Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Jesus mythicism (the belief that Jesus never existed as a real person), explaining my initial reason for coming down on the ‘historicity’ side of that particular debate. Rather to my surprise, it went on to get more comments than I’ve had on any other post in over thirteen years of blogging. (In fairness, that is not a terribly high bar, but I was still really pleased about it.) Thank you to all those of you who commented and joined in the discussion. I replied to a lot of the comments but did leave several comments unanswered as the thread seemed to have come to a halt and I didn’t know whether anyone was still reading; if yours was one of those and you would still like it answered, do please let me know and I’ll try to do so.

Anyway, I’m restarting this as a new person has just joined the comment thread; mythicist R.G. Price (who, confusingly, is a different mythicist from Robert Price). R.G. had a long comment with a lot of questions, so I decided that, rather than trying to reply in comments, it would be better to write a new post.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus describe who he was as a person?

The earliest writings about Jesus were written by someone who not only became a follower of Jesus only after his death, but showed almost no interest in hearing about Jesus’s life; he based his beliefs not on teachings from the existing group of Jesus-followers but on revelations he believed he was getting from Jesus directly, and he spread those beliefs far and wide. I completely agree that this was a somewhat bizarre state of affairs to have come about, but, nevertheless, we know from Paul’s own writings that this was what happened.

This being the case, we wouldn’t expect Paul to have described who Jesus was as a person, regardless of whether Jesus actually had been a person or not. Paul simply doesn’t seem to have been interested in Jesus as a person. In Paul’s writings, his focus is on his image of Jesus as a magic mechanism for all-purpose forgiveness of sins.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus convey any of his teachings?

Same reason.

Why didn’t Jesus produce any writings of his own?

He lived and died in a culture where the majority of his society were not functionally literate, where oral teaching had huge importance, where ink and paper were expensive luxuries, and where the printing press wasn’t even a twinkle in an inventor’s eye yet. If someone in such a society wanted to get a message out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, their best bet for doing that was to travel around and do a lot of public preaching, since that would reach significantly more people for the time spent. On top of that, we don’t even know whether Jesus himself had had formal training or practice in writing; in that day and age, it’s quite possible that he didn’t.

If Jesus couldn’t read and write, then why would people, in a culture that highly valued the reading and writing of scripture, worship such a person for their “teachings”?

I don’t know of anyone who was worshipping Jesus for his teachings. Paul created a theology in which Jesus was a magical sacrifice sent by God to wipe clean everyone’s sins, and this evolved over time into a theology that believed that Jesus was part of God and thus worshipped him on that basis.

Why would people think that a person, who presumably didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, was “the Lord Jesus Christ”, an eternal being with godly powers?

That’s a few different questions rolled into one:

Why did they believe him to be the Messiah (Christ)? That’s not hard to see; the Jews were desperate for a Messiah, and any apparently good contender for the post would get a lot of followers out of pure wishful thinking. Jesus was clearly a highly charismatic and convincing speaker. It would actually have been stranger if he hadn’t had followers who believed him to be the Messiah. It is strange that Paul kept up the title in writing about him despite having come to a completely different set of beliefs about him, but it’s still less strange that Paul would keep an existing title for him than that someone would so utterly and completely reinterpret the concept of Messiahship from scratch, which is what would be required for Jesus to be mythical.

Why did they call him Lord? Well, being the Messiah effectively meant you were the rightful king (it was part of the job description) and that you were sent by God, so, for the people who believed he was the Messiah, it probably would have seemed appropriate to address him as ‘Lord’. It probably would have seemed even more appropriate to Paul, whose new version of the theology seems to have involved seeing Jesus as an amazing being imbued with wondrous powers.

How did people move from seeing him as a human being to seeing him as an eternal being with godly powers? The full change to seeing him in this way seems to have happened gradually over time, but a significant shift seems to have happened with Paul, who, based on his letters, seems to have gone off on a complete tangent with his beliefs about Jesus, coming up with a new version of belief that wasn’t anything to do with traditional beliefs about the Messiah.

If people did think that this person was some eternal Lord, then why didn’t they record anything about him or things that he said that convinced them that he was this eternal all-powerful Lord?

Huh? Innumerable Christians have been recording precisely that for the past two millennia. You might need to clarify that question.

Why would someone’s brother, who grew up with him and likely had fights with him as a child and saw him get in trouble, get sick, etc. think that he was a perfect all-powerful deity – the only being in existence capable of bringing justice to the world?

Do we have any good evidence that any of Jesus’s brothers thought that (as opposed to later Christians believing it)?

Why does the letter to the Hebrews “quote” Jesus by quoting from scriptures and give no details about this person’s real life?

Most likely the author followed Paul’s influence in focusing on Jesus in his role of magic sin-erasing device rather than showing interest in him as a person. That, of course, is conjecture; but what we do know is that, whatever the author’s reason, it does not seem to have been a lack of belief in a Jesus who really walked the earth as a flesh-and-blood person.

‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things’: Heb 2:14

‘Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect…’: Heb 2:17

‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are’: Heb 4:15

‘In the days of his flesh…’: Heb 5:7

‘For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah’: Heb 7:14

‘…by the the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh’: Heb 10:19 – 20

That’s a half-dozen statements that are very hard to explain away if the author of Hebrews didn’t believe Jesus had lived on earth.

Why does the letter to the Hebrews say explicitly that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest?

The letter to the Hebrews was written after Jesus’s death. Regardless of whether his followers thought he’d lived on earth prior to that death or not, they’d have believed him to be in heaven at that point!

Why does Paul talk repeatedly about Jesus being a divine mystery?

If you give me the quotes you’re thinking of, I’ll see what they sound like in context. Again, given the number of times Paul makes a comment about Jesus being ‘born of a woman‘ or ‘according to the flesh‘ or ‘the seed of David‘, or comparable to Adam as a man, or about him having brothers, the answer doesn’t seem to be ‘Because Paul believed Jesus only ever existed as a spiritual being in a cosmic realm’.

Why doesn’t Paul attribute any of his teachings to Jesus?

Huh? He does. Did you mean, why does he only attribute his teachings to post-resurrection revelations from Jesus rather than to things he’d learned from the apostles? If so, then I refer you back to the first point.

Why would Paul think his teachings were better than, or even on par with, people who had personally known Jesus and learned his teachings directly from his mouth?

Paul believed that he’d learned his teachings directly from Jesus as well. Sure, he believed it was happening by revelations from Jesus up in heaven, but – given the way he changed his life over these revelations – I think we can reasonably assume that he fully believed, or at least had managed to convince himself, that he was genuinely receiving teachings from a resurrected and heavenly Jesus.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use so many literary sources?

Probably because, as you’ve just pointed out above, scriptural sources were extremely important to people in that day and age.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use teachings of Paul as Jesus’s teachings?

Because that’s how Paul presented many of his teachings to the communities he founded (remember, he believed they came directly from Jesus via revelation, and presented them as such).

Why does the Gospel of Mark portray the disciples so poorly?

This probably goes back to the division in beliefs between the communities founded by Paul, and the original church run by former disciples in Jerusalem. The gospels seem to have been written outside Judaea, meaning it’s likely they came from communities who originated from Paul and were using theology that was more Pauline in nature and hence differed from the theology taught by the original Jerusalem church on some key points. It’s not hard to imagine that this would have been pretty awkward for the churches. Some of the differences seem to have been harmonised or glossed over, but some of them seem to have been dealt with by portraying the disciples as a bunch of bumbling fools who constantly misunderstood what Jesus’s mission was really about.

Why does every single story about Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark?

Because later authors used gMark as one of their sources.

I could go on, but really, all of these questions, and many more, need reasonable answers in order for the idea that the Jesus of Christianity is based on the life of a real person to have any plausibility.

On the other hand, there is really only one question that needs to be answered for the scenario that the Jesus of Christianity isn’t based on a real person to be plausible and that question is:

How do you explain the five or six short passages in the letters of Paul that suggest Jesus was a real person?

