Wednesday, February 29, 2012

J. P. Holding defends an ignorant deity.


Richard Carrier recently debated Christian apologist Douglas Jacoby over the divinity of Jesus and Carrier brought up Jesus' apparent ignorance of the benefits of washing one's hands.  Carrier used the point to show that Jesus was probably not god if he specifically denies that washing your hands has any important health benefits.  I happened to recall that the issue of Jesus' ignorance in general came up in the scuffle between Christian internet apologist J. P. Holding and Carrier in Carrier's book, "Not the Impossible Faith" in chapter 14 and so here it is.*

In chapter 14, Holding argues that Jesus' ignorance would have made him look bad and so this is supposed to strike of authenticity.  Holding appeals to the "criteria of embarrassment" touted by many scholars as an indicator of authentic Jesusness, but this appeals to what only seems like it should be embarrassing even if it isn't to that particular demographic of Christians in that particular cultural setting (and Carrier will get into a lot of detail in his forthcoming book, "Proving History" since the "criteria of embarrassment" has been popularly oversimplified and therefore misused).

As Carrier points out, Jesus isn't acting any different than the other gods in stories the common folk would be familiar with and so this probably wasn't embarrassing to them even if it should be.  How many TV and movie tropes make absolutely no sense, but we expect them to be that way anyway?  How much of our own culture is equally counter-intuitive and yet nonsensical sensibilities prevail anyway?  It's always amazing when Christian apologists seem to be insisting that no one ever accepts anything that doesn't make any sense, especially since as they should well know, sense-making is often in the eye of the beholder.

And so Carrier says:
[Holding] never proves [Jesus' ignorance] was a problem in the first hundred years of Christian preaching. Indeed, he doesn’t even establish that the statements in question were at all widely known even among Christians in the first century, much less an element of any conversion speech, even less an objection anyone raised until elite scholars took notice in the 2nd century.
Holding, with his usual level of internet maturity, says:
Playing the part of the spoiled playground child who dares you to jump over that building, Carrier complains of the lack of first century evidence for this being a problem, even as he admits that it was seen as a problem in the second century, as though ancient stupidity prevented this very obvious issue being raised 100 years earlier.
Maybe someone did raise the issue 100 years earlier and that's why they didn't convert.  How would we know unless we had evidence of it?  That's an important part of Carrier's point.

Further, if we are talking about particular ancient stupidity, even the Bible itself describes the disciples as some of the stupidest people on the planet (at least, according to Mark, where the disciples can't seem to figure out that Jesus can do magic tricks), so I don't think we need any skeptical prejudice in any event.

Aside from that, it makes sense that the average folk would have less problem (or no problem) with fallible deities and that the elite scholars (that we actually have on record) would.  Holding is the one who is supposed to be making the positive argument, but he's just making stuff up and Carrier is actually appealing to the evidence we do have.

However Holding exercises his all-powerful hairsplitting apologetic device:
Apparently Carrier cannot here distinguish between the pagan gods and the Jewish one. The issue here is that Jesus was ignorant in ways contrary to expectation for the deity he represented. In contrast, Zeus and the like were always depicted with human weaknesses and never failed to meet (much lower) expectations. The elite scholars critiqued the pagan gods for being unworthy -- not because they failed to meet an expectation according to their own described nature. [emphasis mine]
Holding presumes so much consistency like the earliest Christian target audiences were uber theology nerds.  Again, where is the evidence of such a strong expectation (and execution) of perfect ideological consistency?  In the long painful history of human beings just not thinking that hard about things (or just getting them wrong) and uncritically embracing traditional/cultural precedents and having blind spots, all of the sudden absolutely all of ancient Jewish culture turns on a dime and gets sufficiently picky for James Patrick Holding to have a point.  I'm sure. [/sarcasm]

So Holding has failed to make his point yet again.  But there's more.  Note what Carrier had said:
Those same elite scholars attacked all popular religions for exactly the same reasons: the precious myths the common people believed about their gods depicted those gods as exhibiting human weaknesses, including ignorance of things they should have known. Obviously, though this annoyed elite scholars, it was never any barrier to the success of widespread belief in these gods. So why should it have been a problem for Christians? [emphasis mine]
So...Holding wasn't really paying attention that hard apparently just like not every Jew is going to pay that much attention to theological consistency.

