The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

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by Neil Godfrey

Diversionary tactics
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In 2003 Niels-Peter Lemche posted a blunt article addressing the unscholarly tactics of conservative scholars. He noted how even historical-critical scholars had come to resort to the same polemics as conservatives in their efforts to “crush so-called ‘radical’ critical scholarship.”

There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one’s own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

The above is cited from Niels Peter Lemche’s 2003 post, Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion on Bible and Interpretation.

Surely we find the same motives for these same tactics among those biblical scholars who are most vociferous in their polemics against the very idea of questioning the existence of Jesus Christ, also.

I quote sections from Lemche’s article here that look very like the same sized shoe that fits the reactions of biblical scholars against Christ-mythicism.

Name-calling and image-management

It is not all name-calling, however. Or rather, the name-calling takes the form of a more subtle condescension:

Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship. Part of being mainstream has to do with being reconciliatory – maybe with a touch of condescendence – asking people in the frontline to behave, abstain from labelling and name-calling. Professor Provan’s contribution to this discussion is a perfect example of this new attitude, claiming the highest level of scholarship even though other interests may be at hand at the same side. . . .

. . . .  in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way, as in Long’s introduction. It can be sharpened as in the quote by J.K. Hoffmeister, cited in Long’s introduction, or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg. The meaning is the same: 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 worst form is the slanderous labelling such as the one found in Magen Broshi’s review in the Jerusalem Post of Thomas Thompson‘s The Bible in History– a very negative review in itself –       ending with a note that informs the reader that Thompson’s favored readings are “The Protocols of Zion.” As Thompson told me, this put an effective end to the sales of the book on the American market, and once it aired, it seems to have been repeated so many times that many people believed it to be true. Such slander can be dangerous to the scholar so characterized but also to his relatives. . . .

Thompson has also written of the “Messiah Myth” to demonstrate the extent of this motif throughout Middle Eastern literature and to place the New Testament Gospels within the broader context of this literature. He has also challenged the a priori assumption behind historical Jesus studies that there ever was a historical Jesus behind the gospel narratives. New Testament theological scholars have been just as quick to dismiss Thompson’s scholarship in this area, too. March 8 2010, July 9 2010,

What is the aim of this labeling? Here it is interesting to compare with the characterization of conservative scholarship in James Barr‘s book on fundamentalism where Barr in his own acid way reviews the tactics of conservative scholarship. We may summarize Barr’s argument in this way: 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. Barr, himself born into an evangelical environment, has no doubts about the background and motivation of the conservative standpoint. . . . . there is no need to quote dogma, no need to indulge in heated religious controversy. One simply and calmly states the evidence from outside the Bible that shows how unnecessary and how completely wrong the entire series of critical questionings has been. … Indeed, it is a necessity of the conservative argument . . .  that it makes at least a pretence of impartiality.

I hear another echo from more recent discussions in which my citing of Eric Hobsbawm’s remark on a point of basic motherhood logic of historical methodology elicited a retort about his left-wing political interests.

The next step is to introduce the criticism of minimalism by Gary Rendsburg, who, on his homepage, has the following words to say about this group of scholars:

…To give you the names of the four best known among them, they are Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, and Keith Whitelam. Some of them are driven … by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. Some of them are counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives. But the two most important elements in the profile of these scholars are the following. First, almost without exception, these scholars have no expertise in the larger world of ancient Near Eastern studies …. Second, … almost without exception, the scholars of this group are not Jewish….Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism.

Similar accusations of ignorance of the relevant scholarship, and even of a hostile anti-Christian agenda (tantamount to Holocaust denial) have been levelled against those arguing a mythicist case.

Here we have an example of the same sort of criticism; this time it is not presented by a conservative scholar in the narrow sense of the word. Nevertheless, Rendsburg follows their example by using a language that has been colored by remarks such as those found in evangelical literature. . . . Rendsburg is very outspoken in his efforts to ostracize the minimalists. It is a war cry, intending at burying his hated opponents, and although it is not printed in the usual way, but published on an official homepage of McGill University, it is no less serious in its accusations of the minimalists for being anti-Semites. Rendsburg implies that their writings are similar to those found in Mein Kampf. He is aiming at destroying the minimalists without ever engaging in a serious debate with them. In this way, conservative theology and a modern political movement combine forces-strange bedfellows!

