Saturday, 31 March 2018

A Pious Deception of Self-Creation

What follows is at times philosophical, at others poetic, and at others still, metaphorical. Yet at all times it is thoughtful. Overall, its subject is our world, our place in the world, our rhetorical context as living beings cast into a universe beyond us. If you hate thinking and do not see why human beings should contemplate then it is not for you. Leave, you will only annoy yourself. But if you can think and, even, dare to try to understand then you will find this of use. It requires no special knowledge or understanding outside from a few references the well read may recognise. But, in any case, those with the curiosity to seek further always will. And those without it won’t. That is their joy and the bounty that nature has bestowed upon them. But, for now, I relay to you a kind of myth and ask only that try to understand it….

How we, too, are still pious. - In science convictions have no rights of citizenship, as one says with good reason. Only when they decide to descend to the modesty of hypotheses, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, they may be granted admission and even a certain value in the realm of knowledge - though always with the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust. - But does this not mean, if you consider it more precisely, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? Would it not be the first step in the discipline of the scientific spirit that one would not permit oneself any more convictions?

Probably this is so; only we still have to ask: To make it possible for this discipline to begin, must there not be some prior conviction - even one that is so commanding arid unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself? We see that science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science "without presuppositions." The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value."

This unconditional will to truth - what is it? Is it the will not to allow oneself to be deceived? Or is it the will not to deceive? For the will to truth could be interpreted in the second way, too - if only the special case "I do not want to deceive myself" is subsumed under the generalization "I do not want to deceive." But why not deceive? But why not allow oneself to be deceived?

Note that the reasons for the former principle belong to an altogether different realm from those for the second. One does not want to allow oneself to be deceived because one assumes that it is harmful, dangerous, calamitous to be deceived. In this sense, science would be a long-range prudence, a caution, a utility; but one could object in all fairness: How is that? Is wanting not to allow oneself to be deceived really less harmful, less dangerous, less calamitous? What do you know in advance of the character of existence to be able to decide whether the greater advantage is on the side of the unconditionally mistrustful or of the unconditionally trusting? But if both should be required, much trust as well as much mistrust, from where would science then be permitted to take its unconditional faith or conviction on which it rests, that truth is more important than any other thing, including every other conviction? Precisely this conviction could never have come into being if both truth and untruth constantly proved to be useful, which is the case. Thus - the faith in science, which after all exists undeniably, cannot owe its origin to such a calculus of utility; it must have originated in spite of the fact that the disutility and dangerousness of “the will to truth," of “truth at any price” is proved to it constantly. "At any price'': how well we understand these words once we have offered and slaughtered one faith after another on this altar!

Consequently, "will to truth" does not mean "I will not allow myself to be deceived" but - there is no alternative - "I will not deceive, not even myself”; and with that we stand on moral ground. For you only have to ask yourself carefully, “Why do you not want to deceive?" especially if it should seem - and it does seem! - as if life aimed at semblance, meaning error, deception, simulation, delusion, self-delusion, and when the great sweep of life has actually always shown itself to be on the side of the most unscrupulous polytropoi. (“Polytropos” was a word used by Homer of Odysseus in the opening lines of The Odyssey. It describes his wily ability to deceive which, in the story, is what gets him safely home and vanquishes even his divine enemies.) Charitably interpreted, such a resolve might perhaps be a quixotism, a minor slightly mad enthusiasm; but it might also be something more serious, namely, a principle that is hostile to life and destructive. - “Will to truth" - that might be a concealed will to death.

Thus the question "Why science?" leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are "not moral"? No doubt, those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this "other world" - look, must they not by the same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world? - But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests - that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. - But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine anymore unless it were error, blindness, the lie - if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

As interpreters of our experiences. - One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. "What did I really experience? What happened in me and around me at that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?" None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now. On the contrary, they thirst after things that go against reason, and they do not wish to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it. So they experience "miracles” and "rebirths" and hear the voices of little angels! But we, we others who thirst after reason, are determined to scrutinize our experiences as severely as a scientific experiment - hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves wish to be our experiments and guinea pigs.

New struggles. - After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave - a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. - And we - we still have to vanquish his shadow, too. (Let us here not be dumb enough to imagine that what is meant is merely one sort of god.)

Let us beware.- Let us beware of thinking that the world is a living being. Where should it expand? On what should it feed? How could it grow and multiply? We have some notion of the nature of the organic; and we should not reinterpret the exceedingly derivative, late, rare, accidental, that we perceive only on the crust of the earth and make of it something essential, universal, and eternal, which is what those people do who call the universe an organism. This nauseates me. Let us even beware of believing that the universe is a machine: it is certainly not constructed for one purpose, and calling it a "machine" does it far too much honour.

Let us beware of positing generally and everywhere anything as elegant as the cyclical movements of our neighbouring stars; even a glance into the Milky Way raises doubts whether there are not far coarser and more contradictory movements there, as well as stars with eternally linear paths, etc. The astral order in which we live is an exception; this order and the relative duration that depends on it have again made possible an exception of exceptions: the formation of the organic. The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos - in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms. Judged from the point of view of our reason, unsuccessful attempts are by all odds the rule, the exceptions are not the secret aim, and the whole musical box repeats eternally its tune which may never be called a melody - and ultimately even the phrase “unsuccessful attempt" is too anthropomorphic and reproachful. But how could we reproach or praise the universe? Let us beware of attributing to it heartlessness and unreason or their opposites: it is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of these things; it does not by any means strive to imitate man. None of our aesthetic and moral judgments apply to it. Nor does it have any instinct for self-preservation or any other instinct; and it does not observe any laws either. Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning. Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.

Let us beware of thinking that the world eternally creates new things. There are no eternally enduring substances; matter is as much of an error as the God of the Eleatics. But when shall we ever be done with our caution and care? When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification of nature? When may we begin to “naturalise" humanity in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature?

Origin of the logical. - How did logic come into existence in the human being's head? Certainly out of illogic, whose realm originally must have been immense. Innumerable beings who made inferences in a way different from ours perished; for all that, their ways might have been truer. Those, for example, who did not know how to find often enough what is "equal" as regards both nourishment and hostile animals - those, in other words, who subsumed things too slowly and cautiously - were favored with a lesser probability of survival than those who guessed immediately upon encountering similar instances that they must be equal. The dominant tendency, however, to treat as equal what is merely similar - an illogical tendency, for nothing is really equal - is what first created any basis for logic.

In order that the concept of substance could originate - which is indispensable for logic although in the strictest sense nothing real corresponds to it - it was likewise necessary that for a long time one did not see nor perceive the changes in things. The beings that did not see so precisely had an advantage over those that saw everything "in flux." At bottom, every high degree of caution in making inferences and every skeptical tendency constitute a great danger for life. No living beings would have survived if the opposite tendency - to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to err and make up things rather than wait, to assent rather than negate, to pass judgment rather than be just - had not been bred to the point where it became extraordinarily strong.

The course of logical ideas and inferences in our brain today corresponds to a process and a struggle among impulses that are, taken singly, very illogical and unjust. We generally experience only the result of this struggle because this primeval mechanism now runs its course so quickly and is so well concealed.

Cause and effect. - "Explanation" is what we call it, but it is "description" that distinguishes us from older stages of knowledge and science. Our descriptions are better - we do not explain any more than our predecessors. We have uncovered a manifold one-after-another where the naive person and inquirer of older cultures saw only two separate things. "Cause” and "effect" is what one says; but we have merely perfected the image of becoming without reaching beyond the image or behind it. In every case the series of "causes” confronts us much more completely, and we infer: first, this and that has to precede in order that this or that may then follow - but this does not involve any comprehension. In every chemical process, for example, quality appears as a "miracle," as ever; also, every locomotion; nobody has "explained" a push. But how could we possibly explain anything? We operate only with things that do not exist: lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time spans, divisible spaces. How should explanations be at all possible when we first turn everything into an image, our image!

It will do to consider science as an attempt to humanise things as faithfully as possible; as we describe things and their one-after-another, we learn how to describe ourselves more and more precisely. Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of suddenness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.

