2017-05-27

Why do professional scholars blog this sort of vacuous nonsense?

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by Neil Godfrey

A number of biblical scholars appear to be afflicted with something akin to the Red Scare or the Yellow Menace of the old Cold War days. They don’t need to know much about communism to know that it’s bad and evil and a threat to everything decent and that it appeals mostly to benighted minds in undeveloped nations. Similarly with rumours they hear about those who suggest there are valid reasons to question the historicity of Jesus: they don’t need to know much about it, only that it is a threat that supposedly only appeals to godless amateurs.

Now Jonathan Bernier is a very intelligent man but he sometimes writes about things of which he is evidently poorly informed. Indeed, he offers no evidence of having ever read any work of Price or Doherty or Brodie or Carrier or Wells yet claims to offer insights into mythicist motivations and reasoning that he suggests they themselves may not have considered.

I am referring to a blog post he published on 22nd April (Eastern Standard Time, Australia) titled Mythicism as Christian Mythology. (His blog is Critical Realism and the New Testament. I have had this post in draft for some time but see that now I am about to post about his article JB has removed it. C’est la vie.)

Without offering any citation of, or reference to, any mythicist author Bernier begins his criticism thus:

the standard mythicist appeal to comparative mythology. . . .

The mythicist argument is that the accounts about Jesus are just like those of all sorts of other gods or heroes in the ancient world. . . .

The mythicist argument that the accounts about Jesus are just like those of all sorts of other gods or heroes posits a process that we don’t tend to find elsewhere.

“Accounts of Jesus are just like those of all sorts of other gods?” Where did he get this idea from? Scoffing gossip and rumours repeated in staff wine and cheese parties?

Several of the works I have read by Christ Myth authors inform me that they draw upon mainstream critical biblical scholarship to explain the origins of many of the gospel narratives. Well recognized common literary practices (mimesis, intertextuality) among Greek, Roman and Jewish authors of the day are the primary explanations for the accounts of Jesus among authors like Price, Doherty, Carrier, Wells, Fitzgerald and others.

Next comes the sinister atheism association. Mythicists are equated with atheists, and of course we know by contrast that most good biblical scholars are in their own way exploring and defending their godly faith, don’t we. (Tongue in cheek.)

I think it well and good to describe it [mythicism] as a peculiar form of atheist Christology. . . . . 

if they indeed do not think that God exists in the first place. . . .

If that is the case, given that their attested interests in this matter tend to relate to their atheism. . . .

Something fundamental about their apprehension of the world and themselves is at stake. . . . 

Price calls himself a Christian atheist . . . . And the more I think about it, the more that I wonder if that term should not be applied to all mythicists. 

Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, you are both hereby excluded from those who argue for a Christ Myth foundation for Christianity. Your problem is that you are not atheists like Robert Price and you remain stubbornly Christian, so your Christ Myth arguments do not count.

Moreover, prominent mythicist authors who have expressed the highest respect and even admiration for Christianity, even though some of them no longer call themselves Christian, have no place in Jonathan Bernier’s very narrow, most ill-informed, state of the literature. I’m thinking of names not only like Price, Brodie and Harpur above, but also Couchoud, Brandes, Rylands, Detering, Carotta, Freke and Gandy, van der Kaaij among others. To assume that mythicism can only be spawned by god-hating atheists who seek to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth only points to an ivory tower removal from all awareness of the real world.

Then there is the motivation. Mind-reading once again leads the way.

They certainly do not tend to sound like persons whose libidinal investment is limited to the consideration of a purely antiquarian question (which is all that it should be for them, if they indeed do not think that God exists in the first place. In that case, given that their attested interests in this matter tend to relate to their atheism, the existence or non­existence of Jesus should be a virtually antiquarian matter).

This is a strange comment. Of which persons is our scholar thinking? He does not name any of those he believes “does not sound like a person whose limited investment is limited to” a purely historical interest. The only mythicist he does name is Price. Does Price really sound like he has more at stake than a scholarly and historical interest? Really?

Jonathan Bernier is evidently unaware that for several published mythicists it does not personally matter one whit whether Jesus existed or not. His existence would make no difference to their personal world view, or their atheism if they are atheists. The matter is indeed one of understandable, quite natural human curiosity. Anyone who is aware of the place of Jesus in our cultural heritage would quite likely be curious to know his origin.

But then JB says something I find rather odd (or even more odd):

It’s easy to see why professional historians might have a deep libidinal investment in their historical hypotheses, but why amateurs? Why do they care if this man Jesus existed or not? But if it has to do with doctrine, with their fundamental apprehension of the world, then suddenly the libidinal investment makes perfect sense. They are not defending a disinterested analysis of the historical evidence, but rather their Christology. Something fundamental about their apprehension of the world and themselves is at stake.

One cannot help but picture an academic lost in his ivory tower and with nothing more than a theoretical awareness of unwashed persons in the miasmic world outside. Amateurs? Why should they care whether Jesus existed or not? Surely they must have some sinister intent in even asking the question! My good god!

How can one begin to think it possible to communicate with such a high-brow intellectual how real people in the real world feel about intellectual questions! Let’s move on.

Bernier concludes with the comment that his point has on the whole been one of playful teasing of the mythicists. He has perspicaciously identified a contradiction in their thinking of which they themselves are probably unaware.

(Disclaimer: it should be noted that the above largely falls into the category of play. My point is not actually to argue that mythicism is Christian or anything like that. It’s simply to call attention to resonances in mythicists’ thought they themselves might not entirely recognize).

What JB suspects mythicists do not recognize (silly people) is that they have somehow embraced the Christian myth and merely rewritten it to suit their atheism. Mythicists have merely embraced the Christology that says Jesus pre-existed as a divinity before the incarnation. Tee hee. Giggle.

Laughter is good for the soul, the best medicine and all that. So no doubt writing such a post had a very positive effect on the health and well-being of its author.

But once again we see Niels Peter Lemche’s admonition in another context falling on deaf ears:

do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent. . . . 

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you. . . . 

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don’t read [Brodie, Price, Carrier . . . ]; read books about them! . . . .

By accusing a special group of critical scholars of today of being ideologists, the conservative scholars simply invert the fact that they are themselves embedded in religious communities with conservative ideologies.

As I mentioned above, since I drafted the above post Jonathan Bernier appears to have removed his post from his blog. Perhaps someone tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out a few things to him. But how could a trained academic post such ignorance in the first place? Why do I even ask — Lemche answered that question some years ago.

 

7 Comments

  • proudfootz
    2017-05-27 08:48:48 UTC - 08:48 | Permalink

    Sorry to point out what may be a small error: in the opening sentence you write “biblical scholars appear to be *inflicted* with something akin to the Red Scare.”

    Is it possible that *afflicted* would be a better word?

    Thank you for this excellent post and this wonderful blog.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-05-27 13:47:36 UTC - 13:47 | Permalink

      Thanks proudfootz. I am embarrassed since I seem to recollect I made the same error some years back. About time I took more care and attention with the words I use!

  • Kelly Wellington
    2017-05-27 10:41:37 UTC - 10:41 | Permalink

    Thanks. All too often I have been pressed to offer up the mirror of this in conversations with entrenched historicists, to whit, thet it is their confessional interest or academic standing which animates their misbegotten surety. I feel dirty doing it, but sometimes it feels gopd neing dirty. Particularly when proponents engage in their shitgibbon behavior.

    But, then, I am a mere amateur.

  • Andrew
    2017-05-27 19:33:13 UTC - 19:33 | Permalink

    The tactics that Lemche describes have been around for hundreds of years; Christian apologetics pioneered them, so it’s no surprise that they would be used against mythicism. James Barr in his book “Fundamentalism” describes the exact same tactics being used against Form Critics and the like. So you write an article attacking Wellhausen or Bultmann, but don’t engage with any of their ideas in any honest or representative way; you encourage your students to only read books that attack Wellhausen, to get across the idea that the original should not even be read, and so on.

  • Manoj Joseph
    2017-05-27 22:23:02 UTC - 22:23 | Permalink
    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-05-28 00:30:55 UTC - 00:30 | Permalink

      Well done. There is no place for the wicked to hide in Googleland!

    • Tige Gibson
      2017-05-31 01:29:59 UTC - 01:29 | Permalink

      Doesn’t everyone read “it doesn’t take much work” as “I didn’t do much work”?

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