No-one has compared writings of Christ myth proponents to Mein Kampf, but I don’t need to cite occasions where they have been compared with anti-intellectual Creationist literature.

Another reason for this

In my opening paragraphs I cited Lemche’s view of a reason for this hostility. He offers another possible reason.

Another explanation may have to do with the change of gravity within biblical scholarship. A generation ago the center was definitely Europe, and here German scholarship was unquestionably the flagship. European scholars were all brought up in the shadow of de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad, and without accepting these scholars as leading stars; nobody would be allowed to enter the temple of academic biblical studies. It is true that some critical voices were raised . . . [But] no conservative, i.e., evangelical scholar would ever be allowed to contribute.

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be – according to European standards – critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship-irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her. . . .

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 Davies, Thompson, and Lemche; read books about them!

The last paragraph above certainly encapsulates much of the hostile criticism of mythicism among NT scholars: one rarely encounters an outspoken critic (whether in academic and other discussion groups or elsewhere online) who can demonstrate a first-hand familiarity with publications arguing the mythicist position. McGrath is one who has repeatedly put out blog posts asking for others to help him “understand” mythicism, and has advised readers to turn to the likes of Metacrock and Bernard Muller, Shirley Jackson Case and even unprofessionally commending a Wikipedia article in large part based on methods proposed by an early twentieth century apologist for the role of the supernatural in history.


One last point often included in the discussion has to do with ideology. Here the minimalists are accused of pursuing a hidden agenda. They are ideologically against the Bible bashers, as Dever sometimes calls us. They enjoy destructing the Bible and have no respect for tradition-not to say traditional critical scholarship. . . .

Thus, it is never understood that we did not start with ideology. On the contrary, as historical-critical scholars of the old school, we started with critical scholarship as it used to be – trained in the European academic tradition already described – but we did not stop when the results were disconcerting and bewildering. The demolition of the history of ancient Israel proceeded along a logical line of advance from the patriarchs, via the Exodus and the conquest, over the Period of the Judges to David and his time, and the center of discussion has now moved on to the late pre-exilic, the exilic, and the post-exilic periods. It is correct that havoc followed in the wake of progress, but it was certainly not because of a preconceived ideology different from the one shared by the majority of historical-critical scholars.

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. Barr’s study on fundamentalism is more than twenty-five years old and refers to a different situation, but the tactics of the conservatives are the same, and nothing has changed.

The same accusation has been directed at mythicists. They are hypercritical and negative, it has been said. I particularly relate to the section I highlight in the middle paragraph above. That is the path that led me to being persuaded that the evidence of early Christian literature strongly points in the direction of Jesus never having been a historical person. Christianity’s origins were diffuse and complex, and the canonical gospel narrative was a late evolution directed by the demands of early Christian sectarian political rivalry.

If Lemche’s comments on scholarship’s hostility against “minimalism” appear to be spot on, then we can certainly understand why we find the same type of hostility against a hypothesis that is at least as old as Bruno Bauer. If the thought of losing King David is threatening enough, how much more threatening must be the possibility that we no longer need a historical Jesus to explain Christianity!

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Neil Godfrey

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37 thoughts on “The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)”

  1. . If the thought of losing King David is threatening enough, how much more threatening must be the possibility that we no longer need a historical Jesus to explain Christianity!

    I don’t feel threatened, I mean it is presumptuous for me to speak on their behalf, but sometimes ideas are unpopular because they don’t appeal to reason. The argument for the Hebrew Bible being a work of 5th to 2nd century BC, flies in the face of an incredible amount of data, I haven’t sen any convincing arguments, I don’t know if there hiding the good ones but i just don’t see how the angle works. It Is a the same with the Jesus myth stuff, I feel I’m being asked to believe an odd hypothesis, a speculation with little evidence on strange notions of disqualify the known opinions of past writers. The evidence I’ve been presented with is insubstantial, but I keep hearing about there “mountains” of evidence. Show it! Enough of the these vague lets pretend what Paul doesn’t say expeditions, lets give bizarre interpretations of text.

    Sometimes the dedication of the Mythisist folks, makes me curious about the theories but every time I read one of the works I feel disappointed. Its fools gold. I would love to be directed to the best arguments for Lamech, TLT, Price. Sorry for the tone, it just seems that that I’m not seeing the arguments you are.

