Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thought for the Day

Dave Sim: Having just finished a biography of William Blake, I understand he suffered terribly from this. In many ways, he was the original self-publisher.

I mean, I really want to do a good multilayered story with Cerebus, and I have a compulsion to say a lot of -probably too many- things in the six thousand pages.

But, man, at least I don 't have a sense of being put here on Earth to put everything right. To me, Blake clearly thought he was Moses or Jacob or the heir to their legacy, anyway.

Chosen by God to tell the world what really happened, get everyone to agree that every Renaissance painter he didn't like was a fraud and everyone he did like was a prophet or a beacon on the hill. everyone he liked was an angel from his personal God until he didn't like those people anymore, at which time they were one of the Legions of Hell sent to torment him.

People like that I find very worrisome....

Alan Moore: ...If (Blake) occasionally seems to have an inflated opinion of himself, it would seem to me only a natural counter-reaction to his seeming wretchedness and failure in all save the eyes of a few close friends (and, of course, posterity).

You're right in naming him the first self-publisher, near as damn it, and I think that you might find more in common with him than there seems to be at first glance: a man who had a vision and decided that the best way to convey it was by devoting his life's work to an extended fantasy narrative, a symbolic world where invented characters would play out the drama of the creator's divine insight

....This is not to discount your own view of Blake of course, simply to suggest that my own is maybe a bit more forgiving and more prepared to overlook the occasional bout of hubris.

Lord knows, Dave, we're not above the occasional bout of hubris ourselves, are we? And we haven't even written London or painted Glad Day yet.

(William Blake: Nov 28 1757 - Aug 12 1827)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thought for the Day

Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that's it - the Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations, can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek. But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thought For The Day

Here lies a whole world after one
Peculiar mode; a buried sun,
Stars and immensities of sky
And cities here discarded lie.
The prince who owned them, having gone,
Left them as things not needed on
His journey; yet with hope that he,
Purged by aeonian poverty
In lenten lands, hereafter can
Resume the robes he wore as man.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

And here's another one

This time, we manage to go from "People sometimes support football teams from towns where they don't live" to "The Government has a policy to stamp out History and Geography" via "Children don't know dates and maps as well as they did in the Olden Days. Is this some kind of complex multi-layered parody, do you think?

Spider-Man, And So Forth...

Why are elephants large, grey and wrinkled?

Because if they were small, white and smooth, they'd be aspirins.

The BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko didn't actually tell us a great deal we didn't already know. The Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange were very good; but after Steve Ditko stopped drawing them, they were never quite so good again; pages 1-4 of Amazing Spider-Man #33 are very good indeed; Ditko's post-Marvel work is very odd; Ayn Rand isn't very sensible.

But in the course of the programme, Jonathan Ross achieved something which I don't think anyone else has ever managed. He caused Stan Lee's mask to slip.

I don't know whether Woss is at all heard-of in Americaland; but I can only think that his TV persona – part foul-mouthed simpleton, part film-buff comic-buff fan-nerd – caused Stan to lower his guard.

At the beginning of the interview (a five minute segment of an hour long show) Lee is playing the role we all know and love. He's Stan The Man, egomaniac huckster who thinks nothing of comparing himself with God. ("....then we did Spider-Man and then we did the X-Men and of course on the seventh day I rested.") But he's also Smilin' Stan, the father figure who praises his collaborators to high heaven. Steve Ditko (or, as it may be, Jack Kirby) was a genius; one of the greatest guys he ever worked with; he was heart-broken when he decided to quit.

He's more than usually frank about the idiosyncrasies of Marvel Method. At first, he says, he would give Ditko a detailed plot to work from: but even at that stage: "(Steve) would draw the strip any way he wanted...he would add in a lot of things I hadn't even thought of." Later on, Lee says his input was reduced to a one-line summary such as "Hey, let's use Sandman as the next villain – let's have Sandman kidnap Mary Jane – I might not say any more than that."

If this is literally true, then Lee was giving Ditko an even freer hand than Kirby: a typical Stan Lee Fantastic Four plot seems to have run to at least a paragraph. But it probably can't be taken literally. Ditko would have been quite surprised at being asked to write a story in which Sandman kidnapped M.J, since M.J didn't debut until three months after he'd stopped working for Marvel Comics.

Lee concludes by saying "After a while, I wouldn't even say that much to Steve. He would just go and do whatever story he wanted."

So: Steve Ditko created part of the storyline for the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man (#1 - #13, perhaps?); most of the storyline for the middle issues (say, #14 - #25) and all the storyline for the latter issues -- say #26 - #38. This confirms what every informed fan already believed: the primary creative force behind the good issues of Amazing Spider-Man was not Stan Lee but Steve Ditko. Lee was only the "writer" in so far as he added speech bubbles and captions to Ditko's finished work. In the final year of the collaboration (issue #25 onwards) Amazing Spider-Man was credited as "Scripted by Stan Lee; Plotted and Drawn by Steve Ditko"; but we now have it direct from Stan The Man that several of the issues prior to that – rather pointedly credited as "Written by Stan Lee; Illustrated by Steve Ditko" -- were primarily plotted by the artist.

But this leaves us with a metaphysical, not to say theological question: "Who Created Spider-Man"? The answer, rather boringly, seems to be 'It depends what you mean by "created" ; it depends what you mean by "Spider-Man".' "

Stan Lee's first stab at an answer applies the tin opener to several very large worm cans:

"(Steve) had complained to me a number of times when there were articles written about Spider-Man which called me the creator of Spider-Man. I had always thought I was, because I am the guy who said 'I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man and so forth.' Steve had said, having an idea is nothing, because until it becomes a physical thing, it's just an idea. He said it took him to draw the strip and to give it life so to speak and to make it actual, something tangible, otherwise all I had was an idea. So I said to him 'Well I think the person with the idea is the person who creates it', and he said 'No, because I drew it.' "

Spider-Man is a fictitious character. As such, he can only be thought of in the context of a particular story. If someone who had never read Shakespeare asked us "Who is Romeo?" we would reply "He was a young man who fell in love with the daughter of his family's worst enemy; and killed himself when he believed she was dead." That is: we would tell some version of the story which Shakespeare wrote. The Sam Raimi movie follows the story of Amazing Fantasy #15 rather closely and is therefore recognisably about Spider-Man: the 1977 TV series doesn't and isn't. Lee happily admits that the stories in which Spider-Man is embedded were partly, mainly, or entirely created by Steve Ditko: doesn't this mean that Ditko is partly, mainly, or entirely the creator of Spider-Man? Or is there some essence-of-Spider-Man which exists separately from any particular story about him?

Lee's claim to creatorship rests with him having said "I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man, and so forth." This point is not in question: when a fan asked Ditko in 1965 who created Spider-Man, he replied that "Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist & spider signal."

