Still more sophisticated theological gibberish from Polkinghorne and Beale

June 11, 2012 • 7:57 am

Another quote from the Polkie and Nickie show, i.e., from their joint book, Questions of Truth (J. Polkinghorne and N. Beale, 2009, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky). This bit of Sophisticated Theology® is from page 88. Once again they try to put the lucubrations of ancient and illiterate goatherds on par with modern science.  Here the duo ponder exactly why the crucifixion of Jesus should be the route to our union with God and personal salvation.  There’s no obvious reason, of course, and Polkie and Nickie realize this.  But they try to explain it away by making an analogy with physics!:

He [Jesus Christ] is therefore the unique link between human life and divine life, the living means by which our relationship with God can be restored. It has been the witness of the church through the centuries that Christ’s solidarity with us, even to the point of his painful and shameful death on the cross, is central to this process of restoration (atonement). Nevertheless, there has not been one single and universally accepted theory of exactly how this works.  In science, we are familiar with the fact that there can be phenomena that cannot be denied but that are not wholly understood theoretically—quantum physics is a good example.

My response to this is similar to that I made to Beale’s last plaint (in a comment he made on an earlier post): how do you know that Jesus’s resurrection and our acceptance of him as savior is the means to our salvation and to a one-ness with God?  How do you know that you’re right and that the Jews, Muslim, and Hindus are wrong?

If you read the book (and I pray that you won’t have to), you’ll see that he doesn’t even proffer good evidence for God’s existence, so the whole question above becomes irrelevant.  In contrast, we can observe quantum phenomena.

90 thoughts on “Still more sophisticated theological gibberish from Polkinghorne and Beale

    1. Yes, JAC, thank you for taking another one for the team. Your posts about Sophisticated Theology provide valuable proof that it isn’t. I find them entertaining, cringe-worthy and extremely useful.

    2. “I don’t need to read this book because you, Jerry, have suffered for me.”

      Hmm…suffering for others so they don’t have to, to provide enlightenment…JAC is Ceiling Cat!! Oh, wait a second, Ceiling Cat would never suffer for others so they don’t have to. Ceiling Cat is a cat.

    3. Reading the book is almost beside the point. To me, the only salient question is whether Polkinghorne and Beale are willful frauds, smirking all the way, or wonderful examples of just how far self-delusion can go in people that appear to be reasonably intelligent. The sheer absurdity and clearly contrived, illogical nature of their claims suggest to me that the latter is true. If they were knowing frauds, I suspect they could come up with SOMETHING that wasn’t so laughably and transparently stupid.

  1. For that matter, how do they know that it actually happened, let alone how they know so much detail about it?

    Demonstrating the reality of quantum physics is trivial; the double-slit experiment or the charge of a single electron is the realm of student science fair projects these days. But what’s the procedure to demonstrate Christ’s existence, let alone eternal divinity and solidarity with humankind through shared suffering?


    1. “But what’s the procedure to demonstrate Christ’s existence, let alone eternal divinity and solidarity with humankind through shared suffering?”

      Easy. Get ’em while their young, and keep ’em dumb.

  2. If you read the book (and I pray that you won’t have to)

    “And on his blog even the arch-atheist Coyne admits to praying…”

  3. how do you know that Jesus’s resurrection and our acceptance of him as savior is the means to our salvation and to a one-ness with God? How do you know that you’re right and that the Jews, Muslim, and Hindus are wrong?

    I know that the unbelievers Polkinghorne and Beale will burn in hell without cessation for committing the blasphemy of saying that God is three, that God has a son, and that God needs a little helper. I know this from God’s Own Words:

    Certainly they disbelieve who say: Surely Allah is the third (person) of the three; and there is no god but the one God, and if they desist not from what they say, a painful chastisement shall befall those among them who disbelieve.
    Original: لَقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُواْ إِنَّ اللّهَ هُوَالْمَسِيحُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ وَقَالَ الْمَسِيحُ يَا بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ اعْبُدُواْاللّهَ رَبِّي وَرَبَّكُمْ إِنَّهُ مَن يُشْرِكْ بِاللّهِ فَقَدْ حَرَّمَ اللّهُعَلَيهِالْجَنَّةَ وَمَأْوَاهُ النَّارُ وَمَا لِلظَّالِمِينَ مِنْ أَنصَارٍ
    لَّقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُواْ إِنَّ اللّهَ ثَالِثُ ثَلاَثَةٍ وَمَا مِنْإِلَـهٍ إِلاَّ إِلَـهٌ وَاحِدٌ وَإِن لَّمْ يَنتَهُواْ عَمَّا يَقُولُونَ لَيَمَسَّنَّالَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ مِنْهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِي
    —The Qur’an (القرآن), Sura 5:72–73 (The Dinner Table, سورة المائدة)

  4. “Nevertheless, there has not been one single and universally accepted theory of exactly how this [atonement] works.”

    That’s actually quite a candid admission for them to make. In the world of sophisticated theology, what distinguishes supposedly deep and thoughtful writers like these guys from the barking mad fundamentalists is this kind of very slight nod to the embarrassing fact that it doesn’t all hang together.

    On the plus side (for them) is that this allows for an unending series of doctoral dissertations, homilies, articles and books “exploring” the nuances of how exactly Christ died for our sins.

    1. Or better, histories of theology on the same and how that has effected Christian culture and civilization.

  5. What bothers me about Polkinghorne is the use of science as a metaphor to explain theology and then the conclusion intended to be drawn is that doing theology is sort of like doing science. It’s disingenuous misrepresentation of science.

    If someone believes in religion for reasons that are essentially moral and/or spiritual, and then goes the accomodationist route, that is one thing. It can potentially compromise science, but if the compartmentalization of beliefs remains tidy, I won’t raise a fuss.

    (IMO, some forms of accomodationism DIlutes science, other forms POLlute science!)

    I DO give Polkinghorne credit for noting there has never been a single universal theory about why Jesus’ death atones. It’s why some groups aren’t that interested in evangelizing the rest of the world through forceful fascistic means, since they prefer to lead by example, and aren’t strictly committed to believing you MUST believe THEIR doctrine to be in good graces. Thank (some people’s idea of) heaven!

  6. what a load of unsupported horse poop. There is no evidence of a man/god named JC, so there is no “unique link” to be found at all. There is no evidence for any god, much less the Christian one.

    The “witness of the church” is as trustworthy as the “witness” of Islam, of Hinduism, etc. There is no more reason to believe in Christian nonsense than there is any other religious claim.

    I do find it hilarious that it is claimed that the supposed death of JC on some cross was “shameful” when that death was supposedly needed and completely orchestrated by JC/God. It supposedly made the rules that needed such a thing. There is indeed no agreement between Christians about this nonsense and indeed there is no evidence provided by any theist that their nonsense is true, unlike the evidence provided by scientists when introducing any new theory.

    1. Fie on thee, non-believer! There most certainly is such a one named JC! He has suffered the pain of Polkinghorne for us!

        1. well, as sacrifices go, both JCs were rather silly. Why bother wasting time on theist lies? I do hope that our JC at least had a good beer in his hand so the hours used wouldn’t be a complete ball of uselessness.

          1. I think JC, PhD’s sacrifice at least had a point to it. It directly answers the puerile charge coming out of the theoillogical and accomodationist camps that rationlists spend all their time erecting straw men, instead of dealing with their sophisticated, modern wooly argumentation.

            There’s basically two answers to that: a) we don’t need to know anything about your argumentation, because it’s crap. Always has been, always will be (which happens to be true), and b) bring it on; let’s hear it; then I’ll chop it up in front of your (and more importantly, the onlooker’s) eyes.

            There’s a lot more value in the latter approach, IMHO. You should be thanking him, instead of dismissing the project entirely.

  7. As Beale as graced us with his comments, I’d like to ask Beale personally if he understands that light and all other quantum particles are, in fact, particles, not waves, and that Beale’s analogy between “wave–particle duality” and the Resurrection have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, even if there were such a thing a wave–particle duality.

    Beale wrote incorrectly in Questions of Truth (ironically!):

    It is easy to ‘prove’ that nothing can be both a wave and a particle, or that Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead. Yet deep reflection on physics shows that all sufficiently small objects can manifest both wave and particle properties

    This false analogy doesn’t even get the basic known facts about the world correct. The world is made up of particles. Richard Feynman from QED, Page 15:

    I want to emphasize that light comes in this form—particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave—like particles.

    1. It wasn’t deep reflection that revealed the behavior of light and electrons. It was theory tested by experimentation.

  8. Aww cut it out guys! My sides are hurting from laughing! But when the laughter subsides I always end up wondering how seemingly sane, intelligent people can spend their time parsing such tripe. I imagine to myself that universities house theologians in an echo chamber on the top floor of the tallest ivory tower on campus where they can utter deepities all day long without fear of being confronted by dissenters. So it must come as shock when one of them (say John Haught) occasionally descends and is confronted by an unbeliever (say Jerry Coyne) who is obstreperous and rude.

  9. “In science, we are familiar with the fact that there can be phenomena that cannot be denied but that are not wholly understood theoretically—quantum physics is a good example.” Again, exactly the sort of point-scoring thing that 1990s post-modern critic of science were saying. Any chance of getting Alan Sokal to write Polkien-theology?

    1. Hmmm … maybe these guys really are pseudonyms for Sokal himself, and he’s pulled of another one! We need a careful side-by-side comparison with a gobbledygook meter.

  10. “In science, we are familiar with the fact that there can be phenomena that cannot be denied but that are not wholly understood theoretically—quantum physics is a good example.”

    Is it even accurate to call quantum physics a “phenomenon?” Isn’t it a branch of physics which studies a TYPE or CATEGORY of phenomenon?

    Even further still, it’s not necessary to understand intuitively the behavior of sub-atomic particles in order to know what they’re doing, you just look at the math. This whole “well quantum physics sure is spooky, too” argument is, like the entire “subject” of theology, an embarrassment.

  11. After much consideration and rumination, I have only this to say:




    This has to be the FUNNIEST pamphlet I’ve ever read!

  12. After 100 years, quantum physics has produced lasers, transistors, and Einstein-Bose condensates, just to name the first three things that popped into my head. What has 2000 years of “deep thinking” about Jesus produced?

    This really irritates me. They keep invoking science to support their arguments, but then they’ll turn on the scientific method as soon as someone asks them to support their assertions. It’s dishonest, and Beale smugly demonstrated in the other thread that he revels in the dishonesty.

  13. Why must we suffer these continuous insults to our intelligence. There is little to ponder. If Christ existed and was crucified then that is hardly surprising. It was the common fate of nuisances who did not see the benefits of the Pax Romana. If he did not exist then the myth of his death is equally unsurprising. Sacrifice, and indeed self sacrifice for the good of the tribe has a history and mythology far predating the Christian and Jewish religions. There are an enormous number of works which have studied this facet of humanity. Polkinghorne and Beale might start by reading The Golden Bough – Fraser and A Structuralist Approach to Myth – Levi-Strauss.

  14. Philosophy does have some contributions to make. This from Bertrand Russell’s _Problems of Philosophy_.

    “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”


    John J. Fitzgerald

  15. The sign of a flaming crank: anyone who tries to explain ANYTHING by an analogy to quantum mechanics. Analogies are supposed to be made to increase understanding, by some kind of apt comparison to something simpler than that which is being explained.

    1. I think the scientific analogies are typical theological attempts to illuminate by obscuring. “The Trinity is weird? So is quantum mechanics. We can’t test for God? We can’t test string theory. This makes no sense? Well, a lot of speculative physics makes no sense. Faith is believing what we don’t know? Well, in science ALL knowledge is provisional…” and so forth.

      Or, to sound more effective — do it backwards, as if science has only now caught up to what theology has been doing all along.

      Argument by Analogy coupled with a Tu Quoque.

    2. And all the worse because Polkinghorne, before he suffered the brain damage that turned him into a theist, is a trained physicist. Who certainly knows that quantum mechanics is about “quanta” — which is to say measurable things. Things that make up our universe.

      And those things behave in highly predictable ways. Predictable, but not necessarily intuitive.

      Quantum is not now nor has it ever been a synonym for “whatever ad hoc bullshit you want to make up”.

  16. It has been the witness of the church through the centuries that Christ’s solidarity with us, even to the point of his painful and shameful death on the cross, is central to this process of restoration (atonement). Nevertheless, there has not been one single and universally accepted theory of exactly how this works.

    Maybe we should refer to Polkinghorne and Beale
    as the Insane Clown Posse of theology, since this is basically just a wordy way of saing: “f*ing ressurection. How did that work?”

    Only without the magnets.

  17. A Catholic acquaintance of mine once mentioned a friend of his who was attending college and considering double-majoring in theology and physics. He then said “This might sound strange on the surface, but the two fit together remarkably well; they’re a lot alike!” There was no good opportunity to question him at the time, but I suspect his comment may have been inspired by Polkinghorne and his arguments.

    Sure, theology and physics are a lot alike. Well, aside from the math. Not that part. And there’s really no hypothesis testing of any of the major premises of theology — which makes it a bit different, perhaps. I don’t suppose you can talk about trying to gain a universal consensus among theological experts, either, can you? Not if you mean across the board, and not just in a particular religion. Plus, there seem to be some differences between the kinds of evidence we’re dealing with. Physicists don’t really have a sacred and holy book revealed through special experiences with the supernatural. So that’s different, too. And the clarity of language, the ontological conservatism, the replicability, the theoretical productivity, the predictive success, the real-life experiments, the entertaining of alternatives, and the interconnections between wide classes of phenomenon which you get in sciences like physics, aren’t really found in theology. Not to mention how in one faith is a virtue … and in the other it’s a vice.

    But other than that, they’re a lot alike. Yeah.

  18. […] even to the point of his painful and shameful death on the cross

    What do they mean, “shameful”? Didn’t he have to die for the Plan™ to work? Wasn’t he sent to Earth to die on the cross?

    Are they ashamed of God then? Wow, finally.

  19. Quote: “He [Jesus Christ] is therefore the unique link between human life and divine life, the living means by which our relationship with God can be restored. It has been the witness of the church through the centuries that Christ’s solidarity with us, even to the point of his painful and shameful death on the cross, is central to this process of restoration (atonement).”

    Here’s the problem with this claim:

    Every piece of evidence confirms that gospel Jesus never existed.

    The following is a list of writers who lived and wrote during the time, or within a century after the time, that Christ is said to have lived and performed his wonderful works:

    Josephus, Philo-Judaeus, Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Suetonius, Juvenal, Martial, Persius, Plutarch, Justus of Tiberius, Apollonius, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Quintilian, Lucanus, Epictetus, Silius Italicus, Statius, Ptolemy, Hermogones, Valerius Maximus, Arrian, Petronius, Dion Pruseus, Paterculus, Appian, Theon of Smyrna, Phlegon, Pompon Mela, Quintius Curtius, Lucian, Pausanias, Valerius Flaccus, Florus Lucius, Favorinus, Phaedrus, Damis, Aulus Gellius, Columella, Dio Chrysostom, Lysias, Appion of Alexandria.

    Enough of the writings of the authors named in the foregoing list remains to form a library. Yet in this mass of Jewish and Pagan literature, aside from two forged passages in the works of a Jewish author, and two disputed passages in the works of Roman writers, there is to be found no mention of Jesus Christ.

    Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era, and lived until long after the reputed death of Christ. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Christ’s miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

    He was there when the crucifixion with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness, and resurrection of the dead took place — when Christ himself rose from the dead, and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him. It was Philo who developed the doctrine of the Logos, or Word, and although this Word incarnate dwelt in that very land and in the presence of multitudes revealed himself and demonstrated his divine powers, Philo saw it not.

    From “The Christ” — John E. Remsberg

    1. “Every piece of evidence confirms that gospel Jesus never existed.”

      Well, not quite. ‘No piece of extra-biblical evidence confirms Jesus’ existence’ – that’s more accurate. Just because no contemporary Greco-Roman source mentions Flavius Josephus, the second most influential Jew within the first century (after Herod Agrippa), we don’t say that he didn’t exist. Noone disputes that he did.

      I don’t have my references with me regarding the areas of expertise and interest of the Roman authors mentioned, but many of them simply were not interested in Palestine or proselytising Apocalypticists. To take one example; Epictetus never wrote anything, his teachings were transcribed by Arrian. Does this make you trust the list produced by Remsberg? It doesn’t, me.

      My favourite book title is “14,000 Gear Ratios”; I’m fairly certain that it does not mention, say, Sathiya Sai Baba, and nor do thousands of other contemporary books. Pointing out the lack of independent references to Jesus amounts to a mere rhetorical device. Of course, it helps to minimise the scale and contemporary influence of the Jesus story, to render his life more than Quixotic, but we, obviously, can’t affirm categorically Jesus’ non-existence.

      What if a contemporary independent reference were found for Jesus? Would it make a difference? Probably not. What theological difference did the analogous discovery of the Tel Dan stele in 1993 make, bearing in mind that it tended to confirm the historicity of King David and to set back the minimalist case? Again, probably none at all. In the fourth century, the Christians were perfectly happy to appoint a Bishop who didn’t actually believe in the Resurrection (I forget his name); Christianity seems to be infinitely liberated from the tyranny of facts and even from chains of its own theology.

      Philo is a fascinating character, urbane, intellectual, very brave, with close and long-standing family relations with the Herodian dynasty, but unfortunately he lived in Alexandria. He is recorded as being in Jerusalem once; I don’t know where Remsberg gets his information that he was there at least twice.

      Philo died in C.E. 50; the first book of the New Testament was written in C.E. 48 or 49. We don’t have the evidence that Christianity had reached Alexandria by the time of Philo’s demise.

      With regard to the ‘forged passages’ in the Jewish author, this would be Josephus again. Honest scholars concur that the Testimonium Flavianum contains an original reference to Jesus, later empurpled, redacted, edited – forged – by Christian propagandists. As far as I know, Josephus’ later reference to Jesus in the context of James is accepted almost universally.

      This is where scholarship is now, and I feel it important to mention that.

      1. Pointing out the lack of independent references to Jesus amounts to a mere rhetorical device.

        Huh? This is not a mere rhetorical device. Jim Jones is pointing out a lack of evidence that one might reasonably expect to find.

        1. It amounts to a mere rhetorical device, and a dishonest one on JER’s part, when Remsberg’s list of sources mentions Epictetus who has no works extant and another who was Emperor Nero’s arts consultant – Petronius; when one doesn’t equally claim that Josephus Flavius didn’t exist, due to there being a lack of contemporary sources for him.

          One might reasonably expect to find evidence for a Jesus who was contemporaneously notorious, highly influential and a cause célèbre, yes; but none of us, I assume, are looking for him. If he did exist, as I said, he’ll be, I imagine, a Quixotic figure, rather sad, deluded and wicked, rather like the King David of history, shrivelled, compared to his majestic representation in the OT.

          1. One might reasonably expect to find evidence for a Jesus who was contemporaneously notorious, highly influential and a cause célèbre, yes; but none of us, I assume, are looking for him.

            I fail to understand how a person who didn’t return from the grave, who wasn’t personally persecuted by Pilate and the Sanhedrin, who didn’t raise the dead, who didn’t enter Jerusalem in triumph, who didn’t preach and perform miracles before huge crowds, who wasn’t personally baptized by John the Baptist in a most extraordinary ceremony, and whose birth wasn’t foretold and sought out by Herod can even remotely be considered to be “the” Jesus Christ.

            You do know that that name, “Jesus,” was as popular then as is its modern version, “Joshua,” today? Is every man named, “Jesus,” who was born before 30 CE somehow one of the real Jesuses, too? Or does the name even matter — perhaps your “real” not-Jesus Jesus’s name was, say, “Schlemiel”?

            If you want to declare that there was some guy with that name in first century Judea who played some minor tangential role in some random early offshoot of some long-since-lost-to-history Jewish heresy, fine, knock yourself out. But please don’t pretend either that you’ve got any existence for this not-Jesus Jesus or that he played any significant role in the foundation of Christianity.



            1. I assume that you mean, Ben, that I have no evidence, not ‘existence’ for this not-Jesus Jesus. Indeed, I didn’t ‘pretend’ that I had; a casual re-reading of the thread confirms that.

              My point, as you must know, is that there is a dishonesty and sleight of hand in the reproduction of lists of ancient authors who do not mention the Jesus figure. I have spent more of my time than I like to admit, checking their areas of interest and am frankly shocked to find that no reasonable person would expect certain of them to mention Jesus; some of them, yes, but others, no. So why include them in the list, if not to appear erudite and to gild the lily when no extraneous decoration is necessary?

              Let us take from Remsberg’s list for example, Dio Chrysostom, none of whose historical works survive; his orations on philosophical, moral and political subjects are extant, but none mention Jesus or Christianity. Or Damis; one would not expect Damis’ writings, if they ever existed, to speak of Jesus for he was the student and lifelong companion of Apollonius of Tyana. Or Martial; his epigrams pre-date by 9 years any secure Roman reference to Jesus or his followers. Or Persius who died at 28 before the First Gospel was written; a Stoic, he could have been interested in the emergence of a new sect at the other end of the Empire and may, being an inhabitant of Rome, have come across its first converts in the eternal city. Or Fabius Quintilianus, (Quintilian), from the first century, whose only extant work is on the rules of rhetoric. Or Lucius Annaeus Florus, aka. Florus Lucius, fl. 2nd century – writer of a patriotic history of Rome up to 25BCE. Or Marcus Annaeus Lucanus – the poet Lucan, and adversary of Nero, whose surviving work is on the Roman Civil war. Or from a similar list which you compiled, Ben, Fronto, the second century advocate who wrote on grammar, eloquence and job references; interestingly, Fronto was the mentor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to whom Justin addressed his ‘First Apologia’; it is therefore possible that Fronto had heard of Jesus or the Jesus movement, even though he doesn’t mention him or it.

              I submit that in all the above cases, it would be reasonable, or rather perfectly understandable, for them not to mention Jesus, if he existed and if they had heard of him. We do not need to cite flaky evidence in any form.

              There are plenty of authors in these lists who it would be reasonable to assume might mention the historically and contemporaneously significant Jesus you characterise: Aulus Gellius, the proto-encyclopaedist, Pausanias the cultural Geographer, Pliny the Elder. I would have much more confidence in these lists if I could be sure that the research had been done in checking the authors’ fields of interest. Why not produce a list of ancient authors interested in the relevant field? The Geography, History and History of Ideas of Palestine and its environs? Now that would be a list which would carry some weight.


              1. If there’s one thing that the early sources we actually have for Jesus agree upon, it’s that hiswas the greatest story ever told. He was the living incarnation (etc.) of the divine creative force bhind all Life, the Universe, and Everything. His life, death, and zombihood were a vast spectacle witnessed by all of Judea and known of, even before his birth, all over the world.

                Granted, no two sources can agree on any single detail, but there’s no question that, whoever or whatever Jesus was, he was huge, larger than life itself.

                Even if you cut the Jesus on record to a fraction of his size, he could not have but helped to have been the talk of the Mediterrannean. And, indeed, that’s another point made clear in the Gospels — Jesus was everywhere and everbody who was anybody had a role to play in his story.

                So, yes. I think it perfectly valid to look at each and every literate person from that era, since I’d have expected even the most hermit-ish academic to have taken a moment or two to write about Jesus.

                And, since not a one of them even hinted at a word of it, we know that Jesus is exactly as fictional as Superman or Paul Bunyan or Hercules, and we know it for exactly the same reasons.



  20. The idea of a “shameful” death for Jesus is straight from Paul / Saul of Tarsus and from the 7 epistles (especially Corinthians) that are generally regarded as having been written by “the” or “this” Paul. This Paul believed — on the basis of what “evidence,” we don’t know — that Jesus was a supernatural being who set aside his supernatural powers and attributes, allowed himself to be born as an ordinary Jew (“born of woman,” “born under the law”), and then allowed himself to be crucified and buried as a result of the machinations of the evil supernatural forces (archontes or principalities) who were in real control of Palestine. Paul’s idea apparently was that for a supernatural being or demigod to submit himself to death by crucifixion was an act of extreme self-abasement and degradation.

    Writing when he did, between about 40 C.E. and 56 C.E., Paul probably would have known or heard of mass crucifixions by the Romans a few decades earlier and in the last 2 centuries B.C.E. Paul probably knew that crucified criminals usually died of exposure and were denied burial. No one knows where Paul got the few details that he discloses about Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (nothing about the actual time, place or circumstances, and nothing about charges or a trial; not even a mention of Pontius Pilate, Golgotha, Calvary, or Jerusalem in connection with the crucifixion). My best guess is that Paul combined vague, second-hand rumors with his own hallucinations and fantasies. The result was the incoherent Pauline doctrine of substituted punishment and atonement.

    All of this is consistent with a conclusion that the Jesus of the Gospels was and is a composite fictional character that might have been based, in part, on the teachings or other exploits of a 1st-century Palestinian rabbi or rabble-rouser who fell afoul of the authorities and whose corpse disappeared after being executed.

    1. I’d be curious to know on what basis, aside from apologetic tradition, you conclude that the Pauline epistles were authored in the first half of the first century….


      1. My only basis for saying so is the consensus of scholars (including a number of scholars who are not apologists, and a few who regard “Jesus as mythical or legendary). The 7 “genuine” Pauline epistles are generally accepted to be the earliest-written of the 27 New Testament books. The evidence that the originals were written in the first half of the 1st century C.E. is admittedly meager. I suppose it is mostly paleographic evidence, because the oldest extant manuscript copies of these Pauline epistles probably date from the 2nd century, at the earliest.

        An early time frame for the writing of these 7 epistles wouldn’t help any apologists, because of Paul’s near-total silence about the birth, life, teachings, and alleged miracle-working of this Jesus character . . . details that could have strengthened or supported Paul’s arguments if he had known of them. Even Paul’s recitation of a composite list of resurrection appearances is inconsistent with the later (fictionalized and embellished) Gospel accounts.

        I have no skin in the game, no dog in the fight, about whether “Paul” even existed as a single, real individual, let alone whether his letters were written in 45 C.E. or 145 C.E.

      2. It’s to some degree an assumption based on correlating material in Paul’s epistles with biographical material about him in the book of Acts which gives dates here and there.

        However, this is a bit problematic as there is autobiographical material in Paul’s letters which directly contradicts material in the book of Acts. (Such as the nature of his conflicts with Peter- the nature of his mission, the circumstances of his conversion, etc. In Acts, Paul always first preaches to Jews and then when it doesn’t take, he switches. In his Epistles, he sees himself as always and everywhere preaching to non-Jews from Square 1.)

        So although Acts clearly fudged some things, it’s to a considerable degree an assumption based on presuming Acts didn’t fudge dates.

        There’s also a rough guess based on how underdeveloped Christianity seems to be in Paul’s letters.

        The Dutch school of “Radical Criticism” in the late 19th century dated Paul’s letters to very late 1st century!!!!

        1. Yes, the contradictions between Paul’s own accounts of his activities and the accounts in Acts are a problem for the theologians and apologists.

          In one of his books, G. A. Wells wrote that Paul’s conversion to Christianity and his preaching probably began between 40 and 43 C.E., because one of Paul’s letters refers to an attempt by King Aretas of the Naboteans to arrest Paul, and at that time Paul seemed to have been preaching for 2 to 3 years. Sources outside the New Testament show that Aretas died in 43 C.E.

          I was never convinced by the arguments that the Pauline epistles were written late in the 1st century, unless the dating of all 4 of the Canonical gospels isushed into the 2nd century, instead of sometime after 70 C.E. If the Pauline epistles and the 4 Canonical gospels were all written between 70 and 110 C.E., it becomes harder to explain Paul’s silence and/or ignorance of details that were collected or invented and included in the Gospels.

          Could someone have invented “Paul” as a character and then given him a sketchy biography rooted in the 4th and 5th decades of the 1st century, complete with references to real individuals such as Aretas? Soitainly! (The author of Mark’s Gospel, or one of his sources, had a similar idea in adding Pontius Pilate to the Passion narrative.) But I’d expect a fraud-artist to do a better job, to come up with a better message for “Paul” to convey.

          1. It’s hardly uncommon for people to mix up e names snd / or dates of prominent people, even innocently. And especially common for people to blame out-of-office public officials they didn’t like for things done to them today — how many people still today personally blame Clinton or Bush for some personal misfortune that befalls them?

            Paul could easily have made such an offhand reference innocently or otherwise…and we know without question that the letters themselves have been repeatedly tampered with.

            I’d say you’re fairly safe in making big-picture sweeping gneralizations about the author of the Epistles, but, beyond that, the default stance should be to question everything and trust nothing without external (and trustworthy) corrobration.



      3. Thanks, Jeff and Jon. I figured as much.

        I would personally suggest a much later date for Paul. It’s clear that he’s writing to multiple established Christian communities, and we have no evidence of Christian communities in the first half of the first century. Personally, I’d guess no earlier than late first century, and I’d consider the first half of the second century more reasonable. Certainly after the destruction of the Temple.

        That he doesn’t preach the same Jesus as is in the Gospels is of no consequence; lots of second century Christians preached of Christs and Jesuses much different from the one the Nicaeans eventually settled upon. Ordinary doctrinal differences are more than ample to account for Paul’s Christ Jesus. Couple that with the fact that he was pretty clearly himself a Pagan convert, and it’s hardly surprising he wasn’t as up on what others were preaching at the time. Compare the various heretical gospels and what-not and it’ll become plain that views about Jesus that were even more radically at odds with the Gospels (and each other) than Paul’s were quite common, even the norm.

        That Acts is used to establish Paul’s chronology pretty clearly demonstrates just how absurd Christian historical analysis really is. After all, Acts opens with Jesus beaming back up to the mothership — and is (most likely) authored by the same Luke who introduces himself with “I heard it from a friend of a friend of a friend who knew somebody was there, so you know it’s true.” Even the simplest, most uncontroversial statements in Acts (or the rest of the Gospels) must be treated with utmost suspicion, except insofar as to establish what the author intended to communicate. And when there are such blatant contradictions between what Acts claims and what Paul claims for himself? Only a fool would use Acts to glean information about Paul at that point.

        And this isn’t an attempt on my part to use a late date to discredit the historicity of Jesus. As you note, Jeff, an early date is just as damning as a late date. Rather, it’s just me observing that the Christians have proven themselves the worst of liars about all the rest of the facts surrounding the establishment of their cult, so it seems most reasonable to not trust them about this fact as well.

        Ultimately, I think the most we can say about the Epistles is that they represent a less developed version of Christianity than the one in the Gospels. Whether that’s because the development came later or because Paul’s theology is itself simply less developed would be a matter for further investigation…should one care enough about the matter to do the investigating.



        1. Much historical analysis would depend on to what degree Christians were
          a) knowingly lying (I would say this is true of the forged inauthentic letters of Paul- deliberate pious deception IMO),

          and to what degree Christians were
          b) deeply self-deceived living in an illusion (I would say this is true of Paul’s visions),

          and to what degree Christians were
          c) writing what they thought of as pious fiction, kind of like the biographical novels by Irving Stone about Van Gogh and Michelangelo (this may or may not be true of the Gospel of Luke) but weren’t expecting fundamentalism to arrive in later generations.

          So it may be an overstatement to say they were the “worst of liars” although about the only thing NT historians consider rock-bottom fact in the NT is Paul’s autobiographical statements about himself in his seven authentic epistles.

          When George Wells backed off from the full-mythicist position, he continued to hold that the sayings source known as “Q” was probably the only reliable source of anything the J-man actually ever said.

          1. Considering Paul would be an excellent fit for the modern-day archetype of a Joseph Smith or Sun Myung Moon, and how easily such types are today known to lie about their own biographies, I wouldn’t even place much trust in even an offhand trivial autobiographical statement by Paul, even if the Emperor personally notarized the statement.

            Complicating matters even further…well, who do we mean by “Paul”? The author of the epistles clearly isn’t the same person as the character in Acts, even if they might share a name. And we know many of the epistles were written by people claiming to be the character in Acts.

            Somebody wrote the letters sometime in the first third of the first millennium somewhere in the Meditrannean, that seems a reasonably safe conclusion. But pinning it down further with any degree of confidence would seem to be a fool’s errand. And even that conclusion must be tentative, considering the provenance of the copies of copies of the letters themselves.


            1. The other end of the spectrum from Joe Smith or Reverend Moon would be Emmanuel Swedenborg, surely the most sane, stable, and mature ecstatic visionaries of the past 500 years. An entire article about him has been written recently arguing ES is a classic psych case of “hallucinations of the sane”. This in turn (along with his humane values) probably explains why he has held a fascination for many creative artists who don’t at all believe in his visions (such as the playwright Strindberg.)

              The fascination that Joan of Arc held for hard-core rationalists like Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw was due to her disarming sincerity, and obviously good character. Twain and Shaw viewed her heroically without once believing in any of her visions or private revelations. (Twain wrote a novel about her under a pseudonym, and Shaw a play.)

              So I think you are slightly stacking the deck when you say Paul is an ancient counterpart of Moon and Smith.

              Moon in particular strikes me as both lunatic and evil. I went to a free talk of his in 1975, and thought his body and speech mannerisms were remarkably Hitlerish. He even goose-stepped at one point.

