COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Are humanists and atheists engaged in a religious exercise?
- Humanist and atheist activism against religion
- The humanist self-definition
- Going against received wisdom
- The Jesus “problem” for historicists
- Replacing all the fantasy Jesuses with the ‘real’ one
- Is the mythicist agenda anti-religion and anti-Christian?
- Ehrman’s and traditional agendas
- An historical evaluation of religious tradition
* * * * *
Jesus and the Mythicists
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 332-339)
Ehrman’s reaction to humanism
Similar to his situation in having had little knowledge of Jesus Mythicism before he undertook to write a book in opposition to it, Bart Ehrman seems to have had little contact with or understanding of humanism before being an “honored” guest recently at the national meeting of the American Humanist Association, where he received the Religious Liberty Award. He learned that they “celebrate what is good about being human.” But another aspect of humanism also struck him:
But a negative implication runs beneath the surface of the self-description and is very much on the surface in the sessions of the meeting and in almost every conversation happening there. This is a celebration of being human without God. Humanist is understood to stand over against theist. This is a gathering of nonbelievers who believe in the power of humanity to make society and individual lives happy, fulfilling, successful, and meaningful. And the group is made up almost exclusively of agnostics and atheists. . . . (DJE? p. 332)
|Evidently, Ehrman does not realize that the humanist movement arose as a response to religion, as a rejection of its traditional all-encompassing and rigid dictations . . . .|
Evidently, Ehrman does not realize that the humanist movement arose as a response to religion, as a rejection of its traditional all-encompassing and rigid dictations of what life constituted, how it should be lived, how we should think, and how we should view and treat the world. Having come to realize that this tradition was flawed and even harmful, an ongoing impediment to rationality, science and human rights, many people came together to try to counter these undesirable effects and offer an alternative.
Adopting a stance against religion in all its negative aspects was essentially one raison d’etre. Those who were convinced that religion’s foundation in a belief in God(s) and a supernatural dimension to reality was fundamentally erroneous felt a desire to correct that error in humanity’s thinking—not through force, indoctrination or legislation to impose one view of reality on everyone, such as religion has traditionally tried to do and is inherently ‘set up’ to do—but through reasoned persuasion and education.
But what struck me most about the meeting was precisely how religious it was. Every year I attend meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, conferences on early Christian studies, and the like. I have never, in my recollection, been to a meeting that was so full of talk about personal religion as the American Humanist Association, a group dedicated to life without religion. (DJE? p. 333)
|Here Ehrman . . . can only evaluate other or opposing views in religious terms. He seeks to apply the concepts of religion to the non-religious.|
Here Ehrman shows how the religious mind (even an ex-religious mind) can only evaluate other or opposing views in religious terms. It seeks to apply the concepts of religion to the non-religious. Thus, focusing on how one should live one’s life in the humanist way becomes a “religious” activity and fixation. “Life without religion” can only be achieved through “religion.”
But this is a misuse of language and concepts. We can say “he works at his job religiously” because we have broadened the meaning of “religiously” to apply to anything that is undertaken with dedication and faithful attention. This does not make working at that job a religion in the standard sense, because it does not involve belief in a god or the supernatural. Humanism may be promoted by some circles of non-believers quite “religiously” but that does not make humanism a religion. That is simply an attempt by members of actual religions to cast their own net over their opponents. “You criticize us for the qualities we value? You practice the same ones!” But what those respective qualities are used in the service of is quite different.
Humanist and atheist activism
I suppose there was so much talk about religious belief because it is almost impossible in our society to talk about meaning and fulfillment without reference to religion, and humanists feel a need to set themselves over against that dominant discourse. (DJE? p. 333)
|Again Ehrman seems to be saying that meaning and fulfillment only enjoy legitimacy, or ultimate reality, within the context of religious interpretation.|
Here, again, Ehrman seems to be saying that the very concepts of meaning and fulfillment only enjoy legitimacy, or ultimate reality, within the context of religion, or something given an essentially ‘religious’ interpretation (such as in the woolly and misleading terminology of being ‘spiritual’ so popular in our generation). That is indeed, and has always been, the “dominant” form of discourse in these matters, and it is precisely the rejection of that stance, one based ultimately on theism and supernaturalism, which leads humanists and atheists into actively setting themselves against it.
