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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Jesus Seminar and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

I've previously written about the Jesus Seminar and its quest for the historical Jesus. I recently completed an analysis of their voting results, which I have submitted to a couple of journals. In this post I present a brief summary of my results but do not rehash what I wrote in the earlier posts, so readers will need to follow the links below for background material. This week Tony Gill  interviewed me about my analysis for his Research on Religion podcast ("Sean Everton on the Jesus Seminar").

Those familiar with the Seminar ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part III: The Jesus Seminar") know that the Seminar's Fellows voted on each saying attributed to Jesus on a scale of 0 to 3 ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part III: The Jesus Seminar"). They then calculated an average score for each saying, which they "normalized" on a scale from 0.00 to 1.00 where a saying that scored greater than .7501 was colored (ranked) red, a saying that scored between .5001 and .7500 was colored pink, a saying that scored between .2501 and .5000 was colored gray, and a saying that scored between 0.000 and .2500 was colored black.

For my analysis I used two dependent (i.e., outcome) variables: The normalized average score and the color ranking for each of the sayings (I treated pink and red rankings as indicating an authentic saying). I included several independent (i.e., explanatory) variables in the analysis in order to determine which factors help explain the likelihood that the Fellows deemed a saying authentic. Five of these variables capture the most common criteria used by biblical scholars ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria"):
  1. Whether a saying can be traced to two or more independent sources ("The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part IV: Sources")
  2. Whether a saying cannot be traced to either the Judaism of Jesus' day or the teachings and beliefs of the early Church (the criterion of dissimilarity)
  3. Whether a saying would have caused embarrassment for the early Church
  4. Whether a saying would have infuriated, disturbed, or agitated authorities, thus raising the likelihood he would be executed (enfant terrible)
  5. The date of the saying--sayings traced to earlier sources are more likely to be authentic than those traced to later ones.
Other independent variables included in the analysis took it account whether a saying was apocalyptic, whether it was a parable or an aphorism, what books it is found, and what sources it can be traced to.

What did I find? The average normalized score for all of the sayings was 0.242, which means that the average saying was colored black (i.e., Jesus did not say it). However, contrary to the criticisms of many of their colleagues, the Seminar Fellows did follow the criteria used by most biblical scholars. They were more likely to vote a saying authentic if it met one or more of the criteria listed above than if it didn't. That said, they do appear to have been influenced more by some of the criteria than they were by others. They were more likely to rank authentic sayings that would have embarrassed the early Church or were dissimilar from the the Judaism of Jesus' day and the early Church. In particular, dissimilar sayings were about 7 times more likely to be deemed authentic and embarrassing sayings were about 14 times more likely. We probably shouldn't get too wound up about the result for the embarrassing sayings, though, since only 34 of the 1,500 sayings met the embarrassment criterion and none were ranked "red" (32.35 percent were ranked pink).

The Fellows also preferred aphorisms and parables to other types of sayings (e.g., stories, long discourses, common sayings of the day). Aphorisms were 2½ times more likely to be considered authentic than were other sayings, and parables were approximately 8 times more likely. These results are unsurprising since in the introduction to "The Five Gospels," Robert Funk and Roy Hoover argue that sayings that are short (e.g., aphorisms) and/or unusual (e.g., stories like parables that include a surprising twist) were more likely to be remembered and thus more likely to be included in the Gospels and other books.

Finally, the Fellows clearly preferred non-apocalyptic sayings over apocalyptic ones. A non-apocalyptic saying was 8 times more likely to be deemed authentic than were apocalyptic sayings. Again, this is unsurprising as the Fellows have been quite vocal in their belief (hope?) that Jesus was non-apocalyptic. However, what is important about this result is that non-apocalyptic sayings were more likely to be deemed authentic than apocalyptic sayings after taking into account other factors like whether a saying meets a particular criteria, whether its an aphorism or a parable, and what books and sources its located in. Put differently, just the mere fact that a saying was apocalyptic, regardless of whether it met any or all of the criteria, was a parable or an aphorism, came from a particular book, or can be traced to a particular source, substantially decreased the likelihood that the Fellows would consider it to be authentic.

