Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Can Mary's Sinlessness Be Defended?

Here is an argument, mostly directed toward Protestant Christians, in favor of the Catholic doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary.[1]

1. Grace is that by which God applies the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice. (Scriptural supports include Eph. 2:8, "For by Grace you have been saved..." and Rom. 6:14, "sin will have no dominion over you, since you are ...under Grace.")

2. Mary was "full of Grace" [kecharitomene]. (According to the declaration of the angel Gabriel, as recorded in Lk. 1:28.)

3. Therefore, Mary was full of that by which God applies the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice. (From 1 and 2.)

4. To be "full" of something is to be unable to accommodate any more of whatever that something is. (This just seems to me to be the primary meaning of the word "full.")

5. Therefore, Mary's being "full of Grace" is for her to have been unable to accommodate any more Grace. (From 2 and 4.)

6. If she had lacked Grace at any time, then she would have been able to accommodate more Grace. (Admittedly, this is the least obvious premise. However, I think that it is plausible. Although, with something like water, a bucket's being full-today does not prevent it's having been empty yesterday, in the case of God's Grace, things are arguably different. God is able to view and consider our lives in toto - from their beginnings. It is reasonable to think that if Mary had lacked Grace at any time, then she wouldn't really have been "full" with it.)

7. Therefore, Mary did not lack grace at any time. (From 5 and 6 by modus tollens.)

8. Therefore, Mary did not lack the the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice at any time. (By 1 and 7.)

9. If Mary did not, at any time, lack the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice, then Mary was never separated from God by sin.

10. Therefore, Mary was never separated from God by sin. (From 8 and 9, by modus ponens.)

11. Any person never separated from God by sin is sinless. (From the definition of the "sin.")

12. Therefore, Mary is sinless.

Here is an objection.

If it was requisite that Jesus's parents, God the Father and Mary, be without sin, then it should be requisite that Mary's parents, Joachim and Ann, be without sin.

One way of cashing this out would be as follows. Call this Argument A.

13. If a person, S, is born without sin, then S's parents are sinless.

14. Mary was born without sin.

15. Therefore, Mary's parents were sinless.

There is a confusion, here, rooted in an ambiguity contained in the idea of sinlessness.

On the one hand, someone might think that the Catholic claim is that Mary's freedom from Original Sin was not owed to anything but to her own Good nature. Let us call this the idea that Mary was "necessarily free" from Original Sin.

As far as I can tell, this is not, nor has it ever been, the Catholic claim.

For on the other hand, Catholics answer that Mary's freedom from Original Sin was owed to God's Grace. On this view, the Catholic view, Mary was "contingently free" from Original Sin.

This is no mere verbal jousting. If the claim were indeed that Mary owed God nothing in virtue of her freedom from Original Sin, then the notion that Mary "had no need for a savior" would be obviously true.

On the actual claim, Mary owed her preservation from Original Sin to God. Thus, Mary certainly did need - and had - a savior.

At least one reason to think that Argument A is a failure can be gleaned from this distinction. A person, S, is "necessarily-sinless" if S's sinlessness is essential and could not be otherwise. Moreover, if S *is* necessarily-sinless, then S does not need a savior. If, on the other hand, S is "contingently-sinless," then S's sinlessness could have been otherwise.

Taking these distinctions into account, we could formulate Argument B:

16. If a person, S, is necessarily born without sin, then S's parents are sinless.

17. Jesus was necessarily born without sin.

18. Therefore, Jesus's parents (Mary and God the Father) were sinless.

But Argument B is not extended to Mary. Consider Argument C:

16. If a person, S, is necessarily born without sin, then S's parents are sinless.

19. Mary was necessarily born without sin.

20. Therefore, Mary's parents (Joachim and Ann) were sinless.

Argument C is unsound - by Catholic lights - since premise 7. is false.

It is not the case that "Mary was necessarily born without sin." Mary was contingently born without sin. Her sinlessness was entirely at the Grace and pleasure of God. Jesus's sinlessness was essential. As the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, his paternity conferred sinlessness to Him. But since, again by Catholic lights, Mary was contingently-sinless, Jesus's maternity also conferred sinlessness to Him.

Hence, Jesus was necessarily-sinless because both of his parents were sinless. His thus being essentially sinless secured His status as savior who did not need saving Himself.

Still, Mary's sinlessness arguably, partially secured Jesus's sinlessness. Although, as has been stated, Mary's sinlessness was neither due to her own nature nor to anything that she had accomplished. Mary was, in other words, saved as the rest of us are: "...by grace ...through faith - and this is not from [herself], it [was] the gift of God - not by works, so that [she cannot] boast". (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV.)

And, indeed, "boastfulness" is nearly as far from the character of the Virgin Mary as could be conceived. This is why Mary exclaimed: "[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47, NIV), and why, henceforth, "all generations will call [Mary] blessed" (Luke 1:48, NIV.)

There is no impropriety in reporting that Mary was saved by God's Grace. It is simply that in her case, the saving Grace was given to her at conception, preserving her from the stain of Original Sin, whereas in our cases, the grace comes after our births.

But there is another objection.

Some Protestants immediately object on the ground that verses such as Romans 3:23 and Romans 5:12 (and so on) imply that Mary sinned.

The problem, here, is straightforward.

21. All [humans] have sinned. (Romans 3:23.)

22. Mary was human. (Self-evident.)

23. Therefore, Mary sinned. (From 21 and 22.)

To see at least one problem with this, consider a parallel argument.

21. All [humans] have sinned. (Romans 3:23.)

24. Jesus was fully human. (From Christian theology.)

25. Therefore, Jesus sinned. (From 9 and 10.)

Obviously, 25. is unacceptable to any Protestant. What can be said about this? What could a Protestant say?

One first-pass reply surely would be for the Protestant to point out that we have good reason, from other Bible passages in the Bible (such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, etc.) to think that the word "all" in passages like Romans 3:23 (et alia) really does not mean "each and every human without exception."

A principle might be asserted such that: "All" means "each and every, unless we have good Scriptural grounds thinking it does not." In the case of Jesus, the Protestant would surely hold, we have good Scriptural grounds for thinking that it does not.

Actually, this need not be construed as making an "exception." One way to view it is in terms of what philosophers call a "restricted domain." A common example goes like this. If I tell John: "Put all the beer into the refrigerator," I probably should not best be understood as telling John to get all of the beer that there is. Probably, I mean something more like all of the beer that I have in the shopping bags, or all of the beer that there is on my table. The point is, most likely, I am using the quantifier "all" in a restricted sense.

Surely it is plausible to think that Saint Paul is using the word "all" similarly in Romans. On this reading, Paul means (something like) "For all of my readers have sinned."

Of course, we could also hold that Paul did indeed imply an exception. Whereas Protestants may believe that Paul meant "For all have sinned except Jesus," Catholics may hold that Paul meant "For all have sinned except the New Adam [Jesus] and the New Eve [Mary]."

Protestants justify their reading by appealing to Scriptural counter-evidence. Catholics simply believe that, in addition to having good ground to make an exception for Jesus, we also have good reason make an exception for Mary.

This does not place Mary on the "same level" as Jesus. As I argued previously, Jesus's sinlessness was essential to him, whereas Mary's was (on the Catholic view) contingent. Jesus was the savior. Mary was saved by Grace (it's just that she was so saved from the moment of her birth).

Finally, Protestants might say: "Yes, but in Jesus's case, the New Testament is more explicit about this exception; Mary's 'exceptional' status must be inferred."

As far as I can tell, to address this worry, Catholics merely need to do two things. Number one, they need to provide a good reason why the the New Testament is not more explicit about Mary's sinlessness. This does not seem too difficult to do. There appears to be a fairly straightforward reason close at hand. The New Testament is primarily about Jesus (in the Gospels) and about Jesus's Church (from Acts onward). Therefore, we receive the most information in the New Testament regarding Jesus and the Church.

However, as a Catholic, I do not believe that the New Testament is entirely silent about Mary's sinlessness. I believe that the New Testament's clear references to Mary as the "highly favored daughter" who is "full of Grace" and who will, by all future Christians, be called "blessed" are best-explained by the doctrine that Mary was sinless.

This leads to number two, Catholics must provide a good reason to think that Mary was sinless. But this good reason has already been set forth. It can be coherently argued from the Biblical datum of Luke 1:28 that Mary's having been "full of Grace" implies her sinlessness.

In order to rebut this, Protestants must find some fault with the argument that was given in its favor. Short of this, Catholics seem to me to be quite within their rational rights to hold that Mary was indeed sinless, as the Church has believed since ancient times.


[1] This argument is not due to me, but has been adapted and expanded by me from David Armstrong, The Catholic Verses, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Inst. Press, 2004, pp. 181ff.

Surrejoinder to Clayvessel

Continuation of a discussion from Michael Hoffman's weblog, http://revisionistreview.blogspot.com/2015/12/merry-christmas-mary.html


Dear Clayvessel, I am, by temperament and by training, used to long and sometimes (even often!) tedious arguments. It’s easy for me to forget that not everyone shares these traits.

My text-length is not an attempt to "win" by attrition. My efforts were primarily and sincerely centered on defending my Catholic belief against your claim that "If [Mary] had no sin, she had no need for a savior."

This concern of yours is simply not a tenet of Catholic Mariology. Nor, I respectfully suggest, is it communicated by any of the 30,102 verses in the Protestant Bible. It is simply based upon the deliverances of the "human reasoning" of various non-Catholics (and, in some circles, it has become something of a non-Catholic tradition).

I am sensitive to the worry that the relevant Catholic doctrine renders Mary such that she wouldn't need a savior. What I have personally come to believe is that Mary's need for a savior is grounded in the contingency of her sinlessness, granted to her at the Grace and pleasure of God - and not the outgrowth of any essentially good nature, as Jesus's sinlessess is.

This resolution is attractive to me because the distinction between contingency and necessity is not ad hoc and because I can find no biblical datum that causes me disquiet. I submit that your interesting (albeit enthymematic) argument that if "it was ...required that [Jesus's] mother be without sin[,] then the same requirement becomes necessary for her mother, and her mother, etc" is effectively blocked with this distinction.

Now you speak of burden of proof. It is not entirely clear to me where the "burden of proof" lies, in this case. But since burden of proof might be thought to attach to positive assertions or predications (i.e., to assertions that say things like "S is f") as opposed to negative assertions (such as "S is not-f"), "Mary is sinless" would indeed need evidence in its support.

One trouble with Catholic-Protestant dialogue is brought into sharp focus, here. What standard of evidence shall we use? Non-Catholics (chiefly, Protestants) either expressly affirm or implicitly adopt an evidential stricture known as "sola scriptura." This "formal principle of the Protestant Reformation" essentially limits allowable evidence to, as you put it, "Scriptural supports." Your request that I "support [my] stance ...with any verses you can find" seems to be an endorsement of sola scriptura.

