Category Archives: James McGrath


2014-11-01

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:

ascisaiah

1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

read more »


2014-10-31

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 8.43.31 amJames McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus at the Bible and Interpretation site. The tone of his review makes a striking contrast to his “review” or Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. McGrath explains that he will cover Carrier’s book in several posts. This opening assessment, Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, McGrath explains, will

seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that – a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.”

That “key element” is the Ascension of Isaiah.

I will address the details and rationale for McGrath’s choice of Carrier’s pages 36-48 discussing this text in my next post. For now I am only commenting on McGrath’s introduction. This first instalment of McGrath’s review exceeds 3400 words and the introductory paragraphs 500. I single out his introduction here because is an ominous warning that despite McGrath’s new-found professional tone in his criticism of mythicism we are still going to encounter the same failure of logic and explanation of the arguments he claims to be critiquing.

And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course. . . 

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

McGrath’s point is simply wrong. Carrier is not contradicting himself or disproving his own point in his book. The fact that certain evidence is decisive for neither historicity or mythicism is not a question of “interpretation” in the sense McGrath uses the word but a question of fact and logic that can and must be agreed upon by both sides. read more »


2014-09-09

Under the Grip of Christianity: New Testament Scholars and the Myth of Transparent Fiction

by Tim Widowfield
Engineer's Bench Vise

Engineer’s Bench Vise Source: Wikipedia

Under the Grip

I just noticed over on the Cakemix that Dr. McGrath is once again comparing Jesus mythicism to creationism. He writes:

Mythicism says: universities are so much under the grip of Christianity that mythicism cannot get a fair hearing.

As you know, the good doctor finds this idea laughable. Implicit in his short post is the notion that evolutionary biologists and biblical scholars are serious, trustworthy, trained professionals. Thus, to insist that NT scholars unfairly reject mythicism is to engage in conspiracy mongering. One of his fans (a guy named Jim) chimes in:

Yeah, great point. That’s why I disagree with the current value of the speed of light. It was arrived at by physicists, who are naturally biased because they had … well … advanced degrees in physics. The speed of light should have been determined by a group who is not biased towards physics, like say zoologists. 🙂 Isn’t it weird how science departments are full of faculty that have science backgrounds, and departments focusing on Christian history attract an interest group like people with Christian backgrounds. … (just being a bit of a jerk here 🙂 )

But Dr. Jimmy tells Mr. Jim:

I don’t think you’re being a jerk. I think such snarcasm is called for.

When considering NT scholars, McGrath, of course, isn’t talking about those teaching at universities with a confessional bias.

There certainly are scholars at religiously-affiliated institutions, and I could certainly understand atheists viewing such figures with suspicion and ignoring what they have to say. But people like Ehrman and myself who teach at secular universities do not need to be placed in the same category, do we? And as for having Christian backgrounds, how many professional scientists are from Christian backgrounds, and how many are at least nominally Christians? I am confident that, if such a background does not invalidate the conclusions of mainstream biology, neither does it invalidate the conclusions of mainstream history.

He’s got one thing right: I would never put Ehrman and McGrath in the same category.
read more »


2014-09-03

Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar

by Neil Godfrey
Valerie Tarico

Valerie Tarico (Did she really use the R word in a public article?) Her article originally appeared in AlterNet under a different title.

The Professor of Religion who blogs at Exploringourmatrix is a widely respected source of disinformation about mythicism and mythicists. He won accolades from readers for his recent dressing down of Richard Carrier and this blog has from time to time drawn attention to some of his more remarkable triumphs in exposing just how devious mythicists really are through his manufacture of mythicist claims that can be found nowhere in any mythicist publication or website by any other readers, not even mythicists themselves.

Our favourite Professor has done it again with The Myth of Mythicism’s Newness. In this post the Professor betrays a real fear that word might get around that mythicism is undergoing a “resurgence” today comparable to the popularity it experienced in the early twentieth century. Curiously the article he accuses of spreading this dastardly rumour makes no such comparison at all. But that is the nature of fear. It jumps at shadows and sees monsters in the dark. read more »


2014-08-31

Comparing Paul’s Epistles to Augustine’s Letters

by Tim Widowfield
Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cakemix explodes

Reacting to Dr. Richard Carrier’s recent article over at The Bible and Interpretation website, the beloved Doctor of Whoville, James McGrath has offered up yet another dog’s breakfast of red herrings and dead horses. (How’s that for a mixed-metaphor gumbo?)

