Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 1: “The Advent of Existentialism”)

William Barrett’s Irrational Man is a nice exposition on existential philosophy which begins by exploring the state of modern humanity and philosophy and tracing its roots from ancient Greece, its development through the Medieval period and the Enlightenment, all the way to the mid-twentieth century.  He explores what he believes to be the primary cultural sources of existentialism and then surveys the contributions of perhaps the four most prominent existential philosophers: namely, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.  I’d like to explore Barrett’s book here in more detail and I’m going to break this down into an analysis of every section and chapter, with each chapter analyzed within a separate blog post.  Below is the first post of this series; Part 1, Chapter 1: The Advent of Existentialism.

Part I: “The Present Age”

Ch. 1 – The Advent of Existentialism

Early on, Barrett gives a brief description of positivism, which he describes as a philosophical theory which holds that science is not only what distinguishes our post-Enlightenment civilization from all others, but it also claims that science should be the ultimate ruler of human life, to which Barrett remarks that science has never held this role before nor could it given the details of our psychology as human beings.  It’s true that science has never held this role before and it’s also true that the way we generally use science is ill-suited for the job of guiding our day-to-day lives in order to meet all of our psychological needs.

However, I think it would be mistaken to say that the scientific method, and empirical methods generally, can’t be used (even in principle) to determine (or to help determine) the choices one ought to make in one’s life.  While science as an enterprise isn’t generally used in this way (we tend to use it to solve more specific technical challenges and to determine well-defined mechanisms underlying various phenomena), we shouldn’t simply assume that the knowledge we’re able to gain from it will never include information pertaining to our decision-making, our preferences and values, and our ultimate goals in life.  On top of this, if one wanted to know whether or not a life “ruled by” science could meet all of one’s psychological needs, one could only test this hypothesis by employing (at the very least) an informal version of the scientific method.  So in some rudimentary sense, science and its methods (of testing hypotheses and building upon the results of such testing) are unavoidable as they pervade our lives and are inseparable from any falsifiable inquiry that arises therein.

On the flip-side, we shouldn’t assume that science on its own is capable of anything at all, let alone meeting all of our needs as a species.  What I mean by this, and one thing that I’m sure Barrett would have agreed with, is that the use of science itself and the desire to use it for some particular aim first requires an underlying set of philosophical views such as some kind of an epistemology, an ethics, etc.  This also means that science as a concept and as an instrument for gaining knowledge shouldn’t be criticized if it leads to undesirable consequences; rather it is the philosophical views of the scientist(s) undertaking some research project, and/or the philosophical views of the people that use that knowledge once it has been discovered, that should be criticized accordingly.

Barrett goes on to say:

“Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful,’ while the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the ‘meaningless.’ “

And I couldn’t agree more that this kind of positivist thinking is flawed and incomplete as we need to take introspection, intuition, and raw experience into any complete account of our reality.  The German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg actually echoed similar sentiments in his later life where he said:

“The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can any one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing? If we omitted all that is unclear we would probably be left with completely uninteresting and trivial tautologies.”

In Heisenberg’s quote here we can see the relevance of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, and how they explored different conceptions of meaning as well as the importance of (what Nietzsche called) perspectivism, or striving to look at the world as a whole or at any particular phenomena from as many viewpoints as possible without becoming trapped in the constraints of our language and culture.  In order to avoid dogmatism, we must be willing to at least consider different ontologies and different ways of looking at our own existence, our place in the world, and what is most important to us.  And although science shouldn’t be excluded from our sources of meaning or from our methods of determining what is and what is not meaningful, people shouldn’t expect these concepts to be restricted to the domain of science.

So what is existentialism then, according to Barrett?  Well, he sees it as a philosophical movement (and a kind of revolt) against the oversimplification of man (human beings) as assumed within positivism.  It seeks to replace this fractured view of man and instead gather all the facets of the human condition and assemble them into one coherent picture of man.  And it does so even when it requires acknowledging the darker and more questionable parts of our nature and existence; by exploring and accepting the uglier side of humanity that many in the Enlightenment tried to discount and leave by the wayside.

This post-Enlightenment view of man, which pictured man as inherently rational, went largely unchallenged for more than a hundred years (until Kierkegaard), and aside from Kierkegaard’s works which Barrett explores, I think we could also perhaps credit the work of Charles Darwin and his On the Origin of Species as well as his The Descent of Man, for firmly challenging any prevailing doubts about our animalistic and irrational origins.  Once it became apparent that human beings were the distant cousins of other primates and the more distant cousins of fish and reptiles and so on, it became that much harder to distance ourselves from the irrationality that pervades the rest of the animal kingdom.  And so it became harder to deny that we still had some level of irrationality at the core of our being, even if it was accompanied with a capacity for reason and rationality.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness.

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It’s Time For Some Philosophical Investigations

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a nice piece of work where he attempts to explain his views on language and the consequences of this view on various subjects like logic, semantics, cognition, and psychology.  I’ve mentioned some of his views very briefly in a couple of earlier posts, but I wanted to delve into his work in a little more depth here and comment on what strikes me as most interesting.  Lately, I’ve been looking back at some of the books I’ve read from various philosophers and have been wanting to revisit them so I can explore them in more detail and share how they connect to some of my own thoughts.  Alright…let’s begin.

Language, Meaning, & Their Probabilistic Attributes

He opens his Philosophical Investigations with a quote from St. Augustine’s Confessions that describes how a person learns a language.  St. Augustine believed that this process involved simply learning the names of objects (for example, by someone else pointing to the objects that are so named) and then stringing them together into sentences, and Wittgenstein points out that this is true to some trivial degree but it overlooks a much more fundamental relationship between language and the world.  For Wittgenstein, the meaning of words can not simply be attached to an object like a name can.  The meaning of a word or concept has much more of a fuzzy boundary as it depends on a breadth of context or associations with other concepts.  He analogizes this plurality in the meanings of words with the relationship between members of a family.  While there may be some resemblance between different uses of a word or concept, we aren’t able to formulate a strict definition to fully describe this resemblance.

One problem then, especially within philosophy, is that many people assume that the meaning of a word or concept is fixed with sharp boundaries (just like the fixed structure of words themselves).  Wittgenstein wants to dispel people of this false notion (much as Nietzsche tried to do before him) so that they can stop misusing language, as he believed that this misuse was the cause of many (if not all) of the major problems that had cropped up in philosophy over the centuries, particularly in metaphysics.  Since meaning is actually somewhat fluid and can’t be accounted for by any fixed structure, Wittgenstein thinks that any meaning that we can attach to these words is ultimately going to be determined by how those words are used.  Since he ties meaning with use, and since this use is something occurring in our social forms of life, it has an inextricably external character.  Thus, the only way to determine if someone else has a particular understanding of a word or concept is through their behavior, in response to or in association with the use of the word(s) in question.  This is especially important in the case of ambiguous sentences, which Wittgenstein explores to some degree.

Probabilistic Shared Understanding

Some of what Wittgenstein is trying to point out here are what I like to refer to as the inherently probabilistic attributes of language.  And it seems to me to be probabilistic for a few different reasons, beyond what Wittgenstein seems to address.  First, there is no guarantee that what one person means by a word or concept exactly matches the meaning from another person’s point of view, but at the very least there is almost always going to be some amount of semantic overlap (and possibly 100% in some cases) between the two individual’s intended meanings, and so there is going to be some probability that the speaker and the listener do in fact share a complete understanding.  It seems reasonable to argue that simpler concepts will have a higher probability of complete semantic overlap whereas more complex concepts are more likely to leave a gap in that shared understanding.  And I think this is true even if we can’t actually calculate what any of these probabilities are.

Now my use of the word meaning here differs from Wittgenstein’s because I am referring to something that is not exclusively shared by all parties involved and I am pointing to something that is internal (a subjective understanding of a word) rather than external (the shared use of a word).  But I think this move is necessary if we are to capture all of the attributes that people explicitly or implicitly refer to with a concept like meaning.  It seems better to compromise with Wittgenstein’s thinking and refer to the meaning of a word as a form of understanding that is intimately connected with its use, but which involves elements that are not exclusively external.

We can justify this version of meaning through an example.  If I help teach you how to ride a bike and explain that this activity is called biking or to bike, then we can use Wittgenstein’s conception of meaning and it will likely account for our shared understanding, and so I have no qualms about that, and I’d agree with Wittgenstein that this is perhaps the most important function of language.  But it may be the case that you have an understanding that biking is an activity that can only happen on Tuesdays, because that happened to be the day that I helped teach you how to ride a bike.  Though I never intended for you to understand biking in this way, there was no immediate way for me to infer that you had this misunderstanding on the day I was teaching you this.  I could only learn of this fact if you explicitly explained to me your understanding of the term with enough detail, or if I had asked you additional questions like whether or not you’d like to bike on a Wednesday (for example), with you answering “I don’t know how to do that as that doesn’t make any sense to me.”  Wittgenstein doesn’t account for this gap in understanding in his conception of meaning and I think this makes for a far less useful conception.

Now I think that Wittgenstein is still right in the sense that the only way to determine someone else’s understanding (or lack thereof) of a word is through their behavior, but due to chance as well as where our attention is directed at any given moment, we may never see the right kinds of behavior to rule out any number of possible misunderstandings, and so we’re apt to just assume that these misunderstandings don’t exist because language hides them to varying degrees.  But they can and in some cases do exist, and this is why I prefer a conception of meaning that takes these misunderstandings into account.  So I think it’s useful to see language as probabilistic in the sense that there is some probability of a complete shared understanding underlying the use of a word, and thus there is a converse probability of some degree of misunderstanding.

Language & Meaning as Probabilistic Associations Between Causal Relations

A second way of language being probabilistic is due to the fact that the unique meanings associated with any particular use of a word or concept as understood by an individual are derived from probabilistic associations between various inferred causal relations.  And I believe that this is the underlying cause of most of the problems that Wittgenstein was trying to address in this book.  He may not have been thinking about the problem in this way, but it can account for the fuzzy boundary problem associated with the task of trying to define the meaning of words since this probabilistic structure underlies our experiences, our understanding of the world, and our use of language such that it can’t be represented by static, sharp definitions.  When a person is learning a concept, like redness, they experience a number of observations and infer what is common to all of those experiences, and then they extract a particular subset of what is common and associate it with a word like red or redness (as opposed to another commonality like objectness, or roundness, or what-have-you).  But in most cases, separate experiences of redness are going to be different instantiations of redness with different hues, textures, shapes, etc., which means that redness gets associated with a large range of different qualia.

If you come across a new qualia that seems to more closely match previous experiences associated with redness rather than orangeness (for example), I would argue that this is because the brain has assigned a higher probability to that qualia being an instance of redness as opposed to, say, orangeness.  And the brain may very well test a hypothesis of the qualia matching the concept of redness versus the concept of orangeness, and depending on your previous experiences of both, and the present context of the experience, your brain may assign a higher probability of orangeness instead.  Perhaps if a red-orange colored object is mixed in with a bunch of unambiguously orange-colored objects, it will be perceived as a shade of orange (to match it with the rest of the set), but if the case were reversed and it were mixed in with a bunch of unambiguously red-colored objects, it will be perceived as a shade of red instead.