How far the moral sphere extends. - As soon as we see a new image, we immediately construct it with the aid of all our previous experiences depending on the degree of our honesty and justice. All experiences are moral experiences, even in the realm of sense perception.

The four errors. - Human beings have been educated by their errors. First, they always saw themselves only incompletely; second, they endowed themselves with fictitious attributes; third, they placed themselves in a false order of rank in relation to animals and nature; fourth, they invented ever new tables of goods and always accepted them for a time as eternal and unconditional: as a result of this, now one and now another human impulse and state held first place and was ennobled because it was esteemed so highly. If we removed the effects of these four errors, we should also remove humanity, humaneness, and "human dignity."

Life no argument. - We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live-by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error.

In the horizon of the infinite. - We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us - indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realise that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom - and there is no longer any "land."

The madman.- Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace. and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!'' - As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? - Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us - for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

Mystical explanations.- Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.

Long live physics! - How many people know how to observe something? Of the few who do, how many observe themselves? "Everybody is farthest away - from themselves"; all who try the reins know this to their chagrin, and the maxim "know thyself!" addressed to human beings by a god, is almost malicious. That the case of self-observation is indeed as desperate as that is attested best of all by the manner in which almost everybody talks about the essence of moral actions - this quick, eager, convinced, and garrulous manner with its expression, its smile, and its obliging ardour! One seems to have the wish to say to you: "But my dear friend, precisely this is my specialty. You have directed your question to the one person who is entitled to answer you. As it happens, there is nothing about which I am as wise as about this. To come to the point: when a human being judges 'this is right' and then infers 'therefore it must be done: and then proceeds to do what he has thus recognized as right and designated as necessary - then the essence of his action is moral."

But my friend, you are speaking of three actions instead of one. When you judge "this is right," that is an action, too. Might it not be possible that one could judge in a moral and in an immoral manner? Why do you consider this, precisely this, right?

"Because-this is what my conscience tells me; and the voice of conscience is never immoral, for it alone determines what is to be moral."

But why do you listen to the voice of your conscience? And what gives you the right to consider such a judgment true and infallible? For this faith - is there no conscience for that? Have you never heard of an intellectual conscience? A conscience behind your “conscience"? Your judgment "this is right" has a pre-history in your instincts, likes, dislikes, experiences, and lack of experiences. "How did it originate there?” you must ask, and then also: "What is it that impels me to listen to it?" You can listen to its commands like a good soldier who hears his officer's command. Or like a woman who loves the man who commands. Or like a flatterer and coward who is afraid of the commander. Or like a dunderhead who obeys because no objection occurs to him. In short, there are a hundred ways in which you can listen to your conscience. But that you take this or that judgment for the voice of conscience - in other words, that you feel something to be right - may be due to the fact that you have never thought much about yourself and simply have accepted blindly that what you had been told ever since your childhood was right; or it may be due to the fact that what you call your duty has up to this point brought you sustenance and honours - and you consider it "right" because it appears to you as your own "condition of existence" (and that you have a right to existence seems irrefutable to you).

For all that, the firmness of your moral judgment could be evidence of your personal abjectness, of impersonality; your "moral strength" might have its source in your stubbornness - or in your inability to envisage new ideals. And, briefly, if you had thought more subtly, observed better, and learned more, you certainly would not go on calling this "duty" of yours and this “conscience" of yours duty and conscience. Your understanding of the manner in which moral judgments have originated would spoil these grand words for you, just as other grand words, like "sin" and "salvation of the soul" and "redemption" have been spoiled for you. - And now don't cite the categorical imperative, my friend! This term tickles my ear and makes me laugh despite your serious presence. It makes me think of the old Kant who had obtained the "thing in itself” by stealth - another very ridiculous thing !- and was punished for this when the "categorical imperative” crept stealthily into his heart and led him astray - back to "God," "soul," "freedom,” and "immortality," like a fox who loses his way and goes astray back into his cage. Yet it had been his strength and cleverness that had broken open the cage!

