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Clarified Butter

with 7 comments

It’s the start of one of those long and complicated days, which is going to be followed by an even longer and more complicated day tomorrow.  And, of course, I’m not getting any sleep.  But the end result of taking a week end is that you wake up Monday morning having to worry about things again, so here I am.

Today I’ve got teaching followed by two interviews and a meeting.  Tomorrow I’ve got doctors’ appointments.  It gets to the point where I don’t know what I’m doing, even though what I’m doing has the potential to ease up the situation here on at least some points.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed, which is what I do instead of pray.  Hey, Isaac Asimov used to knock wood. 

As to the present run of conversation:

Robert says I want to hear from somebody who witnessed the Crucifixion and Resurrection but did not believe.

That would be nice, but what I was really asking for was a lot less.  There were other events that are supposed to have occurred, according to the Gospels,  at the time of the Crucifixion.

For instance, there was, by the Gospel reports, an earthquake.

An earthquake is a public event.   Even people in the area who had never heard of Jesus and knew nothing about his Crucifixion should have experienced the earthquake if it happened. 

So far, however, there is no evidence that anybody not connected with the Gospel movement ever experienced this earthquake.  There are no official records of it.  There are no diary entries.  There are no letters–gee, Livia, you wouldn’t believe the shake out we had here yesterday.

It seems to me that, with all the archeology we’ve done in that area in the intervening centuries, we would have come across something, somewhere that would amount to an independent verification of what would have been a very public event.

And, like Schleimann finding Troy, we may stumbled across just that at some point in the future.  It seems to me to speak to the unreliability of the Gospel story, however, that we haven’t yet.

That said, I do get Robert’s point about the Jews.  It’s not just that they’ve survived as a culture–and a very distinct culture–while being run over by one conquering mass after another.  It’s that they’ve inspired, over those same centuries, a really remarkable history of being the target of people who desperately want to wipe them off the planet and who take a good shot at doing so.

Genocidal anti-Semitism precedes Christianity in the area we now call Germany and Austria by at least 500 years. 

And it’s not true that the Romans didn’t care what the Jews did.  They cared quite a bit, mostly because the Jews would not sacrifice to Roman gods.  That mattered because Rome didn’t see sacrificing to Roman gods as a matter of belief, but as a statement of loyalty to the empire.   The idea that anybody would refuse because of a “belief” just seemed ridiculous to them–so if the Jews were refusing, I had to be because they were fomenting rebellion against Roman authority.

Then there’s the nearer history, the history of pogroms and persecutions throughout Europe during the Christian era–forced out of England wholesale in the Middle Ages, restricted in where they could live and what they could do for a living, killed wholesale on a whim or forced into exile because the latest plague must have something to do with the fact that those horrible Jews who killed Christ lived in your capital city. 

Never mind the Spanish Inquisition, which we tend to forget was directed not against “heretics” in general but against both practicing Jews and “conversos,”  Jews who had converted to Christianity but were suspected of not really meaning it and being Jewish in secret.  After all, they still had so much money…

And then we have Hitler and Stalin both.

It’s a remarkable history, and unique in the world.   And it continues as we speak, with half the population of the planet declaring they’re going to drive Israel into the sea and a fair minority of that same population saying that their goal is to wipe every last Jew out of existence.

I wouldn’t call it a miracle, but I think it’s a remarkable thing anyway.

As for “God is too big and beyond me for me to expect to understand Him,” it always seems to me to be a euphemism for “shut off your brain and don’t think.” 

My brain is all I have.  It’s the only tool for survival I’ve been given.  If I don’t know something and I want to find out, I have to use that brain to figure it out–and what violates the laws of logic is probably not the best way to go.

If I can find no sensible explanation for why, in a world supposedly created and sustained by an omnipotent and  benevolent God with the best interests of his creatures always in mind, three year old children die in horrible pain from incurable cancers, good and decent people are swept away in tsunamis and hurricanes, and raging, destructive sociopaths win multistate lotteries while their upright next door neighbors see their houses lost to foreclosure–well, the most sensible thing for me to do is to conclude that God may or may not exist, but if He does exist, he is either not benevolent or not omnipotent.

Nothing else fits the facts as I know them, and I have to go by the facts as I know them.

That said, I am here to report that much of Book XII of Augustine’s City of God reads like a compendium of mid-twentieth century science fiction plots.   We have multiple universes, multiple alternative universes, universes that reincarnate generally and universes that reincarnate specifically.