Since our perception of the world depends on context, then the meanings we assign to words or concepts also depends on context, but not only in the sense of choosing a different use of a word (like Wittgenstein argues) in some language game or other, but also by perceiving the same incoming sensory information as conceptually different qualia (like in the aforementioned case of a red-orange colored object).  In that case, we weren’t intentionally using red or orange in a different way but rather were assigning one word or the other to the exact same sensory information (with respect to the red-orange object) which depended on what else was happening in the scene that surrounded that subset of sensory information.  To me, this highlights how meaning can be fluid in multiple ways, some of that fluidity stemming from our conscious intentions and some of it from unintentional forces at play involving our prior expectations within some context which directly modify our perceived experience.

This can also be seen through Wittgenstein’s example of what he calls a duckrabbit, an ambiguous image that can be perceived as a duck or a rabbit.  I’ve taken the liberty of inserting this image here along with a copy of it which has been rotated in order to more strongly invoke the perception of a rabbit.  The first image no doubt looks more like a duck and the second image, more like a rabbit.

Now Wittgenstein says that when one is looking at the duckrabbit and sees a rabbit, they aren’t interpreting the picture as a rabbit but are simply reporting what they see.  But in the case where a person sees a duck first and then later sees a rabbit, Wittgenstein isn’t sure what to make of this.  However, he claims to be sure that whatever it is, it can’t be the case that the external world stays the same while an internal cognitive change takes place.  Wittgenstein was incorrect on this point because the external world doesn’t change (in any relevant sense) despite our seeing the duck or seeing the rabbit.  Furthermore, he never demonstrates why two different perceptions would require a change in the external world.  The fact of the matter is, you can stare at this static picture and ask yourself to see a duck or to see a rabbit and it will affect your perception accordingly.  This is partially accomplished by you mentally rotating the image in your imagination and seeing if that changes how well it matches one conception or the other, and since it matches both conceptions to a high degree, you can easily perceive it one way or the other.  Your brain is simply processing competing hypotheses to account for the incoming sensory information, and the top-down predictions of rabbitness or duckness (which you’ve acquired over past experiences) actually changes the way you perceive it with no change required in the external world (despite Wittgenstein’s assertion to the contrary).

To give yet another illustration of the probabilistic nature of language, just imagine the head of a bald man and ask yourself, if you were to add one hair at a time to this bald man’s head, at what point does he lose the property of baldness?  If hairs were slowly added at random, and you could simply say “Stop!  Now he’s no longer bald!” at some particular time, there’s no doubt in my mind that if this procedure were repeated (even if the hairs were added non-randomly), you would say “Stop!  Now he’s no longer bald!” at a different point in this transition.  Similarly if you were looking at a light that was changing color from red to orange, and were asked to say when the color has changed to orange, you would pick a point in the transition that is within some margin of error but it wouldn’t be an exact, repeatable point in the transition.  We could do this thought experiment with all sorts of concepts that are attached to words, like cat and dog and, for example, use a computer graphic program to seamlessly morph a picture of a cat into a picture of a dog and ask at what point did the cat “turn into” a dog?  It’s going to be based on a probability of coincident features that you detect which can vary over time.  Here’s a series of pictures showing a chimpanzee morphing into Bill Clinton to better illustrate this point:

At what point do we stop seeing a picture of a chimpanzee and start seeing a picture of something else?  When do we first see Bill Clinton?  What if I expanded this series of 15 images into a series of 1000 images so that this transition happened even more gradually?  It would be highly unlikely to pick the exact same point in the transition two times in a row if the images weren’t numbered or arranged in a grid.  We can analogize this phenomenon with an ongoing problem in science, known as the species problem.  This problem can be described as the inherent difficulty of defining exactly what a species is, which is necessary if one wants to determine if and when one species evolves into another.  This problem occurs because the evolutionary processes giving rise to new species are relatively slow and continuous whereas sorting those organisms into sharply defined categories involves the elimination of that generational continuity and replacing it with discrete steps.

And we can see this effect in the series of images above, where each picture could represent some large number of generations in an evolutionary timeline, where each picture/organism looks roughly like the “parent” or “child” of the picture/organism that is adjacent to it.  Despite this continuity, if we look at the first picture and the last one, they look like pictures of distinct species.  So if we want to categorize the first and last picture as distinct species, then we create a problem when trying to account for every picture/organism that lies in between that transition.  Similarly words take on an appearance of strict categorization (of meaning) when in actuality, any underlying meaning attached is probabilistic and dynamic.  And as Wittgenstein pointed out, this makes it more appropriate to consider meaning as use so that the probabilistic and dynamic attributes of meaning aren’t lost.

Now you may think you can get around this problem of fluidity or fuzzy boundaries with concepts that are simpler and more abstract, like the concept of a particular quantity (say, a quantity of four objects) or other concepts in mathematics.  But in order to learn these concepts in the first place, like quantity, and then associate particular instances of it with a word, like four, one had to be presented with a number of experiences and infer what was common to all of those experiences (as was the case with redness mentioned earlier).  And this inference (I would argue) involves a probabilistic process as well, it’s just that the resulting probability of our inferring particular experiences as an instance of four objects is incredibly high and therefore repeatable and relatively unambiguous.  Therefore that kind of inference is likely to be sustained no matter what the context, and it is likely to be shared by two individuals with 100% semantic overlap (i.e. it’s almost certain that what I mean by four is exactly what you mean by four even though this is almost certainly not the case for a concept like love or consciousness).  This makes mathematical concepts qualitatively different from other concepts (especially those that are more complex or that more closely map on to reality), but it doesn’t negate their having a probabilistic attribute or foundation.

Looking at the Big Picture

Though this discussion of language and meaning is not an exhaustive analysis of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it represents an analysis of the main theme present throughout.  His main point was to shed light on the disparity between how we often think of language and how we actually use it.  When we stray away from the way it is actually used in our everyday lives, in one form of social life or other, and instead misuse it such as in philosophy, this creates all sorts of problems and unwarranted conclusions.  He also wants his readers to realize that the ultimate goal of philosophy should not be to try and make metaphysical theories and deep explanations underlying everyday phenomena, since these are often born out of unwarranted generalizations and other assumptions stemming from how our grammar is structured.  Instead we ought to subdue these temptations to generalize and subdue our temptations to be dogmatic and instead use philosophy as a kind of therapeutic tool to keep our abstract thinking in check and to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.

Although I disagree with some of Wittgenstein’s claims about cognition (in terms of how intimately it is connected to the external world) and take some issue with his arguably less useful conception of meaning, he makes a lot of sense overall.  Wittgenstein was clearly hitting upon a real difference between the way actual causal relations in our experience are structured and how those relations are represented in language.  Personally, I think that work within philosophy is moving in the right direction if the contributions made therein lead us to make more successful predictions about the causal structure of the world.  And I believe this to be so even if this progress includes generalizations that may not be exactly right.  As long as we can structure our thinking to make more successful predictions, then we’re moving forward as far as I’m concerned.  In any case, I liked the book overall and thought that the interlocutory style gave the reader a nice break from the typical form seen in philosophical argumentation.  I highly recommend it!

Looking Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil serves as a thorough overview of his philosophy and is definitely one of his better works (although I think Thus Spoke Zarathustra is much more fun to read).  It’s definitely worth reading (if you haven’t already) to put a fresh perspective on many widely held philosophical assumptions that are often taken for granted.  While I’m not interested in all of the claims he makes (and he makes many, in nearly 300 aphorisms spread over nine chapters), there are at least several ideas that I think are worth analyzing.

One theme presented throughout the book is Nietzsche’s disdain for classical conceptions of truth and any form of absolutism or dogmatism.  With regard to truth or his study on the nature of truth (what we could call his alethiology), he subscribes to a view that he coined as perspectivism.  For Nietzsche, there are no such things as absolute truths but rather there are only different perspectives about reality and our understanding of it.  So he insists that we shouldn’t get stuck in the mud of dogmatism, and should instead try to view what is or isn’t true with an open mind and from as many points of view as possible.

Nietzsche’s view here is in part fueled by his belief that the universe is in a state of constant change, as well as his belief in the fixity of language.  Since the universe is in a state of constant change, language generally fails to capture this dynamic essence.  And since philosophy is inherently connected to the use of language, false inferences and dogmatic conclusions will often manifest from it.  Wittgenstein belonged to a similar school of thought (likely building off of Nietzsche’s contributions) where he claimed that most of the problems in philosophy had to do with the limitations of language, and therefore, that those philosophical problems could only be solved (if at all) through an in-depth evaluation of the properties of language and how they relate to its use.

This school of thought certainly has merit given the facts of language having more of a fixed syntactic structure yet also having a dynamic or probabilistic semantic structure.  We need language to communicate our thoughts to one another, and so this requires some kind of consistency or stability in its syntactic structure.  But the meaning behind the words we use is something that is established through use, through context, and ultimately through associations between probabilistic conceptual structures and relatively stable or fixed visual and audible symbols (written or spoken words).  Since the semantic structure of language has fuzzy boundaries, and yet is attached to relatively fixed words and grammar, it produces the illusion of a reality that is essentially unchanging.  And this results in the kinds of philosophical problems and dogmatic thinking that Nietzsche warns us of.

It’s hard to disagree with Nietzsche’s view that dogmatism is to be avoided at all costs, and that absolute truths are generally specious at best (let alone dangerous), and philosophy owes a lot to Nietzsche for pointing out the need to reject this kind of thinking.  Nietzsche’s rejection of absolutism and dogmatism is made especially clear in his views on the common conceptions of God and morality.  He points out how these concepts have changed a lot over the centuries (where, for example, the meaning of good has undergone a complete reversal throughout its history), and this is despite the fact that throughout that time, the proponents of those particular views of God or morality believe that these concepts have never changed and will never change.

Nietzsche believes that all change is ultimately driven by a will to power, where this will is a sort of instinct for autonomy, and which also consists of a desire to impose one’s will onto others.  So the meaning of these concepts (such as God or morality) and countless others have only changed because they’ve been re-appropriated by different or conflicting wills to power.  As such, he thinks that the meaning and interpretation of a concept illustrate the attributes of the particular will making use of those concepts, rather than some absolute truth about reality.  I think this idea makes a lot of sense if we regard the will to power as not only encompassing the desires belonging to any individual (most especially their desire for autonomy), but also the inferences they’ve made about reality, it’s apparent causal relations, etc., which provide the content for those desires.  So any will to power is effectively colored by the world view held by the individual, and this world view or set of inferred causal relations includes one’s inferences pertaining to language and any meaning ascribed to the words and concepts that one uses.

Even more interesting to me is the distinction Nietzsche makes between what he calls an unrefined use or version of the will to power and one that is refined.  The unrefined form of a will to power takes the desire for autonomy and directs it outward (perhaps more instinctually) in order to dominate the will of others.  The refined version on the other hand takes this desire for autonomy and directs it inward toward oneself, manifesting itself as a kind of cruelty which causes a person to constantly struggle to make themselves stronger, more independent, and to provide them with a deeper character and perhaps even a deeper understanding of themselves and their view of the world.  Both manifestations of the will to power seem to try and simply maximize one’s power over as much as possible, but the latter refined version is believed by Nietzsche to be superior and ultimately a more effective form of power.