    1. For what it’s worth, the two books that knocked me off-center were Freke & Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries and Thompson’s The Mythic Past. The first, I’ll admit, isn’t written that well and has “problems” with sourcing, but it made me reexamine my assumptions. Spong called it “provocative, exciting and challenging.” It’s all that and more. The second is a treasure. I happened to picked up Thompson’s book off a sale rack at Barnes and Noble. (Reminds me of the old days when you’d find an unexpected gem in the LP cut-out bins.)

      If you’ve read Wells, Thompson, and Price, but you don’t find them convincing, then I don’t know what to tell you.

      Given the evidence, I’d have to say I’m an agnostic concerning the historicity of Jesus. I lean toward mythicism, because it reorganizes the jigsaw puzzle pieces in a way that resolves a lot of thorny issues — such as the fact that the farther back you go from the Council of Nicea, the more wildly diverse Christianity is. It’s just hard to accept the idea that there was an historical Jesus with a gospel message that he passed on to his disciples, followed by the immediate fragmentation into a thousand sects with riotously divergent and incompatible doctrines.

  2. Mike, Are you saying that there is no basis for a serious discussion with minimalists, that they are “not worth reading”, that they fail to appeal to “reason”? If so, why do you think Lemche was writing about that very attitude towards minimalists?

    What authors/works have you read for the late dating of the Hebrew bible? How early do you date the Hebrew Bible and for what reasons?

  3. As stated above, Magen Broshi’s review in the Jerusalem Post of Thomas Thompson’s The Bible in History ended with a note proclaiming that Thompson’s favoured readings were “The Protocols of Zion”. This particular type of verbal violence is widely used aginst critical scholars, and is worthy of a study in its own right. Anita Shapira, Steven Plaut, and other writers used similar phrases to intimidate Shlomo Sand, the author of “The Invention of the Jewish People” (2009). Shapira (Journal of Israeli History, 28/1, 2009, pp. 63-72), reviewing Sand’s book, felt it necessary to state that “White Power members denounce Jews in U.S. government along the lines of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, as if Sand, himself a Jew, could possibly be described as a “White Power member”.

    It is a shame that peer-reviewed journals allow themselves to be used as instruments of intimidation.

    1. Nothing has changed. Edward Said attempted to systematically expose the matrix of the bias with “Orientalism.” Keith Whitelam certainly exposed the specifics of the bias in the case of minimalism with “The Invention of Ancient Israel.” And even in our own backyard we see it from the likes of James McGrath.

      In the old days it used to be more crudely labeled “intellectual bullying.”

      1. Speaking of Dr. McG, I was checking the “slander page” at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory, and the latest item under General Dismissive Comments (added on 16 October 2010) is from our buddy. It reads:

        “Mythicism isn’t about treating historical sources in the same way across the board. It is entirely the purview of people with a vendetta against Christianity, although even in such circles there are plenty who do not find it persuasive. And it must be emphasized that it is taken no more seriously among mainstream historians than in Biblical studies.”

        — James F. McGrath, “Mythicism vs. the Socratic Historians”, Exploring Our Matrix, 2010

        Oh, how nice it must be to have the ability to read minds and peer into the hearts of men. I haven’t read the whole post from which this quote was lifted, so I don’t know if he tosses out similar scathing remarks about those of us with a vendetta against Platonism.

        So perhaps mythicists aren’t called anti-Semites, but they are called anti-Christian. They’re extremists. They’re kooks. They’re conspiracy theorists. I can see why any NT scholar who doubts the historicist thesis might want to keep it a private matter. Instead of “engaging with the scholarship” the protectors of the faith start hurling insults, shouting accusations, and offering psychological advice.

        1. And that was added after his “apology” for something or other, an apology that he has followed up with playing the victim card. His tactics are exactly what Lemche is addressing in that post: denigration and name-calling, all the while avoiding any serious engagement with the argument itself.

          He has now taken to accusing me of being a hostile anti-Christian bigot on his blog. When I pointed to out that my record is anything but his reply was that he can find racists who say some complimentary things from time to time about their targets! So he is not prepared to let any evidence I can produce get in the way of his prejudiced views about me.

          McGrath has misrepresented himself in claiming to be a historian in his publications, and in that quote demonstrates his incompetence in the field of history. What he appears to have demonstrated he means is that anything he calls “historical sources” should be treated on a qualitatively equal basis — so the gospels should be treated as equally validating of Jesus as an artefact that personally belonged to George Washington is validating of Washington.

