Translation Errors

God Wants You Dead is an entertaining and subversive little book that reminded me of a well-known controversy in the translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Most educated people probably know that in Isaiah 7:14 it is prophesied that the Messiah will be born of an ‘almah’ of the House of David — and thereby hangs an ambiguity over which much ink and blood have been spilled.

Reading this, I was reminded of something most people don’t know — that a similar translation problem lurks even nearer the root of Christian theology…

The word ‘almah’ in Hebrew is ambiguous in much the same way ‘maiden’ is in English; it can mean “young woman” or it can mean “virgin”. Christian translations render it as ‘virgin’, interpreting it as a prophecy of the birth of Yeshua bar-Yosif, later called Jesus the Christ. This prophecy, is, in effect, conjured up out of what might be a translation error.

Here are two more facts known to many educated people:

1. The Christians did not begin to arrive at a settlement of the question of the divinity of Jesus until surprisingly late – the council of Nicaea in AD 325, and important controversies remained live until the Third Council of Constantinople in 680.

2. The original Aramaic-speaking Christians of Palestine having been effectively wiped out in the aftermath of the Bar Kokba revolt in AD 70, Christianity was re-founded by Paul of Tarsus among speakers of Koine Greek. The entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek.

Now here are two facts generally known only among a handful of specialist scholars. I picked them up through omnivorous reading and did not fully realize their significance for a long time.

3. In other Aramaic sources roughly contemporary with the New Testament, the phrase “Son of God” occurs as an idiom for “guru” or “holy man”. Thus, if Jesus refers to himself as “the son of God”, the Aramaic sense is arguably “the boss holy man”.

4. The Koine Greek of the period, on the other hand, did not have this idiom.

Now, imagine a Koine speaker reading the lost Aramaic source documents of which the Gospels are redactions, with only an indifferent command of the latter language He does not know that “Son of God” is an idiom…

Yes, that’s right. I’m suggesting that Jesus got deified by a translation error!

(Correction: The Bar Kokba revolt was AD 132; I was confusing it with the revolt of AD 70 in which the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed.)

148 thoughts on “Translation Errors

  1. Since reading the whole Bible (I was bored) back in School of Religion (I made it all the way to Chapter 6 of Genesis before having serious doubts about the whole thing), it is remarkable that throughout the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man”. He keeps pointing out that he’s *not* divine. His followers patiently ignore him. They don’t care. *They* think he’s divine, and that’s all that matters.

    I came to the conclusion that he’s just as much – no more, no less – a son of God as any of the rest of us. Aren’t we all Children of God? Right.

    I’ve also thought since back in SoR that the Torah sets up pretty good rules for a 5000 BC mens club, like the Ancient Hebrew equivalent of the Elks, or maybe they should be called the Sons of Abraham.

  2. The original Aramaic-speaking Christians of Palestine having been effectively wiped out in the aftermath of the Bar Kokba revolt in AD 70, Christianity was re-founded…

    Do I detect the permanent effect of learning Latin on the syntax of your English? Managing to employ ablative absolutes in a language that lacks an ablative case is almost a private-school shibboleth.

  3. 2. The original Aramaic-speaking Christians of Palestine having been effectively wiped out in the aftermath of the Bar Kokba revolt in AD 70, Christianity was re-founded by Paul of Tarsus among speakers of Koine Greek. The entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek.

    Now here are two facts generally known only among a handful of specialist scholars.
    No wonder the facts are generally unknown, as they are wrong. Autochtonous Christianity in Palestine survived well into the 4th century. The Bar Kochba disaster had not terminated neither autochtonous Christianity, nor the Jewish presence in Palestine. But with general decline of Palestine, Palestinian Christians and Jews lost the influence.

    The Christians did not begin to arrive at a settlement of the question of the divinity of Jesus until surprisingly late
    Divinity of Jesus, atonement of sins and resurrection were the cornerstone of the Christian faith from the very beginning; the issue decided by the Great Councils was not divinity of Christ, but the nature of Christ. Some denominations claimed that Jesus was a man and became a god only after his death, like Roman emperors used to do; some other claimed that Jesus was god all the way and his death was not real ( with grim consequences for the atonement of sin through Jesus’s suffering ), these denominations are called monophysites, as they prescribe to Jesus single nature. Aryans claimed that Jesus was divine, but created by the god of the Old Testament for the purpose of saving the mankind, etc.
    Indeed, only Chalcedon Council in 451 proclaimed that “we confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation”, settling the issue for both Eastern and Roman churches”, but that doesn’t mean that divinity of Jesus was questionable for earlier Christians.

  4. PS If you want to ponder idiom, there’s a whole lot of discussion about just what was meant by “Jesus the Nazarene.”

  5. Why are you leaving intention out of the matter?
    “Now, imagine a Koine speaker reading the lost Aramaic source documents of which the Gospels are redactions, with only an indifferent command of the latter language He does not know that “Son of God” is an idiom…”

    Surely re-creating a religion is a bit harder when you can’t refer to an actual living God making miracles to stir things up, isn’t it? Lacks a bit of oomph to push those Jews/Pagans to Christendom. Why bother citing the miracles of a man if you don’t believe he’s special? If you also add that he’s modest or mysterious about it, his picture gets actually better.

  6. @Roxanne: “He keeps pointing out that he’s *not* divine.”

    He also keeps making miracles.

  7. Jesus’ “miracles” were mere parlor tricks. The yogis of India inform practicants that they may reach a point in their practice where they can perform “siddhis”, miracles. Most warn to avoid acting them out, it being a bar to further spiritual growth. I guess Jesus missed that lesson.

  8. It’s almost obvious that it must have been the case, compare: Matthew 5:3-12: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Son of God sounds to be almost a rank, a promotion: good believer, happy (beatus), saint, Son of God.

    There are even more interesting candidates for mistranslations from Greek to Latin and then English etc. Matthew 5:3-12′s famous: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. Well, “prohos” in Greek doesn’t mean poor, it means someone who has absolutely nothing. So: “Blessed are those who have nothing in their mind/soul/spirit.” Sounds vaguely Oriental – a reference to meditation? Where did those three Eastern kings/magicians at Jesus’s birth come from anyway, India? (Would not be too surprised as there was a lively exchange between Greece and India, facilitated by Hellenistic empires all the way, f.e. Democritus picked up atomic theory from Sravaka Buddhism, and the Greeks in turn taught the Buddhists in India to sculpt nice statues, so most Buddha statues are based on blueprint of Apollo). Anyway: this stuff with the empty mind clearly seems to point Eastwards a bit.

    BTW. There are two major ways to totally misunderstand the role of Bible and Christianity in history: believing that it’s some sort of truth in the literal sense of the word, or casting it completely aside as a piece of uninteresting tribal fiction.

    In reality, first, the Jews were very heavily Hellenized, so even in the Old Testament we see the Book of Solomon borrowing the four virtues from Plato’s Republic and all sorts of similar stuff.

    Then you have this Greek sect in the New Testament, operating at a time when heavy taxes, inflation and military anarchy made the citizens of the Roman Empire very depressed, which in turn made them turn to mystical religions like Mithras and Isis. Just like the New Agers of the sixties smoking pot in the shadow of the menace of nukes, same situation. There was an explosion of sects and other-wordly religions at that time. The Church of Isis in Rome had a pope, priests with tonsures and white linen vestments, acolytes, monks, singers of hymns etc. so the framework was all set up even before Paul went to Damascus.

    So here were these New Testament Greeks, borrowing some myths from Judaism and esp. Mithraism just like the 100 other similar sects did, but nevertheless forging something characteristically Greek: Jesus was made into the embodiment of the Logos of the philosophers etc. Then Constantine had the whole stuff rewritten so that make it even Greco-Roman and sane enough to build an empire on, which empire then survived for another 1100 years, so I see it as a fairly solid design. Then later on you have Augustine christening Plato and Aquinas chrisening Aristotle. etc. etc.

    All in all, the whole project of Christianity seems to me a very clever plot (prospiracy?) to preserve Greek philosophy in the coming Dark Ages (which were clearly felt by that time: pre-Diocletian military anarchy etc.) by wrapping it into mysticism acceptable enough for the superstitious barbarians.

    And that I have to consider a Good Thing for Greek philosophy was the pinnacle of man’s self-understanding in the Western World up until about Shakespeare.

  9. @Bill: I should have clarified: I read the Bible recently. I don’t believe in it. But the New Testament does mention miracles. Be they parlor tricks or not, be they repeated or not (the exact citation eludes me at the moment, but I’m fairly certain some other Hebrew prophet before Jesus raised the dead too), they’re there. It’s not (just) a case of ‘hey, typo here’.

  10. But the Gnostics believed that Christ never existed as a person, but rather was always just a spiritual being. IN fact in the book of revelation the AntiChrist is said to be someone who acknowledges the divinity of Christ but denies his humanity, in other words, a Gnostic. Furthermore in all of Paul’s letters he never makes mention of an historic Jesus whom he met with or whom he or anyone else encountered. Instead his teachings read as if they were direct channeling of Christ from the beyond.

    Christianity appears to be a mongrel religion, attempting to fuse European and Persian sun worship with Jewish and Semitic monotheistic moon worship. I would recommend the writings of Acharya S. for more detail.

  11. You misspelled “almah”, HTH.

    Could you please cite one or more sources for your claim #2?

  12. > Jesus’ “miracles” were mere parlor tricks.

    Yes, and the proof is on Youtube (Rowan Atkinson’s bible study session):

  13. Let me offer a defense of the Christian position here. FWIW, I don’t really believe it, but I think it is fair to put forward the other side.
    In regards to the translation of Isaiah 7:!4 and Matthew 1:14, to be honest I think you are being a little unfair (on the translators if not the interpreters.) The passage in Matthew is a direct quotation from the ubiquitous Greek Bible of the day, the Septuagint. Is it fair to translate ‘almah (the Hebrew word) as parthenos (the Greek word?) As anyone who has dealt with translation from one language to another knows, it is an approximate process. Words in different languages do not have exact substitutions because the semantic range differs. However, to be honest, I think this is a very fair translation. The Greek word parthenos has basically exactly the same meaning of a “maiden” with more of an implication of virginity, rather than being an exact measure of her sexual history. So, in my opinion, the Septuagint has a good translation here.

    The concern that you have is that this has been taken to mean a literal virgin, as in, a girl who has not had sexual intercourse. This is stretching it a lot from that one word. However, whether you believe it or not, it is clearly claimed in the surrounding context the Mary was a virgin, without reading too much into the specific word parthenos. Again, I’m not particularly saying it was true, I am just saying that Matthew does clearly say she was a virgin, regardless of the minutia of the translation.

    In regards to the Aramaic idiom Son of God, I tend to think you are right that this has been overplayed. There are parallels to this idiom, (for example Sons of the devil, or Man of God in the Hebrew Tannakh.) However, I think your argument implies that Christian theology bases the doctrine of the Trinity on this one phrase, which is clearly not true to anyone even passingly familiar with the material on it.

    Again, I am not claiming the doctrine is correct (in fact I believe it is not), but I am saying your argument, while provocative, isn’t fair on the other side. You are attacking a straw man.

    The weight of the sword stretches the fibers of the horse hair as a await the response of this community.

  14. Meh. Your theory does not inspire.

    1. EVERYBODY used Koine Greek. There were synagogues in Jerusalem that read the Torah in Koine Greek (i.e., the Septuagint). Translation error only applies when people aren’t cognizant of both languages. Jesus himself almost certainly used 3 languages and 2 dialects just to get around town. It’s hard for monolingual Americans to understand, but it was a common thing in the ancient world.

    2. It’s pretty well established throughout the New Testament that Christianity spread first to Hellenized Jews that lived throughout the Roman Empire, before then spreading to Gentiles. And there’s no reason for it to lie on this point: if the writers wanted to lie, it would be far more attractive to say that no Jews were involved. Plus, we have TONS of ancient evidence (archaeological and non-canonical manuscript) that demonstrates this pretty definitively.