We can better illustrate this view by considering a person who tries to dominate others to gain power in part because they lack the ability to gain power over their own autonomy, and then compare this to a person who gains control over their own desires and autonomy and therefore doesn’t need to compensate for any inadequacy by dominating others.  A person who feels a need to dominate others is in effect dependent on those subordinates (and dependence implies a certain lack of power), but a person who increases their power over themselves gains more independence and thus a form of freedom that is otherwise not possible.

I like this internal/external distinction that Nietzsche makes, but I’d like to build on it a little and suggest that both expressions of a will to power can be seen as complementary strategies to fulfill one’s desire for maximal autonomy, but with the added caveat that this autonomy serves to fulfill a desire for maximal causal power by harnessing as much control over our experience and understanding of the world as possible.  On the one hand, we can try and change the world in certain ways to fulfill this desire (including through the domination of other wills to power), or we can try and change ourselves and our view of the world (up to and including changing our desires if we find them to be misdirecting us away from our greatest goal).  We may even change our desires such that they are compatible with an external force attempting to dominate us, thus rendering the external domination powerless (or at least less powerful than it was), and then we could conceivably regain a form of power over our experience and understanding of the world.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I think that our view of the world as well as our actions and desires can be properly described as predictions of various causal relations (this is based on my personal view of knowledge combined with a Predictive Processing account of brain function).  Reconciling this train of thought with Nietzsche’s basic idea of a will to power, I think we could say that our will to power depends on our predictions of the world and its many apparent causal relations.  We could equate maximal autonomy with maximal predictive success (including the predictions pertaining to our desires). Looking at autonomy and a will to power in this way, we can see that one is more likely to make successful predictions about the actions of another if they subjugate the other’s will to power by their own.  And one can also increase the success of their predictions by changing them in the right ways, including increasing their complexity to better match the causal structure of the world, and by changing our desires and actions as well.

Another thing to consider about a desire for autonomy is that it is better formulated if it includes whatever is required for its own sustainability.  Dominating other wills to power will often serve to promote a sustainable autonomy for the dominator because then those other wills aren’t as likely to become dominators themselves and reverse the direction of dominance, and this preserves the autonomy of the dominating will to power.  This shows how this particular external expression of a will to power could be naturally selected for (under certain circumstances at least) which Nietzsche himself even argued (though in an anti-Darwinian form since genes are not the unit of selection here, but rather behaviors).  This type of behavioral selection would explain it’s prevalence in the animal kingdom including in a number of primate species aside from human beings.  I do think however that we’ve found many ways of overcoming the need or impulse to dominate and it has a lot to do with having adopted social contract theory, since in my view it provides a way of maximizing the average will to power for all parties involved.

Coming back to Nietzsche’s take on language, truth, and dogmatism, we can also see that an increasingly potent will to power is more easily achievable if it is able to formulate and test new tentative predictions about the world, rather than being locked in to some set of predictions (which is dogmatism at it’s core).  Being able to adapt one’s predictions is equivalent to considering and adopting a new point of view, a capability which Nietzsche described as inherent in any free spirit.  It also amounts to being able to more easily free ourselves from the shackles of language, just as Nietzsche advocated for, since new points of view affect the meaning that we ascribe to words and concepts.  I would add to this, the fact that new points of view can also increase our chances of making more successful predictions that constitute our understanding of the world (and ourselves), because we can test them against our previous world view and see if this leads to more or less error, better parsimony, and so on.

Nietzsche’s hope was that one day all philosophy would be flexible enough to overcome its dogmatic prejudices, its claims of absolute truths, including those revolving around morality and concepts like good and evil.  He sees these concepts as nothing more than superficial expressions of one particular will to power or another, and thus he wants philosophy to eventually move itself beyond good and evil.  Personally, I am a proponent of an egoistic goal theory of morality, which grounds all morality on what maximizes the satisfaction and life fulfillment of the individual (which includes cultivating virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), and so I believe that good and evil, when properly defined, are more than simply superficial expressions.

But I agree with Nietzsche in part, because I think these concepts have been poorly defined and misused such that they appear to have no inherent meaning.  And I also agree with Nietzsche in that I reject moral absolutism and its associated dogma (as found in religion most especially), because I believe morality to be dynamic in various ways, contingent on the specific situations we find ourselves in and the ever-changing idiosyncrasies of our human psychology.  Human beings often find themselves in completely novel situations and cultural evolution is making this happen more and more frequently.  And our species is also changing because of biological evolution as well.  So even though I agree that moral facts exist (with an objective foundation), and that a subset of these facts are likely to be universal due to the overlap between our biology and psychology, I do not believe that any of these moral facts are absolute because there are far too many dynamic variables for an absolute morality to work even in principle.  Nietzsche was definitely on the right track here.

Putting this all together, I’d like to think that our will to power has an underlying impetus, namely a drive for maximal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  If this is true then our drive for maximal autonomy and control over our experience and understanding of the world serves to fulfill what we believe will maximize this overall satisfaction and fulfillment.  However, when people are irrational, dogmatic, and/or are not well-informed on the relevant facts (and this happens a lot!), this is more likely to lead to an unrefined will to power that is less conducive to achieving that goal, where dominating the wills of others and any number of other immoral behaviors overtakes the character of the individual.  Our best chance of finding a fulfilling path in life (while remaining intellectually honest) is going to require an open mind, a willingness to criticize our own beliefs and assumptions, and a concerted effort to try and overcome our own limitations.  Nietzsche’s philosophy (much of it at least) serves as a powerful reminder of this admirable goal.

“The Brothers Karamazov”: A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part IV)

Throughout this post series on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (click here for parts 1, 2, and 3), I’ve been writing about some of the themes and concepts that are of particular interest to me, for example, the concepts of moral objectivity, God, an afterlife, immortal souls, free will and determinism, moral desert, and others.  In this post, I wanted to tie these themes all together with the main theme present throughout this entire novel, namely the existentially relevant conflict between religious faith and doubt.

Dostoyevsky clearly has a bias toward a world view that is based on or embedded within religious faith, and this can be seen most explicitly by the distinctions he makes between the idealistic religious characters Alyosha and father Zosima, and that of the logical skepticism instantiated by the atheistic Ivan (and through his influence, Smerdyakov).  Alyosha and Zosima clearly display an active form of love, forgiveness, and a consistent effort to do good in the world presumably predicated on their belief in the existence of God (though a very particular formulation of God is necessary here, not simply any kind of God).  Ivan on the other hand, as a result of his attributes of rationality, logic, and the importance he places on empirical evidence and analysis, ends up rejecting any belief in God (or at least, rejecting any belief in a good or loving God due to the Problem of Evil), rejecting conventional notions of (or foundations for) morality, and subsequently maintains a cold and callous view of mankind while suffering from a debilitating form of inner despair.

From the contrast seen between these limited character types (and many more characters in the novel), we are to ascertain that a life embedded in religious faith is clearly one with more happiness, stability, and goodness, whereas a life presumably encumbered by religious doubt is a life filled with chaos, despair, and often evil or immoral behavior.  As I’ve alluded to in my previous posts in this series, I think this perspective is highly flawed for a number of reasons.  However, in defense of Dostoyevsky’s perspective, I will say that I think it is often the case that religious faith inspires people to be happier than they otherwise would be, that it often gives people another form of social or psychological stability in an otherwise chaotic world (that’s why humans invented religion in the first place), and that it can lead people to do many good things.  And likewise, I will even concede that religious doubt or atheistic worldviews can often be nihilistic, and if so, can lead to less happy lives, less social or psychological stability, and possibly leading to more immoral behavior (though some religious beliefs can promote immoral behavior as well).  I wouldn’t describe my own atheism this way by any means, but many atheists would likely fit the bill (so to speak).

The problem however with Dostoyevsky’s perspective is that it is misleading with respect to the implied inherent characteristics of these divergent world views (theism vs. atheism), the obvious social and institutional causal factors that reinforce those different types of behaviors (what religious and non-religious institutions exist at any point in time), and the fact that people that abandon or reject religious faith often haven’t critically examined or formulated the philosophical foundations for their belief systems.  People that are indoctrinated with various religious beliefs often use the religion itself (or various theological claims) and the cultural traditions that have followed from them, as the foundation for many of their beliefs including those pertaining to morality, a sense of purpose, and ultimate meaning in their lives — a mistaken foundation that unfortunately has become deeply ingrained in our society and for quite some time now.

This erroneous foundation has become deeply ingrained, most especially in societies that have been Christianized or that have been theocratic at one time or another.  As a result, even if secularization eventually occurs in those societies (with the separation of church and state often improving lives by increasing equality and human rights), many non-religious individuals within those societies simply don’t know how to ground many of their beliefs within some secular/atheistic philosophical framework.  The assumed religious foundation for many of those beliefs has simply been taken for granted, and if that foundation goes away with secularization, and people actually realize that the foundation they once had for those beliefs is no longer valid, many people don’t know how to avoid slipping into some form of nihilism.

Nietzsche spoke about this process in his Will to Power, that is, the process of inevitably slipping into nihilism once one realizes that the foundation for their beliefs is in fact a false one.  The problem is, as Nietzsche pointed out, that nihilism should be treated as merely a transitional stage since it is ultimately pathological, and like all pathologies, ultimately needs to be overcome.  People slipping into nihilism and then concluding that life is meaningless or that moral action is meaningless is really a result of a false generalization.  Rather than rejecting their old beliefs and striving to search for new beliefs or a new foundation for them, some people simply give up the search and then erroneously think that there can’t be any real meaning in their lives or in humanity.  Nietzsche saw this perceived futility as fallacious, and believed that it really should be seen as an opportunity for one to find their own form of meaning for their lives, without any need of anything superhuman or supernatural.  Once one realizes this error in their nihilism, they can shift from a passive form of nihilism to an active one, such that it truly becomes a transitional stage toward a non-nihilistic world view.

In The Brothers Karamazov, the atheistic character, Ivan, seems to have simply fallen into a more or less passive form of nihilism.  As such, Ivan seems to have made the same erroneous generalization that Nietzsche warned us of.  Having been so deeply entrenched in a Christianized society, his lack of belief in God has pulled his (presumably original) foundation for morality out from under him, leading him to think that without God, anything is permissible and therefore no action can be said to be truly good or bad.  Dostoyevsky seems to believe (or so implies with his characters) that this passive form of nihilism (or something analogous to it) is all that can result with individuals that lack religious faith.  And on the other end of the spectrum, his devout religious characters (Alyosha and father Zosima in particular) don’t suffer from this problem because their belief in God, some of their religious traditions, and their particular religious perspective, have bestowed upon them a perceived foundation for their values and purpose in life.  Though this foundation is one that is not based on reason and evidence and therefore can have no reasonable claim of being true or valid, religious people nevertheless believe that it is true and valid and so it inevitably motivates their behavior which can often be for good.

