Saturday, April 23, 2011

Grasping the Nettle

Sorry I've been so quiet the past week. I actually began a couple of posts that I couldn't seem to finish; let's see if I can do any better tonight.

Easter, like the other big Christian holiday, has to be covered in the media, so it's a good time for all kinds of non-news and general wackiness. A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal gave comedian Ricky Gervais space to explain why he's an "excellent Christian," even though he's an atheist.
I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.

It’s not that I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus wouldn’t make this a better world if they were followed. It’s just that they are rarely followed....

Jesus was a man. (And if you forget all that rubbish about being half God, and believe the non-supernatural acts accredited to him, he was a man whose wise words many other men would still follow.) His message was usually one of forgiveness and kindness.

These are wonderful virtues but I have seen them discarded by many so-called God-fearers when it suits them. They cherry pick from their “rulebook” basically.

Quite a few atheists say such things, but they're generally vague about which teachings of Jesus would make this a better world if they were followed. In Gervais' case, he cherry picks "forgivenness and kindness," which do feature in Jesus' teaching as they do in the teaching of just about every religious teacher except Ayn Rand, but they are surrounded by a lot of stuff that is not so kind or forgiving at all. Hellfire and damnation (you'd better be kind and forgiving, or I'll condemn you to eternal torture!), which make up quite a bit of Jesus' teaching. Or the stuff about plucking out your eye if it leads you to sin, because even a lustful look at a woman will end you up in Hell, or becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven because marriage, while allowed, isn't a good idea. Or hating your family if they get in the way of your salvation, because the time is short and Judgment is at hand, and Hellfire awaits those who dawdle. Did I mention that the fire is not quenched there, and the worm is not sated? And so on.

Did Gervais grapple with this small issue? No. I can't say I blame him much, because it's one thing to attack Christians (Christians do it all the time), and another thing to attack Jesus. Because Jesus was, like, way cool. So how did Gervais fill out his space in the Wall Street Journal? By going after the Ten Commandments. You know. The Old Testament stuff. It's true that Christians at least pay lip service to the Decalogue, as Jesus did, but there's a whole pile of interesting stuff in the New Testament that is a lot more relevant to Gervais' issues with Christians than the Ten Commandments. According to Wikipedia, for example, Gervais and his girlfriend of twenty-nine years have cohabited without getting married because "there’s no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God"; I think they'd run afoul of Jesus on that one, with his dim view of fornication and all. (And there's also this little thing called civil marriage, which I think they have in England too.)

One reason I have a soft spot for the Noble Engineer Robert A. Heinlein is that he recognized this little obstacle and took a couple of swings at it, most notably for me in Stranger in a Strange Land. In that book his alter ego Jubal Harshaw is having a conversation with another, more naive character about a recently invented religion known as Fosterism. The disciple is outraged by the Fosterite scripture, which she considers just "hateful." Harshaw asks her if she's ever read the holy books of any other religion.
"... I could illustrate my point from the Bible but do not wish to hurt your feelings."

"You won't hurt my feelings."

"Well, I'll use the Old Testament, picking it to pieces doesn't usually upset people as much." [Stranger in a Strange Land, Putnam, 1991, p. 318]
Maybe that was Gervais' motive; but I don't think so. I think he's simply ignorant and dishonest, dodging the hard questions in favor of the easy ones. Or maybe it's just that he has no quarrel with any of Jesus' teachings -- so, Ricky, when are you planning to become a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven? Or sell all you have and give to the poor?

But more in the spirit of the season, MSNBC had a couple of winning examples of non-news. This article announced that a perennial biblical difficulty has been solved: the discrepancy between the date of the Last Supper according to the gospel of John, and and the date according to the other three (Matthew, Mark and Luke -- known collectively as the Synoptic gospels). According to Mark, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples, was arrested later that night, and crucified the next day. According to John, Jesus was crucified on the Passover itself. This creates many complications for those who want to treat the gospels as not just history, but eyewitness accounts by Jesus' followers.

Colin Humphreys, a "a metallurgist and materials scientist and a Christian" at Cambridge University, claims to have solved the problem:
Humphreys' research suggests Jesus, and Matthew, Mark and Luke, were using the Pre-Exilic Calendar, which dated from the time of Moses and counted the first day of the new month from the end of the old lunar cycle, while John was referring to the official Jewish calendar of the day.

... With the help of an astronomer, Humphreys reconstructed the Pre-Exilic calendar and placed Passover in the year AD 33, widely accepted as the year of Jesus' crucifixion, on Wednesday April 1.
I am deeply suspicious about this. First, I've seen this explanation before, in scholarship going back to the 1960s at least, so I doubt the originality of Humphreys's "research." Second, as Humphreys says himself, the problem then becomes how to explain how such an inconsistency found its way into texts supposedly written by Jewish followers of Jesus. Why were they using different calendars? (Third, I suppose I'll have to try to find whatever Humphreys is going to publish and see what his evidence is. The gospels are pretty explicit that they're talking about the same calendar.)

There's a famous quip of the distinguished English New Testament scholar Vincent Taylor to the effect that if certain critical scholars were correct, Jesus' original disciples "must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection," since they supposedly contributed nothing to the gospels as we have them. But Taylor's witticism applies no less to more conservative scholarship, which has to account for the fact that the gospels disagree on so many important matters -- not just the date of the Last Supper, but the Resurrection stories: the gospels disagree almost totally about to whom Jesus appeared, when, and where. If, as Taylor also wrote, "for at least a generation [the disciples] moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information”, it's very hard to explain the discrepancies. ("Difficult?" as Doctor Johnson cried out in another context, "I wish to heaven it were impossible!")

In other non-news, MSNBC reported controversies surrounding the release of some new versions of some English translations of the Bible. "Mary a 'virgin' or a 'young woman?'" asks the title of the page; "Bible edits leave some feeling cross," puns the title of the article. (Well, Christianity is supposed to be the Way of the Cross.) The article contains a lot of minor errors, such as the claim that the new editions are "separate 'official' updated translations of the Christian Bible." One, the New American Bible, could conceivably be called "official," since it's produced by Catholic translators for Catholic readers, but there are other translations produced for Catholics, and the new one "isn't yet approved for use in the Catholic Mass, the bishops conference said, because only the Vatican can grant such approval — a process that can take years."

The other new edition, of the notorious fundamentalist-friendly New International Version, is even less "official." The Southern Baptist Convention adopted earlier editions of the NIV for use in the "pews", but members of other denominations have used it too. According to the article, both the Baptists and many Christian bookstores are unhappy with the new edition, and won't use or stock it. So -- "official", how?

The controversies are also old hat: should 'almah in Isaiah 7:14 be translated as "virgin" or "young woman," a matter of great import for Christians who see the verse as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus. The Revised Standard Version came down on the side of "young woman" fifty years ago, and Jewish translations never went with "virgin." The NIV has come under attack for using "inclusive" language -- that is, mostly inclusivity of gender, as in words like "mankind" or "son" as opposed to "child." There's a lot of room for disagreement in translation of specific cases, since Greek and Hebrew words don't necessarily match English ones. But people who grew up on the archaic King James Version often throw tantrums at any changes made in what they may consider the original Biblical text.

These are, as I said, old controversies, often very old. (How to translate 'almah is as old as Biblical translation, which means a couple thousand years.) But if you're writing the news, you have to come up with something for Easter, I guess.

So, tomorrow's Easter, when Jesus rises from the dead and comes out of his tomb. If he sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter, so let's hope for cloudy skies!