All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.
Tim O’Neill (TO) excoriates Dave Fitzgerald (DF) for
consistently depict[ing] the topic as some kind of starkly Manichaean conflict between Christian apologists on one hand and “critics who have disputed Christian claims” on the other (O’Neill 2011)
What’s more, he produces the evidence. It’s found in the “first pages” of Nailed. By “first pages” he does not mean the first two pages — he skips those, and for good reason, as we will see — but the third and fourth pages where he complains that DF mentions
evangelicals, conservative Christians and populist apologists like F.F. Bruce, R. Douglas Geivett and Josh McDowell in rapid succession. . .
So from the start Fitzgerald sets up an artificial dichotomy, with conservative apologists defending a traditional orthodox Jesus on one hand and brave “critics who (dispute) Christian claims” who don’t believe in any Jesus at all on the other. And nothing in between.
This is nonsense, because it ignores a vast middle ground of scholars – liberal Christian, Jewish, atheist and agnostic – who definitely “dispute Christian claims” but who also conclude that there was a human, Jewish, historical First Century preacher as the point of origin for the later stories of “Jesus Christ”. . . .
Most critical scholars have no time for the McDowell-style Jesus either, so the Jewish preacher they present as the historical Jesus behind the later gospel figure is left totally unscathed by Fitzgerald’s naive arguments. (O’Neill 2011)
That sounds pretty damning.
To anyone who has read Nailed, however, it sounds pretty confusing.
Confusing because anyone who read the first page would wonder what TO is talking about. Anyone who went on to read the second page would wonder why TO has chosen to ignore DF’s clear statement of purpose for the book. TO claims to be “reviewing” the work so it is astonishing by any standard that he makes no reference anywhere to the author’s clearly stated intentions.
One would also wonder why the “reviewer” failed to notice how DF presented “scholars” and “historians” throughout Nailed, in particular the way they are so very often depicted as holding positions opposed to those of most apologists and conservatives!
Before continuing, I have an apology to make. I promised to keep posts in this series down to around 1000 words. In this instance, however, in order to do justice to the claims of both TO and DF that is impossible.
So let’s begin. How does DF explain what the book is about and what its purpose is? Let’s start with the first two pages — the two pages TO overlooked.
The first readers to be addressed
DF opens Nailed by addressing readers the more sceptically minded readers who would think that there must have been a Jesus of some sort, even if a far more ordinary and realistic person than anything found in the Gospels or believed in by “apologists”:
So many might be surprised to find that they are Euhemerists on the subject of Jesus. That is to say, though they may not believe Jesus was the divine Christ that Christianity venerates as the Son of God and savior of the world, and may regard accounts of the miracles and wonders attending him as mere legendary accretion, nevertheless they certainly believe there had to have been a central figure that began Christianity.
Perhaps he was just a wandering teacher or an exorcist, an apocalyptic prophet or a zealot who opposed the Romans. Perhaps he was all these things, or even a composite of several such early first-century figures; but at any rate, surely there had to be somebody at the original core of Christianity, arguably the most famous individual in human history. All this seems to be a perfectly reasonable, completely natural assumption to make – so why would anyone be so foolish as to propose that Jesus never existed?
Doesn’t it just make more sense to assume that there was a historical Jesus, even if we are unable to recover the real facts about his life and death? As it turns out, no. The opposite is true: the closer we look at the evidence for Jesus, the less solid evidence we find; and the more we find suspicious silences and curious resemblances to the pagan and Jewish religious ideas and philosophies that preceded Christianity. And once you begins to parse out the origins of this tradition or that teaching from their various sources, the sweater begins unraveling quickly until it becomes very difficult to buy that there ever was – or even could have been – any historical figure at the center.
The main purpose of Nailed
From here DF turns to explain the primary purpose of his book:
. . . the figure of the historical Jesus has traveled with a bodyguard of widely accepted, seldom examined untruths for over two millennia.
The purpose of this all-too-brief examination is to shed light on ten of these beloved Christian myths, ten beautiful lies about Jesus:
1. The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!
2. Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…
3. Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus
4. Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels
5. The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus
6. History confirms the Gospels
7. Archeology confirms the Gospels
8. Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels
9. Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles
10. Christianity was a totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world!
There are subsidiary goals (my formatting):
I also want to give a thumbnail sketch of how the evidence gathered from historians all across the theological spectrum not only debunks these long-cherished myths, but points to a Jesus Christ created solely through the alchemy of hope and imagination; a messiah transformed from a purely literary, theological construct into the familiar figure (or more truthfully, figures) of Jesus – in short, a mythic Christ.
