Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Does Richard Carrier Exist II: Claimant to the Throne

Is this Richard Carrier?
A few years ago, several of us had fun deconstructing the alleged existence of a world-renowned philosopher, historian, and all-around polymath named Richard Carrier.  While the original conversation actually took place somewhere between Heaven and Earth, as reported most accurately elsewhere right here on this site, it was also reported in a straighter version here. (As you can see from the former post, I am the "David last name removed" mentioned in the latter post, removed I hope not due to embarrassment.)

Or is this / or that Richard Carrier?
This afternoon, I received notification by e-mail that there is a claimant to Richard Carrier's throne.  This is, of course, not surprising, given what thrones tend to be made of and valued at, especially one of such illustrious and legendary character.  We should not, needless to say, treat such claims with simple naivite.

Here is the text I received, rescued from my 'junk' box:

I am moving to Columbus, Ohio, for good and all. And I’m taking a moving truck and towing my car all the way across country from my current and soon past home in Stockton, California.

Because Christians don’t understand how evidence works, they’ve literally argued that there is no more evidence for my existence than there is for the existence of Jesus their Christ. Never mind that that’s already wildly false. Here is your chance to see how evidence works, and confirm for yourself, as an eyewitness, that I do indeed exist!

This is a modern-day whistle-stop tour. I’ll be driving each day from one major city to the next, and giving a talk, or appearing in some public fashion selling and signing my books, and happily chatting and glad-handing and posing for photos for anyone who wants to verify my historicity.

The claim by the author of this e-mail to actually be the one and only Richard Carrier is, as you no doubt recognize immediately, highly dubious.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me point out twenty-five fatal problems with this claim: 

(1) A world-renowned philosopher would surely recognize the difference between a spoof post tagged "humour" and a "literal argument."  After all, when I asked the eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga (see Faith Seeking Understanding) whether philosophers always have a good sense of humor, the only possible exception he could point to was St. Thomas Aquinas, and he wasn't sure about him.  Given that Plantinga knows hundreds of philosophers, all things being equal, it seems unlikely that any given claimant who fails to recognize humor will prove a genuine philosopher.  Therefore, it is unlikely that the author of this e-mail is the real Richard Carrier, a philosopher who surely far surpasses any Medieval Catholic for his ability to analyze satire.  

(2) I don't think either my post nor Glen's post claims that there is no more existence for Richard Carrier than for Jesus Christ.  I don't think Jesus' name even comes up in mine.  Again, an eminent historian would almost certainly notice such quotidian historical facts.
(3) This writer seems to be conflating "Christians" with "one or two posts I've seen on-line, by some person outside the line of sight, for all I know a Jewish rabbi impersonating a Christian to embarrass a rival faith." 

(4) In any case, since logic is part of philosophy, a genuine philosopher would almost certainly understand that one cannot legitimately generalize from a post or two by a few Christians to the claim, embracing billions of individuals, that "Christians don't understand how evidence works."

And I'm not sure the author of this e-mail, whoever he is, understands how evidence works.

(5) For instance, according to one Dr. Richard Carrier, prior probability can in part be calculated by locating a claimant within a certain reference class, and calculating the frequency with which real persons fall within that reference class.  This he calls "the rule of greater knowledge." "If we know more about the person we are inquiring about, enough to know that he belongs to a rarer reference class 'that just anyone' claimed to be historical . . . " (On the Historicity of Jesus, 238)

How many people are moving to Columbus, Ohio?  And what is the subset of people moving to Columbus who are moving from Stockton, California?  Given the respective populations and emmigration profiles, the odds, it would seem, are billions to one.  This compares (since this writer brings up the analogy) Reza Aslan's argument that Jesus could not have been literate because a mere 3% of Palestinian Jews were allegedly literate!

(6) Indeed, it is suspicious that "Carrier" claims to be moving from a city called "Stockton" to one entitled "Columbus."  These names are mythologically significant, and therefore probably an interpolation.  For Carrier claims to have once believed in the historical reality of Jesus, a "stock" explanation for the evidence believed by a "ton" of scholars.  He then set out, "sailing the ocean blue," as an innovator and intellectual explorer, in the mode of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World.

(7) It is also more than likely that this motif of travel is borrowed from Homer's The Odyssey. Carrier's own Odyssey, for instance, is said to have involved numerous love affairs, as Odysseus with two goddesses and almost with a princess, on his way home to Penelope.

(8) This poster also seems to possess an extremely primitive, sub-philosophical notion of "eyewitness evidence."  Many people claim to have met persons named Richard Carrier, no doubt.  I personally can testify to having had such a faith experience, and possess a vivid memory of encountering members of Carrier's faith community, along with a man calling himself that, in the state of Alabama.

But as Elizabeth Loftus and others have shown, human memory is highly fallible.  The fact that we remember something, doesn't mean it actually happened.  Our brains are constantly fooling themselves, as John Loftus, no relation to Elizabeth, but Carrier's editor, frequently points out.  So the fact that I or someone else has such a memory, is at best only faint evidence that such an encounter actually took place.

(9) In any case, what proof do I have that who I encountered was, in fact, Richard Carrier?  I was shown no birth certificate, passport, or even driver's license.  In fact, I have none but the weakest of anecdotal evidence, the purported testimony of an image hovering before my face, that the person I met was indeed named Richard Carrier.

(10) Even if "Richard Carrier" is offering to show people his driver's license, what will that prove?  A driver's license is nothing but a piece of paper with names and dates on it, alleged to have been issued by anonymous officials working for one or another governing agency.  As Dr Carrier and his disciples (Matthew Ferguson, for instance) sagely point out, anonymous documents are pretty much worthless when it comes to evidence.

(11) Supposing "Richard Carrier" intends (though the poster has not promised this) that he will not only show his fans his driver's license, but also his passport and his birth certificate.  But unfortunately, Dr. Carrier the author has pointed out that the Criteria of Multiplicity is practically useless, because it is always possible that these "separate flows"of evidence converge upstream from a common source.  All this material may be derived, for instance, from a single faulty birth certificate.

(12) Fingerprints, as any cautious epistemologist must know, are also subject to the same objection.  Even if "Richard Carrier"intends to prove his identity by means  of comparing his fingerprints to some government data base (though again, he gives no hint of such an intention), that is simply a Hail Mary pass to blind faith in more anonymous testimony.

(13) Indeed, does "Mr. Carrier" even claim to recall the day of his christening?  Most people do not.  He is, most likely, relying on unsubstantiated rumors from "eyewitnesses" (if he can claim that) for an event that took place more than 40 years ago.  And as generations of skeptical New Testament historians have pointed out, 40 years is FAR too long for a community to preserve even so important a memory as, say, a resurrection from the dead.  Thus they invariably refer to such testimony as "oral tradition."  If "Mr. Carrier" claims to know his own "identity," it can only be the product of multiple generations of oral tradition passed on from an event subject to the corrosion that even far more vivid memories invariably suffer.  

