Larry Hurtado’s initial response to my post did not offer any expectation that he might engage with the larger argument I made. I was surprised to find him refer to it as a post about him (personally) and mystified as to how he could interpret my reference to “some scholars” engaging in insult and ridicule as a descriptor of his approach. I only used his initial post as an example to segue into a more general discussion about the difficulty even scholars (or especially scholars) and others generally often have in listening to the arguments of the Christ Myth theory with any seriousness. But he did attract some discussion from others commenting on his blog post.
I did not read all the comments there — I am unfortunately sometimes pushed to read all the comments on my own blog — so I cannot tell the extent to which his reactions expressed in his follow up post, The “Did Jesus Exist” Controversy–Encore, were justified.
But I will make a few general remarks here. I welcome Larry’s thoughts if he is at all inclined to respond.
No knowledge of the central thesis
He epitomizes what he sees as some “foundations” of the Christ Myth theory:
We’ve had examples of the erroneous, but confidently asserted, claims on which the “mythicist” stance seems to rest. E.g., no evidence of Nazareth as a real village (cf., e.g., J. L. Reed, Archareology and the Galilean Jesus, 131-32; J. L. Rousseau & R. Arav, Jesus and His World, 214-16); or that a figure called “Jesus” was an object of religious devotion before early Christianity (no evidence of this at all); or that statements in Paul’s letters about Jesus’ brothers were later interpolations (no text-critical support or in scholarship on these texts), etc.
If this is the impression Hurtado has gained about the “claims on which the ‘mythicist’ stance seems to rest” then it is very clear he has not himself read mythicist arguments. Perhaps he is relying on incidental blog comments to form a judgment about the entire theory. It is clear he has never been interested enough to read works by Price, Doherty, Carrier, Wells, Couchoud, and such, on the question. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But if I only know of something from what I hear on media news bytes or popular gossip or brief articles, I would never think to engage in a serious discussion or form an opinion about it — least of all psychoanalyse anyone over it.
Presumption of conspiracy beliefs
He then brings up the tired old conspiratorial underpinnings of mythicism:
Perhaps the most puzzling claim, that would be amusing were it not apparently asserted so seriously, is that sometime in the 1980s a massive conspiracy (by “New Evangelical” interests) engineered the appointment of scholars in departments of Religion, Classics, Ancient History, etc., and that it managed to skew scholarly opinion, even among Jewish scholars and people of no religious affiliation, to support the historical existence of a Jesus of Nazareth. Hmm. That’s right up there with the notion that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA! (Is there something in the drinking water nowadays in some places?) Certainly, many of those who have engaged the current “mythicist” issue (e.g., Maurice Casey) would be surprised to learn that their views have been shaped ingeniously without their knowing it by this “New Evangelical” cabal eager to prop up traditional Christianity!
Maybe some people who argue for Jesus not having had historical existence do point to conspiracy. But none of the scholars or authors I mentioned above do. And I certainly don’t. Then again, some believers in the historical Jesus believe there is a vast demoniacally inspired conspiracy at work right now to bring about the rise of an anti-christ etc etc. I have even read Dr McGrath saying he would not be surprised if behind the popularity of Creationism there was an atheist conspiracy. I don’t, because of those people, think that all believers in a historical Jesus are conspiracy theorists.
At the same time, however, there is no question that, especially since the centre of biblical studies has shifted from Europe to America since the Second World War, conservative and evangelical Christians have become even more influential in the field. Many scholars do have some form of confessional interest. Of course there are atheists and agnostics in the field, too. But it is nonsensical to say that the field has been free from personal religious interests. Scholars within the field itself such as Hector Avalos and James Crossley have made this very clear with their publications.
The need for psychoanalysis
Then comes the psychoanalysis:
But it’s an interesting sociological (or pycho-social) question as to what makes some people feel the need (and it does seem to be a need) to exert such efforts to go against the rather solid judgement of qualified scholars in the subject, whatever their religious persuasion. What is it that leads some to prefer the assertions of people with no established scholarly reputation or recognition in the disciplines in question? And why the zeal and fervor of some of those who buy into these assertions? Perhaps a good question for some graduate student in sociology.
This reminds me of the way the State in the Stalinist Soviet Union looked upon otherwise intelligent people who disagreed with Communist ideology. They were candidates for the insane asylum. The possibility that the Party line was founded on error was simply unthinkable. One only had to look at the array of brilliant minds upon which the entire edifice was founded.
One commenter chimed in on this note with a reference to The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter. Apparently the commenter sees mythicists as been characterized by a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” — characteristics of the “paranoid style” according to Hofstadter. Well, I’ve yet to see any of those traits in any of the works of authors I have mentioned above. None of that is part of the mythicism I am acquainted with. No doubt there are Christian believers or historical Jesus believers who argue a point with a “paranoid style”, too, but I would never say that Christians or those who argue for the historicity of Jesus are like that as a whole.
Earning the right to speak as an authority
But there is something else in that above paragraph by Hurtado that he expands upon in his closing words:
Anything is open to question, of course. But to engage the sort of questions involved in this discussion really requires one to commit to the hard work of learning languages, mastering textual analysis, text-critical matters, historical context of the ancient Roman period and the Jewish setting of the time, archaeology, and more. And we know when someone has done this when they prove it in the demands of scholarly disputation and examination, typically advanced studies reflected in graduate degrees in the disciplines, and then publications that have been reviewed and judged by scholarly peers competent to judge. That is how you earn the right to have your views taken as having some basis and some authority. I’m not an expert in virology, or astro-physics, or a number of other fields. So, I’ll have to operate in light of the judgements of those who are. Why should I distrust experts in a given subject? Why should I term it “intellectual bullying” if scholars in a given field asked about a given issue state the generally-held view in a straightforward manner, and ask for justification for rejecting it?
I have bolded some of the original.
This is a startling conclusion from a scholar who has taken notice of the question of whether or not Jesus did exist.
Does Larry Hurtado really believe that in order to prove that Jesus existed or to understand the proofs that he did that one needs to undertake advanced studies in languages, textual analysis, archaeology, etc, and to become a respected and published scholar in the field?
Does anyone believe that it is necessary to attain such qualifications in order to prove or understand the proofs that Julius Caesar or Socrates existed?
What I find particularly disturbing is that Hurtado even speaks of acquiring “a right” to having one’s views accepted as “having some basis” and being taken with “some authority”. Perhaps, here, is where we find the reason some scholars are offended when they find outsiders not duly accepting their claims about the existence of Jesus — on their “authority” or status as scholars. Is this why they are offended when outsiders want something that they can see holds water, is evidence-based, consistent and logical? Do some scholars feel that their “rights” to being treated as authorities are being violated?
I don’t know. It is just a thought and certainly I don’t know Larry Hurtado personally and I certainly do not impute any such thoughts to him. But what he wrote here is nonetheless disturbing.
Climate scientists do have a right to be heard and treated as authorities. But they also have a responsibility to make their findings, their arguments, their evidence, clear and understandable. They do not have a right to be believed simply on their say-so or on their word as if it were divine fiat. They have a responsibility to explain in ways the public can understand the reasons, the evidence, for their conclusions. Rights are only one side of the social contract. Public intellectuals also have public responsibilities.
What convinces me of evolution is not the status and academic reputations of biologists and palaeontologists. It is the arguments they present and share with the public. They are consistent, evidence-based and logical. I love reading popular science publications that explain clearly what scientists have discovered and what we now understand about the animal kingdom (including us), the cosmos, atomic physics, the ecosystems and more. I love reading good history books, too.
The view from outside
Let me add here a comment made by a commenter (Vinny) on this blog — he is not a mythicist but has described himself as occupying the “undecided” camp, if I recall correctly:
I like to think that I am a reasonably bright person. I graduated in the top 5% of my class from law school and I am an expert chess player. I took and passed the test for Mensa. I was able to follow Hawking’s A Brief History of Time without an advanced degree in physics. I have been able to follow the logic of Steven Pinker, Daniel Denett, Ronald Dworkin, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jared Diamond as well as other scholars without advanced training in their fields. I cannot do what they do, but I can generally understand how they use the evidence to reach their conclusions. For some reason, however, I’m not capable of figuring why New Testament scholars find the evidence so convincing because I don’t have enough training.
Here is another comment by a famous linguist:
To make all of this more concrete, let me comment in a very personal way: in my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different fields. I’ve done work in mathematical linguistics, for example, without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I’ve often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on these subjects; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor’s degree in mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in this subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting or not, whether better approaches are possible — the discussion dealt with the subject, not with my right to discuss it. . . . . .
In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is the concern for content. One might even argue that to deal with substantive issues in the ideological disciplines may be a dangerous thing, because these disciplines are not simply concerned with discovering and explaining the facts as they are; rather, they tend to present these facts and interpret them in a manner that conforms to certain ideological requirements, and to become dangerous to established interests if they do not do so.
I am sure there is a lesson here for biblical scholars, custodians of surely one of the most ideological of all disciplines.
The problem seems to be that biblical scholars really have never proved the historicity of Jesus. This has always been assumed. If ever the question is raised it is conventionally settled with a few proof-texts — e.g. Paul met “the brother of the Lord”, Paul said the Son of God was made from a woman, no-one would make up a crucified messiah. But proof-texts have the unfortunate characteristic being able only to speak to the choir. If a new way of looking at the evidence in total calls into question the weight placed upon such proof-texts, it seems that too many scholars have traditionally retorted with nothing more intellectual than: “Look at my credentials. I have a right to be accepted as an authority.”
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