Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obama, McCain, Palin, Biden

There are two sides to every argument. This is especially true in politics, and nowhere more so than in the United States where two parties dominate and there are, all too often, only two answers prominently offered for every question. This often descends to the point that each side demonizes, or at least scorns, the other. Each side becomes a culture unto itself, where it can become easy for any observor, like you or me, to see and read only what he agrees with. And as a moderate, that makes me wonder: do I choose one candidate, or have I come to dislike another, simply because I'm only reading and seeing things from my angle and not doing enough to dialogue with the other side? Stepping into other people's shoes, seeing things through their eyes, is an ideal I constantly fall short of, and I deeply admire it when I see that rare quality in a politician or anyone else.

I've come around to support the Obama-Biden ticket with some positive feeling of admiration and cautious hope. True, as a lifelong Democrat (albeit a kind of Reagan Democrat) I would probably have voted for that ticket anyway. But for a few years now I've been mired in such cynicism about politics that I was in danger of stepping into the booth in November and supporting Democrats as a default position. I was probably going to vote simply to repudiate the Bush years and to give my vote to the party I regarded as safer -- but it was not going to be a vote based on great consideration, much less one founded on positive, healthy emotion. I was going to pull the lever as robotically as I could, I think.

That started to change when I heard Sarah Palin's convention speech. At the time I was not particularly moved by Obama, and nothing I knew made me feel that McCain would make a bad president. In fact I still think McCain has many positive qualities and could make a good president (but I no longer think we can afford a merely good president; our situation has changed). I had heard that his VP choice was Alaska's female governor, and I thought it was, at the very least, a politically shrewd choice.

But then I listened to the speech. I did not look at her, because I was trying to finish some work on my computer -- not a task that required much focus, but enough focus to keep me turned from the screen where she appeared. And what I heard was a certain hard unforgiving energy. Vibrant, to be sure. It certainly excited the crowd. But excited crowds typically make me nervous, regardless of party, so that was no reassurance.

What I heard was the voice of someone who felt that the way to inspire people was through sarcasm and bite. Not ideas, nor policies, but something colder, though it was certainly capable of generating a lot of heat.

Of course I knew that convention speeches are empty, and that they're about exciting the faithful. So I said, let's wait and see what she has to say in a different setting, where substance is expected and called for. But, emotionally I was already an Obama supporter -- if only because I'd seen that the Republican worldview was hardening, causing perhaps my own Democratic roots to awaken.

And needless to say, when Palin did speak in later interviews, I was dismayed. And here Palin was not sarcastic or biting; she was not her convention self. She was bewildered. But I think I know, now, the common thread between the convention and the interviews. Governor Palin seems to be, not stupid, but definitely incurious. Note, I don't use that word as a mere stand-in for "stupid." I think she's smart. She's just not curious about knowledge. She's not hungry for debate -- and I mean real, free exchange of ideas, not the debate she had with Biden where there were no follow-up questions and her knowledge was not strongly tested.

She hired friends and put them into office around her as Governor, probably because she shares with George Bush a certain averseness to debate. A lack of desire to be exposed to different points of view.

She's curious about power -- how to influence people and keep them that way. That's where her intelligence has been directed. Her interviews showed someone who didn't have that drive to study questions in the hope of producing answers to questions, or finding answers in cooperation with others. Rather she showed herself painfully driven to avoid questions.

And that's why she depends on other things when it comes to politics. She feels that political disputes -- perhaps even intellectual questions -- can be solved through sarcasm or force of personality rather than ideas, or broader inclusive emotions. There's an anti-intellectualism, a hositility to ideas and indifference to facts, that I find deeply unsettling.

I am constantly impressed at how much support she has. For every knock against her, there's a defense. Her detractors can't stand her, and as with any polarizing figure, I will always wonder whether any particular judgment I make about her is too strong because I'm hearing about it from within my side of the two-sided war, with all the prejudices corresponding to that side.

However, I do know that when I heard her speech, I had not been following politics very much (aside from the Jeremiah Wright controversy), and I was about as open as I could be to the wisdom of McCain's choice of VP. I hadn't read anything from detractors yet. It was, simply, Palin in her own voice and words that alienated me.

It was about as "pure" a moment as I've ever had, observing politics.

But now, for my support of Obama, I don't have such a distilled moment. I was already driven leftward by Palin's speech, when I started really looking at Obama, really listening to him.

I will say that he is, among other things, a true contrast with everything that I've said about Palin. (The same goes for Biden). Here we have someone who has obviously studied all the issues very carefully, and who has a fine mind suited to weighing ideas. As for the heart, there is nothing in his temperament which I find to be wedded hard to ideology -- contrary to the scare tactic that pegs hims as the most liberal of liberals. He may be consistently on the left because that is his political culture, but I hear nothing from him to suggest that he is more interested in ideology than in ideas or the truth.

More to that, a senator can vote, perhaps, along party lines, far easier than a president, who has many more forces and requirements acting upon him.

It is really the Republican campaign which I find to be barren of vision, and narrow-minded, and small of heart. Here, at this moment of all moments, they want to talk about Bill Ayers?

Until very recently I could not be inspired by Obama. I knew he inspired others greatly, but I didn't know why. I always was, and remain, worried about his thin political experience. And I remain troubled that he could dismiss so many people as "clinging" to religion because they're bitter. He may have said that to please his particular listeners that day, which would be troubling (though at least he would not be worse than nearly all politicians, who do the same); he may also believe such things himself, and that would be worse.

That said, I am moved by Obama's cool temperament under fire. It even feels Christian to me -- his ability, not exactly to turn the other cheek, but at least not to retaliate heatedly (sometimes not to retaliate at all) when in a debate. And yes, I know about the ads. I'm not calling him blameless; I think TV spots in general are a cancer on the truth that all campaigns indulge in, trying to get elected. When the election is over, let's see how Obama acts towards his enemies, domestic and abroad. I'm cautiously hopeful.

Finally, I have to say this, even though I know it's not original -- but I can't not say it. The whisper campaign against Obama, to the effect that he is a Muslim, is the kind of thing that I find most dispiriting about this country. It will not lead me into cynicism, but it could if I allowed it to do so. It is cynicism itself, combined with much worse. It's a blatant disregard for facts (in this case, the fact that Obama is Christian), on top of prejudice and fear. It has been said better by others -- not least Colin Powell yesterday -- so I'll leave it at that.

As I say, I'm hopeful. We have here a man who is not afraid of ideas and not retaliatory toward people. If we don't elect this man, we'll have to elect another such human being in his place.

Kevin Rosero


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reflections forced by a birthday

A little soul-searching today, on my birthday. It's difficult in a few words to say what's wrong. I've never been an extrovert, but at least in years past I used to think of people more highly than I do today. And I used to find meaning in life more readily than I do now. I am not depressed. I exercise and eat right, and enjoy many delights of the mind and heart. In many ways I'm more self-confident than ever, and I certainly don't have the crippling self-doubt of my youth. But I regard people less, and love them less. I still feel their love when I'm in their presence, but I constrict within my own mind's activities (fruitful as they may be), essentially within my ego, when I'm not with people.

And when I say "with people", I mean interacting in person. That is still joyful. But what I have done for several years now is interact more and more with people on the internet. It used to be on this blog, then on Flickr and YouTube, and always on discussion/debating forums. The forums have changed, the topics have ranged from serious to trivial, but the experience is always the same. You don't see the best of people, dealing with them on the internet. You don't see them honestly, because the anonymity makes it easy for people to be false -- or merely superficial. You can talk for endless hours about a topic -- but that is all you're getting, a person's mental operations about a certain topic, and rarely anything deeper.

What's worse is that malice comes across perfectly well in cyberspace, while good qualities are hindered. Anonymity makes it easy to express hate, and impossible to deliver genuine love. Because you're anonymous, you can express hate and disguise it, put on a pretense, make it look like you're merely disagreeing rationally with irrationality; like you're fighting the good fight, when you're actually doing something quite different. At the same time, you're limited in expressing kindness and compassion, because you're physically absent. You can't even let someone know that you're listening actively, one of the best gifts a person can give another. You can post smiley faces, jokes, kind words, etc. But that is nothing like the true warmth of a friend in front of you. Yet, if you have hate or merely distrust in your heart, it's easy to put it in words. I've seen this all too often even in Christians, which is where it is most dismaying to me. It is not restricted to any group; this is how people behave on the internet.

A lot has been written about how anonymity makes it easy for people to be hostile jerks and so forth, but I find it goes deeper than this. Yes, there's a lot of malice out there; a lot of trolls; there's a recent New York Times article about it, "The Trolls Among Us." But the problem is more subtle than trolls. I've actually had less and less interaction with trolls as I've learned to recognize them; yet I still feel empty from online interactions. A large problem for me is that I put work into what I post online, made up of analysis, or feeling, but always subtle (or as subtle as I can make it). Most of the time it doesn't draw trolls; it draws nothing. What works best in online discussion groups, what gets most conversations going, is not subtlety. You provoke conversations by saying something stupid, outrageous, something just begging to be debunked. Then people like myself get our thinking caps on and start debunking. The internet is an excellent place to mount debunking, because all you need is words and analysis; and as I keep saying, that is all you can deliver on the internet. Anything deeper than that, you can't deliver online. Real feeling, well.... imagine, for example, poetry. You can post a poem on the internet, sure. But most people are browsing quickly and will not stop to read a poem, much less to interact with it the way they might by sitting down with a printed poem in a quiet place meant for undisturbed reflection and safe emotion. The Web is a place meant for cold disposal of information, or for raucous interaction among people posing with their masks on, ready to play or to fight, but hardly equipped to see or understand one another -- much less to peer into the truth of anything.

I have not been merely a victim. If that were even half the problem, it might have been easy to solve. I've been an actor in cyberspace. I do what is meant to be done there, and I've grown quite good at it. I generate information, cold analysis; I revel in debunking. But I hardly need to say that this is all the life of the mind and not the heart -- and not even a gloriously broad section of the mind's life, but simply the slice that loves to debunk. The side that wishes to destroy, not to create.

So I find that my own capacity to understand, to listen, yes, to love, is going severely under-exercised.

Not that this is anyone's fault but my own. I simply wish that I had not let this go on for so many years.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Inventing the Flat Earth

I got a book for Christmas that I read recently, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historias, by Jeffrey Burton Russell. I have wanted to write a review for this blog, but I found one in the New York Times that will do for now. My interests have ranged so far away from maintaining a blog, but I don't want to let it go completely.

Enjoy the article.

The New York Times
April 25, 1992

The belief in a flat Earth is a modern invention, a myth that reveals a good deal about the underlying dogma of an age claiming to be scientific.

Only in the last century did the idea spread that when Christopher Columbus set sail he was challenging a belief, entrenched in theology and enforced by the church, that the world was flat. That belief, the story goes, was questioned only by a rebellious or scientifically advanced minority.

None of the documents from Columbus's day or the early accounts of his labors suggest that there was any debate about the roundness of the Earth. Yet by the end of the 19th century, the drama of Columbus versus the flat-Earth believers had become a staple of textbooks.

Even today, although many standard histories have corrected the error, the idea that Christiandom had suppressed or forgotten the Greek philosophers' discovery of a spherical world remains a fixture in educated minds and regularly re-emerges in the works of eminent scholars.

For example, a section in "The Discoverers," a popular book (Random House, 1983) by Daniel J. Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, says that "Christian faith and dogma" had inflicted on Europe at least 1,000 years of "amnesia" about the world's shape.

How did such a palpable error arise, and why did it persist? Jeffrey Burton Russell, a professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara, has addressed this puzzle in a small gem of scholarship written for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage.

The book, "Inventing the Flat Earth" (Praeger, 1991), is more than an investigation into a quirk of intellectual history. It effectively reverses an old question. Instead of asking why medieval thinkers so dogmatically insisted that the Earth was flat, it says we must ask why modern thinkers, in the face of so much contrary evidence, dogmatically insisted on a flat-Earth consensus that never existed.

Professor Russell makes clear that whatever the conceptions of the Earth's shape found in Genesis and the other books of the Bible, not only in antiquity but throughout the first 15 centuries of Christianity, "nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the Earth spherical."

The scholars who offered that opinion included Augustine, Venerable Bede and Thomas Aquinas. A few figures, like the influential Isidore of Seville, were ambiguous on the matter, and many, of course, were not interested in geographical issues. The uneducated may have entertained all sorts of vague beliefs, but that was true for the classical era as well.

Only five Christian writers, according to Professor Russell's scorecard, seem to have been out-and-out believers in a flat Earth. One was Lactantius, a third-century convert to Christianity who was posthumously condemned as a heretic, although his Latin style brought him renewed attention during the Renaissance. Another was Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century Greek writer whose work was reviled in his own time, ignored for most of the Middle Ages and not even translated into Latin until 1706. These two eccentrics would become the chief exhibits for the flat-Earth mythology of the 19th century.

Oddly enough, a major source of that mythology was the genial American creator of Rip van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. In 1828, Washington Irving published a novelistic biography of Columbus featuring a fictitious confrontation between the brave explorer and Inquisition-ridden clerics and professors from the University of Salamanca. They pelted Columbus with quotations from the Bible and church fathers to prove that the Earth was flat. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his biography of Columbus, calls the episode "pure moonshine."

Irving the storyteller had his academic counterpart in the French historian Antoine-Jean Letronne. Letronne's influential 1834 study, "On the Cosmographical Opinions of the Church Fathers," was shaped by anti-clericalism just as Irving's imagination was colored by Anglo-American anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feeling. Letronne acknowledged evidence that appeared to contradict his thesis but promptly buried it as untypical. Church fathers and medieval Christians simply must have been hide-bound by prejudice and a literal reading of the Bible.

The seeds of this premise had been planted in the 16th-century controversies over Copernicus's theory putting the Sun rather than the Earth at the center of the planetary system. But Copernicus's opponents nonetheless thought the Earth was ball-shaped, and for two centuries afterward the defenders of Copernicus and Galileo, as well as the many fierce critics of religion, hardly ever added belief in a flat Earth to the accusations they made against church authorities.

The heyday of the flat-Earth mythology, in fact, did not arrive until the half-century of 1870 to 1920. The reason had nothing to do with facts and everything to do with the ideological atmosphere created by the struggles over evolution. That atmosphere led authors like John W. Draper ("The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science," 1874) and Andrew Dickson White ("A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom," 1896) to recast all the past in terms of the contemporary antagonism between biblical literalism and science.

Repeatedly, these authors, like Letronne before them, treated Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes as representative while minimizing or misrepresenting all the thinkers who affirmed a spherical Earth. "The curious result," Professor Russell writes, is that these modern writers "ended up by doing what they accused the church fathers of, namely, creating a body of false knowledge by consulting one another instead of the evidence."

Myths frequently operate to confirm the myth-makers' claims of superiority, to lend legitimacy to their ouster of other groups from political or cultural power. The flat-Earth mythology, it turns out, is not a case of medieval certainty about the literal truth of the Bible. It arose as an expression of modernity's faith in scientific progress. It dramatized the claim that the intelligence of a religious past could be dismissed in the name of a scientific present.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

O night divine

Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels' voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Behold your King.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A YouTube (no, U2) Christmas

This has been a deeply contented Christmas for me, but it is not easy -- nor my inclination -- to get such personal things across in public writing.