And finally, I want to briefly discuss how very different things would be if there had been a historical Jesus.
And so DF closes as he began. He returns to the sceptical readers he addressed in the opening page and over seven pages argues why the evidence for even that more realistic Jesus (not the one characterized by the ten myths he has just discussed across ten chapters) is just as problematic as the evidence for historical existence of the Gospel Christ.
Even if we make allowances for legendary accretion, pious fraud, the criteria of embarrassment, doctrinal disputes, scribal errors and faults in translation, there are simply too many irresolvable problems with the default position that assumes there simply had to be a historical individual (or even a composite of several itinerant preachers) at the center of Christianity.
Indeed, the New Testament and the unfolding of Christianity would look very differently if Jesus – even a merely human Jesus – had been an actual historical figure. (p. 179)
The conclusion of what DF has been arguing is summed up on page 187. Whether Jesus was as remarkable as the Gospels say or whether he was nothing like the Gospel portrayal and merely one more inconspicuous healer and preacher of the day makes no difference:
If Jesus had been an actual historical figure we have a thorny paradox.
Either this Jesus was a remarkable individual who said and did a host of amazing, revolutionary things – but no one outside his fringe cult noticed for over a century. Or he didn’t – and yet shortly after his death, tiny communities of worshipers that cannot agree about the most basic facts of his life spring up, scattered all across the empire.
The truth is inescapable: there simply could never have been a historical Jesus. (p. 187)
Apologists versus mythicists?
As for DF supposedly “framing” the debate “throughout” his book between “apologists” and “mythicists”, it is instructive to do a word search on “scholars” and “historians” and see how they are used. In the overwhelming majority of cases such persons are depicted as holding positions that most apologists would definitely oppose. (In a few cases they are said to be surveying the literature in order to note what the scholarly consensus is.)
“No serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.” (Otto Betz, What Do We Know About Jesus?) (p. 16 — TO objects that Betz is an apologist, but it should be noted that here Betz is rightly speaking for virtually all scholars of all theological persuasions)
But most scholars side with the Synoptic Gospels against [John] (p. 30)
Bruce Metzger has gone into great detail surveying the consensus of scholars on the emergence of the New Testament (p. 65)
More than two hundred years ago, Bible scholars noticed an interesting – and quite incestuous – relationship between the first three Gospels (p. 67)
Josephan scholar Steve Mason demonstrates that Luke copied from Flavius Josephus (p. 67)
Biblical historians today largely accept that the Gospels were not written by the four authors traditionally attributed to them. (p. 75)
Incidentally, many historians who accept the idea of the “secret messiah” motif don’t think it reflects what the “real” Jesus did, but that it was a literary device to explain why Jesus was unknown in his own day (p. 76)
It is no exaggeration to say that the four Gospels contradict each other from before Jesus’ birth to after his death and at nearly every juncture in between. This has not been lost on scholars over the years. (p. 89)
As historian Paul Winter noted: “The discrepancies are many and multiple, and at times concern issues so fundamental that, at first glance, one might think that they spoke of totally different events and personalities. It looks as if Jesus in Mark were not the same person as Jesus in John: they speak differently, act differently, die differently.” (p. 89)
The portrayals of Jesus vary so widely that biblical historians have been able to reconstruct dozens of “historical” Jesuses in their own image, all equally plausible – and perfectly contradictory. (p. 89)
“If the historical reliability of the Gospels is so obvious, why have so many scholars failed to appreciate the incontestable nature of the evidence?” -Robert W. Funk (p. 91)
(if some Bible scholars are right, [Luke] stole from Matthew as well) (p. 91)
For instance, modern Jewish scholars have listed problems with the trial of Jesus since at least the 18th century. (p. 92)
In fact, like so many other aspects of Jesus’ trial, the opposite is true: one scholar noted “It has been said that Pilate would always refuse what the Jews desired of him, and always do what they implored him not to.” (p. 95)
Even in ancient times, scholars noticed that when plotted on a map, Jesus’ travels make no sense (p. 108)
competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence. (p. 110)
most scholars agree that this letter [2 Thessalonians] is itself a forgery! (p. 110)
the majority of Bible scholars are convinced that half the letters of Paul – as well as the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude – are just such forgeries. (p. 111)
