About Bob Seidensticker

I'm an atheist, and I like to discuss Christian apologetics.

Dr Johnson: The Angel of Mons

Did you see the 1971 Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury? Set in World War II, the Germans invade a peaceful British town, but a ghostly and invulnerable battalion of animated suits of armor from the local museum fights off this modern force.

This wasn’t just an active imagination on the part of the screenwriters. No, this came from history.

It was August of 1914, near Mons in Belgium. The German army was making its sweep into France in the opening stages of World War I. Heavily outnumbered units of the British Expeditionary Force came under vastly superior German fire, and their destruction seemed assured. But in perhaps the strangest tale in modern warfare, the British were saved at the last moment by an inexplicable heavenly presence: a brigade of warrior angels appeared and wrought destruction upon the Germans, handing the day and the victory to the British.

This is an excerpt from Skeptoid.com. The episode goes on to expose the myth, noting that the origin of the supernatural part comes the short story “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen, published five weeks after the battle. Machen was inspired by the Battle of Agincourt, the miraculous and overwhelming English victory that took place almost exactly 500 years before the Battle of Mons. He imagined the ghosts of those English and Welsh archers using their fabled longbows to annihilate the Germans like they had done to the French cavalry when they were living.

Archers became angels with an article of supposed battlefield remembrances some months later, and the angelic story was solidified by several books years later. The story inspired Mary Norton, author of the two books from which Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks was adapted.

Granted, the horde of angels was never part of any official account of the battle, and even within the British public during the war this was probably a minority belief. But similarly, the historical resurrection of Jesus was never part of any modern consensus view of history, and Christianity is a minority of worldwide belief (to cite just two groups, Roman Catholics are 16.8% and Protestants are 6.1% [2009 estimates]).

If some combination of outright fiction, selective memory, and wishful thinking can make it into the history of our well-educated modern era, shouldn’t this natural explanation win out over the supernatural Jesus story?

Photo credit: Lichfield District Council

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “Angels of Mons,” Wikipedia.
  • Brian Dunning, “The Angel of Mons,” Skeptoid, 1/20/09.

How Decades of Oral Tradition Produced the Gospels

(See the first in this series of posts traveling the tortuous journey from 21st-century Western culture back to the original story of Jesus here.)

Imagine that the year is 50 CE and you are a merchant in Judea or Galilee. A traveler stops at your house and asks for lodging, and you comply. After dinner, you chat with your new acquaintance and mention that you have recently become a follower of the Jewish messiah, Jesus. He is unaware of Jesus and asks to hear more, and you tell the complete gospel story, from the birth of Jesus through his ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection. Your guest is excited by the story and eager to pass it on. He asks that you tell it again.

Instead, you ask him to tell the story so that you can correct any errors. He goes through the story twice, with you making corrections and adding bits to the story that you’d forgotten in the first telling.

You’ve now spent the entire night telling the powerful story, but you and your new friend agree that it was time well spent. He is on his way, and a week later the events are repeated, but this time your friend plays host to a traveler and the Good News is passed on to a new convert.

Imagine how long you would need to summarize the gospel story and how many times you’d need to correct yourself with, “Oh wait a minute—there was one more thing that came before” or “No, not Capernaum … I think it was Caesarea.” That confusing tale would be a lot for an initiate to remember, and yet this imaginary encounter was about as good as it got for passing on so complex a story. Consider other less perfect scenarios—getting fragments of the story from different people over months or years, or having two believers arguing over details as they try to tell the story.

“And then Jesus healed the centurion’s slave—”

“Hold on—that’s when he healed the daughter of Jairus! Or Gyrus, or something. And it wasn’t the centurion’s slave, it was his son. Or maybe his servant, I forget.”

(And so on.)

Apologists acknowledge the problem of oral history when they argue that the earliest gospel(s) were written just 20 to 30 years after the resurrection instead historians’ typical estimate of 40 years, but this does little to resolve the problem.

Let’s then assume just twenty years of oral history in a pre-scientific culture produced a story about the Creator of the Universe coming to earth. What certainty can we have that such a whopper is correct?

Christians and atheists can agree that the period of oral history is a concern, but what is rarely acknowledged is the translation that happened at the same time.

