RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In defense of experts.

Newsweek just posted a lengthy piece by Kurt Eichenwald, which is mostly a birdwatcher's guide to biblical criticism. Biblical criticism is a field that starts with the premise that the Bible is not supernatural or divinely inspired, and aims to find out what one can deduce about history, and the early development of Christianity, from the texts themsleves. And there are thousands of early manuscripts of the Bible and apocryphal works. It's truly a vast field.

First of all, I should say I’m a dilletante in the far-too-many things that interest me, and even more (less) of a dilletante in Biblical criticism, about which I’m mostly ‘meh’. Brought up a Catholic, my interest in the Bible was never going to be that great. I do like history, and so I take an interest in how the Bible relates to the history of the near east 0 - 400 CE. But 'interested layperson' about sums it up for me.

Mr Eichenwald is another kind of dilletante, a journalist. He seems to be a reasonably good one. To this interested layperson, he seems to have done a laudable job in summing up biblical scholarship. Of course, he’s made bonehead errors, that even I, less an expert than he, can see. For example, reputable Judaic scholarship does not claim that anything in the Old Testament was written around 1000 BC. As best I understand it, the earliest books (which are not the Pentateuch) were not written until after the Babylonian captivity. Still, the basic ideas are sound. Matthew Mark, Luke and John were not the apostles of the same name. The earliest existing gospel, Mark was not written anything like contemporaneously. It was probably written some time around the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Matthew and Luke probably drew on Mark and another, lost gospel (Q) as a source. And John is off in left field. Luke was probably also the author of Acts, and probably knew Paul, although his writings post-dated the Pauline epistles. And so on. There were also lots of competing gospels, many lost, and none of this got to be canon until much later. And while scholars will (as scholars do) fight to death over the details, none of the above is particularly controversial.

The problem is, contemporary Christian churches want you to think the Bible is divinely inspired, and so gloss over the small matter that decades intervened between Jesus's life (if there ever was a Jesus), and the very earliest versions of the gospels, of which the manuscripts are lost. If you're going to tell believing Christians this, it's a mistake to take shots at evangelical Christians while also writing a popularized account of Biblical criticism. It’s hard enough for Christians to get their head around the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not the apostles of the same name, without throwing in contemporary politics.

The point is, Biblical criticism is an enormous subject, encompassing the work of thousands of scholars over hundreds of years, and it’s hard for a journalist to get it even approximately right. There are thousands of manuscripts, and entire subfields devoted to textual criticism, detailed study of the Koine Greek, etc. There are actually some biblical scholars who write well, and eruditely, who would have not left mistakes out there to be picked on, and who might have forgone the temptation to take cheap shots at Rick Perry. Why didn’t Newsweek commission one of them to write this?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A few last thoughts on the University of Virginia gang rape story

Sadness: the Washington Post today found so many and serious discrepancies in Jackie's story there is no other rational explanation than that she is a seriously mentally disturbed individual who concocted the entire episode. She's done a lot of harm, but reading the story, you have to conclude she's just sick, and has a bad choice of friends who reinforced her psychosis with the mantra 'I believe'. No, you shouldn't just believe, in this any more than in transsubstantiation.

Tragedy: downright evil reporting by a leftist activist magazine made this episode of individual psychosis into a national freak show.

Farce: The University of Virginia panicked into closing down all its fraternities and sororities and throwing itself into convulsions over a fabrication.

Crime: Cinderblocks were thrown through the windows of Psi Kappa Phi, and their premises vandalized, resulting in all the residents evacuating, all over a fantasy.

Cure: Go read the Crucible, take it to heart, and think three times before setting off on the next witch burning. And listen; being a liberal is volunteering as an extra in Groundhog Day. If you won't learn from history, you're condemned to repeat it.

I liked it better when we were a sane society, but I don't precisely remember when that was. Ask Gerald Amirault.