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The Historical Unreliability of Jesus: A Review of Robert VanVoorst’s Jesus Outside The New Testament

The Historical Unreliability of Jesus: A Review of Robert VanVoorst’s Jesus Outside The New Testament

by Sarah Schoonmaker

Robert VanVoorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament claims to provide evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from non-Christian historians and Jewish writings. Jesus Outside the New Testament refers to the following classical writers in order to defend the historical reliability of Jesus: Thallos, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus. The purpose of this review is to address the historical writers that remain lauded as evidence for the historical Jesus and demonstrate how they all fail to bolster any historical support for Christianity.

Thallos:

VanVoorst points to Thallos as the earliest reference to Jesus set in the middle of the first century 55 C.E. Most of Thallos’ works perished, but was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian writer in his History of the World.  This book was eventually lost, but the quote originating with Thallos was also mentioned by Byzantine historian, Georgius Syncellus. According to Syncellus, when Julius Africanus writes about the darkness of the death of Jesus, he mentions that, “Thallos calls this an eclipse of the sun, which seems to be wrong.”[i] Julius claims that the darkness was miraculous, “a darkness induced by God.” Even though Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus, VanVoorst claims that it is more likely that Julius who had access to the context of Thallos’ quotation was correcting Thallos as a “hostile reference to Jesus’ death.”[ii] For instance, VanVoorst concludes, “if Thallos was simply writing about an eclipse, Julius Africanus would not have cared to say that Thallos was mistaken.”[iii]

In logic, when an argument against a particular view is offered, one mentions the claim under refutation, followed by premises and a conclusion. If Thallos were arguing against the claim that the eclipse was associated with the death of Jesus, he would have mentioned this event. However, there is no reference to Jesus, so therefore, one cannot conclude that it is even likely that Thallos was responding to a Christian claim about the “darkness induced by God” surrounding Jesus’ death. VanVoorst’s conclusion is a straw man fallacy because he creates an argument that Thallos does not claim to make. At best one may only infer that Thallos wrote about Jesus in his lost writings, but this is a massive assumption.

Pliny the Younger

As a prominent lawyer and senator in Rome, Pliny published nine books of letters between 100 and 109.[iv] He writes about punishment of Christians specifically by the Roman governor Trajan. Pliny also records that Christians would “sing hymns to Christ before dawn on a determined day and took oaths to refrain from theft, robbery, and adultery, not to break any promises, and not to withhold a deposit when reclaimed.”[v]

Pliny also tells Trajan that, “many people of all classes, ages, and regions of his province are infected by this contagious superstition.”[vi] VanVoorst credits this source fairly by claiming that Pliny’s writings do not bear independent witness to Jesus independent of Christianity. “What is related about Christ confirms two points made in the New Testament: first, Christians worship Christ in their songs (Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-20; Rev. 5:11,13), and second, no Christian reviles or curses Christ (1 Cor. 12:3). Pliny, however, shows no knowledge of Christian writings in his letter.”[vii]

Pliny bears witness to the practices of Christianity and the persecution from the government. However, he offers no contribution to the historical Jesus.  As a result, he is equivalent to any other historian writing about Greek mythology. Just because a historian writes about a certain group worshipping a god or gods, this does not validate the existence of their god or gods.

Suetonius

The Roman writer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 70-ca. 140) practiced law in Rome and was a friend of Pliny the Younger. He published a book Lives of the Caesars, which covers the lives and careers of the first twelve emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.[viii] In the fifth section of Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius reports how emperor Claudius treated several people during his reign. The quote claimed to support Jesus Christ is as follows, “He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.”[ix]

VanVoorst claims that “Christus” often found confusion with “Chrestus,” by non-Christians. Furthermore, the Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) spells Christian with an -“eta” in all three New Testament occurrences of the word (Acts 11:26, 26:8; 1 Pet 4:16).[x] In particular, “Christians” were also referred to as “Chrestians.” I find VanVoorst most convincing for the possibility of the connection to Jesus Christ when he claims that ‘Chrestus’ “does not appear among the hundreds of names of Jews recorded by the Roman catacomb inscriptions and other sources, yet was a familiar Gentile name. He concludes that this opens the door to the possibility that Suetonius may have confused Christus for Chrestus.”[xi] On the contrary, Bart Ehrman notes that Suetonius is probably referencing an individual “Chrestus” and Jesus’ followers, since Jesus of the Gospels was executed twenty years prior to the riots.[xii] My conclusion rests on the possibility of a reference to Jesus Christ here, however advances no farther than speculative evidence.

