Thursday, April 28, 2011

Can Business Ethics Be Taught?

A recent op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News highlighted how business schools are now including ethics in their curriculum ("Business Ethics: No, It's not an Oxymoron"). I think this is great, but when I read the article I couldn't help but wonder "Whose Ethics?".  While it is tempting to believe that universal principles of justice can be arrived by reason alone, in reality all of us are moral agents who are constrained and influenced by the communities in which we are embedded. For instance, I suspect that libertarians and Rawlsian liberals have very different ideas about what constitutes a "just wage." Thus, while the quest for an ethic derived through reason alone is a noble goal, it is most certainly a quixotic one.

The editorial's authors seem to sense that coming to agreement on certain issues may prove difficult, which could lead some business school professors (and business executives) to question the value of teaching ethics, for about half way through they make a utilitarian plea that echoes the Better Business Bureau's occasional motto "Honest is the best policy. It is also the most profitable."
Ethical behavior implies doing the right thing not only from a legal but from a moral perspective, even if there is an adverse impact to the bottom line -- yet choosing profit over ethics is not the norm. In the long run, profitability and ethical behavior most often go hand in hand (emphasis added).
Does this mean that business schools shouldn't include courses on ethics in their curriculum? No, but it strikes me that such classes should be modeled after Michael Sandel's "Justice" class that he has taught at Harvard for almost thirty years (see my earlier post on Sandel's class and companion book and DVD: "What Do We Mean By Justice?"). Business students need to learn that notions of justice are rather difficult to pin down, and that what we believe to be right and just is profoundly influenced by the communities in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). That is why what is obviously "just" to me may not be obviously "just" to you (and vice versa).

Sandel's course (and companion book and DVD) does more than awaken students to the difficulty of arriving at what constitutes justice, however. It also helps them to think critically about various issues and see the role that reasoned debate can play in helping various communities of practice address the ethical dilemmas that come before them. While such courses would not eliminate unethical business practices, one would hope that it would minimize them as much as humanly possible.

That said, there is a difference between learning to think critically about ethics and behaving ethically. I suspect that most of the people in the business world who engage in unethical behavior are fully aware that they are doing so and simply don't care. That is, they know the difference between right and wrong, but they are consciously choosing to do what is wrong. This, of course, is why so many of them go to such great lengths to avoid getting caught -- because if they do, they know they'll go (or at least should go) to jail.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Over the Top Manhattan Mom

Here's a gem. I've written elsewhere about parents who go over the top in their efforts to turn out high-achieving children ("The Race to Nowhere: What are We Doing to Our Kids?") and get them into the best colleges money can buy ("That Other March Madness: College Admissions"), but this story just might top them all.

Perhaps, you've already heard about it, but just in case you haven't, a Manhattan mother, Nicole Imprescia, has sued York Avenue Preschool for placing her "very smart" 4-year-old Lucia with kids half her age and boring her with lessons about shapes and colors. According to court papers filed by Imprescia, the school had touted its test preparation, but instead “the school proved not to be a school at all but just one big playroom.” Consequently, it has jeopardized her daughter's chances of getting into an elite private school or college. So, she wants a refund of the $19,000 tuition she paid up front and class-action status for other kids who weren't properly prepped for the standardized test that can mean the difference between getting into a private and - horrors! - public school.

Imagine. A preschool where kids are expected to play. What has our world come to?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection? Really? Yes, Really

The early twentieth-century sociologist William Thomas once wrote that "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," by which he meant that if people believe that something is true, they will act as if it is true. One could also argue the reverse: If people are acting as if something is true, then there's a high probability that they believe it to be true.

The "Thomas Theorem" comes to mind as Easter approaches. If the Gospel accounts are even remotely reliable, I think it is safe to conclude that not only did the early Christians behave as if the Resurrection happened, they actually believed that it happened. Of course, what actually happened is a matter of debate among scholars, with some, like John Dominic Crossan, arguing for a metaphorical understanding of the Resurrection, and others, such as N.T. Wright, arguing on behalf of a bodily Resurrection (Note: Crossan and Wright are good friends and routinely debate one another on various topics about the historical Jesus -- see, e.g., "The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue").

