Thursday, October 27, 2011

Syme and Late James: I Just Can't Hack It

I had considered writing a blog post entitled "Was There Something Wrong With Sir Ronald Syme'sMedulla Oblongata?" Then I asked myself how many people would get the joke. Then I asked myself how many people understand me at all. Then I told myself to stop feeling sorry for myself.

Also, to do real justice to that title, I would have had to re-read some of Syme's work. And Syme's work has irritated me about as much as anyone's in English with which I am familiar. Right up there with Henry James' The American Scene.With late James, and especially with the mentioned work, my difficulty is verbs and adjectives at such a distance from their subjects named more specifically than with pronouns that I despair of ever being able to attatch them properly; Syme irritates me with the over-use of periods. Which unnecessarily breaks up medium- to long-sized sentences. Into smaller ones. Which in turn leads to the above-mentioned conjecture. About the poor man's lower brain stem. A medical speculation not necessarily to be taken seriously. And not the only stylistic affection of Syme's which annoys me. But to find the others, I'd have to read more Syme. Which I really don't want to do. So suffice it for now to say that the turnip would use twelve periods after the last semicolon above. By the time I would use one. If I were not mocking him.

I like the earlier James just fine. And I understand that his later works -- things like The American Scene and, to me, almost as impenetrable, The Golden Bowl-- were often dictated. Which makes me wonder whether, if I had heard James speak them, I would've understood them much better. Or whether I would've I would've run about clutching my head in helpless, just as thoroughly uncomprehending anger and misery and screaming alarmingly. If not actually comprehending less.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Open Letter to Eliot Daley

Mr Daley, you've told us a thing or two about us, now I'm going to return the favor:

You say you want to understand us better, you say you're motivated by curiosity, and you may well believe what you say, but I don't believe it. I think if you wanted to understand atheism, you would understand it much better than you do. The same goes for several other HP authors who have written articles which they say are friendly attempts to reach out to atheists, but which the atheists tend to find more condescending and insulting than friendly. I think that what you really want, deep down, like any true Christian, is not to understand us but to convert us. The core mission of all Christians has been to go forth and teach the whole world. Teach them to be Christians. The smug intolerance has always been part and parcel of Christianity. I think those in our society who really want to understand religion and atheism become atheists, and have for a few centuries now.

Perhaps you find that incorrect, unfair and insulting. If so, we're about even.

Monday, October 17, 2011


The atheist community has grown much more visible and audible in the past few years. I don't know whether it would be accurate to say that it has actually grown considerably. Over and over one hears from people who had been atheist for a long time, but never spoke up about it, and felt alone. Then came Richard Dawkins.I know that it's customary to mention a couple of other famous authors along with Dawkins, but I don't feel like it. I think those other guys are a bit silly, especially the younger one with his warmed-over Utilitarianismand his spirituality, and I also think that the other guys are basically riding in Dawkins' wake, that Dawkins is still the only "new" atheist who is both an intellectual heavyweight, and popular. [PS, 29. November 2015: Unfortunately, I had not read any of Dawkins' atheistic writing before I wrote this, and I simply assumed, based on having read some of his work on biology, that his writing on religion would be just as good. In the meantime I've read some of his writing on religion, and there's nothing remotely heavyweight about any of it. Sorry.]

As with any group with mass visibility, there are some dopes among the suddenly-visible large mass of atheists. These include a few popular authors and many simple-minded people repeating memes such as that the Old Testament was written by illiterate Bronze Age shepherds [PS, 13. December 2016: When I first posted this, in 2010, I didn't realize that it was Dawkins himself who had started the "Bronze Age Goat herders" meme. (I don't know whether Dawkins has ever actually asserted that the Bible was written by illiterates.)], (This meme is morphing from Broze Age to Neolithic and even Paeleolithic.) and, for example, the certainty that Jesus never existed. That last meme even has a couple of very popular websites all to itself.

People on all sides -- not all of them, just the dumb ones, but Lord there are a lot of dumb ones on all sides -- seem to come to conclusions about ancient history based on metaphysical preconceptions. They believe in God, they were raised Christian, and so they believe that Jesus existed. Or they don't believe in God, they were raised atheist, or, very often, they had unhappy Christian childhoods, and so they believe Jesus never existed. Each side repeats its talking points ad nauseum and does not investigate the matter, and also does not examine the soundness of its talking points. I often quarrel with the other atheists just because I feel a sort of duty to try to clean up our side of the street. What's the point of rejecting all that traditional religious dogma only to embrace a whole cartload of equally-unsound, equally-unexamined atheist myth? "If Jesus existed, why didn't any ancient authors write about him?" Well, Sparky, some ancient authors did write about him. The writings of some of them are referred to as the New Testament, those of some others are called New Testament apochrypha. "Okay, but they were all believers. Why don't we have any eyewitness accounts of him from non-Christian authors?" Do you think there were several daily newspapers in Jerusalem back then, and that every day's news is preserved on microfilm? so that we can go through all the records of the crucifixions and palm-frond-covered donkey parades? There was next to no non-Christian historical record of Pontius Pilate, the governor of the whole province, until an inscription was unearthed a few decades ago which makes it seem like that, yeah, Pilate did exist. That's the governor of the whole province. If you think that it's somehow suspicious that there's no surviving official record of the arrest, trial or execution of a convicted traitor who had all of twelve, count 'em twelve followers, you don't know much about the state of our knowledge of things in Judea 2,000 years ago.