Tacitus

As a Roman historian, Tacitus is most famously known for the Annals, which covers the Roman Empire from 14-68 C.E. and includes information about the reign of Nero. He records Nero’s probable arson of Rome in order to implement his own architectural designs and how he passed the blame to Christians as a ready scapegoat. As a result of this blame, Nero heatedly persecuted Christians and Tacitus wrote the following about this, “But neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”[xiii]

Indeed, emperor Nero used Christians as a scapegoat to explain the fire, which broke out in Rome (64 A.D.). Tacitus mentions that the Christians were likely not the cause of the fire, but used the fire as an excuse to persecute Christians. The Annals do not prove that Jesus Christ existed but merely that Christians existed in the First Century A.D., which no scholar has ever disputed. Since Tacitus recorded The Annals one hundred years after Jesus’ proposed existence, this lacks historical reliability. It is important to remember that the negative evidence cited above is not “absence of evidence,” but rather “evidence of absence.” In science, negative evidence is often as important as positive evidence.

Josephus:

As a Jewish historian, Josephus briefly mentions Jesus two times in the Antiquities. Josephus mentions James “the brother of Jesus who is called Messiah” (Ant. 20.9.1). While Josephus does discuss many individuals with the name Jesus in the Antiquities, he does not refer to any of them as “Messiah.” I believe this is a reference to the Jesus of the Gospels since no other Jesus was associated with “Messiah” or called by its definition, “the anointed one.” While I grant this as a reference to Jesus of the Gospels, the credibility of this reference remains highly contestable.

For instance, Josephus’ other reference has him professing faith in Jesus, calling him Messiah when Josephus never became a Christian in the first place. “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”

Since Christian scribes copied Josephus’ writings through the Middle Ages, it is controversial whether his references to Jesus were altered or not. While Christians quote this passage as reliable evidence to Jesus’ existence, teachings, and resurrection, these references did not show up in the writings of Josephus until centuries after his death, at the beginning of the fourth century. Thoroughly dishonest church historian Eusebius is credited as the real author. The passage is out of context, which points to text alteration. All scholars agree that Josephus, a Jew who never converted to Christianity, would not have called Jesus “the Christ” or “the truth,” so the passage must have been doctored by a later Christian–evidence, by the way, that some early believers were in the habit of altering texts to the advantage of their theological agenda. The phrase “to this day” reveals it was written at a later time. Everyone agrees there was no “tribe of Christians” during the time of Josephus–Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.

If Jesus were truly important to history, then Josephus should have told us something about him. Yet he is completely silent about the supposed miracles and deeds of Jesus. He adds nothing to the Gospel narratives and tells us nothing that would not have been known by Christians in either the first or fourth centuries. The paragraph mentions that the divine prophets foretold Jesus, but Josephus does not tell what they said or us who those prophets were. If Jesus had truly been the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, then Josephus would have been the exact person to confirm it.


[i] VanVoorst, Robert. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans), 20

[ii] Ilbid, 21

[iii] Ilbid, 21

[iv] Ilbid, 23

[v] Ilbid, 25

[vi] Ilbid, 26

[vii] Ilbid, 29

[viii] Ilbid, 29

[ix] Ilbid, 30

[x] Ilbid, 31

[xi] Ilbid, 33

[xii] Ehrman, Bart. 2001. Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 58

[xiii] VanVoorst, Robert. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 41

(Sarah Schoonmaker is completing her second BA in philosophy at the University of Colorado–Denver after receiving a BSBA in Finance from the University of Denver and an M.Div from Denver Seminary. She plans to begin a Ph.D program in the fall of 2010 to study philosophy of science, philosophy of language, logic, and epistemology. In the meantime, she researches and writes on a variety of topics covering religion, science, culture, and philosophy. For more information see: www.schoonmaker.wordpress.com.)

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July 20, 2009 Posted by | Books, Christianity, First Century, Guest Bloggers, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Metro State Atheists, New Testament, religion, Rome, Sarah Schoonmaker, The Holy Bible | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Differential Equations: How they relate to Calculus.

