular individual is a Acharya S cult member sympathizer so it should already be clear that this person is probably more delusional than Godfrey.   The post in question is entitled ‘James McGrath is Finally (Almost) Getting It‘, so I clearly don’t ‘furiously agree’ with him since I don’t think he has it quite right.  And this commenter’s bizarre pronouncement that I somehow agree with the statement (actually, he is claiming that I somehow made this statement, which is far more deluded) that “denying the Historical Jesus is akin to denying the Holocaust” makes no sense since that isn’t something I would support.  As I have stated on this very blog (but then again, you can’t expect these sorts of people to read anything you write), denying something isn’t ipso facto denialism, but denying something in spite of evidence is denialism, and Acharya S fanboys and fangirls are (in this regard) as denialist as it gets.

Indeed, I made it clear in my post (again, this person just doesn’t read things) through my altering of James McGrath’s otherwise hyperbolic absolutist statement to a more reasonable ‘most mythicists’.  ‘Most’ isn’t ‘all’, and when it comes to denialists, you really have to be determined to remain in denial.  And as I’ve said, with Acharya S/Zeitgeist supporters, you don’t get more deluded and self-righteous and denialist than that when it comes to types of mythicists.  And since most mythicists fall into this category (at least by my dealings with mythicists), my statement is correct.

Now let me shift gears for a moment.  I have genuinely tried to give Godfrey credit in the past, come to his defense, and I have tried to be fair to him.  Sometimes I even like what he has to say (shockingly).  But then I reread this comment on my blog from him a few days ago:

Oh my goodness! A sociopath like Tom (or whatever his name really is) has a lot to learn about how to apologize! “Tom” or whoever you are on your birth certificate, your “apology” sounds like one grandiose excuse for why you wrote like an arsehole. Re-read your first paragraph — it’s all “excuses, excuses, excuses”. Someone needed to teach you when you were 3 that introducing your “apology” with a string of excuses for your behaviour is NOT an apology. But maybe they did try to teach you and you were just too genetically wired to being a sociopath. Oh well . .. .

I’ll let that comment sink in, and then direct you to my reply here.  But come back after you read the followup comments.  Back?  Good. It is clear that Godfrey is full of bile and anger–so much so that he can’t even do some simple research on basic things about my life (or he is as deluded as any supporter of Acharya S).

It is not a secret that at one time, years ago, I was an online radio show host and freethought activist.  I used a pseudonym, like most radio show hosts do, and I stayed clear of using my real name–partly because I used to receive death threats and partly because I wanted to have a life outside of the radio show (that is to say, I wanted to be sure that I could still get a job outside of radio in the future–and I knew it would be difficult if an employer decided to Google my name and happened to be a fundamentalist who didn’t hire nonbelievers).

But a lot has changed since then.  I got serious about my future–so my fake name went away (back in 2008!  So Godfrey is really late to the party on this one).  I enrolled in college, started critically thinking about a lot of my past decisions, changed my life around.  A lot of people would say I’m heading on the right direction–and I’ve been on this “new” path for four years now.  Godfrey, in all his “wisdom”, would have us believe that I’m just sock-puppeting names all over the place.

But this isn’t the best part.  Godfrey then follows up this past post with this on on his blog:

Tom/Rook has jettisoned his atheism, no doubt sincerely, but at the same time this has happily removed him from Jim West’s hit list. He is young and regularly one observes pressure upon him to conform to the right values and right thoughts of the scholarly guild, most publicly from McGrath and Watts. He knows whom to publicly denounce as the “correct enemies” of scholarship to enhance his credibility with the guild.

His blatant use of ‘Rook’ demonstrates his general inability to tell what is real and what is not, as far as that goes.  But let’s think about this comment for a second and let’s think about his rather incredible notion that ‘Tom Verenna’ isn’t my real name.

If a person is judged by those friends he keeps, then Godfrey is really being an idiot.  Those scholars he admires most and cites often on his blog just happen to be friends of mine.  You don’t make friends with very smart people by lying, creating sock-puppets, and being a bad person (in fact you’ll end up in jail like this guy by doing that).  You don’t make friends with them by being fake, or by sucking up to them, or ‘going along with the mold’ as Godfrey would have you believer.  Hopefully no one is going to buy into THAT conspiracy theory.   Scholars like Goodacre, Crossley, Thompson, Davies, Lemche, Carrier–all have really good built-in bullshit detectors.