(14-25) According again to the famous Dr. Carrier, historical claims can break down at least at the following eleven points:

"First, you must reliably know (1) if the statement in question very probably did go against its author's interests, (2) that the author actually perceived that it would, and (3) that the statement did not serve other interests the author had which he may have regarded as outweighing any other consequences he perceived to be likely.  And that means you must (4) reliably know what an author's interests actually were, and not just in general, but that particular author in that particular book, in that particular scene (and in that particular community at that particular time, and (5) you must reliably know what the author perceived the consequences of his statement would be . . . (6) you must reliably know how that author would have weighed the pros and cons he was aware of at the time . . . And if you can establish all that, you're not done. For (7) you must also reliable know if the author was even in a position to know the statement was actually true . . . (8) You also need a specific theory as to why the questionable statement was included at all.  And then (9) you need to test that theory against other theories of what it may have been included . . . But that requires explaining (10) why that author could not omit it or even change it (and (11) why no one else could in all the decades before" (Proving History, 158-9).

Reformulating that, we must demand of those who "want to verify (Richard Carrier's) historicity, at least the following:

(14) "'Richard Carrier' must reliably prove the sincerity of his claim to being Carrier, at a minimum by speaking for free, and giving his books away.  Better would be if he died on a cross to prove himself."

(15) "You must know that 'Carrier' really believes himself to be Carrier -- preferably by something better than a lie detector test, which can be faked.

(16) "You must also know that even if 'Carrier' is not profiting from that one night of speechifying, he is also not gaining any financial, emotional, or social benefit that outweighs that loss.  You must follow him to his room to make sure he doesn't have a girlfriend in the audience, for instance.  You must ensure that he is miserable the whole time he is in town and that he knew he would be miserable."

(17) "You must be sure that when 'Carrier' says 'I am Richard Carrier,' he means the world-famous philosopher YOU have in mind, not some other image of Carrier lodged in his own brain that imperfectly corresponds to that image, and that he must have that precise image in his mind exactly as he speaks.

(18) "You must be able to prove that 'Carrier' is not a consequentialist philosopher who thinks that by deceiving you into thinking he is 'Richard Carrier,' he will not somehow bring about a great benefit to posterity, if not to his own pocketbook.

(19) "You furthermore must be able to demonstrate that, in weighing consequences, 'Carrier' perceives that only by telling the truth is there salvation for atheist philosophers;

Nor is that all:

(20) "You must prove that 'Carrier' owns a time-traveling De Lorean with which he went back to the date of his own christening, to verify that he was, indeed, given the name which rumor reports.

(21) "You must explain 'Carrier's' motives in wanting to prove his identity -- without reference to ego, cash, love, or vengence, but only a pure, unadultered and indifferent love of the plain truth;

(22) "Then use Bayes Theorum to prove that the 'Telling the Truth' hypothesis is superior to the 20 billion other possible reasons one person might impersonate another;

(23) "You also need to have your own ears checked, along with the wiring between your ears and brain, and all the neurons that fire when you process the words 'I am Richard Carrier, would you like to take a picture with me?'

(24) "Then explain why 3.8 billion years of evolution with a strong element of random luck that is not inherently truth-directed should produce cognitive, visual, and auditory senses, which accurately translate patterns of sound into meaning and relate truth that corresponds to reality in the advanced hominid brain."

(25) Oh, and after that . . . treasure the moment, because it will shortly enter into mid-term, then long-term memory, and you'll never be able to trust it again.  So even if you did once meet Richard Carrier, you can never know that this really happened to you. It's all just electrical impulses firing from synapse to synapse within your brain.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Ten Greek Books (or collections) Worth Reading

What ancient non-canonical or non-Christian books give you the most valuable background to the New Testament, including by making you invulnerable to half the skeptical arguments out there? Here's my Top Ten list:
1. James Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library. (Almost all the extant Gnostic works -- most of them boring as all get-out, but highly revealing. Read with Plato's Parable of the Cave.)
2. Bart Ehrman's al-Scripture collection, Lost Scriptures: Books That did not make it into the New Testament. (My disagreement begins with the first two words -- not having these books, which are not "Scriptures," in our Bible is no loss, really. But seeing their unsuitability for yourself is part of the value of the collection - and some are interesting in their own right.)
3. Iliad and Odyssey, because Homer was the Greco-Roman Old Testament. Everything requires familiarity with these two books.
4. Plato, Dialogues+ Republic, because Plato (+ Socrates, whom he channels) was the Greco-Roman New Testament.
5. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius is the most-often cited "Jesus Clone." The absurdity of the analogy, and the desperation of the likes of Ehrman, Fredriksen, the Jesus Seminar, Carrier, et al, can only be fully appreciated if you actually read this often unintentionally hilarious work for yourself.
6. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. This includes about eight full novels, half or more love stories, and some primitive science fiction. Also about as many partial novels that have mostly been lost. Some are amusing, some boring. Golden Ass has been compared to the gospels -- you're not laughing yet? Read the thing, then. This is about 700 pages.
This one wouldn't hurt,
7. A good collection of Euripides, including the Bacchae. He was the most popular playwright of the time, and remains very interesting reading -- see what Clement of Alexander does with Pentheus in the Bacchae.
8. Herodotus' history of the Persian War. This is foundational. Also highly entertaining at times. Also the likes of Carrier try to use some amusing materials here for his weird purposes - cheat and actually read the references.
9. Thucydides -- here is what history could look like. Compare Luke's prefatory notes to Thucydides -- obvioiusly on the same page.
10. Arrian's Anabasis. The best extant biography of Alexander the Great, culling from two serious and early biographies, fairly judiciously, and borrowing other materials. Al is the anti-Jesus, the picture of a hero (along with Socrates, Hercules, and Homer's heroes) in the back of everyone's heads. (Arrian's collection of Epictetus' sayings is also wonderful -- Stoicism at its finest.)
Read these ten works, or collections, and you will be rendered impervious to half the skeptical New Testament scholarship on the market.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Are the Gospels Myth? Contra Kris Komarnitsky

Alexander and his horse
One of the hobbies I am coming to enjoy as I advance in age, is collecting fake “Jesus doubles.”  No, I don’t mean Christian baublehead dolls, or Orthodox icons.  I mean the phony parallels that skeptics so often point to in an increasingly desperate attempt to find someone, anyone, in the ancient world at all like Jesus of Nazareth, to defuse his embarrassing, intractable uniqueness and historical credibility.  

