November 2016 - I and my pals cycled in The Galilee, Northern Israel, to raise money for Nazareth Hospital Paediatric Department. We raised over £50,000 but we could use more! Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel; the people are lovely, and the kids are awesome. Nazareth also treats kids in the West Bank of Palestine who have very limited access to healthcare. They need your help! Go to my sponsorship page to find out more and see what you can do! Maybe even join us in 2017..?

31 January 2011

My new neighbour

Barack takes care of the groundwork before getting down to business.
Meet the latest blow-in to the Shore Road - Mr Barack Ollama. After a particularly disturbing series of sheep-worrying attacks by canines unknown, my neighbour has decided to employ some Peruvian tactics to protect Flossie and her pals. Let's hope it works, but in the meantime he seems like a very civil chap, and takes his responsibilities very seriously.

30 January 2011

Some thoughts on the convulsions in Egypt

These are difficult and turbulent times for Egypt, and it is difficult for outsiders like me to get a clear view of what is going on, or what the likely consequences will be. There is no doubt that there are serious dangers, and it is vital that the international community plays its part to support the Egyptian people. I think there are several points that need to be made in relation to Egypt's place in history.

Egypt has a stunning past, stretching back in historical continuity for over 5000 years. During that period, this Gift of the Nile has seen some remarkable developments, as well as times of major turmoil. The people of Egypt have inherited the legacy of the Pharaohs, the Romans, the Christians and the Muslims. They are guardians, to put it one way, of a major slice of Western history and civilisation.

More recently they have suffered as their democratic rights have been suppressed, and their opportunities to shape the destiny of their country have been severely curtailed. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the current regime, and that has led to the situation we have right now. The people need liberation. But there is a catch.

It is too easy to see "liberation" as an event, but liberation is not true liberation unless it is an actual dawn of an age of freedom, rather than simply a regime change. If Mubarak is toppled (as seems inevitable), one of the worst possible outcomes would be the rise to power of a fundamentalist religious regime. If liberation is not followed by real meaningful freedom, then liberation it is not. This is a time where Egypt's allies need to realise that our obligation and allegiance is not to the regime of Mubarak, but to the people of Egypt, and our debt is to its history, which is our history too. If Mubarak is not replaced by a truly representative and inclusive democratic system, with clear separation of religion and state, and a major programme of regeneration and social equality, then "liberation" will simply be a one-off event, a gateway from one dictatorship into another - a brief glimpse of the sky while being moved from one prison block to another.

So we have to stand with the people of Egypt and give our full support during this period. Any solution must be an Egyptian solution, but these remarkable, resourceful, admirable people deserve a country that leads on the world stage.

Join the Facebook group (if you're on Facebook) "Egyptologists for Egypt".

29 January 2011

Ethics: The [Off His] Trolley Problem

One of the contributors to my esteemed blog's comments section sent me the following ethics problem. I will allow him to de-cloak if he feels willing to do so, but I absolutely refuse to let such a practical everyday ethical issue go unaddressed on this blog. Because these issues are important. If we are in the proposed scenario (and, let's face it, who is likely to avoid this?), we need to think carefully about how we will act. Take it away, Mystery Man! (oops - I revealed the sex there... that narrows it down...)

A brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The only living beings saved on railway tracks are saved in one, and only one, of two ways. (i)They can save themselves. (ii)They are saved by a brain-in-a-vat changing the direction of a runaway trolley.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphan's bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become a used car salesman, while a third would invent Pringles. The rest will consume carbon fuels and fatty foods at unreasonable rates.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie", and will hit and destroy ten rabbits on the track that could (and would) have been used to feed starving children. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten rabbits to the local poor shelter. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the group of men killed by "Leftie" is both the man who wrote the theme tune to “Friends” and Michael Barrymore. If the ten rabbits and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten starving children will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer by illegal experiments on death row inmates in Iraq, and one of whom will grow up to be the next Dr Who. The kidney patients will be operated on without their informed consent.

Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Finally, the brain in the vat knows that there is a bomb on the trolley, and unless it pulls the lever on the trolley the bomb will explode and kill it.

Question: The brain has no arms and can’t control the direction of the trolley. But what should it want to do?

Genome-wide association studies and the "missing heritability".

