A small personal brush with the beyond for Hallowe’en

A custom in the United States is to decorate the graves of military veterans with small American flags to observe the Memorial Day holiday in late May. Despite the best efforts of families, neighbors and veterans’ organizations, some graves are overlooked. By late October, many of the flags that were placed back in the spring have been lost, displaced during the summer and early fall by maintenance crews or uprooted by the wind. Some flags end up littering the ground.

If I’m visiting a cemetery and I see a flag on the ground, I try to return it to the grave it came from. If I can’t figure out which grave that was, then I’ll plant it beside any nearby likely grave marker which lacks a flag.

Usually, the placement or replacement of a flag is simple. One time, however, I discovered at my feet instead an austere government-issue marker, darkened by time, flush with the ground, and partly overgrown with grass. It seemed to have been overlooked that May, and maybe was nearly forgotten altogether. I had a spare American flag, and decided to place it there.

The wooden dowel that served as a miniature “flagpole” slid easily into the ground. When I tried to reposition the flag, however, it wouldn’t come back out. Not to be too imaginative about it, but it was if someone or something was pulling on the other end of the dowel from underground.

That story has a happy ending. I left well enough alone. The grave was welcome to keep the flag. I was only trying to make the installation neater anyway. The flag survived the winter, and the now more easily visible grave got a brand new flag the next spring. Thereafter somebody began to look after the marker. These days, the stone is much more visible and the grass around it is trimmed. Sometimes small bunches of flowers appear. Thank you for your service, Mister Wilmot.

For this Hallowe’en, the Uncertaintist recounts a very recent instance where your ob’d correspondent’s attention was directed to another neglected gravestone, whether by happenstance or by something hidden.

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More on what wonders a dog can appreciate

Last Sunday afternoon, I was walking with a neighbor’s beagle named Sadie. As we explored a sandbar along the shore of the Merrimack River under a sunny blue sky, we heard an engine sound coming from downriver. We both looked together, and saw a powered tricycle paraglider following the curves of the riverbank, headed our way, flying low, perhaps 12 meters or about 40 feet aloft.

Sadie moved closer, standing quietly beside me, motionless except for her eyes and the tilt of her head. She looked up at me briefly, then skyward, maintaining her gaze on the ultralight as it passed directly over us. I doffed my cap to the pilot, whose craft was soon out of sight, somewhere behind us blocked from view by the surrounding trees. Sadie looked up at me again. After our eyes met, she eventually returned to her survey of the sandbar, and shortly thereafter decided we should leave for home.

A few years ago, the Uncertaintist considered whether or not a dog could appreciate a stage magic trick. (Click on the screen shot to read the story.) The post featured an anecdote in which the beloved Akita Clea seemed to me to have communicated her awe and wonder for a movie-magic miracle in a film that we were watching together.

The post went on to discuss what might be needed to collect more messages of awe and wonder from other dogs.

The toughest part of repeating the experience with another dog might be to get the dog to watch closely. Maybe that’s where the treats came in for the magician in the other blogger’s video. Something was needed to hold the dog’s attention, even at the price of having the teasing overpower the wonder. By good luck, or by Edward Norton’s skill [the actor who played the magician in the film we were watching], Clea’s attention was gotten and held without teasing her, and then, when magic unfolded, she was impressed with what she saw.

An ultralight is not magic (yet not so long ago…), but its close encounter was a source of wonderment, fitting for a minor miracle. I have no serious doubt that Sadie’s attentive behavior as the craft flew over us, so similar to my own demeanor, is best explained as her experiencing a mental state not radically different than my own. Perhaps her affect was more intense than mine, since it is entirely possible that she had never before seen the like.

In any case, there was no problem at all getting Sadie to watch closely. When the unusual, absorbing and beautiful unfolded as she watched, she was impressed with what she saw. I have no serious doubt of that, so effectively did Sadie communicate her feelings and her interest in whether I was feeling the same.


Photo credit: The image of the ultralight is reblogged from That Adventure Life (link).

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Brothers III: Like Paul

Paul sends a letter

The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul would plausibly have referred to some distinguished fellow apostles as the brothers of the Lord, whether or not there were any kin or former disciples of Jesus for Paul to describe that way. Paul habitually used fraternal language. He often called attention to distinctions among the early apostles. He may have meant that these brothers were former intimates of a historical Jesus, but he may instead have meant they were “like Jesus” in other ways.

