Sunday, 29 April 2012

Randi in Trouble

Interesting little sub-article in Fortean Times this month.  I have checked with my superiors in the Grand Liberal Conspiracy, and it seems that this in not one of ours, so I can reveal the following without fear of being hounded from my day job. 

James Randi, hero of skepticism [sic], relatively recently came out as gay and revealed that he has for long been living with a man known as Jose Luis Alvarez.  Alvarez has been involved with Randi's CSICOP and JREF organisations for some time, often posing as a 'psychic' himself to ridicule the excessively credulous. 

Now it transpires that 'the man known as Jose Luis Alvarez' is not in fact Jose Luis Alvarez at all, but one Deyvi Pena, an illegal immigrant to the USA.  This raises questions about how much Randi knew of his partner's illegal activities.  FT is (perhaps ironically) commendably sceptical on the subject, stating that:

'Pena'Alvarez's dual identity only came to light when the real Alvarez (a teacher's aide from New York) tried to take out a passport in 2010 and the federal authorities realised that someone else had already done so - using Alvarez's name, date of birth and social security number - in 1987 [...] A 1986 Toronto Star story on Randi mentions his assistant being one 'David [sic] Pen, a young man of about 20'.  This would suggest that Randi must have been aware that Pena had changed his name to Alvarez by 1988 [...] it appears that, to meet Pena's bail conditions, Randi swore under oath that he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago.' 

Further research online appears to slam-dunk the case against 'Alvarez'; a slew of witnesses who knew Pena in the 1980s have testified that photos of 'Alvarez' are the man they knew as Pena, he apparently gave conflicting statements to the police about where he was born (New York or Venezuela) and Randi, acting on his legal advice, has declined to comment on the matter but has commented that 'Alvarez' is Pena 'if that's who you think he is'. 

So far, Wikipedia appears to be silent on the subject - but it would appear that there are questions over the honesty of a sceptical great. 

Elisha and the Bears

This is Week Four of Giford's Bible Study Programme.

And he [Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
- 2 Kings 2:23-24
Length: 3/5
Controversy: 1/5

This was one of the verses that really shocked me when I read the Bible. There just seems to be no reason for this extreme violence. I literally had to re-read the verses and context to make sure I hadn't missed something.

Christian / Jewish Responses
We get the usual word-games here. Firstly, to question whether the Hebrew word naar really means 'children' or 'young men', usually by comparison with another verse where naar is used to describe someone clearly an adult - this is slightly dubious, since in this verse the adjective ketannim ('small', 'smallest', 'young' or 'youngest') is used before naar. Then to claim that Elisha acted correctly - 'go up' is probably a reference to Elijah ascending to heaven, and having a 'bald (shaved?) head' may (or may not) be a religious symbol as well. So the Christian (and, presumably, Jewish) response seems to be that being torn apart by bears is an appropriate punishment for adults who insult priests.

It is left to the reader to decide whether
this interpretation is significantly different from the 'literal' reading that so shocked me.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Did Jesus Exist?

One of my favourite weblosophers gives his take on whether we can reasonably say that Jesus existed:

Essentially, Law argues that while we do not have enough evidence to say with confidence that Jesus did not exist, nor do we have enough evidence to say with confidence that he did. 

I have long been sceptical of atheistic claims that Jesus did not exist - the existence of a real miracle-worker seems to me the most parsimonious way of explaining the existence of the early Christian documents and beliefs about Jesus.  However, Law does go some way to addressing some of my concerns, notably his 'principle of bracketing'.  Essentially, this says that if a high enough proportion of a story is miraculous in nature, we are not justified in separating out the non-miraculous portions and judging them by the usual standards.  The non-miraculous simply become a by-product of the miraculous, and if we are accepting that a large (miraculous) part of the story was invented from whole cloth, why should we not also accept that a smaller (non-miraculous) part was (or at least may have been) invented also? 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Painful to Watch, But Welcome

The Church of England continues its long battle to drag itself into the 20th Century [sic].

Who Killed Goliath?

This is Week Three of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.
2 Samuel 21:19
Length: 2/5
Controversy: 3/5

Simple enough, surely? The slaying of Goliath is one of the most famous OT stories outside the Book of Genesis, and at first glance this verse seems to have only a tangential bearing on it. But in fact closer study shows it to be directly relevant, and opens a whole vipers' nest of problems for a plain reading of the Bible.
The trouble is that the phrase 'brother of' simply does not appear in the Hebrew text; it was inserted by the translators to avoid a contradiction with the better-known story of David killing Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:49-51. 

Some translations (notably the footnotes to the New International Version) omit this phrase and state outright that Elhanan killed Goliath.

