Saturday, April 28, 2007

3: Final and Clinching Proofs

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

A little child may know
The father's name of love
'Tis written in the earth below
And on the sky above.

Around me when I look
His handiwork I see
This world is like a picture book
To teach his name to me.

If you want to read a really convincing proof that God does not exist, don't look in The God Delusion: look in The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Every good geek knows the passage by heart.
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
'But,' says Man, 'The Babel Fish is a dead give-away, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
Why is this so funny?
1: Douglas Adams is making a joke at the expense of other science fiction writers.
Space opera wouldn't be very exciting if the hero never understood a word the villain said. So sci-fi writers tend to just assume that anything which has travelled 40,000 light years from the Planet Zog is quite capable of asking the first human it encounters to take it to their leader. Most readers accept this convention without question. In the first episode of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy the Vogons talk to the human, Ford talks to Arthur and Arthur reads from The Guide—and no-one asks how they can possibly understand each other. Writers sometimes say that everything is being translated by The Lens, The Green Lantern Power Ring, The TARDIS, A Universal Translator or A Japanese Lady With a PhD In Linguistics—none of which are a great deal more believable than 'Everyone speaks English because base ten is an intrinsically superior system.' Adams' joke is to draw attention to the problem and make the inherent far-farfetchedness of a magic translating fish part of the story. He make the same joke a few pages later when he introduces the Infinite Improbability Drive. All writers of fiction have to come up with reasons why very unlikely things happen to their characters: otherwise, there wouldn't be any story in the first place. Adams solves the problem by drawing attention to it, forcing his characters to travel around with a magic box which causes improbable events to occur.
NOTE: Later in the series, Adams suggests that in an infinite universe, everything which it is possible to imagine must exist somewhere: even planets populated by matresses and biros. So the Babel Fish needn't have been designed; so God exists after all. Whew!
2: It's a joke about religious arguments.
The opening remark is a simple comic reversal. We expect the Guide to say that the Babel fish proves the existence of God. It can't have evolved; so it must have been designed; so there must have been a designer; so God must exist. This is the classic Argument From Design (which, as we will see the only argument Richard Dawkins is at all interested in.) Certainly, if such a fish were to be discovered in Real Life, then many thinkers would see it—or, as Adams subtly says, choose to see it—as proof that there is a God. So it gets a big laugh when when we hear Peter Jones telling us in his best Just a Minute voice that it actually proves the exact opposite.
But while we are laughing, I think that we recognise that people really do sometime argue about religion in this way. When something comes along which seems to put a serious dent in the case for Christianity—someone finds the bones of baby Jesus on board S.S Titanic, say, or digs up a papyrus of Mary Magdalene's wedding list—you can bet that some Christian will say 'There you go! That proves what we've been saying all along.' Adams has switched things round: something has turned up which quite obviously deals a fatal blow to atheism, and the atheists, without missing a best, say that it proves their case.
Dawkins makes a similar point about religion in The God Delusion. Christians often say that scientific critiques of their faith are irrelevant. There's no point in trying to prove or disprove the existence of the soul or the efficacy of prayer by conducting experiments because 'souls' and 'prayers' aren't the kinds of things you can experiment on. Dawkins says that, on the contrary, Christians make claims about the empirical world which are perfectly amenable to scientific investigation. I get the impression that he thinks that if you had been present at the revivification of Lazarus and had had your tricorder handy, you would have been able to observe some physical process occurring: energy coming out of Jesus, cellular regeneration of the corpse, that kind of thing. (That's my example, not his.) This is tantamount to saying 'The revivication of Lazarus was not a miracle.' But there are all sorts of other things which a scientist could perfectly well have offered an opinion on: was Lazarus really dead? was his corpse really decomposing? was the person who came out of the tomb the same person who went into it? Dawkins asks what would happen if someone found a strand of Jesus' hair and performed DNA analysis on it. Supposing the analysis proved, scientifically, that Jesus had no human father. Would Christians say 'Oh, but that's quite irrelevant to our belief in the Virgin Birth; science has nothing to say about religion.' Or would they move the pearly goalposts and say 'That proves it! Luke's Gospel is literally true after all!' This is one of the few occasions while reading the God Delusion when I said 'A hit! A palpable hit!'
(Speaking for myself, I might very well say that DNA is not relevant to my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I might very well say 'This DNA proof actually rather damaging to Christianity because it might give people the impression that Jesus' birth, which I think of as a magical event with theological significance, was actually a curious scientific example of parthenogenesis.' This may have been what David Jenkins had in mind when he said that the Resurrection was not (n-o-t) a Conjuring Trick With Bones.)
3: It's a joke about the whole idea of using logic to prove or disprove the existence of God.
St. Anselm's logical proof that God exists is almost as famous as Oolon Colluphid's proof that he doesn't.
Let us define God as 'the greatest conceivable thing.'
The greatest conceivable thing must by definition possess every positive quality to the greatest possible degree.
'Existence' is a positive quality.
Therefore God must possess 'existence' to the greatest possible degree.
It is logically impossible that a thing which possesses the greatest conceivable degree of existence does not exist.
Therefore it is logically impossible that God does not exist
Therefore God necessarily exists.
People have been arguing about this proof for a thousand years, and unlike Dawkins I don't think I'm clever enough to sort it out this evening. However, one of the things which Anselm may have done is defined God as 'a being who exists'; and then claimed that since it's nonsense to say that a being who exists doesn't exist, God exists. But this only works if you accept the original definition. One response to Anselm is to say, 'Yes, you are right, God necessarily exists.' The other is to say 'Since God doesn't exist, I guess your definition must be incorrect.'
(Some philosphers might say 'Ah, but Anselm wasn't trying to prove that God necessarily exists, he was trying to prove that God's existence is necessary,' but let's ignore them.)
Oolon Colluphid has made the same kind of mistake. Some Christians say that the lack of evidence of God's existence doesn't bother them too much: they think that God is the kind of chap who would rather we believed without proof. Colluphid turns this into a definition 'Let us define God as "a being who created the universe and whose existence cannot be proved." ' If you find clear evidence that the universe was designed, then clearly 'A being who created the universe and whose existence cannot be proved' does not exist; therefore 'God', as defined by Colluphid, doesn't exist. The Theist will then say to: 'Yes, but you've specifically chosen a definition of God which fits in with your disproof'; to which Oolon will reply: 'Yes, and you are always choosing definitions of God specifically because they fit in with your proofs.' Which is presumably Adams' point.
While we're here, we may as well note that Colluphid's proof exemplifies two other common faults in religious arguments.
1: It's a complex definition. In order to exist 'God' has to be both the creator of the universe and a being whose existence can't be proved. This is a bit like saying 'My mother is a lobster who was married to my father. But we can prove empirically that my father was never married to a lobster. Therefore 'the lobster who was married to my father' does not exist. Therefore my mother does not exist. Therefore I do not exist.' Both sides play this trick surprisingly often. You define God as 'A being who created the world in six days and is the source of morality', and then say 'If you say that God didn't create the world in six days, then there is no source of morality, and since you can't deny that morality exists, the world must have been created in six days.' Or you define God as 'A being who created the world in six days and who gives Peter Kay comfort during his times of trouble' and then say 'Since I can prove that the world wasn't created in six days, Peter Kay must be mistaken about his supernatural comforter.'
2: Proof does not deny faith. Proof may deny belief if you define belief as 'holding an opinion without sufficient evidence.' God may say 'without faith I am nothing'; he certianly does not say 'without belief I am nothing.' Richard Dawkins also gets himself into a fearful mess over this one: his big problem with Pascal's Wager (1) is, amazingly, that he doesn't understand why it matters to God whether we believe in him or not.
When Christians talk about 'faith' they are not talking about 'holding the opinion that God exists': they mean something like 'trusting-and-following-God' or 'submitting to the will of God'. In evangelical circles, 'faith' is often synonymous with 'mystical gnosis': 'I believe in God', 'I have faith in God', and 'I know God' are used more or less interchangeably. If a real Babel Fish were discovered, everyone, even Richard Dawkins, would believe that God (defined as 'the person who made the Babel Fish') really existed. But not everyone would trust in that person or submit themselves to his will.
I am contractually required to quote the following anecdote at this point.
'Once upon a time, a stunt-man decided to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. A huge crowd gathered to watch him.

'Do you believe that I can walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd.

Sure enough, he walked from one side of the falls to the other and then back again.

'Do you believe that I could push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope over Niagara Falls?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowed. And sure enough, he did so.

'Do you believe that I could put a sack of potatoes in the wheelbarrow?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd. And sure enough he did so.

Hardly pausing for breath, he asked 'Do you believe that I could put a man in the wheelbarrow and push him across the tightrope safely?' '
Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd 'We have seen you do it yourself, we have seen you push the wheelbarrow, we have seen you put potatoes in the wheelbarrow: of course we believe that you could push a man across.'

'Very well,' said the stuntman. 'Who volunteers?'