This is my first mathematics paper.  It is on how differential equations relate to calculus.  Any constructive criticism by those in the field is encouraged.  You may download it by clicking the link below. (It is a Microsoft Word document)

Differential Equations:How they relate to Calculus

by Joel Guttormson

December 16, 2008 Posted by | Metro State Atheists, science, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Some Comments On G.K. Chesterton By Weston

I recently had the displeasure of reading some essays by the revered G.K. Chesterton, a man whom only very nice things are typically said about — which is a troublesome circumstance that I’d like to do my part in mitigating. Chesterton makes an irritating habit of writing entirely too much in defense of the truth of Christianity, while forgetting to actually address the matter of the truth in Christianity. He occasionally seems like he is going to say something related to this weighty issue, but instead prates endlessly on topics that require the affected proposition to have already been settled. The overall effect seems to be that several of his readers, maybe more, forget that he never addressed the issue of truth, and in silent befuddlement, follow Chesterton to the conclusions of his baseless chatter; rather than insist he start from the beginning like an ordinary person.
Though it would be fun to go through all of his essays that I have here and rebuke each of the nasty things he says about scientists, naturalists, people living before Christianity, Pagans, philosophers, Orientals, and well, pretty much anyone who isn’t a Christian — I’m instead going to select one essay from the bunch, by virtue of it being as bad as any other, and look at it more closely than one would ordinarily want to; which is to say, from a moderate distance.
In “The Paradoxes of Christianity” Chesterton gives a heartwarming account of how he, too, was once a dirty agnostic who read atheistic pamphlets and really, just gave the whole anti-Christianity thing his best. All was going well, torches and fuel had been collected for his first midnight church burning, and it seemed as if Night’s sordid chores would be brought unto completion; until he began to realize that everything he had read against Christianity contradicted itself: “Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. . . . It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Lion did.”
I believe this was the first point in this particular essay at which I had to stop and reflect: “Hmm, this guy is supposed to be brilliant? Well, he’s certainly not that; unless he’s dishonest — well, at least maybe he’s just dishonest. I mean, the writing itself is pretty, would be a shame if its author were a dullard. Maybe he’s just dishonest.” It doesn’t seem very difficult to me to conceive of Christianity being both at once overly violent and overly meek. Actually, it seems the simplest thing to conceive of — I had a very similar experience the other day: I held one hand to a block of ice and another to a flame, and both at once I became too hot and too cold. I didn’t even pause to think about the inherent paradox in the situation; for if something is too cold and too hot at once, it must be a cozy 72 degrees Fahrenheit in total. Nope, instead, like a sensible person, I quit trying to freeze part of me while burning the other and withdrew from flame and ice alike.
Rather than concern himself with the fact that he’s not actually saying anything here, Chesterton continues by giving lots and lots of other examples which function in exactly the same manner and are thereby completely devoid of content, though very poetic. “Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold.” He apparently is capable of tiring of this, and at some point moves on to find a superficial hypocrisy in the anti-Christians: “But I found that anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the continent that ‘only women’ went to it.” I would put it beyond even Chesterton to make the mistake of interpreting “women” literally here. I doubt that he even interpreted it wrongly at all, as he appears to. Why, assuming the term “women” isn’t being used literally, should it be a reference to someone’s lack of intelligence rather than lack of manliness? Probably it’s just another case of dishonesty on the part of our morally superior (I bet he’d agree with this illative qualifier) Christian author.
Let me offer one more solution to Chesterton’s paradoxes and then move on. Perhaps, Christianity is capable of promoting violence along side meekness and wealth with poverty because it is a stratified institution. Those couched in shrines of porphyry and robes of gold at the high echelons may repose on the broken backs of their lesser brothers; their brothers who, from this dominated position, have become servile, and who at the whim of their betters may also become fierce or feeble.
All of these contradictions cause Chesterton to withdraw some from his church burning, not give it up completely mind you, but withdraw some, to think about things: “I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong. I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed.” However, as he didn’t conclude that it was very wrong indeed but very right indeed instead, he must also have concluded that there was something to these illusive contradictions. Which leads me to conclude that he is simple. No, he didn’t give in to Christianity at this point, rather he was just disturbed by the implied “odd shape of the Christian religion” by the anti-Christian attackers.
Eventually Chesterton progresses from finding Christianity oddly shaped to, unexpectedly, finding its attackers themselves contorted. Now the apparent contradictions may not be contradictions after all (never mind that they never were); perhaps those describing conflicting errors were using relative terms to describe them. Christianity wasn’t ‘rich’, those who said it was were just too poor; it wasn’t ‘poor’, those who said it was were just too rich. “The modern man found the Church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the Church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy.” It would have been interesting if he’d tried this philosophy on some of the contradictions which it was supposed to sort out. For example, is the Church found too violent exactly where modern life is too peaceful? Let’s also witness here further dishonesty by our author: he acquits the anti-Christian attacks of their contradictions through his subsequent attack on the anti-Christians themselves; however, the acquittal is only implicit, and his reader is left feeling that the anti-Christians should still be mocked for what they have been forgiven.
Interestingly, Chesterton’s next move is to disregard what he’d said about the relative language of Christianity’s attackers to, instead, embrace their contradictions in a new cast: “Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously.” He starts with an earnest search for truth that leads him away from Christianity, then closer back to it when its opponents ‘contradict’ each other, then closer still when the contradictions are found to be false, and then back securely home when the contradictions are termed otherwise: “Anyone might say, ‘Niether swaggor nor grovel’; and it would have been a limit. But to say, ‘Here you can swagger and there you can grovel’ — that was an emancipation.” Now the contradictions are the mother of balance and the Church’s greatest gift.
The whole journey is incoherent, and his description of it is dishonest if he actually possessed a tithe of the brilliance credited to him. I think he probably had the means for discovering the falsity of Christianity, but he was too emotionally attached. In his careless youth, he must have impetuously decided to consider his beliefs and ended up losing them. Only through much subsequent self-delusion was he able to construct elaborate enough excuses for a return to Christianity endorsed by his repressed rational mind. This is of course fine, and expected; it is in fact the only way faith could operate. The problem I see with the whole thing is that, aside from maybe C.S. Lewis, Chesterton is supposed to make the best arguments for Christianity. Instead, he makes a profound disappointment, and his attitude toward non-Christians is anything but exemplary.

