Entries from February 2010 ↓

Comment: Current Readings Jesus & Christianity – Earl Doherty & Linda Woodhead

I spend a lot of time travelling and, so, reading articles and books and listening to recorded lectures are my constant companions. My latest are interesting, a book – Jesus: Neither God nor Man by Earl Doherty and a talking book – Christianity, A Very Short Introduction (OUP) by Linda Woodhead.

Before discussing those, or at least my first reactions, here are two recommendations. I have traditionally bought books from Amazon and still do. However a serious alternative for Australians is http://bookdepository.co.uk (in UK) with its policy of free international postage. I typically check the prices between Book Depository and Amazon with postage costs to make the choice. One trap is the ease of ordering a single book from the UK booksellers while I would accumulate books at Amazon before commiting to purchase! For audio lectures and talking books check out the Amazon company, http://audible.com. I started with a gold membership with one download per month for $14.95 after a three month special. Their UK operation, http://audible.co.uk , has different pricing.

The reconstructions of the historical Jesus vary as widely as there are Jesus scholars. Conservatives see the gospel portrayals as essentially accurate. They often argue with mainstream historians about the inclusion of miracle stories in any historiography. I see N.T. (Tom) Wright, prolific author and Bishop of Durham, in this category. The vast majority of scholars take a middle position: the gospels give us clues as to the nature of Jesus. Now the similarity of these scholars end with vastly differing profiles: cynic philosopher, apocalyptic prophet, wise sage, and so. Then towards of the sceptical end of the spectrum we have Earl Doherty, one of a smaller number of scholars who dismiss the very existence of any recognisable Jesus as the founding figure of Christianity.

Jesus: Neither God nor Man is Doherty’s latest book, an expansion of his earlier The Jesus Puzzle. To give some sense of his arguments he argues that we read Paul’s letters, the earliest canonical writings, in light of the later gospels with their biographies of Jesus. Without the gospels, Paul’s writings talk nothing of a historical Jesus but a mystical God-like Christ Jesus who appeared to Paul as an incarnation of God. Doherty argues, quite cogently, that Paul refuted bad behaviour of ‘his’ fledgling Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean with arguments from Jewish scripture and God’s revelations. Even though Jesus was later quoted in the gospels as saying something very relevant according to Christian traditions, Paul never used these sayings. This absence of a physical Jesus in Paul’s earlier writings is part of the Jesus puzzle.

Linda Woodhead’s Christianity is an excellent non-sectarian introduction to Christianity – faiths, history, and many forms – accessible to non-Christians and non-believers alike. She is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. The Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press is a great series of short introductory texts of academic subjects for the enquiring non-specialist reader. Also check out Atheism by Julian Baggini, a very engaging British philosopher.

Alex McCullie

News: Separating Christ from Christian Charity

In US and Australia governments fund Christian charities to help the disadvantaged. The question is whether or not government-funded activities should be free of Christian proselytising. This area has always been problematic for supporters of a secular society: is it state-sponsored religion through the back door?

The Washington Post, drawing from a New York Civil Liberties Union article, has an interesting article outlining the problem for US legislators. US government agencies will monitor the charitable activities of the Salvation Army to ensure that the recipients are not subjected to Christian proselytising, perhaps a welcome change under President Obama.

According to the Post article though discriminatory recruitment practices are still acceptable – Christians to work for Christian organisations, syphoning off social tax dollars for religious conversions are not.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Finding the historical Jesus in the Gospels

