Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Paradox of Objective Morality

Here’s a thought experiment.

Let’s say there’s only one person left on the planet. Kinda like that guy in one of the Twilight Zone episodes where he was the only living thing left on the planet so that he had all the time in the world to read. So this one guy is left on the planet – can we list some things that he can do that are immoral?

Of course not.

Morality is all about how we interact with out fellow human beings. Something is “immoral” only if it causes harm to another sentient being, harm being defined by the wronged being. Basically, there has to be an affected “other” in order for morality or immorality to exist. If there was only one person on the planet, then everything is amoral: morality doesn’t exist.

Keep that in mind. Morality can only exist if sentient beings that can be wronged exists.

Now what about objectivity? Here are some definitions:

1. existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

2. undistorted by emotion or personal bias; based on observable phenomena;

So the key component to “objectivity” would be something that exists independent of thought, independent of an observer, independent of emotion and of personal bias. So, grass being green is objective. While the color that we have in our heads when we think of “green” might not be objective (since it’s subject to our perception), grass will always absorb every color of the wavelength except for the wavelength that we’ve deemed “green” – even with no humans around to perceive it and call it “green”.

Now, let’s put these two words together: objective and morality.

This would be a system of morality that’s independent of biases and emotions (objectivity), yet dependent on biases and emotions (morality)! Morality can only exist if there are beings who have biases and emotions, yet objectivity can only exist if all biases and emotions are removed. Morality is subject to any sentient beings’ biases and emotions.

The two can’t possibly coexist; meaning that the phrase “objective morality” is about as meaningful as a square circle.

Some believers might invoke “god” at this point, but if god has emotions and biases then it’s not objectivity. Unless the god being invoked is a non-personal, pantheistic god, it also brings up the immorality of the Sovereign Defense. If “objective morality” is being dogmatically assigned to a being with agency (like the Christian god), then immoral acts are bound to happen.


Posted by on January 29, 2010 in morality, objective morality, objectivity


Paul and the Demons/Rulers of this Age

Romans 8:38

38 πεπεισμαι γαρ οτι ουτε θανατος ουτε ζωη ουτε αγγελοι ουτε αρχαι ουτε ενεστωτα ουτε μελλοντα ουτε δυναμεις

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,

[a] or heavenly rulers (NIV)

The world I bolded is archai. Etymologically, it shares the same root with words like archons, archangel, etc. Archai must be rulers of some sort, but Paul juxtaposes it with αγγελοι (a[n]ggeloi) which could be either angels or messengers. The context that makes the most sense is the NIV translation: angels or demons. So already, we have a precedent for “rulers = demons”. Paul never uses any word derived from “arch-” for people or entities he likes.

1 Corinthians 2

6 σοφιαν δε λαλουμεν εν τοις τελειοις σοφιαν δε ου του αιωνος τουτου ουδε των αρχοντων του αιωνος τουτου των καταργουμενων

6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.


8 ην ουδεις των αρχοντων του αιωνος τουτου εγνωκεν ει γαρ εγνωσαν ουκ αν τον κυριον της δοξης εσταυρωσαν

8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Again, Paul is using “arch-” meaning people or entities he doesn’t like.

Ephesians 2

1 και υμας οντας νεκρους τοις παραπτωμασιν και ταις αμαρτιαις υμων

2 εν αις ποτε περιεπατησατε κατα τον αιωνα του κοσμου τουτου κατα τον αρχοντα της εξουσιας του αερος του πνευματος του νυν ενεργουντος εν τοις υιοις της απειθειας

1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and failures (*or sins)

2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in [the sons] of disobedience.

The ruler (archonta) of the air/heavenly realm. An entity that Paul doesn’t like, who he says is causing some people to sin. I underlined a crucial word: πνευματος::pnevmatos which means spirit-like. So some sort of heavenly spirit, a ruler of some sort, is causing people in his church to sin.

Ephesians 3

10 ινα γνωρισθη νυν ταις αρχαις και ταις εξουσιαις εν τοις επ’ ουρανιοις δια της εκκλησιας η πολυποικιλος σοφια του θεου

10 [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms

The rulers (or demons i.e. “archias” from Rom 8:38) of the heavenly realm (επουρανιοις, I’ve written it as επ’ ουρανιοις – “over-sky”) are ignorant of god’s assembly (or church).