I have featured some Jesus Doubles (JD) on this site in the past.  (And plan to tackle more in my coming book.)  First, foremost, and among the most amusing, is the ever-popular Apollonius of Tyana.  The only thing he really shares in common with Jesus of Nazareth, is the middle name, "of."  But I love the Saturday Night Live style of the dialogue, the crested dragons and the cures for rabies and Jack the Ripper syndrome (drink lots of beer!)  Richard Carrier suggested the Golden Ass in (which really is gold), Matthew Ferguson The Contest of Hesiod and Homer (no contest with Jesus; see Part IV), and then (as if competing at the carnival to see who can come up with the most flamboyant outfit) Bart Ehrman came up with a real whopper, Baal Shem Tov, a Hasidic Polish Jew also known as the Besht, in a story that features a reincarnated, talking 500-year old frog, among other stars.  

These stories make fascinating and amusing reading, and also show just how desperate the skeptical cause has become.  

Recently, though, a reader sent me an article, by an amateur historian named Kris Komarnitsky, that offers a JD that may outdue the lot.  

Not that Komarnitsky himself seems ridiculous or unpleasant.  The article is polite, mostly sensible, and keeps to the subject.

But a reader brought the article to my attention, saying that one of his paritioners had read it, and it had helped to confirm that paritioner in his atheism.  He asked if I would offer a response.  

I will not much dispute Komarnitsky's claim that mythology can sometimes get started  quickly.  But I will dispute that any of his critiques of the gospels land a glove.  And I will maintain that the new "Jesus Double" he points to, is far-fetched in the extreme, and shows how desperate times have become for such skeptics, that they lead to such desperate measures.  

As it happens, I happened to be writing about the wonderfully zany work, The Alexandrian Romance, just yesterday -- the new "Jesus Double" in question.   

The Article

In May, 2013, a reasonably competent and careful amateur historian named Kris Komarnitsky challenged a popular argument for the essential historicity of the gospels.  It has never been an argument that I placed much stock in, mainly because I think there are vastly superior lines of reasoning that support the historicity of the gospels.  Nevertheless, Komarnitsky’s counter-argument is worth considering, both because it is cited by the likes of Richard Carrier and Matthew Ferguson, and (more importantly) because if we follow the thread of Komarnitsky’s thought, it lead us to several viewpoints from which the state of the field is made clearer.  

The original argument, by historian A. N. Sherwin-White and echoed by William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel, is that the gospels appear too early to have been the product of much myth-making.   After studying numerous ancient historical figures, Sherwin-White argued, in the early 1960s, that legends never develop and supercede a core body of historical fact in a mere two generations.  Since the gospels were written within two generations of Jesus’ death, therefore, it is highly unlikely that they are the product of conventional myth-making:

“Even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core of the oral tradition.”

Two Preliminary Assumptions and Problems

In response, Komarnitsky concedes that “virtually all scholars” admit the Gospels were written within two generations “after Jesus’ death.”  He also notes that his counter-argument is based on the assumption that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, adding, “Nearly all scholars acknowledge this possibility.”

We must pause at the outset to point out that the basis of Komarnitsky’s argument, these two core assumptions, are shaky from the get-go.  

For one thing, as is the want with liberal scholars (and even Sherwin-White seems to give way to this conceit), there is a ruinous equivocation hidden in the term “generations.”  Does it mean “the life-span of an individual?”  Or does it mean “the time it takes one set of children to grow up and produce their own children?”  The latter can be conventionally set at, say, 30 years.  But the former allows a twelve year old boy who watches Jesus multiply fish and loaves, to report that event first-hand in, say, 100 AD, if he lives to the moderately ripe age of 82.  In other words, by the former meaning of the word “generation,” one need not posit ANY generations passing before the gospels were written -- not one, let alone two.    

And that is the only meaning of “generation” relevant to the historicity of the gospels.  If people were still alive when the gospels were written, eyewitness testimony is possible and available for writers to interview, and we do not need to talk about “two generations!”  And clearly, by 65 AD, when Mark was probably complete, or even 95 AD, by which time John almost certainly was complete, some of Jesus’ followers would still have been alive.  

In which case, we do not need to use the term “oral tradition," either.  We can at least potentially talk about “testimony.”  

Given that the consensus time-line for the writing of the gospels allows for input from Jesus' first disciples, why does Komarnitsky say almost all scholars acknowledge the “possibility” that the gospels were not produced by eyewitnesses?  Of course that is possible -- almost anything is possible!  But it is not true that almost all scholars admit that this is probable.  After Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, some highly eminent scholars have granted the strength of Bauckham’s argument that in fact, one or two of the gospels were the products of eyewitnesses, perhaps three or four close second-hand testimonies derived from eyewitnesses.  

There is a great deal of other evidence for that, as I will argue later this year in depth.  But let us now consider Komarnitsky's positive case against Sherwin-White.  

The Case Against Sherwin-White

In his argument against the gospels, and Sherwin-White, Komarnitsky focuses on Arrian’s definitive biography of Alexander the Great.  He cites a colleague and sometime critic of Sherwin-White, P. A. Brunt, who challenges the former’s argument that myths required at least two generations to spring up.  The difference between conquerors like Alexander, or the many other figures Plutarch write about, on the one hand, and Jesus on the other, is that the former were public figures, whereas Jesus was too minor a figure for historians to bother mentioning.  

In reading (and linking) this article, as he does, Richard Carrier ought to take notice, since he and other mythicists are in the habit of asking rhetorically why no historian mentions Jesus, if he really existed!  Here is the answer.  Brunt and Komarnitsky are correct: ancient historians did not generally bother recording the comings and goings of public preachers.  They were generally so obsessed with the doings of politicians and warlords that some, like Polybius, barely mentioned the female gender!  (Which I am pretty sure did exist in the 4th Century BC!)  

So in passing, Blunt and Komarnitsky blunt that popular mythicist “argument from silence."    

Their own point, though, is that public figures like Alexander were too well-known for their followers to tell tall tales about them, while Jesus’ disciples would not have been so constrained:    

“Alexander the Great, like almost everyone else classical historians normally investigate, was a figure of significant public interest when he was alive.  Because of this, widespread knowledge of facts about him across a range of hostile, friendly and neutral people would have limited how much the historical core could have been displaced by legend in the oral and written traditions after his death.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely true.  Alexander was a general who led an army of conquest to India, then back through deserts.  Almost all that Arrian tells, comes from men Alexander commanded, like Ptolemy, who stood in much the same position as disciples (only Alexander could have had him killed for insufficient loyalty, so the discipline of these dsiciples was even tigher), and/ or whose own legitimacy depended on the grandeur of their master.  Those who survived the trek to India and back were hardened and proven veterans, not Alexander’s “enemies,” whose accounts do not, I think, survive.  

So I am not sure the cases were that different.  In fact, Jesus’ disciples would probably have had more freedom to “tell what really happened,” and less incentive to spin, as Ptolemy almost certainly did.  (Peter’s mistakes appear plainly in the gospels, while Ptolemy comes off as pretty uniformly competent even in Arrian’s account which relies in large part upon it, best I recall.)