Friends, this story is true. I know, for I was that tightrope.
4: But in any case, Oolon Colluphid is looking for the wrong God.
Adams' whole riff turns on meta-joke. We know, by the very fact that we listening to it, that Oolon Colluphid's argument is completely false. The existence of something like the Babel Fish—a ludicrous plot device that even Russell T Davies would be ashamed of—does absolutely prove that Colluphid's universe was created by an Intelligent Designer. Namely, Douglas Adams.
'God' is quite a significant presence in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy—a minor character who is often mentioned but who never appears—like Eccentrica Gallumbits, and, indeed, like Oolon Colluphid. He leaves messages to his creation in five mile high letters of fire and Deep Thought may (or may not) know his telephone number. But even if Oolon phoned him up, he still would not be in touch with the creator of the universe. Oolun Colluphid wasn't created by that 'God' but by a very witty writer. And nothing Colluphid says can possibly make him disappear.


(1) Pascal's Wager -- When you make a bet, you take into account the size of the stake, the size of the prize, and you chance of winning: you might be prepared to make a very small wager for a very small chance of winning a very large prize (e.g the National Lottery) or a very large bet for a very good chance of winning quite a small prize (e.g putting £1000 on the favourite at 7:2 on.) If God exists, the reward for submitting to his will is infinite—going to heaven for ever and ever. If God doesn't exist and you mistakenly submit to his will then the very worst that can happen is that you waste your whole life—which is still a finite quantity. So however unlikely the existence of God is, faith is still a good bet: because it's a good bet to make a finite wager (your whole life) on a very small chance of infinite reward (heaven.)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Saw an interesting film yesterday. It involved a man with an American accent who kept pretending he was Jesus. All the other people also had American accents, but they also pretended he was Jesus even though he kept getting the lines wrong, even the most famous ones. There's quite a good bit at the end where the director pretends that Jesus wasn't crucified after all but lives a long life, gets married and has babies but that bit seemed to have been ripped off from The Da Vinci Code. It also steals me and Jeffery Archer's idea about Judas being a goody. But at the end he (the director, I mean) chickens out and goes back to the real story. He (the American man whose pretending to be Jesus, I mean) keeps rolling his eyes and looking mad, like C.S Lewis said, and I kept thinking 'So when is he going to turn into the Green Goblin?'

If it comes on telly it's probably worth a look.

Make a well-known phrase out of the following words:

Davies plots T can't Russell do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

2: Some More of Dawkins' Greatest Mistakes

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

I mock thee not, though I by thee am mock├Ęd;
Thou call'st me madman, but I call thee blockhead.

William Blake

Dawkins devotes several pages of his Chapter 1 to the 2005 Prophet Mohammed Danish Cartoons Controversy.
You remember the story: an editor in Denmark decided that since Islam doesn't allow anyone to publish pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, pictures of the Prophet Mohammed were obviously the exact thing that it was his duty to publish. Some Muslims decided that since the the pictures were obviously a childish attempt to provoke a violent over-reaction, the best thing for them to do would be to violently over-react. In Nigeria people were actually killed over the issue: but British Muslims limited themselves to using violent language. But the language was very violent indeed.
Quoth the great man:
Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying 'Slay those who insult Islam', 'Europe will pay: Demolition is on the way' and, apparently without irony 'Behead those who say that Islam is a violent religion.'
And 'The Fantastic Four Are On the Way' bizarrely enough.
This affair didn't show Islam at its best; and, if we are inclined to regard 'religion' as an homogeneous thing, it reflected pretty badly on 'religion' in general. Not that the anti-God department came out of it smelling of roses. It isn't particularly 'bright' to march through Golders Green wearing a Nazi uniform and then pretend to be surprised when people throw stones at you. But that doesn't excuse the stone-throwers.
Here is a picture of the London demonstration:



Dawkins thinks the affair is an example of 'society's overweening respect' for religion. He quotes lots of examples of people who were incredibly rude about Islam during the controversy – Germain Greer saying that Muslims like pandemonium for the sake of pandemonium; an Independent journalist poking fun at people who claim to 'love a seventh century preacher more than their own family' and of course the actual publication of the pictures themselves. He could also have mentioned that the Sun, the Daily Mail and the fascist Daily Express could not be described as taking a consistently pro-Islamic line. Dawkins' 'overweening respect' appears to have been confined to a handful of leading articles in what he calls 'decent liberal newspapers' (i.e The Guardian and the Independent) which said that while it was naughty of the Muslims to hold up rude placards, it was also naughty of the Danes to print rude pictures in the first place. If he seriously thinks that the Guardian is overweeningly respectful to religion then he evidently didn't read their coverage of the election of Pope Benedict -- or come to that the article about the September 11th attacks written by one Richard Dawkins.
(Everyone, I guess, sees their position as the neutral one and everyone else's position as biassed. I wonder why 177 minutes of the Today programme is completely secular; you feel horribly excluded by three minutes of 'Thought for Today'. I see a sinister anti-religious bias when David Attenborough goes through a whole series without ever once saying 'On the other hand maybe God made it all'; you feel that 30 minutes of hymn singing on Sunday evening amounts to theocratic oppression.)
Dawkins also somehow forgets to mention that, far from treating the Muslim demonstrators with overweening respect, 'society' had at least one of them arrested, tried and sent to prison for the crime of 'soliciting murder'. It may even be that the masked protester at the centre-front of the picture is Abdul Muhid himself:

Certainly, this poster was the one most frequently quoted in the press to show how blood-thirsty these dark-skinned Johnnies are, which I don't think amounts to overweening respect. I must say, I doubt whether placards of this kind should be treated as incitement to murder, any more than headlines in the fascist Daily Express which say 'String Em Up!' should be regarded as soliciting lynchings. I think that both the fascist Express and Masked Demo Man are saying 'At the next election we should vote for a party that will, first, introduce legislation to withdraw from the European Union and repeal the Human Rights Acts; secondly, introduce legislation to restore Capital Punishment in England and Wales; third, having done that, I think that the courts should issue a warrant and the police should arrest certain criminals, and that they should be given a fair trial, and, if found guilty, subject to an appeal to the House of Lords, the Home Secretary and the Queen, executed.' The only difference is whether your preferred method of spine-severing is a rope or a sword, and whether your bogey-man of choice is a blasphemer or a paedophile.
This picture was, I thought, surprisingly similar to the apparently un-ironic one seen by Richard Dawkins:


Which in turn bore more than a passing resemblance to various cartoons which have appeared in Private Eye:



I need to be careful here. One of Dawkins' rhetorical devices is to take some remark made by a Christian, re-phrase it as if it were a syllogism, give it a title, sneer, and walk off. For example:
A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew.
But one child survived.
Therefore, God exists.

So I should probably point out that I am NOT (n-o-t) attempting to make either:
Dawkins was taken in by an obvious internet hoax.
Therefore God exists.
Dawkins preaches scientific scepticism.
In fact he is prepared to believe any old rubbish if it supports his pre-conceived case.
Therefore God exists.
That Dawkins referred to an obviously Photoshopped picture as if it was the real Sylvester does NOT (n-o-t) affect his argument one way of the other. None of the following are central to Dawkins' case:
Some Muslims do not have a sense of irony.
Therefore, God does not exist.
Some people take different views from me about capital punishment.
Therefore God does not exist.
People get very, very angry when you run down things which are precious to them.
The Prophet Mohammed is precious to Muslims.
When someone ran him down, they got very, very, angry.
Therefore God does not exist.
In fact, I don't think he was presenting any kind of argument at all.

That's just the problem.
Okay, it was a small slip. All of us have failed to check our references at some time or other; although not all of us have lucrative book contracts and the Richard and Judy Author of the Year Award. But on practically every page, Dawkins presents things which he seems to remember reading somewhere or other and hasn't bothered to check; or asserts that 'Christians believe such-and-such' in terms which reveal that he simply doesn't understand, and hasn't taken any trouble to research, what Christians actually do believe. There might (seriously) be a case for producing a page-by-page errata.
In the meantime, here are a handful of examples to illustrate the the way in which he conducts himself.
On page 57, Dawkins is allegedly talking about Stephen Jay Gould's theory that, er, science and religion talk about different things. This is an idea that makes Dawkins very cross indeed. Wandering off the point, he asks:
How many literalists have read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is proscribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the Sabbath and for cheeking your parents?
Cheeking your parents? Dawkins is thinking of Exodus 21:17. I have three translations of the Bible in front of me, and they render the verse as follows:
And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Authorized Version)
Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. (New International Version)
Whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death. (Good News Bible)
The word 'curse' -- the wish that evil might come upon someone -- is not synonymous with 'cheek' which merely means 'impudence' or 'discourtesy'. I've checked every translation I can find, and not one suggests 'cheek' as a possible translation. (A few prefer 'revile' or 'dishonour'.) Dawkins, or whatever internet source he is using, has replaced the stronger Biblical word with the weaker modern one. It's a small point, but it suggests that he's not really trying.
The answer to his question is 'most of them'.
In another section, Dawkins argues that, because of all the smiting, the Bible is not a good guide for morality; and that, even when it seems to be saying something nice, it is often really saying something horrible.
Before leaving the Bible I need to call attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethical teaching. Christians seldom realise that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. 'Love thy neighbour' didn't mean what we now thing it means. It meant only 'love another Jew'....Hartung {an anthropologist} clearly shows that 'Thou shalt not kill' was never intended to mean what we now think it means. It meant, very specifically, 'thou shalt not kill Jews'. And all those commandments that make reference to 'thy neighbour' are equally exclusive. 'Neighbour' means 'fellow Jew.'
Now, let's switch on our brains for a few minutes.
Let's accept for the sake of argument that 'Thy Neighbour' means 'Thy Fellow Israelite' and therefore 'Love thy Neighbour as Thyself' isn't an injunction to teach the world to sing in perfect harmonee. Would it not occur to any fair minded person to ask: 'If the Old Testament says I should love my fellow-Jew, how does it say I should treat foreigners?' If so, the fair minded person would look in the Torah, and discover:
Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 22:21)
Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 23:9)
But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Leviticus 19 v 34)
Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)
So: Dawkins should have said that the Bible teaches that you should love a fellow-Jew as much as you love yourself but on the other hand that you should treat strangers and foreigners as if they were Jews and love them as much as you love yourself.

