Respecting the Honesty of Conservative Historical Jesus Scholarship

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by Neil Godfrey

Reinhardt College Bible Study Class 1913 – from Wikimedia Commons

I have been catching up with two conservative historical Jesus scholars and once again I find their honest perspectives about their historical methods refreshing.

Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels is quite upfront with stating the obvious: the historical Jesus model does not work as an explanation for the start of Christianity unless, at minimum, there really were a series of resurrection appearances to a widespread number of witnesses. (Or you could just read the subtitle if you were in a real hurry to know his views.)

To try to suggest that the religion took off light bolt lightning around the Mediterranean world because one or a few disciples had inner-experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still somehow “alive and with them” in a mysterious way just does not cut it.

And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post-Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.

Here are the words of LTJ (with my emphasis):

Insistence on reducing the resurrection to something “historical” amounts to a form of epistemological imperialism, an effort to deny a realm of reality beyond the critic’s control. That, however, is not even good history. It is instead an ideological commitment to a view of the world that insists on material explanations being the only reasonable explanations, that reduces everything to a flat plane where not even genius, much less the divine, can be taken into account. Such an ideological commitment begins with the assumption that Christianity cannot have anything distinctive about it.

For the responsible historian, however, the recognition of forces and realities beyond the ken of strict historical method is what makes the doing of history exciting and ennobling. When a so-called historian uses the historical method to deny, in effect, the reality of anything beyond what that method can demonstrate, we suspect a certain defensiveness to be at work. . . . (p. 140)

Johnson does not pretend to be interested in working on the same playing field as the secular historian. He makes his biases and ideological commitment clear, and he acknowledges that Christianity’s origins cannot be understood by “strict historical method”.

When Johnson argues against Spong’s views of the Gospels being “midrashic” borrowings of Old Testament scriptural passages (that I have outlined in recent posts here), he offers no detailed reasoned rebuttal. He expresses much criticism of Spong’s liberal theology and agendas as he does of his biblical literary arguments.

Spong’s argument is specious and his conclusion banal. His book is of interest mainly for the way in which it demonstrates the pattern I have been describing. We see again the ever-lengthening list of scholars invoked, the embrace of the spirit of modernity and its inability to stomach the miraculous, the claim at once that his conclusions will cause dismay among traditional believers yet represent what all enlightened people think anyhow, a claim that serves to make Spong more “honest” than his peers because he states openly what they think secretly. We observe Spong’s regular detestation of the institutional church and its dogmas, and his connection of these to the right-wing politics he so obviously despises. (pp. 34-5)

One knows where one stands with Johnson, and it is clear with him that there really ought not to be serious professional dialogue between his approach to biblical studies and that of those who are much more comfortable with the values of the Enlightenment.

Compare the honesty and astuteness of another conservative [See comment 8 below] historical Jesus scholar, Dale C. Allison. Here is what Dale Allison writes on page 60 of Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (again my emphasis):

Jesus turns out to have been a proponent of an apocalyptic eschatology. This result is of course contained in the methodological premise, according to which Jesus was an eschatological prophet. But in this regard history is not different from hermeneutics: circularity we will always have with us.

Allison calls in Hahn as a supporting witness:

Compare Hahn, “Methodologische Überlegungen,” pp. 37-38, who observes the problem of interpreting the individual pieces of the Jesus tradition without first having a total picture of Jesus and the problem of having a total picture of Jesus without first interpreting the individual pieces. His method is similar to my own in that he enters the circle from generalizations about Jesus and the Jesus tradition.

So here we have two highly respected contemporary biblical scholars asserting

  1. the necessity of going “beyond the ken of strict historical method”
  2. and the admission that their historical studies of the historical Jesus are circular.

This circularity at the heart of historical Jesus studies is something I have attempted to point out in numerous posts. James McGrath is one theologian who insists on presenting himself as a “historian” despite his repeatedly demonstrated ignorance of the basics of historiography outside his narrow enclave of New Testament studies, and who doggedly refuses to acknowledge what Dale Allison can acknowledge.

The circularity lies in the fact that the Christian narrative of Jesus is sourced entirely from Christian documents. As a result scholars are forced to declare that they know the gospel story is grounded to some extent in historical truth because those events really happened and the authors are wanting to tell us about them; yet they know those events really happened (at least to some extent) because we read about them in the gospels! There is only one way to break this circularity, and that is to find some evidence external to the Christian sources that will give us some confidence that the narratives have a historical foundation. (I am not arguing that the circularity disproves the historicity of the gospel narratives: to decide that either way calls in other evidence that I have discussed in other posts.)

However much I disagree with the ideological viewpoints of Johnson and Allison, here I can respect their intellectual integrity in being upfront with their biases and acknowledging that what they are doing is either not within “the ken of strict historical method”, or circular.

Atheist turns conservative historical Jesus scholar

There’s another new book on the historical Jesus written by an erstwhile atheist who converted to Christianity, Craig S. Keener.

Keener has written a massive tome (a reasonable length book, actually, if one stops at the appendices and footnotes), The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. I have not yet read Keener’s book thoroughly (only sections here and there as I follow sections of interest from his table of contents) but it appears he does not attempt to argue in any sort of length a case for the historicity of Jesus anywhere.

