Month: November 2010

Elaine Pagels is a liar

Marched into the public stadium, the eighty-six-year-old bishop shook his fist at the hostile, noisy crowd and defiantly shouted, “Away with the atheists!” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, pg. 82)

Pagels is, of course, talking about the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Smryna in about AD 155; she also is, of course, lying. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a document written by an eyewitness to the events (at least in its original form, though it’s probably been modified since) and our only historical source for the events of the martyrdom, does not say that St. Polycarp “shook his fist at the … crowd.” It says that he gestured towards them with his hand. Here’s a few different translations, all of them by well-respected translators, of the relevant phrase from chapter 9 of the Martyrdom of Polycarp:

  • Charles H. Hoole: “beckoned unto them with his hand”
  • J.B. Lightfoot: “waved his hand to them”
  • Kirsopp Lake: “waving his hand at them”
  • Roberts-Donaldson: “waving his hand towards them”

Nope, no shaking of fists. So what’s the big deal?, you might ask, it’s not that big of a difference. It sure isn’t; a very minor, rather negligible point. But I’m posting about it. Why? I’m posting about it because it’s not the first time; it’s not even the second or the third — I’m now counting in the teens with these “minor, negligible” … lies … and I’m not even half way through the book yet. I’ve been ignoring them thus far but I thought such a glaring and easily addressed example as this would stand as a decent lead in to this:

Each of these lies might be minor and negligible by itself, but throughout the book thus far, Pagels has been stealthily using these otherwise minor, negligible lies to build up her overall point, to disparage the early Church Fathers and portray them in as negative a light as possible (her treatment of St. Irenaeus of Lyons is shocking in its inaccuracy and hostility, for instance), while portraying the Gnostics as innocent victims of Orthodox heresy-hunters and as “spiritual seekers” (no kidding; I really mean the quotation marks — she actually uses that asinine phrase in reference to the asininity of the Gnostics). Pagels is subtle in her methods, but her plot is downright disgusting, not only because I’m an Orthodox Christian and I see her leading people into atheism and horrible heresy but, perhaps even more than that, because it is so damn dishonest.

Somebody much wiser than me once told me: if you have to lie to convince someone, whatever you’re trying to convince them of probably isn’t true.

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Book Review: Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill, ISBN: 0-385-48251-5

I don’t think I could possibly sing the praises of this book enough. It is an excellent discourse on just what is so special about Christ and about the faith, Christianity, named after him. Cahill is an intelligent, rational thinker and an articulate, nearly poetic, individual both at the same time. This is a very rare combination indeed, and one that leads Cahill in this book, as in the others I’ve read by him, to be able to work through problems logically, cogently explain the solution he’s reached, and, even when you disagree with that solution, offer you some deep insights along the way.

Believe it or not, even though I sing his praises every opportunity I get, there is plenty that I disagree with in Cahill’s work, especially in this particular book. I think, for instance, that he relies far too heavily upon the atheistic crowd who seem to scream with the loudest voices amongst those in the fields of Biblical history and textual criticism. He’s able to see past the gibberish more often than not, but a reliance upon these “scholars” is enough to slant the results in the end.

Perhaps the biggest problem I saw in this book specifically on that note is that Cahill all but ignores the voice of the early Church Fathers on pretty much everything. I was shocked that in discussions of the authorship of the Gospels, St. Papias of Hierapolis and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, two of our earliest sources of identification of authorship, went completely unmentioned. I think this ignoring (and ignorance) of the early Church Fathers is a dangerous trend in modern Biblical scholarship, and even Cahill wasn’t able to get over it.

I also have to say that I disagree with some of Cahill’s final conclusions. Again following the trends of modern Biblical scholarship, Cahill concludes by recreating a new Jesus in-his-own-image. Cahill’s Jesus is probably more like the “Jesus of Faith” (if I can be forgiven the awful terminology and pardoned for the implications) than are the Jesuses of Crossan or Pagels, but a new (and different) Jesus it is nonetheless; it is Jesus Cahill, not Jesus Christ.

All of that said, I do recommend this book to all to read. What few flaws there are in Cahill’s work will quickly be forgiven as he moves onto his next powerful point and astute observation, and of those there are many.

At – one – ment

Cahill seems to think that this is own idea, and it very well may be (to him, at least), but he certainly speaks the historical truth (on the pagan origins of substitution) and the mind of the Fathers (on compassion and the truth of the Atonement):

We do not have to adopt a theology of substitution — the theory that God required a spotless human victim to make up for human sin — to make sense of the crucifixion. Such a theory, it seems to me, is a remnant of prehistoric paganism and its beliefs in cruel divinities who demanded blood sacrifice. But Jesus’s suffering body is surely his ultimate gift, for it is his final act of sympathy with us. From all ages, human suffering has been the stumbling block that no life can avoid and that no philosophy has been able to comprehend. In the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job, God refuses to explain why good people must suffer. In the New Testament, he still does not explain, but he gives us a new story that contains the first glimmer of encouragement, the only hint of an explanation, that heaven has ever deigned to offer earth: “I will suffer with you.” (Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, pg. 293)

Book Review: Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome

Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome by Cyril Mango, ISBN: 1-89880-044-8

This is yet another book on Byzantium with which I’ve been unimpressed, to say the least. Mango’s work suffers from many problems, not the least of which are dry didactic style, his over-reliance on sources that amount essentially to the Byzantine version of tabloids, and what seems to be his own deep-seated hatred of the very subject matter he’s supposed to an expert in!

First of all, the book is immensely boring. Most of it is little more than long lists of relatively unpronounceable names and dates no one will remember even a few seconds later. He makes no attempt to make the history interesting, to introduce narrative, or to paint the “characters” of history in dynamic, truly human ways. Instead, for Mango, there is no narrative, no individual stories, really no cause and effect. And there is most certainly is no humor. There are isolated events, and there are bad guys and good guys, the former being usually distinguished from the latter, in Mango’s eyes, by their prudishness.

Throughout the book, Mango walks the strange line of simultaneously criticizing his sources for being Byzantine-style tabloid writers all while dictating to us the “history” these tabloid writers have passed down to us. The “Church,” the government, and their many agents are never to be trusted. Mango smells an alternative motive behind everything; why didn’t the Bishops want people to be attending bloody gladiator shows at the arenas and plays filled with vulgar language and strange sex acts in the theaters? Could it be that the Bishops cared about things like morality, human life, and the family? Of course not, says Mango, it was about money! The Church didn’t want people spending all their money having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t have money to tithe to the greedy hands of the Bishops. Something tells me there’s more of Mango in that statement than there is of the Church Fathers.

And what could possibly make this already tedious and scurrilous book any worse? The author seems to hate his own subject matter. Mango takes every opportunity possible to criticize and ridicule Byzantine culture, government, religion, literature, art, etc., while at the same time reminiscing about and mourning the disappearance of the paganism of ancient times. Why would anyone want to turn back the clock to rampant infanticide, gladiator contests, women as chattel, bloody animal and even human sacrifices, adultery as a commonplace, etc.? I have no idea, though it seems to be a common sentiment these days. Whatever the reason for his preferences, perhaps Mango should have specialized in the pagan Roman Republic and Empire, not the Christian one.

The only redeeming features of the book were the last two chapters, on Byzantine literature, art, and architecture. Even Mango’s didactic style and only partially concealed jabs at the Byzantines couldn’t ruin these, as he does a wonderful job of summarizing nearly a thousand years and as many miles worth of Byzantine culture. If you see this book in your local bookstore, get yourself a coffee and read these last two chapters. Then put the book back and leave.

Book Review: Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels

Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant, ISBN: 0-684-14889-7

To be completely honest, I’m not quite sure what to say about this book. I came in with no preconceptions whatsoever. I had never heard of Michael Grant at all, much less this specific book. I simply happened to come across it while looking for some new reading material in my local library and decided to give it a read.

It had amazing and insightful high points but when there were low points they were very, very low. Unfortunately for my review, this boils down and averages out to mediocre.

Michael Grant spends much of the book simultaneously chastising his fellow historians for creating a “Jesus” of their own making, painting him whichever way most happens to appeal to each personally, all while doing so himself. (I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but to summarize: Michael Grant’s “Jesus” seems to be an obsessive with some very strange personality quirks.)

My final take: the insights can be found elsewhere, while the low points are Grant’s own babies; skip this book.

Christ-myth hypothesis

… from the eighteenth century onwards, there have been attempts to insist that Jesus did not even ‘seem’ to exist, and that all tales of his appearance upon the earth were pure fiction. In particular, his history was compared to the pagan mythologies inventing fictitious dying and rising gods.

In the first place, Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths of gods seem so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit. But above all, if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. Certainly, there are all those discrepancies from one Gospel to another. But we do not deny that an event ever took place just because pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend round Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious. To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihiliated by first-rank scholars’. In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’ – or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. (Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pp. 199-200)

This book was published in 1977. Zeitgeist: The Movie — dead before it was even born.