Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Grange restored all wrong?

To a lecture about New Grange, by Dr Liam Irwin of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. It's a neolithic monument not far from Dublin, similar to the pyramids in scale, and a bit older (3200 BCE).

The lecture provoked the question, should archaeologists refrain from restoring ancient monuments? Perhaps they should just build a replica somewhere else instead.
The colour picture shows New Grange restored. The black and white picture shows how the entrance to New Grange looked in 1905. It turns out the restoration is controversial. The high wall should probably be a low sloping retaining wall. But Liam says there's little appetite to change it again. Knossos has the same problem apparently. Prof M J O’Kelly was responsible for the New Grange restoration. Not clear when the work was done, 1970’s?

It’s a tomb. There are 4 types of megalithic tomb in Ireland of which this one is a passage tomb. A chap called I think O’Callaghan stood up and dissented. Said it wasn’t a tomb at all. Perhaps the bones had been brought in by wolves in the modern period, he suggested. I suspect he is not to be taken seriously.

The building materials were brought by sea. Would have taken more than a generation to build. The architect wouldn't have lived to see it completed.

Their houses were flimsy, can only have lasted a couple of generations, but the tombs were permanent and must have diverted huge resources from agriculture and subsistence. Why did they do it? Religion? Belief in afterlife? Fear? Duty? Forced labour?

Gold Roman coins have been found on the site. How to interpret these? Left by Roman tourists, or by pilgrims? Are they evidence of strong connections between Ireland and Roman Britain?

Local buses run from Dublin. Must go there sometime. Maybe Cork Astronomy Club will organise another trip there someday. I missed the last one.

This was a lecture was given to Fermoy Field Club. Dr Irwin told us that Prof O’Kelly was his teacher.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Against preserving the human species

An imagined Mars colony
(Don Dixon Space Art)
There may be good reasons for colonising Mars. But preserving the human species isn't one of them. Nevertheless it’s a motive that’s often cited when colonising Mars is discussed.

J Richard Gott (professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University) wrote in New Scientist 12th Sept 2009 (p 35) that a self-supporting Mars colony would make the world a better place, by making the world not the only place for us, thus improving the long-term survival prospects of our species.

I say, firstly, if we spoil this planet, how can we claim to deserve to survive as a species? One of the first lessons we teach a child, is that you clean up one mess before you make another.

Secondly, it's not self-evident that the survival of the human species is a worthwhile goal. The right to survive must be earnt, not assumed. If we can create a just society amongst existing humans, then we shall have earnt that right. Until then, not.

I'm not arguing against space exploration, nor even against colonising Mars. But lets get the reasons right. I say that the scientific enterprise is justified by one criterion only: that it contributes to human happiness. A Mars colony would contribute to science, it would be a human achieving without parallel, it might conceivably bring economic benefits. All those are worthwhile aims.

But the following are not worthwhile aims : providing an escape route for a privileged elite; and ensuring the survival of a species that has proved itself unworthy.

One of the most prominent scientists who think preserving the human race is a reason for colonising space is Stephen Hawking. He says : "Life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers". [1]

Now whilst Hawking is right in his premise, he's wrong in his conclusion. The extinction of the human species is not the worst consequence that could flow from the disasters he enumerates.

Firstly, it’s really human civilisation that stands in danger of being wiped out; a number of humans would almost certainly survive any of those catastrophes to perpetuate the species. Even supposing that is what he really means, the key point is that those catastrophes would be the occasion of much suffering, and this would fall disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged of this world. The very people least responsible for any man-made catastrophes. And the least likely to be emigrating to Mars.

Avoiding that suffering is the only goal which is worthwhile. And it's a goal that preserving human civilisation on Mars contributes nothing to.

