Language is the Enemy

As a writer and a skeptic, I’m often most distressed at the often blatant manipulation of language when communicating an idea. You can rest assured that the more controversial a topic, the less likely it is that you can trust what is being said about it. All forms of communication are inherently flawed, imperfect, subjective and makes a poor medium for sowing truth; but alas, it’s all we’ve got.

Language itself is a lot like me when I try to play baseball with people who are actually good at baseball. I even played a little baseball in school, I was on the team and everything. I swear! If we played 20 games that season, I rode the pine for 17 of them, but goddammit I was on the team! Now that I think about it, I’m not sure what it was actually even worth. I didn’t get any girls because of it, I didn’t become cool(er), I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t a nerd. If anything, it only underscored the fact that I had no real group, no perfect fit, no easily applied label. I’m quite proud of this now, but at the time it was confusing and I spent of lot of high school trying not to seem insecure and no doubt failing miserably. So, if I was good enough to make the team, why didn’t I play?

It’s pretty simple: I fucking suck at baseball. I understand the game well enough, I know what to do with the ball, I know the rules and I can actually bat pretty well given the chance, but I just don’t have the focus required of an athlete. I get bored extremely quick. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m currently reading six books at once, in the sense that I haven’t yet finished any of them. I haven’t even started nearly 50% of the books that I’ve purchased. It’s not that I don’t want to, I just lose interest in reading for weeks at a time. My mind is active like a pinball machine, its focus shifting rapidly from one thing to the next. So imagine planting that mind out in left field, facing the often sluggish pace of baseball itself and the fact that there are so many things to look at when you’re outside: from the crowd, to the players, so many thoughts, the uniforms, the last names, the crowd, the bugs, the grass…what was I saying? Oh! Baseball, right! In addition to being so easily distracted, I can’t throw the ball for shit, do not love the game anywhere near enough to sacrifice my body for anything, and thanks to an incident in little league, am deathly afraid of taking a grounder to the shin…. So what does this unfocused analogy have to do with Language? Plenty.

Imperfect Hose
“So when you said ‘close enough’…”

Much like me, Language is a laughably imperfect tool for the job it is assigned: communication. Language has rules, it can be quite eloquent given the right orator, but it doesn’t have the objectivity required for the perfect transfer of ideas and it can most certainly be made into whatever the speaker wants it to be at the time. Language is not a science, it is note reliable, but unless cave painting catch on again, we’re sort of stuck with it.

Let me give you an example: regardless of your opinion on the morality of the situation, Roman Polanski has an outstanding warrant for his arrest in the United States for statutory rape. Now, very few of us would disagree that rape is horrific and not at all a grey area, but the problem is that the word rape hascontradictory definitions. Most people think of rape in the normal way:

– the unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse.

but no one has accused Roman Polanski of forcing himself on the girl in question, not even her, which is arguably the only opinion that matters. Polanski is accused of statutory rape, which is defined as:

 – sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of consent, which age varies in different states.

According to the language of the law, it has nothing to do with physical force or duress In fact, the only requirement is that one of the participants be below a certain age, which varies from state to state. I’m not saying rape is bad and statutory rape is just swell, but I am saying that they different and even contradict each other. One requires the absence of consent, the other is still a crime regardless of its presence. I’m not defending or attacking Polanski, I’m attacking the deliberate use of inflammatory language. Rape, in 4 out of its 5 definitions is about taking something forcefully, whether raping a person, or plundering their land, it’s all pretty unpleasantly aggressive by nature, but even if a 17 year old and 20 year old are deeply in love, the 20 year old will go to jail with “rapist” tattooed on his reputation because the language of the law fails to effectively differentiate one crime from a technical crime. Polanski didn’t rape the girl, he had sex with a girl who was not legally allowed to say yes. Rape conjures up a different image of what actually happened, the word is an imperfect adjective and communicates an easily misinterpreted idea. Now, that’s not to say that people aren’t coerced into sex when they’re too young to know better, but it would naive to think that this is always the case. Words, however, are indifferent to intent.

Pictured above: Rape. (No, really)

Politics, Religion, Science, Pseudoscience, Conspiracy Theories, Skepticism…. It all suffers from the same affliction, imperfect language. Everywhere you turn, you have someone trying to sell you something, convince you of something, relate something to you, discourage you from doing something and everyone uses the same imperfect and easily manipulated tools called “words”. I’m doing it right now, in fact. I know that using analogies makes my somewhat abstract point easier to understand. I made a decision about which words to use and omit behind the scenes and you only see the final product. Politicians create attack ads where they omit facts, attach scary adjectives to innocent actions and more often then we’d like, flat out lie. Language is so imperfect that without extra knowledge, we can’t even identify a lie from the truth just from the words, and the communication of ideas thrives on this. Certain words carry more weight than others, sometimes just one word can alter the (intended) meaning of a sentence.

