Friday, November 29, 2013

Raphael Lataster the Scholarship Disaster, Part 2

It’s time now to rotate back to the work of Raphael “the Disaster” Lataster, since it seems the Zeitgeist Companion had nothing new to say on Horus. I had planned for Part 2 to be about what Lataster said about the Gospels as biographies, but that turned out to be nothing new, and as I kept looking further, kept finding more and more than was not new, and much that was incompletely argued using embarrassingly minimal material. (E.g., it takes a lot of nerve to discuss such things as the criterion of embarrassment in just a few paragraphs.)

This left me in sort of a muddle as what to do next with his book. The further I looked into it, the more apparent it became that Lataster was an even more disastrous thinker than I first realized. When someone is so insensate as to think that use of scholars amount to a fallacious “appeal to authority” – a very common misapprehension of that fallacy by fundamentalist atheists – and so frequently raises the specter of bias as a reason to dismiss evidence, it becomes very hard to take them seriously.

Oh, well. Since I mentioned the criterion of embarrassment, let’s go ahead and discuss that. 

Generally, I think the criterion of embarrassment is sound, although it requires certain caveats. Many scholars are not aware of the social science background of the New Testament, which means that some things they think of as “embarrassing” in modern terms may not be embarrassing in the ancient world. The opposite would also be true. I will not here discuss specific examples, since that it to be the subject of future research on my part. For now let me simply analyze what Lataster has to say on the subject.

First, Latatser supposes the worth of this criterion is lessened because it may be that “the author purposely provides an embarrassing example to make a point (perhaps on humility, or separation from the ego), or to provide a feeling of authenticity and credibility, avoiding suspicion over constant positive assertions.” Unfortunately, Lataster’s single example of this in application merely shows how lacking his scholarship is. In a note he suggests, regarding the point that it would have been embarrassing for women to find Jesus’ tomb empty, that:

This overlooks the possibility that the Gospel writer intentionally places such importance on women, to demonstrate just how different this new religion is, including its treatment of women, and other ‘downtrodden’ groups. Actually, isn’t that kind of the point of Christianity? The same Bible has Jesus basically saying that the ‘low shall be made high’ and the ‘high shall be made low’. 

The problem with this analysis is that demonstrating “just how different” Christianity was, would have been switching one highly embarrassing aspect of Christianity for another. The social world of the New Testament was also suspicious of anything new or deviant. Lataster has unwittingly given himself a different problem without solving his first problem.

Lataster’s second objection is vague to the point of criminality: He says that “given the diversity of Jewish religions, and the diversity even of early Christianity, it cannot be assumed (with the canonical Gospels at least, with their anonymous authors) that the author would find the event or teaching in question to be embarrassing.” Well, yes, it can. We know the workings of an agonistic society. We also know a great deal about the values of that society. It just isn’t that hard to know that certain things would be considered an embarrassment. Such diversity as existed simply didn’t affect it that much. 

Lataster shows once again his ability to anachronize by making a comparison
to the embarrassing claims of L. Ron Hubbard, but there is a huge, huge difference between the reaction to a deviant in a collectivist, agonistic society, and an individualist society like the one that produced Hubbard. (I am also therefore saying that yes, Stanley Porter – whom Lataster quotes to the effect that it is “difficult” to know what the church thought on these matters – is wrong; while well versed in rhetoric and other matters, Porter is less engaged on matters of social science.)

Will we rotate back to the disaster that is Lataster again? I expect we will. Once I’m feeling masochistic enough again.

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