Friday, November 29, 2013

Going to China tomorrow

And I don't know how often I'll be able to blog . . .

A few intriguing rules for the first Buddhist nuns, from the Bikkumusangha, from the road:

12.  No crossing roads where there are crows. 

21.  Nuns should pack heat. 

24.  Avoid beautiful gardens, palaces, flowers. 

38.  No riding in vehicles -- if you're fit, walk! 

Anyway, thanks to my readers . . . Have a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Smart People Lie

I'm presently researching how the Gospel has changed the world for women, as you may know.  One comes across all kinds of interesting phenomena on such a journey. 

One thing I've noticed is a difference between some Indian scholars, and some American scholars.  Even in an anthology dedicated to a professor, I find that not all of the Indian scholarship would meet American standards.  There are lots of misspellings, poor grammar, and worse yet, the unabashed expression of horror when confronting evil:

"It passes our comprehension how the great Buddha could reconcile himself to the transparent injustice implied by the first regulation."
Door of Hope doll: are we
"white and wholesome," yet?
"To dub women as perpetual minors is the worst form of coercion that man can perpetrate on the womanhood.  That the Buddha with all his solicitousness for women could not help sanctioning this abominable tyranny on them is a sad commentary on his otherwise catholic vision and keen intelligence." Shalini Dixit, Patriarchy and Feminine Spaces: A Study of Women in Early Buddhism
Similarly, in Women of Disadvantaged Groups: Status and Empowerment, the author of a piece on the sexual exploitation of non-Brahman women in South India rages against various bizarre sexual practices and scams inflicted on women. 
Bad form, ladies.  Let your female American colleagues teach you how to be appropriately scholarly -- which means, finding evil in good, and good in evil, and being patronizing and especially suspicious of virtue.  (Except your own, which can be tacitly assumed.)
Here, for instance, from a book entitled Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960.  Sue Gronewold writes a chapter in that book about the Door of Hope Mission, a rescue mission run by Anglo-American missionaries in Shanghai, later mostly of the China Inland Mission.  (Hudson Taylor's outfit.)  As Gronewold admits, Taylor was very open-minded when it came to giving women a strong role in his mission.  Indeed, he was known to say his female missionaries were better evangelists than his male missionaries, at least in one region. 
Since 1902, to make money for rescued women, the mission sold China dolls.  These were painstaking objects of art, one of which would take a month of work to produce.  In 1929 these dolls were updated to more modern outfits. 
Here's how Gronewold writes up the story.  Sisters in that part of the world in which sneering still lags in its developmental infancy, please take note:

"CIM views of Chinese women added racism and imperialism to the already complicated patriarchy.  For evangelicals, the main attribute of Chinese women was their supposed heathenness and idolatrous ways.   In their view, women were far more susceptible to and responsible for perpetuating popular religion, for prostrating themselves before the 'gilded Goddess of Mercy.'  CIM literature, like much missionary writing, constantly portrayed Chinese women as downtrodden, dark, and limited in mobility, education, and esteem.  The kingdom of Christ literally lightened and whitened them.  'Woman's work for women' was necessary to reach the women and children of China and 'bring them into the light.  Victimized 'girls' represented more that the CIM's best test case; they represented China itself, a China that had been feminized and infantilized at the Door of Hope, born again, and transformed.  The girls who produced new Chinese women and girl dolls in this period reinforced the image of remade and reborn China and Chinese womanhood." (199)
Notice the dexterity with which Gronewold moves the conversation away from anything in the real world, any facts about how life is lived and what might make it better, any true picture of the state of affairs in early 20th Century China, any virtues or good deeds or kindnesses or sacrifices that her target villains (the missionaries) might achieve, to wholly imaginary and unreal crimes. 
To begin with, one must take care not to ask any questions about objective reality. 
* Are most of the worshippers of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, female?  (Answer: of course they are, as anyone who has actually been to a Chinese temple, to this day, knows.) 
* Did women disproportionately prostrate themselves before religious figures?   (Again, the answer is "Of course."  I have photos, I have interviews, and stats are not hard to find.) 
* Were Chinese women "downtrodden," uneducated, and limited in mobility in the 1920s?  (Of course they were.  The bones in girls' feet were broken at about the age of six, which very literally limited their mobility.  Did you ever try walking on broken, bound feet, Ms. Gronewold?  And almost no women were, in fact, educated or literate, until the missionaries arrived.)
* In what sense were the missionaries "racist?"  What does Gronewold mean by that accusation?  What is her evidence?  To what degree, compared with other westerners in the 1920s?  (No answer.)
* How were they implicit in "imperialism?"  What evidence does she have that the women who served at Door of Hope wished their governments to push around China?  (No answer.)
* Did the missionaries in fact change things?  (Well yes they did, in a big way.  Gronewold tells the story of how Door of Hope does this later in the chapter.  It is also a fact that missions in general introduced education for women, and helped launch the war against foot-binding, and in other ways did much to raise the status of women in China.)
* Has Ms. Gronewold ever served in a rescue mission, or tried to help girls forced into prostitution?  How many young women has she "rescued?  (No answer.)
But Gronewold doesn't need to answer such questions: guilt is implicit in the accusation.  If it weren't, it would be proven by the fact that the missionaries saw what everyone else with open eyes recognized -- that Chinese women, not excluding girls sold into prostitution (!), were in a bad way, and could benefit from a helping hand.  What else can one call that, but patronizing?  And thinking of oneself as better off than others -- isn't that the sin of the Good Samaritan?  After all, didn't he view the person who had been mugged and left for dead as "downtrodden, dark (dried blood will do that), and limited in mobility?"
Now it is probably unfair to be too harsh on Ms. Gronewold.  Maybe this paragraph, and other comments like it, are mainly a scholarly affectation.  (She may also have imbibed some Marxism, with all her vague talk about imperialism.)  She does, as I said, detail much of the good that Door of Hope accomplished, later in the chapter:

