2014-10-20

Bible Scholars’ Inability to Handle Mythicism: No Meek Messiah by Michael Paulkovich

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

nomeekmessiahRecently we have seen on the web more instances of otherwise reputable New Testament scholars demonstrating their apparent inability to actually read with any serious attempt at comprehension or publicly discuss radical views that originate from unwashed outsiders.  (The second case I will discuss here involves a quite unexpected and unexplained banning of comments from me on a certain blog.)

  • We have seen the way Professor James McGrath boldly wrote that Doherty said or did not say certain things in his “review” of his book and the way I could demonstrate word for word, page for page, that McGrath clearly had not read as much of Doherty’s book as he claimed he had.
  • Then we saw Bart Ehrman making so many gaffes in his self-proclaimed first-ever scholarly “sustained argument that Jesus must have lived”: among the very many howlers were attributing to G. A. Wells an argument he flatly opposes (that Jesus was crucified in the heavenly realm my demons) and attributing to Doherty as “one of the arguments he makes in his book” the actual central thesis of his book!
  • Next appeared an anti-mythicist book by Maurice Casey that erroneously accused several non-mythicists of being his hated targets and that again accused others of sustaining arguments they in fact do not hold.
  • Most recently I have experienced James Crossley ignoring titles, sub-headings and opening words of my sentences in order to lift part sentences out of context to sarcastically accuse me of writing the very opposite of the point I was making.

Why do scholars, professors, seem to be incapable of reading with minimal comprehension certain types of works they seek to refute or that they presumably merely fear they might find offensive?

Is there a certain measure of fear there? Fear that others might see that their research careers have been built on sand? Or is it just plain old intellectual arrogance?

For whatever reason it seems to me that such scholars approach certain types of works so emotively that they are incapable of reading the words on the page with any normal faculty of calm comprehension. Sometimes I’ve opened a letter or email I’ve expected to be outrageous in some manner and I’ve read it with that presumption and reacted just as I expected to react after glancing over it. Only later after calming down have I been able to see that I read my initial expectations into the words and that it was not nearly so bad as I had originally thought. Is that how scholars read works by mythicists (or even from me in some cases?) — except that they never return later for the second reading in a calmer frame of mind?

Earlier this month Candida Moss (noted recently for her Myth of Persecution) and Joel Baden (The Historical David), both reputable professors, combined to produce a bit of sarcastic “comedy” for The Daily Beast— ostensibly a review of a crazy mythicist publication. James McGrath couldn’t resist a good guffaw and immediately invited all of his readers to take a look and get a good belly laugh, too. Aren’t those mythicists such incompetent ignoramuses! That was the message and presumably the entire intent of posting the review and notice of it.

Maybe I’ve been around this business for too long now but I sensed something was not quite right. None of these professors actually explained what the book was about but only mocked a particular claim giving us all the distinct impression (but without actually explicitly saying so!) that this risible point was the central thesis of the book. So I bought a copy of the book to read for myself.

(Meanwhile I came across another criticism of the book,The Wrong Monkey, this time by a fellow atheist. This review was also critical, but again of just the one point magnified by Moss and Baden.)

The article I’m referring to was in the Real Deal section and given the title So-Called ‘Biblical Scholar’ Says Jesus A Made-Up Myth. In the article Moss and Baden (and subsequently the others) mock a list of 126 ancient names apparently presented as authors from whom we “should” have some evidence about Jesus had he existed. The book being targeted was No Meek Messiah by Michael Paulkovich.

Did anyone who wrote about No Meek Messiah ever read it?

I don’t think so. Or if they did they hid their guilt well from the public. 

Firstly, here is the full title of the book: No Meek Messiah: Christianity’s Lies, Laws and Legacy. So before even turn the cover we begin to suspect this book is about more than one detail in an argument for a mythical Jesus.

Secondly, we see immediately from the back cover blurb and again in the Introduction that the author is in no way a “so-called ‘Biblical Scholar’. But we can blame the title of the article on the editor, not the authors. So let’s be generous and do that.

Thirdly, the book consists of 366 pages and it’s darn hard to find the passage that was the primary focus of Moss, Baden, McGrath and Steven Bollinger. I finally tracked it down on pages 199 to 205 with details added in an appendix beginning page 329.

Before I comment on the list and the mockery it has attracted I should explain the nature of the book overall.

No Meek Messiah is a good old fashioned polemic against Christianity in particular but against all religions to some extent. I should clarify: it’s only old-fashioned (and good) in its polemical style. Paulkovich revives many of the attacks on Christianity we have often seen in literature before but in several places he attempts to examine some of these in a little more depth and to add more recent published insights to his arsenal.