    3. The whole “didn’t arrive at the idea of divinity until late” meme is flat-out tired. You could, I guess, claim that Christianity still hasn’t settled the issue, since there are Christians like John Dominic Crosson who don’t buy the idea today. But as to the normative belief it was settled far earlier than the councils. See the writings of Origen or Tertullian, both second century.

    4. “Son of God” is clearly used in the Gospels to refer to both of the meanings you refer to. Sometimes, yes it refers to a sage or guru (c.f. Matt 27:43) or just a spiritual person (Matt 5:9) but it’s clearly not the meaning in most instances. A quick browse of the references shows that “guru” or “spiritual dude” doesn’t make sense in context.

    http://www.biblegateway.com/keyword/?search=%22son%20of%20god%22&version1=31&searchtype=all&limit=none&wholewordsonly=no

    Interestingly, Jesus never uses the phrase “Son of God” to refer to himself. He consistently prefers “Son of Man,” which (contrary to some of the comments here) does not refer to his humanity. It’s an apocalyptic title from the book of Daniel. It’s pretty well-established that the phrase was heavily used around the first century BCE and CE to refer to the coming Messianic figure. The long and short is that while “Son of God” was used in the ANE both for “guru” and for “divinity,” Jesus consistently prefers the apocalyptic title “Son of Man.”

    You’re a smart dude, ESR, but nothing in your post is new or original to you. It’s a common argument that goes back over a hundred years. And it doesn’t work for any more than a cursory reading of the text or the history.

  15. @Adriano: I think he kept doing ordinary science, that folks 2000 years ago didn’t know how to do, and so called it a “miracle”. I would be more impressed if the “miracles” weren’t now performed every day by ordinary medical workers and chemists.

  16. @Roxanne: but are those ex-miracles performed with 2000 year old sticks and herbs, or with brand-new equipment, technology and knowledge that didn’t exist back then?

    I don’t know what to make of Jesus’ miracles. I don’t believe them, and I’m not about to start interpreting how the loaves and fishes multiplied or seek a rational explanation.

    Seriously, hindsight is always 20/20. And most of this thread reminds me of the people who define soccer as ’22 guys running after a round ball’. Technically correct, yet completely missing the point.

  17. Correction:

    The Bar Kokhba revolt started in 132 CE, not in 70 CE.

    The earlier revolt was from 66-70 CE and was the revolt that ended second temple Judaism. I have heard it referred to as the “Great Revolt” but it’s not universal.

  18. Elaine Pagels in _Beyond Belief_ (among others, I’m sure) argues that the dispute between the Jesus-was-human sect(s) (the Gnostics, more or less) and the Jesus-is-God sect (what we call Christians, because they won the dispute) was, as with most theological disputes, really about politics: how the church should be governed and how it should be represented to others in order to recruit them. She holds that Irenaeus’ _Against Heresies_ (c. 180) had effectively the final say on the matter, and that Nicaea really just ratified a fait accompli, though of course splinter groups remained and of course no interesting doctrine can ever be quashed beyond reinvention.

  19. >Autochtonous Christianity in Palestine survived well into the 4th century

    I know some Oriental Christian churches claim this, but AFAIC most scholars don’t buy it.

  20. Micah is certainly right in one thing: everybody spoke Koine (common) Greek, to the extent that Hadrianus (or Tiberius? one of these guys) was complaining that even some Senators don’t speak Latin fluently.

    Plain simply the term “Roman Empire” is misleading, by the I-.II. century it was largely a Hellenistic cultural-economic empire merely policed by Roman citizens who often spoke Latin as a second language or not at all. Alexandria, the real capital of the empire in every sense except the military-political one even had the nerve not let Roman citizens into it’s famous library, only Alexandrian citizens.

  21. The movie _The Man From Earth_ explores some of these issues in an entertaining fashion. If you’re into this sort of discussion, put that on your netflix list.

    As for the miracles, the one that most leaps out as a tired parlor trick is “turning water into wine”. The simplest mechanism would be to soak a small bit of bread in red wine until it is fully saturated, then dry it in the sun. That’s the preparation step. Then for the trick:
    (1) pour some water into a cup, showing it to be water. (Have a volunteer taste and examine it to verify it is water; spill a bit to show it is clear)
    (2) as you pick up the cup, secretly drop some previously-palmed bits of wine-soaked bread into the water.
    (3) say an incantations, wave your hands about, maybe stir the water a bit…
    (4) reveal the water has miraculously become wine-colored. Spill a bit to demonstrate this. Have your shill volunteer verify that it tastes like wine.

    If you want to do it on a larger scale, use the misdirection of visibly and in plain sight color-changing that *small* amount of wine – and perhaps accidentally spilling it afterwards – as a distraction to cover your partner switching out the entire pitcher of water you initially poured from for a similar pitcher of real wine, which you can then pour for the crowd.

  22. @Adriano: “cf.” stands for “confer”, which is Latin for “compare”, not “confront”. You’re right on how it’s punctuated, though.

    Let the chain of nitpicking be unbroken.

  23. Hi Eric.

    You blogged on an interesting topic. I invite you and fellow readers of this thread to consider the following points:

    * on Divinity of Jesus, what do you think of:

    http://www.catholic.com/library/Divinity_of_Christ.asp (with quotes from some early Fathers of the Church, some as early as 110 AD)

    * on miracles: what do you think of the cures happening at Lourdes, France, especially the 67 recognized cures?

    http://www.lourdes-france.org/index.php?goto_centre=ru&contexte=en&id=491&id_rubrique=491

    (which went through quite a rigorous process:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lourdes_Medical_Bureau#Investigation_of_apparent_cures )

    I encourage you to scrutinize me and these resources, because we’re all seeking the truth, and, hopefully, “the truth will set [us] free” (John 8:32)

  24. There are those who doubt that Jesus actually existed, but I think it’s clear that something happened in Judea early in the first century CE, and I think it highly likely that a man named Yeshua was the spark that got it started.

    What is also clear is that in the centuries following his death, the religion of Yeshual became a religion about Yeshua. The virginity of Mary, the so-called miracles he performed, his divinity and atoning death are issues which concern the religion about Yeshua. They have nothing to do with the religion of Yeshua.

    I think it is most unfortunate that these issues have come to obscure what the man actually taught, which was a way of viewing the universe and our place in it, and a way to live a decent life in accordance with that worldview.

  25. You are indeed a smart man ESR, but there’s nothing new in your arguments. They have been answered and addressed years ago…

    http://www.studytoanswer.net/doctrine/almah.html

    The belife of the devinity of Christ during his lifetime was also made very apparent in other Scripture verses such as John 20:28 where disciple Thomas refers to Jesus as both “My Lord, and my God”.

    The devinity of Christ is hammered home even further to the reader of Scripture when one realizes that the identity of “The Lord” frequently referred to in the “Old Testament” is none other than Jesus Himself…

    http://www.custance.org/old/incarnation/5ch3.html

  26. @Phil: I was afraid of that. I was thinking in Italian, where confront means compare.

  27. And the fact that they’re both English words which mean other things entirely can’t be helping!

  28. One other thing frequently comes up in classes (I study theology, I’m in my final year. xD Dissertation hell!) is the Judaic meaning of “Son of God”. This, to a Jewish community, simply meant someone who is righteous and does what the law commands. You’ll find a lot of other characters in the Bible referred to as a “Son of God”. It doesn’t mean they were literally the flesh and blood kin of God… it just means they were fine, upstanding folk who behaved as they should.

    Point number one has been a definite point of contention for me as I’ve questioned my faith over the last year. Most of what the church teaches came out of politics and councils. Further, the first known sources are indeed, as you cited, Paul’s. But he doesn’t refer to Jesus’s life at all — for him, what matters is the supposed “resurrection”. It was only later that we began to see the tales of Jesus and his life began to get written down. By this time, a lot of stuff had probably been quoted ad infinitum, augmented with anecdotes, so you have to wonder about the accuracy as well, and if indeed, people were simply putting words in his mouth.

    Oh, and the word Messiah? It just means “anointed one” (i.e., a king). Messiah was used to refer to King David, amongst others. It didn’t take on more spiritual elements until much later. The Jewish folks thought they were getting a king who would lead them against the Romans — and it’s no wonder, in that case, that the Romans got antsy! In their eyes, Jesus and his followers would have been what we nowadays call terrorists. Leading an insurrection, as illustrated by Bar Kochba, would have had horrendous results.

    This said, I’ve also read elsewhere (I can’t remember where — I think it may have been Schniedewind) that the prophecy of a messiah was actually pointing, not to Christ, but to another king, and a different occupation. I think (don’t quote me, I need to look it up!) it might have been Hezekiah vs the Assyrians. But like I said, I need to look it up, and it has been a while since I last looked at this.

    : )

    Fantastic posting, btw. It feels good to have a theological spar for the first time in a while!

    ~Fiona

  29. Found the quote! :D

    It was indeed Schniedewind referring to Hezekiah and Assyria. : )

    “In 722 B.C.E, Hezekiah was faced with a flood of immigrants from the defeated northern kingdom. Rather than barricading his borders, Hezekiah tried to integrate these refugees into his realm, hoping thereby to restore Israel’s idealized golden age, the kingdom of David and Solomon.”

    He goes on to note that the prophecies given in Isaiah (9:1-7, and 7:14), must have seemed like a political commentary — “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt, the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them, light has shined.

    … For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian…

    For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named wonderful counselor, might God, everlasting father, prince of peace. His authority shall grow continually and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom”.

    Schniedewind also mentions that 9:1-7 was probably written sometime between 730-715 BCE — in otherwords, after the fall of the northern kingdom. The references to oppressors referred to the Assyrians, but he also claims that the north had “rejected the rightful king of the united north and south — the son of David”. Yet, nonetheless, Hezekiah was offering shelter to those from the northern kingdom. Schniedewind then references Isaiah 7:14: “look, the young maiden is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him ‘Immanuel’” (lit., “God is with us!”).

    He reasons, then, that the people of Israel would have looked as Hezekiah as being that child, as being that Messiah, who would “restore the golden age of peace and prosperity”, when the northern and southern kingdoms were united as one.

    : )

    All of this, btw, was taken from page 69 of, “How the Bible became a Book”, written by William M. Schniedewind (2005, Cambridge University Press).

    ~Fiona.

  30. Lourdes: it’s the same thing IMHO as placebos. Placebos are often very efficient: most illnesses are psychosomatic, and even in the case of those who aren’t the psychological mind-state of the patient means a LOT. Mind has a LOT of power over the body. Ask any Shaolin practitioner.

    They got healed – to be more precise: they got rid of the symptoms – because they believed very strongly they will be healed. Not because of a miracle, but because it triggered a mind-state in some believers who had very strong faith which is very beneficial for healing or at least for getting rid of symptoms.

    I don’t mean it as a sneer. In the similar sense that I do NOT sneer at placebo treatments and I consider everybody who sneers at placebo treatments immature and slightly immoral: if it helps people, if it does good, and does not do bad, then it’s good.

    I’m not fully a utilitarian but I value utility MUCH more than I value truth – and I think every moral person should. A useful falsehood that only helps and does not harm is probably a good thing . If Christian belief can trigger a placebo effect, if it can put some people in a mind-state that’s useful for their healing, it’s good for them and sneering on it is inappropriate. If it works for them, it’s good for them.

  31. Shenpen says:
    > I’m not fully a utilitarian but I value utility MUCH more than I value truth – and I think every
    > moral person should. A useful falsehood that only helps and does not harm is probably a good thing .

    Although I don’t totally disagree with you, I think it prudent to remind you that total utility needs to be measured here. If a man goes to Lourdes and is miraculously healed (whether by placebo or not), it has a long term effect on him.

