Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!


Jesus H. Christ (Mrs.)

September 27, 2012

Adapted from my segment on Virtual Skeptics. That’s Virtual Skeptics, available now for all your skeptical needs on YouTube or virtualskeptics.com.

Last week, Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, dropped a bombshell at the tenth annual International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome: she had found Mrs Jesus.

Specifically, she had studied a small, roughly rectangular scrap of papyrus that contains a Sahidic Coptic text. The fragment is torn on the top, bottom, left and right, so it is difficult if not impossible to get a good idea of the entire context of the passage. The one thing that got people’s attention, though, is the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” Jesus also says that a woman, possibly the wife, will be able to be his disciple. He also mentions his mother and a woman named Mary, although it is not entirely clear if “Mary” refers to the wife, his mother or another woman. Although it is common in Christian texts to refer to the Church as Jesus’ wife, the personal context of the passage makes a literal interpretation of “my wife” more likely.  According to King, “The meaning…’my wife’ is unequivocal; the word can only have this meaning. Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife” (King 18).*

Oh. My. Married. God! The Da Vinci Code was right!

Hang on a sec. First, The Da Vinci Code was not right. Not in any world. Jesus and Mrs. Jesus, YHWH and Asherah, Buddha and Buddhessa, the Vishnus,  Zeus and Hera, Odin and Frigg could all come down from on high and proclaim in a variety of languages that The Da Vinci Code was right, but that still wouldn’t make it right: it would just prove that those gods are fallible and unworthy of worship. Such a declaration would immediately remove a god from the God Stakes.

More importantly, while King, who is not herself a papyrologist or Coptic linguist,** admits that “Coptic paleography is notoriously difficult to date” (8), she places the handwriting of the papyrus in the second half of the fourth century and suggests that the original (in Greek, presumably) was probably written in the second half of the second century (based on similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of the Egyptians. So, assuming the fragment is authentic and assuming these dates are correct, the fragment is relatively late, and there is no particular reason to assume that it represents The Truth.™

King calls the fragment The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, even though she admits that there is no clear evidence that the work is a gospel (not enough text survives to determine genre); there is no indication that Mrs. Jesus is the putative or pseudonymous author; and there is no evidence that she is even the primary subject of the work. King also uses the words “recto” and “verso” in a way that strikes me as nonstandard. Usually those terms  indicate (respecitively) the front and back of a leaf from a codex. Here it is not even clear that the work comes from a codex, and even if it does, the paucity of text and the damage to one side makes it impossible to determine which side comes first. For King, “recto” means “along the fibers” and “verso” means “against the fibers.”

The provenance of the fragment is murky at best. The owner has chosen to remain anonymous, although he or she apparently also owns a 2nd- to 4th-century fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. This fragment came from the same batch of Coptic and Greek papyri as the “Take my wife” fragment (King 2). Where these fragments came from originally, no one knows. The anonymity of the owner and the murkiness of the provenance raise concerns that the fragment could have come from the illicit antiquities trade.

King makes several arguments in favor of the fragment’s authenticity. She notes that the papyrus seems to be genuinely old but admits that it is possible to acquire blank scraps of ancient papyrus. However, she believes that the condition of the ink argues for authenticity: it is badly worn and in some places illegible. The “verso” is particularly badly damaged, with only a few recoverable words. There are also minute traces of ink at the edges of the fragment, suggesting that the text was cut off from a larger original. Where the papyrus is damaged, the ink has faded or disappeared. King argues that if the fragment were a modern forgery on old papyrus, we would expect to see the damaged areas filled with ink.

The ink will be subjected to non-destructive tests. These will not provide a definitive date but should show if the ink is consistent with that of other ancient papyri. A more definitive test, such as Carbon 14, cannot be used because that would destroy too much of the tiny fragment.

On the other hand, the references to “my wife,” “Mary” and a female apostle seem almost too good to be true. It’s not just Da Vinci Code fans who are hungry for this kind of evidence. Perfectly normal, literate people have become interested in the gnostic gospels that suggest the crucial role women played in some sects of the early church. References to an intimate if not necessarily sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary have sparked a great deal of interest among feminist bible scholars and Christian women. And, boy howdy! this tiny, tiny fragment hits all the sweet spots, without containing a single complete sentence.*** Several other religious artifacts that seemed to good to be true, such as the James ossuary and the Jordan lead codices, were rather quickly declared likely forgeries.

