Thursday, December 31, 2015

Gibeon's Complaint

From the November 2012 E-Block.


2 Samuel 21:1-9 Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites. And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.) Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord?

And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you. And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. And the king said, I will give them.

But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the Lord's oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite: And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.

Not long ago I received a rather self-righteous email from a character who objected that I had "ignored" this allegedly clear example of human sacrifice in the Bible. In this brief exposition, we'll explain why this is not an example of ritual human sacrifice, but rather, a standard judicial execution, with nuances associated with Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) legal codes.

To begin, it should be noted that the Gibeonites were in a corner in terms of seeking justice on their own for the actions of Saul's house against them. They were unable to protect themselves and could not engage in a "blood feud" to avenge their losses.

For this reason, they rather pled with David for justice, and it was provided for them in the form of members of Saul's household – with a little impetus from God for David to provide that justice. The exact nature of the punishment is a little difficult to discern; commentators have suggested everything from a ritual dismemberment to the members of Saul's house being thrown off a cliff. It is agreed, however, that after what was done was done, the corpses were exposed to the elements.

It is this last bit that informs us that a judicial execution is what took place. In the ANE, exposure of a corpse was part of the usual punishment for covenant treaty violations -- which is exactly what Saul's house did when they broke the divinely sanctioned treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9).

In light of this, let us now consider the objections offered in aforementioned email.

It is clear that the members of Saul's house were provided to placate God.

In light of the judicial data above, that is not at all "clear". Rather, the narrative is clear that these were judicial executions performed to settle accounts for Saul's violation of the treaty with the Gibeonites.

The sacrifice was made during the barley harvest. That's when many ancient people offer human sacrifices.

Harvests were also typical time markers in an era before published calendars were available. It was also a time when a community commonly gathered together, and all could be present to witness a judicial execution.

The passage says that God was entreated for the land after the sacrifice was complete. That sounds like a human sacrifice.

The error here is the assumption that God is only entreated at times of human sacrifice. In reality, violation of a covenant in which YHWH was the chief witness and suzerain would naturally result in punishments in line with the Deuteronomic covenant curses. In this, YHWH is no different than any other ancient suzerain/patron, who would also withhold favor from those who violated covenant terms, and would properly demand that the situation be resolved -- and just as naturally, once the price of justice has been paid, that is exactly when those being punished would entreat the suzerain for relief.

In conclusion: I gathered these arguments from a survey of commentator views on this passage. As it happens, there was one commentator who argued that this judicial execution was some form of sacrifice to a "sun god." That, however, is a vastly minority position, and is just not supported by the textual or contextual evidence.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Vid Series on Christmas Traditions

This round I'll post something to last the rest of 2015: A link to a series posted on TektonTV, on Christmas traditions. It involves a parody of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Enjoy -- and see you "next year"! 


Friday, December 11, 2015

Islam Sam and the Tacitus Slam

From the November 2012 E-Block.


In keeping with our efforts to stay up to date with materials on the Christ myth, I'm presenting here an analysis of a response to my article on Tacitus by an Islamic apologist, who created the response for his blog. As is my usual policy, I will not link to or name this blog, considering the poor quality of the arguments -- and because, although the critique was written in 2012, the Islamic apologist (who I will hereafter call “Sam”) still does not refer to me by my correct name (5 years after the fact).

Hereafter, my original article material is in bold; Sam's replies are in italics, and my replies to Sam are in normal print.

Here you have a document 1100 years after the event is alleged to have happened. And it is to be taken at face value?

Sam apparently reads very little professional historical literature, and did not consider my arguments as a whole before he wrote this reactionary sentence. For one thing, I don't take the reference at "face value", which is why I provided numerous arguments and data for it after this paragraph. Relatedly, professional historians, and Taciteans, do the same and the 1100 year gap doesn't disturb them in the least.

Imagine a Muslim who brings a body of hadith (collections and sayings of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) put into writing) and no document of hadith predates 11 centuries after Muhammed (pbuh) would you be skeptical?

Although the victimization role may play well to Sam's readers, this means nothing unless he actually finds that someone -- and I in particular -- do the same. I have not, in the least, because I have never studied Islam in depth. That said, Sam would have the same burden as Taciteans do, to explain why the 1100 year gap is of relatively no moment.

Sam sermonizes a bit about this strawman he has erected, then finally gets back to some substance:

[Holding] says that it is unlikely that this is Christian forgery. Why? because here we wish to use the principal of embarrassment but since we are coming up with likely scenarios, how about this one. What about introducing a principle of lessor embarrassment to save one from a greater embarrassment?