Without a doubt the Resurrection does pose problems for historians. As New Testament scholar (and thoroughgoing skeptic) Bart Ehrman puts it ("Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium," pp. 227-228):
I must stress... the problem confronting the historian when it comes to discussing miracles. Even if a miracle did happen, there is no way we can demonstrate it, by the very nature of the case...  Historians try to determine what happened in the past. Since they can't prove the past, they can only establish what probably happened. But by their very nature, miracles are highly improbable occurrences. That is to say, the chances of a miracle happening are infinitesimally remote, as opposed to other weird things that happen in our world that are not in anode themselves so highly improbable that we'd call them 'impossible.' The, even if Jesus was raised from the dead--as many Christian historians personally believe he was, just as most other historians think he wasn't--there is no way we can demonstrate it using historical methods.
Other problems exist as well. For example, the Gospel stories about the empty tomb and the Resurrection appearances don't agree (e.g., they differ on how many "angels" were in the empty tomb and who actually went to the tomb), and the only recorded witnesses to the Resurrection are those who already believed in Jesus. It is for such reasons that the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, John Meier, refuses to even consider the Resurrection in his account of the historical Jesus ("A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus," p. 13):
A treatment of the resurrection is omitted not because it is denied but simply because the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters than can be affirmed only by faith.
In his search for the historical Jesus, Meier envisages an "unpapal conclave" where "a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic--all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements--were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place" ("A Marginal Jew," p. 1). In such a setting, Meier believes, the four imagined historians would not be able to hammer out a consensus on the Resurrection, which is why Meier leaves it alone (although my understanding is that he does believe in it).

Nevertheless, historians can't (or at least shouldn't) dismiss the resurrection too quickly. As Catherine Murphy notes ("The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240) there is "no feature of the Jesus story that satisfies so many of the criteria of historicity" (see "The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria"). As she notes:
  • "It's traced to many eyewitnesses. Paul, for example, claims more than 515 eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)."
  • "It's embarrassing (consider the divergent stories and women as witnesses, for example)."
  • "It's an early tradition on which all the other traditions in the gospels are predicated (no one would have bothered to write gospels if the resurrection hadn't occurred)."
  • "It's reported in multiple, independent sources (Paul, Mark, John and possibly Q 11:29-30, 32)."
  • "It's discontinuous with Jewish beliefs about resurrection because, as far as we know, no one had ever claimed that someone had actually risen, that this proved the person's unique status, and that this resurrection had something to offer everyone (namely, that if they believed in it, they too would rise). Early Christians had to pour tremendous energy into understanding it themselves."
  • "It's coherent not so much with the historical details of Jesus's life, but with the rise of early Christianity."
Which is why a number of mainline biblical scholars (i.e., those who don't read the Bible literally) have concluded that something must have happened. What happened exactly, most aren't willing to say, but they do believe that something did (see e.g., Catherine Murphy, "The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 240 or James Alison, "Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination," pp. 28-30). I think my old homiletics professor, David Buttrick puts it quite eloquently:
The resurrection was an event; in a word, something happened. What is more, as a happening the resurrection has historical dimensions. We will not suggest even for a moment that the resurrection narratives, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, are products of wishful thinking, the fevered imaginings of a first-century Christian community that lacked scientific enlightenment. Nor will we accept Karl Barth's less than helpful phrase, and label the resurrection a nonhistorical event--whatever that would be! No, as a man remarked gazing into the carved deeps of the Grand Canyon, "Something happened here." Obviously something did happen that prompted the church's confession, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" (David Buttrick, "Preaching Jesus Christ," pp. 57-58).
So, does this mean that it is intellectually irresponsible not to believe in the Resurrection? Of course not. As Ehrman points out, most non-Christian historians don't believe in it. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to argue that about 2,000 years ago something momentous did happen. In other words, we don't have to explain away the Resurrection (as some biblical scholars are wont to do) in order to maintain intellectual respectability. So, can we really believe in the Resurrection? Yes, really.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Catholic Guilt? Think Again

I recently heard on NPR that Alec Baldwin, one of the stars of the hit TV show "30 Rock," remarked that he was giving up "Catholic guilt" for Lent. Over the years I've heard similar remarks about Catholics and feelings of guilt, but because I tend to be suspicious of conventional wisdom, I couldn't help but wonder if it is true that Roman Catholics really do feel more guilty than do non-Catholics.

