God and morality

February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm (absolute goodness, Christianity, God, is religion good or bad for you?, morality, philosophy, suffering)

I guess what I’m thinking is that God doesn’t dictate morality. God may have created us with morality, but certainly did not write the moral code on the back of our hands so we’d know what to do. He wrote it in our hearts perhaps. In other words… gave us the ability to work out how best to live, and it’s up to us whether we do that.

As for what God thinks of our behaviour, or what God wants of us, I’m going with “I don’t know”. 😀 I don’t feel good about thinking that God wants to reward or punish our behaviour like some sort of cosmic adjudicator. The effects of that belief can be so ugly. I’d rather be motivated to do good based on understanding why it’s good and wise and beneficial. And we all say God wants us to question and to understand and not just follow things blindly… so why should I assume God wants any particular behaviour?

If you think that God wants you to behave a certain way, then you will want to know what that way is, and so you will sooner or later construct a moral code out of a set of dubious historical documents supposedly having something to do with God… and follow it to the letter. Even though that makes no sense. Because the fear of hell does that to people.

The thing about grace and mercy is, it takes away the need to please God. I think this is why Christians have a much less elaborate set of rules than some other religions.

And yet, there is still the belief in Christianity that God hates sin and loves righteousness, so sin is still bad, and there is the expectation that a believer will bear good fruit, and there is still the need to struggle against sin – not to earn salvation but presumably to please God… even though this is not supposed to be necessary. Which can lead to some of those ugly effects again: guilt, shame, hiding, denial, dishonesty, keeping up appearances, shallow moral thinking…

What would it be like if we didn’t believe that God was displeased by our wrongdoing? Taking grace even further so that not only is sin forgiven (and/or atoned for), but it’s not even offensive to God any more?

People who are very into judgment-based religions would say, all hell would break loose. But there are plenty of atheists with good morals… do we really need to believe that doing bad displeases God? Or can we be good without that motivation? (Does that motivation even help at all? I think we’ve all met immoral religious people…)

Honestly, I don’t know. I think the way I am going to answer that is by studying the really great people of the world and working out what motivated them. I suspect spiritual beliefs have led us to make great insights, but whether it was all motivated by pleasing God I don’t know.

Sin is behaviour which hurts somebody. If God hates sin, why did God create and put us in a world that hurts us (disasters, disease, etc)? And why is it that sometimes things that hurt us seem to do us good? Why is it that the same natural processes give rise to life and take life away? This does not seem like a fallen world. It seems like a world full of paradox. I have a horrible feeling there is no meaning behind it. I want to believe that to God, it is all good, in some way that we can only glimpse at occasionally.

Sometimes I think the world is so amazingly good, and especially humanity. But sometimes it all looks a terrible mess that we’ll never be able to fix. The world is not heaven and it is not hell, but it is both all mixed up together.


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Honesty about the Bible

February 17, 2010 at 11:00 pm (Christianity)

I’ve started my next book: “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)” by Bart D. Ehrman. I bought this at the same time as the other Jesus book, by E. P. Sanders, as I wanted the truth about Jesus and these two authors seemed to be widely regarded as prominent New Testament scholars. Ehrman has many books that sound interesting, but the reviews indicate that there is a lot of overlap between them, so I thought I’d just buy the most recent one.

Here are a couple of quotes from the first chapter:

“One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did, they find that there are other books that were at one time considered canonical but that ultimately did not become part of Scripture (for example, other Gospels and Apocalypses), they come to recognize that a good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered. They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf.”

“The views I set out in this book are standard fare among scholars. I don’t know a single Bible scholar who will learn a single thing from this book, although they will disagree with conclusions here and there. In theory, pastors should not learn much from it either, as this material is widely taught in seminaries and divinity schools. But most people in the street, and in the pew, have heard none of this before. That is a real shame, and it is time that something is done to correct the problem.”

I have to agree with Ehrman that it is “amazing and perplexing”. Why is there such a huge divide between what is taught in church and what is taught in college to prospective church pastors?

The historical-critical method is, let’s face it, a rational method looking for objective, factual truth. It’s like science. There is no wonder I am attracted to books like this; it’s no secret that I have been after literal truth. When I read Sanders’ book, it was so refreshingly thought-provoking, I thought even then, why haven’t I ever read stuff like this before? Why don’t churches promote this type of knowledge? Why don’t these books get pushed in Wesley Owen? Aren’t churches missing a huge opportunity to reach out through this research to people who have been conditioned to use their minds and won’t respond to traditional platitudes?

We are a long way from an Islamic equivalent of this research, never mind its dissemination. But unlike the Quran, large chunks of the Bible were never meant to be written by God; inspired by God, sure, but not necessarily perfect. Even when in the grip of evangelical faith I was able to see that the New Testament is mostly letters from one person to another(s), and I could never entertain the notion that the writers of the letters ever meant their words to be taken as God’s. Ehrman says that the knowledge he is presenting in the book does not destroy Christian faith; he lost his own faith over the problem of suffering, and it was nothing to do with his developing an honest, objective picture of the Bible.

At a time when I’m struggling to hold onto my regard for religion, reading something like that puts another nail in the coffin. I feel like people are being cheated out of truth. I can’t see any justification for knowingly peddling myth (here, the myth of Bible inerrancy) as literal truth.

