by Neil Godfrey
Cameron, a critic of Dave Fitzgerald’s Nailed, has responded to my remarks (Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists) about his accusation that those who reject the historicity of Jesus are hypocritical if they also criticize Creationists for rejecting an academic consensus. As seems to be par for the course with these sorts of attacks, derisive labels and character attacks are deployed against anyone who argues that Jesus was not a historical figure. Hence the generic title of his response: Hypocritical Christ-mythers.
Cameron begins his response thus:
In my review of David Fitzgerald’s book Nailed, I criticized Christ-mythers for ignoring the consensus of biblical scholars on the historical Jesus, while simultaneously attacking creationists for rejecting the consensus of scientists on evolution. Fitzgerald didn’t like the comparison, and neither did Neil Godfrey over at Vridar. But he’s wrong for the same reasons Fitzgerald is. His comments are in quotes, followed by my responses.
“Of course there is one professor who asserts that to the extent that biblical studies does have a degree of certainty (even though only a fraction of anything in the sciences), to that extent mythicists should respectfully submit to this consensus just as creationists should be rational and accept the authority of scientists. That one discipline is the foundation of all our modern progress and the other is a Mickey Mouse course doesn’t matter. What matters is that the most honourable professors in each have certainties. One just happens to have greater certainties than the other, that’s all.”
Of course there’s a degree of uncertainty involved when investigating historical figures, but to call biblical history a “Mickey Mouse course” is to reach a new level of special pleading. People like Godfrey make the entire field sound like a collection crazy, right-wing evangelicals bent on defending their worldview. The truth is that these scholars, whatever their ideological commitments may be, are interested in the truth. That most of them (even those skeptical of Christianity) have rejected the Christ-myth speaks volumes about its lack of validity. Furthermore, if mythicists are aware of the limitations of history, though they exaggerate them, don’t you think historians areas well? Yeah…they are. But somehow the experts rarely throw up their hands and exclaim, “well we weren’t there; Jesus probably wasn’t real!”
Whatever their ideological commitments?
Cameron portrays theologians who study “the historical Jesus” as reasonable enough to set aside their ideological commitments in order to objectively seek out only “the truth” of the matter. This is a naive Pollyannish portrayal of a scholarly field dominated by faith-committed theologians. Let’s break down Cameron’s comment and examine each piece.
Biblical studies is probably the most ideologically oriented of all academic disciplines. Hector Avalos has shown that clearly enough in The End of Biblical Studies. R. Joseph Hoffmann remarked on this blog that the reason the Christ myth theory is not given more attention among scholars has more to do with conditions of academic appointments than common sense. Stevan Davies recently pointed out that a list of the Westar Institute Fellows shows nearly all are or have been affiliated with seminaries and theological institutions. Most of the scholarly books one picks up on the historical Jesus contain prefaces or concluding chapters in which one reads reflections that sound more like homilies or spiritual confessions. James Crossley has publicly denounced the way biblical scholars so regularly open their academic get-togethers (seminars, workshops) with prayers. Blogs of theologian scholars are dominated by spiritual reflections and sayings. Atheists and atheism are generally derided. Ideology is important. The Christian faith dominates the entire field of biblical studies. To suggest that these scholars are all committed to setting aside their personal faith and seeking truth regardless of where it may lead sounds about as plausible as expecting Nazi era scientists to set aside their political ideology in order to study the biological grounds for racial differences.
That most of such scholars have rejected a model that undermines the entire ideological and faith foundations of this scholarly field tells us absolutely nothing about its lack of validity.
Historians or theologians?
Cameron speaks of historians. But the vast majority of biblical scholars specializing in the New Testament, in particular Christian origins or the historical Jesus, are not trained historians but theologians. The lack of awareness and understanding among these theologians of the nature and practice of history as it is understood among “real” history faculties is sometimes addressed by a few of these theologians themselves. Scot McKnight is one who has written relatively extensively on the failure of most theologians to even know the names of prominent historians (von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White) who have milestone works that have moved the directions in which historians seek to apply their art and craft. Crossley is another who frequently attempts to address the nature of historiography. But these voices are needles in the vast haystack. My own personal correspondences with a few theologians has only strengthened my belief that ignorance of historiography and the most fundamental principles of how to analyse documents for data and information is simply lacking among even those who call themselves historical Jesus scholars. Old Testament scholars are not so behind as these NT ones. At least in the study of ancient Israel we now see “minimalists” and others influenced by them (and some who have influenced the minimalists) introducing standard historiographical practices into that area. The idea that an unprovenanced narrative, without external controls for verification, is simply a narrative and that it cannot be assumed to be historical without circular reasoning is beginning to dawn on more and more in OT studies. There are a few in NT studies who understand this principle, such as Jim West and Dale C. Allison, but who have yet to actually apply this principle to the existence of Jesus himself.