More recently, Ditko claimed that Lee's original idea had involved a teenager who used a magic ring to turn into Spider-Man – or at any rate, that this was what happened in Kirby's rejected treatment of Lee's idea. If that's right, then we would have to add "radioactive spider" to the list of Ditko creations. I'm inclined to think, based on what Lee said in the Origins books and elsewhere that the "idea" was to do a comic book in which a teenager was the main hero, not the side-kick; where the hero was a fallible everyman figure who had to struggle to beat the bad guys; and who would be treated with a modicum of realism. Would a fallible teenager with a different origin, somewhat different powers and an entirely different costume be recognisably Spider-Man?

People who are not themselves creative often believe that successful writers have access to a mysterious commodity called "ideas". They think that it is the lack of those "ideas" which is preventing them from becoming famous novelists; and if only they could learn the trick, they too would have "ideas" and the rest would be easy. If only I'd been the one to have the idea about a boarding school for wizards...then I'd be as rich as J.K Rowling...this writing business is a racket, you know.

Sometimes, it works the other way round. A saddo wrote to the careers section of the Grauniad the other week, explaining that he has lots of ideas for novels which he doesn't actually want to write and asking who he could sell them to. Dear-Jeremy's reply was exemplary:

"The dismal truth is this: there are very few naked ideas that are obviously so original and promising that they have immediate value...Jot down a list of highly successful plays and novels...and then try to distil any one of them into an 'idea' that would have been instantly snapped up by an experienced producer or publisher...I bet you'll find the 'idea' was seen to be a great one only when it had been masterfully developed by someone who possessed unusual talent and a quite specific style. You simply can't disentangle an original idea from its subsequent treatment....Even funny sketches, which are more dependent on the basic idea than most things, are subject to this rule. 'A man goes into a pet shop to complain about his dead parrot' isn't going to strike anyone as immediately hilarious."

Well, quite.

Finally, let's note that Stan has relegated Steve's role back down to "I drew it". Perhaps it is true that when he claimed to be the creator on the grounds of having said "I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man and so forth" Ditko replied "I created it because I drew it." But he surely should have added: "And designed the costume; wrote most of the stories; devised the web-shooters and [maybe] the radioactive spider; and created at least several of the villains." (*)

However, Lee goes on to say that he conceded Ditko's point ("because I could see it meant a lot to him"). He went so far as to write him a letter stating that he had "always considered him to be the co-creator of Spider-Man". (Another terminological inexactitude, by the way: we've just been told that Stan hadn't always considered him to be so.)

And now comes the Frost-Nixon moment:

Jonathan Ross: Do you yourself believe that he co-created it?

Stan Lee: (Very long pause) I'm willing to say so.

Jonathan Ross: That's not what I'm asking you, Stan.

Stan Lee: No, and that's the best answer I can give you.

Jonathan Ross: So it's a "no" then, really?

Stan Lee: Pardon me?

Jonathan Ross: It's really "no"?

Stan Lee: I really think the guy who dreams the thing up created it. You dream it up and then you give it to anybody to draw it.

And there you have it. Stan Lee's believes that the actual, significant moment of creativity occurs when someone says "Let's do a strip called Spider-Man, and so forth". This is "the thing". Once you've done that difficult "dreaming-up" part, it's simply a matter of giving it to some third party (who could be "anybody"); whose role is simply to "draw it". This is bordering on cognitive dissonance: Lee seems to simultaneously know that Ditko wrote some, most, or all of Amazing Spider-Man, while at the same time believing that all he did was "draw" it.

Of course, Lee realises what has happened, and he immediately tries to re-assert the Smiley Stan persona:

Stan Lee: But I don't made me say that in this documentary that you're doing, and I'm sorry I said it because I'm happy to say that I consider Steve to be the co-creator.

But it's too late to put the mask back: we've seen the scar on the face of Doom. Amazing Spider-Man #13 included the poisonous credit: "Author: Stan Lee. Illustrator: Steve Ditko." And that, it seems, is what Stan still really believes.


Just to get it out of the way: to say that Stan Lee wasn't the primary creative force behind The Amazing Spider-Man is not the same as saying that he had zero creative input; nor to denigrate the man himself. After Woss's interview, no-one can ever again say that Lee is a credit-hound. He is willing, remarkably willing, to give Ditko credit as the originator of most of what was good in the Spider-Man comic book. This makes his clinging to the idea that he is the source of some Aristotelian essence-of-Spider-Man which exists apart from any particular story, and any particular artistic telling of that story, all the odder.

Stan Lee wrote the words. Alan Moore says that the first four pages of The Amazing Spider-Man # 33 depend wholly on Ditko's pictures and not at all on Stan Lee's dialogue. This is unquestionably true. "I did it! I'm free!" might be the most redundant caption in the whole history of comics. But against this, we could set the remarkable final page of Amazing Spider-Man #10. Surely J Jonah Jameson's character is advanced further through Lee's speech balloon: "I can never climb to Spider-Man's level, so all that remains for me is to tear him down, because, heaven help me, I'm jealous of him" than by the fact that Ditko chose to depict his face in shadow?

And of course, it was Stan Lee who wrote Spider-Man's Groucho Marx banter; Doctor Strange's incomprehensible magic spells; Benn Grimm's New York wise-cracks and Norrin Radd's agonized soliloquies -- as well as some of the funniest captions ever. And precisely because he wasn't the main creator, his writing was detached from the action; almost as if he was providing a midrashic commentary on Steve and Jacks stories. This gave Marvel a weird, post-ironic tone that not even Alan Moore has ever been able to replicate. And it can hardly be said too often that neither Kirby nor Ditko ever produced on their own work which was as memorable or significant as what they produced with Stan Lee.

If I notice that there is no cake shop on the High Street, rent some property, hire the best pastry chef in town and tell him to make two dozen cherry pies, then there is no doubt at all that you have me to thank for your pudding.

But by no stretch of the imagination does that make me a baker.

(*)This is probably the biggest point in Lee's favour: the new villains who appeared in the purely Ditko plotted issues were The Spider Slayer robot, The Crime Master, The Molten Man, The Cat Burglar, The Looter / Meteor-man, some more robots, and 'a guy named Joe' – none of whom have anything like the iconic status of Doc Ock, the Lizard, the Vulture, the Green Goblin or Sandman. Does this suggest that Lee was inputting "high concepts" which Ditko on his own wasn't capable of?


Suppose I'd better start trying to catch up, then.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Thought for Today

"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies and threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Likely to be out of circulation for the next three weeks (nothing bad.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

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.

And so the long winter evenings continued to fly by.



Surely you aren't saying that unless I've studied leprachology to the same advanced level as you obviously have I'm not allowed to talk about what I saw at the bottom of my own garden? Thank you also for pointing out all my jokes for the benefit of anyone who might have missed them.