To see this, first consider a different example. In response to the 1858 sightings of Mary at Lourdes, France by a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette, the local bishop investigated and concluded a year and a half later that the sightings were genuine. Bernadette and the bishop were from the same culture and spoke the same language.

The gospel story had a much more harrowing journey. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and came from a Jewish culture, but this isn’t where the gospel came from. Every book in the New Testament was written in Greek and came from a Greek culture. The story would have been heard in and (to some extent) adapted to a Greek context.

For example, imagine a gospel without the water-into-wine story. “Wait a minute,” the Greek listener might say. “The Oenotropae could change water into wine. If Jesus was god, couldn’t he do that as well?”

Or imagine a gospel without the healing miracles. “Asclepius was generous with his healing gifts and even raised the dead. Didn’t Jesus do anything like that?”

Or a gospel without the resurrection. “Dionysus was killed and then was reborn. You mean Jesus just died, and that was it?”

Humans have a long history of adapting gods to their own culture—for example, the Greek god Heracles became Hercules when he was adopted by the Romans. Athena became Minerva, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus, and Zeus became Jupiter. Or, a culture might adopt a story or idea from a neighboring community, as Jewish history adopted the Mesopotamian flood story Gilgamesh and the Sumerian water model of the cosmos.

We know how stories evolve in our own time.  As Richard Carrier notes (video @ 26:00), the evolution of the Jesus story is like the evolution of the Roswell UFO Incident.  A guy finds some sticks and Mylar in the desert, and this was interpreted as debris from a crashed spaceship.  But within 30 years, the story had morphed into: a spaceship crashed in the desert, and the military autopsied the dead aliens and is reverse-engineering the advanced technology.

Let’s return to your telling the story to the new convert. How close was your version of the story to that in the New Testament? And how similar would the new guy’s telling of the story be to the one that you told him?

How much variation is added with each retelling?

The gospel story was an oral tradition for four decades or more before finally being written down. That’s a lot of time for the story to evolve.

Christians may respond that by relying on writing, our memory skills have atrophied. In an oral culture like that in first-century Palestine, people became very good at memorization.

Yes, it’s possible that people memorized the Jesus story so that they could retell it the same as it was taught to them, but there is no reason to imagine that this was how it was passed along. Indeed, it’s wrong to assume that storytellers in an oral culture always wanted to repeat a story with perfect accuracy. We care about perfect accuracy because we come from a literate culture. Only because we have the standard of the written word do we assume that other cultures would want to approximate this unvarying message.

The theory of oral-formulaic composition argues instead that tales are often changed with the retelling to adapt to the audience or to imperfect memory. Any transcription of such a tale (like a single version of the Iliad) would simply be a snapshot of a single telling, and you would deceive yourself if you imagined that this gives an accurate record of the story. This is seen in modern-day oral epic poetry in the Balkans and is guessed to be the structure of Homeric epic storytelling as well.

But this is a tangent. The gospel story wasn’t an epic poem, but rather a story passed from person to person. It changed with time, just like any story does.

The gossip fence is a better analog than Homer.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

When a person is determined to believe something,
the very absurdity of the doctrine confirms them in their faith.
— Letters of Junius 12/19/1769

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related articles:

Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?

How do we know that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark? How do we know that Mark recorded the observations of an eyewitness?

The short answer is because Papias (< 70 – c. 155) said so. Papias was a bishop and an avid documenter of oral history from the early church. His book Interpretations was written after 120 CE.

Jesus died in 30, Mark was written in 70, and Papias documents Mark as the author in 120 (dates are estimates). That’s at least 50 years bridged only by “because Papias said so.”

But how do we know what Papias said? We don’t have the original of Papias, nor do we have a copy. Instead, we have Church History by Eusebius, which quotes Papias and was written in 320.

And how do we know what Eusebius said? The oldest copies of his book are from the tenth century, though there is a Syriac translation from 462.

Count the successive people in the claim “Mark wrote Mark, which documents an eyewitness account”: (1) Peter was an eyewitness and (2) Mark was his journalist, and (3) someone told this to (4) Papias, who wrote his book, which was preserved by (5) copyist(s), and (6) Eusebius transcribed parts of that, and (7) more copyist(s) translated Eusebius to give us our oldest manuscript copy. And the oldest piece of evidence that we can put our hands on was written four centuries after Mark was written.