The fact that these two stories both appear in a single book (the splitting of the Books of Kings into 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel was done for reasons of length by the Greek translators - they are not separate works) strongly indicates that this is not the work of one single author - indeed, modern scholarship regards the Books of Samuel as being a complex mosaic of earlier documents (though this should not be confused with the Documentary Hypothesis, which applies only to the first few Books of the Old Testament). To make matters more complicated, 1 Chron 20:5 says that 'Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, whose spear staff was like a weaver's beam.' (The Book(s) of Chronicles are widely regarded as being late in origin, and in Jewish scripture they are placed last in the canonical order in acknowledgement of this. 'Lahmi' is likely a mistranslation of 'Bethlehemite' - i.e. Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite slew the brother of Goliath.)

So we appear to have two possibilities - either Samuel originally meant that Elhanan slew Goliath's brother and the text has inexplicably been changed over the years; or we have contradictory stories in Samuel and an attempt by the Chronicler to rewrite history in order to resolve them. In either event, there are problems with the text; the second option seems both more likely and more problematic to the integrity of the text.

Other Problems with the Goliath Story

We will return to David's story in future weeks. As a side note, Samuel is also slightly confused as to whether David slew Goliath outright with the slingstone (1 Sam 17:49-50: 'David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.') or a sword (the very next verse: 'David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his [Goliath's?] sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith.'). Again, one possible solution to this is that there are multiple sources for this story, brought together by an editor who tried to include them all. Another partial explanation is that a later editor added the name 'Goliath' to the David story to attribute to the hero David the deeds of the unknown Elhanan.

There are other problems with this section also. Although the standard texts give Goliath a height of around 2.9m (9 feet 6), some of the earlier manuscripts give 2m (6 feet 9). For anyone wondering whether Elhanan's father was called Jair or Jaareoregim, the answer is simple: the Samuel version of the name uses 'weaver' as part of the surname in an obvious scribal error. And let's not forget the unlikelihood of a superior army offering one-on-one combat as a means of resolving their dispute. Oh, or giants existing.

One thing is for certain: the text here is a mess of errors and certainly should not be taken at face value. 

Christian / Jewish Responses

There have been numerous attempt to harmonise these verses. The most usual is an insistence that the Chronicles verse justifies the alteration to the Samuel verse (acknowldegement that the text is imperfect and corrupt in Samuel presumably being the lesser of two evils). At least one source says that the contradiction in the two ways David slew Goliath is 'not important' - which again may be true, but does not change the fact that the Bible is in error about something here.

Others suggest that Elhanan is David, or that there were several giants called Goliath. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Iron Chariots

This is Week Two of Giford's Bible Study Programme.

And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.
Judges 1:19
Length: 1/5
Controversy: 0/5

I've chosen a bit of a skeptical favourite for my first reading (So well known, in fact, that it has given its name to an anti-apologetics Wiki). 

On the face of it, this verse is plain yet bizarre. It seems to be saying that God - the Omnipotent God who made the world - is powerless in the face of some fairly primitive technology.

Of course, the more accurate interpretation is easy to see - the Judeans were a superstitious people who ascribed all their successes to Divine favour. To them, it must have logically followed that their failures were either because their God had failed, or because their God had abandoned them. It is also possible that at this time, Yahweh was regarded as one God among many, the God of the Hebrews but not the only God in town. It was only later that they came to believe that He was the only God.

Christian / Jewish Responses

Some apologists have tried to claim that 'he' refers to Judah, and that some unspecified sin (the linked Blog suggests a lack of courage, others have suggested that God's covenant was broken due to an incomplete persecution of the Canaanites by the Hebrews) caused God not to allow Judah victory in the valley. It amazes me that someone could read 'because they had chariots of iron' and translate it as 'because he sinned'.

By Judges 4, the Hebrew God is able to overcome 900 iron chariots.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Giford's Bible Study Programme

In honour of Zombie Day, I shall be resurrecting some posts I made on h2g2

This is Week One of Giford's Bible Study Programme.
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Matthew 27:52-53
Length: 3/5
Controversy: 0/5
On this Easter Sunday, it seems only fitting that we turn our attention to the Biblical story of the Resurrection.
This well-witnessed mass resurection was not the only attention-grabber to accompany the death of Jesus. The curtain over the door of the Temple was torn, there was an earthquake and a strange darkness lasting three hours (Luke 23:44, Mark 15:33 and Matt 27:45,51; the longest possible natural total eclipse is 7 minutes and 31 seconds). Strangely, this unique event occuring in the middle of a major city within well-recorded history is not mentioned by any contemporary writer. Nor do any other gospels mention this invasion of zombies (Luke gives Jesus' last words at this point in the narrative, Mark says nothing at all).
We shall return to this passage later to study the exact text in more detail (with, perhaps, some surprising results). For now, I shall leave you with the (non-canonical) words of Edward Gibbon:
But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were represented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, pp. 588-590
Christian Responses
The primary Biblical inerrantist responses seem to be to deny that the text means what it says; 'Jerusalem' actually means 'Heaven', 'raised' does not mean 'brought back to life', and so forth. Denying that we have any (or many) historical accounts of the period is also common.

Happy Zombie Day!

A couple of links