What then can we conclude about the Seminar's attempts at identifying the authentic sayings of Jesus? We can say that although its Fellows followed widely accepted criteria, they were also influenced by their a priori assumptions as to who Jesus was, what he believed, what he said, and how he said it. In particular, they were quite enamored with aphorisms and parables, especially those in which Jesus appears as a non-apocalyptic enfant terrible, who occasionally uttered things that later embarrassed the early Church.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Put a Cork in It. Or Not.

The other night I was watching a rerun of the Andy Griffith Show. which ran from 1960 to 1968 and featured, along with Andy Griffith, Barnie (Don Knotts), Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), and Opie (Ron Howard). The episode centered around Barnie purchasing a motorcycle so they could patrol one of the highways around Mayberry (they only had one patrol car), and Barnie became the laughing stock of the town--in part, because he is always the laughing stock but also because everyone thought patrolling highways in a motorcycle a joke.

Flash forward to 1984 when I was in St. Andrews, Scotland, to watch the British Open (Seve Ballesteros won). While there I purchased some rain proof golf shoes that had plastic, rather than metal, cleats. When I wore them at a golf course, I was respectfully asked to change into shoes with metal cleats because everyone knows that plastic cleats tear up greens more than metal cleats. Nowadays, you can't get within a hundred feet of most greens with metal cleats.

Now flash forward to present day when wine makers are increasingly using screw tops rather than corks to seal their wine bottles, but there is still a lot of resistance in some quarters to using them. Screw tops have been around for a while, but they have historically been associated with cheaper wines, which helps explain some of the resistance. There is also the ritual of uncorking, which many still savor. Still, for some wines (more for white than red wines), screw tops are slowly becoming the norm ("Cork Versus Screw Cap: Don't Judge A Wine By How It's Sealed"), just as have motorcycles for highway patrols and plastic cleats have for golf courses.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Does Religion Make Us Happy?

In a previous post ("Networks and Religion: Ties That Build Up") I noted that people who regularly attend worship services tend to be happier, live longer, and enjoy better health, and a primary reason is because regular attenders are much more likely to be embedded in robust social networks than are those who worship sporadically or not at all.

By a happy coincidence, this is the subject of a recent Freakonomics podcast ("Does Religion Make You Happy?"). It was prompted by a question from a listener who asked whether someone would be happier if rather than tithing to their church, they'd be happier if they kept more of it for themselves:
Being devout Southern Baptists my parents have steadfastly been giving 10% of their income to the church their whole lives. I recently voiced my opinion that I thought that was too [much to] give, and my parents and I got into an argument.
After a little back-and-forth, my parents conceded tithing at 10% may not be the exact amount ‘God’ expects, but my mother said something that stuck with me. She said the 10% they give to the church makes them happier than anything else they spend money on.
I’ve read that people who go to religious institutions consistently are happier than their counterparts. The economist inside me says that money (not given to the church) would make a non-tither happier, all things equal. So, will exchanging 10% of your income for the right to participate in a religious congregation statistically increase or decrease your happiness?
Not only does the podcast look at a fascinating study on religion and happiness by Jonathan Gruber, an economist at MIT, it also interviews a friend of mine, Larry Iannaccone, who is an economist at Chapman University. The podcast lasts about 30 minutes and can be downloaded from iTunes. You can also listen to it at the Freakonomics website ("Does Religion Make You Happy?") where you can also find the audio transcript.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Saudi Arabia

Karen Elliott House is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who spent thirty years writing about Saudi Arabia—as a diplomatic correspondent, a foreign editor, and then as the publisher of the Wall Street Journal (and senior vice president of Dow Jones & Company). She retired in the spring of 2006 and just recently published a book about Saudi Arabia ("On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future"). Her career as a reporter was unique is some respects, not only because she was a woman working as a journalist in Saudi Arabia, but because she also grew up in a small Texas town where everyone attended church. Thus, it never struck her as strange, as it did many of her fellow journalists, that the citizens of Saudi Arabia were profoundly affected by their belief in God. Her experiences, her book, and a recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, form the basis of a recent Research on Religion podcast (hosted by Tony Gill). Here's a brief description of their discussion:
Pulitzer Prize recipient Karen Elliott House joins us to discuss her career as a diplomatic correspondent in the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal and a number of important changes that are occurring in what many consider to be one of the most stable countries in that turbulent region. After discussing the life of a female reporter covering a male-dominated culture, which has a few surprising benefits, we review Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic landscape and internal tensions that are generating support for reform.
You can listen to the podcast at the Research on Religion website ("Karen Elliott House on Journalism and Saudi Arabia") where you can also find a more in-depth recap of the interview. You can also download it from iTunes. It is an hour well spent.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Should Summer Vacation Be Eliminated?


