Real news and fake news about the God letter

It is better this time, but …

In its previous story about the upcoming auction of Einstein’s 1954 letter to Eric Gutkind, the Uncertaintist opined that compared with coverage of earlier auctions of the item, “press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote.” This improvement was attributed to the auctioneer, Christie’s, having based its pre-sale publicity on reliable transcriptions of Einstein’s handwritten, first-draft German.

To see whether those assessments are justifiable, your ob’d correspondent performed a small experiment, looking at about a dozen prominent reputable news providers’ stories that turn up in the first few pages in simple Google searches. This is not an exhaustive study, and not a statistical estimation of accuracy among press outlets, but just a check whether or not some major media are being truthful about Einstein’s writing, on matters where an accurate transcription would help.

The results were mixed.

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Einstein’s “God” letter up for auction again

On December 4th, Christie’s will be auctioning the famous thank you note Albert Einstein wrote to Eric Gutkind (link), in which Einstein comments on his differences with Gutkind’s conceptions of God, the Jewish Bible and Judaism. The letter will be available for viewing in San Francisco from October 25 through November 1 and in New York City from November 30 through the day of the sale. Christie’s has also exhibited the letter in Shanghai during September.

Compared with the two earlier highly publicized sales (in the UK in 2008 and on E-bay in 2012), press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote. This improvement is partly attributable to the auctioneer using a reliable transcription of the handwritten German original, as was confirmed in the Uncertaintist’s recent phone interview with Peter Klatner, who’s overseeing the sale for Christie’s. Unless some press outlet resurrects the comically flawed Guardian translation-wannabe from 2008, we won’t hear again about Einstein calling Bible stories “childish.”

Selective quotation remains a problem, however. For example, Newsweek (link) claims that Einstein called God the product of human weakness, while Einstein writes that of the word God; in context, the word God as Gutkind uses it throughout his book expressing a particular religious concept. Newsweek also claims that Einstein calls Judaism “an incarnation of primitive superstition.” Einstein calls a form of Judaism that, the “unadulterated” form, a reference to Gutkind’s preferred variety of Judaism, which Gutkind, writing in American English, contrasted with “watered down” Judaism.

For the Uncertaintist’s complete coverage of this issue, follow this link. For a gentler, but not contradicting, handwritten comment about the Bible written by Einstein, see link. For a sampling from Einstein’s many published comments on God and religion, visit the Unlinks page (link) and download “Einstein (ir)religion sources.” The Unlinks page is where you’ll also find a complete German-language transcript of the Einstein-Gutkind letter, with an English translation and excerpts from Gutkind’s book, the subject of the letter.

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Another Jesus for Josephus’ James

Godard's Destruction of Jerusalem

Jerusalem with Jesus ben Ananus, upper right

In Book 20 of his Antiquities, Josephus briefly mentions a man named James who was unlawfully condemned to death in 62 CE, about eight years before the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Josephus says that this James’ brother was named Jesus. In all extant source manuscripts of the Antiquities, that Jesus is said to be “called Christ.” If Josephus wrote that description, then he’d have left us compelling evidence that a historical Jesus of Galilee really existed.

Modern scholars generally accept that Josephus did describe James’ brother as “Jesus called Christ,” largely because Origen wrote that that’s what he’d read in Antiquities. Origen also remembers reading a lot more about this James there, about his character and about God’s pay-back to Jerusalem for the injustice of his death. In fact, however, Josephus tells us almost nothing else about James, not even whether his death sentence was actually carried out, much less claiming divine retribution for it.

Given that Origen misrecalls so much so vividly, what weight should be placed on his recollection of the few words which allegedly identified James’ brother? Two other Jesuses appear in the story that includes the trial incident, a story which makes perfect sense if James’ brother were either of those Jesuses (link).

This post recalls still another Jesus who appeared in Josephus’ first book, The Jewish War. This Jesus is familiar to many because of remarkable parallels between his story and the Gospels’ passion. Let us first consider the merits of his candidacy to be the brother of Antiquities’ James. If it turns out that he wasn’t James’ brother, the tragedy of Jesus ben Ananus still contributes to our understanding of how Origen’s memory so badly scrambled and improved what Josephus wrote about James and his trial.

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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Two deer find a treat

There is no such thing as an easy winter for deer in northern New England. Nevertheless, this season’s moderate and tastefully spaced snowfalls have kept the depth hereabouts much shallower than the foot-and-a-half that would prevent the deer from foraging and thereby enforce upon them a hard fast, sometimes lasting for weeks. Food is scarce, and generally brown when it can be found at all, but at least the deer have been able to look for something to eat this winter.

For the last six weeks, small pods of two or three or four deer have been visiting the neighbors’ back yard. The deer stop to rest on their bellies and eat under a trio of trees at the crest of a small escarpment. I’m not sure what they eat. They may have discovered a cache of squirrels’ acorns. The squirrels, however, go about their winter chores in the trees and don’t seem to mind the deer’s presence below. Maybe it’s something else, then, that the deer munch on as they recline under the sheltering branches.

The escarpment faces west and catches the nowadays strengthening afternoon sun full on. The air temperature yesterday made it to an unseasonable seventy degrees. Most of the snow on the slope had melted by this morning; the ground was wet, but bare.

Around midday, a pair of deer discovered a small patch of bright green there. Some ferns had been preserved since the autumn, leafy and fresh. The sure-footed deer made good use of their find, despite the steepness of the muddy terrain around it.

This afternoon, a heavy wet snow began falling. It won’t amount to much, or so the weather wizards foresee, but it soon completely covered over the ground again. The deer returned to their trees, resting, watching the snow accumulate around them without complaint.

As sunset approached, the deer decided to spend the night somewhere else. They set off down the escarpment, pausing where they had found their green treasure earlier in the day. The snow had reclaimed the ground, but the deer found a last few bites of the ferns, and before moving on, stopped to savor them.

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Another ghost witch, overlooking Montego Bay

Rose Hall before restoration

So far, this year’s Hallowe’en story (link and link) has focused on an eighteenth century New England woman, Elizabeth Blachford, whose neighbors caricatured her as the witchy Liza Tower Hill, a fictional character which survives to this day. Elizabeth’s case raises a follow-up question: Is that rare? Have long-lived supernatural tales constellated around other ordinary people?

Meet Rosa (Kelly) Palmer, 1718-1790, Elizabeth Blachford’s contemporary. Rosa lived in Jamaica. Her alter ego is named Annie Palmer. Annie was a wicked slave mistress, a sadistic sexual glutton who murdered two or three of her husbands. Her fourth fled for his life. Annie was herself murdered, strangled by her righteously vengeful slaves. And then the story got better! Annie ruled her plantation by witchcraft until she was defeated by a local adept in Obeah (Jamaica’s African-derived folk magic, comparable with Haitian Voodoo), but not before Annie had killed his granddaughter with the help of a blood-sucking demon. Now Annie’s ghost haunts a Jamaican tourist destination, soon to be the setting for a major motion picture (maybe, the project’s been in development for years).

Spoiler alert: Rosa’s real life story can’t compete with Annie’s legend.

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