From The Golden Helix blog:
" If complex diseases are driven by susceptibility alleles that are ancient common polymorphisms, as the common diseases-common variant hypothesis proposes, we should be seeing a larger portion of the heritability of these traits being accounted for by these associated polymorphisms. The alternative hypothesis that must now be considered is that complex diseases are actually driven by heterogeneous collections of rare and more recent mutations, as with most Mendelian diseases!"

Quite a lot of us have been considering that hypothesis for a rather long time. GWASs have been able to detect quite a number of genes involved in complex and common disease, but common variations in the population can only explain a relatively small amount of the "heritability". A rough way of thinking about this is to consider all the genetic variation that we know about in a population - every new generation injects a vast amount of completely new variation - you contain about 100 mutations that your parents did not have. Your kids will each have another 100, and this is happening for everyone within the population. Many of these mutations are going to occur in genes that participate in pathways that will affect disease susceptibility - it is unavoidable.
For the purposes of this discussion (the reality, as ever, is a bit more complex), "Mendelian diseases" are those rare (but actually not that rare!) disorders that are caused by mutations of large effect on one critical gene; different disorders are caused by mutations in different genes, and exert their effect by disruption of different biological pathways. Having a rare disorder is a common problem - something like 10% of families are impacted by a serious genetic disease. They crop up all the time; that being the case, why should it come as a surprise that genes influencing heart disease or autism crop up all the time at a low enough frequency to be missed by GWAS, but frequent enough to make the diseases themselves very common?
Clinical geneticists have been saying this for a while now - but are they correct? The exciting thing is that the possibility to test these ideas is arising from the technology that allows us to sequence large numbers of human genomes relatively cheaply, and to analyse biological pathways in unprecedented depth. With large datasets like these, we will be able to avoid the inherent bias of GWAS for common genetic variants, and get a better picture of the fine scale genetic structure - many many rare variants in gene pathways that can cause disease susceptibility. That is when the fun will really start.
But it'll be nice to be able to say "We told you so!"...

18 January 2011

Transformations of the Transfiguration

OK, we're having some fun with crayzee interpretations of the Transfiguration yarn that appears in the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew). But what do they really say? It seems appropriate to post the actual texts, here rendered from the King James Version, seeing as how this is the 400th anniversary and all, and shed a little light on how this tale evolved.

First up is the first gospel (chronologically and the source for the other two tales), Mark 9:2-8:

 2And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.
 3And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
 4And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus.
 5And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.
 6For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid.
 7And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
 8And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves.
 9And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.

Here's Matthew 1-9, which is clearly textually derived from the document of Mark (or a close precursor):
 1And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,
 2And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.
 3And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.
 4Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.
 5While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
 6And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
 7And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.
 8And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.
 9And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

And now for Luke, who was also working off the document we now know as Mark:

 28And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.
 29And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.
 30And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias:
 31Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
 32But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.
 33And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.
 34While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud.
 35And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
 36And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.

No serious scholar disputes the fact that these texts are intimately related from a documentary point of view. They are not (as a few evangelicals like to assert, in the teeth of the evidence) the work of "independent eyewitnesses" or the "guidance of the Holy Spirit", but Matthew and Luke working off Mark. That's OK, but it is the little embellishments and wrinkles that are fascinating.

For instance, have a look at v31 in the Luke rendering - the stressing of Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? Luke has a serious thing about Jerusalem. In the other gospels, Jesus appears after the crucifiction to his disciples back in Galilee, but that is in direct contradiction to Luke's account - for Luke's developing story, he has to keep everything in Jerusalem, because he's going to bring Saul Paulus in later, and that requires a Jerusalem focus. Still, it sits very oddly in the text. You'll also notice that Luke makes it very clear that the disciples were in some sort of sleep-induced stupor.

I'm sure that Ian over at Irreducible Complexity (one of my favourite blogs) could do a funky textual analysis on it and draw some nice graphs based on the original Greek, but it's one of those wee things that gives us an insight into the spin and tweaking that the different gospel writers used to try to brand "their" Jesus. What was going through the minds of "Matthew" (not the real Matthew, obviously) or Luke as they copied "Mark"? Why did they feel the original text needed correcting?