In addition, Komarnitsky argues, the disciples would have been in a poor position to control the accounts that sprang up about the life of Jesus - even if they wanted to, which (furthermore) they probably didn’t much care to bother with:  

“The ability of a few of Jesus’ closest followers to contain the growth of legend would have been further hampered if the legends were growing in several different locales, for in this case they would have had the nearly impossible task of being present everywhere, stamping out all of the unhistorical legends.  Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry may have also viewed the correction of legends and policing of historical accuracy for events that occurred before Jesus’ death as a relatively trivial pursuit if their focus was on Jesus’ future return.  In this case, their priority would have been on convincing non-believers and galvanizing believers of the most important thing that they believed was true -- that Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead, and would be back very soon.”

So the disciples neither could nor probably even cared to keep their accounts of Jesus’ life on the up-and-up.  The gospel stories sprang up like "rumor-weeds" around the Greco-Roman world, no one could keep a lid on them.  Anyway, the disciples didn’t care much about telling the story accurately, since they were focused on Jesus’ Resurrection and Return.  

This argument is similiar to Ehrman’s story about how the gospels spread around the Mediterranean like “Chinese whispers,” from husband to wife, from wife to friend, from land to land and language to language, before being written down at twentieth remove by someone who had little idea of what really happened.

But there is a problem with both models.  No, there are dozens of problems, which I will describe in my upcoming book (before Christmas, Lord willing!).  Together, they make both models not just untenable, but set them completely beyond belief.  

Let’s just look at one objection for now, which is more than enough to dismantle both theories.  

How did the Evangelists get so much, so right?

Bauckham points out that study of the New Testament, and of the archeology of First Century Palestine, reveals that names given to both males and females in the former, appear in both sources in almost exactly the same frequency.  In other words, the Bible reports the names of men and women in Israel, in the same proportion as they actually appear in tombs and in other records to which archeologists have gained access.  

If you have some 20th-generation Christian in Rome who has heard the tale of a tale of a tale of a tale, on down the line, and who only cares about the Resurrection and the Second Coming, as Komarnitsky says, how likely is it that he would get Jewish names of the time and place so exactly right?  Pretty close to zero, wouldn't it be? Isn’t the frequency of “Levis” and “Thomases” even more trivial than, say, the feeding of the Five Thousand?

And yet the authors of the gospels do get those names right.  Since they were right about such trivia, isn’t it only rational to give them the benefit of the doubt on much larger points?  That is how we evaluate testimony, and that sort of evidence is why we trust Arrian, for instance.  

In addition, we know from Colin Hemer that some 84 facts Luke, author of both Acts of the Apostles and the third gospel, mentions about the Mediterranean world in the last 16 chapters of Acts, have been verified from other sources.  

Show me a myth that can claim that rate of successful reporting!  Not even our best newspapers always seem to win that good a track record.  

None of the three facts Komarnitsky says the evangelists alone cared about, are among the 84 facts that Hemer says Luke got right.  

Komarnitsky notes that according to Brunt, the evangelists “were not seeking to establish historical incidents so much as to proclaim salvation.”  

But as Hemer and Bauckham thus show, the evangelists do succeed in recording numerous historical incidents and patterns, whether or not that was their main goal.  (And it is a false dichotomy to suppose salvation and historicity must be in conflict, since the “Good News” of the Gospel is that something has happened in history that brings God’s salvation to all humanity.  Christian salvation depends on historical facthood, in other words.)  

So Komarnitsky’s skepticism stalls out of the gate.  Far from only caring about reporting the wonderful news of the resurrection, and not bothering to get other facts right, it turns out Luke, for one, was a skilled historian, who gave proper titles, names, ports of embarkation, customs, and so forth, about locales around the Greco-Roman world.  And the other evangelists must have had a close link to 1st Century Palestine, and excellent ears for details, to get so many names right.  (They also describe famous public figures and locales correctly, but I'll save those arguments for another day. )

How About Multiplicity?

Komarnitsky also attempts to undermine one popular argument for the gospels, the claim that they constitute several somewhat independent sources:  

”No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as three independent sources, even though they have different authors . . . They stem from one oral mileau . . . It is easy to see that this also applies to John.”

But this is highly misleading.  In fact, most scholars actually do claim independent sources, as well as mutually-dependent sources, within the synoptic gospels.  Even such hard-nosed (but knowledgable) skeptics as the atheist Morton Smith and the professional anti-Christian debunker Bart Ehrman recognize independent sources in the synoptics, called Mark, Q, M, and L, in the scholarly literature.  The Argument from Multiplicity is very much a live one, even among non-Christian scholars: Komarnitsky ought to have come across it.  

So Komarnitsky overlooks numerous important and obvious facts which support the historicity of the gospels.  Which does not necessarily mean his main point need be wrong, however.      

Quick-Order Myth-Making?

But is Sherwin-White right?  Is it really impossible, or unlikely, that the gospels could have evolved into highly mythological accounts in the course, if not of two “generations,” of, say, 40 years?  

Actually, I am inclined to think myth does sometimes spring up quite rapidly.  The “living Buddha” I studied for my MA, Lu Shengyan, told hundreds of tall tales about his own experiences in the supernatural world.  Those were, admittedly, different from public stories told about a leader, but communist leaders and model soldiers like Lei Feng do seem to accumulate such legends (otherwise known as "lies") fast enough.  Ehrman points to one of the Polish founders of Hasidic Judaism, Baal Shem Tov, about whom wild stories arose over some 70 years, but it appears that such stories or rumors can catch fire even more quickly.  

Which need not cause us to discount Sherwin-White’s argument, and the wealth of data on which it is based.  Again, there is a difference between “possible” and “probable,” and Jesus was not Kim Il Sung.  Sherwin White is probably right in seeing such instant myth-making as an unlikely development, whether or not Jesus was a public figure.  (And he seems to have been fairly public, and been challenged by plenty of enemies.)  

But who cares?  In the end, what "could have happened" is just so much ivory-tower posturing.  

It is obvious that the gospels are not, in fact, myths, or much mythicized.  This is not only because they prove so accurate when they name names, titles, shipping patterns, local practices, public officials, linguistic tidbits, and the like.  (Though I think that is more than enough to overthrow both Ehrman and Komarnitsky.)   

Sorry if this sounds subjective.  But we are human, and intuitively able to recognize the difference between a Kim and a Jesus, or an Apollonius and a Confucius, one genre of writing and another.    

Read the gospels!  Then read the works skeptics so desperately appeal to, to claim some sort of parallel!  Read Life of Apollonius of Tyana, or The Golden Ass, outloud!  Read them with your sense of humor intact!  Read them with an audience at a party!  You will find much to laugh at.  That is why reading such stories has become one of my favorite hobbies, as the years steal upon me.  