Glad we got that one sorted out.
Dawkins goes to the Talmud (the Jewish commentary on the Scriptures) to support his 'Jews-only' theory. This is a good idea: no-one apart from fundamentalists and Dave Sim thinks that you can interpret the Bible in isolation. Of course you should ask 'What does it say?' and 'What did the people who wrote it mean it to say?' but you also have to ask 'How do the people who believe in it interpret it? How has it been used?' Dawkins correctly points out that the Tracate Sanhedrin states that if you kill a fellow-Jew when you were aiming at a foreigner you are not liable to the death penalty:
The following are innocent: one who intended to kill a beast but killed a man; or a foreigner but killed an Israelite....'
Okay. But that same document also provide a commentary on the law which Dawkins said allowed the death penalty for 'cheeky' children. It says:
He who curses his father or mother is not guilty until he curse them by the Name; if he curse them under a pseudonym Rabbi Meir would hold him guilty, but the majority innocent.
I think 'Under a pseudonym' means 'Not using the actual name of God'; most of the Rabbis think that someone who said 'Daddy, I curse you in the name of the Almighty,' was not in danger of being stoned, but someone who said 'Daddy, I curse you in the name of YHWH' was. (Is there a talmudic scholar in the house?) At any rate when the Jewish commentaries make the Bible nastier than it seems on the surface ('It says "Thou shalt not kill", but we think it's okay to kill goyim') Dawkins thinks we should pay attention to the commentaries; but when the Rabbis soften the letter of the law ('It says "all those who curse their father and mother should be executed", but we think this only means "curse them in the name of YHWH" ') Dawkins wants us to stick with -- and indeed exaggerate – the original text.

He is not arguing even-handedly.
Stay with me: I'm only just getting warmed up.
Dawkins thinks that Christian writings, as well as Jewish ones, say that you should only be nice to members of your own group and indeed, that 'Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews.' But surely everyone knows what Jesus said when someone asked for his opinion on this very subject? A Torah-expert cited 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself' and asked what he understood by the term 'neighbour'. Jesus, as usual, turned the question back on the lawyer:
Jesus answering said: 'A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
'And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
'And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
'But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, 'Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.'
'Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?'
And he said, 'He that shewed mercy on him.'
Then said Jesus unto him, 'Go, and do thou likewise.'
These are surely the most famous words ever spoken by Jesus, which is to say, the most famous words ever spoken. It's odd that Dawkins isn't familiar with them. I don't see that they leave much room for doubt.
'Define the term 'neighbour'?'
'Well, if you were in trouble and two religious Jews refused to help you but an infidel foreigner did, who would be your neighbour?'
'The foreigner, obviously.'
'Right. Off you go and do the same.'
So much for Jesus' pro-semitic in group mentality.
It gets worse.
Hartung draws attention to the two verses in Revelation where the number of those sealed (which some sects, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, interpret to mean 'saved') is limited to 144,000. Hatung's point is that they all had to be Jews; 12,000 from each tribe.
Dawkins makes all the usual jokes about the book of Revelation: no, it's not an LSD trip, it's a complicated collection of allusions to the Old Testament. He wants us to think that the bit about 144,000 'sealed' means that John thought that only Jews went to heaven. This is such a massive fib that it is worth quoting the relevant Biblical passage in full.
And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea saying, 'Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.'
And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
Of the tribe of Judah were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Asher were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Nephthalim were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand.
Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb!' And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, 'Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.'
And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, 'What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?'
And I said unto him, 'Sir, thou knowest.'
And he said to me, 'These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. hey shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.'
Revelation is a notoriously ambiguous book, but this is surely one of its more straightforward passages. John sees two groups of people in heaven; a small group consisting of descendents of Joseph and his brothers; a large group consisting of people from ever country under the sun. The smaller group are explicitly the Jews; the larger, inclusive, group fairly obviously represent Christians. (Jesus is 'the Lamb of God'; to 'wash your robes in the blood of the lamb' means 'to be cleaned from sin because of the death of Jesus.') Doubtless there are different ways of interpreting this: 'There will be both Christians and Jews in heaven'; 'Jewish converts should be regarded as Top Christians'; 'If you perfectly fulfilled the Law, then you will go to heaven; the rest of us need to be forgiven'. Jehovah's Witnesses do indeed have their own, esoteric reading of the passage. They think the small crowd represents an elite of Witnesses who chose to take Holy Communion and therefore have a shot at being in the Heavenly Government; the big crowd represents the ordinary J.W who didn't knock on enough doors and will therefore have to content himself with living-forever-in-a-paradise-on-earth. But even this allegorical reading depends on their being two groups: the 'sealed' and everybody else. Dawkins has quoted verses 4-8 but ignored verses 9-17 in order to make it look as if St John thought only Jews went to heaven.
By the way, I don't know where he gets 'two verses' from: I make it five.
Granted, Dawkins is following Hartung in all this, but once again he has conspicuously failed to check, or even bother to think about, the facts and has therefore made statements which are obviously, self-evidently, non-controversially untrue.

Which makes this reader, at any rate, very doubtful about the rest of the book. If he quotes such misleading evidence when he is discussing things I know a little bit about, how far can I trust Dawkins when he is talking about specialist subjects of which I am entirely ignorant? Indeed, how confident can I be about the whole concept of scientific objectivity? Can I be sure that Dawkins' confident assertions about evolution by natural selection are not based on an equally biassed approach to the evidence?

Other examples of Dawkins' technique

Sense of proportion
"Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic Priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up catholic in the first place."

"The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago."
Tasteful Comparisons
"Another prominent luminary of what we might call the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists...."
"Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum... Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka..."
Subtle analysis of complex problems
"Yes, yes of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political....except that–and this is important and widely overlooked–and this is important and widely overlooked–without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge."