By Weston

Click on this link to check out his blog

November 29, 2008 Posted by | atheism, Christianity, philosophy, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why Christians can’t disregard The Gospel of Thomas

In a recent debate with a Christian, he told me that The Gospel of Thomas is “simply a heretical forgery, much the same as the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.” After an extensive amount of research, I have found that his statement has some profound ramifications. I went through all 114 sayings in The Gospel of Thomas and found that approx. 84%* of the sayings are contained within the Canonical Gospels, either verbatim or slightly changed in wording. Some of these sayings are the “important” ones. (Examples of this are below1) Ones that most Christians themselves point to about how compassionate Jesus was, such as “turn the other cheek” and “love thy neighbor as thyself”, are in the Gospel of Thomas. (Sources and characters are at the bottom)

When was the Gospel of Thomas written?

Experts, through radiometric dating, have dated the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi to being written between 50-140CE. This is startling, considering the Gospel of Mark, at its earliest, was written between 65-80CE. At the earliest, that is at least 15 years after the Gospel of Thomas was written. One then should be able to conclude then, that writer of The Gospel of Mark simply took the sayings from The Gospel of Thomas and inserted them into stories. He plagiarized the Gospel of Thomas, to use today’s legalistic terms.

What does this all mean?

This means that one cannot make the statement “[The Gospel of Thomas] is simply a heretical forgery, much the same as the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.” and yet continuously quote scripture derived directly from it. If the Gospel of Thomas is nothing more than a “heretical forgery” than you (Christians) will have to rid the New Testament of “the great moral precepts and great sayings”, Jesus is said to have taught, such as “turn the other cheek” and “give to those who can’t repay you”. Likewise, you would also get rid of some questionable teachings, such as “hating your father, mother, brother, sister and yourself in order to follow Jesus” and “I have not come to bring peace to the world, but a sword”. Bottom line is, if you write off the Gospel of Thomas as heretical you are getting rid of almost all the sayings, good and bad, that your demi-god Jesus is supposed to have said, and having read the New Testament, you would not be left with much.