Ephesians 6

12 οτι ουκ εστιν ημιν η παλη προς αιμα και σαρκα αλλα προς τας αρχας προς τας εξουσιας προς τους κοσμοκρατορας του σκοτους τουτου προς τα πνευματικα της πονηριας εν τοις επ’ ουρανιοις

12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms

It seems as though Paul sees these archons as some sort of heavenly, spiritual beings that Paul sees as working against the church. Maybe the Gnostics were right – the archons:

In late antiquity the term archon was used in Gnosticism to refer to several servants of the Demiurge, the “creator god” that stood between the human race and a transcendent God that could only be reached through gnosis. In this context they have the role of the angels and demons of the Old Testament. They give their name to the sect called Archontics.

Paul uses the term “rulers of this age” in a derogatory way (1 Cor 2:6,8 above). The same way that he use the term “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4 – θεος του αιωνος) in a derogatory way. It seems as though Marcion or the Gnostics did have a reason for their beliefs. The rulers of this age were working for the god of this age – the Demiurge (δημιουργος::demiourgos – literally craftsman or creator) and his demons. For Paul, Jesus and his Father came to disrupt their plans.


Posted by on January 27, 2010 in archons, rulers of this age


Paul’s Use of "Sibling"

So here are all of the places where Paul uses the word αδελφοι (adelphee – “brothers” or “siblings”) or the singular version of it:

1:13; 7:1; 7:4; 8:12; 8:29 (Jesus is the firstborn among many brothers); 9:3; 10:1; 11:25; 12:1; 14:10; 14:13; 14:15; 14:12; 15:14; 15:30; 16:1; 16:14; 16:15 (sister); 16:17; 16:23

1 Corinthians (no biological brothers)
1:1; 1:10; 1:11; 1:26; 2:1; 3:1; 4:6; 5:11; 6:5 (believer); 6:6; 6:8;
7:12 (believer); 7:14 (believer); 7:15 (man or woman who is a believer); 7:24; 7:29; 8:11; 8:12; 8:13; 9:5 (believing woman); 10:1; 11:33; 12:1; 14:6; 14:20; 14:26; 14:39; 15:1; 15:6; 15:31; 15:50; 15:5; 16:11; 16:12; 16:15; 16:20

*14:22 actually uses the word “believer” (πιστευουσιν)

2 Corinthians (no biological brothers)
1:1; 1:8; 2:13; 8:1; 8:18; 8:22; 8:23; 9:3; 9:5; 11:9; 12:18; 13:11;

*6:15 actually uses the word “believer” (πιστω)

1:2; 1:11; 1:19 (brother of the lord); 3:15; 4:28; 4:31; 5:11; 5:13; 6:1; 6:18;

*6:10 uses the phrase “family of believers” (οικειους της πιστεως)

1:12; 1:14 (brothers in the lord::των αδελφων εν κυριω );
2:25; 3:1; 3:13; 3:17; 4:1; 4:8; 4:21;

1 Thessalonians (no biological brothers)
1:4; 2:1; 2:9; 2:14; 2:17; 3:2; 3:7; 4:1; 4:6; 4:10; 4:13; 5:1; 5:4;
5:12; 5:14; 5:25; 5:26; 5:27

*1:7 actually uses “believers” (πιστευσυσιν)

1:1; 1:2 (sister); 1:7; 1:16; 1:20


1:1; 1:2; 4:7
(He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord);
4:9; 4:15;

(Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful servant in the Lord::
τυχικος ο αγαπητος αδελφος και πιστος διακονος εν κυριω); 6:23

2 Thessalonians
1:3; 2:1; 2:13(brothers loved by the Lord::αδελφοι ηγαπημενοι υπο κυριου );
2:15; 3:1; 3:6; 3:13; 3:15

1 Timothy
4:6; 5:1; 5:2; 6:2

2 Timothy 4:21

So only in two instances does Paul use the word “sibling” in an unambiguously biological context: Philemon 1:2 and Romans 16:15. Other than that in the vast majority of times (118 times) Paul, Deutero-Paul (Eph, Col, 2 Thes.) and the Pastorals (1 & 2 Tim, [and Titus, but “sibling” isn’t found in that one]), use the word “sibling” to mean a fellow believer.

Above I noted other strange or ambiguous usages of “brother” like in Romans 8:29 where he says that Jesus was the firstborn among brothers. Did Paul mean literal brothers or brothers by faith?

