Tuesday, 26 August 2008

WRONG: Jesus definitely existed

Next time you’re in Japan, make a journey to the village of Shingo at the far north of Honshu island. You’ll find a road sign marked "Christ Grave", leading to a tomb with a cross on it. Local legend has it that rather than die on the cross, Jesus fled through Russia to Japan and lived out his days in Shingo as a rice farmer with his wife Miyuko and his three daughters.

(The dead guy on the cross was apparently Jesus’ brother Isukiri, who sneaked up there when the Romans weren’t looking so that Jesus could escape.)

The Bible disagrees. As far as Christians are concerned, Jesus lived and died in Palestine roughly between 1 and 38 CE. (CE, the secular equivalent of AD, stands for Common Era. The dating of Jesus’ birth by those who accept he existed is pretty vague in its own right. Estimates by historians place it between 18BC and 1AD.)

The trouble is, there’s no proof outside of the Bible itself. The New Testament (the part of the Bible written after Christ) is an assemblage of books written at different times by different authors, and the authenticity of the ones claiming to be eyewitness testimony is suspect. Parts of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, for example, contradict each other, while other parts appear to be copied from the Gospel of Mark. Mark, meanwhile, is suspiciously confused about Palestinian geography for a native.

Mark, incidentally, also mentions Jesus having sisters. Look it up – chapter six, verse three.

The earliest non-Biblical reference to Jesus was by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian born in 37CE. In his Antiquities Of The Jews, written about 93CE, he – improbably for an ultra-orthodox Pharisee – describes Jesus as being “the Christ”, or Messiah. Even The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that, “The passage seems to suffer from repeated interpolations,” meaning it is very likely that the key sentences are a forgery, inserted into the text by 4th-century Christian translators.

Writing in 112CE, the Roman historian Tacitus described in his Annals Nero’s persecution of Christians 50 years earlier and mentioned their founder “Christus”. Errors in his description of Pilate imply, however, that his sources were Christians in Rome rather than offical documents. The passage itself is open to question – the radical former clergyman Robert Taylor claimed that there was no evidence for it even existing in copies of the Annals before the 15th century. More pesky forgers.

Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars (120CE) referred to “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” among Jews in Rome, though Chrestus was a common Greek name and may simply have been a local troublemaker. Aside from these three, the dozens of Greek, Roman and Jewish historians writing at the supposed time of Christ or in the century after made no reference to him whatsoever.

As Bertrand Russell wrote, “Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we do not know anything about him.” Even the things we think we know are dubious. Belgian historian Franz Cumont, for example, uncovered the following details about Mithras, already an enormously popular deity among Romans and other gentiles by Jesus’ time. Mithras was worshipped as “The light of the world”, he was part of a holy trinity in a cosmology that invoked heaven and hell, and he would redeem his worshippers on the Day of Judgement. His birthday festival was on 25 December, and he took part in a last supper before he died and ascended to heaven. His worshippers underwent baptism, ritually consumed bread and wine on Sundays and celebrated a rite of rebirth in late March/early April[3][4]. Quite a coincidence.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

WRONG: You can still be executed in Britain for High Treason, Piracy and Arson in Her Majesty’s Shipyards

For some reason, this old saw is still lingering wherever pedants meet pubs.

A ridiculous number of offences have been punishable by death in Britain over the years. So many, in fact, that the statute books of the 18th century later became known as “The Bloody Code”. Alongside murder, you could be executed for treason, stealing from a shipwreck or from a rabbit warren, writing graffiti on Westminster Bridge, poaching, stealing letters, sacrilege, blacking-up your face at night (this was more a measure against robbery than minstrels), impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner (again, a measure against benefit frauds, rather than impressionists), cutting down young trees, being in the company of gypsies for a month and, remarkably, “strong evidence of malice” in 7-to-14-year-old children. According to the Lord Chief Justice, in 1801 a boy of 13 was executed for stealing a spoon.

Executions were popular public events. In 1807, 40,000 came to see the hanging of the murderers Owen Haggerty and John Holloway at the Old Bailey – so many that a sudden rush near a pie stall caused more than thirty spectators to be trampled to death. Given the circumstances, the irony may have been lost on them.

By 1861, various parliamentary reformers had managed to reduce the list of capital crimes to four: murder, high treason, arson in royal dockyards and piracy with violence. A century later, the Murder Act (Abolition Of The Death Penalty) of 1965 introduced a five-year moratorium on execution for murder that was made permanent in 1969. Outstanding death sentences were commuted, but it was too late for Gwynne Owen Evans (also known as John Welby) and Peter Allen, a pair of small-time thieves who stabbed a workmate of Evans’ to death during a robbery. They were simultaneously hanged in Manchester and Liverpool respectively, becoming the last people to be executed in Britain.