Only one question… are you kidding me?? What about…

Why does Josephus, in a line universally accepted as genuine by Josephan scholars, describe one man as being ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’?

Why does Tacitus mention a Christus who founded a sect named after him and who was executed by Pontius Pilate, describing this sect in terms hostile enough that this is extremely unlikely to be information he got from Christians?

What precedent is there for anyone writing allegorical stories about a heavenly figure that are so detailed they mention fictitious family members and a place where he allegedly grew up? How often, in that culture, is that known to have happened? Based on that answer, what are the estimated chances that multiple different people in a relatively small sect would choose to do this about the same figure?

What is the explanation for the passages I quoted above from Hebrews indicating a belief in a human flesh-and-blood Jesus of physical descent?

Why do two of the gospel writers describe Jesus as coming from Nazareth, even though this was clearly very awkward for them to the point where they had to make up detailed and implausible stories explaining how he had really come to be born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth?

Why do the gospel writers all name a powerful Roman as being the person who ordered Jesus’s crucifixion, even though they clearly realised the risks of this and took great pains to gloss over and explain away this part of the story as much as possible?

All of which is on top of the multiple passages in Paul that fit with historicity rather than mythicism; and ‘five or six’ is an underestimate there. I’ve been through the undisputed letters and count 11. (That isn’t counting the ‘killed by the Jews’ passage on 1 Thessalonians, which I left off the list as there are reasonable unrelated grounds for suspecting it to be an interpolation.)

And, yes, it’s possible to look at any individual one of those examples in isolation and say, maybe this one was an interpolation or we’re interpreting it wrong or there’s some other explanation we’re not aware of. But the more such examples there are, the more difficult it is to explain all of them away. When we’re looking at needing this many convoluted and improbable explanations to sustain a theory, then that theory has become overwhelmingly unlikely and needs to be discarded.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 4

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

So far in Chapter Six:

  • Daniel’s sister Lacey visited the class so that Jeffries could ask her what she remembered about the skateboard.
  • Jeffries asked her a few questions and proceeded to ignore her completely in favour of starting this week’s apologetics lesson.
  • Lacey clearly knows more about the skateboard than she’s letting on, but this went unexplored in this chapter as Jeffries, as usual, considers apologetics more important than actually teaching cadet-related stuff.
  • I suspect Lacey herself of being the mysterious former owner, but we have not yet been told whether this is the case or not.
  • Jeffries is claiming that a report of someone else’s report counts as an eyewitness statement. I’m fairly sure it doesn’t.
  • Jeffries believes we have good evidence that gMark (the gospel according to Mark) was written by a follower/eyewitness of Peter.

So far in background information:

And now… Jeffries is going to explain to us/the cadets what his evidence is for gMark having been written by a follower/eyewitness of Peter! Yay! This is the bit I’ve been looking forward to.

Because I was genuinely interested in this part, I did quite a lot more background reading than I usually do for these posts. After reading the CCCFK chapter, I went on to read the corresponding section in Cold Case Christianity (which, as you probably either know or can work out, is Wallace’s original ‘how to use police methods to investigate Christianity’ book and is aimed at adults) in order to get Wallace’s full argument. Then, I found an online Bible site where it was possible to get the whole of each gospel on one page, searched each gospel in turn for mentions of Peter under either of his names, made a list of all sections in each gospel that mention Peter, drew up a comparison table of the different Peter-mentioning stories in each gospel, and used my copy of Gospel Parallels (all right, all right, my parents’ copy that I borrowed in my teens-and-twenties phase of investigating Christianity and never gave back) to read and compare the different versions of the stories in each of the synoptic gospels, using an online Bible site to read the corresponding stories in gJohn. Sometimes you just gotta let your geek flag fly.

I wish I could say I’d reached some deeply profound conclusion as a result of all this, but I didn’t (I’m not counting the conclusion that I spend far too much time on trivia; I knew that long ago). Still, it was interesting.

(A quick note: Wallace, of course, refers to the author of this gospel as Mark all the way through this section. Since the entire point of this particular discussion topic is that we don’t know who the author is, this is technically somewhat question-begging. However, to be fair, it’s also more convenient, so I will do the same thing. If the author’s name was not in fact Mark, then my apologies to him, whoever he was.)

The explanation in CCCFK consists of a list of five points, followed up by Jeffries giving a short explanation of each (plus doing more whiteboard-drawing to illustrate each point; on this occasion his drawings included a calculator and a microphone, which struck me as a bit incongruous, but in fairness I suppose they’re just meant as symbols).

The list of points Jeffries gives in CCCFK is:

  1. Peter is a major character in Mark’s gospel
  2. Mark writes about Peter as a friend
  3. Mark treats Peter kindly
  4. Mark shares little things only Peter would know
  5. Mark seems to know a lot about Peter’s preaching

The corresponding CCC list contains one extra point, which is:

Mark used Peter as a set of ‘bookends’.

OK… let’s work through.

Peter is a major character in Mark’s gospel.

Jeffries’ explanation in CCCFK is ‘Mark’s gospel mentions Peter a lot more than Matthew’s gospel’. This, unfortunately, isn’t accurate even according to Wallace’s info; in CCC, I learned that gMatthew actually mentions Peter three times more than gMark does. What Wallace means is that gMark mentions Peter proportionately more, once you take the shorter length into account. I’m pretty sure Wallace’s inaccurate statement in CCCFK was an inadvertent result of his attempts to simplify the argument to child level rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead his child readers, but it’s a bit sloppy.

I also can’t help feeling Wallace has given himself a bit of a problem here, as far as gospel authorship is concerned. If the proportionately greater number of mentions of Peter in gMark compared to gMatthew did mean that Mark was likely to have known Peter personally, wouldn’t the flip side of that be that the author of gMatthew was less likely to have known Peter personally? And wouldn’t that then cause problems with the traditional Church teaching that gMatthew was written by the apostle Matthew, who would have known Peter very well indeed? Wallace seems to be coming up with an argument in favour of traditional Markan authorship that effectively stands against traditional Matthean authorship. Not sure you thought that one all the way through, Wallace.

Anyway… looking at the argument Wallace is aiming for here (that Mark mentions Peter proportionately more often for the length), how well does it stand up as evidence for Markan authorship?

I don’t think it does. The extra material included in Matthew compared to Mark largely consists of a) the nativity/infancy narrative, b) the Sermon on the Mount, c) the long ‘scribes and Pharisees’ rant, and d) a short description of resurrection appearances. (If I’ve missed any major bits I should have included on that list, do let me know.) Peter obviously wouldn’t be expected to get a mention in Jesus’s nativity story, and there’s no obvious reason why he would get mentioned in a sermon Jesus is giving to multitudes or in a rant against another group of people. We could reasonably expect him to get a mention in the resurrection appearances (as he does in both Luke and John), but then, that whole argument leaves us with the awkward question of why Mark doesn’t mention the resurrection experiences at all, so that doesn’t really help Wallace’s case here.

In short, Mark doesn’t seem to be mentioning Peter disproportionately more than would be expected considering the material he and Matthew are covering. (In fact, I found several places where another gospel mentions Peter yet the equivalent passage in Mark doesn’t, or Mark leaves that story out entirely.)

 

Mark writes about Peter as a friend

The phrasing, again, is a product of Wallace’s attempt to simplify this for children; in CCC, this point is phrased as ‘Mark identified Peter with the most familiarity’. The CCCFK phrasing struck me as a bit ironic, because Mark actually doesn’t write about Peter ‘as a friend’; the entire gospel is narrated dispassionately in third person, with no direct statement or suggestion at all that Mark knew Peter.