In 1 Cor 6:5; 7:12; 7:14; 7:15 and 9:5 Paul uses “brother” (or “sister”) but the NIV translates it as “believer”. The more obvious interpretation of the NIV translators is at 7:15 where Paul simply says “brother or sister” (ο αδελφος ή η αδελφη:: lit. the brother or the sister) and the translators reveal Paul’s usage of sibling: a believing man or woman.

Later letters by Paul stop using “brothers of the lord” and start using “brothers in the lord” such as Ephesians 6:21, Philipeans 1:14, and possibly Colossians 4:7. But what I think the smoking gun is is at Galatians 6:10 where Paul writes “family of believers”, but actually uses the Greek word for “believers” and not “brothers”. The vast majority of the time Paul is using siblings in the context of the family of believers.

So who knows. Statistically, it’s more likely that Paul meant brother in the context of the family of believers and not an actual blood brother. The two instances of Paul using “brother(s) of the lord” (1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19) might be part of the larger context of the family of believers.


Posted by on January 25, 2010 in brother of the lord, paul


Paul’s Use of "Sister"

Paul uses the word αδελφη[ν] (adelphee[n] – sister) in 1 Corinthians 9:5 and Romans 16:1 and 16:15. Here are how they’re translated in the NIV

Romans 16

1 συνιστημι δε υμιν φοιβην την αδελφην ημων ουσαν [και] διακονον της εκκλησιας της εν κεγχρεαις


15 ασπασασθε φιλολογον και ιουλιαν νηρεα και την αδελφην αυτου και ολυμπαν και τους συν αυτοις παντας αγιους

1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea


15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them

1 Cor 9:5

μη ουκ εχομεν εξουσιαν αδελφην γυναικα περιαγειν ως και οι λοιποι αποστολοι και οι αδελφοι του κυριου και κηφας

Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas

Notice the shadiness. “Sister” is translated authentically in Romans, but is translated as “believer” in 1 Corinthians. Αδελφη is always translated as “sister” in the NT except for this one instance. Why is that? It sticks out like a sore thumb. In order to make sense of its use in 1 Cor it should be translated as “sister” or all instances of “brothers” (αδελφοι) should be translated as “believers” in Paul’s letters.

If Paul really did intend for this instance of “sister” to be rendered as “beliver”, then Paul’s phrase “the lord’s brother(s)” should be rendered as “believers of the lord”… αδελφοι του κυριου. This no longer makes James Jesus’ brother in Gal 1:9, but a “believer of the lord”. Paul might be using that word to distinguish between “apostles” who he says are those who had seen the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor 9:1). This would also make sense of Paul’s use of “our sister” in Romans 16:1. She’s not literally Paul’s sister, but a fellow believer.

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Posted by on January 21, 2010 in brother of the lord, paul


Jesus Wars

This was originally posted in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (vol. 75, no. 2, pages 18-23) and then reposted on this website. I only post it here because it fits my conclusion about early Christianity being a sordid enterprise of politics and not divine intervention.

When bishops brawled: An interview with Philip Jenkins

A U.S. Catholic interview


Professor Philip Jenkins, who studies Christianity both ancient and modern, devotes a whole book to the story, but there’s more to it than just airy theological questions. Scheming bishops, monastic militias, and the imperial court all played their parts, along with a healthy dose of chance.

“When you look at history, you realize that what we think of as orthodoxy gets established only gradually by a long series of events, which seem to be almost random,” says Jenkins of the story he tells in Jesus Wars (HarperOne, 2010). “Is it pure chance or, looking at it in a good Old Testament way, is it providence?”

Theological questions aside, Jenkins argues that ancient conflict among Christians contributed to the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century in what had been the heartland of Christianity. “Where did Islam come from? You cannot understand how Islam appears in the seventh century unless you understand the world of the divided churches,” he says. “A lot of problems that we think about as modern actually go back 1,500 years or more.”

Your new book is called Jesus Wars. Why would you describe the debate over the natures of Christ as a war?

For several hundred years, especially in the 400s and following centuries, the whole world revolved around literal and figurative wars over who Jesus was. That basic question ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people during the fifth century.


Theological ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The toughest thing to explain to people in the fifth century would be the difference between politics and religion. They would see the distinction as meaningless. Religion was about God and how God took care of the world, including how God rewarded and punished states.

Why were these questions arising at this point in history?