Carrier will likely respond fully to McGrath’s post, especially the headache-inducing section in which James refers to Carrier’s opening paragraph. McGrath writes:

[H]e seems to think that he has made a profound point in a discussion about 1 Corinthians 15 when he observes that it does not contain the phrase “in Christ before me.” That phrase is one that Paul uses in Romans 16:7. But is Carrier really going to suggest that Paul was “in Christ” while he was persecuting the church, and that the gist of 1 Corinthians 15′s list is not that there were others who were what we would call “Christians” before he was? Indeed, that is the overall impression one gets from things that Paul writes in many places. And Carrier doesn’t seem to really want to dispute that. So what is the point of beginning the piece in that way? (emphasis mine)

I will remind you that McGrath is a real PhD who teaches real students at a real university. He not only completely misunderstands what Carrier has written, but betrays his own proclivity toward “reading with hostile intent.” He does not read in order to learn, but rather to find — and if necessary, manufacture — elements to contradict.

Carrier’s point is simple. In his own words:

[The] consensus [of Jesus’ historicity] 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.

Getting it wrong again

McGrath misrepresented Carrier’s story of an NT scholar (whom we recognize as Mark Goodacre) who actually thought the text of 1 Cor. 15:1-8 says that Paul received his gospel “from those who were in Christ before him.” 

In a blog post from 20 December 2012, Carrier wrote:

This was even a key part of Goodacre’s argument that Paul knew the people who knew Jesus, and that he got his gospel from them. In fact, Paul insists up and down exactly the opposite . . .

The question is not “Was Paul ‘in Christ’ while persecuting the church?” nor “Were there people ‘in Christ’ before Paul?” but “Did Paul receive his gospel from those who were ‘in Christ’ before him?”

Predictably, McGrath cavils about Carrier’s “splitting hairs,” as if the entire point of the argument centered on whether Goodacre and other scholars are “imprecise or even wrong about their wording or some other minor detail.” I’m so tired of James’ shtick at this point that I no longer care whether he has reading comprehension problems or self-deception issues. His utter incompetence is wearing me down.

Augustine’s Letters

As I said, I expect Carrier will respond more fully to McGrath’s post, including the obligatory hints of anti-Semitism whenever someone dares mention non-Jewish dying and rising gods. And I’m hoping Richard will tackle that old canard about not being allowed to quote a scholar who’s wrong on some points, but right on others.

For this post, however, I wish instead to focus on the notion that we can gain some insights about Paul’s notorious silence by comparing his epistles to Augustine’s letters. McGrath writes:

read more »


2014-08-30

The Challenge for Pliny the Elder Mythicists

by Neil Godfrey
Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century p...

Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century portrait. No contemporary depiction of Pliny has survived. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Professor of Religion, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, has given his online students a hearty guffaw with the following:

It would be an interesting thought experiment to see whether there is any epistolary reference by Pliny the younger to his uncle that a determined “Pliny the elder mythicist” could not interpret as referring to events that transpired in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm. (August 29 2014)

Apparently to assist his online class with this exercise Professor McGrath linked to the following reference in Pliny’s letter collection:

5. VIII. — To Titinius Capito

Again, there is a precedent in my own family which impels me towards writing history. My uncle, who was also my father by adoption, was a historian  

I guess such a brief reference, and one that spoke of adoption rather than a “natural” paternity, might really be compared with some references by Paul to Jesus.

For the benefit of those who would like to undertake the same exercise at a more advanced level, however, here are the remaining references Pliny the Younger made to his uncle in his surviving letters.

(I’m sure the Professor was pedagogically sound in not complicating the exercise for his typical online audience with such mass of detail.) read more »


2014-05-17

Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?

by Neil Godfrey
Professor

Some professors make a false equation between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and hard sciences/mathematics on the other and imply both are equally incomprehensible to the general public.

Once again we see a representative of the elite coterie of theologians pouring scorn on the ability of mere lay people to make any valid assessment of their highly learned and scholarly arguments.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Professor James McGrath, Galileo was Wrong, 8th May 2014, my emphasis)

Of course the first thing one notes here is the mischievous framing of the question. Our theologian friend makes it sound as if what is open to challenge are the complex details of “data”, the facts, let’s say the nuances of Greek, Syriac and Aramaic texts, and so forth, by only partially informed amateurs and whether they should be so flippant on a “normal” every-day basis.