And Komarnitsky provides me with a treasure.  I never thought a skeptic would dare compare the gospels with The Alexander Romance.  

Alexander Romance and the Gospels

Komarnitsky notes that after all, there is one fanciful work which "may," possibly go back to almost the time of Alexander.  (His paper is full of “mays” and “ifs” and “plausiblys” -- it is good that he recognizes the weakness of each link in his chain of argumentation.  But the total chain is rendered weaker and weaker with each new speculation.  Why does Richard Carrier not take a Baynsian sledgehammer to that pack of cards?)  

If wild legends about Alexander could crop up so quickly (if they did, Komarnitsky does not make a genuine case for treating Alexander Romance as early), why not of Jesus?  And then why should we not grant that the gospels may be the same sort of thing, early tissues of myth?  

“If the Gospel accounts of Jesus are similiar to the Alexander Romance account of Alexander the Great, who would have written the unbiased or less legendized accounts with more of the real story?  The answer is: nobody.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone packs their whole argument, the moon and the stars and the lamps and the dog and the living room furniture, into a dependent clause?  Komarnitsky shows how modest Mary Poppins was, pulling lamps out of her handbag, or Hermoine, caring a tent and innumerable useful items around in a small bag by magic.  For into that single dependent clause, Komaritsky packs everything it takes to end Christianity, and change the world -- and also a collosal and fatal error.  

“If” the gospel accounts of Jesus are similiar to Alexander Romance?”  

But they are not.  At all.  

Such a ridiculous sentence only scans because most Komarnitsky’s readers have not read the thing.  

This is much the same hat trick Bart Ehrman pulled when he debated Timothy McGrew, and that Richard Carrier played when we debated: pick “parallels” to the gospels that the skeptic knows almost no one in the audience has read, and can evaluate.  Such arguments sound so smooth, and glide gently  down the throat -- until you read the originals being cited.  Then the reasonable person can only laugh.  

Again, I will not try to prove here that the gospels are completely different from Alexander Romance.  It is not worth proving.  All you have to do is read the works, and anyone but a fool should be able to see at a glance that the gospels are orders of magnitude more credible.  

In my coming book, I plan to describe 30 distinct characteristics that make the gospels credible, historically.  Hardly any of them apply to any of the early Greek novels, and while I haven't officially scored it yet, I think Alexander Romance comes off with almost no historically-relevant parallels to the gospels at all.  

Here are a few samples from Alexander Romance.  Tell me how much like the gospels you think these samples are:  

“Traveling again, we came in two days to a region where the sun does not shine.  There lies the Land of the Blest.”  (Somewhere near Juneau, Alaska, I guess!)

“There were black stones in the river; everyone who touched these stones turned the same color as the stones.”

“There were birds on the river, very like our birds, but if anyone touched them, fire came out of them.”

“We came across many animals: six-footed ones, three-eyed ones, five-eyed ones ten cubits long . . . Animals like wild asses of more than twenty cubits.”

“Their arms and hands were like saws.”

“The two trees in the middle of the garden spoke, one in a male voice, the other in a female.”

“Men with the heads of dogs.”  
I will analyze this and other ancient novels in detail in my coming book, but really that is hardly necessary to recognize that Komarnitisky and his fellow skeptics have reduced the argument against the gospels to an absurdity by citing such parallels. But kudos to them for bringing to our attention some of the more entertaining ancient works, and have thus enriching our lives.  After reading such works, I feel a bit like Elizabeth Bennett’s droll father.  After Mr. Bennett evaluates the three suitors who have asked for the hands of three different daughters, he praises the two who are rich, kindly, and possess good characters, but then settles on the third, who is an utter scoundrel, for particular praise:

”Wickham, perhaps, is my favorite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as much as Jane’s.”

It is hard to choose, but I think Alexander Romance may prove one of my favorites among the Jesus Doubles.


Monday, May 16, 2016

"Real Men support Donald Trump!"

My first article for The Stream was posted yesterday.  ("The Spiritual Dangers of a Trump Presidency.")  Someone calling himself The Bechtloff, showing a picture of a hand with a gun, responded (typically for a Trump supporter) by questioning my masculity:

"Trump called a woman a bimbo so you should instead allow a woman who has covered up for her husband's rapes to become President. Because those are the two choices whether you like them or not.

"I'm guessing David never served in the military, or even just worked construction, anything where he was around real men and exposed to locker room talk or he wouldn't be clutching his pearls like a little old church lady. I'm not electing a pastor I'm electing a President. 

"You're concerned about how the outside world sees the church? Well maybe if there was a bit of masculinity, of the kind Trump represents (at least in a raw unsanctified form) then maybe young men wouldn't be avoiding the church like the plague. 

"But I'm likely wasting my keystrokes here. David is clearly yet another low-T male that makes up the so called leadership of the increasingly feminized Evangelical culture."

Here's my response: 

On the contrary, Bechtloff, my father was a General Contractor and I grew up in construction. He was also a "real man" who never felt the need to curse, deride others, sabatoge former employees, sleep with other mens' wives, promise to torture enemies and kill civilians (he served in the army), or throw hissy fits whenever someone asked him a tough question. He was a real man, a gentleman, a man of truth and honor, whom I found reading the Bible with his wife every morning at six, and who lived out that Gospel by loving all those around him.
And yes, I have been around locker-room morality and worse.  I fought against forced prostitution in Snake Alley in Taiwan, where men thought a lot like Donald Trump, and girls were kept in virtual cages to service forty men a day.  
The greatest presidents, who won independence, kept the Union together, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, were also gentlemen, men of character not megalomaniacs who feel the need to brag about themselves all the time, who never stooped to Trump's sub-juvenile tactics and were not so full of themselves.  
I do not see Donald Trump as a strong man, Bechtloff. I see him as a coward and weakling, who bullies, lies, sleeps around, roars, and thumps the table because he hasn't got a clue what it means to be a real man -- yes, like Jesus Christ, the greatest and strongest man who ever lived. Please do read The Trump Bible:Why no Christian Should Vote for Donald Trump (or better yet, the original, which also has a lot to say about selfish, megalomanical "leaders" like Donald Trump), and rethink your approach to true masculinity, sir.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Conversation with a Cold Trump Supporter

I remember once, wandering through the streets of Taipei, praying for girls in Snake Alley who were forced to sell their bodies to all comers.  Ahead of me I noticed two Americans carrying big black books.  I went up to them to chat, hoping they were missionaries and they were carrying Bibles.  

"Pretty girls, huh!"

One asked me.  

"Pretty?  Don't you know some of these girls are sold by their own families at age 15?  And they have to have sex with dozens of men a day?"

"Oh, yeah, some even younger," one replied nonchalantly.

And it was brought home to me how flimsy a shared nationality or culture can be: barbarians are to be met with everywhere.