I have no problem with this. It is the way most historical Jesus scholars work. Most nowhere seriously attempt to ‘prove’ Jesus existence. Rather, they begin with the assumption of his existence and seek to find ways to establish what he did or said or even thought. (A few will make passing reference to Tacitus and a passage, maybe two, in Josephus. Fewer might even reference Suetonius and Pliny the Younger. But the level of discussion about these purported external controls is invariably superficial, even cliched. There are rarely any attempts to grapple seriously with the extensive and/or brief but trenchant criticisms of these cliched mantras that have been published by more critical scholars, including authors who do not even belong to the biblical studies’ guild.)

But Keener, perhaps because he is a relative latecomer to Christianity after having been an atheist, lays bare the assumptions behind most biblical scholars who do study the historical Jesus. They don’t need to find historical evidence for the existence of Jesus because they already know he existed — because he exists now, according to their faith.

When I later encountered the risen Christ in an unsolicited and unexpected personal experience, hence came to the conviction that he (not to mention the God with whom he was associated) was in fact alive, I understood that the reality of Jesus rises or falls not on how successfully his professed followers have followed his teaching, but on Jesus himself.

Such an encounter will naturally be dismissed as purely subjective by those disinclined to accept it, and admittedly, I did not have a physical “resurrection appearance.” I offer this information as an explanation by way of full disclosure, not as an argument, since it functions outside the epistemological criteria used in normal academic historical Jesus work. (p. 385)

How refreshing to read this in a scholarly work on the historical Jesus!

I imagine that if Keener were to address an argument for a “mythical” origin of Jesus he would follow the line Johnson used in his critique of Robert M. Price’s chapter, Jesus at the Vanishing Point, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. I don’t know if Johnson would concede the circularity at the heart of his method that Allison appears to recognize. If he does, I imagine he would argue that his model (the essentially literal truth of the basic gospel narrative, including literal resurrection appearances) is the only adequate explanation for Christianity.

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57 thoughts on “Respecting the Honesty of Conservative Historical Jesus Scholarship”

  1. I have read neither the Johnson nor the Allison books. Nevertheless, I fear you’ve taken them out of context if you’re asserting that they think that their faith is based on circular reasoning while unbelief in Jesus is not. If indeed they have thrown in this towel, I pity them. Rather, I tend to think they’ve merely acknowledged that the academic discipline of history is not going to settle the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, nor is it even going to take a stand on that issue. I would not expect it to.

    Why would I not expect it to? Because Jesus is the most polarizing figure in human history. Each one of us has something to gain and lose in the acknowledgement or not of His resurrection. The notion that those who believe in Him commit a logical fallacy in doing so while those who don’t stand on objective ground is profoundly silly.

    As for the historicity of Jesus, http://bit.ly/ehALgO.

    1. It is perhaps instructive that when an atheist writes something complimentary about conservative biblical scholars that a conservative Christian should find room to raise an objection.

      I made no comment whatever about faith being based on circular reasoning while unbelief is not and no such issue or question entered my mind and nowhere appears even by innuendo in my post. To raise this indicates you have failed to read my post as it is and are looking desperately to find fault somewhere. How can an atheist possibly say anything positive about conservative scholars? There must be a catch?

      There is no reason to pity them over any of the positives I have singled out. Why? They are all men of strong faith and have no doubt thought through their scholarly positions in respect to this.

      If there is any innuendo in my post it is this: that a number of scholars who would probably prefer to describe themselves as liberal Christian scholars lack the perspicacity or integrity to recognize and admit what some of those on both the left and the right of them can see all too clearly.

      1. I didn’t say that it was. I objected to the notion that faith is based on circular reasoning while unbelief in Jesus is not – a notion I often hear from atheists.

        I think it’s possible for a believer or unbeliever to engage in circular reasoning to reach their respective conclusions. I also believe it’s possible for either of them to reach their respective conclusions without it.

        True faith is not something separate from reason; it is based on reason.

        1. I think you have to define “unbelief in Jesus”. The topic of this blog post is whether Jesus existed or not. It’s not about faith in the Christian story. While there’s overlap, they are not the same thing.

          As your statements read now, it seems you’re trying to contrast some very general Christian theism with atheism. This is not about the validity of Christian theology, it’s about the validity of secular Jesus studies.

          Nowhere in the original blog post was there any mention that “faith” is based on circular reasoning.

          1. J. Quinton,

            Your comment has me stumped. You say the post is not about faith in the Christian story. That is exactly what it’s about.(“And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.”)

            You say the post is about the validity of secular Jesus studies, yet there are no secular Jesus studies mentioned (at least all the names I recognize are either conservative or liberal Christian scholars).

            And while it’s true that there was no explicit mention that faith is based on circular reasoning, what else was I to infer that Neil was characterizing when he writes “there really ought not to be serious professional dialogue between his approach to biblical studies and that of those who are much more comfortable with the values of the Enlightenment,” and “The circularity lies in the fact that the Christian narrative of Jesus is sourced entirely from Christian documents”?

            Conservative biblical scholar is synonymous with believing biblical scholar in most contexts. Are they not considered synonymous on this blog?

            Indeed various responses have gone various directions in the comments on this post, mine included. My original response to the post was to call into question what appeared to be the main point of the post: that conservative Bible scholars who admit to engaging in circular reasoning are to be praised for their honesty. Implicit in that point is the assertion that anone who believes the Bible is commiting a logical fallacy. Thus the commendation for honesty was patronizing at best and disingenous at worst.

            If I was wrong about the point and its implication, please correct me as I do not want to be laboring under a misunderstanding.

            1. I guess you’ll have to read the many other posts that Neil has made on this topic (i.e. secular Jesus studies). I don’t believe that he’s equating conservative biblical scholars with believing biblical scholars; there are quite a few liberal biblical scholars that fall under his crosshairs as well :). What I believe he’s pointing out in this particular post is that these conservative biblical scholars are up front about their assumptions regarding Jesus.

              As it stands, there are many non-Christians who accept the historicity of Jesus the Nazarene. This is why I think you should clarify what you mean by “unbelief in Jesus”. Jews believe that Jesus existed, but that he was either deluded or a sharlatan. This doesn’t mean that all Jews are Christians just because they accept that Nazarene’s historicity.

              1. Yes, I recognize and appreciate the difference between the historicity of Jesus as a person on the one hand and the historicity of His resurrection on the other (His resurrection being a proxy for the totality of His story) – and that there is more agreement among people today about HIs existence than about His resurrection.

                To answer your question, I used “unbelief in Jesus” in my original comment above with regard to the totality of His story because a conservative biblical scholar, by definition, believes in this.

                “What I believe he’s pointing out in this particular post is that these conservative biblical scholars are up front about their assumptions regarding Jesus.”

                Yes, that’s what I thought he was saying and my response was to object, and later to point out that this is praise more damning than faint praise.

              2. I still don’t see it as damnation, either faint or fierce. Now when Biblical scholars dress up as historians and pretend that they’re following the historical method — that’s worth damning.

                Look, it’s OK to admit to the need for a leap of faith. Isn’t that what most forms of Christianity teach? Reason can only get you so far, then you must take the intuitive jump across the chasm and believe.

              3. “Now when Biblical scholars dress up as historians and pretend that they’re following the historical method — that’s worth damning.”

                I don’t doubt that some do this (Crossan being a notable example). However, if your point is to say that anyone who seeks to understand or explain Jesus according to the historical method is a pretender, then I’ll tell you what I told Neil: you’re just being silly.

                As for your point about faith, apart of the somewhat pejorative and misleading word “leap” – I say “step” and then let people argue over whether it’s a big, small, or medium sized step – I readily accept your definition. For indeed, faith is a step beyond reason (whether you’re placing it in God, a spouse, or a friend). You need reason, however, to get to the step. By contrast, I find Neil’s definition wanting (“Faith by its very nature is surely something that stands apart from evidence and reason in large measure”) precisely because he sees it disconnected from reason. Reason led me to a choice, and the choice was between trusting or not trusting. Thus the choice rests on a foundation of reason. Remove the reason and the faith goes with it. You can have reason without faith, but you can’t have genuine faith without reason.

              4. “Leap” is in no way pejorative. At some point in the process you have to “let go.” Without any visible means of support, you make the choice. You trust in God. You don’t say, “I’m 73% reasonably sure,” you say: “I believe. I know in my heart this is true.”

                Mike G: You can have reason without faith, but you can’t have genuine faith without reason.

                I reject that on behalf of all the genuine Christians down through the centuries who believed because of a personal, ineffable, non-rational (but valid for them) encounter with Jesus. I reject it on behalf of the good Christians who believe but lack the mental ability to comprehend even the most rudimentary rational argument.

                Aquinas said, “Philosophy is the handmaiden of religion.” It’s faith first and reason second. Rational thought can and should support faith but it’s faith that is the measure of genuineness.

                Hey! Welcome to Vridar! Come and see the atheist defend Christianity!

              5. Tim, you don’t understand faith nearly as well as you think you do. That should not be surprising, however, because people who don’t lay bricks will always be limited in their knowledge of bricklaying – no matter how many books they read about bricklaying.

                I am neither a philospher nor a religionist so it doesn’t matter to me what Aquinas said about those things. Nor do I profess to be a Christian, nor have I had a non-rational encounter with Jesus. I am a human being who has read the Bible and been persuaded by the logic of its writers to embrace its protagonist. You can bark at that moon as long as you like, but it won’t change reality.

              6. Your avatar says, “Repent, and follow Jesus Christ our Lord!” You capitalize pronouns that refer to Jesus. And yet you write, “Nor do I profess to be a Christian.”

                Well, now, aren’t you the enigma?

            2. Mike, your suggestion that in my post I was somehow criticizing or even addressing the question of faith being supposedly based on circular reasoning is a major misreading of what I did write.

              I was, as others have attempted to point out, addressing the fact that one very prominent biblical scholar can acknowledge that his field’s historical methods have a built in circularity. Whatever his faith has to do with this is completely beside the point and of no interest to me. I did not address his faith at all, and my post casts no aspersions on his faith. All I am addressing — the only point of my post — was to point out that at least one biblical scholar who is highly esteemed by his Christian scholarly colleagues (maybe he is not as conservative as I initially assumed) has the wit and honesty to acknowledge the circularity at the heart of Historical Jesus studies.

              That there is this circularity is a matter of simple observation and logic. You were upset last time I quoted Albert Schweitzer likewise indicating the same. I have quoted other past and present biblical scholars saying the same, too. I singled out Allison’s remark because it was one I recently read and comes from a contemporary scholar who is very highly regarded by mainstream Christian scholarly peers.