What about it? Unfortunately, Sam does not explain what "greater embarrassment" we might have been spared if not for this allegedly "lesser" one. He merely leaves the option open for his readers to fantasize about in the hope that they will simply imagine that one actually even exists. As it is, given that crucifixion was the most shameful form of execution in the time of Tacitus, there is no "greater" embarrassment that could be contrived.

“Indeed, the Tacitus polemic against Christianity is so strong that it was one of two things Tacitus was condemned for in the sixteenth century - the other being that he wrote in bad Latin - [Dor.Tac, 149], and it is even said that Spinoza liked Tacitus because of his anti-Jewish and anti-Christian bias. [Momig.CFou, 126]

My comment: This does not help matters at all. Of what relevance is sixteenth century critique of Tacitus a man who lived circa 50 C.E ?

The relevance -- which Sam, being unschooled in such matters, would hardly know -- is that the 16th century was the height of the Renaissance, when scholars had the greatest leisure and resources to discuss such questions in depth for the first time. It is also relevant because it is during this era that many argue that the alleged forgery of the passage about Jesus was performed (until, that is, earlier manuscripts were found). I'll add, as well, that the time marker in no way implies that Tacitus' anti-Christian attitude would not have been clear to earlier readers in any century.

No church father, however, would have willingly quoted such a negative reference to Jesus and the Christians; moreover, indications are that Tacitus wrote for a very limited audience of his peers. The Annals may not have gotten into the Church's hands at an early date.

Maybe so but than again one does wonder why no church father would have made use of such a widely known quote in polemic against those who asserted that Jesus was a myth. Example: Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, represents the Jew Trypho as saying, "ye follow an empty rumour and make a Christ for yourselves." "If he was born and lived somewhere he is entirely unknown." So this question is not readily answered.

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Sam is making the standard error in his use of Trypho, who is not saying Jesus was a myth; rather, Trypho is saying Christians wrongly assigned the title of "Christ" to someone. Sam apparently failed to search my materials completely.

So: The idea that this passage is an interpolation is no more credible than the idea held in the 19th century that Tacitus' entire works are fifteenth-century forgeries.

There is a logical flaw in the above assertion. A person may embellish in some respects and yet be right in others no need to cast aspersions upon everything.

Here it is hard to see what Sam's point is, as his commentary is not even coherent, and it is not even clear how he thinks it relates to my summary statement.

The Tacitus literature is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus, and it is singularly unfortunate that many writers in this subject area have failed to appreciate this!

I myself am fond of the words accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness, but I did note one word missing: infallibility.

Sam is doing no more than arbitrarily raising the bar of evidence to stratospheric heights for his own convenience. The fact is that Taciteans do not require Tacitus to be "infallible." Given Tacitus' reliability, it is the burden of doubters like Sam to explain why Annals 15.44 must be treated as an exception to Tacitus' widely known and recognized record of reliability.

However, this does not mean that Tacitus accepted Pliny's information on Jesus, or on any topic, uncritically. Annals 15.53 indicates that Tacitus did collect some information from Pliny - and that he disputed it, and even considered it wholly absurd. Simply because Pliny was Tacitus' friend and confidant does not mean that he believed everything that Pliny told him.

So if Pliny had information that Tacitus finds “wholly absurd” or incredible is Tacitus free from the same kind of critique?

I do not know where Sam gets such an idea, but it seems that this is more pep talk than scholarly argumentation. At the same time, there is nothing "absurd" or "incredible" about Annals 15.44; a man with followers, who ends up crucified, and who manifests no absurdities. So, it is hard to know why Sam thinks he can apply such a critique.

Sam quotes several of my comments from Taciteans about Tacitus being reliable, and then my summary of where Tacitus may have gotten his information about Jesus. He then says:

I don't know about you people but my eternal salvation and truth does not rely upon 'could have' 'may have' and 'suggestions'.

Nor does mine. The qualified language is only about the nature of Tacitus' sources for Annals 15.44, and the same sort of qualified language would adhere to the majority of the content in the Annals. Unlike Sam, however, professional historians do not run around like headless chickens thinking that this is a problem. Nor do they think, because of it, that the facts of history are open to question. Sam is simply engaging in rootless hyperbole of unjustified uncertainty, under the outlandish implied premise that only 100% certainty, beyond all possible doubt, is acceptable.

After more sermonizing on the same lines, we return to:

Should this issue of bias be cause for concern? Not really, for two reasons. First, in spite of his bias, Tacitus is still sufficiently trustworthy. Second, there is no indication that Tacitus' bias had any effect on the Jesus reference. Indeed, if it would have had any influence, it would be the opposite of the sort required in order to devalue the reference! Let's look at some further relevant data:

I am amazed how easily brushed aside is the issue of Tacitus and his alleged bias. Amazing! And besides the fact we don't know where he got his sources from. Possibly a bias source!