The point Wallace is actually trying to make here is that Mark only ever uses one of Peter’s names (‘Simon’ or ‘Peter’) rather than calling him Simon Peter in full. He’s the only gospel writer who doesn’t use the name in full at any point; Wallace contrasts him with John, who, apparently, uses ‘Simon Peter’ seventeen times. From another quick wordsearch, I confirmed that Matthew and Luke do indeed each use the term ‘Simon Peter’ once, so Wallace is technically correct in saying that Mark is the only one never to use it. Given how often both Matthew and Luke use single names for Peter, I didn’t find that particularly significant; it seems both of them were also quite happy to refer to him by his first name. In fact, that’s the way people generally were referred to in those times, since surnames weren’t widely used at that time.

Interestingly, another problem with Wallace’s argument here is that he seems once again to be shooting himself in the foot. If the use of just ‘Peter’ rather than ‘Simon Peter’ is an important indicator that the author knew Peter well, then, conversely, the author of John would seem to be the one who knew Peter least well, since he uses the full name far more often than any of the other three. Yet, of course, Church tradition – and Wallace’s belief – has it that the author of this gospel is none other than the apostle John. John was an apostle together with Peter and a pillar of the early church together with him and James after Jesus’s death; they spent most of their adult lives together as companions and workmates. John would have known Peter even better and more closely than one of his followers. If Wallace’s argument about naming actually does hold water, wouldn’t that mean that he’s just given us a good reason to believe that the gospel of John wasn’t written by John?

 

Mark treats Peter kindly

Wallace’s claim here is that Mark ‘seldom says anything unkind about Peter’ even when writing about his mistakes. In CCC, Wallace gives examples of this:

  • In the account of Jesus walking on water, Mark does not include Peter’s failed attempt at doing the same or Jesus’s consequent description of him as a doubter/a man of little faith.
  • Mark doesn’t include the story of the miraculous catch of fish, which portrays Peter as doubtful of Jesus.
  • There are incidents (not specified by Wallace) where other gospels attribute some awkward question or statement to Peter but where Mark doesn’t give an attribution.
  • In the account of Peter declaring that Jesus’s death would never occur, the ‘most edited and least embarrassing’ version occurs in Mark.

This claim, I couldn’t help but notice, contradicts what Church father Papias has to say about Mark’s gospel; Papias states that Mark ‘took especial care not to omit anything that he had heard’ in writing his account of Peter’s teachings. Does Wallace really want to claim that Papias is wrong? Since this same quote from Papias is our earliest claim about the authorship of Mark’s gospel, that could have unfortunate implications for his argument.

Anyway, more to the point… Mark also includes the story of Peter being unable to stay awake to watch with Jesus and getting rebuked for it, the triple denial, and the ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ scene. I’m really not convinced that Mark’s tried particularly hard to avoid showing Peter in a poor light.

 

Mark shares little things that only Peter would know

The corresponding claim in CCC is milder; rather than claiming that only Peter could have known these details, CCC says that the details ‘point to Peter’s involvement in the shaping of the text’. Examples are:

  • Mark is the only one to tell us that Peter (Simon) and the other disciples went looking for Jesus when he was praying on his own.
  • Mark is the only one to tell us that Peter was the one who commented on the withered fig tree.
  • Mark was the one who named the specific disciples who asked Jesus when the destruction he was predicting would happen
  • In the account of Jesus visiting Capernaum, Mark writes that the people heard Jesus had ‘come home’ even though Capernaum wasn’t Jesus’s home. Wallace points out that it was Peter’s home, so Peter might well have described Jesus’s visit there thus.

The last point is a really good one; I hadn’t noticed that comment in Mark, and it is pretty odd. So, yes, that could point towards a story that came originally from Peter.

The others are not actually that impressive in context; when I read through the different accounts together, I noticed that each of the gospels seem to mention Peter in some context where the others don’t. gMatthew names Peter as the disciple who asks about the handwashing parable.  gLuke names Peter a few times; in the scene with the woman with persistent bleeding he’s the one who expresses surprise that Jesus asks who touched him, in the scene where Jesus tells the parable of the thief in the night Peter is the one who asks whether this is for them or for everyone, and in the scene where Jesus asks the disciples to talk to a man to get the Passover meal ready Peter is named as one of the two disciples sent. Luke and John both include Peter finding the empty tomb. gJohn has the ‘Feed my sheep’ scene. Did Mark choose to leave all these out? Or is it just that Peter, as the main disciple, was an obvious choice to refer to when a gospel author wanted to add a bit of verisimilitude to the tale? Either way, the mentions in gMark don’t seem particularly convincing as a sign of the author having known Peter.

 

Mark seems to know a lot about Peter’s preaching

What this means, apparently, is that neither Mark nor Peter includes the birth narratives or ‘other details of Jesus’s private life that are found in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels’ (Wallace doesn’t specify here which ones). Which could mean that Mark got his story from Peter, or could mean that, at the time Mark was writing, the extra details hadn’t been added to the tradition yet.

 

Mark used Peter as a set of ‘bookends’

This, Wallace explains, means that Peter is both the first and the last disciple mentioned in the text of Mark’s gospel, which Wallace states to be an example of ‘inclusio’. Inclusio is, apparently, a literary device used often in the Bible in which a particular phrase or theme is echoed at the beginning and end of a section in order to emphasise the section. I’m not sure this particular example counts as inclusio, since technically it’s neither a phrase nor a theme (there’s no particular similarity between the first mention of Peter and the last mention of Peter). I do think it fair to say that those mentions are one of the indications that the author wanted to emphasise Peter as a significant character – and, of course, Peter is a significant character in all four of the gospels – but it’s really a bit of a stretch to say that this indicates he got his information from Peter.

 

So, that’s the list. Bottom line… This analysis had the benefit of being something new in apologetics, which does not happen all that often. However, most of the points Wallace presents here as evidence don’t really hold up, and the overall level of evidence does not stack up well against the reasons for doubting traditional Markan authorship.

And that’s the end of Chapter Six (which I have reached just barely in time to avoid another tiresome round of footnoting the initial blurb with a ‘Katie is actually now X+1 years old even though she was X when I reviewed this chapter with her’ update).

One final point, from me; Remember Lacey’s evidence, guys? The witness statement that Jeffries completely dropped so that he could give his apologetics talk for the day? Well, we’re now up against an interesting question; did Jeffries come back to that statement at all in this session, or is he leaving it until the next session? Leaving it the way he did was bad enough, but leaving it for an entire week would be even worse. Everyone’s memories of it will be pretty fuzzy by then, and either they won’t have Lacey there to check any follow-up questions with her or Lacey will have to make an extra trip back to the police station because Jeffries didn’t have the courtesy to get her part of things wrapped up while she was actually there. And, since Wallace has so far stuck to the one-session-per-chapter format, it seems extremely likely that this is indeed meant to be the end of the session.

However, the book doesn’t specifically say this to be the end of the session, so we have a Schroedinger’s Ending situation; it is technically possible that Chapter Seven will be a continuation of the same session. So, Jeffries, you get the benefit of the doubt for a little longer on this point. We’ll find out in the next chapter.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 3

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

I finished my last CCCFK post by declaring that the next one would discuss Wallace/Jeffries’ explanations of why, in his opinion, analysis of the gospel of Mark shows it to have been written by a close follower of Peter. However, I then worked on the next post for a while before realising that I was going to have to start with a general discussion of Wallace’s approach and some problems thereof, and that putting everything in one post would make it far too long. So, this post is the general discussion, and next post on the topic will be the one that goes into the specifics of the explanations.

Although Wallace doesn’t say so in CCCFK, what he’s using here is based on a technique he’s been trained in using as a detective, called Forensic Statement Analysis. I initially saw this mentioned in one of the blurbs about this book, and was intrigued enough that I read the corresponding chapter in Cold Case Christianity to find out more. This is Wallace’s description, in CCC, of how he carries out this method:

I routinely asked suspects to write down what they did back on the day of the murder, accounting for their activity from the time they got up in the morning to the time they went to bed. I provided each suspect a blank piece of lined paper and a pen. Any alterations in their statement would have to be scratched out, and as a result, I was able to see what they initially wrote and where they were uncomfortable with their original choice of words. I would then examine this statement, asking several important questions. What kinds of words did the suspect use to describe the victim? Does the suspect ever inadvertently slip from the present to the past tense, giving away his or her presence or involvement at the scene of the crime? Does the suspect compress or expand the description of events in order to hide something or lie about how something occurred? Does the suspect over- or underidentify the victim in an effort to seem friendlier or disinterested in the victim? In essence, I examined every word to see if it provided any clue related to the suspect’s involvement in the crime.