              I was prompted to catch up with more of Allison’s works after James McGrath praised his new book highly, yet made some very damning comments about the logic of his arguments. McGrath did not see his comments as damning at all, and I refused to comment until I had read Allison myself in case McGrath had conveyed a misleading impression. McGrath is one theologian who seems incapable of understanding even the logic of circularity (I have pointed out the circularity of his own comments often enough in the past and he never responds when I do, yet continues to repeat this embarrassing logical fallacy in so many of his posts and comments. I really suspect it’s a blindspot with him and he doesn’t know how to examine his own comments with a critical awareness of this logical fallacy.) So I found it interesting to see that Allison (whose scholarly work McGrath praises) does himself acknowledge circularity.

              I find it particularly ironic that McGrath even insists that nonbiblical historians like Hobsbawm are just like biblical scholars because they acknowledge problems of ascertaining historicity behind narratives, yet fails completely to address the very reason Hobsbawm entered the discussion at all — that he points to the need for external controls to break this circularity. Allison and Schweitzer and a few others do seem to see this logical fallacy at the heart of historical Jesus studies.

              I have no doubt Allison believes he can justify his historical conclusions on other grounds, and I think I mentioned some such possibilities in my post.

              My post is not about the basis of faith at all, circular or otherwise. I am not even making any implications about anyone’s faith. I am addressing nothing other than various levels of understanding or acknowledging a fallacy at the heart of historical methods used for the study of the historical Jesus.

              As for “secular Jesus scholars”, there are quite a number of Jesus scholars who are also atheists or agnostics, certainly not Christian, yet who are part of the biblical studies guild. I have addressed such scholars other times, too, and am not overlooking them. I suppose I focused on the religious affiliations in this case because there is a certain irony in that a few scholars who do have a faith commitment associated with the topic they are researching can share the same critiques many other biblical scholars seem to associate with secular ‘radicals’ — and in McGrath’s case he seems to associate this criticism with me in particular whom he seems to think for some obscure reason is generic enough to brand a “mythicist” view.

              Let him argue the point with Allison instead. Does he dismiss this observation of Allison’s as originating in ignorance of how biblical scholars work?

              1. Neil, I am still relatively new to your site and trying to understand where you are coming from. It’s not easy because you say seemingly contradictory things and you make distinctions where there’s no obvious difference. For example, you say you are making no criticism of Johnson and yet you commend him for confessing to his fallacious logic. You say you have no criticism of anyone’s faith and yet you label anyone who has faith as engaging in logical fallacy (what other mindset could the circular-reasoning conservative Christian HJ-studying person be operating in?). You then absolve yourself by saying that circularity of reasoning in and of itself doesn’t disprove the historicity of the essential facts of Christian faith. In spite of your protests, it is clear that your post seeks to undermine the case for Christ by stripping its opponents of the weapon of logic (reason).

                Nonetheless, I want to assure you that I do not come to your site looking for opportunities to fight this mother of all battles. Rather my purpose in any comment or question will be much more narrow. I’ll be seeking either common understanding on a specific point (I’m sure there are many things on which we could agree) or at least to sharpen our respective understandings where we do have some point of disagreement. I have no desire to be a gadfly to your site. And I won’t continue to press a point when it seems we have merely come to loggerheads. My only concern at this point is that you seem to throw up your hands in despair at the slightest challenge to anything you’ve written. (You should come to my web sites where challenge is my daily meal plan.)

              2. For example, you say you are making no criticism of Johnson and yet you commend him for confessing to his fallacious logic.

                Please read what I wrote. I did not in any way at all commend Johnson for “confessing to his fallacious logic:” I commended him for acknowledging that it is impossible to use historical tools “strictly” to explain the traditional model of the origins of Christianity. I commended him for acknowledging and avoiding this fallacy. I commended him for his insight and honesty and avoidance of a logical fallacy.

                You say you have no criticism of anyone’s faith and yet you label anyone who has faith as engaging in logical fallacy (what other mindset could the circular-reasoning conservative Christian HJ-studying person be operating in?).

                I nowhere said — I don’t believe I have ever said at any time — that anyone’s faith is an engagement in “logical fallacy”. Such a charge makes no sense to me. If we used logic and reason to believe a proposition I don’t believe that is faith. That is not my definition of faith. If it’s yours, that’s fine, but if we are to communicate then I need to inform you what the word means to me when I use it.

                As for the “circular-reasoning” person you say I am referring to, do read where I quote Allison as saying that this is the nature of all historical Jesus studies among scholars. It makes no difference if they are Christian, atheist or Muslim. The circularity is at the heart of the way historical Jesus studies is conducted — at the heart of its assumptions and underlying the questions it asks. Surely it is hyper-sensitivity to interpret my words as implying those who hold the Christian faith are somehow to be blamed for circular logic. I don’t believe that at all for a minute. It is not what I understand by faith. It is not what I said or remotely implied.

                You then absolve yourself by saying that circularity of reasoning in and of itself doesn’t disprove the historicity of the essential facts of Christian faith.

                That’s not absolving myself of anything. I am making what should be a logically obvious statement: that by showing that the arguments at the heart of claiming Jesus to be historical are circular, I am not at the same time arguing that that means I think the gospel narratives or Jesus are fictitious. Just because X has an invalid method of arguig for Y does not mean that Y is not true. There might be other arguments that can support or deny the existence of Y. By tossing in this caveat I am trying to cover myself from the charge that I am somehow claiming that the logical fallacy of the historicists is evidence in support of mythicism. It isn’t.

