There are at least six well-qualified experts, including two sitting professors, two retired professors, and two independent scholars with Ph.D.’s in relevant fields, who have recently gone on public record as doubting whether there really was a historical Jesus. — Richard Carrier
. . . a recognition that [Jesus’s] existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability. — Philip Davies
The most recent appearance of the above claims is in Richard Carrier’s post on The Bible and Interpretation, “Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?“
Carrier opens his article with an anecdote that sounds all too familiar to some of us here. My co-blogger Tim has posted regularly in recent months on the abysmal failure of well respected scholars to truly grasp some of the fundamentals of their own field. Too often we find scholars have only a vague or even quite inaccurate understanding of some of their basic scholarly heritage. The reason? So often it appears to be nothing more than careless assumptions reinforced by collegial “consensus-talk”. Several times we have pointed out in posts here where researchers into the historical Jesus admit their methods are flawed, even circular, yet because they can conceive of no alternative they continue with them. And even more fundamentally, too often we find scholars getting away with falsely quoting or citing biblical passages — presumably through faulty memory or simply long-held popular assumptions.
Last year I had an erudite and friendly debate on London radio with an excellent and well-respected professor of New Testament studies, in which he claimed that in 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul wrote that he received the gospel he summarizes there “from those who were in Christ before him.” Indeed this professor insisted that “from those who were in Christ before him” was in the text. This was perplexing, because I knew that wasn’t the case. . . . My opponent was a bit nonplussed when we looked at the text, and to his astonishment, the phrase he was sure was there, was not.
This is not an isolated story. This has happened to me countless times. A superbly qualified scholar will insist some piece of evidence exists, or does not exist, and I am surprised that I have to show them the contrary. And always this phantom evidence (or an assurance of its absence) is in defense of the historicity of Jesus. This should teach us how important it is to stop repeating the phrase “the overwhelming consensus says…” Because that consensus is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.
This sets the background to Carrier’s article introducing the message of his new book On the Historicity of Jesus.
Going back to examine assumptions and checking the basis of everything we think we know. Now that bring back memories. That was the journey I embarked upon as I drew myself out of all religious beliefs some years ago now — like others who share the same interests here. Time and chance bring such changes about, I suppose. I can’t be sure we all really choose the paths we are on.
Stanislav Andreski won a little notoriety in 1972 with his book Social Sciences as Sorcery. Re-reading it a little while ago I could not help noticing how some of his critique applies even more to the field of biblical studies. (No surprise given that one of their professors, Hector Avalos, can write The End of Biblical Studies.) He asked himself why anyone would bother writing a book he knew would not be popular. Why criticize his own profession? His answer in relation to the social sciences:
I do not envisage that this blast of my trumpet will bring down the walls of pseudo-science, which are manned by too many stout defenders: the slaves of routine who (to use Bertrand Russell’s expression) ‘would rather die than think’, mercenary go-getters, docile educational employees who judge ideas by the status of their propounders, or the woolly minded lost souls yearning for gurus.
Nevertheless, despite the advanced stage of cretinization which our civilization has reached under the impact of the mass media, there are still some people about who like to use their brains without the lure of material gain; and it is for them that this book is intended. But if they are in a minority, then how can the truth prevail?
The answer (which gives some ground for hope) is that people interested in ideas, and prepared to think them through and express them regardless of personal disadvantage, have always been few; and if knowledge could not advance without a majority on the right side, there would never have been any progress at all – because it has always been easier to get into the limelight, as well as to make money, by charlatanry, doctrinairism, sycophancy and soothing or stirring oratory than by logical and fearless thinking.
No, the reason why human understanding has been able to advance in the past, and may do so in the future, is that true insights are cumulative and retain their value regardless of what happens to their discoverers; while fads and stunts may bring an immediate profit to the impresarios, but lead nowhere in the long run, cancel each other out, and are dropped as soon as their promoters are no longer there (or have lost the power) to direct the show. Anyway, let us not despair. (pp. 16-17, my own formatting and bolding)