The Gosple of Jesus’s Old Lady appears to be headed in the same direction. In the peer review of King’s article, two of the three readers questioned the fragment’s authenticity, and King’s article shows that there are anomalies, such as non-standard grammatical forms. King defends these by reference to the Gospel of Thomas, but its similarity to that text may be problematic. Within days of the momentous announcement, New Testament scholar Francis B. Watson of Durham University argued that the Gospel of Jesus’s Main Squeeze was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. While he makes a compelling case, it is difficult to judge, without knowing Coptic, whether the similarities result from a modern forger lifting scraps from Thomas, or whether, perhaps, the two works merely share verbal parallels.

Many of the scholars at the Coptic conference where King revealed the fragment have also questioned its authenticity, suggesting that neither the handwriting nor the grammar looks right. Indeed, the backlash has been so immediate and so widespread that the Harvard Theological Review has walked back its commitment to publish the article in the January edition.  On Friday, one of the co-editors said that they had only “provisionally” accepted the article for publication, pending the results of scientific tests and “further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

So, it seems King’s announcement may have been premature, but she notes that she was looking for comment and criticism. In the draft of her article, she freely mentions the reservations of her readers. The media reaction to her announcement, however, has been predictable. Headlines scream that there is new evidence that Jesus had a wife or that King claims Jesus was married. Neither of these statements is true. It is well-known that early Christians held widely diverse views, even about Jesus’s nature (was he fully divine, fully human, or both?). The fragment doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus had a wife; if it is authentic, it merely provides evidence that some early Christians thought he had a wife, a view that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to scholars who study the early church.

A minority of Christians has reacted predictably as well, declaring the fragment inauthentic simply because they don’t like what it says. A commenter on a post called “Christian Scholars Not Fazed by ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ‘” somewhat ironically declares:

This fragment is little more than another attempt to discredit Jesus and hence Christianity. Any impeachment upon Jesus’ character would be fuel to the devil which if this parchment were true would have been evident by now the devil would not have let an opportunity like that go begging. You [another commenter] blaspheme when you say that He was “kissing on Mary all the time” not  only is that not scriptural but it defames His character. For Jesus to have a  wife is to suggest that there was a passion within His nature which His Deity  could not overcome thus diminishing His ability to overcome for the world. He  would not have had the desires of a human in this regard because He came to do  the will of the Father which was to live a pure and sinless life and die as  God’s sacrifice for sin to atone for the sins of the world.

This is for you, “An Evangelist”:

References:

King, Karen L., with AnneMarie Luijendiik. “‘Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”‘: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” Draft. http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf

Watson, Francis. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake gospel fragment was composed.” Revised. http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf

*The Coptic word can mean either “woman” or “wife;” the use of the possessive suggests that “wife” is the more appropriate reading.

**Stop laughing, Brian and Bob. You’re adult men with beards–it’s not that funny.

***This isn’t entirely fair. There are a couple of complete independent clauses (e.g., “Mary is [or is not] worthy of it”). They may or may not be complete sentences, but they aren’t complete thoughts.


texts and scripts 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 9)

September 27, 2012

Hi again, everybody! I’m getting my next blog in early, as I’m going to be REALLY busy next week! This present blog is the last instalment of this section.

Joscelyn Godwin is a musicology lecturer who has also written prolifically and positively (though not altogether uncritically) on various ‘fringe’ topics such as theosophy and the ‘Hollow Earth’. Godwin presents a strange mixture of amateur linguistics and occultism. He seems largely unaware of mainstream phonetics and phonology, relying mainly on earlier amateurs such as Richard Paget for background. His own contribution to phonetics predictably involves matters of pitch, tone and frequency, and – though he makes some errors – he has genuinely interesting notions to contribute in this area. However, he then moves into mysticism, and in the later sections of his book even his ‘facts’ are often mistaken. For instance, Ancient Greek did not have only seven distinct simple vowel phonemes (those of Godwin’s title). Only the imperfectly systematic alphabet suggests this, and the real figure (for most dialects) was at least ten. It must be acknowledged, however, that the ancient thinkers involved in this discussion may have focused on orthography rather than phonology so much that they too ignored the evidence of the spoken usage or judged it irrelevant. This was common before linguistics began and was especially the case where Ancient Greek was in question, for various reasons including dialectal diversity and the high status of the written word. Godwin may thus be simply following earlier thought in erring in these ways.