11 January 2011

Luke's version of the Resurrection

Muehlhauser, that is. Here is the link: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11338 - the point is established that the notion that Jesus *actually* rose from the dead is unbelievable, and the "evidence" in favour of a resurrection is only remotely persuasive if you already believe it. Instead, the evidence actually shows that the stories were sexed up to spin a fiction.

09 January 2011

The Great Transfiguration Debate

Ike wanted me to say what I think happened at the supposed Transfiguration of Christ event. As those of you with bibles will know, in the synoptic gospels (but not in John, oddly, because John was supposed to have been there), Jesus allegedly was transfigured on a mountain, and visited by Moses and Elijah.

As far as I am concerned there is nothing to say about this. There is no evidence that such an event ever happened, nor is there any evidence to suggest that the two chappies alongside Jesus were indeed Moses and Elijah anyway. The tale, idle as it may be, is a fiction to impress a specific point - Jesus is the Messiah, and he is greater than Moses or Elijah.

But was it a real event? Could Jesus's followers have been mistaken? Instead, could Jesus have actually been visited by aliens, and lit up by the headlights of their flying saucer? Maybe they were arranging a meeting in Gethsemane later, but like totally forgot to show up, much to the chagrin of Jesus himself. And all that even after organising donkeys and upper rooms and stuff. Pesky aliens! Unreliable, the lot of them.

So in the absence of anything remotely resembling evidence, the Transfiguration goes down as just another wee story; we can derive metaphorical "truth" from it if we will, but it's not historically useful.

03 January 2011

The Great Resurrection Debate

Over on my Facebook page, GV, IOA and I are having an interesting spat about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene. Needless to say (I suppose), I regard the supposed historicity of this event as almost laughably inadequate, and I think that many historians have been scared off the topic by the somewhat crazy reaction. The bottom line, I feel, is that there are plenty of perfectly adequate explanations for the resurrection stories (plural) in the gospels that do not need to invoke an actual resurrection. Furthermore, the actual stories as we have them contain evidence for the development of the tale as a set of myths and rumours that subsequently became fixed into a dogmatic belief shibboleth for entry into Christianity.

Naturally, I contest that - you don't need to believe in God or Jesus's resurrection to be a Christian, as the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist tries to show. Anyway, here is some of our discussion thus far. Feel free to continue the debate in the comments thread. Enjoy!

SMcK: And as for the resurrection of Jesus, that is for theists to prove as a historical event. The actual evidence is very very strongly against Jesus having risen, and very very strongly in favour of this being simply a story that accreted over time. But we've been there before!

IOA: GV and Shane, this all comes down to what we mean by 'science.' Science is a way of studying the events, processes and phenomena of nature through the analysis of data. As the US National Academy of Sciences puts it, anything for which ...it is not possible to obtain empirical data is outside the realm of science. This puts most of the 'origins' outside of science, as it is not possible to obtain any data about these things. It also puts most of history outside the field of science.

I do not wish to argue that there were just two members of Homo sapiens when the species emerged, but how does anyone know that that that was not the case?

There is no real conflict whatsoever between science and religion, as these two relate to different aspects of the life of our universe. Science is about things regarding which we can obtain empirical data. Religion is about things - the existence and activity of supernatural beings - regarding which we cannot obtain any empirical data. The mistake that many people make is to say that because we cannot obtain empirical data about supernatural beings that means that such beings do not exist.

There is so much upon which we rely in our everyday lives regarding which we cannot obtain any data at all. And even in our clinical practice, we face the same situation: for example, no one doubts the existence of general anaesthesia, but we have no data whatsoever about how it is produced.See more

IOA: Shane, what is the evidence that Jesus did not resurrect?

GV: Well, I agree that I need to lie down! Sunday afternoon nap, and all that. You're probably right about the asylum as well. There's only so much "puppet ministry" that a grown man can take.

As for Adam and Eve, if you rule out the possibilit...y of revelation, then you've no reason to believe in them. I can't see how science could say anything about the possibility of revelation, one way or the other. But it does seem to challenge one doctrine about original sin. Christian apologists use Fine Tuning and Big bang Cosmology. So there is some interaction between Science and Christianity, sometimes, and Christians have to take the rough with the smooth.