In case you haven’t run into those last two–a universe that reincarnates generally starts a life cycle, lives it through, and then regenerates and does another life cycle.  A universe that reincarnates specifically does the same, except each and every succeeding universe contains the same people and the same events in the same order as the one before it.

Then there’s a lot about the nature of time, what it means to be outside time, what it means to be inside time, what time travel would mean–and that part sounds a lot like Dr. Who.

I’ve said once or twice that part of the importance of studying intellectual history is learning where our ideas came from.  I don’t know if your standard twenty-first century science buff would be happy or annoyed to find that he’s not said anything very different from a bunch of guys living in 410 Rome who thought that what they were doing was being heretics–but here we are.

I wonder why this kind of speculation disappeared for so long from the culture at large, and only started popping up again in the nineteenth century. 

Whatever the reason, most of Augustin’s Book XII could be reprinted in Analog as an overview of science fiction concepts about the nature of the universe and the nature of time–and nobody would know the difference.

I have to go be sensible.

Written by janeh

February 7th, 2011 at 6:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Clarified Butter'

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  1. Good luck with all the busy-ness. I wonder, did Asimov tap his head if no wood was handy, as people sometimes do here?

    This post has absolutely nothing to do with the problem of evil or the existence of God.

    I just thought I’d mention that I heard my first harpsichord live, so to speak. We have a lot of short concerts (to be honest, often for very small groups of people – ‘intimate’ is the word) on Sunday afternoons. I don’t get to as many as I’d like to, but I made it to this one.


    (The ‘Brittania’ one).

    I first thought the harpsichord was rather larger than I had expected, but it’s pretty portable – I saw them pack it up for transportation.


    7 Feb 11 at 10:23 am

  2. No one HAS to go and be sensible–but it’s often helpful if not always satisfying. Good luck.

    We shall see–or not–on documentation. As I recall, though, we only have one account of Mt Vesuvius covering Pompeii, and that was a pretty spectacular event. I should think further written record of a quake too mild to bring down walls or public buildings something of a long shot. As I recall, the area is a bit quake-prone anyway. (And, no, I’m NOT getting into whether darkness covering the earth meant an eclipse or a heavy overcast.)

    For the problem of pain, I have no answer, but that doesn’t mean there is none. Arlington is full of men who died carrying out orders which made no sense to them. Sometimes their perspective was the problem–and, sometimes, the orders made no sense.

    By all means continue to apply your intelligence to the problem. I shall do likewise. That’s what people have the big brains for–but remember Mark Twain and the hammer.

    As for submitting Aquinas to ANALOG, I’d say there was a reasonable chance he’d be rejected as plagiarizing Larry Niven or H. Beam Piper. You remember the bit in ZOMBIES OF THE GENE POOL?


    7 Feb 11 at 4:33 pm

  3. “As I recall, though, we only have one account of Mt Vesuvius covering Pompeii, and that was a pretty spectacular event. I should think further written record of a quake too mild to bring down walls or public buildings something of a long shot.”

    “In the months during which Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the periodical return of the summer gales and settled weather at sea, many wonders occurred which seemed to point him out as the object of the favour of heaven and of the partiality of the Gods. One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his blindness, threw himself at the Emperor’s knees, and implored him with groans to heal his infirmity. This he did by the advice of the God Serapis, whom this nation, devoted as it is to many superstitions, worships more than any other divinity. He begged Vespasian that he would deign to moisten his cheeks and eye-balls with his spittle. Another with a diseased hand, at the counsel of the same God, prayed that the limb might feet the print of a Caesar’s foot. At first Vespasian ridiculed and repulsed them. They persisted; and he, though on the one hand he feared the scandal of a fruitless attempt, yet, on the other, was induced by the entreaties of the men and by the language of his flatterers to hope for success. At last he ordered that the opinion of physicians should be taken, as to whether such blindness and infirmity were within the reach of human skill. They discussed the matter from different points of view. “In the one case,” they said, “the faculty of sight was not wholly destroyed, and might return, if the obstacles were removed; in the other case, the limb, which had fallen into a diseased condition, might be restored, if a healing influence were applied; such, perhaps, might be the pleasure of the Gods, and the Emperor might be chosen to be the minister of the divine will; at any rate, all the glory of a successful remedy would be Caesar’s, while the ridicule of failure would fall on the sufferers.” And so Vespasian, supposing that all things were possible to his good fortune, and that nothing was any longer past belief, with a joyful countenance, amid the intense expectation of the multitude of bystanders, accomplished what was required. The hand was instantly restored to its use, and the light of day again shone upon the blind. Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.