Catholics do not endorse sola scriptura (at least, not on what is sometimes called its formal reading). Given the idea that positive assertions stand in need of justification, those who explicitly affirm or operationally assume sola scriptura - which asserts that "only Bible verses are allowable evidence" - also bear a burden of proof. What is the argument for sola scriptura?

(End 1/3)


It is clear that Catholics have a more expansive set of evidence than do Protestants. Catholics nowhere deny that the Bible is God's Word. But I, for one, do deny that "the Bible is God's Word" is an identity statement. I think that it is a predication. The notion that the definite description "the Bible" and "the Word of God" are coextensive is not anywhere clearly expressed in the aforementioned 30,102 verses.

Is it the case, then, that Catholics and non-Catholics can never have any evidence in common? It depends, in part, on what "Scriptural support" comes to. Let me take a moment to try to get clearer on what that phrase plausibly involves - and does not involve.

On a narrow construal, one might require a "prooftext." As Hoffman has just noted, though, most - but not all - Protestants affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no "prooftext" for this in the narrow sense of some passage that says "God is Triune." But there are certainly "Scriptural supports" in the broader sense of passages that: (a.) do not contradict the notion, and (b.) serve as premises from which the Trinity can be inferred. From this consideration (and others like it), I am impressed that "prooftexting" cannot be relied upon to provide "Scriptural supports" for all the doctrines that Christians affirm to be true.

Hence, I understand "Sciptural support" in a broader sense. For the sake of defending the Catholic belief, I will suggest a "Scriptural support," in a broad sense, for the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. By "broad sense," I mean that I will state what I take to be biblical truths as premises of an argument, the conclusion of which will be (at least close to) the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. (This argument is not due to me, but has been adapted and expanded by me from David Armstrong, The Catholic Verses, Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Inst. Press, 2004, pp. 181ff.)

Sketched *very roughly*, a broad defense might look like this.

1. Grace is that by which God applies the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice. (Scriptural supports include Eph. 2:8, "For by Grace you have been saved..." and Rom. 6:14, "sin will have no dominion over you, since you are ...under Grace.")

2. Mary was "full of Grace" [kecharitomene]. (According to the declaration of the angel Gabriel, as recorded in Lk. 1:28.)

3. Therefore, Mary was full of that by which God applies the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice. (From 1 and 2.)

4. To be "full" of something is to be unable to accommodate any more of whatever that something is. (This just seems to me to be the primary meaning of the word "full.")

5. Therefore, Mary's being "full of Grace" is for her to have been unable to accommodate any more Grace. (From 2 and 4.)

6. If she had lacked Grace at any time, then she would have been able to accommodate more Grace. (Admittedly, this is the least obvious premise. However, I think that it is plausible. Although, with something like water, a bucket's being full-today does not prevent it's having been empty yesterday, in the case of God's Grace, things are arguably different. God is able to view and consider our lives in toto - from their beginnings. It is reasonable to think that if Mary had lacked Grace at any time, then she wouldn't really have been "full" with it.)

(End 2/3)


7. Therefore, Mary did not lack grace at any time. (From 5 and 6 by modus tollens.)

8. Therefore, Mary did not lack the the Saving power of Jesus's sacrifice at any time. (By 1 and 7.)

However, in its basic form, the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness just is the declaration that Mary was saved - by Grace - from the moment of her bith.

I have to add that "Mary sinned" is also a positive assertion and, by this standard, would also place a burden of proof on its asserter. What is your evidence that Mary sinned? Here you have given verses such as those well-known passages in Romans indicating that "all have sinned." (E.g., 3:23 and 5:12.)

The problem, here, is straightforward.

9. All [humans] have sinned. (Romans 3:23.)

10. Jesus was fully human. (From Christian theology.)

11. Therefore, Jesus sinned. (From 9 and 10.)

Obviously, 11. is unacceptable. As you point out, we have good reason - from other Bible passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15 and so on - to think that the word "all" in passages like Romans 3:23 (et alia) really does not mean "each and every human without exception."

Catholics simply believe that we have good reason to think that Mary is an exception also. Mary is not on the "same level" as Jesus. As I argued previously, Jesus's sinlessness was essential to him, whereas Mary's was (on the Catholic view) contingent. Jesus was the savior. Mary was saved by Grace (it's just that she was so caved from the moment of her birth).

Why is the New Testament not more explicit about this? I should say that there is a fairly straightforward reason. The New Testament is primarily about Jesus (in the Gospels) and about Jesus's church (from Acts onward). Therefore, we receive the most information in the New Testament regarding Jesus and the Church. However, I am a Catholic because I do not believe that the New Testament is entirely silent about Mary's sinlessness. I believe that the New Testament's clear references to Mary as the "highly favored daughter" who is "full of Grace" and who will, by all future Christians, be called "blessed" are best-explained by the doctrine that Mary was sinless.

Still, for me anyway, no Catholic "convinced" me of this so long as I still believed in sola scriptura. So I understand your hesitation and can only recommend to you that you pray and think about the doctrine of sola scriptura.

All the best to you, Clayvessel.


Matthew J. Bell

(End 3/3)

Rejoinder to Clayvessel

Discussion from Michael Hoffman's weblog, http://revisionistreview.blogspot.com/2015/12/merry-christmas-mary.html

>>[M]y intention ...was to have a conversation with [Hoffman] about his own words.<<

Hoffman's personal email address is posted on the right-hand side of the page. I would respectfully suggest that you use that convserational method if you wish to discourage the entry of other discussants. If you post publicly, then you invite public replies.

>>...I am not interested in an exchange that leads to "I said the most words therefore I win."<<

Nor am I interested in such an exchange. Albert Einstein reportedly once said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." What I write about at length (and I deny that these comment-sections of 1,400 characters are "lengthy") I do so because either: I believe no fewer words can clearly communicate the point that I am making; or, what is perhaps more likely, (to paraphrase Blaise Pascal) "I haven't the time to make my replies shorter" by editing them down.

>>If [any other revelation] in any way contradicts God's Word it is not embraced as doctrine.<<

I appreciate and agree with this. But what you apparently do not consider it that most Catholics, myself included, deny that Catholicism embraces doctrines that "contradict God's [Written] Word".

Before I address your parting shots, however, I have to say a few words about your recurring use of phrases such as "human logic" and "human reasoning."

You provide no definition for these terms, possibly in the (mistaken) belief that no definition is required. I will therefore suggest one for you. In the broadest sense, "human reasoning" (and the like) would merely be "reasoning carried out by human beings."

Unless, Clayvessel, your responses were dictations from On High, your replies - no less than any Catholic's - were the products of "human reasoning" - namely, your own. The majority of your words are not Scripture quotations, and of the words that *are* Bible quotations, they are not given as they are in the Bible.

You have therefore used human reasoning to join together various Scripture passages in order to make your points - just as have the other responders used human reasoning to join together Bible verses to make their points.

To deny this is simply disingenuous. Those who cast aspersions on "human reasoning" only seem to protest when the reasoning issues from a camp other than their own. Their own reasoning is either, and fallaciously (since it would be special pleading), immune from this "criticism," or else, and implausibly, it poses as non-human (or perhaps, outrageously, as divine) reasoning.

>>The Scriptures do not support the doctrines of Mary's sinlessness or assumption...<<

Catholics deny this. I cited several supports from Luke (1:28 and 1:48). I furthermore deny that you have even remotely demonstrated what you pretend, namely, that the Bible "contradicts" the idea that Mary was sinless.

You cited Luke 1:47, to which citation both Hoffman and I explicitly replied by noting that the Catholic affirmation of Mary's sinlessness in no way militate against Mary having had a savior. (For the details, see above.)

To this you added a hand-waving remark about "all hav[ing] sinned," alluding to "Rom. 5:12, Rom. 3:23,Rom. 3:10, etc."

This is a case-study in the disingenuous assertion that only one side in this debate is using "human reasoning," while the other side is merely quoting Scripture.

No Christian should hold that "contradicting God's [Written] Word" should always and everywhere be decided by a woodenly-literal reading of Biblical passages. One flippant example may be found in Mark 4:31, where Jesus Himself is recorded as having asserted that "a mustard seed ...is the smallest of all seeds on earth." Should readers merely attend to the face-value of this verse and conclude that either Jesus or the Bible is in flagrant error? Is there no explanation that can keep both a high-view of the Bible and a high-regard for Christ intact? This is the comeuppance for those who bandy about words like "contradiction."

Or, more seriously, according to James "God cannot be tempted by evil..." (James 1:13b). But the author of Hebrews attested that Jesus was "tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

When resolving prima facie difficulties such as these, Christians of all stripes employ what Clayvessel disparagingly calls "human reasoning" - as, I presume, she would also. This is what the respectable and time-honored discipline of apologetics is all about.

Those who denigrate "human reason" might as well deny that theology has any place in Christianity. And forget about homiletics. Without "human reasoning" sermons and homilies would merely consist of direct biblical quotation. It would be dubious for any preacher to so much as string together verses from different parts of the Bible - for in doing so (unless string in question received direct divine sanction) they depart from one-dimensional quotation and beginning mixing in their own dreaded "human reason."

Happily for Christianity, this is a cartoonish and ahistorical view. Besides being false, it is simply unpractical. To my knowledge, no sub-sect of Christianity functions this way.

>>...or the idea that the New Adam had to be born on undefiled ground.<<

That Adam *was* born on undefiled ground may be inferred from the numerous analogies between the First Adam and First Eve and the Second Adam (Jesus) and the Second Eve (Mary), as has now been mentioned several times. If Jesus's birth on undefiled ground was indeed a "requirement," then it was a requirement instituted by God and, in any case and as far as I can tell, is nowhere contradicted in the Bible.

>>I can call Mary "blessed" (as I did in my comment above) without directing my prayers to her. (Catholics deny that they worship Mary. So? I see them bow on bended knee and pray to her "Hail!"<<

Firstly, Catholics believe that the Church Triumphant (i.e., those men and women of God who are now enjoying heaven) is connected to the Church Militant (i.e., those men and women of God who are now alive on the earth). Catholics further believe that death is the separation of the body and soul, but that the dead person has not been destroyed. Christians of all sorts request prayers on their behalf from other believers. It is simply the Catholic conviction that those who have gone before us to their eternal reward are still, by God's authorization and Grace, able and willing to pray for us.

Secondly, your semi-mocking invocation of Catholics who say "Hail" to Mary is stupefying given your professed concern for the Written Word of God. Whence do Catholics derive this greeting? It comes right out of Luke 1:28! 'Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." (According to the venerable non-Catholic King James Version of the Bible.)