    For example, out of gratitude to the putative God who healed him, he might dedicate his life to bringing people to Christ, or bringing the sick to Lourdes for healing. What this does, overall, is robs the man of many of the future possibilities of life by dedicating him to a worthless cause. Further, it brings many more people under this umbrella of deception, and that is surely overall a bad thing.

    As the Bible tells us, “it is better to go into life lame or mute that to be whole and thrown into hell.” However, I’d suggest life is living for a worthwhile purpose, and hell is living for a pointless purpose such as serving a non-existent God.

    You say utility often supersedes truth, however, I would suggest to you that truth is the matrix of most utility.

  32. @Jessica: in your example, you call ‘pointless’ following a non-existent God, but you don’t count the benefits of being happy, of having a sense of purpose, and of helping others. If the miracle worked for him, why is it a worthless cause? We could call that pay-it-forward, nevermind the film. If the miracle doesn’t work for the people he tries to help, will they not stop following him? (actually, seeing most miracle workers today we can assume the answer to this is ‘no, the fools won’t stop’).

    Bringing people to Christ often has a positive effect on them. Larry Wall, Donald Knuth and other great men are religious people and I don’t see them suffering. My wife is deeply devout, and although I don’t believe, the times when I would have thought it stupid of her are long gone. Her faith has helped her through difficult times.

    Paraphrasing someone (either Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach or Robert Pirsig on Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, but I can’t find the exact quote): a good sermon can make the believers happy and help them start the following week of work.

    I don’t think that’s worthless or pointless at all.

  33. >I don’t think that’s worthless or pointless at all.

    Other forms of delusional insanity can make people happy, too. Which is all well and good until they reach a place where the delusion cannot be reconciled with reality – or where the delusion has unacceptable consequences for the rest of us, such as the recurring episodes of mania in which faith-centered religions slaughter every unbeliever they can get their hands on.

    I’m a neopagan. That means, in dealing with faith-centered religions (especially monotheisms) I’m in the exact position a Jew might be if he found himself surrounded by smiling, polite, friendly, kindly-appearing people all wearing Nazi regalia. “Oh, of course we don’t do that any more; that was the bad old days, before we learned to be tolerant.”

    And they seem to mean it — but I see the horrible old blood-drenched symbols, cross and crescent as well as swastika, and I know what those religions have in their doctrinal DNA. The people smile, but what they are infected with has been evil when it had power, and I fear it will be just as evil again when it gets power next.

  34. i joined a Christian Brothers primary school in grade 5. to their credit, they taught the kids all sorts of this stuff (translation errors, cultural oddities, etc) in the religion class. by the end of grade 6, they’d convinced me by sheer evidence and logic that jesus was a bloke rather more rational than his culture who (to quote someone i can’t remember right now) “was nailed to a tree for saying it was ok to be nice to one other”.

    i remain to this day slightly spun out by the idea of men who’ve sacrificed their lives and their sexuality to a meme, explaining at length that the meme is false. the lessons on “the resurrection”, for example, where they laid out all the evidence that it was a standard hysteria of the time, only borne out by someone who didn’t look anything like the dead man.

  35. similar Islamic translation error:
    the “72 virgins” granted to Martyrs in Heaven as Their Reward comes from very old texts, from a much (food)poorer time, and when original versions became available to modern scholars, they immediately pointed out that actually it wasn’t “virgins” but “raisins”


    Hail Mary, full of natural sunshine goodness

    Oh this is amusing. I assume most people know that the correct translation of the christian bible’s description of Mary is not virgin but young girl.
    But apparently, and I’m here relying solely on the professionalism of an excellent-so-far aggregation weekly called “The Week”, recent scholarly work suggests the Koran’s 72 virgins awaiting muslim martyrs in heaven are actually mis-transcribed raisins.

    Imagine how you’d feel: you scrape together your suicidally scattered body parts and stains then rock on up to heaven with your body in a bucket expecting some pretty full-on reward raunch, as seen on TV for infidels but now validly available to yourself in much larger quantities with the added bonus of religious self-righteousness, only to be presented with a large handful of sun-dried grapes.

    Bit of a let-down, really.

    There you are thinking you’ll be spending the rest of your natural afterlife frolicking and despoiling like a man once dispossessed, now merely munching ruminatively on mummified wine seeds and toying with the idea that perhaps you might have done things a little differently had you known a little earlier.

  36. “was nailed to a tree for saying it was ok to be nice to one other”.
    Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.

  37. > I’m a neopagan.

    How did neopaganism manage to divorce itself of New Age pseudoscience? Pseudoscience is a form of delusional insanity too, but I’m 100% sure you haven’t fallen for that.

  38. >How did neopaganism manage to divorce itself of New Age pseudoscience?

    Some of us, alas, haven’t managed it yet.

    There’s an internal split of some significance between…hm, the usual terms are ‘magical’ and ‘religious’ neopagans (others are in use). Religious neopagans are not too far distant, psycho-philosophically, from a conventional religion; they overlap with New Age at another edge. Magic-oriented neopagans treat the rites as a form of instrumental programming for the deep mind; many are, like myself, philosophical agnostics or atheists with a strongly science-centered world-view.

    An unusual feature of neopaganism is that these two tendencies manage to get along fairly well. One reason is that to some extent, the magic-oriented tendency is (and is perceived as) the inner mystery – though it’s not universal, priest(ess) types and circle leaders lean more in that direction than their students.

    Historically, neopaganism began as a more purely religious movement which began a wrenching self-evaluation in the 1970s when new scholarship revealed that the founders were largely frauds. The trouble was that even after the fraud had been exposed, some of the techniques they invented still worked, for significant values of ‘work’. The magical tendency has been gaining ground ever since.

  39. I went to a Catholic high school, and, as a sophomore, took a class called Scripture.

    In it, the good father taught us about translation errors. He taught us that the bible had been translated from Hebrew, into Greek, into Latin, into English. You translate it that many times, you are bound to get some errors.

    I remember the story about Moses crossing the Red Sea. Except it wasn’t the Red Sea, it was the Reed Sea, and it wasn’t a sea it was more like a swamp. So the Jews ran across this swamp, and when the Pharoah’s soliders followed, their heavy chariots sank into the mud. A bit more prosaic than the movie with Charlton Heston, but a lot more realistic. The teacher showed us a map that showed the Red Sea was far from Egypt. The Jews would not have reached it so quickly.

    I remember being shocked at this: we, as good little Catholic kids, had been taught in earlier grades that the Bible was literal. Now the same people were telling us that it wasn’t. This was like when you realized Santa Claus wasn’t real, and you realized your parents, who you had trusted implicitly, had lied. I didn’t know what to believe anymore.

    If they had lied about that, then how do you know that Jesus was real? Maybe the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were fictional as well.

  40. > I see the horrible old blood-drenched symbols, cross and crescent as well as swastika, and I know what those religions have in their doctrinal DNA.

    Can this not be said just as strongly of neopaganism? The ancient druids and goðar were not terribly pleasant folks by modern standards.

  41. > The trouble was that even after the fraud had been exposed, some of the techniques they invented still
    > worked, for significant values of ‘work’. The magical tendency has been gaining ground ever since.

    Trivial to explain once you’re willing to accept observer bias, Heisenberg, etc.

    Face it, Eric, Wicca just another religion. You bow to the East, bow to the cross or bow to the God and Goddess.

    You’re not free until you throw down your crutch.

  42. >Can this not be said just as strongly of neopaganism?

    No. There is nothing in any of our history – even if you accept rather fanciful claims of direct connections with paleo-pagan religions – that can be interpreted as a brief for conversion by the sword or the murder of unbelievers for religious thoughtcrime. Polytheisms and orthopractic religions don’t do that; it requires a particular, toxic combination of monotheism, belief in exclusive revelation, and linear time ending in an Eschaton that is only found an one cluster of religions descended from Zoroastrianism – notably Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    You’re confused about this because you have grown up in a culture in which those assumptions are taken as definitive of what a ‘real’ religion is like. You thus tend towards the not completely unreasonable — but erroneous – assumption that all religions, including neopaganism, have to be like that at bottom. But it’s not so; if you consider my report unreliable, you might find a conversation with a Theravada Buddhist enlightening.

    >The ancient druids and goðar were not terribly pleasant folks by modern standards.

    Indeed. Romanticizing them is a mistake I’m not prone to. However, they had one important and relevant virtue: none of the reasons they might kill you had to do with the state of your religious beliefs. For belonging to a different tribe, yes; or for having been taken prisoner-of-war when the local customs required a human sacrifice, that too; possibly even for having performed a ritually unclean act in a sacred place.

    But in polytheistic cultures the god you choose as a tutelary deity is your own business – thus, there is not and can not be any concept of religious thoughtcrime, heresy, or the dehumanization of unbelievers.

  43. >You’re not free until you throw down your crutch.

    I feel quite free to ignore assholes who propound on subjects of which they are ignorant, thank you. However, sometimes I bait them instead. A low pleasure, but I sometimes find it irresistible.

  44. > You’re confused about this because you have grown up in a culture in which those assumptions are taken as definitive of what a ‘real’ religion is like.

    No, I’ve been around enough non-Zoroastrian religions to get this. I just should have read your original comment more closely. You were specifically addressing the punishment of thoughtcrime, while I was addressing religiously-motivated violence in general.

  45. >You were specifically addressing the punishment of thoughtcrime, while I was addressing religiously-motivated violence in general.

    Indeed. It is specifically the compllex of ideas around religious thoughtcrime, sin, and revelation that makes the Judeo/Christian/Islamic group of religions so spectacularly evil and dangerous. I’ve blogged about this before.

  46. If all “government is force”, why is not all religion subservience?

  47. > But in polytheistic cultures the god you choose as a tutelary deity is your own business – thus, there is not and can not be any concept of religious thoughtcrime, heresy, or the dehumanization of unbelievers.

    I was going to say “unless you happen to be a Roman c. 180 BCE and you happen to have picked Bacchus”, but then I read the relevant sources again and I realized that the senatusconsultum de Bacchanalibus isn’t guilty of any of those things – in fact, it makes specific provisions for worshippers of Bacchus to continue their rites, subject to very restrictive constraints, if they feel they need to. I also have a sneaking suspicion that any sufficiently influential Bacchist who had flouted its provisions would, far from being dehumanized, have been afforded his full citizen, Latin or social rights as appropriate.

    The s. c. de B. stinks not because it is an instrument of religious oppression, but because it is an overreach in the powers of our other enemy, the state.

    Then again, I could be wrong, focusing too much on the legalistic trappings – like saying the Holocaust was not inhuman because it was carried out in so orderly a fashion, whereas of course that’s precisely why it was so inhuman.

    OK, I’ve Godwinned myself.

  48. >I was going to say “unless you happen to be a Roman c. 180 BCE and you happen to have picked Bacchus”

    You should have picked a slightly later period; in early Imperial times it was declared a crime against the state to refuse to venerate the Emperor as a god. This looks more like an exception to the rule that polytheisms don’t have the concept of thoughtcrime, but in fact the offense wasn’t refusal to think of the Emperor as a god – it was refusal to engage in the expected ritual acts of subservience.

  49. “There’s an internal split of some significance between…hm, the usual terms are ‘magical’ and ‘religious’ neopagans (others are in use).”

    Is this the same as the split between eclectic neopagans and the reconstructionists? I take it you’re one of the former. What is the sort of instrumental programming you are talking about?

    I’d be interested in a future post that had a positive stance on neopaganism to follow up on your criticism of monotheisms.

  50. Adriano says:
    > Jessica: in your example, you call ‘pointless’ following a non-existent God, but you
    > don’t count the benefits of being happy, of having a sense of purpose, and of
    > helping others. If the miracle worked for him, why is it a worthless cause?