This came to mind just now as I was chatting with a Trump supporter who calls himself "Glacier," appropriately: 

Glacier:   In their entire history conservative Republicans have never conserved anything. Trump offers us the possibility of conserving our borders against illegal invaders, conserving our prosperity against job destroying trade deals, and conserving our nation against globalist elites. Conservatism has been exposed as the fraud that never did anything to stop the march of the progressive left and instead has only served as a means for elites to secure high paying jobs in the media, lobbying firms, and think tanks.

DM: Your first sentence is patent nonsense divorced from historical reality; no need to read further.
I have lived during, and observed, numerous fantastic conservative victories, which had a huge effect in the real world. Winning the Cold War was just one.

Glacier: Then tell us what conservative Republicans have conserved. It is certainly not our borders, culture, demographic majority, or Constitution.

DM: Stopping the communists preserved the whole planet from despotism, glacier. Isn't that enough for you?

But the present Republicans also stopped much of the Obama agenda and decreased the debt by two thirds. And yes, they did what they could to stop Obama's attacks on the Constitution -- do you think he'd have left us ANY freedom if it had been up to him? The system is one of checks and balances -- a feature not a bug.

Glacier: Communism would have eventually fallen on its own. The Republicans have both houses of Congress and the majority of state houses and governors. Yet the agenda of Obama and the progressive left marches on. Mass immigration from the third world, supported by Republicans, has ensured that a conservative can never be elected as president again.

DM: Not just "al right," "alt history," too. That's small -minded. You asked what Republicans have done, and I told you. Rather than giving credit, you move the goal posts and say, oh that would have happened anyway.

You move pretty fast for a glacier -- but AGW alert! -- you're moving in retreat.

Glacier: It is interesting that some of the former Communist nations are most likely to survive against the globalist onslaught. Honestly, I don't care about the form of government that foreign nations profess. I don't care about raising the standard of living of third world peoples or whether girls in Afghanistan can attend school or the well being of Israel either.

DM: Glaciers are cold, too. I am a human being and a Christian, and I do care. I have known some of the victims of communism, tortured and imprisoned and who lost loved ones. You may be an American, but clearly, I have more in common with those heroes than with you. Have your Trump, you deserve him.

But of course ending communism also meant lowering the chance of the whole world getting nuked -- which kind of includes the US. And I don't know what you mean about former Communist countries - if you mean the ugly, nasty thug in Moscow is a role model for your man in Washington, I can well believe it. But Russia's really not doing that well, right now.


Trump is a nationalist.  I, and most American Christians and conservatives, are patriots.  This year is demonstrating starkly the difference between the two, and the superiority of the latter.   

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

It's Rush Limbaugh's fault.

So, the greatest and oldest democracy in the world (no offense, India) has now been given a grand choice of leaders to take up the yoke after eight years of Barack Obama. Door Number One, "the lady," a woman who lied and smeared her way to the top, enabling her sexual predator of a husband, raking in millions from America's enemies and bankers for speeches, and cheering whenever Planned Parenthood put another baby part on E-Bay.  Door Number Two: "the tiger," a casino-owning playboy and political Sugar Daddy who promises to get tough with strawberry pickers and the wives and children of our enemies.

A pox on both your houses.  And a pox on Rush Limbaugh.

Yes, I am blaming Rush Limbaugh for this mess.

It's not just that, after decades of telling us how important conservatism is, Limbaugh spent months yacking and yucking it up with the phoniest conservative who ever set sail, one who wouldn't fool a child who thinks his sister in a mask on Halloween really has turned into a witch, or that Pro Wrestling is a genuine competitive sport.  Nor is it just that Limbaugh spent so much of previous elections, by contrast, ruining the good names of genuine, if impure, conservatives like John McCain, who had a long record of opposing abortion and Big Government, and standing up for a strong military. (Not to mention risking his life for America in a navy jet and a Hanoi prison.)

Limbaugh's guilt goes deeper than such obvious double standards.

Limbaugh's fundamental error lies in the theme of his propaganda, the "Us vs. Them" model, that is his basic product, what coffee is to Starkbucks, and mass-produced beef is to McDonalds.  His essential heresy is his whole Conservative Vs. Liberal schtick.

Not that I repudiate conservatism!  I read Edmund Burke as a young man, concluded he was right (especially in view of communism, which proved the value of many of his warnings), and remain convinced.  I still believe government is a necessary evil that should be kept in its place.  I still believe in the "little platoons" Burke wrote about, and that Charles Colson exemplified, which sociologist Robert Woodberry showed led to so much freedom around the world.  I think it wise, when contemplating unborn children, to err on the side of protection.  I recognize the world contains evil forces, which must be challenged and checked to be kept from harming America's interests and friends, and keep a modicum of sanity in the world.

But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, I also recognize that the line between good and evil runs through every heart.

Failure to keep that in mind is Limbaugh's fundamental error.  While recognizing the value and truth of conservative positions, one of those positions is to recognize that "liberals" are not our most fundamental opponents -- our own hearts are.  And Limbaugh's pride, self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction, while affording a Trumpean amusement to his fans, are also serious character flaws, serious misreadings of reality, trash-talking and over-simplifications at which liberals are right to scoff.

"With half my brain tied behind my back." "Talent on loan from G-A-W-D."

Trump in embryonic form on the EIB Network.

Yes, Limbaugh was mocking the pretensions and false pieties of liberalism, which could stand to be mocked.  But egoism is not, in the end, a virtue, nor is blasphemy something that Christians should encourage.  

Also, Limbaugh's world was fundamentally too simple.  He knew that, because away from the mic, he golfed with those people, and met them as friends.  But his schtick could not model reality, and so his daily Us vs. Them diatribes over-simplified conservative perceptions (sometimes I fell for it), and set us up for a fundamental disconnect with reality.

We forgot that "right" and "wrong" are more fundamental, and more complex, than "right" and "left."

But then Classic Coke got old, and Limbaugh adopted a new business model.  From now on, having secured an audience, he sicced it less and less on "liberals," which was old and lacked the tang of adventure, but on "rinos," Republicans In Name Only, or the Republican "Establishment:" John McCain, Mitt Romney at times, John Boehner, perhaps even Marco Rubio, when he strayed.

But such rhetoric was even more unreal, because it was unbiblical.  It smelled more of Karl Marx than Jesus Christ.  It neglected the fact that no category of human beings is simply good or simply evil, but that a line runs through every heart, dividing motives and ambitions, and revealing the primary need to open our hearts before God in confession and repentance.

Are McCain, Romney, Boehner, Cruz, Trump, and Rubio good men, or bad?

