Friday, March 30, 2018

Critical Thinking Applied To The Easter Story

Father Elwood P. Hecker,, S.J.  from the Loyola Wolf - 1965 Yearbook. He encouraged us (in theology class)  to treat biblical accounts critically - not to simply imbibe them - especially the Easter story.

As we’re now approaching the Easter weekend, it’s a good time to be more critical and maybe parse that narrative of the death and resurrection of Yeshua. To be truthful, even when I was still  a practicing Catholic at Mgsr. Pace High, the Easter narrative bothered me. The timeline, as well as the behavior of the main personae didn't seem to make any sense. The teaching Marist brothers also weren't much help, content to just fob questions off with "Take it on faith. Not everything in the good Book can be subject to logic or reason."

Why not? Well, maybe that's why I became an atheist.

One of the first puzzling passages one encounters is Matthew 28:2, which takes up the story after the crucifixion and after two women arrived at the tomb. We read therein:

"And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it."

The passage relates that the stone was rolled away after the women arrived, and in their presence. However, Mark's Gospel says it happened before the women arrived:

"And they said among themselves, Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great."

Meanwhile, in Luke one finds:

"And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre."

Can't these scribes  of the synoptic gospels agree on anything? But wait!  Maybe we can arrive at a supermajority for truth! John concurs with Luke: No earthquake, no rolling stone. It is a three-to-one vote: Matthew loses. Else the other three are wrong. If logic rules then an event cannot happen both before and after the key subjects arrived.

Now, some bible defenders may assert that Matthew 28:2 was intended to be understood in the past perfect, i.e. showing what had happened before the women arrived. But the entire passage is in the aorist or past tense, and it reads, in context, like a simple chronological account. 

Matthew 28:2 begins, "And, behold," not "For, behold."

If tenses of assorted verses can be so easily shuffled around, and believers can be so gullible as to rationalize them all, then what is to keep them from putting the flood before the ark, or the ascension before the resurrection ? Heck, they can do anything they want!

Consider an additional  problem: the fact that in Matthew the first post-resurrection appearance of Yeshua  to the disciples happened on a mountain in Galilee and not in Jerusalem as most Christians believe. Note the prediction by the angel sitting on the newly moved rock:

"And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him."

Assuming the angel was delivering the message of God this had to have been of supreme importance. Jesus- Yeshua had even predicted this himself sixty hours earlier, e.g. during the Last Supper (cf. Matthew 26:32). Later, according to(Matthew 28:16-17:

"Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted."

Reading this at face value, and in context, it’s clear that Matthew intends this to have been the first appearance. Otherwise, if Jesus had been seen before this time, why did some doubt?

We further find that Mark agrees with Matthew's account of the angel's Galilee message, but delivers a different account of the first appearance. Meanwhile, Luke and John give different angelic messages and then radically contradict Matthew. 

Luke relates that the first appearance is on the road to Emmaus and then in a room in Jerusalem. John, however, says it happened later that evening in a room, minus Thomas. These angel messages, locations, and travels during the day are impossible to reconcile. But who’s looking, or asking?  As Fr. Hecker put it in one of our Loyola Theology classes "I warrant not too many!"

Such contradictions don’t prove that the resurrection didn’t happen, but they do throw considerable doubt on the reliability of the supposed witnesses. Some of whom were flat wrong. Maybe they were all wrong. Let us also not forget Thomas Paine’s famous words (in The Age of Reason):

"I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted. First, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true."

All of which points up the need for judicious use of  biblical exegesis to scrutinize ancient words as opposed to blindly accepting them.

An ongoing problem that consistently emerges is that many who purport to have mastered exegesis have often omitted textual analysis as part of it, which also requires familiarity with one or more languages, in particular Latin, and Greek. Thus, a person versed and educated in these languages will be better able to at least parse the Latin Vulgate form of early biblical texts, and also make forays into the Greek Septuagint. (Both of which we had to do at Loyola.)

By using such language skills to examine then compare earlier and earlier texts, one is then in a position to identify errors and obvious mistranslations without having to have the original texts as references. Hence, one can reliably deduce where errors have been made and also where they've  propagated on the basis of simple deduction. Again, this is once inconsistencies are exposed.

As an illustrative example: Half of the oldest manuscript witness texts, including a Bodmer papyrus, the Vaticanus and Beza’s Codex omit the sentence in Luke 23: 34 which purportedly contains the "last" words of Jesus. This level of uncertainty in the textual tradition means the interpretation of the passage was a subject of serious debate. Put briefly: half the witnesses insisted Jesus begged God’s forgiveness for “them”.  The other half pretended to know nothing of the “Eloi, eloi lama sabacthani” prayer. What gives?