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Radicalism and restricted loyalty

February 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, moral issues, society)

This week there was a TV programme about young British Muslims being radicalised… and a programme about a young white guy being radicalised into the BNP (an extreme, racist political party). The similarity between the two was striking. The pattern seems to be that they are looking for a place to belong, and people welcome them into that radical club and make them feel that sense of validation and belonging that they need.

I think I can understand radicalisation; after all, it is sort of what happened to me as an undergrad. I was seduced by an all-encompassing world view, a belief system that really gave me something to live for. For whatever reason, a lot of the younger generation need that in a way that their parents didn’t.

What I understood from the programme about radical Islam is that a lot of the parents of these young guys, who immigrated to Britain and brought a moderate Islam with them, don’t recognise that their offspring are believing quite differently from themselves. They are shocked when someone in their community is charged with supporting terrorism, and when it’s proved that he didn’t do anything, they are all “we knew you weren’t a terrorist, you were always a good lad, you have been badly treated by the police” – not realising that he supports terrorism even if he was never going to do anything. They seem to have their heads in the sand about it. This is worrying.

Militant Islam and the BNP are both finding support because of grievances that people have. People are finding meaning in these ideologies that is drawing them in. The BNP ideology is not based on any religious world view, so we can safely say that it is not religion that is the underlying cause in either case.

But being religious doesn’t help. The notion of the ummah encourages people to get worked up about Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world and to demonise the non-Muslims that are perceived to be to blame. It creates “The Other”. And when that Other is your neighbour, who might be politically liberal and strongly supporting your right to practice your religion in this country, and yet you have no loyalty to that neighbour because they are not part of your ummah… I find that very offensive. It’s the epitome of tribalism and it stinks.

When you can’t even wish your Christian neighbours a Merry Christmas, because it amounts to congratulating the kuffar on their festivals of shirk, then I don’t think you deserve the automatic right to build minarets in the country, or the automatic right to wear your niqab in the street. Pluralism is a game we all have to play with the same commitment to goodwill.

In such a globalised world, I feel we need to move beyond tribalistic or racialistic notions of loyalty. We need to begin to see everyone as our neighbour, our brother, our sister. It may sound overly simplistic, but it’s going down otherwise, isn’t it? I think we need to criticise when wrong is being done. We need to stand up against bullies in the world who are oppressing people. Respect doesn’t mean infinite tolerance. But we need to stop demonising each other and start to try and understand – see beyond our superficial prejudices which are only reinforced and deepened by our radical ideologies. We need to sympathise with the pain inside the radical Muslim and the BNP supporter.

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No God But God – Reza Aslan

February 13, 2010 at 11:31 am (God, Islam, moral issues, society, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I read “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. My unusually fast reading of this book tells you how good it was! Thank you to the (several) people that recommended it. I actually haven’t read many books on the history of Islam, but this is one I would recommend to anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims; he does a very good balancing act between the two audiences, remaining ambiguous about his own views! I am curious now to read another book of his, “How To Win A Cosmic War”.

The first point that hit me in chapter 2 was an explanation for why an uncompromising monotheism was so important to Muhammad. The greedy materialism in Mecca was supported by the fact that the Ka’ba housed statues of all the gods, and so the Meccan Quraysh tribe were able to exploit the pilgrims who came from all over. He had to attack the polytheism in order to render the Ka’ba redundant.

“… the Hanif preachers may have attacked the polytheism and greed of their fellow Meccans, but they maintained a deep veneration for the Ka’ba and those in the community who acted as Keepers of the Keys. That would explain why the Hanifs appear to have been tolerated, for the most part, in Mecca, and why they never converted in great numbers to Muhammad’s movement. But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige – the Ka’ba.” (Ch. 2)

It was a surprise to read because obviously at some point the Ka’ba became important to him again. But it makes a lot of sense.

Polytheism by nature is pluralistic and inheres religious freedom because there is always room for one more god. So I definitely think there was a downside to bringing an uncompromising monotheism. But attacking a greedy system, I can understand.

This leads to Muhammad’s persecution and eventual emigration to Yathrib (which became Medina). Then what? It never occurred to me before that the Meccans would just have let them be if they’d minded their own business and lived peacefully, but that’s exactly the picture that Aslan paints.

“By declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city, Muhammad was deliberately challenging Mecca’s religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula. And just to make sure the Quraysh got the message, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding.” (Ch. 4)

Makes it sounds positively harmless, doesn’t it? He goes on to say that it wasn’t considered stealing, and that through it, “Muhammad finally got the attention he was seeking.” This is different from Tariq Ramadan’s justification of it as retribution for the property that was stolen from them.

There was more disturbing stuff to come. By the time of Muhammad’s death, “In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama (or Musaylama), had so successfully imitated Muhammad’s formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamama, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city.” (Ch. 5) Isn’t that fascinating? But of course, such movements had to be extinguished by the Muslims. “[Abu Bakr’s] principal achievement as Caliph was his miliatary campaigns against the “false prophets” and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” (Ch. 5) Oh well.

Here is a really important point that I think all traditionalist Muslims should realise:

“There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad’s life. But … it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 C.E. as being in any way a unified systems of beliefs and practices; far from it.” (Ch. 5)

Any honest look – or even glance – at the hadith literature will tell you that nothing is clear-cut!