But Science has *nothing* to say about the value of metaphors! That's crazy talk. If Paul, as Dunn thinks, just thought that this was a story that gave us insight into the human predicament, and if Paul thought (again as Dunn asserts) that there never was an Adam and there never was an Eve, then Science has nothing at all to say about Romans 5, 7 & 8.

GV: BTW my concerns about "Science says.." really stem from the way that Al Gore uses it in "An Inconvenient Truth". It's a powerful rhetorical tool. There's a difference between "Science says the Earth goes round the Sun" and "Science says the Polar Bears are drowning".

IOA: GV, I think we can agree that science - by which we mean the natural, empirical and formal sciences - is not equipped to make assertions about everything: its range is limited to matters that can be studied using data.

                  Shane: When you ...are ready, please let us have the scientific evidence that Jesus did not resurrect. [You may be tempted to say that it is up to those who say that He did to prove their statement; but try not to go there.]

SMcK: GV, there is what science says and what people say science says. As it is, we can formulate the Adam and Eve hypothesis; this is scientifically testable using genetics - and it fails miserably. Adam and Eve never existed as the human progenitors. The fact that Original Sin is an incoherent brainfart is a secondary issue.

IOA: Shane, whilst waiting for your evidence that Jesus did not resurrect, I add another question: What is the evidence that Adam and Eve did not exist as progenitors of humankind?

SMcK: IOA, scientifically we can look at the resurrection stories, and they show unmistakable evidence of embellishment, post hoc rationalisation and narrative contradiction. Scientifically we know that people resolve cognitive dissonance with confabulation. So the evidence we *do* have suggests that belief in the resurrection was not based on real appearances of the risen Jesus. You can do history scientifically, you know.

IOA: No, Shane, the only evidence for the non-resurrection of Jesus would be either His preserved body or bones clearly identified as His.

The apparent contradictions in the stories do infact provide confirmation of resurrection because of what ...we know about eyewitness accounts - they are rarely identical.

SMcK: IOA, that's cobblers. The differences are systematic and damning. They strongly indicate that the resurrection was an invention, not an event.
                  As for the science disproving the A&E hypothesis, that's genetic coalescence. Irrefutable, I fear.... Sorry!

IOA: Shane, show me ONE difference in the resurrection accounts that you find 'damning.'

Sweeping statements are not the stuff of science.

You have not answered either question, Shane, and the reason is obvious: the answers are not in science.

The basic position, I think, Shane, is that you do not believe that resurrection is possible. As it is not part of your worldview you reject its possibility.

SMcK: IAO, don't be silly - it's not that it's not possible; it's that it didn't *happen*. it's just a story. Jeez! The damning evidence is in Mark's non-mention of the resurrected Jesus, Matthew's clear hyperbole and Luke's manipulation of the source text to support his Jerusalem stanza. It's not too difficult.

Btw, not one of the resurrection stories was written by an eyewitness - IOA, you're showing ignorance and disrespect for the texts.

GV: People in glass houses should stay clear of howitzers Shane. For a start, let's take Matthew's hyperbole. Compare it to Dio Cassius' account of Claudius' death, or his account of Egypt's enslavement by Caesar. Or you could compare it to Jos...pehus' account of the Temple's Fall. Wondrous signs often accompanied historically significant events in ancient writing. Evidence from Lucian suggests that this was widely recognised as symbolic language; whatever the case, Matthew reads as positively restrained in comparison.
                  Let's also take the silly idea that Mark does not include the Resurrection. Mark 8v31, 9v31 and 10v33-34 put that notion to rest. Mark 16 v7 shows knowledge of appearance narratives - and predictions - not mentioned in the Gospels. And there is practically unanimous agreement that appearance *traditions*, as in 1 Cor 15, were part of the kerygma.
                  The hypothesis of legendary development encounters significant difficulties. The idea that a bodily resurrection developed over time suggests that the Churches traditions became more Palestinian-Jewish exactly when the Church was becoming more Hellenistic. (The idea that Paul did not preach a physical resurrection seems to have been thoroughly debunked BTW).