Sam isn't paying attention here. The issue here is not about any biased sources used by Tacitus, but Tacitus' own bias, and what role it may have played on his report of Jesus. Sam also ignores the most critical point, which is the burden he, as a critic, has to explain; namely, what specific effect Tacitus' bias would have had on compromising Annals 15.44.

In other words, even when Tacitus was expressing bias, his inner scruples were such that he still would not report an inaccuracy.
Wow so much embellishment of Tacitus and his grand moral character. Again 
an amazing assumption.

Amazing enough indeed, that it is an evaluation I took directly from professional Tacitean scholars, something Sam doesn't mention. After this, Sam sermonizes some more about needing 100% certainty (he even uses the figure of 100%!); however, if that is what he wants, we then need to ask how it is that he knows Muhammed was not a space alien!

Some points I made about how Tacitus' bias would have, if anything, led him to denigrate Jesus, are quoted. Then it is said:

Since we are throwing out speculation of what Tacitus did and did not do, here is another speculation because of his bias he reported what ever he heard without further scrutiny. He did not report that there was confusion as to what happened to Jesus. He did not report that no one knew what actually happened.

Here again it is hard to know Sam’s point, especially since Sam's English is rather deficient. I gather he is saying that Tacitus' bias kept him from reporting these things, but the bias Tacitus held against Christians would have, if anything, led him to say the very things Sam lists. Yet, these are not found in Tacitus.

And if we are going to use the 'principle of embarrassment' argument than Christians should follow it through logically. That Tacitus relied upon information that was hostile to Christianity namely that Jesus died thus proving him to be a false messiah according to the Jews and a rebel according to the Romans.

Again, Sam seems to have allowed mastery of English to evade him, so it is hard to see the point. This is indeed the view we suppose Tacitus held, and it is one he would have held even had Jesus risen from the dead.

I mean after all doesn't the Bible itself say, “We preach Christ crucified unto the Jews a stumbling block and unto the Greeks foolishness” 1 Corinthians 1:23.

Yes it does. And that is precisely why a cultured Roman like Tacitus would dismiss, out of hand, reports of Jesus having risen from the dead. That said, none of this has any bearing at all on Annals 15.44, which only reports that which Tacitus, as a cultured Roman, would find perfectly acceptable and just.

[Holding] than gives us a quote from an Atheist that he feels gives help to his cause. The quote from an Atheist actually back fires. To what extent allegedly did Tacitus employ his malicious wit concerning the unnamed source of Jesus alleged death on the cross?

This is in reference to what I quoted from Carrier, regarding the procurator/prefect issue, and once again, the point is lost in Sam's lack of compositional competence. There is no connection between Tacitus' wit and his sources, and no chain of logic, to speak of, that can make one in the way Sam is relating.

“This is a far better point than we may realize: Being that Tacitus' readers were - like he had been - members of the Senate and holders of political office [Dor.Tac, 64], we must suppose that this "error" escaped not only Tacitus' attention, but their’s as well. We may as well suggest that a United States Senate historian's error, of the same rank, would pass without comment.”

At this point Sam seems to be losing his cool, where all he can do is to repeat his prior points (e.g., 1100 year gap) and obsessively focus on my use of the word "suppose" as though it reflected some uncertainty in my views. In reality, it reflects a reductio ad absurdum that someone in his position is forced to explain. Clearly, Sam lacks the capabilities to do so.

I am quoted extensively regarding Tacitus' reliability, and the burden of critics to prove that Annals 15.44 is an exception. Sam says:

But isn't it interested that when Tacitus implies that he is mentioning a rumor he doesn't do so in connection to his bias against Jews? So if he doesn't mention rumors in connection with Jews and [Holding] admits his bias towards them than why would he mention rumors in connection with Christians? Think about it!

Perhaps I will think about it, when we can call in a linguist who can identify it and tell us what it is. As it is, it doesn't even come close to representing (and therefore answering) anything I actually said, much less does Sam explain how he can devalue Annals 15.44 with this discovery.

It has been my observation that there seems to be very little in the way of quality apologetics from Muslims. This is a clear example of why.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's Thanksgiving

The post this week is by guest contributor W. R. Miller.