"Well, the existence or non-existence of Jesus can never be proven anyway, so why bother to even look into such ancient matters?" Let me take the second part first. Why? Because milk has no bones. That's why. And as to the first part, to assert that it could never be proven that a Jesus of Nazareth was a wandering preacher who was executed for treason on Pilate's orders reveals ignorance of how much our knowledge of the ancient world around the Mediterranean, and east of there, is increasing. I mentioned that inscription they found a few decades ago mentioning Pilate. One example of a huge amount of finds since the late 19th century which continue to expand our knowledge. There are the Dead Sea Scrolls.There is the Nag Hammadi library.There are the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,about 100 volumes of them published so far and still going. [CORRECTION, 18. July 2015: 80 volumes and counting, as of 2014, containing 5253 papyri] Not to mention Menander,the ancient Greek author of comic plays, of whose work before the 20th century we possessed only fragments, brief quotations in the work of other authors, and now, BOOM! chaka-laka-laka we've got several nearly-complete plays. Just a few of the highlights from the list of manymany ancient things archaeologists keep digging up and deciphering between Morocco and Afghanistan. It's not impossible that proof of Jesus' existence could be found. Yes, many phony non-proofs have been foisted, the most recent being the notorious "James ossuary" publicized by that awful man who's not really an archaeologist but makes a jackass of himself on TV. But the fakes are no indication that real proof could never be found.

What would be real proof? Well, for example, a letter by Pilate to a friend could do the trick. "I had a strange day today. The Sanhedrin brought me a man, Jesus, from Nazareth, a village to the north of here in Herod's territory, who seemed as harmless as a newborn puppy, but they insisted that he was very dangerous. I spoke to him personally because I gathered that, although from a family of commoners, he was fluent in several languages, an unusual combination in these parts. I greeted him in my rusty Aramaic, he responded in very polished Greek and Latin and offered to converse with me in whatever language I wished. And so we conversed in Greek. As gentle as a lamb, and he spoke no overt treason, just religious tales of symbolic dreams and a world other than the Earth. I was charmed by him and gave him several opportunities to contest the charges against him, of blasphemy against his own people and treason against ours, and yet he refused to say the few words which would have released him from suspicion. I truly think he wanted to be executed, the poor strange fool. To be some sort of sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind. I gave him one more chance: one of the local people's holy days is approaching. Four criminals, including this Jesus, were awaiting execution. I called for the city's people to gather before the prison, had the four condemned men led before them and said that in honor of the upcoming holy day, one of these men, whomever they chose, would be pardoned and freed. The rabble chose a murderer and screamed for the blood of this Jesus. Strange. And so Jesus was nailed to a cross. I gather he's dead already, after just a few hours. Usually men last a day or longer on the cross. A strange and melancholy day."

I have no doubt that some such letters have already been faked. That doesn't mean that a real one will never be found. And of course it wouldn't have to include all the details of my imaginary letter. One fraction of all of that would suffice to turn ancient history all topsy-turvy, if found in a letter proven to be genuine.

And to me such a thing would be great, not because I tie metaphysical preconceptions to ideas of history, but because I don't. And also because the Jesus-never-existed crowd really annoys me. Such a find would please me greatly out of sheer spite for them. My esprit de corps with other atheists does not outweigh my dislike of stupidity. On the contrary, my atheism is but a subset of my disdain for stupidity. My atheism isn't so fragile that such a thing as a genuine letter from Pilate confirming Jesus' existence would ruffle it in the least.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

No History Here, Just Wild Speculation. Plus My Own Thoughts

Over and over again in the writings of modern and contemporary theologians and Biblical scholars, one reads the assertions that neither Jesus nor his disciples could read or write any Greek, that maybe some of them could read some Hebrew, but that most likely the only language they were really fluent in was Aramaic.

You get this even from the most supposedly enlightened people in these specialties. The ones who freely admit that the chronology of the Gospels is very suspect and that there was no census bringing Joseph and his pregnant bride Mary to Bethlehem, and no Slaughter of the Innocents, that the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents is clearly borrowed from the equally-fictitious story from the infancy of Moses, who himself may never existed. These scholars do not believe in any miracles, neither walking on water nor Resurrection nor healing by laying on of hands, and they will tell you that Jesus probably never said most of the things the New Testament says he said, and even that some of the 12 Apostles may be fictitious. But it's certain, they say, that Jesus existed, and also certain that he couldn't read or speak Greek.