But I did want to offer something. For those who like U2, rock n' roll, Christmas, or any combination thereof, check out this video of "Where the Streets Have No Name" at YouTube.

Merry Christmas.


Friday, December 15, 2006

What Kind of Reader Are You?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Literate Good Citizen
Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

While I'm not surprised at getting this result, since it's the kind of thing that people have called me all my life, I can only say: I'M NOT WORTHY.

I read too slowly, and I am not nearly as dedicated as I should be.

And here's one thing that I've just realized, that I really rue: the internet. I used to read BOOKS, those collections of paper between a front cover and a back cover. But I find myself in the last few years sucked in, on a daily basis, by online articles: news; debates; and blogs and articles by scholars instead of the books these fine men and women have written.

As a result, despite reading fine short pieces on blogs and elsewhere, my mind is filled with a lot of garbage that never used to clog it.

The same goes for my soul.

I am currently trying to read a book about World War II. More anon.

Check out The Busybody's brief post on this matter.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I say, then, that God is not born, not made, an ever-abiding nature without beginning and without end, immortal, perfect, and incomprehensible. Now when I say that he is "perfect," this means that there is not in him any defect, and he is not in need of anything but all things are in need of him. And when I say that he is "without beginning," this means that everything which has beginning has also an end, and that which has an end may be brought to an end. He has no name, for everything which has a name is kindred to things created. Form he has none, nor yet any union of members; for whatsoever possesses these is kindred to things fashioned. He is neither male nor female. The heavens do not limit him, but the heavens and all things, visible and invisible, receive their bounds from him. Adversary he has none, for there exists not any stronger than he. Wrath and indignation he possesses not, for there is nothing which is able to stand against him. Ignorance and forgetfulness are not in his nature, for he is altogether wisdom and understanding; and in Him stands fast all that exists. He requires not sacrifice and libation, nor even one of things visible; He requires not aught from any, but all living creatures stand in need of him.

- Apology of Aristides, c. 124 A.D.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Origen and Josephus, Part 5

Can Origen tell us anything about the famous reference to Christ in Ant. 18.3.3 §63-64, the Testimonium Flavianum? I think so, though what follows is surely indirect evidence. First, the passage in question:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Origen says that Josephus did not believe “in Jesus as the Messiah,” which sounds as if Josephus has said enough to rule out the possibility. Origen says that Josephus admitted the link between the war and the righteousness of James “against his will,” which again suggests that Josephus has made clear that his will was non-Christian. Often it’s argued that Origen knew this about Josephus simply by reading the phrase, “Jesus who was called Christ.” But there is nothing derogatory about the phrase; and if Matthew, Justin and Origen himself could be Christians and refer to Jesus as one who is called Christ, then so could Josephus. The later traditions about Josephus’s admiration for James could surely have been taken to the next step, wherein Josephus was regarded as having a similar or better attitude toward one who was greater than James. Origen wants to take that next step, but why did not he or his predecessors do so? Perhaps it was simply common knowledge that Josephus was a Jewish historian who had never converted. But that did not ultimately prevent traditions about Josephus to proceed onward to his conversion.

Origen insists that Josephus “ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet.” He seems to presuppose that Josephus knew about the death. Now this could merely indicate Origen’s confidence that Josephus, at least as a Jewish historian, and particularly as one who knows of a Jesus “called Christ,” must have known about his execution. That is perfectly possible, but again we return to the probability that Origen did not have the full texts of Josephus on hand. From where, then, would he attain his confidence that Josephus could have written that Jesus was executed by the Jewish people, just as James was? If Origen observed that Josephus had merely named Christ in connection to James, why does Origen seem confident that Josephus knew more?

I suggest that Origen did witness Josephus mentioning the execution of Christ in an original form of the Testimonium, one that reached him second-hand. The Testimonium would have provided Origen with Josephus’ only thoughts on Christ – thoughts which made it clear that Josephus was not a Christian but which suggested to Origen that Josephus could be criticized for not even calling Christ a “prophet” or attributing the war to the “conspiracy” against him. The Testimonium’s phrase “wise man” might well have prompted Origen’s desire to see the acclamation of “prophet”; and the phrase, “at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us”, could evoke the Gospel imagery of a conspiracy.

In any case, whatever form of the Testimonium that Origen knew could not yet contain Christian-sounding phrases, because those would not have allowed Origen any certainty that Josephus did not accept Christ. Such phrases must have been inserted in copies unknown to Origen or postdating him, and these became the seeds of still later traditions about Josephus becoming a Christian. Probably Origen did find the phrase “called Christ” or its equivalent, given the statement that the tribe of Christians is named after the man. (Later, traditions about Josephus developed to the point that he became a Christian, as attested in the Testimonium’s phrase, “He was the Christ.”) Whatever he did find did not affirm Christ even as a prophet, so Origen chose not to quote it in his refutation of Celsus.

To be sure, this is all indirect evidence. When an author cites another, we have direct evidence of what the other says. When an author speaks about what another has not said, we have only indirect evidence that something deemed to be insufficient was said; it may be that nothing was said.

Due to all the arguments here offered, however, I am confident that such was not the case with Josephus and Jesus.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Origen and Josephus, Part 4

Having found that Origen uses a phrase exactly like one in Antiquities 20, it is natural to ask if someone took his phrase and put it there. That indeed is one possible trajectory, and comparing it with other possible ones is our next task.

There are three basic scenarios.

1. An interpolation into Ant. 20 takes place after Origen.

An early interpolation is placed into one of Josephus’ works (e.g., Wars of the Jews). This interpolation uses convincingly non-Christian language, including a phrase about Christ that resembles some references [by non-Christian characters] to Christ in the NT, and a way of identifying James (without an honorific) that is unattested in Christian literature. This interpolation contains or gives rise to a tradition about Josephus’ admiration for James the Just. For some reason the interpolation, which does not appear in surviving manuscripts, is not preserved. But Origen picks up the phrases of the interpolation and attests to the tradition about Josephus, probably doing so second-hand. A new interpolation is then made into Ant. 20, prompted by Origen’s witness and based on his or the original interpolator’s phrasing. The interpolator does not try to restore, from Origen’s words, the putative Josephan discourse about James and the war; he chooses instead to interpolate a few words into an already standing sentence in Ant. 20, one which tells of a man who shares with James the Just a death by stoning, a commonly occurring first name, and possibly a brother bearing another such first name (depending on what is proposed for Josephus’ original composition). The interpolator is not dissuaded by any differences between the James in Ant. 20 and the Christian leader about whom many traditions have probably accrued (e.g., in Hegesippus). He simply believes that Josephus wrote in Ant. 20 about James the Just without recognizing him or knowing that his brother was actually Jesus Christ (against Origen’s testimony that Josephus knew who James the Just was). Or he intends to deceive others into accepting this bare reference as authentic and valuable – even though it does little to corroborate Origen’s story or his insistence that Jesus should have been Josephus’ main subject when searching for what caused the war. This interpolation is accepted widely and survives, eventually migrating into all the manuscripts.

2) An interpolation into Ant. 20 takes place before Origen.