In his popular book Misquoting Jesus and his welldocumented scholarly study The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, he carefully details examples of the “official” Church scribes quietly changing the scriptures to make them less useful to heretical arguments and bring them more in line with their own dogma. (p. 113)
[Apologists are set against scholars in the following quotation:] Christian apologist Lee Strobel asked the late biblical scholar Bruce Metzger this same question (p. 113)
[Apologists are set against historians in the following quotation:] Ironically, this analogy boomerangs on apologists looking to defend the historic evidence for Jesus, since few historians today believe that a single historical individual named “Homer” ever really existed, either. (p. 117)
This is why few major historical arguments stand on a single source or piece of evidence: the implicit distrust of texts entails that belief in any nontrivial historical claim must be based on a whole array of evidence and argument. So it is no coincidence that this is what you get in serious historical scholarship.” (p. 123)
many if not the majority of Bible scholars now accept that he [Paul] only wrote seven of the thirteen letters traditionally attributed to him (p. 125)
Interestingly enough, some scholars suspect that Mark and Matthew’s Last Supper was not originally a Passover meal at all. (p. 139)
no objective scholars still think James, Jude, and I & 2 & 3 John were actually written by the followers and family members of Jesus they pretend to be (p. 143)
Pioneering Bible Scholar F.C. Baur was the first to notice how a great deal of the New Testament only makes sense when you realize there was a war going on in the early church. (p. 154)
The line “ – even death on a cross” was not part of the original hymn, as several scholars have noted (p. 162)
And numerous historians, including Arnold Ehrhardt, Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Randel Helms, Dennis MacDonald, Jennifer Maclean and more have detailed the ways that Mark’s entire Gospel is a treasure trove of symbolic, rather than historical, meaning. (p. 163)
So it is difficult to understand how anyone who read Nailed could think that its author sets up a “Manichaean conflict between Christian apologists on one hand and ‘critics who have disputed Christian claims’ on the other”. DF is obviously heavily reliant upon the scholarship of Biblical scholars who are not conservative “Christian apologists”. TO does appear to be charging at windmills in his own imagination.
Deceitful like a Creationist!
TO complains that critics try to impute evil to his character. Yet he somehow finds a way to twist DF’s quotations of Ehrman as a deceitful exercise akin to the way Creationists quote scientists as if they support Creationism! TO must think that readers are so gullible that they will assume the most controversial idea they have ever heard and that no-one else believes, and that DF himself points out is not accepted by the scholarly community, will somehow think that all the scholars DF quotes really do believe it after all! In fact, of course, it is clear to any reader that DF is arguing against the consensus of scholarship and he makes absolutely no pretension that any scholar he quotes is also a mythicist (quite the reverse) apart from those who clearly are (Carrier, Price).
So TO argues that DF is wrong for quoting scholars like Bart Ehrman without explaining to readers who are brand new to the topic that Bart Ehrman is not a mythicist! Anyone reading Nailed might think that all those scholars and historians that DF refers to might also believe Jesus was a myth, never existed, apparently.
That criticism is surely last-gasp desperation. Is anyone so new to the topic that they would come to DF’s book thinking most scholars believe Jesus never existed? TO really thinks DF is so naive — or Machiavellian — as to think he can fool readers like that? Anyone who read the first two pages of DF’s book would know exactly where DF is coming from and where most scholars who have touched the topic are coming from. I’m reminded of James McGrath’s complaint that Earl Doherty had the audacity to quote mainstream scholars when making points that he used to support his Christ Myth case.
But another time TO faults DF for addressing “the most clueless of Biblical literalists or naive traditional Christians” instead of more sophisticated readers. It is hard to reconcile this objection with his insistence that DF should have explained to innocent newcomers that Bart Ehrman is not a mythicist!
Not allowed to discuss the arguments for and against the resurrection
TO interprets DF’s discussion of the historical evidence for and against the resurrection as framing the entire book. And this is bad, TO implies, because most Biblical scholars apparently don’t believe in the literal resurrection. Presumably such a book should not have been written. No-one should challenge the purported evidence for the literal resurrection because sophisticated believers don’t accept it.
What DF did on page 15 was to tell readers that one Christian apologist, Douglas Geivett, claimed that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is as strong as for Caesar crossing the Rubicon. FD outlines historian Richard Carrier’s response to this claim demonstrating how false it is.