Authority within Islam was an interesting topic. He says:

“… the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community. The ancient Kharijite ideal of the Ummah as a charismatic and divinely inspired community through which salvation is achieved has become the standard (orthodox) doctrine of the vast majority of Muslims in the world…” (Ch. 6)

That was interesting in itself, but he goes on to say this is because there is no central authority in the religion. I’m not sure I follow, because the same could be said of Protestantism, and yet salvation there is not through membership in a Protestant community. However. For Sunnis, the Caliph held political authority while the ulama – scholars – held religious authority. For Shi’as, the Imams are both of these and more, as far as I understood – kind of like Popes, but even closer to prophets than that. I didn’t know that.

I learnt a lot I didn’t know about Shi’ism.

“The Shi’ah… regard Husayn’s martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.” (Ch. 7)

Almost like the way Jesus’s sacrifice completed the law of Moses. Atonement through sacrifice. Husayn died fighting and Jesus died not fighting, but both knew they faced death and didn’t run away from it. Hard acts to follow!

There were a lot more interesting things in the book but these were the standout things for me, things I wanted to record and/or see what your reactions are.

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Mythological truth: religion as a relationship

February 10, 2010 at 9:25 pm (myth and metaphor)

I was thinking about how conversion to a religion is a bit like getting married.

The decision involves several aspects:

Is this person’s/religion’s values, aims and beliefs compatible with mine?

Are we a good fit? Does the relationship “work”?

How do I feel about the person/religion?

No-one gets married thinking “I can always get a divorce if I change my mind”. Likewise no-one converts to a religion thinking “I can leave it if I change my mind”. Because religion and marriage are things that you grow your life around… extricating yourself from them after many years of investing yourself fully in them is painful, stressful and disorientating. No-one wants to have to go through that.

Some relationships progress quickly to marriage because it is clear to both people that they are a good match. This is partly a matter of actually finding a good match, but also a question of personality – some people are more decisive and other factors like that.

Other relationships might spend several years in limbo, never quite being sure if they want to commit long-term or if they could do better with someone else.

Some people fall in love, elope, and then split up a little while later because it wasn’t based on any real substance. Often this shocks people around them who believed them when they said “this is it” and “he’s the one”.

Some couples keep falling apart and then giving it another try, time after time, never quite being able to completely cut the tie even though it’s clearly not functioning for whatever reason.

When I think over all the stories I’ve read of people choosing religions, I can see parallels for all these types of relationships.

I can only conclude that religion is a relationship. In choosing a religion, you are choosing to marry yourself to a world view. Regardless of how you came to the decision, your commitment from then on has little to do with whether that world view continues to stand up to evidence, and everything to do with a personal attachment to it. You will only let go of it if you no longer love it, because it no longer works, or you discover aspects of it that don’t match your more deeply-held values and convictions. People could show you all sorts of reasons why it’s not true, and it might make you uncomfortable, but it won’t have any real impact. In this sense it is irrational… in the same sense that any relationship is irrational.

It is in this sense that I (tentatively) understand the concept of “mythological truth”, as presented by Reza Aslan, Karen Armstrong, and Howard Jacobson. It’s not that anyone sets out to believe in a non-literal way. It’s just that if you’re really honest, you will admit that’s the only option left to you if you want to carry on the relationship with religion after its basis – the things you believed in literally when you entered the religion – has been taken apart and deconstructed. It’s like you’re saying, “I know it’s not really true, but I’m invested in it and it’s working, so I’ll keep going with it”. So then there is a need to come up with an alternative definition of truth – it’s not literally true, but it’s true in some other sense.

Although I can cope perfectly well with mythical and allegorical content in scriptures (e.g. the creation story), I’d find it hard to see the basic tenets of the religion as allegory and still find the religion credible. God either intervenes in history or he doesn’t… God either sends messages through prophets or he doesn’t. I can’t really get my head around the idea of truth being relative or subjective. Belief is subjective, yes, but surely truth is not?

And I think most believers – by far – are literal believers. I know I said here that I thought the literalists might be a minority, but I was wrong. People generally do believe literally, even if they don’t follow through with it. (There is an inner contradiction that some people are perfectly happy to maintain – believing something is the word of God, but not reading it, not understanding it, not applying it. I think this is exactly why I tend to be all-or-nothing – I dislike contradiction.)

Maybe it’s something I just need to think about more and read about more.  Maybe if I am comfortable with religion containing myths and allegory, then I can somehow extend that comfort to the point that all my literalism melts away.

I’ll finish the post with some excerpts that describe all this better than me.

Here is an interesting bit from Howard Jacobson’s article:

“I like the idea there is this one God, not to be obedient to, although he wishes obedience and insists obedience, but to be in a perpetual argument with. One of the great scenes in Genesis is the wrestling with the angel, and I think that’s how you read if you love the Bible. It’s a wrestle, and you’re wrestling with something that’s very, very personal.

God changes as the Bible gets rethought and rewritten, but in the Creation, God is almost there. In the very first pages, he’s walking in the garden with Adam and Eve. He’s there. He’s a presence. You can talk to him and deal with him, and that’s thrilling.

I feel proud that my Jewish religion is so rooted in philosophy and argument. Everything is up for constant refutation, endlessly being argued about and criticised. We are like no other religion in the way we subject our holy works to scrutiny. Nothing is so holy that it can’t be criticised, and re-understood, and reinterpreted. The Bible is about infinite reinterpretation.