So, I looked around at available surveys, and one of the few that asked a question concerning guilt was the "National Study of Youth and Religion," which began in 2003 and initially surveyed 3,290 English and Spanish-speaking teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 and their parents. The data presented in the table below are not from the initial survey but from the third wave of the survey, which was taken between September 2007 and August 2008 and interviewed 2,532 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 (most of whom were interviewed in the first wave -- you can find more information about the survey here: National Study of Youth and Religion, Wave 3 (2007-2008).

The question concerning guilt was worded as follows: In the last year, how often, if ever, have you found yourself feeling guilty about things in your life? Was it . . .
  1. Very often
  2. Fairly often
  3. Sometimes
  4. Rarely
  5. Never
The results appear in the table below:

As you can see Roman Catholic young adults do not feel any more sense of guilt than do other Americans. In fact, while 18.3% of young adults from a Roman Catholic background had felt guilty either very often or fairly often in the past year, a higher percentage of young adults from Non-religious (20.5%), Evangelical (21.7%), Black Protestant (25.4%) and other religious (22.0%) backgrounds had felt guilty either very or fairly often in the past year. Put another way, only young adults from a Mainline Protestant background were less likely to feel guilty (17.7%) than were young adults from a Roman Catholic background. So much for Catholic guilt.

Of course, these results do not speak to how guilty older generations of Roman Catholics feel (e.g., Alec Baldwin) as compare to non-Catholics, nor do they capture what, if any, other factors (e.g., gender, education, socioeconomic background, etc.) might play a role in generating feelings of guilt (you would need a nice ordered logistic regression model to tease those sorts of answers out). Nevertheless, at a minimum these should give us a pause and caution us about blindly accepting what passes for conventional wisdom.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Big League Dreams, Little League Arms

This past weekend, I paid a visit to our old stomping grounds, the Willow Glen Little League ball park, in order to watch our good friend's son (Michael) play. Michael hit well and pitched even better. In fact, he pitched better than any of the other players on his team, including one kid (let's call him Al) who, barring a major arm injury, will be a dominant force in high school and possibly college and beyond.

Al can throw the ball by just about anyone. Unfortunately, he (and from what I was told, his father, who is the team's manager) is under the impression that he needs an array of pitches in his arsenal: not only a fastball, but also a curveball, a change-up and possibly a slider. Who are they kidding? The only time the other team got a hit off of Al was when he threw one of his off-speed pitches (i.e., everything but his fastball) because they were the only pitches they could get around on. When I asked one of the other managers what the deal was, he said that they told their players to just wait for his curve ball (or change-up or slider) and smack it.  Sounded like a good strategy to me. (It certainly worked in the game I watched.)

A more interesting (and disturbing) question is why bother throwing all these pitches when you don't need them? My impression (and I could be wrong) is that his father has his sights (not necessarily his son's sights) on a big league career. The irony, of course, is that by having Al throw all these pitches (Al's Dad  calls all the pitches), he's increasing the risk that Al will have a serious injury to his arm (see "Unhealthy Competition / Young kids are training like professionals, and have the injuries to prove it"), which, of course, could end his career prematurely. Sounds like a bad strategy to me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Can Clean Energy Drive America's Economic Recovery?

In his weekly radio address on April 2nd, President Obama argued that shifting the US away from imported oil and toward cleaner forms of energy will help drive America's economic recovery. Coincidentally, on March 8th, Intelligence Squared US held one of its debates to debate this very claim. The the motion before the panel was "Clean Energy Can Drive America's Economic Recovery." Arguing on behalf of the motion were Bill Ritter (former governor of Colorado) and Kassia Yanosek (founder of Tana Energy Capital LLC); arguing against were authors Robert Bryce and Steven Hayward.

If you recall those attending an Intelligence Squared US debate vote prior to and after the debate, and the winning debate team is decided by how many minds were changed and in what direction.

What struck me in reading selections of President Obama's remarks and listening to the debate is that while some of the individuals arguing on behalf of clean energy believe that it is the morally right thing to do, they do not attempt to make this point. Instead, they take a utilitarian approach to the issue and argue that supporting clean energy will be good for America and the world.