Of course that is not what the issue is at all. In matters of historical inquiry there is no argument or data that is so complex that it cannot be explained simply and understood by the average anybody. History is not advanced mathematics or quantum physics. If theologians have good arguments for the historical existence of Jesus then there is no reason they cannot be presented in a way that is comprehensible to all.

To this extent the Professor is being a little misleading when he implies that the views of theologians (and let’s add historians here, too) and scientists deserve equally unquestioning acceptance by the public. A historian can explain to me clearly in a way I can understand the reasons, the evidence, for his or her claims and I can understand the arguments of other historians who disagree. I cannot do the same with scholars who debate questions in mathematics or complex physics and the origins of the universe. I have forgotten too much of the science I once learned to pretend I can even fully understand or evaluate the research of climate scientists.

Unfortunately McGrath’s post fails to grasp this basic point. In his failure to grasp the fact that there really is a vast gulf between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and the hard sciences/mathematics on the other when it comes to the potential for public understanding, he probably fails to realize how patronizing his stance really is.

That is, his argument takes a turn that sets up an ignorant elitist gulf between academics generally and a riff-raff public.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics are not superior to others at some things. There would be real problems if they weren’t. Universities can truly be said to contain more of the most intelligent members of society than other institutions. But anyone who works among academics, whether as an academic or support staff, also knows that a few of them truly are the most arrogant, insufferable snobs. I am sure Professor McGrath is not one of those, but he does unfortunately express a snobbish — certainly a breathtakingly thoughtless — argument in his post.)

Before we turn our attention to the elephant in the room, maybe I could use my own way of evaluating scholarly arguments to make the point that a lay amateur really can make valid evaluations of scholarly arguments. If Professor McGrath or anyone else can find serious error and a propensity for misjudgment in how I go about assessing scholarly claims I would love to be told. I have been seriously wrong about things before so I have tried to hone my methods of learning to try to be less wrong now.

read more »


2014-03-26

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

by Tim Widowfield

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

read more »


2013-10-26

Comedian Tim Minchin Explains McGrath’s Problem with Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

The honorable associate professor of Butler has once again posted mischievous assertions that I wrote things I did not at all write in my recent post, When “Trusting the Expert Consensus” is Wrong. It makes perfect sense that James McGrath would want to misrepresent this post of mine since in it I explain why the sorts of appeals to authority that the theologian himself is fond of making are fallacious. (This is a common tactic of McGrath, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Rabbi Joseph Hoffmann, and a handful of others.)

So there is no rule against calling McGrath a mendacious idiot?

Professor Paul Krugman could almost have had James McGrath’s (and the other names above) track records of responding to mythicists in mind when he wrote in an article, Do You Know Who I Am?,

But academic credentials are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for having your ideas taken seriously. If a famous professor repeatedly says stupid things, then tries to claim he never said them [see, for example, the “McGrath Wisely pretends he never said that” refrain in Carrier’s post], there’s no rule against calling him a mendacious idiot — and no special qualifications required to make that pronouncement other than doing your own homework.

Conversely, if someone without formal credentials consistently makes trenchant, insightful observations, he or she has earned the right to be taken seriously, regardless of background.

English: Tim Minchin at the Melbourne Comedy F...

Tim Minchin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If only the honorable theologian had taken time out from watching Dr Who to listen to the occasional address of Tim Minchin that he gave on the day he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters [See the video clip at this post]. He would surely have come to his senses and grasped what I actually wrote and never have ventured to resort, yet once again, to blatant falsehoods.

Tim Minchin’s point number five:

5. Be Hard On Your Opinions

A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

Note again that last paragraph about nuance. read more »


2013-10-18

The Propaganda War Against Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

As their weapon of choice against the Christ Myth hypothesis (“mythicism”), theologians, religion and Biblical scholars appear from where I stand to regularly deploy the instruments of propaganda. The motivations appear to me to be to maintain

  • their status and reputation in a society infested with critical and anti-establishment influences, and
  • their control over the terms of religious debates, dictating what are legitimate topics for review and what are not.

I use the term “propaganda” because it’s yet another valid way of explaining what is happening. Simpler expressions are “labeling” and “framing the debate”. Adding the concept of “propaganda” to the list might help us understand more clearly what is actually happening in these “discussions”.