As a result, everyone lies, everyone manipulates, everyone bends the truth or masks it to appear better than it is. I would go so far as to say that this is so inherent without humans that it ought to be accepted, not changed. Humans will always be selfish, and this is one way that no one can stop us. An embittered ex-girlfriend can use only words, sometimes only tone of voice, to irreparably ruin her ex’s reputation. A couch can fire up a discourage team with an inspiring speech. Protesters can change the course of a discussion, and ultimately history, with the wording of their signs. History itself is written by the victors and contains an inevitable bias. The media frequently distorts a headline in an effort to increase the likelihood that the article will be read. Conspiracy theorists cherry pick data and quotations to make their case more compelling. You get the idea. You can probably think of two dozen examples of language being applied with ulterior motives, positive or negative.

It’s worth noting at this point that not all manipulation is malicious. Sometimes it happens on accident based on our mood. The way we describe ourselves is incredibly dependent on the very moment that we choose the words. A Monday might offer a more pessimistic response, where the opposite may be true on a Friday. People rarely, if ever, say exactly what they mean. Language must be interpreted by the listener, which means that not only is the speaker not saying what they mean, but the listener may not even be understanding in the way it was intended. I might even have a typo that I missed which affects your ability to understand what I’m saying.

It’s chaos. Like trying to sail a kite from a tugboat in a hurricane, it may not be impossible, but you’ll be damned lucky to have any success at all.

So what’s my point, other than fatalism? If we can’t really trust what anyone says, how can we know what to believe?  Whether it’s about science, god, our families or that bridge salesman, how can ever know anything at all?

Well the short version is that you can’t. Not 100% anyway. You simply have to play the probability game, which is more precise than it sounds. You have to weigh all available knowledge against what is being claimed, or believed and you must test it against itself. If someone tells you that gravity isn’t real, then kindly drop something on their foot as many times as it takes to prove your point. If someone presents a convincing argument for why the Twin Towers were destroyed by controlled demolition, kindly present them with the footage of actual demolished buildings and point out the differences. If someone asserts knowledge of a deity, kindly remind them of the fallibility of language and ask for evidence that wasn’t passed down in a two thousand year old game of telephone.

"Then after three days, his rose was dead. I know, I didn't get it either."

Language itself can never be enough to prove anything. Words are too easily manipulated, heartstrings are too easily tugged. If something makes sense when you hear it spoken, then continue investigating before you draw a conclusion. Real truth can be corroborated by independent sources. Relying on one source is dumb, relying on an unreliable source is grounds for dismissal. Be smart and challenge what you’re told and what you read. Remember that no human on the planet is immune to misrepresenting themselves or others in the way that the speak, and assumptions should never be made based on words alone, language is far too corruptible to be any kind of foundation.

I just realized the irony of blogging this.

5 thoughts on “Language is the Enemy

  1. Definitely agree(with parts of this). When having conversations or arguments, it’s so important to establish definitions. To speak the same language. If two people have two definitions(I keep misspelling “definitions”, thank you spell check! I just misspelled “misspelled” as well) of the same word then they are just going to talk past each other. In fact I feel like you and I have done this on occasion. I think a perfect example of this is the word “nothing” in regards to the beginning of the universe. When a person says “I ate nothing for lunch” they mean they didn’t eat “any thing”, not that they actually had “some THING” to eat that was nothing. And these issues all seem so obvious and simple to avoid, yet they aren’t. And it’s even more difficult within the English language, which is confusing as all hell as Gallagher so brilliantly pointed out:

    Also, I just have to say that the details surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection(as well as the rest of the new testament) haven’t changed from the original texts in those 2,000 years….And the transmission wasn’t as linear as a game of telephone. One letter would breed five copies which, in turn, bred 25, 50, 100 and so on! So it’s not like there is a huge gap between the generations and the original transmission of the event. It was done in writing. You should appreciate that because written manuscripts can be tested in a way that oral stories can’t. In fact, there are only forty lines in the new testament that are “textually questionable”. And we are talking about things like single missing letters that have no effect on comprehension(all of which are noted in most bibles). Even the NT critic Bart Ehrman admits that “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple-slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another” (Misquoting Jesus, 55).

    so, regardless of whether you think the story is true or not, it’s remained consistent. All in all, a pretty lackluster game of telephone!