Perhaps they were models of good behavior for their followers, or willing victims of persecution, or senior apostles who’d been personally chosen by the risen Jesus. The diverse potential meanings for a phrase typical of Paul’s prose style set a low ceiling on our justifiable confidence that Paul reported meeting an intimate of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) and that he knew of others (1 Corinthians 9:5).

The brothers of the Lord sounds harmonious with “Jesus’ brother,” but it’s not discordant with other meanings, either. “Bayesian thinking” reminds us to consider how the phrase would sound under other assumptions than what first pops into our heads.

This installment looks at the context of the specific occasions when Paul used the phrase. Both times, he was making an argument, trying to persuade his readers. In Galatians, Paul defends the independence of his preaching from that of the Jerusalem church. In 1 Corinthians, Paul seeks a church-paid stipend comparable with other apostles’ spousal allowance.

Context helps refine our estimate of Paul’s intentions for the brothers of the Lord. In the stipend argument, for Paul to invite comparison with Jesus’ intimates would clash with his rhetorical goals. In contrast, if he meant and was understood to mean non-intimates of Jesus, then positioning himself among prestigious churchmen could harmonize sweetly with those goals.

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Brothers II: Like Jesus

George Polya

The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul’s accepted use of the phrase the brother(s) of the Lord ought not to dispel all uncertainty about the historical existence of Jesus. However, so long as it is possible that the phrase was genuinely Paul’s and that it referred to a relationship among two or more living people, then what scholarship receives as Paul’s writing, if it bears at all, counts in support of a historical Jesus and against hypotheses where he is entirely fictional or mythological.

How strong should that bearing reasonably be? This second post about these brothers is informed by “Bayesian reasoning,” but here fielded without numbers, in a style which incorporates the ideas of George Polya about qualitative plausible thinking and assessment of evidence.

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Brothers, Paul’s and James’

Papyrus 46 page

P46’s page with Galatians 1:19

Paul refers twice to “the brothers of the Lord.” At Galatians 1:18-19 (link), Paul meets James,

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. But of the other apostles I saw no one except James, the Lord’s brother.

and at 1 Corinthians 9:5-6 (link) Paul designates a group using the same Greek phrase in the plural,

Have we no right to take along a wife who is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or have only Barnabas and I no right to not work?

Religion professor James McGrath, whose ideas on historical reasoning the Uncertaintist discussed last year (link), thinks Galatians 1:19 “ought to settle the matter” that Jesus was a real historical person (link).

It makes sense that if Paul met one of Jesus’ brothers and knew of others, then Paul’s Jesus was an earthly human being. Moreover, these brothers participate in church affairs. Their activity would help explain what Paul thought a living Jesus had contributed to Christian origins, a topic otherwise missing from Paul’s writings.

But no so fast. As with Josephus’ supposed mention of James (link), authenticating two brief excerpts from Paul’s letters isn’t trivial. However, although uncertain, authenticity is a less urgent concern for Paul’s the brother of the Lord than for Josephus’ the brother of Jesus called Christ.

Looking past authenticity, to lay the two phrases side by side reveals different levels of discourse. Far from a plain matter-of-fact phrasing, Paul identifies Jesus solely by a purely religious construction. That being so, how confident can anyone be that Paul isn’t also designating James and the others by another figurative religious construction?

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More on where GMark really ends

Previously, the Uncertaintist has explored whether an authentic performance of the Gospel of Mark should end at verse 16:8, as is the current consensus of biblical scholars. Canonical Mark runs another dozen ancient verses, through 16:20. The Uncertaintist finds an admissible candidate for an authentic ending midway between those two proposals, at verse 16:14.

The major thread of the argument in favor of that candidacy held:

that verses 16:9-14 were probably written by a different author than 15-20, and whoever wrote verses 15-20 probably didn’t write the rest of Mark (link);

that 16:7 is a natural stopping place, and 16:8 is an example of a literary device which Mark used twice before to continue his story past a satisfying “curtain line” (link);

that verses 16:8-14 tell a coherent story whose themes and style are similar with the rest of the gospel (link).

That last post included discussion of why, if Mark had once continued past 16:8, would so many ancient manuscripts end at 16:8? If an editor were cutting back, then why not cut back to the rousing verse 16:7, a natural, satisfying ending place, a curtain line?

By keeping verse 16:8, Mark seems to support the exclusion of women from top positions in the Christian church. Verse 16:8 depicts three women who fail to carry out a critical religious mission because of their emotional and physical weakness.

The current post considers the storytelling technique behind verse 16:9’s crisp contradiction and defanging of the immediately preceding verse. The post goes on to examine why verses 16:9-14 would have been particularly vulnerable to removal based on dogma and doctrine.

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