One could hardly call the book a seriously sustained argument for mythicism. It’s not. The idea that there is no evidence that Jesus ever existed as a historical person covers only a few pages and is little more than one gem (or fool’s gold, depending on POV) in a far larger attack on Christianity as a whole.

Now I’m not in the same head-space as Michael Paulkovich. This kind of book does not interest me personally but I do know that there are many who would love it. Paulkovich is writing for fellow-atheists and others who love to bash Christianity and are looking for a good, up-to-date toolkit of resources to throw at unsuspecting Christians who try to win them over to their faith.

Many of his sources are dated but there are also a good number of modern ones too. Some of them have been shown to be suspect or even wrong, but who cares about the odd detail that may not withstand prolonged modern scholarly debate buried away in the midst of an avalanche of goodies for his target audience?

To give you an idea what to expect:

The book opens with a Prologue that goes straight for the jugular of those who insist they would never trust an atheist, atheists should not even be citizens of the U.S., what’s to stop atheists from raping and murdering? Many religious folk have been “kept ignorant”, reason like “juveniles”, etc. But he does it all with a leavening dash of humour. Nice religious folk he offends might come after him with a machete, he says, but he has never contemplated burning anyone at the stake for their heresies. It’s all rhetoric, designed to confront, to express anger, and to keep it all good-humoured.

I was raised under Christian inculcation, brainwashed as a youngster against my will. I shook it all off around age ten. Then in adulthood I finally read the Bible (few Christians have actually done so…..), and I examined the history of religions in great depth, including their influence on civilization. . . . 

A discussion about Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell and Sam Harris led a friend of his to raise the question why people would bother to attack religion with a written word. That sparked in Paulkovich a desire to write an article overnight that he titled “20 reasons to bash religion.” Eventually that article expanded into a lengthier project . . .  “20,000 reasons to attack religion” . . . and finally into the book No Meek Messiah.

The evidence of the piecemeal composition of the book is visible. The same Introduction says of Jesus that he

was just an average man at best, a fallible and simple human who believed all the superstitions of the ancient Hebrews. His philosophical offerings were, frankly, mostly foolish and largely immoral . . . 

The author was hardly a mythicist when he began to write.

If you haven’t grasped the tone of the book by now perhaps this will help:

Why not, after all, piss in the punch bowl of the perennial, pious party that is religion? It has wrought so much more agonizing and bloody detriment than the benefit of peace or prosperity. (p. 16)

Many pages of the chronicles of the growth of Christianity and the Church follow, set alongside the horrors of the Inquisition, Crusades, and such. One section is titled Bible Bunk and Holy Horrors. Another, Pretzel Logic, attacks the “circular” and “twisted” logic of Christian dogma.

Towards half way through we come to the section on Christian origins. For most part this consists of the many well known motifs that came eventually to accrue to Christianity and that paralleled some feature of ancient religions such as those of Egypt or the Mithras cult.

In due course we encounter . . . .

The Mystery of the Silent Historians

So what’s all the fuss about? Pages 201-202 with their list of 126 ancient names who failed to mention Jesus!

Here’s how the argument goes.

To begin with, we are reminded of all the erroneous geographical mistakes in the Bible, the “rampant” anachronisms, and so forth. Then,

The reader is undoubtedly aware of other works exposing extensively Biblical errancy, as well as inexcusable Church violence and corruption. I embarked upon this particular endeavour to expose something deeper: a seemingly inexplicable “silence” even more mysterious and extensive than previously claimed. My prime point is that the more we investigate and the more we dig, the more we discover how feeble and tenuous are any claims that this Jesus even existed. (p. 199)

We are then reminded of Paul Remsburg’s list of forty-two ancient authors (either contemporary with Jesus or writing soon after him) who were “mysteriously silent on this god-son saga.” It is worth noting at this point (we’ll see why later) that Paulkovich points out that Remsburg had mistakenly thought two of the names were different people when in fact they were the one — so his list really contained 41 potential authors.

I undertook a task to discover how exhaustive Remsburg’s list truly is. Might there be more writers of those times and locale who should have written about Jesus, but did not? 

Important for Paulkovich’s argument is his (reasonable) belief that had any contemporary ancient author written about Jesus then Christians would have at some relatively early point have seized upon such writings and used them, preserving them in some form, so that we would know about them today. It would not be necessary for the original works to have survived.

But why would anyone write about Jesus at all?

Jesus may indeed have been a real man wandering around desert towns in the first century (as the Talmud indicates, claiming Jesus was the bastard son of Pandira: Shabbat 104b) I simply find it fascinating that, among the horde of reliable writers of the times and of that very region none who is credible ever recorded his life, interactions with the Jewish or Roman world, or any “Biblical” event. 

There are no tales of Jesus — zero — written by historians contemporary to the time, nor any evidence supporting the claims of “miracles,” or even proof of Jesus simply being a charming chap dunked in a river by one of the many first century Johns, preaching to masses two thousand years ago in a jerkwater and largely illiterate region of Judea. Speeches given by Jesus, and stories of the “apostles” are demonstrably plagiarisms . . . .

The Bible claims Jesus’ fame “went throughout all Syria (Mt 4:24), and “all Galilee” (Mk 1:28). Jesus was followed by “great multitudes of people” (Mt 4:25 & 8:1). The NT declares Jesus was famous across the ecumene, and his words went “unto the ends of the whole world” as we learn from Paul in Romans 10:18. . . . 

Yet for a hundred years after the supposed crucifixion, no extra-biblical writer recorded anything of Jesus. 

And so I humbly present this list of 126 silent writers, all having lived in that region and during those times or shortly thereafter. If the New Testament offers even a modicum of truth, every one of these should have written something, anything, about the revered Messiah. Yet none had ever heard of this Jesus Christ, prophesied Messiah and King of the Jews . . .

Any writer of that time and region, regardless of his or her discipline or specialty — be it history, politics, engineering, law, medicine, or linguistics — would have dropped all works, everything, to record the miraculous events that they should have witnessed (but did not) and to investigate and chronicle Jesus. . . . 

Thousands of writers should have witnessed — or at least heard of — the miraculous crucifixion, replete with magic tricks of astral proportions: Jesus (of God?) conjured zombie armies and mysterious global weather phenomena, recorded not by any historian . . . . (pp. 200-201, my bolding)

That’s the context. That’s the point of the 126 names.

Enter the mockery

Ha! But Jesus was just an insignificant nobody so no-one noticed him in his day!

Duh! Yeh, that’s exactly what our author said the real Jesus was most plausibly like!

Wha? Why would a poet want to write about Jesus? Martial loved to write epigrams about Dr Fell and things. So why expect him to write about Jesus?

Duh! You missed the point. Try again. Read the extract above if you never bothered to read it the first time when you decided to go public with your mockery of “mythicists”.

But Seneca and Martial were not historians!

Hoo boy! So read above what you missed the first time when you supposedly read the book.

Ha! Ha! One of the names — Asclepiades of Prusa — lived B.C.E. not C.E.

Bingo! Got him! One of the citations Paulkovich attaches to the name actually points to the correct Asclepiades, Asclepiades Pharmacion (also known as Asclepiades Junior). Now I noticed Paulkovich pointed out a similar type of error in Remsburg’s list of forty two. But don’t let it ever be said that Moss and Baden would extend the same charity to an outsider. (Or maybe they were unaware of the two individuals with the same name.)

Our favourite buffoon again

Michael Paulkovich moves on to the Old Testament and this gives James McGrath another opportunity to dim his lights.

McGrath hasn’t read the book, of course. But he did read a blurb on Amazon so that qualifies him to ridicule it. (He is known for submitting reviews to Amazon of books he hasn’t read, so why not?)

Amazon:

No Meek Messiah exposes that Jesus believed in Noah’s Ark, Adam & Eve, Jonah living in a fish or whale, and Lot’s wife turning into salt. (Historian Josephus, often cited by Christians as proof of the historicity of Jesus, also claims that he as actually seen the “pillar of salt” that Lot’s wife turned into; “for I have seen it, and it remains at this day,” Josephus lied.

McGrath:

Jesus didn’t exist, but believed in things?

If you Google the subject of Lot’s Wife, you quickly learn that there is a mineral formation, Jebel Usdum, which is traditionally known as “Lot’s Wife.” It is obviously not a person turned to salt – the Biblical tale is an aetiological explanation of the origin of the formation – but Josephus wasn’t lying when he said he had seen it.

What an idiot Michael P surely is. He doesn’t even know that the pillar of salt was a natural phenomenon!

Duh! Even the Amazon blurb makes it clear that M.P. is saying telling us what Jesus and Josephus themselves evidently believed! Not what it really is. Biblical studies professorships: still the career choice of those without the wit to make it into politics or the army??

As I said earlier, this is not my sort of book. I’m not into “bashing Christianity”. I may think it does deserve a good bashing for many reasons but this sort of book is not my style.

It’s for another audience that does not include me. It is not for those who are more interested in seriously in depth inquiries into Christian origins for the sake of intellectual curiosity.

It is a polemic and so it is written for those who are looking for a polemic. It has its place. Such works add colour to the world and engender a bit of humour and who knows, somewhere along the line someone else just may be challenged to one day rethink a point that was made. Maybe others will find some of its contents become a launching pad to delve into a topic more seriously.

It is not necessarily intended to be read right through from beginning to end. The repetition of information signals that. One can start at any chapter of interest.

At least it’s honest. (Despite some of its mistakes.) There is no mistaking what its purpose is, however, or where its author is coming from. Unless you’re a scholar in such dire fear of mythicism that you cannot see the wood for the trees. Or simply too intellectually arrogant to believe an outsider’s and an anti-Christian’s polemicist could possibly contain a single string of words that really do make some sense.

No time left

So I’ve left myself no time to mention my own little story. Next time maybe.

6 Comments

  • pete
    2014-10-22 04:47:12 UTC - 04:47 | Permalink

    I have an idea which may be a ‘fatal’ defeater to Christian theology:

    Minimal ‘facts’ about Jesus are smothered by the myth layering some
    of us detect through our reading or research.

    Even if there were 24 ‘minimal facts’-instead of 5 or 6- they would
    still be nullified by myth layerings. If supernatural claims are made
    ‘valid’ by bare hints of evidence from witnesses who are partisan,
    then no one is obligated to accept that evidence, let alone associated
    claims.

    Contemporary NT academics/scholars depend on the ‘minimal facts’ to
    keep the ball rolling; some might have figured out that they are simply
    not relevant to the soundness of supernatural claims. Christian theology
    and Christology cannot be used to convince non-believer’s that faith is
    an obligation with dire consequences for those who reject it. Mark 16:16.

    With or without ‘minimal facts’, mythicist positions are de-facto, the best
    explanations for the data we know about.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-10-22 09:51:34 UTC - 09:51 | Permalink

      G.R.S. Mead, if my memory serves, explained that any evidence that has been contaminated cannot be accepted in court — and Josephus’s TF has clearly been contaminated by a forger’s hand. Therefore it is impossible to know how much has been added and how much original; as such it cannot be admitted into the debate.

      If Jesus were not the central figure of the religious devotions of millions today I’m sure there would be little problem with applying normal standards to his story.

      • pete
        2014-10-22 11:53:40 UTC - 11:53 | Permalink

        Thanks for indulging me. I may not have been close to the topic of the post,
        but I hope that my comment was seen as a critique of asinine dismissals of
        ‘mythicist’ positions/hypothesis/general ideas. I have experience with McGrath’s
        blog and some others who appear to enjoy glib ridicule of ‘fringe’ researchers.

        Yes. It is a bit strange that academic historiographic methods are variably ignored.

        Nice point about Josephus. It adds something to my quiver.

  • Pingback: Vridar » Dispelling the Jesus Mythicist Myth

  • Mark Erickson
    2014-10-26 04:10:55 UTC - 04:10 | Permalink

    Did you explain your own little story, presumably including you getting banned at a blog?

    Also, who are good NT bloggers in the guild?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-10-26 04:51:50 UTC - 04:51 | Permalink

      I did have that in mind but the closest I came to doing this was in an insert box in my Casey’s Calumny Continued – Response Concluded post. There’s not much more to add to what I said there about my attempt to respond to Crossley’s suggestion of an anti-semitic slant in Bruce Malina’s social-scientific arguments.

      The previous post (Casey’s Calumny) gave some background and suggested the reason for my apparent ban. Crossley has expressed hostility against me from his very first contact: in exchanges with Stephanie Fisher and later in an attempt to address some of the issues with Crossley direct I have come to understand Crossley, Casey, Stephanie, Deane Galbraith are all in some sort of circle and see themselves separate from the mainstream, calling themselves “independent scholars”. Crossley is also apparently friends with Tom Verenna — with whom I have clashed on what to my mind are ethical and professional issues.

      Crossley appears to be one of those academics who is very quick to interpret any criticism of his work as “misrepresentation”. Compare Casey and Stephanie Fisher!

      I was surprised that Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne would ban me. My comment did at first appear on their blog but was soon afterwards removed. I received no explanation when I asked for one. Crossley is also posting on their blog, now, and they do seem to think very highly of his work.

      My only criticism of his work is the same as I direct at most works on Christian origins. But to Crossley I am “misrepresenting” him. I don’t think he grasps the point I am trying to make.

      Crossley even found reason to include a swipe at Vridar in his book Jesus in the Age of Neoliberaiism. It does seem ironic that those who accuse others of misrepresentation don’t seem to take the time to step back and understand what they themselves decide to criticize.

      There’s a bibliobloggers conference coming up soon. I jokingly asked Tim if he would like to attend to represent this blog. He said we wouldn’t qualify because we’re the only ones who really blog about the Bible.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *