Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An update

I'm working on chapter 8, which turns out to be a greater project than any of the earlier chapters of her book. I am reading Gnuse's No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, Finkelstein/Silberman The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts to get an idea what archaeologists think happened in the relevant time period. Apparently, there are some disagreements among archaeologists, but I find Finkelstein's and Silberman's arguments quite compelling. Alas, my survey of the literature suggests even today there are some authorities working in the field of biblical archaeology that are way too much influenced by their religious beliefs and too little influenced by actual evidence.
I am also reading Eugene A. Nida's Toward a Science of Translating, and some stray papers on related topics, as Acharya S takes a very naive view of translation in this chapter, one that requires a detailed and robust rebuttal.

As a little anecdote about Chapter 8, this needs retelling: I typed a copy of it as a text file - so that I easily could copy-paste bits of it into the post. As it happens, I sent this text to a friend as well, in case he had anything constructive to say. What I had not told him - I figured it was obvious - was that I had left out the footnote numbers, simply because repetitive typing of Roman numerals would be too tedious.
He sent a commented file back, in which he criticized the lack of sources for about 20 claims. I got all apologetic for Acharya, as this kind of gave me bad conscience: it was my fault, not hers, that he got this impression of her work.

I decided to compile a list of the relevant references, and it turns out only a few of them had references, and many of those were to hacks such as Higgins and Hazelrigg, and the others were Barbara Walker - but rather speculative stuff by Walker at that. Still, more than a two-thirds majority of the things he figured should have sources are missing in the text, and the rest almost all have sources that are not really reliable. I find the coincidence a bit surprising though: would this experiment be repeatable? Is it possible that for statements that really should be sourced, there's a more than chance likelihood that a reader will identify that as a statement in need of a source if all the source references were stripped from the text?

Meanwhile, I am thinking a bit about what next to write a detailed criticism of once I'm done with Acharya S's books. Here are some options I came up with:

  • The Skeptic's Annotated Bible
Generally, it is a great work. However, I believe the Bible has enough errors as it is, without us skeptics having to misrepresent bits of it that aren't erroneous as though they were. A full listing of such false errors would be useful, and I think the SAB should take them into account. It is also interesting to try and tease out the irrational bits in their approach to the Bible itself. At times, it is as though they really do not even give a go at understanding what the text is saying - which, surprisingly enough occasionally justifies the christian apologetic contention that they are taking things out of context. This happens seldom enough, but it still bothers me. 
  • Something by Deepak Chopra
Why not. It could be wonderfully easy to write. On the other hand, too easy?
  • Ancient Aliens
The best debunking I have seen this far takes a strange turn at the end and accepts the Deluge as historically true. On the other hand, I realize there is a lot of stuff there that I simply have no access to sources about. Finally, the format is less easy to work with - they do not provide sources so it is impossible to check whether they present what the sources say accurately, it is a TV show instead of static text - making rereading a sentence much more of a hassle, and finally, it is qualitatively far shoddier than Acharya's work. I like Childress' weird intonation patterns though. As I am not confident enough about my English pronunciation, I would not go and edit videos with my own comments over it either. 
  • Sven Reichmann
Sven Reichmann is a Christian commentator on politics, end-times scenarios and so on, who is fairly popular among Swedish-speaking Christians in Finland. He probably has some notoriety in Sweden as well. Alas, he is of little interest outside those very small circles, probably. A split-off blog in Swedish could maybe be justified. I know for certain that he is selective in what facts he chooses to present.
  • Some major Christian apologetics site?
  • William Lane Craig
In a way, a detailed and well-researched rebuttal of WLC's talking points would be very valuable to have in one place. I am not convinced WLC will be affected by it though, as I believe his intentions are not to convert people, but to make unbelievers seem unreasonable to those who already believe as he does.

  • Messianic Jewish selective quoting from Midrashim and other related material
This would be intriguing and require quite detailed study of midrashes in hebrew and aramaic, and thus be a fascinatingly demanding study (for little practical benefit, except probably making me pretty good at hebrew or aramaic after a while). One particular author who has authored a bunch of stuff along these lines is Risto Santala, whose books are widely available in Finland.
  • The Dilling Exhibit
A quote-mining operation of the Talmud made by an antisemite. I am inclined to think this is the best option - all it takes is actually reading what the relevant context of the Talmud does say. Problem: the relevant context in Talmudic writing can be rather large and complex. Advantage: forces me to learn how to read the Talmud. Makes me have to formalize and express the lines of thought taking place in the relevant passages. Might be very interesting, and I think this will be the next project I will go for.

Other suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Christ Conspiracy : Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Physical Evidence

By and large, this chapter presents a reasonable summary of the physical evidence for Jesus, viz. it is basically non-existent. However. She still manages to violently force sheer lack of logic, fabricated evidence, misunderstanding of evidence and screed-like writing into her reasoning, though.
In fact, early Christian fathers admitted that Jesus's appearance was unknown. For example, as St. Augustine said of Christ, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "in his time there was no authentic portrait of Christ, and ... the type of features was still undetermined, so that we have absolutely no knowledge of His appearance." How, pray tell, did anyone recognize him? Despite the lack of any gospel description, Jesus was alternately described by the early Christian fathers as either "the most beautiful of the sons of men" or "the ugliest of the sons of men" -- another highly strange development, if this character were real. But, as Augustine admitted, this debate existed before the "type of features" was determined, i.e., fabricated and standardized. [1, p 77]
Wait, what? First of all, we need to notice again that when she is quoting the Catholic Encyclopedia here, the source she gives is Joseph Wheless' Forgery in Christianity, so we are dealing with a slightly shortened second-hand quote (not sufficiently shortened that the meaning would be changed, but still ... not a good practice, omitting parts of second-hand quotes.) I have, in vain, tried locating this quote in the Catholic Encyclopedia. It does not appear to be present in Augustine's De Trinitate either. Wheless claims the quote appears at book 7, chapters 4 and 5 [2, Ch. 3]. No such quote appears there [3,4,5]. If she had gone to the effort of verifying the quote - if it can be found somewhere else in Augustine's oeuvre, it would have been courteous to point this out to the reader. Of course it is possible the quote appears elsewhere in De Trinitate (or in some other work of Augustine's), but it should not be the reader's task to find it - it should be the author's task to point out where it is, in order that verifying it can be done easily. This quite strongly indicates that she does not verify claims at all.

I have tried searching through a few online versions of the Catholic Encyclopedia, and none of them contain the relevant quote, of course. I have used several methods of searching them - their own search engines, googling "site:..." and so on. As far as I can tell, the author of Forgery in Christianity figured it takes one to know one, so he took up forgery as part of his craft?

From the shoddiest evidence, Acharya thinks she has Augustine admitting to fabrication... I agree fabrication was part of how Christianity appeared, but it also seems to be part of Acharya's sources' habits.

After discussing some artistic representations of Jesus from antiquity, she remarks on some works that depict him at a fairly young age with the following downright mysteriously stupid comment:
According to the Gospel story, Jesus disappeared between the ages of around 12 and 29 before he began his ministry, so the depiction of him at "about fifteen to eighteen years of age" certainly would be odd, since his followers never saw him at that age.[1, p 78].
No, the Gospel stories do not have him "disappear", they just do not say anything about him doing anything [6,7]. There is a difference. If, however, one reads the gospels assuming claims like those of Notovitch to be right, one will obviously think the Gospels explicitly have him disappear.

In addition, the archaeological evidence reveals the existence of the dark-haired and bearded "Jesus" imagine long before the Christian era. Indeed, Higgins describes a medal of "the Savior" found in pre-Christian ruins with the image of a bearded man with long hair on one side and an inscription in Hebrew on the other. He then exlaims:
And now I wish to ask any one how a coin with the head of Jesus Christ and a legend, in a language obsolete in the time of Jesus Christ, should arrive in Wales and get buried in an old Druidical monument.[1, p 79]
The coin he is asking about actually interests me a bit: based on the information he provides, it seems fairly impossible to verify whether it even existed. The Hebrew writing on it is also somewhat difficult.
Higgins' mystery coin, scanned from Anacalypsis
There are bits to this I can't read - the second word has the upside-down v with an arm towards the left that does not look much like any semitic letter except possibly a reversed aleph? In the next line, the first few letters are all jumbled. The X could be an aleph or a tav, depending on what semitic alphabet we assume it to be mixed with. It seems to be a mixture of any number of semitic alphabets, and if anyone who reads this has any expertise on the matter, I would appreciate some more feedback. Since Higgins is not so kind as to tell us any more about the coin than that it exists, was found in a Druidic monument, and looks like this, I think this leaves the issue a bit too open - there is no venue open for me to verify whether this coin actually exists.

I suspect the 3-like thing on line three is a tzade. If that is the case, there is a medieval letter shape in there, which would suggest this is something Higgins has made up using imperfect knowledge of Hebrew writing - using a letter-shape that is centuries too young. However, my knowledge about the historical development of letter shapes in Aramaic and Hebrew is by no means sufficient, and these are but speculations. One would also notice that the same shape is present in the shin on the second row, a shin remarkably different from the previous shin - I have a hard time believing that particular letter is a worn-down shin, though. 

I mainly mention this because the writing on it keeps frustrating me.