So I think it’s fair to say that I agree with Dostoyevsky at least insofar as religious doubt (when compared to religious faith) can lead people down a path of decreased happiness and with a general disregard for (at least certain) moral considerations.  However, this is generally only going to be the case when those with religious doubt slip into a passive form of nihilism (rather than an active form, that can lead to a re-grounding and/or reformulation of one’s values).  And Ivan, with his admiration for evidence-based logic, should have realized that this passive form of nihilism is irrational and illogical, a fact that becomes obvious once one critically considers what human morality really is and what it is not (i.e. it is not rationally nor pragmatically based on Divine Command Theory, or any form of religious faith or dogma — even if people mistakenly believe this to be the case).  And it is a fact that becomes obvious once one realizes how morality is actually grounded in the natural world, where it can be described and optimized using a number of objective facts pertaining to our psychology, our biology, and how we interact with one another as a social species.

The radical freedom that people find themselves possessing in this world creates an existential crisis as Dostoyevsky and many other philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Sartre and others) have talked about at great length.  This crisis leads many people into adopting any manner of beliefs, including but not limited to religious beliefs, to help them cope with this burden of choice (among other things to cope with), and to help make sense of a highly chaotic world.  Others that reject the religious path for coping and that are also unable to do so within their atheistic framework, will likely be led to a worldview full of despair and (passive) nihilism.  But if people want to have the most fulfilling lives that they can, while also seeking the truth to make as responsible of decisions as they are able to (including moral decisions), then they must find a way to incorporate reason and evidence into their philosophical framework (which means eventually rejecting religious faith and dogma) while not losing sight of the non-nihilistic end goal that they ought to strive for.

We need to give our own meaning to our lives and only then will we will be able to maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  The current challenge for our society is finding more ways of replacing religious institutions with secular versions that accomplish the social cohesive structure that many people long for, and to better prepare and empower our children and the young adults in our society with more rigorous philosophical training in ethics and epistemology.  Reading the works of wonderful authors such as Dostoyevsky should be a part of this philosophical training, so we can look at our lives from multiple perspectives with any number of often difficult to describe nuances and subtleties, to find the truths and flaws in those perspectives and build off of them to better understand ourselves and to get where we want to go as individuals and as a species.  I must say that I’ve rather enjoyed writing this post series, reading this wonderful novel, and I hope to do more post series like these in the future.

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 4 of 4: John

The final post in this series will mention a few elements from Richard Carrier’s analysis of the Gospels as found in his book On the Historicity of Jesus, specifically pertaining to The Gospel according to John.  As with the previous three Gospels, John also appears to have written a religious novel filled with allegorical myth and fiction, and doesn’t appear to be interested in reporting any factual historical accounts.  Likewise, just as was the case with Luke and Matthew, John quite evidently had knowledge of the previous Gospels and used them as sources.  Though some scholars have maintained that John was writing independent of the other Gospels, there is simply no evidence to support that independence.  Rather, there is abundant evidence that John did in fact know about those Gospels and used them as (at least some of the) sources for his own, with the main difference being that John simply redacted them much more freely than Luke or Matthew did with their sources.

One example of John’s apparent knowledge of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, is the fact that John copies Mark’s pairing of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” miracle with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, in exactly the same sequence (So John 6 was likely derived from Mark 6.31-52).  However, as we saw in the analysis regarding Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s specific choice of pairing and sequencing of various miracles were intentionally placed as they were for the purpose of producing a particular literary structure.  Additionally, the paired events themselves are obviously ridiculous and historically implausible, so the most likely reason John shared the pairing that Mark employed is that he in fact borrowed it all from Mark.  Adding to this likelihood is the sheer number of details that they both have in common, including the details that “five thousand” people were fed, exactly “twelve baskets” of crumbs remained, that Jesus performed this miracle starting with exactly “five loaves and two fishes”, and that the amount of food needed to feed the crowd would have cost “two hundred denarii”.

In John’s Gospel, we also find the same literary structure for the narrative regarding Peter’s denial of Christ that Mark originally wrote in his Gospel (compare John 18.15-27 with Mark 14.53-72).  John also mentions the story of Jesus curing a blind man with spit that we first heard about in Mark, although in John, we can see that he freely changed some of the details.  Whereas in Mark, Jesus only uses spit for the magic spell, in John, Jesus uses spit mixed with dirt to make mud which he applies to the blind man’s face.  John also changes the additional magic that Jesus had to use in order to get the spell to work.  In John, after Jesus applied spit, he told the blind man to go “wash in the Pool of Siloam” to get the spell to work, whereas in Mark, the blind man was “half cured” from the spit (as we infer when he tells Jesus that although he could see now, the people he saw looked “like trees walking around”), then Jesus simply touched his face once more and then the spell worked successfully (compare John 9.6-7 with Mark 8.23-25).

John also has numerous similarities with material in Luke and Matthew as well (especially Luke).  Only in John and Luke’s Gospels do we hear about the new character, Martha, the sister of Mary (Luke 10.38-42; John 11.1-12.2).  Only in them do we hear about the miraculous scene where Jesus produces an extremely large catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11; John 21.1-4).  Only in them do we hear the claim that there was in fact a second Judas among the twelve disciples (Luke 6.16; John 14.22).  We also only hear in these two Gospels that Judas Iscariot was possessed by Satan (Luke 22.3; John 13.16-27).  In them alone, we hear specifically that the disciples chopped off the right ear of the high priest’s slave (Luke 22.50; John 18.10).  Both alone mention that Pilate declared Jesus innocent thrice (Luke 23.4, 16, 23; John 18.38, 19.4, 6).  Both alone claim that Jesus had been buried “where no man had yet been laid” (Luke 23.53; John 19.41).  Only in these two Gospels do we hear that there were two angels seen outside of Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24.4; John 20.12).  Both alone say that the resurrected Jesus visited the disciples in Jerusalem (not Galilee as in Matthew and Mark) and inside a room (rather than outdoors as in the other Gospels) as well as having Jesus show his wounds and even share a meal with them (Luke 24.33-43; John 20.18-29, 21.12-13).  To be sure, John modifies and adds to many of the contents he’s borrowing from Luke, but either way, the number of similarities and coincidences between the two is far too great to conclude that John isn’t using Luke as a source (even if he is doing so rather creatively).

After we concede to the fact that John is using the other Gospels as sources, we can take notice of the fact that John intended on rebutting a particular theme that those previous Gospels all had in common, that “no sign shall be given” that Jesus is the Messiah (e.g. Mark 8.11-12), which was in line with what Paul said when he mentioned that no signs were given to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor. 1.22-24).  So in Mark for example, even though he invents miracles to put in his stories as allegories, he is careful to make sure that only the disciples (no independent witnesses) are the ones that ever notice, mention, or understand those miracles.  The only thing remotely close to an exception to this in Mark is at the end of his Gospel, when the three women saw that the tomb was empty and heard from a man sitting inside that Jesus had risen (which wasn’t really a miracle that they witnessed, but they were surprised nevertheless), and yet even with this ending we are told that the women simply ran away in fear and never told anyone what they had seen (Mark 16.8).

Matthew had already added to this material in Mark, “correcting” it by instead having Jesus say that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” and therefore “there shall no sign be given except the sign of Jonah“, meaning the resurrection of Jesus on the third day (Matt. 12.39, 16.4).  Thus we can see that Matthew took what Mark wrote and went one step further, by allowing that one sign, and narrating the story so that the Jews “know” about it (hence his reason for writing Matt. 28.11-15).  So Matthew invented new evidence that we never saw in Mark.  Luke merely reinforced what Matthew had written (Luke 11.29), yet added to it with his invention of the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) as well as the public announcement that was made to the Jews (Acts 2), thus illustrating the previous Gospels’ “no sign shall be given” theme.

John rebuts this entire theme by packing his Gospel full of “signs” and by taking Luke’s parable of Lazarus and turning it into an actual tale of Lazarus (John 11-12).  We even read in John 2.11 that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him“, thus implying that it was because of these signs that his disciples believed in him (something we don’t hear about in any other Gospel).  We read just a few verses later in John 2.17-18 that when Jesus was asked for a sign, he simply says that his resurrection will be a sign.  Notably however, John doesn’t say here that this will be the only sign.  Quite the contrary, for in John 2.23 we hear that “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing“, and later we read that “a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did ” (John 6.2), followed by John telling us that when people “see the sign he did“, they declared that Jesus was a true prophet (John 6.14).  In John 3.2, we read that a Pharisee named Nicodemus said to Jesus “no one can do these signs that you do, unless God be with him“, and even in John 4.48-54 we read that Jesus said “You will in no way believe unless you see signs and wonders” and then he provides them with a miracle to see.  We are even explicitly told that these signs were indeed the evidence that showed that Jesus is the Christ (John 7.31, 9.16, 10.41-42), and there are several other references to the signs that Jesus gave, including John telling us that there were even more than those mentioned in his Gospel (John 20.30).  So John clearly attempted to rebut this theme present in the other Gospels, and made it blatantly obvious that he was doing so.

Adding to this rebuttal seen throughout John’s Gospel is his resurrection narrative that was the most ridiculous of all — the “Doubting Thomas” narrative (John 20.24-29), where the resurrected Jesus asks Thomas to stick his finger and hands in his open wounds so that he would believe.  So we have multiple examples of the author of John (or authors, as scholars actually believe there were multiple authors that contributed to the extant manuscripts of the Gospel we now have) creating proof, and insisting that all this new evidence justifies belief that Jesus is the Christ.  This is also why John alone invented an eyewitness “source” for his Gospel (never heard of before in the others), whom he referred to as the “Beloved Disciple” (although it is implied that this unnamed person was Lazarus), and said that he got all of his information from him.  In any case, the incredibly propagandistic style and contents in his Gospel make it thoroughly untrustworthy (more than any of the other Gospels in fact) in terms of historical accuracy.

Beyond this obvious propaganda, John is also filled with several long, implausible speeches (that we’ve never heard of before his Gospel) of Jesus, and yet conspicuously absent from these speeches are the Sermon on the Mount, as well as any appreciable amount of moral instruction.  We also see many new characters (such as Lazarus and Nicodemus) and new events that the other Gospel writers seemed entirely unaware of.  John also scrambles the order of many events, for example, moving the episode of Jesus clearing the temple from the end of his ministry to the beginning of it.  John also expands Jesus’ ministry from one to three years, having Jesus go on multiple trips to Judea and Jerusalem rather than only once.  John even moved the date (and thus also the year) of Jesus’ execution in order to make Jesus’ death correlate with the exact day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, likely in order to make a different theological point with regard to viewing Jesus as the Passover lamb.  Thus John appears to be the worst of all the Gospels in terms of him most freely redacting what the previous Gospel authors wrote, adding and inventing whatever he wanted.  Thus, if John is trying to convince his readers that what he wrote is factual history, then by modern standards, John is clearly lying (just as Luke was).

One of the biggest problems that scholars have faced when trying to analyze John’s Gospel is the fact that we don’t have what John originally wrote.  Scholars are aware that somebody later on rearranged the Gospel, adding and removing content and ultimately scrambling the order of many scenes.  One can see quite clearly that his Gospel has been altered just by noting that it finishes with two different endings, where each ending was written completely unaware of the other (John 20.30-31 and 21.24-25), with each serving as conclusions to two different resurrection appearance narratives (with John 21.1 added as a hasty attempt to stitch the two together).  This “multiple ending” problem had actually happened in Mark’s Gospel as well, where there are at least five different known endings.  Even the famous story of the adulteress (John 7.53-8.11) with the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” wasn’t present in the original text as scholars know that this was added by a later editor.  There is plenty of evidence in fact that suggests that there are corruptions throughout the entire text.