You can’t disagree with a God, unless you start with a God. That’s the other important reason to have a God, so that you can disagree and reject him if you like. But you can’t reject something that wasn’t there in the first place.”

There were some interesting comments on that article, referring to both the article and the TV documentary it supplemented; I’m not sure I’m allowed to repost them here but I’ll risk it. First, some comments that express the view that I would like to understand but can’t quite:

“I have been studying Genesis in recent years and agree with him wholeheartedly that it is a marvelous work of literature. That doesn’t mean that its religious significance is diminished for those that require it. We have always learned great moral and human lessons from literature. It is probably important not to take it too literally and to enjoy the imagery that it invokes.”


“It sometimes feels that the world is split and will never be put back. Some of the comments here fill me with despair. The ‘religious’ and the ‘atheist’ comments here are a fine example of this split. Both seem to lack any sense of the doubt and uncertainty that’s required to live honestly in this world. Its not that the religious or the ‘atheist’ need to understand each other better, its that they both need to be in a different place altogether.”


“I was deeply moved by this programme. You expressed with great power and poetic vision what these wonderful texts have to say. The difficulty with the two extremes it seems to me is that neither of them understands metaphor, which is the only language available to express the experience of entering these depths. The result is a mutual blindness and a kind of spiritual desolation or aridity in atheists and fundamentalists alike.”


Secondly, some comments that express the sceptical voice in the back of my head:

“I suppose I feel emotionally rather as Jacobson, as someone who was bought up a Baptist and who, though an atheist, feels a strong pull to ‘religion’, to the holy. However I found the programme infuriating in Jacobson’s unwillingness to admit that his position is practically identical to Dawkins’ and that his pull was effectively simple sentiment, and – worse – expressed in a mock-pious manner that made my skin crawl”


“Well, so much for an invitation to see the Emperor’s new wardrobe. Is the tremendous new insight simply that we clever social creatures like to tell stories, and that we are gullible enough to believe them against all facts?”


I have to admit it seems to be surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief. I still talk about God even though I’m unsure of God. The Big Brother housemates could communicate with a talking tree and keep a straight face.

Here are some excerpts from the prologue of Reza Aslan’s “No God But God”:

“Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith. It is an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence.”

To that I say – yes, but that seems to me like a universalist, outsider’s point of view on religion. Religious believers generally do not see it that way. But since he is reform-oriented, maybe he is pushing this view to try and help reduce the fundamentalism fuelling what he calls the clash of monotheisms. I think it’s an ambitious aim! He continues it in the following passage.

“…we must never forget that as indispensable and historically valuable as the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet may be, they are nevertheless grounded in mythology. It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to religion and its methology is “What do these stories mean?”

The fact is that no evangelist in any of the world’s great religions would have been at all concerned with recording his or her objective observations of historical events. They would not have been recording observations at all! Rather, they were interpreting those events in order to give structure and meaning to the myths and rituals of their community, providing future generations with a common identity, a common inspiration, a common story. After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others.”

I guess I don’t understand why he says that myths inhere legitimacy, and all interpretations are valid. If I’m honest, it seems like this is a polite way to deny the literal truth of religion but still respect others’ literalism. When Paul Merton visited the temple of rats in India and was invited to drink the milk from where the sacred rats were drinking it, he declined, horror and discomfort all over his face… but he still managed to say to the camera, “he believes in this, so it is true, it is real”… and yet somehow I couldn’t believe he really meant it.

What do you think? Do you understand this non-literal approach to religion?

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Jesus’s death

February 6, 2010 at 7:05 pm (Christianity)

It’s strange, but I don’t think I ever actually knew why Jesus was executed! Sanders puts forward his view in chapter 16 of “The Historical Figure of Jesus”.

Jesus and his followers went to Jerusalem for Passover and Unleavened Bread (two feasts, one long event) – all Jewish males were required to go, it was like a pilgrimage. They would sacrifice a lamb at the Temple and eat it at the Passover meal. Jesus did more teaching during that week, but he also did 3 symbolic acts: the triumphal entry on a donkey, which fulfilled scriptural prophecies; the turning over of the money-changers’ tables at the Temple; and the last supper with his disciples.

1. He made a triumphal entry on a donkey in which people greeted him as “king”. Probably not huge numbers of people, as he would have been arrested there and then if that were the case: “Passover was a prime time for trouble-makers to incite the crowd, and both the high priest and the Roman prefect were alert to the danger.” By the way, the high priest Caiaphas was sort of the governer of Jerusalem; he answered to the Roman prefect, Pilate, who was not normally involved in local governance but made a point of coming during the pilgrimage incase there was trouble to deal with.

2. He turned over the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers. This was a symbolic act but is difficult to interpret. Sanders is sceptical of the sciptural quotations Jesus is supposed to have made at the time of this act, which are often interpreted as meaning that he wanted reform of the system; Sanders instead links the act with a prediction Jesus made that the Temple would be destroyed. This predictive statement is likely to be authentic as it does not describe exactly what happened later (the Temple wall actually still stands). “…we can say that Jesus did not otherwise (as far as we can tell) spend his time … attacking the commerce that was necessary to the functioning of the Temple. He did, however, have quite a lot to say about a looming dramatic change to be wrought by God. This inclines me to think that the actions of overturning symbolized destruction rather than cleansing as an act of moral reform.”

