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May 27, 2012 1:31 PM   Subscribe

One year after the apocalypse. What happened to Harold Camping’s followers. posted by skilar (148 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Are you kidding? It was only through their selfless, strenuous efforts that the world was saved from disaster! God looked down and saw Harold Camping and his followers effectively spreading the word and decided to mercifully spare the world this time, because of all the new people who had been brought to the TRUTH. But we must be ever vigilant. We must continue to spread the word all over the world of the imminent return of Christ, or else God really will send the Rapture!
posted by telstar at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


In a recent email, he wrote that he had “definitely lost an incredible amount of faith” and hadn’t touched his Bible in months. These days he’s not sure what or whether to believe. “It makes me wonder just how malleable our minds can be. It all seemed so real, like it made so much sense, but it wasn’t right,” he wrote. “It leaves a lot to think about.”

Welcome to the Labyrinth. Lots of us are lost here but we can at least give each other hugs and stuff.
posted by naju at 1:55 PM on May 27, 2012 [22 favorites]


Thanks for the article.

And it’s important to remember that mainstream Christians also believe that God’s son will play a return engagement, beam up his bona fide followers, and leave the wretched remainder to suffer unspeakable torment.

I don't really know why the author thinks this is important, but this is called premillenialism. It is not believed by the bulk of worldwide Christianity, i.e. Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Reformed, etc.
posted by michaelh at 1:59 PM on May 27, 2012 [21 favorites]


For those following at home, religious leaders who make absurd short-term predictions are charlatans; religious leaders who make absurd long-term predictions are pillars of society
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:00 PM on May 27, 2012 [71 favorites]


Wow. Their world really came to an end, didn't it?

Wait...
posted by yoink at 2:01 PM on May 27, 2012


Welcome to the Labyrinth.

You'd best find Toby before 13 o'clock, or he'll be turned into a goblin.
posted by hippybear at 2:04 PM on May 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


No joke. My world ended the day I saw David Bowie's package.
posted by naju at 2:06 PM on May 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals.
posted by Fizz at 2:08 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: "For those following at home, religious leaders who make absurd short-term predictions are charlatans; religious leaders who make absurd long-term predictions are pillars of society"

While for those who know what the fuck they're talking about, religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.

The crazies who make predictions, both short and long term, are heterodox outliers that are about as plentiful by proportion as the atheist varieties of liberation theologians.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:31 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the link; it's interesting to read about hard core believers' reactions to the complete, unarguable refutation of their beliefs. It's also instructive to read how otherwise normal many of the believers are - it reinforces my theory that faith is a little like the common cold: under the right circumstances, any one can catch it.
posted by Mooski at 2:41 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual

This is afterall the last gap left them, what with all those centuries of disproof of any real world predictions.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:42 PM on May 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


I really liked Fred Clark's take on these folks, from a year ago: "But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair."
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:42 PM on May 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


For those following at home, religious leaders who make absurd short-term predictions are charlatans; religious leaders who make absurd long-term predictions are pillars of society

Any chance we could not do another one of these threads?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:48 PM on May 27, 2012 [13 favorites]


religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual

I wouldn't brush this off as a fringe belief. I grew up in a fairly mainstream Christian church and there there was nothing allegorical about the Rapture. It could come at any moment and you'd better have your relationship with Jesus in good standing or you'd be locked out for eternity.
posted by the jam at 2:48 PM on May 27, 2012 [14 favorites]


religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.

So who was buying all those copies of the Left Behind series? There's certainly a lot of people out there who believe in a literal return of Christ.
posted by DarkForest at 2:49 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was an interesting article as far as it went. I'd like to see something even more in depth concerning Camping's followers.
posted by DarkForest at 2:51 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The crazies who make predictions, both short and long term, are heterodox outliers that are about as plentiful by proportion as the atheist varieties of liberation theologians.

I think not. This is dismissing a *lot* of Baptist, Pentecostal and Charismatic/Neo-charismatic congregations who are really quite clear that the Rapture is coming and that Israel must do certain things to make it happen, etc. etc.

For some context, the Left Behind series (dealing with the post Rapture world) has sold over 60 million copies (source). Those just not sales figures that would indicate outlier status "about as plentiful by proportion as the atheist varieties of liberation theologians."
posted by jaduncan at 2:52 PM on May 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Harry Potter sold a few million books too, but that doesn't mean we're all off to Hogwarts.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:56 PM on May 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


One more, then I'm out of here...

religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.

Is this made plain in any canonical writings of the major western traditions? Would any of the major religions dare say such a thing out loud, in print, even if they believed it?
posted by DarkForest at 2:57 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Meanwhile, more than 40% of Americans believe the rapture is coming...
posted by Huck500 at 2:57 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harry Potter sold a few million books too, but that doesn't mean we're all off to Hogwarts.

What? *cries* FETCH ME MY LETTER.
posted by jaduncan at 3:01 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, I see. You're quite right cjorgensen. They'd never let you in.
posted by jaduncan at 3:03 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some time ago, I was preparing for a move and my friends and I decided to hold a joint yard sale. One of the items on the very well stocked book table was a set of the first three Left Behind books. I didn't ask, I didn't judge, I just took the dollar apiece. One thing that did stand out to me about that day was one woman who harangued me for several minutes about how Obama signaled the coming of the Antichrist, and all the proof I needed was contained in those three slim volumes dictated from on-high to Messers LaHaye and Jenkins. I politely endured her sermon and then gently asked her if she was buying the books. She declined, so I took them from her hands and pointed to a word at the bottom of the spine: "Fiction," before returning them to the table and gently reminding her that not every word printed or spoken is divine, and she was lucky this this one book was pretty up-front about its nature. She huffed off, but she did buy a cat fountain for five bucks, so I guess we both did pretty well that day.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 3:06 PM on May 27, 2012 [21 favorites]


In this thread, we find out cjorgensen is a Muggle.

One thing that's interesting to me is the number of engineers he mentions. I also remember reading something about Al Qaeda having a disproportionate number of engineers in their ranks. I've always wondered why that is.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:07 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


michaelh, I think it depends on how you read the quote. I don't know much about Christianity, but I certainly remember "... and one day He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end." It's definitely safe to say that those who are judged unfavorably will suffer "unspeakable torment." Ugh, what a bunch of assholes.
posted by Buckt at 3:07 PM on May 27, 2012


But I wanted to know what happens next. If you’re absolutely sure the world is going to end on a specific day, and it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you explain it to yourself? What happens to your faith in God? Can you just scrape the bumper stickers off your car, throw away the t-shirts, and move on?

Apparently, yes. Adventists thought the Rapture would come in 1844, and they're still going strong!
posted by njloof at 3:10 PM on May 27, 2012


May 21 is my birthday. I was the one responsible for postponing the apocalypse, mainly because I was really drunk that day. You may all genuflect now.

Apocalypse re-scheduled to June 6th, 2066
posted by PapaLobo at 3:13 PM on May 27, 2012


DarkForest, I don't know about "canonical", because most Protestants don't believe in having a canon, per se, outside of the Bible itself, which means that interpretation is largely left to writings which are not actually a mandate in order to be considered a believer. But as far as whether there are major figures who believe this, the introductory material in my Oxford Annotated Bible clearly identifies that the Revelation to John was most likely written by someone living at the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian, and links the material to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. When the Left Behind books got big, my pastor, who was *not* very liberal at the time, had a group discussion with people in which he tried to explain the theology and how there was no strong basis for believing in the Rapture and a lot of evidence that it was metaphorical. Unfortunately, many members just opted not to believe him.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:15 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.
DarkForest: "Is this made plain in any canonical writings of the major western traditions? Would any of the major religions dare say such a thing out loud, in print, even if they believed it?"

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 2, Article 3, paragraphs 112-114
The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.

112 1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture". Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.

The phrase "heart of Christ" can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted.

113 2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church").

114 3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By "analogy of faith" we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.
posted by Pinback at 3:20 PM on May 27, 2012


That article was really sad. I, too, wish it had gone on longer.

And I fucking love science.
posted by Peevish at 3:21 PM on May 27, 2012


Revelations isn't even part of the Catholic Bible, just saying.
posted by Max Power at 3:21 PM on May 27, 2012


The Church of the Subgenius had the solution to the dilemma of a failed rapture. They predicted the saucers would carry the faithful away on July 5, 1998. On July 6, 1998 they announced their prophecy was a dyslexic mistake and the faithful should mark their calendars for July 5, 8991.

Even though their religion is a (literal) joke, other prophetic faiths should follow this example.
posted by honestcoyote at 3:22 PM on May 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


My world ended the day I saw David Bowie's package.

For some, that marked the world's beginning. (at least the fun parts)
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:23 PM on May 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


(Oh, and the key bit of Scripture that leads people to belief in a "Rapture" - i.e. the dead rising, etc - is not in Relevation, but 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17)
posted by Pinback at 3:24 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with the end of the world is that all it takes to bring it about is enough people believing that it's the end of the world.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:29 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Revelations isn't even part of the Catholic Bible, just saying.

I think you need to check your sources here. The Catholic New Testament is the virtually the same as the Protestant New Testament. The differences are in the Old Testament, and the Apocrypha, which the Protestants didn't care for.
posted by skewed at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


It makes me wonder just how malleable our minds can be.
What a great realization to come to. About 70 years too late.