Modern medicine of the last couple of centuries set itself resolutely (one might say religiously) against the longstanding medical practice of bleeding a patient to release harmful humors causing illness. Is modern medicine a religion? It recognized the harm created by older convictions and practices. Should they have been reluctant to set themselves “over against that dominant discourse,” or be criticized for it? Should the religious belief that two cells coming together within moments of conception are infused by God with an immortal soul be allowed to impede the potential cure of human illnesses through stem-cell research? Should the primitivism of two and three thousand-year-old cultures and their writings be allowed to dictate to the modern mind and society on everything from the origin of the world to what constitutes ‘sin’ to one’s fate in an afterlife?
Ehrman, observing that humanist meetings devote much talk to how to deal with family reaction when leaving the faith, or how to oppose the teaching of creationism in science classrooms and so on, laments that humanists situate their humanism in relation to something else, that they often define themselves in terms of what they are not, namely “agnostic” or “atheist” in relation to theism. Again, that is essentially their raison d’etre, and even their positive stances and adopted lifestyles are necessarily ‘set over against’ the traditional ones based on a belief in God and what that belief requires. Given the society in which we live, and its long history, this is inevitable and perfectly acceptable.
When astronomers of Copernicus and Galileo’s day proclaimed a sun-centered world, this was a positive declaration of their view of the universe. But it could hardly be promoted, let alone adopted, without setting itself against the traditional view of a Ptolemaic earth-centered one, a view fiercely adhered to by religious interests based on the bible’s own presentation and on which its inerrancy was seen as dependent.
Modern humanism and atheism is in a similar situation, although it may not be facing the stake for its opposition. (Though that could change if evangelical Dominionists gain the power they seek. Pat Robertson, in the first flush of the Moral Majority’s influence in the 1980s, advocated passing federal laws against “defaming the Lord”—which no doubt would have included Jesus Mythicism—although he did not specify the penalty for such a crime.)
Thus, humanism’s self-definition should not come as a surprise to Ehrman, much less something he ought to find fault with:
“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” (DJE? p. 333)
Considering that religious belief has produced so much which has operated against that greater good, ‘taking on religion’ is a natural and necessary aspect of being a humanist and atheist in most societies around the world (although considerable numbers of humanists advocate against doing so)—with a few notable exceptions, one of which is unfortunately not the United States of America.
Going against received wisdom
|If innovators and researchers not shackled by received tradition backed away through fear of ridicule we’d still be living in the Stone Age.|
Now, all of this has served as an introduction to the point Ehrman wants to make in his Conclusion. First, there is this claim:
In my view mythicists are, somewhat ironically, doing a disservice to the humanists for whom they are writing. By staking out a position that is accepted by almost no one else, they open themselves up to mockery and to charges of intellectual dishonesty. (DJE? p. 334)
Well, this type of admonition could have been made against almost any individual or group who ever put forward a theory which bucked the going wisdom. Copernicus threw traditional astronomy into disrepute. Darwin was mocked by the religious establishment. Wegener was disowned by the discipline of geology and ridiculed by his colleagues for his theory of continental drift. If innovators and researchers not shackled by received tradition backed away through fear of such reactions we’d still be living in the Stone Age. Yes, we have had our share of new theories deserving rejection (alien visitors to earth as the source of human life is probably one such). But that rejection has usually been backed up by reasoned argument and counter-demonstration. And such rebuttal has had to stand up to scrutiny. Ridicule by itself or appealing to “the way we’ve always thought” doesn’t do the trick.
The Jesus Problem
|But Dr. Ehrman, you’re already a Jesus mythicist; I just believe in one less mythical Jesus than you do!|
Before going on to explain why Jesus is a problem for atheists and humanists, Ehrman switches gears and examines why Jesus constitutes a problem for religionists. The problem is that he is “too historical,” by which Ehrman means he is too adaptable. Christians at all times, and especially in the modern age, have been able to turn him into anything they wanted in order to suit different agendas, whether of televangelists, free-enterprise capitalists, racial supremacists, advocates of the welfare state, or any of a host of other self-interests.
Of course, Ehrman sees the historical Jesus as none of these things, and he takes the opportunity to summarize the apocalyptic preacher he believes Jesus to have been.
