The Nativity Myth

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has stirred up a contentious debate over the truth or otherwise of the Nativity story from the Bible. He quite flatly denies that the story ever happened as generally imagined. Christ was probably not even born in December, according to the Archbishop. This might come as a shock to certain Christians, particularly those brought up on the popular retelling of the story. As the leading bishop of the Anglican community, this is no anti-Christian demagogue. His opinion as a scholar and believer needs to be taken seriously.

The basic nativity story, retold in various popular guises, has been expanded upon over many centuries of retelling and elaboration. What the Bible account leaves unsaid, ingenious authors have embellished. The core story is of a newly-married couple travelling to Bethlehem for a tax census, a virgin mother giving birth in a stable, laying her swaddled child in a manger, the adoration of the Magi (or Three Wise Men) who were guided by a star in the East, an angry King Herod seeking to slaughter the new-born child, an exodus to Egypt, and an eventual return to the Holy Land.

The gospels of Mark and John never mention the nativity. The relevant passages come from Matthew chapters 1 and 2. Luke gives a completely different story, adding the detail about the tax census ordered by Augustus, and the story of the shepherds visited by angels, but making no mention of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the innocents, or a star in the east. Indeed, he precedes the story with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Elisabeth and goes to great pains to draw a connection between his birth and that of Jesus.

So why the differing accounts?

One clue to the mystery is Matthew’s continual reference to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.

In Matthew 1:22-23 he says

22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23 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 2:5

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet…

Matthew 2:14-15

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Matthew 2:17

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet…

Matthew 2:23

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

In Robin Lane Fox’s book, The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, he says that the Nativity is generally accepted by theologians and historians to be a post-facto myth. Here’s an excellent on-line account by a Bibilical authority, Geza Vermes.

What they agree on, in essense, is that the story was born from the urge to see Old Testament prophecies fulfilled and to assimilate the birth of Jesus to the existing mythical framework of a sun-king born on or near the winter solstice. Early gentile Christians – seeking confirmation of the significance of Jesus’s life as divine – were eager to link his birth and death to earlier prophecies.

But while this suggests a motive for distorting (or inventing) the nativity story to suit preconceived notions, it does not conclusively prove that the story is false. Indeed, I imagine that many Christians will still say that they believe it literally.

However, even aside from belief in the literal word of the Bible or not, the contradictions between Luke and Matthew on such basic details as Herod, the Magi, and a flight into Egypt, should make anyone – fundamentalist Christians included – stop and consider.

Let’s take just one basic question: did Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt or not? It is such a large claim to make. It could not be misunderstood or considered to be incidental. The claim is that Joseph received a visit from an angel, in a dream, warning him of Herod’s wish to see Jesus killed, and telling him to flee to Egypt until the coast was clear. In Luke, Joseph and Mary take their child to Jerusalem and to the temple: hardly the actions of a family trying to flee the King’s wrath.

Matthew claims one thing, but Luke contradicts him flatly. Since neither Mark nor John mention any detail of Jesus’s life before adulthood, they cannot be used to separate them apart.

So which “literal truth” are Christians meant to believe?

Geza Vermes flat-out denies the story:

We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of “birth tales” current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.

So there you have it. The Nativity story is a convenient tale, a wonderful story of prophecies fulfilled, the birth of a king or Son of God, and the magical happenings of an extraordinary birth. But none of it is literally true.


Nifty blitz game

It has been a while since I’ve inflicted a chess game on my readers, so here goes. This is a recent blitz game I played on the Chessbase server. It is noteworthy for the queen sacrifice and beautiful middle-game mate. Virtually every piece of white’s gets lost in a forced sequence near the end, before his king gets horribly cornered.

Tyrant55 (1691) – Shazgood (1725) [A58]

Rated game, 5m + 0s Main Playing Hall, 18.12.2007

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 Benko Gambit 4.cxb5 a6 5.Nc3 axb5 6.Nxb5? Loses time. 6 …Ba6 7.Nc3 g6 8.Nf3 d6 9.g3 Bg7 10.Bg2 0–0 11.0–0 Nbd7 12.Re1 Ng4 13.Qc2 Qb6

Position after Qb6

All very standard moves, the Benko allows black easy development and a simple plan of putting pressure on the queenside. However, white does still have that extra pawn… 14.Rb1 Rfb8 15.b3 c4!