Recently one theologian who teaches an undergraduate historical Jesus class recommended to me two works on historiographical methods. When I quoted back to him key sections that contradicted the most fundamental processes of historical Jesus scholars he was enraged. I was misrepresenting them. It turned out that he was the one who had simply failed to grasp the clear, black and white points that these texts made about the need for establishing provenance and external controls — and that as a consequence the whole historical Jesus model of these scholars rests on circularity and mere assumption that there was a historical Jesus to study at all. This pitfall does not face the historical studies in other areas of history simply because historians have long established their foundations with documentary resources that are grounded in the stability of known provenance and external controls.
This was not the only scholar to react like this. Others have likewise simply walked away indignantly when it is suggested that there is no validity to simply assuming a text’s self-witness to be true without some means of control to test this. I have read this warning being published by a biblical scholar as far back as 1904 but it seems most New Testament scholars today simply don’t get it.
Furthermore, I agree that science deserves a lot of credit for making this world a better place. That, however, doesn’t address why we should accept biological evolution but establish special criteria for affirming the existence Jesus. Science could generally be a reliable method for studying nature and also mislead us about our origins as a species. After all, that’s precisely what Christ-mythers argue about history: it has told us a lot about the past, but historians are wrong about Jesus. So again, it’s just special pleading on a grand scale.
“Of course the reality is that evolution and the sciences have gained their authority by their public demonstrations of their proofs. In the case of evolution people are persuaded by the evidence the scientists can and regularly do present to them. Few people are truly impressed by appeals to authority. (Though obviously God-fearers must be so impressed…”
Mine is not a blind appeal to authority, however. The relevant question that ought to be asked is why the experts on Jesus have reached the position they now hold. My humble suggestion is that it’s because of the evidence they have dedicated their careers to analyzing. Again, it’s not just “God-fearers” we’re talking about. Many biblical scholars today aren’t Christians; however, they still share the view that Jesus walked the earth.
By the way, I don’t make this argument about consensus without considering the data. I didn’t say, and no apologist I know of says, that the argument is settled solely because of the consensus view. But majority scholarship is certainly a good place to start the investigation. And that’s a better course than ignoring the experts because they “…have nothing but circularity and assumptions to fall back on…” as Godfrey put it.
Cameron here has misread or overlooked what I wrote. I did not say we accept evolution because scientists have given us a lot of material progress.
Why we accept evolution yet why we move on from the historical Jesus
We accept evolution today because scientists have been able to give us clear public demonstrations of its proofs. That is the critical point. Scientists make available all the proofs we could ask for. If we have questions we can find them answered simply and directly and unequivocally.
Historical Jesus scholars do not act like that at all. Very much the opposite. One reason probably quite a few of us ever came to embrace mythicism was indirectly through the defensive and offended responses of historical Jesus scholars themselves. Many such scholars simply do not know what the mythicist arguments are, or only have a poor superficial idea of some of them, so they fail to give adequate responses to those who come to them with questions after reading works like those of Doherty, Price, Wells, Ellegard, Zindler, and others. That would not be so bad. The problem starts when the inquirer finds the mythicist has already addressed the pat answers of the theologians and challenges them. That’s when the theologians very often show they have nothing more to offer, and some will attempt to try to hide this by an unfortunate display of hostility or ridicule.
Cameron notes — as many theologians in this discussion like to do — that not all scholars of the historical Jesus are Christians. It is quaint the way this is sometimes so emphasized that one might almost think they are trying to suggest the discipline is an even mix of atheists, agnostics and believers. But of course the atheists are a small minority in a field overwhelmingly dominated by the faithful. Moreover, whenever one does begin to try to get to know some of those atheists or agnostics, one before long discovers a good portion of them have nonetheless had, let’s say, checkered religious backgrounds. But that said, it is also a simple fact that Jesus does not belong exclusively to the devout believers or spiritually inclined. He is a central cultural icon for many through many of our cultural institutions and practices.
No, the reminder that “many” biblical scholars “aren’t Christians” just doesn’t really wash away the fact that the field is dominated by believers of various shades and largely supported by communities and institutions with vested interests in the status quo.
I agree with Cameron that “majority scholarship is certainly a good place to start the investigation”. It’s where I started mine. I was for many years a Christian. Then for many years an atheist — and the idea that Jesus was a historical figure never worried me in the slightest. I still enjoyed studying books about the historical Jesus. But I did not stop there. The more widely I studied the more I came to see the cracks in the whole historical Jesus position. And unfortunately the more I came to see how the theologians had precious little to plaster those cracks apart from ridicule, insult and indignation.