What? You admire the categorical imperative within you? This "firmness" of your so-called moral judgment? This "unconditional'' feeling that "here everyone must judge as I do"? Rather admire your selfishness at this point. And the blindness, pettiness, and frugality of your selfishness. For it is selfish to experience one's own judgment as a universal law; and this selfishness is blind, petty, and frugal because it betrays that you have not yet discovered yourself nor created for yourself an ideal of your own, your very own - for that could never be somebody else’s and much less that of all, all!

Anyone who still judges "in this case everybody would have to act like this'' has not yet taken five steps toward self-knowledge. Otherwise they would know that there neither are nor can be actions that are the same: that every action that has ever been done was done in an altogether unique and irretrievable way, and that this will be equally true of every future action; that all regulations about actions relate only to their coarse exterior (even the most inward and subtle regulations of all moralities so far); that these regulations may lead to some semblance of sameness, but really only to some semblance; that as one contemplates or looks back upon any action at all, it is and remains impenetrable; that our opinions about "good” and "noble” and "great" can never be proved true by our actions because every action is unknowable; that our opinions, valuations, and tables of what is good certainly belong among the most powerful levers in the involved mechanism of our actions, but that in any particular case the law of their mechanism is indemonstrable.

Let us therefore limit ourselves to the purification of our opinions and valuations and to the creation of our own new tables of what is good, and let us stop brooding about the "moral value of our actions”! Yes, my friends, regarding all the moral chatter of some about others it is time to feel nauseous. Sitting in moral judgment should offend our taste. Let us leave such chatter and such bad taste to those who have nothing else to do but drag the past a few steps further through time and who never live in the present - which is to say the many, the great majority. We, however, want to become those we are - human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves. To that end we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be able to be creators in this sense - while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been based on ignorance of physics or were constructed so as to contradict it. Therefore: long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics - our honesty!

The meaning of our cheerfulness. - The greatest recent event - that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable - is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least, whose eyes - the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle, some sun seems to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt; to them our old world must appear daily more like evening, more mistrustful, stranger, “older.” But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude's capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means - and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending - who could guess enough of it today to be compelled to play the teacher and advance proclaimer of this monstrous logic of terror, the prophet of a gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth?

Even we born guessers of riddles who are, as it were, waiting on the mountains, posted between today and tomorrow, stretched in the contradiction between today and tomorrow, we firstlings and premature births of the coming century, to whom the shadows that must soon envelop Europe really should have appeared by now - why is it that even we look forward to the approaching gloom without any real sense of involvement and above all without any worry and fear for ourselves? Are we perhaps still too much under the impression of the initial consequences of this event - and these initial consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are quite the opposite of what one might perhaps expect: They are not at all sad and gloomy but rather like a new and scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn.

Indeed, we philosophers and "free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that "the old god is dead," as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ''open sea”.

Taken from sections 344, 319, 108, 109, 111, 112, 114, 115, 121, 124, 125, 126, 335 and 343 of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Friday, 30 March 2018

On The Resurrection of Jesus

Written as a response to someone else's blog.