I have in front of me the volume 1 of the SPCK "Documents of the Christian Church."

Document 282 is by one "Alexander of Alexandria". Nice to know the tradition of theologians having silly names goes back as far as the fourth century: I think Herman the German is nicer.

Alexander says that various heretics, including Arius, assert that:

"God was not always a father, but there was when he was not a father; the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing, for that the ever-existing god has made him who did not previously exist, out of the non-existent. Wherefore "there was when he was not" inasmuch as according to their philosophy "the Son is a creature and a work; he is neither like the Father in essence, nor is by nature either the Father's true Word or his true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and his creatures, being by a misuse of language called Word and Wisdom since he came into being by God's own Word the Wisdom which is in God, wherefore God made all things an him also. Wherefore "He is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of chance, as all other rational things are: hence the Word is alien to, foreign to, and excluded from the essence of God: and the Father is invisible to the Son, for neither does the Son perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he perfectly behold him....Some one accordingly asked them whether the Word of God could be changed, as the devil has been, and the feared not to say "Yes: he certainly could, for being begotten and created, his nature his susceptible of change."

That was what I understood "Arianism" to mean. That is also roughly what I understand the Jehovah's Witnesses to believe. I think that they explicitly claim that there were two Words of God, one of whom, Lucifer, did in fact turn to the Dark Side. But on that point I may have them confused with the Worldwide Church of God, who are neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire. I must admit that I don't know anything about Christedelphians, although one did once accuse me of being the Antichrist.

Text 283 in the same book is a letter from Arius to Eusebius (a Bishop). Arius seems to claim that his only point of disagreement with the rest of the church is that he denies that that the Son has always existed: they say "God has always been and the Son has always been; Father and Son exist together."; where he says that

God (i.e God the Father) has existence without beginning prior to his Son...he was not, before he was begotten, or created, or purposed or established...We are persecuted because we say "The Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning...This is really the cause of our persecution; and, likewise, because we say that he is from nothing.

He seems to specifically deny that he thinks that this means that the Son is subject to change.

So: your point is that the name Arianism was incorrectly attached by Alexander to a theological position that Arius himself never held? That, contrary to what Alexander accused him of, he didn't mean to deny that Jesus was God, but merely to make a technical (though, on his view, significant) point about whether God has "always" been Father, Son and Holy Spirit or whether the Second and Third persons were brought into existence after the First? And that therefore the issue of consubstantiality is less substantial than I thought it was?

Would this mean that Arius was being blamed for other people's more extreme theological claims? Or simply that Alexander was presenting an unfair caricature of the group, and that in fact, no-one ever believed the kind of things which Alexander is talking about? Entertainingly, that would mean that the Jehovah's Witnesses had revived an ancient heresy that no-one believed in in the first place. Which is fair enough: people are reviving non-existent ancient orthodoxies all the time.

I can see that the distinction between "begotten in time" and "begotten from eternity" might be seen as quite a small theological point; and from the texts I have in front of me, I get the impression that Arius can't quite see what all the fuss is about. Eusebius (not the Bishop, but the historian -- damn these pesky leprechauns) and the poet Milton both believed that Christ was "begotten in time" – but they regarded themselves as Christian. And, so far as I can see, they regarded people who didn't believe that as Christians, and people who didn't believe that regarded them as Christians. Eusebius practically regarded Constantine as a second Christ, which is strange considering that we know from Dan Brown that it was Constantine who invented the idea of the Trinity to begin with. (That was one of those joke things I do from time to time.)

So: I may be incorrect in saying that the beliefs of Arius as opposed to those people, if any, who held the beliefs attributed to Arius by Alexander were of a radically different character to those of what became Christian orthodoxy. But I am still no closer to understanding what Dawkins had in mind when he said that Arius's claims about "consubstantiality" were a claims about "very little" and where he thought it fitted in to his overall argument.

A decent lepracologist might have written something like:

"The arguments about the nature of God became so complex that when Arius made a small, technical claim about whether or not God the Son had existed from the beginning of time; he was accused of denying his Divinity, and saying that he was subject to change and could theoretically have fallen, like Satan. Arius insisted that he had said no such thing, but this didn't stop him being kicked out of the church, although there is some evidence that he was readmitted towards the end of his life. This is the trouble with trying to tie down the nature of a hypothetical being whose existence you can't prove either way: you can't even agree about what you disagree about it, and an awful lot of time, energy and in some case, blood is wasted on all sides."

Is this the kind of argument that you think that Dawkins has in mind? Is he using "very little" to stand in for it, – just as, on my view, he uses "really" to stand in for a complicated argument about the meaning of the Ten Commandments and their relationship to the Talmud; and "abetted" to stand in for a complex example about the dating and composition of the Gospels? I think that's an unhelpful way of proceeding.

I am personally still inclined to think that Dawkins had no argument in mind. He was merely making the kind of "aren't Christians silly" noises that he thought would soften up an already sympathetic audience. There is nothing terribly wrong with this kind of rhetorical gesture. If I wanted to make out a case against feminism, or health and safety regulations, or Government health service reforms, I might very well read out some absurdly jargon laden document in a silly voice and encourage the audience to laugh at it. It would not be at all to the point for Germain Greer to come along afterwards and explain that, if only I'd read some Lacan, the passage in question was perfectly explicable and actually made some good points. I wasn't really saying "Feminist writing is obscure, therefore feminism is untrue". I was saying "Ha-ha, aren't we all good common sense bluff chaps here, and don't we all know what kind of thing happens when you let laidees try to do the thinking for themselves, bless their little hearts...."

If the entire speech consisted of nothing but knockabout of this kind, you I might think that the speaker didn't really have any substantive points to make.

There was a two page article in the Grauniad yesterday by someone who I assume I should have heard of. predicated on the premise that "It is shameful to listen to Bob Dylan records" and "It is absurd to think that Bob Dylan writes good songs." The article was quite funny; but there was not one single word to suggest what the writer though Dylan's weaknesses were: or, indeed, anything else.

I see the point about "contact with reality", but I don't know what kind of answer would satisfy you. The "reality" which is claimed to be behind religious doctrine is presumably, "mystical experience" and "divine revelation". Put another way "We think we know certain things about God because we think that certain people know how to get in touch with him." Or, on the third hand: "The doctrinal statements are agreed formulas which take into account what Jesus taught about himself; what his direct followers taught about him; and what holy people who have been in touch with him have taught subsequently."

Before anyone says so, this is clearly a circular process: doctrine was shaped by Scripture, but then what constituted Scripture, and who was regarded as "a holy person" was partly defined by doctrine. Would it help at all if I said "organic" and waved my hands around?