Examples

Gospel of Thomas Saying 55– “Jesus said: He who does not hate his father and his mother cannot be a disciple to me. And (he who does not) hate his brothers and sisters and take up his cross like me, will not be worthy of me.”

Luke 14:25-27– “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:”If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 44– “Jesus said: He who blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and he who blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.”

Mark 3:28-30 “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation. Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.”

Matt 12:31-32– “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 34– “Jesus said: If a blind man leads a blind man, they both fall into a pit.”

Luke 6:39– “And he spake a parable unto them, Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 11– “Jesus said: This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away; and those who are dead are not alive, and those who are living will not die. In the days when you ate of what is dead, you made of it what is living. When you come to be light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you have become two, what will you do?”

Mark 13:30-31– “Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 2– “Jesus said: He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he is troubled he will be amazed, and he will reign over the All.”

Luke 11:9-13-“And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”

and

Matt 7:7-11-“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 10– “Jesus said: I have cast a fire upon the world, and see, I watch over it until it is ablaze.”

Luke 12:49-53– “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”

and

Matt 10:34-39– “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a mans foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

Gospel of Thomas 16– “Jesus said: Perhaps men think that I am come to cast peace upon the world; and they do not know that I am come to cast dissensions upon the earth, fire, sword, war. For there will be five who are in a house; three shall be against two and two against three, the father against the son and the son against the father, and they shall stand as solitaries.”

Matt 10:34-39– “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a mans foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 62– “Jesus said: I speak my mysteries to those [who are worthy of my] mysteries. What your right hand does, let not your left hand know what it does.”

Mark 4:10-12– “And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 68– “Jesus said: Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted, and they will find no place where you have been persecuted.”

Luke 6:22-23– “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of mans sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 77– “Jesus said: I am the light that is above them all. I am the all; the all came forth from me, and the all attained to me. Cleave a (piece of) wood; I am there. Raise up a stone, and you will find me there.”

John 8:12-20– “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true. Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go. Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me. Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also. These words spake Jesus in the treasury, as he taught in the temple: and no man laid hands on him; for his hour was not yet come.”

Gospel of Thomas Saying 38– “Jesus said: Many times have you desired to hear these words which I speak to you, and you have no other from whom to hear them. Days will come when you will seek me (and) you will not find me.”

Luke 17:22– “And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.”

Sources

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/thomas/

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/

http://www.biblegateway.com/

*-The exact percentage is 84.2105% for those who thought I approximated by rounded up.

1 – For the full list of findings please email me at metroatheists@hotmail.com

Written by Joel

September 26, 2008 Posted by | Bible, Christianity, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

On the Origins of Language: By Means of Natural Selection


Where did language come from? Why do we talk? Why does there exist such a mosaic of languages around the world? These questions may be the most central and awe-inspiring in all of linguistics. They are also the most important, because without some general understanding of these fundamental questions all other endeavors to understand the complexity of language will ultimately fail. Thus, we should courageously ask the tough questions, regardless of where the answers may take us. In other words, we must look at language scientifically, shedding ourselves of all prejudice, bias and desire for a specific outcome. With this view, it shall be noted that the origin of language is as yet still a mystery which beckons to be answered, however, a strong theory, known in biology, called Evolution, by means of Natural Selection, seems to answer and explain the aforementioned questions with, in the words of Carl Sagan, “systematic grace”.

Where Language Came From

There exists a myth, arising out of superstition, about the origin of language. This is known as “The Myth of the Mother Language”, as Dessalles puts it. This idea simply put; is there was once a single language that was the “mother” of all languages. All other languages came from vulgarization and degeneration of the mother language. The first languages used to support this myth were of course, Latin and Greek. “…similarities between Latin and Greek were traditionally interpreted as meaning that Latin had grown out of Greek.” (Dessalles 34) This is not evidence of anything in particular except that the two languages show particular similarities; also, no evidence of a sound or group of sounds, lexicon or syntax from Latin has been shown to have somehow made its way to Greek. “The evidence for these links was anecdotal; and there was no serious attempt to ground them in a coherent body of knowledge” (Dessalles 34) and from a scientific perspective, purely anecdotal evidence is not viable evidence. The other explanation, being that a god or gods created language, among everything else, violates logic and science to such an immense degree that discussing or considering it any further would be a waste of time. Thus we are left with one, and only one, rational and scientifically verifiable explanation, Evolution by Means of Natural Selection.