Wallace gives us some examples of how this might work, and goes on to tell us that when he started reading the gospels – by which time he had already been using this technique for years – he “approached the Gospels like I would any other forensic statement”.

I found all this genuinely interesting; the technique sounds fascinating in itself, and I love the idea of using it to analyse the gospels and see what comes up. However, it’s also important to note the limitations of this technique, particularly when applied in this way… and Wallace (not too surprisingly) doesn’t really go into these.

Here are some things we need to consider:

How accurate is this technique, overall? Remember that this isn’t a method used to provide definitive evidence about whodunnit; it’s a method used to give detectives clues about which suspects need further investigation.   It sounds extremely useful for that purpose, but how accurate is it by itself? Out of the times Wallace has used it, in what proportion of cases have the suspicions raised by this method ultimately proved to be unfounded?

It’s noteworthy that, in the section of CCC where Wallace gives examples of different word choices people might make, he also points out different possible meanings of the choices. “We’d have to spend some time with him [the suspect] to learn more” he writes at one point. We have no way of spending more time with the gospel authors; we can’t learn more. Without that confirmation, how accurate are the conclusions we draw from this statement going to be?

How accurate is this technique going to be in this situation? The problem with approaching the gospels like ‘any other forensic statement’ is that the gospels aren’t forensic statements. There are crucial differences between the statements Wallace analyses and the gospels.

For one thing, when a suspect writes Wallace a statement, it’s because an authority figure (Wallace) has given that person a specific directive (to write down everything they did on a particular date). When the gospel authors wrote their gospels, it was because they had a particular story that they themselves wanted to tell. Does that affect their word choice, and, if so, how? We don’t know, so that’s another potential inaccuracy in using this method here.

However, there’s a more serious problem here. Katie, for all that she hasn’t had much to say about these chapters, did make one comment on this one that nailed it; “I think it’s important to note,” she typed into my notes, “that we don’t have a clear picture of the Bible’s original words and their meanings, yet Wallace is using said original words as so-called ‘valid evidence.'”

Exactly. Wallace has told us that, for his method, he looks at the original handwritten statement in order to be able to see where a word or phrase originally chosen was corrected. We can’t even get close to doing that with the gospels. Not only do we not have the original handwritten versions of what the gospel authors wrote, we don’t even have the final versions of what they wrote. Even the earliest manuscripts we have are copies of copies of copies (and we have no idea how many times the ‘of copies’ should be repeated in that sentence), and not only will the copyists have made mistakes here and there as they transcribe the scripts, it’s very likely that now and again they also changed something deliberately; either because they thought they had a better way of saying it, or because they genuinely, if inaccurately, thought something in the version they were copying must be wrong and thus tried to help out by ‘correcting’ it.

Wallace is trying to use a technique that relies on knowing exactly what words the author chose… in a situation where we have only at best a general idea of which words the author chose. Used in such a situation, how accurate is his method?

How much do cultural differences affect the accuracy of this method? They clearly do affect it to at least some degree; again, in one of Wallace’s examples, he points out that the expression he describes his ficticious subject using might mean something of significance to the investigation… or it might simply be a regional or cultural figure of speech. Well, the gospel writers came from a different region and a different culture from us. And, although it’s a much-studied culture, it’s also a culture that existed two millennia ago, meaning that even the best available knowledge about it is going to have some limitations. (I’m also guessing that Wallace’s knowledge about Jesus’s culture is not, in fact, the best available.)

That’s also going to have an effect on how well we can interpret their words. It means we can’t be sure when the gospel writers are making cultural references that their audience would have gotten but we won’t, or when we’re reading our cultural assumptions into their words in ways that aren’t warranted.

(The flip side of this, by the way, is that the knowledge we do have about the geography and culture of this area at this time has strongly contributed to the conclusion generally held by scholars that the gospel of ‘Mark’ probably was not written by a follower of Peter. This is something I’ve mentioned in my last post on this topic; at one point the author of this gospel makes a significant geographical error by describing Jesus as travelling through a city that would in fact have been in the opposite direction from him, and at another he makes a cultural error in describing Jews as referring to King David as their ‘father’. While these mistakes would be easy for a stranger to make, they seem unlikely for someone who got his information directly from an eyewitness, and that casts significant doubt on whether the author of this gospel actually did get his information from an eyewitness. If Wallace really wants to analyse the significance of every word in reaching his conclusions about the gospels’ authorship, shouldn’t he be analysing the significance of the words that cast doubt on his claims?)

 

Wallace, as per the quotes above, does touch on some of the problems above when describing how this method works. But, when he describes how he used it to determine the author of gMark, that caution seems to go out of the window. In CCC, he describes the evidence he’s come up with as a ‘reasonable circumstantial case’ for the authorship of this gospel, which ‘becomes even more powerful’ when combined with the mentions we have of gMark’s authorship from the early Church fathers.  In CCCFK, he tells us that there are ‘very good reasons to believe’ that the author of gMark got his information directly from Peter. Given the significant possible sources of inaccuracy around this method, describing the evidence with such certainty does not seem warranted.

Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter

I seem to have had a few comments on here in recent weeks about the Jesus mythicism question (for those who are unfamiliar with the argument, this is the question of whether a real Jesus actually existed in the first place or whether Christianity started with a belief in some kind of celestial being). For the record, I’m on the ‘historical Jesus’ side of this particular debate, meaning that I believe that the whole thing did start with an actual Jewish preacher and founder of a Messianic cult. This is something I’d like to post a series of posts about at some point, but it’s a long way down my to-do list at the moment, so look out for those in about… 2030, maybe? However, one particular comment I got did catch my attention as raising an important point. I started writing a comment in reply, and realised it was actually long enough to be a post. So here we are.

 

 

Owlmirror wrote:

I have to admit, it is weird no matter which way things are supposed to have gone: How a Son/Christ who supposedly had no earthly incarnation could have suddenly gotten one in the specific time and place of Judea in the 30’s. Or the other way; how a Jesus who was presumably real and taught in the 30’s could be so easily ignored/erased by those who came later.

Which is an excellent point. If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers. If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things. And this, as it happens, gets to the nub of why I believe in a historical Jesus; I’ve found other reasons as I looked into the topic more, but my initial reason is simply that I believe the former scenario is a lot easier to explain with the data we have than the latter. So, I want to explain why.

First, here are some key points to bear in mind:

  • We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.
  • These accounts include quite a few things which were clearly quite awkward for their authors. Jesus was supposed to have been the Messiah – despite this being a Jewish title that referred to someone who would rule over the country in an era of peace and prosperity, which Jesus clearly hadn’t done. He apparently came from Nazareth – even though this was another big problem for his followers’ claims that he was the Messiah, requiring two of the gospel authors to make up complicated and contradictory accounts about how, despite having grown up in Nazareth, he had actually been born in Bethlehem. He was executed by the Romans for sedition – which would have made the cult widely unpopular and could have got them into real trouble (if you read the gospel accounts, you can see the writers coming out with some wildly implausible stuff intended to paint a picture of Pilate as really innocent in the matter and the Jews really being the ones to blame for the whole thing). And apparently, despite the gospels painting a very anti-Pharisaic picture, his teachings as portrayed were in fact rather typically Pharisaian (Maccoby, Revolution in Judea and The Mythmaker). So… these things all got included, and we need to ask why.
  • These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.
  • In the early years of the Church, the person who seems to have been doing more than anyone else to spread this new belief to Gentiles in far-flung places was someone who joined only after Jesus’s death, showed astonishingly little interest in finding out about the doctrines of this new group, thought it quite OK to spread teachings that he believed to have come to him through personal revelation rather than from others in the group, and clashed with the existing group over the things he was teaching, of which they didn’t approve at all. Which gives us a rather bizarre situation where this man has gone off at a complete tangent and is energetically spreading his version of this new belief, which ends up being extremely influential despite being quite different from what the original grou believed.
  • All this was happening within a society where the majority of the population came from cultures other than the minority culture from which Jesus supposedly came, whose beliefs, and hence their interpretation of stories and events, might be very different from that of the culture in which the beliefs originated. On top of that, it was a society with widespread beliefs in amazing happenings, including the possibility of gods visiting the earth in human form.