During the long campaign that is now winding up, the peculiar thing is that so few even bothered to ask such fundamental questions.  Hardly anyone asked if Ted Cruz is a decent person.  And Trump's supporters, and Cruz's supporters (he was also guilty of fostering this perversely un-Christian psychology, for instance in his purity-wars against Rubio), never stopped to ask that fundamental question, focusing on the Marxist question of how close their men stood in relation to the halls of power, instead.

If you belonged to the Establishment, you were a traitor by definition: part of the problem, a quisling who allowed Barack Obama to run wild.  (I doubt Obama feels that way.)

But virtue is not defined by wealth or poverty.  Jesus met each person as an individual, lunching with the rich and poor, praising the politically-connected and prostitutes, beggars, along with little old ladies with homes hardly worth eminent-domaining to build a casino parking lot.

So Rush Limbaugh is a heretic.  Which is to say, while intelligent,entertaining, often insightful, Limbaugh is, in the end, a pagan and fundamentally simple-minded fellow.

I am not Joseph in Egypt, and have no vouchsafed vision of the future.  But the next four years look rough.  Perhaps we can begin saving America, during those years, by turning off our radios, opening our Bibles, and listening again to the man whom George Bush (of all people) called his favorite political philosopher.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Did God Really Evolve?

What follows is my review several years ago of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God on the First Things website.   I don't think the question of how faith in God appeared has lost its poignancy or relevance in the past seven years. --DM
Historians of God most often gather to bury, rather than praise, their Creator; Karen Armstrong, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett being recent examples. Robert Wright offers an interesting break in the pattern with The Evolution of God . 
Wright, in his own way, is solidly in the materialist camp. In an earlier book he told how, like E.O. Wilson, he abandoned his Southern Baptist roots when he discovered evolution and recognized its power to tell the story of life. But he left God with regret. And today, it seems, “we need a god whose sympathies correspond to the scale of social organization, the global scale.” Wright looks at religion not with one eye shut and the other twitching down the sights of a Civil War“era carbine (signed personally by Colonel Ingersoll) but with eyes open to both the genius and inhumanity of man. His sketch thus rises not only to the dignity of error, but also to significant flashes of insight. 

The first part of Wright’s story is familiar enough. Humanity first appears in tribes. Our early gods mirror and justify the limit of our social commitments, mainly to kin. But social evolution, like biological, works an alchemic magic whereby selfishness is transmuted into altruism. Through conquest, tribes form into nations, and nations into empires. The gods justified tribal loyalties, and therefore conquest. But imperial religion slowly evolves a new role as a social glue, allowing amicable relations between tribes that now need to do business in an expanding world. 

Gibbon said that in ancient Rome, philosophers saw all religions as equally false, commoners saw them as equally true, and politicians as equally useful. Strident attacks on religion by iconic intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are similarly matched today by popular defenses of the the truth and utility of all faiths. (Huston Smith is probably the ablest modern proponent of the commoner’s position.) 

The genius of Wright’s theory lies in an evolutionary two-step that allows him to look at religion, like clouds, “from both sides, now.” Thus, on how Marduk, city god of Babylon, became “a kind of grand unified theory of nature”:
 For Babylonians bent on ruling Mesopotamia forever, what better theological weapon than to reduce Marduk’s would-be rivals to parts of his anatomy? Or, to put it less cynically: For Babylonians who want to suffuse all of Mesopotamia in multicultural amity and understanding,what better social cement than a single god that encompasses all gods?
The term Wright favors to describe the binding element in that cement is non-zero sum . Marduk makes a “subtle conquest . . . assimilating other gods into his being””allowing his subjects to relate to one another symbiotically as subjects of a cosmopolitan God, without losing the social capital of tribal affiliations. 

While not a completely original idea, it seems plausible as far as it goes. A fair chunk of the Chinese classic The Book of Poetry is, for example, dedicated to proving that the Zhou Dynasty Heaven”now identified with the Shang Di , or “God above,” of the previous Shang dynasty”justified, even demanded, conquest of the corrupt losing dynasty, and that his rule and that of the Zhou has no territorial bound: “This King Wen, carefully and with reverence, served God with intelligence, and by that service secured the Great Blessing. Unswerving in his virtue, he received the allegiance of states from all quarters.” 

Wright fingers King Josiah as the Hebrew king who elevated Yahweh to the position of Supreme deity. The next step came when Jewish intellectuals, exiled traumatically to Babylon, banned all other gods to explain and compensate for the defeat of Israel, thus inventing monotheism. If God punished us for our idolatrous ways, then brought us home, they thought, it appeared that he “controlled the empire that had conquered the empire than had conquered the Assyrian Empire,” and was the One True God. 

My friend Ard Louis, an Oxford physicist who studies protein folding, once compared the origin of life in terms of children’s toys. Find cars and spaceships made out of Legos, he told me, and you’ll be impressed. (And so I will be, having boys who do brilliant things with Legos.) But come into a room and find Legos snapping themselves into complex, coherent shapes, and the wonder is all the greater. Thus evolution itself is (he believes) a subtler but ultimately more impressive expression of God’s creative activity than direct design would be. 

Wright extends the logic of theistic evolution to the evolution of theism. Suppose, he asks, the real God is the purpose or intent, the divine logos behind the evolution of the inferior and no longer believable God of orthodox tradition? 

Wright is like a gardening enthusiast who explains (with dramatic pauses and frequent repetition) how a walnut seed grows into a mature tree. He describes how a seed opens and sprouts, tap root down and shoot up, breaks ground, and spreads its leaves, with all the excitement of scientific induction. He obviously thinks he is telling you something you don’t know (being, no doubt, a rube from the city). His first job is to undermine naive teleological explanations. Nuts fall by themselves, and sprout with spring rains. Like a squirrel, natural selection may plant genes in us, but for its own pragmatic evolutionary purposes, without envisioning the moral tree that will grow up and put all nations in its ethical shade. 

But then, Wright recalls, nuts fall from trees. For those who care to follow the argument (Wright is careful not to overreach here) the existence of a “moral arrow” built into nature may be taken as evidence of some kind of purpose, or even of some kind of God. 

The first serious problem with this story is one Wright shares with Armstrong. Did God really evolve? Early in their respective narratives, both mention the curious phenomena of “sky gods,” concepts of a Supreme God quite like the Judeo“Christian God that appear in hunter-gatherer and herding cultures around the world. (And sometimes survives in more advanced civilizations, like China.) They then move on to other matters”telling how God evolved (“more and more scholars [acknowledge] a gradual evolution of a complex Yahweistic religion from a polytheistic past”)”forgetting that a recognizable God in prehistory renders the idea that God evolved through history unnecessary. 

Marduk, Wright tells us, was Mesopotamia’s “closest approach yet to a universalist monotheism.” He “had sovereignty over the whole world,” named the four quarters of the world, and created humanity. 