              3. It has become obvious to me that you and I define faith quite differently and that this explains why distinctions that are obvious to you are not so to me.

                I will have to ponder this for a while to see if there is a better way we can communicate given this fundamentally different definition of a word.

              4. I use the word “faith” as understood and explained in various English language dictionaries, etc. See, for example: Definitions of faith;
                Wikipedia’s article on fath; Dictionary.com; Merriam-Webster. The Skeptic’s Dictionary begins with this same common language definition.

                What you describe draws on reasoning and logical argument, and that is not faith according to common English language usage, but “inference”. See Definitions of inference; Wikipedia article on inference; Dictionary.com definition; Merriam-Webster’s definition of inference.

                One problem with believing the Bible is that one is forced to redefine words in a way that they cease to mean what their common everyday sense tells us they mean. Someone has called the process logicide.

              5. I, too, use the word “faith” as understood and explained in various English language dictionaries, etc. (save The Skeptics Dictionary which has, as one would expect, a self-serving definition at odds with all the rest).

                Your attempt to divorce faith from all association with reason is arbitrary, artificial, and contrary to the way all people live. I trust people all the time, as do you, and we do so to varying degrees for varying reasons. I trust my wife, my doctor, the weatherman, the gas gauge in my car, the other drivers to stay in their respective lanes, and much more. I don’t always place the same amount of faith in each of these, and I don’t place faith for the same things in each of these, nor do I place faith for the same reasons. I trust my wife for things I wouldn’t trust my doctor for and vice versa. It’s my reason that informs my decision and when and how and in whom to place faith.

                Your concluding paragraph is so at odds with my own reading of the Bible, that I hardly know what to say. I can’t imagine reading the Bible without using my common everyday sense. Why anyone would read it any other way is beyond me – yet I know that some people do. That’s particularly ironic given the high content of logic, reason, and common sense that are found in the Bible. The first of its books that attracted me was Ecclesiastes for the very reason that it spoke accurately and practically of so much of the human experience.

                I read your post on logicide and felt sympathy for the pain associated with your fundamentalist background that you described. One of the reasons I don’t call myself a Christian and don’t seek association with Christians is precisely because such labels create unhealthy divisions between people. I am a human being and the only group with whom I want to feel a sense of solidarity is the human race.

              6. Being upfront and using “Christian” the way everyone else thinks of it would have established some measure of trust with your audience here. Your deceit for PR purposes is noted. Ditto your self-serving word-games with “faith”.

              7. Thesis:

                Mike Gantt — It’s my reason that informs my decision and when and how and in whom to place faith.


                John 20:29 — Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

                1 Cor. 3:19a — For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.


                You can rely on evidence and reason all you like, but the NT says “you’re doing it wrong.”

              8. “Being upfront and using “Christian” the way everyone else thinks of it would have established some measure of trust with your audience here. Your deceit for PR purposes is noted. Ditto your self-serving word-games with ‘faith’.”

                Neil, your accusations are unjust and your bile unwarranted. I thought you aspired to the demeanor of a scholar.

                As to being upfront, my gravatar (and it is certainly a revealing one, including links to all my blogs) has appeared with every one of my comments here. I do not post anonymously or under a false name. As to my not professing to be a Christian or seeking affiliation with them, my blogs are ample corroboration of this point. As to using misusing the word Christian, I can assure you that given my rejection of church, rejection of the Trinity, insistence that the Second Coming has been fulfilled, and that everyone is going to heaven, that many Christians would be quick to say that I am not one of them. But even if they weren’t, I would still not seek that label because it divides humanity and it does not honor Jesus Christ. As to the definition of faith, I am being straightforward and honest. Just because I don’t agree with you does not mean I am playing word games. On the contrary, you seem to have accepted The Skeptics’ Dictionary definition to the disregard of more mainstream dictionaries. Even so, I have assumed you have been arguing in good faith and not “playing word games” with me.

                I hope you will regret speaking so judgmentally, especially since the facts don’t support the judgment.

              9. You know very well I use the term faith according to the standard definitions and as found in the sources I cited and that I have shown how you are confusing your idiosyncratic meaning with “inference”. (The Skeptics Dictionary is a commentary and discussion that merely elaborates on those same standard dictionary definitions.) I do not appreciate people coming here to seek to find opportunities to open up discussions that enable them to make pitches for their evangelistic agendas. I consider it a form of trolling. I do not go to Christian sites to find ways to subtly draw people into my agenda.

                I have been a Christian like you and part of our modus operandi was, like yours, to manipulate word meanings. We were religious but kidded ourselves that because we were supposedly so unlike the other religions we could fairly and “honestly” tell others (even ourselves) we were “not religious”. It was a lie and we were lying to ourselves as much as to outsiders. We used all the same PR exercises in deceit as I see in not only some Christians but in other groups such as Hare Krishna too.

              10. “You can rely on evidence and reason all you like, but the NT says ‘you’re doing it wrong’.”

                Tim, you are not that far from genuine faith!

                You have misread Jesus’ rebuke of Thomas. Jesus was chiding him precisely because he had reason to believe (the testimony of his colleagues who had means to know the truth and no reason to lie) and yet he didn’t believe them. In other words, for Thomas reason and logic were insufficient – he wanted a personal sensory experience.