Further, at his trial, Jesus was accused of threatening to destroy the Temple; this accusation also appears during his crucifixion, and mention of the threat even resurfaces in Acts. Sanders says about this: “The authors of the gospels are at pains to assure us that Jesus did not really threaten to destroy the Temple. … They protest too much. It is probable that he made some kind of threat. … It is more likely that Jesus said and did something that onlookers believed to be a threat and that genuinely alarmed them. They reported it to the authorities. But when they were examined in court, they – like other eyewitnesses – gave slightly different accounts. We cannot know precisely what Jesus said. I shall assume that he threateningly predicted the destruction of the Temple; that is, he predicted destruction in such a way as to make some people think that he was threatening it.”

He probably believed God would destroy and rebuild it as a newer, better Temple.

It was this act of turning over tables, along with whatever he said about the destruction of the Temple, that Sanders believes earned Jesus his execution. “If the high priest Caiaphas and his advisers knew that Jesus had been hailed as ‘king’ when he entered Jerusalem, they would have already worried about him. The Temple action sealed his fate.” It wasn’t that they thought Jesus could physically destroy the Temple, or that they thought he had amassed a secret army; it was simply that they feared he could incite the large crowds at the pilgrimage and cause unrest. Sanders cites other similar cases recorded by Josephus, a first-century documenter of history, that show it would be fairly normal to execute someone who did what Jesus did.

3. The last supper is very well-attested and was symbolic of what things would be like in the new kingdom. Sanders makes little commentary on the statements about the wine being Jesus’ blood and the bread being his body, but says it is very likely Jesus knew he was “a marked man” at this point. He didn’t run away, though. “He hoped that he would not die, but he resigned himself to the will of God.”

It is this resignation to the will of God that I can’t decide whether I think is impressive, or horrifying. This attitude continued through his arrest and his trial: “Conceivably he could have talked his way out of execution had he promised to take his disciples, return to Galilee and keep his mouth shut. He seems not to have tried.” I guess he was so committed to his truth that he was prepared to die for it. He wasn’t going to take back anything he said, or be dishonest, just to save his life.

A couple more interesting points:

The bit where the high priest, Caiaphas, tears his clothes in response to Jesus’ supposed blasphemy (verse 63 here) – if it really happened – was an exaggerated overreaction designed to get the advisers on board with the execution. Blasphemy was not the reason for execution.

Interestingly Pilate (the Roman prefect) is made to look sympathetic in the gospels, so as not to offend the Roman authorities who would read them! In reality Pilate would just have OK’d the high priest’s recommendation to execute Jesus – he “probably regarded him as a religious fanatic whose fanaticism had become so extreme that it posed a threat to law and order.”

Finally, chapter 17 briefly deals with the resurrection accounts. Sanders rules out that the accounts are all fabricated, since people were willing to die over their convictions that they had seen the risen Jesus. He believes at least some followers had “resurrection experiences”, but the accounts differ so much that we can’t even know who had the experiences, or how they experienced Jesus to be like. “The reader who thinks that it is all perfectly clear – the physical, historical Jesus got up and walked around – should study Luke and Paul more carefully. The disciples could not recognize him; he was not ‘flesh and blood’ but a ‘spiritual body’. He was not a ghost, or a resusciated corpse, or a badly wounded man limping around for a few more hours: so said Luke and Paul, and John (20.14f.) agrees.”

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”

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Jesus’s life

February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am (Christianity, God, moral issues)

I have finished “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders, and it was very interesting and enlightening. In this post I will share what I’ve learnt about Jesus’ life and mission, saving the part about how he died for another post.

Jesus started out under John the Baptist, before embarking on his own ministry. He called 12 disciples, close followers; the number 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel, and he said that they would judge the 12 tribes when the kingdom of God came. His main message was that the kingdom of God was coming very soon (i.e. within his own generation), and this was a common theme of the day. It seems to have referred to a dramatic intervention by God to establish a kingdom on earth ruled by God himself (the eschatological stuff), and also, referred to heaven. He taught about what the kingdom would be like. He had many followers and supporters but he expected only a few to give up everything and join him in his highly insecure existence. Even after his death, his followers continued to expect the kingdom, and gradually adjusted their expectations when it was not forthcoming.

He performed miracles, mainly healings and exorcisms, which earned him local fame. His ethics were perfectionistic, but his main emphasis was not on presenting rules but on showing mercy and compassion. He was not a social or political reformer – he believed the kingdom was coming soon and that God himself would establish it, so there was nothing people could do to bring it about.

Jesus saw himself as representing God – it is unclear whether he took on any titles like Messiah or Son of God, and it is unclear what “Son of Man” meant, which is how he sometimes described himself. It is unclear whether the Son of Man who he predicted to descend on a cloud when the kingdom came also referred to Jesus himself, but it might have. He seems to have thought of himself as “king” in some sense; he was fully aware when he rode on a donkey into Jerusalem that he was making this identification of himself (because it fulfilled scriptural prophecy). It’s worth pointing out that “Son of God” did not imply “more than human” or “divine” where it was used in the Jewish tradition; that and the virgin birth story came with the influence of Greek culture. To the Jews it always meant a person who had a close relationship with God.