Against this background information, how does the above question look?

Firstly, let’s look at the hypothesis that Jesus was actually a historical person. How does the above evidence fit with this? Well… according to this theory Jesus creates a bit of a splash in his local area, gets killed, and his local followers reach the belief he’s miraculously risen from the dead and thus keep his cult alive. A few years later, along comes Paul of Tarsus, who appears to have converted dramatically to the faith but has in fact converted dramatically to his own rather peculiar version of it, which he then energetically preaches to other communities over the next several years. Meanwhile, the existing stories about Jesus are getting embroidered as they get passed on. Some of those stories are getting passed out to the groups of converts in other cities, and some of the theology that those converts hold is filtering back to the original Jerusalem community, and a lot of people are ending up with a mixture of ideas that’s moving away from what was originally intended.

By the time people get as far as writing the stories down, a few decades later, the stories they have to work with are a mishmash of things that actually happened, embroidered versions of things that actually happened, stories that people have made up out of whole cloth because they sound good, and some rather strange mythology around the whole thing. So that’s what gets written down. Some of the stuff is pretty awkward for them, but, because it goes back to things that did actually happen, it’s firmly embedded in the traditions and can’t just be erased or ignored, so the gospel authors include those bits but do what they can to sugar-coat them or explain them away. We end up with an odd mix of stories, many of which are clearly embroidered or mythicised but many others of which seem to be describing a historical Jesus. Which, as you have probably spotted, pretty much describes the NT.

So far, so good; the historical theory fits well with what we have. Now, time to look at the other hypothesis; the idea that Jesus was originally a myth about a celestial being, and the stories about him were historicised later. How does that fit with the evidence we’ve got?

Well, the epistles seem to fit reasonably well, purely as far as theology goes; the theological descriptions of the Lord in the epistles could plausibly fit with a group who believe in a spiritual leader somewhere up in the heavens. (Even then, there are a lot of lines that wouldn’t plausibly fit with this; the epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed according to the flesh, or being born of a woman, or being of the seed of David, or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists. But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)

However, once we get to the gospels, things get a lot more difficult to explain. If the group at this stage believed that the person they held so dear was in fact a celestial being who had never visited this world as a human, how did we end up with multiple books telling detailed stories about his time living in this world as a human?

Of course, explanations exist. Earl Doherty, in The Jesus Puzzle, presents the first gospel as being written as a deliberate attempt to give a group an apparent historical founder that would appeal more to converts. Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus, explains it as being an example of euhemerism, a practice of the time in which historicised stories were written about mythical beings. Adam Lee from the Daylight Atheism blog, in this essay, suggests the gospel writers might have been following the precedent of midrash, a rabbinical method for analysing verses from the Jewish scriptures and coming up with further explanations and illustrative stories about them. All these explanations have their problems, but I can certainly see how any of them could explain the existence of a few historicised stories about a Jesus who was originally thought to have lived, died, and risen on a heavenly plane only.

But what do we actually have? Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.) Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder. Further highly awkward claims that the revered founder was making claims that got him (rightly, under the prevailing Roman law) executed for sedition. Complicated and contradictory stories attempting to explain how a man from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem, when it would surely have been so much simpler to leave out the Nazareth claim and write Jesus as coming from Bethlehem in the first place.

What would lead people to make all this stuff up – all of it – from scratch? Not just embroidering or adding to existing stories about an existing person, but inventing all of the above, including the bits that clearly work against their purposes? So far, I have not heard an adequate explanation for this. Of the two theories, therefore, the theory that Jesus did actually exist – that, at the start of the story of Christianity, there was an actual Yeshu or Yeshua who preached and had a following and was executed by the Romans – fits the available data a lot better.

And that’s why I believe in a historical Jesus.

Gender dysphoria in children – replacing myth with fact. Part Two.

Quick background: This is a follow-on from the post I wrote in response to SkepDoc Harriet Hall’s sadly misleading post Gender Dysphoria in Children. In my reply, I challenged the myth that children with gender dysphoria are being pushed or rushed into transitioning at very young ages. In fact, international medical guidelines on the subject are clear that medical treatment for children with gender dysphoria should not be started prior to puberty (for more on recommended management of younger children with gender dysphoria, see Part One).

I’m writing Part Two because I realised there is a fairly obvious follow-up question that readers might have; while that’s all well and good, why are children starting medical treatment for gender dysphoria during puberty? After all, at this stage they’re still children. Surely, runs this line of argument, it would be better for them to wait until adulthood before any decision is made about medical therapy with its possible (or definite) long-term consequences? It’s an argument that sounds superficially logical and has convinced many people.

Unfortunately, there is a huge problem with it: Children’s bodies are not going to wait. When the decision arises as to whether a pubertal child with gender dysphoria should start medical treatment or not, the alternative to treatment is not going to be that everything remains comfortably in status quo for several more years while the child grows up. The alternative is going to be that the child goes through the significant biological changes that come with puberty.

For a child with persistent gender dysphoria, this is a very big problem. If you read Part One of this, you might remember the Steensma et al research study that looked at the differences between ‘desisters’ and ‘persisters’ with gender dysphoria, and found that the onset of pubertal changes had been a key point for the children they surveyed; while those changes improved the desisters’ feelings of gender dysphoria, they worsened the gender dysphoria symptoms for the persisters. A lot. Children who already felt uncomfortable and out of place with having a body whose gender didn’t match theirs were faced with that body developing much more specific features of that gender… and they found this quite a horrific sensation.

It was terrible, I constantly wanted to know whether I was already in puberty or not. I knew about the puberty blocking treatment and I wanted to be in time. I really did not want to have breasts, I felt like, if they would grow, I would remove them myself. I absolutely did not want them!

I noticed the Adam’s apple of my brother, and an uneasy feeling stole upon me. If I would get an Adam’s apple like his, I did not want to live.

When I was 13, I started to menstruate and my breasts started to grow. I hated it! If we would have had a train station in our town I would definitely have jumped in front of a train. I didn’t go to school anymore, lost my friends and became totally withdrawn.

As soon as puberty started, I could no longer be myself. A boy does not have breasts. As a child it didn’t matter that much, boys and girls don’t differ except that boys have a penis, and girls don’t. But the way I was changing was very wrong. I couldn’t hide it anymore.

At the time my breasts started to grow, I wanted to hide them. I always tried to wear loose shirts. I felt so insecure that I didn’t want other people to see me. So I frequently skipped school and they suspended me. Then I became even more withdrawn.

Before puberty started, I felt physically a boy, but when my breasts started growing, I felt more like a mutant.

(quotes from young people with persistent gender dysphoria in Steensma et al., ‘Desisting and persisting gender dysphoria after childhood: A qualitative follow-up study‘, Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry 2011; 16(4): 499 – 516)

(With regard to the suicidal impulses expressed by some of these patients; yes, this is a very real risk. Several studies have shown a very high rate of suicide attempts among transgender people, and many of these work. Transitioning, and general acceptance and support from others, have both been shown to decrease this risk significantly.)

Imagine, for a minute, that you read or hear a story about doctors at a gender identity clinic forcing a child to go through puberty in the gender that isn’t theirs, against that child’s wishes, even though the child was distressed about it to the point of suicidal unhappiness. We’d all be appalled at the thought. Well… that’s what children with gender dysphoria of this severity go through when made to experience puberty without medical treatment. Their body doesn’t match their gender identity; when they  go through puberty, they’re having to deal with their body becoming more and more obviously that of a gender that isn’t theirs.