             In recent years a new Thanksgiving tradition has developed:  people complaining about  it.  Critics allege that our third president, Thomas Jefferson, regarded Thanksgiving as “The most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.”  As of this writing, a Google search yields 581 results of this statement, coupled with “Jefferson” and “Thanksgiving.”
            Did Jefferson really say those words?  What documentation is cited by the skeptics?
            Virtually, none.
            Thanks to the digital revolution, a comprehensive repository of published materials from the eighteenth and nineteenth century is available online.  Newsbank offers America’s Historical Newspapers, America’s Historical Imprints.  Gale provides Eighteenth Century Collections Online, The Making of the Modern World, Sabin Americana, Nineteen Century Collections Online, and Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers.  Digitized newspapers are also available through ProQuest and Access Newspaper Archive.  Do these sources document the quote?  No.  Neither is there any citation at Thomas Jefferson’s libraries at Monticello.
            Why do critics not cite the source of their claim?  Perhaps because the quote is bogus.
            J. P. Holding pursued the matter online and could find no usage of the quote earlier than 2006—nearly two centuries after Jefferson’s death.
            Why would Jefferson disparage Thanksgiving?  The concept was commonplace in early American history as documented in the Thanksgiving Proclamations stored here.
            It may shock critics to learn that when Jefferson was governor of Virginia, he issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, on November 11, 1779:
            Here it is:
WHEREAS the Honourable the General Congress, impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God, in blessing the greater part of this extensive continent with plentiful harvests, crowning our arms with repeated successes, conducting us hitherto safely through the perils with which we have been encompassed and manifesting in multiplied instances his divine care of these infant states, hath thought proper by their act of the 20th day of October last, to recommend to the several states that Thursday the 9th of December next be appointed a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer, which act is in these words, to wit.
"Whereas it becomes us humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God, with gratitude and praise, for the wonders which his goodness has wrought in conducting our forefathers to this western world; for his protection to them and to their posterity, amidst difficulties and dangers; for raising us their children from deep distress, to be numbered among the nations of the earth; and for arming the hands of just and mighty Princes in our deliverance; and especially for that he hath been pleased to grant us the enjoyment of health and so to order the revolving seasons, that the earth hath produced her increase in abundance, blessing the labours of the husbandman, and spreading plenty through the land; that he hath prospered our arms and those of our ally, been a shield to our troops in the hour of danger, pointed their swords to victory, and led them in triumph over the bulwarks of the foe; that he hath gone with those who went out into the wilderness against the savage tribes; that he hath stayed the hand of the spoiler, and turned back his meditated destruction; that he hath prospered our commerce, and given success to those who sought the enemy on the face of the deep; and above all, that he hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory. Therefore,
Resolved, that it be recommended to the several states to appoint THURSDAY the 9th of December next, to be a day of publick and solemn THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for his mercies, and of PRAYER, for the continuance of his favour and protection to these United States; to beseech him that he would be graciously pleased to influence our publick Councils, and bless them with wisdom from on high, with unanimity, firmness and success; that he would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth; that he would smile upon the labours of his people, and cause the earth to bring forth her fruits in abundance, that we may with gratitude and gladness enjoy them; that he would take into his holy protection, our illustrious ally, give him victory over his enemies, and render him finally great, as the father of his people, and the protector of the rights of mankind; that he would graciously be pleased to turn the hearts of our enemies, and to dispence the blessings of peace to contending nations.
That he would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favour; and finally, that he would establish the independance of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue, and support and protect them in the enjoyment of peace, liberty and safety."
I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion. Given under my hand and the seal of the commonwealth, at Williamsburg, this 11th day of November, in the year of our Lord, 1779, and in the fourth of the commonwealth.
            Thanksgiving was observed sporadically in the early 19th century on the federal level while being observed regularly on a state level.
            In Volume Three of his diary, President Rutherford B. Hayes pointed out, "I have the Thanksgiving Proclamations of twenty-seven States--all recognizing religion, nearly all the religion of the Bible, and several the Divinity of Christ. More are coming, doubtless. Our Legislature for many years has passed a joint resolution annually authorizing a thanksgiving and frequently in terms which recognized the religion of the Bible. The last Legislature omitted to do so by a mere accident this year, but in [the] Sixty-fifth volume Ohio Laws, page 306, passed one last year. If you wish to borrow my bundle of Thanksgiving Proclamations I will send them to you. All state institutions have religious exercises, some of them chaplains paid under state laws. The meetings of the two houses of the General Assembly are always opened with prayer in accordance, sometimes, with resolutions (passed unanimously usually), and sometimes by common consent. The inaugurations of governors are prefaced by religious exercises."  From the Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, p. 72. 
            President Chester Arthur stated in his Thanksgiving Proclamation,  “It has long been the pious custom of our people, with the closing of the year, to look back upon the blessings brought to them in the changing course of the seasons and to return solemn thanks to the all-giving source from whom they flow.”
            To honor God is the least we can do for all He has done for us, for America.  Jefferson understood that—as have American statesmen throughout history.
            Why let critics rob us of this privilege?
*  *  *
            J. P. Holding exposes more bogus quotes at TektonTV.  Click here for more.