Here is some more info under various headings – sorry it’s so long! If you’re pushed for time, “Ethical teaching” and “Sinners” are the most interesting parts, so skip to them. 🙂


Jesus’ miracles were mainly healings and driving out demons. He was not the only healer or exorcist, and it was not taken as a sign that Jesus was more than human, but it meant he was viewed by some as a holy man and his fame arose from it. He saw the miracles as symbolic of the kingdom being at hand.

Some of the miracle stories are probably exaggerated or even made up. The biggest example is the exorcism where demons go into swine which then jump into the sea. Mark sets this story in Gerasa and Matthew sets it in Gadara, neither of which are on the sea.  “The apocryphal gospels of later centuries sometimes depict Jesus as performing equally fantastic and grotesque miracles, some of which are even crueller than the destruction of swine, such as killing his childhood playmates and then restoring them to life, or turning them into goats. That is, sometimes Christian authors wished so strongly to present Jesus as a being able to employ supernatural power that they depicted him as being no better than a god of Greek mythology in a bad mood. For the most part, the canonical gospels are free of this tendency. Here, however, Jesus’ spiritual power over demons is so emphasized that it has resulted in an unattractive story.”

Also, the dramatic incident of feeding the multitudes seems to provoke no response from the crowds in the gospel stories, in contrast with other gospel stories where his fame spreads due to a single exorcism. You would think such dramatic miracles would result in mega-fame but this doesn’t pan out through the stories. Perhaps the feeding of the multitudes didn’t really happen. “…it could be reasoned that historically there was little response because there were few major miracles, while in the gospels there are great miracles but inexplicably little response. Possibly Jesus’ actual miracles were relatively minor and excited the public only temporarily. This is a speculative, though I think reasonable solution.”

Gentiles (non-Jews)

“All of the authors of the gospels favoured the mission to Gentiles, and they would have included all the pro-Gentile material that they could. … What is striking is that the evangelists had so few passages that pointed towards success in winning Gentiles to faith. They could cite only a few stories about Jesus’ contacts with Gentiles, and even these do not depict him as being especially warm towards them. … We must suspect that the most favourable statements about Gentiles … are Matthew’s creation. Consequently, we cannot be absolutely sure what Jesus’ own view about Gentiles was. On general grounds, I am inclined to think that he expected at least some Gentiles to turn to the God of Israel and to participate in the coming kingdom. The general grounds are these: a good number of Jews expected this to happen; Jesus was a kind and generous man. That is, the alternative to thinking that Jesus looked forward to the conversion of Gentiles would be that he expected them all to be destroyed. This is unlikely.”

Ethical teaching

Jesus had an idealistic moral perfectionism: turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and so on. His prohibition of divorce is the most well-attested pericope. Paul modified it to permit divorce with a non-believer; Matthew has Jesus give an exception – divorce is permissible following adultery. “We can hardly think that the early Christians invented the prohibition: they found it very difficult and had to modify it.” I got the impression that while he was an ethical or moral perfectionist, this didn’t extend to ritual perfectionism, like it maybe did with the Pharisees and Essenes who were super-strict in that way – although he did follow the ritual laws.

But although he expressed these high ethical ideals: (1) He didn’t teach very much about inner thoughts – Matthew has two instances of this here and here, but that is all; most of what he taught is more about actions than inner thoughts. (2) He emphasised “compassion towards human frailty”. (3) He was not a puritan – he “came eating and drinking”. (4) He made friends with sinners (see below).

This passage shows that to Jesus, real perfection is mercy – being like God who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

Attitude to Jewish law

Sanders proposes that Jesus does not ever oppose or “abrogate” the law, but requires a stricter code of practice (ethical perfectionism as discussed above). Even with divorce – Moses’ command to give a divorce certificate becomes unnecessary but is not declared “wrong”. In regard to this one, the law does not actually command hatred of enemies and this was not generally taught in Judaism, so that is not a law being abrogated. “Eye for eye” sets a limit for retaliation, and non-retaliation is not forbidden by law. In regard to Jesus supposedly declaring all foods clean in Mark, Matthew does not have this – and according to Sanders, what Jesus meant was that not only what goes in (food) defiles a person, but also what comes out (wrong talk).

Sanders justifies this theory by explaining that there would be more of a sense of opposition to Jesus in the gospel stories if he really advocated abandoning the law. “Had he gone around Galilee, teaching people that it was alright to work on the sabbath and to eat pork, there would have been an enormous outcry. A man who claimed to speak for God, but who taught that significant parts of God’s law were not valid? Horrendous! Nowadays, non-Jewish readers may not see how terrible this would have been.” Sanders explains that Mark is retrojecting this into Jesus’ story from the point of view of 2nd-generation Christianity, where the law has been abandoned. “Mark calmly tosses in the sentence, ‘He declared all foods clean.’ Paul’s letters crackle with the rage and hostility that his position on circumcision and food laws occasioned. Paul experienced the debate about the law firsthand. Mark (a second-generation Christian) did not, since it was largely over, nor did Jesus, since it had not yet arisen.”