You ask, “What are the facts to consider in relation to the resurrection?” First you state as a fact that Jesus died on a cross and that the Romans were good at it. Indeed. But you do not go into Roman crucifixion practices or, more pertinently when it comes to your second point, “Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea,” their burial practices of those they had crucified. It was not normal Roman practice even to bury those they crucified. They hung on their crosses as a grisly warning of defying the Pax Romana. In this case we are told that there was a Jewish prohibition against such a thing which motivates Jesus being buried. Fair enough. But it was not normal Roman practice to go handing over the bodies of criminals who had been crucified to friends or family either. And why would it be? They could then claim they had risen from the dead! Enter Joseph of Arimathea, stage right, a person of some local standing who, it is suggested, might have been able to request the body. I wonder, let us imagine that the gospels don’t exist for a moment. Where in history is this Joseph of Arimathea now? Rather fortunate, isn’t it, that such a person, otherwise elsewhere entirely unattested in history, should fortuitously appear, and as a secret follower of Jesus to boot!? The proper doing of history might suggest that such a character was performing a necessary function in the story at this point. What function might this be? The one of facilitating a known tomb, of course, for it was normal Roman practice, if they buried their victims at all, to bury them in anonymous graves, graves with more than one body in them. These were unknown and unmarked graves, graves that even those doing the burying would quickly forget about. Fortunate, indeed, that Joseph the Otherwise Unknown should happen along to give Jesus a known burial spot. He needs one, of course, because Jesus cannot rise if no one knew where to look. This is why Joseph suddenly appears in Mark. The other three all copy his literary device. One witness, not four.
So there is one thesis you are ignoring in your third “fact” and I entirely understand why. This thesis is that NO ONE knew where the body of Jesus was put. This accords with what we know of Roman practices as opposed to believer’s stories. Indeed, if one were not a believer believing the believer’s stories what merely historical reasons would one have for believing them? Name them. Should not historical events have to pass merely historical tests? Your account here amounts to a decision to believe a harmonized version of events not even any one gospel writer supports by himself. Guards at the tomb, for example: only according to Matthew. You introduce Paul as a witness but he equates his vision on a journey with what you say are elsewhere physical appearances. This will not do. Jesus is meant to have taught his death and resurrection all along and yet it strikes the disciples as an event out of the blue. Is that credible? You mention the empty tomb yet… where is this tomb exactly? Strange the entirety of the Christian community seems to have forgotten so that today it is an utter mystery. And if Jesus really did leave an empty tomb then why have all the others aside from the Christians not believed? Such a DEMONSTRABLE event would seem irrefutable… but only if it demonstrably occurred. What ever did occur it seems it didn’t do so very demonstrably.
For your fourth fact you say “there was a long list of eyewitnesses”. But was there? There is a list of BELIEVERS. But so what? I would fully expect people who believe in something and that it has meaning to attest to it. Maurice Casey, a venerable New Testament scholar who taught for many years in my own home town with distinction and who was certainly not a Christian, also believed that the first Christians attested to it. However, he did so by calling upon visions and experiences of the dead as if they were still alive in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. And this would surely be enough. It was for Paul. Paul never claimed a bodily physical Jesus stood in front of him and this doesn’t downplay the authority of his testimony it seems. So what matters is not who says “I believe this happened” but if it can be demonstrated to have happened. And so Thomas was not wrong in John 20, he was actually right. Show me the body. Show me the tomb. These things are lacking and always have been. Perhaps that is why, through the cracks of the gospels, we see glimpses that even some of his followers of the time did not believe. John himself even writes of the Thomas incident “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” This is precisely the Christian position. Forget actual evidence, forget demonstration, just believe it and it will be true. Visions, as in the case of Paul, are certainly enough (lucky are those who received them – the first Christians!) and the gospels have woven fiction from religious experience which becomes (incompatible) historical narrative in the minds of subsequent believers as writing something down always does. But would an historical observer have seen these events unfold before them? Unlikely.
“So those are the historical facts, which are (NOT) well attested.” They are attested to only by a few believers and to the uninterested disbelief of the vast majority of the people there at the time. Should this not concern us? I understand where your blog is coming from but it is extremely inadequate in the face of the real facts and the questions they motivate. It is, once more, the victory of faith over the vicissitudes of history.

Replying to the Evangelical Biblical Scholar

The following was a reply I made to an Evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, minister and blogger. Its fairly self-explanatory and covers the subject of the trustworthiness of the gospels in particular.

