"The object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles." ~ P.G. Wodehouse

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Importance of Big Ideas and Great Books

There is an excellent piece entitled "Philosopher Kings: Business Leaders would benefit from studying great writers" in the Schumpeter column of the October 4th 2014 Economist. The article is a lament with some poignant comments arguing that business leaders would be better off spending weekends reading great books and discussing big ideas with others rather than doing team building exercises or experiencing leadership skills on a kayak trip. The call is for business leaders to take some "inward-bound" courses instead of the typical outward-bound courses.

I think that the piece offers some great advice, and I think that the advice shouldn't just be taken by business leaders. Everyone in every walk of life could use a few big ideas and read a great book or two. Connecting with the broader ideas of what humanity is and what culture is can expand our horizons and challenge us to rethink our own narrow parts of the world. If a business leader can be encourage to rethink wealth accumulation by reading Plato, then what else can happen when other writers, thinkers, and philosophers from the past are read in new contexts?

The argument of the piece also reaches beyond mere weekend retreats for business leaders. What if someone was to immerse themselves in four years of university education that focused on great books and big ideas? What if rather than spending one's university years on one subject the coursework was part of a broad-based curriculum that integrated arts, humanities, and social sciences and challenged students to wrestle with humanity's big questions, to integrate disciplines with life and questions of faith, and to encourage analytical thinking and clear, concise writing? What if we abandoned the contemporary call for the "practical" and "employable" and actually graduated students who can think and make decisions and be innovative, which are arguably practical and employable in their own right? If this was the education that we pursued, we would have a few more people who could think outside the box, who could assess the past and consider the promise of the future, who would have a better understanding of what it means to be human.

The liberal arts or a broad-based curriculum may be old-fashioned. It may not be trendy, but something has to be said for its longevity. And I'm not convinced that the existence of glowing screens in front of every face make the liberal arts obsolete. I think our present time is in need of great books and big ideas more than ever. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Thoughts on "Jesus Christ didn't exist"

The Daily Mail Online has run a piece today entitled: "'Jesus NEVER existed': Writer finds no mention of Christ in 126 historical texts and says he was a 'mythical character.'" The writer is Michael Paulkovich who is described as a "historical researcher." (It is probably worth mentioning that the next story that the Daily Mail suggests its readers view is "Has 'Dracula's dungeon' been unearthed in Turkey?")

As the title, and every following paragraph, states, Paulkovich did not find reference to Jesus in 126 ancient historical writers (his list is provided), and so therefore, Paulkovich believes Jesus was mythical. The assumption built in here is that by the end of the first century Jesus was famous enough throughout the Roman Empire that any decent historian would have mentioned him: "all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not." 

Yet, it should be obvious that this is clearly an argument from silence. For example, before today, the odds would have been quite good that there were more than 126 historians and writers who had not heard or written about Michael Paulkovich. Note also the difference between hearing and writing. A historian may have heard about Jesus, but considering what histories they were writing, where they were writing, their perception of Jesus' importance, etc., it is not required that they write about Jesus. It is also telling that the Dead Sea Scrolls are brought into this as evidence against Jesus' existence, and with a misspelling no less: "the silence from Qumram [sic]." The Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran have been dated to a period that briefly overlaps with early Christianity: 200 BCE to 70 CE, yet as Geza Vermes states, some of the scrolls are from the third century CE and the majority of manuscripts are from the the first century BCE and thus pre-Christian (The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 14. See pages 21-23 for Vermes' discussion of the actual relationship between the scrolls and the New Testament). 

Positively, although there is no mention of Jesus in these 126 authors, with the possible exception of the debated Josephus readings, we do have writings from the first century and second century that speak about Jesus. While it is typically pushed aside, the reality is that the New Testament is a collection of documents that all purport the existence of Jesus. The bulk of historical Jesus scholars over the last century have agreed on some basic historical facts of Jesus' life, even if they do not believe Jesus was the Son of God or Messiah. E.P. Sanders in The Historical Figure of Jesus states, "There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus' life." He lists the following "statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career." He adds, "(A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.)" Sanders' list is as follows, but I provide it here somewhat abbreviated yet with mostly Sanders' wording.
  • Jesus was born near the time of Herod the Great's death
  • he lived his early life in Nazareth
  • he was baptized by John the Baptist
  • he called disciples
  • he taught in the countryside and village and not in cities (This latter point is of interest for Paulkovich's claim.)
  • his message was "the kingdom of God"
  • he went to Jerusalem for Passover near the year 30 CE
  • he caused a disturbance in the Temple area
  • he had a final meal with his disciples
  • he was arrested and put on trial by the Jewish authorities
  • he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate (pp. 10-11)
The tension in Paulkovich's claim is that a common person in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, who taught in out of the way places and was executed along with two others, is not likely to have been mentioned by historians, who were sometimes located far from Jerusalem. Jesus did later become well known, but how well known and by what time? By the end of the first century CE, the group called the Way and followers of Christ were only beginning to be noticed in certain pockets of the Roman Empire. 

For an excellent discussion of the issues of whether or not Jesus existed, see Mark Goodacre's NTPod 47: "Did Jesus Exist?"! Paulkovich's argument is obviously not quite so astoundingly new.

[For thorough response to Paulkovich's claim, see Candida Moss and Joel Baden here.]