[1] New Scientist 5 May 2007 (issue 2602). Another similar link here. And he's still at it in June 2017.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jesus, the ancient Jews and monotheism

Skip this one unless you like theology.  Recently I've corresponded with a Dominican Friar called John who lectures in philosophy and theology at San Antonio University in the USA.  I raised some theological questions with him, including whether Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. This particular question interests me because I have a God-fearing cousin who says Jesus did so claim. I disputed this with him, on the grounds that the only gospel where these claims appear is John, and John is not to be relied upon.  I quoted the views of the Jesus Seminar on this point; but he dismissed them as heretics. Our debate was sadly not a fruitful one ...   

Anyway back to John the Dominican.  On the question of Jesus' use of titles and his knowledge of his divinity, he says this:-
“I doubt that Jesus ever referred to himself as explicitly divine, although I do think that he may have seen himself as the prophetic embodiment of the "son of man".  It is so obscure that it is not clear that the apostles would have picked it out for him if he had not used it about himself.  But what exactly he meant by using this title is simply unknown. Jesus' intuition about his divine mission and mandate certainly did not become fully clear to him until the end of his career - and even he did not expect the resurrection (although he clearly expected some kind of divine vindication). This is a whole other discussion, but I think that it is quite interesting and hardly settled.”
On the reliability of John’s gospel, he has this to say:
“I do not think that John is reliable as a historical document in the modern sense - it is certainly not intended that way.  It is clearly an explicit theological reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus written by someone who was very close to someone who had been there. I think that the author is trying not only to clarify Jesus' identity (both human and divine), but also to help explain what Jesus' identity says about the God that Jews have always believed in.  So Jesus' consciousness acts as a point of meditation and reflection on the plan of God.  That said, the author may well have believed that Jesus has explicit rational consciousness of his identity and mission from the beginning; it is possible, but I don't think that it is probable.”
Ancient Hebrews did not refer to their deity as God

I asked John the Dominican about the development of monotheism, and the question of when the Jews came to believe in one God; and I sought his comment on the words used in the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, which are commonly rendered into English as “God”, and what if anything we lose by this translation. He startled me by offering this:
“I am pretty sure that the ancient Hebrews did not mean to refer to their deity as God - God is a term that emerges out of Greek philosophy, and only becomes the general term for the divine powers or forces in early years of the Roman empire.  Monotheism is a concept that was created long after the Hebrew texts were written and only applied to them subsequently. Like any outsiders trying to understand the language system of another, sometimes it is best to just leave certain words or colloquialisms as they are and over time, if we use them frequently enough, we will get the sense of what they really meant. This is why we should not ever fully trust translations - they are always tentative and in need of revision.”
Later he elaborated:-
“I think that the Hebrew people believed that YWHW was their God and the one ‘true’ God - greater than any 'puny' gods of the pagans.  I think that this means that they did not deny the existence of other ‘principalities and powers’ in the world, but denied their power to ‘save’ - they had no ultimate power over human destiny. For the Hebrews their God was the Lord - he had power over all. Jesus would have probably used the term Lord (addonai) to refer to God. He seems to reject reliance or belief in gods other than YHWH as superstition, but does seem to acknowledge other ‘spiritual’ or invisible forces or powers in the world.  But these are not God, and the Lord has power over all of these forces.  What I am saying is that the Jews did not know that they were monotheists - unlike Islam which explicitly claimed to believe in ‘one’ God.  The Hebrews seem mainly to be interested in their God and his power.  The Greek system will categorize them as monotheists, but this is too narrow to explain the rich notion of the Hebrew people's relationship with their God.” 
That’s what I got from John the Dominican.  Karen Armstrong in her History of God draws attention to Psalm 81 (82).  
“ God presides in the great assembly. He judges among the gods. ‘How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked?’ “ (World English Bible)
The Psalms, it turns out, are amongst the oldest books in the Old Testament and we have in this passage the clear view that the Jewish god is one amongst many.  Incidentally, most translations I've seen don’t even give God the presiding role in the divine assembly - he upbraids the other gods from the floor of the meeting, so to speak. 
Armstrong provides an alternative translation by John Bowker – “Yahweh takes his stand in the Council of El to deliver judgement among the gods.” So El is the presiding god here, not Yahweh.   
In the New International Version they put “gods” in quotes. The typographical equivalent of holding your nose I suppose.  