Evolution of Language by means of Natural Selection

This section will include and rely on two analogies. The first: Evolution being similar to that of children’s acquisition of language, which for our purposes will focus mainly on the Evolution side taking advantage of the smaller time scales involved in a human child’s ability to acquire language. The second: Languages are similar to species/organisms in biology. By using these analogies, we can get a better sense of the vast time scales involved and the journey language has taken over millennia.

We humans share much of our DNA with the rest of the animal kingdom. In fact, we do not have many significant differences until we get down to plants and bacteria, and even at that, we still have much in common. (Judge). To quote a chemist friend of mine, Chalmer Wren, “it’s not how many genes we have, rather, how they are expressed that makes us physically and biochemically different from all other species”. In other words, we humans aren’t so different from everything else that lives on this planet, that’s because we are a part of it. Like humans share DNA with a myriad of creatures on this planet, so too do we share language with them. If not for their early evolutionary accomplishments, we very well may not have language as we know it today, in fact, it could be quite different or not exist at all. Languages, in all their many forms, are like species of different animals inhabiting a world of thought and reaction to ensure its survival and that of its speakers. We can see two types of language evolution when taking this analogous view; the first and easiest to see is microevolution, for our purposes that of the evolution of lexical and, perhaps, phonetic items. The second, and far more difficult to see, is that of macroevolution, in language it is the evolution of languages from one to another. For instance, how Low German evolved into Modern English. However, before we can investigate such questions, we must first look at their origins, from where did the pieces come from? The answer lays with our animals relatives, both ancient and living today.

It was long believed, that our closest animal cousins, monkeys, had an emotive and reactionary language system that could hardly be called a language at all. Also, that because they were inferior, it was impossible for them to have any communication system that showed any signs of complexity, planning or thought. (Dessalles 5-7) However, in careful experiments, performed by Cheney and Seyfarth in their 1988 study, published in Animal Behavior, entitled ‘Assessment of meaning and the detection of unreliable singles by vervet monkeys’, they found that monkeys could engage in higher thought. They did this experiment by subjecting the monkeys to recordings of two distinct calls. The first call, wrr, is a trill sound, used when an individual notices the presence of another troop. The second call, chutter, is used when two troops either are threatening each other or start to fight. In the experiment, they found that those monkeys subjected to hearing the first call every 20 minutes hardly reacted to hearing the recording of the second call made by the same individual. (Dessalles 7) This is contrary to what one would expect to find with pure habituation, that is, one would expect them simply to react to the call as if the situation warranted, every time they heard the call. However, since this is not the case, one can only conclude that, like humans, they are engaging in a form of mental representation. Thus, Cheney and Seyfarth showed, “that the association between the acoustical forms and the behavioural responses was not direct but that I must mediated by a form of mental representation.” (Dessalles 6) This is similar to what we see in children early in their development. They too employ a crude form of mental representation when using calls or hearing them. Furthermore, the advantage of doing this, whether it is a baby human or vervet monkey is “the possibility of taking account of the context.” In other words, being able to assess the situation at hand, rather than simply reacting to specific calls, helps the animal in question to avoid manipulation, either by another troop of monkeys or a dubious member of their own. We share this property with monkeys, but admittedly at a different level. Our ability to employ this “representational mechanism”, as Dessalles calls it, is a mere improvement on a system and adaptation that has existed, presumably, for hundreds of thousands of years. Our genetic link to monkeys is analogous to that of our linguistic heritage to them, and as we will see, to others of the animal kingdom as well.

The bee dance holds the key to another of our seemingly unique human abilities, displacement. Displacement is “the ability to talk about referents that are removed from time or space” (Hickerson 33)(Emphasis added) The bee dance is how bees communicate: using motions, and the variable speed of these motions, to indicate the location of food. However, they do not do these dances in any close proximity to the food in question, rather they perform these dances in their hives, far removed from the food to which they are referring. Thus, one can also conclude that bees have a crude form of the concept of referents in mind, to what degree is yet unknown. We, as humans, also possess this amazing ability. However, as is the case with the monkeys, we employ this ability at a seemingly high level in that we are able not only to talk about things that are not immediately present in front of but that exist currently, we can talk about things that previously existed or may exist in the future. Again, we see an improvement upon a preexisting structure or system.