                Thus Jesus did not admonish Thomas for leaning on reason, rather He admonished him for not leaning on it.

              11. Neil, I like you and you mean well but you are blind to your own agenda and word manipulations. Only the Skeptics Dictionary of all the sources you quoted says “Faith is non-rational belief.” Every fair-minded person, as well as every mainstream dictionary, knows that faith can be rational or non-rational. Yet you categorize anyone who believes as non-rational.

                As for agendas, everyone – including you – has one. Among other items on your agenda is the practice of demonizing people who disagree with you (“I consider it a form of trolling”). Given your intolerance for dissent or challenge, you should make this a member-only site so that it can be the true echo chamber you desire and others won’t waste their time thinking that the host is open-minded and willing to defend and explain his views.

                Neil, can’t you see that you are perpetuating the very practices you condemn from your past fundamentalist group? “Members” reinforce each other’s opinions while condemning outsiders as having evil motives. It’s confirmation of the axiom that when we don’t forgive the sins of others, we condemn ourselves to repeating them in different forms.

                I wish I didn’t have to speak so harshly to you, Neil, for your writing is interesting and I still feel I can learn things from you. But I will not confess to wrongs I have not committed and I maintain hope that your better virtues will ultimately cause you to realize that your attacks on me have been unfair. I say this not in defense of myself but in defense of the truth. Jesus is the truth.

              12. You obviously missed the dictionary definitions I linked to and the wikipedia discussion:

                http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”

                http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith: “belief that is not based on proof”

                http://www.thefreedictionary.com/faith: “Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.”

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith: “There exists a wide spectrum of opinion with respect to the epistemological validity of faith. On one extreme is logical positivism, which denies the validity of any beliefs held by faith; on the other extreme is fideism, which holds that true belief can only arise from faith, because reason and evidence cannot lead to truth. Some foundationalists, such as St. Augustine of Hippo and Alvin Plantinga, hold that all of our beliefs rest ultimately on beliefs accepted by faith. Others, such as C.S. Lewis, hold that faith is merely the virtue by which we hold to our reasoned ideas, despite moods to the contrary.” — So C.S. Lewis is in your favour — can you point to anyone else?

                “Fideism is not a synonym for “religious belief”, but describes a particular philosophical proposition in regard to the relationship between faith’s appropriate jurisdiction at arriving at truths, contrasted against reasons. It states that faith is needed to determine some philosophical and religious truths, and it questions the ability of reason to arrive at all truth”

                This is not a members-only site, and your accusation that I am intolerant of dissent or challenge is over the top and shows you have read very few comments here. But yes, I do have little tolerance for people who come here seeking to use it as a platform for religious evangelism. Some are deleted on the first comment. Others, like you, are more sly and sneak in by means of deception and then play the victim card — and what a terrible intolerant beast I am — when found out.

                I make it clear I do not attack others for their religious beliefs and I do not seek to undermine anyone’s faith by going to their websites or blogs and making contact to start discussions under the sorts of pretences people like you use. I do expect the same courtesy and civility in exchange.

                I see no difference from what you are doing here and someone coming to my door and attempting the same conversation face to face.

                I am trying to close the door. Please remove your foot.

              13. Neil, I continue to be puzzled by your hostility toward me. I bear you no ill will. I have no more or less of an agenda than you or anyone else on this site. Moreover, I’ve have been more straightforward about my foundational views than you have about yours (I’ve asked you several innocent questions which you have not answered.)

                You reject the notion that you want a members-only site but then inadvertently reveal your desire for it when you use a metaphor of a “foot in the door” as if this were your private residence.

                You have the ability to reject and delete this comment from me. You also have the ability to delete every comment I have made on your site. If that’s what you want to do, then do it. But don’t do so kidding yourself that you tolerate dissent or challenge.

                I am not trying to prolong this particular thread. I think we are both done with it. The issues between us, I think, have been exaggerated by our protracted exchange. I say let’s forget about the past, wipe the slate clean, and go forward in good will and see our future exchanges can be more productive. I do not intend to comment or question often. I certainly don’t intend to be a fly in your ointment. You write interesting things and I might like to interact with them from time to time.

                Both of us are evangelists of a sort (which is why we write blogs). That is not what distinguishes us. Rather, what distinguishes us, at least currently, is what we each consider to be good news.

  2. I am not a conservative Christian. Nor did I read your post “looking desperately to find fault somewhere.”

    I read you to be reporting that these authors were acknowledging the circularity of their reasoning (a logical fallacy) regarding Jesus, and that in believing Jesus they were on turf not mapped by normal historical inquiry. Did I misread you?

    1. Their faith in Jesus is not of interest to me. I have no quarrel or comment to make about their faith; I have never had any interest in what they base their faith on.* I am not interested in arguing with people’s faith. Faith by its very nature is surely something that stands apart from evidence and reason in large measure, and I have no problem with that. If you want to find a site attacking Christianity or people’s faith then this is not it.

      My only interest is in their understanding of historical methodology.

      It sounds like you are worried that a human method of reasoning does not support a faith stance. I am not the least interested in discussing or debating such an issue at any sort of personal level.

      I have discussed the influence of the Bible on anti-intellectualism today, since my interest is more “academic” than personal. But that theme has nothing to do with my post here.