Finally, finally, these days you can be a Christian theologian or a New Testament scholar and say publicly that you're actually not certain that Jesus existed and still keep your job. And so some people in those fields are saying it, more than the few who said it before and were fired, and then, as if that weren't bad enough, ridiculed in unison by their former colleagues. The ridicule is still par for the course. But listen closely to the average theologian or Biblical scholar scornfully dismissing a black sheep who says it's not certain that Jesus existed, and see if the reaction extends beyond dismissal to any actual explanation of why doubt is ridiculous on this point. All I ever see is the peremptory dismissal.

Even from the ones who cast doubt on almost everything the Gospels say, one encounters this certainty that Jesus' existence is well-established historical fact. Uh, excuse me, established how exactly? What sources do we have besides those accounts you just finished trashing when it comes to their historical reliability? That's right -- none. But they -- the current academic mainstream -- don't stop at being certain he existed, they're currently also certain that he was preaching political revolution and socialism, and that he like his father was more of a day laborer than an actual skilled carpenter, and that the whole family was veryvery poor, and that Jesus neither wrote nor spoke Greek, and maybe not even Hebrew either.

Where did they get all this? Mostly from our increasing knowledge of what a typical 1st-century Jewish peasant living in a small town near Jerusalem was like. They've decided to agree that Jesus was a typical peasant. There's no logical reason to make these positive assumptions. There are only contemporary theological reasons. In short: they pulled all of that right out of their butts.

I say: we don't know. We don't know whether Jesus existed, and if he did, we don't know how much of the information in the Gospels is true, much less things not mentioned in the Gospels such as whether or not he could read and speak Greek.

If Jesus existed, then, it seems to me, contemporary theology is wrong. If he existed, then most likely the last thing he was was typical.

There is the story of Jesus' family coming to Jerusalem when he was 12, and Jesus going to the Temple and amazing the elders with his learning. There is no mention in the Gospels of what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30. There are mentions of a wealthy friend of his, Joseph of Arimathea. Maybe Jesus could read Hebrew quite well by age 12, and could talk about the Bible like a scholar. That's the sort of thing which would have amazed elders at the Temple. Maybe a rich man, such as Joseph of Aremathea, took an interest in this bright young lad and offered to educate him. That's the sort of thing which has happened to a few lucky bright poor children since long before Jesus' time. Maybe Jesus spent 18 years at Joseph's house, happily burrowing through mountains of codices and scrolls, learning Greeka and Latin as well as Hebrew.

I've often wondered about that conversation between Jesus and Pilate. Did they communicate through an interpreter? Or did Pilate know some Hebrew or Aramaic? Or did Jesus know some Greek or Hebrew?

Only lately I've begun to wonder whether people such as Pilate or Herod would have condescended to speak to a typical peasant or day-laborer at all. It's embarrassing that it took me so long to wonder about that. But if Jesus was not just a typical peon, but a highly-educated young man who for the last few years had returned to the milieu of his early childhood, an articulate fellow who spoke good Greek, and possibly even good Latin, in addition to his native Aramaic -- well, that sort of person would be much more likely to pique the interest of the governor of the entire province, and cause him to take a few minutes out of his busy day of plotting against other politicians and playing in his harem, wouldn't he?

What's that? You say that I'm speculating very freely here, extrapolating from very, very little concrete evidence? Why thank you, that would put me on a par with the leading Jesus scholars of our day. Except that I freely acknowledge that the picture I've just spun is only one of many possible versions of the beginning of Christianity, including the distinct possibility that Jesus never existed at all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Me & Rupert, Living High on the Hog in Manhattan

Occupy Wall Street Protests Outside Rupert Murdoch House

That's one thing Rupert and I have in common: homes in roughly the same neighborhood. I spent the night in a house in the 50's in Manhattan once -- that is, a whole stand-alone building which housed a single family, somewhere around the middle of the east 50's. I was homeless and it was the blizzard of '95-96 and this guy said I could spend the night. The house was pretty much gutted. He said it had belonged to his family and was now being sold to the Republic of Kazakhstan. I think he said it was going to be the Kazakhstani consulate. If it was then their consulate has moved at least a couple of times since then. The neighborhood had a distinctly opulent feel, I think many if not actually most of the buildings were still single-family townhouses as they had been when they were built. He showed me to a room that still had a bed in it, went off and found some blankets and a space heater for me, then went off again to sleep elsewhere in the house. In the morning he fixed us some breakfast; then, knowing I was a bookish fellow, he indicated a box of books on the floor destined to be given to charity and told me I could help myself to anything in there I found interesting. I took a slender paperback volume with a yellow cover, slightly taller and wider than a mass-market paperback, with its pages sewn in instead of glued: The United States in 1800 by Henry Adams, published by Great Seal Books. Sixth printing, 1961, $1.25. It's the first few chapters of Adams' History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It's an interesting book, I still have it. If the entire History is as good as these first chapters then it's very impressive indeed. And I say that as one of no doubt very many who found the style of The Education of Henry Adams quite tedious and set it aside after a few pages, so if you're one of the many you might not want to give up on Adams solely on the basis of the Education.

He was a nice guy, that townhouse owner, that night and morning were more pleasant and less difficult than many for me that winter. I'm sorry that I don't remember his name.