Presumably a doctrine might be rejected because it contradicts other doctrines: you might say "We are agreed that God came to the disciples at Pentecost; therefore, a doctrine which says that the Spirit is not God has to be rejected", but that, obviously, only creates a teaching which is more or less consistent: not necessarily true.

Could you accept that some doctrines make a difference at a "spiritual" level? I don't like using the word "spiritual" very much: I mean "at the level of the subjective and emotional life of the actual man in the actual pew?" I would certainly concede that some doctrines don't make any difference at that level: it doesn't really make any difference to anyone's inner life whether the Third Person of the Trinity proceeded from the First and Second Persons of the Trinity or from the First alone. Could you understand that the story of Jesus-crucified-and-risen-again has an emotional effect on me and that I believe that effect to be meaningful; and that the emotional effect of a story in which Jesus was not "god in human form" but just "some guy" (as the liberals say) or "just some supernatural guy, albeit a very important one" as the Arians, if not Arius, say would be quite different?

My understanding is that "ousia" means literally "being"; "homo-ousia" is therefore "same being"(cf "homo-sexual" same sex.) "Physis" means "nature". The Chalcedonian creed, which is I believe still officially church doctrine, says that the human Jesus didn't have the Son of God instead of a soul -- in which case he'd have been a sort of divine zombie. And he didn't have the Son of God as well as a soul -- a sort of schizophrenic Christ of the kind envisaged by my old friend the Rev. Steve Winter. It says that the Son of God was amalgamated with a human being (consisting of both a body and a soul) to such a degree that both "He is a man" and "He is a God" are true of him. The Nicene creed says that the Son of God is of one being with the Father; The Chalcedonian creed says that in the earthly Jesus two natures one human and one divine were combined. I don't know whether it would have made a difference to say that the Son of God had the same nature as God but that two beings were combined in Jesus. Nor, as a matter of fact, do I particularly care. But if you know a bit of background or take the time to pull some books down from the shelf, it isn't too hard to work out what was being talked about; and what was being talked about was not, I think, nothing. If you and I can do it I don't see why Dawkins shouldn't have to.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

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.


There's more being said here than I can keep up with. My actual intention in starting the new Dawkinsian series was to respond to some criticisms that had been made about my original articles, and especially, to correct some actual errors: my comments on the TLS and Independent pieces were really only meant as a warm up. So I shall try to comment on some of what has been said, and then write about something else.


Let's start with the Holy Trinity because that's relatively straightforward.

Gareth wrote:

I don't think the formula, analogy and "spiritual statement" you propose that the Man In The Pew might provide when asked about the Trinity are "clear and lucid" at all. Something isn't lucid merely because it's neatly expressed, or clear merely because it gives a feeling of having understood something. And if you say something that, on the face of it, is contradictory, then while of course you may in fact be saying something perfectly coherent and reasonable I don't think you can be held to have said something clear and lucid until you've done something to resolve the contradiction. The usual waffle about triangles, cubes, and suchlike doesn't really do very much to resolve it.

Now, actually, I suspect that the Man In The Pew typically has a reasonably coherent notion of the nature of God. He either thinks that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are parts of God, as the sides of a cube are parts of the cube, or that they are aspects or modes of operation of God, as ice and liquid water and water vapour are of H2O. The only trouble is that these reasonably coherent notions are heresies, because any time anyone's said anything comprehensible about the Trinity the Church has declared it a heresy.....

...Did Dawkins
actually say that the (alleged) fact that Christians argue about non-issues is a point against the existence of God? I don't think he did. He did suggest that ridicule might be an appropriate response when people make meaningless statements with great confidence and claim that they're vitally important, and it seems to me that that's not entirely wrong even though one can distinguish reasonably well between Arius and Athanasius. I think one can make that distinction largely because Arius, unlike Athanasius, did in fact say things that make some sense. But it happens that Athanasius won, and present-day Christians do in fact commonly affirm solemnly every week that they believe that Jesus was "of one substance with the Father", and even though they can distinguish that from "not of one substance with the Father", I doubt that one in a hundred can give a genuinely coherent account of what it means for a human being, capable of making mistakes and dying and so on, to be "of one substance with the Father". (I'm not entirely sure that even one can -- i.e., it's not clear that any genuinely coherent account exists -- but I don't wish to press that point. Also: it's probably also true that not one person in a hundred, or even one in ten thousand, could give a coherent account of what it means to say that gravity results from the curvature of spacetime; it's certainly possible for something to be very difficult to make sense of but still correct.)

When we say that someone "understands" a religious doctrine we might mean either "understands what the doctrine is" or "fully understands and conceptualises the reality which that doctrine (supposedly) represents." The ability to "say what the doctrine of the trinity is" ("It means that the Father and the Son are God, but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father") isn't the same as fully understanding and conceptualizing what a triune God is like. You say that you doubt if even one believer really understands the Trinity in the second sense. I agree: no-one can fully understand and conceptualize God. Duh!

If I could be hairsplitty for a moment: the question of how a finite and limited human being can at the same time be the omnipotent God isn't strictly a question about the doctrine of the Trinity, but the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Trinity is about the relationship which "God the Son" has to "God the Father" (and always has had, and would always have had even if the universe had never been created.) Once that had been sorted out to everyone's satisfaction, the Church occupied itself with many useful discussions about what exactly it meant for "God the Son" to be "incarnated", eventually settling the issue in the middle of the fifth century.

You don't need to go as far as "the curvature of space": there are lots of things which we know or believe in but can't describe in words. "The smell of coffee" is the text-book example.

I agree that if you could look into the mind of The Man in the Pew while he was saying his prayers you would see some very crude mental pictures. I am sure that you would find a lot of people who imagined a man with a white beard saying "Shazam!" and turning into a Jewish carpenter: (a Jewish carpenter with Robert Powell's features and a tea-towel on his head, obviously.) This is the Sabellian heresy, or patripassianism if you prefer. I am sure that you would find a lot of mental pictures of a big shiny man with a smaller shiny man standing next to him: pure Arianism. (If you judged Mr Jack Chick by his amusing religious cartoon strips, then he's a pure Arian.) I think that the Sophisticated Believers use equally crude mental pictures, but that they add: "I know that this is only a crude picture; it needs to be corrected against other crude pictures, and the Complicated Doctrinal Statement." But then the holiest saints and the cleverest theologians would be the first to admit that their mental pictures of God are pretty crude diagrams: at any rate, not the real thing. Charles Wesley wrote: "Our God contracted to a span; incomprehensibly made man". If you had asked him if he thought it was theologically correct that the incarnation made God smaller, he might have replied "No: and I think that most babies are larger than "a span" as well." The map is not the territory, as the fellow said.