Lasswell

Harold Lasswell

To me the word “propaganda” stands for the opposite of true education, democratic or honest intellectual engagement and dialogue. Here’s a description of “what propaganda is” from some passages from the classic article “The Theory of Political Propaganda” by Harold Lasswell and first published (as far as I am aware in 1927) in the American Political Science Review:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the techniques of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . . [As opposed to education] propaganda to the creation of valuational dispositions or attitudes. [What I would call honest dialogue] implies the search for the solution of a besetting problem with no desire to prejudice a particular solution in advance. The propagandist is very much concerned about how a specific solution is to be evoked and “put over.” And though the most subtle propaganda closely resembles disinterested deliberation, there is no difficulty in distinguishing the extremes. (my bolding)

Propaganda, I suggest, is the primary weapon used by the academy of biblical scholars and theologians against the Christ Myth theory. I have encountered very few genuine efforts of academics to “educate” the public (that is, “educate” as opposed to sway them by “propaganda”, given that “propaganda” is a process akin to “indoctrination”) or even to “educate” their peers of the deficiencies in any one of the “mythicist” cases.

One of the key characteristics of propaganda is that it manipulates symbols with the intent of bringing about social control. The symbols must have major significance for the audience, significant enough for them to hold real power over tan audience’s emotional reactions — “ideally, symbols of the Sacred and the Satanic.” (Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 12)

Understand the power of symbols.

Symbols are related to the psychological phenomenon of the stereotype. A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor. . . The stereotype arises from the feelings one has for one’s group, or against the “out-group.” . . .  In propaganda, existing stereotypes are awakened by symbols. (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, p. 163)

Probably the most used symbol in the propaganda war against mythicism is “The Scholar”. This symbol has siblings: “peer review”, “published in a reputable/academic journal”, “PhD”, “scholarly training”, “skilled in relevant languages”, to identify some.

Now I know some people will jump on that above sentence and accuse me of suggesting that “scholarly training” and being “skilled in biblical languages” are nothing more than worthless empty symbols. And such an effort will itself be demonstrating how propaganda works. By ignoring nuance they will be reinforcing the power of the symbol itself and the mechanics of propaganda. They will be reaffirming that “The Scholar” is sensible, wise, naturally right, while the critic who is associated with the enemy, “mythicism”, is vacuous, unavoidably silly, dumb and risible.

Recall the Sacred and the Satanic. read more »


2013-10-13

Protecting Our Institutions from “Meddlesome Outsiders”

by Tim Widowfield

The bewildered herd

Noam Chomsky’s recent piece in the Belfast Telegraph contained a fragment of a quotation from Walter Lippmann. It’s useful, because it helps to show how the ruling elites actually view the public: namely, not as a group of participants with legitimate concerns and ideas to offer, but rather as so much cattle that need to be prodded into going along with their betters.

English: Photograph of Noam Chomsky

English: Photograph of Noam Chomsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noting that public opinion and government action are today often at odds with each another, Chomsky explains that for the power elites in our so-called capitalist democracies public opinion is something to affect, something to change via public relations, not something to follow. The governments of modern Western nation-states see the public as “meddlesome outsiders.” This term echoes Lippmann in The Phantom Public:

With the substance of the problem it [the public] can do nothing usually but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically. It has no need to meddle with it. Men in their active relation to affairs have to deal with the substance, but in that indirect relationship when they can act only through uttering praise or blame, making black crosses on white paper, they have done enough, they have done all they can do if they help to make it possible for the reason of other men to assert itself.

For when public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure or a tyranny. It is not able to master the problem intellectually, nor to deal with it except by wholesale impact. (p. 60, The Phantom Public, emphasis mine)

For Lippmann and indeed for today’s policy makers, following the will of the public is a folly that would end in “failure or tyranny.” And so:

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd. (p. 145, The Phantom Public, emphasis mine)

Our spectator democracies

That herd, Chomsky tells us, needs to understand its proper function.

They’re supposed to lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men. But apart from that, their function is to be “spectators, not participants in action” – and it’s for their own good. Because as the founder of liberal political science pointed out, we should not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms about people being the best judges of their own interest”. They’re not. We’re [viz., the ruling elite] the best judges, so it would be irresponsible to let them make choices just as it would be irresponsible to let a three-year-old run into the street. Attitudes and opinions therefore have to be controlled for the benefit of those you are controlling. It’s necessary to “regiment their minds”. It’s necessary also to discipline the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young.” All quotes, incidentally. (emphasis mine)

For any libertarians or conservatives out there, please note that Chomsky has plenty of scathing words to say about the ineffectual parties on the left who, when in power, act exactly the same as conservatives. Public opinion is very much against austerity in Europe, but those destructive policies continue no matter which party is in power.