And who exactly does Godfrey think co-edited ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ with Thomas Thompson?  It certainly wasn’t Jesus.  You don’t befriend a veteran scholar like Thomas Thompson and coedit a volume with him if you’re some cowling uncritical worm.  There is a reason why scholars like Crossley and Lemche and Pfoh and Davies and Goodacre will work with me on various projects despite my contrary views on Jesus.   It certainly is not because I just ‘follow the crowd’–apparently Godfrey doesn’t read things either because I have more than a share of blog posts written against Watts and Mcgrath and West here.  All one has to do is a search (the button is on the top right corner).  But that would involve a competence level that apparently is beyond anything Godfrey can muster.

To be fair, I’m not going to sit here and act as if the scholars I work with give me credibility–It doesn’t–but it does dim the lights on Godfrey’s ridiculous notions that I’m somehow a sociopath (a word that he apparently doesn’t know the meaning of nor how it is used by professionals, as demonstrated by a psychologist [Chris Smith] in the comments thread here) because I made some questionable career choices in the past (radio show) and enjoy the thrill of cordial (note the important word there?) discussions with others, even if we disagree (Watts, McGrath, West).  And one would hope that sociopaths would have difficulty befriending any of these scholars.

The really sad, pathetic part about all of this is that these facts about me are all (unfortunately) documented on the interwebs.  Here on my blog, I have made at least three or four posts about my shift in epistemological perspectives.  Hell, if Godfrey wanted to really know if ‘Tom Verenna’ was my real name, he could have looked at my CV online and contacted me on my .edu email address (schools generally don’t give out emails to people with their fake names on them) and there would have been no need to claim that I’m somehow ‘not Thomas Verenna’.   So not only is Godfrey acting like an idiot, he has shown he is also incompetent as a researcher (dare I say, even a critical thinker).

I imagine that most of my readers already agree with me on this one.  If his recent comments on this blog and his own are any indication, he has only pulled himself further and further down into his delusions.   His putrid diatribe, as venomous as it may be, will be his legacy–and it is a legacy of isolationism, of preaching to the choir, of denialism.  If that is what he wants for himself, so be it.  As I’ve said before, if he can’t even meet the basic principles of cordiality, then I can’t help him and I won’t waste my time troubling myself to treat him with any modicum of respect in turn.

But more to the point, these sorts of people plague the mythicist camp.  People like Godfrey, like Tullip, are what give the movement its terrible, terrible stereotype.  They have this ‘us or them’ mentality which disrupts conversations that are useful and contaminates the conversation.  The more they make these sorts of claims, the more scholars are going to get negative impressions about mythicism or, worse, about any sort of agnosticism whatsoever.  More and more will just consider it a useless gesture of pseudoscholars and arm-chair-archaeologists who have an agenda to brow beat the ‘ivory tower’ and end religion and destroy Christianity.  The sad part is, since the loudest voices in mythicism stem from blogs like Godfrey’s and from message boards operated by Acharya S fans, they aren’t completely wrong.  So when I work as hard as I do to demonstrate to scholars the validity of doubting historicity, I have to fight down all of their preconceived notions about it, which stem from moronic comments like these made by people like these, before I can even begin to make a case.

James McGrath is Finally (Almost) Getting It!

I hope James doesn’t mind the title of this blog.  I have been following the recent discussion of the ‘Social Media’ and ‘Myth’ discussion with interest, though I will have to blog my own thoughts on it soon.  I was pleasantly surprised to see this comment from James:

And even if it were so applied, it presumably wouldn’t convince the mythicists, who are determined to be denialists, while for mainstream scholars it might simply confirm what the evidence already points to.

Was the Historical Jesus on Facebook?.

But James still is using this term ‘mythicist’ in a wide, umbrella-type format that is problematic, since not all mythicists can be lumped into this.  Perhaps he might amend the statement to read something like:

“And even if it were so applied, it presumably wouldn’t convince many mythicists, those who are determined to be denialists, while for the mainstream scholars it might simply confirm what they believe the evidence already points to.”

See the difference?  One is hyperbolic, the other is far more accurate and erudite.  And fair.  So maybe James will consider rewriting that paragraph in a manner akin to what I have rewritten above?

Incidentally, it might also be worth mentioning that simply because someone has a new method, it does not necessarily mean that method is useful or will provide any particular information within a different field of study.  So I am not in agreement with James that by simply applying the method, it would suddenly prove the validity of the historicity of the figure of Jesus.  One does not simply apply the same method the way, across all types of texts.  That is irresponsible scholarship, and I’m sure James would agree.