 How can the divergences be reconciled? The conclusion of textual analysts is that the passage is probably bogus and a later addition. Why say so? Because the earliest Greek witness papyrus (called P 75 - which dates back to 200 AD) has no such content. However, the prayer can be found in Codex Sinaiticus and a large range of mss. produced in the Middle Ages. Again, the comparison of earlier mss. with much later ones (in the Middle Ages) shows prima facie evidence for alteration of text in the later epoch. We don't need any special inspiration to inform us of this, once we arrive at it using simple logical inference, i.e. deduction!

Another example is the verse from Matthew 25:46:“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal". This verse (which I've commented on before)  is critical because it's the only one in the whole good book that has the two words "everlasting" and "punishment" in the same sentence. Thus, the entire concept or claim of "everlasting punishment" rests on the validity of this single verse. 

But is it valid? Not when one applies the Greek translation (from the Greek Septuagint), emerging as:"kolasin aionion” or punishment for an aeon. Now as anyone even without Greek language skills knows, an aeon never has been nor will it ever mean "eternal". Thus, one can legitimately conclude that later scribes and copyists deliberately inserted their own version to bend the scriptures to their own agenda.

What is the optimum way to take the Bible’s assorted books, and especially the Gospels? Catholic Scriptural Historian, the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in his monograph,  A Concise History of the Catholic Church put it thusly (page 17):

"The Gospels were not meant to be a historical or biographical account of Jesus. They were written to convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God.”

Further, what we have from Rev. Bokenkotter is a de facto admission that no historical support exists for any of the accounts in the New Testament. Indeed, if they "were not meant to be historical" (or accurate), then we cannot be sure if any are! Quite possibly, none of the accounts should be taken seriously. 

This is also a good reason to interject once more that interested readers ought to avail themselves of the easily accessible online course, Introduction to New Testament History and Literature by Prof. Dale B. Martin of Yale University. (Roughly on a par with my 'Introduction to the New Testament' course taken at Loyola in 1964-65. ) The compilation of course sessions, all on video, can be accessed via this link:

I also recommend - for those short on time - Lecture No.13, dealing with the "Historical Jesus" (link below):

Enjoy your Easter, believers, but do try to be aware of the pitfalls in taking events too literally as recounted in the Synoptic gospels!

Malaysia Proposes Crackdown On Fake News - What About In The U.S.?

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As reported in The Wall Street Journal ('Malaysia Aims At Fake News', March 27, p. A6),  the country of Malaysia is now prepared to treat the problem of fake news as a serious issue, as opposed to a frivolous lark by amiable know- nothings. As the piece notes:

"Malaysia's government has proposed a new law that would make spreading fake news a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison"


"The proposed law defines fake news as 'any news, information, data or reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting false words or ideas."

And further (ibid.):

"The draft of the proposed law allows a prison term of up to 10 years or a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit ($127, 715 U.S.) or both. Anyone failing to remove allegedly false material faces a further fine of up to 100,000 ringgit, and up to 3,000 ringgit for each day the material remains available"

Noting the bill must still be approved by both houses of parliament and is expected to become law before Malaysia's next national elections, which must be held in August and are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.

On perusing the details of the proposed law it is difficult not to see that it could well be of use in the toxic fake news environment of the U.S. as well - under which cover of "protected first amendment" much vitriol and hate is spewed which is outright fake.  In terms of  "visuals" one can cite the image (which I will not dignify by reproducing here) a degenerate has created of Parkland student  Emma Gonzalez appearing to rip up the U.S. Constitution. Given how inflammatory the image is and that it is targeted at a victim of the Parkland massacre, "free speech" doesn't cut the mustard. Hence,  I can easily see this is where the Malaysian law could be applied and the perp given the full fine and 10 years to think about it.

First amendment purists and toads using it to cover their hate screeds will bitch but as I've already written before the first amendment is no more an absolute than the second. Both have to have limits imposed to mean anything if those who act under them aren't prepared to act responsibly. Indeed, in a guest blog post (Sept. 12, 2017) , philosopher George Lakeoff has already written on why hate speech (which is what the fake image of Emma amounts to) is not free speech, noting:

"Freedom in a free society is supposed to be for all. Therefore, freedom rules out imposing on the freedom of others. You are free to walk down the street, but not to keep others from doing so. The imposition on the freedom of others can come in overt, immediate physical form — thugs coming to attack with weapons. Violence may be a kind of expression, but it certainly is not “free speech.”

Like violence, hate speech can also be a physical imposition on the freedom of others. That is because language has a psychological effect imposed physically — on the neural system, with long-term crippling effects.