>>...[Y]our doctrines of tradition ...[have] no Scriptural supports.<<

The Scriptural supports extend at least from Genesis 3:15, to Luke 1 and finally through to Revelation 12 and beyond.

>>You will not convince non-Roman Catholic Christians...<<

Being "convinced" is a complicated process. It is quite sensitive to many things, including how well the person being "convinced" pays attention, how capable is the person doing the "convincing," the general level of rapport, and on and on. Ultimately, though, being "convinced" of Christian truth is between the Holy Spirit and the individual. (See John 16:13, NIV.) Perhaps the best that I can do is to invite people into the historic Catholic Church.

Ultimately, the Catholic position is: (i.) a justifiable inference from the biblical data such as Luke 1:28 and 1:48 (etc.); (ii.) not "contradicted" by the most reasonable interpretations of verses like Romans 3:23 (etc.); demonstrably a part of the earliest Church's confessions (as can be gleaned from the writings of Apostolic Fathers like St. Justin Martyr); and better-situated to defend a high-Christology than the view that the Blessed Virgin Mary was sullied with sin. I recommend this position to you.

Pax vobis.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Re: 'Skuzzy Ruins Christmas'

Response to Gabriel.[1]

>>Even if you are a Christian, or at least accept Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Jesus) as a historical figure, the virgin birth is not a tenable position.<<

You have charged that belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth (hereinafter the "Virgin Birth") is "untenable." According to my lexicon, an "untenable" position is one that is "not able to be maintained or defended against attack or objection." To show that a belief is untenable, it is plausible to think that at least three things must be shown.

(1) One argues that a belief, b, is more likely to be false than its negation.

(2) One at least surveys the strongest available defenses of b, and then one shows that these defenses, one and all, are inadequate.

(3) One provides some reason to think that no other defenses will be successful.

Now you have clearly argued that the doctrine is false. Thus, in the words of the definition for "untenable," you have mounted an attack on, and brought forth objections against, the doctrine of the virgin birth.

But attacking the Virgin Birth is not obviously sufficient to establish that it is "untenable." You have neither sampled the standard rejoinders to your objections, nor provided surrejoinders. In other words, at best, you have performed the step outlined in (1), but not the steps outlined in (2) or (3).

You have not shown, therefore, that the Virgin Birth is unable to be defended. In order to show that it is tenable, I merely have to show that the Virgin Birth is "able to be maintained or defended against" your attack and your objections.

My defense is interspersed between your previous remarks.


>>1.) The Silence of Paul. The epistles are the earliest surviving documents of the Christian faith, and Paul is blissfully ignorant of any such thing...<<

One problem that cuts across several of your points is a failure to take full cognizance of the relevant literary genres.[2]

As you know, an epistle is a letter. Paul's letters were, as most letters are, written for particular recipients and concerning specific circumstances.

What a writer chooses to include in his letter is, thus, indexed to his audience and to his topic(s). Contrariwise, what a writer does not include is also relative to his writing aims.

It is apparent, then, that there is no forced march from the fact that a proposition is not included in a given letter to the conclusion that the author was "ignorant" of the proposition. For it may still be - both in theory and for all that you have said - that the author, given his audience, goals and subject matter, simply had no reason to mention the proposition in question.

For example, Paul nowhere mentions the fact that torturing children for fun is morally wrong. It is by no means clear, however (nor even remotely plausible), that Paul was "blissfully ignorant of any such thing."[3]

The point can be made straightforwardly. Imagine taking every email, letter and text message (etc. – add in whatever else you wish) that you have ever composed, and creating a massive conjunction containing all your epistolary assertions. Could we conclude that you were "ignorant" - blissfully or otherwise - of any fact not explicitly represented by its own conjunct? I think not. But then why think that Paul is “blissfully ignorant” of a doctrine, evident in the writings of his bosom pal and associate, Luke,[4] merely because he nowhere mentions it explicitly in the surviving copies of a dozen or so of his letters? You have given no reason.

>>...--which is telling, since it would have frequently bolstered his argument.<<

In order to show that a proposition's lack of inclusion in a letter has any significant bearing on the question of the extent of an author's belief set, we must have a reason to think that it is more likely true than not that, if the author had the piece of information in question, then he would have mentioned it.

You owe us an example of instance for which Paul's express articulation of the Virgin Birth "would have ...bolstered his argument." You assert that this occurred "frequently," but do not scruple to provide even a single concrete illustration.

For all that you have said, that Paul did not include any mention of the Virgin Birth may signal nothing more than that none of his letters concerned any topic that would have been usefully advanced by its mention.

Later, you make similar mistakes handling the Gospel data. For instance, you complain that Mark does not say anything about a Virgin Birth, but Matthew does. However, this discrepancy is explicable in virtue of their divergent intentions.

According to the received analysis of Mark's audience, Mark wrote for Gentile Christians - in particular, Christians living in Rome.[5]

On the other hand, Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience.[6] The Virgin Birth would have had meaning for Jews that it would not have had for Romans. This is so due to the fact that the Virgin Birth had a distinctly Jewish context. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah had prophesied: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."[7]

Therefore, it is apparent that a mention of the Virgin Birth would be more expected in a communication addressed to Jewish as opposed to Gentile believers.[8]

>>For a guy who was nipples-to-nosehairs with the Force Ghost of the Almighty for who-knows-how-long, Paul actually doesn't seem to know much at all regarding the Divine Biography. It must not have come up.<<

Of course, Paul was raised and trained in a Jewish theological context. From an ontological point-of-view, the "Divine Biography" extends to infinity-past; from a textual vantage point, it ranges back to the Old Testament books beginning (in terms of arrangement and not necessarily dating) with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Paul knew quite a lot about the "Divine Biography." In fact, he would have known so much that, had it been his project to do so, he likely could have written volumes on the subject.

Had it been his project to do so. It was evidently not his project. He wrote letters to specific churches and persons, addressing specific issues. And for all that you have said, nothing precludes the judgment that these audiences and topics simply would not have been relevantly enriched by any mention of the Virgin Birth.

>>2.) Its Absense in the Earliest Gospels. Mark was likely penned anywhere from 60-75ad. It never mentions it.<<

I will stipulate the dates and simply reiterate that Mark's audience and purpose differed from that of Matthew's. What each author excludes and includes is relative to, and must be evaluated in the light of, these different intentions and readership.

>>Matthew followed, roughly 5-15 years later. This time, we see the tale clearly as an insertion in the text, to correspond more closely with the Lucan narrative.<<

This second sentence is doubly problematic.

Firstly, the phrase "clearly as an insertion in the text" is at best misleading and at worst well beyond your academic competence to pronounce upon definitively - let alone dogmatically.

As to its being misleading: To those unfamiliar with the lingo of textual criticism, calling the Virgin Birth an "insertion," sounds like whereas Mark wrote that "Jesus was born," Matthew shoehorned in a descriptor to get "Jesus was virgin-born."

In fact, as I have been repeating, the differences between Mark and Matthew are understandable only when due consideration is given to their divergent audiences and goals. The simple fact is that Matthew's Gospel is addressed to Jews for whom the opening genealogy[9] and the Isaiah reference[10] would have had meaning that neither would have had for the Gentiles to whom Mark was writing.

Secondly, the idea that Matthew smuggled in the Virgin Birth in order "to correspond more closely with the Lucan narrative" depends, as you surely realize, upon the truth of some non-standard analysis of the "Synoptic problem." For those who are unaware, the "Synoptic problem" is the so-called "problem" of the similarities between the "Synoptic Gospels": Matthew, Mark and Luke.

According to the most widely accepted accounts, Mark was written first - possibly utilizing a mysterious, possibly oral and now-unavailable source labeled "Q." Matthew and Luke were written later. But on the most popular version, Matthew and Luke were written separately and, thus, would not have purposely rejiggered their materials "to correspond more closely" with the other's narrative.

Of course, it is open for you to argue for some non-standard resolution to the Synoptic problem. But you must actually do this heavy lifting before your claims about alleged collusion register as anything more than speculation.

>>The style of Greek is more polished and the tone is slightly different.<<

In your concluding remarks you mention being able to "source it if you like." Up until now, much of what you have written can be addressed at a fairly general level and without the need for attestation. But unless you have some demonstrable credentials in the analysis of the writing styles of Koine Greek and are prepared to explain your judgments about "polish and ...tone" - with examples - I should say that comments of this sort are mere hand waving.

In this case, if you are deferring to the judgment of some other critic, I will have to know who he or she is (and, more importantly, what his or her arguments are) before I can make heads or tails of this assertion.

But let me say in any case, and without agreeing that there even is a style change that needs to be explained, that writing style changes can be explained in many ways. I will simply list one obvious example.

When one writer quotes another there will be a discernible change in style. For instance, Matthew 1:23 is an allusion to Isaiah 7:14. It is entirely reasonable to think that a style change with respect to Matthew 1:23 - as contrasted to other verses in Matthew - will be explicable in virtue of the fact that that verse hearkens back to a text from an entirely different author. My suspicion would be that many so-called style shifts could be satisfactorily accounted for with this observation alone.

>>It was not presumably written by the same hand that penned the remaining chapters. Unless this was the result of scribal changes, Matthew's gospel most likely begins with its genealogy.<<

Readers are owed a whole lot more than a mere assertion if the underlying point is to be established that such-and-so passages were "not presumably written by the same hand that penned the remaining chapters."

As were your comments immediately above, this is a highly detail-dependent claim. Everything turns on the quality and content of the analysis that stands (or purports to stand) in its support. What is the analysis?

>>Matthew was written with the clear intent of selling the gospel to the Jews...<<

Yes, Matthew likely had a primary Jewish audience.

>>...--hence its often ersatz usage of the Septuagint to bolster its claims.<<

"Ersatz usage" like what, pray tell?

>>A gospel written for the Jews would not necessarily contain this narrative in its original form, since the very concept would have been quite alien to their collective mindset.<<

I either do not understand this claim, or you are simply saying that Matthew wouldn't have mentioned Virgin Birth to Jews because Jews were not used to virgin births. If the latter, then, for what peoples would virgin births been old hat?

Of course it was "quite alien to their collective mindset" - as it seems "quite alien" to the "collective mindset" of the "IFLScience" brigade these days.

The claim was included because Matthew: (a.) believed it to be true and (b.) believed it to have been prophesied by Isaiah, thus situating it in a Jewish context.

If this is not what you were saying, however, what were you saying?

>>3.) The verse from Isaiah used to justify the "miracle" is a mistranslation.<<

Firstly, it is not entirely obvious what "the verse" is that you have in mind (you neither reproduce nor cite it). My best guess is that you are thinking of Isaiah 7:14, as it is alluded to in Matthew 1:23. Since you do not say for sure, the best that I can do is hope that my guess is correct.

Secondly, the phrase "[t]he verse from Isaiah ...is a mistranslation" is ambiguous. On the one hand, and implausibly, you could be asserting that "the verse" as-it-appears-in-Isaiah is a "mistranslation" of some, heretofore unspecified, source material. I doubt that you mean this, however, so I will ignore this possibility. On the other hand, you might really be trying to communicate the thought that "the verse" in Isaiah is mistranslated by someone (presumably Matthew?). For what follows, I will assume this second option.

However, thirdly, I am also unclear as to how you are using the word "justify." As far as I can see, "justify" has three senses, which I will designate philosophical, theological and typographical. Let me consider them in reverse order.[11]

In its typographical sense, "justify" designates the action of "adjust[ing] the spaces between words" so as, for example, to end up with margins that are "flush with" (that is, aligned straight against) their left or right sides (or both). Obviously, this usage is completely irrelevant and may be set aside.

In its theological sense, the word has to do with God "declar[ing a person] innocent; absolv[ing a person] from the penalty of sin." If I substitute this meaning into my re-creation of your sentence, I get something like this: "Matthew mistranslates the verse from Isaiah that he uses to declare the Virgin Birth innocent." This does not seem quite right. For one thing "justify," in its theological sense, is an action that God is supposed to perform upon persons. It seems to make no sense, therefore, to speak of God declaring an event - like the virgin birth is supposed to have been - "innocent." It seems that this meaning, too, must be set aside.

Finally, we come to the philosophical sense. On this sense, to "justify" a claim is to "show [it] to be right by providing justification or proof." We can put this slightly differently by saying that "justification" is that which "is offered as grounds for believing an assertion."[12]

Plugging this into our reconstructed sentence, we get something like: "Matthew mistranslates the verse from Isaiah that he use to prove the Virgin Birth." This appears to make better sense than any of the other possibilities surveyed. The problem is that it appears to me to be doubly false.

Number one, you have not established that Matthew's "translation"[13] of Isaiah 7:14 is a "mistranslation." You merely say:

>>The word "almah" can mean "virgin," but most frequently does not.<<

Showing that some passage, x, is a "mistranslation" involves a bit more than noting that one of the words in x "frequently does not ...mean" what it is said to mean in x. This is especially the case when the word in question could mean what it is said to mean x.

You admit that "[t]he word 'almah' can mean 'virgin'...". Therefore, you implicitly admit that it could well mean this is Isaiah 7:14. Hence, the best that you have shown is that it might be a mistranslation. But since "x might be mistranslated" does not entail that "x is mistranslated" your assertion cannot stand, as it is.

>>Actually, in at least seven other instances in the Old Testament, it simply means 'young woman,' and to the translators of the Septuagint, a young woman was likely a virgin. It was simply taken for granted.<<

As James Orr has pointed out: "the term rendered 'virgin' in Isaiah ...denotes ...a young unmarried woman. The context, however, seems clearly to lay an emphasis on the unmarried state, and the translators of the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) plainly so understood it when they rendered it by parthenos, a word which does mean 'virgin.'"[14]

The point should be underlined. Matthew did not "translate" Isaiah at all. The scholars responsible for producing the Septuagint translated Isaiah this way. And their translation was in place perhaps as early as the 3rd century B.C. but, in any case, by the 2nd century B.C.

Hence, the assertion simply won't do that the translation of almah as parthenos/"virgin" is due to Christian wheedling or special pleading.

>>And--like most verses used to "prove" Jesus was the Messiah--it should be noted that this verse is being taken out of its context.<<

Of course, this is somewhat backwards. It's not that Jews, looking forward, understood Isaiah 7:14 as a clear Messianic prophecy and then, come now the Apostles to say, "Hear ye, we have found the virgin-born."

"It is ...singular that the [pre-Christian-era] Jews do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah...".[15]

Rather, it was the circumstances of Jesus's birth that disclosed to attentive viewers the import with which this ancient passage had been invested. Or as Orr says: "The germs now indicated in prophetic scriptures had apparently borne no fruit in Jewish expectations of the Messiah, when the event took place which to Christian minds made them luminous with predictive import."[16]

>>...this prophecy was an omen granted to King Ahaz regarding the impending Aramite invasion.<<[17]

One thing that astonishes me is that, for all of your reading, in your post you evince no awareness of the often subtle views that Christians have advanced regarding prophecy. Since I hesitate to ascribe ignorance of this topic to you, I must conclude that you have chosen to ignore such niceties for the sake of your presentation.

But these things cannot be responsibly excluded.

In the first place, theists of all hues typically hold that God is superior to human beings in intellect and power. If one follows the stream of thought that owes its name to Saint Anselm, then one holds that God simply "is that than which nothing greater can be conceived." This can be cashed out in several ways, but usually it involves the recognition that any candidate for God must be (i.e., is essentially) all-knowing (omniscient) and all-powerful (omnipotent).

Given these basic background assumptions, however, it seems to me incredible (i.e., not-credible) to suppose that God's prophecies must be understood by the people to whom they are given and at the time when they are given. Even in George Lucas's fictional Star Wars world we have a "prophecy" (about a Jedi destroying the Sith) that was not understood until it was fulfilled (ostensibly by Anakin killing the emperor). However, the fact that Lucas could come up with the idea of an initially-obscure prophecy that is only fully-understood upon fulfillment - and the fact that most audiences seem to understand this story-component perfectly well - seems to show that it is not nonsense.

Therefore, even if "almah" did usually mean "young married woman," one answer is: So what?

Yes sure, a Christian could say. "Almah" merely meant "young married woman" to Isaiah and generations of Jews - until God brought out the full significance of it in the Christ event. Once the Virgin Birth occurred, the "virginal" meaning - always secondarily present in "almah" - was seen in its full importance.

Assuming Christian commitments, what is wrong with this answer?

The fact that the word can mean "young, unmarried woman" could be said to hint strongly that the story was not a fabrication. For had the entire story been a fable, there would have been no need to introduce the friction-inducing notion of a Virgin Birth.

Your earlier claim that "the very concept would have been quite alien to their collective mindset" militates against you here. For this statement of yours is really an admission that anyone fabricating a Virgin Birth story could hardly have hoped to sucker anyone into believing it.

You later admit this by stating: "There was no need among the thinkers and seekers of the time" (on which, more below). Why include the element then? Were the authors saboteurs?

The fact that so many Jews did believe in a miraculous Jesus, and subsequently abandoned many of their ancient (even for that time) traditions - despite it being thoroughly un-Jewish to do so - strongly suggests to me that they believed the events in question really happened.

You seem unable to account for these sincere beliefs.

In the second place, and similarly related to the remarks above, there is a depth to be expected of any text that purports to issue from an omniscient and omnipotent God. Your complaint that Isaiah 7:14 was "taken out of context" is simply misplaced.

There are two things that I can say about this, but it is important to note that the issue is fundamentally one of worldview orientation. One thing is perhaps less "offensive" to non-Christian ears. The other will be more "offensive." But both are likely to be dismissed by the non-Christian. However, remember my project. My project is not presently to convert into believers any non-believers reading this thread. It is to rebut the allegation that the Virgin Birth is "untenable" by producing a defense of it and thereby showing it to be tenable after all.

To "defend" a belief it is surely unnecessary to convert any and all hearers to it. Or else it might appear that no belief is "tenable," which seems to abuse the word.

As to the less offensive, I have in mind the notion of partial fulfillment. It is open to the Christian to argue that initial context - the message to Ahaz - was only a partial fulfillment of a prophecy that would later be totally fulfilled in Jesus.

As to the more offensive, I have in mind invocation of the doctrine of inspiration. To take a statement "out-of-context" primary indicates a misuse of language whereby the hearer or reader of a message ignores the author's intention in writing. However, it is the historic Christian conviction that the numerous books of the Bible were, if not "authored" directly by God, then superintended by God in their authorship such that God guaranteed that his message was adequately communicated. Of course, in the present case we have two passages - Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 - that, according to the Christian view, were both written by human authors being superintended by God. Therefore, the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 that was identified by Matthew[18] was superintended by God not only when it was included as the fullest, but still-obscure intention of Isaiah 7:14, but also when it was brought out clearly by Matthew.

Again, I remind the reader that in mounting a defense of one Christian doctrine (e.g., the Virgin Birth), I am permitted to marshal other resources included in the Christian worldview. This is not special pleading. It is no fairer to forbid the Christian from invoking other elements of Christianity in defense of one of its doctrines than it would be to forbid a proponent of biological evolution from invoking other elements of biology in defense of Darwinism.

To be sure, this does not mean that the other elements invoked are unproblematic. But it means that the conversation cannot proceed until the expanded context is taken into account.

>>As an aside, does anyone in the New Testament actually call Jesus by "Immanuel"...ever? As in, "Hey Immanuel, can you pass me that wine?" or "Hey Immanuel, I can see your house from here!" No?<<

I was tempted to relegate this comment to a footnote, both because I view it as insubstantial and because you yourself deem in "an aside." Still, because the confusion that it embodies is worth clearing up, I have left it in the main text.

I will make two points here as well. Though here the points divide into easier-to-understand and harder-to-understand. Let's tackle the harder one first.

The harder point is that there is a distinction between an object and a (common or proper) name and a distinction between first-order names and nth-order names. Here is a colorful illustration from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.

"'You are sad,' the Knight said in an anxious tone: 'let me sing you a song to comfort you.'

"'Is it very long?' Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

"'It's long,' said the Knight, 'but very, VERY beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it--either it brings the TEARS into their eyes, or else--'

"'Or else what?' said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

"'Or else it doesn't, you know. The name of the song is called "HADDOCKS' EYES."'

"'Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?' Alice said, trying to feel interested.

"'No, you don't understand,' the Knight said, looking a little vexed. 'That's what the name is CALLED. The name really IS "THE AGED AGED MAN."'

"'Then I ought to have said "That's what the SONG is called"?' Alice corrected herself.

"'No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The SONG is called "WAYS AND MEANS": but that's only what it's CALLED, you know!'

"'Well, what IS the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

"'I was coming to that,' the Knight said. 'The song really IS "A-SITTING ON A GATE": and the tune's my own invention.'"[19]

In Carroll's text we have an object (the song itself, "A-Sitting on a Gate") and a proper name ("The Aged Aged Man") and each of these bears a second-order name that it "is called" (the object, "A-Sitting on a Gate" is "called" "Ways and Means" while the name, "The Aged Aged Man" is "called" "Haddock's Eyes.") Similarly, we have an object (the Second Person of the Trinity-become-man) and a name "Jesus." "Immanuel" is, using the vocabulary introduced a moment ago, a second-order name on either the name "Jesus" or on the Person of the God-man Himself.

Although it is confusing, there is nothing the matter with this.

The easier reply has two sides. Number one, I simply note that the verse in question says that they will call his name "Immanuel," not that he would be assigned the proper name "Immanuel."[20]

Number two, "Immanuel" is simply a word that means "God with us." If a Christian were asked questions such as "When was 'God with us' on earth?" or "Who was 'God with us'?" I am confident that you would agree that the answers would probably be, respectively, "When Jesus incarnated" and "Jesus." This suffices to show, I think, that the referent of "God with us" is indeed unambiguously fixed on the God-man, Jesus.[21]

>>4.) There was no need among the thinkers and seekers of the time. In the 1st Century, the adopted son was as or more likely to be given the birthright. In fact, the adopted son was most frequently regarded as the "chosen one"--the thinking being that you could not choose your own flesh and blood, but you could choose whom you adopted.<<

Once again, I have to confess myself unable to determine your meaning.

Start with the sentence: "There was no need among the thinkers and seekers of the time." You seem to mean that "People living in Jesus's day would not have required Jesus to have been born of a virgin in order to accept his claims to Messiahship."

I think that this is probably true. I already favorably quoted Orr to the effect that pre-Christian-era "Jews do not seem to have applied [the Virgin Birth] prophecy at any time to the Messiah."

Why think that this should have been a "need" for "thinkers and seekers of the time"? You don't say. More importantly, why should any "thinker"/"seeker" "needs" have constrained God's actions? Are we talking about actual, physical or psychological "needs" like food, love and water? Or are we talking about desires like the pervasive, modern-day desire to see evidences spelled-out in conformity with the canons of naturalistic science? I would like to know more about these alleged "needs" - whether or not they were exemplified by the thinkers and seekers of Jesus's day.[22]

But maybe you did not mean to assert (what I take to be implausible, namely) that God would, if he existed, have been constrained to conform his incarnation to the evidential or psychological desires of the thinkers of the time. Perhaps you meant that Jesus Himself did not need to incarnate in a Virgin Birth scenario in order to receive the "birthright" of God. Perhaps you're saying that God could have "adopted' Jesus.[23]

Let me first try to clarify what you might mean.

Do you mean to endorse one of the following claims?

(4) Possibly, incarnation can take place without Virgin Birth.

(5) Possibly, an "adopted" savior can atone for humanity's sins.

If so, what are your arguments for these claims? Why think that these are indeed possible?

After all if, as some Christians maintain, the only acceptable sacrifice for human sin had to be made by a being who was both man (and thus part of the class of persons who owed God a debt) and God (and thus part of the class of persons who could pay off a debt to God), then it follows that (4) and (5) are impossible, metaphysically speaking.

>>The most obvious example of this from the time period would be Tiberius Caesar.<<

Just when I think I am on the track of your intention, you throw in a curve. Of what does Tiberius Caesar serve as an obvious example?

Possibly, you mean that he is an example of a human being who claimed adoption by a divinity.

However, how far does this example get you?

Are you saying the following?

Jesus did not have to be Virgin Born in order to be accepted by the Jews as the Messiah, since Tiberius was accepted [by whom? the Jews? the Romans?] as something [as what? emperor? a god?] without having been virgin-born.

Besides the ambiguities highlighted by my bracketed text, I should say that this is a maladroit comparison.

Number one, Tiberius was not accepted by the Jews as a god. It is doubtful whether the Romans "accepted" (from a psychological point-of-view) him as such either. Clearly, the Jews and Romans had to treat him with outward respect, and this might be difficult to distinguish from "acceptance" of the relevant sort. But in Tiberius's case, the explanation for his treatment is close at hand: he commanded the Roman army. A best, I should say that Tiberius serves as an example of the fact that a person can be treated-as-god provided that he or she has an army to enforce their claims. Jesus had no such army. So I fail to see the force of the example.

Number two, your entire point rests on your un-argued assumption that Virgin Birth was a fabrication calculated to make Jesus an "acceptable" Messiah. Even if your points 1-3 go through - and I have argued that none go through - at best you are able to show that John, Mark and Paul didn't know about the Virgin Birth and that Matthew "mistranslated" Isaiah. You have not even remotely shown that the Virgin Birth was an intentional fabrication. Who did the fabricating? Mathew? How do you move from "mistranslation" to fabrication? Was he by himself? How did he obtain the assent of the early church?

It is especially interesting to ask how a fabricator would obtain the assent of the early church on a point that you claim was not "needed" by thinkers and seekers at the time. Why would any fabricator wish to risk rejection of his claims by including an element that was not grounded in psychological desires and expectations and which was likely to strike hearers as outlandish?

The Christian view is that, like the claim or not, it was simply true.

Is it your view that Matthew and Luke smuggled into the Gospels an unnecessary flourish that was probably as scandalous then as it is now? Are you saying that Matthew and Luke tried to sabotage Christianity?

If not, your point does not make much sense to me.

>>5.) Its very nature is legendary.<<

On at least one interpretation of this, you are here taking back with your left hand what you earlier put forward with your right. You opened by stating: "Even if you are a Christian, or at least accept ...Jesus ...as a historical figure, the virgin birth is not a tenable position."

Yet here you speak of the "very nature" or something as "legendary."

The nature of what?

If you answer, "the nature of the Virgin Birth," then you beg the question.

Apparently, the question under dispute is: Was the Virgin Birth actual or not?

You seem to be arguing that it is it not actual. But you cannot non-fallaciously argue:

(6) If the Virgin Birth is non-actual, then it is non-actual.

(7) The Virgin Birth is non-actual.

(8) Therefore, the Virgin Birth is non-actual.

But what does the assertion "[i]ts very nature is legendary" come to if not the claim that "the Virgin Birth is non-actual"?

This is not an argument for the Virgin Birth being non-actual, it is simply a restatement of that claim.

But if you say instead, "the historical Jesus," you renege on your opening provision. It turns out that you are trying to mount a full assault on the historicity of Jesus.

>>It is an expansion or adaptation of rival god myths.<<

As it stands, this is pure speculation. You merely assert this; you do not argue for it.

I will leave you to make an actual case for this claim before I argue against it. But I will say a couple of things, in advance.

Firstly, similarity between two things, x and y, does not entail that one caused the other.[24]

The similarity between x and y could be explicable any of the following four ways (at least).

(9) x caused y (the similarity is due to x).

(10) y caused x (the similarity is due to y).

(11) a caused x and y (the similarity is due to a).

(12) a caused x; b caused y (the similarity is accidental).

Moreover, it is not enough to merely catalog comparisons. If serious study is to be done, we must take stock of contrasts as well.

The fact - even if it be granted, which I am not prepared to do - that there are "similarities" between elements of Jesus's life (as disclosed in the four Gospels) and elements of pagan mythology is, by itself, an incomplete analysis. We need some accounting of the dissimilarities as well. Otherwise, it's simply shoddy scholarship.

I enumerate other problems with this sort of "Parallelomania,"[25] here.

>>...the virgin birth is a reconstruction of any number of "entrance myths"... My favorite was always Zeus fornicating as a giant serpent, but that probably just ruins "Clash of the Titans" moreso than Christmas.<<

Once again, "the virgin birth is a reconstruction of any number of 'entrance myths'..." is a mere assertion. To assert something, of course, means to declare it to be true without argument or evidence. It is not the obligation of a hearer to argue against an assertion; it is the obligation of the asserter to defend the assertion with argument and evidence.

Therefore, I will wait for an analysis that presents "the virgin birth is a reconstruction of any number of 'entrance myths'..." as a conclusion, not as a premise.

>>...Krishna, Romulus, Heracles, Dionysus, Zoroaster, Attis of Phrygia, Horus, etc., were all born of a "virgin" under miraculous circumstances.<<

Of course, I included the above under the description "assertion." Listing seven names followed by two vague descriptors is hardly adequate to the task of demonstrating that the Gospel accounts are "adaptations" or "expansions" of myths.

In my above-mentioned weblog post I go into more detail about the pitfalls associated with unrestrained speculations about parallels between the Bible and pagan mythology. I will here summarize some of my main points, taking Attis as a case study.

Firstly, according to the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Attis's "story is related in different ways."[26]

It is disingenuous for proponents of parallelomania to assert anything that implies that "the" story of [insert pagan god name] has parallels to such-and-so aspect of the Gospels. Many times, the parallel-fixated have simply cherry-picked the one version of the myth in question that displays some interesting parallel and ignored variants that lack the feature in question.

This is not a case of one Gospel endorsed by the selfsame Church recounting different aspects of Jesus's life or emphasizing different themes. This is a case of various localized cults with radically divergent accounts of the relevant god.

In Attis's case, Pausanias, the second-century Greek traveler and writer, gives two different accounts of the god's parentage. According to one account, bereft of even the fainest whisper of a "virgin birth," Attis "was the son of Galaos the Phrygian" - period.

The second account is more amendable to a parallel-cataloging program. On this account:

"Zeus, it is said, let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a demon, with two sexual organs, male and female. They call the daimon Agdistis [Kybele]. But the gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Saggarios (Sangarius), they say, took of the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child."

Now there are perhaps two poles of reaction to this.

On the one hand, someone (like me) might not perceive much of any "parallel" to the Virgin Birth.[27]

On the other hand, I will suppose, someone might exclaim: "Wow, that's uncanny. Zeus ejaculated on the ground, spawned a demon who was then castrated and whose detached sexual organ blossomed into an almond tree, the fruit of which subsequently impregnated 'a daughter of the river'? Where have I heard something like that before? Oh, right! The Christmas story, of course!"

However, this second, hypothetical enthusiast has missed two key things.

"Firstly, responsible 'comparative religious study' is carried out by noting contrasts as well as comparisons. Typically, however, in Zeitgeist-style presentations, contrasts between Jesus and the various pagan deities are seldom (if ever) acknowledged."[28]

I tried to bring these contrasts out in the tongue-in-cheek dialog, above. But the serious point is that there are numerous contrasts that need to be examined before the overall level of "parallelism" can be responsibly gauged.

Amongst the features of Jesus's birth narrative that have no echo in the Attis legend are: the main characters (two human beings engaged to be married), a dream, a longstanding prophecy, a census, a king, some actual towns, etc. Among the features of the second Attis myth that have no analog in the Jesus story are: a god spilling his seed on the ground, the generation of a "demon," a castration, an almond tree, a river demigoddess, and a possibly-unmentionable maneuver with an almond, etc.

I lay all of that on my balance on the "contrast" side. (I suppose that you might be trying to lay it on the "comparison" side by slapping the label "miraculous circumstances" on it. But, I hope not.)

On the comparison side you want to say that Attis was "born of a 'virgin'." Pausanias nowhere relates that the relevant "daughter of the river Saggarios" was a "virgin." But even if I ignore this and allow you to lay "virgin-born" on the "comparison" side of the scale, on any reasonable standard the contrasts outweight the comparisons. Why then should anyone who is relying on the actual, available evidence conclude that the Gospel account of Jesus has been borrowed from the Attis myth? I am hard-pressed to see why anyone should think that there is any interesting comparison to be found at all![29]

Secondly, the parallelomaniac has seemingly missed the fact that Pausanias called the only interesting variant of the Attis myth "the current view about Attis." Current when? Well, it turns out that Pausanias lived in the second century, roughly A.D. 110-180. This means that the only Attis tale that yields any interesting comparisons to the Jesus story actually dates from a period of 75 to 100 years after Jesus's death.

It is not at all clear, therefore, that the Attis myth itself was not changed in order to conform more closely to, or to incorporate elements of, the story of Jesus, rather than the other way around. And, as I have said so often in this response, nothing that that you have said impels me to prefer your explanation over the alternative that I just sketched.[30]

As a final point, I mention that some of Pausanias's near-contemporaries would have been the Christians St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred ca. A.D. 110), St. Justin Martyr (martyred A.D. 165) and St. Irenaeus (possibly martyred ca. A.D. 200).

In all of these early writers, part of the group known as the Post-Apostolic Fathers, the Virgin Birth is upheld. This is notable for at least two reasons.

Firstly, St. Ignatius was himself an associate of John the Evangelist. Now, John does not mention the Virgin Birth, but if Ignatius knew of and endorsed it, then it is plausible to think that John did as well. Similar comments can be made about Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp (who had been an associate of John). Thus, it is reasonable to hold that the Johannine apostolic stream contained the Virgin Birth despite the fact that John never mentioned it explicitly.

Secondly, these three early Christian doctors went to their deaths (certainly two of them did - along with many hundreds that I have not listed) in attestation of the Christian faith. Many of them, especially St. Justin, had come out of paganism. It strains credulity to the breaking point to think that these early churchmen would have been martyred for rejecting Roman paganism while espousing a belief set that was, to hear you tell it, virtually shot-through with paganism anyway. Come to think of it, why should the Roman Empire have had a problem with Christianity if it was indeed just paganism warmed over?


But my project has been modest. In summation, let me just rehearse my purpose.

You began by charging that the Virgin Birth was "untenable" - that is, not able to be defended.

My purpose, therefore, was to show that a defense of it is possible and, thereby, establish that the Virgin Birth is tenable after all.

Having, in my estimation, fulfilled this limited purpose, the defense rests.


Merry Christmas.

Matthew J. Bell


[1] Gabriel 'Skuzzy' Zolman, "SKUZZY RUINS CHRISTMAS, vol. 1," Facebook, Dec. 24, 2015, 3:44am, <https://www.facebook.com/stigmatador/posts/10207491226632922>.

[2] Note: For what follows, I will stipulate your general comment about the dating of the epistles.

[3] Some might immediately object that "torturing children for fun is morally wrong" is at least a candidate for an absolute moral truth or, at least, a moral truth for which little to nothing need be said.

I would insist that my general point holds nevertheless: lack of mention in a letter does not entail ignorance on the part of the author

Still, numerous other examples could be suggested. For instance, according to the Acts of the Apostles (see, e.g., chapter 9, verse 2), at least some early Christians called their nascent movement "the Way." Paul never mentions this, despite the fact that we are even told: "[S]ome of [Paul's Jewish audience] became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them." (Acts 19:9, NIV.)

Are we forced to conclude that Paul was "blissfully ignorant" of the fact that at least some early Christians were called followers of "the way"?

Not at all. All we must do is suggest a plausible reason why Paul wouldn't mention this. Here are two possible reasons, given, as you say, "off the top of my head."

First, it might have been that the name "the Way" was not in use for long and that, by the time Paul wrote his epistles, the Jesus movement was called by other names. (It makes no difference to this point that Paul's epistles are dated earlier that the date of the authorship of Acts. Acts is written about a period of time that was before Paul wrote his epistles.)

Second, it may be that the information about an early name for Christianity was simply irrelevant to the topics Paul was broaching in his letters. Nothing that you have said casts any doubt on either of these possibilities.

[4] Colossians 4:14. It is worth mentioning that "Paul's silence" cuts both ways. Paul explicitly declares that Luke was his "dear friend." It might be thought odd, therefore, that Luke would have had information of this magnitude that Paul lacked. Additionally, Paul nowhere challenges the Virgin Birth despite the fact that he moved in the circle of those disciples who would later write about it.

[5] For instance, "...the Gospel of Mark reaches its climax in the confession of Jesus' deity by a Roman centurion (Ch. 15:39)," etc. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1974, p. 25; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=nIjPDDlweUgC&pg=PA25>.

[6] R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1985, pp. 17f et passim,; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=ttTgacXnLV8C&pg=PA17>.

[7] The Holy Bible, Isaiah, chapter 7, verse 14, New Intl. Vers.

[8] It must be recalled that the Gospels are, to some degree, fairly characterizable as audience-specific "introductions" to Christianity. For Jews whose scriptural upbringing would have been steeped in Isaiah references, the significance of the Virgin Birth, and its place in Jewish history, would have been readily apparent. Since Roman Christians did not share this Old Testament heritage, considerably more explanatory effort would have had to be expended in order that the significance of the Virgin Birth would have been clear. In future eras, this effort would be the work of catechesis. However, it is arguably out-of-place in an introduction.

[9] Matthew 1:1-17.

[10] Matthew 1:23.

[11] "Justify," Princeton WordNet, <http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=justify&sub=Search+WordNet&o2=&o0=1&o8=1&o1=1&o7=&o5=&o9=&o6=&o3=&o4=&h=>.

[12] Garth Kemerling, "Justification," Philosophy Pages, Dec. 28, 2011 [1997], <http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/j.htm#justi>.

[13] in chapter 1, verse 23.

[14] James Orr, "The Virgin Birth of Christ," R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon et al., The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, vol. 2, reprint ed., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003 [Los Angeles: Bible Inst., 1917], p. 252.

[15] Orr, op. cit., p. 252. This "fact ...disproves the theory that it was this text which suggested the story of a Virgin Birth to the early disciples," ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 253. Other relevant passages that situate Jesus's birth in the context of salvation-history, include Genesis 3:15 and Micah 5:2-3.

[17] Footnote: >>Just as how verses about "Lucifer (Venus) falling from Heaven" was about the king of Babylon and not the Devil (who did not properly exist as a singular concept yet), << I am ignoring this, because it is: (a.) not evidenced and (b.) off-topic.

[18] At 1:23.

[19] <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/12/pg12.txt>.

[20] In fact, in Philippians 2:9 we read that "...God exalted him [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name...". The name that is above every other name is of course God's own name, Yahweh.

[21] Call it a nickname, if you like.

[22] Or again, why would I, or anyone else, think that there was a "need" for Jesus to have been Virgin Born? To be sure, it might be thought that Jesus needed, in a metaphysical sense, a non-standard origin to escape the taint of Original Sin. But I will not tease this out, here. I will examine it at such time as any critics formulates an argument against it.

[23] Of course, there was an ancient view - subsequently declared heretical - known as "adoptionism," which held something similar. But I will leave it to you to expound upon the view, if it was your intention to invoke it.

[24] In science, a similar warning is phrased "correlation does not entail causation."

[25] That is, in general terms, the drawing of alleged comparisons with no regard for contrasts.

[26] "Attis," reproduced at <http://www.theoi.com/Phrygios/Attis.html>.

[27] More on this, below.

[28] Matthew Bell, “Zeitgeist-Style Polemics,” Church Bell [weblog], Aug. 22, 2012, <http://bellofchurch.blogspot.com/2012/08/zeitgeist-style-polemics.html>.

[29] Of course, some may reply: "Well, you see, the Jesus myth was built out of numerous pagan myths. So even though a single myth might not display any sustained comparison, when you look at the right ones - and squint really hard - everything comes out on the side of the Jesus story being borrowed from paganism." Well, I admit that I have never bothered to carry out a detailed inspection of all the variations of all the myths of all the gods that have been named herein - or that could be named. But, again, it is not my obligation to bear. Let the person making the assertion produce an actual analysis - as opposed to typing hand-waving remarks about similarities and vaguely gesturing toward unspecified "miraculous circumstances."

[30] Footnote: >>Just as the story of Lazurus rising from the dead is an adaptation of the earlier Arabic myth of Al-Hazurus<< I am ignoring this, also, for the same reasons given in footnote 17.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

'What You Believe Depends on Where You Were Born'?

Here’s another Facebook polemic to appear on my radar.

If, as the post suggests, all of our beliefs about religion are merely culturally determined,[1] then, to maintain consistency, we should say that the belief that “what you believe depends on where you were born and who you were born to” itself depends on where you were born and who you were born to.

To put it slightly differently, a simple extension of the operative reasoning would suggest that those who embrace such “-isms” as agnosticism, atheism, pluralism, so-called “religious skepticism” and so on, do so merely because they are products of, for example, 21st-century American culture.

Does it therefore follow that agnosticism, atheism, pluralism or skepticism are not true, cannot be known to be true[2] or are not worth arguing for (or against)?

If so, then the whole point of this picture-text is apparently undermined. (For what is this supposed to be, other than an attempt to argue for something like agnosticism, atheism, pluralism, so-called “religious skepticism”?[3])

I submit that it is precisely in the arena of philosophy that one becomes able, even if to a limited degree, to transcend the accidents of our birth in terms of our belief sets. However, if this is even remotely correct, then the kind of absolute, environmental belief-determinism seemingly underlying the picture-text is incorrect.


Is the Biblical Concept of “Marriage” Hopelessly Confused or Incoherent? (And Here.)

Jesus ‘Never Said Anything’ About Homosexuality?

Question Everything? Why?

Zeitgeist-Style Polemics


[1] Here’s a possible objection. The picture text says that our beliefs “depend on” facts about our physical origins (and perhaps upbringing, although this is not stated); it does not say that our beliefs are “determined.” This is a fair point, as far as it goes. But it does not seem to me to go far. After all, if “stop fighting over who is right” is supposed to entail a cessation of philosophical argument, then it would seem that the post’s author despairs over being able to alter anyone’s belief-set by rational means. However, one might worry, as I do, that the inability to modify our “in-born” beliefs by engaging in debate and discussion, implies (if not logically, then at least by something like “implicature”) that our unalterable beliefs are determined in some fairly firm sense.

[2] In the philosophical sense of “justified true belief” – excluding Gettier cases.

[3] Admittedly, the word "fight" is ambiguous and casts doubt on the effectiveness of my rebuttal, here. Some might read the word "fight" in the sense of armed, physical conflict. However, I would maintain that "argue over" is a relevant, possible sense. Additionally, if the avoidance of actual war is uppermost in a reader's mind, I would suggest that he or she endorse philosophical disputation as the preferred means of religious-conflict resolution. For if combat, "crusade," "jihad" or whatever are really in view, the injunction to "stop fighting" seems futile. Reasoning, on the other hand, is not obviously ineffectual. Doubtless, fideists and misologists would disapprove, but they could scarcely rationally object without contradicting themselves.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Did Jesus Fake His Death With the Help of Joseph of Arimathea and a Spongeful of Vinegar?

Katherine Frisk’s article “Who Moved the Stone?” is a mess.[1] It’s a tissue of speculation pretending to be “A Critical Analysis of the Crucifixion.” This offends me deeply – not as a Christian (which I am), but as a student of philosophy.[2]

A simple Google search yields a suitable working definition for “analysis.” Let’s say that an analysis is a “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.”[3]

In the first place, Frisk’s work is insufficiently detailed. She makes numerous ill-evidenced claims.[4]

Frisk asserts that we “know” Joseph of Arimathea to have been “the uncle of Yeshua” and that Joseph “was a trader[,] …well travelled[, and]…had been …[on] the British Isles and …the Silk Road…”.

On the received philosophical account, “knowledge” is justified true belief. To put it another way, in order for a person to know some proposition, p, that person has to: believe p; have good evidence (reasons) for believing p; and, in fact, p has to be true.

Since we do not have independent access to the truth of propositions, when faced with knowledge claims, we are impelled to consider the caliber of the claimant’s evidence. What is Frisk’s evidence for her claims about Joseph of Arimathea? Who knows? She does not provide any.

In a piece on Joseph of Arimathea, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) manages to classify the data correctly. The BBC article lists under the subheading “The legends of Joseph of Arimathea” such “stories” as that Joseph “was Mary’s uncle, and thus Jesus’ great-uncle” and that “[h]e was a merchant who visited England…”.[5]

Mind you, it’s not that a text should be disqualified from counting as an analysis because it endorses as true claims that are elsewhere reported to be “legendary.” However, we would at least expect proper analyses to acknowledge the tendentious nature of the endorsement. Perhaps it would not be out-of-line to ask that the author spend a little energy arguing in favor of such disputed claims.

All such expectations and hopes are frustrated in the present case. Frisk merely lays it down that the extra-biblical, legendary material in question in simply part of what “we know” about Joseph of Arimathea. This is a slipshod “analysis” even by non-scholarly, journalistic standards.

Another problem in the same vicinity is that Frisk does not scruple to disclose many of her sources. Sometimes, the oversight is egregious. For instance, she writes that “it is believed that Yeshua travelled with Joseph.”

Even Wikipedia, which is often (and not necessarily unjustifiably) criticized for its haphazard editing standards, would likely see a bare assertion such as "it is believed" decorated by a little “by whom?” in red, superscripted letters.

It is highly relevant whether such a declaration is, for example, made by a recognized expert in some pertinent field or is copiously and relevantly evidenced, regardless of who made it. Without any evidence, most readers will have no idea why someone should claim that “Yeshua travelled with Joseph,” and without any citations, readers have no idea even where to look for evidence if they would like some.

In fact, the few source-attributions that Frisk does give leave something to be desired.[6] Albert Henry Ross’s pseudonymous Who Moved the Stone?, whatever interest it may have, can certainly not pretend to represent the state-of-the-art of “historical Jesus” scholarship.

Or again, at the end of her diatribe Frisk quotes from another columnist, one Palash Ghosh, who wrote about the so-called “Roza Bal” theory, which holds that Jesus didn’t really die and resurrect in Palestine, but is instead buried in the Asian province of Kashmir.[7] Frisk reproduces the risible insinuation that the New Testament’s talk of Jesus’s ascension to heaven “really” designates his having repaired to Asia, since “Kashmir is known as ‘heaven on earth.’”[8]

It is difficult to take this sort of thing seriously. If one consults the original article, one discovers that Ghosh, to his credit, admits that the stories about Jesus’s alleged, Kashmiri comings and goings have “no concrete incontrovertible evidence to validate” them.[9] So much for that.

It also should not be too much to ask for an analysis to avoid employing ambiguous terms. Yet we find Frisk writing: “Yeshua was known as a Nazarene.” She then begins to speak about “the Nazarene laws,” even referring us to the Old Testament book of Numbers.

Careful readers will note, however, that Numbers chapter six discusses regulations pertaining to Nazarite vows. As it is applied to Jesus, the word “Nazarene” designates the fact that he hailed from the town of Nazareth.[10] “Nazarite,” on the other hand, names a male who had sworn off wine, cutting his hair and touching corpses.[11]

Presumably, Frisk is depending upon the phonetic similarity of the two words to establish the truth of her belief that Jesus was a Nazarite.[12] She will have to do better than this, however.

It is arguable that John the Baptist had been dedicated according to the Nazarite vows while in utero. John’s father Zechariah had been told by an angel: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. …He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.”[13]

Jesus explicitly contrasts himself with John. “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”[14]

Based upon this (admittedly meager sampling of) evidence – which is, however, more than Frisk gives – I conclude that Jesus probably was not a Nazarite. I could be wrong, of course. But it would take a lot more than what Frisk has amassed to demonstrate it.

Finally, it seems odd for an “analysis” to be shot-through with wild speculations. But this is practically Frisk’s calling card.

Leaving aside the irrelevancies cataloged in the opening paragraphs, Frisk volunteers that she has “a strong suspicion that [Joseph of Arimathea] was the father of Yeshua and not his uncle.” Since, for all she has shown, this is pure speculation riding on the back of a legend, it’s worthless from the standpoint of analysis.

Or consider a more involved example. Frisk writes: “When Yeshua said that he was thirsty, he was given a sponge which was lifted to his mouth to drink. …What was in the sponge? We are told vinegar and hysop [sic]. Hysop [sic] is an expectorant used to clear mucus from the lungs. It is also a cough reliever and an antiseptic and stimulates the central nervous system. Vinegar is used to lower blood pressure, is an antiseptic and can also be used as a pain killer. …Yeshua was not dead. The mixture he had been given to drink lowered his blood pressure to the point where his heart was bearly [sic] beating and he was put into a deep unconscious state which gave the appearance of him being dead.”[15]

Firstly, it is not altogether clear who administered the vinegar/wine mixtures. This version of the “swoon theory” falters immediately if the “they” or “he” who administered the drink were in league with the Jews or Romans.[16]

To be sure, some commentators report that “[t]he women of Jerusalem had prepared a painkilling potion of drugged wine for condemned men to drink…”.[17] So far so good. However, “…Jesus, committed to the full agony of the cross, [initially] refuses it.”[18]

Even later, when he does accept the vinegar-soaked “sponge,” it’s not clear that Frisk’s interpretation is adequate. “This offer of a wine-soaked sponge may have been an act of mercy, because the wine could act as a painkiller. Perhaps the man thinks Jesus is delirious from pain. But sour wine was usually a remedy for thirst, and it many have been an attempt to revive him to perpetuate his suffering.”[19]

Secondly, the he-faked-his-death theorists cannot suitably account for the disciples' belief in Jesus’s resurrection. After all, even supposing that Frisk is correct and that “Yeshua …was treated by two highly trained physicians [she means Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus],” Jesus’s devastated and worn appearance would hardly have inspired a belief in his divinity.

To put it slightly differently, even if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had succeeded in saving Jesus’s life – on the unlikely hypothesis that Jesus survived the crucifixion – he still would have looked like a man who had just been beaten half to death and nailed to a cross. Anyone who observed him would have been more likely to pity than worship him.

But even this depends on the truth of the hypothesis that an unassuming, thirty-something year-old Palestinian male could have fooled professional Roman soldiers into believing that he had died on the cross, when he was actually still alive. Frisk gives short shrift to this problem. She does not really argue for her view at all.

She basically provides a description of the medicinal properties of a couple of herbs that Jesus may have briefly sucked from a sponge. She exaggerates the effects. Frisk wishes us to believe that Jesus “cleared his lungs” from a single lick of hyssop and from a few drops of vinegar reduced his blood pressure to the point where his heartbeat would have been undetectable.

Anyone with even a cursory familiarity of herbal remedies will probably find Frisk’s flight of fancy fairly amusing. Vinegar (other translations say wine) has many amazing and salubrious properties. I drink a diluted mixture to relieve sore throat symptoms. It is quite true that it is possibly useful as a natural means of counteracting high blood pressure.

The idea that the vinegar was administered as part of a concerted effort to assist Jesus in “faking” death on the cross strains credulity. Are we supposed to believe that this was some sort of super-strength, “pharmaceutical-grade” vinegar? I probably drink more vinegar at one time than Jesus could have managed to suck from a sponge while asphyxiating to death on the cross and I have never once fallen to the floor from dangerously low blood pressure.[20]

Suppose that the explanation is supposed to be that Jesus, in his weakened state, was more susceptible to the effects of the vinegar. But Frisk is mum on why a person who is so thoroughly weakened from scourging and carrying his cross to his execution site should be highly susceptible to the mild effects of vinegar, but strong enough to carry out an operation of “faking” his death.

We cannot forget that the crucifixion culminated when Jesus was stabbed through the heart with a Roman spear.[21] I was in rough shape for a week after I went through hernia surgery. To hear Frisk tell it, Jesus was tortured for hours and run through with a spear, but after a few days of rest, he was right as rain!

Even if Frisk’s speculations do not strike other readers as prima facie absurd, we are still left with the fact that she simply has not supplied arguments or evidence sufficient to support the weight of her contentions.

Her proffered “analysis” is nothing of the kind. She makes free use of legendary material without defending (or even acknowledging) her use of it. She does not scrupulously cite or even evidence her many controversial claims. At intervals, she employs ambiguous language. And her speculations, which in smaller quantities might suffice to bar her piece from being “analytic,” are present in such measure as to persuade this reader that her main aim must surely have been to propound her own idiosyncratic version of the shopworn “swoon theory.”

A more honest title would have been: “Jesus Faked His Death: A Series of Groundless Conjectures Inspired by the Crucifixion.”[22]


"Contra the 'Christ Conspiracy'."

"Jesus 'Never Said Anything' About Homosexuality?"

"Huffington Post: 'The Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality'."

"The Link Between Sodomy and Usury."


[1] Katherine Frisk, “Who Moved The Stone? A Critical Analysis of the Crucifixion,” Veterans Today, Dec. 1, 2015, <http://www.veteranstoday.com/2015/12/01/who-moved-the-stone/>.