                  It also faces the problem of the texts themselves. There is no apologetic force in Mark 16, as this theory requires. Instead there is a note of fear, which Mark normally uses to exhort his readers. Both Mark and Matthew are forced to include embarrassing details, such as the primary witness of women, and the accusation of grave robbery (equivalent to an accusation of witchcraft!).
                  The legendary-development hypothesis depends on the argument that the narratives of empty tomb and resurrection appearances that we have in the Gospels developed out of the kergyma: first the summary, then the narratives formed to illustrate the kerygma in preaching. But there is at least one more massive problem here: Paul's list of appearances in 1 Corinthians and the resurrection narratives in the Gospels are remarkably illmatched. The wrong "legends" appear in the Gospels. We have no narrative for the appearance to Peter, or for the appearance to James. This extraordinary lack of correspondence between the kerygmatic summary that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians, and the resurrection narratives in the Gospels strongly suggests that we are dealing with two fundamentally independent forms in which the Easter events were transmitted in the first Churches.
                  As for eyewitnesses, we have statements written down by eyewitnesses for the main events of the extraordinary career of Augustus. The Gospels are literary units. But they are composed of oral traditions that circulated in the Early Church. The evidence clearly indicates that many began to circulate during Jesus' ministry.
                  The Gospels theology depends on their historicity. So they must make every effort to be faithful to the traditions. And it is impossible to explain why these traditions mention Mary of Magdala if she did not exist, and was not an eyewitness. She is associated with demon possession, so she is not the ideal witness. Clearly identifying a witness when anonymous witnesses could have been used by preachers, or when reliable male witnesses could have been invented, points to Mary's existence and role as an early eye witness. If you've a better explanation - that deals with the nature of the texts - I'm all ears!

SMcK: Er, GV, none of that remotely deals with the problem that you have here. Legendary development is clearly demonstrated in the gospels - YES, it is the development of the legend AFTER it is "established" that Jesus has risen, but we see ...both Matthew and Luke embellish a *written* source, not an oral one. What you have here is an early *belief* that Jesus rose from the dead, based on a missing corpse (from the viewpoint of the followers), and a bunch of ill-formed ghostie stories that eventually got untidily gathered up and strung together by the gospellers (and Saul Paulus, who has to get his own oar in, of course). Your appeal to Mary Magdalene is pointless - we already know that John and the Synoptics make completely different hay with her, and this notion of her not being the "ideal witness" in the minds of the followers is not tenable - after all, she is the ONLY linchpin they can hang their story on. No-one else saw Jesus, apart from visions and spookie ghostie incidents.

                  So we have the issue where an early resurrection belief has become distorted and embellished (your references to other early sources of historical events is pointless - no-one really believes the list of portents in Dio, for example, even if the event itself is accepted) specifically in order to fulfil an apologetic role (Matthew and John admit as much). Since these accounts (including Saul) only establish the parameters for what *had* to be believed by people to join the Christian sect, they provide no good evidence at all for the veracity of the core premise. You can be pretty damn maximal in what you let the gospels away with, and you still only end up with an empty tomb, a family who disagreed with Jesus's tack, and some punter at the temporary tomb/storage spot telling the women that they had taken Jesus's body back to Capernaum for definitive burial.

                  That's where the evidence points - it most certainly does not point to an actual resurrection, and silly speculation about what the followers "would" have done is not mirrored by the way humans actually behave, and especially not by the mindset we *know* was common in C1CE palestine, where every fart's turn of a preacher was some prophet or other risen from the dead. There is a crazy fallacy at work in apologetic circles that the disciples were detectives trying to figure out what happened. Not so. They were ordinary people in cognitive dissonance who got caught up in the development of a myth. The gospels are far more readily explained by this model than by an actual resurrection.