Friday, April 20, 2007

1: Where Dawkins Went Wrong

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I was sent a copy of Richard Dawkins amusing book, The God Delusion, by an anonymous donor (Steve Watson), so I feel I should at least try to review it.
This isn't easy. I got as far as page 36 before chucking it across the room in disgust. I was in the Boston Tea Party on Park Street. I warned the other customers to get out of my line of fire first.
It was a trivial thing. Dawkins was talking about Polytheism–the belief that there is more than one god. He admits that he won't have much to say about it.
Most of my readers will have been reared in one or another of the three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism)...
I mean, seriously, what?
Where did that remark come from?
Mormonism, as anyone can easily find out, is one of a number of Christian sects which came into being in the USA in the nineteenth century. It differs from mainstream Christianity on certain technical points which Dawkins would at least pretend not to understand. So why write 'four if you count Mormonism'? Why not 'five if you count Mormonism and Christian Science'. Or 'ten if you include Mormonism, Christian Science, Christedelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Reformed Judaism, Shi'ite Islam, Strict Baptists, Celtic Orthodox, Unitarians and Quakers?' Does Dawkins think that the Mormons' adoptionist Christology is so far removed from the mainstream as to constitute a separate faith (while the Jehovah's Witnesses arianism is not?) Or is he playing a numbers game–saying that the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints is so numerous as to count as a religion in its own right, distinct from 'Christianity'. (But then, why not 'Four if you include Catholicism'?)
We never find out. Like Melchizidec. it comes from nowhere and it goes nowhere. It popped into Dawkins head and he wrote it down. It makes me doubt whether our author is fully in command of his brief.
Four if you include Mormons. Honestly, you might just as well say 'Britain consists of three countries: England, Scotland and Wales–or four if you include Tooting Bec.'
A trivial point, as I say. But once I had retrieved the book–the people on the next table were quite polite, considering–I found that nearly all the non-scientific sections were driven by the same kind of non-sequitur.
Look at the bit called 'Religious Education as a Part of Literary Culture.' Dawkins concedes that we should teach children about the Bible because of its literary importance. (As we'll see, he's deeply conflicted about the whole concept of religious art.) He demonstrates the importance of the Bible by listing 200 well-known phrases that originate in the Authorized Version. He adds:
Doubtless the equivalent is true of French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and other great European literatures. And, for speakers of Arabic and Indian languages, knowledge of Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita is presumably just as essential for full appreciation of their literary heritage. Finally, to round off the list, you can't appreciate Wagner (whose music, as has been wittily said, is better than it sounds) without knowing your way around the Norse Gods. Let me not labour the point...'
Again, what? Where does the Wagner remark come from?
The analogy doesn't stand up for one minute. The problem with being ignorant of the Bible is that it is assumed in our culture: it leaps out at you without warning in places where you aren't expecting it. In Shakespeare's Othello Iago says 'My lord, you know I love you'. If you know John's gospel this remark strikes you as ironic, even blasphemous: if you don't, it doesn't. The Ring doesn't assume the Prose Edda in any remotely comparable way. You might as well say 'You can't appreciate Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat without knowing your way around Genesis.'
What really interests me is the parenthesis. Where has the little snipe at Wagner's music come from? It isn't relevant and anyway, if you can google for a list of 200 Bible quotes you can google and find out that the remark wasn't made by 'someone witty' but by Mark Twain. But Dawkins can never resist the irrelevant sneer, the put-down, the look-how-clever-we-are remark. He puts in a completely irrelevant reference to post-structuralism purely so he can write it off as 'haute francophonyism'. Ho-ho. The Bible has made him think of the Koran; which has made him think of the Gita, which has reminded that in his chapter on Polytheism he compared the Hindu Gods with the Norse Gods, which has made him think of Wagner, which has called to mind the Mark Twain quote and he has bunged it all down. He's not even pretending to present a sequential train of thought.
Or look at Chapter III, 'The Argument From Scripture'. People have certainly tried to use the Bible to try and prove the existence of God; so of course Dawkins should try to demonstrate why he thinks those kinds of proofs don't work. Instead, he quotes the bloody trilemma from C.S Lewis and Josh McDowell (1). He rejects this argument, not—astonishingly–because it is logically invalid, but because he thinks that Jesus never actually claimed to be the Son of God. This triggers a two-page digression about inconsistencies in Matthew and Luke's accounts of the Nativity story (and also in the the vital matter of Jesus' genealogy) which suddenly veers off at 90 degrees to talk about the formation of the canon, climaxing with this jaw-droppingly childish remark:
The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, our of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Phillip, Bathelomew and Mary Magdelen.
Think before you write, Professor Dawkins; think before you write. If the choice had been arbitrary then is it at all likely that all the Pauline,Trinitarian works would have been included in the canon and all the Gnostic and Ebionite works left out? Are you seriously saying that any council or church or community ever believed that late works like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas had equal status with Matthew or John? Are you aware that not one of the six works you cite is a Gospel in the sense of being a narrative account of the life, death, supposed resurrection and teaching of Jesus? (The 'gospel' of 'Mary', for example, is a brief dialogue in which 'Mary' reveals that 'Jesus' gave her secret gnostic teachings.) That word, 'arbitrary': I do not think it means what you think it means.
The reference to the Thomas 'gospel' triggers off a rather breathless footnote in which Dawkins tells us that A.N Wilson thinks that the Aramaic word naggar may not actually mean 'carpenter' but 'wise man' and by the way when the Bible says 'a virgin shall conceive ' the word virgin might really mean 'young woman' and did you know that when the Koran refers to '72 virgins' it might really mean '72 raisins' so aren't Christians silly?
(Not that it makes any difference, but the 'gospel' of 'Thomas' is a piece of pious fan-fiction imagining the childhood of Jesus. It says specifically 'Now Joseph was a builder and wrought ploughs and yokes for oxen.' How can you possibly say that Thomas had just as much right to have been one of the four Gospels as Matthew or Luke and at the same time say that we only think of Joseph as a carpenter because of a mistranslation?)
Dawkins goes on to explain how the four Gospels came to be written:
Much of what the four canonical gospels share is derived from a common source, either Mark's gospel or a lost work of which Mark is the earliest extant descendent.
I think you'd probably have to look quite hard to find a commentator who believes that John had a Marcan source. (I also like the idea that Mark may be derived from Mark, but that's probably just a proof reading error.) If you are going to make the whole difficult and controversial question about the origins of the Gospels–all those Qs and Jesus Traditions and Proto-Marks–part of your argument, I think you should probably spend more than 27 words on it.
Pausing briefly to wonder if Jesus even existed and deciding he probably did, Dawkins offers this school-boyish conclusion:
The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the Gospels is that the Gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.
The only difference?
1: Dan Brown's book is a thriller intended to entertain people. The Gospels are religious texts intended to win converts or to edify and instruct people who had already been converted.
2: The Gospellers were writing about events which they thought had happened, say, 50 years in the past. They were presumably working from earlier documents and those earlier documents may have had even earlier oral sources. Dan Brown is weaving a fictional work around 2,000 year old texts which carry a huge weight of commentary and cultural baggage.
3: The evangelists are telling a story; or perhaps commenting on and interpreting a story by re-telling it. Dan Brown is creating a meta-fiction about the origins of those ancient stories.
Aren't these differences?
And that's 'the argument from Scripture' dealt with: few random and not very well informed comments on why Dawkins can't be doing with the New Testament. We've heard very little about where the Lewis / McDowell argument breaks down and nothing at all about any of the other ways in which some Christians claim that the Bible proves that there is a God.
This you call 'argument'?
It is very, very hard to know where to begin in reviewing or responding to the book. It doesn't contain anything which I can recognise as a point of view or train of thought: it just fires off a random series of nasty remarks about Christianity and anything else which happens to come into the authors line of fire. I felt that I had spent the afternoon sipping latte in the company of one of those terribly sophisticated sixth-formers who is planning to leave home while he still knows everything. 'Then there's Wagner, but chaps like us know he's awful; and of course, there's modern French philosophy, but chaps like us know that's rubbish; then there's Descartes, but chaps like us are much too clever to read him.' Or perhaps, with a very, very clever but mildly autistic child, who spouts out an endless stream of non-linear free association. 'There's a big red truck. We had baked beans for tea. That makes me think of Hindus. Catholics are silly, aren't they? That makes me think of Vikings. We don't like Wagner, do we? Or Muslims. Or Jews. Or Post-Structuralists.'

(1) The Trilemma: 'Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. If Jesus was not the Son of God, then either he was lying, or else he was insane. Everything we know about Jesus makes it impossible to think that he was either mad or a liar; therefore, he must have been telling the truth.'

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sunday, April 08, 2007

It was Friday; it was Friday and my Jesus was dead on the tree. But that was Friday, and Sunday's comin'!....

It was Friday and Mary was cryin' her eys out. The disciples were runnin' in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday, and Sunday's comin'!...

The cynics were lookin' at the world and sayin' 'As things have been so shall they be. You can't change anything.' But those cynics didn't know that it was only Friday. Sunday's comin'! ...

It was Friday, and on Friday Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin' around, laughin' and pokin; each other in the ribs. they thought they were back in charge of things, but they didn't know that it only Friday! Sunday's comin'!

Tony Campolo

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Gospel According To Judas?

