Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Archive for the tag “Christianity”

Theologically Loaded Language

Translating ancient documents into modern languages carries with it more difficulties than most people realize. Pretty much anyone who has ever taken a foreign language class in high school understands that it can often be quite hard to find a word which corresponds exactly between two tongues. Those who have studied outside of the modern Romance languages– classes like Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese– often realize that there are subtleties in grammatical constructions which can convey a great deal more than can be expressed in English. It is a very frequent occurrence that a phrase from one language cannot be rendered with 100% accuracy in another language. In English, this has led to the popular idiom that “something has been lost in translation.”

Ancient languages maintain these problems, but add an entirely new layer of obfuscation which is not found even in most culturally distinct modern languages. Over the past few thousands of years, human understanding of the world around us has changed quite significantly. Just one hundred years ago, no one had ever viewed the ground from five miles up in the air. Two hundred years ago, we had no idea that microscopic organisms cause disease. Three hundred years ago, humanity had no idea that oxygen exists. Four hundred years ago, the world was shocked to learn the the planet Jupiter has moons. The manner in which religion, philosophy, and science have discussed a myriad of things about reality has changed so greatly in recent millennia that very often even one word in a single language can mean something exceedingly different to people living in different periods of time.

The documents which comprise the New Testament of the Christian Bible were written 2000 years ago. In those ensuing twenty centuries, many of the words used by the original authors and many of the concepts which they espoused have engendered incredible amounts of revision, alteration, and nuance by subsequent philosophers and theologians which would have been wholly alien to those initial ancient writers. The vast majority of modern readers– including an embarassingly large number of modern scholars of the text– seem wholly ignorant of this fact when they read a passage from their Bibles.

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A Nativity Story

The man stood, dumbfounded, attempting to comprehend the news he had just been given. The Messenger of God had just informed him that his wife– his Virgin– was now with child, and would present him with a son who would surpass all who had ever lived in beauty and wisdom. The boy to come would be a divine gift, the greatest beneficence that the human race would ever know. Though coming into this world by birth through woman, the infant boy had in fact pre-existed his human form, and was wholly divine in nature. The man rushed home to his wife to find that the Messenger of God had spoken true. She was, indeed, with child.

Thus, Pythagoras was born into this world.

What? You thought I was talking about somebody else? This account is from the Life of Pythagoras, written by the great Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus in the 3rd Century, CE. Now, I will completely admit that I paraphrased the story in order to obfuscate it, a bit. The “Messenger of God” that spoke to Mnesarchus (Pythagoras’ father) was the Oracle at Delphi. And the reason that I capitalized “Virgin” in my paraphrase was because that was the name of Mnesarchus’ wife, before he received this news from the Oracle– Parthenis, in Greek. As soon as he received the announcement from the Oracle, Mnesarchus changed his wife’s name to Pythais, in honor of Pythian Apollo (which, Iamblichus tells us, was also the source for Pythagoras’ name). Still, the paraphrase stands: a Messenger of God informed a man that his wife’s womb had been filled by deity, and that the child would be divine, the greatest gift the world could hope to receive.

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On Carrier’s pre-Christian Jesus Myth

Richard Carrier is a freelance historian with a PhD in Ancient History from Columbia University. He is arguably the most prominent proponent of the Christ Myth hypothesis, today, and one of the few historical scholars with actual qualifications in history that holds to such a position. If you are unaware, the Christ Myth hypothesis argues that there never existed an actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth upon whom the Christian faith eventually became focused. Instead, the Jesus of Nazareth presented in the gospels is a deliberate attempt to tie myths about a celestial being into history. This view is generally dismissed, panned, and ignored by the vast majority of mainstream scholarship, and one could quite rightly describe Richard Carrier as a fringe scholar. However, the simple fact that Carrier is a fringe scholar is not a very good reason for dismissing his work, out of hand. The man is actually a qualified historian, with a PhD from a respected university, who has had articles published in respected academic journals. The fact that his hypothesis goes against mainstream scholarship does not invalidate the rest of his qualifications.

Carrier recently published a book entitled On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt which lays out his views and arguments. I have been meaning to purchase, read, and review that book for this site since it was released, but I refuse to pay $85 for the hardcover or $35 for the paperback version– I find such prices to be wholly excessive. Unfortunately, the book has not yet received an eBook release, which I might be more inclined to purchase (though not if the price is similarly high). Still, Carrier has engaged in a number of debates and public presentations, and it is easy to find at least an overview of his position. For example, he recently gave a talk at Zeteticon which outlines his view.

One of the major points that Carrier alleges, in his presentation, is that we have evidence that there was a pre-Christian, Jewish belief in a celestial being which was actually named Jesus, and was the firstborn son of God, in the celestial image of God, who acted as God’s agent of creation, and was God’s celestial high priest. I have seen Carrier present this information numerous times, in different talks, including the one which I linked above, and he always presents it without actually quoting from the sources which he cites. Now, as I’ve said, I haven’t yet read On the Historicity of Jesus, and it is fully possible that Carrier addresses some of my contentions there, but I find his entire claim that there was a pre-Christian, Jewish belief in a celestial Jesus to be almost entirely unsupportable.

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The Death of Dignity and Virtue

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

–Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History

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Heathen Apologetics, Part 1: Pascal’s Wager

When I was in high school, I took a class called “Myths, Dreams, and Cultures” (or MDC, for short). Now, I attended a fairly upscale private Catholic school, and all but a very few students came from Christian upbringings. As such, one of the main goals of MDC was to open the students up to the understanding that we were a product of our culture, and that other cultures often had very different pictures of the world. To that end, we would play a game called “Stump the Aborigine.” Our teacher took on the role of an idealized traditionalist Native American, living off the land, completely divorced from modern, American culture. Our job was to be the representatives of Modern America in order to convince this “primitive” of the superiority of our way of life. If anyone could succeed at convincing the aborigine to leave his culture for the one we were selling, our teacher promised to buy that student a brand-new car.

It did not take long for me to realize that the game was rigged.

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