As always not only can you listen to the debate at the Intelligence Squared website ("Clean Energy Can Drive America's Economic Recovery"), but you can access transcripts of the debate as well. The debates can also be downloaded from iTunes (my source).

Here's a brief description of the participants (from the Intelligence Squared website):

Bill Ritter was Colorado’s 41st governor. He established Colorado as a national and international leader in renewable energy by building a New Energy Economy that is creating thousands of new jobs and establishing hundreds of new companies. Gov. Ritter served as Denver's district attorney from 1993 to January 2005. He earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Colorado State University (1978) and his law degree from the University of Colorado (1981).

Kassia Yanosek Is an investment advisor to the energy sector and is founder of Tana Energy Capital LLC. She also serves as a Steering Committee member of the U.S. Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance, a group she co-founded in 2009 with other financiers from leading institutions to provide insights to U.S. government officials on renewable energy policy from a capital markets perspective. In 2005, she served in the White House as an advisor on energy and economic policy at the National Economic Council.

Robert Bryce Is the author of several books, most recently "Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future" (2010). From 2006 to September 2010, he worked as the managing editor of the Houston-based online publication, Energy Tribune. In April 2010, he joined the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Energy Policy and the Environment as a senior fellow. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications including the Atlantic Monthly, Wall Street Journal, Slate, New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Steven Hayward writes on a wide range of public policy issues. He is the author of "Almanac of Environmental Trends" and most recently "Mere Environmentalism," an examination of the philosophical presuppositions underlying the environmental movement. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill. Hayward is also a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He contributes to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Market Street, San Francisco, 1906

The following film is of San Francisco's Market Street in 1906 just 4 days before the great quake. It was sent to us by our friend Steve Rapa. Neither Steve nor I are sure who wrote the text describing the film, so, aside from a little editing, I have left it as I received it.

Film Description

This film was "lost" for many years. It was the first 35mm film ever. It was taken by camera mounted on the front of a cable car 104 years ago (1906). It is perhaps the oldest "home movie" that you will ever see. This film was originally thought to be from 1905 until David Kiehn, with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, figured out exactly when it was shot (from New York trade papers announcing the film showing to the wet streets from recent heavy rainfall & shadows indicating time of year & actual weather and conditions on historical record, even when the cars were registered (he even knows who owned them and when the plates were issued!)). It was filmed only four days before the Great California Earthquake of April 18, 1906, and shipped by train to NY for processing.

Look at the hats the ladies were wearing and the long dresses. Some of the cars had the steering wheels on the right side. I wonder when they standardized on the left? Sure were still a lot of horse drawn vehicles in use. Mass transit looked like the way to get around. Looks like everybody had the right of way.

Watch the beginning carefully. At the 33 second mark and immediately after an oncoming trolley clears the screen, a well dressed policeman walks across the street from left to right. Notice his right hand that he's carrying a truncheon (26 inch police baton), and although he appears walking his beat, he looks ready to use it. Imagine the police of today walking down the street carrying a 26 inch club in their hand...???

The number of automobiles is staggering for 1906. The clock tower at the end of Market Street at the Embarcadero wharf is still there. How many "street cleaning" people were employed to pick up after the horses? Talk about going green!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Judgment Day?

One of the scripture lessons for worship this morning was Amos 5:18-24, and it was read from evangelical theologian Eugene Peterson's translation, "The Message:"

Woe to all of you who want God's Judgment Day!
   Why would you want to see God, want him to come?
When God comes, it will be bad news before it's good news,
   the worst of times, not the best of times.
Here's what it's like: A man runs from a lion
   right into the jaws of a bear.
A woman goes home after a hard day's work
   and is raped by a neighbor.
At God's coming we face hard reality, not fantasy—
   a black cloud with no silver lining.
I can't stand your religious meetings.
   I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
   your pretentious slogans and goals.
I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes,
   your public relations and image making.
I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
   When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
   I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
   That's what I want. That's all I want."