    Thing is Adriano, Christian doctrine disagrees with your point of view. Jesus taught that if a man builds his house on the sand, that it will fall down when the storms come up, and that he should rather build his house on the rock. The apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 15 says that if the dead are not raised at all, then we are of all men most miserable, and that we should eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die. Job, when confronted with the dishonest, pollyanna advice of his companions calls them miserable comforters.

    Bottom line is that Christian doctrine says that if your religion is not built on truth, then it is to your disadvantage. On this point, I agree with Christian doctrine. The idea that it has benefits, even if it is false, is not one I subscribe to. I think it ignores opportunity cost entirely. (For example, the opportunity to eat, drink and be merry.)

  51. I was also tempted to bring up Nero’s persecution of the Christians, but that’s more an example of the state scapegoating an unpopular ethnic group to screen its own culpability, in this case, in the Great Fire, if you believe Tacitus.

  52. >Is this the same as the split between eclectic neopagans and the reconstructionists?

    No, though they correlate to some extent; reconstructionists are somewhat more likely to be religion-oriented, eclectics somewhat more likely to be magic-oriented.

    >What is the sort of instrumental programming you are talking about?

    Example from my own experience: I invoked Thoth to cure a friend’s bad case of writer’s block once.

    >I’d be interested in a future post that had a positive stance on neopaganism

    We have a taboo — for good functional reasons which I respect — against prosyletizing. That would push it pretty hard.

  53. > Example from my own experience: I invoked Thoth to cure a friend’s bad case of writer’s block once.

    Not a scientifically sound experiment.

  54. Off-topic: ESR, in your essay ‘World Domination 201′ you say that 2008 is a deadline for popular Linux desktop acceptance. 2008 being over, what’s your take on the situation now?

    Sorry about off-topic. I don’t know how else to reach you.

  55. >Off-topic: ESR, in your essay ‘World Domination 201′ you say that 2008 is a deadline for popular Linux desktop acceptance. 2008 being over, what’s your take on the situation now?

    The hardware transition happened exactly on our schedule, but the software deadline we thought went with it was postponed by the Vista flop. I plan to blog on this when my collaborator Rob Landley is in town next month.

  56. In the wikipedlo, under Neopaganism >> Wicca, it says “The common denominator amongst all the variants of Wicca are a reverence for nature and active ecology…”. Is this valid? Ecology seems from what I can glean of your writings to be largely a concern of the left, and hence the locus of all that is wrong in human thought and aspiration. OTOH I have no idea what “active ecology” is, and there may be schools of which I am not aware.

  57. S’il se vante, je l’abaisse,
    S’il s’abaisse, je le vante;
    Et le contredis toujours,
    Jusqu’à ce qu’il comprenne
    Qu’il est un monstre incompréhensible.

  58. What actually happened is that the hardware did not arrive. 64-bit CPUs arrived, but these were over-shadowed by “multi-core”, and the drive toward the low-end of the market.

    Moreover, the memory postulated in the paper didn’t reach the “4GB” minimum.

    As an example, the low-end Dell line all comes with 2GB or in one case, 3GB of DRAM. All but the very bottom-end machine comes with a dual-core CPU. Only only one of the 4 comes with a 64-bit CPU.

    At the next level “up” in Dell’s product line (“Studio”), the bottom-end machine, again, has 2GB of ram, while all 4 machines are offered with a 64-bit dual-core CPU.

    The problem is that there is no ‘tractor app’. Few applications today stand ready to take advantage of a 64-bit address space. The four most important applications on the desktop are “word processing, spreadsheets, word processing and spreadsheets’. Perhaps you will add “web browser” to that mix, but none of these have a demand pull for > 4GB of address space in the 95% coverage case.

    In the meantime, both Apple and Microsoft are shipping 64-bit aware platforms. (When Apple’s “Snow Leopard” ships, its transition to 64-bit will be complete.) Whither linux?

    I also think that Google’s “Android” is going to eclipse the linux “embedded” market fairly quickly (< 2 years). You might see this as a ‘win’ for linux (the kernel), but it will likely result in crib-death for the rest of the linux embedded market. “First to volume” is more important than “first to market”, again.

    Which leaves one looking with askance at the “linux desktop” market. Ubuntu is as close as it gets to ‘functional’, and even where linux should have one (with the netbook market), the demand-pull was for customer acceptance, and that drove the manufacturers to … Windows, once Microsoft decided to spill its own blood and lower the price of WinXP for these devices.

    Game Over
    Insert Quarter

    If anything, “WD 201″ was premature ejaculation.

  59. >Is this valid?

    I can’t extract any more meaning from the phrase “active ecology” than you can. It is true that reverence for nature is central to most variants of neopaganism, but it is not necessarily in this context accompanied by the toxic political ideas (hatred of markets, etc.) that have attached themselves to the ecology movement.

  60. > toxic political ideas (hatred of markets, etc.) that have attached themselves to the ecology movement.

    See: “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken.

  61. “religiously-motivated violence” – when the supporters of Manchester United wreck a town, is it “sports-motivated violence”? Or are they merely looking for a way to release aggression, because everybody who played any first-person shooters on a PC knows releasing aggression is fun, and using sports merely as an excuse for it?

    Add in the the other bugs in human nature such as greed, desire to power, fear of the unknown, identity defense (i.e. if I see doing X as part of my identity somebody doing a similar X differently may mean I’m doing it wrong an my identity may be built on sand), plain simple boredom and other similar bugs, and a good case could be made that no violence ever was _caused_ by religions, nationalism, political ideologies or sports: they were merely excused, justified, rationalized, organized, channeled and directed by it.

    Any counter-arguments? Categories and classifications are useful only to the extent they help predicting what will happen. Do categories like “X-motivated violence” predict the really important thing: the _chance_ of violence happening, or they just predict the less important stuff f.e. the likely targets of it?

    “some of the techniques they invented still worked, for significant values of ‘work’” – I’m curious. Any examples?

    (I remember, when I first became attracted to Diamond Way Buddhism it was because it clearly looked like it keeps people young: it doesn’t prevent wrinkles of course but keeps old people functioning as young: energized, vibrant, joyful, playful so they simply don’t come accross as old, they come accross as young people with wrinkles. I wanted to keep looking (and living) like this guy does when I’m 62 (he was in 2003 when the first picture was shot): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lama_Ole_Nydahl Any similar effects in Wicca?)

  62. > the Judeo-Christian Bible.

    There is no Judeo-Christian Bible. There is a Jewish Bible and there is a Christian Bible, and they are not the same. They do not have the same content or interpretation. The culture and heritage surrounding them are very different.

    To Jews, the Tora (Hebrew for Bible) is _the_ Testament: not old, nor new. It encompasses not just the text – “the written word” – but the whole body of liturgy that goes with it (this is what is usually called “the oral tradition” in English). The two cannot be dissociated, and the latter is completely absent from Christian theology, just as the New Testament has no place in Judaism.

    In fact, the term “Judeo-Christian” is a _Christian_ term that belies the belief that Christianity is _the_ successor to Judaism, obviously quite contrary to Jewish belief.

  63. Modern and Ancient Hebrew have some striking differences, but they do share most of the vocabulary. Though some of the Ancient Hebrew meanings and forms are considered archaic, they are known and understood (for the most part) by Modern Hebrew speakers.

    The word “alma” does NOT mean “virgin”. It means young woman or unmarried woman. In the tora, the term usually referred to a young woman engaged to be married. Rivka (Rebecca? – Isaac’s wife), for example, is called an “alma”.

  64. > Jewish and Semitic monotheistic moon worship.

    What does this even mean?

    Judaism does not worship the moon. Worshiping the moon stands in stark contrast, historically and theologically, with monotheism. Semitic refers to a language group, not to a religion.

  65. > More likely is that Jesus is just a story, not someone who existed in any real form.

    It is very likely that he did exist. There are quite a few historic documents that refer to him, not all in religious context. Even the Talmud, the central body of Jewish Law, refers to him as a kind of mediocre rabbi.

  66. “Even the Talmud, the central body of Jewish Law, refers to him as a kind of mediocre rabbi.”

    Not really. There is one reference to someone called “Yeshu Hanotzri”, at least in one version, but he’s about 100 years too early to be Jesus, has only five disciples rather than twelve, was executed by the Sanhedrin over the protests of the government, which forced a 40-day delay in the sentence but ultimately could not prevent it. Oh, and he was executed on the day *before* Passover, so his last meal couldn’t have been a seder.

    In other words, all he shares with Jesus is a name. And he isn’t described as a rabbi of any sort; no description at all is given of who he was, or what his crime was. All we’re told is that he was close to the government.

  67. “In fact, the term “Judeo-Christian” is a _Christian_ term that belies the belief that Christianity is _the_ successor to Judaism, obviously quite contrary to Jewish belief.”

    This, of course, depends on the definition what “Jewish” means. One of the core ideas behind Christianity is that Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew, picked up the idea of Logos from the Stoics and transformed it into monotheistic terms. This is the Logos whose embodiment Christians think Jesus was. Whether you consider Philo as Hellenized Judaism – and much of Judaism was/is heavily Hellenized, or simply just a Greek philosopher who just happened to be of Jewish origin and somewhat monotheistic, well that’s not a very easy question.

  68. “In other words, all he shares with Jesus is a name. ” BTW – was it a fairly common name? Or rather, given that Hebrew – and I suppose, Aramaic too – writes only consonants, were there some fairly common names that fit into the Y_SH_ pattern? I’m just guessing here, based on a cursory glance of the Hebrew alphabeth in Wikipedia, but I think in written form it’s just a Yodh and a Shin. Given 22 consonants, I figure there weren’t many 2-combinations that would have not be common names. (The last “s” in the Greek Iesos can be safely ignored, that’s probably just a usual “greekization”: “something” -> “somethingos”).

  69. “We have a taboo — for good functional reasons which I respect — against prosyletizing. That would push it pretty hard.”

    Perhaps I meant “affirmative” rather than “positive.” I didn’t mean an advertisement for your particular gods, maybe just a description of your personal experience with neopaganism. For instance, the “invoking Thoth” anecdote. :)

  70. More on ‘why the linux desktop isn’t happening’.

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/macintosh.html

    During its first decade, the Mac offered clearly superior usability compared to competing personal computer platforms (DOS, Windows, OS/2). Not until Windows 95 did the PC start to approximate Mac-level usability.
    Despite this Mac advantage, PCs have sold vastly better in every single year since 1984, and the Mac has yet to exceed a single-digit market share.

    The Mac’s miserable marketplace performance seems to pose a strong argument against usability. Why bother, if it doesn’t sell?

    The counter-argument is that usability is the only reason Mac survived. Compared to the PC, it was much more expensive, had only a fraction of the specialized applications, and was cursed by Apple’s business-hostile attitude.

    So why would anyone pay more for less? Because Macs were easier to use.

    Now see if you can say the same thing about the linux desktop.

  71. >> “We have a taboo — for good functional reasons which I respect — against prosyletizing. That would push it pretty hard.”

    Perhaps I meant “affirmative” rather than “positive.” I didn’t mean an advertisement for your particular gods, maybe just a description of your personal experience with neopaganism. For instance, the “invoking Thoth” anecdote. :)

    I second this motion. I would be very much interested in learning more about Wicca. What is it, what does it believe, what kind of rites or sacraments or whatever does it have? Assuming, of course, that the stuff isn’t secret or something. :)

  72. … back to C++.

    Try feeding this to your C++ compiler, and see what type of “translation errors” you get.

    int main() {
    if (false) {
    } else do
    throw sizeof new signed long int const volatile();
    while (false);
    }

  73. Ugh, Eric. I thought better of you than to make basic mistakes like this. Seriously, I enjoy reading everything you write even though (or perhaps because) I disagree with you more often than not, but this is among the sloppiest things you’ve written.

    The word ‘almah’ in Hebrew is ambiguous in much the same way ‘maiden’ is in English; it can mean “young woman” or it can mean “virgin”. Christian translations render it as ‘virgin’, interpreting it as a prophecy of the birth of Yeshua bar-Yosif, later called Jesus the Christ. This prophecy, is, in effect, conjured up out of what might be a translation error.