And I'm willing to bet that the percentage of his followers who also took this lesson from the whole experience is less than I can count on one hand.

Makes me want to start a religion, just to get in on the action.
posted by Aquaman at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Revelations isn't even part of the Catholic Bible, just saying.
I believe it's called The Apocalypse of John, or merely The Apocalypse.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Revelations isn't even part of the Catholic Bible, just saying.
Somebody should let my Catholic Bible know that it shouldn't have it, then.
posted by Flunkie at 3:35 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Harry Potter sold a few million books too, but that doesn't mean we're all off to Hogwarts.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:56 PM


Oh shut up. I'm still working on my application essay.
posted by special-k at 3:39 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


If this kind of thing interets you, Michael Tolkin's fictional fim The Rapture (1991) is worth watching. I don't want to spoil anything about it, but it's an interesting exploration of the psychology of believing the world is about to end.
posted by Nelson at 3:40 PM on May 27, 2012


I saw a "rapture wagon" riding up and down Main Street in my tiny city. It was worse than all the anti-abortion signs I have ever seen, combined.

I wondered to myself (and to FB) if there were any children in there. Religious child abuse isn't funny, so I won't make any jokes about it, but really, it's sad to contemplate that there was a chance that kids were in there, listening as a mega-phone-bullhorn thing BLASTED the coming doom of pretty much everyone.

DOOM, DEATH, APOCALYPSE, breakfast, FIRE, SUFFERING, lunch. REPENTANCE, PRAYER, APOCALYPSE, dinner, DOOM, ETERNAL SUFFERING, BIBLE STUDY, PRAYERS, bed time.

I'm not a fan.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 3:42 PM on May 27, 2012


Any chance we could not do another one of these threads?

No. For it is written "thou shalt go forth and be a dick about religion upon the internets".
posted by elizardbits at 3:42 PM on May 27, 2012 [21 favorites]


The book is Revelation. It is not one of the books where Protestants and Catholics differ on whether they're in the Bible (and it's the Catholics who have more).

This: "While for those who know what the fuck they're talking about, religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual" is bizarre, assuming that the "absurd long term prediction" refers to the orthodox belief in the second coming of Jesus. That's certainly not allegorical. Both the Apostles and Nicene creeds say that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. These creeds are statements of belief which are ancient and therefore common to most Christian denominations. The belief that Jesus would be back soon dates to NT times, where the NT authors initially thought it would be within their lifetimes (e.g. 1 Thess, 1 Cor 7) and then had to face up to the fact that it'd be longer (e.g. 2 Peter 3).

The only exceptions I can think of are the Preterists, who think it already happened.
posted by pw201 at 3:45 PM on May 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


The only exceptions I can think of are the Preterists, who think it already happened.
I think that Jehovah's Witnesses believe that we've been in the end times since some specific date during or near World War I.
posted by Flunkie at 3:50 PM on May 27, 2012


While for those who know what the fuck they're talking about, religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.

While this is more or less true, it also more or less doesn't quite tell the whole story.

One reason the major traditions are loathe to draw such specific predictions from scripture is that they went through that phase long, long ago, and have little taste for yet another embarrassment.

But another reason it isn't the whole truth is that the oldest and most established traditions absolutely do make very long term, and non specific, predictions about the return of Christ, not only uniting with the living, but also the literal rising of the dead to join in the fun.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:51 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


One thing that's interesting to me is the number of engineers he mentions. I also remember reading something about Al Qaeda having a disproportionate number of engineers in their ranks. I've always wondered why that is.

Probably because, as engineers, we realize just how close society is to complete and utter collapse; we know the idiots who built all this infrastructure (either us, or the idiots who we went to college with); and damned if we don't want a fallback option. {/}
posted by spaceman_spiff at 3:51 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Is this made plain in any canonical writings of the major western traditions?"

Here's a little Wikipedia for you:

"Revelation's place in the canon was not guaranteed, however, with doubts raised as far back as the 2nd century about its character, symbolism, and apostolic authorship. 2nd century Christians in Syria rejected it because Montanism, a sect which was deemed to be heretical by the mainstream church, relied heavily on it. In the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus and other bishops argued against including Revelation because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the risk of abuse. In the 16th century, Martin Luther initially considered it to be "neither apostolic nor prophetic" and stated that "Christ is neither taught nor known in it," and placed it in his Antilegomena, i.e. his list of questionable documents, though he did retract this view in later life. In the same century, John Calvin believed the book to be canonical, yet it was the only New Testament book on which he did not write a commentary. It remains the only book of the New Testament that is not read within the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, though it is included in Catholic and Protestant liturgies."

Martin Luther thought so little of it he considered throwing it out of the Bible when he did his translation.

Here's Pope Benedict the Current on Revelations:
"Continuing our reflections on the teaching of the apostle John, we now consider the Book of Revelation. The seer of Patmos, identified with the apostle, is granted a series of visions meant to reassure the Christians of Asia amid the persecutions and trials of the end of the first century."

Here's the Catholic Encyclopedia's 1919 (i.e., out of copyright) edition, which is terrifically outdated in terms of textual analysis but gives you an idea of where things were a century less-skeptical ago: "Although a Christian work, the Apocalypse belongs to a class of literature dealing with eschatological subjects and much in vogue among the Jews of the first century before, and after, Christ. ... From this cursory perusal of the book, it is evident that the Seer was influenced by the prophecies of Daniel more than by any other book. Daniel was written with the object of comforting the Jews under the cruel persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Seer in the Apocalypse had a similar purpose. The Christians were fiercely persecuted in the reign of Domitian. ... Both in the beginning and at the end of his book the Seer is most emphatic in telling his people that the hour of victory is nigh. ... It is an article of faith that Christ will return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. But the time of His second advent is unknown. "But of that day and hour no one knoweth, no, not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone" (Matthew 24:36). It would appear, and is so held by many that the Christians of the Apostolic age expected that Christ would return during their own lifetime or generation. This seems to be the more obvious meaning of several passages both in the Epistles and Gospels (cf. John 21:21-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The Christians of Asia Minor and the Seer with them, appear to have shared this fallacious expectation. Their mistaken hope, however, did not affect the soundness of their belief in the essential part of the dogma. Their views of a millennial period of corporal happiness were equally erroneous. The Church has wholly cast aside the doctrine of a millennium previous to the resurrection. St. Augustine has perhaps more than any one else helped to free the Church from all crude fancies as regards its pleasures. He explained the millennium allegorically and applied it to the Church of Christ on earth. With the foundation of the Church the millennium began. The first resurrection is the spiritual resurrection of the soul from sin (City of God XX). Thus the number 1,000 is to be taken indefinitely." (Boldfacing mine)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:55 PM on May 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Revelations [sic] isn't even part of the Catholic Bible, just saying.

Where would one even get this idea?
posted by pompomtom at 3:56 PM on May 27, 2012


Blasdelb: "religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual

Chekhovian: This is afterall the last gap left them, what with all those centuries of disproof of any real world predictions.
"
Additionally,

Most astronomers see the theory of geocentricity as allegorically true rather than factually so, it is after all the last gap left them, what with all those centuries of disproof.

Most biologists find evolution to be the most plausible explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, it is after all the last gap left them, what with all those centuries of disproof of any real world alternatives.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:58 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


religious leaders who make absurd short-term predictions are charlatans; religious leaders who make absurd long-term predictions are pillars of society

It's not really about 'short-term predictions' (= the world will end tomorrow) versus 'long-term predictions' (= the world will end in 1000 years). The mainstream position in most major Christian denominations is that the world might end at any time, perhaps this very minute, but that we have no way of predicting when, 'for you know not the day or the hour' (Matthew 25: 13). This is not exactly 'allegorical', but at the same time it's not necessarily very different from a non-religious person believing that 'we don't know how much time we've got left, so we have to make the best of the time we have'.
posted by verstegan at 4:02 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Michael Tolkin's fictional fim The Rapture (1991)

I've never seen this all the way through, but I've often stumbled across it on TV while channel scanning during commercial breaks of some other show. It's got a slow and quiet pacing that often pulls me in for five/ten minutes. Then I get to wondering what's happened in my original show and click away.

I don't think I want to actually watch the whole thing — kind of like a person you're content to only know as a friendly barrista.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:02 PM on May 27, 2012


Most astronomers see the theory of geocentricity as allegorically true rather than factually so, it is after all the last gap left them, what with all those centuries of disproof.

I don't know any astronomers, but I have a hard time imagining them as, practically speaking, viewing geocentricity as anything other than simply wrong.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:11 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


adamdschneider:

I believe the Ptolemaic model still has its uses in that the constellation of stars we see from the earth doesn't really deviate much depending on our position in our own solar system. Given that, we can simplify and use a static sphere to chart everything, with the earth more-or-less at the center.
posted by leviathan3k at 4:25 PM on May 27, 2012


But another reason it isn't the whole truth is that the oldest and most established traditions absolutely do make very long term, and non specific, predictions about the return of Christ, not only uniting with the living, but also the literal rising of the dead to join in the fun.

This may be true, but it's important to realize that Revelation (the book in the Bible) has no mention of a Rapture, and even the Rapture itself only has sort of sideways support in the scriptures, which require taking several verses out of context and weaving them together to form the basis for the concept.
posted by hippybear at 4:29 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


adamdschneider: " I don't know any astronomers, but I have a hard time imagining them as, practically speaking, viewing geocentricity as anything other than simply wrong."
We now know that while there is no center or otherwise special position in the universe, and that from the standpoint of modern physics there is no such thing as absolute rest, there is still an allegorical kind of truth to a geocentric theoretical model. With the notable, though limited, exception of the experiences of a dozen men, the only known source of observation of the universe has been from Earth. The Earth remains, at the very least, the center of our experience of the Universe, which is meaningful and important in a number of ways.

For example, to this day we can only really see the Universe by translating our observations from a pretty Ptolemaic view of the great sphere that surrounds us into the centerless truth.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:30 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great, now I'll be hearingthis all day.

Dear God don't know if you noticed but
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look

posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 4:39 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies. — Nietzsche
posted by netbros at 4:47 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye;
And absolon hath kist hir nether ye;
And nicholas is scalded in the towte.
This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!
posted by pracowity at 5:04 PM on May 27, 2012


I had to stop for a moment and appreciate this moment in the article:

Festinger wanted to understand this phenomenon. The Millerites were long gone so instead he focused on Dorothy Martin, a suburban homemaker who believed that she was able to communicate telepathically with superior beings from the planet Clarion.
posted by Brak at 5:10 PM on May 27, 2012


Most astronomers see the theory of geocentricity as allegorically true rather than factually so, it is after all the last gap left them, what with all those centuries of disproof... ...there is still an allegorical kind of truth to a geocentric theoretical model. With the notable, though limited, exception of the experiences of a dozen men, the only known source of observation of the universe has been from Earth.

You seem to have chosen to die for a very odd little hill here. So what is your point exactly then? That religions have over the centuries adapted their preachings so as to avoid easily falsifiable predictions? That they've been systematically reduced in scope and scale by the advance of scientific technique? Oh wait, that's my point.
posted by Chekhovian at 5:14 PM on May 27, 2012


michaelh, I think it depends on how you read the quote. I don't know much about Christianity, but I certainly remember "... and one day He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end." It's definitely safe to say that those who are judged unfavorably will suffer "unspeakable torment." Ugh, what a bunch of assholes.

I thought the author was emphasizing the belief in the rapture and in a predictable series of end-times events (premillenialism), implying with "mainstream" that there are billions of people out there just waiting to act like Camping's followers when it's actually just something that a relatively recent subset of Christianity does.

The unspeakable torment happens if:
1. There is an afterlife (no annihilation.)
2. Life without God is miserable.
3. Humans have free will to choose life without God.

It's not being an asshole to conclude those three things are true. Someone who gets all excited by that is not a nice person, though.
posted by michaelh at 5:20 PM on May 27, 2012


No Chekhovian, my point is that all knowledge based disciplines have over the centuries adapted their preachings so as to avoid easily falsifiable predictions. That is kind of how knowledge advances, and is in no way unique to religion.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:22 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rather than allowing this thread bring me down, I'm going to let it cheer me up by reminding me that, after all this time, Good Omens is coming to the BBC as a miniseries. It will be directed by Terry Jones, and at the moment, Terry Pratchett would like Benedict Cumberbatch to play Aziraphale.

You're welcome.
posted by tzikeh at 5:24 PM on May 27, 2012 [21 favorites]


No Chekhovian, my point is that all knowledge based disciplines have over the centuries adapted their preachings so as to avoid easily falsifiable predictions.
What?

Making falsifiable predictions, easy or not, is the very heart of science.
posted by Flunkie at 5:26 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


all knowledge based disciplines have over the centuries adapted their preachings so as to avoid easily falsifiable predictions

Isn't religion the one field of knowledge that's supposed to have an "inside track" on truth? I'm obviously not religious, but if I had those inclinations, I would want a religion that promised that it had the fundamental truth. Otherwise, why bother?

"Join ______ism, its probably mostly totally false, but we're going to pretend it isn't for as absolutely long as we can!"
posted by Chekhovian at 5:27 PM on May 27, 2012


I don't know any astronomers, but I have a hard time imagining them as, practically speaking, viewing geocentricity as anything other than simply wrong.

Welcome to non-certified-college graduates!
posted by jaduncan at 5:28 PM on May 27, 2012


Flunkie: " No Chekhovian, my point is that all knowledge based disciplines have over the centuries adapted their preachings so as to avoid easily falsifiable predictions.

What?

Making falsifiable predictions, easy or not, is the very heart of science.
"
Sorry, that was poorly phrased, that should read avoid preaching falsified predictions. Learning is itself the art of falsifiable predictions.

Which is to say, religious leaders learning from their disgraced peers is not at all a bad thing.
Chekhovian: " Isn't religion the one field of knowledge that's supposed to have an "inside track" on truth? I'm obviously not religious, but if I had those inclinations, I would want a religion that promised that it had the fundamental truth. Otherwise, why bother? "
I'd like to be perhaps the first Christian to encourage you to continue to avoid religion, you're obviously not terribly suited to it if you really can't see any point beyond a magical answer to any question you might have from some kind of "inside track" on truth.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:42 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


This may be true, but it's important to realize that Revelation (the book in the Bible) has no mention of a Rapture, and even the Rapture itself only has sort of sideways support in the scriptures, which require taking several verses out of context and weaving them together to form the basis for the concept.

If you want to talk the Rapture in other than a "Left Behind" sense, it's justified largely on scriptures outside Revelation. IIRC, Catholic teaching on the Rapture (the final resurrection) doesn't rely on Revelations at all, but is still a very central belief (and yes, a rather absurd long term prediction to non-believers). The popular "Great Tribulation" view seems to be where the "left behind" fiction etc. comes from, which seems inspired a great deal by Revelation, but also looks to be a relatively modern invention.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:48 PM on May 27, 2012


So what's really interesting to me is that you know Jesus made the same sorts of predictions, at least according to the bible right? "Give up all your possessions and live each day as if the world will end tomorrow" or something right? Certainly his followers thought that the world would end in their lifetimes, then it didn't and they had to improvise.

So maybe in 50 years Harold Camping's teachings will blossom into a new future faith in just the same way.

I find the "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection" aspects of the history of religions to be tremendously interesting. Those that don't try and grow and grow and grow tend to dwindle away. Those that actively prevent their adherents from having children eventually vanish, like the Shakers.

But at least they made awesome furniture while they had their cult.
posted by Chekhovian at 5:55 PM on May 27, 2012


If you want to talk the Rapture in other than a "Left Behind" sense, it's justified largely on scriptures outside Revelation. IIRC, Catholic teaching on the Rapture (the final resurrection) doesn't rely on Revelations at all, but is still a very central belief (and yes, a rather absurd long term prediction to non-believers). The popular "Great Tribulation" view seems to be where the "left behind" fiction etc. comes from, which seems inspired a great deal by Revelation, but also looks to be a relatively modern invention.

Speaking for myself as a non-Christian, it's not just the prediction (temporal, metaphysical, or allegorical) that we lack faith in. We disagree, fundamentally, on the nature of the relationship between humanity and divinity that the prediction is intended to be a solution for.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:10 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Happy Belated VelociRapture Day!
posted by jeffburdges at 6:33 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


So what's really interesting to me is that you know Jesus made the same sorts of predictions, at least according to the bible right? "Give up all your possessions and live each day as if the world will end tomorrow" or something right? Certainly his followers thought that the world would end in their lifetimes, then it didn't and they had to improvise.

That is not a prediction, it's a calling. From day one the church had both people obeying that call acting urgently and a lot of ordinary people. That never changed; there has been no improvisation.
posted by michaelh at 6:38 PM on May 27, 2012


Somewhere in all of this I detect the handiwork of the Cosmic Giggle.
posted by Twang at 6:52 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


there has been no improvisation

So ole' JC laid out everything in a clear, cogent, self-consistent manner that did not require councils of higher ups to arbitrarily decide what was true and what wasn't, centuries after the fact?

My mistake.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:54 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The fact that the mainstream media was willing to act as a megaphone for this madman still makes me angry. I wonder how many people threw away their belongings, alienated their families, and maybe even hurt or killed themselves, all for a lie they only heard because someone wanted to sell a few papers?

"Fair and balanced" reporting needs to die. Some things are not true no matter how fervently they are believed.
posted by vorfeed at 7:03 PM on May 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I beg to differ vorfeed. I think that shining a spot light on the nut jobs does more good than harm. Otherwise you end up with more Scientology type groups.
posted by Twain Device at 7:07 PM on May 27, 2012


I understand that some people really hate religion. Wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t show up in every thread that had any link to religion and repeatedly and loudly proclaim that they know the truth, and try to convert others to their way of thinking? Proselytizing really gets on my nerves.
posted by bongo_x at 7:08 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Today I learned there are over 2 000 000 search results for (David, Bowie, package).

Really? This is what you people are doing with our wonder full internet? Why? why? .
posted by bukvich at 7:10 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The fact that the mainstream media was willing to act as a megaphone for this madman still makes me angry. I wonder how many people threw away their belongings, alienated their families, and maybe even hurt or killed themselves, all for a lie they only heard because someone wanted to sell a few papers?

They didn't throw their lives away because of the media coverage. They made the choice to follow this loon. There is some personal responsibility involved.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:10 PM on May 27, 2012


I beg to differ vorfeed. I think that shining a spot light on the nut jobs does more good than harm. Otherwise you end up with more Scientology type groups.

There are ten thousand nutjobs just like this all around the world. This particular nutjob was given a huge windfall of money and attention as a direct result of media exposure -- and for what? I see no pressing need to "shine a spot light" on this particular group, as opposed to any number of more powerful and dangerous religions.

There is some personal responsibility involved.

Of course there is. There's also some personal responsibility involved in reporting this nonsense as if it were anything other than an obvious lie. I wouldn't have minded "Harold Camping, a total nutjob laughed at by slightly more respectable nutjobs, believes a torrent of raving nonsense we'll tell you about at five!", but articles like this and this treated this guy and his followers as though their behavior might be reasonable and their prediction worth talking about, and that's inexcusable. FoxNews Radio even called their "final" call-in session "touching".
posted by vorfeed at 7:36 PM on May 27, 2012


So ole' JC laid out everything in a clear, cogent, self-consistent manner that did not require councils of higher ups to arbitrarily decide what was true and what wasn't, centuries after the fact?

My mistake.


We were talking about whether the church had to change things because Christ didn't return immediately. Whether the councils changed the church into something different than what Christ founded and whether the councils had authority to interpret the Bible and history is a different question. It wasn't as if Christians said, "hey, looks like we'll be here awhile so let's get together and make up some rules." Christians at Nicea were just continuing what the apostles started in Acts 1 and the council of Jerusalem.
posted by michaelh at 7:52 PM on May 27, 2012


Vorfeed, I didn't realise the US press was so...fawning. Ugh.

Internationally, reporting seems to have been much different. For example, the Guardian was far more mocking. Even my local rag, the Sydney Morning Herald, not noted for its quality reporting, was pretty sarcastic.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:57 PM on May 27, 2012


Christ actually covered the subject of his return quite well, stating no one would know the time nor place and hinted it would be a great surprise for most people. He did say that someone observant could make a guess that his return was nigh based on signs and portents, but even then the observant person still would never know the exact time in advance.

Christ also warned against trusting anyone who would claim to know when he would return or anyone who would claim the return has already happened. This sort of person was described as working for the enemy.

So anyone in a Christian-based rapture cult should really know better because their own Bible has a built in inoculation against charlatans of that sort.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:14 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


> The fact that the mainstream media was willing to act as a megaphone for this madman still makes me angry. I wonder how many people threw away their belongings, alienated their families, and maybe even hurt or killed themselves, all for a lie they only heard because someone wanted to sell a few papers? ... Some things are not true no matter how fervently they are believed.

I don't think the mainstream media reported this as true. I think they mostly reported it "news", mostly in 'yuck, yuck, look at this bunch of idiots' mode (unless we've been looking at very different media). Apparently Camping already had a following. I'm not sure how much 'look at these idiots' reports in the mass media did anything to increase it. (Probably some, but not very much.)


On preview: I'll look at your links (maybe), but a don't recall news coverage at the time as treating "this guy and his followers as though their behavior might be reasonable". I think you're cherry picking. And reporting that Camping and his followers thought the world was going to end is not remotely the same thing as suggesting that people take it seriously.
posted by nangar at 8:17 PM on May 27, 2012


Dyslexia won't rescue us from the Incas. The world is going to end 12/12/12. Or in dyslexia: 12/12/12.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:21 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Christ actually covered the subject of his return quite well, stating no one would know the time nor place and hinted it would be a great surprise for most people.
He's also quoted as saying that there are people present among those he was addressing who wouldn't die before it happened.
posted by Flunkie at 8:23 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


... but a don't recall ... but I don't recall

You can and will, of course, ignore everything I said because I made an error, if you want.
posted by nangar at 8:28 PM on May 27, 2012


religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.

The crazies who make predictions, both short and long term, are heterodox outliers that are about as plentiful by proportion as the atheist varieties of liberation theologians.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:31 PM on May 27


I assume those heterodox outliers include that tiny, fringe group of Christians who make absurd predictions about oh, say, stuff like life after death and so on?
posted by Decani at 8:39 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


He's also quoted as saying that there are people present among those he was addressing who wouldn't die before it happened.

He did not say that. He does say "you" and "your" when describing the time of his return but it's him talking to the entire church. It's similar to a president talking to the citizens of a country.
posted by michaelh at 8:41 PM on May 27, 2012


Really. By "There be some standing here", he meant "There are some people who may or may not be standing here, and in fact may not yet be born until over two thousand years from now".

That's some mighty fine rationalization you've got there.
posted by Flunkie at 8:45 PM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Decani: "I assume those heterodox outliers include that tiny, fringe group of Christians who make absurd predictions about oh, say, stuff like life after death and so on?"
You, you did at least look at the FPP and the subject we are talking about right?
posted by Blasdelb at 9:13 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Join ______ism, its probably mostly totally false, but we're going to pretend it isn't for as absolutely long as we can!"

You can pretty much apply this to all political, social, and economic ideologies as well.

That's some mighty fine rationalization you've got there.

Welcome to the wonderful world of parables.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:34 PM on May 27, 2012


There was some degree of the media hyping this guy, but remember that he spent a lot of his own money (or his followers' money, if you prefer) to put up all kinds of advertising. There were billboards and I remember seeing paid advertising in the subway, right next to the ads for Bud Light.

Once enough people start seeing these, it's proper for the media to report on it. If stupid people hear reports of other stupid people doing stupid stuff and decide to go do it with them, well, freedom is dangerous, I guess.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:52 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the wonderful world of parables

That's why Camping always had an * at the end of his all his commercials and billboards.

"*World May End only in the form of a parable."

Those followers of his simply didn't read the fine print. You have have have to read the fine print when you read the bible, like when Jesus says that he is the way, the light, and the truth, and that no one can get to god except through him*.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:16 PM on May 27, 2012


Well duh, Jesus wasn't claiming to be a piece of wood used to open and close off an entrance.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:20 PM on May 27, 2012


Really. By "There be some standing here", he meant "There are some people who may or may not be standing here, and in fact may not yet be born until over two thousand years from now".

That's some mighty fine rationalization you've got there.


He's saying some present (Judas, others) won't deny themselves. He is talking about the immanence of his death and resurrection in that whole passage, not his second coming. This is not the first time that passage has been misinterpreted. Some early Christians thought that Christ would return before the apostle John died because of it. To their credit (and yours), a lot of ink has been spilled on that sentence so it's understandable how it might have happened.
posted by michaelh at 10:36 PM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Spilled over*. If someone spilled ink on it then it would be difficult to read, let alone write about.
posted by michaelh at 10:46 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this is why religious nuts, be they camping followers or AQ bombers, are frequently technical people. Any attempts to apply rationality to this seed material end poorly. You become a bloody nutter or an atheist if you carry any of this to its logical conclusion.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:54 PM on May 27, 2012


Perhaps the same could be said of all ideologies.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:12 PM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Given that we're having this conversation over basically magical bits of techno-wonder, (I'm typing on this on my iPad so its even more magical on this end), some ideologies/methods do have good conclusions.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:17 PM on May 27, 2012


And what vocation was that of William of Ockham, Gregor Mandel, or Thomas Bayes?
posted by Apocryphon at 11:44 PM on May 27, 2012


Can Baye's theorem be used to interpret scripture? And Jesus is telling you to neglect the prior probabilities of the Old Testament god?
posted by Chekhovian at 12:02 AM on May 28, 2012


You can use Bayes Theorem for all sorts of things. Though it seems to be often a fool's errand.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:44 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bayes Theorem for all sorts of things

The sad thing is that I don't know which option to loathe more: the horrible way any NYT article covers philosphy or the cargo cult rationality of Less Wrong. So the point of my joke is that Baye's vocation had little or no bearing on his probability studies. Newton went full on crazy for Alchemy but that didn't have any bearing on his physics.

The real sad thing is that both of them wasted so much time on worthless pursuits, when they could have devoted those energies to additional science. One wonders what Acquinas or others of that ilk might have done had religious dribble not eaten away their years.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:19 AM on May 28, 2012


The mighty fine rationalisation on display from both Camping's followers and the Christians here is just the psychology of inerrancy in action: as Quine says, new evidence never forces a particular belief. If you really want to hold on to the idea that Jesus and Paul didn't actually mean that the second coming would be not very long after the first, there are auxiliary beliefs you can tweak instead: Jesus meant to refer to the whole church; Paul meant to say that from now on, you should live as if it could be any day (I like to refer to this as the "Jesus is coming back, look busy" interpretation). This looks contrived to outsiders, but if you feel you have strong reasons to discard the suggestion that Jesus and Paul were wrong, then maybe it works for you.

To an extent, this is what science does too (Quine was writing about the philosophy of science). Nobody discards a trusted theory in the face of a single experiment which apparently falsifies it.

Still, something has gone wrong when we compare the church's "real soon now; maybe a bit later; sometime but no-one knows when, look busy" progression to the progress in science. Yes, you can use Bayes' Theorem (note: the guy's name was Bayes, not Baye) to say what it is, but that'll result in most people switching off because of maths, so you should use words instead.

So, imagine you hold the position that Jesus and Paul made no factual errors (call this innerancy1) but you haven't read the bits of the Bible about the second coming (which are not limited to Revelation). You probably would not have predicted what Paul wrote in 1 Thess or 1 Cor 7:29ff, 1 Cor 15:51 (“sleep” = “die” here) etc; yet there they are, and what-Christians-call-the-position-that-Jesus-and-Paul-made-no-errors (call this inerrancy2) is somehow compatible with them. Consider also the position that Jesus isn't coming back.

inerrancy1 (and Camping) made a bold and surprising prediction (by "surprising" I mean that most other theories wouldn't have made it). It was false, but if it had been true instead, that would have been great evidence for the underlying theory. The position that Jesus isn't coming back has evidence that gets better by the day and also sticks its neck out: there's an obvious way to falsify it.

Poor old inerrancy2 just looks at what happens, whatever happens, and says "yep, that's what we thought". Bayes says any theory which makes more specific predictions than that and has them confirmed wins over inerrancy2, because inerrancy2 cannot stick its neck out as far on every possible outcome (obligatory Less Wrong link: Conservation of Expected Evidence: there's nothing cultish about that one, as far as I can tell). It is by sticking our neck out further and being right that you win. inerrancy2 is rigged to fail against theories which more accurately predict what actually happens, but persists for the reasons that Festinger talks about.
posted by pw201 at 2:27 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is not the first time that passage has been misinterpreted.
Riiiiiiiight.

I'm well aware that Christians quickly switched from thinking "he means the end of the world is coming within the lifetime of some of those standing here" to "he means he'll be resurrected within the lifetime of some of those standing here" (but not similarly modifying their beliefs about other statements which didn't give such an exact timeframe). It just doesn't strike me as particularly different than what the article describes some of Camping's Christians doing.
posted by Flunkie at 6:08 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the same could be said of all ideologies.

But enough of this talk. Have at you!
posted by adamdschneider at 8:46 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Welcome to the Labyrinth. Lots of us are lost here but we can at least give each other hugs and stuff.

I think, therefore I am part of the labyrinth. (Quote by Danish author Inger Christensen.)
posted by WalkingAround at 8:48 AM on May 28, 2012


Riiiiiiiight.

I'm well aware that Christians quickly switched from thinking "he means the end of the world is coming within the lifetime of some of those standing here" to "he means he'll be resurrected within the lifetime of some of those standing here" (but not similarly modifying their beliefs about other statements which didn't give such an exact timeframe). It just doesn't strike me as particularly different than what the article describes some of Camping's Christians doing.


Yes, it really is right. It is similar to Camping in that the Christians who interpreted that sentence the way you do were a minority who didn't understand it, although that is about the only similarity. And, the ones who thought it meant Christ would return soon believed it more as "wouldn't this be wonderful" type optimism than as an important piece of doctrine.

The mighty fine rationalisation on display from both Camping's followers and the Christians here is just the psychology of inerrancy in action

Instead of trying to taint the conversation would you like to discuss the actual matter?
posted by michaelh at 10:23 AM on May 28, 2012


One wonders what Acquinas or others of that ilk might have done had religious dribble not eaten away their years.

Have you read the summa? It's a masterpiece. Even if you hate it, you have to appreciate what he did for the reading and appreciation of Aristotle.
posted by michaelh at 10:25 AM on May 28, 2012


Well, at least the non-Camping Christians aren't basing any significant lifestyle changes around that passage.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:26 AM on May 28, 2012


It is similar to Camping in that the Christians who interpreted that sentence the way you do were a minority who didn't understand it
Sure they were. I bet there were just tons and tons of Christians present who interpreted it as "I bet he means that he's going to be resurrected in three days". That would explain why his closest disciples were shocked at his supposed resurrection, and why they continued to preach that it meant the end of the world was coming in their lifetimes even after he was supposedly resurrected.

The whole "he meant he would be resurrected" thing is no doubt the extreme majority view among Christians now, but it most certainly was a retrofit.
posted by Flunkie at 10:28 AM on May 28, 2012


No, it wasn't a retrofit at all. His disciples definitely didn't believe it at first, especially Thomas. That isn't surprising considering the entire time Jesus was alive they were all basically faithless and clueless; it's all over the gospels. They don't gain their footing until Pentecost.
posted by michaelh at 10:31 AM on May 28, 2012


Oh, please, "it wasn't a retrofit at all", sure.

It's an absurdly unnatural interpretation of a direct statement in multiple ways, and as you yourself admit immediately after saying it wasn't a retrofit at all, it's not the way it was originally interpreted.

I suggest that you read the main article linked to in this post again, and I'm done with this ridiculous conversation. Goodbye.
posted by Flunkie at 10:35 AM on May 28, 2012


The real sad thing is that both of them wasted so much time on worthless pursuits, when they could have devoted those energies to additional science.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's not how science, or any human pursuit, works. You might as well decry Dawkins for frittering away time by being an atheism advocate or berate Feynman for wasting time travelling and for writing books about his experiences and for obsessing about Tuva and for being a generally awesome figure.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:46 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm done with this ridiculous conversation. Goodbye.

Well, your first mistake was getting drawn into the frame of thinking that the bible can be used as an accurate account of the thoughts and feelings of people who were long dead by the time it was written.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:01 PM on May 28, 2012


the bible can be used as an accurate account of the thoughts and feelings of people who were long dead by the time it was written.

This is EXACTLY what's so interesting here. Will Camping be just as respectable as mainline christianity in two thousand year, after the book of Camping has been written by some future disciple?

You scoff, but what about Mormonism? What about Scientology? I bet early Christians seemed just as whacky to their mainstream peers at the time as early Mormons did and Scientologists still do.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:16 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


adamdschneider: "Well, your first mistake was getting drawn into the frame of thinking that the bible can be used as an accurate account of the thoughts and feelings of people who were long dead by the time it was written."

This is something that is often repeated, but really has little basis in fact.

Assuming that you are talking about the New Testament, starting from the earliest accounts.

The Epistles of Paul
were written by Paul and, given the quality of his writing, can be considered a pretty accurate account of his thoughts and feelings. I suspect that he was not dead at the time that he wrote them. There are the 7 letters considered genuine by just about anyone with a brain and a shred of intellectual honesty, known generally as the undisputed letters are 1 Thessalonians 51 AD, Philippians 52-54 AD, Philemon 52-54 AD, 1 Corinthians 53-54 AD, Galatians 55 AD, Second Corinthians 55-56 AD, and Romans 55-58 AD. The letters most think are probably pseudepigraphic the Pastoral epistles, or 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. It is unclear when they were written. There are also about as many conclusions about the authenticity of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians as there are people who study them and no meaningful consensus. There are also a bunch of Epistles with Pauline claims that did not make it into the cannon, but no one really believes Paul wrote any of them. While Paul, famously, never met Jesus in person, he was a part of the community of the early church with people who had. We can be pretty darn sure of this if only because argued with them. Notably, Jesus died only 18 years before 1 Thessalonians was written.

Acts of the Apostles was likely written by Luke the Evangelist, along with the Gospel of Luke, though they may have been assembled from writings from him. It was likely written between 60 and 64 AD but was certain to have been written before 70 AD. It is an reflective of an oral tradition that was gathered from primary sources and notably the author did not have access to the Epistles of Paul, so we get the story from a fundamentally different perspective.

The Epistle to the Hebrews was written by an associate of Paul in the winter of 63-64 as an attempt to help define the faith against apostasy, the companions of Jesus were still alive and preaching.

The Gospel According to Mark was written immediately after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, only 37 years after the death of Jesus. Its attested authorship by Mark the Evangelist (one of the seventy sent out by Jesus) is not that implausible, but it was likely written by someone else in the community formed by the Apostle Peter, one of the original 12 disciples, within three years after his likely death.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:22 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Heh, "only" 37 years. I'm talking about the gospels, since the discussion in question was mainly over a particular turn of Jesus's supposed phrase. This all, of course, assumes that Jesus was actually a historical person, something which has not been (and likely will never be) proven to my satisfaction.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:08 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't religion the one field of knowledge that's supposed to have an "inside track" on truth?

Yes, although I wouldn't call religion a "field of knowledge" because it isn't. Regardless of what position Blasdelb puts forward in this thread, it is only a very small minority of Christians who don't think they have an "inside track" on truth. This poll from 2011 tells me that 96% of evangelical Christian leaders believe that Christianity is the one, true faith leading to eternal life. If that doesn't count as an inside track, I don't know what does.

If you'd like, you can download the whopping 118-page PDF here, where you will find other nuggets such as 95% of evangelical leaders hold that it is incompatible with being a good evangelical Christian to believe that Jesus is not the only way to salvation, or that 61% believe in the prophecy that as the end of the world draws near, Christians will be instantly taken up to heaven, leaving non-believers behind. So yes, Christians like Blasdelb are in the minority.

I expect this position to be attacked with things like "being a Christian means different things to different people" and "Christians don't answer to these evangelical 'leaders' so what they say doesn't actually matter". I will not play this shell game with the meaning of the word "Christian". To be a Christian means that you believe that there was a guy roughly 2000 years ago who was also god but he was tortured to death and then came back to life and for this reason it is possible for you to live forever in paradise. If you call yourself a Christian without believing this proposition to be true, you are not using the word the way it is normally used.