"The fruits of their labors benefited the Chinese nation as much as or more than they did either Western imperialists or the kingdom of God . . . From the vantage point of poor Chinese women in Shanghai who lived life on the edge and whose possibilities were limited to relatively unskilled factory work, abusive marriages, brothel work, begging, and hunger at home, the mission did indeed offer a 'door of hope.'"
But isn't the need to work to this conclusion by way of so many unsupported insinuations in itself, rather telling?  Because what Gronewold is affecting, is indeed a common and accepted style.  It is a style of lying, lying by insinuation. 
Give me bad spelling and honest emotion, any day. 
(Note: I posted another article yesterday that might just as well be called "How Dumb People Lie," then recalled it.  I don't know how much stupidity my good readers want to put  up with, around the holidays -- or me either, I'm grumpy enough as it is.   So Happy Thanksgiving!) 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Was Jesus Illiterate?

In Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Muslim scholar Reza Aslan argues that Jesus was illiterate: 

"It is estimated that nearly 97% of the Jewish peasantry could neither read nor write . . . Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic.   Luke's (accounts) . . . are fabulous concoctions of the evangelist's own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke's account even remotely credible." (34)

In addition, Aslan claims that Jesus belonged to "the lowest class of peasants" of the time, "just above the indigent, the beggar, and the slave."  He adds that there were "no schools in Nazareth" for peasant children, and surmises that Jesus' only education would have been in his trade.

To this I responded earlier, on this site, on Amazon, and in an article for Radix Magazine.  Here's the version from this site

Here are thirteen reasons why Aslan's argument fails, and it is far more reasonable to believe that Jesus was fully literate in one or more languages:

(1) The claim that only 3% of Jews at the time were illiterate has been disputed. 

(2) It is illegitimate to dismiss specific historical reports, such as that Jesus could read, based on broad demographic generalizations, such as that most people at the time could not read, therefore any given person could not read.  There are several such passages in the gospels, our earliest sources for the life of Jesus.  If any one of them is accurate, then Jesus must have been literate. 

(3) Aslan's main argument  (A) against Jesus' literacy goes like this: (a) X belonged to Category N.  (b) People in N usually possessed quality Q.  (c) Since X belonged to N, X probably also possessed Q. 

How much confidence can we place in such an argument?  When there are contrary historical reports, almost none. 

If we accepted arguments of type A, the claim that I was born in Seattle would have to be dismissed, since only one maybe ten thousand human beings are born in that city.  (A far smaller percentage than 3%.)  So would the claim that William Carey taught himself ancient languages while cobbling shoes, then introduced modern agriculture, printing, botany and other science to India, transforming that nation.  After all, no other cobbler did all that, so the prior probability against the story would seem to be vast, "not even remotely credible," in Aslan's words, but not 30 to 1, 300 billion to one. 

For an example from India where we have actual figures, less than 1% of Indian women could read before the early 20th Century.  Does that render biographies of female reformer Pandita Ramabai, which say she was educated in Hindu texts, incredible?

(4) Learning Greek letters is easy. 

(5) Aramaic does not appear difficult, either.  (I say that, having studied far more complex writing systems.) 

(6) Jesus was ambitious.  An ambitious young man who makes his living from the Hebrew Scriptures, would have strong motivation to learn to read them, or to read in general.  (And of course a young man who had gained mastery in the Hebrew texts, would be far more likely to make a big splash in Jewish religious society.) 

(7) His parents may also have wanted him to learn to read.  Luke reports that there were educated people in the family.  Surely it was more common for people with educated relatives, to learn to read, than for people without such relatives. 

(8) Other famous people come from humble backgrounds, and expended a great deal of energy in acquiring an education.  For example, almost no one read books in the town where Abraham Lincoln acquired his education.   Yet no one doubts reports that he could read, and indeed write with great mastery. 

(9) Jesus would have been able to speak Aramaic, and probably Greek.  This would give him a great advantage over those of us who study Greek without ever hearing it spoken. 