We can see in John 5, for example, that Jesus goes to Judea (specifically Jerusalem; 5.1), and yet in John 6 Jesus is not in Judea but rather “went off to the other side of the sea of Galilee”.  This is a problem because the sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem, let alone in Judea.  Evidently, in the original text, preceding John 6.1, Jesus was in Galilee at some location on the opposite end of the sea of Galilee (and not in Jerusalem), so the order of events became jumbled due to various alterations over time.  We’re also told in John 2 (13, 23) that Jesus was in Jerusalem and then we’re told that he entered Judea (3.22), but obviously if he was in Jerusalem (a city in Judea) then he was already in Judea, so it seems that some part of the text was deleted here that would have mentioned Jesus returning to Galilee prior to him re-entering Judea a second time.  There are other examples like this which I’m not going to mention here because there are more interesting materials in John that I’d like to get to now.

As with the other Gospels, John also has several literary structures of his own.  One of the most brilliantly crafted is the sequence where Jesus is traveling from Cana to Cana (something we’ve not yet heard of until John).  This role of Cana is a literary construct that John likely invented to illustrate different degrees of faith and how to obtain those levels of faith.  The story takes place over several days and the literary sequence starts with a miracle at Cana “on the third day” (turning water into wine) and ends with another miracle at Cana on another “third day” (“resurrecting” a father’s son), which is also combined with other notable references as an obvious metaphor and allusion to Jesus’ future resurrection.  Here is what this quite elegant literary structure looks like:

Traditional Context (features a woman as a mother)

–   John 2.1-12: A wedding completed at Cana.

–        – Featuring a mother and her son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a traditional Jewish context.

–        – Story ends at Capernaum (2.12).

I.  Traditional Context (ends with a man)

–                    A. John 2.13-22: Clearing of the Temple.

–                          – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (2.18).

–                          – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (2.19 = 2.20).

–                          – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (2.20).

–                          – A metaphor (of resurrection) is misunderstood (2.19-22).

–                          – The temple Jews have no faith.

–                     B. John 3.1-21: Nicodemus the Pharisee.

–                           – Jesus is believed because of his miracles (3.1-2).

–                           – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (3.3 = 3.4).

–                           – A question is thus voiced as doubt (3.4).

–                           – A metaphor (of rebirth) is misunderstood (3.3-4).

–                           – A “teacher of the Jews” (3.10) has partial faith.

–                      C. John 3.22-36: John the Baptist.

–                            – Jesus is believed because of his word (3.27-34).

–                            – Jesus’ words are explained; Jesus is the savior (3.35-36).

–                            – John has complete faith.

II. Marginal Context (begins with a woman)

–                       A. John 4.1-15: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well

–                             – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (4.15).

–                             – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.10, 13-14 = 4.11-12, 15).

–                             – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (4.11-12; 4.15 is sarcasm).

–                             – A metaphor (of living water) is misunderstood.

–                             – The woman has no faith.

–                        B. John 4.16-38: The Samaritan woman reconsiders.

–                              – Jesus is believed because of his miracle (4.16-19).

–                              – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.16 = 4.17).

–                              – A question is then voiced as doubt (4.29).

–                              – A metaphor (of spiritual messiah) is misunderstood (4.21-25).

–                              – The Samaritan woman has partial faith.

–                         C. John 4.39-42: The Samaritans of Sychar.

–                               – Jesus is believed because of his word (e.g. 4.41).

–                               – Jesus’ words are understood; Jesus is the savior (4.42).

–                               – The Samaritans have complete faith.

Marginal Context (features a man as a father)

–   John 4.43-53: A funeral averted at Cana.

–        – Featuring a father and his son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a marginal Jewish context.

–        – Story began at Capernaum (4.46).

John clearly invented this material to make a point, and it looks like he designed it all to fit into a particular pattern of metaphors and parables: two miracles that parallel and invert one another occurring at Cana, and nestled in between two sequences of three conversational narratives, with the first of those triads paralleling the second in terms of the developing faith in each example (no faith, partial faith, and finally complete faith).  We can also see that the first triad is in a traditional Jewish context, and then the second one repeats the same themes in a relatively marginal context, with John alternating the roles of men and women (something we also saw Mark do in his Gospel).  Note also how the two events that ensconce this overall structure both involve an announced problem of some kind (running out of wine in the first event, and an official son’s illness in the last event).  Both involve a request to fix the problem, both involve a rebuke where Jesus says something ornery to the person making the request.  Both also involve a reaction where the requester then puts complete faith in Jesus, followed by a successful solution to the problem (where what they believed Jesus could do, he successfully accomplishes).  John also repeats the same literary components in traditionally Jewish and in marginally Jewish contexts (so we have two sets of each); first a traditional Jewish context (a Jewish wedding) followed by another traditional context (temple Jews and John the Baptist), followed by a marginally Jewish context (Samaria) finally followed by another marginal context (helping a Herodian official).

So we can see that John, just like the other Gospel writers, has created literary structures (a triadic ring structure in the case above) filled with metaphor and allegorical messages (in this example regarding different levels of faith and their respective effects, as well as allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection which I’ll mention more in a moment), as opposed to John reporting any kind of historical events as he claims in his preface.  Once again, it is simply very implausible for historical events to occur in such an order and with such coincidental patterns, and this is compounded by the number of historical implausibilities that are all entirely expected elements to find within fiction.  These implausibly coincidental sequences as well as the types of events and behaviors are not something we ever expect to occur in real life.  John is in fact writing a religious novel here, and is inventing material and arranging it in very specific ways to serve his own literary and theological purposes.

Like the other Gospel writers, John also borrows texts from the Old Testament (OT) and rewrites them or adapts certain ideas in his narratives.  For example, the first miracle at Cana, which is John’s only “new” miracle not present in the other Gospels, illustrates this fact.  This story exemplifies the Word of God in the book of Exodus, where we hear that Aaron “did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed” (Exodus 4.30-31), which is the basic model that John employs for his entire Gospel.  In the story found in Exodus, we read that God told Moses that he would give him three signs to perform such that if they didn’t believe after the first two signs he gave, they would definitely believe after the last one was given, with the latter point seen in the following verse:

“If they will not believe even after these two signs, nor listen to you, then you shall take some water that you took from the river, and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you took out of the river shall become blood upon the ground.” (Exodus 4.9)

As we can see, the last miracle Moses was going to perform was turning water into blood, which closely parallels John’s first miracle of having Jesus turn water into wine, thus John appears to be starting where Moses left off and transforming “the last” into “the first”.  One may recall that toward the end of John’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, we read that Jesus spews both water and blood from his body (John 19.34), and so Jesus’ ministry appears to have ended with a reminder of the miracle that it began with.  This is something that Jesus even alludes to in John 2.4 where two references to John’s crucifixion scene are mentioned (Jesus references the hour of his death, and references the fact that he would no longer be his mother’s son).  This demonstrates that John rewrote the crucifixion scene (including the spewing of water and blood from Jesus, which is unique to John’s Gospel alone) as he had these parallels in mind when he matched it with his scene at Cana.  In accord with this intentional matching is the fact that the crucifixion is an anti-type of the scene at Cana: at Cana his mother gives a command to Jesus, and at the crucifixion Jesus gives a command to his mother; at Cana we hear his mother saying to do whatever Jesus says, and at the crucifixion Jesus tells Mary what to do; whereas at Cana Jesus’ mother asks him to make wine from water, at the crucifixion Jesus gives them blood with water; at Cana we hear Jesus asking what he has to do with her, and at the crucifixion he says that he has nothing to do with her (due to a transformation of kinship); at Cana Jesus says that his hour has not yet come, and at the crucifixion his hour had indeed come.  John even repeats the same Exodus theme where he says that the miracle of the water and blood coming from Jesus happened “so that you may believe” (John 19.35), just as God had told Moses what would happen after performing his turning water into blood.  So there is strong evidence here that John is simply replicating the last miracle that Moses performed.  There is also evidence that John borrowed and adapted some of his details from a similar miraculous tale told of Elijah in 1 Kings 17.8-24.  In that story, we read another tale involving a woman and her son, although in that particular story they expected to die soon because they were starving to death (1 Kings 17.12).  The woman’s son is approaching death from illness and Elijah is called upon to heal him (1 Kings 17.24), similar to what we hear happen in John when Jesus later saves a man’s son from deadly illness (his second miracle at Cana).

Related to this is the odd fact that Jesus seems quite rude to his mother when he says “Woman, what have I to do with you?“, which upon further analysis doesn’t appear to be any kind of historical report, but is rather an anti-type of Elijah, when in the tale with Elijah, the woman in need of food says to him “What have I to do with you?” (and the exact Greek is used in both the story with Jesus and that of Elijah in the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings).  In both stories the prophet involved tells those needing food to take empty pitchers and remove from them the required provision, which then miraculously appears before them.  Thus, rather than John being concerned with any kind of factual history, this is just another example of a literary construct John invented, and that he carefully integrated into his revised account of the crucifixion and the entire Cana-to-Cana structure.  John is simply lying and passing it off as history, as the evidence illustrates more and more upon closer analysis.

One good demonstration of John’s overall inventiveness is when he creates an eyewitness, the “Beloved Disciple” (John 21.24, 19.35, 19.25-27, 20.2-8), who is inserted into the same story told by the previous Gospels, and yet this person is conspicuously absent from those previous Gospels.  Unlike in John, there aren’t any male disciples at the cross in any of the other Gospels, nor is anyone resting on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper.  John clearly inserted this character into the stories that he borrowed and redacted from the other Gospels, and then dishonestly claimed that this person was his “source” for the contents in his Gospel.  This is further confirmed by the fact that John makes considerable effort to imply that the “Beloved Disciple” was in fact Lazarus, a character that was not among the list of twelve disciples mentioned in the previous three Gospels. In fact, Lazarus wasn’t ever mentioned in any of the other Gospels except in Luke’s Gospel when he was only mentioned as a deceased character in Jesus’ fictional parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man”.  How do we know that John made considerable effort to imply that this never-before-heard-of witness was Lazarus?   There are many reasons, for example, the fact that only one character in his Gospel is described several times as “the one whom Jesus loved”, and that was indeed Lazarus (John 11.3, 5, 36).  Also, right after Lazarus was introduced and described as Jesus’ beloved, we hear that he is reclining with Jesus at supper the very next day (12.1-2, 9-11).  So when we later hear that “the one whom Jesus loved” is also reclining with Jesus at the Last Supper, it is quite obvious that this is supposed to be Lazarus once again.  This should also be the case for every other instance when we hear a reference to “the one whom Jesus loved“, such as at the crucifixion, at the empty tomb, and finally at the resurrection (John 19.26-27, 35, 20.2-8, 21.7, 20).