With only sketchy support from non-Christian references for Jesus, Christian scholars still rely on the gospels, especially the so-called synoptic gospels, for constructing the historical Jesus. How should we read these gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – critically? And should we include John as well?
Here are a few ideas.
  1. Gospels were written as proclamations of faith, literally the good news, about Jesus as the Christ, the messiah. So, despite being structured as historical narratives, the gospels are better seen as fantastic (in the traditional sense) biographical stories of Jesus, initially written around first and second centuries CE for fellow followers of Christ. Not unreasonably, gospel historical claims should be treated with scepticism unless supported by separate independent sources.
  2. Scholars have long recognised that the three synoptic gospels are closely interrelated with the popular consensus of Matthew and Luke drawing heavily from Mark. So be aware that three versions of the same story in the synoptic gospels may be the same one repeated many times. By contrast John’s gospel came from a separate tradition, but that writer presented a vastly different type of Jesus – the incarnate god.
  3. Despite church accreditations to apostolic authors – apostles or apostle companions – the gospels are considered anonymous by most scholars. Similarly there is no clear consensus of the locations of authorship. So we do not know who wrote the gospels and where they were written. Most scholars agree their initial appearances occurred between 70CE and 120CE.
  4. You are likely to be reading one of the many English translations of “reconstructed” Greek documents. The first full manuscripts of the gospels are copies made around the fourth century, some 300 years after their initial authorships. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are famous examples. Interestingly, the earliest copy is the fragment P52, small section of John (18:31–33), dated around 130CE.
  5. The initial copies of the gospels were handwritten by amateur copyists -a literate member of the local Christian community – and then circulated by hand to fellow believers. Many historians estimate that less than ten percent of the population were literate in Rome even at its height. After hundreds of years of copying, editing, and further copying, these documents were collected together to be finally canonised. It is worth remembering that many texts, considered sacred by many Christians were ultimated rejected by the church authorities. Epistle of Barnabas and Gospel of Thomas are well known examples.
  6. The gospel presentations of Jesus draw heavily from Jewish religious symbols and traditions of the day, while being shaped by the surrounding influence of local Greek and Roman culture. Many scholars have long identified Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other eastern religious myths and symbols embedded in the Jesus stories, not surprising with the authors likely to have been Greek-literate Jews living in urban areas of the Roman Empire outside of Palestine.
  7. Even though the authors of the gospels are unknown, we can surmise that they were urbanised Greek-speaking Jews living outside of Palestine and Galilee in particular. Their Jewish scriptures would have been the Septuagint, an earlier Greek (Hellenistic) translation of the Jewish scriptures. They portray Jesus as an Aramaic-speaking, rural Jew, preaching in Galilee some 70 years previously (and who is divine, of course). His scripture would have been the Torah, at least, in Hebrew and, at most, a Jesus would have probably known some Greek only. A large Greek-speaking city of Sepphoris was nearby rural Galilee. So we could expect a large disconnect between the gospel authors’ environments and world-views and that of less literate earlier rural preacher.
Not surprisingly, Christians revere the canonical gospels as sacred texts. However they are in no way privileged as historical documents. A critical reader has every right to approach with considerable disinterested scepticism – unknown authorships; overt promotions of faith; dubious or unsupported historical claims like the first born killings and empire-wide census; consistent internal contradictions; and years of subsequent manuscript copying and editing before modern printing.
The Internet is full of resources varying from literal interpretations (gospels as fully accurate historical documents) to sceptical responses (Jesus never existed as a recognisable historical figure). While a simple Google search will start you off, have a look at http://virtualreligion.net/ .
Alex McCullie

Link: Non-Belief – Third-Largest Religion

Without tackling the “atheism as a religion” argument here are some interesting statistics on religion from Adherents.com

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion
  3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
  4. Hinduism: 900 million
  5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
  6. Buddhism: 376 million
  7. primal-indigenous: 300 million
  8. African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
  9. Sikhism: 23 million
  10. Juche: 19 million
  11. Spiritism: 15 million
  12. Judaism: 14 million
  13. Baha’i: 7 million
  14. Jainism: 4.2 million
  15. Shinto: 4 million
  16. Cao Dai: 4 million
  17. Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
  18. Tenrikyo: 2 million
  19. Neo-Paganism: 1 million
  20. Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
  21. Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
  22. Scientology: 500 thousand

 P.S. The scientology figure of adherents is greatly debated. See SolitaryTrees for one such debate.

Alex McCullie

News: A.C. Grayling on Cherie Blair

Great AC Grayling article at Richard Dawkins site about the ‘morality’ of Cherie Blair’s decision to be lenient on a religious (Muslim) assaulter of another. Would we treat the surviving 9/11 perpetrators with some leniency for also being religious, which they certainly were?

Alex McCullie

Comment: Jesus, Christians, and Pliny

Around 110 CE Emperor Trajan appointed Pliny the Younger, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey. He was to investigate financial and administrative problems and deal with political unrest. Pliny was a successful middle-ranking bureaucrat from the Equestrian order, the lower of the two aristocratic classes, below that of Patricians. Remarkably, Pliny collected many of his letters and responses, made over his lifetime to friends, superiors, and juniors whom he encouraged. His letters were organised as a series of books in which number ten contained official correspondence with Trajan, where Pliny sought administrative advice during his time in Bithynia-Pontus.

One such problem was dealing with Christians. Pliny told Trajan that Christians, who were recognised as a problem elsewhere in the empire, prayed to a Christ as a form of divinity. Some had been worshipping so for some twenty years. He discussed their religious practices of praying in morning followed by a later common meal on fixed days. Pliny noted that they were otherwise law-abiding. Though Christians were disliked and distrusted by Roman authorities and the society in general, Trajan rejected systematic persecution, especially based on unsubstantiated claims.

