Thursday, September 4, 2014

Evolutionary Theory

Evolutionary theory is kind of obviously logically correct on the whole. While parts of it are disputed or a bit hazy sounding, it is often presented as ironclad when we know it will probably change a bit by future discoveries. I think of how many times the ideas about early primitive humans have changed in my lifetime. Or I think of how I was taught and believed the brontosaurus existed even though they were known since 1903 to have been a mistaken assemblage of bones. I think it was laziness that kept that myth going. Dinosaurs only recently have been studied in an extremely taxonomic way. There is also the theory that birds come from dinosaurs, a late blooming hypothesis. I actually feel I must provide this link to be believed about brontosaurs if you react like I did when I was told:

So, we can guess that any delivery of possible information as fact may be just a bit hopeful. Evolutionary theory, which I honestly believe in completely "on the whole," is often presented in a fact telling way. That is, specific parts of the theory that are weak in  evidence but fill holes are presented with a confident factual ambiance, when they actually matter very little as the preponderance of evidence is overwhelming in favor of the general theory. The theory is one of the greatest far reaching yet purely logical ideas ever imagined.

I have guessed that the reason theory is presented with a factual aura  has to do with evolution's competition with weirdly awful and completely unbelievable Biblical creationist theory.  While more scientific theories may turn out to have slight flaws over time, there is little doubt some of the "facts" assembled to support "creationism" are really reverse engineered to prove an assemblage of texts, from an ancient time written before science was an idea, to be excruciatingly literally correct scientifically and factual rather than metaphorical. And then really strange things happen-- like people living to be hundreds of years old and every animal on the planet, including dinosaurs, must be fit on a boat... well, perhaps, it is time to believe in a touch of factual nonsense.

Religion is hurt when believers must throw their scientific brains out the window. Further, adding a scientific underpinning (from some kind of "scientist" that seems suitable to be hired by a tobacco company to explain how smoking is good for everyone) really is searching only for a niche audience in the overall Christian or religious community. In gaining that niche it fights a battle that loses the war for recruitment of people from a more general pool.

So while we have an evolutionary theory which will most likely have a wrong bone here and there in it's assembled skeleton (as evidenced by other changing evolving theories in science), the tendency is to present the theory in a way that competes with trash logic. It is a lowest common denominator approach in the attempt to sound as confident as possible. Just like the creationists, many believe that the complete truth in every respect is knowable and, worse, already known.

This is not scientific.

This video presents the evolutionary theory accurate to the pieces we know and the pieces we intelligently guess at to fill in holes. It correctly omits pieces we need not include (the origin of life.) But I feel that slight twinge of regret that we cannot present the parts in which we have less confidence as more theoretical in nature. We do not need to compete with trash science so we should not feel the need to extinguish all doubt of every detail. Doubt is an important part of science.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Arguments against an historical Jesus

[ "Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who say they have found it." Faith is always a double-edged sword. I have decided those two statements may as well be mottoes for this blog. ]

MONDAY, SEP 1, 2014
 5 reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians—most of them Christian—analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealotby Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became Godby Bart Ehrman. But other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.”

In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received. The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All.For centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts.

Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith. Fitzgerald is an atheist speaker and writer, popular with secular students and community groups. The internet phenom, Zeitgeist the Movie introduced millions to some of the mythic roots of Christianity. But Zeitgeist and similar works contain known errors and oversimplifications that undermine their credibility. Fitzgerald seeks to correct that by giving young people interesting, accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.

More academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism. It is interesting to note that some of the harshest debunkers of fringe Jesus myth theories like those from Zeitgeist or Joseph Atwill (who tries to argue that the Romans invented Jesus) are from serious Mythicists like Fitzgerald, Carrier and Price. The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving.

A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that credible scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef. In the words of Bart Ehrman: “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57)

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians! Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded. “Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.”

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matter sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons. They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer listassembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable: Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith:” Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions. We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.