  2. You’re right that writings are less prone to change than oral tradition, but what do you think those writings are based on?

    Just a few contradictions:
    – Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-38 give incompatible genealogies for Christ, some say one is Luke’s is Mary’s even though Luke says otherwise (3:23) but of course, if they do belong to Joseph then they don’t have anything to do with Jesus anyway.

    -The virgin birth is strangely absent from Paul’s writings (not a contradiction, but noteworthy considering it’s importance)

    -Matt 2:1 puts Jesus birth during Herod’s reign, Luke 2:2 puts Jesus birth during the first Israeli census, which was Quirinius reign, some 10 years after Herod’s death.

    -Luke has Mary and Joseph travelling from their home in Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea for the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:4). Matthew, in contradiction to Luke, says that it was only after the birth of Jesus that Mary and Joseph resided in Nazareth, and then only because they were afraid to return to Judea (Matt 2:21-23).

    -Matt 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7 disagree with John 19:14 on when the Last Supper took place

    This is just the gospels and doesn’t include aburdities like why did anyone need Judas to betray Jesus? They could arrest him at any time, what exactly did he even do? It was more likely added just to tick off a prophecy box, though I am speculating. But then, was Judas hung, or did he hurl himself into a field. Paul doesn’t even know this part of the story, he says Jesus appeared to the Twelve post resurrection. Jesus also made prophetic claims about all twelve disciples having thrones. The list goes on and on and on.

    Plus, you’re analyzing a biased sample. What about all the other letters and books that were destroyed after the council of Nicea excluded them from the Bible? To fairly judge the longstanding veracity of the story of Jesus, you’d have to consider these letters as well. This is shoddy science at best and unreliable history at worst.

    Perhaps the thing that is worth pointing out above all else, is that the consistency of a story has no bearing on it’s validity. A lie well told is still a lie.

  3. Ok…………so, I don’t see how a list of contradictions really affects my point about telephone. I think it stands regardless of any contradictions or difficulties for even these, if they truly are contradictions, have stayed consistent for 2,000 years. You can make the statement “a lie well told is still a lie” but I don’t see that it hurts my point. If we are going on assumptions, all I have to do to counter your statement is say…”but it’s not a lie” and that would leave us running around in circles forever.

    At the moment, I am strictly speaking about “judging the veracity” of the 27 books of the New Testament. I’m not talking about any of the gnostic books, or any burned books no one’s ever read. I don’t have to compile every text ever written to decide if an ancient person was real or not. Now that’s not to say I want to simply pass over what happened at the Council of Nicea or ignore these texts(which by the way, scholars DON’T ignore these texts either) but it’s just a whole other topic that we can get into later…but I’ll give a short response anyway: Any books excluded after Nicea (if you want to talk about evidence, the decision about what was included in the 27 books of the New Testament was established 42 years after the Council of Nicea. Not sure if you’re implying that the Councils destroyed writings as a cover up, but if you are, that’s pure DaVinci Code stuff!) were ones that were deemed to be NON EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS. By taking the writings of just 3 disciples of the apostles ALONE (Polycarp, Ignatius, & Clement), we can see that 20 out of the 27 New Testament books were already affirmed as Scripture close to a couple hundred years before Constantine was even born! And the other books were soon to follow(Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies” in 185AD affirmed 24; Origen actually affirmed all 27! and there are others). The point being, the 4 gospels were ALREADY accepted as the true gospels(strictly because they were based on eyewitness testimony). In fact, almost all of the New Testament as it stands today, can be re-constructed based solely on the early church fathers writings predating the councils of Nicea, Laodicea, Carthage, & Hippo.

    Keeping to my point, I am merely concerned with the texts we do have. These texts aren’t based on oral “tradition” or “legend”, but rather eyewitness testimony that would have been verifiable because the witnesses were alive to confirm or deny the events. This oral “history” was passed on and written down very early….but we can ALSO get into that later.

    now “having said that”,

    let me get to your list. I’ll take these one at a time so it doesn’t get ridiculously long.

    “…incompatible genealogies…”
    Volumes have been written on this. There are more issues with these genealogies then you even named! Matthew lists four women in the genealogy(which isn’t customary for Hebrew genealogies, although not unheard of), Luke lists none. In Matthew, Joseph is said to have been born unto a man named Jacob, whereas Luke implies that he was the son of Eli. From Abraham to David the two genealogies agree, but from David Matthew traces Jesus’ descent through Solomon, while Luke traces it through Nathan. How could Jesus’ be descended from two different sons of David? Then there are also problems of missing names and skipped generations, questions regarding Levirate marriage laws, genealogy abridgement, and even the usage of a method called ‘gematria’.