    A couple of points here.

    1. The earliest translation of Isaiah — the Septuagint — translates this unambiguously as “virgin”. Yes, the LXX is flaky in places, but given that the translators were a heck of a lot closer culturally to the OT than we are, that alone is a very good reason to take the “virgin” translation seriously.

    2. At least one conservative Protestant translation that I know of translates this as “young woman”. Obviously they didn’t see a problem with it, and neither should you. Because…

    3. It doesn’t matter one bit if Isaiah is not a prophecy of Jesus at all. The exegetical methods used by the NT authors don’t require that the OT is used “accurately” by Western standards.

    Here are two more facts known to many educated people:

    Actually, thereafter follow two errors that people with just enough Biblical education to sound convincing (but not enough to be correct) often make.

    The Christians did not begin to arrive at a settlement of the question of the divinity of Jesus until surprisingly late – the council of Nicaea in AD 325, and important controversies remained live until the Third Council of Constantinople in 680.

    The question was already settled. The codification of the Trinity doctrine arguably happened at Nicaea. The divinity of Jesus was settled long before then. The “controversies” you refer to in your next point were almost all about the exact nature of the divinity of Jesus, not about whether he was divine or not.

    (How many bishops at the council of Nicaea did it take to change a lightbulb? Three, but there’s only really one of them.)

  74. @ESR:

    I read the article and found it amusing. By and large, I’ve had similar early experiences; given that I was born in a developing middle-eastern country and grew up under strict fundamentalist supervision.
    I used to pray daily in mosque, was a master in reading the holy Koran with a special rhythm they call “So’t”, managed to memorize most of its verses [it was a trip down memory lane when you mentioned that Koranic sentence somewhere there. So nostalgic!], and attended religious get-togethers with enthusiasm. It cost me a lot of time, frustration, and serious struggle to discard the so-called “Religion Of Peace” and “The Only True Way To Salvation”. Keep in mind that I was profoundly influenced by Imam Khomeini’s teachings too and BTW, for some time I really wanted to kill Rushdie! :)
    I managed to explore other cults for a while, before I started to resent all the creeds which would fell under the category of organized religion. To sum it up, firstly I became a non-observing Muslim, then an agnostic and finally I became a rigid atheist. Freed from that sort of chain, various kinds of belief systems ranging from Marxism to Sufism were exposed to me. I felt free to pick the things I pleased from any of them and never bothered to completely swallow anything, and I’m nominally still a Muslim [Man, are you nuts?!, They would hang me by the balls if they knew]

    Well…it’s good that you like Zen Buddhism, I like it a bit too. Especially because of it’s attitude towards non-believers and also for the joyful yoga-like practices. But it’s still an organized religion and utterly unacceptable by my standards and world view.

    And about Shamanism, I’d say I don’t believe/like that. I fear it might be misrepresented to me by Carlos Castaneda whose bizarre claims is impossible for me to digest. What do you think about him? Have you read his books?

    PS: Well done, such a touching and well-written article. I admit that by reading it, I feel the urge to further explore the area of Mysticism for finding possible delights. You show real promise [dexterous dramatizing, expressive vocabulary, etc]. Have you ever tried to write any fiction stuff, BTW?

  75. Oh shit, I goofed it up again. Apparently I wrote some thing silly and off-topic. Sorry, I just followed the link and hastily typed what was my immediate impression over that. I didn’t even look at the date in which the article was written.

  76. >I fear it might be misrepresented to me by Carlos Castaneda whose bizarre claims is impossible for me to digest. What do you think about him? Have you read his books?

    Yes, back in the 1970s. I’m sorry I wasted the effort; Castenada was an obvious and utter fraud.

  77. @Lewis:

    There are attestations of παρθένος referring to “unmarried women who are not virgins”, see its entry in Liddell and Scott. They’re from Classical, not Koine Greek, I grant you, but still.

  78. eric: >But in polytheistic cultures the god you choose as a tutelary deity is your own business

    interestingly, the romans noted and complained that in the goth/german(sarmatian?)-descended cultures (franks, etc), this lawful-libertarianism :) extended to the Legal system. across frankish/allgemagne europe, a man could ONLY be convicted of a crime if it was a crime according to his homeland’s laws. huge delays created by waiting for a homeland-local lawyer/judge to be brought out for each farflung trial. really aggravated the romans.

    this survived explicitly until relatively recent times: the Prussian (modern north germany) official State Motto on the State Crest was “To Each His Own”

  79. >I think it ignores opportunity cost entirely. (For example, the opportunity to eat, drink and be merry.)

    “Remember, you must die whether you sit around moping
    all day long, or whether on feast days you stretch
    out in a green field, happy with a bottle of Falernian
    [wine] fetched from your innermost cellar.”
    — Odes 11 3, Horace (deceased)

  80. >The four most important applications on the desktop are “word processing, spreadsheets, word processing and spreadsheets’

    quite. a 1991-vintage mac with Word 5.1 and Excel 2 and Eudora still more than satisfies 95% of users’ needs.

    YouTube’s (etc) dependence on Flash etc for lightweight movies is the only significant exception.

  81. @Saltation:

    That’s “Odes II (as in, 2), 3″ not “11, 3″, and you might want to put a “…” between “you must die” and “whether”, since you’re skipping most of the first stanza.

    Pretty good reference here.

  82. Shenpen: i realise you’re reporting rather than proselytising, so please read the following in a non-personal way:
    >One of the core ideas behind Christianity is that Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew, picked up the idea of Logos from the Stoics and transformed it into monotheistic terms. This is the Logos whose embodiment Christians think Jesus was.

    i’m minded of the various times i’ve seen authors presented to their readers/critics, who’ve expounded all sorts of deep involved theories and relationships and themes, and the author’s said “nope. wasn’t thinking of any of that. that’s all only in your own mind.” i can remember myself throwing various ideas at a playwright for one particularly striking scene and him saying “wow. you guys are INVENTIVE. i wish i had your creativity. actually, i just thought it looked good.” nearly fell off my chair laughing. brilliant summary of a human syndrome- to read far more into things ex-post than existed ex-ante.

    to put that another way, only a microscopic subset of people believe Jesus was the embodiment of Logos, and they have fabricated that concept themselves many hundreds of years later via a process of Justifiction. “startlingly”, no account of jesus contains him opining about Logos.

    similarly notably, you are spot on re many Theologians’ opinion re christianity. humans LOVE Virtue and they LOVE proof of personal Intelligence via demonstrating connections (eg conspiracy theories).

  83. >“In other words, all he shares with Jesus is a name. ” BTW – was it a fairly common name?

    yes.
    very common, in fact.

  84. >@Saltation: That’s “Odes II (as in, 2), 3″ not “11, 3″

    oo ta. the app i stored that in is font-less — I is visually identical to 1 in the default font — never noticed

  85. very common, in fact.

    It’s still common — in mutated form as “Joshua”.

  86. >Dancing With The Gods.

    affecting…

    i’m with you, eric, particularly “Fine. You’ve explained it. Correctly, even. But you can’t do it!”

    i would quibble, or rather, expand/differently-slant via my own framework, some of that essay’s latter points. but they’d fundamentally only be a different view of the same points. eg: churches fight prophets.

    but i think we only differ in one ludicrously subtle point. “All the Gods are alive. They are not supernatural; rather, they are our inmost natures.” as regards human nature/descriptions, i would use the word deity rather than instantiated Deities.

    but i’m way too used to trying to identify Processes rather than Distributions. an equivalently subtle and very nearly identical point.

  87. > 1. The earliest translation of Isaiah — the Septuagint — translates this unambiguously as “virgin”. Yes, the LXX is flaky in places, but given that the translators were a heck of a lot closer culturally to the OT than we are, that alone is a very good reason to take the “virgin” translation seriously.

    I would suggest that a better measure for how serious the translation was should consider what we *know* of their culture, and not the fact that we are not *of* their culture. Even as a native Hebrew speaker, with a Jewish education and university linguistics (including some limited historical linguistics), I won’t go so far as to say that what I know about Ancient Hebrew is absolute. Most likely I’m much closer to their culture than you are, and I believe they did not, indeed could not, have meant virgin. At least not in the way early Christianity interpreted the translation.

    Here’s what I do know (or what I think I know :) ).

    “Alma” is a modern and ancient Hebrew word whose meaning (and pronunciation) has changed very little over the millenia, if at all. It does not today and most likely never did mean “virgin”. However, a young woman was expected to be a virgin and to marry. This was a social, cultural and religious imperative. A child born to an unmarried woman is called a “bastard” in Jewish law. The consequence is that a bastard is effectively disinherited, or perhaps more precisely, dispossessed. A bastard cannot (according to halachic Jewish law) marry a Jewish man or woman, nor can the descendants (for 7 or 10 generations, can’t quite recall).

    The point is that there was a very powerful association between virginity, marriage, community and birthright, especially for the Sanhedrin, who were the (almost) universally recognized religious and judicial leaders of the Jewish world. For them, an alma could safely (theoretically, anyway) be assumed to be a virgin, especially if she later married (more on this seeming idiosyncracy later).

    There is another difficulty, which is that Ancient Hebrew had more or less two tenses – far fewer than the 7 tense English boasts of today. There was no clear distinction in Hebrew between past and present tense. You could call a currently married 50-year-old woman an alma, and thus refer to the fact that she had been married (probably as a virgin) in her youth 35 years prior. This could even be stated specifically as a mark of distinction to the woman.

    Modern Hebrew has at least 3 tenses and more clearly distinguishes between past and present, but the syntax and the vocabulary still allows tense-ambiguity analogous to Ancient Hebrew. For example, the phrase for “he runs” is exactly the same as “he is running” as well “he ran”. Context and other markers clarify the tense when necessary. Interestingly enough, the distinction is not always necessary. Saying that a woman is an alma, today, though somewhat archaic in most circles (there are some notable exceptions), carries both aspects of the Ancient Hebrew to a Modern Hebrew speaker: the tense and the other linguistic rules still apply. Even today, Modern Hebrew speakers can refer to an adult woman of *any* age as “almati”, which is a polite way to say something like “my lady”.

    Furthermore, just as the English, German, French and Italian scholars of the late Middle Ages all spoke different localized versions of Latin, so did scholars around the year 0 speak different localized versions of Greek. Non-native speakers of any language manipulate the language, unintentionally, by applying phonological, syntactic and semantic rules of their own native tongue on the other language.

    There is evidence that the sanhedrin (the septuagint) did not use the word parthenos as a native Greek speaker would have. One example is the rest of their translation, in which the same word is used to refer to women who were clearly not virgins. You could reasonably argue that my previous points defeat this point, if a non-virgin could be called an alma for having once been a young virgin woman, but the problem with that is that the context makes it very difficult to draw this conclusion.

    Finally, there’s the issue of semantic space. Hebrew (Ancient and Modern) has another word that means, and most likely meant, precisely “virgin” – e.g., a woman who has never had intercourse. The word is “betula”, which is also used in the Tora and translated as parthenos.

    I am curious, if anyone here knows, if there were other words in koine greek that meant “young woman” or “unmarried woman”.

  88. > It’s still common — in mutated form as “Joshua”.

    It’s still very common in several different forms, in Hebrew as well as other languages. Some examples: Yehoshua, Yeshayahu in Hebrew. Jose, Jesus (pronounced Haysus) in Spanish. Joshua in English…

    It is noteworthy that in Hebrew (unlike English but very much like other languages with a clearer lineage), names almost always have meaning in the language. Take the two contenders for the Prime Ministerial position in Israel today. Benjamin = “Binyamin” = “son of my right hand” (which is a way of saying “the son that preserves my heritage”, or “on whose existence I stand” or “my sword-hand son” (without the sword!)). “Zipi” which is short for “Zipora” which is a kind of poetic name for a bird (“Zipor”).