In reply to another correspondent you say: “The main question to ask is: if the NT writers are not trustworthy, then how do we know what Jesus is like so that we have something against which we can measure the trustworthiness or otherwise of the gospel writers who tell us about him?”
I have a problem with this because the simple, objective fact is that the NT writers, more especially the gospel writers with whom Jesus’ reputation, character and personality lie almost whole and entire, ARE NOT trustworthy. Some examples off the top of my head: Did Jesus’ parents already come from the Bethlehem area and only subsequently move to Galilee (Matthew) or were they from Galilee and went to Bethlehem due to some census otherwise unattested in general, public history (Luke)? Which day was Jesus crucified on, the one the synoptics say it was or the different day John says it was? Did Jesus tell parables (the synoptics) or make long speeches (John)? Did the risen Jesus appear to 500 people at once in public (1 Corinthians) and, if so, why does no other source, Christian or otherwise, nor any of the 500 of whom Paul says some are still alive, make mention of it when it would be irrefutable proof no one could deny of the resurrection? Did Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” (Luke) or “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew) – which are different things? Did tombs open and the dead walk about Jerusalem (Matthew) and, if so, how did Mark, Luke and John miss it (not to mention the Romans and the Jewish culture in general)? Why, in the gospels, do we find that, when we read them in parallel, accounts of the seeming same events have been moved around and presented in different orders thus suggesting that strict, historical chronology was not their abiding concern? (This also suggests the narrative frameworks are entirely fictional, of course.) Did Jesus cleanse the Temple twice, as a reading of the synoptics and John would suggest, or only once? Does this issue of chronology make the stories of the gospels essentially free-floating material subject to a writer’s whim? (One might almost say fictions not histories.) Where was Jesus buried and from where did he rise? This would be the most portentous religious site in world history if the Christian story were true and yet it seems to me we do not know precisely where this site was. How could the Christian witnesses have forgotten if the gospel narratives are true in a world where people revere statues that they claim are weeping? The New Testament attests to a Jewish church led by James the brother of Jesus, would he not know, would this miraculous site not be remembered? (This is to leave aside the incompatible and contradictory post-resurrection accounts which cannot reasonably be harmonized however hard you try or however apologetic you become.)
In short, if your argument be that the Christian bible (I note that Judaism interprets differently to Christians in general), a priori, MUST be trustworthy (true) otherwise you find yourself on sandy ground (to quote the parable), then I submit that you are very much in the sand. It is my belief that you will struggle in vain to find all your readerly presuppositions about the text in the bible itself. And this is always the issue. The bible doesn’t tell you how to read it and the many, many ways it has been read and interpreted over the centuries, in Jewish and Christian places, is a record of ways many of which I’m sure you would find inadmissible. Certain Jewish interpreters find that in the Torah is the whole of creation. People such as yourself insist the whole bible must point to Jesus. Matthew says Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah. John says Jesus is superior to it, even to being “I AM”.
So to come to my own biblical interest, Jesus, you ask how we can know about him. Well if you want history I suggest that you can’t know much about him aside from the use of a dogmatic and unprovable insistence that the New Testament is true which not even all the Christian biblical scholars believe anymore. (And, no, I don’t believe Jesus was an evangelical either. How unhistorical!) There are no independent records confirming its story even if you believe all its books are telling the same story (and Christian interpreters love a good bit of harmonization – but only when it suits!). The non-Christian evidence for Jesus is amazingly small and amounts to a few statements. So we are left to agree with the believers – or not. Is this any kind of basis for saying we know things about Jesus? Would we accept as evidence about any other historical character, on sight and without a great deal of skepticism, the testimony of avowed worshippers and swallow it whole? Should we believe the gospels are true, even where they contradict themselves, just because someone sincerely wrote them? Might we not as well believe that Odysseus blinded a Cyclops and Heracles killed a Hydra? To me that just seems like saying “I am invested in this so I’m going to justify it no matter what.” That may convince saps in pews but it seems to me to be rather better characterized as nigh on self-deception because it feels better in its effects than a proper critical approach.
If Jesus existed he is a public, historical figure who should be judged by public, historical means. You are free to cherish your own private fantasies about his meaning in your own time, of course, but let’s not be in any doubt that that is what they are. If you want to cast gospel writers in some holy aura of trustworthiness that’s a scheme of your making rather than a demonstration from their writing.
Yours in a spirit of honest inquiry.

Thursday, 29 March 2018


"The sacrificial animal does not share the spectators' ideas about sacrifice, but one has never let it have its say." - Friedrich Nietzsche

It is now, for those who live according to a Western, Christian calendar, almost Easter. Easter is the time when Christians remember the death of Jesus of Nazareth (on Good Friday) and his resurrection (on Easter Sunday). The source documents for these occasions are, in documentary terms, the four gospels of the Christian New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is a startling fact, should one read these gospels side by side in parallel rather than in linear fashion from Matthew through to John, that by far the most agreements between them in terms of timing and a coincidence of their story-telling is precisely in the last four or five days of Jesus' life before he is apparently crucified. For the majority of what is often called the ministry of Jesus these same gospels are often at variance about what took place and even when or if it took place. After Jesus' reported resurrection we get differing tales in differing places in ways that seem not to match up but to contradict. But for Jesus' last few days the gospels are at their most parallel.