          It is he who has the vendetta against mythicism. (I was surprised at first to find he is also dismissive of minimalism. But it makes sense now.) I have never had a vendetta in my life against Christianity or anything that I can think of.

          His accusations are outright character smear.

          1. Each time I look at that quote I get a little bit angrier. It shows he was never serious about an open, honest debate in the first place. He’s just a troll.

            And whoever posted the wikiquote is apparently proud of it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he added it himself!

            1. When you think about it, theologians specializing in christology, the nature of God etc, their whole life is bound up in the unreal. They don’t need evidence to justify their area of specialization (God, Christ), so are likely to get confused when trying to relate to the real world. Little details like lack of evidence for their accusations against others, or lack of understanding the nature of different types of evidence for courtroom and historiographical procedures, such lacks do not pose any handicap for them.

              (I know, I know, I said something like this before in a response to Steven Carr. But sheesh, give me a little slack here — I had been trying to relate to JM for over a year or so taking him on trust when he called himself a “historian” in his publications, so I need a couple of attempts to pinch myself into realizing I was conned by a fraudulent claim.)

            2. Recall that our friend’s response to my remarks on historical method by Eric Hobsbawm was to express a belief that as a communist Hobsbawm’s agenda is to undermine good values; also his reference to an internet spammer as an “internet terrorist”. Presumably then my being an atheist and questioning the historicity of Jesus is enough for him to lose all reason in any exchanges with me. He even professed taking great offence when I wrote an analogy with an imaginary scenario to make a point, and created a foil character representing him as “McGarth” — this was interpreted as some sort of insult. As some had attempted to warn me from the start, attempting dialog with such a person is a complete waste of time.

              1. …because your misspelling his name is calumny, while his painting all mythicists as anti-Christian merely an observation of fact? I really can’t say more on this subject without violating the standards of decency and decorum.

        2. “Mythicism … is entirely the purview of people with a vendetta against Christianity…”

          McGrath gives the impression of being unfamiliar with the many mythisists who were not only deeply religious but who also served as Protestant priests: Abraham Dirk Loman (1823-1897), Willem Christiaan van Manen (1842-1905), Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga (1874-1957), Albert Kalthoff (1850-1906), Hermann Raschke (1887-1970), etc.

            1. Dr. Detering touches on the subject in his review of “The Historical Jesus” by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz. (The review can be read at his homepage.) I allow myself to translate a short passage found on p. 13:

              Exegetes should be expected to treat biblical texts with caution. However, Theissen and Merz do not notice that, by using a method based on ‘elimination’, they tear out the very heart of the texts. Ruining the distinctive mythical character of the gospels, and turning ancient religious poetry into a sort of kitschy, social-political story with a modern twist, they subvert the contents of the narratives and the genuine intentions of the narrators, who wished to relate the story, not of a man, but of a god-man. They fail to understand that the divine man of the gospels, regardless of whether or not the meaning intended is symbolic or literal, cannot be transferred to the realistic setting of a ‘historical Jesus’, without doing a double injustice to history and to the narratives and their poetic-mythological character.

              Hermann Detering, “Eine Art Metamorphose des Menschlichen” (2010).

              1. Yes!!! This is exactly the sort of commentary I have been missing for so long now. It is what Thomas L. Thompson drove home in his Mythic Past — by trying to find modern meanings in stories, by making them “relevant” for moderns, by assuming an underlying historicity and stripping away the mythical to get to that “historical core” — all that only destroys the stories we are reading and failing to understand. (Okay, I elaborated slightly on what TLT said, but the last part is exactly what he said.)

                I was reading Alan Segal’s section on the Son of Man sayings in his “Two Powers” again this morning and he points out that it makes no difference if the words “son of man” can be attributed to Jesus — what matters is what the author of the Gospel understood and meant to convey by attributing those words to him.

                The Gospels are stories, narratives, and can only make sense if we first analyze them as literature.

                I’m in Hanoi at the moment — don’t ask why — trying to see as many places as I can before returning to Australia — but look forward to seeing what I can dig out from Detering’s stuff when I re-settle in Oz. Some years ago I struggled through some of his writings with an online translator! Not the easiest way for this non-German reader to read him.

              2. On the one extreme we have apologists attempting to harmonize the New Testament so that it appears to speak with one voice. On the other extreme with have NT scholars tearing it apart, lifting out tiny chunks they think are historical evidence. (I’m reminded of Bronowski’s classic description of the moulding action versus the analytical action of the hand.)

                Mainstream scholars (I’m thinking specifically of Bart Ehrman) wail over the damage done by well-meaning clods who try to fuse the four gospels into one. I wish they would realize the equal, if not greater, damage done to the text when they dissect it for historical chimeras.

  4. Speaking for myself, as an historian and a scientist, I am open to the mythicist case not for ideological reasons but from the evidence. In fact as an atheist who has always enjoyed reading the Bible, especially the gospels and the wisdom literature of the old testament, which is a sublimely written challenge to complacent latitudinarian atheism, I was more inclined towards an Ebionite view of Christian origins, and much taken with Vermes writings.
    It was reading Doherty that made me change my mind first. Not ideology but facts. Of course I do not take Doherty as gospel either, not being inclined for example to believe in Q.
    The accusations that the Copenhagen school is anti-Semitic is disgusting. I say this as someone opposed to all forms of racism, all the more as an anti-zionist.

    1. Your initial inclination to the Ebionite view of Christian origins I find interesting because that’s where my view lay for a long time, too. My first interest was in Goulder’s studies, Spong having introduced me to those. But looking back on that model now, I think it would require miracles of biblical proportion to mutate that into what became Christianity subsequently. Likewise it was Doherty who I thank for opening my mind to the stronger plausibility of mythicism as an explanation for Christian origins. And likewise, as Doherty himself well knows, I can hardly be called a “follower” of his.

  5. As I understand it, both Tom Harpur and Robert M. Price are active attendees of Christian churches, yet they are both mythicists. Certainly anyone familiar with the corpus of Dr. Price’s work could see that he has no hostility to the ideas of Christianity and in fact styles himself a “Christian atheist.”

    1. McGrath’s accusation of being motivated by anti-Christian bias has been plucked out of nowhere. It is gratuitous. When I have directed him to evidence that I am not so driven he has scoffed. I have found him to be both dishonest and malicious in his exchanges, arguments and review of Price’s chapter.

      But it is not only with mythicism that his light flickers. I was interested in a number of points made in Alan Segal’s “Two Powers in Heaven”, and that led me to compare James McGrath’s critique of Segal’s book in “The Only True God.”

      On page 201 of Two Powers Segal writes: “So we cannot be sure that any of the systems would have been called heresy in the first century or even if there was a central power interested to define it.” He repeats this point on page 215. In response to Segal’s book McGrath writes on pages 81 and 82 that he is “reassessing” Segal’s evidence and will argue, contra Segal, that the relevant teachings were not heretical in the first century. He is straining to find in Segal something to oppose when in fact Segal gives him no such opening. This is all very lightweight “scholarship” even for a theologian, I think.

  6. Hi all

    Interesting old post
    There are no truth based ways to defend mistaken fabricated positions and, it’s not-possible to have sensible reasonable discourse with those who are not.

    False positions, especially when shown to be so, can’t call upon anything of substance to support their position. So they must resort to false defences and attacks as the main options they have available.

    Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement
    I prefer the original essay linked above but for those just wanting a coloured visual and Wikipedia summary, use this link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Graham_(programmer)#Graham's_hierarchy_of_disagreement)

    I consider Graham’s Hierarchy a useful guide for more objectively understanding and judging disagreements. Unless disagreements are at the highest 3 levels they can usually be considered insubstantial and respectfully referred to the above link or ignored.

    WHAT’S GOING ON, you know, in reality?
    1. Believers in false narrative systems must be protected from contradictory facts like in your posts and the books you discuss.
    2. Also, they must be prevented from thinking for themselves from such facts. So you must be labelled (demonised) as dangerous or ridiculous … basically completely discredited to protect the old philosophical false narratives of Judaeo-Christian religions and beliefs etc. These are 2 core matters of substance that touch on this post. This post and links show the above going on for real.

    Core or overarching narratives can have powerful taboos and demonisation combined with blasphemy stoning type rituals built into the narrative and resultant society. Obviously as self protection measures.

    Messing with foundational narratives and the ideals they carry is not allowed in a philosophical narrative based society.

    Paul Graham makes a very significant point. It isn’t necessary to disprove a central point it can be enough to disprove something it relies upon. When you showcase Plato and the books of Moses stuff by Gmirkin … you’re parting the curtain and inviting the whole world to see there is no glory of God in the holy of holy’s and the real account of creation is the plan in Plato.

    Be and fare well


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