In a recent Op-Ed in the NY Times ("All Children Should Be Delinquents"), English Professor John Beckman argues that summer is the time for kids to be kids: to play, to socialize, to be delinquents, to have fun, and to even take risks, for it is in pushing the boundaries that we learn our limits and notions of right and wrong.

If Beckman is right, then the move by school districts across the country to shorten summer vacations is a move in the wrong direction. The impulse to do so is motivated by good intentions, however. Numerous studies have shown that there's an inverse relationship between the length of summer vacation and how much knowledge students retain over the break. Students with long summer vacations forget far more than do students with short ones. Thus, there is no question that certain benefits accrue to our kids from shorter summer vacations.

Nevertheless, one cannot help wonder about the hidden costs of not letting our kids have time to simply be kids. I have this image that the next generation will be smarter than previous ones (at least in terms of "book smarts"), but they will not have learned the lessons that one learns when simply hanging out with friends and raising a little Cain. Because they didn't have time to play, they'll be a generation of curmudgeons who can quote the Odyssey but who never learned how to live. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Trials by Ordeal Were Barbaric, Right? Not necessarily...

In medieval Europe when a dispute arose that couldn't be resolved by a civil court, the accused was often given the option of either pleading guilty or having the case turned over to a church court for a trial by ordeal. There were two basic types of ordeals: hot ordeals and cold ordeals. Hot ordeals consisted of trials by water where priests would boil a pot of water, throw a stone or a ring into it, ask the defendant to plunge his arm into the water and pluck out the stone or the ring. Then the priests would wrap up the defendant’s arm and revisit it three days later. And if the priest (and no one else) determined that the arm showed serious signs of having been burned, the defendant was deemed guilty of the crime. But if there was no signs of injury, he was considered innocent.

Barbaric, right? Not necessarily. Consider the fact that most people believed in an all-knowing God. Defendants who are truly guilty will assume that God knows they are guilty and that will fail a trial by ordeal. Thus, there was no incentive for them to undergo a trial by ordeal because the believed that not only would they be found guilty but they would also emerge with a burned arm. This suggests that most of the people who were willing to undergo a trial by ordeal were those who knew they were innocent and believed they would survive a trial by ordeal.

Now suppose that we moderns aren't the first to realize that people respond to incentives, but that medieval priests had figured this out as well. This means that priests might have arranged things (e.g., not really boil the water) so that most defendants who agreed to undergo a trial by ordeal wouldn’t be burned. Far fetched? Not according to the economist Peter Lesson. In a recent article ("Ordeals") he provides evidence that suggests that this is indeed what happened.
The key here is that because the priests know that the innocent person’s incentive is to undergo the ordeal, they also know that on the other side of it, the guilty person’s incentive is to decline the ordeal. The reason for that is exactly the flip-form of thinking. So now imagine that you [are guilty]. Now you’re thinking, ‘Well, I know that if I undergo the ordeal, if I put my arm in the boiling water, I’m going to have my arm boiled to rags, because I am in fact guilty. God’s not going to perform the miracle. And in the process, on top of that, I’m going to be convicted of the crime.’ It’s better for me to simply either settle with the accuser or to confess to the crime and enjoy a somewhat less harsh punishment.
If Lesson is right, then, as Freakonomics host, Stephen Dubner notes, "then the medieval trial-by-ordeal was, rather than a barbaric expression of divine justice, a rather brilliant means of sorting the innocent from the guilty. In economist-speak, this is known as breaking down a pooling equilibrium into a separating equilibrium by using game theory."