As I heard the passage being read, I couldn't help think of my fellow Christians who are gleefully awaiting Judgment Day (some believe that it will occur on May 21, 2011 -- see "Family Radio Worldwide"), a topic on which I've written before ("Advent and the Rapture"). They are evidently confident that Christians will be spared God's wrath. After listening to Amos, I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure that we should be any more sanguine about 'Judgment Day' than the Israelites should have been about the 'Day of the Lord.' Shortly after Amos proclaimed his message to the northern kingdom of Israel (he was from the southern kingdom of Judah), the northern kingdom fell to Assyria and its inhabitants were deported and lost to history (the ten lost tribes of Israel).

What's the old saying? Be careful what you wish for. It might actually come true.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

U.S. Peace Index: The U.S.'s Least Violent States

A recent study by the Institute for Economics and Peace finds that Maine is the most peaceful state in the country, while Louisiana is the least. This year's index claims to be the first state-by-state ranking of America based on levels of peace. The metric that the Institute used in creating is rankings was relatively straightforward: the absence of violence. Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute looked at homicide rates, percentage of population that is in jail, the availability of small arms, the number of police officers and overall violent crime rate.

According to this study, the ten most peaceful states are (in order): Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Iowa, and Washington. The least are (in order): Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Maryland.

I find it somewhat disconcerting (but perhaps not surprising) that the least peaceful states are, for the most part, some of the most Christian states in the United States (Nevada is the notable exception). One would hope that those of us who worship and follow the Prince of Peace would actually be more peaceful. Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case.

Interestingly, according to the the Institute, America has become more peaceful over time:
"The USPI report reveals that peace in the United States has improved since 1995 primarily driven by a substantial decrease in homicide and violent crime... [it is also] significantly correlated with factors related to economic opportunity, education and health."
This is good news, and we can only hope that the numbers will keep improving in the coming years. For those of you who are interested in examining the report in more depth can find it here: "The United States Peace Index 2011."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Darwin's Pious Idea

Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It WrongHere's a book that looks interesting: Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong, by Conor Cunningham. The description of the book from Amazon states
"According to British scholar Conor Cunningham, the debate today between religion and evolution has been hijacked by extremists: on one side stand fundamentalist believers who reject evolution outright; on the opposing side are fundamentalist atheists who claim that Darwin's theory rules out the possibility of God. Both sides are dead wrong, argues Cunningham, who is at once a Christian and a firm believer in the theory of evolution. In "Darwin's Pious Idea" Cunningham puts forth a trenchant, compelling case for both creation and evolution, drawing skillfully on an array of philosophical, theological, historical, and scientific sources to buttress his arguments."
 Here are a few quotes from some prominent scholars:
"This book connects the debate about the nature of Darwinian evolution to the Christian theology of creation. . . . Cunningham shows that the picture of God as the great Designer of artifacts, espoused by Paley and common to both ultra-Darwinians and creationists, is profoundly at odds with Christianity." -- Charles Taylor, author of "A Secular Age"
"Writing with engaging humor that betrays an extraordinary energetic intelligence, Conor Cunningham shows us why, given the Christian God, an evolutionary account of life is necessary... This theological account of creation, I believe, will become a classic." -- Stanley Hauerwas, author of "Hannah's Child"
"Dawkins and company lack a minimum of understanding of what religion is about, of how it works. Cunningham's book is thus obligatory reading for all interested in this topic: while fully endorsing the scientific validity of Darwinism, it clearly brings to light its limitations in understanding not only religion but also our human predicament. A book like this is needed like simple bread in our confused times." -- Slavoj Zizek
"A brilliant and enlightening book! . . . Singularly important for the dialogue between science, religion, and culture." -- Archbishop Joseph Źyciński, Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
"Cunningham brings a formidable and illuminating intelligence to a topic all too often hidden amid clouds of prejudice, polemic, and ideology. This is a splendid book!" -- David Bentley Hart, author of "Atheist Delusions"

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria

In earlier posts, I have explored various aspects of the quest for the historical Jesus:
In this post I take up in more detail the criteria I introduced in Part IV.

The Earlier the Better

Because it is likely that the stories about and sayings of Jesus as they were told and retold over time, this rule of evidence argues that earlier sources are more likely to reflect the sayings and deeds of Jesus than are later sources. This is why scholars are more likely to use Mark and Q to reconstruct Jesus' life than they are John and Thomas, which were probably written much later. This is a commonsense rule, but the dating of sources is not as straightforward as one would hope. Indeed, the temptation exists to date those sources that reflect one's preconceived idea of who Jesus was as early and those that don't as late.