If we even had to go there this would require Carrier to provide some examples of elite scholars criticizing depictions of the pagan gods based on the appropriate god metric.  So I emailed Carrier and (after noting this wasn't even necessary) this is what he said: are the examples of elite critique of divine ignorance, which exceeded the popular metrics for those gods (attacks on divine ignorance that *fit* the popular metrics are also available, e.g. the idea that one god should know how to sing and another not is *also* criticized as absurd, even though of course that is indeed what people believed, but Holding is, I presume, looking for a metric violation critique, and to that end...):
Lucretius argued that the gods don't even know we exist and wouldn't even know how to make people if they wanted to and therefore cannot have made us; they don't even know that lightning shatters and burns their own temples and statues (a claim of divine ignorance that was popularly denied).
This is the atomist critique of popular theology that is "denounced" in Plato, Laws 902a-b with the rhetorical question (which is supposed to be answered in the negative), "Shall we then assume, my worthy and excellent sir, that you assert that the gods are ignorant, and that it is through ignorance that they are neglectful when they ought to be showing care; or that they know indeed what is needful, yet act as the worst of men are said to do, who, though they know that other things are better to do than what they are doing, yet do them not, owing to their being somehow defeated by pleasures or pains?"
Lucian's Alexander the Quack Prophet attacks the god Glaucon for being ignorant by actually testing his oracle (James Randi style), where the god clearly couldn't divine the content of the submitted letter, and then noting how his oracles often go wrong (so clearly he couldn't predict the future). Yet he had countless avid believers (and continued to for centuries).
Lucian's Icaromenippus pokes fun at things like the fact that Zeus doesn't know what people on earth are saying about him (yet somehow knows there has been a decline in worship of him but plenty for the younger gods, a humorous contradiction, which *also* pokes fun at divine vanity). He even depicts Zeus using a kind of ancient telephone system (a series of special talking vats) to try and keep tabs on what's going on below. This was all funny precisely because popular conception held the gods to be ever present and aware of what people said about them, so the idea of them being confused about this and having to use magical machines to do it was an obvious joke.
Those are just the examples that come to mind. 
So Holding is just wrong again.  Oops.  No doubt Holding would make haste to delude us with more hair-splitting differences between these examples and the divine love of his life.

It's also a little weird that Holding doesn't tell us (anywhere I can find anyway) why Jesus' ignorance isn't a problem for Holding.  Otherwise we are left with the impression from this chapter that "It makes no sense, therefore it must be true!"

This brings up the issue of the coherency of Christian concepts of the doctrine of the Trinity.  An entity with a separate will and a separate knowledge base (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 22:42; Luke 2:52; Matthew 24:36) is a different person.  Even if you choose to do the will of someone else, that doesn't make you them.  Even if they grant you superpowers and equal authority, that doesn't make you them either.  Being them is what makes you them.  What's the difference between the Holy Spirit influencing or informing Jesus at times and influencing other prophets?  I don't know.  I don't know what it means to say that Jesus is the same as Yahweh if all the components of not being that god are conceded to be as a separate human person.  It just sounds like a bunch of nonsense.

Does Jesus deny his own divinity?

Carrier makes a few references to Jesus apparently denying being a god to show that perhaps the early Christians conceived of Jesus' divinity differently than later Christians.  At this Holding says:
It is also obvious that Carrier did not thoroughly read Malina and Rohrbaugh, for had he done so, he would have known that Mark 10:18 is not in the least a "denial" of divinity by Jesus.  As their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (123) notes, in an agonistic (honor-shame) culture, a "compliment" like the rich young man's is actually a challenge and an attempt to put Jesus "on the spot" for they are an implicit accusation that one has been trying to rise above others. Jesus' only alternative was indeed to parry the compliment and redirect it to its appropriate subject (unless he wanted to reveal himself directly and fully, in which case, his claim would have been another challenge of honor to others!), thus showing himself honorable by diffusing any accusation that would arouse the envy of an opponent. Thus it is appropriate that Jesus parry the compliment in a way that does not specifically deny his membership in the Godhead (which, as noted, it does not). [emphasis mine]
I don't see Holding's argument.  He just asserts that some cultural convention is in play which doesn't seem to negate the element of it where Jesus denies he is the same as Yahweh.

Holding says:
Mark 13:32 contains no denial of being "God" at all and it is a mystery why Carrier thinks it does.
If Jesus is saying that Yahweh knows, but that he doesn't that implies he's not god.  This is not rocket science.

And so Holding continues:
If anything it is merely an example of the very problem my 14th point is stressing.
The point that Christianity gets to make no sense, but be true anyway?


For the record, I agree with Holding that Carrier's points on omnipresence and Jesus as a suffering servant are not particularly compelling (but they're not needed).  Also, I agree with Carrier on Luke 8:43-48 that Jesus' "ignorant" question may just as well have been rhetorical.

I'll leave some of the other issues that came up in this back and forth for my own review of chapter 9.


*For those of you who don't know, most of the contents of Carrier's book were aimed at a collection of Holding's essays that are now only summarized in Holding's book, "The Impossible Faith."  I've been wanting to review the back and forth between them and post my final call on The Richard Carrier Project wiki.  Note, Holding's responses are no longer online.  Basically Holding makes a number of arguments in an attempt to show that since Christianity did all the wrong things culturally, yet succeeded anyway, it must have been because the evidence at the time showed that the religion was true.  Of course this amounts primarily (aside from a glaring argument from silence) to Holding gerrymandering all the cultural evidence as though Christianity were somehow always plunging headlong into the nexus of its fiercest opposition instead of playing the hand it was dealt to the elements of the culture that were obviously more receptive.  But you know, whatever.


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