The existence of a vocabulary, or a digital code, is also an evolved feature that we can observe in other organisms. The fifth step Hickerson describes as an “essential step” in our evolutionary acquirement of language is the “growth of lexicon, from a limited set of signs to a vocabulary at least 10,000 words in fully evolved language.” (Hickerson 45) This digital code, once thought to be “proof positive of the originality of the system of human communication”, is actually not unique in nature. Birds, specifically male nightingales, have this feature in their communications. The “male nightingales…have about 200 different types of song which are in part learned.” (Hauser 286) This fact, discovered via an experiment performed by M.D. Hauser entitled The Evolution of Communication with baby nightingales “established that their singing is structured into their memory in four hierarchical levels: song-sections, songs, packages, and context.” (Dessalles 19) The order was found to be more complex than once thought, resembling, to some degree, the complexity of human communication. The experiment found “the bird produces sequences (contexts) during which it will go from one ‘package’ to another, the package being memorized combinations of elements sung, which are themselves built out of simpler elements, the sections.” (Hauser 286) This indicates that these birds have even more features, specifically Charles Hockett’s Design Features, thought only exclusive to humans, although these birds express it in a more simplistic form. It appears their communication system is both “productive”, which is “a system that can grow” and “transmissible”, the ability to pass on knowledge, be it language or culture, down to one’s young. (Hickerson 33-34) One can think of the “sections” as morphemes of a sort, like those a child learns early on when learning to speak. Similarly, the “packages” can be seen as phonemes and the sequences, or contexts, seen as words or simple sentences and phrases. With this astonishing fact, it is not remarkable in the least that humans as a species were able to build on this innate ability built into us via Evolution. Though far removed from the birds, their use of a digital code has permeated down through the ages to be with us to this day.

Additionally, some features, which have been the cornerstone of language evolution for some time, must be considered critically. The first is a biological question; one that humans have thought to be true for at least the past one hundred years. The question is, whether or not the human brain as a whole or any part of the human brain is excessively larger than that of monkeys, specifically chimpanzees. Some believe they have already answered the question, proposing, as in Deacon’s theory, “that our cognitive and linguistic ability derives from our prefrontal cortex working in concert with our cerebellum.” (Lieberman 232) Although on the surface, it sounds true based solely on what one could call ‘common sense’, the proposition does not stand up to a shred of scientific evidence. In fact, all the scientific evidence actually points in the opposite direction. This is an astonishing and, above all, humbling discovery. Studies found that “Deacon’s theory is not consistent with MRI studies that have determined the volumes of different part of the brain in living monkey, apes, and humans.” (Lieberman 234) This is not the end of the evidence, however. Using MRI volumetric studies, they found “that the cerebellum is disproportionately smaller in humans” (Lieberman 234) than in monkeys or apes. Deacon’s theory by now is on the rocks and the following information from the same study eliminates it as viable. “Moreover, the frontal regions of the brain are disproportionately larger in humans than in apes.” (Lieberman 234) This is the opposite of Deacon’s theory. In addition, “if human prefrontal regions were disproportionately larger, other frontal regions would have to be disproportionately smaller, and this is not evident.” (Lieberman 234) Thus, it is obvious that the human brain, though a remarkable result of evolution, does not differ much from the primate brain to any ‘disproportionate’ degree. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that primate language and behavior is so similar to our own.