. . . economic policies have changed little in response to one electoral defeat after another. The left has replaced the right; the right has ousted the left.

Why does nothing change? Because the smarter class, the intelligent minority, knows better than to follow public opinion. “No man can serve two masters,” and we know who the real master is. As John Jay put it:

. . . the mass of men are neither wise nor good—those who own the country ought to govern it.

Wanted: fans not friends, spectators not participants

As it is with politics, so it is with academia, especially in that extremely rarefied realm of Biblical Studies. If you didn’t catch the undertone in the blog posts Neil quoted from in his recent post on kicking Atwill to the curb, let me remind you. Atwill’s theories on Christian origins are pretty far out there. In fact, they’re so far out there that they’re rather easy to debunk on their own merits. Yet that wasn’t enough, was it? We had to be reminded that he didn’t have the proper credentials.

read more »


2013-07-28

Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment

by Tim Widowfield
Jan Vansina

Jan Vansina

Insults and a failure to comprehend

Awhile back our favorite historicist doctor posted a comment on his own blog:

One can see a similar mythicist combination of insult and failure to comprehend those with whom they disagree at the blog Vridar. Seriously, it is as though I had never written anything about [Jan] Vansina and oral tradition here on this blog, never mind in scholarly publications! (Dr. James F. McGrath, 16 June 2013)

He links his “insult and failure to comprehend” remark to Neil’s post, “Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition.” Where’s the insult? Probably this:

[I]t quickly became evident that [Dr. McGrath] had not read or understood Vansina’s works, but had himself appeared to quote-mine a single passage, out of context, to lend “support” to a point he was making in one of his articles. My own reading of Vansina and my attempts to point out to the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair what he had failed to notice in Vansina’s work were disdainfully and peremptorily dismissed. The Doctor continues to play the part of the Emperor with no clothes by foolishly and ignorantly asserting that Vansina’s works support the a model of oral transmission that they in fact contradict. (Neil Godfrey, 16 June 2013)

Islands in the stream?

McGrath’s comment from the 16th ends with a reference to his essay in a scholarly work, “Written Islands in the Oral Stream: Gospel and Oral Traditions.” Indeed, we should note that McGrath’s essay is the first piece in the book (see the link McGrath kindly provided).

In the interest of completeness and fair play, here’s exactly what McGrath wrote in a scholarly publication concerning Vansina:

Particularly important in conjunction with this topic is Vansina’s observation that official traditions tend to be preserved much more precisely over longer periods of time with a higher degree of accuracy than stories preserved by private individuals. [Vansina, Oral Traditions, pp. 85-86] On the other hand, official traditions are also far more likely to have been fabricated or at least falsified to reflect an official viewpoint. For this reason, the fact that a tradition can be demonstrated to have been passed on faithfully for several decades does not immediately indicate the historical reliability of the information. Indeed, it may in at least some instances suggest the opposite. (p. 9)

That’s absolutely correct. What we must stress here is that public, official oral tradition reflects the functions for which it is remembered and transmitted. Oral societies will often transmit such traditions faithfully over many years, but the actual story they tell may not be authentic. Where McGrath goes wrong is in the attempted specific application of Vansina’s work to NT studies.

Those studying oral traditions in contemporary oral cultures have likewise found principles well-known in historical criticism of the Bible to be readily applicable to their work. Vansina notes that it is sometimes possible to demonstrate the unlikelihood that a tradition has been falsified, for example ‘where a tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used.’ [Vansina, p. 83] Vansina then defines a principle that is essentially the same as the criterion of embarrassment used by historians investigating the historical Jesus. The converse principle is also affirmed, namely that ‘facts which do not help to maintain the institution which transmits the tradition are often omitted or falsified.’ [Vansina, p. 84] (p. 8, bold emphasis mine)

Readily applicable?

McGrath has correctly quoted Vansina, but he cannot have fully understood the broad implications of Vansina’s work, or else he would not have used the phrase “readily applicable to their work.” It is not. He also asserts that the criterion of embarrassment in NT studies is “essentially the same” as what Vansina had described. It is not.

[Note: Neil wrote an enlightening piece on this very subject about a year and a half ago. If you haven’t read it (like McGrath), you should: “Oral History does NOT support ‘criterion of embarrassment’“]

First, let’s state the obvious difference between the study of oral tradition and the study of the New Testament. Vansina talked to real people who were transmitting real oral history to him. That is, he met face to face with the people who were still telling stories. McGrath and his fellow scholars are reading written works whose authors may or may not have transcribed from oral sources. Does this matter? Of course it does.

Vansina writes (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology) :

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2013-07-11

What Do We Mean by “Incompetent”?

by Tim Widowfield
Shemp Howard

Shemp Howard
The Forgotten Stooge
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can’t we all just get along?

In a recent post, Tom Verenna urged us all to stop using derogatory words to describe people whom we disagree with. He did that hipster thing where his sentence gets broken up into one-word, emphatic, staccato commands:

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.

That. Is. So. Cool.

Wait a second. What, exactly, has got to stop? Oh, here it is.  This:

Someone disagrees with an argument made by someone else and they decide this person must be ‘incompetent’ because their argument is different.

If you’re at all familiar with the art and science of political speech and propaganda, you will recognize that sentence as a prime example of what we call “framing.” Before explaining Neil’s complaint against McGrath’s inadequate review, Tom needs to pre-explain or frame the argument.

Tom would have us believe that Neil’s gripe has nothing to do with Dr. McGrath’s longstanding pattern of over-the-top behavior whenever he gets the slightest whiff off Jesus mythicism. Not at all. It’s about “someone” not liking someone else’s “different” argument.

A different drummer

So what is McGrath’s “different” opinion? I’m glad you asked. Let’s list a few and then discuss.

I could go on. You can find many more “scholarly observations” using fairly simple Google searches. For example, here’s how you can search for specific words, restricted to the Cakemix site:

site:www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix "mythicist"

In case after case we see that McGrath disagreed with an argument made by someone else and decided that, because his or her argument is different, that person must have psychological reasons and ulterior motives for being “wrong.” McGrath feels compelled, no doubt as a public service, to explain the personal motivations for mythicist behavior. McGrathian conjecture knows no boundaries. Perhaps they have some pathological predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories, or they have an obsession with parallelomania. Perhaps they are insane.

McGrath, in his review of Thomas Brodie’s memoir, made a passing reference to “the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism,” accusing Brodie of having “complete disregard for other possibilities.” Naturally, he doesn’t indict Brodie alone — all mythicists must be tarred with the same brush.

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2013-07-04

McGrath: The Facts Are Such “Minor” Details. Impressions Rule!

by Neil Godfrey

This is my response to James McGrath’s post, Mythicist Language is Designed to Make Lies Sound Truthful. Is McGrath really saying that a mythicist argument by Brodie is actually a set of “lies”? If so, that underscores the very point I have been making about how censorship works in academia — and McGrath is himself one of the most stalwart of guardians of “correct thoughts” in the arena of New Testament studies.

James McGrath continues to refer to even the most dry, factual posts and writings that lean towards favoring the Christ myth thesis as “rants” and “lies” — presumably solely on the grounds that any writing that leans to such a conclusion must by definition be a “rant” or a “lie”.

And THAT is exactly why it is an Orwellian joke that such a person should be considered as qualified to speak about censorship and academic freedom in the context of the Christ myth. THAT is how censorship in academia works. It is through this sort of institutional intellectual bullying — denigrating anyone who advances certain types of alternative views as peddlers of “rants” or “lies” — that we see censorship working in all sorts of areas. There is no need for a “conspiracy” — and of course McGrath likes to intimate in his same post that mythicists are “conspiracy peddlers”, too — which is a real rant and lie. Academia is not immune from this sort of subtle systemic censorship, and never has been, as Julien Benda pointed out so dramatically in another context with “The Treason of the Intellectuals”. What was true of France in his day has been just as true of the English speaking intelligentsia up to our own day. And if it is so blatant in the political arena, we should not be surprised if it is alive in the world of public religious convictions, too. Politics and religion, the most ideological of our academic “disciplines”.

The same old

Of course McGrath will protest that he has engaged with and rebutted mythicist arguments many, many times. He will wave his hand and invite readers to look at all those posts and comments he has made in the past.

I encourage everyone who reads such hand-waving invitations of his to hold him to account and insist he direct a reader to a specific post or comment. (Note that’s exactly what I did in my earlier post to which he is now responding.) read more »