Soon after the publication of Antiquities, a Christian scribe chooses to interpolate a few words into an already standing sentence in Ant. 20, one which tells of a man who shares with James the Just a death by stoning, a commonly occurring first name, and possibly a brother bearing another such first name (depending on what is proposed for Josephus’ original composition). The interpolator is not dissuaded by any differences between the James in Ant. 20 and the Christian leader for whom he probably has other traditions (if he did not himself invent the man). He simply believes that Josephus wrote in Ant. 20 about James the Just without recognizing him or knowing that his brother was actually Jesus Christ. Or he intends to deceive others into accepting this reference as authentic. He chooses language that will look like the authentic writing of a non-Christian: a phrase about Christ that closely resembles the speech of some non-Christians in the recently appearing Gospel of Matthew; and a way of identifying James (without an honorific) that is unattested in Christian literature. This interpolation is accepted widely, eventually migrating into all the manuscripts. It gives birth to Christian traditions about Josephus’ admiration for James the Just. Origen attests to these traditions and reproduces the phrases of the interpolation, probably doing so second-hand.

3) No interpolation takes place.

Josephus writes in Antiquities 20 about James and a certain Jesus “who was called” Christ. His short reference gives birth to Christian traditions about Josephus’ admiration for James the Just. Origen attests to these traditions and reproduces the phrases of the interpolation, probably doing so second-hand.

It should be noted that the first two options are not yet complete, because making them so would take us far afield from the topic at hand – Origen’s bearing on the Josephus question. But we can at least point to what is missing – and there are a few things, other than the lengthier explanations that would be needed for the various implausible items I’ve highlighted in each option.

Option #1 must also make a plausible case for the first of its two interpolations. This involves finding a good place for it in Josephus’ works, proposing the interpolator’s intention, describing how he changed the text, and giving some explanation for how and why all the subsequent manuscripts returned to the text as we see it today, presumably without any of the changes leaving a trace.

If option #1 is written without that prior interpolation, the scenario grows simpler in one sense, but another problem returns. The prior interpolation offered a simple way to explain the existence of Origen’s tradition about Josephus as well as each one of its details; without the interpolation we would need another solution (see Part 1).

We would also lose a simple explanation for Origen’s un-Christian way of identifying James. Origen’s accounts seem to credit Josephus with referring to James both as “brother of Jesus who was called Christ” and “the Just.” That is easily explained if Origen got the first phrase from an authentic or authentic-sounding passage in Josephus, and got the second one from a Christian tradition that interpreted Josephus as admiring James for being a just man. But if Origen had neither Ant. 20 nor a prior interpolation, then it becomes difficult to explain why he does not simply credit Josephus with using “James the Just” and leave it at that, instead of also invoking a phrase that would not express Josephus’ admiration and that would certainly not express Origen’s own attitude toward James. Indeed as Peter Kirby notes in his essay, “Testimonium Flavianum”, we lack another instance in ancient literature where an admiring Christian, when referring to James not in passing but as his subject, identifies James as "brother of Jesus."

Finally, the first two scenarios must describe how the interpolator interacted with the original text of Ant. 20 – that is, how he regarded or disregarded the exact words that he found, and how plausibly he was able to add and delete words. This can be particularly complicated for Ant. 20, where we find a larger non-Christian story that is integral to Josephus’ narrative; it cannot easily be lifted wholesale out of the book as a Christian forgery. At best we are looking at an editing of an already standing sentence. Once that editing process is laid out, we would need a plausible explanation for how all of the changed or deleted elements were lost in the manuscript record.

What all three options are missing as I’ve written them out is a full defense of a proposed original text. The first two options do not even propose a particular original, and would need something like, “brother of Jesus, son of Damneus.” It goes without saying that the original needs to be explained as plausibly Josephan. In the case of the Damneus proposal it would be good to have a prior instance where Josephus refers to two brothers in like manner. A plausible original might be constructed, but one cannot be assumed.

Option #3 proposes that the current text is the original, and we have spent some time already looking at the plausibility of the phrase, “Jesus who was called Christ” (see Part 3). We found the construction to be plausibly Christian or Josephan, and a case for interpolation needs some probability that the construction cannot be Josephan.

Three other issues tend to be raised when this text is disputed as the original:

1. Would Josephus identify a man by his brother?

2. Would he place the brother’s name first?

3. Would he mention Jesus and his moniker without some previous fuller introduction?

Let’s turn briefly to a few verses from Josephus’ work.

Kirby cites Wars of the Jews 2.12.8 §247, where Josephus writes, “After this Caesar sent Felix, the brother of Pallas, to be procurator of Galilee.” Josephus refers to Felix as someone’s brother (he does so again in Ant. 20.7.1 §137), and never refers to Felix in the more typical convention as someone’s son. Felix’s brother Pallas is not mentioned before or after in the work, and Josephus does not even tell us that Pallas is “called” anything.

Josephus refers 25 times in Whiston’s translation of Antiquities to a man as “brother of” someone else. A case possibly similar to Jesus and James is in Ant. 18.9.1 §314, where Josephus introduces two brothers who were without a father; he refers shortly afterwards to one of them as “Anileus, the brother of Asineus” (Ant. 18.9.5 §342). But the most conspicuous example is Aaron, “the brother of Moses” (e.g., Ant. 20.10.1 §225), who is never known anywhere in Antiquities by a family relation other than his brother.

Indeed the James that Paul meets in Galatians 1:19 is one such man who lived in Josephus’ own time. He was known within his circle and probably to the public, not as the son of a named father, but as the brother of the man who began the sect in which he, James, was a leader.

As for placing the family relation first, Josephus does so commonly.Bernard Muller provides the following examples:

Wars 2.21.1 §585
“a man of Gischala, the son of Levi, whose name was John”

Wars 6.8.3 §387
“one of the priests, the son of Thebuthus, whose name was Jesus”

Ant. 5.8.1 §233
“but he had also one that was spurious, by his concubine Drumah, whose name was Abimelech”

Ant. 10.5.2 §82
“and delivered the kingdom to a brother of his, by the father’s side, whose name was Eliakim”

Ant. 11.5.1 §121
“Now about this time a son of Jeshua, whose name was Joacim, was the high priest”

What we find in Antiquities 20 is characteristic of Josephus. The reader is left to decide which of the three trajectories is best.

Part 5 will be devoted to the Testimonium Flavianum.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Origen and Josephus, Part 3

Each of the three times that Origen refers to what Josephus wrote about James, he uses the phrase adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou. This is an exact match with the current text of Ant. 20 – rendered in William Whiston’s translation, quoted in Part 1 of this series, as “brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. More striking still is that Origen uses it each time when referring to what Josephus actually said. When offering what Josephus should have said, Origen’s language about Christ consists of these phrases: “Christ who was a prophet,” “not accepting Jesus as Christ,” and “conspiracy against Jesus.” When offering his own opinion about whose death caused the war, Origen refers to “Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

The situation with James is similar. Origen elsewhere identifies him by other means and in fact tends to reproduce whatever term is used by the writer he is referring to – for example by referring to Paul’s words about James and reproducing Paul’s phrase, “the brother of the Lord.” Origen does seem to report twice that Josephus called James “the Just”, which of course is not in Antiquities and may indicate what was in the developed tradition that served as Origen’s source. That scenario makes some sense, because a tradition that saw Josephus as ascribing great righteousness to James would naturally imagine him as employing the great address, James the Just.

It has been argued that Iesou tou legomenou Christou (“Jesus who was called Christ”) could be a Christian phrase because, though absent from the writings of the church fathers preceding Origen, it is found in the New Testament. The exact form of the phrase that Josephus and Origen use is not in the New Testament, but we do find slightly different forms. In Matthew 1:16, Iesou ho legomenos Christos (RSV translation, “Jesus the one called the Christ”) culminates the author’s famous genealogy, and in John 4:25 it appears without the name of Jesus, as an abstract reference to the Messiah, on the lips of the Samaritan woman during her interview with Christ. In Matthew 27:17 and 27:22, Pilate twice uses another form, Iesou ton legomenon Christon (in the RSV, “Jesus who is called Christ”). I am working without a knowledge of Greek, but a simple search of the Greek New Testament for legomenos, legomenon and legomenou turns up 22 references to names like Jesus Christ, Simon Peter, Thomas Didymus, Jesus Justus, etc., and place names like Golgotha. The same search in the longer Antiquities turns up 33 references, also including both personal and place names.