(10) Greek sounds the way it is spelled, unlike English.  Perhaps the same is true of Aramaic, as it seems to be of most languages more than English.  (This is true of all the languages I have studied enough to know that have alphabets or syllabaries, including Dai, French, German, Koine Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.) 

(11) The article Aslan appeared to be relying upon to show that few people in Jesus' day could read, admitted that more men than women learned to read.  Jesus was, of course, male. 

(12) It also admitted that more people who left the village life also learned to read. 

(13)  In addition to being ambitious in a field that required literacy, Jesus was also smart, perhaps the smartest person who even lived.  (M. Scott Peck)  That of course makes it almost inevitable that he would have learned to read and write, even aside from the positive evidence in the NT that he did (of which I have only touched the fringes.)   

All these factors combined make it probable a priori that an ambitious and brilliant male who moved from the country to the city and sought to reform Jewish tradition, and may have had well-educated relatives, would in the process of preparing to minister, have taken the elementary and fairly easy precaution of learning how to read. 

That is speaking strictly of prior probability.  But as we have seen, sane historians recognize that prior probability must usually yield to actual reports of what happened.  And even aside from a few direct reports of Jesus reading, his whole complex and brilliant interaction with the Old Testament Scriptures, which so inspired his followers and ultimately changed history, is not easily understood on the hypothesis that Jesus could not read the Jewish Scriptures for himself. 

Therefore, the claim that Jesus was illiterate, is vanishingly improbable, and can only be held against the weight of both reason and evidence. 

Disproving History: Carrier takes on the Gospels I

Proving History, the first part of Richard Carrier's bold two-volume attempt to demonstrate that Jesus never lived, or at least that asserting that he never lived is intellectually respectable, is easily the best of Carrier's books I have read so far.  Why I am Not a Christian (which I will review shortly) is embarrassing.  Sense and Goodness is much better, but still suffers from that cockiness and careless prodigality of opinion on a universe of topics that apes virtuosity as Sunday insert travel journalism apes really knowing a foreign land.  But in this book, Carrier keeps to a focused topic, on which he has read and thought a good deal, and banishes self-praise to the margins of coy implicity.  

Not that Carrier claims to prove much about Jesus in this book, which claims to mainly offer a foundation for the argument to follow in Volume II. 
The subject here is historical methodology, and how best to "search for the historical Jesus."  Carrier thinks the methods commonly employed need reform, or perhaps revolution is a more apt term.  His main goal in this book is to demonstrate that the received methods do not work as usually applied -- and then to point us to the Straight Path, that is, Bayes Theorum.  His secondary goal is to begin showing why his methods are going to take out tradition arguments for Jesus' historicity, still more for the reliability of the gospels -- knowing the kids can't wait for supper, and need some snacks of raw meat beforehand.  (Tis the season for Thanksgiving analogies.) 
This book roughly consists of three parts: (1) Carrier's general theory of how to do history; (1) his attacks on the criteria that are used to establish Jesus, or the use of those criteria to do so (most of his time is spent on the Criteria of Embarrassment), and (3) a defense of using Bayes to make historical arguments. 
I will not analyze Carrier's use of Bayes in this review.   There are mathematicians who seem to have issues with that, and I see no need to poach on their territory.  I personally have no problem with applying Bayes to history, to the extent that I follow the discussion.  The devil, as usual, is in the historical details.  I will explain why I find his logic, and treatment of history, defective at times in the first two parts of this work, then go after three major issues, that threaten to ruin Carrier's project.   
But first, let me say that that does not mean the book is not worth reading, or that Carrier makes no valid or interesting points.  We need our critics.  In a sense, as a Christian I think Carrier is doing helpful work, here.  He is offering the strongest challenges he can think of, taking skepticism in some ways beyond where it has gone before, beyond the Jesus Seminar that I rebutted long ago, to fling the most ingenious arguments he can get his hands on at the citadel of faith, like the siege-works of Mordor advancing on Gondor.  Behind him, however, lies history itself, including history that Carrier himself has in the past argued for, debunked along with the gospels, as collateral damage.  And I believe his assault on Gondor, too, begins to fail already in this first volume, as new resources of historicity come raging into the field from hills and river, trumpets blasting. 
Having gotten the Tolkien out of my system, let's get down to specifics.  I'll begin with details, then move on to three big issues. 

Selective Nit-Picking
The first hundred pages or so of Carrier's book attempts to establish a series of principles for testing history.  There is a lot of this that I agree with.  Carrier obviously respects the discipline of history, as he understands it, pointing out for instance that science itself depends to a large extent upon historical reports.  Carrier is at his best when he takes his Gnu pugilist hat off, and puts his philosopher of history hat on.  Unfortunately he cannot always resist tossing peanuts to the peanut gallery:
11. "Apart from fundamentalist Christians, all experts agree the Jesus of the Bible is buried in myth and legend."