Position after 15 …c4!

Aiming the queen and knight at f2, plus aiming to blast open the c-file. 16.e3 cxb3 17.Rxb3 Qc7 18.Rxb8+ Rxb8 From here, white gets his king mated on h4 in 10 more moves! Can you see how?

Position after Rxb8

Note the pinned knight on c3. This is what black aimed for… 19.Bd2 Rc8 20.Rc1 Nge5 21.Qa4 Bd3 22.Ne4??

Position after Ne4??

The losing move, although it looks like it uncovers an attack on the queen. I actually studied this position for about 40 seconds before diving in, but realised straight away what I wanted to play. I was just checking, and couldn’t see how white could survive. I didn;t see past Bf1, when I saw I was at least three pieces for the queen after… 22 …Qxc1+! 23.Bxc1 Rxc1+ 24.Bf1 Nxf3+! 25.Kg2 Ne1+ 26.Kh3? Kg1 is slightly better, but still loses. 26 …Bxf1+ 27.Kg4 Ne5+ 28.Kh4 N1f3# 0–1

Final position: White is mated

And black mates the isolated white king. What a beautiful final position! In 7 moves, after Qxc1+, white moved from a slightly worse position to a mating attack on his defenseless king. And it was all played in about 3 minutes for black. (Note: most games I play aren’t this good!).

Top 20 Weird Jobs

“Computer screen-bound minions of the world, you have nothing to lose but your pasty faces!”
Me, today.

I want a new job, a fresh challenge. Preferably, it should be esoteric, require years of practice, be unusual or rare, and sometimes highly necessary in extreme circumstances. (Actually, I’ll settle for something different.)

What I’m looking for is a weird job. They need to be done – but you’ve just never considered who does them, or how to become one. Think no more. Here are my personal selection of the world’s weirdest jobs. Note: I’m not saying these are things I would want to be or not. I’m just listing them ‘cos they’re weird.

1. Bomb expert
What a cool job! You do nothing for 15 years and then, bang! Literally…
And I’m not talking about being a bomb disposal expert, an entirely different profession. Or a landmine detector. I’m the guy that turns up after the explosion, not before or during.

2. Himalayan guide
Presumably these positions are dominated by indigeneous peoples living constantly at these high altitudes so they’ve become accustomed to it. It’s called “living the high life” which I hear is rather good…

3. Autocue roller
Okay, hands up who wants to roll an autocue? I mean, you have to sit still in a studio, listen to everything that’s being said and roll that baby. The temptation to slow it down for a brief second – and then speed it up uncontrollably – must be irresistable. The only thing that puts me off is the chance that I’d have to roll it for Ireland’s answer to Alan Partridge – Pat Kenny. Enough to make me want to kill myself.

4. Dinosaur hunter
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go searching for ancient creatures fossilized 300 feet underground…Time Team on speed.

5. Cereal box author
Or, for that matter, the author of any advertising, on any box. I’d love this job and the chance to write the small print at the bottom, saying “This gut-rotting crap will bleech your stomach, destroy your children’s brains, and leave you impotent. Enjoy”

6. The guy with the yellow coats
There’s an emergency. Anywhere in the world at almost any time of day or night. And there he is. The man with the yellow coats. He must wait in readiness with a large vanload of them, sitting patiently for the call. He probably shares a shift with the bomb experts above.

7. Bible hermeneuticist
Now that’s a mouthful. I can imagine the dinner conversation is riveting in the family of the Bible hermeneuticist. Especially if his son, the cereal box author, joins in.

8. Ring tone recorder
A relatively new profession, these are the people who come up with those annoying jingles and chimes for mobile phones. If it drives most commuters mad to share a train or bus with just the odd few mobiles, imagine how annoying it must be to acutally have to record them. As the cliche has it, if Mozart was alive today, he’d be into ring tone production. Actually, I fondly believe that he wouldn’t.