It's a good joke to say that any time anyone says anything sensible about the Trinity, it's declared a heresy. (You will Oscar; you will.) It would be truer, I think, to say that the Church thinks that if you bang one nail on the head, you'll dislodge all the others: that it's all very well to have a mental of a big shiny man and a small shiny man (with a big shiny bird flying above them) but that once you say "That's what God is really like" they'll say "No; it's only a picture; it needs to be corrected against other pictures".

We might spend a cheerful evening wondering whether the Crude Mental Image or the Complicated Doctrine is what people "really believe"; doubtless allowing ourselves some time to ask what is meant by "really" and "believe". We might also ponder whether the Complicated Doctrine is an attempt to systematize various Mental Pictures into a formula which everyone can more or less sign up to; or whether the Mental Pictures are various attempts to visualise the Complicated Doctrine. (The answer would come out as "A bit of both.)

I expect you are going to ask what my Crude Mental Image is. That is, if I may say so, a rather personal question. I largely think in terms of Dorothy L Sayers' analogy: that God (the Father) is like The Author of the Book, rather than any particular character or object within it. But you could imagine a writer turning up as a character in his own book: Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales ; Sim in Cerebus: Grant Morrison in Animal Man; Alisdair Gray in Lanark. (Sayers doesn't specifically refer to Animal Man, I must admit.) And you could also say that the author is present in a different way on every page of the book. This works rather well, up to a point. Suppose Arthur Dent bumps into Douglas Adams in a bar, and Douglas says "I'm the one writing this story, you know." We immediately see how Douglas (the character who Arthur Dent meets) "is" Douglas (the guy in the real world sitting at an Apple Mac typing); but we don't imagine that Douglas vanished from his desk while he was writing the book. And if we said "That bit with Marvin – that was a very Douglas joke, wasn't it" we don't say "How can it have been a Douglas joke, when he was sitting in the bar with Arthur Dent." The personality that runs through the book, the character in the bar, and the person sitting at the writing desk are all Douglas; but the person at the writing desk is not sitting in the bar and the person sitting in the bar isn't present in those bits of the book he doesn't appear in. The wrinkle, as you are about to point out, is that Christians assert that the distinction between Douglas 1, Douglas 2, and Douglas 3 would have existed even if the book had never been written.

(It is interesting that when Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman write about supernatural entities, they slip into a kind of Trinitarian thinking. In Sandman and the Discworld books, there is a character called Death: a cute goth girl on the one hand and a grim reaper with a pale horse on the other. In both cases, Death "really" exists in place outside of space and time; but Death is also locally present in the ordinary world every time anyone dies. But at one point, Death becomes an ordinary mortal being – a girl named Didi. People carry on dying, and indeed, when Didi dies, Death comes for her. Didi doesn't live in the Dreaming, and Didi isn't present when ever anyone dies, but all three versions of Death are Death. I am sure that Gaiman, if not Pratchett, was quite aware of the theological overtones of this story when he wrote it.)

However, I don't think The Douglas Analogy is what I believe. What I believe is that "The man on the Cross is God." The Douglas Analogy, the formula that the Son is eternally begotten of the father, God from God, light from light, of one substance with the father, begotten not created, and the old tract which said that it's kinda a like a Judge who, when he had to pass sentence on his wastrel brother, handed down the heaviest fine the law allowed, and then paid it himself. But both the Incredibly Difficult Theological Formula and the Tremendously Naive Evangelistic Tract are more or less useful ways of explaining what "God on the Cross" means. A religion which said "the man on the Cross is the Archangel Michael" would be a religion of a completely different character, which is why I show Jehovah's Witnesses the door. Well, one of many reasons, actually.

Your friend Prof. Dawkins thinks that the question of whether God the Son is "of one substance with father" or merely "of a similar substance to the father" ("same substance" vs "similar substance" "homoousios" vs "homoiousios") means "very little". Now, does he mean that, since the term "essence" or "substance" is very vague, it isn't clear what the debate is about? But "substance" had a fairly clear meaning in Aristotelian philosophy. Possibly, a problem with the Creed is that it tried to use philosophical language to describe something which really needs to be thought about in "magical" terms. But it's not too hard to find out what the two sides of the Arian controversy thought that the term "substance" meant.

A naive or ignorant person might say that there is "very little difference" between describing someone as a "nigger" and describing them as a "negro" – after all, the former word is simply a facetious pronunciation of the latter. If they heard that someone lost their job, or was even prosecuted under law, for using the first word, they might perhaps describe it as "big endism". In fact, of course, the two terms while meaningless in themselves, denote a particular set of attitudes and beliefs: to use the term "nigger" is as much as to say "I am a racist." It would have been too hard to discover that a person's preference for ""homoousios" over "homoiousios"in the fourth century denoted a position within a substantive religious debate: namely "God on the Cross" or "An Archangel on the Cross".

(Pause for long digression about the way in which offensive terms are sometimes appropriated by the target group. Resume.)

Or perhaps Dawkins' point that there is simply no such thing as a substantive religious question – that, since God does not exist, one statement about him is as good as any other? But surely, Dawkins wouldn't resort to arguing "If something doesn't exist, then it is silly to discuss what it is like. God does not exist, so it is silly to discuss what God is like. Christians discuss what God is like. Therefore Christians are silly. Therefore God does not exist." Or, more simply: "God does not exist. Therefore, God does not exist."

At the weekend, I found myself discussing with a group of friends whether Sauron's capacity to shift his shape -- into a wolf or a bat -- was an example of the wider powers of the maia to cloth themselves in whatever form they wished; or whether it was unique necromantic ability of his own; and whether the limitation placed on him after the fall of Numenor -- that he could never again assume fair form -- meant that he was trapped in a single body, or whether he could assume any foul form he wished. And if he did indeed have the power to shift his shape, whether his followers of the same order could also do so – and if so, whether that meant that balrogs might have wings at one moment and none the next. You might think that such a discussion is a waste of time. One of my fan-groups appears to believe that knowledge of the works of Tolkien (and silver age comic books, apparently) automatically disqualifies me from holding valid opinions about religion. But clearly, you can have meaningful discussions about non-existent entities.

Who succeeded Michael Henchard as Mayor? What a stupid question. There's no such PLACE as Casterbridge, so how can we possibly discuss who held political office there?

I thought that Dawkins' failure to understand that a serious religious disagreement lay behind the term "consubstantial" was one example of his ignorance of theology causing him to make weak points. You said that Dawkins' could be forgiven for not understanding that doctrine of the Trinity, because it is an obscure idea that most Christians don't understand. I said that, on the contrary, most Christians understood the doctrine of the Trinity perfectly well. You said that, in fact, the mere ability to quote a formula, use an analogy, or describe a supposed spiritual experience didn't amount to understanding, and that, in fact, the doctrine of the Trinity (or the incarnation) was so obscure that probably no-one really understood it. I think that you have inadvertently slipped between "understanding what the doctrine is" and "fully understanding and conceptualizing what it means."