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Last Easter, the newspapers got very excited about the publication of a book called The Lost Gospel of Judas. And if you know the difference between a Valentianist and Sethian, then a new Coptic codex from the third century is indeed a very exciting discovery. If, like me, you couldn't define 'Coptic' or 'Codex' with any confidence, then it isn't. Perhaps the most interesting question arising from the book was 'How did National Geographic manage to convince the press that it could possibly be the kind of thing that their readers would be interested in?'
The manuscript that caused all the fuss is neither lost, nor a gospel, nor by Judas. The publishers managed to give non-specialist readers the impression they had discovered some important new information about The Historical Jesus. A writer in Edge -- of all places – remarked that someone had recently published "Jesus' life, as portrayed by the man who grassed him up.". The book isn't written by Judas, and it certainly doesn't tell the story of Jesus' life. The Guardian, reporting the Pope's Easter sermon, mentioned that:
The National Geographic Society unveiled a leather-bound papyrus written in around AD300 that gives Judas's side of the story behind the most notorious deception in religious history.'
It doesn't.
It went on:
The 26-page manuscript says Judas was singled out by Christ from the other apostles and entrusted with revealing his whereabouts to the Romans.
It doesn't say that, either.
Of course it would be exciting to discover an account of the Crucifixion which was independent of the four Biblical Gospels. But the National Geographic's manuscript is no such thing. It's simply another work of fourth century religious fiction, in which a minor character from the New Testament is the imagined recipient of 'new' and 'esoteric' teachings by Jesus. Philip, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, Matthew, Pilate -- if we were to believe the 'apocryphal' literature, Jesus gave secret teachings to the lot of them, all more or less at the level of:
The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each of them five firmaments, for a total of three hundred and sixty firmaments. They were given authority and a great host of angels for glory and adoration, and after that also virgin spirits, for glory and adoration, of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments. The multitude of those immortals is called the cosmos -- that is perdition -- by the Father and the seventy two luminaries who are with the self-generated and his seventy two aeons....
So now you know.
A document in which the living Jesus appears and disappears at will, manifests in the form of a child, and claims to come from the 'immortal realm of Barbelo' is rather an odd one to be reading if you want to know out what 'really happened' in Jerusalem circa 33 CE. In fact, only two lines in the text seem to point, even obliquely, to Judas' rehabilitation. In one 'Jesus' says of 'Judas':
You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them.
This doesn't really tell us anything more than that the author of the manuscript thought that Judas was eventually going to be regarded as Top Apostle: we're not told why. The gnostics did a lot of reversals of this kind. In some of their cosmologies God is the baddie, and Satan is the goodie.
In another passage 'Jesus' says:
You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.
Weird as the gnostics undoubtedly were, they didn't think that Judas was going to execute Jesus' tailor. We are dealing with a form of Christianity in which 'Jesus' and 'Christ' are two separate beings: the divine 'Christ' hitched a ride in the body of the mortal 'Jesus'. The gnostic 'Judas' is going to arrange for 'Jesus' to be killed, but this won't effect the divine 'Christ'. 'Judas' won't kill 'Jesus' but only the body which Jesus is temporarily inhabiting. The manuscript doesn't give any further information about how this sacrificed will be achieved. There is no account of the Last Supper, no description of Jesus' arrest, and no hint of what became of Judas in the end. It does describe how Judas went and agreed to help the Priests arrest Jesus in return for money, but the account is not that different from the standard version in the New Testament.
Their high priests murmured because he had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet. They approached Judas and said to him "What are you doing here? You are Jesus' disciple." Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.
And, unless you are fascinated by the various iterations of gnostic cosmology, that is pretty much all there is to say about the 'Lost' 'Gospel' of 'Judas': as a contribution to gnostic studies, doubtless very important; but as a contribution to our understanding of the character of Judas Iscariot, not very interesting at all.

While the newspapers were full of this, and while the Pope and the Archbishop were preaching sermons upholding the 'orthodox' account, I decided I had better check my Bible and see what the canonical Gospels actually say about Judas Iscariot. I thought I knew the story. Judas saw things only in terms of worldly power; he was greedy and sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver; he led the priests to the garden of Gethsemane and identified Jesus to them by kissing him; he was filled with remorse, threw the silver back in the priests' faces, and hanged himself.
To my surprise, I found that I was wandering into a textual minefield. It seems to me that there is a case for saying that at least one of the canonical Gospels does indeed set out to exonerate the most notorious traitor in history.

What follows is very long and boring. I strongly advise you not to read it.
Incidentally, a happy Easter to all of you at home.
1: Betrayal
2: The Woman With the Jar
3: Why do the Priests need a betrayer?
4: 'One of you will betray me'
5: How many thrones?
6: What does Judas do?
7: Thirty pieces of silver
8: Where have we got to so far?
9: The feast of unleavened bread
10: The fourth Gospel
11: The Elephant in the Upper Room

1: Betrayal
Jesus was betrayed. Paul's description of the Last Supper begins:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you: That the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it...
This is almost the only bit of narrative about Jesus that Paul reports. Paul doesn't say who betrayed Jesus, or why, or how -- but he takes it for granted that someone betrayed him, and that this betrayal was in some way connected with the Last Supper.
Jesus expected to be betrayed. On several occasions he predicted that he would die in Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark and Luke report his words with minor variations. In Matthew, he says that he will be 'betrayed unto the chief priests' and later that he will be 'betrayed to be crucified'; Luke has 'delivered unto the gentiles'; and Mark has both: 'delivered unto the chief priests...and they shall deliver him to the gentiles.'
The words 'betrayed' and 'delivered' are used interchangeably. When Paul says that he delivered to the Corinthians the story about what had happened on the night Jesus was betrayed he uses the same Greek word paradidomi in both cases. This word doesn't necessarily imply duplicity: elsewhere Paul can say that God 'did not spare his own son, but delivered him over for us all'.
Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot. The four canonical Gospels all agree on this point. We know practically nothing else about Judas. When Matthew and Mark list the names of the twelve disciples, Judas is introduced as 'Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him'. Again, the word is paradidomi: 'Judas Iscariot who handed Jesus over'; 'Judas Iscariot who delivered Jesus up.' Luke says something slightly different. 'Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.' The word here is prodotes, which seems to be much stronger, and to imply breaking faith or being untrue (e.g. 'traitors and murderers' in Acts 7). It almost looks as if Luke has deliberately strengthened Mark's description of Judas? i.
"But Luke says something slightly different." This will become something of a refrain in this discussion.

2: The Woman With the Jar
At some point during his ministry, Jesus is a guest in someone's house. After the meal, a woman comes in with a very expensive jar of perfume. She pours the contents of the jar over Jesus. One of those present objects: but Jesus praises the woman and says that she has done the right thing.
This is one of the relatively few stories which occurs in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark the story is sandwiched between the priests' decision to have Jesus killed and Judas' decision to help them. It is therefore hard to avoid thinking that the woman's actions had something to do with Judas' betrayal. If so, it is the only hint we have about his motivation.
This is how Mark tells the story:
After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take (Jesus) by craft, and put him to death. But they said, 'Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people'.
And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard, very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, 'Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.' And they murmured against her.
And Jesus said, 'Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.'
And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
Matthew tells the story in almost exactly the same words. He says that the ointment could have been sold 'for much' rather than for three hundred pence; and that it was 'the disciples', rather than people in general, who objected to the waste.
The connection between this story and Judas betrayal is not accidental juxtapositioning. John tells a slightly different version of the story. In his gospel, the person who anoints Jesus is not 'a woman' but Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (Who is NOT (necessarily) the same person as Mary Magdalene.) The location of the event is still Bethany, but since John says that 'Martha served' I think he implies that the meal takes place at the house of Martha and Mary rather than that of the mysterious Simon the Leper. And the person who objects to the waste is not 'some of those present' or 'the disciples' – but Judas Iscariot himself. In other respects, John agrees with Matthew and Mark: the ointment is worth 300 silver pieces, Judas wants it sold for the poor, and Jesus says: 'Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you: but me ye have not always.' John does not specifically say that Judas went to the priests as the result of this event: indeed, he doesn't report any meeting between Judas and the priests prior to the Last Supper. But he seems to agree with Matthew and Mark that there is some connection between the anointing of Jesus and Judas' betrayal.
What's the link? I can think of the following possible explanations:
a: Judas the Communist
Judas is genuinely shocked at the waste of 300 silver pieces. (An astronomical sum: one silver piece is a fair wage for a whole day's grape-picking; 200 silver pieces will pay for a light fish supper for five thousand.) Judas must have been under the impression that the Kingdom or God meant helping the poor, the disabled and the excluded. It is now plain to him that what he thought was a revolutionary message is simply a personality cult. Many people still think that 'the poor are with you always' is a shocking message: perhaps Judas was even in the right?
b: Judas the Shylock
John pours cold water over the Socialist Judas idea. Judas was a hypocrite: 'This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.' All he cared about was getting his hands on Mary's cash. John doesn't make any explicit connection between the anointing, Judas greed, and the betrayal: indeed, John doesn't even say that Judas was paid by the Priests. But many people have conflated Matthew (who says that Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver) and John (who says that Judas was a thief) and concluded that he was taking a 'tithe' of the disciples' money and keeping it for himself. He sold his Lord simply to make up the 30 s.p he had personally lost through not auctioning the 300 s.p ointment. Business is business.
c: Judas the Logician.
Judas had thought of Jesus as a great spiritual leader. But when he says 'Right now, I am more important than the poor', Judas correctly infers that Jesus is making a direct claim to godhood. And Judas has read Josh McDowell: if a man claims to be God, then he has either mad, bad or a poached egg. And the right thing to do with a raving madman is to hand him over to the authorities.
d: There is no causal link
The woman's actions didn't cause Judas to betray Jesus. Matthew and Mark put the stories side by side (and John incorporates Judas into his story of Mary) in order to make a thematic point: 'Contrast' they are saying 'Mary's fantastically generous act with Judas' absurdly mean one.'
Whatever interpretation we put on the story, it is the only hint that the New Testament gives us about Judas' motivation in betraying Jesus. And Luke omits it altogether.
In his account, Jesus is indeed anointed, but the details of his story are entirely different. He puts the story at the beginning of his Gospel, out of the context of the betrayal and the Passion. It doesn't happen in Bethany. The host is a Pharisee named Simon, but we are not told if he is a leper. The gatecrasher is said to be a 'sinful woman'. (Not a prostitute, incidentally: C.S Lewis remarks that for all we know her sins could have been shop-lifting or tax-evasion or cruelty to children.) This woman does not anoint Jesus' head; rather, she pours the oil on his feet 'and wiped them with the hairs of her head'. No-one objects to the waste of ointment: but Simon the Pharisee think that Jesus ought not to have allowed himself to be touched by a sinner. Jesus replies with a parable about two debtors, one of whom had a small debt cancelled, and the other a big one. He concludes
Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
Where the message that Matthew, Mark and John seem to draw from the story is that true worship is even more important than practical good works; Luke's version is a re-iteration of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee: sinners will find it easier to enter the Kingdom than 'good' people because the former know that they are totally reliant on God's grace where the latter may think that they are not. As a storyteller, Luke wins hands down, since he adds the telling detail that the woman 'wiped Jesus feet with her hair' (a detail which appears to have been taken up and used by John.) ii
Matthew and Mark place the story of the anointing in between the Priest's decision to kill Jesus and Judas' offer to deliver him to them. What does Luke put in its place?
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people.
Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve.
And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.
So: not only does Luke make Judas a traitor, rather than merely a deliverer-upper; he also excises the story which may possibly hint at an explanation for what Judas did, and replaces it unequivocally with the statement that he was a vessel for Satan himself.