Apparently it is highly unlikely that small-scale legal disputes would have caused some groups to plot to kill him as it states in Mark 3:6. In particular, no group would have considered that healing to be a transgression of the sabbath law. “In Jesus’ day and age… people did not kill one another over the sorts of issues that figure in Mark 2.1 – 3.6. The level of disagreement and argument falls well inside the parameters of debate that were accepted in Jesus’ time.” I didn’t entirely understand why the authors made it look like people were plotting to kill him over these petty legal disagreements, but I think he is saying that it was written from the point of view of the later legal disputes in early Christianity.


His association with sinners – blatant law-breakers – did actually offend people. And Sanders makes the point that he must not have been trying to reform the sinners, because that wouldn’t have offended anyone. “If Jesus had managed to persuade other customs officers to do what Zaccheus did, he would have been a local hero. But it seems that he was criticized. How can we understand this?”

Repentence as a theme in Jesus’ teaching is really only prominent in Luke and Acts (which are written by the same author). Matthew and Mark have surprisingly little about Jesus teaching repentance. John the Baptist certainly preached repentance, but it seems not to have been at the forefront of Jesus’ teaching.

“Jesus, I think, was a good deal more radical than John. Jesus thought that John’s call to repent should have been effective, but in fact it was only partially successful. His own style was in any case different; he did not repeat the Baptist’s tactics. On the contrary, he ate and drank with the wicked and told them that God especially loved them, and that the kingdom was at hand. Did he hope that they would change their ways? Probably he did. But ‘change now or be destroyed’ was not his message, it was John’s. Jesus’ was, ‘God loves you.'”

I found that particularly interesting, and really quite moving. In fact it was my favourite part of the whole book. The parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep is one of the best examples to illustrate the point: God, the shepherd, goes out to find the lost sheep and bring it home. He does not wait around for the lost sheep to return. The emphasis is on God reaching out in love and mercy, not on the sinner repenting.

“In a world that believed in God and judgement, some people nevertheless lived as if there were no God. They must have had some anxiety about this in the dark watches in the night. The message that God loves them anyway might transform their lives.”

How does this square up with the moral perfectionism? I guess maybe Jesus understood these sinners, understood why they were that way… didn’t judge them, supported them as society’s underdog, and even saw good in them. I imagine he lived in a very colourful world – not black and white.

I think there is a huge difference between on one hand, having idealistic morals but being realistic in dealing with real people (sinners); and on the other hand, having realistic morals that allow you to feel (dishonestly) that fulfilment of your obligations is within your grasp. It’s a completely different kind of realism. And I love Jesus’ realism. I love the fact that there is honesty about what real true goodness is and is not, while at the same time, people who fall short of it are not doomed but are loved despite their failings. It’s a truly astonishing balance.

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Forbidding oneself from lawful things

February 5, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Islam, moral issues, why I didn't convert to Islam)

As promised, I start off with a…


Surah 66 “At-Tahrim” (1) O PROPHET! Why dost thou, out of a desire to please [one or another of] thy wives, impose [on thyself] a prohibition of something that God has made lawful to thee? But God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace: (2) God has already enjoined upon you [O believers] the breaking and expiation of [such of] your oaths [as may run counter to what is right and just]: for, God is your Lord Supreme, and He alone is all-knowing, truly wise.

I don’t believe swearing off honey would be a serious enough thing to warrant these verses.

Moreover, I think the criticism is a red herring, deflecting attention from the real wrongdoing here, which by some accounts had everything to do with sexual passions and nothing to do with honey. It is actually very clever – have a verse criticise you for something extremely minor, and people might overlook the bigger wrong. And how do I know it was a wrongdoing (aside from my own personal opinion about it)? – a person only swears off something (or someone) if they feel guilty about it.

And just what is so wrong with forbidding yourself something that is lawful? Does that mean we can’t go on diets, or give up coffee?

Or was the pleasing of one’s wife (by imposing restrictions on oneself) the thing that is being criticised here? So men who are inclined to think twice about taking a second wife for the sake of keeping the first wife happy, for example, should snap out of that and just take what’s lawful to them?


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Delusions: good, bad and ugly?

January 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm (absolute goodness, God, is religion good or bad for you?, philosophy, science)

There is nothing else in life that can be compared to religion in terms of how deeply people get into it and also how subjective it is. People can’t change their minds about religion overnight. Belief is very robust. And different people can be equally deeply convinced about very different things. It’s very interesting.

In that sense, religion also seems to be very divisive. When you are so deeply into a religion that you are utterly convinced by it (and I think it is that way round), everyone else looks completely misguided, if not stupid. I can look at the Hindus in the village where little Lakshmi was born with a parasitic twin – giving her the appearance of 4 arms and 4 legs – who believe in all seriousness that she is a goddess… and I can easily think, how daft. But such is the power of our religious beliefs. They think the doctors who carried out the surgery to save her life were in the wrong. It’s all a matter of perspective. I am trying really hard not to conclude that the best or only real perspective is the materialistic one. But sometimes I feel like I’m losing at that.

One big factor in Ghazali’s religious angst was fear of hell. He was worried that he would face hell if he couldn’t recover his faith. This is something that has plagued me at times, too. But now, I really feel that I’ve liberated myself from it and that is probably why I don’t fear losing all faith any more. The idea of eternal torment as punishment for finite sins is completely unjust, and the idea that correct beliefs are required to avoid this means that life is a lottery – you will be saved if the influences on your life allow you to arrive at those beliefs. Either it is a lottery, or “God guides whom He wills” – i.e. God has favourites.