As for coins,
Coin evidence is one of the more underrated methods of archaeology, yet it provides a superior dating system for a number of reasons, including that coins do not disintegrate over time. Unfortunately for Christian propagandists, the coin evidence for early Christianity is nil:
"[The] close consideration of coin evidence may shake the foundations of the literary narrative. This is because coins are produced with immediacy in response to events, whereas the literary record is composed after the event, often much after, and can suffer from bias if not outright distortion or suppression of facts." Why, no Christian coins [dating to the] 1st, 2nd, 3rd centuries C.E.? Because the "events," were literary events (Fiction!)--only!clxxviii [1, p 80]
This is the entire subchapter "Coins". Acharya generally does not put citation marks around quoted text, since the indentation usually serves that purpose. In every other place I have found quote marks nested in indented quotes, they have been second-hand quotes, i.e. present in the quoted text. In this case, she deviates from that pattern. What is more, in her own comment on the text, she inserts the kind of alterations in the text usually only used when introducing clarifications in a quote that otherwise would be hard to read correctly. Details such as [dating to the] are here inserted in her own text, a thing there is basically no reasonable justification for. Why, inserted words in brackets are used to show that the bracketed portion was not present in the original, but was inserted by the present author! For what reason would an author alter her own writing in such a roundabout way? She should have written her part of the text clearly from the onset, and put her own contribution outside the indentation. The effect is that the casual reader may think her portion is in the cited work, viz. Understanding Ancient Coins by P.J. Casey [8, p 43]. If there were only one exceptional thing about this quote, I would not comment on it - but I can only think the best accounting for the amount of strange things here - unusual use of quotation marks, unusual indentation, unusual placing of reference number and unusual use of clarifying words in brackets - is that there is intention behind it.
Correction: unusually enough, Acharya again quotes a book not by having actually opened the book, but by having read a website that quotes it. Normally, in this situation, the bibliography should list the source one quoted from, not the nested sources - the usual praxis Acharya normally adheres to elsewhere. Here, however, she lists P.J. Casey first, and the website second - enclosed in brackets and at least in the edition I am reading using a font that looks out of place in the bibliography.

I still maintain that her bibliography is misleading at this particular point.

I also find it funny how the "Why, no Christian coins [dating to the] 1st, 2nd, 3rd centuries C.E.?" contrasts with the (probably spurious) coin mentioned just a couple of paragraphs previously - the Hebrew on it is not a problem for dating it to the 1st century, as we now know Hebrew was a prestige language in daily use in Jewish circles up to the fall of the temple.

She takes a detour into Kashmir, discussing tombs of Jesus (and other prophets) located there. Why the purported tombs of Jesus in Kashmir and elsewhere would be in any way relevant for the historicity of Jesus is not satisfactorily made clear, even though the chapter dwells a lot on them. However, this diversion gives Acharya an opportunity to bring in Notovitch's discovery in an Indian monastery, viz. documents telling about Jesus' claimed journeys to India between ages 12 and 30ish. However, none of the western sources present at the monastery at the time he claims to have been there nor the monastery's leader recall him ever having visited, and these all deny the existence of such a manuscript. Notovitch's account is widely rejected as spurious, yet Acharya sees this as a great opportunity to spread out some additional blame:
The Notovich text has a cheery view of the Jews, throws the entire onus of the crucifixion on Pilate and the Romans, and was apparently written as not only Jewish but Buddhist propaganda, ... One notable aspect of the text, however, is its pro-women exhortations, which are surely neither Jewish nor Christian.
Furthermore, it should be noted that there were innumerable "traveling prophets" throughout the ancient world, spouting the same parables and platitudes and doing the standard bag of magic tricks as Jesus, as do the countless Indian yogis of today.[1, p 82]
Funny, as the latter paragraph is exactly what atheists that think a historical Jesus is at the root of the gospel narratives have been saying the longest of times about him...  However, why these bits are even included in this chapter is unclear, as it does not really contribute anything, unless she is just taking us on a tour through alternative beliefs.

She further agrees with most atheists that the various relics of Jesus are not evidence. What is sad is that the same conclusion could be reached without using shoddy evidence, misleading quote practices, and repeating a mistaken (fabricated?) quote of a church father - at the very least a quote she has not verified, if it at all is present in Augustine's oeuvre.

The next part of this chapter deals with the Old Testament, and basically is fairly good: as she says, little evidence in favor of the Old Testament historiography has been found. We do not know whether David and Solomon existed, and we know the Hebrew kingdoms were much less powerful than the Biblical narrative indicates.

[1] Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy, 1999
[2] Joseph Wheless, Forgery in Christianity, available at
[6] Gospel of Matthew, first few chapters
[7] Gospel of Luke, first few chapters
[8] P.J. Casey, Understanding Ancient Coins: an introduction for archaeologists and historians, 1986