What do these letters provide us? Mostly they offer a wonderful look at the administrative concerns and processes of early second century Roman empire. However the two letters, reproduced below, showed there were groups, identified as Christians, who worshipped Christ as a form of a god. The letters was written around 111CE with Pliny dating some of their worshipping up to twenty years previous. We need to remember that Paul, according to orthodox Christian traditions, evangelised throughout this area some 50 to 60 years before. He had a similar message of Christ as god. However these letters say nothing of the historical Jesus; only people believed in his divinity 80 years after his death.

A more interesting question is why Christians beliefs and practices were considered illegal by the Roman authorities? Unlike Christian and Jewish beliefs, the dominant pagan religions of the empire were polytheistic, usually accepting and modifying gods with different origins, like Greek, Roman, and Egyptian. Unlike today, religions emphasised ritual practices towards the gods rather the acceptance of correct beliefs. Life was precariousness 2000 years ago with common-place occurrences, like tooth absences, being death sentences and, so, protection of the gods was of prime importance.

Communities had to be particularly careful to appease the local city gods to ensure the city’s well-being. Regular public festivals were for precisely that purpose and everyone was expected to attend. Not doing so would be like Americans today refusing to take the pledge of allegiance. Ironically Christians were, in some respects, similar to followers of other eastern mystery religions: they typically believed in salvation through special knowledge and cultic practices Even though these mystery religions were of great fascination to Romans, the Christians were different. Their religious practices were exclusive and, more importantly, they would not participate in the public religious festivals. Local communities resented Christians and feared the consequences of insulting the city gods and, not surprisingly, most persecutions came from broader communities than from official actions.

Alex McCullie

Free download – letters of Pliny the Younger (Project Gutenberg)

(Letters below – I separated sentences for easier reading.)



To the Emperor Trajan

It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance?

Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them.

Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt.

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished: for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction.

There were others also brought before me possessed with the same infatuation, but being Roman citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome. But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred.

An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so.

They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them.

Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error.

They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ.

They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.

From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate’ in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.

I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you.

For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes.

In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress.

The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which till lately found very few purchasers.

From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error.


Trajan to Pliny

You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you.

It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them.

If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous informations ought not to he received in any sort of prosecution.

It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.

Course: Historical Jesus – 6 night Course May 2010

I shall be running a six night course, late May 2010, at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne, Australia, on searching for the historical jesus, looking at the historical figure behind the religion – what do we know?

Course: searching for the historical jesus

Explore the historical Jesus, separate from the figure of devotion. In doing so, review the use of Christian and non-Christian sources and treatment of miracle claims, society, political and regions of early first century Israel and Middle East, analysing the primary source – the Gospels, review of research from the past 300 years, how Jesus, the man, is profiled by today’s scholars and future direction of research.
Class details
6 sessions:
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 25/05/10 to 29/06/10
Venue: 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne
Session 1:
Review of research over the last 300 years with particular emphasis since Albert Schweiter’s book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906).
Session 2:
Nature of historical research, including use of Christian and non-Christian sources and treatment of miracle claims with a close look at the Resurrection story.
Session 3:
Society, politics and religions of early first century Israel and Middle East.
Session 4:
Analysing the primary source – the Gospels.
Session 5:
How Jesus the man is profiled by today’s scholars – disagreement and consensus.
Session 6:
Future direction of the Jesus research

Link to CAE details and bookings

Alex McCullie

News: Cherie Blair – Special legal treatment for religious

According to Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society (UK), Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, sees religion to be a valid reason for excusing violence.

Shamso Miah, 25 — described as a devout Muslim — went from a local mosque in East Ham, London to a bank where he became embroiled in an argument with another man about his place in the queue. He grabbed Mohammed Furcan and punched him in the face. Miah ran outside but Mr Furcan chased after him and demanded to know why he had been attacked.

Miah then punched him again, knocking him to the ground and fracturing his jaw. Mr Miah said he had acted in self defence but the bank’s CCTV showed clearly that he was the aggressor. He then pleased guilty to occasioning actual bodily harm.
Yet despite saying violence on our streets “has to be taken seriously” Ms Blair/Booth QC let Miah walk free from court, telling him: “I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”

Alex McCullie

News: Hiring physics teachers is not selecting priests

The following quotation comes from the Age editorial of 3 Feb 2010 on gay rights and the Papacy:

As The Age has argued before, freedom of religion does mean that the right of religious organisations to decide matters internal to them should not be infringed. The state must not tell churches who should be ordained, for example. But the hiring of a physics teacher for a church school is hardly a comparable decision, and when churches claim that it is they succeed only in demonstrating that their commitment to social justice is a selective one. The Pope, and Australia’s bishops too, should heed the example of those Catholic schools that have quietly hired gay and lesbian teachers anyway – and still kept their ”ethos” intact…(my emphasis)

Alex McCullie