The final giveaway that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus is the fact that we hear in John 21.21-24 that a rumor had spread around the community that the Beloved Disciple would not die, and there simply isn’t any reason for this speculative rumor to have arisen other than the fact that in John’s Gospel, Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead by Jesus. So clearly people were wondering if Lazarus would ever die a second time, hence the rumor that began to circulate.  We also hear that the Beloved Disciple was the first person to see the burial cloths that Jesus had cast off and left in his then empty tomb, and earlier in John we were told that Lazarus had been wrapped in burial cloths which he also cast off at his resurrection.  Accordingly, Lazarus is the first person to believe that Jesus had risen since he had experienced a similar resurrection himself and could relate to it firsthand (John 20.8).  However, there are even more similarities worth noting.  In both Jesus’ and Lazarus’ resurrection accounts, we hear the peculiar detail of the soudarion (a small cloth covering the face of the deceased), and in both stories this cloth is clearly distinguished from the burial wrappings.  In both, we hear references to being bound or unbound by these wrappings, as some metaphor for becoming unbound or liberated from death.  Additionally, in both accounts we are also given a colorful and detailed description of these burial wrappings, their placement, etc.  So the many parallels make it quite obvious that the “Beloved Disciple” is in fact Lazarus.

All the details that John gives us about the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus merely exposes that John is lying throughout his Gospel, because there is no corroboratory evidence that Lazarus ever existed, not even from the demonstrably untrustworthy Gospels that John himself used as sources.  Nobody else knows anything about this Lazarus character (let alone his most extravagant resurrection story, in fact the most incredible resurrection story told in any of the Gospels) and we simply don’t hear anything about him except in John’s Gospel.  Thus, a non-existent Lazarus couldn’t have witnessed anything, despite John telling us that he did.  This absence from the other Gospels implies that this is a definite fabrication.  Adding to the exposure of this lie, is the fact that John assigns a high level of importance to the whole Lazarus resurrection event.  The event is so integral to the plot that John tells us that it was because of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and thus gaining so many newly convinced followers, that the Jewish elite then plotted to kill Jesus (John 11.53).  Yet, we don’t hear anything about this integral reason for the plot against Jesus in any of the other Gospels.  So the fact that John made this “Lazarus resurrection” story integral to his Gospel, just further illustrates that his Gospel is a fabrication, where he is just rewriting “history” (or more accurately he is rewriting the pseudo-historical accounts given in the other Gospels) as he pleases, likely to suit his own purpose of re-emphasizing the many “signs” that were said to be proof that Jesus was the messiah.

Lastly, John appears to have invented this Lazarus tale in order to reverse and thus to rebut or refute the Parable of Lazarus as found in Luke.  The bottom line here is that whenever we find instances of imaginary people in earlier stories being turned into real people in later stories (i.e. Luke’s Lazarus versus John’s Lazarus), what we are seeing is in fact a major marker for myth-making, and one that was quite common in antiquity.  Furthermore, the fact that John turns Luke’s imaginary Lazarus into a real person isn’t the only indication that he is trying to refute Luke.  There are several other indicators of this in fact.  In Luke’s parable, we hear about a rich man that ends up burning in hell and he sees up in heaven a dead beggar named Lazarus that he once knew, and he sees this Lazarus resting on the “bosom of Abraham”, so he begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus from the dead so that he may warn his still-living brothers in order to avoid the same torturous fate.  The parable ends with Abraham refusing to resurrect Lazarus because “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16.31), thus further repeating the point mentioned in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus would not be performing signs since they won’t persuade anyone.  One coincidence worth noting here is the mention of Luke’s Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16.22-23), thus ever more confirming that John’s “Beloved Disciple” who we hear was reclining “on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13.23) was in fact Lazarus.  More importantly, we can see that in Luke’s parable, Lazarus does not rise from the dead, whereas John completely reverses this as well in his Gospel, and not only does Lazarus rise from the dead, but his resurrection actually convinces many people to turn their favor toward Jesus and be saved, which goes completely against what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel (as well as what the other Gospels were saying).

Not only is John’s Lazarus sited as convincing others through his being resurrected, but John also sites Lazarus as a witness to the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and to Jesus’ resurrection (and as the source for John’s entire Gospel), thus illustrating that the overall purpose of John inventing Lazarus was to convince people (despite this going against what Jesus had said wouldn’t work in Luke).  So it is clear that John’s invention of Lazarus was to be a refutation for Luke, and this only further reduces any chances that John is ever accurately reporting history in his Gospel, for he’s freely redacting the Gospels he used as sources, and not at all interested in preserving what they had to say (if he assumed they were accurate histories, which even if he thought so, we can see that they are not), nor is he receiving this from any kind of witness.  As it has been made quite clear by now, what we are seeing in John’s Gospel is allegorical myth and fiction, with these stories created to serve specific literary aims even beyond the creation of literary structures that we saw an example of early on in this post.  As such, just as with the other Gospels, John’s Gospel can’t be trusted as any kind of reliable historical sources.  Rather we are seeing numerous examples in the Gospels of employing well-known ancient literary methods of writing fiction and allegory (most especially students of literary Greek, which the Gospels were written in).

It should also be noted as I near the conclusion of this post, that the common historical methodological criteria that scholars have tried to use to sift out possible historical details of Jesus that are buried in a sea of myth have been proven to be either fallacious and/or unreliable, and this has been demonstrated by the fact that when scholars apply these same criteria to the exact same evidence under consideration, they get different results (which proves the methods are unreliable).  Since fiction often contains peripheral details that are historical and since fiction is written in all manner of genres, due to the principle of contamination we are unable to establish if there are any details in any of the Gospels that can support the historicity of Jesus.  The best method proposed thus far, and one that has been proven reliable mathematically and proven to be logically sound is the application of Baye’s Theorem.  So for those that wish to refute Carrier’s arguments or his conclusions, one must do so by refuting the prior and consequent probabilities that Carrier defends, and one must support their own proposed probabilities with evidence and logically sound argumentation.

This concludes this particular series of posts.  As mentioned in the previous post, regarding The Gospel According to Luke, I may eventually make a fifth post to complement that one, and discuss Luke’s book of Acts to illustrate how it too is quite obviously fiction, and looks very much like a typical ancient novel with all the goodies one would expect to find therein.  For those interested in the most recent scholarship regarding the historicity of Jesus Christ, I highly recommend reading Richard Carrier’s book, as it is the most comprehensive analysis regarding the historicity of Jesus I’ve ever read or heard of, and is very well documented and well researched (featuring a nice 40-page bibliography with everything well referenced regarding extensive work from numerous top scholars in the field).  I only provided readers of this post-series with a small fraction of what Carrier researched and wrote in his book, but I hope that for those interested, it was informative and fascinating!

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part I of 4: Mark

Previously, I’ve written about the historicity of Jesus, and mentioned how the most recent analysis, in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (the first comprehensive, academically published, and formally peer-reviewed book written on the subject), showed that it was in fact very unlikely that Jesus Christ ever existed as a historical person, but rather likely began as a celestial deity who was later euhemerized, that is, placed into history as if he were a real person.  As a part of Carrier’s comprehensive analysis, he analyzed the Gospels, and thoroughly demonstrated (as many other scholars have before him, though to varying degrees) that the Gospels are quite obviously mythical allegorical fictions, and thus can not be used as evidence to support the historicity of Jesus.  As a former Christian, I never analyzed the Gospels from a literary or historical-critical perspective, as this wasn’t particularly relevant nor entirely feasible with my faith-based assumption that I was reading an “inerrant book inspired by God” supposedly based on nothing but true history.  As a result, I never gave it much thought, nor realized just how much literary invention there was.  In some cases, the care and thought taken to write these narratives is nothing short of brilliant.  I wanted to share some of the content and literary devices discovered not only to illustrate that the Gospels are demonstrably mythical allegorical fictions, but also because I thought some of the literary devices used were impressive feats in themselves which I believe deserve recognition.  I’ll be discussing a few of these elements found within the Gospels, as mentioned (though in greater detail) by Carrier in his comprehensive analysis.  I’ve decided to split this into a series of four posts, one for each Gospel.

First of all, before even identifying or examining these literary constructs, allegories, and prospective elements of myth, we can already see by reading the Gospels that they fail to show any substantive content of being actual researched histories.  Nowhere in the Gospels do they ever name their sources of information, nor do they read as eye witness testimonies (nor do they identify themselves as such), nor is it mentioned why any sources used would be accurate to rely upon.  The authors never discuss any historical method used, nor do they acknowledge how some contents may be less accurate than others, nor do they mention alternate possibilities of the events given the limited information they had from their sources.  They never express amazement or any degree of rational skepticism no matter how implausible an event within the story may be — something we would expect from any rational historian (even one living in antiquity).  The authors never explain why they changed what their sources said, nor do they even acknowledge that they did such a thing in the first place — despite the fact that Matthew and Luke clearly relied on Mark as a source (as did John, though less obviously so), for example, and then they all redacted Mark’s version as needed to serve their own literary and theological purposes (which explains some of the contradictions found between one Gospel and another).  Instead, the Gospels appear to be fictional historical biographies, likely written by specially interested Christians whose intent was to edify Jesus, just like many other fictional historical biographies that were made for various heroes and sages in antiquity.  In fact, all students of literary Greek (the authors of the Gospels wrote their manuscripts in literary Greek), commonly used this fictional biographical technique as a popular rhetorical device — where they were taught to invent narratives about famous and legendary people, as well as to build a symbolic or moral message within it, and where they were taught to make changes to traditional stories in order to make whatever point they desired within their own stories.

So we already have a bit of contemporary background information showing us that fictional biographies were commonplace at the time, and thus warrant caution when examining writings that may look like histories upon first glance.  However, there are also certain things we should expect to find in writings that are laden with myth and allegory as opposed to history.  We can’t simply try to categorize the writings as fitting within some particular genre, as myths have been written in any and all genres, even as historical biographies (as was just mentioned), for example Plutarch’s Life of Romulus.  In fact, quite a large amount of ancient biography, even of real people, was composed of myth and fiction, and thus we are forced to actually examine the content in detail to determine whether or not it is more likely to be myth or history.  Some characteristics of myth include (but are not necessarily limited to): potent and meaningful emulation of previous myths, or potent emulation of real events in some cases; the presence of historical improbabilities — which is not only limited to magic or miracles, but also natural events and human behaviors that are unrealistic as well as the presence of amazing coincidences; and also the absence of external corroboration of key (rather than peripheral) elements, since a myth often incorporates some real historical people and places that surround a central mythical character and story (just as we see in most fiction, e.g., though Dorothy’s home-state of Kansas is a real place, the primary setting, main characters, and story in The Wizard of Oz, including the Wizard of Oz himself, are fictional constructs).  It should be noted that not all of these characteristics need be present simultaneously for a story to be myth, but the more that are, or the more instances of each type found, only increases the likelihood that what one is reading is in fact myth rather than history.