A large part of it was connected with establishment. Christianity received toleration in 313, but then the empire had to decide which particular part of Christianity it was going to tolerate. In the fourth century the Roman Empire got more specific about who it recognized as legitimately Christian. There was a lot at stake, because once you said that somebody was not legitimately Christian, they didn’t have the right to have church buildings and would have to operate secretly.

The world became a lot less tolerant as the fourth century went on. In 385 the Roman Empire executed its first heretic, and by the 430s people talked about burning heretics quite regularly. By the year 500 your life depended on whether you were the right kind of Christian.

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Posted by on January 19, 2010 in politics, post-nicaea Christianity


Melchizedek Again

Melchizedek seems to have been a pretty important figure in heterodox Jewish literature. I wrote in an earlier post that in 2 Enoch, Melchizedek was born from a virgin during the time of Noah. In the Qumran community, Melchizedek is seen as an archangel who serves as a high priest in heaven, much like Philo’s “Logos”. Both seem to be the prescedent for the Greek writing author of Hebrews.

The DSS community writes about Melchizedek in 11Q13 or the Scroll of Melchizedek (link to it at the Gnostic Library). Why is Melchizedek such an important figure in heterodox Jewish literature, but only shows up in the canonical Jewish bible at Genesis 14 and Psalm 110? What’s even more odd is that the Melchizedek Scroll above never quotes from Psalm 110. 11Q13 has been dated to the later 2nd / early 1st century before the Christian era… what if Psalm 110 was written after the sectarian writings of the DSS community?

The word “Melchizedek” might be liberally translated as “my righteous king”, oddly sharing etymology with the Sadducees (tzedekim). Another parchment found at Qumran 4QAmram 2.3 has the opposite name Melchi-resha (“king of evil”) for a chief angel of darkness.

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Posted by on January 18, 2010 in melchizedek, sadducees


The Arrogance of Personal Revelation

Most religious belief isn’t propegated by logic, reason, or historical analysis. It’s propegated by culture. My witty catchphrase to explain this is that the reason most Christians in the U.S. are Christians is the same reason most Christians in the U.S. speak English. Following the English example, every single thought that Christians think is not in its original, “pure” form. Their thoughts – before they even get to their waking mind – are filtered through their default language.

There’s no way to get around that filter.

This brings up some problems for “personal revelation”, which is the main vehicle for religious conversion. Personal revelations assume that this cultural filter doesn’t exist, and that the believer is getting a direct tap on the shoulder from god himself. They completely ignore all of their cultural baggage/brainwashing, their psychological/emotional status, their cultural “language” (in the U.S., the cultural language is Christianity), and myriads of other unavoidable biology mores that influence their thoughts.

In order for personal revelation to be a valid form of epistemology, the believer has to assume that they are a superbeing that has no epistemological, psychological, biological, or any other sort of flaw at all. If two people are talking on a cell phone, in order for the two people to have a meaningful conversation, beyond having to share a common language both parties have to have 1) working cellphones 2) working reception and 3) a working network, to say the least. If one side has a working version of all three, but the other side doesn’t, then conversation and understanding is going to be flawed.

Assuming that god is perfect, his “cellphone” would also be perfect. But what about the believer’s cellphone? What about the believer’s network? For personal revelation to be valid, the believer’s cellphone has to be flawless as well. This is the only way that communication could be made and understood. God could be talking in his pristine, perfect cellphone all day, but if your cellphone isn’t in working condition, this communication fails. This is where the arrogance of personal revelation comes in. The believer assumes their “cellphone” is perfect and they are getting perfect communication from their god(s). Of course, the believer might say that their holy books confirm their revelations, but the people who wrote these holy books were people just like the believer. So not only does the believer think that they are a flawless human being, the believer also assumes that the many people who penned their holy books were just as flawless as they are.

Even if I grant that personal god(s) exist, the imperfection of human beings negates the validity of personal revelation. People have broken cellphones, dropped calls, packet loss, etc. and this imperfection explains the many myriads of contradictory religious belief on the planet. Yet people continue to fall back on personal revelation (it just feels right) as the sole trump card of religious faith.

Personal revelation as a means of religious validation is the height of arrogance. It assumes that the person who gets the revelation has gotten clear communication and has interpreted this revelation accurately. It assumes a flawless human being.

What if your interpretation is incorrect? The implications of that question are impossible for the believer to address.

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Posted by on January 14, 2010 in personal revelation

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