      Your response really does surprise me. I had thought while writing my post that a Christian somewhere might take me to task for conceding that the “literal biblical explanation” does “explain” the origin of Christianity.

      * I’m not meaning to imply such a discussion never has a valid place. In years past I have discussed those matters from both sides often enough (maybe enough to last me a lifetime hence my interest in other priorities now.)

  3. Keener starts Section 1 of The Historical Jesus of the Gospels with two quotes — one from Schweitzer, the other from Crossan. Dom’s is worth remembering:

    Even under the discipline of attempting to envision Jesus against his own most proper Jewish background, it seems we can have as many pictures as there are exegetes… [Their] stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.

          1. The irony is Crossan’s indictment in a book wherein he invents his own Jesus.

            Actually, I think the point is he would keep the parts of the Declaration that he liked and discard the parts he didn’t. (Maybe not, since it isn’t an anonymous document with no external corroborating evidence.) But selective readings are nothing new. I know of very few Christians who make women wear veils in church or believe that charging interest on loans is a sin.

            1. The New Testament is not a document but rather a collection of largely disparate documents that separately corroborate the same essential set of truths. Neither is this collection anonymous, though individual authorship of some of its documents is more easily known than others. Its authors weren’t seeking copyrights or a Pulitzer prize, and it was someone else’s name they sought to give prominence.

              And, by the way, just because someone charges interest or goes without a veil doesn’t necessarily imply selective reading. Paul himself said that Christ had rendered spiritual the law of Moses (circumcision being a notable example of a fleshly practice that was to be forsaken in favor of spirtual application). As for the veils in church, that was obviated as an issue when the kingdom of God came in the late 1st Century and replaced the church as God’s vehicle for redemption.

              And, yes, perhaps Crossan would have kept parts of the Declaration that he liked, but it’s not likely that would include any of those parts that put the lives, fortunes, and sacred honor of the signers at risk.

              1. He eviscerates Jesus of His majesty – those things that would cause the world to give Him the attention He deserves. Why? I do not know, but he is certainly not alone in this regard.

  4. “It is the way most historical Jesus scholars work. Most nowhere seriously attempt to ‘prove’ Jesus existence.” That is the way most historians work, I have never read a book by a historian that prefaced it with an argument for their subjects existence. Unless their is notable doubt in the academic community, there really isn’t a need for it. Regarding Jesus, a historian would be justified in saying no notable doubt exist, a couple of nay sayers does not constitute notable. I personally think the idea has gained enough traction to be addressed, but older guys may not keep up with the internet, so that any sizable group doubts historicity would escape them.

    1. I do concede that I am not really up with grasping all the implications of the word in North America and perhaps in the wider Christian community, and that when I use the word it is to indicate my own values. And I did toss in Allison here into this post as an afterthought.

      If he is not a “conservative” as this word is commonly understood then I do stand corrected.

  5. Neil, you seem to think anyone who disagrees with you about anything is a conservative Christian. You seem to not know what the term means. If you think Johnson is a conservative, you’ve never met a conservative.

    Johnson thinks that the historicity of supernatural events can not be proven historically, but why is that significant to the question of whether Jesus existed? One has very little to do with the other.

    1. I find it curious that you charge me with labelling as “conservative Christians” “anyone” who disagrees with me when those I did call conservative Christians I discussed because I AGREED WITH THEM!

      Would you like to be constructive and clarify for me then what “conservative Christian” means to North Americans? I might find it a useful contribution when I come to address various strands of Christian beliefs in future posts. Johnson believes in a fairly literal version of the resurrection, so if that is not “conservative” by today’s scholarly standards. . . . — perhaps you can enlighten me. Try to be constructive.

      What is your (and your alter ego’s) hang up about every post of mine having to be about the question of whether Jesus existed or not? I only occasionally actually address that topic in my posts.

      I have said repeatedly that the circularity at the heart of HJ studies is NOT proof or even evidence for non-historicity. So why do you continue to misrepresent my posts?

  6. From the Teaching Company’s web listing:

    Luke Timothy Johnson
    Ph.D., Yale University

    Emory University

    Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

    A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle’s Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award.

    Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

    Are the Benedictines conservative? I leave that to others to decide.

  7. I have been chastened enough to correct my original post where I described Dale Allison as a “conservative”. He is clearly not, and I can only plead as an excuse for this crash that I fell asleep at the wheel while typing when driving. He is what I would probably think of as a liberal Christian.

    But as for the reaction of some to the word “conservative” I am picking up the vibe that some people find the word offensive. This suggests to me that I do not use the word in the same sense as others. I see nothing any more offensive (or commendatory) in the term than I find in the word “liberal” when applied to a Christian. But then again I gather in America “liberal” is also a much more value laden word (meaning very bad or very good) than it is to me.

    I’d appreciate someone informing me of what the word “conservative” means when applied to Christians in America.

      1. I take it you mean a Grand Ayatollah such as Sistani who teaches that women are obligated to vote in democratic elections even if it means disobeying their husbands, who instructs Muslims to turn the other cheek even when enemies attack them, who teaches his followers to give their full support for a fair democratically elected government, that Jews and Christians are effectively ritually pure, and that it is okay for a man to masturbate so long as his wife gives him a helping hand.

        Grand Ayatollah Sistani

        1. Yep, conservative Christian American postions one and all. Of course ours don’t have the same power as Sistani over our goverment, but if they did they would probably have the same bent toward global mayhem and social injustice.