As though that wasn’t bad enough, forcing children to endure the wrong puberty has long-term consequences as well; that child is now going forward into adulthood with physical changes that are much harder to reverse. If that child is a transgender girl (a child with the physical body of a boy, but with the internal gender identity of a girl), then she’s had to develop facial hair, stronger facial features, and a deep masculine-sounding voice. She’s going to be stuck with the choice between either having a lot of difficult (and expensive) procedures to reverse these, or spending her life looking and sounding noticeably male even once she starts taking hormone treatment to transition (with all the considerable social stigma and unpleasantness that this will cause her). If that child is a transgender boy who wants to transition physically, his eventual transition will have to include surgery to remove the breasts that could have been prevented from growing in the first place.

There are times in life when doing nothing is a decision. It might be a default decision rather than an active one, but it’s still a decision and it still has consequences. When a persistently transgender child has started puberty, is becoming frantic with the changes, is becoming ever more certain about their decision to transition, is faced with puberty still proceeding apace… then that’s one of those times. In such a situation, doing nothing – withholding medical treatment, insisting that the child has to endure all these changes for years more before being allowed to start treatment for them – is outright harmful to that child.

Of course, it’s also preferable for children not to be making a final decision about transition at that point. After all, we’re talking here about children who are in the early stages of puberty, hence in their early teens at most and in many cases younger than that. Whatever myths you might have heard about gender identity clinics, the professionals there are in fact fully aware that children might change their mind, and are not in any sort of hurry to rush a young child into anything irreversible or even difficult to reverse. So, when a child with persistent gender dysphoria is finding that the early changes of puberty are making the symptoms worse and not better, this presents a dilemma.

Here, therefore, is the management that the WPATH (the international) guidelines advise in such a situation:

When, and only when, a child has persistent and intense symptoms of gender identity issues that are getting worse rather than better with puberty, and other issues in the child’s life have been looked for and dealt with so that this isn’t a case of, say, a child making a poor decision due to severe depression or anxiety, and the child wishes to start treatment after a full discussion of the pros and cons with child and family… then doctors will start a type of treatment known as a puberty blocker. This does not cause any physical gender changes; as the name suggests, it blocks the hormones that cause pubertal changes, thus allowing doctors to hit the ‘pause’ button on the child’s puberty and give them a few extra years to make a decision about gender transition. During this time, the child should be under the care of a paediatric endocrinologist who monitors their response to the puberty blocker and is on the lookout for any side-effects.

If the child’s gender dysphoria persists, and remains at such a level that they wish to physically transition, the next step is hormonal transitioning; taking either testosterone or oestrogen, as the case might be, to bring about the bodily changes of the gender with which the child identifies. (At this point, most people do go on to transition – after all, by this stage you’re down to a subset of transgender children with severe and persistent problems – but it isn’t inevitable. Children who decide against transitioning can simply stop the puberty blockers and allow puberty to proceed normally.) While this is, of course, the point at which changes do start becoming irreversible, that still doesn’t happen straight away. This isn’t like waking up from surgery; the hormonally-induced body changes need to be there for some weeks before they gradually become irreversible, whereas if someone finds that the changes towards a different body are distressing then that reaction is going to be present from an early stage. So, even at this point, we’re still talking about having some leeway to stop things; you haven’t committed irreversibly to gender transition from the moment you swallow your first pill.

The decision about whether or not to transition hormonally is generally taken and implemented around the age of 16, though that’s not an absolute. Again, this is a compromise; the desirability of giving children as much time as feasible to make this decision has to be weighed against the distress of being in a wrong-gender body plus the psychosocial and sometimes physical ramifications of postponing puberty.

As for genital surgery, the guidelines advise that this should be postponed until adulthood. (They also advise waiting until the person has lived as the gender in question for at least twelve months.) It is worth noting here, by the way, that surgery is by no means an inevitable step of transitioning; it’s the one step that everyone who doesn’t know much about transgender treatment will focus on, but in fact many transgender people find that transitioning with the use of hormones is enough for them and that, once the rest of their body matches their inner gender identity, they can deal with having a wrong-gender set of genitals. Either way, it is recommended that this step not be taken prior to adulthood.

Now, hopefully it should be clear by now that the reason for this protocol is that so far it’s the best compromise that exists between the potential risks of treatment and the known risks of not treating an adolescent with severe gender dysphoria who is distressed by pubertal changes. Whatever myths you might have heard, no-one is recommending this because they are oblivious to the potential side-effects of medication or because they think that prescribing for a child is an ideal and sought-after situation. It isn’t. The ideal situation would be for everyone to be born into a body that matches their own inner gender, so that transgender problems wouldn’t exist. For that matter, the ideal situation would be for no child ever to have a condition serious enough to need medication; I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t be delighted with that situation.

But that, of course, isn’t the situation we’ve got. We have the real world. Some children have serious, or potentially serious, medical conditions which do require treatment; not because medicating children is ideal, but because the consequences of not prescribing for a child with a serious problem can be worse. One such problem is severe gender dysphoria. We can leave children in such a situation to suffer the consequences of an untreated condition – knowing there is a high risk that those consequences will have a serious and significant impact on the child – or we can offer them treatment. It’s hard to believe that any of us would choose the former option were it any other medical condition involved. Why should we do so for children with gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria in children – replacing myth with fact, Part One

There is a widespread and pervasive myth that children are frequently being pushed into gender transition therapies. It’s a dangerous myth, because the pushback against it is contributing significantly to the problems that transgender youth have in actually getting appropriate, evidence-based support and therapy. Unfortunately, doctor and blogger Harriet Hall’s recent post Gender Dysphoria in Children appears to have been heavily influenced by this myth, with clumsily researched and pervasively scaremongering results.

There are a lot of highly misleading statements in the post that I’d like to debunk if possible. I’m realistic about my rate of blogging, however; if I get time to reply to other statements in her post then I will, but, for this post, I’m going to concentrate on the central myth here.

(Hat tip to FTB blogger Hj Hornbeck, who mentioned Hall’s post to FTB. His own reply to it is here, so do check that out as well, for a lot more information on the subject.)

I’m going to reply, here, to one particular quote from early in Hall’s post which is not in fact from Hall herself; it was a comment she found on this post. I chose this particular paragraph to reply to because I think it quite well encapsulates the groundless fears that swirl muddily around this topic. (Hall, unfortunately, seems to have chosen the quote so that she can echo these fears, rather than in order to examine them and see whether they’re actually justified.)

At about the age of 5, I was convinced I was a boy who had mistakenly been born in the body of a girl. This was in the 1950s, so there was never any discussion of my feelings, and obviously I never heard of “gender dysphoria.” By the time I was an adolescent, these feelings had disappeared. Parents who rush to allow children to “transition” when they are young may be harming their children more than if they just waited to see if the child still felt that way when they got a little older.

It’s not totally clear what this commenter thinks would have happened if she had attended one of today’s gender dysphoria clinics; in fact, I suspect the commenter isn’t clear herself on what she thinks would have happened. However, she does clearly have some kind of significant concern about the possibility that she would somehow have ended up rushing, or even being rushed, into an overly hasty decision to transition that would have then turned out to be the wrong decision for her. And this is the concern that normally comes up in these discussions.

So let’s look at what actually does happen.

Let’s imagine for a moment that gender identity and gender dysphoria research had been seventy years ahead of where it actually was, so that the guidelines and clinics we have today were available in the ’50s. Let’s imagine that this woman’s feelings about her gender, back when she was 5, had led to her referral to the kind of gender identity clinic that’s available to transgender people now, where she could have been assessed and managed under the guidelines that exist for children with gender dysphoria in the present day. What could we expect her experience there to be?

