paleo Ideofact

Tuesday, June 18, 2002
That's not a misspelling, that's how we spelled the word "lead" at the Inquirer, as in the lead paragraph of an article. Here's how not to write one:
A Palestinian blew himself up on a bus here yesterday, killing 19 other people and threatening to unleash a fresh cycle of bloodshed as Washington readied a new strategy for Middle East peace. Israeli police said some 50 people were wounded in the attack on a rush-hour bus in southern Jerusalem carrying commuters and schoolchildren. At least five were reported in serious condition, including four youths.
It's from this unremarkable Arab News article. Isn't the murder of 19 people and the wounding of 50 others the unleashing of a fresh cycle of bloodshed in and of itself?

Monday, June 17, 2002
Dr. Rodney Blackhirst argues that the medieval Gospel of Barnabas might have been based on an earlier, now lost Gospel of Barnabas that might have reflected the beliefs of an early quasi-Christian sect, the Ebionites.

In the third book of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, we learn of a pair of sects that diverged from orthodoxy. The first, which honored him as a prophet, held that Jesus Christ was merely a man, and denied even the virgin birth. The second, like the first, adhered to Mosaic law. The latter sect accepted the virgin birth and even celebrated, on Sunday, the resurrection, yet they rejected the epistles of Paul. Eusebius tells us of the two sects,
It is then because of such practices that they have been dubbed with their present name: the name of Ebionites hints at the poverty of their intelligence, for this is the way in which a poor man is referred to by the Hebrews.
The Ebionites figure in the works of Irenaeus and Origen, both of whom were sources for Eusebius. They were most likely Jewish Christians, which sounds somewhat like a contradiction in terms -- and, if Eusebius' too cursory description of their beliefs is accurate, probably is. As for his theory on the origins of the name, Ebionite most likely refers to the sects' preference for material poverty over worldly success, although there are other possible explanations.

I found a group of modern Ebionites with their own web page; religious invective that exceeds that of Eusebius is alive and well. Thus we read, in a short piece on the implications of Sept. 11,
Are we at war with a strange, foreign menace who hates civilization? Yes. But we have the "Taliban" fundamentalist, fanatic, murderous, hateful mentality here among fundamentalist Christians also. Just as Americans sit and wait and worry about the next terrorist disaster, other Americans have always had to sit and wonder 'how will Christians attack us next?' ...

There is a difference between the Muslim "Taliban" terrorists, and the Christian "Taliban" extremists. The Muslim terrorists are less cowardly. At least they will step forward to fight, terrorize, and scheme, thus identifying themselves as a clear target to be taken out. The Christian "Taliban" wear big smiles and suits or have a chaw of tobacco in their jaw, have no turbans, but are as full of as much hate for anything they cannot control as Usama bin Laden is.
I do not know if such invective is typical of these Ebionites; the article is on their home page. One can well criticize some actions of fundamentalist Christians (I do so myself rather frequently) while still recognizing a qualitative difference between them and the Taliban.

The modern Ebionites describe their beliefs here; a few things worth noting:
We are in no way Christian or supportive of Christianity. We consider Christianity to be a type of Mystery Religion devised by Paul of Tarsus and others. We believe that there is no relationship between Christianity (actually better described as Paulism) and the man Christians refer to as "Jesus."  For that matter, since Christians often claim that "Christian" means Christ-like (that is like "Jesus"), it is most unfortunate that there are few who could honestly make that claim.

Some scholars categorize the ancient Ebionites as Christian or Jewish-Christian. That description is unjustified and untenable. In fact there is no such thing as a Jewish-Christian just as there are no Muslim-Christians.
And this:
Yes, there certainly is evil. But a better word is failure. Failure to live as we should. And we should live as Yahweh instructed us in His Torah.

Torah is often rendered "the Law" in English. The more accurate translation is Instruction. This Torah is the body of instructional laws given to Moses after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. These instructions have been enumerated to 613 laws stated positively (you shall...) and negatively (you shall not...).
And later, this:
Not all the laws are still applicable because things they concerned no longer exist. For example, there is no temple and this voids a good number of laws at this present time. But Jew try to observe all of these laws they can. (Again, breaking a commandment is not some sort of offense requiring automatic eternal damnation. Commandments are ideals to strive for.)
I find this sort of thing fascinating. Like the ancient Ebionites, like the prologue to the medieval forgery, the Gospel of Barnabas (which says
Dearly beloved, the great and wonderful God has during these past days visited us by His prophet Jesus Christ in great mercy of teaching and miracles, for which reason many, being deceived of Satan, under pretence of piety, are preaching most impious doctrine, calling Jesus son of God, repudiating the circumcision ordained of God for ever, and permitting every unclean meat: among whom also Paul has been deceived, whereof I speak not without grief.)
...we find an aversion to Paul, and an attachment to the law which Paul repudiated. In Deuteronomy 17:1-5, the law, or instruction, says:
[1] Thou shalt not sacrifice unto the LORD thy God any bullock, or sheep, wherein is blemish, or any evilfavouredness: for that is an abomination unto the LORD thy God.

[2] If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,

[3] And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;

[4] And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and inquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:

[5] Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
In Deuteronomy 22:20-21, the instruction says of a bride who's not a virgin,
[20] But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:

[21] Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.
I presume the modern Ebionites classify these as inapplicable laws.

One other point worth mentioning. The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on Ebionites ends with this interesting observation:
Of the history of this sect hardly anything is known. They exerted only the slightest influence in the East and none at all in the West, where they were known as Symmachiani. In St. Epiphanius's time small communities seem still to have existed in some hamlets of Syria and Palestine, but they were lost in obscurity. Further east, in Babylonia and Persia, their influence is perhaps traceable amongst the Mandeans, and it is suggested by Uhlhorn and others that they may be brought into connection with the origin of Islam.
I have written very little on Blackhirst's suggestion; perhaps more on the subject later.

Sunday, June 16, 2002
Douglas Turnbull of Beauty of Gray has a post in which he again takes issue with Intelligent Design, which is a kind of scientific or quasi-scientific creationism. Having already made an ass of myself on the subject, I should probably refrain from commenting, but then if I were afraid of making an idiot of myself, I wouldn't have started the blog.

As I think I've said before, I certainly don't endorse Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory, I don't think it should be accorded equal status with Darwinian evolution in schools, and I'm not entirely sure that its methodology is sound. Nonetheless, I don't think it's entirely rational to dismiss it out of hand, or to say to the philosophers, theologians, and mathematicians who want to pursue the idea that they're beyond the pale of rational discourse, that they can have no home in the university community to work out their theories. Professors of philosophy and theology need something to do too, after all, and I think they can do far less harm working on Intelligent Design than on, say, the federal budget.

I think I've also said somewhere (I would go through my archives, but after eight straight hours of editing I'm not up to the task) that I find evolutionary theory a bit disappointing. This might merely be an indication of my own ignorance. I studied hominid evolution as an undergraduate, and found it reasonably plausible. But the basics of evolution -- the shift from single to multiple cell organisms, the change from asexual to sexual reproduction, the development of sight from a blind world -- I find all this problematic if mere genetic mutations (which are rare and generally speaking, maladaptive) are the agent of them all.

What interested me about the post, though, was something else, specifically this:
Or, to put it another way, there is no internally consistent intelligent design argument that is not forced to invoke God as an explanatory device.

Along the same lines, most would agree that the economy is too complicated to be simply managed or controlled by human intervention. If this is the case (as I think it is), then how is it that the biosphere, which is much more complicated than the economy, is presumed to be manipulable by some outside intervening being(s)? Or the equally complex relationship between an individual creatures DNA and its shape and function, for that matter.
Proponents of Intelligent Design argue, without specifying, that an outside intelligence must have been responsible for those things I've mentioned (among others), here recounted in reverse order: the eye, the perfect curve, complexity. Mr. Turnball, in disputing this, is not making the same mistake that the Greek poets made in attributing to deities anthropomorphic qualities. Rather, he is suggesting, via the analogy to the economy, that any intelligence less than the omniscient creator of the great monotheistic religions would lack the wherewithal to design a biosphere that allows for mosquitoes, moose, Mozart, Mondrian, mice, moles, moths, and so on.

I tend to agree with him.

However, that being said, the notion of an omniscient God and creator is not among the least elegant of the solutions to the question of existence. I do not say that I endorse this, merely that many of our metaphors point to such a solution. Mr. Turnball invokes the market, for example -- which, as I recall, is guided by "an invisible hand."

Note: I subsequently edited the third to last graph for clarity.