Credulity, insecurity and sophistry in the “Did Jesus Exist?” debate

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by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath links to a very straightforward article in The National Post that challenges head-on the inability of some people to even acknowledge the legitimacy of any serious case for the nonhistoricity of Jesus. It is Should Jesus Be Exempt From Historical Scrutiny?

The author, Jackson Doughart, indicates he is not a mythicist, since he writes that he believes there is not enough evidence to definitely determine if Jesus was a real person, and that the nature of the evidence that does exist at least suggests his existence is debatable.

He also points out why comparing the denial of the historicity of Jesus to denying the existence of Hannibal is “an illegitimate and absurd comparison”.

Doughart makes an interesting comparison of the evidence for Jesus with the evidence for Socrates. He notes, as I have also done, that the question of Socrates’ existence is immaterial to the bigger question of the rise of Greek philosophy, while the existence of Jesus is of paramount significance for believers.

A few excerpts

Intellectual cowardice and dishonesty

. . .  discussing the existence or non-existence of all historical figures in empirical terms is an important exercise, with Jesus being no exception. His existence obviously has crucial theological implications for those who consider him to be their saviour, making the issue a sensitive one, but avoiding the issue on this premise amounts to intellectual cowardice and dishonesty.

The slander of the “conspiracy theorist” label

Shea claims that those who question the existence of Jesus are conspiracy theorists. Saying this devalues a term that has become almost entirely meaningless through overuse and also slanders those who attempt to frame a legitimate subject of historical debate into realistic terms. In addition to being petty and reactionary, Mr. Shea’s attitude is dangerous because it discourages historical debate by labeling those who participate as bigots. This is truly unacceptable.


Additionally, Mr. Shea’s mockery reveals not only credulity but also insecurity about the validity of truths that he alleges to be self-evident. Everyone should be able to see through such sophistry. Free inquiry is not zealotry; it is hostile to it. In this case, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is a worthy subject of discussion and should not be curtailed by attempts from some religious commentators to represent it as prejudicial. Rather, the existential claims of all historical figures should be rigorously examined, with Jesus as no exception.


Happily my suspicions that McGrath had deleted comments of mine from his blog proved to be wrong. I would hope that others who have reported to me the same concerns re posts to McGrath’s blog can also be proved wrong or have their complaints publicly addressed. Joel Watts, I am sure, has certainly banned a comment or two of mine from his blog, but that’s only fair I suppose, since I have made it publicly known that I have relegated his comments to my blog as spam, along with making clear my reasons for doing this.

Is McGrath now banning my comments on his blog?

Added since orginally posting: See the comments below where McGrath’s denies that he has deleted my comments

I had asked James McGrath to avoid sweepingly asserting that “mythicists” argue for certain positions that I simply failed to recognize among any mythicist arguments I have read. I asked him to instead name the person whose argument he was addressing, and to quote or reference or link in some way the actual argument of that person. I explained that the arguments McGrath claimed to be addressing sounded more like lampoons or straw men to me rather than genuine positions held by any mythicists I knew.

James McGrath apologized for his failure to present his points in the manner I suggested, explaining that it was difficult to look up citations while blogging on an iPad.

I prematurely posted a response that attempted to explain that even on a blog I have found it not very difficult to quote an argument I wish to address, and to name who is responsible for it, and avoid using it to label an entire group.

I posted that before adding what I should have, so I posted again to explain that I have found it advisable to limit what I actually blog according to the tools I use in order to do justice to a discussion. I suggested, furthermore, that the simple copy and paste mechanism in most devices nonetheless allows for doing justice to an argument one is addressing. As an afterthought I sent another comment advising that I have found using the Notes App in an iPad is also a handy tool for carrying quotations from one page to another page or tab.

I did conclude by expressing some amazement that I found myself in a position of giving such basic lessons to an associate professor.

Perhaps that was his reason for apparently not allowing either of those comments to appear on his blog at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2011/03/two-unconvincing-mythicist-criteria-of.html#comments (Working with academics I have found most of them to be absolutely wonderful people but a few can at the same time be a little ego-touchy.)

Hopefully I am wrong and there is simply some technical hitch. If so, I apologize in advance for even suggesting McGrath would ban comments from me. (I did notice one of those comments on his blog for a couple of seconds before it disappeared but maybe that was just my imagination.)

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Credulity, insecurity and sophistry in the “Did Jesus Exist?” debate”

  1. Neil, on a blog where comments are not moderated, if your comment fails to appear it is obviously not because of something the blog owner has done.

    Blogger has a spam filter, and it regularly identifies comments by you as spam. I am not in a position to say why this automated feature of Blogger’s evaluates your comments in this way. But your insinuation that I am not only out to censor your comments, but have the magical ability to prevent only your comments from appearing without enabling comment moderation, is mind-bogglingly ridiculous. If Blogger had a feature that made this possible, or if I had such magical powers, then DM’s comments would not appear even momentarily.

  2. I am sure, if that is the case, that you will have the good grace to accept the advance apology I added in my post if that were indeed the case.

