Uncommon Sense

December 13, 2019

Presuppositions To the Left of Me . . .

Filed under: History,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:55 am
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I have been re-reading a bit of Bart Ehrman because I remember being impressed with his work when I first read it but have acquired some doubts now, having read some scholarly criticism of his works. I had at hand Ehrman’s Jesus Before the Gospels so I thought I would delve into that.

I was brought up abruptly by the very first paragraph of the Introduction, which I supply here:

JESUS DIED IN ABOUT the year 30 CE, but our earliest surviving accounts of his life did not start to appear until some forty years later (beginning with the Gospel of Mark). During the intervening years—and even in the years after our Gospels were written—stories about Jesus were in oral circulation, starting with tales told by those who were eye- and earwitnesses to the things he did and said. I am deeply interested in how Jesus was being “remembered” and “misremembered” by those who were telling such stories, both those who actually knew him and those who heard stories from others, some years, or even decades, later, before our written Gospels appeared.

Uh, hello? “During the intervening years . . . stories about Jesus were in oral circulation, starting with tales told by those who were eye- and earwitnesses to the things he did and said.” WTF? How is this known? Were these written down? Is there some record of these? Is there even any mentions of these in historical records?

This is stated as if it were a fact. And stated well before the following:

When it comes to Jesus, all we have are memories. There are no lifelike portraits from his day, no stenographic notes recorded on the spot, no accounts of his activities written at the time. Only memories of his life, of what he said and did. Memories written after the fact. Long after the fact. Memories written by people who were not actually there to observe him.

And, if there were no historical Jesus as described, then what are these “memories”?

Ehrman wants to talk about the studies on the oral transmission of stories, through gossip, by bards (through songs and poetry), etc. But he starts by saying there was an oral tradition. He doesn’t say he is going to establish that there was such a tradition and how we might go about recovering from it what we may. He says “There was an oral tradition.” Why? Because there must have been one to supply the fodder from which the gospels were written. Hello?

Let’s, instead, take a step back (not in time, but away from the narrative being “sold”).

Jesus died circa 30 CE, according to “tradition,” and the first gospel was written shortly after 70 CE, so at least 40 years after any event described. Did anything happen between those years (other than an oral tradition)?

Ever hear of the Apostle Paul?

Paul’s authentic epistles (there were more forgeries than actual letters) were written to “churches” (the word church at the time referred to a congregation, not a building). And these were written (ca 50-64 CE), clearly, with the full knowledge that such letters would be copied and shared around to other groups of Christians. If they had not been copied, we would not now have any copies as all of the originals have perished. (There are some referred to and not, as yet, found; they may still turn up). So, an itinerant preacher, like Paul, had the wherewithal to have letters written for him (he possibly could have done so for himself, but scribes were not hugely expensive, especially scribes recently converted to Paul’s way of thinking).

So, writing things down was possible. “Churches” had the ability to copy documents and clearly did for several decades before the gospels were written. And according to some there were dozens and dozens of Jesus stories flying around . . . but none of them got written down, to share, for 40 years? There is a hypothetical document, Q, which was supposedly a source of Jesus sayings. And, no church copied this or shared it in written form? It was not considered important? So, for forty years the only words associated with Jesus were things people said? Like “Well, you know what Jesus said, blah, blah, blah”? Amazing.

And, as I have suggested before, no rich convert before giving away their wealth wouldn’t have sought out all of the people who knew Jesus in person and debriefed them? Even one such account would have been powerful propaganda. (I am amazed that no one has forged such a document. Maybe the Gospel of Judas might qualify . . . if it hadn’t been written even later than the canonical gospels. FYI The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel whose content consists of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. It is thought to have been composed in the second century by Gnostic Christians, not by Judas, since it contains late-second century theology.)

When you ask moderns to identify sayings from the book they claim is the word of their god, they get things massively wrong. Many people think that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, for example (it is not). President Trump has a favorite Bible verse and that is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” the only verse in the OT that Jesus is recorded as speaking against. (Jesus responds with the “turn the other cheek” and “give money to any who ask” idiocy.) Now, granted, the folks of first century Palestine had fewer draws on their attention, but I suspect that the volume of gossip transmitted daily was hardly less than it is now, excepting for the amplification of mass media. People like to talk, even when there is little to talk about.

I do not know whether I will finish Ehrman’s book, having read it before. I may skip over the memory bits as I recall them fairly well. If I think it important I will review the book when finished (if finished).

November 29, 2019

How Many Angels Can Dance Upon the Head of an Academic Argument

Filed under: Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:35 pm
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In discussions of the New Testament (NT) gospels, it is claimed by scholars that a document was used by both Matthew and Luke to flesh out (no pun intended) the gospel of Mark. This document was given the name Quelle, or Q for short, from the German word for source. No evidence exists in the archaeological record for such a document. No one has referred to it, nor have any fragments of it been discovered. The document is claimed to contain sayings of Jesus that include wisdom sayings, prophecies and other things. Some have been so adventurous to reconstitute the contents of the document.

There is a competitor to the Q theory, and that is that both Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, but then Luke “copied” from Matthew, which is the source of the material that Luke and Matthew share that does not come from Mark. This idea occurred to me and I wasn’t surprised that I was not the first.

In any case, there are robust arguments for both of these arguments and the “Q” people seem to be in a majority.

I have not, however, seen an analysis yet that has occurred to me. Here it is.

Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke contain nativity segments (birth of Jesus). Neither Mark, nor John, do this. Scholars seem to have reached a consensus that both nativity segments of those two books are bogus, fictional.

Matthew seems to have been written before Luke, so it could have been available to whoever wrote Luke. (The only thing we know about the authors of the gospels is that they were not the people whose names are on them . . . well, it is also known that there were more than four people writing them, but possibly some of those may have just been editors/redactors.)

So, what are the odds that both the writer of Matthew and the writer of Luke had the same thought that what the gospel of Mark needed was a (fictional) birth narrative and each wrote one? Let’s look at what they wrote.

There are a handful of similarities between the two. Obviously Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have to show up. The others are: conception by the spirit of god, no donkey shows up, Herod the Great is mentioned, and the birth took place in Bethlehem. On the rest of the details, many, many details, they differ. One mentions a guiding star, the other does not; one says Jesus was born in a stable, the other says a house; one says there was a visit by magicians (Magi) and the other says the visit was by shepherds, and so on. Surely these seem to be written independently, no?

But, think about someone who is capable of writing such a document and who finds the gospel of Mark lacking, and then who acquires a copy of Matthew, what would come into their mind? For one, it might be “I didn’t know you could just make stuff up and insert it!” Another might be “If Matthew were divinely inspired, if I am going to use his stuff, I better copy it exactly.” And maybe “Jeez, he did a shit job of his additions, I can do better.” Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall for that first writing session?

Matthew was thought to be the first written gospel by the church for a very long time. It includes the Sermon on the Mount and other desirable material. It flows logically and literally better than the other three, etc. But Matthew was not first. It was probably second, and a lot of stuff was added to what he included from Mark (which was most of Mark).

If the writer of Luke knew that Mark existed well before Matthew, he could not have not noticed that a great deal more information had been included. And he cannot have considered those additions as “word of god, divinely-inspired” texts, because he felt free to edit the pieces of Matthew he did include. Pieces got chopped up and moved around a great deal.

So, why would an author, who has decided to plagiarize (a word not used then) and improve upon Matthew have made so many changes, some of which were poorly done? Well, if you are going to plagiarize another’s writing, what would you do? Just lift out whole chunks of the stolen stuff and drop it in? This was done with Mark, but Matthew established that this was okay by doing the same. Luke still made minor changes if the stuff clipped from Mark. But if one didn’t want to be caught stealing wholesale, one had to disguise what they are doing somewhat. Rewrite some of this, reword some of that, cut out this, include that, these are the orders of the day. To do less, then one should just use Matthew, instead of Mark and leave it at that. One wanted to have to change what Mark or Matthew had written to do the project at all. That both Matthew and Luke copied most of Mark, they couldn’t have considered it fallacious, just in need of tightening . . . and expanding.

And, the clear fact that the birth narrative in Matthew was fictional would support my imagined approach of Luke. Well, did Luke know that Matthew’s birth narrative was fictional. If Luke’s sources were just Mark and Q, there is nothing in Q, according to the Q advocates, regarding a birth narrative. So, where would this information have come from? There are no other sources of birth narratives other than Matthew and Luke, period. So, if Luke had enough brain cells to rub together, he would realize that the birth narrative of Matthew was added fiction, serving the purpose of fleshing out the story. And, if it was fictional, changes in it would disguise that the idea for it came from Matthew and also would allow for the correction of some errors perceived. Of course, local knowledge is never perfect, and things Luke thought were the facts, might actually have been errors and “correcting” Matthews factual errors may actually have inserted different errors in place of the perceived ones. (There are errors, oodles of them.)

So, until some concrete evidence for the existence of Q is found, I will continue to think of it as a hypothetical document invented to plug holes in hypothetical arguments over the gospels.

The gospels and the book of Acts of the Apostles are the only place any mention of an historical Jesus are made. (Yes, there are references to Jesus in a few other sources, but those references cannot be distinguished as being distinct from descriptions of the beliefs of Christians.) These earliest gospels were written after the fall of Jerusalem in the early 70’s CE, so way after the claimed birth, death, and rebirth of the main character. And the others are placed after to well after the first gospel, Mark. How likely are the “facts” to have been preserved when the communication system of the region (not counting the Romans) was gossip. More likely was that the gospels were written from agendas that cropped up in the early church and were not intended as historical documents at all.

Many claims are placed at the feet of a robust oral tradition preserving the facts of Jesus’ life, but that belief also has a great many holes in it, so set that on the shelf next to the Q document. (As I have wondered before . . . if you believe your god walked the Earth and you were one of his chosen companions, wouldn’t you get a wealthy believer to pay for a scribe to record everything you could remember about the man-god? And there were over ten surviving people in that situation, possibly over twenty (all of the unnamed women and people Jesus visited and stayed with and . .  and . . .). Oh, the disciples? The only place they are mentioned is in said gospels and Acts. The “pillars” of the church (Peter and James) are mentioned often enough in other works of the NT, but these people were mentioned as leaders of the Jerusalem sect of the nascent Christian church, not as disciples.)

August 12, 2018

The Phenomenon that is “Q”

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 10:26 am
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Apparently there is a new belief sweeping Trump supporters that goes by “Q” or “Qanon.” It appears to be the belief that there is a “Deep State” operative behind the scenes who is pulling the strings of a great many politicians and other public figures. And the motivation behind the string pulling is … pedophilia.

Again, the malfunctioning brain cells of Trump supporters have missed their mark. This time they seem to be confusing the Deep State with the Catholic Church.

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