  21. The only sense I’ve ever been able to make of the crucifixion myth is that in the early days of Xtianity, the notion of a human surrogate may have been appealing to societies that practiced human sacrifice, relieving them of continuing the practice. It must have been wasteful in time as well as population. Wouldn’t you want everyone to go in with a concept that relieved the chance that you might be sacrificed? Sure, it isn’t presented that way now because there isn’t any human sacrifice going on, so it’s no longer a selling point and therefore the crucifiction has since been subsumed by this vague notion of covering all sin.

    But I’ve never heard anyone put it this way in any historical context. Surely the idea isn’t novel. Has anyone ever seen it explained this way? With evidence to support it?

    1. By the time of the Second Temple (the one that the Romans destroyed in 70 CE), the Jews and everybody else in the Mediterranean had long since abandoned religious human sacrifice to propitiate the gods. Ritualistic animal sacrifice, on the other hand, was the Temple’s main stock in trade, and one of Jesus’s main theological purposes was to take the place of the animal sacrifice.

      I should hasten to add that there’s not even a hint that this was a result of some sort of PETA-esque animal rights campaign. Rather, this would be your standard run-of-the-mill religious disagreement of nothing of any consequence whatsoever — what day of the week to worship on, whether your temple should be tended to by chaste men or promiscuous women, which foods are feasts for the gods and which are forbidden by them, that sort of thing.



  22. How come the 800 Pharisees crucified by the Sadducees don’t also confer a unique relationship with god? Surely they suffered more than Jesus did; while they were dying on their crosses the Sadducees brought out the crucifieds’ wives and children and slit their throats in front of them.

  23. Theological Methodology™ isn’t about evidence.

    Theological Methodology™ is triune: The Blather, The Jargon and The Holier-than-thou Attitude.

  24. Two months ago I sprained my ankle, and it hurt really bad. But it got better.

    I am therefore the unique link between human life and divine life, the living means by which our relationship with God can be restored.

  25. It’s strange that Polkie makes an appeal to ignorance of Quantum Mechanics. After all, QM is based on numerous observations and the current mathematical models are pretty good. I don’t know what he means by “not wholly understood theoretically” – scientists have long discarded the Socratic regression and the notion that everything must somehow be “understood”. As for the observations which are not quite adequately accounted for by existing models (for example, ongoing debate on the Dark Matter hypothesis) – so what? No one’s worked out a neat solution yet, but the Dark Matter hypothesis has a hell of a lot more going for it than the God hypothesis.

  26. Jerry: You seem to have overlooked the difference between “why” and “how”.

    As you know, we are (at the point you quote) responding to the question: “46. How does the death of Jesus save the world” and we begin:

    “Christians believe that … We also believe …” and then comes the passage you quote. So it’s perfectly clear that we are explaining what Christians believe.

    You might think that we should be responding to a different question, but it isn’t a very sensible criticism of a response to X that is not a response to Y.

    If you could for once try not to mislead your readers about our book and actually produce a valid argument against something we say it would be much more productive.

    And have you found anything wrong with our appendix on Evolution. Your comments there, where you are world expert, would be enormously valuable and enormously appreciated.

    1. You on purpose seem to muddle the differences yourself (Sophisticated Theology® ?!), by comparing the (unfounded, not predicting nothing) christian belief ‘system’ and a well established scientific theory, which predicts (=it seems to work well) extremely accurately a lot of things (even if we (without math) can’t comprehend it fully):

      “Nevertheless, there has not been one single and universally accepted theory of exactly how this works. In science, we are familiar with the fact that there can be phenomena that cannot be denied but that are not wholly understood theoretically—quantum physics is a good example.”

      You compare two not comparable things.
      That’s a lousy, not warranted, analogy.
      And that’s what’s beeing chritisized.

      JAC writes rightfully:
      “Once again they try to put the lucubrations of ancient and illiterate goatherds on par with modern science.”

      JAC furhter points out that the foundations of christian religion are to put it mildly far from beeing sound. And this is the point whe you start to whine (a hallmark of Sophisticated Theology®):

      “If you could for once try not to mislead your readers about our book and actually produce a valid argument against something we say it would be much more productive”

      You realy believe what you write, do you ?

      1. And have you found anything wrong with our appendix on Evolution. Your comments there, where you are world expert, would be enormously valuable and enormously appreciated.

        Translation: “Sophisticated Theology® is beyond the ability of mere scientists to comprehend, much less comment on.”

  27. Jerry:

    BTW I’m curious. Which “illiterate goatherds” are you referring to? Whatever the authors of the New Testament were, they were obviously not illiterate. And I know of no evidence that any of them was a goatherd.

    I expect ignorant gibberish from Grayling, but you are a serious scientist. Or was this a slip of the pen (perhaps brought on by excess lucubration)?

    1. I’m sure Jerry was referring to the Tanach with that one.

      However, the Gospels portray the Jesus antihero character as an illiterate shepherd. Is that close enough?



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