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Elsinore Shakespeare was here claim

Eileen  & Hanne at Elsinore

Eileen and self - did the Ghost walk here?
To Elsinore to see Hamlet’s castle with Eileen and our Danish friend Hanne. The castle was built in about 1420 by a King Erik to enforce the payment of tolls on shipping passing through the sound into and out of the Baltic.  At first the toll was levied at a flat rate for every vessel, plus curious rules such as 6 barrels of salt from any ship carrying salt.  Captains complained about this, and especially if their vessels were small.  So in about 1566 a graduated toll was introduced, a percentage of the cargo’s value.
The value as determined by whom?  By the ship’s captain. And what incentivised the captain to estimate the cargo’s value correctly?  Easy. The king reserved to himself the right of pre-emption, to buy the entire cargo at the price the captain placed upon it.  This scheme was the brainchild of one Peder Oxe, an official of some sort.
The principle of a toll seems to have been more or less accepted at the time, and the Danish kings sugared the pill by suppressing piracy. 
All this comes from the guidebook to Elsinore Castle, which explores at some length the suggestion that Shakespeare must have visited Elsinore, since his references are so accurate. Considering that it would presumably be in the tourist department’s interest to find in favour of this proposition, the guidebook treats it with admirable even-handedness.  As an example of something Shakespeare got wrong, there is “yon high eastward hill”*.  In point of fact, no such hill is to be seen from Elsinore; though curiously there is an extant engraving dated about 1588 that does, erroneously, show a little nearby hill. So did Shakespeare see this erroneous engraving, the guidebook wonders? 
That raises an interesting question about how Shakespeare worked. Did he research like a modern historical novelist would be expected to do? I'm more inclined to believe that yon high eastward hill fitted neatly into the iambic pentameter he was penning at the time. I would say the chance of Shakespeare having visited Elsinore is slim, and of him caring whether there was an eastward hill, slimmer.
A couple more points from the guidebook. Elsinore was well known in Shakespeare’s London, notorious even, due to the tolls, and Denmark being at the time a considerable European power. And the other is that members of Shakespeare’s company at the Globe are known to have played at Elsinore in 1585, as their names are listed in an account book, with wages paid to them.
* Act I, Sc 1, 167

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Viking lenses in a Stockholm Museum

Handled some-Viking age (11th century) optical lenses at the State Historical Museum in Stockholm. These are presumed to have come from Constantinople. I found that a couple of the lenses functioned very well, whilst others were completely ineffective.  It’s thought they may have been used as burning glasses or by goldsmiths. 

What led me there was curiosity about why the telescope wasn't invented until 1609.  I still haven't found an answer to this question.  If anything, the high quality of the big lens in the photo makes the mystery even deeper; but there again, I'm not really capable of assessing what’s a high quality lens and what isn't.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tigers in ancient Rome

Tiger hunting a bull (?).
Mosaic from Capitoline Museum, Rome
This is about the Romans and India. In a museum in Rome in May 2009 I saw a huge 2nd century AD fresco taken from a palace in Ostia, depicting a tiger. A lion would have been one thing, but it being a tiger took me aback.  A curator I spoke to said that the Romans had been quite familiar with tigers from the hunts staged in the Colosseum, and tiger bones have been found underneath it. 

Now, I was used to the idea that the Romans brought African animals to the Colosseum - but from India … ha! How to transport a tiger all that way?

Then I thought, they probably brought the tigers as cubs and reared them in Rome, in the menageries attached to the Colosseum.  That would certainly mitigate the transport difficulties.

The next puzzle is, what sort of conversation did the Romans have with the Indians about tigers? “I see you’ve got some tiger cubs in a cage, I'll take the lot”.  That would presuppose the Indians themselves kept captive tigers. Did they? Or perhaps : “Any fierce animals in that jungle?  I'll pay a good price for them if you catch me some”.  