3: Why do the priests require a betrayer?
Here, the three synoptics are in agreement. Matthew and Mark say that the priests -
Consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill him. But they said 'Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people.'
Luke simply says that they 'sought how they might kill him, for they feared the people' but adds later that Judas was to 'find opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.' This is pretty clear: Jesus is a popular figure and the Priests think that if they arrest him while Jerusalem is full of pilgrims they will provoke a riot. The problem isn't that they can't kill Jesus, but that they can't kill him yet. If they had a stooge who could lead them to a place where they could arrest him with minimal fuss, it would be a different matter.

4: 'One of you will betray me'
All four writers agree that during the Last Supper, Jesus indicated that one of the twelve would betray him. The synoptics very strongly imply, and John says explicitly, that Judas left during supper to fetch the priests and thus facilitate Jesus' arrest.
Mark describes it as follows:
And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, 'Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.'
And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, 'Is it I?' and another said, 'Is it I?'
And he answered and said unto them, 'It is one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in the dish. The Son of Man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born.'
Matthew repeats Mark's version verbatim, but he adds one further point:
Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, 'Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.'
And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, 'Lord, is it I?'
And he answered and said, 'He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. The Son of Man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.'
Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, 'Master, is it I?' He said unto him, 'Thou hast said.'
Matthew and Mark are very clear about what happened: the disciples take it in turns to ask Jesus 'Is it I?' Mark seems to go out of his way to underline this point: he says that they asked the question 'one by one' and that 'another' said it. We have to imagine the same fatal question being asked twelve times in succession. Matthew seems to say that Judas takes his turn last, and that when he asks Jesus 'Is it I?' Jesus replies, in affect 'Yes, it is.' ('Thou hast said' seems to be a simple affirmative, more like 'You said it!' than 'So you say...' When Caiaphas asks Jesus directly if he is the Son of God, he takes 'Thou hast said' to be an admission of guilt, not an evasion of the question.)
As long as we believe in the version which 'everybody knows' – Judas is a selfish sinner who betrayed Jesus for cash – this makes no sense. Why should the disciples take turns to ask 'Is it I?' Thomas may over-inclined to doubt things; Peter may find it hard to open his mouth without putting his foot in it; James and John may be too enthusiastic about incinerating villages. But they know that they are not traitors: so what are they asking?
I cannot get out of my head the idea that Matthew's version of makes more sense if we suppose that Jesus is not making a prophecy but asking for a volunteer. When Judas says 'Master, is it I?' and Jesus replies 'You said it!' Jesus is selecting Judas to perform the terrible, but necessary, task.
Luke's version is slightly different:
But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table. And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!'
And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
He gives no impression that the disciples ritualistically ask Jesus 'Is it I?'; and certainly no sense that Jesus singles out Judas. They don't ask Jesus who is going to do it: they 'enquire among themselves'. It feels to me as if Luke is describing an agitated discussion: we can easily imagine the disciples saying 'What does he mean? Who can it be?' Luke's version is the one we naturally think of when imagining the story, perhaps because the implications of Matthew's account are too disturbing.

5: How many thrones?
All three synoptics tell a story in which Jesus advises a rich man to donate everything he owns to charity; drawing the famous conclusion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark continues the story like this:
Then Peter began to say unto him, 'Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.'
And Jesus answered and said, 'Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.'
Matthew quotes Mark exactly, but he adds an additional saying:
Then answered Peter and said unto him, 'Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?'
And Jesus said unto them, 'Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.'
This is a hugely embarrassing passage. Is Peter is going to sit in twelve thrones simultaneously? Perhaps eleven disciples are going to share twelve thrones between them? Or maybe the many millions of Jesus disciples that there are going to be over the centuries will each get a turn in sitting in one of the twelve thrones? Unless you work very hard indeed, the plain meaning seems to be that Matthew thought that Jesus thought that Judas would share with the other disciples the task of ruling the new Israel -- or else that Matthew thinks that at this point in the story, Jesus had no foreknowledge that Judas would turn traitor.
Luke seems to have spotted the problem. He sticks with Mark's version of Jesus' conversation with Peter, that is, with no reference to the disciples sitting in thrones. He does quote this prophecy in his gospel, but he places it in a completely different context. Luke has Jesus saying the words during the Last Supper itself – after he has announced Judas betrayal. And there is one other striking difference:
And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, 'The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so [...]Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.'
Although the synoptics do not say so, it is logical to assume that Judas left the Supper at some point and went to fetch the priests. This has to have happened after he said to Jesus 'Is it I?' (John makes this very explicit: Judas left after supper, and isn't present for Jesus long and intimate discourse which the above passage from Luke somewhat resembles.) If this is correct, then Judas must leave somewhere between verses 23 and 24 of Luke 22: that is, he is can't be present when Jesus talks about giving the disciples a kingdom.
Presumably, the 'twelve thrones' prophecy was part of the hypothetical 'Q' document, and Matthew and Luke independently looked for places where they could logically fit it into their narratives. The fact that Luke puts this passage in the context of announcement of Judas' betrayal; and the fact that he has 'thrones' where Matthew has 'twelve thrones' is too striking to be a co-incidence. Luke must have been aware that the prophecy presents a huge problem, and has recast it in a setting where it can't do any harm. Matthew either fails to see its significance; or understands its significance and doesn't have a problem with it. This makes Luke seem slightly more hostile to Judas than Matthew is: Luke goes out of his way to exclude Judas from a leadership position in the New Israel, Matthew seems to leave this open as a possibility.

6: What does Judas do?
'Everyone knows' that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Here is Mark:
'....It is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.'
And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. And he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying, 'Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead him away safely'. And as soon as he was come, he goeth straightway to him, and saith, 'Master, master'; and kissed him. And they laid their hands on him, and took him.
Jesus says 'The Son of Man is betrayed': not, for example 'The Son of Man has been betrayed'. The act of delivering Jesus up is what is happening now, in the Garden, not what happened yesterday afternoon when Judas went and made a pact with his enemies.
Matthew follows Mark exactly, with one addition:
And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, 'Hail, master'; and kissed him. And Jesus said unto him, 'Friend, wherefore art thou come?' Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him.
Mark says that Judas greeted Jesus as 'master'; Matthew adds that Jesus replied by calling Judas 'friend'. (The Greek seems to be ambiguous. The New International Version translates it as 'Friend, do what you came for', but quotes 'Why have you come?' as an alternative in a footnote. The New English Bible quotes 'Do what you are here to do,' but footnotes 'What are you here for?' The Good News Bible –as ever, paraphrasing rather than translating - offers 'Be quick about it, friend' and footnotes 'Why are you here, friend?')
Luke is slightly different. Judas and Jesus do not greet each other: there is no 'friend' or 'master'. He doesn't mention that the kiss was a pre-arranged symbol from Judas to the Priests. And he adds a superb dramatic detail:
And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, 'Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?'
So far as I can see, this means that Luke thinks that Judas tried to kiss Jesus: but Jesus wouldn't let him. Presumably, he turns away. And the words 'Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?' are far more memorable than 'Friend, do what you came to do?', which is presumably why Luke has, again, become the received version.
But I am tempted to ask... How did Mark know that Judas had told the Priests to arrest the man he kissed? Traditionally Mark is recording Peter's recollections -- but how did Peter know? Judas was busy committing suicide and/or getting into real estate; certainly not on speaking terms with the Eleven. Caiphas would hardly have told them. And in any case, why did the authorities need Jesus pointed out, when they already knew who he was and only required Judas to lead them to a quiet place where they could arrest him without a riot?
Remove Mark's comment, and Judas actions might have a quite different meaning. He still regards Jesus as Master; Jesus still regards him as Friend; they exchange a kiss of friendship to show that there is no ill-will between them. Perhaps the disciples saw Judas kiss Jesus, and Peter, when he told the story, or Mark, when he wrote it down, drew the inference that it must have been some kind of signal -- because the more obvious explanation was simply too shocking.