From a historical-critical perspective, the most important thing to note is that whenever there are elements of myth found in a story, the rest of the story can no longer be used as reliable historical evidence (concerning any of the more plausible events found within the same story), due to the principle of contamination — just as a court of law assumes that a personal testimony that contains claims of magic, miracles, amazing coincidences or other implausibilities occurring is highly suspect, unreliable, and therefore must be dismissed from the pool of evidence under consideration.  So in the context of the Gospels, if they are in fact demonstrated to be filled with highly devised literary structures constituting elements of allegory and myth, though that fact isn’t in itself evidence against a historical Jesus, it means that the Gospels can no longer be used as evidence for a historical Jesus.  Furthermore, if any mythic content found in the Gospels can be cross-examined with other examples of myth found in history, for example, if one demonstrates that there is a historically high probability that any person claimed to possess certain attributes (e.g. being born of a virgin) are usually non-historical people, then the Gospels can in fact be used as evidence against the historicity of Jesus (as opposed to them merely being unusable to support historicity).  Before I begin, I want to mention that although the Gospels in the New Testament (NT) had anonymous authors, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the authors as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

Beginning with the later story of Barabbas in Mark’s crucifixion narrative (Mark 15.6-15), Mark tells us:

“At the feast, Pilate used to release to them one prisoner of their choice.  And there was one called Barabbas, chained up with those who’d engaged in rebellion, who in the insurrection had committed murder.  The mob went up and began to ask him to do what he usually did for them.  And Pilate answered them saying, ‘Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?’  For he realized the chief priests had seized [Jesus] out of jealousy.  But the chief priests stirred up the mob, so he would release Barabbas to them instead.  And Pilate again answered and said to them, ‘So what should I do about the one you call the King of the Jews?’  And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob, released to them Barabbas, and sent Jesus to be whipped and crucified.”

There are several elements in this passage alone that suggest it is surely myth, and not historical fact.  For one, no Roman magistrate, let alone the infamously ruthless Pontius Pilate, would let a violent and murderous rebel go free, and most importantly, no such Roman ceremony (i.e. letting the mob choose to free a particular prisoner) is attested as ever having taken place, as we simply don’t have any Roman documentation or archeological artifact found thus far to support such a claim.  Even more telling though, is the fact that this ceremony quite obviously emulates the Jewish Yom Kippur ritual, namely the scapegoat and atonement, and this apparent allegory takes place in a story that is itself about atonement (Jesus’ fundamental role as portrayed in Mark’s Gospel).  Since there is quite a bit of evidence that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus’ death served to merge the sacrifices of the Passover and Yom Kippur, it is surely no coincidence that Mark appears to have done just that, by having Jesus be a Yom Kippur sacrifice during Passover.

Another interesting coincidence is the name Barabbas itself, an unusual name that means ‘Son of the Father’ in Aramaic, and Jesus is often portrayed as the ‘Son of the Father’ as well.  So in this story we have two sons of the father; one released into the wild mob carrying the sins of Israel (such as murder and rebellion), effectively serving as an allegorical scapegoat (Barabbas), and the other sacrificed so his blood may atone for the sins of Israel (Jesus) — and we have one bearing the sins literally, and the other bearing the sins figuratively (just as we find in the Yom Kippur ceremony of Leviticus 16 in the Old Testament).  We get further confirmation of this belief in the Epistle to the Hebrews (9-10), where we hear Jesus’ death described as the ultimate Yom Kippur atonement sacrifice. Interestingly enough, it is also implied in this part of Hebrews that Jesus’ death and resurrection would have taken place in the heavens, as that was where the most perfect atonement sacrifice would be made and where the most perfect holy temple would be for which to pour the blood of that sacrifice (another element supporting the contention that Jesus was initially believed to be a celestial deity rather than a historical person).  So Mark here appears to be telling us through his own parable, to reject the sins of the Jews (notably violence and rebellion) and instead embrace the eternal salvation offered through the atonement sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, in this story, Mark seems to be pointing out how the Jews are erroneously viewing Jesus as the scapegoat, where Jesus is scorned, beaten, spat upon, crowned and pierced, and dressed in scarlet, and though Barabbas is the actual scapegoat, the Jews mistakenly embrace him instead.  So Mark seems to be portraying the Jews as acting completely blind to the situation and choosing their sins (i.e. Barabbas) rather than their salvation (i.e. Jesus).  Finally, this story seems to suggest that the Jews have also chosen the wrong model for the expected messiah.  Whereas Barabbas could be seen as the murderous revolutionary, in line with the common Jewish belief that the messiah was expected to be a kind of revolutionary military leader, Jesus on the other hand, exemplified the suffering servant model of the messiah (another Jewish messianic model, though arguably less popular than the former), and one that would circumvent any need for a military revolution by enacting a spiritual victory through his death instead.  So the Jews appear to have chosen the type of messiah they want, rather than the type of messiah that God wants instead (or so Mark believes anyway).  Furthermore, rather than using a random lottery (i.e. God) to choose which “goat” would serve as the scapegoat, and which would serve as the atonement, the Jews removed God from the equation and made the choice themselves.  If one looks at all of these elements together, we can see just how brilliant Mark’s story is, having multiple allegorical layers weaved into one.

Only a few verses later, we read about the rest of the crucifixion narrative and find a link (a literary source) with the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament (OT):

Mark 15.24:  “They part his garments among them, casting lots upon them.”

Psalm 22:18:  “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon them.”

Mark 15.29-31:  “And those who passed by blasphemed him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘…Save yourself…’ and mocked him, saying ‘He who saved others cannot save himself!’ ”

Psalm 22.7-8:  “All those who see me mock me and give me lip, shaking their head, saying ‘He expected the lord to protect him, so let the lord save him if he likes.’ ”

Mark 15.34:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22.1:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

On top of these links, Mark also appears to have used Psalm 69, Amos 8.9, and some elements of Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9-14, and Wisdom 2 as sources for his narratives.  So we can see yet a few more elements of myth in the latter part of this Gospel, with Mark using other scriptural sources as needed for his story, whether to “fulfill” what he believed to be prophecy or for some other reason.

Earlier in Mark (chapter 5), we hear about another obviously fictional story about Jesus resurrecting a girl (the daughter of a man named Jairus) from the dead, this miracle serving as another obvious marker of myth, but adding to that implausibility is the fact that the tale is actually a rewrite of another mythical story, told of Elisha in 2 Kings 4.17-37 as found in the OT, and also the fact that there are a number of very improbable coincidences found within the story itself.  In the story with Elisha, we hear of a woman from Shunem who seeks out the miracle-working Elisha, finds him, falls to his feet and begs him to help her son who had recently fallen gravely ill.  Someone checks on her son and confirms that he is now dead, but Elisha doesn’t fret about this, and he goes into her house, works his miraculous magic, and raises him from the dead.  In Mark’s version of the story (Mark 5.22-43), the same things occur.  We hear about Jairus coming to look for Jesus, finds him, falls to his feet and begs him to help him with his daughter.  Someone then comes to confirm that she is now dead, but Jesus (as Elisha) doesn’t fret, and he goes into his house, works his miraculous magic, and raises her from the dead.

As for some other notable coincidences, we see Mark reversing a few details in his version of the story.  Instead of a woman begging for her son, it is a man begging for his daughter.  While in 2 Kings, an unnamed woman comes from a named town (Shunem) which means “rest”, in Mark we have a named man coming from an unnamed town, and the man’s name (Jairus) means “awaken”.  In Mark’s conclusion to this story (5.42), he mentions that “immediately they were amazed with great amazement”, and he appears to have borrowed this line from 2 Kings as well (4.13 as found in the Greek Septuagint version of 2 Kings), which says “You have been amazed by all this amazement for us”.  It’s important to note that this verse from 2 Kings (as found in the Greek Septuagint), refers to an earlier encounter between the unnamed woman and Elisha where he was previously a guest in her home and this verse was what the woman had said to Elisha on that occasion.  Then Elisha blesses her with a miraculous conception (as she was said to be a barren woman in 2 Kings).  In fact, this miraculous conception was of the very son that Elisha would later resurrect from the dead.  So to add to this use of 2 Kings we also have another reversal from Mark, reversing the placement of this reaction (double amazement) from the child’s miraculous conception (in 2 Kings) to the child’s miraculous resurrection (in Mark 5.42).

Another hint that Mark is writing historical fiction in his Gospel is the way he structures his narrative such that he can successfully accomplish certain literary goals rather than historical plausibility.  One primary example of this is the ceaseless incomprehension of the disciples to what Jesus is saying and doing, where they are quite honestly dumber than can be reasonably believed.  This archetype of the “dense lackeys” appears to be adapted either from Homer’s similarly unrealistic portrayal of Odysseus’ fickle and clueless crew, or the portrayal of the Jews in Exodus.  Mark’s use of this type of literary device, requiring the invention of narrative material to make the structure work, thus allows him to accomplish a certain literary theme that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

The disciples also behave unrealistically in other ways, such as being gullible beyond belief.  For example, in Mark 1.16-20, we read:

“As Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and his brother Andrew, catching fish with a net.  Jesus said to them, “Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.”  At once they left their nets and went with him.  He went a little farther on and saw two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat getting their nets ready.  As soon as Jesus saw them, he called them; they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and went with Jesus.”

So after one brief statement from Jesus, without even a second thought, these random fishermen simply dropped what they were doing and followed him?  These fisherman didn’t have to be persuaded at all, even though they know nothing about this man, who Jesus is, or his reputation.  They don’t bother making sure that their means of income and food (including their boat) are taken care of as they leave?  Instead, they simply drop it all, leave it all, and go without question.  This kind of behavior is incredibly improbable in real life, as people simply don’t act like this.  However, in myth and (unrealist) fiction, it happens all the time.

Another way Mark develops this theme is through an elegant ring composition, another common literary device popular at the time (used in myth as well as in history).  In the central part of Mark’s narrative (revolving around Jesus’ travel by sea), Mark carefully crafted nested cycles of themes specifically to convey an underlying message about faith and one’s ability (or lack thereof) to understand the gospel.  Here is what the ring structure looks like:

Cycle 1:

Phase 1 (4.1-34) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (preaching from a boat)

Phase 2 (4.35-41) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (5.1-20) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

Interval 1:  Step 1 (5.21-43) — First stop (after an uneventful boating)

Step 2 (6.1-6) — Second stop

Step 3 (6.6-29) — Going around

Cycle 2:

Phase 1 (6.30-44) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (with an uneventful boating)

Phase 2 (6.45-52) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (6.53-55) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

Interval 2:  Step 1 (6.56-7.23) — Going around

Step 2 (7.24-30) — First stop

Step 3 (7.31-37) — Second stop

Cycle 3:

Phase 1 (8.1-12) — Jesus with crowds by the sea (with an uneventful boating)

Phase 2 (8.13-21) — Eventful crossing of the sea

Phase 3 (8.22-26) — Landing with healings/exorcisms

It’s really quite brilliantly crafted when you look at it: three triadically composed intervals, each of which contains one triadically composite minimal unit.  Furthermore, every “Phase 1” in all cycles, takes place during the day and describes Jesus’ actions with crowds on one side of the sea.  Every “Phase 2” occurs on the evening of that same day (though not stated explicitly in Cycle 3’s “Phase 2”, it is implied by what would have been a long sea crossing), and also describes actions between Jesus and the twelve disciples in the boat while in transit across the sea.  Each “Phase 3” represents Jesus’ healing (and/or exorcising) of people who either come to him or that are brought to him following his arrival on the other side of the sea.  Then there are other healings or exorcisms that are interspersed among the intervals that follow each “Phase 3”.  Each cycle of this triad occupies one day, so the whole ring structure represents three days, ending with a resolution on the third day — all of which concludes by transitioning into a debate regarding who Jesus really is and what the gospel really is (Mark 8.27-9.1, which is the first time we hear Jesus speak about any of this himself).