The problem then with Jesus is that he cannot be removed from his time and transplanted into our own without simply creating him anew. When we create him anew we no longer have the Jesus of history but the Jesus of our own imagination, a monstrous invention created to serve our own purposes. But Jesus is not so easily moved and changed. He is powerfully resistant. He remains always in his own time. As Jesus fads come and go, as new Jesuses come to be invented and then pass away, as newer Jesuses come to take the place of the old, the real, historical Jesus continues to exist, back there in the past…. (DJE? p. 336)
Ehrman has summarized modern Jesus scholarship quite well here, and given the perennial failure of repeated quests to find the ‘real’ historical Jesus more and more of our modern New Testament scholars have begun admitting as much.
But what do many of them turn around and do? Just like Ehrman, they claim that they have finally identified the true, real, genuine historical Jesus to properly replace all those “monstrous inventions” of the past. No fad my theory. No problems with my evidence and argument to finally uncover the Jesus of history buried under all that early Christian superstructure and misguided preceding scholarship. If they live long enough (give it maybe a decade or so), they get to see their own claims follow onto the scrap heap.
Like the difference between the atheist and the Christian monotheist who rejects the existence of Allah, or Zeus, or any of a thousand other gods humanity has subscribed to, one could say: “But Dr. Ehrman, you’re already a Jesus mythicist; I just believe in one less mythical Jesus than you do!”
The Mythicist Agenda
So now we’ve arrived at the crunch. Regardless of all the arguments pro and con, never mind the credentials business, forget all the misfirings of past historical Jesus quests, mythicism can be rejected as unreliable and discredited simply because…MYTHICISTS HAVE AN AGENDA!
Of course, Ehrman is hardly the first to make that accusation. It has been an invaluable staple in most dismissals of the mythicist case, going back to its earliest refuters, such as Maurice Goguel (1928) and Shirley Jackson Case (1912). Mythicists are not to be trusted because they are motivated by their own anti-religion and anti-Christian biases.
Even given that alleged disposition, Ehrman wonders why such humanists and atheists do not focus instead on demonstrating that Jesus was not the person that Christian faith makes him out to be. After all, isn’t whether Jesus existed essentially irrelevant to whether a God exists? Why not show, as Ehrman has done (though not with the same motivation), that he was simply a mistaken, misguided apocalypticist, neither right nor divine? Why go so far as to buck historical reality and go for the historical Jesus’ own jugular? Ehrman supplies the answer:
Mythicists are avidly antireligious. To debunk religion, then, one needs to undermine specifically the Christian form of religion. And what easier way is there to undermine Christianity than to claim that the figure at the heart of Christian worship and devotion never even existed but was invented, made up, created? (DJE? p. 337)
But what has Ehrman himself been doing? Is Christianity any more debunked by demonstrating that Jesus did not exist than by demonstrating that he was nothing like the character the Christian faith worships, a failed, somewhat crazy preacher of doom who got himself executed, never to be seen again? Either one would leave it in a “total shambles.” (Personally, if I were a believer I would prefer mythicism, because that would at least leave me in a position to fall back on Paul’s heavenly Christ as an object of faith and salvation, a divinity unaffected by later delusions created by the Gospel writers that he had actually come to earth and been sacrificed there.)
The pot compared to the kettle
|Ehrman is surely as motivated by the same concerns about historical reality and its consequences as humanists and atheists are.|
Could I not equally accuse Ehrman, in his promotion of a Jesus who was a failed apocalyptic preacher, of having an agenda, since his conclusion would be just as devastating to the Christian faith? After all, he has admitted to being at least an agnostic on the existence of God. Perhaps he is one of those “virulent, militant” agnostics/atheists, but is being a bit more subtle about it. I am sure Ehrman’s response would be to assure us that he is not, that he has good scholarly integrity and is honestly evaluating the evidence as he sees it. After all, he has studied the question of who Jesus was for years. I, for one, would be willing to allow him that honesty, without accusing him of something nefarious. Why is he not willing to do the same for committed mythicists?
And just what are his own motivations? Why is he anxious to educate the world in the reality of who Jesus was, as opposed to what he is convinced Jesus was not? He would probably reply, “In the interests of historical truth.”