    There are many explanations for all of these and some are very plausible, while others tend to stretch a little too far in my opinion. As you somewhat alluded to, many scholars believe that Matthew is tracing Jesus’ LEGAL/ROYAL line through Joseph while Luke is tracing Jesus’ BLOODline through Mary, even though she is not named. At this point in my research I am leaning in the direction that both authors are relating JOSEPH’S line. I tend to side with Richard Bauckham who believes Matthew’s genealogy was more likely an official record that would have been kept in the Temple but Luke’s was likely a family record with differing names (or rather, a different line from Joseph – through his grandfather possibly). Some would have traced lineage through Solomon others through David’s son Nathan. I think it’s unlikely that Luke describes Marys line for a couple reasons. First and foremost it just isn’t evident from a first casual reading, although plausible explanations are available and I’ll give you some. Second, genealogical tables tend to exclude women(although Matthew mentions 5!! but it’s clear that Matthew was doing other editing as well. Here is a site that gives some thoughts on what Matthew and Luke were possibly up to:

    I’d be glad to talk about all of those individual issues, but for the sake of space and time I’ll focus on what you said specifically.

    Both of these genealogies have everything to do with Jesus. Maintaining genealogies was an important Jewish custom. Lots of things were determined by being able to prove your place in the proper lineage. In regards to Jesus, it’s CRITICAL to prove his place to the Jewish people. I believe that Matthew and Luke have two different purposes in presenting these genealogies but what isn’t in dispute, is that these are Jesus’ genealogies. Matthew kicks off with an incredible statement. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” This was a bold(to put it lightly) statement to make!!

    “[Jesus’] claim to be the Messiah is declared in the very first statement of the NT canon, and the basis of that assertion is immediately declared: He is descended from both David and Abraham, the two men to whom the promise was made by God.”(Al Maxey)

    It doesn’t really come off in the English as such, but first century Jews would have gone wide-eyed at this sentence whether they believed it or not. Matthew then goes on to give us a patriarchal lineage(albeit abridged) listing sons in descending order from Abraham to Jesus(v. 16) Writing for a Jewish readership, Matthew goes no farther back then Abraham. It’s clear that Luke is tracing Jesus’ line as well. Writing for a Gentile audience, He uses an ascending linear list beginning with Jesus (3:23), tracing his ancestry upward, eventually going all the way to the Father of everyone(aka God v.38). So although Matthew and Luke seem to have different purposes in mind in presenting their genealogies, I don’t think there is any denying that both lineages are tracing Jesus. As far as asking why is Joseph important, well establishing Jesus through Joseph would have been INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT to the Jews.

    “Matthew’s genealogy presents Joseph as the LEGAL father of Jesus, which makes Jesus legally the heir of David and of Abraham. If Jesus had been born without a legal father, [or]of Mary without a legal husband, His legal right to the inheritance from Abraham and David by virtue of the divine promise would have been void” (R.C.H. Lenski).

    SIDE NOTE: Yet another issue pops up here for in Matthew 1:11, Jeconiah is named. In Jeremiah 22:24, 28; 37:1 we find that Jeconiah(who Jeremiah has contracted to ‘Coniah’) has been cursed as well as his descendants). This would have possibly rendered Jesus’ claim to the throne null and void if Jesus had been born biologically to Joseph. Matthew is careful to note in v.16 “…the husband of Mary, by WHOM was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” The word “whom” is feminine singular indicating that Jesus was born of Mary ONLY and not of both Mary & Joseph. This is actually another reason to think that Matthew is merely giving us Joseph’s LEGAL line and Luke, Mary’s. But I’ll leave this up to you to investigate further or we can talk about it later.

    So why do some scholars think Luke is presenting Jesus’ bloodline through MARY?

    If the two genealogies are of two different people(Joseph AND Mary) then suddenly the differences in the names listed from David would make sense. The fact that these two genealogical records trace through two different sons of David(Nathan in Luke 3:31 and Solomon in Matthew 1:6) also seem to attest to them being of different persons also. However that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Mary or even has to be.

    It is important to remember even if Jesus’ LEGAL line is established through Joseph, he still needed to be linked to David “according to the flesh”. This is something that Joseph could not provide, being that he was not the biological father. The supernatural birth of Jesus alone, could be reason enough to provide the two different genealogies(if indeed they are Joseph’s and Mary’s).

    Consider the context. Matthew, after listing his genealogy, goes on to describe the events surrounding Jesus’ birth centering more on Joseph than Mary(1:19-25; 2:13-15, 19-23). When we come to Luke, we see a very Mary-centric account of Jesus’ birth leading up to the genealogy of 3:23. So it would make sense, in a literary sort of way, for Luke to give Mary’s line here.

