Appeals to McGrath, Regrets and the Responsibility of Public Intellectuals

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s deal with the regrets first. Yes, I have expressed some regret over when, a little over a year ago, I once made an offensive play on his name.* I have also taken note of Lester Grabbe’s discussion of unscholarly standards of debates and have taken his words as a warning to myself as much as a commentary on a wider situation.  I have attempted to understand why the irrational and unprofessional hostility among some scholars towards certain views and to be careful how I do express myself. I highly respect the way others like Earl Doherty and Rene Salm maintain their civility and I am grateful to a number of readers of this blog who, after I had posted something heated, wrote to me encouraging me to keep my cool.

I have also appealed to McGrath to put the past behind us, but even since then his responses to me have been laden with hostile insinuations. I have appealed to McGrath repeatedly to acknowledge Lester Grabbe’s warnings.  Till now my appeals have done nothing to lessen his personal barbs against me. It is clear he cannot carry on an exchange without imputing sinister motives.

There is simply no place for this from one who speaks as a representative of the scholarly community. And I am a little surprised that McGrath’s manner has apparently gone without censure among his own peers. This is not a good sign. Some biblical scholars like to follow Noam Chomsky’s outspokenness on international issues. It is time they also took note of his criticisms of public intellectuals.


* (The accusation that I also insulted McGrath an earlier time is false. I re-wrote his name as an innocuous anagram when creating a parable to clarify through analogy a point I was trying to make about his argument at the time. It was by no means an insult.)

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6 thoughts on “Appeals to McGrath, Regrets and the Responsibility of Public Intellectuals”

  1. I’ve just clicked on the Chomsky link to your previous post. Forget the rights and wrongs of mythicist arguments or historicist arguments and related historiographical methods for one moment because I have to ask you this: do you really believe that critique of historical methodology which (apparently) upholds the academic establishment is really more important than a critique of class, racism and imperialism? The work you cite obviously discusses the well know international issues such as the Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war and not historicist methodology so are you really getting closer to the heart of Chomsky’s work when discussing historical methodology? When you trying to say that criticising imperialism etc is only superficial yet while criticising historicist methodology get to the heart of the problem? I would also like to ask this: if mythicist arguments were part of the academic establishment would this bring about a thorough critique of class, racism and imperialism in a way the present academic system cannot? I’m concerned that your language implies that your priorities might not be in the right order.

  2. I was attempting to make the comparison with the professional mindsets of the elites who have a social responsibility to

    “encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions . . . [to take] skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted. Try to think things through for yourself.

    I think my challenging of the conventional wisdom in one small area has clearly demonstrated that the guardians of that conventional wisdom cannot justify themselves.

    I am not comparing criticisms of imperialism etc with criticisms of historicist methodology. I am attempting to address the self-deception of intellectuals, the fact that one must learn to think a certain way to be accepted into the club. Scholars and reporters are conditioned to consider certain questions as illegitimate. (Of course there are exceptions who break out of this mould or we wouldn’t be reading Chomsky nor the other exceptions he points to in both academiia and the media.)

    James Crossley, for example, does explicitly draw on Chomsky’s model to address the “manufacturing consent” and “self-censorship” as it operates within the field of biblical studies and the way our cultural Jesus icon is wrapped up in certain images that support and attempts to keep clean current power interests. Yet he will not himself tolerate a radical questioning of the icon that coincidentally he has used to feed his own career and status.

    Crossley’s reaction to such questioning was like that of a fallen Christopher Hitchens rather than anything that one has ever heard or read from Chomsky — who does set an admirable example in professional public discourse. It is hypocrisy that most of us find particularly galling.

    Chomsky as we know is the most quoted person alive today, and I am sure that is at least partly because so much of what he has stood for has wide-ranging implications. (One only has to look at the diverse

    I by no means intend to trivialize the particular interests addressed by Chomsky and that I also have been heavily engaged with myself.

    Perhaps I would have been wiser to have worded my reference to Chomsky more carefully to identify explicitly the particular comparison I was seeking to make. So I appreciate your comment.

  3. Yes, but it seems to me that you are still comparing a criticism of imperialism and so on with something which, to be fair, is of far less significance (mythicism or critiqueof historicist methodology). I’m guessing fairly, I presume) that Hitchens is fallen because of his new friends in Washington so you keep implicitly making the comparison between questions of imperialism and questions of historical method. I’m also a little puzzled when you write of a “hypocrisy that most of us find particularly galling”. If “most of us” think this aren’t you now the majority?

    Many thanks for your answer but I’m still worried that you are using a legitimate criticism of imperialism etc to defend your own ideas on historicism and, in the grand scheme of thigs, deflecting attention away from more important questions. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a criticism to be made here that you are may even be helping the establishingment you critique by turning from questions of international injustice to questions of historicism. Do you see what I’m trying to say?

    1. I think I understand your criticism and do take it on board as a legitimate concern, and if I ever am tempted to use the same Chomsky reference again I will think twice, and if I do use it I will certainly be more circumspect or clear in how I present it.

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