I agree, of course, that neither Dawkins nor the Man in the Pew "understands" the Trinity in the deeper sense. But I don't think that, in order to understand why the church split over the Arian controversy – why, indeed the Church of England does not think that Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, and the Jehovah's Witnesses do not think that Anglicans (or, indeed, anyone else) are Christians – you need to be able to fully conceptualize what a being who is both three and one; or a being who is both God and Man, would be like. I think you simply need to know what the doctrine is. And Dawkins could have found that out from any standard work.

In my next epistle, I may spend some time musing out loud about why Dawkins raised the issue of "consubstantiality" to begin with. Or something equally thrilling.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

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My response to comments raised a couple of thread ago became too long and boring so I've put them here. I shouldn't bother with them if I were you.

Gareth McCaughan said...
I think it's accepted on all sides that Dawkins knows very little theology in the what-theologians-study sense; I'm not sure it's so widely accepted, or so clearly true, that he doesn't know what real religious people (more specifically: real Christians) think. As you rightly observe, there's a difference.

Can I suggest that there are actually three categories here?

1: The Man in the Pew who thinks that Jesus was born of a Virgin because that's the story he's always heard.

2: The Clever Believer who thinks that the story of the Virgin Birth points to the uniqueness of Christ (and the obedience of Mary) but accepts that it might be a legend.

3: The Academic who can tell you exactly when and by what stages the doctrine of the Virgin Birth became a credal statement, who dissents from it and on what grounds and will scoff if you think it's the same as "immaculate conception".

I haven't read Cornwell's book, but the particular point at issue is one you asy is also "the substance of Terry Eagleton's critique". Well, Eagleton's review complains, up front and very explicitly, about Dawkins's lack of expertise in what-theologians-study: Eriugena, Duns Scotus, and all that. And his account of the sort of thinking that Dawkins doesn't engage with seems to me (1) to consist mostly of fog and (2) not particularly akin to what most actual Christians think about God . I don't think the ideas Dawkins criticizes are so desperately distant from those of actual theists as to make his book irrelevant to them.

Well, Dawkins supporters certainly do use phrases like "the flying Jewish zombie and the invisible sky Daddy" and "the sky fairy" which makes Dawkins protests that he knows that the Christians don't think that God is an old man in the sky with a beard a bit hard to swallow. Is the claim that The Man in the Pew thinks of God as a spatially located anthropomorphic super-being, and that the more sophisticated claims of theologians haven't trickled down to him yet? And that Dawkins is directing his firepower only at The Man In the Pew while reserving judgement on the ideas of more sophisticated believers"?

I agree that Eagleton lapsed into jargon. He always does. His Literary Theory was very much the Bible of the Sussex English Literature department. One of the cleverest people I know told me he found it impenetrable.

You gave a couple of examples -- Dawkins, apparently, is confused about the Trinity (unlike Christians, of course, whose ideas on that point are perfectly clear and lucid)

Yes: I think that The Man In the Pew would give you a clear and lucid account of the Holy Trinity. I think that he would either give you:

a: A formula, say "It means that Jesus, God the Father, and the Spirit are all God, but that Jesus isn't the Father and the Father isn't the Spirit."

b: An analogy "If you were a flatlander, you might think that a cube consisted of six separate squares and not see what people meant when they said it was a single object."

c: A spiritual statement "We think that Jesus is really, really God; and we think that God is really, really with us in Church when we pray; but obviously, in different ways – God did leave heaven empty when when he was living on earth as Jesus."

What he wouldn't necessarily be able to do is give you a history of the development of the doctrine, or talk about some of the philosophical questions people have asked about it. (Divine impassibility, filoque, movement between persons, and what-not.)

Dawkins asserts that there was no substantive difference between Arius and the rest of the church on the question of the Trinity because the term "consubstantial" has no meaning. (QUOTE: "Arius of Alexander, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial (that is, of one substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking?..."Very little" seems the only possible reply.) This is a stage in his chain of reasoning: it is "sophisitical" for Hindus to say that the different gods are incarnations or avatars of Rama; it is equally sophistical (also "hair splitting" and "big endism") for Christians to say that God is three-in-one. Therefore there is no real difference between monotheism and polytheism...

If you asked The Man in the Pew to define "consubstantial" he wouldn't be able to: but if you said "Some people – Jehovah's Witnesses for example – say that Jesus is not the same as God, but simply the first and best thing He created: is that the same as you believe, different from what you believe, or doesn't it make a difference" they would immediately understand that Arianism is not Christianity as they understand it. Dawkins could easily have found out what substantive issue lay behind the homoousios/homoiousios question. He chose not to: this makes his point about Christian sophistry and everything which follows from it invalid.

and absurdly takes Jesus's description of gentiles as "dogs" as indicating some sort of racial bias on his part.

Dawkins doesn't refer to the incident of the Cyro-Phoencian woman: he simply reproduces the claims made by someone called Hartung that Jesus thought that only Jews could be saved, Paul invented the idea of universal gentile Church, and that Jesus "would have" been shocked by this. (I think we can give up and go home when someone starts talking about what some historical person "would have" said.) This is another problem with writing about a field you are ignorant of: you have no way of knowing whether a given writer is mainstream, controversial, or a crackpot.

There are a large number of passages in the Bible where Jesus preaches love for Samaritans; talks about God having other sheep in other sheep folds; tells his followers to preach to the whole world; talks about God judging "the nations" on the basis of their charitable work; praising Romans for having more faith than Israelites; is worshiped by astrologer priests from the East etc etc. There are also a couple of passages -- two, off the top of my head -- in which he appears to favour Jews. The claim must therefore be: "All the universalistic passages are later interpolations; the pro-Jewish passages were said by the Historical Jesus." That's a big claim. Dawkins offers no evidence for it. At all.

And it wouldn't make any difference if he could. He claims to be showing that "the Bible" -- not some hypothetical lost source for the Bible, the Bible itself -- is a bad guide to morality, and claims in support of this case "to be calling attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethic teaching." ("Its ethical teaching" not the ethical teaching of a lost underlying source, or the ethical teaching of a hypothetical "historical Jesus" extrapolated from the canonical accounts.) Even if it is true that the Jesus who told the story of the good Samaritan and said "go and preach the gospel to all nations" is a fictitious character, based on a nasty racist about whom we know next to nothing ,that doesn't tell us one single thing about the "ethical teaching" of the actual book which I actually have on my actual shelf.

Well, fair enough; but are those confusions particularly relevant to the question of whether there is, in fact, any being much like the ones believed in by Christians, Jews and Muslims, or to the question of whether in practice religions like Christianity do more good or harm?