A question that immediately comes to mind for any intelligent reader is if this is because here we have a historical bedrock of indisputable events. Christian believers, especially the more dogmatic types, will tell you that it is all true - even where the accounts themselves naturally give contradictory reports. Of course, there is a whole apologetic army of people more than ready to tell you that things that can't all be true actually are. If you'd like an example compare John's gospel with the other three. They don't agree about which day Jesus died on. They can't all be right and so that must introduce a lack of factuality into the gospel record in one way or another. Perhaps you think that three witnesses beat out the one. But then you need to remember that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a documentary source. So its not really 3 against 1. Its 1 against 1. In fact, when you start to think about it, who says that any of these books or their writers knew anything about what happened? Is the apparent history in them anchored to, and confirmed by, a non-Christian recitation of events? Well, no, it isn't because for the rest of the world of the time Jesus of Nazareth was singularly unimportant. No non-Christians were writing down reports of what happened to him. The only history we have, if we have any, is a believer's history.

So here in the gospels we have a story that is claimed to be of universal significance. It involves a person dying and then, three days later if we count inclusively, rising again from the dead which, in the myth it is a part of, means that, somehow, we human beings have the means to escape the sin and corruption of creation that we were formerly a part of by means of this activity accomplished through Jesus. It sounds, frankly, incredible. I first heard this myth when I was ten years old and I remember thinking how good it would be if it was true. Primarily, this was because I didn't feel particularly loved and didn't have lots of people who I thought might be that interested in me. But this God fella seemed mightily concerned with everyone and that was good enough for me. When I was ten I also remember that I read Homer's The Odyssey for the first time. I was a big fan of Odysseus because he was the smart one unlike Heracles and Achilles who used their strength. I felt that I was the smart one amongst my peers and so I naturally oriented myself to the king from Ithaca. In The Odyssey all manner of events occur. They blind a Cyclops, Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon no less, they meet the witch Circe, they must avoid perils such as the Sirens, whose songs send sailors mad. The Odyssey is a very engaging fantasy tale much like the other stories of Greek heroes such as the Twelve Labours of Heracles, for example, or The Iliad, which tells of the siege of Troy and its capture via the Trojan Horse (an idea Odysseus had!). 

I am now almost four decades older than my ten year old self and I have read many such stories since. In an academic phase of my life I studied the gospels, and the history of Jesus, if there was such a thing, in more depth. I came to the conclusion that it was literature just as much as The Odyssey or the Twelve Labours of Heracles. Heracles too, of course, is claimed to be the son of a god, a god no less than Zeus, in fact. I began to ask why anyone believes the gospels as history and I noted that most of those who do come to it reading it as history as a presupposition but without any demonstration. If I read the Twelve Labours of Heracles I might come to the section where Heracles fights the Hydra. When he chops off one of its heads two grow back in its place. Hold on, is this a true story or is it mere entertainment? How would I be able to establish the difference? Just because someone writes something in a book does this therefore mean that I am expected to believe it happened and is true? This is the conundrum that faces us with the Christian gospels for, in reality, we are being asked to believe things just because someone wrote them down and, being charitable, we may concede that they did so sincerely. But so what?

You will labour in vain to find non-Christian corroboration of the vast majority of the story of Jesus as presented in the gospels of the New Testament. The bald truth is that almost nobody except those who would be called Christians ever cared enough about this character to write about him. It was only they who wrote narratives about him at anything like a time contemporaneous with his supposed life. It was only they who ever bothered to preserve sayings they would claim were his actual words. But when we look at the gospels, products of such activity, we find them claiming to know things any intelligent reader would wonder how they could have known. For example, as I write it is Maundy Thursday, the night of Jesus' imagined arrest when, so the gospels tell us, all his followers ran away. But this doesn't stop the gospels reporting what happened to Jesus after he had been arrested. Who told these writers what happened? How do they know what the Jewish leaders said inside a closed building where no followers of Jesus would have been accepted or inside a Roman court before the Governor? I ask these questions not because I have some need to discredit the documents of Christianity but simply because such questions are apparent from any sane reading of these texts. The Christian scholar John Dominic Crossan has a nifty saying about events like these in the gospels. He says "Those who knew (what happened) didn't care and those who cared didn't know." Which makes a lot of sense to this reader. But it does come with the corollary that these stories must be pious fictions.

