Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ben and Me, Faith pretending to be scholarship.

I read the magazine Biblical Archeology Review, not surprising huh? I've been a reader for over a decade and an actual subscriber for the past three or four years. I even had a letter published in there once. The key to my enjoyment of the "BAR" as it's affectionately called by readers is the word "Archeology." BAR knowingly prints articles that refute the "literalness" of the Bible.

The purpose of BAR is to present modern Biblical scholarship (and some pagan too, especially of cultures in the near area) to a mass audience. Some of that scholarship directly contradicts writings in the Old and New Testaments, some of it supports those writings. Most of that scholarship leads to a greater understanding of "why" a Biblical text was written and what life was like two to three thousand years ago in Israel and parts near by.

As someone who is interested in ancient religions it's hard not to like a magazine with cover stories proclaiming "Did God Have a Wife?" Obviously the BAR is not evangelical clap-trap, which gets it into trouble with its readers. Every month the letters column is full of people writing to express their discontent with the magazine, and showing their own ignorance. Scholarship exists outside the world of faith, sometimes it lends support to an argument and sometimes it doesn't. You can't just like scholarship when it backs up your point of view.

One of the most bewildering aspects of the BAR is frequent contributor Ben Witherington III. To me, Witherington is a pseudo-scholar, someone who has Evangelical Christianity cloud his judgement as an academic. A few years ago he was a part of some Christmas show on TV which attempted to prove the Virgin Birth, the star over Bethlehem, etc. Long time friends of Mankey know that I have no problem with those things, I just think that they belong in the realm of "myth" and not literal truth.

I an article on Witherington wrote:

"In fact, I would argue that it is highly unlikely Christians would make up a story about a virginal conception, precisely because it would lead to the charge of Jesus' illegitimacy by opponents of the Christian movement. There must have been some historical substance to this tradition for both Matthew and Luke to refer to the matter, independently of each other and in differing ways."

To me that's not scholarship, it's ridiculous conjecture, and I'm amazed that any scholar who wants to be taken seriously in the academic community could ever write those words. There's plenty of "historical substance" for Virgin (Miraculous) Births, it's called the history of pagandom at the time of Jesus. No "god" was born under normal circumstances, it seems ridiculous that Jesus would be the exception to the rule. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, they all influence one another. Most early Christians were Gentiles (pagans), that something with pagan origins ended up in Christianity should not be surprising.

There are other things in the New Testament its self that argue against the Virgin Birth. The obvious one is the Apostle Paul not mentioning it in his letters. The argument that the Apostle Paul makes no mention of the Virgin Birth is a completely valid one, and should not be thrown away as Witherington does in that piece. If the guy closest in time to the earthly existence of Jesus didn't think it was worth mentioning . . . . . how can it be seen as anything other than a later addition? The earliest gospel, Mark, also does not mention it. For me it's an open and shut case. The Virgin Birth is a matter of FAITH, not SCHOLARSHIP.

This leads me to a piece on BAR's website written by Witherington.* Much like the piece on beliefnet, this is a piece trying to prove the literalness of the resurrection. I'm not one to trample on anyone's belief system (though I think challenging it is fair game), but the idea of using scholarship to prove that a guy came back from the dead is ridiculous. Modern science doesn't take vampires and zombies seriously, why should it make an exception for Zombie Jesus? Besides, some things can't be "proven" they can only be accepted or dismissed, especially in matters of faith.

Witherington's argument in today's essay (link at the bottom) is that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection HAS to be true since it was basically shameful. I'll give him some credit, crucifixion was a horrible way to die, and basically said you were an enemy of the Roman State. According to Witherington religions and stories about famous people don't usually involve them dying in horrible circumstances or doing things that would lead to questions and comments from the masses. (This argument is similar to his one for the Virgin Birth.)

Of course that argument is complete bullshit. It took me about two seconds to think of something from pagan antiquity which completely discounted it. If I remember my Greek mythology right, Theseus had sex with his mother, abandoned the woman who saved him from the Minotaur on a deserted island, and ended up killing his father due to sheer laziness. He later became the most famous Athenian ever, was praised and worshipped for centuries, and eventually met his demise by being thrown from a cliff after he had gone out of favor in Athens. Why would I tell stories about this dude?

I'm always surprised that only one culture's mythology is seen as literal. We know that Troy existed but no one argues for the existence of Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Achilles as historical figures. The evidence that Jerusalem was a great city during the reigns of David and Solomon is non-existant, but they are always seen as real people. We know that Jewish slaves didn't build the great pyramids in Egypt (they were built by paid Egyptians and other laborers when they weren't busy being farmers), but people continually talk about Moses as a real person. There's more evidence of an historical King Arthur than a historical Moses, but one mythology is "literally true" and one is not.

The more mainstream media loves "scholars" like Witherington because it plays into the cultural narrative we have established. "Christian and Jewish History" is true, just like the Bible says, and everything else is myth. Dudes are born out of thin air, and rise from the dead. That's about as plausible as a fully armed Athena jumping out of her Dad's head, or Dionysus coming out of Zeus' thigh. Let's try to prove those things happened, there's just as much evidence in the historical record.

Let myth be myth, and religion be religion, and scholarship be scholarship. Stop lumping them all together, and hiding belief under the cloak of academia. Besides, the "literalness" of this stuff is not important. None of it can ever be proven either way, it's always best to just leave it a matter of faith.


  1. Good work, Jason.
    I'm also amazed that the mainstream populace does not believe that Myth has any power. In modern parlance 'Myth' is a demeaning term. ("It's just a myth.") But Myth is all we have for these incredibly powerful forces that cannot be proven literally.
    Also, I think the second sentence of your second-to-last paragraph needs an 'else' - "everything else is myth".

  2. Interestingly enough--Christian history and Jewish history cannot *both* be true. One affirms the divinity/existence of Jesus as the Christ and the other explicitly denies it. What is written in the Talmuds about Jesus is certainly not complimentary. :-)


  3. Also... technically wasn't Jesus an extraterrestial, rather than a zombie? :-)