But...but...but...but... Dawkins was the one who raised them. Dawkins said that the fact that Christians argue about non-issues is a point against the existent of God; Dawkins said that the fact that Jesus "would have" thought that that gentiles were pigs was a point against God. Not me, not C.S Lewis, not Rowan Williams, Rabbi Blue. Dawkins, Dawkins, Dawkins.

This seems to be how this discussion goes.

Atheist Man says "One reasons for believing that there is no God is that the the Bible is horrible book, because...."

Christian Man says "No, the Bible is lovely book, because..."

And Atheist man says "How is the question of whether the Bible is nice or horrid relevant to the existence of God is quite beyond me. "

Is what is happening that atheist man's supporters are saying "Er...yes. Atheist man did write a shit book, and we a terribly embarrassed about it. We'd rather just talk about whether or not God exists than be reminded of the contents of the shit book."

(We've all done this: how many times have I said "Yes, C.S Lewis sometimes goes off on one about technology, or the welfare state, or homosexuality; but I still think his explanations of why Christians believe in the trinity, the atonement, miracles, or come to that God are as lucid as any you will read.")

It seems pretty clear to me that the answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second is less clear, and I think "Dawkins doesn't understand real religious people, other than crazed extremists, well enough; so we shouldn't take much notice of what he says about the benefits and harms of religion" is a reasonable argument. (I'm not sure I agree with it, but it's worth taking seriously.)

It feels to me as if the gourmets are saying: "Please, don't attack restaurants. We hate McDonalds just as much as you do – in fact, probably me, because our palettes are more finely attuned so we can detect flaws that you probably can't. You're criticisms about McDonalds are partly valid; but we eat at the Savoy." Does the critic respond. "Yes, of course when I say "restaurants food is high fat and low quality and wrapped in paper", I obviously don't include the Savoy: but sadly, there are a lot more fast food joints than upscale restaurants, so those are the one I spend my time attacking" or "No; the very fact that you eat at the Savoy gives spurious credibility to McDonalds. The only solution is to close down all restaurants" or even ""The food in the Savoy is high fat, low quality and wrapped in paper, and if you say it isn't, that's just because all you "eating out" people are part of the same conspiracy. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

But I'd be more impressed with the latter argument if the people making it didn't consistently treat Dawkins just as uncharitably as he treats religious people. "Librarians are no better than child molesters", forsooth!

I agree that the analogy between Dawkins and my imaginary anti-book campaigner is inexact. If I had wanted it to be exact, I would have written: "I know that librarians in this borough have been sexually molesting children but, horrible as that no doubt is, it arguably causes less damage than bringing the child up to read books in the first place." (God Delusion, p 317)

Fair point, nevertheless.

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

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4: B.Y.W.M

During an alleged review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which, surprisingly enough, he likes) Richard Dawkins makes the theological point that the story of Jesus' birth is not unique in literature. Readers of the Times Literary Supplement were doubtless astonished to learn for the first time that other legendary and mythological characters apart from Jesus have been said to have had no human father.

Dawkins rants that:

Jesus' case was abetted by a simple mistranslation of the Hebrew for 'young woman' into the Greek for 'virgin'.

This phrase comes up a lot. One might almost say that it was 'stock criticism'. In a whimsical essay about possible examples of 'virgin births' in nature, Dawkins ranted unequivocally that:

The entire legend of the Virgin Birth stems, in the first place, from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word meaning 'young woman' into a Greek word meaning 'virgin'.

It is worth examining this theological claim in some detail. I think it tells us a great deal about why relations between the religious and the non-religious are on the point of breaking down.

First, some dull facts.

Two out of the four canonical Gospels contain a story about the birth of Jesus. The stories are quite similar in structure: Jesus' birth is announced by an angel; it is initially disbelieved but then supernatural proofs are offered; his special nature is recognized by various unlikely people. However, the details are entirely different.

All scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but that they were independent of each other, apart from the ones who don't.The relevant part of Luke's narrative runs as follows:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the name of the virgin was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus"...

Then said Mary unto the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

And the angel answered and said unto her, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren."

The English word 'virgin' stands for the Greek word parthenos. So far as I know, no-one questions that parthenos means 'a woman who has not had sexual intercourse'. 'To know someone' is, of course, a Biblical euphemism for 'to have sex with them'. So when Mary asks "How is this possible, since I know not a man?", she is unambiguously asking "How can I possibly be pregnant since I haven't had sex yet?"

Here is Matthew's version:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."

....Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

Again, the text is quite un-ambiguous. It doesn't state in so many words that Mary was a virgin; but it does say that Jesus had no human father and that Joseph had not had sexual intercourse with Mary when Jesus was born.

If you try really, really hard, you can imagine a Hebrew text underlying Luke's Greek in which the word 'virgin' had meant 'young woman'. In this imaginary text, the angel would have been sent to a young woman in Nazareth; and the name of the young woman would have been Mary. It is even possible to imagine a text in which "How is this possible, since I know not a man?" had been "How is this possible since I am a young woman." ("I am far too young to have a child, in the same way that my relative Elizabeth is far too old to have a child.") Such a change would not have been a mistranslation, but a conscious amendment of the text.

In Matthew's narrative, the 'simple mistranslation' theory is even harder to uphold. You would have to imagine an ur-text in which "before they came together" had been "while she was still a young woman" and "knew her not until she had been brought forth of her first born" had read "continued to have rapacious nooky even though she was only a young woman."

So, everything turns on the following comment by Matthew:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name "Emmanuel" ' which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew is quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, or, if you are the sort of person who worries about this kind of thing, the prophecy of dutero-Isaiah. The full passage runs as follows:

"Hear ye now, O house of David: is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."

Isaiah wrote in Hebrew; but Matthew would have been looking at the standard Greek translation, called, for reasons I probably once knew, the Septuagint. This Greek translation certainly said that the person who would have a child and name it Immanuel would be a parthenos.

Now it gets very boring indeed. Where the English says virgin and the Greek says parthenos, the original Hebrew had said almah. The word almah occurs seven times in the Old Testament, and Good King James translates it variously as 'virgin', 'damsel' and 'maiden'.

Gen 24: 23: ' shall come to pass that when the virgin cometh forth...

Ex 2:8 '...and the maid went and called the child's mother.

Psalm 68: 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the
playing with timbrels.

Proverbs 30:18 There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Song of Songs 6:8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.

