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.




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?


On Academic Pricing and ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’

Ever since my book released, I have had a lot of people ask me about the price.  Most are friends and family who are not associated with academic publishing, so the typical cost of a book for them is between $5-$15, like the price of a trade paperback one might pick up at Barnes and Noble.  I have finally found some time to write this; since recent reviews of my book, while overwhelmingly positive (so far), have also brought up the issue of the price (sells at $110).

So my point here is two-fold; first, while the book is expensive, I don’t believe the price should factor into book reviews (in fact I had an interesting conversation with Michael Halcomb about this issue recently, and the fruits of that conversation will be born out below) and second I believe someone should write a defense about the pricing, with some caveats.

Clearly academic pricing can be outrageous. Look up anything by Brill and be prepared to fall over when you see compendiums ranging from $600-$1100!  $1100 is, for some, a rent check or a mortgage payment.   Even standard monographs (with 80 less pages than my edited collection) like this one–http://www.brill.nl/use-anonymous-characters-greek-tragedy –that actually looks good, is going to cost a buyer more money than my book.  Even paperbacks are expensive, normally costing from $35-$70 in the lower ranges and $75-$95 in the higher ranges.

But keep in mind what books like mine really are: collections of essays from over a dozen academics. Each chapter is a researched publication on its own, generally worthy of any academic journal. And one should consider how much those cost if purchased individually.  On average, either through JSTOR or EBSCOHOST or any of those online journal storage sites, one 12-page article is upwards of $15 [and that is on the cheap end–more like $30]; so if one were to buy 14 articles at about 12 pages in length separately, the costs would exceed $210; and many of the papers in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ exceed 12 pages (so actually it would cost more).  And these are for digital copies.  If one were to purchase stand-alone volumes (i.e., monographs) expressing these same ideas by these scholars (even if all the books retailed at $20–which is incredibly low since many are academic publications upwards of $35–that would still be more than this collection) in the same sort of format, one would probably go hungry for a week.

Granted, you may get more pages for your buck by purchasing all of these individual books but not all of it will deal with this particular subject matter (Jesus’ historicity) nor will they likely have the impressive sort of scholarship surrounding this subject (a good portion of the chapters in my volume are refreshingly original and groundbreaking in many ways).  So you’re much better off just saving up and picking up a copy of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ from a discounted price (many distributors are offering the volume for around $85-$86, which is a significant discount—about 22%) than spending more money on multiple volumes on these subjects which may not be as critical or engaging.

So this is a reason why I believe this volume really is worth the price. I hope it goes to paperback, because I would like it if the book were more affordable for everyone else besides scholars, but I don’t believe the price is out of reach for most people.  And frankly if everyone waits around for a paperback, it may never come–paperback books are only produced when sales of the hardback make a paperback production worth it.  So waiting for this book to arrive in paperback to buy it is self-defeating.  If everyone waits around expecting the price to lower–it may never happen.  But those who have the means should consider the hardback anyway–it looks better on a shelf and survives longer than paperbacks.

Something else to consider: This book did take four years of work from everyone involved and that makes the price worth it if only so I might someday, in the distant future, break even.  So this is why I take some offense when I read reviewers writing about how great this volume is, and then go off on tangents about the price. It seems more like filler than anything else and some reviewers may get the wrong idea; that is to say, some reviewers may read ‘this book is way too expensive’ and receive that to mean ‘This book is great, but not that great.’  I hope that is not what my reviewers are suggesting (it doesn’t seem like they are, based upon the content), but it is possible that some may misunderstand the reviews in this way.

My other concern though is even if the price were halved (if my book were selling for $55) I’m not sure it would do any better.  If someone can afford to buy the book at $55 right away, in a week or two (whenever they get their next paycheck) they can afford $110.  And I’ve read reviews where people complain about books which are as low as $30.  And if a book sells a handful of copies a month, it will take years for the publishing house to see a profit.  The argument that ‘if books sold for less money, they would sell more’ is only true in certain instances.  When there is a high demand, when there is a bestseller, when people care about the issues.  As popular as the historical questions may be about the figure of Jesus, not everyone can make as much money on these questions as Bart Ehrman.  Publishers have to be realistic.

But Richard Carrier and Bill Hamby do raise an important issue.  Most likely, publishers could probably afford to lower the cost of academic texts.  And if the whole of the academic publishing community were to make a concerted effort to lower prices at once, it may make a difference.  I also think that academic publishers should consider lowering prices if only because I do believe that the internet will make academic publishing obsolete in the future–perhaps not in the next decade, but soon enough.  There is certainly a debate to be had about this, which is why I am writing on it, but I don’t believe the answer is ‘tell the publishers to lower prices’ because that can’t be the answer; academic publishers need to price high to break even because frankly there just isn’t much interest in whether or not the spaces in between the Greek mean much, or if the reception of the pastorals was such and such; only people in specialized areas of research need these books; it is bad business planning to price books low that won’t sell many copies.  I would like to think my book is the exception, maybe it is, but the publisher can’t take that chance.  People would start to lose jobs and that would be terrible.

UPDATE 5/15/13: The paperback version is now available for preorder and released at the end of July (…ceteris paribus) and is listed for $17.71!  So if you wanted a copy but couldn’t afford it before, it should be reasonably easier to acquire now.

%d bloggers like this: