How Experts Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left

The Atlantic reports on a new study that measures anti-democratic attitudes on the left, which academics have been slow to identify. Here are the article’s highlights:

1. New approach. The new study is by Thomas Costello and five colleagues, and it finds common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.”

2. Academic blinders. A major reason why left-wing authoritarianism has barely shown up in social-psychology research is that most academic experts in the field are based at institutions where prevailing attitudes are far to the left of society as a whole. Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

3. Obsolete models. Another problem is that the traditional (Altemeyer) scale for measuring authoritarian, while intended to smoke out all kinds of authoritarianism, in effect tends to only identify the right-wing variety. Altemeyer erroneously assumed that left-wing authoritarianism would be identical to the right-wing variety, and that’s why his scale barely identified any subjects. He had either misgauged the threshold or was measuring the wrong attitudes.

4. Left-wing litmus. Costello and his colleagues started afresh, developing what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as:

(a) “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary.” (Critical Race Theory and other Postmodern agendas)

(b) “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” (as 58% of college undergrads polled in 2017 maintained)

(c) “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.”

(d) “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech” (thus advocating top-down censorship)

(e) “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.”

etc.

5. The results. The authoritarian mentality — whether on the left or right — exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, and believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

The Costello team’s preliminary work shows the ratio of right-wing to left-wing authoritarians is about the same if you average it across the globe, but in the U.S., currently, the right-wing authoritarians outnumber left-wing ones by roughly 3:1.

Hopefully Costello’s study will help redress the imbalance of authoritarian studies in academia.

 

“Scientific” American? (Why JEDI isn’t a good acronym for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion)

I can’t believe this piece was published in Scientific American: Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Here’s a taste:

“The Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities… Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: these supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes. The heroic Jedi are thus emblems for a host of dangerously reactionary values and assumptions.”

Shame on those gaslighting Jedi! And no, this isn’t satire. It’s a serious opinion piece. Silly and sad, but even if it were an intelligent opinion, what the hell is it doing in a science magazine?

Here’s more, and now the satire — if it were only that — goes completely over the top:

“The space opera franchise has been critiqued for trafficking in injustices such as sexism, racism and ableism. Think, for example, of the so-called ‘Slave Leia’ costume, infamous for stripping down and chaining up the movie series’ first leading woman as part of an Orientalist subplot. Star Wars arguably conflates ‘alienness’ with ‘nonwhiteness,’ often seeming to rely on racist stereotypes when depicting nonhuman species. The series regularly defaults onto ableist tropes, memorably in its portrayal of Darth Vader, which links the villain’s physical disability with machinic inhumanity and moral deviance, presenting his technology-assisted breathing as a sinister auditory marker of danger and doom.”

Leia’s trashy slave costume (and captivity under Jabba) was actually one of the better parts of Return of the Jedi, and as for old Darth, only the wokes could turn his trademark breathing and respiratory issues into something dirty. It’s a common observation today (among the sane and sensible) that left-wingers are the new puritans, and like the right-wing fundies of the ’80s seem to thrive on manufacturing offense. But they never cease to amaze me to what extremes they can take this idiocy.

And then this:

“The abbreviation JEDI can distract from justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When you think about the word JEDI, what comes to mind? Chances are good that for many, the immediate answer isn’t the concept ‘justice’ (or its comrades ‘equity,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’). Instead this acronym likely conjures a pageant of spaceships, lightsabers and blaster-wielding stormtroopers. Even if we set aside the four cautions above, the acronym JEDI still evokes imagery that diverts attention away from the meanings of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Such distraction exacerbates existing problems and challenges endemic to institutional justice work. For instance, it is already the case that in institutional contexts, terms like ‘justice,’ ‘equity,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are routinely underdefined or conflated, robbed of their specificities and differences. These terms and related abbreviations like DEI can thus come to be treated as institutional buzzwords that are more slogan than substance, signaling commitments that institutions fail to meaningfully honor. We must be more attentive to the meanings and particularities of our words, not less. JEDI does not help us with this. Now is not the time to confuse social justice with science fiction.”

Well, that probably cuts both ways. I’m sure that many Star Wars fans would rejoice to see the JEDI Collaborative rebrand itself with a new acronym. Undoubtedly they’ve no more wish to have Luke and Obi-Wan (mis)associated with the JEDI Collaborative anymore than this author wants the JEDI Collaborative (mis)associated with Jedi knights.

And finally, this challenge at the end:

“If you are, like some of the authors of this piece, a longtime fan of Star Wars (or Disney) and have found yourself defensively bristling while reading the paragraphs above, take a moment to consider that response. We suggest that such a reaction reveals how easily Star Wars and JEDI can introduce distractions and confuse conversations. How ready are we to prioritize the cultural dreamscape of the Jedi over the real-world project of social justice? Investing in the term JEDI positions us to apologize for, or explain away, the stereotypes and politics associated with Star Wars and Disney. How eager are we to fight Star Wars‘ battles, when that time and energy could be better spent fighting for social justice?”

I’ve never been a Star Wars fan (the only two films in the franchise I genuinely admire are Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One), but I wouldn’t get defensive even if I were. Opinions like the ones expressed in this article are simply impossible to take seriously. If there’s anyone confusing social justice (and poorly understood at that) with science fiction, it’s the authors of this article, who are making such a bloody issue out of it.

If you had shown me this article without telling me its source, I would have insisted it was satire. It’s just too over the top, even by woke standards. But then what am I saying, over the top is precisely the nature of the beast. It’s the way of the 21st century, and that beast has now come to science outlets.

UPDATE: Some are (understandably) claiming that this article is a Sokal-like hoax. I repeat: it is not a hoax, not satire. The five contributing authors — four of whom are from the University of Michigan — have impeccable flaming woke credentials. See Carson Byrd‘s profile, for example.

No-Filler Albums: The Ones I Listen to Start to Finish

I saw a meme recently asking for albums that have no bad or mediocre songs, in other words, the albums you often play from start to finish without skipping any tracks. I’m going to allow myself the leeway of a single bad or mediocre track in order to get a top ten list, otherwise I could probably only list half that amount. Even the best albums usually have a couple tracks that I’ll skip or omit from playlists. But not the following. These I often listen to from start to finish.

1. Achtung Baby, U2, 1992. When U2 reinvented themselves by “burning down the Joshua Tree”, they exceeded their ambitions with a masterpiece completely devoid of mediocrity. Its theme is lethal relationships, played to the tune of distorted vocals and guitars. “Zoo Station” takes the lead with this industrial edge. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is as addictive today as it was in ’91. “One”, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, remains widely loved and used at weddings, its bleak message thoroughly misunderstood. “Until the End of the World” is the brilliant conversation between Judas and Jesus; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” a love-hate song that demands to be loved; “So Cruel” a just-as-good sequel. Then comes “The Fly”, showcasing the Edge’s finest guitar work ever. “Mysterious Ways” captures the bliss of physical love, and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is the next-day guilt trip that renews promises of faithfulness. Then “Ultraviolet”, which is the album’s absolute best. “Acrobat” is just sublime, and “Love is Blindness” caps off the album in haunting melodies of mystery. An album like Achtung Baby comes once in a lifetime.

2. Up, Peter Gabriel, 2002. Gabriel’s least accessible album is a raw and wildly imaginative series of meditations on death and grief, and is among the best music I’ve ever heard. “The Barry Williams Show” is a satirical piece that doesn’t belong, but aside from that one misfire, everything is excellent. “Darkness” is the raw opener, a prog piece with abrasive verses meshing with smooth refrains. “Growing Up” is the closest thing to a radio score, but still a bit cerebral for the Billboard charts. The rhythms of “Sky Blue” are as miraculous as those of “Red Rain” from So, and what a coup to use the Blind Boys of Alabama at the end. “No Way Out” is another precious gift and a prequel of sorts to “I Grieve”, the musing on death that Gabriel nails so perfectly. “My Head Sounds Like That” and “More Than This” put us on the road to some measure of recovery. “Signal To Noise” serves as the incredible climax, with haunting melodies, exotic percussion, and guest vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, rolling into an orchestra/percussion combo that builds to a raging crescendo. And finally, “The Drop” leaves us serenely pondering the mystery of death. There are days I call Up my favorite album of all time (if I’m in the mood to pretend Achtung Baby was never made), and aside from poor Barry Williams, I never skip a track.

3. God’s Own Medicine, The Mission UK, 1986. Talk about every track pulling its weight. The opening “Wasteland” broils with conflict between a strict religious upbringing and libertine freedom; in some ways it’s the quintessential Mission UK song. “Bridges Burning” has a hellish chorus screaming in torment; another gem. “Garden of Delight” is a deep sonorous piece set to a chamber orchestra, without guitar and drums, and a strong favorite of mine. “Stay With Me” is a top-40 sounding waltz that somehow doesn’t belong, and yet is nevertheless quite good. “Blood Brother” cries out in a raging homage to The Cult. “Let Sleeping Dogs Die” is infectiously dismal. “Sacrilege” celebrates that without any subtlety, to a racing beat. “Dance on Glass” casts a hideous spell of fever dreams. “And the Dance Goes On” is another great track. “Severina” has the haunting guest vocals of Julianne Regan, and is a beautiful ode to pagan ritual. “Love Me to Death” is a wonderfully oversexed trashy gothic ballad, and “Island in a Stream” cries out in the end for a vain rescue. I’m sure I’ve listened to God’s Own Medicine from start to finish over a thousand times.

4. Screen Violence, Chvrches, 2021. Still a new album as I write this, Screen Violence is the album of the fucking year, unquestionably Chvrches’ best, with not a single track cheating the listener. “Asking for a Friend” is a slow-builder about regret, and develops some of the most haunting textures I’ve heard in a song. “He Said She Said” is the popular screed against misogyny, with thick bass and perfect timings of beat drops in the chorus. “California” explores the dark side of living in that state, and people with crushed dreams; it has an incredibly dreamy chorus. With “Violent Delights”, it’s all the drums. “How Not to Drown” is the treat featuring Robert Smith of The Cure, with a macabre piano and synth. “Final Girl” taps into horror-movie tropes in a crowd-pleaser that evokes New Order. “Good Girls” blasts cancel culture (good for you, Lauren) through slow and persuasive rhythms. “Lullabies” is disarmingly lovely, and “Nightmares” rails about the challenge of forgiveness around futuristic sound effects. “Better If You Don’t” is the only track that sounds mediocre on a first listen, but it has grown on me considerably. This is about as perfect as albums get.

5. Automatic for the People, R.E.M., 1992. I’m not the strongest R.E.M. fan, but Murmur, Document, and Out of Time are solid albums, and Automatic for the People is a stupendous masterpiece. It’s the band’s darkest and most subdued and transcendent effort, and “Drive” announces this unexpected approach at the outset. Every track that follows delves deeper into the darkness: “Try Not to Breathe”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Sweetness Follows”, “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, “Ignoreland”, “Star Me Kitten”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming” (which seems to blend the attempts of “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt” from Green, this time getting it right), and “Find the River”. All these songs are terrific and made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands on the planet. It remains a curiosity to me that the world was so receptive to these quiet brooding tracks that deal so heavily with death and departure. It was released while I was living in Africa, and a friend sent the cassette tape to me; I will forever associate Automatic for the People with living on my mountain in Lesotho, listening to every single song on the walkman while pondering depressing things.

6. Red, Taylor Swift, 2012. Don’t laugh. If you ignore her early country efforts, Taylor Swift is a major talent, and Red is a 21st-century masterpiece. “State of Grace” is the opening mind-blower that carries Swift way out of her own reach; I’m amazed that anyone (let alone a hitherto country-singer like Swift) could write this piece of excellence. “Red” is a song that keeps growing on you with shrewd vocal manipulations and understated rhythms. “Treacherous” is melodically sublime in its whispers. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the classic rock track of the album. “All Too Well” is judged by many to be Swift’s best song of all time, though I say second best after “State of Grace”. “22” is something I want to get up and dance to every time I hear it. “We Are Never Getting Back Together Again” is the top-40 earworm that, surprisingly, never wears out its welcome (unlike her later smashes like “Shake It off” and “Blank Space”). “I Almost Do” is a throw-back to Swift’s country days but not bad at all. “Stay Stay Stay” has no right to sound as good as it does, with its giddy upbeat mandolin and handclaps, but damn, it’s compulsive. “The Last Time” is the only weak spot on the album, a duet that falls rather flat. “Holy Ground” is an awesome ripper that ends way too soon. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a heartbreaking waltz. “The Lucky One” laments the curse of fame in solid melodies. “Everything Has Changed” is a duet that gels perfectly (unlike “The Last Time”). “Starlight” fuses her old country sound with the new pop to pleasing effect. And the the closing song “Begin Again” is almost as strong as “All Too Well”. What can I say? I listen to Red quite often, from start to finish with no apologies.

7. And Then There Were Three, Genesis, 1978. Genesis was at their best with Peter Gabriel at the helm, and the band’s unquestionable high points are Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Even so, those albums have tracks that I sometimes skip over. And Then There Were Three is the one Genesis album I play from start to finish every time. There’s not a single note of banality and every track makes me feel like I’m living inside an epic. It kicks off with the powerhouse of “Down and Out”, segues into the beautiful “Undertow”, then to the western-themed “Ballad of Big”, and then to another soft piece (like “Undertow”) “Snowbound”. The longest track is “Burning Rope” and is one of the best. “Deep in the Motherlode” is my favorite track and another western (“Go west young man”), and “Many Too Many” is pure melancholy. “Scenes from a Night’s Dream” picks up the pace with a fun narrative, and “Say It’s Alright Joe” and “The Lady Lies” hark back to the band’s prog years. The final song points forward, with the first Genesis hit to crack the top-40 charts, “Follow You Follow Me”. Jesus, the ’70s were the days that crowd pleasers were tacked on at the end, not front-loaded to hook the lowest common pedestrian. I adore every track on this album in the way a top-40 junkie adores Miley Cyrus.

8. Made of Rain, The Psychedelic Furs, 2020. Remember these guys? This is their long-awaited comeback, after 30 years of silence. “The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll” opens with aggressive atmosphere, and makes us realize how much we’ve missed the band. “Don’t Believe” has droning addictive synths, “You’ll Be Mine” is a strong favorite, and “Wrong Train” asks how we all get life so wrong. “This I’ll Never Be Like Love” is a wonderful slow-piece, the calm before the storm-trilogy of “Ash Wednesday”, “Come All Ye Faithful”, and “No One” — the best tracks on the album aside from “You’ll Be Mine”. Moody dark stuff. “Tiny Hands” is the only weak track, but it’s not really bad and I often listen to it anyway. “Hide the Medicine” resumes the compulsive beats and lyrics, and “Turn Your Back on Me” and “Stars” add up to nice exit points. Now that’s all worth a 30-year wait, when every bloody song pays off.

9. Hold Your Fire, Rush, 1987. To call this the best Rush album would be a grievous heresy (though I do say it’s the band’s fourth best, which many consider heresy enough). But it is the one Rush album I play start to finish without skipping anything. Yes, even “Tai Shan”. They’re all good, Rush fans be damned. It leads with “Force Ten”, a suitable opener with its heavy bass and distinguishing percussions. Then the ephemeral “Time Stands Still” which everyone loves, even if they can’t admit it. Third is the oxymoronic “Open Secrets”, with great guitar action, followed the come-down ballad “Second Nature”. “Prime Mover” is my favorite (it should have been a single), a rocking piece about an unmoved mover setting everything in motion, after which “anything can happen”. “Lock and Key” is a close second favorite, the album’s darkest piece, about the killer instincts in all of us, to a killer tune. “Mission” is simply gorgeous. “Turn the Page” is fast-paced with great guitars. “Tai-Shan” is a slow-moving spiritual song, beckoning us up the sacred Chinese mountain; ignore the haters, it’s a great song. And “High Water” ends on our mystical connection to the ocean. I love each and every one of these tracks, and won’t hold my fire against the naysayers.

10. Battle Born, The Killers, 2012. Hot Fuss is the best Killers’ album hands down, but there are tracks on it that I sometimes skip over. Battle Born I savor from start to finish. It opens with the forceful “Flesh and Bone”, then to the smash hit “Runaways”. The next two hit unexpected emotional highs, “The Way it Was” and “Here With Me”. Then the urgently satisfying “A Matter of Time”. “Deadlines and Commitments” is a favorite of mine, followed by an even stronger favorite, “Miss Atomic Bomb”. “Rising Tide” channels the Hot Fuss era, while “Heart of a Girl” comes down subdued and graceful. “From Here on Out” is a fun quick-hitting piece, and then come the last two gems: the incredibly moving “Be Still”, and the title-rack that goes out guns blazing. Battle Born is a severely underrated album; I love the entire thing.

Is it the End of A Marginal Jew?

Looks like it, unfortunately.

Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1991, the Anchor Bible released the first volume of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, which quickly became an ambitious project. Subsequent volumes were released in 1994 (Jesus’s relation to the Baptist, his meaning of the kingdom, his miracles), 2001 (his “opponents”, like the Sadducees and Pharisees), 2009 (his relation to the Torah), and 2016 (the parables). Two more volumes were slated: the sixth would examine Jesus’ self-designations (messiah, Son of Man, Son of God) and the seventh would cover his death and final days in Jerusalem. It looks like those may not be written. Meier has had health issues since the publication of volume 5, and when I contacted Yale last week about further developments, I was told there are no longer any additional Marginal Jew volumes under contract.

If this is indeed the end of A Marginal Jew — and I wouldn’t want to see anyone finish the series except Meier — then, on the one hand, it’s disappointing. It would have been nice to see Meier’s take on the Jerusalem end game. Then again, maybe it’s just as well. The classic criteria of authenticity (embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc.) have become increasingly obsolete, and A Marginal Jew has been a ’90s project on borrowed time, extending into the 21st century. I have less faith in the criteria than I used to. Still, I like the way Meier applied them. If there was ever any objective application of the criteria, it’s to be found in A Marginal Jew. I wish Meier well and hope he gets better. As a 30-year celebratory look-back, I summarize some of his findings in the five volumes. Meier’s historical Jesus is a plausible one, a prophet who expected a future kingdom to arrive, like his mentor the Baptist, with some modifications; who had a strong reputation of being an exorcist-healer; who was largely Torah-obedient, with a few exceptions; and whose parables have been overvalued and overblown in the imagination of modern scholars.

Miracles: 15 out of 31. Meier pronounces half of the miracle tradition historical. Remember that by “historical”, Meier doesn’t mean that the miracle in question necessarily happened as a supernatural event, nor even that it necessarily happened. There are no ontological judgments and his goals are modest. An historical event is an event that was known during the course of Jesus’ lifetime; reports of the event circulated in the earliest days. Obviously that increases the likelihood that the event happened (in some way), but not necessarily. Meier breaks the miracles into four general categories, and some pass the test better than others:

  • Exorcisms? Yes, with a capital “Y”. Meier judges 5 out of 7 exorcist accounts to be historical. The possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29/Mt 17.14-21/Lk 9.37-43a) and Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) are judged to be historical with a strong level of confidence. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4.33-37), the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20/Mt 8.28-34/8.26-39), and the blind & mute demoniac (Mt 12:22-23a/Lk 11:14) are judged to be likely historical. The mute demoniac (Mt 9:32-33) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) are judged to be unhistorical. Jesus was so renowned as an exorcist that he was accused of being in league with demonic powers, for “casting out demons with the aid of demons” (Mk 3.22-27).
  • Healings? Yes, though perhaps not to the degree the gospels imply. 6 out of 15 healings are deemed historical: the paralyzed man let down through the rooftop (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9.1-8/Lk 5.17-26), the sick man by the pool of Bethseda (Jn 5:1-9), the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52/Lk 18:35-43), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), the deaf mute (Mk 7:31-37/Mt 15.29-31), and (with some reservations) the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13/Lk 7.1-10/Jn 4.46b-54) are judged to be likely historical. The other 9 healing accounts in the gospels are judged either non-liquet (indeterminate) or unhistorical.
  • Raising the dead? A strong yes. 3 out of 3. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43/Mt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). (Again, whether Jesus actually brought these people back from the dead isn’t an issue for A Marginal Jew. The conclusion is that accounts that he did so circulated during his lifetime.)
  • Nature miracles? No. Of the 6, Meier does make a case for one of them — the feeding of the multitude with bread and fish (Mk 6:32-44/Mt 14.13-21/Lk 9. 10b-17 /Jn 6.1-15). But by his own concessions, the glaring influence of the Elisha miracle and the Last Supper/eucharist traditions effectively make the judgment non-liquet (indeterminate). The other 5 nature miracles are shown to be blatantly unhistorical. The cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-21/Mt 21:18-20) is the only vindictive miracle attributed to Jesus and works purely in the Markan context of the temple’s destruction. The fish catch (Lk 5:1-11/Jn 21:1-14) is a post-resurrection story that has been turned into an apostolic commission (to leave all things, including “the catch”, to follow Jesus). The walking on water (Mk 6:45-52/Mt 14:22-33/Jn 6:16-21) is not a “sea rescue” that would cohere with Jesus’ means of using power to help those in need; it squares with the agenda of the early church toward a high christology that makes Jesus the functional equivalent of God; it has an epiphanic thrust saturated with Old Testament allusions. The same is true for the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41/Mt 8:23-27/Lk 8:22-25); it’s not a sea-rescue, since the disciples aren’t in mortal danger; it’s another epiphany-like wonder meant to evoke astonishment; its Christological message transcends and reverses the events in Jonah (where sailors avert God’s wrath by throwing Jonah overboard into the storm). And finally, the water-to-wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is transparently unhistorical, since if we subtract from the story everything that John would have likely invented plus everything that raises historical problems, the entire story vanishes.

Law Disputes: 2 ½ out of 6. Meier finds most of the Torah disputes in the gospels to be unhistorical and a reflection of later church controversies, as Gentiles became part of the Christian movement. Jesus was a devout Israelite, respected the Torah, kept it, and reinforced it. But he also occasionally rescinded it (in the cases of divorce and oath-taking), in view of God’s in-breaking power. (Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17, are easily dismissed as a church creation.)

  • Condemned Divorce? Yes. Though Jesus’ prohibition against divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment (he was forbidding what Moses allowed rather than what Moses commanded), it obviously called the Torah into question, and because the prohibition was so socially outrageous (all Mediterranean societies considered divorce to be the natural and necessary way of things), it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding. Jesus dared to say that a man who duly follows the Torah in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery — a serious sin against the Decalogue. That would have been considered an effective attack on the law. Meier grounds Jesus’ motive in eschatology, but Jesus may also have been trying to protect the economic well-being of families, especially women’s families.
  • Prohibited Oaths? Yes. Jewish teaching never prohibited oaths entirely. Ben Sira warns against frequent swearing, and Philo says to avoid it whenever possible, but even they don’t dare forbid what the Torah commands in two cases: for a person who loses goods entrusted (Exod 22:9-10) and for a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31). If Jesus prohibited oaths as reported in Mt 5:34-37, and as implied in Jas 5:12 — which Meier finds historical — then he went further than anyone else on record, and abrogated the Torah.
  • Sabbath Disputes? Not really, no. According to Meier, none of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are historically reliable. At best, we get a window onto the historical Jesus in the traditions of Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, and Mk 2:27. When it came to endangered animals, the historical Jesus sided with peasants against the Essenes and (possibly) the Pharisees. When it came to endangered people, he sided with peasants against a murky position of the Essenes (or other sectarian influence). The motive, again, was eschatology: the roots of the sabbath lie in creation, but a creation, in his view, was soon to be restored, and that meant the sabbath had to serve the good of humanity, rather than vice-versa. But most of the sabbath controversies seem to reflect later church conflicts.
  • Purity/Kosher Conflicts? No. The famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20 tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus, says Meier, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. On whole it’s a much later creation. There is no evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals, and as for keeping kosher itself, that governed everyone’s daily living. To abolish it would have obliterated the basic distinction between clean and unclean, not to mention an essential part of Jewish identity. Add to this the fact that no gospel ever reports Jesus or the disciples eating forbidden food, and a case for the authenticity of Mk 7 in general, and Mk 7:15 in particular, becomes an uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been reviled and distrusted by virtually every Jew in Palestine. And of course Paul is unable to cite Jesus in a case like Rom 14:14 (“we know that no food is unclean in itself”), unlike the case of divorce, for which he can cite Jesus.
  • Commandments about Love? Yes and no. Yes, to the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), and to the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b). No, to the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17). John’s commandment to love one another implicitly opposes Mark/Matthew/Luke’s commandments to love one’s neighbors and enemies. For John there is no greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends, and indeed, for him and his community, love of neighbors and enemies isn’t even on the radar screen. (Note: Meier isn’t saying that Jesus would have objected to the idea of loving “one another”, family and friends, only that Jesus didn’t explicitly teach this or stress the idea. The commandment is only in John, which as a sectarian gospel has a fierce agenda to not love one’s enemies. The commandment, in other words, was born in a community that was hostile to outsiders.)
  • The Golden Rule? No. The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31) fails the criteria miserably. It was common wisdom found in the Greco-Roman world, usually expressed in the more negative form, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” Essentially, a person decided how he or she wanted to be treated and then made that the standard for treating others. Not only does it fail every single criterion of authenticity, it’s inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the bare-bones standard of coherence. Jesus had no use for a Golden-Rule like ethic of reciprocity. He says, rather, that “if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, and that “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians”. Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this is the latter. The Golden Rule is best understood as entering the tradition at a later date as the Christian movement grew and became mainstreamed. It becomes a near apologetic strategy to argue that Jesus actually taught it.

The Parables: 4 out of 32. “The last thing I expected,” says Meier, “when I began writing A Marginal Jew was that I would one day decide that most of the parables cannot be shown with fair probability to go back to the historical Jesus. The historical-critical method is an equal-opportunity offender. I may not now suddenly retreat from or discard this method simply because I don’t like the outcome in the case of the parables.” (Volume 5, pp 20, 230-31) Here is that dismal outcome, the four stories which Meier can justify tracing back to Jesus.

  • The Mustard Seed. The meaning of Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20, from Jesus’ lips, was that God’s rule was already at work in his preaching and healing activities, and that however small his mission seemed at the moment, there was an organic connection between it and the visible coming of God who would set things right on the last day.
  • The Wicked Tenants. Jesus’ version of Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65 was the dark story of Mk 12:1-8 that offered no hope of consolation: the son is murdered, his corpse dishonored, and the murderous farmers remain in possession of the vineyard. This later called forth the two different correctives — first the punishment of the farmers in Mk 12:9, then vindication of the son by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs in Mk 12:10-11 (which obviously refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it makes sense. He was saying that he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities, and that as an Elijah-like prophet of the end times, he accepted his destiny of martyrdom. His parable ended with his anticipated death at the hands the temple authorities (the vineyard tenants), and that was the end, period, with no reversal of the injustice.
  • The Great Supper. The common core of Mt 22:2-10/Lk 14:16-24/Thom 64. Meier shows that the Lukan version has almost as much redaction as the Matthean (all the more impressive given that he is a Q-advocate), and when all redactions are removed, Jesus’ story tells of a bunch of people who refuse to attend a banquet to which they were specially invited; their insulted host reacts in a most pissed-off fashion, by sending out surprise invitations to virtually anyone, no matter how undeserving, who can be found in the streets. Jesus, according to Meier, was warning observant Jews that their place in the kingdom can be taken by those who socially or religiously marginalized, including even Gentiles.
  • The Talents. Like the Great Supper, the story of Mt 25:14-30/Lk 19:12-27 is an unusual example of a parable preserved not by Q (assuming it existed) but in the separate streams of M and L. Jesus told it as an exhortation-plus call to the disciples. Along with sovereign grace, serious demand, and superabundant reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hellfire for refusing the demand contained in the gift.

See my reviews of volume 4 and volume 5 for more detail.

Anti-abortion in Texas, the Bible, and the Middle Assyrian Laws

The new Texas abortion law took effect last week, prohibiting abortions after the presence of a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy (exceptions for medical emergencies only). About 85 to 90 percent of women who get an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, so this law will have serious impact. It violates Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortion before a fetus is viable, typically around six months (not weeks) of pregnancy. The law also has a draconian provision that allows private citizens to sue those who perform or aid the abortion in violation of the law, providing for at least $10,000 for each successful suit. That the Supreme Court has declined to get involved isn’t encouraging, and when you add to this the Mississippi abortion case to be heard by the Court, I seriously wonder if Roe v. Wade will be overturned next year.

American anti-abortionists tend to be Christian, and it’s worth revisiting what the bible says on the subject. Chris Heard, an anti-abortionist himself, summed it up many years ago:

“Let me be completely clear and honest: I despise abortion. I think that a biblically-informed valuation of human life leads one in that direction. But I also object to bad exegesis. There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21:22-25 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18).”

Indeed, in the Jeremiah passage the prophet curses the day he was born and laments the fact that he was not aborted, which is hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

The Exodus passage, however, may be resolvable, in a way that both helps and undermines the anti-abortionist cause. It’s an assault-and-miscarriage law, which on the face of it does seem to support the idea that late-term abortions are murder, while implying that early-term abortions are mere property crimes against the father. In the former case, the proper redress is execution or mutilation (eye for an eye, etc.). In the latter case, the proper redress is financial compensation. The key lies in what the text means by “harm following” the premature birth, and by “harm not following” the premature birth. Richard Carrier writes:

“If a fully-formed fetus comes out, meaning a viable baby who dies from the premature birth, that’s ‘harm follows,’ and anything else is equivalent to a mere miscarriage, in which case ‘harm does not follow.’ No viable baby was lost. This makes clear that only what we would call a late term abortion is murder; and indeed, the Bible doesn’t really even say that as such, since this is an involuntary abortion (an assault), but it’s reasonable to assume Jewish courts would deem a woman who sought an abortion as then the one committing the crime—either a property crime against her husband if she aborts before the third trimester, or murder if afterward. So this passage does support declaring late-term abortions murder; but it actually is declaring all other abortions permissible — all you need do is compensate the father for the resulting financial loss and (maybe) pay a tax. Essentially, as worded, women could legally pay their husbands and the state to let them have an abortion. That’s God’s law.”

That’s a reasonable inference, though hard to be too confident about, since the bible never generally speaks about abortion. Brian Rainey in fact notes the revealing contrast between the vague biblical view and the clear-cut Assyrian one:

“There is an abortion ban in the Middle Assyrian Laws, Tablet A (MAL A), a law code from ~1076 BCE that predates the Bible. It’s the earliest known abortion ban in the world, I believe. Like the Bible, MAL A contains laws about what should happen when a physical assault results in accidental miscarriage (§21, 50-52). These laws are similar to Exodus 21:22-25. MAL A’s harsh anti-abortion law immediately follows its accidental miscarriage laws:

If a woman aborts her fetus by her own action…they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If she dies as a result of aborting her own fetus, they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If any persons should hide that woman because she aborted her fetus…[And the text breaks off]” (§53, Roth’s translation).

It seems that MAL A, like Texas’s recently passed anti-abortion law, encourages snitching on people who have abortions, though sadly the text is broken so we don’t get details.

The Bible has an assault-and-accidental-miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22-25. But unlike MAL A, an anti-abortion law does not follow it. Clearly, such a law would have been conceivable. The Bible could’ve done what MAL A did and included an explicit anti-abortion law, but didn’t.”

Which is revealing. Relative to their neighbors, the ancient Israelites weren’t so aggressively anti-abortionist.

I’m strongly pro-choice and don’t look to the bible for guidance on the subject. But I recognize that many Christians do seek biblical justification for their point of view — both pro-choice and anti-abortion believers — and I’m sympathetic to those on either side who operate out of a code of empathy. With Chris Heard, I believe that any biblical case for anti-abortion would have to be a “cumulative theological case”, rather than a direct case based on proof texts, since the specific texts of the bible are virtually useless except perhaps for Exodus 21 (which both supports and undermines an anti-abortionist argument). More revealing is the reputation of early Jews and Christians, who were known in antiquity for despising infanticide. Constantine may have even adopted Christianity, at least in part, to halt the population decline in the Roman empire. As early as the end of the first century, people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger complained about the problem of childlessness and the common view of children as a burden; baby girls were especially unwanted and discarded. The only groups in the empire that were increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews (in no small part because they extended the sanctity of life to children, infants, and probably the unborn), and Constantine may have been trying to capitalize on this.

Anti-abortion, in other words, is not biblical in the way that homophobia, post-tribulation eschatology, and New Testament pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on many cumulative biblical ideas. A pro-choice position, on the other hand, has a more uphill battle, but certainly not an impossible one. It could rely on the general silence of abortion in the bible, argue that Exodus 21 implies that only late-term abortions amount to murder, and perhaps extend arguments based on the Torah’s wider concern for widows and orphans, the poor, etc. — women and children, in other words, who end up suffering the most when abortion is not a legal right.

With regards to the particular lawsuit provision of the Texas law, I find it appalling that anyone in Texas can sue anyone else who performs or aids an abortion after 6 weeks. It also puts the conservative justices (except for Clarence Thomas) in an awkward position, since they recently ruled that a lawsuit doesn’t have standing unless direct concrete harm to the plaintiff can be proven. Thomas rightly dissented with the liberals, blasting his fellow conservatives for overturning a precedent that goes back to America’s founding: federal courts had never required plaintiffs to demonstrate direct concrete injury. But now that this is the judicial precedent, the conservative justices (aside from Thomas) should be condemning the Texas law on their own logic. In any case, I can’t see a biblical base for this draconian lawsuit provision, let alone a constitutional one.

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.