9. Glass blower
A venerable and dying art. Waterford Crystal in ireland used to perennially tout their experts in glass blowing. Unfortunately for them, crystal is about as cool as Cliff Richard’s Christmas records or Barry Manilow’s haircut.

10. Voice analyst
Whenever the police are on a big murder hunt, they invariably trawl through voice recordings of alleged killers. They employ the anonymous “voice analysers” to determine the identity of the killer. How? I can’t imagine what this involves, but presume it means staring obliquely at computer outputs of rising and falling lines. Where do I sign on?

11. Pig wanker
Not for the faint of heart. You’ve got to hand it to those who do this. Or not, as the case may be…

12. Fecal archaeologist
Or Pathoecologist. That’s a cooler name, but it still wouldn’t make me want to do it.

13. Cartoon colourist
Seriously. I knew one, before she left to become an administrative assistant. It was mind-numbing, repetitive, and soul destroying: doodling for a living. The pay was rubbish and – worst of all – she only got to colour part of the wretched cartoon. She couldn’t even finish off the story. How frustrating is that?

14. Polar bear mother
Some might consider this the dream job, but by the time Knut had grown to be eight feet tall and could bite your head off during “play”, it was best to call it a day…

15. Bangladeshi otter trainers
In parts of Bangladesh, they train otters to chase fish into nets. The otters take time to train. Actually, it is kind of a cool job really.

16. Microsoft Most Valuable Professional
Okay, this is a slight cheat, as it isn’t really a job, per se. But it is fun to slag it off anyway.
Being given this title is like attaching a large neon sign above your head that flashes out: “GEEK!! GEEK!!”. Or being labelled a serial sex offender. It is allied to such job titles as “Workflow Approver”, “Technology Evangelist”, “Sharepoint Administrator”, or “Knowledge Management Consultant”. Actually, these jobs are too close to what I do now to be weird. Which is scary. As I said earlier, I do need a new job.

17. Professional table soccer player
Making a living by rolling balls around large tables with miniture men on. Probably no more daft than doing the real thing of course. Or being a darts or rollerblading or chess or poker professional…

18. Hemorrhoid cream researcher
A pain in the hole of a job.
After spending 4 years doing chemistry and biology in college and another 3 or 4 years specialising in medicines, you end up developing stuff that overweight, middle-aged people smear on their rear ends. Lovely.

19. Dog walker
Another one of those jobs that some people would just love to have. It’s the poop scooping that puts me off.

20. Lion tamer
The ultimate weird job. As Monty Python would best explain:
 “Your report here says that you are an extremely dull person. Our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company, and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these characteristics would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they’re considered a positive boon.” 🙂

Announcement of a Scientific Breakthrough

The use of computer screens has led to the increasing prevalence of eye-strain, sore necks, dry skin, the emission of dangerous fumes, the inordinate use of power, and other social problems. But rescue is at hand – thanks to a revolutionary new discovery being developed by a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley.

According to Tom Harpur, CEO of the Pulpdo company, “We envisage a situation where people will use small, hand-held devices to make marks on a revolutionary new material. These marks will be called ‘writing’ and the material we will call ‘paper’”.

Jeremy Bloom, the chief of technology at Pulpdo, told us: “The ‘paper’ will consist of extremely thin, flexible, white material made from natural resources. We’re currently experimenting with fermented yak’s stomach linings, but there are promising materials we haven’t tried yet, such as the dried skins of the willow spider. Producing commerical quantities of such substances remains an issue, but we’re confident we can overcome them.”

We questioned him about the concept of a ‘pen’ too. “We have many promising possibilities. We’ve worked out a working prototype.” was all he would tell us. While Mr. Bloom was silent on the precise details of the pen prototype, insiders told us it was over nine feet wide and took four men to carry. All he was able to say was: “We have plans to reduce that size to a workable model soon”. As for the substance that will produce the marks, he could only tell us that it was subject to investigations: “Right now we’re confident that the blood of some exotic octopus species look promising…”
But some analysts remain sceptical. Says Sarah-Ann Dunne of KPMG Consultants, “Quite aside from the technical problems of producing paper and pens, we just cannot see people being able to use these devices without many years of expensive education. They cannot compete with the computer-screens’ friendly glow and simple click-and-go interface.”