Take, for instance, the debate among biblical scholars as to whether Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist, that is, one who believed that God would soon overthrow the forces of evil and establish the kingdom of God. Most contemporary scholars believe this to be true, but there are some, such as John Crossan and Marcus Borg, who do not. To argue that Jesus was not apocalyptic, however, requires scholars to date his apocalyptic sayings late and his non-apocalyptic sayings early. This becomes quite tricky when dealing with a source such as Q since it is "chock-full" of apocalyptic sayings. What's the solution? Argue that Q came out in multiple editions:
"According to this line, the original edition of Q did not have the apocalyptic traditions about Jesus. These were only added later, when the document was edited by Christians who were a bit obsessed with the imminent end of the age. Thus, according to this theory, Q as we have it (well, even though we don't have it), may be an apocalyptic document. But in fact it provides evidence of a non-apocalyptic Jesus" (Bart Ehrman, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings," 3rd ed., p. 257)
What Ehrman critiques here is the temptation that many biblical scholars succumb to of making more out of Q than is warranted. Of course, Q is just one document. What does one do with the fact that most of our early sources -- Q, Mark, M & L -- portray Jesus as an apocalypticist? One solution is John Crossan's, which is to argue that these are not our earliest sources:
"Crossan engages in a detailed analysis to argue that other sources not found in the New Testament are earlier than the sources that are. These others include such documents as the 'Egerton Gospel,' a fragmentary text from the second century that contains four stories about Jesus; the Gospel of the Hebrews, which... no longer survives, but is quoted a bit by some church fathers in the late second to the early fifth centuries; and parts of the Gospel of Peter, which survives again only as fragments. Such sources, Crossan claims, provide more reliable access to Jesus than the New Testament Gospels, which everyone, including Crossan, dates to the first century."
"But this strikes most scholars as a case of special pleading. Most recognize clear and certain reasons for dating the New Testament Gospels to the first century. But giving yet earlier dates to noncanonical Gospels that are, in most cases, not quoted or even mentioned by early Christian writers until many, many decades later seems to be overly speculative and driven by an ultimate objective of claiming that Jesus was not an apocalypticist even though our earliest sources indicate that he was" (Ehrman, "The New Testament," p. 258)

This criterion contends that any sayings or deeds of Jesus that we cannot trace to 1st Century Judaism or the early Christian Church are more likely to have originated with Jesus than those that we can. This criterion can be used negatively (i.e., to eliminate sayings attributed to Jesus) or positively (i.e., to identify sayings attributed to Jesus that otherwise might not be seen as one of his sayings).

An example of how it is used negatively can be seen by how most members of the Jesus Seminar regarded the phrase, “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”, which appears at the end of several of Jesus’ parables and sayings (e.g., Mk 4:9, Mt. 13:9). Most concluded that the saying does not originate with the historical Jesus because it is the sort of admonition that any 1st century sage or teacher might have used with his students (i.e. it is not dissimilar from 1st Century Judaism).

An example of how scholars can use the criterion positively is illustrated by how Bart Ehrman concludes that Mark 8:38 ("Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.") probably goes back to the historical Jesus. Ehrman believes that since the early Christian Church identified Jesus as the Son of Man, to include a saying of Jesus's that suggests that someone other than Jesus might be the Son of Man is not something the early Church would have made up:
"Now we know that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus himself was the Son of Man (cf. Rev. 1:13). For that reason, when Jesus talks about himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels -- as he frequently does -- there's no way to know... whether that's the way he actually talked or if that's how Christians -- who believed he was the Son of Man -- 'remembered' him talking. But in sayings like Mark 8:38, there is no indication that he is talking about himself. In fact, if you didn't know in advance the Christian idea that Jesus was the Son of Man, there'd be no way you would infer it from this saying. On the contrary, just taking the saying on its own terms, Jesus appears to be referring to someone else" (Ehrman, "New Testament," p. 252).
An obvious (and common) critique of this rule of evidence is that it assumes that Jesus was neither influenced by the Judaism of his day or that his teachings did not influence the beliefs of later Christians – a questionable assumption at best. Jesus was a Jew, after all, and it seems reasonable to assume that those who followed him followed him because they happened to agree with him. To revisit one of the examples from above, since Jesus was a 1st century sage/teacher, it seems highly likely that on occasion Jesus did end his parables and sayings with the phrase, “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

Thus, we need to be careful when applying this criterion. One of the critiques of the Jesus Seminar is that it uses it too often to eliminate sayings that they shouldn't. Instead, these scholars argue that the criterion should be used, not to eliminate sayings, but rather to identify those sayings that might otherwise be considered unhistorical.