In each case, the woman being described probably was a virgin; explicitly so in the Genesis passage. However, Hebrew has another word, bethuwlah which can be used when the writer wants to make it clear that the the lady in question is a virgin in the Anne Widdecombe sense, as: "The damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her...'" Since Isaiah doesn't use this word to describe the woman in the prophecy, it is fair to say that he didn't think that her virgin-ness was the most important thing about her. The passage probably comes out as "You'll know that God is going to save you when a young woman names her child 'Emmanuel' " as opposed to "You'll know that God is going to save you when a virgin has a child, and by the way, she'll name him Emmanuel." (Since Isaiah was in the habit of giving his children names like A-Few-Will-Come-Back and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder it's even possible that little God-Is-With-Us is another of the prophet's own kids. Hosea's children were named Unloved and Not-My-People. Registration must have been a bundle of laughs in Jewish schools.)

So: it is a perfectly good fact that when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek in around 180 BCE the word almah in the Isaiah passage was translated as parthenos. To say that this came down to a 'simple mistranslation' says more than we know. Certainly, an ambiguity was removed -- a passage which could possibly be read as referring to a virgin was changed into one which had to be read in this way. Was it 'simply' a mistake? Or were the translators deliberately revising the text? Or were they making a traditional translation, writing parthenos because that reflected the opinion of the wisest commentators of their day?

"The idea that there was a prophecy which said that the mother of Jesus would be a Virgin is the result of a mistranslation" is an unexceptionable statement. Insert a couple of probablies and a perhaps or two and no-one but a megaphone carrying fundamentalist would have any quarrel with you. But it's always cited as "The story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the result of a mistranslation." Not even "A mistranslation of the prophecy of Isaiah" – simply "a mistranslation." And this is a much more complicated claim, involving suppositions and conjectures and speculation and things we just don't know. In order to believe it, you'd have to believe the following:

1: The very earliest Christians -- the ones who who must have had first hand contact with Jesus' family and his disciples -- had no story of the birth of Jesus, or if they did it has been lost without trace.

2: At some time toward the end of the first century Matthew formed the opinion that Isaiah 7 was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. He therefore invented out of his head the doctrine that Jesus' mother was a 'virgin', even though no such thing had previously been taught by Christians.

3: Oh, and by the way, he didn't check with any Hebrew speaking Jew.

4: In order to support the new doctrine that he had made up out of his head he invented out of his head the story of Joseph and the Angel.

5: Luke read Matthew and instantly accepted the new doctrine of the Virgin Birth. So he invented, out of his head, a completely different story, which owed nothing to Matthew, about Mary and the Angel, padded it out with some material about John the Baptist , and sent it off to the scribes without bothering to quote the Old Testament prophecy which had caused all the trouble to begin with. (1)

None of this is intrinsically impossible. Some scholars, I guess, believe it, or something a lot like it. The game of inventing imaginary histories for famous books keeps academics out of mischief for hours on end. The non-existent drafts of Hamlet are much more interesting than the actual play. But this kind of thing can only ever be a conjecture: based on the single fact that Matthew quotes Isaiah.

Isn't it equally possible that the very, very early Christians did indeed believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception – either because Mary had told them so, or because it expressed a prior theological belief that he was the Son of God? If this were the case, then Matthew, scouring the Old Testament for passages which seemed to back up Jesus' claim to be Messiah, would have taken it for granted that Isaiah really meant 'virgin' because that's what he already believed. This would take into account the fact that the fit between Matthew and Isaiah isn't actually all that good: if Matthew had been making the whole thing up, couldn't he have worked some honey and butter in somewhere?

Of course any critique of Christianity will involve a critique of the historicity of the Gospels; of course one of the things that would occur to any sensible critic is that some of the stories about Jesus were 'reverse engineered' to make it look as if they fulfilled prophecies. But to say "The story" – sorry, "the entire legend" -- was "the result of a mistranslation" when what you mean is "A plausible case can be made out of saying that the story was a fictional creation that was retrofitted to a prophecy – and by the way, the prophecy itself contained a questionable piece of translation" is misleading. Wouldn't an intelligent but ignorant person, hearing the claim for the first time, assume that "the story is the result of a mistranslation" meant "someone mistranslated Matthew and Luke so it looked as if Mary was a Virgin; but Matthew and Luke never said anything of the sort; it was all a silly mistake like Cinderella's fur slipper becoming a glass slipper because 'vair' and 'verre' sound similar. Har har aren't Christians silly." Do those who pass on the 'mistranslation' story do anything to correct this impression? Is it in fact just what they want people to think?

"Perhaps Matthew retrofitted his text to a prophecy from Isaiah and perhaps that prophecy had been contentiously translated; and perhaps Luke based his story on Matthew; and perhaps everyone accepted their stories, and perhaps that's where the story of the Virgin Birth came from" is complicated, vague and dull. "The story of the virgin birth is the result of a mistranslation" is simple, exciting, and easy to remember. There a lots of simple, exciting, easy to remember and massively misleading slogans about the Bible in circulation: "They've discovered a new Gospel which gives Judas' side of the story" "There were at one time of 70 different Gospels"; "Constantine made up the idea that that Jesus was the Son of God", "The council of Nicea decided on the content of the Bible", "Judas was a zealot".

It isn't easy to respond to slogans: by the time you have said "Well, it depends what you mean by...." and "That's very misleading because...." your victims eyes have glazed over. "You don't seriously expect me to compare and contrast different texts and look things up in a concordance, do you? The simple phrase is much easier to grasp than your long, boring essay, with all those nasty liberal 'perhapses' and 'maybes' in it. You must be splitting hairs. Or trying to confuse me. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

Is it possible that Dawkins is deliberately infecting people with the 'simple mistranslation' meme in the hope that it will inoculate them against what he sees as the much more dangerous virus of Christianity? If he is right that Christianity is dangerous, would it even matter if the factual content of the anti-meme was incorrect? Are Christians making a silly mistake when we treat phrases and essays and indeed entire books which are intended only as slogans and rallying cries as if they were actual arguments? Indeed, should we give up the whole concept of "good or bad argument" and "true or false claim" and replace it with "successful or unsuccessful meme"? If you believe in memes, does the concept of 'truth' retain any validity at all? Is the logical conclusion of Dawkinsism to raise "whatever I say three times is true" to the level of a scientific axiom?

(1) Incidentally: when referring to this in a footnote to a book on evolution – go figure – Dawkins rants that Matthew 'was not, of course, the Apostle and contemporary of Jesus, but the gospel-maker writing long afterwards'

There are no 'of courses' in the study of the Gospels, but a lot of sensible scholars have said that Matthew must have been written after 70CE, because he refers to fall of Jerusalem, but before 100CE, because he's quoted by Ignatius. Whether 70-100CE amounts to 'long afterwards' depends on your point of view. If Matthew had been an up and coming tax inspector of 22 at the time of Jesus, then he could have been a nonogenarian sitting down to compose his memoirs at the turn of the century. 'Long afterwards' raises the suspicion that the speaker believes Brownite fantasies of the Gospels being fourth or fifth century and should be stomped on whenever they turn up.