Some writers, usually of a conservative bent, argue that the established scripts used to write various culturally important languages are imbued with special status or significance and must not be replaced or seriously altered. This view is held by some who resist proposals for the reform of alphabetic spelling but is especially salient in respect of scripts such as the Chinese logography, which bears an unusually close relationship with the Chinese language and is particularly well-suited to it, at least in some respects: it distinguishes effectively between homophones, which are numerous, and it allows for seriously divergent pronunciations of the same morpheme in different fangyan (‘dialects’). Alphabetized spellings of Chinese, such as the modern Hanyu Pinyin system used to write Mandarin, are inevitably fangyan-specific and unable to distinguish between homophones.

Some authors, however, perceive the established script as so highly valued that it is almost ‘sacred’ in character and must not be altered even to small degrees. Tienzen Gong goes so far as to identify Chinese (with its script) as ‘Pre-Babel: the true Universal Language’, claiming to be setting up a ‘new paradigm of linguistics’. He cites F.S.C. Northrop as stating that ‘the Easterner … uses bits of linguistic symbolism, largely denotative, and often purely ideographic in character, to point toward a component in the nature of things which only immediate experience and continued contemplation can convey. This shows itself especially in the symbols of the Chinese language, where each solitary, immediately experienced local particular tends to have its own symbol, this symbol also often having a directly observed form like that of the immediately seen item of direct experience which it denotes … As a consequence, there was no alphabet. This automatically eliminates the logical whole-part relation between one symbol and another that occurs in the linguistic symbolism of the West in which all words are produced by merely putting together in different permutations the small number of symbols constituting the alphabet’ (emphasis in original). These comments about alphabetic writing are essentially uncontroversial; however, the use of the terms denotative and especially ideographic suggest a mistaken, quasi-cross-linguistic interpretation of Chinese script, which is naturally language-specific and thus logographic rather than ideographic. Gong accepts Northrop’s general analysis but obviously rejects his rather negative verdict on the philosophical consequences of the use of Chinese script.

Leonard Shlain argues that the development of literacy and in particular the adoption of alphabetic scripts in ancient times (at the expense of logographic scripts such as Chinese script) reinforced the brain’s ‘masculine’ left hemisphere at the expense of the ‘feminine’ right, upset the socio-psychological balance between the sexes and triggered massive, unwelcome changes in apparently unconnected areas of human thought and society. These chiefly involved shifts in the direction of ‘linear’, non-holistic thinking, an excessive concern with logic and science, and the growth of patriarchal systems in which women and their ideas have been suppressed and undervalued. Many of the major cultural patterns and changes of the last few thousand years are, Shlain maintains, to be explained in these terms. Naturally, he would like to see this imbalance corrected. In developing his case, he ranges widely outside his own field of expertise.

Much of Shlain’s discussion of language and writing is badly confused, and some is simply wrong. Given that linguistics is central to his thesis, the major problems which he has in this area are crucial. He does not systematically distinguish adequately between languages (in their spoken forms or considered generally) and the writing systems used to represent them (a common problem for non-linguists). One very obvious instance of this is provided by his very strange discussion of the mutual non-intelligibility of pairs of modern European languages; Shlain blames alphabetic writing for this, but such languages are, naturally, mutually unintelligible in speech and equally naturally remain so in writing (in any language-specific script). In addition, Shlain does not distinguish adequately between alphabets and writing systems more generally; some of the negative consequences which he sees as arising from the use of alphabets would, if he were correct, come about even if non-alphabetic writing systems were used. He largely ignores the important phonological but non-alphabetic category of syllabary; and he mistakenly describes Chinese characters as ideograms (they are, of course, language-specific logograms) and Chinese itself as lacking in the grammatical category ‘word’. At an even more basic level, Shlain confuses the notions of phoneme and phone (‘speech-sound’) and his definition of the very word alphabet is utterly wrong; he naïvely defines an alphabet as ‘any form of writing that contains fewer than thirty signs’.