    This means that the fact the name still sees much use is not really all that strange. It’s actually more interesting that the exact name of Jesus is never used: “Yeshu” (his Hebrew name) is not considered today – culturally – an acceptable Jewish name.

  89. >“son of my right hand”

    in modern english, this would be represented by the scottish surname O’Nan

    (joke)

  90. >> “Even the Talmud, the central body of Jewish Law, refers to him as a kind of mediocre rabbi.”

    > Not really. There is one reference to someone called “Yeshu Hanotzri”, at least in one version, but he’s about 100 years too early to be Jesus, has only five disciples rather than twelve, was executed by the Sanhedrin over the protests of the government, which forced a 40-day delay in the sentence but ultimately could not prevent it. Oh, and he was executed on the day *before* Passover, so his last meal couldn’t have been a seder.

    > In other words, all he shares with Jesus is a name. And he isn’t described as a rabbi of any sort; no description at all is given of who he was, or what his crime was. All we’re told is that he was close to the government.

    Well, this is only partially accurate. There are a number of references in the Talmud to Jesus, though not all by name. It is possible they do not all refer to the same person, but it is highly likely that most of them do.

    A rabbi in Judaism has a different role than a priest in Catholic Christianity. He is not a mediator or a speaker for god. He is not holier than an ordinary person. He is a teacher and a guide. A learned man with disciples in those centuries *was* a rabbi, by definition! I’m fairly certain the word was not in use at the time, though I can’t be sure.

    I will try clarify my claim, though. It is *very* likely that Jesus was a real person and that he was killed by the Romans more or less according to the Christian narrative, on the cross along with another (estimated) 20,000 thousand Jews.

    It is not clear if his name was “Jesus”. “Jesus” could be a poetic word to describe the man as the “savior”. Using monikers is a common technique of religious texts from the era. There are some (secular) scholars who argue that many of the names in the Tora itself are monikers used to help make a point about the figures in the story. I don’t know where I stand on this, mostly for lack of knowledge.

    There were a number of Messianic movements at the time, and for 500 years before and after. This includes the groups that ran away to the Dead Sea or the Galilee, as well as groups that committed suicide (like at Messada). It is not unlikely that some stories converged over several hundred years in a society in which fast communication was marked by horses kicking up dust, influenced by sophist thinking and preaching, and otherwise despondent. I think some of the stories about Jesus must based on other similar people, but I’m not sure I know enough to clearly disambiguate them.

    The difference between 5 or 12 disciples may be significant to a Christian, but not so to an archeologist reading the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls offer what might be a 13th disciple, for example. In any case, unless I’ve got my facts mixed up, even Christian doctrine does not claim all the disciples wrote right away. And historically there is some difficulty ascertaining that there were in fact even 12 disciples.

    I can’t really find you any online references to back up my main claim, because it is one justified primarily by a rich oral tradition, which makes for a powerful argument in the right circles, but probably not on this forum. But I can offer the point that if Greek, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other cultures believe that this man existed, in whatever shape or form, that should provide strong evidence that indeed it was so.

  91. Sorry for the long-winded posts everyone. Turns out 3am is not the best time to write code or theological theses :(. Time to go to sleep.

  92. “A rabbi in Judaism has a different role than a priest in Catholic Christianity.” Right. A rabbi is not a _priest_. Jewish priests (kohanim) served in the Temple of Jerusalem; there have been none since the Temple was destroyed. BTW Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican Christianity also have _priests_, just like Catholics. They have the magical power, derived through the Apostolic Succession, of granting absolution for sin, and to perform the Miracle of Transubstantiation. Methodists, Baptists, Reformed, and Presbyterians have ministers.

    Also BTW: Christ’s twelve chief followers were the Apostles, not the Disciples. “By the 24 balls of the 12 Apostles!” as a Spanish muleskinner would swear.

  93. Saltation:

    “Shenpen: i realise you’re reporting rather than proselytising” – well, it would be bloody weird to proselytize for a religion I myself don’t believe in!

    Although that could be said that my respect for the original Greek philosophy is so high because everything we value in the modern world came from it, that when I speak about that, it might border on it.

    My respect for Christians is conditional: for those who managed to import a good amount of Greek philosophy into their views (f.e. Aquinas) I have fairly high respect, for others, much less. I have fairly high respect for at least one aspect of Christianity, which aspect seems to be an attempt to wrap Greek philosophy into theistic mysticism in order to help it survive the Dark Ages after the fall of the Empire. Without actually believing a word of that theism it was wrapped into, but can’t you consider something useful from a historical point of view, without actually believing it?

    Of course it is a fabricated concept! Or in other words, a meme, a product of the evolution of ideas through history and only in historical contexts is it understandable at all. It is so obvious for everybody except for those who actually believe it that stuff that I didn’t even mention it, I thought that’s understood as a basic framework of this whole discussion that everybody accepted that we are talking about how stories were formed and transformed throughout history. And the details of the historical evolution of this meme are the current topic, aren’t they?

  94. Rabbis may have disciples, but not everyone with disciples is a rabbi. The Yeshu Hanotzri mentioned (*once*) in the Talmud had five disciples, but there’s no indication of what he taught them. We don’t know on what charge he was executed, but it makes it at least somewhat unlikely that he was teaching them Torah.

    In any case, if the term “rabbi” was being used at all at that time, it referred not to anyone who chose to teach Torah, but specifically to someone ordained as competent to sit on a court of law, in a chain of succession going back to Moses. (This is why sages in Babylon, where this ordination was not available, were called Rav rather than Rabbi.) There’s certainly no indication in the story that this Yeshu had such ordination.

    As I wrote earlier, there is nothing to tie this Yeshu to Jesus, except a name. That’s not enough. And there are no other clear references to him in the Talmud. There are a few generic references to “a Jewish sinner”, which some have taken to refer to him, but there’s no basis for that assumption. And there’s a Ben Stada, bastard son of Miriam the Women’s Hair-braider, but he was too late to be Jesus; his mother’s husband shared a cell with Rabbi Akiva in the 130s.

    2. Contra Noam, in Jewish law the child of an unmarried woman is *not* a bastard, and suffers no legal disability. A bastard is the product of adultery or incest.

    3. “Alma” is simply the feminine form of “elem”, which means “youth”. It carries no implication at all about the young person’s sexual experience.

  95. ESR,

    I’ve read the Dancing With The Gods and it seems to me you are bit torn between the Rationalist and the mystic aspects of yourself, building a narrow and tentative bridge between them – maybe I can help to widen it a bit.

    Rationalism is defined as a way of thinking that only takes a narrow set of parameters into account: what is surely known (a priori: Descartes or Austrian Economics), or what is known by empirical evidence therefore “fairly surely” (natural sciences, scientific method, Neoclassical Economics), or even artifically limiting the range of parameters in order to keep the algorythm clean because a function with 143 different types of parameters is a mess (the “ceteris paribus” of economists).

    There are two kinds of parameters: input parameters (“by value”), and input-output parameters: things we are optimizing for (“by reference”).

    Rationalism is keeping the set of parameters narrow, especially the input-output ones, the ones we are optimizing for.

    The opposite of of Rationalism is practical wisdom (phronesis (Aristotle), common sense): keeping the range of parameters as wide as they need to be, even though some of them will not be sure, therefore the algorithm will not be very clean, will contain a lot of guesswork and pattern recognition and heuristics and stuff like that.

    Example: a “rational diet” is one that’s healthy: it takes one input parameter: the human body, and one input-output optimization parameter: the health of that body. A diet that takes into accout what you like, what is easy to make, and what is ingredients are easy to acquire is not Rational: it’s wise, because you are MUCH more likely to follow it, therefore gives more benefit than a Rational diet you won’t follow because it sucks and therefore gives no benefit, only bad conscience.

    (Whenever I say I’m a Conservative or a Pre-Modern it means generally this Pre-Enlightenment focus on practical wisdom instead of Rationality: look up the big battle of minds between Descartes and Vico, that’s an excellent blueprint of it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giambattista_Vico )

    Why doesn’t Rationalism isn’t a good recipe for living? Because the range of parameters is narrower than it should be.

    Example: there is a HUGE amount of fitness/healthy living advice on the Net and in the media, so why are we (we= US, UK with Europe catching up fast) so fat? Answer: most fitness advice is Rational i.e. narrow. Its input parameter is the human body, it’s input-output optimization parameter is how to make that body healthy. What is missing: psychology. They don’t give a fuck about what we like to do and eat, what enjoy to do and eat, therefore, they give good advice (for the body), but we don’t follow it. A Rational fitness advice is doing the threadmill while keeping your heart rate in the fat burning range: the parameter is only the body. A wise fitness advice is one that realizes that even the best advice does not help one bit if you are not willing to follow it, therefore, a wise advice must also optimize for psychology as well as the body: find a good compromise between what’s best for the body and what you like to do. Therefore a wise fitness advice is that if you enjoyed playing basketball when younger go and do it three times a week. Not as good for the body as scientific fitness but it has that huge advantages that you might be actually willing to do it because you like it. So it optimizes for two input-output parameters: body and psychology, not just one. This is why it isn’t Rational, but rather it’s wise.

    This is how everything works. I was a rational consultant, giving technology advice to customers and was very pissed off when they did not want to choose the one I suggested which was obviously best for their business. I had a lot of rational arguments. They had no rational counter-arguments. I should have been able to convince them. I could not. Then I was angry. Thought they are irrational fools. My way of thinking was rational: a narrow set of parameters, meaning: the only input-output optimization parameter was what’s best for the business. Then later on an older, more experienced (yes, experience usually = wisdom even when you aren’t very smart) coworker pointed out that it’s probably because the manager does not care what’s best for the business: he cares about what’s best for him. Wow! I suddenly understood and it made perfect sense, fit into the picture, solved the riddle, answered by question: yes, he is not a fool, he is just selfish. What happened? I took another parameter into account, and thus modified my strategy accordingly: optimize not only for what’s best for the business, but also for what’s best for decision-maker guy at your customer’s business. Suddenly I had more parameters: two, not just one. I had became less rational and wiser. (This is what experience is all about.)

    This is the key for everything. Rationality – reasoning from a narrow set of parameters – is a tool for scientific research. NOT a tool for living life. Or understanding history. Or managing a marriage. (I think, never tried.) Or politics. Or managing a software project. Or selling stuff. Or being happy and living a full life. Or anything.

  96. >I’ve read the Dancing With The Gods and it seems to me you are bit torn between the Rationalist and the mystic aspects of yourself, building a narrow and tentative bridge between them – maybe I can help to widen it a bit.

    I’m not stuck where you think I am, because in your terms I’m not a rationalist. “Operationalist” or “empiricist” would be a better description. The rationalist style of “pure” deductive reasoning is one tool to hand, but I am keenly aware of the trap associated with it – mistaking theoretical constructs for reality.

  97. I find it hard to believe that mature adults even discuss the existance of god in this day and age. What next? Debating the tooth fairy? Santa Claus?

  98. Then why do you regard the word “evidence” so highly? Isn’t that a tendency to reason only from say 3 paramters that are 99% sure and leave out other 6 things that are 30-60% sure? I mean articles like “What I believe but cannot prove” – c’mon, belief and proof aren’t entire different modes of experience but are just two ends of the same continuos graph of confidence or certainity, expressed as a percentage of probability. A non-rationalist would have worded that article as “What I think I know but I’m not very sure of” instead of “What I believe but cannot prove”.

  99. > I’m not stuck where you think I am, because in your terms I’m not a rationalist.

    I think you are a rationalist and I don’t like Shenpen’s terms. I prefer Eliezer Yudkowsky’s thinking on this subject, defining an ideally rational actor as one who maximizes the expected future value of a given utility function based on predictions derived from Bayesian empiricism. Shenpen is attributing to what-he-calls-rationalists the error of considering a utility function with an overly restricted domain.