    1. One way of defining a “conservative Christian in America” is to say it’s a person who has conviction in the Apostles’ Creed. In other words, they tend to embrace what have traditionally been considered the essentials of Christianity (beginning with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but also including the Virgin Birth, the veracity of the Bible, etc.). A liberal Christian, by contrast, is someone who lacks conviction on one or more of these essential elements, while not fully relinquishing a grip on all of them. Yes, there is some disagreement about which tenets are essential but I have mentioned the ones that are usually at the top of everyone’s list.

      Both terms (liberal Christian and conservative Christian) can be considered either objective characterizations or epithets depending on who is using them and in what context. Therefore, when you label someone as such it could cause offense, or it could be regarded as a badge of honor, or it could pass without generating any greater reaction than a nod of the head.

      (I welcome others to confirm, correct, paraphrase, or elaborate on what I have written here so as to give Neil the clarity he seeks. It’s obvious to me that he’s asking the question in good faith and that the question is quite independent of any disagreement you may have with him.)

      I was not offended when you labeled me a conservative Christian. I was merely pointing out that you were wrong. You have done this sort of thing several times (i.e. spoke as though you knew where I was coming from but obviously didn’t). I presume this means you are bringing baggage to our interactions that are left over from your prior interactions with other people – but that’s just a guess. What I know for sure is that your answers often deal with issues that don’t apply to me and to questions I have not raised.

      I enjoy reading what you write. And I appreciate the opportunity to make comments and ask questions. I just wish my doing so didn’t cause you so much angst.

      1. Thanks for this as a start, but it does not explain for me why the term conservative should be seen as a term of opprobrium to many.

        What is the difference, if any, between a conservative and a fundamentalist as the terms are commony understood?

        1. The opprobrium comes mainly when the context is political discussion. In politics, mainstream media in America usually put conservative Christians, Sarah Palin, rednecks, and the Tea Party in the same bucket. Thus, to be considered a conservative Christian is to be considered backward, non-rational, bigoted, etc. In a purely religious context, liberal Christians generally consider conservative Christians negatively and vice versa – but without the same degree of derision as in the political context.

          As for the difference between conservative and fundmentalist, I will leave it to others to parse. My own sense is that even more confusion here. Many, if not most, people use the terms synonymously. Where distinctions are made they are usually over very fine points. In those cases, fundamentalist is even more pejorative than conservative Christian. Fundamentalist had a specific meaning in the early 20th Century but I think that has largely been lost except among some academics.

          Sorry I can’t be more precise with all this. I’m sure others could do a better job. (I just went ahead and answered because you were looking for some help and no one else had yet come forward. Maybe I’ve now said enough to prime the pump for some better answers.)

          1. Well if that is how the term “conservative Christian” is viewed in the U.S. my use of the word was clearly not going to communicate my understanding to American readers.

            I am aware that the word “liberal” has a very different connotation in the U.S. politlcal scene from what it conveys in Australia, but I was not aware that “conservative” as applied to “Christian” carried any negative overtones at all. In my mind I see conservative and liberal Christians as both respectable descriptors that do nothing more than indicate variations of intellectual beliefs and certain social values. It is “fundamentalism” that is the bad word.

            1. I just stick to two categories: realists and fantasists. Realists in my definition are those who approach reality without endulding in any fantastic beliefs and support a pure scientific worldview. Fantasists are those who indulge in fantastic beliefs or who think these fantastic beliefs just might be true (theists, agnostics, conspiracy theorists, believers in the paranormal, Yeti, lake monsters, alien visitation, etc..). It’s really a continuum, but most people tend to be close to one of the two extremes, which makes this distinction helpful in my mind. I really don’t care if somebody is labeled a conservative or liberal christian. They are both fantasists from my perspective.

    2. I just picked up Constructing Jesus at the library and I noticed that the endorsements on the back cover include James Dunn, Craig Evans, and Larry Hurtado. That would be enough to make me guess that Allison’s thinking was on the conservative side.

  8. I, like you guys, could go on forever about the implied difference in these terms. Of course, we do well to realize the semantic baggage that accompany a term has more to do with the one using the term in that moment than with the term itself. Neil, maybe a quick post on Wittgenstein and his theory of “language games” would serve well as a disclaimer to many of your posts…then your more conservative (by MY estimation) readers maybe wouldn’t find offense in your usage of these terms. As it happens, I see nothing wrong (inaccurate) about most of the terms/descriptors you use.

    One other thing to point out…while Mr. Gantt is right (for once) about the usage of “conservative” used in religious context being related to and informed by its use in political context, we can draw one further distinction: the spectrum of scholarship. Luke Timothy Johnson is a perfect example. He is not a conservative Christian (rather he is quite liberal in his theology), but he should definitely be called a conservative HJ scholar. James Dunn should be understood in the same way, as well as N.T. Wright, and many others. In my opinion, Allison is not nearly as conservative as these gentlemen when it comes to his scholarship, but the term is not egregiously inaccurate when applied to him. It would be egregiously inaccurate if applied to his personal theology, I’m sure, but that is clearly not what you were trying to convey in the first place.

    And don’t worry about offending American readers, mate. You write an excellent blog, one that most proud conservatives would never read anyway. Those that will sometimes brave the waters are immediately recognizable by what they contribute (or fail to contribute, due to naivete) to the online discussion.

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