I have written two decent sized books about Jesus which total 160,000 words when added together. Writing them involved a fair amount of hard work. One thing I highlighted in them is that Jesus himself never wrote a single word. Or, if we are being pedantic, no documentation that has ever been discovered is arguably from the hand of the person Jesus. In fact, most of it, including the Christian gospels of the New Testament, is written by people who, in writing, do so because they believe things about him. I find it quite natural at this point to wonder what he would say about that and to wonder what, if anything, he would say about the books that have been circulated in his name since that time. I think by analogy to modern biographies. These may be written with or without the agreement of their subject and sometimes they provoke a reaction from the one being written about. My point is that someone else's view about a person may not be the same as that person's views about themselves. It also means we must question any words put in their mouths and especially their meaning. Historical claims require historical verification. But how much historical verification of the story of Jesus have YOU ever done? Does it seem to you, even from the gospels, that Jesus intended to found a religion in his name? It honestly doesn't to me. Yet one was anyway and Jesus was claimed as the source. Unfortunately, we do not have any words from him on this that are not put there by those who would entirely agree with the idea.

The stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus in general I do not believe. I do not believe the stories of his death because I wonder how they could ever be verified as true and I wonder how these people who claim to know what they know actually know it. This is important because, as said above, it is important we don't just believe things because someone bothered to write them down. Especially in our current age, the age of "fake news," this would be regarded as madness. Historical claims require historical verification and in the case of the (hi)story of Jesus this is unlikely to be anything that is ever available. (This is something many biblical scholars will never admit to. They are basically swapping opinions because actual hard evidence is lacking and likely always will be.) So what we are left with is an unverifiable account that is there as literature because it is a meaningful story and as part of a greater myth. When it comes to the resurrection we are up against even greater problems. Resurrection, really? I will simply note here that I'm hardly the first person to note that when the gospels talk about the resurrection of Jesus and its immediate aftermath their former parallel nature before his death disappears. Each go their own way and say different things happened, different people saw different things, some even "didn't believe". I think this scattergun approach to these events is right and I think it points to one thing: Jesus never rose from the dead as a man with a body walking out of a tomb at a definitive point in time. If he rose anywhere it was in the thoughts and dreams and hopes of any followers he had left. Christianity exists today so something must be responsible for it. But it wasn't Jesus because a much more likely historical outcome, one in line with standard Roman crucifixion practices, was that no one who cared about Jesus ever knew where he was buried in the first place. But how would they know, they all ran away according to the gospels themselves!

In closing let me say that I have no problem with anyone's religious faith. Many in today's world do but I have as much disgust for dogmatic, egotistical atheists as I do for the most apologetic Christian or anyone else. People, in my view, may believe anything "live enough to tempt their will," in the words of William James. But any faith that is a closed box, that is not open to question, is, in my view, not much of a faith. Of course, if you want to practice it in silence and in private then I won't disturb you. But if that faith is public in nature and universal in its claims then that becomes a different matter. Questions about Jesus, for example, are public and open to question by anyone as matters of fact not just as cherished private beliefs. You cannot believe Jesus said this or that or meant something else if, in fact, it never occurred. You can say Jesus "rose from the dead" and lives today in your heart through faith but if it turns out that no one ever knew where the tomb was or even, as some still maintain, that there never even was a Jesus to begin with, then these are relevant questions for anyone interested in them and not just believers. Faith is how many human beings attempt to bridge the divide between themselves as limited, conditioned beings and that which is beyond them, the ineffable, the endless and the unconditioned. I don't for myself find anything wrong with this. But it not necessarily just a private matter. Just as Wittgenstein argued there is no such thing as a private language I wonder if there can ever be such a thing as a private faith either.