7: Thirty pieces of silver?
"Everybody knows" that Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. However, this detail only occurs in Matthew's gospel. In Mark and Luke, Judas goes to the priests and offers to deliver Jesus up to them; and the Priests respond by promising to give him 'money'. In Matthew, it is Judas who asks for money, and the priests come up with the figure of thirty silver pieces.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests and said unto them, 'What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?' And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.
Matthew is particularly interested in drawing connections between Jesus life and events in the Old Testament. He might have noted that, in the book of Exodus, it is laid down that if your bull accidentally kills someone else's slave you have to pay 30 silver pieces in compensation. (You also have to stone the bull.) Or he might have pointed out that in Genesis, someone called 'Judah', also one of a group of twelve, has the idea of selling his brother Joseph into slavery. He gets a more generous 300 silver pieces for the transaction. But instead Matthew refers us to a minor prophet, Zechariah. Once, after a preaching engagement, Zechariah suggested that his congregation take up a collection to cover his expenses. Thirty silver pieces was the sum they came up with. God says, in effect: 'Well, if that is all they think I am worth, then throw the money back in their faces.'
And I said unto them, 'If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear.' So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said unto me, 'Cast it unto the potter: a goodly price that I was prised at of them.' And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the LORD.
Matthew quotes the passage slightly differently, presumably because he's working from the Greek translation:
And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; And gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.
But his point is still clear: the people in Zechariah's time thought that God was only worth thirty silver pieces (the price of a slave?) and now, here they are literally buying and selling Jesus for the same sum.
To add to the general sense of confusion, Matthew attributes the quote to Jeremiah rather than to Zechariah. The New International Version, rather desperately, cites some verses in Jeremiah which refer to fields, potters, and money that Matthew might have had in mind -- which seems a lot of trouble to go to to explain away a very obvious slip of the pen.
Matthew goes on to say that Judas 'repented himself'; returned the money to the priests, and committed suicide. Luke says something different: Judas used the 'reward of his iniquity' to buy land; and at some subsequent time 'he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.' About the only thing that Matthew and Luke are agreed on is that there was a field involved. Matthew has the priests using the 'blood money' to buy a graveyard for strangers called the 'potters field'; Luke has the land that he bought being called the 'field of blood'. The 'Potters Field' is Matthew's attempt to link the story with the Zechariah prophecy. Luke points us to Psalm 69 'Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein' and tells us that the disciples appointed a new disciple, Matthias, to make the number up to twelve

8: Where we have got to so far
Matthew consistently presents Judas in a better light than Luke.
  • Matthew uses the neutral word 'deliver up' to describe Judas action; Luke says unambiguously 'traitor'.
  • Matthew says that Jesus and Judas called each other 'friend' and 'master'; Luke omits this.
  • Matthew says that Jesus let Judas kiss him; Luke says that he didn't.
  • Matthew says that Judas got no benefit from his fee, was filled with remorse, and killed himself; Luke says that he kept the money, invested it in real estate, and then exploded.
  • Luke describes what Judas did as 'his iniquity'.
  • Matthew says that Jesus said that all twelve disciples would sit on twelve thrones; Luke omits the word 'twelve'.
  • Matthew's account of the Last Supper depicts a strange ritual in which each of the disciples take it in turns to ask Jesus if they are the betrayer, and Jesus selects Judas. Luke merely says that the disciples talked among themselves, before having one of their perennial squabbles about who was the greatest.
  • Matthew implies that Judas is provoked into his actions because of something which happened when the woman anointed Jesus; Luke omits this story, and instead tells us that he was prompted by Satan.
  • There is only one point at which Matthew seems to present Judas in a worse light than Luke: Matthew says that Judas asked the priests for money; Luke says that they volunteered it. But Matthew is presumably making a theological point 'The Priest's regarded Jesus as not having much value – he was only worth the price of slave, just as God was only worth the price of a slave at the time of Zechariah' rather than recording a piece of historical data.

9: The Feast of Unleavened Bread
Matthew, Mark and Luke have all shown Jesus in conflict with the priesthood: only recently he has used violence to drive the money lenders out of the temple. But why have the priests suddenly decided that killing Jesus is a matter of urgency? Matthew, Mark and Luke show us the reason very clearly, but I think that we are inclined to miss it, because we are reading the Gospels in the wrong way.
And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, "Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified". Then assembled together the chief priests.... (Matthew)
After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. (Mark)
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. (Luke)
This seems to be a non-sequential jump: it's two days before the passover, so the Priests decide to kill Jesus. What is the significance of the date? Mark and Luke make the point for us:
And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, "Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?" (Mark)
Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat." (Luke)
'When they killed the passover'; 'When the passover must be killed'. The synoptic writers are not, at this point, interested in the human motivations of the Priesthood. Jesus identifies himself with the passover lamb; therefore, the passover is the day when Jesus must be killed. The Priests have decided to kill Jesus, because killing Jesus is their role in the drama. (Priests kill sacrificial lambs; that is what 'Priest' means.) We make a mistake if we try to uncover the content of a political or psychological intrigue from what is at this point a mythological, even a magical story.
But the Priests can't kill Jesus during the passover, because they fear 'an uproar' of the people. Does this mean that they are afraid of provoking a revolution? Or does it mean that arresting Jesus is simply impossible – he is now so popular that they can't get near him? Either way we have a impasse, a deadlock between the mythological imperative to kill the Passover lamb at Passover itself; and the practical reality which makes this impossible.
Jesus has to be killed by the Priests at passover, but passover is the one time when the Priests can't kill Jesus. So why doesn't he turn himself in? T.S Eliot famously expounded the paradox that although martyrdom is the highest calling a Christian can have, if you choose it, or even desire it, then you aren't a martyr. When Christians were a persecuted sect, they recognized this problem: to be thrown to the lions for being a Christian was a Good Thing; but if you walked into the market square and shouted 'Look at me, I'm a Christian!' you weren't martyr but a suicide. The problem has acquired a horrible modern relevance: can someone who commits suicide in order to kill his enemies be regarded as a martyr? So perhaps, in order to be the Passover lamb, Jesus has to be handed over or delivered up -- not hand himself over or deliver himself up. His sacrifice has to be something which is done to him. So he needs a deliverer-upper.
And this, I think, is the significance of the woman who anointed Jesus. What provokes Judas into action is not the waste of money, but Jesus' words:
"She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying." (Mt)
"For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial." (Mk)
"Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this." (J)
Jesus is not merely expecting to die; he regards himself as already dead, and thanks Mary for embalming him. If we want to look at this psychologically, we could say that Jesus is giving the disciples a signal. 'It's time. Arrange for me to be delivered up.' But it is mistake to look at these stories in terms of cause and effect. At the end of Jesus ministry a woman anointed his body for the burial; once he had been prepared for burial someone went to arrange for his arrest; the arrest of Jesus happened because it was the right time for it to happen; the fact that he had been embalmed showed that it was the right time.
And of course, the next day, Jesus continued to talk in the same way. Having met with his disciples to eat the Passover, Jesus gives them all a pieces of bread and said 'This is my body.' He is not saying that he expects to die: he is saying that (mythologically and magically) he is a dead man. By telling them to eat his body on Passover night, he is is saying that he regards himself as the Passover lamb. In the magical paradigm, the natural order of events has been reversed. Having eaten the Passover Lamb, all that remains is to slaughter him.