An admirable motive. And why is the knowledge of that historical truth preferable to the naïve institutional beliefs of an indoctrinated Christianity, a religion he himself has set aside as erroneous and unacceptable, just as humanists and atheists have? I won’t guess at his exact words, but hopefully his answer would be along the lines that, in principle, a society should not govern itself, should not shape its laws, should not fashion its rights, should not educate its children, should not compromise its science, should not limit its technology, should not encourage superstitions of the supernatural, of angels and demons, of blissful afterlives and hellfire damnation, according to a belief system which can be judged to be based on a fiction.
|In other words, Ehrman is surely as motivated by the same concerns about historical reality and its consequences as humanists and atheists are. Each of us has a perception of the truth and a desire to propagate it, perhaps the fundamental impulse of the human intellect. Why is Ehrman on the one hand an honorable and respected scholar, while mythicists on the other hand are a bunch of ignorant agenda-driven charlatans? He may disagree with mythicist arguments and conclusions, but the proper procedure is to approach those arguments and conclusions like a true scholar, with an open-minded eye, evaluate them honestly without prejudice or preconception and measure them against his own. At the same time, he should do his best not to misunderstand, much less misrepresent, the mythicist case. I think we can safely say that he has done none of these things.|
The universality of agendas
[T]he mythicists who are so intent on showing that the historical Jesus never existed are not being driven by a historical concern. Their agenda is religious, and they are complicit in a religious ideology. They are not doing history; they are doing theology. (DJE? pp. 337-8)
|Here again, mythicism must be seen as a religion, which serves to cast aspersions on its claim to be first and foremost “doing history.”|
Here again, mythicism must be seen as a religion, which serves to cast aspersions on its claim to be first and foremost “doing history.”
Yet mythicist books are full of that very thing: an often minute analysis of the texts, including in the original languages, a reasoned interpretation of those texts aided by the study of a much wider literature, an examination of ancient history, religion and philosophy and their relation to Christian origins and beliefs.
Precious little—other than knee-jerk dismissal and the tired old appeal to authority—has been offered by historicist scholars to discredit such historical exercises, much less to set more reliable alternatives in their place. (Remember Maurice Goguel, who was not going to “bother” addressing actual mythicist arguments in a book dedicated to demolishing them, relying on the same timeworn ‘proofs’ of the existence of Jesus?) And that a discipline which has been traditionally dedicated to unabashedly “doing theology” in its study of Jesus and the New Testament would accuse humanists of doing the same thing, as though it were some sort of compromising activity on our part, is nothing short of comical.
Religious or not, we all have agendas. The term itself has taken on a derogatory connotation these days, in many contexts. But understood neutrally, it is not a dirty word. Ehrman has his agenda. It can hardly be denied that New Testament scholarship has had its own agenda, though one with variations, particularly as the 20th and 21st centuries have progressed. One of those agendas was and remains in many circles confessional, though increasingly another has been to uncover the historical reality of Jesus the man.
|Somehow, the ‘real’ Jesus, even if not the heavenly Son of God, serves the interests of theism.|
Yet more often than not, those scholars who subscribe to the latter (such as Spong, Crossan, the late Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar) have seen it as opening up some kind of avenue to ‘spiritual’ insight and progress; somehow, the ‘real’ Jesus, even if not the heavenly Son of God, serves the interests of theism, or at least of something a little more respectable and enlightened than—hummph!—mere science and earthbound reality and understanding humans as humans.
(But perhaps Ehrman’s view signals a new phase: Jesus as misguided doomsayer, warts and all, though one wonders at the fierceness with which the existence of such a figure is defended against those who would call it into question.)
An historical evaluation of religious tradition
|For every Christian testimonial to how Jesus has changed his or her life, one can supply an atheist testimonial to the intoxicating liberation from fear, guilt and oppression, an opening up of life’s potential once religion was abandoned.|
Atheism and mythicism are not permitted to join the privileged club of debunkers. Never mind that ‘believing in Jesus’—without whom Paul’s Christ cult would never have survived—has led to untold misery and stagnation for an inordinately long time. The long litany of religious sectarian strife and international wars, of inquisition and pogrom, of conquest of ‘inferior’ cultures in the name of Jesus, of opposition to scientific and social enlightenment and the promotion of human rights, of impediment to investing in this the only world we are sure of having, is disheartening to say the least. Belief in a personal savior has never advanced human progress one iota. The fear created over the centuries, fear of devils and witches, fear of the infidel and non-believers, fear of the pleasures of the human body and intellect, and above all fear of God, of sin, of eternal punishment, has wrecked millions of psyches and stunted millions of lives.