    I also have some comments misdirected to my spam filter, and I simply redirect them. Your plea for blaming your tools sounds weak given your blaming an iPad for your failure to

    1. avoid tarnishing a whole group (a very small group, let’s say) by one particular argument encountered from one person

    2. accurately present the argument in question or failure to link to it in some way or identify where others can find it, or to simply quote a line or two of it, thus avoiding the risk of a straw man fallacy (admittedly this would imply one is taking the argument seriously)

    3. identify who in fact does argue what is claimed

    4. accurately repeat or summarize what an article does actually say.

  3. Neil,

    I have noticed comments disappearing somewhat more frequently of late from a couple of other blogs I follow that use Blogger in situations where I know that the blogger was sympathetic to the commenter’s position. Perhaps Blogger has tweaked something.

  4. Hello Neil. Do take a deep breath, and keep up the good work. For the record, I’m a regular reader of Vridar but long ago concluded McGrath’s site was not worth checking, being tendentious. Well, there’s no losing when one argues for an agenda (or religion), and no winning when one argues against one. So, I wouldn’t get too stirred up over the accumulating ‘misunderstandings’ and lack of communication between the two of you. We can continue to uncover the facts as we find them, and in so doing uncover that fantasyland gloriously nurturing the enduring historicist agenda.- Rene

  5. Dear Neil,

    I can attest from experience that many in the religion industry delete comments often. I have experienced that not just once but many times with people like James McGraw, Thomas Verenna, Jim West, Harry Hurtado, and a number of those in the religion industry. Now let me be clear, in all cases the deletion of my comment did not come as a result of crazy ranting, but in simple clear posts. The deleting of comments, is very practice in the religion industry. This should come as no surprise. Remember, these are people that study diligently the Christian Church. And it is well known that the Christian church especially in the early days, destroy all the texts of groups who’s views they did not like. These religion industry folks are simply using the lessons they learn from the early church. If you have propaganda to put out, and you can put out your propaganda, and at the same time destroy the messages of any non-consenting voices, you can sometimes win.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  6. Thanks for advice, support, etc, guys. I rarely visit McGrath’s blog myself but was led to it this time through a discussion on Tom Verenna’s blog. I must confess I fell into playing a little game to see how many times I could ask McGrath questions or respond to his claims without him once giving a straight, direct answer. I’ll go with the weight of numbers and agree to charitably accept that McGrath did not delete my comments, but at the same time I can’t help noticing that even his denial here is not a direct, unambiguous denial. Maybe it’s all part and parcel of the training to be a theologian — never write anything that will open you to being pinned down. It reminds me of politician-speak. Maybe there’s something here to explain the love-hate relationships between church and state.

    1. I apologize. I thought the fact that your comments are there speaks for itself. But I will try to be even clearer. I did not delete them. I did not delay them. I released them promptly upon finding that they were caught in the spam filter. They are there.

  7. Dear Neil,

    Let me just followup. And as sometimes is the case, my post is for what I call the “general reader”, not the community regular that knows many of the specific players and the drama that the religion industry blogs have regularly. But, very occasionally a new and “general reader” stops by, and may take note of specific dramatic incidents and events on these comment threads, and my comment is to inform them on the general state of what goes on in communities like this.

    I am a retired computer industry professional who has a general interest in early Christian history, and as such have used computers for well over ten years on chats, forums, blogs, and such talking to a great many people and communities about the subject of Christian history.

    I can tell you that you will find in the religion industry a more than normal emphasis on moderation and control of conversations. I can show anyone that really is interested that people like James McGrath, Tom Verenna, Jim West, Roger Pearce, and many others almost all of which are Christians use various tricks and methods to delete, edit, or in other ways control conversations on their blogs and forums. I can give anyone that really has an interest in the subject ways of testing the things I say, and can demonstrate with historical data that this takes place. I can also explain to them some of the common tricks and methods used, and even explain the psychology behind some of the methods on an individual basis.

    So let’s be clear. Of course some times some new person comes to a thread, and their comments are not posted. This is not what we are talking about. What we are talking about is regularly used tactics by many bloggers in the Christian community, that are used on long time regulars involved in regular existing conversational threads. These tactics are used along with rhetorical ones. Meaning, the most common way of dealing with someone that one disagrees with is to use some standard diversionary rhetorical tactics to moved a thread away from a question on a point that makes one uncomfortable, and this is the far more common method of dealing with questions or points that come up that make the blog owner uncomfortable. I am talking about additional, when those don’t seem to be working, or someone makes a REALLY good point that starts to hit at another persons credibility or feelings of authority, tactics regarding system shenanigans that will not uncommonly be taken as a sort of nuclear option, that can just kind of clean the slate and get everyone moved away from talking about the issue at hand, and on to question of “is there something wrong with the system?”, “wow it seems like all of a sudden random comments are being dropped”, and all the conversation moves toward that issue, and away from the actual religion issue that was being discussed.

    This tactic is used often and regularly by folks in the religion industry like James McGrath, Tom Verenna, Jim West, Roger Pearce, and others, and as I said, anyone that really has an interest in such things can contact me, and I can demonstrate that this is a fact to you.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

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