  100. Daniel,

    This is simply the most common usage of the word. If the utility function optimizes for only kind of result, value, output parameter, goal, or for only a few kinds, it’s essentially the same what I was meaning.

    The narrower definition of rationality is optimizing for only one goal, and even this narrow definition fits most colloquial uses of the term. Examples:

    Scientific research is rational because the only goal it optimizes for is truth and does not take into account other values f.e. truth may sometimes be dangerous, or not the most useful thing. The Neoclassical economic theory of a rational actor is someone who only optimizes for monetary gain as a goal. Or any other similarly narrow (or single) sets of goals. David Friedman wrote somewhere a rational actor chooses the shortest queue in the supermarket i.e. optimizes only for waiting time. Which means he disregards other goals f.e. the cashier girl in the longer queue may be cuter. Healthy living is rational because it only optimizes for the body and not for other things such as having fun. Smoking is seen as irrational because it kills you: this view only optimizes for health and long living. I’ve seen my customers as irrational fools when they didn’t choose the best technology for their business, because I thought they are only optimizing for the goal of what’s best for the business, which was not the case. See, even this narrow definition tends to fit to most uses of this term.

    A bit broader definition of rationality is optimizing for few goals, and basing it on a narrow range of inputs ( = “sure enough” predictions).

  101. >A child born to an unmarried woman is called a “bastard” in Jewish law.
    this is simply inaccurate. a mamzer is a child born of adultery, not to an unmarried woman.
    you can even check in the wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamzer

  102. >I think you are a rationalist and I don’t like Shenpen’s terms.

    Now you two get to argue over terms :-). I agree that I fit the broader, folk sense of “rationalist: to which you refer. I also agree with Shenpen’s critique of excessively theory-focused rationalism.

  103. But that’s not my critique! I explained it twice: narrow range of sure, certain parameters vs. broad range of less certain ones, optimize for one goal vs. optimize for multiple goals (compromises) etc. Ithas little to do with theory vs. practice.

    Anyway. It’s not too important. Different topic, more interesting one: ESR, why is that that you practice(d) Wicca and Theravada/Zen Buddhism but apparently never practiced Diamond Way / Vajrayana (“red hat” Tibetan stuff) which can be seen as the direct combination of the two? Same goal as Zen, but tools like Wiccans: meditating on anthropomorphic forms (my favourite one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajrapani ) that press certain symbolic buttons in the subconscious which in the long run leads to a non-conceptual, non-dual, Zen-like state of mind. I wonder why, as it would be something like a very logical thing to try for a Zen-Wiccan, IMHO, kinda the combination of the two. Same way as Perl-LISPers try Ruby, the combination :-)

  104. >ESR, why is that that you practice(d) Wicca and Theravada/Zen Buddhism but apparently never practiced Diamond Way / Vajrayana

    Probably because I’ve never been exposed to good teachers our sources. My brief mental file on Vajrayana is marked “interesting stuff there”, though some of the Bon-derived elements creep me out a little.

  105. http://diamondway.org/usa/1centers.php – no centers in Pennsylvania at the moment, it seems, but might be a good idea to drop by one whenever you are near any of the cities there is one in, just out of curiosity. I think Lama Ole is exactly that kind of guy you tend to like:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lama_Ole

    Highlights from the article:

    “His enjoyment of thrill-seeking activities such as bungee jumping, riding fast motorbikes and parachuting are also seen by some to be inappropriate behaviour for a Lama.” I’d bet good money you see it as something highly appropriate :-)

    “However “some Buddhists are turned off by his skydiving, openly sexual, rock star personality, in many ways the opposite of the common image of the Buddhist as a monk who stays above the sins of the world by retreating from them the meditate his life away in a temple. Others can forgive him the sex and motorcycles, but simply find his remarks about Islam to be xenophobic” ” – again something that will probably look like an interesting thing to you and not a turn-off – and excuse my while I take some time out to laugh my ass off, clearly we have too many fools in Western Buddhism and they don’t even realize their “criticism” of Ole only makes him more interesting for normal folks… :-)

  106. >I’d bet good money you see it as something highly appropriate :-)

    You’d win that bet.

  107. And now a tense, reverent hush descends on the comment thread as the assemblage waits to see who will be the first of their number to break and make a “bungee-jumping llama” joke.

  108. >Yes, that’s right. I’m suggesting that Jesus got deified by a translation error!

    Silly. He got deified because people wanted him to be deified, and it’s continued for the reason other strong religions exist.

    But that information helps see how he could have been an awesome person, without saying anything he thought was a lie.

  109. >>I’d bet good money you see it as something highly appropriate :-)
    >
    > You’d win that bet.

    This blog strongly resembles and echo chamber.

  110. >This blog strongly resembles an[d] echo chamber.

    *snort* You’re new here, aren’t you?

  111. “This blog strongly resembles and echo chamber.”

    I think that’s just another way of saying “too long, didn’t read”, as 95% of this appr. 15,000 words long thread is anything but.

  112. Eric,

    How the hell did this item change from a discussion of the truly excellent book, “God Wants You Dead”, into a discussion of your personal religious beliefs? ;-)

    –Sean

  113. From Dancing with the Gods:
    > There is a living Wiccan lineage today (Tradition of the Rainbow Wheel) that calls me its founder and still uses portions of the Book of Shadows I wrote.

    Could you possibly put a copy of your Book of Shadows on your website? It would make an interesting read.

  114. >Could you possibly put a copy of your Book of Shadows on your website?

    I will not do so. Some things should remain mysteries in order to enhance their psychological power. The material in this book is among them. Access is for initiates only.

  115. Imagine that. It’s taken centuries to get where we are, and ESR clears it all up in just one blog post. He’s simply divine.

  116. When multiple competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, my principle recommends selecting the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities.

  117. The mania for the new bleats from every news source and gaping mouth: the old has failed, let’s find something new, and maybe it will wrap up all of the trendy memes — in self-help books, on talk shows, in politics — into some convenient handle so we can tell people, “Well I believe in X,” and then go about doing what we were doing.

    In a time where ideas are defined by who participates in them, the past is burned, and all the past labels for things are burned. You’re a libertarian? Like those other guys? Well… not really, but kind of. That invites the other person to one-up you with some new and trendy thing, even if they make it up on the spot. “How quaint. I’m an anarchosyndicalist Raelian.” Much more unique, much more important; clearly this is the superman walking the earth.

    We burn labels as we wander through them, no more sincere with the next than the last, because like pilgrims we’re looking for the hand of God to reach us through a Word and somehow deliver us from a primal state of ignorance. We all see the situation is calamitous, but how to put a solution in a few words? Give up, and find something that sounds good instead. “I’m a revolutionary phrenologist.”

    My cynical conservative friends call such thinking New Age because it’s like soup. You pick and mix and match from some existing beliefs, rope them together with a universal (“all you need is love,” “life belongs to the aggressive”) and then use it as a self-empowering, or if we’re honest, self-justifying, mantle of authority. I am right because I am something new, something that bypasses all these old burned things… I’m a transcendental alluviator.

    Things that are burned:

    “Think for yourself.” What a nice sentiment… and that is all. The average Homer Simpson thought this made a greater justification for being selfish, and took the exhortations of every speed metal band from the 1980s to heart. Now he does the same things but has a handy retort to critics.

    “Think of others.” It’s a great idea if you like tokens. In our inner hearts, most of us are sick to death of others. They crowd us, most of them are stupid, and the ones that aren’t are so manic with a desire to escape that they’ll push us under to get a few inches above. But, if once a month we think of others by working at a soup kitchen, we feel vindicated in continuing our slothful, selfish, slovenly behavior the other 29 days.

    “Think of the children.” The only people who really take this to heart are the pedophiles. It’s a great way to force other people to be sympathetic to whatever you’re doing. We need nuclear weapons — think of the children! Like pointing out someone’s fly is open, it only functions to take wind from their sails, not goad them to something productive.

    What never gets burned are the things you can’t sum up in a catchphrase. Like thinking of what is realistic and pragmatic. Thinking of what will be true in all situations. These things don’t burn because they aren’t tangible and yet open-ended at the same time. They require interpretation, and that interpretation is not universal, so they’re garbage as memes. But as guides to life, in a time when everyone else is drowning in the burned-out?

    They’re superior.

    [http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/prozak/burned/]

  118. John Chapman,

    I’m not sure I understand all of your ideas but I think I like the drift. To put all these stuff more simply, the problem of modernity is that about between 500 BC and 1700 AD it was understood that having a big ego isn’t quite a good idea, we’d better tame it one way or another, and afterwards it was quickly forgotten and one way or another, big-egos became the root of thinking. This was exemplifed by the big intellectual battles between Descartes and Vico, or between Rousseau – who attempted to make vanity (big ego) into the root of all virtue – and Burke, who understood that a small ego (in his terminology: humility) is the root of all that’s cool and works well.

    On the level of practical politics, there may be two, three, four or many dimensions. But there is only one really important philosophical dimension on how we think about what’s a good life in general, and I think this was – in the case of Buddhism, very clearly and outspokenly, in the case of Christianity, in a much more muddier and confused and inefficient way, but still revolving, however clumsily, around a roughly similar idea – the root of all philosophical, religious, and even political philosophical thinking of all times: big ego vs. small ego.

    As a modern example, I just found this admirable example on the Coyote Blog: “It is all my fault.” http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2009/02/ant-and-the-grasshopper.html

    This taking of personal responsibility, which is a clear example of a small-ego mindset, is the clearest predictor of, well, pretty much every good things in modern life too.

  119. Shepen,

    Its not all your fault.

    The individual, destabilized, demands that itself come before all else. For this reason it demands an order that supports the cult of the individual; a crowd of uniques, a mob of iconoclasts, an army of freestylers. We refer to “individualism” as the philosophy which (a) puts the individual above all else and (b) interprets all else through its impact on an individual considered alone and isolated from all other factors.

    The individual wants first of all recognition: the individual wants to be told that whatever its physical or mental failings, it is just as important as any other individual and just as likely to succeed. The individual wants to be judged on its personality, not physical factors like strength, intelligence, health or ability — and yes, these are physical factors, since they are determined by the brain and body in design. You can educate a moron but he will still be a moron. You can exercise a cripple but he will still be a cripple. So the individual wants to be judged — well, they don’t want to be judged at all, but since it’s inevitable — they want to be judged by their personality and their hairstyle and their possessions: all things they can regulate.

    The individual next wants reality to work his way or her way. Individuals, if the choice was up to them, would all be kings, although the best king would be one who rules not for individual reasons but for the best of the country — people, land, customs, values — as a whole. Every individual a king, and since we cannot rule other individuals or they cannot be kings, we want to be in our own island kingdoms, isolated from all else. If we need other people, we will pay them, and so convince ourselves that we are not intruding upon their kingship (it’s only fair that we all work and earn money to be kings; money, like time spent at a job, is equally accessible to all king-individuals).

    The individual wants gratification of desires in such a way that does not intrude upon this kingship. There should be no critique of gluttony, because a king does not deserve critique. Similarly, no one should stop us from accumulating whatever possessions we desire, whether shiny new objects (for the less wealthy) or objects of cryptic nostalgia value (for the bored middle classes). We want drugs and if those are evil, alcohol and cigarettes, and we want sex in such a way that there’s no obligation — best of all is for every king to be a slut also, so that sex is available without any feeling that maybe our time would be better vested in longer-term relationships or loves.

    The individual wants “freedom,” so that his or her choices cannot be critiqued as being selfish, insane, corrupt, or inane. This helps the individual hide where it is broken and disguise that pathological behavior as a “choice,” when in fact it is the acting out of past trauma. I am not having group sex in my own feces while being whipped by midgets because I was raped as a child, King Individual proclaims, but because I want to! People living in mediocre cities with mediocre jobs and mediocre friends can use this cognitive dissonance to argue away the thought, mostly in themselves, that they could with some effort have a more fulfilling life.