It is, in short, a common way of talking about people, and not just for a historian. Origen writes elsewhere (see Against Celsus 1.66 and 4.28) about the fact that Jesus is called “the Christ”; and Justin Martyr (First Apology, chapter 30) refers to Jesus as one whom Christians “call Christ.” This indicates that Christians, no less than a Jewish historian, could speak in an abstract tone about what Jesus was called.

However, when Origen refers to Josephus, he uses the exact words from Ant. 20. And he uses the same phrase in two separate works written years apart, so something in his mind always connects Josephus with the phrase. We have, in short, a number of indications that Origen is quoting something – either independent Christian writing, a Christian interpolation into the full work, or the original passage in the full work. As I’ve argued, it’s unlikely that he had the full work on hand, so he was probably quoting one or more independent Christian writings containing developed traditions about Josephus and the war.

How well, then, does Origen serve as a witness to the text of Ant. 20? Does the second-hand nature of his witness mean that he is possibly misrepresenting the text as it stood in his time? That is possible, but I'll turn in Part 4 to the possible trajectories for interpolations and an authentic text.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Origen and Josephus, Part 2

When we ask what Origen can tell us about Josephus, an important issue is whether Origen provides actual citations, or some other witness to the text of Josephus.

It’s an open question whether Origen actually had a copy of Antiquities. He tells us that it was composed of twenty books and that the 18th book contained a passage about John the Baptist (Ant. 18.5.2). But he does not purport to quote that passage and his summary does not contain much detail; in fact what he does say of it seems to contradict the passage as it currently stands. He refers twice to the “two books on the Antiquities of the Jews”, but the content that he refers to is actually found in another work by Josephus, the two-volume Against Apion (see Against Celsus 1.16 and 4.11). And he imputes to Josephus a view about the destruction of Jerusalem that does not appear in Antiquities. The passage about James contains nothing, of course, about the war, but many other passages in Antiquities do contain the Jewish historian's view about what caused that calamity (see e.g., Antiquities 20.8.5).

What is going on here? Could Origen have had a copy of Antiquities and still imputed that view to Josephus? What kind of reason would he have? Some scholars have suggested that Origen confused the account of James’ death in Josephus, which mentions a small punishment, with that of the second-century church historian Hegesippus, who wrote around the year 170 that Jerusalem’s destruction followed “immediately” upon the death of James. But that seems unlikely to me if Origen was familiar with the latter text or simply knew that it, or other Christian texts, contained the tradition about the war as punishment. Likewise, if Origen had a copy of Antiquities, he would have been even less likely to attribute the Christian traditions to Josephus, a Jewish historian.

Some have argued that Origen knew of or possessed a copy of one of Josephus’ works in which said views about James and the war had been inserted. But I doubt that new views were added to copies of Josephus’ works, partly because the copies we have show no sign of such an insertion, and chiefly because I do not see why many Christians at this time period would have bothered copying an immense work that was available through other means; this was not yet the time when all of Europe’s manuscripts were in Jewish or Christian hands and monks copied them.

I don’t know how many scrolls a work like Antiquities would have filled, or how long it would have taken anyone to transcribe or research it. Christians coming across references to Christian figures in large works would be less likely, I think, to copy the works whole than to copy the references and/or hand out their contents from memory.

Even today on Google you can find innumerable instances of the Christian references in Josephus’ works sooner than you will find the works in their entirety, though of course the latter is nonetheless very easy due to modern technology. That would not have been true in antiquity.

It would be the rare Christian who was interested enough in the entirety of Josephus’ works, and wealthy enough, to own full copies. Origen does not appear interested – in all his works he mentions Josephus only those few times already mentioned.

I think it’s likelier that Christians copied both Ant. 20 and, in their own manuscripts, imputed Christian views to Josephus; the Christian community must have talked and written about what non-Christians were saying just as interestedly as it does today. Origen, rather than working entirely from memory when reporting Josephus, probably had Christian manuscripts in front of him in which he found both references to Antiquities 20 and original commentary.

Origen might or might not have been able to confirm that such views were absent from Josephus’ known works. Perhaps he simply believed what the Christian writings implied or stated, namely that Josephus at some point in his life, and not necessarily in the works still known to Origen over a century later, had written such things. Origen does not, after all, state that anyone could look up Josephus’ views on James and the war, though he encourages his readers to look up what Josephus does say in Against Apion.

A similar process seems to have occurred in the next century, when Eusebius reported that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the execution of James. Eusebius purports to quote Josephus, but against his usual practice he does not name the work or chapter:

Josephus at any rate did not hesitate to testify this also through his writings, in which he says: But these things happened to the Jews as vengeance for James the just, who was the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. For the Jews killed him even though he was a most just man. (Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23.20)

This is a very close match with Origen’s words in Against Celsus 1.47, quoted in Part 1 of this blog series. It seems that Eusebius is using Origen as a source. Eusebius then reproduces the Ant. 20 passage directly, naming the correct work and chapter; in this way, he preserved both Josephus and what Origen said about him. This would be in keeping with a common human tendency to harmonize and preserve (inoffensive) traditions rather than choose exclusively among them. And he, like the Christians of the second century (as I argue), copied Ant. 20 and transmitted in his own manuscripts the other traditions about Josephus.

Whatever Origen is referring to, he probably had it in front of him, if only for the general reason that writings about James and Jesus would not have escaped being passed around the Christian community. But there is a more specific indication that he is quoting rather than paraphrasing from memory, and we'll get to that in Part 3.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Origen and Josephus, Part 1

This post is the first of a series on Origen and Josephus. The question I'm pursuing is, what can Origen tell us about the famous references to Jesus and his brother James, a.k.a., James the Just, in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews?

Here is the latter of the two references, followed by Origen's own three references to what Josephus had to say about James and Jesus.

Antiquities 20.9.1 §200-203
But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou], whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Origen, Commentary on Matthew 10.17
And this James is the one whom Paul says he saw in the epistle to the Galatians, saying: But I did not see any other of the apostles except James the brother of the Lord. And to so great a reputation among the people for righteousness did this James rise, that Flavius Josephus, who wrote the ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ in twenty books, when wishing to exhibit the cause why the people suffered so great misfortunes that even the temple was razed to the ground, said, that these things happened to them in accordance with the wrath of God in consequence of the things which they had dared to do against James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou]. And the wonderful thing is that, though he did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the righteousness of James was so great; and he says that the people thought that they had suffered these things because of James.

Origen, Against Celsus 1.47
For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer [Josephus], although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless-being, although against his will, not far from the truth-that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou],--the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many Churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the Creator, and who refer all their actions to His good pleasure.

Origen, Against Celsus 2.13
But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero, and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem, on account, as Josephus says, of James the Just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ [adelphon Iesou tou legomenou Christou], but in reality, as the truth makes clear, on account of Jesus Christ the Son of God.


The simplest inference from Origen’s work is that by his time, the present reference to James and Jesus in Antiquities 20 was in existence and had prompted some Christian(s) to impute to Josephus the view that the war with Rome was punishment for the execution of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” The premise here is that this view is much likelier to have been imputed to Josephus if his works mentioned this James than if his works did not mention him at all.