This and other game theory related topics are the subject of a recent Freakonomics podcast ("What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?"), which explores, in addition to trials by ordeal, how King Solomon and David Lee Roth hold several things in common:
  1. They were both Jewish.
  2. They both got a lot of girls.
  3. They both wrote the lyrics to a number-one pop song.
  4. They both dabbled in game theory.
It's a good one and can be found at the Freakonomics website ("What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?") or downloaded from iTunes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What René Girard and Jack Bauer Have in Common

After the end of the best season of 24 since Season 5, speculation began as to whether we'll see Jack Bauer again. The producers certainly left the possibility open, but Jack will have to extricate himself (or someone will have to do it for him) from a Russian prison. In fact, almost every season ends "badly" for Jack. To wit:
  • In the closing scenes of the first season, he discovers his wife had been shot by his former girlfriend (and mole)
  • At the end of season three, he's a drug addict because he went undercover in order to infiltrate a Mexican drug cartel
  • At the end of season four, the Chinese government wants him for crimes against their government, so he fakes his death, assumes a new identity, and is forced to move away from his family and friends
  • At the end of the fifth season, after tricking the sitting President into revealing his criminal role in the day's events, Jack's kidnapped by the Chinese and (we learn later) spends 20 months being tortured in a Chinese prison (very similar to how this season ended)
  • In season six, his former girlfriend, Audrey, is almost non-functional after being tortured by the Chinese (she had gone looking for  him). In the final scene, Jack tells a sleeping Audrey that even though he loves her, he must let her go for her own sake.
  • In season seven, Jack is poisoned and is near death when his daughter undergoes a stem cell procedure that could save her his life but risking her own
  • In season eight, Jack wages a one man war against the members of the Russian government who are responsible for a conspiracy after the President refuses to do anything that could jeopardize the treaty. The season ends with him a fugitive of both the American and Russian governments.
  • And at the end of the ninth season, Jack turns himself over to the Russians in exchange for the freedom of his long-time ally, Chloe, who had been captured by the Russians, and safety of his family. This is after he learns that his former girlfriend, Audrey -- see above -- had been killed by a former Chinese agent (the same one who tortured Jack between seasons five and six).
In an interview with two of the show's executive producers, Manny Coto and Evan Katz discuss the tragic nature of the Jack Bauer character:
Coto: In the back of our heads, I think we always knew that there was going to be some sort of a tragic ending—that it was going to end, more or less structurally, how the finale ended. 
Katz: Kiefer [Sutherland] does have a deep sense of the character, and he did have a very strong feeling that Jack never gets a break; that he’s a true hero who has to pay for not only his sins, but everyone else’s. It’s out of that sense of the character that the ending was developed. There’s an odd sense of peace on his face when he goes over to the Russians—it is, in a strange way, his idea of paying his debt for Audrey, and for Chloe. There’s a sense that he’s not getting away from this unscathed, and that he’s paying a part of it back.
I doubt that Sutherland has ever read René Girard, but his intuition that Jack Bauer never gets a break, that he not only pays for his own sins but for the sins of others is similar to the notion of the scapegoating, which can be traced back to the Hebrew Bible (as well as other sacred scriptures).

The book of Leviticus tells how on the Jewish Day of Atonement the priest was to take two goats, one of which was to be sacrificed as a sin offering, and the other of which was to bear away the sins of the people. The priest was to “place” all the sins, transgressions, and iniquities of the Israelite people onto the goat and then chase it into the wilderness. As the goat was chased it would run by those gathered for the festival, who would “spit” their sins onto the goat as it passed by. Thus, between the actions of the priest and the people the scapegoat symbolically carried away the sins of the people, restoring the tribe’s relationship with God to one of wholeness or "at-one-ment."