Christian God influenced by Hinduism

At this point I'll mention that the Christian idea of God may be influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Bear with me while I trace the connection to tigers. In the 3rd century Plotinus popularized the One and Ineffable God and though he wasn’t a Christian, the Christians were happy to incorporate this sort of God.  According to Karen Armstrong [1], Plotinus wanted to go to India to study their religions. In the event, he didn’t actually get there.  Nevertheless, if he harboured this ambition, we can take it that he must have had a fair familiarity with Indian religions in the first place. 
Lastly, about 10 years ago I read a book by Mortimer Wheeler Rome beyond the Empire (1954), about Roman trading posts around the coast of India, and there was mention of an anonymous Greek merchant who sailed all the way round India as far as the Bay of Bengal, around 60 AD. Maybe he's the one who brought back the first tiger cubs.

I could write much more about Rome and maybe I shall. We stayed in a wonderful apartment in a non-tourist area next to the deservedly renowned covered Testaccio market where we bought all our provisions fresh every morning. 
And it was only a couple of metro stops from the Colosseum.  The apartment is currently listed at but may soon migrate to Highly recommended. 
    [1] Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1999, paperback edition, pp 124, 127

Monday, May 4, 2009

Is Christianity a religion of blood sacrifice?

So I thought; but it seems I was misinformed.

I listened to an RTÉ radio discussion, originally broadcast at Easter. A truly fascinating piece of radio, both because of the twists and turns of the discussion and because it revealed that the Christian religion is understood only by theologians (according to theologians).

RTÉ presenter Gay Byrne
The presenter, Gay Byrne, assumed the role of the Catholic layman interviewing three Catholic academics. These were

* Mark Patrick Hederman, the Abbot of Glenstal
* Prof Sean Freyne of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Visiting Professor of Early Christian History and Literature at Harvard
* Margaret Daly-Denton, a New Testament specialist who holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from TCD.

Gay Byrne put it to them that Christianity is a religion of blood sacrifice.

“I have problem for you all – I have read Mr Dawkins [background “huh!”] – and he sets out the Christian belief thus: God always was and always will be, He created the world, created Adam and Eve, who in the Garden did something wrong. God became so angry, He condemned us all to hellfire and damnation forever, unless he was soothed in some way. Then this omnipotent, omniscient God sends down this man Jesus who is put to death in the most horrific way, and this was the only way this God could be appeased. Dawkins says this is bizarre and anyone who believes it is mad. And I have to agree with Dawkins! Help me with that!”

The Abbot of Glenstal, Mark Patrick Hederman, came in first with the bumper book of British birds gag (Dawkins on theology is about as convincing as a tract on evolution by someone whose only knowledge of the subject is from The Bumper Book of British Birds.)

Having delivered himself of this second-hand witticism, he continues, that what Gay has outlined “is one theory, which existed certainly, of why the world was sinful and how it was reconstructed. But I don’t think there is any theologian today who actually believes that caricature.”

You're telling me this now?!

Gay Byrne is taken aback. “Well now you're telling me ‼” he expostulates. “It’s what we have believed ! … there are billions of Christians around the world who do believe what I just said.” At this point the whole radio audience including me is shouting out “here here”.

Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman
Fine, replies the Abbot, but there were people who believed the world is flat! Gay resisted the temptation to lob one into this open goal.

But I haven't told you what the Abbot’s initial reaction to Gay’s question was. His first words were: “I was taught the same thing, as a child I was taught that every time I committed a sin it drove another nail into Jesus’ hand and I remember thinking, I wish he hadn’t bothered!”

Prof Freyne admits he too was taught this. “But gradually over time, I've had the time to study and think more about it.”

Gay now sums up the discussion so far : Dawkins is not misrepresenting the teaching of the Catholic faith, and what you, the theologians, are saying to me now is, that the Catholic (Christian) faith has been abominably badly taught down through the ages.

Prof Freyne’s lame defence to this is that “there is a lot out there in the public arena going back to Vatican II and the Dutch catechism … the whole issue of evil in the world”

And Margaret Daly-Denton – listen to this one – has the gall to agree that the Christian faith has been abominably taught “and Dawkins is an example of it”.

You can see that the theologians were struggling a bit. I daresay that by bringing Dawkins into it, Gay Byrne put them off their stroke.

Did the Resurrection happen?

Regarding the rest I'll be brief. In answer to the question “Why then did Jesus come, what did he do, and what was his mission?”, we are told that He came to give us divine life, to offer us the possibility of being members of the blessed Trinity, and to live for ever with Him as divine beings.

A comment about the resurrection. A cousin of mine gave me a book purporting to give conclusive evidence from the gospels for this event. As it turns out however, these three Catholic theologians consider that the gospels contain no evidence for a bodily resurrection, nor do they claim that anyone witnessed it. Luke’s gospel goes out of its way not to be misunderstood on this point, by relating the road to Emaus story.[1] Two disciples, joined by a stranger, recognised him as Jesus only when he broke bread. The point of this carefully constructed episode and the fact that the two disciples didn’t recognise the stranger immediately, is to get across the point that “this is not a revivified historical Jesus; that this is the Risen Lord”.

I highly recommend this entertaining and informative programme which was one of a 4-part series. You can download it the from the RTE website. It's called Passion Players Pgm 4: Jesus of Nazareth.

Church handout supports sacrifice theory

A thought : Is a religion what the theologians say it is; or what its adherents popularly believe it to be?

And a postscript, proving that that Gay Byrne has described church teaching accurately. On one of my infrequent visits to a Catholic church I recently picked up a mass leaflet from which the following are extracts.

*   Under the heading “Word of God”, we have: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to this world to save the whole of humanity from sin. He died on the cross for everyone without exception”.
*   To a reading from Isaiah 53: 10-11, the suffering servant passage, the leaflet adds this commentary: “This is a mysterious sinless person who suffers for the sins of the people and who will be rewarded for his suffering.”
*   A reading from Acts 13: 46-49 appears under a rubric which reads : “the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many”.  And the reading itself contains the words: “For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. 
*   Eucharistic prayer III contains the words “Through his cross and resurrection he freed us from sin and death”.

It would be pointless to go on. The three theologians seem to me to have invented a new religion. A better one no doubt, if it’s purged of the dreadful blood sacrifice elements.  But new for all that.

[1] Luke 24:13-35

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cold War may have been by mistake

It seems the Cold War may have happened by mistake. After Stalin’s death between 1953 and 1955 there was an opportunity for détente. The USSR applied to join NATO and offered to reunify Germany on condition of it being neutral and demilitarised. And they really meant it. They weren't acting the maggot, as they say here in Ireland. So says Prof. Geoff Roberts of University College Cork (UCC)..

This is not an original idea, he says, people in the West were saying this at the time. The point is, after going to Moscow to study the archives of the foreign ministry, he concludes this contemporary view, that the Soviet proposals were in earnest, was well-founded.

What about the West’s politicians? Did they (a) share his view of Soviet good faith, take it for a sign of weakness, and decide to put the boot in? Or (b) did they not believe that the Soviets' proposals were serious?

His answer - Western politicians genuinely doubted Russian good faith. So in this sense both sides were acting in good faith, insofar as both sides genuinely believed the other was in bad faith. Lefties and liberals in the West were for détente. Western governments feared these elements were being duped. The Soviets ran a sophisticated campaign amongst the populations of the West, they didn’t just rely on diplomatic channels.

All this is from a UCC History Postgraduate Seminar, 25.02.2009. Anyone is entitled to walk in off the street to attend these seminars, but so far as I can tell, I am the only one who does so.

Prof. Roberts has covered the Soviet collective security campaign in the 1950’s in “A Chance for Peace? The Soviet Campaign to End the Cold War, 1953-1955” (Cold War International History Project Working Paper No.57) (63 pages)