That’s an exceedingly tenuous chain.

The sequence of people could have been longer still. Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis, in western Asia Minor. Mark might have been written in Syria, and no one knows how long the chain of hearsay was from that author to Papias. No one knows how many copyists separated Papias from Eusebius or Eusebius from our oldest copies.

It gets worse. Eusebius didn’t think much of Papias as a historian and said that he “seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books” (Church History, book III, chapter 39, paragraph 13). Evaluate Papias for yourself: he said that Judas lived on after a failed attempt at hanging and had a head swollen so large that he couldn’t pass down a street wide enough for a hay wagon. Who knows if this version of the demise of Judas is more reliable than that in Matthew, but it’s special pleading to dismiss Papias when he’s embarrassing but hold on to his explanation of gospel authorship.

Even Eusebius’s Church History is considered unreliable.

The story is similar for the claimed authorship of Matthew. A twist to this story is that Papias said that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic), which makes no sense since Matthew used Mark, Q, and the Septuagint Bible, all Greek sources.1

What about the other gospels? That evidence comes from other documents with simpler pedigree but later dates.

  • Irenaeus documented the traditional gospel authorship in his Against Heresies (c. 180). Our oldest copy is a Latin translation from the tenth century.
  • Tertullian also lists the four traditional authors in his Against Marcion (c. 208), but he doesn’t think much of Luke: “[Heretic] Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process.” Our oldest copy of this book is from the eleventh century.
  • The oldest manuscript labeled “gospel according to Luke” dates from c. 200.
  • The Muratorian fragment, a Latin manuscript from the seventh century, may be a translation of a Greek original from the late second century (or maybe from the fourth). It lists many books of the New Testament, including the gospels of Luke and John.

We grope for evidence to back up the claim that the gospels document eyewitness accounts. Perhaps only faith will get you there.

1Randel Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels? (Millennium Press, 1997), 41.

If we submit everything to reason,
our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.
If we offend the principles of reason,
our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.
— Blaise Pascal

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Project Reason Video Contest

Project Reason has an annual video contest.  There are only six, and they’re short (1:30 or less).  Check them out.

My favorite is “Conflict”:

Word of the Day: Atheist’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager imagines belief in God as a wager. Suppose you bet that the Christian god exists and act accordingly. If you win, you hit the jackpot by going to heaven, and if you lose, you won’t have lost much. But if you bet that God doesn’t exist, if you win, you get nothing and if you lose, you go to hell. Conclusion: you should bet that God exists.

A thorough critique of the many failings of this argument will have to wait for another post. But this argument is easily turned around to make the Atheist’s Wager. If God exists and is a decent and fair being, he would respect those who used their God-given brains for critical thinking. He would applaud those who followed the evidence where it led. Since God’s existence is hardly obvious, he would reward thoughtful atheists with heaven after death.

But God would be annoyed at those who adopted a belief because it felt good rather than because it was well-grounded with evidence, and he would send to hell those who misused his gift of intelligence.

Here it is formulated as a syllogism:

  • God treats people fairly and will send honest, truth-seeking people to heaven and everyone else to hell.
  • God set up the world without substantial evidence of his existence.
  • Therefore, God will send only atheists to heaven.

The Atheist’s Wager can be different than Pascal’s Wager in that Pascal is assuming the Christian god, while the Atheist’s Wager can imagine a benevolent god. The difference is that the actions of the benevolent god can be evaluated with ordinary human ideas of right and wrong, while Christians often must play the “God’s ways are not our ways” card to explain away God’s occasional insanity as recorded in the Bible. For example, no benevolent god would send one of his creations to rot in hell forever. Or support slavery. Or demand genocide.

Of course, if a non-benevolent god exists, and the Christians stumbled upon the correct way to placate him, then the atheist is indeed screwed. But then we’re back to the fundamental question: why believe this?

Photo credit: maorix

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • Austin Cline, “Atheism & Hell: What if You Atheists Are Wrong? Aren’t You Afraid of Hell?,” About.com.
  • “Atheist’s Wager,” Wikipedia.

Infinity—Nothing to Trifle With (2 of 2)

(See Part 1 for the beginning of this discussion in progress …)

We can compare the sizes of two sets of numbers by finding a one-to-one correspondence between them, but in the case of infinitely large sets, strange things can happen. For example, compare the set of positive integers I = {1, 2, 3, 4, …} with the set of squares S = {1, 4, 9, 16, …}. Every element n in I has a corresponding n2 in S, and every n2 in S has a corresponding n in I. Here we find that a subset of the set of integers (a subset which has omitted an infinite number of integers) has the same size as the set of all integers.

Playing with the same paradox, Hilbert’s Hotel imagines a hotel that can hold an infinite number of guests. Suppose you ask for a room but the hotel is full. No problem—every guest moves one room higher (room n moves to room n + 1), and room 1 is now free.

But now suppose the hotel is full, and you’ve brought an infinite number of friends. Again, no problem—every guest moves to the room number twice the old room number (room n moves to room 2n), and the infinitely many odd-numbered rooms become free.

Infinity is best seen as a concept, not a number. To understand this, we should realize that zero can also be seen as a concept and not a number. Consider a situation in which I have three liters of water. I give you a third so that I have two liters and you have one. I now have twice what you have. I will always have twice what you have, regardless of the number of liters of water except for zero. If I start with zero liters, I can’t really give you anything, and if I “gave” you a third of my zero liters, I would no longer have twice as much as you.

Not all infinities are the same. Let’s move from integers to real numbers (real numbers are all numbers that we’re familiar with: the integers as well as 3.7, 1/7, π, √2, and so on).

The number of numbers between 0 and 1 is obviously the same as that between 1 and 2. But it gets interesting when we realize that there are the same number of numbers in the range 0–1 as 1–∞.

The proof is quite simple: for every number x in the range 0–1, the value 1/x is in the range 1–∞. (If x = 0.1, 1/x = 10; if x = 0.25, 1/x = 4; and so on) And now we go in the other direction: for every number y in the range 1–∞, 1/y is in the range 0–1. There’s a one-to-one correspondence, so the sets must be of equal sizes. QED.

(Note that this isn’t a trick or fallacy. You might have seen the proof that 1 = 2, but that “proof” only works because it contains an error. Not so in this case.)

The resolution of this paradox is fairly straightforward, but resolving the paradox isn’t the point here. The point is that this isn’t intuitive. Use caution when using infinity-based apologetic arguments.

Let’s conclude by revisiting William Lane Craig’s example from last time.

Suppose we meet a man who claims to have been counting from eternity and is now finishing: . . ., –3, –2, –1, 0. We could ask, why did he not finish counting yesterday or the day before or the year before? By then an infinite time had already elapsed, so that he should already have finished by then.… In fact, no matter how far back into the past we go, we can never find the man counting at all, for at any point we reach he will have already finished.

The problem is that he confuses counting infinitely many negative integers with counting all the negative integers. As we’ve seen, there are the same number of negative integers as just the number of negative squares –12, –22, –32, …. Our mysterious Counting Man could have counted an infinite number of negative integers but still have infinitely many yet to count.

For a more thorough analysis, read the critique from Prof. Wes Morriston.

And isn’t the apologist who casts infinity-based arguments living in a glass house? The atheist might raise the infinite regress problem—Who created God, and who created God’s creator, and who created that creator, and so on? The apologist will sidestep the problem by saying (without evidence) that God has always existed. Okay, if God can have existed forever, why not the universe? And if the forever universe succumbs to the problem that we wouldn’t be able to get to now, how does the forever God avoid it?

This post is not meant as proof that all of Craig’s infinity based arguments are invalid or even that any of them are. I simply want to ask apologists who aren’t mathematicians to appreciate their limits and tread lightly in topics infinite.

Of course, if the apologist’s goal is simply to baffle people and win points by intimidation, then this may be just the approach.

Related posts:

Related articles:

  • “Aleph number,” Wikipedia.
  • Wes Morriston, “Must the Past Have a Beginning?” Philo, 1999.
  • William Lane Craig, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe,” Truth Journal.