Multiple Sources

Most scholars agree that a saying or deed attributed to Jesus is more likely to authentic if it is found in two or more independent sources than if it only appears in one. The logic lying behind this criterion is sound, for if two more more independent sources provide essentially the same account of one of Jesus's deeds or sayings, then it is hard to argue that they both made it up. As I noted in an earlier post, however, this rule forces scholars to often turn to non-canonical sources since seldom does one find a saying in either Mark, Q, M or L and the Gospel of John.

A question that naturally arises is whether scholars actually follow it. And as a number of individuals have pointed out, they don't always seem to. For example, the Jesus Seminar concluded that Jesus's prediction of Peter's betrayal (Mark 14:27-31; John 13:36-38) was inauthentic (i.e., they voted it black) in spite of the fact that the story appears in all four New Testament Gospels and is attested to in two independent sources (Mark and John). Or again, when Jesus's challenge to those who arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:48-49) also appears in all four Gospels and is independently attested to in Mark and John, but the Jesus Seminar voted it black.

Then there are the sayings that can be traced back to only a single source, such as "The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), “The Parable of the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) and “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” (Luke 16:1-8), that the Jesus Seminar voted as either red or pink. One cannot help but wonder whether their preconceived ideas of who they want Jesus to be influenced which color of bead they ultimately dropped into the box.


This criterion focuses on sayings and actions of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. It is based on the belief that it would have been natural for the early church to not have circulated embarrassing stories unless they reflected what actually happened.

For example, why do the Gospels tell the story about Jesus being baptized by John? John’s baptism was meant for sinners. So, if Jesus was sinless (as many Christians believed), why would he submit to John's baptism? Consequently, most scholars believe that this must have happened.

Or again, why would the Gospels include an embarrassing story about one of the Church’s early founders (and considered a pillar of the church) unless it actually occurred? Thus, while a number of biblical scholars (e.g., the Jesus Seminar, Fredriksen) don't believe that the setting of Peter’s denial as it appears in the Gospels is historical (see the previous section), they have concluded that it seems likely that Peter must have denied being a follower of Jesus at some point after Jesus’s arrest and/or execution.

Rejection and Execution

This rule of evidence differs from the previous four because it focuses on deeds and sayings that may have contributed to Jesus’ execution. According to this criterion the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus that infuriated, disturbed or agitated people have a good chance of originating with the historical Jesus.

Most scholars seem to believe that Jesus was executed for sedition by Rome because he was seen as a threat. Thus, any sayings or acts on the part of Jesus that could have alarmed Roman authorities are often interpreted by biblical scholars as being authentic. As John Meier notes: “A Jesus whose words and deeds did not threaten or alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus" (John Meier, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1"). Or, as Catherine Murphy puts it, "If your portrait of Jesus paints him as an innocent flower child healing people on a hillside and acting like an all-around good guy, it will be tough to square that with the most indisputable fact about him: that he was crucified by Rome: ("The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 36).

Not everyone feels this way, however. Paula Fredriksen ("Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"), for example, doesn't believe that Roman authorities perceived Jesus to be a threat or that they executed him for sedition.  Rather, she contends that they executed him because they believed that his presence in Jerusalem at the time of Passover when there was a huge influx of people could lead to civil unrest. Thus, they put him to death as a preventive measure not because he was some sort of enfant terribleNevertheless, in making her case, Fredriksen implicitly draws on this rule of evidence in order to sort the historical from non-historical.

Consistency (Coherence)

This final criterion holds that other sayings and deeds of Jesus that fit well with the other sayings that have already been determined to be authentic using the previous criteria are likely to have originated with the historical Jesus. As one might guess this rule of thumb can function as a vehicle for bringing in sayings and deeds of Jesus that don’t meet the previous criteria but are theologically (ideologically?) consistent with them.