It’s possible that Antiquities 20 in Origen’s time contained no mention of this James, and that Christians on their own had developed traditions about how Josephus mentioned and praised James – to the extent of having Josephus attribute the destruction of Jerusalem to his execution. But a far better explanation for such traditions is that they were built upon certain elements in the current account, where Josephus recounts how the execution of Christ’s brother was punished, in a small way and by other human beings; and where Josephus states that some fair-minded Jews regarded the execution as unjust and sought a way to rectify the wrong. These “seeds” could build eventually into the tradition found in Origen, namely that Josephus witnessed to a severe punishment from God and to the fact that the Jews themselves knew the punishment to be just.

Such an account as exists today in Antiquities 20 must have gladdened Christians, some of whom would have felt that Josephus was a possible secret friend (or eventual convert) in a hostile world. Early Christians made such claims about Joseph of Arimathea, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas, etc.

We can see the tradition building in this manner:

JOSEPHUS (Ant. 20)


James is stoned by Jerusalem’s high priest

James is executed by the Jews of Palestine

Caesar’s representative threatens punishment, which is delivered by the king

God delivers (his own) punishment

Some good citizens protest the execution

Jews knew their punishment was just

James is “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”

James is “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” and also “James the Just”

(Josephus writes all this)

All this is said to be found in Josephus

If Christians made up the traditions about Josephus without the current passage, proposed reconstructions of what Josephus originally wrote have little power to explain the later traditions. For instance, it’s doubtful that an original Josephan reference to “the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus” (this Jesus being the high priest who succeeds Ananus in the above-quoted passage) could have prompted a full-fledged belief that Josephus had extolled James the brother of Jesus. It seems far more likely that the later Christian traditions about Josephus’ attitude toward James started building whenever there appeared a Josephan reference to the Christian James.

[The following section added November 17]:

According to Eusebius of Caesarea (see History of the Church 2:23:4-18, composed circa 320), the Church historian Hegesippus, writing around the year 170, described the siege of Jerusalem as following “immediately” upon the death of James the Just. Now, Hegesippus and Josephus have similar names in Greek, and it was not unknown for the two to be confused.

This presents the possibility that second-century Christians, when recalling who had written about James and the war, could have confused the two names. Christian traditions attested in Hegesippus – the stoning of James, his great reputation for righteousness, and God’s punishment – could be attributed in casual conversation to the wrong name. Written documents making the mistake could build, possibly, into a concrete tradition, one that would be unverifiable by Origen’s time. Variously, it could simply be Origen who made the mistake.

But there are a several problems with this scenario. For one, it must have seemed prima facie unlikely to any Christian that a Jewish historian would regard God as punishing the Jewish people for the death of a Christian. Second, Origen presents Josephus as saying that the Jews themselves regarded the death of James as the cause of their sufferings, and there is very little along those lines in Hegesippus, who mentions only a single Jew protesting the execution of James ineffectively. Third, the line in Hegesippus about the siege of Jerusalem is a bare statement of fact barely implying the idea of punishment, yet Origen is certain that the historian has “searched” for the causes of the war and specifically named James as the cause. Fourth, Origen says that Josephus fails to name Jesus’ death as the cause of the war, which suggests an interaction, and specific disappointment, with a non-Christian text. To boot, Origen presents Josephus as not accepting Jesus to be the Christ – an impression that no reader could have gotten from the account in Hegesippus. And each time that Origen refers to Josephus’ account of James he uses a specific phrase not found in Hegesippus, “Jesus who was called Christ.”

The account in Ant. 20 contains a more robust idea of punishment, a presentation of influential Jews recognizing a wicked act, and the comparatively non-committal statement about Jesus who was “called” Christ. Now this does not mean that Origen’s accounts cannot be explained merely through the account in Hegesippus, the confusion of names, and the possibility that Origen composed the phrase about Christ himself when presenting the beliefs of a known non-Christian. But the details in Origen’s reports can be explained more plausibly and completely if it is postulated that he knew the account in Ant. 20 as it currently stands.

One lingering mystery for me is why Origen regarded a Jewish historian as accepting that God had punished the Jews for the death of a Christian. As a scholar and the head of a school in a city renowned for learning, he would not have been likely to conflate a major Christian historian with a major Jewish one on the basis of a similarity in names. And his accounts of James’ death suggest that he had read the account in Hegesippus, so he was likely to know who Hegesippus was and what he had said.

I suggest that the tradition about Josephus’ admiration for James did impute to him the belief about the war when a historian with a similar-sounding name wrote that the siege of Jerusalem had followed the execution of James. The newly developed tradition reached Origen several decades later, having become unverifiable. By then it surely must have extended to written forms, which could have been read as if they were paraphrases or quotes of Josephus, prompting Origen to surmise that Josephus must have written such things over a century earlier in a work that was no longer available. Origen does not, after all, state that anyone could look up Josephus’ views on James and the war, though he twice encourages his readers to look up what Josephus says about the antiquity of the Jewish people (see Against Celsus 1.16 and 4.11).

A similar process seems to have occurred in the next century, when Eusebius reported that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the execution of James. Eusebius purports to quote Josephus, but against his usual practice he does not name the work or chapter:

Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23.20
Josephus at any rate did not hesitate to testify this also through his writings, in which he says: But these things happened to the Jews as vengeance for James the Just, who was the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. For the Jews killed him even though he was a most just man.

This is a very close match with Origen’s words in one of the three passages above, Against Celsus 1.47, which suggests that Eusebius is using Origen as a source. Eusebius then reproduces the Ant. 20 passage directly, naming the correct work and chapter. He acted, then, just as I argue Origen and his predecessors to have done: he copied what was available to him and transmitted other traditions without citing a source.

Part 2 will deal with the question of whether Origen had a copy of Josephus on hand.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

God's Country?

I've just finished reading an essay called "God's Country", in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, by Walter Russel Mead. The full essay can be read for free, and is well worth the time. Mr. Mead has laid out a historical overview of American Protestantism, dividing it into fundamentalist, evangelical, and liberal camps, and he offers some observations on the directions that the United States is now taking.

He paints in broad strokes, and I will summarize his argument in even broader ones. In his view, it was Darwinism above all that basically divided early American Protestantism into three types. Fundamentalista and evangelicals place great importance on Biblical literalism and Christian doctrine than do liberals, for whom Christian ethics form the core of their faith. But while fundamentalists and evangelicals both read the Bible literally, the former are the main intellectual driving force behind creationism.

Fundamentalists are basically pessimistic about the capacity for human beings to create a better world while evangelicals and liberals share the basic American trait of optimism about that or any other goal. In contrast to the fundamentalist tendency to withdraw from the world into a pure Christianity, evangelical and liberal Protestants both believe in engaging the non-Christian world; both of the latter groups believe in missionary work in the sense of service, but liberals are less at ease with proseletyzing, which is of utmost importance to evangelicals.

Mr. Mead notes that evangelicals have grown the most as a percentage of the American population, while liberal Protestants have decreased significantly. This represents a marked change from the middle and late decades of the 20th century, when liberal Protestants may be said to have been in the ascendancy among our public officials and to have promoted values that are often defined as secular humanist as much as Christian.

I am much encouraged by any effort to make distinctions among Christians, since the general impression many people in the world have is that the United States is simply becoming fundamentalist, or simply becoming Christian, or merely theocratic. Properly speaking, the country seems to be taking a turn toward its evangelical roots, which is not the bad news that many think it is. I'm glad that Mr. Mead has described the concern of evangelicals with humanitarian and human rights issues, foremost among them the abolition of slavery, but also now, under the Bush administration, such things as increased aid to Africa to combat AIDS and to end Sudan's wars; human trafficking and the sexual enslavement of women and children has also come to the fore of their efforts.

In short, evangelicals belong no less than liberals in the ethical tradition that produced abolitionism and American optimism about moral progress in the world. The same might be said about the civil rights movement, which was in many ways inspired by both liberal Protestants like Reinhold Neibuhr (a major influence on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and by evangelical faith among African-Americans.