The fringe case Christians are the ones who don't believe in the divinity of Christ and who don't believe he is coming back. Some people who might be erroneously called Christians who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus are Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. This is why they are called Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, because they differ on a fundamental level with what Christians believe.

The fact of the matter is that there are many people who really believe that Jesus is actually coming back in the same way that you really believe your friend is coming over to watch the basketball game tonight because he told you he would. You're just not quite sure when he'll show up, but since "inside the NBA" is on right now, you take that as a portent that his arrival is imminent. Just as Christians like Blasdelb do not like it when people like me speak in their place, we should not let Blasdelb give you the wrong impression of Christians at large. By their own admission, they really do think Jesus is coming back, and not in an allegorical sense.
posted by King Bee at 4:40 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


King Bee: "I expect this position to be attacked with things like "being a Christian means different things to different people" and "Christians don't answer to these evangelical 'leaders' so what they say doesn't actually matter"."

No, this little athiest will counter it with the statement that your claim erroneously conflates "Christians" with "Evangelical Christians".

Figures from various sources put overall Christianity at ~2.1 billion followers, vs "over 600 million" claimed by the World Evangelical Alliance. In other words, the survey you cite covers a particularly vocal non-representative subgroup that consists of less than ⅓ of the world's Christians.

That doesn't really support your claim that "it is only a very small minority of Christians who don't think they have an "inside track" on truth".
posted by Pinback at 5:59 PM on May 28, 2012


King Bee: "I will not play this shell game with the meaning of the word "Christian". To be a Christian means that you believe that there was a guy roughly 2000 years ago who was also god but he was tortured to death and then came back to life and for this reason it is possible for you to live forever in paradise."
posted by King Bee at 6:05 PM on May 28, 2012


King Bee: "I will not play this shell game with the meaning of the word "Christian"."

Then why say "Christian", when your data is all about the distinct "Evangelical Christian" subset? They are most definitely not the same thing, and to believe otherwise only displays a depressing ignorance of the subject.

Apart from that, I'm simply saying that you've cherry-picked your numbers to support your point - hardly a scientific or rational thing to do.
posted by Pinback at 6:23 PM on May 28, 2012


King Bee: "Yes, although I wouldn't call religion a "field of knowledge" because it isn't. Regardless of what position Blasdelb puts forward in this thread, it is only a very small minority of Christians who don't think they have an "inside track" on truth. This poll from 2011 tells me that 96% of evangelical Christian leaders believe that Christianity is the one, true faith leading to eternal life. If that doesn't count as an inside track, I don't know what does."

Religious study is the origin of modern scholarship, it is the original field of knowledge in a modern academic sense. That includes both the sciences and the humanities. Modern science was founded by Natural Philosophers, and all the way up to Newton natural philosophy was explicitly a branch of theological study.

Knowing what the fuck you're talking about in a religious sense also takes real work. Issac Asimov's old quote applies just as well to religious study,
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”


Also, only around 40% of American Christians, and less than a third of Christians globally, consider themselves evangelical in the contemporary sense. It is also important to remember that 'evangelical' doesn't really have a meaningful or consistent definition, much less much in the way of commonly staked theological positions. It is, for the most part, the very essence of heterodox; mostly completely divorced from the traditions of the Church and from even the most basic literacy of the history and context that the modern Church comes from.

King Bee: "Just as Christians like Blasdelb do not like it when people like me speak in their place, we should not let Blasdelb give you the wrong impression of Christians at large."

You kind of already have, I do have my own heterodox leanings, but you haven't managed to guess any of them. If you are looking for a good way to define modern Christianity, I would suggest looking into the writings of Karl Barth. He is simultaneously the guy that modern evangelicals parrot without knowing, and also ties together modern Protestantism and Catholicism into what is known as the neo-orthodoxy. His stuff is also unfortunately famously difficult to read.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:32 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Religious study is the origin of modern scholarship, it is the original field of knowledge in a modern academic sense.

And chemistry came from Alchemy. That does not mean that alchemical theory contains any inherent truth or worth. Newton played with mercury. That does not mean it was or is a good idea to do so. Should we analyze lightning bolts using "Zeus-Theory" just because its old?

religion a "field of knowledge" because it isn't.

Religion is a field knowledge in the same way that the rules for baseball are a field of knowledge. Its just a bunch of stuff that people made up. There is not inherent "knowledge" there, because it doesn't make testable predictions. Studying your holy books produces no more knowledge than studying batting statistics.
posted by Chekhovian at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


to believe otherwise only displays a depressing ignorance of the subject.

OK. You're wrong, but whatever.

Knowing what the fuck you're talking about in a religious sense also takes real work.

OK. It does. Growing up in the faith counts as that work.

Also, only around 40% of American Christians, and less than a third of Christians globally, consider themselves evangelical in the contemporary sense.

I'm not playing the shell game.

If you are looking for a good way to define modern Christianity

No, I know what it is. I spent 13 years in a Christian education.

Will you answer me this, Blasdelb? One question. Do you or do you not believe that there was a man who was also god who was tortured to death then came back to life and for this reason you have a chance to live forever in paradise? This is not a "nuance of belief" question. This is something you either believe or you don't. If you don't, you do not have any business calling yourself a Christian in the way that most people use the word.
posted by King Bee at 6:58 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Religion is...just a bunch of stuff that people made up...Studying your holy books produces no more knowledge than studying batting statistics.

Actually this is sort of an insult to baseball. Let me rephrase, religious "knowledge" is just as real as Game of Thrones "history" or Star Wars esoterica. And yes I have spent the last hour browsing the ice and fire wiki, which while quite extensive, is still not "knowledge".
posted by Chekhovian at 7:36 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is similar to Camping in that the Christians who interpreted that sentence the way you do were a minority who didn't understand it, although that is about the only similarity. And, the ones who thought it meant Christ would return soon believed it more as "wouldn't this be wonderful" type optimism than as an important piece of doctrine.

I'd be interested to know the sources for this. How do we know what a minority and majority believed at the time (either at the time of Jesus' statement, or when the gospels were written)? Are there other contemporary records, sort of a meta-discussion about the gospels? I don't know much about the historical accuracy of the Bible so any references would be welcome.
posted by harriet vane at 8:26 PM on May 28, 2012


harriet vane: "I'd be interested to know the sources for this. How do we know what a minority and majority believed at the time (either at the time of Jesus' statement, or when the gospels were written)? Are there other contemporary records, sort of a meta-discussion about the gospels? I don't know much about the historical accuracy of the Bible so any references would be welcome."

The Gospels were each individually intended to be the central record of the life and death of Jesus. By the time of the Councils of Nicea we ended up with a bunch of different Gospels, and so they picked the best four as cannon. One big thing the scholarly community hasn't really been so great at communicating is how the Councils of Nicea actually did a pretty decent job. While the four canonical Gospels were each written while the disciples were still alive and the original church was extant, all of the others decidedly wern't, and wern't even close.

They also decided that the Epistles, formal didactic letters, written by the pillars of the very early Christian community (namely Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude) should be included. They were written to early churches to serve as instructional metadata on how to live in Christian community, settle disputes, and clarify theology.

Then there is the Acts of the Apostles, which works as a central history of the early church starting from the resurrection and a meta-discussion of the epistles.

Only records of credibly Apostolic origin were included in cannon, and the last Apostle died around 100 AD, but the church didn't stop producing records. If anything the volume of surviving meta-discussion only explodes as the Church grew larger.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:00 PM on May 28, 2012


King Bee: "Will you answer me this, Blasdelb? One question. Do you or do you not believe that there was a man who was also god who was tortured to death then came back to life and for this reason you have a chance to live forever in paradise? This is not a "nuance of belief" question. This is something you either believe or you don't. If you don't, you do not have any business calling yourself a Christian in the way that most people use the word."

Goddamnit you made me drag out my old Methodist hymnal, that doesn't sound anything like a well written creed or affirmation at all. This is the affirmation that I read at my confirmation when I reached an age when I could do so with my own reasoned agency, which was incidentally into the largest Protestant denomination in the US:
I believe in God the Father, infinite in wisdom, power and love, whose mercy is over all His works, and whose will is ever directed to His children's good.

I believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of man, the Gift of the Father's unfailing grace, the ground of our hope, and the promise of our deliverance from sin and death.

I believe in the Holy Spirit and the divine presence in our lives, whereby we are kept in perpetual remembrance of the truth of Christ, and find strength and help in time of need.

I believe that this faith should manifest itself in the service of love as set forth in the example of our blessed Lord, to the end that the Kingdom of God may come upon the Earth. Amen.
If you spent 13 years in a Christian education but never heard of Barth and can't parse "and for this reason you have a chance to live forever in paradise" into the ransom/Christus Victor, satisfaction, penal substitution or moral influence theories of atonement, then either it was not very good or it was never intended to arm you for conversations like this one. Unfortunately most arn't.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:03 PM on May 28, 2012


the four canonical Gospels were each written while the disciples were still alive...the last Apostle died around 100 AD

I like how you present this as fact. I also like how you weasel out of a yes or no question.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:30 PM on May 28, 2012


I believe that this faith should manifest itself in the service of love as set forth in the example of our blessed Lord, to the end that the Kingdom of God may come upon the Earth. Amen.

So you believe that Jesus is actually coming back, then? Or is this some ridiculous allegory again, and this proposition is not something you actually believe?

I have heard of Barth. He is in the minority. He rejects biblical inerrancy. Most Christian folks wouldn't buy into this. There you are again, choosing a particular position which is not held by most and trying to pass it off as the majority opinion.

it was never intended to arm you for conversations like this one.

I'm well armed. I know all about penal substitution. It is the theory that someone else can take on the responsibility for your actions. I can pay your debts, or possibly even serve a prison sentence for you, but I can never take away your responsibility for what you did. Apparently Jesus can, which makes him extra special, and more than human.

Then you wish to throw other theories of atonement at me as though one could hold to all of them at once, or you want me to argue separately against all of them, I don't know. Penal substitution is probably the one that most Christians will adhere to, but I'm probably wrong, because you'll find a sect of Christians in the Micronesian Islands who think it's bullshit and tout it as though it's the prevailing view.

But none of this minutiae matters. One way or the other, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is key to your atonement.

I put the beliefs of Christians into words and ask if I have it right and they won't answer. The reason? Because they sound psychotic when they have to admit to what they actually think.

I HAVE HAD ENOUGH.

I'll just ignore any such conversations with you RE this topic on MeFi from now on, because you still haven't answered my question, and we'll just go back and forth forever on this topic. Have a good rest of your evening.
posted by King Bee at 9:49 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I also like how you weasel out of a yes or no question."

If you mean King Bee's question about my faith, it was illiterately asked and I don't want to give a skewed perception of my faith, but for the record, yes I absolutely believe in the ideas behind his half-assed creed.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:59 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, well, actually thank you, but I also came back to say I regret that second sentence/acting like a jerk.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:13 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, Blasdelb, for the detailed answer. I'm not sure I phrased my question to get the info I wanted though, so if you don't mind I'll have another go at it and see if you or anyone else can help.

I was thinking about michaelh's claim about the different ways people contemporary to Jesus interpreted his statement about his return. The claim was that only a minority of people took it to mean Jesus would return within an average human lifespan. I wanted to know how we know that it was a minority interpretation, or how it could be proved if the opposite were true.

From what you've said so far, I don't think it's possible to know what a minority or majority of people present for the statement thought it meant. The earliest writings about Jesus' life seem to be from Paul, about two decades after Jesus died. Even if Paul spoke extensively with people who were there, eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate, and asking people what they thought about something that happened 20 years ago is likely to get you an answer coloured by what they think at the time you're talking to them. I assume Paul is where the idea comes from that Jesus will return at some unspecified time? Did he think he was in the minority or majority with that opinion? Or are there any earlier writings we can look at?

Really, I think the Camping discussion comes down to what an individual is prepared to accept as evidence. Some people were willing to believe a guy who hired billboards (and hey, it certainly proves his confidence in his interpretation). Some prefer to rely on church traditions. Others (including me) want some kind of independent verification or reasoning to rely on.
posted by harriet vane at 10:36 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


adamdschneider: "Ok, well, actually thank you, but I also came back to say I regret that second sentence/acting like a jerk."

Thank you, I appreciate that. Though, don't worry about it, this is a subject that is really easy to feel strongly about.

harriet vane: "Thanks, Blasdelb, for the detailed answer. I'm not sure I phrased my question to get the info I wanted though, so if you don't mind I'll have another go at it and see if you or anyone else can help. "

This is in fact an answerable question and a particularly interesting one, but oh damn do I need to go to bed and get some work done tomorrow. Though I promise I'll get back to you on it before the thread closes if someone doesn't beat me to it.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:54 PM on May 28, 2012


michaelh writes: Instead of trying to taint the conversation would you like to discuss the actual matter?

But I have: St Paul believed that Jesus would return within his lifetime at the point where he wrote 1 Thess, and believed that some of his readers would still be alive at the point where he wrote 1 Corinthians, as evidenced by the passages I referred to. Assuming Paul counts as mainstream, this was the mainstream belief at the time, not the misinterpretation of an optimistic few, or whatever.

By 2 Peter (usually thought to later than Paul's letters, and maybe 2nd century), whoever wrote that epistle has started the rationalisation process which you've continued in this thread: a thousand ages in thy sight are an evening gone, and all that. As I say, the point here is to have a theory that is compatible with any possible outcome and so is immune to disproof. But such a theory means you have no knowledge, just 20-20 hindsight: "of course Jesus didn't come back in the 1st century, that's just what I knew would happen, whoever would have believed such a silly misunderstanding?" Well, St Paul, for one.
posted by pw201 at 7:55 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there's a cultural disconnect here. Who has the "better" interpretation of scripture obviously matters to some. For me, however, Lewis' Great Divorce is just as wrong as Camping and LaHaye, and more offensive as Lewis is more likely to be thrown at me as a veiled, "damn you."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chekhovian: "Actually this is sort of an insult to baseball. Let me rephrase, religious "knowledge" is just as real as Game of Thrones "history" or Star Wars esoterica. And yes I have spent the last hour browsing the ice and fire wiki, which while quite extensive, is still not "knowledge"."

So a knowledge of the bulk of mankind's explorations into ethics, most of our intentional attempts at sustainable and equitable community, the heart of almost every single civil rights movement, and a central motivator of most of mankind, which guides so much of what is best and worst about us is just like a knowledge of Star Wars esoterica? I love me my ASoIaF, and know who really shot first, but to say that learning about so much of our collective history, present, and selves, is useless and not real smacks of the worst kinds of anti-intellectualism.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:14 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


You seem to have cherry picked the data for your rejoinder. Religion as a motivator for sustainable and equitable communities? HA. How about religion as a justification for torture and genocide?

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations...and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy (Deut 7:1-3).."

So we could play the accountancy game if you like, try and sum up the good and bad, as honestly as possible. That sounds rather tiresome though, and frankly, the absolute best case scenario for you is that religion is a mixed bag, which in your words guides so much of what is best and worst about us.

That's the problem right there. If religion is a transcendent bit of knowledge, it should have provided ab initio a pure and good morality. That was the point of my "inside track" comment earlier. If its just a tool used by people for good and ill, the same as any other tool, than it should be evaluated on the same grounds.

Aristotelian physics has just as much tradition and consumed the lives of just as many great thinkers. But it has no value, except as a warning for the pitfalls that consume even the greatest of us.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:13 PM on May 29, 2012


Chekhovian: "How about religion as a justification for torture and genocide?"

All the more reason to learn nothing about it!
posted by Blasdelb at 3:31 PM on May 29, 2012


Now, this is kismet/destiny/fate or something. I was literatlly just reading a paper on an eddy current mechanical driver and in Am. J. Phys, and this was on the last page:
The attitude that I advocate is that the omnicompetence
of science, and in particular the simplicity its reductionist
insight reveals, should be accepted as a working hypothesis
until, if ever, it is proved inadequate. I began by wondering
whether science and religion could he reconciled and if they
were complementary explorations of the cosmos. I have to
conclude that they cannot be reconciled. A scientists'
explanation is in terms of a purposeless, knowable, and
understandable fully reduced simplicity. Religion, on the
other hand, seeks to explain in terms of a purposeful,
unknowable, and incomprehensible irreducible complexity.
Science and religion cannot be reconciled, and humanity
should begin to appreciate the power of its child, and to
beat off all attempts at compromise. Religion has failed,
and its failures should stand exposed. Science, with its
currently successful pursuit of universal competence through
the identification of the minimal, the supreme delight of
the intellect, should be acknowledged king.
-- P.W. Atkins, "The Limitless Power of Science"
Coincidence? Or...PROVIDENCE?
posted by Chekhovian at 3:31 PM on May 29, 2012


All the more reason to learn nothing about it!

I suppose I should clarify matters. People should learn lots about religion to inoculate their minds against its seductions. I actually find the history of religions fascinating. And I would love in particular to read a work of systematic comparison between Mormonism and Scientology, as I think both represent the "Science Fiction" of their eras. You know, lost tribes from Israel in ~1800, flying saucers in ~1950.

So I do think that religion should be studied, but in the same way that structucal engineers should study bridge designs that collapsed. As a warning for future generations. "Don't ever do this again!"
posted by Chekhovian at 3:38 PM on May 29, 2012


religious leaders of all of the major traditions of Christianity see the predictions made in the Bible as allegorical rather than factual.

This century they do, anyway. And of course the nature the allegory is far from agreed upon.
posted by DU at 11:47 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Aristotelian physics has just as much tradition and consumed the lives of just as many great thinkers. But it has no value, except as a warning for the pitfalls that consume even the greatest of us.

You can pretty much say the same for much of higher academia in today's pomo era.

So I do think that religion should be studied, but in the same way that structucal engineers should study bridge designs that collapsed. As a warning for future generations. "Don't ever do this again!"

Good luck with that! All this has happened before. All this will happen again.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:22 PM on May 31, 2012


You can pretty much say the same for much of higher academia in today's pomo era

Sure. And frankly, 90% of the papers even in the hard sciences aren't really worth reading. But that remaining 10%, those papers will change the fucking world man.

Good luck with that! All this has happened before. All this will happen again.