    But why not name Mary? The possible reason for this ties in with another problem: If both genealogies are actually Joseph’s, then why does Matthew say “and to Jacob was born Joseph” and Luke says “Joseph the son of Eli(or Heli)”? Who is Joseph’s Father?
    Looking at the language used, we have a possible solution for both. In Matthew v.2 “To Abraham WAS BORN[emphasis mine] Isaac, and to Isaac, Jacob, etc.” Matthew is writing for a Jewish readership primarily, and is following their tradition of listing the succession of sons properly in descending order(i.e. Abraham ‘begat’ Isaac). Starting with Abraham, the father of Israel, and working up to Joseph. Considering then v.16 “and to Jacob WAS BORN Joseph…”, it seems pretty clear that we’re to believe Jacob is Joseph’s father.

    Now notice Luke 3:23 where most English translations read similar to this “And when He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being supposedly the son of Joseph, the son of Eli(aka Heli),”. While the translators ARE correct in using the phrase “the son of”, the original Greek text clears up some confusion here. In it, every name with the one exception of Joseph, is preceded by the definite article (e.g. ‘the’ Heli, ‘the’ Matthat). So in the original Greek the verse reads “supposedly the son of Joseph, of Eli, of Matthat, etc.” I’ve read that this would strike anyone reading the Greek, because they’d realize that it was tracing the line of Joseph’s wife. However I haven’t been able to confirm that the language here solidifies the fact that Luke is speaking of Mary…and regrettably I don’t speak Greek. Also note, naming Joseph instead of Mary would be the proper thing to do given certain circumstances

    “As the Hebrews never permitted women to enter into their genealogical tables, whenever a family happened to end with a daughter, instead of naming her in the genealogy, they inserted her husband, as the son of him who was, in reality, his father-in-law.” (Adam Clarke)

    (this is where the Levirite Marriage Law theory comes in and should probably be left just mentioned at this point).

    The main point is Luke definitely doesn’t use the term “BEGAT”. We also know that there is no word in the original Greek for “son-in-law” and “son” can mean “grandson/descendant” as in Matthew 1:1. Seeing as Joseph’s biological father could not be BOTH Jacob and Eli…it’s possible that Eli is Joseph’s step-father. More evidence of this comes from the Jerusalem Talmud which actually names Mary as the daughter of Eli(Hagigah 2:4). Combine this with the different method and language, the fact that he’s centered on Mary, and it’s certainly POSSIBLE here that Luke is establishing Jesus BLOODLINE back to David through her.

    There is so much more on this, it’s probably best to leave it here. I would say though, plausible answers exist and I don’t see that this is a strict contradiction. It sort of reminds me of when certain people attack evolution by asking for “transitional fossils”. Well first of all, there are some, and second of all, we haven’t necessarily dug them all up out of the ground yet. I think if we got the writers in a room together, this would be cleared up pretty easily.

  4. You’ve been very thorough here, which is nice, but it all seems like rationalizing to me. It could be this and it could be that, but it could also be a load of bunk, so how do you rule out things like the necessity for the Jesus character to be descended from David?

    If matt and Luke were eyewitnesses why should we trust their stories written close to 100 AD? Why should we trust them when they each copied more than half of their book from Mark (see Markan Priority), they clearly enhanced details to portray a different version of Christ. Plus, they corrected Marks mistakes! I just don’t see how you’ve gotten around these problems (and others) so completely that you can be certain of their PERFECT veracity. Let alone the incredible claims they make that haven’t been observed outside these stories. (500 people resurrecting. Earthquakes and eclipses at Jesus death, Jesus meetings with the rulers of the time, on and on). We know the date that Caesar crossed the Rhine for crying out loud. Why wouldn’t we know the day 500 people came back to life and appeared to many witnesses? It must have crossed your mind that at least some of this stuff is invented or sensationalized. If you don’t allow that possibility then of what value are your rationalized “could be’s” to the rest of us? If you aren’t even considering the possibility that it has been fabricated and then are somehow able to rule it out, then I don’t see how that is being intellectually honest with yourself.

    The gospels were almost certainly not written by eyewitnesses. Let’s just focus on that.

    Also, final short point, but perhaps the most important. Eyewitness testimony doesn’t prove anything. (see alien abductions, ghost stories, exorcisms, alternative medicine, etc). Who cares what ancient peoples claimed to have seen? How do you know they weren’t wrong about it?

  5. Tech Blog says:

    Excellent article, thanks!

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