    Tacitus (ca 56 – 117 C.E.), ‘Histories’


    7 Feb 11 at 7:28 pm

  4. “I should think further written record of a quake too mild to bring down walls or public buildings something of a long shot.”

    “Matthew 27: 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split
    52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
    53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

    We don’t necessarily need written records. A quake violent enough to split rocks and crack tombs open is violent enough to cause other earth movement, in which case:

    Read intro: http://snipurl.com/1zqkj8



    Also, I find it incredible that hundreds of walking corpses in town wouldn’t have rated a mention by SOMEONE.


    7 Feb 11 at 8:05 pm

  5. I’m sorry. Which of these is the second account of Vesuvius?


    8 Feb 11 at 6:15 am

  6. “I’m sorry. Which of these is the second account of Vesuvius?”

    And were at typical Christian dissembling. Deflect, dodge, avoid, pretend there’s no counter argument to deal with. Anything but deal with the arguments and facts on the table – and those damned animated corpses wandering around.


    Were there other eyewitness accounts? Well, apart from any that may buried in classical archives of personal letters that just don’t show up on the internet, let’s take a look at this account:

    “…Pompeii, a busy town in Campania, has subsided under an earthquake… All the surrounding areas have also been affected.

    What is more, this happened during winter, a time our ancestors used to promise us was free from danger of this kind. This tremor was on 5 February…and it inflicted great devastation on Campania, a region never safe from this evil, yet which has remained undamaged and has so often got off with a fright.

    For part of the town of Herculaneum too fell down and even the structures that remain are unstable, and the colony of Nuceria, though it escaped disaster, nevertheless is not without complaint. Naples too lost many private buildings, but no public ones, being stricken only lightly by the great disaster; even villas have collapsed, everywhere things shook without damage.

    In addition, the following events occurred: a flock of 600 sheep died and statues split, some people have lost their minds and wander about in their madness. Both the plan of my proposed work and the coincidence of the misfortune at this time demand that we explain the reasons for these things.

    Therefore let us adopt great courage in the face of that disaster, which can neither be avoided nor predicted and let us stop listening to those who have renounced Campania, who have emigrated after this misfortune and say that they will never go there again.

    For who can promise them that this or that piece of ground stands on better foundations? We are mistaken if we believe any part of the world is exempt and immune from the danger of an earthquake.

    …Yet why did the earthquake last several days? For Campania shook continuously and did not stop though it became less violent. Nonetheless there was great damage, because it was shaking things that had already been shaken, and things that are hardly standing do not need to be overturned, but merely pushed, to fall down. (Pompeii: A Sourcebook, by Alison E. Cooley and M.G.L. Cooley, quoting Seneca the Younger at pages 28-29.)”
    {which I cribbed from: http://www.awesomestories.com/disasters/pompeii/pompeii-in-79-ad}

    So there is one contemporary account which is on the face of it though not “eyewitness” is nevertheless relying on eyewitness accounts of the events.

    So, it would appear, eyewitness accounts leaked out – and got recorded independently. (Oh, and those accounts are consistent with contemporary knowledge of the types of events surrounding a Plinian volcanic eruption, so it’s quite certain that Seneca was recording actual eyewitness reports.)

    Now, back to that “earthquake” and the animated corpses in Jerusalem.

    That was reported where else by whom else? The cracked rocks are where? What happened to the zombies? Why doesn’t Josephus, at least, mention any such thing?


    8 Feb 11 at 10:24 am

  7. That’s still one account of Vesuvius, not two. It seems like you were trying to change the subject.

    Why are you so fixated on the wandering corpses? Does it really matter if they didn’t exist, or did, and were attested to only in the Roman equivalent of a supermarket tabloid and as so lost to posterity when the last scroll was used to light a fire.

    It’s not as though the vast majority of Christians are Biblical literalists, although I suppose most of them would agree that it’s entirely possible that an all-powerful god could reanimate corpses, and that God did, if not necessarily in that incident. But you know that, and you disagree with it. You don’t need reanimated corpses to make your point (I’m assuming your point is that Christianity (and maybe all other religions) has beliefs that cannot be rationally proven.) I doubt if all that many religious believers would disagree with that, although Aquinas famously did, so there are always lots of exceptions.

    I’m not sure what Aquinas’ take on the wandering corpses was. Maybe Jane would know, but she seems to have discovered a report of a remarkably poorly-designed study, of which there are sooooo many floating around.


    8 Feb 11 at 1:21 pm

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