Even if our condition in the afterlife depends only on our actions in this life and not on our beliefs, it seems to me that we don’t all have the same propensity to sin or to do good. Either from birth or by conditioning, some people have an inclination to be psychopathic, or abuse children, while other people would never do those things. Maybe we could say God takes all these differences into account when judging people. But there is still the question of whether eternal punishment is ever just.

Maybe it’s true… maybe God isn’t just, or fair. Why should I assume that we can project human values onto God? But if that is the case then it would seem there’s nothing I can do to be sure I’ve secured my afterlife, since any notions I might naturally have about what I deserve can be thrown out the window. Given how man-made all religions seem to be, and how subjective the process of arriving at belief is, I can’t take it seriously any more. It seems like just another tale told to frighten children into obedience. And while I can’t rule out that it is true, I also can’t rule out that I am going to spontaneously combust in the next five minutes. Neither of these are at all rational to worry about.

There are alternative ideas within Christianity: the idea that punishment is temporary and redeeming; the idea that punishment is simply destruction and ceasing to exist. The former is actually the one I like the most because I like happy endings and I also like the idea of people getting what they deserve. But who knows? NO-ONE DOES.

I wrote this elsewhere and wanted to record it here too: At this point I am less certain about God than I have ever been. But life itself has shown me goodness, and that goodness is what I still call “God”. Learning to love goodness is what I call “redemption”. And uncertainty has paradoxically brought more clarity. What I see more than anything is that religion can tie me in knots, and make me lose sight of the fact that goodness pervades everything and that all I need to do is look for it.

I have no idea if I will continue to believe in a reality called God in a literal way. And I’m pretty sure believing in a mythological way is impossible (although I will read Aslan’s book before I decide, as I really don’t understand the concept yet). But my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”. I fear life could not be meaningful or truly good without belief in God. I will have to think about that.

I think it’s being able to reflect on the experience of consciousness that gives rise to all this existential angst. Asking these questions is wired into us. I don’t think it’s just over-active imagination, although that is part of it. This doesn’t mean any of our ideas about God are true… but it might mean we can’t live fulfilling lives without them. I worry that we are too intelligent for our own good; that we have the ability to see our delusions for what they are, even though that insight causes us to malfunction. I don’t know that any of that is the case, but it worries me that it might be.

It might just be that it is neither rational nor irrational to believe in a deeper reality. Any ultimate explanation of reality is probably inherently subjective because we can only see reality through the lens of our own consciousness.

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January 20, 2010 at 9:00 pm (Christianity)

I’m currently reading “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by prominent New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders. I am loving it! The first 7 chapters have all been introductory, so I am only now about to get into learning about the historical Jesus. This is a reflection of how thoroughly transparent the book is about its sources and their issues, and the methodology. It is brilliantly well-written and a pleasure to read because of how clear it is.

Here are some interesting things I learnt about the gospels, from chapter 6.

  • Gospel material started out as oral traditions pretty much like hadiths – very small stories called “pericopes”. They were not used to tell the biography of Jesus, but to make various points to various people – so the stories were all removed from their original context.
  • After some decades (probably in years 70-90), the gospels were written from these small stories. There may have been stages in-between the “isolated sayings” stage and the full gospels, such as collections of sayings grouped by topic.
  • Expressions such as “at that time…” and “then…” and “immediately…” were used to string the stories together in the synoptic gospels. These are narrative devices and do not represent true knowledge of the order in which events occurred (this even differs from one gospel to another). Beacuse they are constructed from pericopes, the gospels are “stark” and do not read like biographies.
  • New material crept in – particularly into John’s gospel – because the lines got blurred between the historical Jesus and the spiritual Jesus that the believers experienced as speaking to them through prayer. “John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them. The author of the Gospel of John would be the first to point out that this does not mean the discourses that he attributed to Jesus are ‘untrue’; he would not have agreed that historical accuracy and truth are synonymous…”
  • The gospels were written anonymously: names were not attributed to them in any literature until the year 180. Author names were assigned at that point through detective work on the texts, which was “shrewd” but ultimately the identity of the real authors is uncertain.
  • The apocryphal gospels – those that didn’t make it into the New Testament – probably contain very very little authentic material. (That’s a relief – I won’t bother reading them all!) Only the infancy gospel of James and the gospel of Thomas were written early and contain interesting material. The rest is pretty much just legends. The four canonical gospels also contain some legendary elements, but they are the main sources for historical truth.

Much of this was deduced through textual “detective work”. I find that quite fascinating. I must admit it would be interesting to see scholars analyse the Quran in this way. My impression when reading it was that it was constructed in part from something like these pericopes – historical oral traditions, such as Lot leaving Sodom and Gomorrah – there are even several versions of that story in the Quran with slight variations; for example sometimes it says Lot’s wife was left behind, sometimes it says an old woman was left behind. It’s not a contradiction but it does seem like it came from two different traditional accounts.

It’s interesting as well to realise that the gospels are more like hadith collections than a “divine writ given to Jesus”. Knowing that that’s how they are constructed, somehow answers questions I never knew I had… to me, the gospels never read as if someone had sat down to write the story of Jesus’ life, but I didn’t know why until now. Amazing!

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