Here is the reason:

All thought is carried out by neural circuitry — it does not float in air. Language neurally activates thought. Language can thus change brains, both for the better and the worse. Hate speech changes the brains of those hated for the worse, creating toxic stress, fear and distrust — all physical, all in one’s neural circuitry active every day. This internal harm can be even more severe than an attack with a fist. It imposes on the freedom to think and therefore act free of fear, threats, and distrust. It imposes on one’s ability to think and act like a fully free citizen for a long time. 

That’s why hate speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the hate. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech."

Under this standard, other examples of fake news that engenders hatred, e.g. photo-shopped images of the Parkland students as Nazis, would also not be protected. They'd all qualify as serious violations under an analog to the Malaysian law.   Amanda Marcotte, in her piece ('Conservatives Can't Stop Themselves From Bashing Parkland Students') has pointed out that:

"Alex Jones has equated the Parkland survivors to Nazis, suggesting they intend to murder gun owners. "Alt-right" sites are spreading fake images of the kids and spreading conspiracy theories, including claiming that the students are actors or that no massacre happened at all. "

Since Alex Jones would have obviously violated  the proposed Malaysian law - and again, under Lakeoff's principles he's not manifesting any "free speech"-   then he also merits the "book"  being thrown at him. Similarly for the Alt-Right troglodytes who incite hate and create conspiracy theories that the massacre never happened or that the students are crisis actors. Of course, if I were handling the sanctions I would give the perps 3 days to take down all their bullshit before bringing the hammer of the law. Ditto for imps who post images ("visuals")  showing Hitler and David Hogg in photos as if the latter is supported by the former. The excuse that the images are "satire" wouldn't cut it, and anyone with a grain of sense and an IQ over room temperature would know that. (In a similar way, anyone in Germany who uses cartoon, images, text or other fare to deny the Holocaust faces years in prison and huge fines.)

Again, free speech is not absolute or open ended, it implies limits. So does the 2nd amendment have limits, i.e. owning military grade weapons is NOT a right! (Again, MD and other states have banned such weapons without having had the laws overturned.)

The WSJ piece notes that the government didn't just spawn its proposed legislation on its own but  "sought the views of the Asia Internet Coalition when drafting the bill."  This group comprises companies such as  Facebook Inc.,  and Alphabet Inc's Google.  Incredibly, the group has also insisted "the prescriptive legislation wouldn't be an effective way to address the spread of false news."

This echoes many op-eds I have seen in the press recently (TIME, Financial Times, WaPo,  NY Times etc.) that users need to take their own responsibility for what they see and hear.  But how far does that go? Assume there is a massive threat of a storm, or hurricane, bearing down on the Gulf coast and people are advised to take cover and precautions against loss of life and property. But a fake news station, WFAK,  insists it's all baloney and merely a government ploy - a "nothing burger".  This leaves thousands to believe the fakery and hundreds perish. 

Or imagine some whacked out nut who sees Jones' lies about the Parkland kids  being "Nazis" and taking his guns, then acting out,  killing one or more of them. WHO has to pay? Certainly not the students if they ignore Jone's website. But he must pay for creating the malicious content that brought the harm. This ought to be a no brainer.

 Isn't there a need  -even in an alleged "free society" -  to protect vulnerable people,  say from those who'd undermine the polity and a given community's security using lies? This, of course, also applies to the venomous lies heaped on the Parkland student survivors like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez - now rendered potential targets for crazies. This on account of the vicious lies spread by Alex Jones and others.

Frankly, I don't buy the conglomerate's claim that "false information is a highly complex issue" -  no it is not.  It is a very basic and simple issue but requires people read widely and don't tune into the liars and fake news disseminators. It also requires we impose restrictions on web sites and sources - like Alex Jones' site- if they are given to spreading malignant, hate-filled lies with the potential for harm to the targets.  ("Pizzagate" also qualifies under that rubric. After all, a nut armed with a semi-automatic rifle did barge into a D.C. pizza parlor looking to kill one or more people after reading the lie. Fortunately, no one was harmed that time.)

Fake news and information is only "complex" if we make it so, which then provides an expedient loophole for those who create it to operate with no restrictions and with impunity.  But given the toxic effect fake news is having on our nation, subtly and not so subtly ripping its remaining strands of civility asunder, we no longer have the luxury to ignore it or treat it frivolously. Or blithely regard it as a simple "exercise of free speech" - which it is not, as Lakeoff noted.

It is time to at least consider a Malaysian type of law.  And the first person in the dock ought to be Dotard Trump.