In a similar way, in almost every season Jack Bauer is the U.S. government's scapegoat. Called upon to resolve situations not of his own creation, he often resorts to extreme measures that incur the wrath of those who asked him to help in the first place. And once the crisis has been averted (by Jack, of course), they knowingly or unknowingly cast Jack into the wilderness, thus restoring the U.S.'s relationship with God and the universe back to wholeness.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Notable Baseball Quotes

A couple of years ago, I posted a few quotes about baseball. Here are a few more. They were given to me by a friend, who ran across them in a newspaper column (I don't know which newspaper, unfortunately) compiled by Jon Winokur (although I've added a few of my own):


Baseball is a game where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal and you can spit anywhere except in the umpire's eye or on the ball.
-- Jim Murray

When we played softball, I'd steal second base, feel guilty and go back.
-- Woody Allen

What is both surprising and delightful is that spectators are allowed, and even expected, to join in the vocal part of the game... There is no reason why the field should not try to put the batsman off his stroke at the critical moment by neatly timed disparagement's of his wife fidelity and his mother's respectability.
-- George Bernard Shaw

Baseball is the only major sport that appears backwards in a mirror.
-- George Carlin

It's a round ball and a round bat, and you have to hit it square.
-- Pete Rose

Do you know what I love most about baseball? The pine tar, the resin, the grass, the dirt. And that's just in the hot dogs.
-- David Letterman

I have discovered, in 20 years of moving around a ball park, that the knowledge of the game is usually in inverse proportion to the price of the seats.
-- Bill Veeck

Why does everybody stand up and sing, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" when they're already there?
-- Larry Anderson

Baseball is the favorite American sport because it's so slow. Any idiot can follow it. And just about any idiot can play it.
-- Gore Vidal (I bet Vidal couldn't play it a lick!)

Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.
-- Leo Durocher

Baseball is accused of being too slow. Here's something that would not only speed up the game but also provide a welcome opportunity for serious injuries. Like most good ideas, it's uncomplicated: If the pother hits the batter with the ball, the batter is out. That's it. A simple idea, but it would make quite a difference.
-- George Carlin

I'm one of those people who's not really turned on by baseball. My idea of a relief pitcher is one that's filled with martinis.
-- Dean Martin

Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.
-- Bob Veale (how true)

The pitcher has to find out if the hitter is timid. And if the hitter is timid, he has to remind the hitter he's timid.
-- Don Drysdale (known for throwing at a batter or two during his career)

The season starts too early and finishes to late and there are too many games in between.
-- Bill Veeck

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.
-- Casey Stengel

For the parents of a Little Leaguer, a baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown in innings.
-- Earl Wilson

If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base.
-- Dave Barry

If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery.
-- Babe Ruth

I learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able throw something back.
-- Maya Angelou

Baseball players are smarter than football players. How often do you see a baseball team penalized for having too many players on the field?
-- Jim Bouton

Baseball is what we were; football is what we've become.
-- Mary McGrory

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Religious Minorities and Religious Freedom

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom (BJC) is a Washington DC-based advocacy organization that fights for the religious liberty of all, working with other Christian groups as well as with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other religious and non-religious groups. The BJC traces its roots to 1936 as the Southern Baptist Committee on Public Relations. After joining forces with American and National Baptists, the committee established offices in Washington, D.C., in 1946 and became the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. In 2005, the BJC name changed to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty to more accurately reflect its focus on religious liberty issues.

Although it may come as a surprise to some, but Baptists have long been advocates of religious liberty. For example, the Baptist preacher (and abolitionist) John Leland was a well-known proponent of religious liberty. He once wrote (found at Wikipedia)
  • The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians. - A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia
  • Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free. - Right of Conscience Inalienable
Leland also supported James Madison because of Madison's support for what became the First Amendment and he helped found several of the Baptist congregations in Connecticut, to which President Jefferson wrote his famous letter regarding religious freedom (and includes the line, "wall of separation"). Indeed, his tombstone reads, "Here lies the body of John Leland, of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men."

The support of Baptists for religious liberty should not come as a surprise, however. Like many religious groups, they were at one time a religious minority, and religious minorities are often the strongest advocates for religious liberty because they often lack it.

The role of religious minorities in the founding of the U.S. is the subject of a recent Research on Religion podcast ("Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the U.S. Founding"). Host Tony Gill's guest this time is Mark David Hall, who is a professor at George Fox University (Quaker) and recently published a co-edited volume with Daniel Dreisbach on Faith and the Founders of the American Republic. The book serves as the basis for the interview, which, aside for a brief moment when Gill extols the virtues of Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman, is excellent and informative. You can download it from iTunes or listen to it at the Research on Religion website ("Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the U.S. Founding").