To answer this, I turned to the international guidelines on gender dysphoria management; the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care. They can be downloaded for free here; the sections which I drew on for this post are on pages 14 to 19. My other main source was the study Desisting and persisting gender dysphoria after childhood: A qualitative follow-up study (Steensma et al., Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2011; 16(4): 499 – 516). This is a key study on the topic of children who do lose their initial ‘wrong gender’ feelings after childhood, and factors that differentiate them from children with gender dysphoria that persists into adulthood. The abstract is available online at that link; the full study can also be downloaded for free there.

Based on the above information, here is what actually would have happened for this commenter if she’d visited a well-run modern-day gender identity clinic in her childhood.

First of all, she’d have had the chance to meet with supporting and non-judgemental professionals who would have explored her feelings about gender with her, without trying to push her one way or the other. They’d have taken a full and detailed look at what was going on in her life generally; at how her family life, her school life, and her social life were going, and whether there were problems there. They’d assess her for signs of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, and, if such were found, treat them appropriately. They’d have provided support for her and her family, as well as pointing her in the direction of other resources that could help.

They’d have discussed whether or not she wanted to try any parts of what’s known as ‘social transitioning’ – living as one gender without making any physical changes. For example, she might want to try having clothes, haircuts or toys that were traditionally viewed as ‘for boys’, or maybe even move on to being called by a boy’s name and/or referred to as ‘he’ instead of ‘she’. If so, there would have been some careful discussion of what implications this might have in terms of how other people would react and treat her, and it would also have been made clear to her that this was an experiment, not the start of an irreversible journey; if she tried these changes and found that they made her more uncomfortable rather than less, it would be absolutely fine for her to reverse them at any point. She might have been offered the option of trying these changes only on holiday, where it would be easy for her to stop them without pushback from people who knew her. Of course, on discussion it might have emerged that she didn’t feel comfortable with trying any of these changes; that would also have been fine. The goal over this time would be to help her explore her feelings about her gender in ways that would be fully reversible should those feelings change.

It’s not clear from her comment when her beliefs about having the wrong-gender body faded, although clearly it was at some point between age 5 and when she hit puberty. If those feelings did persist over the next few years, the clinic would have been particularly on the lookout for how she reacted to the run-up to/early stages of puberty. This is because, in the Steensma et al study I linked to above, this showed up as the stage that differentiated persisters (those children whose gender dysphoria feelings continued) from desisters (those children who grew out of them). Desisters reported that, during this stage, they found themselves coming more to terms with their bodies, and that pubertal changes were, overall, a positive factor that helped reconcile them with the idea of being their birth gender. Persisters reported the exact opposite; their feelings of gender dysphoria became much stronger, and pubertal changes were extremely distressing for them.

This woman, of course, was clearly a desister. From her wording (‘By the time I was an adolescent, these feelings had disappeared’), it sounds as though, in her case, the initial feelings of gender dysphoria faded before she reached puberty. When that happened, her family would have been able simply to discharge her from the clinic.

That’s it. That’s what would have happened. That’s what happens to children today who are referred to gender identity clinics with feelings that turn out to be temporary; they get to talk those feelings over with supportive and non-judgemental medical professionals who also do their best to find out about any other problems in the child’s life that may need help, they’re supported in reversible ways of experimenting with gender identity if and only if they so wish, and they can stop follow-up whenever they feel the feelings have faded.

All this business about letting children wait a bit longer/not rushing them into transitioning/being aware they might feel differently as they get older? These are not mysterious extraordinary concepts that have somehow never occurred to the doctors who work in this field. These are fundamental principles of good care for children with gender dysphoria. This is what is already happening for children with gender dysphoria. So, when next you hear someone raising concern about how young children with gender dysphoria should be allowed to just wait a little longer, or whatever the concerned phrase is… then be aware that this is exactly what’s already happening.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 2

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

Several chapters back, in response to Jason’s question about how we know that the gospels are ‘real eyewitness testimonies instead of legends or myths or something’, Jeffries promised that we’d get a whole session on that topic. (Although only, apparently, after we’d spent the then-current session discussing the gospels on the assumption that they were reliable accounts, so that raises some concerning questions about Wallace’s approach to evaluating evidence.)

Given the emphasis on the theme of eyewitness statements in this chapter, I think this is supposed to be the session to which he was referring. However, this session only covers the authorship of the gospel normally known as Mark… which is not meant to be an eyewitness testimony. While Church tradition does have it that two of the gospels (‘Matthew’ and ‘John’) are written by eyewitnesses, there are no such claims for ‘Mark’, which was supposedly written by someone who’d obtained his information second-hand, from the apostle Peter. (Of course, if that’s true it would still be potentially good evidence, but it wouldn’t be an eyewitness testimony.) So, if this is supposed to be the promised explanation of how we know the gospels are eyewitness testimonies, then it’s a pretty inadequate attempt at it.

Oh, well. I don’t know for sure that this is the session Wallace/Jeffries was referring to, and there are two more chapters left after this one, so it is theoretically possible that he actually had a different session in mind which is still to come. I’m willing to give him the benefit of at least some doubt.

Before getting on to what Wallace/Jeffries has to say about the authorship of the gospel of Mark (which I’ll henceforward refer to by the abbreviation gMark, to save typing time), I’ll give a quick general rundown on the subject for anyone who wants it. (Thanks here go to historian and blogger Matthew Ferguson for his post Why Scholars Doubt The Traditional Authors Of The Gospels, which was a useful source for a couple of these points.)

The author of gMark, like those of the other gospels, does not identify himself in the text of his work. The earliest information the Church has on gMark’s authorship comes from the early church bishop Papias, who probably wrote some time between 95 and 120 CE (AD). Papias’s actual works have been lost, but one of the few quotes of his work that we have from later authors is about gMark, and states that it was written by Peter’s interpreter Mark, who wrote down what he remembered of Peter’s teaching as accurately as he could. This information is backed up by two other authors from the second century; Irenaeus, in the third volume of his work ‘Against Heresies’, states that ‘Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter’, and a few of the quotes we have from Clement of Alexandria’s work state that Mark was a follower and companion of Peter who wrote his gospel at the request of some of Peter’s other followers.

(There is also a tradition that this Mark was the John Mark mentioned a few times in Acts. I can’t actually find anything in any of the above quotes to specify whether this is the case; as far as I can see, it’s plausible that these authors were talking about a different Mark and other people made an understandable but incorrect assumption that they were referring to John Mark. However, while this is an interesting question, I don’t think it’s a terribly important one; if gMark was written by someone very familiar with Peter’s teachings, then that’s important information regardless of whether the author was John Mark or not. Wallace also doesn’t raise this issue and I won’t go into it further.)

The question is, of course, whether Papias, Irenaeus and Clement were actually right. All of them were writing decades after gMark was written, and we don’t know how reliable their information was. Papias got his information from someone known only as ‘the presbyter John’, and we don’t know who this person was or where he got his information. We have no idea where the other two got their information; it might, for all we know, trace back to Papias, or perhaps to a source of similarly uncertain reliability. (Of note is that both Papias and Irenaeus also described the gospel of Matthew as being a work originally written in Hebrew… but scholarship has since established that Matthew was originally written in Greek. If those two made a mistake that basic regarding one gospel, we can’t count on what they say about others.)

On top of this, it’s been noted that gMark makes various geographical and cultural errors that would be unlikely in the writings of someone who was a close follower of Peter. (For example, he depicts Jesus as travelling from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon, which was, in fact, in the opposite direction from the Sea of Galilee for someone starting from Tyre; he depicts Jews as calling out the phrase ‘our father David’ when in fact David, while a highly important figure in Jewish history, was not considered one of the Jewish fathers and wouldn’t have been referred to as such.) Also, his quotes from the Jewish scriptures come from the Greek version, not from the original Hebrew that Peter would have been expected to use.

The result of all this is that it is now the general consensus of scholars that Papias and co. probably had it wrong; that, whoever wrote gMark, it probably wasn’t someone who’d received his information directly from Peter.