Minimalists Re-enact the Last Supper

Here are my minimalist heroes, friends, and colleagues in Amsterdam proving once again that reception is everything.

NP Lemche and Philip Davies on the left, L.L. Grabbe and Thomas L. Thompson in the center.

Here is my re-imagining of the event:

I have been fooling around with editing software this evening and I think I’ve got the right combination of texture and clarity here.


George Athas perceptively remarks: “Minimalistically, there is no bread, no wine, and fewer disciples than we thought.  And come to think of it, it isn’t even clear whether we have a Jesus or not.”

Brilliant!  H/T Jim West.

Thomas Thompson Clarifies his Position on the Figure of Jesus

In a followup to his article, he writes:

In an article (‘The Historiography of the Pentateuch: 25 Years after Historicity’ Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 13, 1999, 258-283) I have discussed why I think it is very difficult to establish the historicity of figures in biblical narrative, as the issue rather relates to the quality of texts one is dealing with. I work further on this issue in my Messiah Myth of 2005. Here I argue that the synoptic gospels can hardly be used to establish the historicity of the figure of Jesus; for both the episodes and sayings with which the figure of Jesus is presented are stereotypical and have a history that reaches centuries earlier. I have hardly shown that Jesus did not exist and did not claim to. Rather, I compared our knowledge about Jesus to our knowledge of figures like Homer. As soon as we try to identify such an historical figure, we find ourselves talking about the thematic elements of stories.

I do not distance myself from ‘mythicists’ as I do not see this term as referring to any scholars I know.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

And he followed up criticisms with the following:

I do not deal with it–and am neither negative nor positive about it. Normally, I work with what is going in biblical scholarship and generally do not have any opinion about bloggers–whether or not you disagree with them.

You are quite right that I do not recall our previous discussion, but I am aware of the difference of such a question in regard to the New Testament and it is therefore that I have been involved in publishing the book with Thomas Verenna, Is This Not the Carpenter?, which takes up the issues you refer to.
In choosing elements which might deal well with questions of whether the narratives reflect historical realities, I purposely chose elements which New Testament scholars saw as unequivocally historical–taking up the Jesus seminar’s certain ipsissima verba of Jesus. I think I have shown that they are obviously not what these scholars have claimed.

I think he is quite clear and this directly supports what I have said elsewhere.  We have to be careful with the labels we use; using labels in a manner that is akin to McCarthyism.  But what cannot be ignored here is Thompson’s underlying position that our sources have serious limitations.  In that I believe he is absolutely correct.

Is Technology Becoming Too Powerful?

This is a very serious concern.  Reported today on MSNBC:

Stuart Crabb, a director in the executive offices of Facebook, naturally likes to extol the extraordinary benefits of computers and smartphones. But like a growing number of technology leaders, he offers a warning: log off once in a while, and put them down.

In a place where technology is seen as an all-powerful answer, it is increasingly being seen as too powerful, even addictive.

The concern, voiced in conferences and in recent interviews with many top executives of technology companies, is that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.

via NYT: Tech firms warn of gadgets’ power – Technology & science – The New York Times – NBCNews.com.

Have you ever felt a phantom vibration? You may already be addicted to your gadgets.  I know this happens to me a lot.  I’ll be sitting at my desk, writing or researching, and I’ll feel a buzz in my pocket, think I hear a humming, and reach for my phone and realize I left it in the other room, or it is turned off (rarely), or in the room but away from me.  And when I go to check it, nothing–no call, no text, no alert notification whatsoever.  The scary thing is I can recall these sorts of phantom calls happening since I had a cell phone, back in the early 2000’s.  That means that this phenomenon has been occurring for at least a decade and I have been addicted for that long.

The dangers here are not just addiction, trouble focusing, and limited attention span, but also the physical stress these electronics are putting on us.  How many times do we check Facebook a day?  How many times do we look at phones for a text?  We do it so unconsciously; because we crave the social attention we get from updating our status, uploading photos, forwarding along memes.   If you’re like me, you’re one of the 68% of Americans who suffer hallucinations in the form of phantom vibrations.

That is scary.  But one must ask, how do we stop it?  You cannot stop technology since society and technology are so intricately connected–our economics depend on it now; we are forever a part of the revolution and evolution of the technological aeon and we cannot simply ignore it.  So where does that leave us?  We may put our phones away for a bit, maybe step away from the computer–pick up a book, go outside, do something without our technology.  But the fact remains that we have to come back to it.  At some point, we have to come back.  Whether for our jobs, for our family, for our entertainment, for our livelihoods.

So what is to be done?


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