The country is, then, not turning into a monster by becoming more "Christian," nor is it even turning away from the things of which it can be proudest. What is happening to America, at least as far as its Christianity, is not something radically new.

I do think that what is happening in a more general sense is worrisome. I mean that the United States is an empire and is behaving ever more like one. The political power that it wields in the world is what worries me, when it is wielded in such ways as to produce, for instance, the invasion of Iraq.

Of course, political power and religion do not exist separately, and there is every reason to question the relationship between the two. Religious faith, by giving us a sense that God is blessing the country and its actions, can produce over-confidence and diminish self-criticism and humility. But then, again, so can secular humanism and liberal Christian ethics. If Iraq is the great overconfident act of America during this new time when evangelical Christianity has been in the ascendent, certainly Vietnam is the counterpart for that time when American presidents were liberal Protestants who believed in moral progress.

For me it seems rather that Christian precepts, whether derived literally or liberally from the Bible and other Christian traditions, must constantly inform the country and guide it against error.

One specific worry I do have comes from something described in Mr. Mead's article: the evangelical belief that the modern state of Israel is Biblically prophesied. Mr. Mead notes that in the Bible, God promises to bless Abraham's descendants and to bless those who bless them; therefore, many evangelicals believe that God will literally bless the United States if the country blesses Israel.

I am Roman Catholic, and I have always been most comfortable, by far, with liberal Protestantism, which may be the reason that I am more comfortable with the kind of support-and-criticism that the United States once gave to Israel under administrations like Truman, JFK's, and even one so recent as the elder Bush's, rather than with the pure support that seems to exist now. And I am troubled by what Mr. Mead points out, that evangelicals are unmoved by criticism of Israel, since they just see criticism as further sign that Israel is favored by God. Even if evangelical attitudes toward Israel can be said to be more sophisticated than this, it seems what we have here is the danger of issuing a blank check to a worldly government and not letting fair criticism come through. There is a Christian tradition of just war, and it would seem to me that whatever form of Christianity is dominant needs to embrace it more -- and continue to develop it.

An article well worth reading.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Biography of Anne Frank

I have recently become very ambivalent about sharing my thoughts on blogs, but I do want to say something about a book I read over the weekend, Anne Frank: The Biography, by Melissa Muller.

I am a slow reader, but this one (like a book I read last month, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts) took me less than two days to read. The style is simple and selfless, entirely in service of the subject. The book is gripping simply due to the content, which varies greatly. I felt as if I read three books, in fact. The first of these consists of the years before the Franks went into hiding. Ms. Muller tells us vividly about what was going on in Germany in the eyes of ordinary people like Anne's father, Otto. It is gripping to read, with tragic hindsight, about people's decisions in those days to leave or not to leave Germany. Their growing fear is palpable, and if you've only read the diary, it may be especially interesting for you to read about the impact on the Franks of Hitler's occupation of Holland, which took place two years before Anne began writing in her diary.

Perhaps because World War II has been a lifelong interest of mine, I flew through the first half of the book in a single brief seating. Then came the years in hiding, which is a very different part of the biography -- the second of three "books" or distinct experiences that I had. The prelude to the hiding consists of a portrait of the "external" world, in which Anne herself appears as an extroverted child, one with a personality more difficult than I had imagined, and one who was not yet aware of the larger history taking place around her; I dare say she can be the least interesting element of the first part of the biography. But once we come to the years in hiding, Anne is forced to become more introspective, and her inner life, open to us, commands your attention fully.

This part of the biography actually becomes something of a meditation on family life and human intimacy. My reading slowed down, but to my own surprise the content was actually more interesting than the large-scale historical portrait. This was really more than I had expected from a biography of one girl -- it turned into a very sympathetic account of Anne's whole family and its individual members. The discussion of a formerly unpublished diary entry concerning the Franks' marriage, which delves as well into the issue of censorship, is, I think, the highlight of the book. It is obvious that Ms. Muller is both sympathetic to the protaganists and committed to the truth, which makes the subsequent routine turn to other well-trod subjects, like Anne's own love life, appear like an anticlimax.

Still, the story does not flag, and we arrive finally at the "third" section of the biography, the account of the betrayal and the concentration camps. To say that this material is gripping is to say nothing. Yet I was sincerely disturbed by the details here. From a historical point of view, what Ms. Muller has highlighted to great effect is how everything the Nazis did was intended not just to destroy, but also to humiliate. This had already been clear in Ms. Muller's chronicling of the sequence of restrictions placed upon the lives of Dutch Jews, which are rightly described as "malevolent." Here at the close of the book we see it repeatedly, as when Ms. Muller describes the disorientation that Jewish prisoners must have felt upon disembarking from trains at Auschwitz and being greeted with high floodlights and whippings. This is large-scale history from the personal vantage point. Too often what the Nazis did, because it is analyzed in an attempt to understand how it came about and how it functioned, is remembered in the abstract, so that, for instance, the restrictions on Dutch Jews can seem merely like the necessary steps to genocide rather than the malevolent expressions of hatred that they also were.

In the end the biography, though impossible to put down, becomes very hard to read. The only negative thing I can say about the last part of the book is that it is so horrifying, it overwhelms a reader's reception of the gifts in the earlier sections; those have to be taken in again under a second reading.

There is nothing new about finding Anne Frank's story to be compelling. Millions of people have shared the same experience. What is new here is that the myth has been soaked in history. It has been set in historical detail, which makes the story stronger. Rather than destroyed, the myth, stripped of sentimentality, innacuries and other illusions, appears more attractive than ever, as historical truth.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Seamless Garment

Ben Witherington has started an interesting discussion about inconsistency in Christian principles. To that end I'd like to point out a group that is trying to stand on principles that can be called consistently Christian: The Seamless Garment.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

When that trumpet sounds

I walked to the river
And I walked to the rim
I walked through the teeth of the reaper's grin
I walked to you rolled up in wire
To the other side of desire

Oh where oh where will I be
Oh where oh when that trumpet sounds

- from "Where Will I Be," by Emmylou Harris
lyrics by Daniel Lanois

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Book Meme

Before my visit to Ecuador, Rick Sumner tagged me in the book-meme chain. After an even longer vacation from my blog (during which my thoughts about faith and life have all been too personal for publication), I think now would be a good time to do it. I don't believe in tagging, but this one is interesting.

One book that changed your life:
When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking, by John Howard Yoder

One book that you've read more than once:
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
(I don't think there's any book that I've read cover-to-cover twice, but I've read large passages of this one more than once, if that counts)

One book that you'd want on a desert island:
King James Bible (with Deutero-canonical works)

One book that made you laugh:
Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling

One book that made you cry:
102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, by Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer

One book that you wish you had written:
Feeding the Bear: American Aid to the Soviet Union, 1941-1945, by Hubert P. Van Tuyll

One book that you wish had never been written:
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

One book you are currently reading:
Jesus Remembered, by James D. G. Dunn

One book that you've been meaning to read:
Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth R. Miller

One book that you wish had been written:
A Moral Account of World War II

One book that you’ve read aloud:
Gilgamesh (David Ferry rendition)

(That last one is my own addition).

As I say, I don't believe in tagging, and no one should consider himself tagged, but here are three bloggers whose book lists I'd like to see: Phil Plait, Metacrock, and Peter Kirby.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Casting the Second Stone

Tomorrow morning, Dess and I are making our first trip together to Ecuador. I have not seen my extended family in 15 years, and we're both looking forward to this tremendously. I doubt that I will be getting much internet access, or that I'll post anything here for another two weeks. When I get back, I plan to put the photos up at my Flickr page.