High treason ceased to be a capital crime in 1971 and the Crime And Disorder Act of 1998 put an end to the remaining two. In 1999, Jack Straw signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention On Human Rights, formally abolishing the death penalty, though the Convention does contain the proviso that any signatory state may employ it during time of war. In 2002, the penalty was abolished in the Turks and Caicos islands in the West Indies (see here for more about British overseas territories), meaning that it is now impossible to be executed for any crime on British territory anywhere in the world, no matter whose rabbit warren you’ve been caught with your hand in.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

WRONG: Inflation is a bad thing

Inflation, or the ongoing rise in prices that reduces the spending power of money, is the bane of every national treasury. For the uninitiated, it’s the mysterious tendency of the pound (or cruzeiro, or baht) in your pocket to buy you less and less each year. It’s measured against the Consumer Price Index, which tracks the cost of a literal (and big, and unlikely) shopping basket of goods. The basket for 2007 included:

•olive oil
•frozen pizza
•an electric fan
•a toothbrush
•chicken kievs
•a digital radio
•tracksuit bottoms
•wallpaper paste
•kiwi fruit
•nursing home fees
•motor oil
•a dvd recorder
•an acoustic guitar
•a hamster
•squash court hire
•fish and chips
•“corn-based snacks”

The following is one very simple model of inflation (the “cost push” model, if you really want to know):

1. Everyone wants higher wages.
2. As wages go up, employers pass on the cost of the raises to consumers by putting up prices.
3. If prices are up, everyone wants higher wages.
4. Go to Stage 2.

Monetarists, who are generally followers of the economist Milton Friedman, would say inflation is the result of changes to the money supply. The more money there is in circulation, the less it is worth, as the German government of the 1920s discovered when they printed so many banknotes that people found it cheaper to burn them than buy firewood. In Hungary in July 1946, prices more than tripled every day, leading to the issue of the quite remarkable 100 million trillion (100,000,000,000,000,000,000) pengo note. It was worth about 10p, and meant the smaller denomination notes had the same value – and possibly the same use – as a sheet of toilet paper. The treasury, presumably clamping their hands over their ears and shouting “La la la la la,” printed an even larger 1 billion trillion pengo note, but it was never issued. Instead, sadly, the pengo was replaced with the forint, which doesn’t sound nearly as much like an animated penguin.

A similar case is occurring in Zimbabwe today – at the time of writing, the weekly national lotto prize stands at 1.2 quadrillion dollars.

It should be noted, however, that “money” does not only mean cash. It covers spending of all kinds.

Followers of John Maynard Keynes (the fact that the names of the two most prominent 20th-century economists combine to form “Milton Keynes” is a coincidence. The Buckinghamshire new town’s name originated as a corruption of “Middleton” and a Norman landowning family called Cahaines) argue that money supply is only a small factor among the causes of inflation. Aggregate demand – a combination of government spending, public consumption, investment, and the export/import balance – is the key. Other schools of economic thought have different opinions, and so far there is no clear consensus on the exact causes of – or remedy for – inflation, though monetary controls have historically proved effective.

The unexpected conclusion that most economists have come to, however, it that inflation isn’t always a bad thing. As long as it is slow and wages are matching it, then it’s a good sign that the economy as a whole is growing, and is controllable because it is predictable. Deflation – a sustained downward trend in prices – sounds great in principle, but actually reflects an unwillingness to spend, as in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Monday, 4 August 2008

WRONG: JD Wetherspoon founded a chain of pubs

The name may conjure an image of a genial 19th-century Yorkshire brewer with muttonchop sideburns and a leather apron, but that’s just what they want you to think. Like Mr Kipling, JD Wetherspoon never existed. (Sara Lee, on the other hand, did. She was the daughter of Charles Lubin, the founder of Kitchens Of Sara Lee, a frozen baked-goods company that later became simply The Sara Lee Corporation. Sara Lee Schupf went on to become a philanthropist, supporting especially the cause of women in science.)

The chain was actually founded in 1979 by a 24-year-old law student called Tim Martin. The 6’6”, mullet-sporting Ulsterman took the name “Wetherspoon” from one of his teachers, while the “JD” – brilliantly – came from JD “Boss” Hogg in The Dukes Of Hazzard.

Martin supposedly modelled the chain itself on an essay by George Orwell about a fantasy pub called The Moon Under Water, which offered a quiet, drunkard-free atmosphere with friendly staff and no music. A reading of Orwell’s essay, however, demonstrates that something must have been lost in translation – he demanded beer in pewter or china mugs, open fires, liver-sausage sandwiches, strictly Victorian fittings and “motherly barmaids”.