Other sceptics point to the human propensity for simplicity. “I cannot see how attempting to interpret marks of illegible type will be possible”, says Anthony Felming of Harper and Kings.

But Tom Harpur remains confident. “People will appreciate the intimacy of paper, the touch and feel of a hand-held ‘pen’, and will treasure the lack of eye-strain.”

Living life to the Max

In the story of Maximilian Ambergis, inventor of the delete button, we left it with one large, unexplained gap: “Eventually, Max drifted to Russia, via Alaska, and disappears from history, until he emerges, relatively intact, in 1917 in St. Petersburg, alongside Lenin.” Now, new papers have emerged which show, in fact, that during this period Ambergis reached a crescendo of creative endeavour unparalleled in the modern world. The crucial papers are letters he sent to his sister, recently discovered in an attic in Leeds and hinted at in his autobiography, “Delete My Mistakes, Inspire My Spirit”.
Shortly after his arrival in America, in 1894, Max became frustrated with the slow means of communicating with his sister back in Leeds. To this end, he founded a cross-continental system involving spirit mediums. His company was called Spiritcom and rested on a simple premise: spirits in the after-life face no barriers of distance in travel. If you could transmit a message to one spirit, via a medium, asking them to pass it on to another spirit, then get that spirit to further pass it on to another medium in a far distant place, then you could – theoretically – organise for messages to span the globe, instantaneously.

Spiritcom Promo Poster 1895 – “One World, One Message”

Spiritcom opened to huge public acclaim, transmitting the first messages from San Francisco, on  April 22nd, 1895. The venture soon ran into trouble. Max claimed that reliable spirits were hard to employ for the relatively mundane tasks of passing on messages. Many simply wanted to bemoan their eerie state or whine miserably about Hades and the eternal fire. Many messages got garbled along the way, with a simple message like “Arrive Friday. Stop. Prepare Reception. Stop.” Being passed on as “Arrive Friday. Stop tormenting me with those forks, I only wish to repent my sins and escape this eternal hell fire…” etc, for another 22 pages of text, before finally ending with “Prepare Reception. Stop.” Despite employing his newly invented delete button to expunge such irrelevant nonsense from the actual messages being passed, the end result was often unfortunately garbled.

The final blow to Spiritcom came in August 1896, when due to a mix up with a pair of psychics, a message to a customer in New York sent on August 5th, saying that his nephew had died, actually arrived on August 3rd, to much consternation. Facing public humiliation, Max fled in September of that year.

Burdened down with debts, he trekked north to Alaska. He spent his time inventing new mining gear, including conducting experiments into mine canaries. He was fascinated with one particularly clever canary called Canute. Indeed, visitors to Max’s camp in the far north of Alaska were greeted to the amusing sight of Max, typing away on Max TWO or Max THREE, with the canary standing on his shoulder.
Canute and Max start training

After many years of elaborate training, where Canute was taught to recognise every word in the English language, he would cheep twice if Max mistyped a word. Hence, the world’s first working Spell Checker had been invented! (Patent pending…) However, attempts to replicate this success failed. Finding canaries clever enough to recognise words, beyond the rudiments of the word “seed” and the phrase “juicy morsel of insect” proved impossible. Canute was one of a kind.

Max derived his Law of Universal Canariability – which roughly states that “If a canary can do it, anybody can do the can-can”, which is just a derivation of Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem.

It was during this period that Max, newly flushed with money from his canary venture, visited Europe. He paid a visit to Sigmund Freud, then interested in theories of mesmerism (or hypnotism). Max and Freud struck up an instant friendship and a mutual love for cocaine. Fuelled by one particularly large consignment of highly-pure Colombian nose powder, Freud persuaded Max to allow him to hypnotise Canute. Freud had already hypnotised bees, mushrooms, and goldfish, with mixed results. This experiment in animal hypnotism ended badly when Canute became convinced that he was the King of Persia. Scorning mere bird seed, he would only eat cake and drink fine champagne. Despite every attempt to keep Canute alive, he passed away within two months of their visit to Vienna. He did, however, die a happy little bird.

Part Three to Come Soon….

Islamic hypocrisy or just plain ignorance?

The papers are full of the story of Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year old mother and teacher, who was jailed for several days in Sudan for allowing the children in her school class to name a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’. She was shopped to the authorities by a fellow school teacher. But that was only half the story: the local imams were calling for her execution and inciting crowds of people to demonstrate for the death penalty. Shamefully, the Sudanese government seems to have decided to play the situation for all it was worth, now deciding to release Mrs Gibbons to general grovelling and bowing from the British MPs who went to Sudan to beg for her release.

The subtext to all of these shameful shenanigans is the central issue of “respect” for Islam and its related superstitions and cultural hang-ups. Ms Gibbons was quoted as saying, “I have great respect for the Islamic religion…”. Quite. She knew that at heart the issue was about paying due respect to the authorities in the Sudan.

And all of this follows hot on the heels of stories about a rape victim being given 200 lashes as punishment for her part in her own gang rape.

No right thinking person can have “respect” for religions that rely on bizarre and draconian laws to enforce their will. No one in the West can truely respect their attitudes to women, homosexuals, science, apostates, writers or artists who “defame” Islam, and myriad other groups of unfortunate minorities. While doing all of this, Islamicists simultaneously adopt the endless mantras: that Islam is a religion of peace; that Islam respects women; that Islam is a force for good. Yada yada.

It is not a force for good. It does not promote peace. It is backward, medieval, stupid, crude, fanatical, and plain wrong on just about everything. They keep their subject people’s in thrall using propoganda, mass brain washing, the execution of apostates as a matter of policy, and extreme laws. Rule through ignorance and fear.

I may be accused of Islamophobia. If that word means, literally, “fear of Islam”, then I am guilty, I am Islamophobic. If it means that “I hate Islam”, then I am also guilty. But I am not personal about it: I pass Muslims in Dublin everyday of the week. I buy food in their shops and coffee in their cafes. I neither bear them a grudge or harbour a hatred of them, as people. Indeed, I have found them to be uniformly helpful and friendly. But their official religious beliefs are what horrify me.

And it goes without saying that I do not, i) demonstrate in the street for the murder of Muslims, or ii) advocate that they be killed, or executed, or otherwise punished for their beliefs, or iii) that I advocate any kind of cultural war or West vs. East WWIII kind of situation.

But I do think it is high time that Western culture stands up for itself and stop the hand-wringing and apologies and showing “respect” to Islam. We’ve given the world everything from classical music, Shakespeare, the mobile phone, the Internet, the chip, television, democracy, modern laws, freedom of speech, women’s emancipation, soccer, and the car. And what do we get from Islam? Everytime that question is asked, there follows the usual litany of medieval architecture, Islamic art, mathematics and chemistry (via algorithms and alchemy, both Arabic), and so on. But all of these developments happened hundreds of years ago. What have they given us recently? Nothing but fatwahs and death threats and repressive governments and mass killings on September 11th. Their culture is bankrupt. They cannot lead the world on any science or art or music or literature, because it is bankrupt of new ideas.

So before we go further, let’s ask the Muslim’s themselves what they’re about. Find out what they do with apostates, or raped women, or evolution (that last is no more whacky or ridiculous than Christian creationism, but so what?).

The basic truth is that any paternalistic, medieval, book-based religion is bound to be wrong on just about everything that matters. Life is too complex to be looked at through the prism of a book of inherently obscure writings handed down through the generations from revered prophets. When combined with poverty, exclusion, and the sense that their culture is headed for oblivion, it is a toxic brew. It is a disaster. The only hope is for a gradual period of containment followed by the slow withering and dying out of these beliefs. Otherwise, the world may have to confront the ultimate threat of nuclear war with fanatics, from Iran, Pakistan, or some other nuclear-armed regime in the Middle East. 

Worst of all, it makes me feel like George Bush or Dick Cheney. And that is awful.