Prior to this triad, Jesus had also journeyed to the sea and taught by the sea three times without embarking on a boat (Mark 1.16, 2.13, and 3.7), and then he embarks on a boat (Mark 4.1, and 3.9), and makes six journeys by boat, three eventful ones (each being a part of a three-phase cycle repeated three times) and three uneventful ones that constitute a looser pattern (Mark 5.21, 6.32, and 8.10).  In between the three eventful sea journey cycles, we find two intervals where Jesus travels inland away from the sea of Galilee and back again, and these two journeys also share another triadic pattern: three land journeys in chiastic arrangement.  The first one, from the shore to the house of Jairus (Mark 5.22), then another from the house of Jairus to the hometown of Jesus (Mark 6.1), and finally from the hometown of Jesus to circulating around the towns (Mark 6.6), thus completing “Interval 1”.  Then the sequence is reversed, first circulating around the towns (Mark 6.56), followed by stopping at Tyre (Mark 7.24), and finally back to the shore (Mark 7.31), thus completing “Interval 2”.  So the arrangement appears to be ABC : CBA.

In both intervals, the first stop is always at a house, and in each case involves women and children.  Each circulating phase involves both the disciples and the authorities (Herod or the Pharisees).  The second stop in each interval is also an inversion of the other.  In the first case, in his hometown (a metaphor for Israel), “Those hearing him” are “astonished” and don’t believe in him (a metaphor for the Jews rejecting the gospel), while in the second case, in a foreign country among the gentiles, where he miraculously makes a man “hear” and the people are “astonished” in the exact opposite sense, saying he does everything well and proclaiming and spreading his fame everywhere.  So in both cases, “they were amazed”, yet the first was negative amazement, and the second, positive amazement.  As we can see, every unit of this narrative appears to serve the same purpose, a particular message about faith and the gospel, with the incomprehension of the disciples and rejection of Jesus by his neighbors and kin on the one hand, and the near instant faith of outsiders on the other hand, despite the fact that they don’t even understand it.  We even see this cyclic triad beginning and ending with the theme of “seeing, hearing, understanding” (Mark 4.12 versus Mark 8.17-21), and it continually contrasts human expectations with the actual realities that Mark explains of the gospel.

Adding to this already brilliant triadic ring structure is another one interwoven within it: two matching sequences of five miracles each, interspersed with parables, preaching, and some general references to miracles.  All of the narrated miracles in the triad form a well crafted sequential structure:

1st Sequence:

“Mastery of the Waters” (Stilling of the Storm) 4.35-41

“Exorcism of a Gentile Man” (The Gerasene Demoniac) 5.1-20

“Curing an Older Woman” (The Woman with a Hemorrhage) 5.25-34

“Curing of a Younger Woman” (Jairus’ Daughter) 5.21-23, 35-43

“Miraculous Feeding” (Feeding of the 5,000) 6.34-44, 53

2nd Sequence:

“Mastery of the Waters” (Jesus Walks on the Sea) 6.45-51

“Exorcism of a Gentile Woman” (The Syrophoenician Woman) 7.24-30

“Curing of a Deaf Man with Spit” (The Deaf Mute) 7.32-37

“Miraculous Feeding” (Feeding of the 4,000) 8.1-10

“Curing a Blind Man with Spit” (The Blind Man of Bethsaida) 8.22-26

It should be noted that many miracle narratives of Jewish holy men, including Moses, exhibit a sequence of five miracles, and in fact the two sequences that Mark uses have notable correlations with the wilderness narrative of Moses (Exodus 13-17), thus suggesting another likely source that Mark used for his miracle sequences.

Another literary construct that Mark employs involves the way he structured the entire Gospel, basically into four different parts: The Discipling Narrative (Chapters 1-3), The Sea Narrative (as described before, chapters 4.1-8.26), The Road Narrative (Chapters 8.27-10), and The Passover Narrative (Chapters 11-16).  While there is already a brilliant internal several-layer triadic ring structure in the Sea Narrative, there is yet another chiastic ring structure surrounding it, where the Discipling Narrative and Road Narrative mirror each other around the central Sea Narrative as follows:

A – Peripheral ministry begins (1.14-34)

B – People looking for Jesus to be healed (1.35-38), but Jesus says he needs to teach more people.

C – Jesus ventures out (“throughout all Galilee”; 1.39-45)

D – Jesus stops at Capernaum (2.1-12), and explains that he can forgive sins.

E – Problems and controversies (2.13-3.12)

F – An important gathering on a mountain (3.13-19)

G – Jesus is accused of being in league with Baalzebul (3.20-35), and preaches that those who reject Jesus are damned.

— The Sea Narrative (Chapters 4-8) —

G – Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with Satan (8.27-9.1), and preaches those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are damned.

F – An important gathering on a mountain (9.2-13)

E – Problems and controversies (9.14-32)

D – Jesus stops at Capernaum (9.33-50)

C – Jesus ventures out (expands his ministry beyond Galilee; 10.1-6)

B – People looking to Jesus for boons (10.17-45)

A – Peripheral ministry ends (10.46-52)

Just as was most typical in the myths and legends of counter-cultural sages, Jesus’ ministry has two phases, the central one (in Jerusalem) and the peripheral one (outside Jerusalem).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ central ministry doesn’t begin until the last narrative, that of the Passover.  In the Passover narrative we see a few more ways where Mark employs triads, having three women who appear three times, touching each of the three days of Jesus’ death and resurrection (and at three stages: his death, his burial, and his resurrection).  Another notable finding within the Passover Narrative are parallels to Jesus’ Baptism mentioned earlier in Mark.  For example:

A- John cries with a loud voice (1.3)

A – Jesus cries with a loud voice (15.34)

B – An allusion is made to Elijah (Mark 1.6; 2 Kings 1.8)

B – An allusion is made to Elijah (15.34-36)

C – The heavens are torn (1.10)

C – The temple curtain is torn (15.38), which is a symbol of the barrier between earth and heaven.

D – Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus (1.10)

D – Holy Spirit departs from Jesus (15.37)

E – God calls Jesus his son (1.11)

E – The centurion calls Jesus God’s son (15.19)

The final parallel that I wanted to mention was that found between the Passover Narrative and the story of a different Jesus, named Jesus ben Ananias.  This was a man who was known as an insane prophet that was active in the 60s CE who was then killed in the siege of Jerusalem (around 70 CE).  His story was told in Josephus’ Jewish War, and thus Mark was likely to have known about it, and the number of parallels between what Josephus wrote and that of Mark’s Passover Narrative are far too numerous to be a mere coincidence.  Clearly Mark either wrote his narrative based off of what Josephus wrote, or based on the same tale known to Josephus.  Here are the parallels between Mark’s Jesus and that of Jesus ben Ananias as found in Josephus’ writings:

1 – Both are named Jesus. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

2 – Both come to Jerusalem during a major religious festival. (Mark 11.15-17 = JW 6.301)

3 -Both entered the temple area to rant against the temple. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

4 – During which both quote the same chapter of Jeremiah. (Jer. 7.11 in Mk, Jer. 7.34 in JW)

5 – Both then preach daily in the temple. (Mark 14.49 = JW 6.306)

6 – Both declared “woe” unto Judea or the Jews. (Mark 13.17 = JW 6.304, 306, 309)

7 – Both predict the temple will be destroyed. (Mark 13.2 = JW 6.300, 309)

8 – Both are for this reason arrested by the Jews. (Mark 14.43 = JW 6.302)

9 – Both are accused of speaking against the temple. (Mark 14.58 = JW 6.302)

10 – Neither makes any defense of himself against the charges. (Mark 14.60 = JW 6.302)

11 – Both are beaten by the Jews. (Mark 14.65 = JW 6.302)

12 – Then both are taken to the Roman governor. (Pilate in Mark 15.1 = Albinus in JW 6.302)

13 – Both are interrogated by the Roman governor. (Mark 15.2-4 = JW 6.305)

14 – During which both are asked to identify themselves. (Mark 15.2 = JW 6.305)

15 – And yet again neither says anything in his defense. (Mark 15.3-5 = JW 6.305)

16 – Both are then beaten by the Romans. (Mark 15.15 = JW 6.304)

17 – In both cases the Roman governor decides he should release him. (Mark 14.2 = JW 6.301)

18 – But doesn’t (Mark)…but does (JW) — (Mark 15.6-15 = JW 6.305)

19 – Both are finally killed by the Romans: in Mark, by execution; in the JW, by artillery. (Mark 15.34 = JW 6.308-9)

20 – Both utter a lament for themselves immediately before they die. (Mark 15.34 = JW 6.309)

21 – Both die with a loud cry. (Mark 15.37 = JW 6.309)

The odds of these coincidences arising by chance is quite small to say the least, so it appears Mark used this Jesus as a model for his own to serve some particular literary or theological purpose.  In any case, we can see that Mark is writing fiction here, through and through.

The last scene in Mark’s Gospel that I’d like to mention is that of Jesus clearing the temple (11.18).  This is another unbelievable claim, especially since the temple grounds were enormous, occupying many acres (the temple as a whole occupied nearly forty acres, and a large portion of that, more than ten acres, was devoted to public space), and they were extensively populated.  In fact, there would have been hundreds of merchants and moneychangers there, and the temple would have been heavily guarded by an armed force deployed specifically to prevent this sort of thing from happening.  Jesus would have been killed on the spot had this actually occurred.  It appears that Mark added this scene for another literary purpose, namely the parallel between Jesus and Jeremiah.  When Jesus clears the temple he quotes Jeremiah 7.11 (in Mark 11.17).  Jeremiah and Jesus both enter the temple (Jer. 7.1-2; Mark 11.15), they both make the same accusation against the corruption of the temple cult (Jeremiah quoting a revelation from the Lord, Jesus quoting Jeremiah), and they both predict the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7.12-14; Mark 14.57-58; 15.29).  Mark thus appears to be exhibiting knowledge that the Romans would destroy the temple, further illustrating that he was writing this Gospel after 70 CE, and so he composed a fictional story to suit the fulfillment of that “prediction”.

So we can see a large number of literary sources that Mark merely re-wrote for his fiction, a large number of parallels with other sources, many strange coincidences and other implausibilities, and most impressively several intricately crafted literary structures (some interwoven into others and/or several layers in complexity) and other literary devices that obviously served some overall literary purpose that Mark was trying to accomplish.  It’s easy to see why Mark would have to invent the various narrative materials that he did (hence the numerous historical implausibilities) in order to get the literary structure he wanted to work successfully.  There were indeed more elements of myth than those listed in this post, but I think these were the most telling and some of the most impressive ones found within Mark’s Gospel.  In the next part of this series, I will be discussing some of the elements of the Gospel According to Matthew as mentioned in Carrier’s analysis.