Furthermore, Shlain’s accounts of the origin and early development of language and society are highly speculative, inadequately referenced and at times overtly partisan, relying excessively on traditional beliefs and endorsing (rather uncritically) the currently popular but ideologically-charged theories of early matriarchal paradises which were later overthrown by literate males. His claims about links between writing systems (or other aspects of language) and cultural patterns are often implausible and/or inadequately defended. For instance, he suggests that the Phoenicians’ use of their abjad – the ancestor of the Greek and the Roman alphabets – was somehow associated with the alleged barbarity and uncultured character of their civilization. Overall, Shlain cannot be taken seriously.

Some other authors also attribute major cultural developments to the development of literacy or (typically less plausibly) to the adoption of certain types of script; for instance, of alphabets where vowels are shown, which, according to Rostam Keyan, contributes vastly to clarity and thus to the development of science.

More next time (in about 11 days’ time)! I’ll be moving on to linguistic aspects of (allegedly) channelled communications.

Mark


Virtual Skeptics, Episode 7 (26 Sept 2012)

September 27, 2012

Looky-looky! A new episode of Virtual Skeptics is up! Hooray!

Virtual Skeptics, Episode 7 (26 Sept 2012)

This week on the “Virtual Skeptics”…

  • Bob brings us a pretty corny story;
  • Eve channels Mrs Jesus;
  • Sharon wonders, “What IS it with Siberia?”
  • and Tim…well, we love Tim.

RJB


texts and scripts 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 8)

September 24, 2012

Hi again, everybody! First, more applications of gematria!

Jerry Lucas and Del Washburn follow Kurt Fetteschoss in re-applying gematria, especially to the New Testament (‘Theomatics’). They claim that an analysis of the Bible reveals numerical patterns which are in no way explicable by chance and which a numerological analysis then converts into information about the meanings intended by God in inspiring the text of the Bible. In turn, this is used to attack atheism and other viewpoints which deny the existence of a creator entity behind the observed universe.

The linguistics invoked here is less than competent. For instance, Lucas & Washburn – misinterpreting a standard reference work– claim that there are no grammatical rules at all determining the use or non-use of the Greek definite article, the equivalent of English the. They therefore claim that God was free to include the article or not in each New Testament phrase, without thereby generating grammatical anomalies, in order to make the numbers add up. This is simply not the case; there are familiar, fairly precise principles determining whether or not the definite article is used in Greek.

In addition, Lucas & Washburn treat the various inflectional forms of Greek nouns such as theos (‘God’) – for instance, theou (genitive; ‘of God’), theon (accusative; ‘God’ as clause object, etc.) – as mere spelling variants, which they claim add to the flexibility of the language, again for the convenience of God. In fact, the decision to use theon or theou rather than theos would necessitate a complete re-structuring of the clause in question and would thus not assist at all in slightly modifying the numerological ‘score’ of the overall expression, as Lucas & Washburn suggest.

Other critiques of Lucas & Washburn include attacks on the statistical significance attributed to their ‘findings’.

Other relevant phenomena (not in general involving the Bible) include the linguistic aspects of ‘Western’ numerology as understood more generally. Numerology has a long history, and essentially involves the notion that integers or numerical digits possess inherent relationships with alphabetic letters and with linguistic or other meanings. This facilitates both a) prediction of future situations (including personalities) and events from the spellings of relevant names or other words and b) the selection of names for babies, religious converts, those adopting new languages, etc. in such a way as to maximize their future prospects. Numerology is related conceptually and/or historically to gematria and to systems such as ‘Chinese numerology’ where the words for numbers and the characters which represent them are said to have associations with specific non-numerical concepts – positive, negative, or other. However, where the direction of interpretation is from numbers to words/concepts, there are no universally agreed definitions for the numerological meanings of specific digits.

Most relevant in this context are versions of numerology where the direction of interpretation is from letters of the alphabet to numbers (single- or double-digit) and where the numbers are then combined and re-combined by way of repeated addition of digits so as to yield a single-digit number for each name or other word; these numbers are then linked with meanings. Thus, if the letters of the Roman alphabet as used to write English are paired with the integers 1-26, the name Eve obtains a ‘score’ of 5 + 22 + 5 = 32 = 3+2 = 5. It is then held that people with the name Eve will be likely to display whatever characteristics are ascribed to the number 5. This particular calculation assumes, of course, that the figures for the several letters are to be summed across the entire word before the digits are added together. Obviously, other procedures are possible; without any kind of rational argument for one procedure over another, the adoption of any one procedure appears arbitrary (although in fact most alternative procedures systematically yield the same results as the above, because of inherent properties of the integer series). Helyn Hitchcock, for instance, uses a different procedure from most other contemporary numerologists, although the reasons for this difference are not clear.