10: The Fourth Gospel
John's version of events contains a number of differences from the synoptics.
1: Jesus has always known that Judas is going to betray him.
After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus gives out some particularly obscure teachings. Jesus comments: 'There are some of you that believe not', and John adds:
'For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.'
A little later, as a result of the same sermon, some of his followers desert him. Jesus asks if any of the Twelve are also planning to defect.
Then Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.'
Jesus answered them, 'Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?' He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.
John says that this miracle happened around the time of Passover. And Jesus follows it up with a strange message in which he identifies himself with the manna that the Jews ate during the exodus.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him."
Understandably, some of those present say 'This is an hard saying' -- that's why some of them decide to leave. John clearly wants us to make a connection between the feeding of the five thousand and the Last Supper: it is therefore very interesting that this is the context in which he first mentions Judas forthcoming betrayal.
2: John gives a slightly more naturalistic account of the circumstances of Jesus arrest
As we have seen the synoptics don't give any literal reason why the Priests decided to kill Jesus as a matter of urgency. John offers a very specific explanation. Jesus has become very popular following the resurrection of Lazarus. The Priests see that if this provokes the occupying forces to have a crackdown, they aren't likely to distinguish between this charismatic preacher and the official priesthood -- so it is vitally important that they do something to emphatically distance themselves from the Jesus movement.
John also gives us a more rational explanation as to why the Priests need Judas' help. Jesus knows that the Priests are plotting to kill him:
Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness.
This strongly implies that Jesus is in hiding, and that the Priests actually need a mole who will direct them to his hide-out. This is slightly different from the synoptics who say that he's still a public figure, and the priests are just looking for somewhere quiet to take him into custody.
3: John does not say that Judas went to the Priests in advance, or that they gave him money.
4: John's version of the Last Supper story is unique
John describes the Last Supper as follows:
When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me'. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus answered, 'He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.' And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.
Then said Jesus unto him, 'That thou doest, do quickly' Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, 'Buy those things that we have need of against the feast'; or, that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.
As in the other three versions, Jesus says that he is going to be betrayed – indeed. John cites exactly the same words that Matthew does. As we have seen, in Matthew and Mark all the disciples ask Jesus to identify the betrayer; in Luke, they talk among themselves. In John, they merely look at each other. However, Peter asks John to ask Jesus to point out who the betrayer will be.
Jesus singles out Judas by giving him a small piece of bread. Although some details are different, this feels very similar to Matthew's account: in both versions, it appears that Jesus is selecting Judas, rather than merely identifying him. 'And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.' Although Jesus says during the 'bread from heaven' discourse that Judas 'is' a devil; and John says at the beginning of the Last Supper 'the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him....' this appears to be the point at which Judas makes his decision irrevocably.
So the overall structure is essentially the same as the synoptics: Judas goes to the Upper Room having taken the first steps to becoming a betrayer (Satan as put it into his mind; he has discussed it with the Priests) but now, Jesus singles him out (gives him the sop, uses the words 'Thou hast said') and he makes the decision irrevocably.
The 'sop of bread' is rather interesting. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus say that the betrayer will be 'one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in this dish' ('he that dippeth his hand with me in the dish'); but neither of them seem to know that story about Jesus giving Judas a sop. There doesn't seem to be any Old Testament prophecy which they are both drawing on: John quotes Psalm 41 'Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me' – but this doesn't mention dishes, and is in any case covered by the presence of Judas at the Last Supper itself. Is it possible that a traditional account, known to all four evangelists, implied that dishes were in some way important, but that only John, the eye-witness, could explain what their significance was? Luke seems to go out of his way to avoid sops: 'he that dippeth his hand with me in this dish' has become : 'the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table'. Is it possible that he knows that the 'sop' is associated with the idea that Jesus selected and endorsed Judas and therefore stays away from it?
The idea that Jesus has selected Judas may also be implied by the words 'That thou doest, do quickly.' John is specific that Judas leaves the last supper at this point, and adds the dramatic detail 'And it was night.'
5: Judas does not identify Jesus to the priests; he does not kiss him or try to kiss him; and no words pass between them in the garden.
For Matthew and Mark, the act of 'betraying Jesus' is the act of 'pointing him out to the troops.' In John, it seems to mean 'bringing the troops to the place where Jesus is'. The key point is that Judas knows the location of the garden where Jesus can be found.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples. And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples. Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, 'Whom seek ye?' They answered him, 'Jesus of Nazareth'. Jesus saith unto them, 'I am he'. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.
If we read John in isolation from the synoptics, I think that we would conclude that Jesus is in hiding, and that the Priests need an informer to lead them to his hide-out. When they come to the garden; Judas work is done. (According to Luke (in Acts) this is how Peter understood Judas role. 'This scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the holy ghost by the mouth of David spoke concerning Judas which was guide to those that took Jesus.' Luke, as we've seen, doesn't say that the kiss was an agreed sign between Judas and the troops.)
6: Jesus thinks that Judas' actions were predestined
Just before his arrest, when Jesus is praying, he seems to say that it was inevitable that Judas – or at any rate, that someone – would betray him:
"Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled."
'Son of perdition' seems to mean something like 'son of lostness': the New English Bible suggests 'Not one of them is lost except the man who must be lost, for scripture has to be fulfilled'; the GNB has '...except the man who was bound to be lost – so that the scripture might come true.' This could be taken in two ways. It could be a straightforward statement of pre-destination: there was a prophecy that one of Jesus followers would betray him; and Judas couldn't buck the prophecy. But 'the scripture' which had to be fulfilled could just as well be the scripture which said that Jesus would take on himself the role of the Pascal Lamb. One of the disciples had to volunteer to be lost in order to facilitate the fulfilment of that prophecy; and Judas was chosen for that role.

11: The Elephant in the Upper Room
People got excited about the phony Judas gospel because they had been misleadingly told that it contained new information about the trial of Jesus. They thought that, put alongside the Christian gospels, it might enable us to work out what really happened.
Something certainly happened. The four Gospels -- all five, if you count Paul – are agreed on the basic events. Jesus was in the garden...someone led the Priests to him. There was a kiss...there was a sop or a dish....there was a field...a potter was involved somehow. Money changed hands...Jesus knew it was coming....the disciples asked who was going to do it...Jesus told was Judas fault. Either these are different accounts of the same set of events, or they are different takes on a story which they'd all heard.
But in telling their different versions of the story, they seem to be very uninterested in the naturalistic, political, psychological detail: they are rehearsing a story which "everybody knows", but they are also conducting a theological debate. Why did these things happen? Who was to blame? How did it come about that the YHWH's Messiah died on a cross? Why did Jesus choose a traitor to be in his group in the first place?
For Matthew the answer seems to be: "Jesus knew that he was the paschal lamb, and that he had to die at Passover. He selected Judas to hand the Lamb over the Priests, because it was time for the Priests to sacrifice the Lamb." Luke's answer is more like "When it was time for Jesus to be handed over to Satan, Satan took possession of one of his followers; who was a pretty bad sort to begin with." John says something more complicated: "From one point of view, Jesus was in hiding and the Jews needed an infiltrator to lead them to a secret garden. But from another point of view, what was really happening was that God was giving himself over to the power of Satan: Judas was the vessel for Satan and Jesus was the vessel for God."
Jesus was sentenced to death by a Roman and executed by Roman soldiers. But the Gospels are adamant that it was not the Romans' fault. In John's Gospel, the Priests say to Pilate "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee."; Pilate says to Jesus "Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me" and Jesus says to Pilate "He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin". Responsibility for Jesus death rests with the person or people who did the "delivering up": the Jewish priests; the Jews in general; Judas.
The name "Judas" is the same as "Judah" -- the brother of Joseph who was the ancestor of King David, who gave his name to the country (the land of Judah) and its religion (Judasim). It was also the name of the hero whose liberation of the temple is celebrated at Hanukkah. Hyam Maccabee asks us to imagine that there was a single English name that was the equivalent to 'England', 'The Church of England', 'Queen Elizabeth I' and 'Nelson' – and that some writer then gave that name to the worst traitor in history!
When we say "Judas/Judah caused the death of Jesus," are we in fact repeating the old libel that "The Jews are Christ killers"?
Well, yes, obviously we are. And surely this is why Matthew and Luke's versions of the story are so different. Luke is a gentile convert; a friend of St. Paul. He doesn't see question of Jewish guilt as a particular problem. "Judah" delivered-up Jesus: well then, "Judah" was a vessel of Satan, a traitor, or a son of iniquity. He didn't repent, or commit suicide, or try to repent his sin. He tried to profit from it, but God struck him down. The temple has been destroyed, and the church is in its place; Judah was struck down by God and replaced by Matthias. His part in the story is over, and now we have no particular interest in him.
But Matthew is writing for Jewish Christians: he regards the fact that "Judah" delivered-up Jesus to be a stumbling block. So he makes it very clear that while "Judah" did indeed hand Jesus over, he didn't do so out of malice, but because Jesus selected him for the role. He didn't gain anything from the transaction, and was indeed filled with remorse when he saw its consequences. Far from blaming him, Jesus called him "friend" and they exchanged a kiss of friendship at the very last. And Jesus acknowledged that "Judah" would participate in the Messiah's reign at the end of time.


i Matthew and Luke are generally thought to be independent of each other, but to have both used Mark as a source. They are also thought to have had access to a separate collection of Jesus' sayings ('Q') which was unknown to Mark. John is thought to be independent of all three, although I find it hard to believe that he wasn't at least familiar with the synoptic accounts of the Passion. I don't think that my argument crucially depends on this standard model, but it is easier to type 'Luke added to Mark' than 'Luke added to Mark, or Mark deleted from Luke, or both of them independently changed a third lost document'. Similarly, 'Mark' has fewer keystrokes than 'the author or redactor of what has come to be known as Mark's Gospel.' Matthew, Mark and Luke are the 'synoptic' gospels, but you knew that already.
ii Luke also tells a story about Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary. In this story, Martha is 'cumbered with much serving' while Mary sits at Jesus feet and 'hears his words'; Martha reprimands Mary, but Jesus says that she is doing the right thing. The message of this story is roughly the same as that of Matthew's: spiritual acts (listening to Jesus words, anointing him) are more important than practical ones (feeding the poor, preparing the meal). John's version of the anointing seems to be conflation of the two stories: note that he points out that while Mary is pouring ointment over Jesus 'Martha served'. But while Matthew and Mark say that Jesus head was anointed; John seems to have taken from Luke's story of the sinful woman the vivid detail that the woman poured oil on Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair. Alternative theories, such as 'Mary, having heard about a sinner wiping Jesus feet with her hair, wanted to show that she, a friend, was prepared to be just as generous' have the whiff of after the fact rationalizations, not to say fan-fiction.