Carrier surely knows that scholars who fit no reasonable definition of "fundamentalist" (Luke Johnson, NT Wright) would strongly disagree with this statement, and that many whom he might try to pigeon-hole into this category (Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington) have gained credibility in, and made marks on, the scholarly world far beyond what he or any Christ mythicist have yet achieved. 
23. "Compared to, for example, Richard Nixon or Mark Twain, the documentation for Jesus and the origins of Christianity is extraordinarily thin and problematic.  And yet even knowing all we'd like to know about Nixon or Twain is impossible, as even for them the evidence is neither complete nor unproblematic; for Jesus and the origins of Christianity, vastly more so.
"Anyone who rejects this conclusion is not an objective scholar, but a dogmatist or propagandist whose voice needn't be heeded by any respectable academic community."
I wonder what respectable community Carrier has in mind.  Is it the community that overwhelmingly rejects mythicist conclusions about Jesus?
And why, in researching Jesus, should one reference Richard Nixon, about whom many of us already know than we wish?   Compared to the historical King David, who certainly did live, documentation for Jesus is extraordinarily robust and diverse.

179.  " . . . any true content gets simpler and less detailed over time . . . "
That's not what happened when I wrote a little biography of my father for our family, after he passed away.  The stories began simply, from what I personally remembered, or what one other family member told me.  Then as I interviewed more people -- about events, mind you, often much further in time than the writing of the gospels was from Jesus' public ministry -- the stories tended to grow, become more detailed, as different people recalled different parts of what happened.  All in all, my experience writing that biography affirmed my trust that human memory can provide solid evidence, and the possibilities of turning memory into accurate biography.  Again, at a longer distance by decades, in some cases, than Mark was from the events of his gospel. 
Problem One: Is Carrier acting as Historian, or Prosecuting Attorney?

Carrier gives Matthew 10: 5-6 and 15:24, in which Jesus tells his disciples to preach only to Jews, a bizarre but perhaps revealing read.  He claims that Matthew was struggling against a community of Gentile Christians, whom he wanted to discredit, and that may be why he invented these sayings. (171)  He finds evidence for the idea that these sayings were indeed invented by Matthew, in the fact that Paul is never depicted at having to answer Christians who cited Jesus restricting evangelistic efforts to just Jews.

Yet at the end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to "Go into all the world, and make disciples!"  Carrier points that passage out himself, and remarks:
"On the other hand, Matthew's seemingly contradictory endorsement of a mission to the Gentiles (in Matthew 28:19) is no more likely to be unhistorical because it fails to cohere with what we know from Galatians -- because Matthew does not mean what Paul was doing (converting Gentiles straightaway, without first converting them to Judaism through circumcision and dietary laws) . . . . "
This is an argument worthy of Rube Goldberg. 
First, where is the supposed "contradiction?"  If a coach tells his offensive team to get out on the field after the ball has been kicked off to their side, does that "contradict" him telling them to sit on the bench after they have kicked off?  Nor is there any "contradiction" in Jesus telling his team to do one thing at one point, obviously tied to a particular mission, and something else later.

Nor did Jesus say anything anywhere in these Matthew passages about dietary laws. 

And Paul knew first-hand that Christ wanted him to preach the Gospel to Gentiles (Acts 13:47).  Why in the world would Luke record Jews making objections that had not been written down yet, and that when written down, would be narrowly focused and contain their own universal negation in the Great Commission?  (What does it say, "Go into all the world and make Jews, getting out your knives and cutting . . . ?")  
Carrier is inventing problems for the NT texts with the glee of a rich Roman merchant setting gladiator slaves at one another in the Coliseum.  The New Testament account is at this point sensible and straightforward: Carrier works overtime to introduce problems into it so as to undermine its credibility. 

And that is the stance not of objective history (if there is such a thing), but of a prosecuting attorney.  Fine, good to know what we're facing here. 

Problem Two: Disproving History

One of Carrier's chief goals in Proving History is to undermine the historical criteria frequently used to defend the Gospels.  In the second major part of the book, he thus goes after these famous criteria in a D-Day landing style chapter of 86 pages, entitled "Bayesian Analysis of Historical Methods."  Unfortunately, in the process he accidentally wipes out all ancient history along with the gospels. 
The attack Carrier launches on the "Criterion of Embarrassment" is especially energetic.  He argues that the criterion is self-contradictory: "Surely if anything was actually embarrassing about Jesus, we can fairly well assume it would not survive in the record at all," because it would have been edited out. (135)  So we must assume the authors had some positive reason for including such "embarrassing" facts as Jesus' death on the cross, his cry of despair from the cross, and so on.  In fact, one can often find (or imagine) excellent reasons why the evangelists would have included this or that embarrassing fact even if it wasn't true.  Mark, for instance, would have read prophets like Daniel who as much predicted the death of the Messiah.  And even when we don't have access to such opposing motives, our very ignorance defeats us: we would have to be aware of the author's thinking, his assumptions, the theories he was arguing against, and so on, to be sure that what he recorded truly did upset his apple cart.  Furthermore, Carrier argues that all religious texts record events that might be deemed embarrassing -- should we accept them all?  Sometimes here, Carrier seems to just throw mud against the wall to see what sticks:
"The incest and immorality of the gods in Homer was embarrassing to Plutarch and Plato, for example (they chafe at it constantly), yet no one today uses that fact to argue that Homer's stories of the gods must therefore be true." (129)
Of course not.  Plato doesn't claim that Homer's stories are true, so why should anyone use his skepticism about already ancient tall tales to argue that they really happened?  Still less does Plato claim, as Luke does, to have carefully researched the historical facts, before describing how Zeus appeared as swan or bull to chase fair maiden.  Homer wrote some two to four hundred years before Plato.  These are basic and obvious considerations, that Carrier too often just fails to consider. 
After taking his shots at the Criteria of Embarrassment, Carrier asks, "What are we to do?" (158)  He admits that in practice, this criterion "often finds successful use in every historical field," and even "I've relied on it myself."
So he has.  (And so, for that matter, have some of America's most famous skeptics have employed it against me.) 
In Sense and Goodness Without God, Carrier argued that Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC is much better attested than the Resurrection of Jesus.  Carrier offered what he there called "counterbiased corroboration" for the crossing.  He explained:
"A Counterbiased source is someone who is actually notably biased against the event being reported, so that if even they admit it happened, there is a good chance it did.  And so, we find that many of Caesar's enemies, including his nemesis Cicero, refer to the crossing of the Rubicon, as did friends and neutral observers . . . " (SBWG, 243)
Here we apparently have an example of how the Criteria of Embarrassment should be used.  But see what Carrier demands of proper use:
"First, you must reliably know if the statement in question very probably did go against its author's interests, that the author actually perceived that it would, and that the statement did not serve other interests the author had which he may have regarded as outweigh any other consequences he perceived to be likely.  And that means you must reliably know what an author's interests actually were, and not just in general, but that particular author in that particular book, in that particular scene (and in that particular community at that particular time, and you must reliably know what the author perceived the consequences of his statement would be . . . you must reliably know how that author would have weighed the pros and cons he was aware of at the time . . . And if you can establish all that, you're not done.  For you must also reliable know if the author was even in a position to know the statement was actually true . . . You also need a specific theory as to why the questionable statement was included at all.  And then you need to test that theory against other theories of what it may have been included"
Nor is that all!
"But that requires explaining why that author could not omit it or even change it (and why no one else could in all the decades before." (PH, 158-9)
Now did Richard Carrier "establish" all this about Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC?  For that matter, could anyone ever establish it about anything?  Or are we artificially raising the barrier to proof so high that not only the gospels, but no one ever, could possibly surmount it?
Where in Cicero does Carrier claim he spoke of Caesar crossing the Rubicon?  Extant works of Cicero may be as old as 350 AD, but that still leaves a lot of time for anonymous scribes to do their dirty work. 
Plutarch, who tells the story of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, was born more than a century after the event, and the manuscripts for his Lives arrive in our hands almost a thousand years later. 

Carrier rebukes Marcus Borg for supposing that if we have at least two early and independent versions of a saying, that is good reason to think it "goes back to" Jesus.  Carrier responds to Borg:
"It is an equally good reason for thinking that the gist of it goes back to an originating myth (or even a revelatory dream or vision), or an earlier storyteller's innovation." (174) 
Carrier fails to notice that this destroys his argument for Caesar crossing the Rubicon, too.  Cicero does not claim to have witnessed Caesar's horse getting his hooves wet.  (And if he had, given the hundreds of years down which his accounts descend, there were plenty of opportunities for fabrication.)  His account, if any is actually given anywhere (Carrier does not cite his source), can be explained as the reflection of an  earlier originating myth which also reached Plutarch's ears, maybe part of the Herculean mythological motif about crossing the River Styx to regain a beloved from Hades. 

Probably nothing in ancient history, and very little in modern history, can survive the level of skepticism Carrier brings to the gospels here.  One can seldom "reliably know" that a statement could not have served "other interests," still less what a given author "perceived the consequences" of him saying something would be.  It may be that, supposing Cicero to actually have said that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (I have found no such record, yet), he thought telling the story would make Caesar look bad.  Or maybe he thought it would make Caesar look good, but now that Caesar was dead, he wanted to assuage that Roman faction against Mark Antony and the assassins.  Or maybe he heard a false rumor of the crossing.  And Caesar might have gone by sea.  One can think of an infinite number of sillier possibilities -- maybe one of Caesar's generals was holding a knife to Cicero's throat as he wrote.  Maybe he wrote "Caesar did NOT cross the Rubicon" and the word "not" was swallowed in a manuscript crease.  Indeed, the whole train of manuscript history is vulnerable to attack at thousands of points.  (Exponentially more vulnerable than the manuscript history of the gospels, which is centuries shorter, with many times as many early manuscripts.) 
So must all ancient history be declared bunk? 
Not at all!  Sometimes these fragile trains of evidence come to be verified by more direct evidence, even physical evidence that archeologists dig up from the very time and place that the original writing was about.
For instance, the Chinese historian Si Maqian (d. 86 BC) recorded the sequence of Shang Dynasty rulers more than a thousand years before his time.  (Some of whom lived in the city I'm going to be moving to shortly, Zhengzhou.)  These reign periods were widely questioned by skeptical historians, until archeologists found the names of most rulers at Anyang, a later Shang capital, and other archeological records that generally confirmed Si Maqian's late account. 
Carrier wants us to believe that having four gospels that generally confirm one another's stories, is no advantage at all.  This is extreme.  The gospels would seem to be vastly more secure than the single late record of Si Maquian, which was put into hiding by his daughter, and finally "published" by his grandson, with a few alterations.  The first manuscript of that work only appears half a millennia or so later.  Yet if you believed Si Maqian in the face of all that long transmission and storage with all those people you had never met and never were given the lie detector and mind-reading tests Carrier seems to demand for reliable history, so as to dissect their every thought and intent -- you would know something about a long stretch of Chinese history, that you would otherwise not have known. 

So something seems wrong with Carrier's ultra-critical methods. 

Let's look again at the Criteria of Embarrassment.

Carrier seems to suppose that if a writer finds a reason within his greater authorial purpose for inserting an incident into the story he is telling, then that incident is no longer "embarrassing."  But this seems simplistic.  The gospels record how the disciples' expectations were shattered.  Upon that shattered foundation, a new foundation of partial understanding was erected. 
By analogy, consider the story Deborah Layton tells in her autobiographical Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple.   The story she tells about Jim Jones includes three kinds of elements, roughly speaking: (1) positive elements, reflecting her original high impression of Jones as a spiritual man who fought for racial justice and to help the downtrodden (let's call that Model A); (2) negative elements, reflecting her growing understanding that Jones was evil, manipulative, and dangerous (Model B); (3) neutral elements related simply because they were important to her story. 
That story is full of incidents that are obviously painful to Deborah personally, and also to both her first and her second models of the Reverend Jones.  She has to tell how Jones seduced her and other women in the cult.  One need not nail down all possible alternative motivations with certainty, as Carrier seems to demand, to suppose that she found this embarrassing.  There are people who make up lurid sexual adventures, but these incidents are so humiliating, and not very titillating, and she does not seem to be that kind of person. 
As for Carrier's claim that the disciples are too stupid and willful to find credible, Deborah notes:

"It's hard to explain why I didn't realize something was seriously wrong; why I stayed deaf to the warning calls ringing in my ears.  I ignored my doubts and my conscience because I believed that I could not be wrong, not that wrong." (69)
This is how Deborah realized that Jones was vicious and amoral: incidents that embarrassed her former beliefs occurred.  Her stories mark the transition from Model A to Model B.
So should we toss out her story, because it now fits Model B?  That would be a strange thing to do. 
Layton forthrightly tells stories that were terribly painful, and remained deeply embarrassing.  In her literary reconstruction, she does fit it all into a "myth," an overweening interpretive narrative, a story line by which she interprets what happened.  But that does not in any way draw the intellectual power of her story, any more than the palpable realism of Mark's story.

But apparently that realism is not palpable to Dr. Carrier. 

Problem Three: Has Carrier Read the Gospels? 

I sometimes wonder, in his analysis of microfractures in the body of the gospels, if Carrier has lost the ability to read the texts as a whole.  Note:
"All we have are uncritical pro-Christian devotional or hagiographic texts filled with dubious claims written decades after the fact by authors who never tell us their methods or sources. Multiple Attestation can never gain traction on such a horrid body of evidence." (175)
I take it from this that Carrier either never reads genuine hagiography or devotion, or has not noticed what it is like.  More likely, he fails to recognize what the gospels themselves are like.  As C. S. Lewis, one of the best-read experts on fiction in modern times, put it, comparing the Gospel of John to various forms of fiction, "None of them is like this." (I demonstrate this point in detail in some chapters of Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.)
Likewise, critiquing the criterion of Multiple Attestation, Carrier offers another revealing comparison:

" . . . we should actually expect multiple attestations to be fabricated.  Hence the Infancy Gospels 'corroborate' that Jesus was a great miracle worker, yet we know full well this evidence is fictional . . . " (173)
But the example of the so-called "Infancy Gospels," too, shows remarkably inattentive reading.  Read the things!  Carrier doesn't seem to notice how startlingly different the alleged "miracles" in these works are from those in the real gospels.  (I describe some of the differences between real miracles and such fabrications in Jesus and the Religions of Man.)  
C. S. Lewis wrote of an affliction he found common among New Testament scholars:

"These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight."

That is also my impression of how Carrier reads the gospels, too.  He rips them to shreds analytically, but misses the essential character of the texts he purports to be analyzing.  This was proven to me in our debate, when he made the astounding claim that books like Apollonius of Tyana, the Book of Tobit, the Golden Ass, and Life of Romulus "share all the characteristics of the gospels."  I analyzed that claim here, showing that objectively analyzed, it was clear that nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, not one of them comes anywhere close to resembling a NT gospel. 

This post is just a short and preliminary brief for the defense, of a book that makes many good points, but that I think signals that Carrier's project is unlikely to succeed.  Indeed, while many of his historical principles are solid, and some of his criticisms of individual NT passages seem credible, I suspect the overall effect of his attack is likely to prove much like what John Earman says about Bayes Theorum:
"I trust I have managed to reveal one of the undeniably impressive properties of Bayesianism: the more it is attacked, the stronger it gets, and the more interesting the objection, the more interesting the doctrine becomes." (41)
Whether or not refuting Carrier's doctrine will make the Gospel appear stronger and more interesting, may depend partly on how good are the objections Carrier and his confederates can raise.  But Carrier is smart.  He is well-read.  He has searched high and low for parallels to the gospels, following a vast herd of mainstream but also skeptical scholars before him.   That is what makes such arguments worth considering. 

In the end, Kilimanjaro still rises above the Kenyan plains.   And the elephant, standing ten yards away in broad daylight, stamps his foot with justifiable impatience. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hindu Texts on Women I: The Rig Veda

Two years ago, as part of my long series on "How Jesus Liberates Women," I analyzed the influence of world religions sociologically, according to a 1988 UN study of the status of women around the world.  Earlier this fall, we looked at an alternative interpretation of the same data, by a female scholar from Pakistan.  While both studies were flawed in various ways, in both cases the results showed that countries with strong historical Christian influence tend to treat women relatively well, while countries with a Muslim or Hindu background tend to treat women poorly.  (With Buddhists in the middle, and states with many Secular Humanists looking pretty good, too.)   

But such broad social surveys are most effective in establishing correlation, not causation.  I argued that to demonstrate causation, to show that different religions really do effect the status of women in different ways, it would help to find two other things: (1) a plausible source of causation in the religious texts themselves, and (2) historical evidence that in fact, those texts made a difference. 

In several later posts (click on the "Christianity and women" label below), I offered plentiful evidence for both of these points. 

Now we are examining the impact of other religious texts and traditions on the status of women.  In a three-part series on November 8, November 14, and November 18, I cited every important, and most minor, references to women in the Quran.  I was frankly appalled by the prophet's scheming and cruelty.  In the comments sections, especially of the third post, some objections were raised, not to what I found in the Quran, but along the lines of, "Don't take the splinter out of your neighbor's eye, until you first take the log out of your own." 

To which my response is: (a) I'm a student of world religions: my goal here is to understand.  (b) Jesus also said, "By their fruits you will know them," which seems to imply that religious leaders ought to be evaluated empirically. (c) In fact, I already analyzed the gospels and Acts of the Apostles in the same way.  That's the whole point of the exercise.  I'll also get to Paul, too.  Mohammed was not being treated unfairly.  (d) Anyway, I welcome fair analysis of Deuteronomy, or any other OT book, if you treat it the same way: read systematically, rather than cherry-picking, and evaluate how the text as a whole teaches us to treat women.  (f) I probably won't do that myself, because Christ is the center of the Christian faith, through whom we interpret the Old Testament.  One only has so much time. 

The other great religion that the UN survey leads one to believe may have harmed women is Hinduism.  (As you may recall, Buddhist countries tended to lie scattered in the middle.) 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Happy Homecoming Day, C. S. Lewis!

In college some time during the last century, I reviewed a clever book for a student newspaper by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft called Between Heaven and Hell.  Noting that Lewis, JFK, and Aldous Huxley all passed away on the same day, Kreeft proposed that the three men met somewhere in another world after their deaths for a conversation about ultimate truths, which he then records.  Of course Lewis got the best of the debate, as he normally did in this life. 

I was two when Lewis passed away, so I never had the chance for that long conversation with him that I have often wished for since. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Great Christian Thinkers on Faith and Reason

Note: I originally compiled this anthology for  We considered including it in the upcoming volume, True Reason, which is due to come out in print early in January, but ultimately Tim McGrew and I reworked some of the early sections in more depth for a single chapter.  However, as part of his multi-pronged response to Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists, Tom Gilson recently asked if he could post this on his site, Thinking Christian, which he did.  I thought I'd post it here, too, and maybe add new names and quotes as I come across them.  One new one I'll add today is by St. John of Damascus, from the 8th Century.  -- David

The following quotes represent a variety of traditions—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and vocations—philosophers, theologians, scientists, reformers, and perhaps the greatest Christian missionary after St. Paul: all of them key Christian thinkers speaking on faith and reason—for those who think that faith is disconnected from good thinking.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mohammed enslaves Women III, then John of Damascus weighs in

We seem to share with our canine friends an unfortunate instinct to grovel before bullies. 
That is the only explanation I can find for the tendency of some non-Muslim women to depict Mohammed as enlightened or anything but ruthless in his treatment of women. 

On reading it through for the first time, I find the Quran even worse than expected. It seems little more than a vehicle by which Mohammed asserted power over others, and demanded that everyone submit utterly to him.  There is one great law to which all people must bow at all times, to gain paradise with rivers of honey and water and wine and milk, and in which one lounges on couches and eats fruit and it entertained by virgin beauties, and avoids a hell of boiling water or copper that burst one's innards and has to consume hellish devil fruit to intensify agony forever.  And that law is absolute, unquestioning obedience to the "prophet's" every whim. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mohammed gives women more trouble.

I am presently reading through the Quran from beginning to end for the first time.  I have taught on Islam (shortly, in the context of world religions), and I have read many books on Islam, so it is past time that I finally grappled with the source of Muslim teaching in its totality. 

It has so far been an enlightening, which does not always mean exciting, ride.  The book is very repetitive.  Sometimes it gains a kind of low-key poetic majesty, in which the very repetitions feature as a useful device.  The overwhelmingly dominant themes are:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Peter Boghossian captains Titanic to bottom of Atlantic.

The skeptical world is presently agog over philosopher Peter Boghossian's new book, Manual for Creating Atheists.  And well they should be: the book is a monstrous, enormous, monumental, dare one say titanic work of hubris.  Some of the rivets of his argument are missing, it hit an iceberg even before sailing out of port, and there is a thirty-foot gash in its hull below the water line.  But it is a magnificent vessel, and skeptics from Richard Dawkins to John Loftus are clambering aboard with a considerable weight of philosophical luggage. 

I posted my review earlier.  John Loftus has just posted his.  Let us read through the latter with our customary critical engagement:

Friday, November 08, 2013

Karen Armstrong kisses up to Mohammed (and throws her sisters under the camel train)

So, what did Mohammed really think about women?  Did he hang around the tent, chatting amicably with his women-folk, as Karen Armstrong supposes?  Or was he a sexual tyrant and master manipulator whose example and teachings help explain the low status of women in the Muslim world today?  Let's begin looking for answers to that question in the Quran itself. 

I have to admit, sometimes I enjoy it when females disrespect females in the abstract.  Maybe it's the old "divine and conquer" instinct.  Not that I'd want to listen to it every day: I'm glad that the women in my life get along.  Still, whatever doubts I have about Ann Coulter, I smiled the other day when she said she thought that in times of crisis, it's best that a nation be led by a man, not a woman.  I don't know if she is right -- I was just reading about Queen Tamar and the Golden Age of Georgia in the 11th Century yesterday -- but I smiled when she said it. 

But in her Short History of Islam, "religious scholar" Karen Armstrong takes betrayal of her own gender too far for my taste. 

Thursday, November 07, 2013

In the Beginning, God -- by Winfried Corduan

(Adapted from Amazon review, just posted.)

I have been fascinated by evidence for God in non-western cultures for some thirty years, since first reading Don Richardson's Eternity in Their Hearts. One chapter of my own first book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (which Corduan has apparently not read) described God as he was worshipped, and often neglected, in China. Since then, as regular readers of this blog know, I have read, written, and even debated the idea with atheists like Richard Carrier and Hector Avalos. But in some ways, this book takes the debate to a whole new level.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Perspective: Teddy Roosevelt's North Dakota

Note: Christ the Tao set a new record last month for page visitors, for the second month in a row, at 12,000+.  We're still small and maneuverable and keeping the big boys off guard -- but great to have your company.  Two more milestones: our most popular post went over 10,000 total visits ("How Confucius Proves Jesus"), and my book reviews on now have more than 11,000 "helpful" votes from 400 or so reviews. 

We don't get quite as many visitors to "Perspectives" posts, but I like to put them up, anyway, take a break from arguing, and offer a peculiar vision of the marvelous world around us.  In a sense, that is what this blog is all about. 

Today's photos continue my summer book tour, this time from Teddy Roosevelt National Park  in North Dakota, (northern section), and also a sunflower field nearby. 

Friday, November 01, 2013

Phil Zuckermans' Recipe for Secular Humanist Pizza

Typing out one of Dr. Phil Zuckerman's arguments for Secular Humanism, it occurred to me that it might also make good instructions for baking pizza.  So let me transcribe a portion of that argument -- which comes up in different forms later in the debate as well -- as follows.  I'll work those slight alterations to a recipe that make all the difference between a dish that gets wrapped in plastic and abandoned in the back of the fridge, and one that practically begs you to fold it greedily into your hungry mouth. 

Tis almost the Season again! 
(This one is from last year.)
How to make Secular Humanist Pizza. (Quick tip: for best results, do not add Bible verses.)

2013.  The following declaration was proclaimed.  Quote:

"Good pizza is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Now that was not Richard Dawkins talking.  That was not Christopher Hitchens.  That was David Marshall, cooking pineapple, cilantro, pepperoni and mushroom pizza, on the evening of October 25th, 2013. 

Nor does any other skilled pizza maker that I know of use Bible verses in their pizzas. 

Think about bakers agreeing on anything unanimously!

Now you might say, "Oh, Phil, you know how bakers are, they add all kinds of secret ingredients -- they'll try anything!"