Pasted below is one of those articles that I'm just deeply grateful to have, even if I don't know quite how to apply them in practice. It's very relevant to what's going in the Middle East, but of course it says a lot to me about the intellectual debates in which I get embroiled. Happy reading.


New York Times
July 24, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t

LONG before seat belts or common sense were particularly widespread, my family made annual trips to New York in our 1963 Valiant station wagon. Mom and Dad took the front seat, my infant sister sat in my mother’s lap and my brother and I had what we called “the wayback” all to ourselves.

In the wayback, we’d lounge around doing puzzles, reading comics and counting license plates. Eventually we’d fight. When our fight had finally escalated to the point of tears, our mother would turn around to chastise us, and my brother and I would start to plead our cases. “But he hit me first,” one of us would say, to which the other would inevitably add, “But he hit me harder.”

It turns out that my brother and I were not alone in believing that these two claims can get a puncher off the hook. In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation.

If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.

Research shows that people have as much trouble applying the second principle as the first. In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is the author of “Stumbling on Happiness.”

Sunday, July 23, 2006

My Jesus Puzzle review at Amazon

As I wrote a few posts back, I've been composing pieces about mythicism that I hope to publish on permanent web pages rather than debating forums and blogs. I've submitted a review of The Jesus Puzzle to Amazon, and what the heck, I'll publish it here, too:

A conspiracy theory

An important test of any theory is how much evidence exists for its case. In this book, Doherty proposes that Christianity began with a celestial Christ who was thought to be crucified in a celestial realm above the earth, and that Paul’s letters as they currently stand speak only of a non-terrestrial Christ. In fact, Doherty makes this claim for all the New Testament epistles, which are thus presented as direct evidence -- people describing their own belief and thus directly attesting to the existence of the belief.

One trouble facing Doherty’s thesis is that Paul’s letters and the other early Christian documents speak of Christ’s flesh and blood, and his birth and death; they also provide other indications of a terrestrial savior. So a large part of Doherty’s book consists of arguments to the effect that all these earthly-sounding words really referred to a “spiritual” death in the heavens. A great deal of work has already been advanced against these arguments, and it does not need to repeated here, except to say that no single piece of evidence for Doherty's thesis exists which is not ambiguous. Doherty hardly denies this ambiguity, since it is his own contention that even the most terrestrial-sounding passages in the New Testament can be dismissed as metaphor rather than plain evidence for a historical Christ.

Thus, the main argument of this book is about a lack of evidence, that is to say, an argument from silence. Doherty claims that the first ancient Christians are silent about an earthly Christ. Again, much prior work has been done to show that this is far from true. What I find interesting is that an argument from silence, though difficult to make and not generally favored by historians, can be legitimate, especially if combined with positive evidence. In this case, if we could not combine it with such evidence we would face new arguments from silence that contradicted Doherty’s own, or cancelled it out: Why are the proposed believers in the celestial Christ silent about so many details of their heavenly savior? And why do we not find ancient Christians, Jews, and pagans reporting or reacting to doctrines about a celestial Christ?

In this book, Doherty deals only with the second of these two questions. He looks for ancient authors who tell us that others either believed in a celestial Christ or doubted the terrestrial Christ. Since no ancient author tells us clearly about people who doubted that Christ appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man on the earth, Doherty proposes that we can find hints of such a thing.

In Appendix 3 of this book, he quotes a letter by Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians, written at the start of the second century, wherein Ignatius hopes that his readers will attain “full assurance in regard to the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate” (Magnesians 11:3).

This seems to Doherty like a polemic against a celestial Christ. The principle he is using is a valid one, akin to when mainstream scholars use Paul's assurances about the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as evidence that doubts about the Resurrection existed. But in that case, Paul tells us clearly what the doubts were. Ignatius does not, and it will be worth a little effort here to go into the details.

Ignatius says earlier in his letter that some deny the death of Christ. Today we call this the Docetic doctrine, which held that Christ merely appeared to be a human being but was actually only a spirit who appeared to die on the cross. This doctrine is well-attested because so much ancient Christian literature seeks to refute it; and Doherty rightfully regards these refutations as different from the refutation that he is looking for, the proposed polemic against a Christ who did not even appear to walk on the earth.

Yet Ignatius mentions nothing like that. He alludes to Docetism and to unspecified doctrines denying that Christ was the same as the one true God. And he refers very specifically to Judaism, just before making his assurance about the birth, death, and resurrection in the time of Pilate’s governorship of Judea. He is telling his readers, in short, to have full assurance about things that both Docetism and Judaism are known to have challenged: the nature of this or any proposed savior's birth; his Passion under the Roman leadership in a Jewish province; and his Resurrection. Doherty thinks that Ignatius is asking his readers to be “fully persuaded” of the bare facts of these things – the bare fact that they took place – but it hardly seems probable that Ignatius would be content to ask for that. He is asking his readers to attain “full assurance” about all of the Church’s interpretations and teachings concerning these things – to keep from straying into any kind of doctrinal dispute. So he writes throughout his letter.

The ambiguity of Doherty’s evidence prompts him to argue that there is so little clear evidence because orthodox Christianity changed, destroyed or neglected the evidence that was once there. He uses this argument openly in a chapter claiming that at least some second-century Christians worshipped only God and rejected all savior figures. Doherty presents the writings of Minucius Felix as a “smoking gun” to that effect, but he allows that the evidence is not as clear as we might want. He tells us that it is the best evidence that can be expected, because clearer statements would never have “reached us through 2000 years of Christian censorship” (see p. 292).

That is the conspiracy theory. Considering that Christianity has not wiped away all evidence of doctrines that it regarded as heresies, but instead has offered refutations of every heresy and preserved these refutations as a guide to the true faith, Doherty's claim is hard to believe. A conspiracy to hide the truth can take place, Christians not excepted; the record of the past can be doctored, and has been. But Doherty's specific claim is that Christianity's very first doctrines contained a purely celestial Christ, and that these doctrines have not been preserved even as heresy (with Ignatius serving as a brief and ambiguous exception). Christianity's true origin was wiped away, not merely with refutation and doctoring, but with silence.

It is hard to believe that Christian institutions and individual writers were silent about what would have been the most radical and provocative of all the heresies -- silent about an idea that, per Doherty's central thesis about how religions work, would have threatened the Church's power to a greater degree than any of the other heresies, some of which were already regarded by Church Fathers as mortally dangerous to the Church.

So Doherty proposes one additional reason to explain the silence: he suggests that the Roman war against Palestine in the year 70 C.E. uprooted or destroyed so many lives that later writers could claim that Christ had lived there in recent decades, without challenges from locals who remembered either the true situation or the beliefs of the sect that worshipped a non-terrestrial Christ (see pages 168 and 179). Doherty's picture is of a dying sect. But a fundamental claim of Doherty's idea is the pervasiveness in the entire ancient world of the belief in saviors who descended to celestial regions above the earth and experienced pain or death there. Had this sort of belief really been ubiquitous throughout the Empire, and applied to Christ as far as the church in Rome (to whom Paul addresses his longest letter), one war in Judea could not have extinguished the belief; and even in Judea it would be likely to reappear. Ignatius himself, per Doherty, is proof that the belief survived the war. But if Doherty is right, we would expect such a popular doctrine to have flourished after the war. We’d expect the orthodox sects of the Church proclaiming an earthly savior to produce some refutations. The Fathers established in Rome, the center of all ideas, would surely have encountered or heard of the celestial Christ, for Doherty does not address how the celestial Christ of Paul's Letter to the Romans was just forgotten -- except by returning to the idea of censorship.

I invite any reader attracted by this book to work out Doherty's scenario and to test it repeatedly against the available information about the time period. That's an external test. Then test it against its own premises, repeatedly, for an internal test. It is a worthy and rewarding challenge.