I’m going to add here, by the way, that this does seem to me to be – ironically – a better conclusion as far as the Church’s point of view is concerned. After all, one notable aspect of gMark is that it originally did not contain any actual accounts of people seeing a resurrected Jesus. (Some versions do have a short paragraph about resurrection appearances, but these aren’t in the earliest copies we have and have long since been established as being later additions. The actual gospel ended with the women learning from an unnamed man at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen, then leaving in fear.) Yet, from the accounts we have of the resurrection appearances from other sources, Peter was supposedly one of the key witnesses. If gMark really is the comprehensive and reliable report of Peter’s teachings that Papias tells us, surely the fact that this doesn’t include any reports of post-resurrection appearances should be rather awkward for the Church?

In any case… back to the book.

I think Wallace actually ran into a bit of a conundrum in writing this bit. On the one hand, he has this whole structure of focusing on one police-related theme for each chapter and he really wanted the theme of this chapter to be eyewitness statements. On the other hand, the subject he actually wanted to write about was the authorship of a gospel that wasn’t written by an eyewitness.

His method for resolving this conundrum was to have Jeffries claim to the cadets that, since the gospel was based on Peter’s teachings, it actually counts as Peter’s eyewitness statement.

I realise that Wallace genuinely does know a lot more about the whole subject of witnesses and statements than I do and thus it is actually possible that I’m wrong and he’s right here, but… surely an eyewitness statement has to be the words of an eyewitness? Seems to me that, even if he and the Church are right here and Mark actually was Peter’s close follower/interpreter, the gospel would still at best be Mark’s eyewitness statement about Peter’s teaching. (Since it’s been formalised and anonymised in the writing, I’m not sure it would even count as that much. I couldn’t find a definition of eyewitness statements for the US, which is where Wallace works and writes, but I found a page from the UK about eyewitness statements that specified that they have to include a description of what the witness actually saw or heard. Any US police officers or lawyers reading this who can comment?)

On top of that, of course, there’s the fact that the gospel includes scenes for which Peter wasn’t present. Even if the Church is right about Mark being a follower of Peter’s, those particular scenes can only be third-hand at best.

Jason, I was pleased to see, is likewise dubious:

“Why isn’t it just called the gospel of Peter then?” asks Jason.

“Because Mark was Peter’s ‘scribe’—he wrote down Peter’s teaching, so he’s the actual author.” Jeffries can tell that Jason isn’t satisfied with that answer.

And rightly so, IMO. I mean, isn’t it a contradiction to say that Mark is the author but it’s Peter’s eyewitness statement? If someone other than the eyewitness is the author, then surely by definition it’s not an eyewitness statement. I can’t see that one standing up in court, Jeffries.

However, turns out Jason is unsatisfied for a different reason; he wants to know how Jeffries can be sure that this gospel is in fact based on Peter’s information. In other words, this is Wallace/Jeffries’ cue to explain why we should believe – based on analysis of gMark – that it actually was written by a close follower of Peter’s.

And that, my dear readers, is going to be the subject of the next CCCFK post. See you there!

The Friday the 13th call for decriminalising prostitution

…and, this Friday the 13th, I’m going to do this the lazy way, because I’m late for getting dinner started and, as far as coming up with new and incisive yet extremely quick to write thoughts on why sex work should be decriminalised, I got nothin’. So, here’s the link to my previous writings on the subject on this blog.

Quick summary: Sex workers are people trying to make a living. They’re not disgusting criminals. They’re not passive, pathetic victims who can’t think or make decisions for themselves about their own lives. And, while it’s important to recognise that some of them are victims of disgusting crimes and abuses… it’s simplistic and completely inaccurate to treat all sex workers this way. Laws based on any of these stereotypes do more harm than good.

Read my past posts to find out more about problems with prostitution laws; not just the ones that make prostitution itself a crime (I hope the harms and wrongs of those are obvious) but also some of the ones that are promoted as supposedly helping prostitutes but that backfire because of the ignorance and stereotypes that informed their passing.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 1

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

We’re on to Chapter 6, which is titled ‘Hang On Every Word: Spot the Truth When You Hear It!’ (All Wallace’s chapter titles in this book end in exclamation marks; maybe he thinks children like exclamation marks. Maybe they do like exclamation marks. Maybe this is based on market research.)

On this chapter Katie did have a couple of comments, though the first thing she had to say was a general comment on the book so far. “This guy says stuff that’s so wrong, it’s annoying to me,” she told me. “It’s literally just straight-up wrong information. And it is aggravating to me. Yay! I used the word ‘aggravating’. I’m proud of knowing that.”

Chapter 6 starts with a surprise for Daniel; Jeffries has invited Daniel’s sister, Lacey, in to be a witness in The Case Of The Mysterious Skateboard. Lacey’s happy to have the chance to see the cadet classes because, apparently, it’s ‘all Daniel can talk about’. Which I would have thought would be a great opportunity for Lacey and/or parents to notice that this supposed police cadet academy course that is being run on police premises and was initially advertised on school premises is, in fact, an evangelising class being illicitly advertised as a police cadet class and illicitly run by a public tax-funded department. Alas, this does not happen.

This chapter is about the importance of paying attention to every detail when analysing witness statements. Because of this, I’ll quote Lacey’s interview with Jeffries in full, as at this point we haven’t yet been told which bits will turn out to be important:

“[…]Would you call yourself an expert witness on skateboarding?”

Lacey hesitates for a moment. “Not really. I mean, I never actually owned a skateboard. My mom didn’t think they were safe.”

“Now, Lacey,” asks Jeffries, “why did you specifically remember this skateboard?”

“The large poly wheels make the board ride really fast.” Lacey points to the blue wheels. “It’s a smooth riding board too.”

“How often did you see your friend Lincoln skating on this board?”

Lacey responds, “I was—um, I mean, Lincoln was on it almost every day.”

Katie pulled my computer towards her and typed (she learned to touch-type a few months back, and now practices the skill when she gets a chance): ‘Since Lacey stutters and says ‘I was-um, Imean, Lincoln’ I feel like she rode the skateboard and doesn’t want people to know so she doesn’t get in trouble.’

This was exactly my conclusion as well; Lacey’s clearly a thwarted skateboard fan who had some kind of arrangement going with Lincoln whereby she could secretly use this board without her mother knowing. Which means that at least one of the bits I was dubious about –  the question of why on earth Lacey would remember so much about the board, so many years later – has actually now been satisfactorily answered, which makes a nice change. I am sometimes not the quickest on the uptake, and so it wasn’t until later that I realised there’s an obvious plot twist that could well be coming up here; the Big Reveal will probably be that it’s Lacey’s board (with Lincoln keeping it at his house so that she can keep it a secret from her mother), and she will be the ‘L’ in the mysterious ‘LB’ that was scratched on the board and then covered up.

However, we didn’t get to find out in this chapter whether any of this is correct, because we are sticking to the usual class format of

  1. Skateboard discovery section (which will just handily happen to bring up whichever points are going to be needed for the apologetics section)
  2. Apologetics section

even though, in this case, it makes no sense at all. Lacey’s statement is fresh in everyone’s mind, and Lacey herself is right here in case any of the cadets want to ask her more questions, so now is the obvious time to discuss Lacey’s statement. Instead, Jeffries invites Lacey to join them if she wants, gives the cadets a general speech on the importance of listening to every word people say and how they say it, tells the cadets that they might just have picked up another clue or two about the skateboard if they were listening carefully… and proceeds to change the subject to talk about the gospel of Mark.

Lacey, please note, is apparently sitting and listening to all this (at least, Wallace doesn’t mention her leaving, so it sounds as though she’s taken Jeffries up on his invitation for her to stay). Oh, if only she would interrupt him: “Hey, hang on, what’s all this about the gospels? I thought this was meant to be a police cadet class!” “That would be amazing,” Katie agreed. It would indeed, but – of course – it doesn’t happen.

I’ll break the post here, and come back to discuss what Jeffries has to say about Mark’s gospel.