Why Religion? (I)

“You can’t write honestly about human beings if you want to be popular.” (Steven Pinker)

Steven Pinker’s article in the latest issue of The Humanist, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion” (Sept/Oct ’06, pp 10-15), explains religion as an evolutionary byproduct of other adaptations, rather than as an adaptation itself. He objects to adaptation theories on grounds that they beg the question, wrongly assuming religion to be an inevitable outcome.

Here are the common explanations for religion as biological adaptation, to which Pinker objects (see pp 11-12).

1. Religion gives comfort. But why is the mind comforted by the ineffable, intangible, or even that which is plainly false? Usually we’re comforted by things we have good reason to believe are true.

2. Religion brings community together. But why do organisms cooperate better when religion enters the picture? Why aren’t emotions like trust and loyalty and solidarity enough, as indeed they can be.

3. Religion provides a source of ethics. But why look to religion for this? Secular philosophy and atheism can give us ethics as much as religion — just as religion can be a source for unethical behavior as much as ethical.

I agree that there is nothing inevitable about religion when considered this generally, and thus should not be viewed as an adaptation. Religion is more like reading and less like spoken language. (Spoken language, as Pinker points out, emerges spontaneously, inevitably, everywhere in all societies, while reading is a byproduct of spoken language; kids don’t read spontaneously unless taught.) It is a byproduct of other adaptations which yield more concrete benefits than the general ones above. Pinker suggests some of those benefits, which we will consider in the next post.

Quote for the Day: Bultmann’s Isolationism

“Bultmann’s existentialism directly related God to nothing at all in the world at large, which is why his audience was made up entirely of theologians and church members. Bultmann ended up proclaiming an isolated world, a world isolated from both Nature and culture, isolated from everything save the church. But there is no future in that. Without vestigia Dei in mundo there is no Deus.” (Dale Allison, The Luminous Dusk, pp 17-18)

The Jerusalem Council: Gal 2:1-10 = Acts 15:1-29

Mark Goodacre confirms my belief that Gal 2:1-10 should be identified with the event reported in Acts 15:1-29. Read his post — it’s classic Goodacre and drew a lot of comments, including one from Ben Witherington. Matthew Bates, who like Witherington thinks that Gal 2:1-10 = Acts 11:27-30, responded to Mark with the following seven points:

1. Paul’s going down to Jerusalem in response to a revelation could be correlated with the “revelation” given to Agabus concerning a world wide famine in Acts 11:28.

But Mark addressed this, pointing out that Paul uses “revelation” to refer to a direct communication between himself and God, not to the words of a prophet who had come from Jerusalem. “Paul does not use the term ‘revelation’ when he is talking about words that come through human agency, even prophetic ones.”

2. Paul reports in Galatians that the Apostles instructed he and Barnabas, “only to continue to remember the poor” — Gal 2:10. The most natural way to understand this instruction is in the context of a famine relief visit such as Acts 11:29-30: “The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” On the other hand, Acts 15 provides no immediate context for “continuing to remember the poor.”

The famine visit is a red herring, because the collection for “the poor” was really a franchise fee — for the Jerusalem apostles. Thus Donald Akenson:

“Paul says the collection is for the poor of Jerusalem and he must have used that explanation as he tirelessly begged from community to community, but that was a face-saving formula… Jerome Murphy-O’Connor puts it well in his summary of the Jerusalem Deal: ‘a financial contribution from Gentile believers seemed like a reasonable quid pro quo for Jerusalem’s concession on circumcision’… In promising to raise funds from his Gentile mission to turn over to the Jerusalem ‘saints’, Paul can be seen to have been paying what we would today call a ‘franchise fee’. Pay or you can’t play…” (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, pp 164-165)

On top of this, there was always an abundance of poor in ancient Palestine, whether in times of famine or not. But that wasn’t the issue. If it was, Paul wouldn’t have taken so many years to raise the collection. (Assuming multiple collections, as Richard Fellows does, is cumbersome and unnecessary.)

3. Acts 15 seems to be a public meeting, while the meeting in Gal 2:1-10 is called, “… a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders.” This makes identification of the two events less likely.

The argument depends on assuming that Luke must agree with Paul on every detail. But aside from that, Mark further points out that advocates of Acts 11:27-30 = Gal 2:1-10 simply trade one “private vs. public” discrepancy for another: “Those who think that Acts 11.27-30 equates with Gal. 2.1-10 regularly say that Acts 15 cannot equate with Gal. 2 because the latter depicts a private event. But for the Acts 11.27-30 = Gal. 2.1-10 equation to work, one has to overcome exactly the same difficulty with respect to Acts 9.26-30 // Gal. 1.18-20, where one depicts a private and the other a public event.”

4. Peter’s inconsistent behavior regarding table fellowship in Antioch is best explained as occurring prior to the Acts 15 council, before such issues were made clear.

The Antioch incident is seriously misunderstood. Antioch was about circumcision (not food laws), and that issue had been made perfectly clear. James, in an act of treachery, revoked the decision made in Jerusalem, and Peter followed his lead. See my Treachery at Antioch for details.

5. Paul’s habit was to refer to regions by their political rather than ethnic label (e.g. Macedonia), contrary to Luke. Since the debate is over the identity of the group called “Galatians” by Paul, Paul’s usage must take priority over Luke’s when attempting to identify the recipients of his letter.

See (6.) below.

6. We have clear evidence that Paul evangelized Southern Galatia (in the “political” sense) on his first mission (Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, etc.) whereas we have no evidence that Paul ever evangelized Northern Galatia (in either the “ethnic” or the “political” sense). This first mission was prior to the Acts 15 council, allowing for the possibility that Galatians was written in the wake of the first mission prior to the Acts 15 council.

The North Galatian theory is preferable. Not only can a strong case be made for Galatians being written after I Corinthians (see Goodacre’s series: I, II, III), there are problems with confining Paul’s activity to the regions of Syria and Cilicia for a fourteen-year period followed by Herculean accomplishments across Greece and Asia Minor during the closing years. There’s a lot to be said for Peter Bercovitz’s timeline, on which I commented recently.

7. Finally, if Gal 2:1-10 corresponds to Acts 11:27-30, then the famous conflict between the number of times which Paul claims to have visited Jerusalem in Galatians and the record of Paul’s visits in Acts disappears.

This assumes that resolving such discrepancies is desirable in the first place. John gave Jesus two Jerusalem visits (against the synoptic writers, and putting the temple incident early); Luke could have done similarly for Paul. Goodacre, however, points out that there may not even be a discrepancy if the visits mentioned in Acts 9:26-30 and 11:27-30 are the same. (And despite Witherington’s objections, Luke does seem to favor a flash-forward technique, however anachronistic the term itself sounds.)

In sum, identifying Gal 2:1-10 with the event reported in Acts 15:1-29 is most natural and plausible. Luke has retrojected the Jerusalem conference back into an earlier stage of Paul’s ministry — before he evangelized Asia Minor and Greece — and reworked the facts with the apostolic decree, smoothing things over and portraying things less controversial than they really were.

UPDATE: Mark responds to his critics.

Quotes for the Day: Epiphenomenal Paul

“However frequently one encounters distasteful attitudes in Paul’s epistles, these moments are irrelevant. They should be treated as epiphenomenal, like a rain shower occuring in the face of a volcanic eruption. Whatever his rebarbarative moments, Paul seems to me to be the character who is most authentically defined of all the figures we find in the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Talmuds… Paul is a jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being. And, unlike everyone else in the scriptures and the Talmuds, he has left us writings that are not merely ascibed to him by others, but are unassailably his own creation. Saint Paul we meet in person; and when we finally become at ease with his angular personality, he talks to us in his oblique way of the historical Jesus and starts us on an historical pilgrimage that is pure joy.” (Donald Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 13)

“In the case of New Testament criticism, the most accessible personality has got to be Paul. His letters convey a person wracked with both doubt and hope that can still touch us today… What makes historical criticism so interesting are all the interesting people that it studies. Never forget that in the end we are studying humans and that we too are all human, just as complicated, talented, and flawed as those whom we study.”(Stephen Carlson)

The Happy Agnostic

Don’t miss the interview with Bart Ehrman on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. I like this part:

P.J. Williams: “Do you think that anyone might ever come away from reading Misquoting Jesus with the impression that the state of the New Testament text is worse than it really is?”

Bart Ehrman: “Yes I think this is a real danger, and it is the aspect of the book that has apparently upset our modern day apologists who are concerned to make sure that no one thinks anything negative about the holy Bible. On the other hand, if people misread my book – I can’t really control that very well. Maybe ironically, this could show the fallacy of the view also held widely among evangelicals, that the intention of an author dictates the meaning of a text (since my intentions seem to have had little effect on how some people read my text).”

The Unity of II Corinthians

I’ve finally come across an impressive argument for II Corinthians as a single letter. For years I’ve favored the following the reconstruction:

Letter #1: II Cor 2:14-6:13, 7:2-4 (written before the dispute)
Letter #2: II Cor 10:1-13:14 (written during the dispute)
Letter #3: II Cor 1:1-2:13, 7:5-16 (written after the dispute)

Later inserts: II Cor 8:1-24 and 9:1-15
Fragment not written by Paul: II Cor 6:14-7:1

But in “Revisiting II Corinthians: Rhetoric and the Case for Unity”, J.D.H. Amador explains why II Cor 10:1-13:13 should not be identified with the “painful” letter mentioned in II Cor 1:1-2:13, 7:5-16:

“The argumentative situation of II Cor 10-13 and that reported in II Cor 1:23-2:11, 2:5-13 are quite distinctive. In the former, Paul is defending his ethos in the community as a result of a perceived threat by outsiders. In the latter, Paul’s ethos is not under question. Instead, it is respect to the ethos of someone in the community as a result of Paul’s previous deliberative advice that he is concerned. These are two radically different argumentative sections. Therefore, chapters 10-13 have simply been misidentified as ‘the tearful/painful’ letter.”

Read the whole thing. It’s a first-rate essay and devoid of apologetics. I’ll have to revisit my ideas about II Corinthians.

(Hat-tip to Stephen Carlson for the reference.)

The Chronology of Paul’s Letters

I’m enjoying the chronology discussions prompted by Mark Goodacre’s series (I, II, III) on the dating of Galatians with respect to I Corinthians.

For the uninitiated, Peter Bercovitz’s website is a good source to start with. He offers two alternate timelines:

Letters Based Chronology (A): Pre-Conference Founding Missions (Contra Acts)

Letters Based Chronology (B): Post-Conference Founding Missions (Acts Friendly)

Bercovitz favors option (A) for many reasons, the two most important being that (1) option (B) limits Paul’s activity to the regions of Syria and Cilicia for fourteen years and then requires Herculean accomplishments across Greece and Asia Minor during the closing years; and (2) option (B) means that it took Paul twice the time to deliver the collection to Jerusalem, 6-8 years instead of 3-4.

Here are the highlights of option (A), which is indeed the one that is preferable, and compatible with Goodacre’s dating of Galatians (between I and II Corinthians).

First Jerusalem visit

In Syria and Cilicia, then founding of churches in Galatia, at Philippi, at Thessalonica, and at Corinth.


Second Jerusalem visit (agreement on the collection)

Antioch Incident

Second visit to Galatians (collection begun there), then founding of church in Ephesus

Previous Letter to the Corinthians

Titus sent to Corinth (collection begun there)

I CORINTHIANS (directions given for collection there)

Crisis in Galatia (lapse of collection there)


Imprisonment in Ephesus



Release from prison

Crisis in Corinth (lapse of collection there)

Second visit to Corinth

Back in Ephesus


In Troas, then Macedonia where meets Titus


Titus to Corinth (collection resumed there)

Third visit to Corinth (collection completed there)


Third Jerusalem visit (presumed delivery of the collection)