Indeed, many scholars appear to draw on this criterion to justify including sayings such as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” and “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” in their “Jesus database.” However, while this criterion makes perfect sense, it also presents a temptation to scholars who want to “sneak in” those sayings and deeds of Jesus that cohere with their image of who they want Jesus to be.


As one can see, scholars have developed a relatively systematic set of criteria on which they can draw in their quest to uncover the historical Jesus. That said, as it should also be clear, these criteria do not prevent modern scholars from creating Jesus in their own image, a critique, you may recall, Albert Schweitzer lodged against 18th and 19th century biblical scholars in what has become known as the first quest for the historical Jesus. As we have seen, dating sources is hardly a science and while multiple, independent sources are useful in separating the wheat from the chaff, their presence (or absence) does not seem to get in the way of scholars rejecting (or accepting) the historicity of a particular saying or deed.

In short, the quest for the historical Jesus is fraught with difficulties. In spite of scholars' best efforts to objectively uncover what Jesus said and did, in many ways the quest is still more art than science. Moreover, the temptation to create Jesus in our own image is so powerful that it is terribly difficult to transcend in our quest for objectivity. Recognizing this difficulty, Robert Funk, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, once warned that we should beware of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial to us (Robert Funk, "The Five Gospels," p. 5), but the Jesus that emerged from his own research (Robert Funk, "Honest to Jesus") fit quite nicely with his own theological and political leanings.

My sense is that Jesus was neither (to use contemporary terms) a conservative nor a liberal. If he were to suddenly appear in 21st century America, I think it likely that we would find some of his teachings quite comforting and others very challenging. He would, I am certain, push us out of our comfort zone. For example, he might oppose the death penalty, while at the same time opposing abortion and euthanasia. Or, he might support gay marriage but believe that sexual relations are only appropriate within the bounds of marriage. Or, he might embrace pacifism while supporting the right for gays and lesbians to be in the Army. Who knows for certain? I certainly don't. The best we can do is sift through the evidence as objectively as possible and resist embracing a Jesus who doesn't constantly challenge who we are, what we believe and what we do.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Are Baseball Umpires Biased?

Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are WonJust how good are professional baseball umpires? They're actually remarkably good, according to a study by Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim, who in their book, "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games are Won," compared how pitches were called with how they should have been called.

How were they able to conduct such a study? Some of you may know that in 2007 Major League Baseball installed cameras in ballparks to track the location of every pitch. These cameras are accurate to a centimeter, which allows fans watching on TV to become indignant when calls go against their team, and researchers, such as Moskowitz and Wertheim to study just how good umpires are.

What they found is that umpires call pitches correctly 85.6% of the time, which is pretty amazing considering that the average pitch leaves the pitcher's hand at about 92 mph and crosses home play at about 85 mph.

It also turns out, however, that umpires are a little biased. Umpires are much more likely to make mistakes when there are three balls on the batter than when there are two or fewer. Specifically, when pitches are outside of the strike zone, the normal error rate is 12.2%, but when there are three balls on the batter (not including those times when there is a full count), umpires "erroneously call strikes on the same pitches 20 percent of the time" ("Scorecasting," p. 15).

A similar phenomenon occurs when batters have two strikes on them, except in these situations umpires are more likely to strikes balls than when batters have less than two strikes on them. Specifically, when batters have two strikes on them (not including those times when they have a full count), umpires make an incorrect call 39% of the time, which is more than double their normal rate.

In other words, when there are three balls on a batter, the umpire's strike zone expands, and when there are two strikes on a batter, the umpire's strike zone shrinks.

Why? Moskowitzh and Wertheim believe that it is because umpires prefer not to insert themselves in the game. That is, they believe that umpires want batters to place the ball in play, so they are less likely to call a fourth ball or a third strike.

Baseball is not the only sport or issue that Moskowitzh and Wertheim consider in their book. They examine other topics, such as why teams from most sports win more at home than on the road (highest % = soccer = 69.1%; lowest % = baseball = 53.6%), the increased probability that adding a superstar will lead a team to make the playoffs, get to the finals and winning a championship (it isn't as high as you probably think -- can anyone say, Miami Heat?) and why the Chicago Cubs appear to be cursed.