Sure. Bridges will keep falling down. That doesn't mean that you should forego good design rules. Your computer will eventually get another virus on it that will fuck your systems right? It's going to happen eventually. Does that mean you should turn off your virus scanner right now?
posted by Chekhovian at 11:15 PM on May 31, 2012


harriet vane, a while ago I promised that I would come back to this thread to do my best to answer your questions, and now with my thesis for Msc of Microbiology submitted, I've returned. I'm sorry its taken so long.

harriet vane: "I was thinking about michaelh's claim about the different ways people contemporary to Jesus interpreted his statement about his return. The claim was that only a minority of people took it to mean Jesus would return within an average human lifespan. I wanted to know how we know that it was a minority interpretation, or how it could be proved if the opposite were true.

From what you've said so far, I don't think it's possible to know what a minority or majority of people present for the statement thought it meant. The earliest writings about Jesus' life seem to be from Paul, about two decades after Jesus died. Even if Paul spoke extensively with people who were there, eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate, and asking people what they thought about something that happened 20 years ago is likely to get you an answer coloured by what they think at the time you're talking to them.


It would be unimaginably awesome if we had contemporary accounts by perfectly disinterested observers, or better yet multiple independent ones. After Josephus' less scketchy brief mention of Jesus in 90 CE, the earliest undisputed account that we have like this is from Pliny the Younger who, as a governor, writes to the Emperor in 112 CE that there are "Christians" about who are meeting illegally and who "worship Christ as a God," all he wants is advice as to how to handle the situation. The next earliest is by Pliny's friend Tacitus in 115 CE in his history of Rome where he mentions that the great fire, supposedly set by Nero, in 64 CE was blamed on "the Christians." He seems largely uninterested in the scapegoats, but does mention that they got their name from Christus and that the "superstition" spread from Judea to Rome after Pontius Pilate executed Christus under the reign of Tiberius. This is still seventy nine years later. The earlier stuff that we have is indeed pretty terrible by the kinds of standards used to asses modern history, though is importantly a pretty standard level of terrible for the age. The accounts we have are written by true believers, who were not eyewitnesses, who mostly spoke a different language and lived in a different country than the eyewitnesses, they are not free from collaboration (With Mark being used as a source for Matthew and Luke), and they are pretty wildly inconsistent in both details and global understandings. However, there is still a lot we can do to get decent information out of what we've got.

There does seem to be a common thread among in puzzle solving oriented atheists and theists who FEEL VERY STRONGLY ABOUT RELIGION in a certain way. Since well before the enlightenment, there has been a community of puzzle solving minded folks, both atheists and theists, who have put A LOT OF THOUGHT into squeezing just about everything that we possibly can out of the extant records we have. They've found that when assessing the veracity of historical materiel, it is important to keep in mind a number of principles, not all of which are very intuitive,

First, and intuitively, the earlier the sources that the materiel is found in the better. Twenty years is indeed an awfully long time to be playing a game of telephone, or even for a single person to keep a consistent view. However, so long as we are talking about a single person, one could argue that their later writings might benefit from additional perspective, Paul's letters for example do get a lot more subtle and interesting as time went on. Also, we do have pretty reasonable ways to date even the earliest texts, for example each of the gospels refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (even if it is sometimes as an awfully specific prediction) and so we can reasonably assume that they were each written after that.

Second, is the criterion of multiple attestation, or the more sources we have that cite or repeat the materiel the better. Materiel found in multiple sources that are independent and contemporary to each other is more likely to be historically accurate. It is pretty intuitive that it would be difficult for someone to make something up and get someone else, somewhere else, to make up a similar thing at the same time. Thus a dozen folks saying something in 75 CE isn't that much worse than someone saying the same thing in 50 CE. For example, both Matthew and Luke talk about how Jesus is from Nazareth but say very different and unique things about how he got there from Bethlehem. Mark also says that Jesus was from Nazareth and so does John, which was written totally independent of the other three Synoptic gospels. Thus, we can pretty solidly trust that Jesus was from Nazareth. However, as we can assume that since both Matthew and Luke were aware of the prophesies that declared that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, their unique stories of the nativity are probably a result of their common need to explain how Jesus was both born in Bethlehem and from Nazareth. (The traditional Christmas story that most of us get as children is a pretty forced mash-up of the two)

Third, and much less intuitively but just as important, is the criterion of dissimilarity, or criterion of embarrassment. There are a bunch of parts of the New Testament that really don't fit the simplistic version of the Christian narrative, and these are, if anything, parts that we can trust the most. Why would anyone make them up later? Thus, using this principle, we can trust that Jesus did indeed come from Nazareth all the more. Nazareth was a two horse town in the middle of nowhere that was famous for precisely nothing and recognizable to practically no one, particularly when the messiah is supposed to come from the birthplace of David, why make that up? And how could you possibly get everyone to agree on it if you did? Also, when authors disagree that can, if anything tell us more about what the community thought than when they say the same thing, particularly when they argue like Paul regularly does. Who would make that up?

Fourth, is my favorite criterion, just making sense. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi in first century Palestine, and any traditions that don't make sense in that context are a lot less reliable. A lot of the later non-canonical Gospels suffer from stuff that is just stupid, but even some of the canonical gospels have some subtle things that don't make sense when you think about them. For example, in John's account of Jesus' famous late night conversation with Nicodemous, Jesus tells him that he must be born again/above. It is a play on words, and kind of a neat one. The words used are gennao (Strong's 1080), which means begotten or born in a formal father oriented sense, and it is modified by anothen (Strong's 509), which can mean either again or from above. The author of John uses anothen for both meanings in different parts of the Gospel and so the effect is obviously intentional, but importantly, neither the Arahmaic nor Hebrew languages that Jesus could have been speaking have an analogous word with both meanings. Whoops.

Despite what they've got on us, along with these tools, we have a lot of advantages today over any contemporary folks who might have been trying to distort history:
We understand more Greek and Hebrew than they did; dictionaries are a great thing, though we do have meaningful gaps.
We know a lot that they didn't about what Christians on the other side of their world were saying.
We have the benefit of two millennia of careful study to notice little subtle things like the play on words I mentioned.
We are better educated than their general audience.
We can spell properly and use computational analyses to track their non-standard spellings.
We generally have a lot more access to the writings of their peers than they did.

It is also important to keep in mind that these principles apply just as well to any other ancient subject. For example, we only have three surviving contemporary records that describe Caligula, the contemporary and very popular Emperor, and they were written by people who despised him. They all have common motives in the same way, say similar things about how awful he was in a similar way, say incompatible things about how awful he was is a similar way, and if anything say things that just don't make any fucking sense a lot more often.

harriet vane: "I assume Paul is where the idea comes from that Jesus will return at some unspecified time? Did he think he was in the minority or majority with that opinion? "

It is important to keep in mind that when Paul was saying that the world is going to end before the end of his generation, he was absolutely right. It wasn't a very bold prediction, and was indeed a pretty obvious outcome to any educated observer of the day. The Roman Empire was growing, and Judea was no longer really a client state with an appropriate distance between the Emperor and Judaism but was instead more of a province like any other causing deep problems that didn't have solutions, which pretty soon no band-aid would be big enough for. Statues of Caligula had been recently been placed in Jewish synagogues by force, the benefits of integration with the Roman economy were being very unevenly spread, and the people of Judea were increasingly seeing the Roman collaborators who ruled them as corrupt, sacrilegious, and (almost worse) Greek. They also wern't wrong, and no amount of negotiation could fix the hard truths of the time, rebellion was inevitable. However, rebellion was also inevitably a disaster. The Roman Empire was near its height, and no matter how well put together, how popular, or how well lead any rebellion was, its downfall would also be a trivial and essential task, and this would also be obvious to any educated observer. The world was going to end, the temple was going to be sacked and desecrated, the wealth of Judea was going to be carted back to Rome to finance the Empire and its obscene building projects, the people of Judea were going to be slaughtered, raped, sold as slaves, and scattered, and there wasn't really anything anyone could do about it. It would awfully easy now to snark about whether the sky was also expected to fall, but try to think about it from the perspective of an educated Jew living in the age and knowing all of this, with sons who would die at the hands of the Romans and daughters who would still be there when they did.

Paul's epistles were written before the First Judeo-Roman War, which started a train wreck in 66 CE that would sack Jerusalem in 70 CE, desecrating the temple and killing some huge proportion of all of the Jews, and would keep on wrecking until the end of the Third Judeo-Roman War in 135 CE by which point Hadrian all but erased Judea. Almost everything else that we have was written after the sack of Jerusalem and it is impossible to understand Christian eschatology outside of the context of these colossal events. The most rational explanation for the differences on the subject between Paul and the Gospels and Acts come from very legitimately different perspectives on a reasonably common escatological tradition we can only glimpse through these distorted mirrors.

harriet vane: "Or are there any earlier writings we can look at?"

Unfortunately, there are no extant earlier writings than the Epistles of Paul, though there were clearly writings produced that were contemporary to his that have not survived. Again, this level of shitiness in the record is not unusual for the age, even for people who were considered much more important than the rag tag followers of a random rabbi in the backwater of a backwater of a backwater.


I think this is what you were asking, but I'll stick around if there is any aspect that I missed.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:55 PM on June 24, 2012 [15 favorites]


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