And don’t let anyone tell you that faith in Jesus meek and mild, blood sacrificed for our transgressions, has relieved any of that. If anything, this bizarre primitive doctrine has accentuated the fear and the guilt. If God sent his own Son to earth to undergo such suffering on our behalf, how much more do we owe God and Jesus our allegiance, our every thought, word and action in the service of conforming to their wishes and worship! For every Christian testimonial to how Jesus has changed his or her life, one can supply an atheist testimonial to the intoxicating liberation from fear, guilt and oppression, an opening up of life’s potential once religion was abandoned.
Ehrman, commendably, goes so far as to admit sympathy for much of the concerns which atheists and even mythicists express. He acknowledges:
They look at our educational systems and see fervent Christians working hard to promote ignorance over knowledge, for example, in the insistence that evolution is merely a theory and that creationism should be taught in the schools. They look at our society and see what incredible damage religion has done to human lives: from the sponsorship of slavery to the refusal to grant women reproductive rights to the denial of the possibility of gay love and marriage. They look at the political scene and see what awful political power the religious right yields (sic): from imposing certain sets of religious beliefs on our society or in our schools to electing only those political figures who support certain religious agendas, no matter how hateful they may be toward other (poor, or non-American) human beings and how ignorant they may be about the world at large. (DJE? p. 338)
I also see that a tremendous amount of good has been done in his name, and continues to be done, by well meaning and hardworking Christian men and women who do untold good in the world on both massive and individual scales. (DJE? p. 339)
(We’ve hobbled western civilization for centuries, but at least some of us have aided third-world children—while preaching Jesus—and brought hot meals to shut-ins.)
The fallacy here, of course, is that it doesn’t take the influence of Christ, much less all its divisive and superstitious baggage, to do good in the world. Otherwise, atheists—whose numbers are increasing—would be criminals and anti-social misfits, and clogging the jails. Cultures devoted to rival supernatural beings would be in social chaos, too. And non-theist organizations would not be concerned with ethics, social welfare and human rights, as virtually all of them are.
|Ehrman’s case for an historical Jesus has been exposed as a weak effort and flawed exercise . . . . Capping it off with the ultimate disreputable tactic of personally attacking the messengers and their integrity makes “Did Jesus Exist?” a dismal failure and an embarrassment.|
If at the heart of atheist concerns lies the realization that without any historical Jesus at all, western religion would not have taken the course it did, nor continue to have the negative results it has produced, it is only natural that humanist scholars would have a disposition to focus on this issue. Ehrman notes, as though he has discovered a hand in the cookie jar, that it is only atheists and humanists who seem to be open to the idea that no historical Jesus ever lived. But this is hardly tantamount to being guilty of deliberately fabricating their theory for nefarious ends, of promoting their own wishful thinking based on no scholarly or legitimate evidence whatever.
Mythicism has too long a history, it has produced too much responsible literature. (I have no hesitation in including my own The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man in that catalogue.) It has been in the hands of too many able scholars, even if some have been for the most part self-educated, though many have possessed ‘proper’ credentials such as the 19th century Dutch Radical school and more than one contemporary scholar. It has been too persistent and too tenacious. Through today’s Internet, it has won over too broad a constituency, comprising intelligent people who can recognize traditional bias, fallacy, special pleading—as against good argument and often simple common sense—when they see it.
Ehrman’s case for an historical Jesus has been exposed as the weak effort and flawed exercise it truly is, by more than just myself in the present series on Vridar. Capping it off with the ultimate disreputable tactic of personally attacking the messengers and their integrity makes Did Jesus Exist? a dismal failure and an embarrassment. Ultimately, mythicism will stand or fall on its own scholarly arguments, irrespective of any supposed agenda. Contrary to its longstanding mantra-like claims, traditional scholarship has done little to actually address those arguments, let alone refute them. Bart Ehrman has made the effort and been found wanting.
This series of all 34 installments will hopefully become available in e-book form on Amazon in the near future.