[2] It’s not entirely clear to me what “critical analysis” is meant to convey, in this context. “Critical,” “criticism” and the like can of course involve “analysis” of sorts, often pertaining to dramatic or literary works. It probably isn’t charitable of me to assign that meaning, here. Otherwise the Frisk’s subtitle expresses something redundant such as “An Analytic Analysis of the Crucifixion.” Maybe she’s trying too hard to sound studious.

On the other hand, “critical” can describe a person who is “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.” Despite her claim to have “[m]any …books researching all things Christian” until her “bookshelves were bursting at the seams,” it may be that Frisk falls into the category of a person who is too ready to find fault with Christianity. Such is a matter for psychology. I forbear from making any further guesses along these lines.

I am curious to know, however, with what reading materials did Frisk stuff her shelves? She specifies only one title: Who Moved the Stone? I presume that this refers to the work (London: Faber and Faber; New York: Century Co.; 1930) by “Frank Morison,” which was the pseudonym of one Albert Henry Ross. More on this in the text body.

[3] If we proceed on the assumption that Frisk’s subtitle is seriously intended, one might find it striking that roughly one-quarter of the article is manifestly irrelevant to the reported main topic. The first nine or so paragraphs have nothing whatever to do with the crucifixion.

Frisk starts off speaking about “proving life after death.” She makes the multiply problematic claim that “[y]ou cannot prove life after death to anybody — the same way you cannot show them a radio wave,” and then promptly discontinues that line of inquiry.

Just for the sake of completeness, I say that her claim is “multiply problematic” for the following reasons. It is arguable that “proof” – in the sense of something like an “indubitable demonstration” – at best only applies to logic and mathematics. Other spheres of inquiry lack either incontestable axioms or uncontroversial transformation rules, or both. However, this implies that most spheres of inquiry will not allow knowledge seekers to derive “theorems.” This is simply to say that most disciplines proceed through adductive or inductive methods and arrive at conclusions that that can only be said to be true with such-as-so probability. What Frisk should talk about instead of “proof,” then, is evidence. This is her first problem.

Her second problem is that “you cannot provide evidence of life after death” is not obviously true. We have to know more about what standards of evidence will be in play, what specific pieces of evidence are to be considered, and so on.

A third problem is that Frisk’s claim that “you cannot show [somebody] a radio wave” also seems contentious. What is the operative meaning of “show,” for instance? Would it count as “showing” if we were to configure a radio receiver or radio telescope to produce some sort of visual indication of the presence of radio waves? She has hardly ruled it out. And this is just her opening sentence.

She proceeds to ramble on about crickets, Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees, and the Shroud of Turin – all without the least expression of how these matters are relevant to an “analysis of the Crucifixion.” Perhaps these matters could be shown to be relevant. But Frisk does not exert any effort to show this. This is not the sort of thing would expect of an analysis.

[4] In an important sense, journalism and academic writing are quite different. (By “academic writing,” I mean writing that is fitting for an “academic context.” A research paper would count, for instance – provided that it meets all requirements for its particular course. Of course, the level of study is pertinent. A paper turned in for a high school physics class will presumably be less-detailed than a research paper submitted in a graduate-level physics course. Another sort of academic writing is that which is prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.)

One obvious difference is that the attention to detail is going to be greater in (acceptable) academic writing. It is questionable, therefore, whether a piece of journalism could ever count as an “analysis” properly so-called. But let this pass.

[5] “Joseph of Arimathea,” BBC, n.d. [ca. 2014?], <http://www.bbc.co.uk/thepassion/articles/joseph_of_arimathea.shtml>.

[6] Frisk elsewhere claims that Jesus’s “childhood had been spent in Egypt, studying in the great schools in Alexandria…”. Again, what her source is for this claim is anybody’s guess, because she does not say. It is noteworthy, though, that the Babylonian Talmud does associate Jesus with Alexandria – in the same passage wherein the Talmudic authors accuse Jesus of “worshiping” a “brick.” The Talmudic hostility towards Jesus, as well as the late dating (3rd-5th-centuries, A.D., compared with the 1st-century A.D. Gospels) of the Talmudic corpus, renders the Talmudic witness of dubious value in terms of investigating the Jesus of history.

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, folio 107b, we read: “What of R. Joshua b. Perahjah? — When King Jannai slew our Rabbis, R. Joshua b. Perahjah (and Jesus) fled to Alexandria of Egypt. On the resumption of peace, Simeon b. Shetach sent to him: ‘From me, (Jerusalem) the holy city, to thee, Alexandria of Egypt (my sister). My husband dwelleth within thee and I am desolate.’ He arose, went, and found himself in a certain inn, where great honour was shewn him. ‘How beautiful is this Acsania!’ (The word denotes both inn and innkeeper. R. Joshua used it in the first sense; the answer assumes the second to be meant.) Thereupon (Jesus) observed, ‘Rabbi, her eyes are narrow.’ ‘Wretch,’ he rebuked him, ‘dost thou thus engage thyself.’ He sounded four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him. He (Jesus) came before him many times pleading, ‘Receive me!’ But he would pay no heed to him. One day he (R. Joshua) was reciting the Shema’, when Jesus came before him. He intended to receive him and made a sign to him. He (Jesus) thinking that it was to repel him, went, put up a brick, and worshipped it. ‘Repent,’ said he (R. Joshua) to him. He replied, ‘I have thus learned from thee: He who sins and causes others to sin is not afforded the means of repentance.’ And a Master has said, ‘Jesus the Nazarene practised magic and led Israel astray.’” This passage is archived online as “Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 107b,” Come and Hear, <http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_107.html>. Cf. Robert E. van Voorst, “Jesus Tradition in Classical and Jewish Writings,” Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter, eds., Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 1, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011, p. 2,174; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=LuKMmVu0tpMC&pg=PA2174>.

[7] Apparently, this fable was originated by the Jewish agent Nikolai Aleksandrovič Notovič, who first reported it as the “Life of Saint Issa” in his La vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ (“The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ”), Paris: P. Ollendorff, 1894.

[8] Palash Ghosh, “Jesus Christ: Was the Savior Buried in Kashmir, India?” International Business Times, Dec. 24 2013, <http://www.ibtimes.com/jesus-christ-was-savior-buried-kashmir-india-1519716>.

[9] Ibid. It is difficult to surmise from this whether Ghosh thinks that there is concrete evidence, it’s just not “incontrovertible,” or whether he is saying that the available evidence is neither concrete nor incontrovertible, or something else. Is there any evidence at all? What is it?

[10] “Nazarene,” Angus Stevenson and Maurice Waite, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011, p. 956; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=4XycAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA956>.

[11] George A. Barton and Ludwig Blau, “Nazarite,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906 ed., <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11395-nazarite>. Besides the difference in the two words that has just been noted, it may be useful to observe that “Nazarene” also designated “Ebionites,” or “member[s] of a group of Jews who (during the early history of the Christian Church) accepted Jesus as the Messiah; they accepted the Gospel According to Matthew but rejected the Epistles of St. Paul and continued to follow Jewish law and celebrate Jewish holidays; they were later declared heretic[s] by the Church of Rome” – due to the fact that, as a rule, they rejected the Jesus’s divinity. This is according to “Nazarene,” WordNet Search - 3.1, Princeton Univ., <http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=Nazarene&sub=Search+WordNet&o2=&o0=1&o8=1&o1=1&o7=&o5=&o9=&o6=&o3=&o4=&h=>. “Nazarene” was also sometimes “an early name for any Christian,” ibid.

[12] Later she employs the word “Nazarite,” asserting – again without evidence – that “Lazarus had completed a …Nazarite ceremony only a week prior to the arrest of Yeshua…”.

[13] The Holy Bible, The Gospel According to Luke, chapter 1, verses 13-17, New American Bible, Revised Ed. (NABRE).

[14] The Holy Bible, The Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 11, verses 18-19, NABRE. Cf. David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William. B. Eerdmans Publ., 1992, p. 543; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=zD6xVr1CizIC&pg=PA543>. It is arguable that Jesus’s raising from the dead Jairus’s daughter, the widow’s son and Lazarus (Matthew 9:25; Luke 7:13ff; and John 11:43ff) would have placed him in danger of breaking his oath to refrain from dealing with the dead – had He made such an oath.

[15] Matthew 27:33-34 and 46-48: “And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull), they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink. ...And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Some of the bystanders who heard it said, ‘This one is calling for Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink.”

Mark 15:22-23 and 34-37: “They brought him to the place of Golgotha (which is translated Place of the Skull). They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. ...And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Some of the bystanders who heard it said, ‘Look, he is calling Elijah.’ One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.’ Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.”

Luke 23:33-38: “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. [Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’] They divided his garments by casting lots. The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.’ Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, ‘If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription that read, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’“

John 19:16b-30: “So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.’ Now many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write The King of the Jews, but that he said, I am the King of the Jews.’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’ When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, ‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be, in order that the passage of scripture might be fulfilled [that says]: ‘They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.’ This is what the soldiers did. Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’ There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”

[16] The closely related “disciples-stole-the-body” canard was an early competitor to the “swoon theory,” and one which the Gospels attribute to the Jews. “While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had happened. They assembled with the elders and took counsel; then they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, 'You are to say, His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep. And if this gets to the ears of the governor, we will satisfy [him] and keep you out of trouble.' The soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present [day].” Matthew 28:11-15.

[17] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed., Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2014, p. 121; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=5N3fAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA121>.

[18] See again Matthew 26:29.

[19] Keener, op. cit., p. 122. Italics added.

[20] Again, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus refused to drink when a vinegar preparation was originally offered to him. When he finally does take some, it was administered on a “sponge.” It’s not like he took a hearty swig from some decanter. It seems reasonable to suppose that he would only have managed to extract a small amount.

[21] I leave aside Frisk’s additional assertion that “[a] person who is dead and whose heart has stopped beating will not bleed if cut or stabbed with a sharp object.” This is simply untutored speculation. What kind of “cut” or “stabbing” is in view? There is a difference, for instance, between a superficial cut and having one’s thoracic cavity penetrated with a war spear. From the fact (if it is a fact) that bleeding does not typically occur in cases of superficial cuts to a fresh corpse, it hardly follows that bleeding will not occur even in cases where one is stabbed through the heart. Serious work has been done on the question of Jesus’s injuries. (See, e.g., William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 255, no. 11, Mar., 1986, pp. 1,455-1,463 and Frederick T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, New York: M. Evans and Co., 2005. Edwards, for instance, who is credited as a medical doctor, expressed no disquiet about the Biblical report of “blood and water,” and said at one point that “the setting of the scourging and crucifixion, with associated hypovolemia, hypoxemia” might have involved “an altered coagulated state,” op. cit., p. 1,463.) Frisk evinces absolutely no awareness of any of it and therefore can hardly be said to have dealt responsibly with the subject.

[22] Or possibly, the subtitle could have been “And the Miraculous Properties of First-Century Palestinian Vinegar.”