In addition, all familiar numerological systems employ Base-10. This may possibly be defended in terms of the fact that in most societies which employ alphabetic writing Base-10 is the norm; but this point threatens any attempt to claim universal status for numerology.

However, the most major issue arising here for skeptical linguists is the significance – often ignored or unconvincingly handled by numerologists – of the varied and changing membership and ordering of the alphabetic letters forming names. For example, the Greek alphabet has no letter C; its third letter (gamma) is the equivalent of G. Greek words and names were borrowed into Latin, which is written with a modified Greek alphabet, the Roman alphabet (now, of course, also used for English and many other languages). In this new alphabet, G was replaced by C (which largely replaced kappa/K) in third position and was itself reinserted in seventh position. Presumably, the numerical values associated with the various letters should differ according to whether the name or word in question was used before or after this and other such changes; thus G should have the value 3 for words used before the change and 7 for words used after the change; and the values for all letters following G should be different after the change. However, many words were used in both periods, resulting in the generation of rival scores for the same words.

A further issue arises with names which are common to various languages spelled with different versions of the alphabet with different total numbers and/or different orderings of letters. This applies especially to languages where fewer letters are used than in English, potentially affecting the numbers assigned to all letters conventionally listed after the first ‘missing’ letter. For example, native Italian words (including names) cannot feature J, K, W, X or Y. A further, similar issue arises where different alphabets are in use. Many names are shared between languages usually written in different scripts, for instance between English and Russian (Cyrillic alphabet), and are used by bilinguals. Names such as Ivan will naturally be associated with different numbers in the two languages; for instance, the Cyrillic letter B, corresponding with V, appears in third position. Some Cyrillic letters have no direct Roman equivalent and vice versa, complicating matters further: digraphs such as Roman ts are used outside numerology in transliterating these letters, and rival transliteration systems often exist.

A standard general-skeptical response to numerology as a whole is the position that, since numbers possess no genuine occult meanings and since by themselves they can have no significant influence on life, numerology is essentially superstition masquerading as science.

There are also various more specific non-standard theories of this nature. One of these is ‘acrophonology’ (variously spelled in its own literature), dealing with the alleged astrological and mystical significance of names. The name of the theory suggests that it relates especially to names as pronounced rather than written, but in fact the discussion is entirely of spelling; the title is thus misleading. As the morpheme acro-suggests, there is a strong focus here upon initial letters. For example, Laurie Baum treats people whose names begin with A as likely to be initiators and builders. Baum (an American) assumes the first-middle-last name structure for personal names as a given; and she does not discuss the issue of the changing and varying membership and ordering of alphabets, as introduced above.

Mary Scott ‘found’ a code hidden in the letters of the Roman alphabet as used to write English. Each letter allegedly has a spiritually significant meaning, and the spiritual meanings of entire words are composed of the meanings of the individual letters. These meanings apply whether a text was originally composed in English or in another language; Scott’s leading examples are Biblical texts translated from the Hebrew psalms. She pays little attention to other languages, even those written in essentially the same alphabet, and urges that the forms used in older English Bibles be preserved, since these communicate essential spiritual meanings which are lost if the spelling is altered.

More next time!

Mark


This Week in Conspiracy (23 Sept 2012)

September 23, 2012

A very brief conspiracy theory roundup this week. Man, between grading and procrastinating about grading, I have no time left!

Twit of the Week:

The week’s best tweet came from Kyle Hill:

‏@Sci_Phile
Is Big Pharma paying me to say that they don’t pay me? Don’t be a shill for Big Conspiracy @vigroco

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

There you go. As promised. One round-up. Sorry I couldn’t go into more detail, but next week, I’m sure, will be a regular edition.

RJB


Sara Mayhew’s First Manga Doodle Hangout

September 22, 2012

I just got offline from a fun online hangout with Sara Mayhew, Astrid Johannsen and Kyle Hill. Sara was taking fandom doodle requests and did a drawing of uber-humanist Kurt Vonnegut for me:

How awesome is that?! (The correct answer is “very.”)

Within 12 seconds of the end of the event, Kylie Sturgess had a review up.

Visit SaraMayhew.com and DEMAND MOAR MANGA HANGOUTS!

RJB

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,579 other followers