Additionally there exists another feature, which has been popular in supporting the notion that human language is unique to nature. Brain lateralization, championed as being the single feature that distinguishes us from all the “lower animals”, is the next feature examined. Lateralization, “the localization of the control center for a specific function, e.g. speech, on the right or left side of the brain” (Dictionary/MSN) , refers to, in this case, the left hemisphere of the human brain. Extensive research has shown that “the left hemisphere in about 90 percent of the present human population has a dominant role in regulating both motor control and language.” (Lieberman 235) This fact helps us understand why the high percentage of right-handedness exists in our species. However, this fact does not mean that brain lateralization is anyway the “key to human language” (Lieberman 236). Studies have found that the reality is quite the contrary, citing that “the left hemisphere of the brains of species of frogs regulates their vocalizations.” (Lieberman 236) This lends a great deal of credibility to the theory that language evolved, to its present state in humans, through a slow gradual process analogous to that of other traits that evolved. Our earliest ancestors, the hominids, were most likely predominately right-handed. This is evident from the 2 million year old tools they made and left behind. (Lieberman 236). Although, at this point, it may seem like the evidence points to language being centralized in the left hemisphere, it is not the case. In fact, “language capacities are not isolated in the dominant hemisphere of the human brain.” (Lieberman 236) This means that, although one hemisphere may be more active during speech and language activities, the activity, or “the work” involved in producing language is distributed, unevenly, throughout the brain like many of our neural processes. This is in line with what we observe in other animals as well. The brain is efficient in terms of delegating tasks to specific areas of the brain in ways that we are still attempting to understand. These are uncomfortable facts that, thanks to science, we must live and grapple with. Science does not sugarcoat things that may be too harsh it simply dispenses facts impersonally and leaves the overall interpretation to us. Before we look at the evidence, it should be noted that this information does not demean us, but speaks to a deeper connection to the living beings around us.

Assembling the Puzzle

What does all this mean? The assortment of disparate facts is in no way complete, however, it does begin to show us how ancient human language really is, and how it connects us to nature in general. Language, as with every other trait humans have come to express, is a conglomeration of several different beneficial features. In our closest relatives, the primates, we have acquired the ability of metal representation, or the ability to analyze linguistic messages in relation the surrounding environment and current situation. This was advantageous for two reasons. One, it gave us the ability to not be deceived, either by dubious members of the group or by sounds that occurred naturally that bore some resemblance to a sound in the language of the group. Two, arguably the most important consequence, it may have given rise to our human ability of critical thinking and analysis of complex abstract ideas and concepts, like language. The humble and hard-working bees gave us the ability to talk about referents removed from the immediate time and place, displacement. This was advantageous to us mainly because it allowed us to engage in more complex planning and gave a particular group more cohesion. Coupled with mental representation, it allowed early humans not only to plan for the present, but possibly for the future, in a semi-abstract manner. The birds, nightingales in particular, gave us two indispensable language features; the foundations of vocabulary and a primitive form of traditional transmission. Adding these particular features were advantageous, both in their primitive and modern forms. It allowed for a set of words, ideas, and concepts to be assembled, and then taught to the young, who would add to and improve upon the existing language. Brain size and lateralization, the features of the brain that were ever-present during the formation of these, were crucial to developing these features into more complex and useful forms of themselves and to melding them together to create a seamless and streamlined mechanism, we call language. It is because of the fact that our language, built upon pre-existing structures and features that we cannot claim our human language to be unique in the animal kingdom or in nature in general.

Conclusion

We need not conclude that our language has no uniqueness to it however. Although mainly built upon the language features of our fellow inhabiting creatures, it does have at least two unique features, which we humans as a species have contributed to the long process of evolution. The first of these is duality of patterning, hypothesized by Charles Hockett. This feature, linguistically, may be the most important trait that our language has. It allows our language to be rich and complex in ways that the other animals cannot match. The second is writing. Humans can, if they wish, write down their language, and pass down their acquired knowledge, not only to their own young but also to future generations to which they may not be related. In addition, since these generations will be able to read the knowledge, they too can build upon it and the language will persist and evolve on its own, branching off into a great unknown. Like in species evolution, language evolution comes down to the young. Any simple change in the language may be added to a vast accumulation some years in the future, becoming utterly unintelligible to the original language from which it came; this is the origin of new languages. And with all these features put together, and observed over the vast and incomprehensible span of evolutionary and geological time, we see the origins of language.

Bibliography

Dessalles, Jean-Louis. Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language. Trans. James Grieve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Dictionary/MSN, Encarta. Encarta Dictionary. Englewood, 8 May 2008.

Hauser, M. D. “The Evolution of Communication.” MIT Press (1996): 286.

Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont: Earl McPeek, 2000.

Lieberman, Philip. Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Understanding: Evolution. By Ned Judge. Dir. N/A. The Science Channel. Prod. Ned Judge. 2004.
Written by Joel

September 25, 2008 Posted by | Language, science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment