Mel Gibson and Evolution

Mel Gibson evidently believes in evolution as much as his father believed in the Holocaust. PZ Myers reports here, citing an interview with Playboy magazine (July 1995, p 51).

PLAYBOY: Do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution or that God created man in his image?

GIBSON: The latter.

PLAYBOY: So you can’t accept that we descended from monkeys and apes?

GIBSON: No, I think it’s bullshit. If it isn’t, why are they still around? How come apes aren’t people yet?

Gibson is known for going by what “comes from the papal chair”. What’s curious is that Catholic acceptance of evolution well predates Vatican II. The arch-conservative Pius XII stated there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic faith, albeit grudgingly (Humani Generis, 1950). And John Paul II strongly reaffirmed this less than a decade ago, saying that evolution is factual (“Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”, 1996). The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote a wonderful article about these papal decrees. Gould states:

“Pius XII had grudgingly admitted evolution as a legitimate hypothesis that he regarded as only tentatively supported and potentially (as I suspect he hoped) untrue. John Paul II, nearly fifty years later, reaffirms the legitimacy of evolution —no news here—but then adds that additional data and theory have placed the factuality of evolution beyond reasonable doubt. Sincere Christians must now accept evolution not merely as a plausible possibility but also as an effectively proven fact. In other words, official Catholic opinion on evolution has moved from ‘say it ain’t so, but we can deal with it if we have to’ (Pius’s grudging view of 1950) to John Paul’s entirely welcoming ‘it has been proven true; we always celebrate nature’s factuality, and we look forward to interesting discussions of theological implications.'” (1996). (Natural History, March ’97, pp 16-22)

Whatever secessionist breed of Catholicism Gibson adheres to, it’s pretty extreme to call forth waffling over the Holocaust and denying evolution. But he seems to enjoy sleeping with the fundies. Funny though, as ignorant he is — and a lame actor, too — Gibson is a good filmmaker. I actually liked Passion of the Christ.

The Angry Healer

Bible Review magazine bids us farewell with at least one good article by Bart Ehrman, “Did Jesus Get Angry or Agonize?” (Winter 2005, final issue, pp 17-26,49). The essay addresses textual critical issues covered at more length in Ehrman’s recent book, Misquoting Jesus. He considers the following passage in Mark (1:39-43), where Jesus could be healing someone out of compassion or anger.

Jesus came preaching in their synagogues in all of Galilee and casting out the demons. And a leper came to him beseeching him and saying to him, “If you choose, you can cleanse me.” And [feeling compassion or becoming angry], reaching out his hand, he touched him and said, “I do choose. Be cleansed!” And immediately the leprosy went out from him, and he was cleansed. And rebuking him severely, Jesus cast him out at once.

Most English bibles favor the “feeling compassion” (SPANGNISTHEIS) translation, even though, as Ehrman notes (p 18), one of the oldest Greek manuscripts (Codex Bezae) has “becoming angry” (ORGISTHEIS), which is in turn supported by three other Latin texts. The problem with the “compassion” option is that Matthew (Mt 8:2-3) and Luke (Lk 5:12-13) would have followed this in their own versions of the account (or at least one them surely would have), as they both favor the theme of compassion. But neither has Jesus healing the leper out of compassion. They don’t portray him angry either, but that’s expected: Matthew and Luke take pains to censor Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ anger elsewhere (as in Mk 3:5 — Mt 12:13/Lk 6:10).

Most of us prefer to view Jesus as compassionate whenever possible, not only because it makes him more attractive, but because (in a case like this) it seems to make more sense in context. Ehrman says that this is actually a reason for viewing it as the wrong translation:

“One factor in favor of the ‘angry’ reading is that it sounds wrong. If Christian readers today were given the choice between these two readings, no doubt almost everyone would choose the one more commonly attested in our manuscripts: Jesus felt pity for the man, and so he healed him. The other reading is difficult to figure out. What would it mean to say that Jesus felt angry?” (p 19)

But I disagree. It’s the compassionate option that sounds wrong by Mediterranean standards. The leper’s appeal to help is a challenge that puts Jesus on the spot in front of the crowds. “If you choose, you can cleanse me”, is a veiled way of questioning Jesus’ ability to heal, and daring him to prove himself. That’s why Jesus rebukes him and tells him to get lost.

Ehrman concludes:

“Jesus’ anger erupts when someone doubts his willingness, ability, or divine authority to heal… Someone approaches Jesus gingerly to ask: ‘If you are willing you are able to heal me.’ Jesus becomes angry. Of course he’s willing, just as he is able and authorized. He heals the man but, still somewhat miffed, rebukes him sharply and throws him out.” (p 22)

I agree with this except for Ehrman’s depicting the leper’s appeal as “ginger”. The man is on his knees, shamelessly and stridently begging for deliverance. This constitutes a challenge that Jesus must meet head-on or lose face.

Jesus is featured consistently angry in Mark, less so in Matthew, and almost completely devoid of anger in Luke. The earlier the gospel, not surprisingly, the more we see the historical Jesus: the apocalyptic prophet who was angry at the world, demanded a better one, and who acquired a following the way macho men did in his culture.

Big Bush is Watching You

A college student was visited by the Gestapo for putting Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book on interlibrary loan. The Standard Times reports here. President Bush had apparently authorized the National Security Agency to spy on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002, and without warrants.

One of the student’s professors, Bryan Williams, has reconsidered offering a course on terrorism next semester, for fear of putting his students at risk: “I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that. Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless.”

The next time I check out an ILL book to someone at my library, I’ll give the patron fair warning: Big Bush is watching you.

UPDATE (12/21): This story is rapidly unfolding, and as I mentioned in a new post, this may be a hoax.

UPDATE (12/27): This is indeed a hoax. The Standard Times reports the student confessing to making it all up. Read here.

Quote for the Day: Those Who Bear the Mark of Pain

“The fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain. Who are the members of this fellowship? Those who have learned by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean belong together all over the world; they are united by a secret bond. One and all they know the horrors of suffering to which man can be exposed, and one and all they know the longing to be free from pain. He who has been delivered from pain must not think he is now free again and at liberty to take life up just as it was before, entirely forgetful of the past. He is now a ‘man whose eyes are open’ with regard to pain and anguish, and he must help to overcome those two enemies and to bring others the deliverance which he himself has enjoyed.” (Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, 1921)

Something About the Gospel of Mark

Michael Turton posts a review of his Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark. This commentary is the outcome of Turton’s “goal of producing a skeptical commentary on the Gospel of Mark”, the first ever as he sees it.

It should be noted that the term “skeptical” is rather slippery. I’m a skeptic but see more history preserved in Mark than Turton does. And the idea that Mark is a “one of the greatest literary geniuses of history” — he shows considerably less genius than the other gospel writers, as far as I’m concerned — is at odds with an important approach emphasizing the nonliterary dimension to the texts of the New Testament. The gospels were read in oral settings and communicated ideas to specific communities. (Though if an evangelical like Richard Bauckham disputes this, Turton may share more in common with at least one of those “believing conservatives” he laments about after all.)

But we agree about one thing: Mark is the best gospel we have. If there’s one gospel I could take to the moon with me, that would be the one. In the author’s note Michael writes:

“There’s something about the Gospel of Mark. Matthew instructs, Luke pleases, John drones, but Mark? Mark obsesses. People dive into Mark and emerge for air, months later, not certain what happened to them, and wondering who strangers living in their house are.”

Yes. Mark is the most engaging and dramatic of the four gospels, and Turton’s own commentary on Mark is pretty engaging and dramatic too. Even if you disagree with his approach to Mark (as I do), it’s well worth reading, and you will learn from it.

Ludemann and Goodacre on the Christmas Stories

Jim West reproduces Gerd Ludemann’s thoughts on the infancy narratives here. Ludemann thinks the accounts are “pious fairy tales” and lists “ten unquestionable facts argue against their historical credibility”. Mark Goodacre comments on each of the ten points here. Regarding Mark’s comment on (2):

“The New Testament authors derived most events of the Christmas story from prophecies of the Old Testament and misrepresented their original intent in order to make them seem to point to Jesus.”

“Some of the Biblical verses alluded to by Matthew are such an odd fit with the events narrated that it is difficult to imagine that Matthew, or anyone else, ‘derived’ the narrative from the prophecies. On the contrary, the opposite process, of tradition scripturalized is far more plausible. e.g. Matt. 2.23 — where does it say that the Messiah would live in Nazara? Matthew is weakly scripturalizing the tradition he knows.”

I would enjoy seeing Mark write a sequel (or prequel) essay to the excellent one he did on the passion narratives, which mediated between the “history remembered” and “prophecy historicized” schools of thought. But I agree in essence with Ludemann. Unlike the passion narratives, the infancy narratives reflect a time when no one knew or cared about Jesus. History they aren’t, though Ludemann’s use of the term “fairy tales” is inappropriate. The infancy narratives are myths, not fairy tales, because they were (are) actually believed.

I also agree with Mark’s point in (3), about Matthew trying to explain and defend a tradition of Jesus’ illegitimate birth.

UPDATE: James Crossley exasperates over objections to Ludemann’s tone, wondering “how much time is wasted…trying to prove/disprove stories of the variety that would so obviously be treated as fiction in other disciplines.” A fair counter, given the tone of people like Wright.

UPDATE (II): Read Ludemann’s pugnacious response to Goodacre.

UPDATE (III): Now read Goodacre’s comeback to Ludemann. This has been a lively discussion.