GV:                  ‎1) Name *one* other preacher who claimed to be Resurrected in 1st Century Palestine!
                  2) The point about Josephus/Dio Cassius is that symbolic embellishment need not count against the historicity of the core event.
                  3) If the Gospels were in t...he business of legendary development, Joseph of Arimethea, or the young man who followed at a distance, or another character like "the beloved disciple" would have been invented from the aether. Mary of Magdala would not have been used.
                  4) This is not a matter of "apologetics"! In mainstream research all of the relevant issues - the empty tomb, the appearances etc. are up for grabs.
                  5) The use of Mark should draw your attention to the point that the Gospel writers were careful with their sources. You can clearly see that the tendency of the Synoptic tradition is not one of legendary development! You may expect to find legendary development, but that is not what the evidence shows!
                  6) We also know from Mark and Paul that there were appearance traditions that they did not write down. So it is no surprise to find some occurring in Matthew and Luke that do not appear in Mark. Everyone agrees that they had access to oral traditions.
                  7) So then we have the conspiracy theory - which is at a polar opposite to the legendary-development theory. Conspiracy theories agree with the Gospels that the core events occurred, but argue that the disciples misinterpreted the core events.
                  In the 17th and 18th Century rationalist explanations for Jesus' miracles abounded. So Bahrdt could explain the Feeding of the 5000 as an Essene plot, with Essenes secretly located in caves to hand out loaves to Jesus' disciples. Jesus' walked on water by placing planks just below the surface (near the shore presumably!) When Jesus said "be calm" he was addressing the disciples. By chance, the storm calmed down soon after this command. And so forth.
                  Now Strauss rejected these explanations, and used the category of myth to explain the miracle stories. No one, to my knowledge, has resurrected them in mainstream scholarship. The unspoken principle seems to be that explanation by a conspiracy theory is no more plausible than an explanation by a miracle.
                  However, rationalist explanations are allowed for the Resurrection. Ehrman advances one in his debate with Craig. He is more cautious than the rationalistsm and merely insists that it is more plausible than the Resurrection, not that it is historicaly probable. Any non-miraculous explanation must be more probable than a miraculous explanation in Ehmran's view. But that seems to fly in the face of the consensus of historians from Strauss onwards. In any case, is it revealing that mainstream scholars will fly back to H.E.G Paulus to explain the Resurrection traditions, but not the feeding of the 5000 or the calming of the Storm?
                  After all, if we can allow that some conspiracy or coincidence lies behind the Resurrection traditions, then why not Jesus walking on water, or the exorcism of Legion? If we can use psychological explanations for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, why can't we use them for the nature miracles?
                  And the conspiracy theory that you have put forward relies on so many improbable events coinciding that a miracle seems much likelier.See more

‎1. JTB was Elijah; Jesus was alternately JTB or one of the prophets of old. No preacher seems to have made this claim on his own behalf (that we know of), but plenty of people appear to have been willing to attribute it to them. I think my... point is made.

2. Josephus & Dio etc: yes, it doesn't count against the core event, unless the core event itself is spectacularly incredible, and we can sketch a real temporal layering of the embellishment. Which we can, so it means a/ the gospels contain embellishments (so why is the resurrection not itself an embellishment?), and b/ they are clearly not "inerrant" in any meaningful way. See?

3. Who said anyone was invented from the aether? Use of existing personages as props is standard fare for legendary development. No-one is saying that is necessarily *conscious*! This is how stories grow and evolve.

4. Mainstream research? Yer arse! The empty tomb is part of the *same story*! But even if we concede an empty tomb, the post-resurrection stories are just that - stories. NOT "appearances". Furthermore, they are inconsistent - you might as well believe Jesus's ma really appeared at Lourdes.Some historical rigour please!

5. This is flatly contradicted by the gospels, where you do see embellishment and attempts to "fix" Mark. Matt and Luke used a documentary source(s), not an oral tradition.

6. For "oral tradition" substitute "rumours". Saul's stories do not match the gospels because these were freeform legends, not established episodes. If you actually read them, you will see very clearly that there is simply nothing there.

7. Be careful. Not all conspiracies are equal, but I would have to say that human gullibility and brainfartedness in the face of cognitive dissonance is perfectly adequate to explain what we see - no conspiracies (before Saul anyway) or miracles are required. The feeding of the 5K or the calming of the storm do not need "explained" by miracle or conspiracy. They were not witnessed by the author, and stories of famous punters doing miracles are two a penny. We expect them.

I have not advanced a conspiracy theory. There is no need for one. The evidence that we do have firmly establishes the gospels as embellished narratives that really require nothing more than a lost body as the spark that set the whole silly fiction into motion. You're hiding behind poor historical scholarship, GV. The reality is not that complicated.

Think yourself into their situation in C1CE. Pretend you're Mary of Magdala. You find the temporary tomb has been opened and the body's not there, and in your confusion you don't listen properly to the young chap who tells you that they've taken the body to Capernaum for proper burial. You already believe in resurrections and crazy shit. Suddenly the solution presents itself.

Go figure! Not only is a resurrection *improbable* given these circumstances, even if one *actually happened*, the evidence we have does not allow us to upgrade it from "astonishingly unlikely" to "just maybe".

IOA:                  The resurrection stories that were later written down were originally told by eyewitnesses. St Paul went through a long list of people to whom the Risen Christ had appeared - before he had his own experience of Christ on his way to Damasc...us to persecute Christians.

I am pleased to read that you accept the possibility of resurrection. That is a mighty step forward, Shane. I recommend this review, as it is very well researched:

SMcK: IOA, with the single exception of the R2D episode, which is inconsistent, but itself no more than a vision, there is *not one single* eyewitness account of the risen Christ. Not one. The accounts that we do have are hearsay, and of no more value than the feeble prattlings of some teenage delusionist from Lourdes or Knock.

GV: On your evidence for other "Resurrection"s -
Of course, the problem with using these texts is four fold.(a) These texts are all associated with Jesus’ ministry. So the only “Resurrected prophet” remains Jesus. There is no evidence of any ot...her “prophet” (like Theudas or the Egyptian) being associated with Resurrection (b) Matt 17 v1 – 12 makes it clear that John the Baptist takes on Elijah’s role. So he is figuratively, but not literally, Elijah (c) Elijah never died. So even if John the Baptist was meant to be literally identified with Elijah, this would not be a resurrection (d) it only makes sense to identify John as Elijah if he ushers in the age to come. The only group who claimed that John did this was the Early Church. So resurrection would be associated with Jesus ministry, but you would not have any evidence for a wide spread belief in Resurrected prophets.

Your focus on the literary history of the Jesus traditions is poorly informed. If you want evidence of oral traditions, compare Matthew 8 v 5-13 and Luke 7 v 1-10. The story does not “fit” Q’s content, and there is so little agreement in the wording that another literary source is unlikely. Evidence of a shorter oral tradition surfaces in Luke 24 v 34, which does not fit with Lukan syntax, or with the flow of the passage.

That's just two off the top of my head.

It’s simply a fact that oral traditions were used by the Gospel writers, and that these traditions should not be modelled on modern Western assumptions. In 1 Cor 9 v 14, 1 Cor 7 v 10, 1 Cor 11 v 23–25, 1 Thessalonians 5 v 2f, 1 Cor 13 v2, Rom. 13 v 8-10and Romans 12 v 14-15 we have clear evidence that Paul was aware of Jesus’ teaching on ethics and the apocalypse. And Paul is explicit in 1 Cor 15 – he is handing on oral traditions.

02 January 2011

Jacob's Legacy

I'm currently reading "Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History" by David Goldstein on my Kindle (it makes it far too easy to buy books - I need to find some way to control myself!). I've always been fascinated by genetics (obviously) and by the Old Testament and the history of the Jewish people. In this accessible and fascinating book David Goldstein (something of a legend among population geneticists) uses the techniques of his field to see what the genetic makeup of today's Jewish people tell us about the events that shaped this amazing group. Particularly impressive is the work on the Y chromosome that demonstrates that the line of the Cohanim (the paternal priestly line going back to the legendary Aaron) really does seem to be different from that in "ordinary" Jews (where the maternal lineage is the main determinant).
I'm only part of the way through at present, but it's a gripping read, and acts as something of a taster to the wonders that may await us as genetic technology progresses, and we can start mapping the origins of many many more genetic variants. When we look at a family tree, we often only focus on one line, yet if you go back just ten generations, there are potentially over a thousand people contributing to your genetic heritage! Go back twenty generations, and it's a million. Thirty generations (that's getting to about 750 years), a billon.
Now of course that's more people than would have been on the planet back then; what is going on of course is that there is not full outbreeding - the lines of descent cross frequently, so although a couple might not know they are related, it may be that only a few generations back they share a common ancestor. I did get a bit of a shock when I found that happening in my own family (OK, back to the 1700s, but that was only 8 generations! And even then, that's only along one line that I know about).
Genetics allows us to unpick these relationships - especially when you think that if 1000 years is only about 40 generations, and the entire sweep of Jewish history is only 120 generations at the very most, we really should have the resolution to address some very specific questions. That is what David Goldstein has done with several Jewish populations over the world, and although I haven't finished the book yet, I would strongly recommend it.
Dan Bradley did something a bit similar in Ireland a few years ago - turns out the McKees are closely related to Niall of the Nine Hostages, the brigand king who abducted an unlucky Anglo-Roman lad called Patricius from somewhere on the west coast of Britain, and brought him over to Ireland, thereby setting in train all of our problems...

[UPDATE 4/1/2011]
I've now finished the book - it's quite short and very readable. This is a Good Thing in my estimation - too many books (and blog posts?) pad themselves out with unnecessary verbosity. After dealing with the Y chromosome inheritance of the Cohanim and the Levites (again showing a signal suggestive of a restricted pool of progenitors, including the Cohanim Modal Haplotype - CMH - the variant of the Y chromosome seen at a much higher level in Cohanim), David looks at the ladies - what about mitochondrial DNA? In Jewish societies, "Jewishness" is often considered to be *matrilineal* in inheritance, i.e. like mitochondria, you inherit it from your mother. In various scattered Jewish communities he again finds evidence of a mitochondrial "bottleneck", and speculates that this might be due to males founding the communities in their travels, with local lassies for brides, but once the community became established, matrilineality kicked in. There are interpretative difficulties with all this, and I would have liked more in-depth discussion as to how these are resolved, but that perhaps puts things into a more esoteric level that might put off the casual non-geneticist reader.

Then there is the burden of genetic disease supposedly afflicting the Ashkenazim in particular. I have to say I am never that impressed by the incidence levels of genetic disease in the Ashkenazi - they are not *that* spectacularly more likely to have genetic diseases than many other populations, and although certain disorders are carried at a slightly higher frequency than we see elsewhere (e.g. Tay Sachs disease), it's far from clear (to me anyway) that this represents anything other than founder effect and ascertainment bias. This is an ongoing debate - I think I prefer the sidelines!

What of the future? Well, mitochondria and Y chromosomes really only give a partial picture, and they are susceptible to all sorts of confounding effects. The autosomal DNA (the main part that is inherited the same whether you are male or female) is trickier to follow and interpret, but as DNA sequencing gets cheaper (it's falling by a factor of TEN every two years or so, which is incredible, although that's levelling off a bit now), more sequence data becomes available, and the resolution with which we can look at genetic factors in populations improves. Techniques may well become available for pinpointing the origin of genes much more precisely, and we may be able to integrate this information with other sources, such as the Y and mitochondrial work, as well as archaeological and historical data. A further tantalising prospect is the ability to perform whole genome analysis on ancient samples, such as has been recently reported for the Denisovans by Svante Paabo and colleagues at the Max Planck.

Things are set to become very interesting - not just for the Children of Israel, but everyone interested in our origins. Each of those genetic sequences has come down through a series of real people - it would be wonderful to be able to tell their personal stories as well as the stories of their genes.

01 January 2011

Meanwhile over at the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist...

This little postoid on Anglican Atheism. Regular readers (both of you) will know that my staunch Presbyterian upbringing left a deep imprint on me, so even though I don't attend any church, and am perfectly happy that there is no evidence of a god, no evidence for a virgin birth of Jesus, and certainly no evidence of his resurrection (quite the reverse!), I still call myself a Christian.

Now I know that some folks get very upset at the fact that many people (including ~15% of regular churchgoers, if my hunch is correct) do not believe in god at all, but I think Christians need to man-up, and start building the Kingdom of God here and now - not a "religious" structure, but an altruistic and entirely humanistic structure where we feed the hungry, heal the sick, help the oppressed etc. After all, if we made God (and we surely did), then we get to choose what sort of punter he gets to be. Not a vengeful prissy sin-punisher, or a sitter-back in a divine bubble-bath, a listener to the sycophantic adulation of mythical angels and cherubim and saints, but someone who cares, and wants us to care too.

Yes, if he *really* existed, we would have cause to complain about earthquakes and tsunamis and floods and asteroid impacts, but God is not that sort of God. Our universe did not originate by divine fiat; it does not run on intelligently-designed rules. It does what it does, and if we want to make it as good a place as we possibly can, then we need to look horizontally - not construct a magic hologram in the sky.

Paradoxically, I think Jesus probably understood that. Pity the people who wrote the gospels didn't.

"Be excellent to one another." - Gospel of Bill & Ted.