But so did the “High God” of many aboriginal tribes. As even so firm a materialist as Emile Durkheim has acknowledged, the Aussie High God was seen as Creator of all, “benefactor of humanity,” and Judge after death. Observers have been offering similar quotes from Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia for close to a century and a half now; Wright mentions the phenomena himself. 

Why do we need modern empires to explain God, if aboriginal nomads reached the same conception just by staring at the stars? And how does Wright know the Hebrew conception of God didn’t fall like a nut from more primitive remembrances? 

Problems deepen as Wright moves to the New Testament. Here Wright’s major concern is to argue that the historical Jesus “didn’t emphasize universal love at all,” unanimous early Christian testimony to the contrary. The problem here is Wright’s evolutionary scheme, which requires that universal morality grow up like a tender shoot, and not flower too early. Like a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian, a premature conception of forgiving enemies, for example, would complicate Wright’s evolutionary scheme. 

Wright points out that Mark, the earliest gospel, has little to say about loving Gentiles. In fact, Mark’s Jesus obliquely refers to a Gentile woman as a dog. Wright notes that the “Great Commission” postscript at the end of Mark was added after the fact. (Unfortunately, he overlooks verses in chapters 13 and 14 in which Jesus also says that “the gospel must be preached to all nations.”) 

Throwing out most or all of the early records to save a theory is, of course, poor historical method. (Though nothing that has not exasperated careful New Testament scholars before!) But Wright later sabotages his own argument by reminding us (when he wants us to know Jesus believed in a resurrection) that Paul is a good source for what Jesus said, too: “Paul’s credentials as a witness to Jesus’ teachings are good, as such credentials go. Paul was alive when Jesus died and was attuned to the doctrines of Jesus’ followers.” 

By that criteria, unfortunately, not only Paul, but all Christians who lived within the plausible lifespan of Jesus’ first followers”including the authors of the canonical gospels”were unlikely to be completely mistaken about so fundamental an issue as whether they were to preach to goyim . And by the same criteria, Wright’s second-guessing is late, weak, and contradicted by anything that can be called real evidence. 

Wright has read little New Testament scholarship, and what he has read is mostly by scholars like Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels, and Morton Smith. He even cites the latter’s Jesus the Magician ”failing to recognize that Smith was the real magician, his main legacy being to conjure up the Secret Gospel of Mark out of an imaginary letter from Clement. 

I once wrote a book refuting the Jesus Seminar, but here I could almost wish Robert Funk’s merry gang on Wright. Funk was deeply hostile to Christianity. Nevertheless, he noted that the story of the Good Samaritan “passed the coherence test” because it fit the remarkable portrait of Jesus in all four gospels so perfectly:
 Jesus steadily privileged those marginalized in his society”the diseased, the infirm, women, children, toll collectors, gentile suppliants, perhaps even Samaritans”precisely because they were regarded as the enemy, the outsider, the victim. The Samaritan as helper was an implausible role in the everyday world of Jesus; that is what makes the Samaritan plausible as a helper in a story told by Jesus.
But in the evolutionary story told by Wright, a Jesus who cares for Gentiles and taught the Sermon on the Mount is not at all plausible. Wright’s Jesus, by contrast, is a “fire-and-brimstone apocalyptic preacher” (and xenophobe) who shares “a lot in common” with Muhammad. And here we come to the point of the exegesis. 

To an untutored reader of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Muhammad as described in standard biographies”attacks on neighboring tribes, enslavement and murder of enemies, forcible relations with a woman whose husband his troops had just killed”is less than inspiring. But Wright can hardly leave Muhammad out of his evolutionary tale, and the story must show progress. 

The genius of Wright’s scheme at this point lies in its dialectic. 

The temptation may be to play down violent episodes in the prophet’s life, as Armstrong does in her history of Islam, or to ignore them (in John Esposito’s 700-page Oxford History of Islam , they merit a single sentence). Wright attempts though to view Islam with both eyes without blinking”“at one point Muhammad is urging Moslems to kill infidels and at another he is a beacon of religious tolerance””then integrate that dual vision. 

Wright recognizes that the more savage Quranic revelations come later, when Muhammad is safely ensconced in Medina. But as Muhammad’s tribe grew, it worked the same dialectic of exclusion, expansion, and inclusion that mark the pains of racial tribes growing into empires. “It was a deft maneuver that Muhammad’s successors pulled off: Declare war on a people because of their religion and then, shortly after the conquest, feel tolerance welling up.” Hadiths, like memory stones, mark stages of the path to an inclusive society. And therein lie resources with which to solve our modern dilemma. 

Unlike Marx, Wright sees human beings as free agents, rather than as ciphers to the historical dialectic. Being clever, we pick and choose and interpret our Scriptures according to the needs of the moment. Each of the Abrahamic religions thus bares within it the potential for a humanistic interpretation. The chance for goodwill is an unexpected but inevitable byproduct of expansion, as human interactions become a “non zero-sum game.” (Putting a new spin on Muhammad’s old adage: “the way to paradise is lit by the flash of the sword!”) 

We are the world. For secularists like Dawkins and Sam Harris, theistic religions are the dangerous holdouts”Buddhists and Jains are assumed to be on board. But Wright integrates Abrahamic traditions within a fulfillment scheme leading to a humanism that embraces religious and secular worldviews. Sweetening the pot, he adds that this historical dialectic may even be taken as an argument for God. Wright does not seem to recognize it, but he is at this point trodding almost in the footsteps of Clement of Alexandria. 

Clement is cited early in Evolution of God . Wright credits him for attacking racism and embracing a “monotheism that has an ethical core and is universalist.” He then faults Clement for assuming the Christian God to be utterly different from the polytheistic swarm from which, Wright believes, Yahweh emerged. 

But Clement actually found a more interesting role for Greco-Roman thought in the divine order. “Truth is one,” he insisted. Reminding his readers of Euripides’ racy story of how Dionysius maddened the women of Thebes so they tore their king to bloody pieces, Clement added: “Just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light.” 

Like Clement, Wright views theology as “preparatory instruction” toward a truer conception of God. Wright’s goal is to do to theology what Clement did to Greek philosophy: “ The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell.” 

Wright and Clement differ about which part of the nut is edible, of course. But one hopes that reading Wright, Clement might again be able to affirm: “But all are illuminated by the dawn of life.” 

There are a lot of problems with this book, many deriving from the fact that when it comes to the Christian tradition, Wright often does not know what he is talking about. But truth is one. And surely Wright is onto something in supposing that the history of religion itself reveals the hand of God. It would have been better if he had considered earlier Christian sketches of God’s universal handiwork, from Clement himself, Matteo Ricci, Chesterton’s immortal Everlasting Man , or Rodney Stark’s fascinating recent Discovery of God . Still, Wright usefully challenges believers to tell the “old, old story” of Jesus, and his love, in a broader context”sketching a tree with roots in every tradition, and with leaves and fruit for the healing of all nations.