    The individual wants no reminders of mortality or its extended process, natural selection. We do not mention our deficiencies or physical deformations, or how plain and boring we are with sunglasses and trendy clothing and haircut removed. We do not want to be placed into any competition where our inherent abilities are revealed, because this reminds us too much of natural selection. We want an end to all rank, to all hierarchy, so that our deficiencies are masked behind the equalizing factor of recognition. I will never die.

    It is the collective need of individuals for these rules to be upheld that bonds them together into a mob, and removes their individualism in favor of adherence to the dogma of individualism, like someone confusing the signal of an event for its reality. The individual, in knowing only itself and interpreting all reality through itself, not only destroys itself but obscures reality behind unrealistic rules and seeds the path of our collective destruction.

    http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/prozak/individualism/

  120. The individual, destabilized, demands that itself come before all else. For this reason it demands an order that supports the cult of the individual; a crowd of uniques, a mob of iconoclasts, an army of freestylers. We refer to “individualism” as the philosophy which (a) puts the individual above all else and (b) interprets all else through its impact on an individual considered alone and isolated from all other factors.

    Well, that explains Twitter.

  121. I hope what I wrote about the atheist-theist debate on Reddit is ontopic enough to copy here too – feel free to remove it if it’s not:

    “Obviously, if you debating about the existence of god then you first have to define god, and this where the real problem starts.

    Some people have an extremely simplistic definiton: some sort of an invisible super-man.

    However, I know an intelligent young Catholic priest who gave me this, much more interesting definition: something that relates to the universe the same way a man relates to his thoughts. It’s almost like that “hippie” view about a conscious universe – and that view, AFAIK, is not usually considered theist, just “spiritual”.

    And if you dig deeper you find even more interesting definitions, for example, C.S. Lewis, a devout Catholic, said “in Christianity God is not a static thing — not even a person — but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”

    What I’m driving at is that there is no one, single, universally accepted definition of god, but there are so many definitions that it looks almost meaningless to me to debate about the existence of god – you could spend a lifetime arguing about endless differing definitions and when you think you’re done someone comes up with yet another definition. I think it’s just pointless. You either need a fairly clear definition to argue about something (f.e. the definition of justice) or some empirical hints at least, but if you have none of these, if you have such an elusive concept pretty much everybody defines any way he wants to, it’s just pointless to debate about it.

    Instead, the intelligent debate should go one step further: OK you believe or don’t believe in the existence of the one of the many definitions of god. Right. But what follows from it?

    How does this belief or the lack of it affect your life, your choices, your philosophy, your lifestyle, your happiness, your politics? That’s something more graspable.

    Here is a measurement, a test. There is no point in debating with stupid people, be them atheists or theist. And as for intelligent people, if we assume that intelligent theists believe in a benevolent and rational god (see f.e. one of most widespread definitions of god as the embodiment of Logos i.e. Reason), their god must have given them some useful advice, a useful “user manual” about coping with this world and this is where the debate starts to make sense – look at their practical user manual of life and see whether it makes sense.

    Thus, every practical thing an intelligent theist believes or does, they must be able to justify on secular grounds too, because a rational and good god does not make his followers do foolish things.

    However, when I say secular justification, I don’t have stuff like scientific rationalism or logical positivism in mind. That’s a bit of unfair thing to ask them to do: they believe in a god who is much smarter than people therefore human reasoning cannot really judge whether it makes sense or not, much like an average 4 years old child can’t judge whether what an adult says makes sense or not. We can’t ask the believers of a supposedly super-smart god to do things that makes sense to us, who aren’t super-smart. That would be unfair. So that’s not what I had in mind.

    But, the 4 years old child can still judge what the adult says: not by reasoning, but by experience. If an adult proposes a complicated theory why fire isn’t really hot, and the child believes it and repeatedly tries to touch a flame and burns his hands, he can judge the adult is full of shit even though he has no rational justification why, he just knows it from experience.

    We have thousands of years of historical experience of theism, therefore, we can judge the practical consequences of theism in history, without trying to fit the alleged super-smartness of that god into our limited reasoning, we can still take a look at how things worked out so far, that’s not beyond our abilities.

    Therefore I think this is the only debate that really makes sense: the practical effects of religious beliefs in history, worded in secular terms.

    My views on it are mixed. Often, religion correlated with violence. (It’s debateable whether it was just a post-facto justification, or just used as a propaganda tool to whip up popular frenzy, or whether was the direct cause.)

    On the other hand, the positive effect of religion is/was making our egos smaller, and since religions withdrawn our egos got bigger. And I don’t like that at all. Since we don’t believe in an omnipotent boss, we are starting to believe ourselves to be omnipotent. (Just look at Marx for example.) I think that’s dangerous, the smaller our egos, the better we are.

    An example of the small-ego stuff is Eliot’s excellent poem, Little Gidding:

    If you came this way,
    Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
    At any time or at any season,
    It would always be the same: you would have to put off
    Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel.

    Compare it with the big-ego view of another poet, John Milton (the Paradise Lost guy, but this is in Prolusiones):

    “Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself has surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler.”

    This is a clear enough example. Which guy do you think would make a better neighbour or a better politician, for that matter, Eliot or Milton? I think Eliot…

    Now, I’m a non-theist Buddhist, I don’t normally use any definition of god. But (obviously) I like this small-ego stuff, this is the root of all good, IMHO, and big egos or vanity is the root of all evil. And this poem is an excellent example of the small-ego stuff.

    I wonder how secular culture could create the same thing? And if it cannot, haven’t we lost something important when this kind of stuff became old?

    I think the historical usefulness of theism lied in that it provided a kind of vaccination against hubris. It’s very dangerous when some folks believe themselves to be omnipotent, or try to save the world, or belive they are the measure of all things and it’s OK to make up any morality that justifies their actions… and theism provided a simple, but useful vaccination against that: you aren’t omnipotent, you aren’t the saviour of the world, and you aren’t the measure of all things, because someone else is.

    I think this is a too simplistic answer, I think ultimately non-theistic Buddhism offers better answers, still, I think it wasn’t a bad vaccine against hubris, against big egos…”

    Again, feel free to remove it if you think it stretches the discussion too far away from the topic.

  122. Shenpen, big ego is certainly the root of all evil, but it is also the root of all good. We would still ride on horses without big ego of Henry Ford, we wouldn’t have computers at home without big ego of Steve Jobs and we all would program C++ and Java without big egos of Guido van Rossum and Yukihiro Matsumoto. A grey mass of ego-less slavish kneeling people is much more dangerous then evils of big ego IMHO.

  123. Are you sure they are the results of big egos? Big-ego projects rather look like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battlecruiser_3000_AD#Controversies – hardly a recipe for success.

    Innovation that provides a lot of benefit for a lot of people does so because it was designed so by someone who actually interested in providing a benefit for a lot of people. Matz and Guido are generally good guys, when Guido gave up on his idea of removing reduce and lambdas simply because a lot of people didn’t like the idea, was a classic example of small-ego approach.

    Ford was different, he was a bit of douche indeed, this is a more complicated case, I don’t have enough information to analyze his personality but I think that was the heroic age of industry, which, just like the heroic age of geographical discoveries, required this type of leaders.

    “ego-less slavish kneeling people” is BS – the type you are probably thinking about are the self-loathers.

    And self-loathing (everything from saintly-martyrical self-hatred to the simple lack of self-confidence) is a clear example of a big-ego problem, because it’s based on the idea that 1) “I’m bad” 2) “it is a very important problem that I’m bad because I am important, therefore I really should not be bad”.

    In contrast, small-ego isn’t “I’m bad”, it’s “I’m not too important, I may be good or bad but it does not count much, therefore I might just as well be at peace with myself”.

    Thus, the usual result of a small-ego is not self-loathing, but rather a relaxed attitude with a good sense of humour and irony and often a lot of courage and adventurousness, a “why not?” mentality.

  124. Steve Jobs is a bit of a douche indeed as well, but he has revolutionized the computing and electronics industries several times over now. “What the fuck have you done lately?”

  125. > Are you sure they are the results of big egos?

    Yes, I believe that when ego-force is channeled properly it becomes “relentless resourcefulness” (as Paul Graham calls it in his last essay). I really doubt that Steve Jobs could accomplish what he did without his huge ego. Of course raw ego could be destructive, but it’s not necessary destructive and can be converted to “relentless resourcefulness” with some effort.

  126. Well I think Michael Dell sold more computers and he isn’t AFAIK… but all right, I have no problems with the notion that there are certain cases, situations, roles, where it’s useful. I want my professional boxers to be big-ego types too, it would be quite boring to watch it otherwise. I just think it’s not a good idea for most folks. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali: it’s not a too big ego if you can back it up :)

  127. The concept you call despectively big-ego seems to be ‘hypocrite’, then, based on your last comment.

  128. “The concept you call despectively big-ego seems to be ‘hypocrite’, then, based on your last comment.”

    No, not quite. One way to approach it is the correct estimation of our overall importance, which is not the same as the correct estimation of our abilities. I know I’m one of the best Navision developers in the world, given the feedback my stuff usually gets, but I also know the existence of one great Navision developer makes very little difference to the world at large. Some payroll and production planning shit at a couple of smallish companies works a bit better than it otherwise would, so what, not a big deal overally. So it’s rather the over-estimating of overall importance, than ability, is what dangerous, the correct estimation of ability isn’t quite as reality has nasty ways of setting us straight when we over-estimate our abilities…

    Another, more abstract way to approach it is that the size of the ego is the strength of the felt separation between the self and the world or others. All the good stuff in life comes from non-separation. Love is not feeling to be separated from someone else, for example. Happiness is a complete connection with the here-and-now. Fear is separation from a threatening situation, a desire to button up, to fortify inside our self and to disconnect from the situation, to reject it, courage is overcoming it and being connected to the situation enough to act effectively. And so on.

  129. Eric,

    I have been thinking about the possible translation error issue that you brought up concerning “Son of God” and I have decided that it is indeed functionally equivalent to the “Almah” issue. At first I thought it was different, because my assumption is that everyone involved knew that “Son of God” was not meant literally before Roman polytheistic influences bled into Christianity, but thinking about it, this is almost certainly true of the “Almah” thing too, previous to the writings of Paul.

    The mutation of ideas occurs in human minds, and then people look back at old documents for ways to justify new beliefs. These are not examples of “translation errors” so much as they are examples of people bending the meaning of old respected documents to fit their new ideas.

    It even occurs to me that this happens regularly in political as well as religious organizations. For example, the US Supreme Court has interpreted the US Constitution to mean many things that are almost exactly the opposite of the clear intentions of those who wrote it.

    Both political and religious ideas of the day are often justified by attempting to ascribe new meanings to the old texts – new meanings that would quite probably have horrified the people who wrote the original documents.

    –Sean

  130. I would just like to correct the comment above about Vajrayana which suggested that this was ‘red hat’ Tibetan stuff. It is nothing of the kind. All four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism practice Vajrayana, and the ‘red hats’ … the Gelugpa’s are only one of the four.

  131. What I take away from this (and I didn’t read ALL comments)
    1/ Mary wasn’t a virgin
    OR
    2/ Mary was a virgin

    Both of these result in a fatal flaw for the Catholic church and all derived religions.

    If Mary wasn’t a virgin, Then the basis of the Catholic faith dissolves. The Catholic church revolves around the virgin birth being one of the proofs of Christ’s divinity.

    If Mary was a virgin then the basis of the Catholic faith dissolves. All Christian religions rely on Jesus being born of the lineage of David. A virgin birth means at best Jesus was Joseph’s step son and therefore NOT of the lineage of David.

    Of course the lineage itself is disputed as the only two accounts of Joseph’s lineage vary dramatically and therefore neither should be trusted (how do you choose which to trust).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>