It appears that this upset TO because DF did not at the same time inform “newcomer readers” that most scholars do not accept the literal resurrection. So it was not fair, indeed it is misleading, for DF to pit Christian apologists against Richard Carrier in such a discussion. Totally misleading!
Though TO does protest that DF’s arguments against the historicity of the Gospel Jesus leave untouched the “historical Jesus” of scholars, he fails to point out how any of DFs arguments even against that scholarly Jesus miss their mark.
This section of DF’s book is completely overlooked by TO. Admittedly, it was of a secondary purpose, but it did nonetheless frame the main argument against the “ten myths”.
It would have been interesting to have read something in TO’s review that upheld some clear evidence for the historicity of any one of the many different scholarly Jesus’s. Unfortunately, the closest he comes to that is simply to assert that “historicity makes the best sense of the evidence”, which of course is merely begging the question. Besides, as we have seen, he has already confessed to how ambiguous and uncertain such evidence really is.
Below I have set out the claims, counter-claims and counter-counter-claims of the contestants for those interested in a closer comparison. (I will post on a few other things before continuing with again this series.)
|O’Neill 2011||Fitgerald 2012||O’Neill 2013|
|He consistently depicts the topic as some kind of starkly Manichaean conflict between Christian apologists on one hand and “critics who have disputed Christian claims” on the other and in his first pages he mentions evangelicals, conservative Christians and populist apologists like F.F. Bruce, R. Douglas Geivett and Josh McDowell in rapid succession. . . ..
So from the start Fitzgerald sets up an artificial dichotomy, with conservative apologists defending a traditional orthodox Jesus on one hand and brave “critics who (dispute) Christian claims” who don’t believe in any Jesus at all on the other. And nothing in between. This is nonsense, because it ignores a vast middle ground of scholars – liberal Christian, Jewish, atheist and agnostic – who definitely “dispute Christian claims” but who also conclude that there was a human, Jewish, historical First Century preacher as the point of origin for the later stories of “Jesus Christ”. . . .
The next four chapters in Fitzgerald’s book are more examples of the author arguing against a fundamentalist version of Jesus rather than the historical Jewish preacher of critical non-Christian and liberal scholars. In them he marshals some fairly standard arguments that would be news to absolutely no-one except the most clueless of Biblical literalists or naive traditional Christians. He presents evidence that the gospels were not written by eye-witnesses, that they differ in their depictions of Jesus and that there are some historical and archaeological problems with taking them at face value. Yet again, Fitzgerald cannot seem to make up his mind if he is arguing against any historical Jesus at all or merely a traditionalist/fundamentalist version of him based on a face value reading of the Bible. These chapters are run of the mill stuff arguing against things that even many Christians do not believe and they do little or nothing to advance his argument about the existence of a historical Jesus. The gospels can indeed have been written by non-eye witnesses, can present wildly varying pictures of Jesus and can be riddled with historical and archaeological errors and a historical Jewish preacher could still have been the origin of the later stories. Much of this part of the book feels like mere padding.
|This nonsensical “dichotomy” is O’Neill’s own creation, not mine. As I explicitly say in the first chapter (and repeat on the back of the book) the evidence has been gathered from all across the theological spectrum. What’s more, I frequently cite the work of the “middle ground of scholars” throughout the book -including several of the ones he claims I’m ignoring – by name. And whenever possible, I point out when I am presenting information that represents the majority opinion of all scholars. So where is O’Neill coming up with this “dichotomy” of his? The truth is, even if the ultimate conclusion in Nailed seems radical, the facts that support it are often considered not radical at all by the majority of Biblical scholars – many have been accepted as the majority opinion for centuries..
What O’Neill doesn’t seem to grasp is that Nailed was written to highlight and address those very difficulties. Instead, he declares I’m confused and can’t keep the “Jesus of Faith” straight from the “Historical Jesus.” Is he kidding? Are there no Christians in Australia? Either O’Neill forgets that nearly one third of the planet (not just “fundamentalist apologists”!) believes in the Jesus as presented in the Gospels; or to him, the fact matters not at all. Worse, he somehow manages to think that addressing the issue of that Jesus’ historicity is a failing of the book. Unbelievable.
To O’Neill’s mind, none of that mere Christianity is of any interest. He constantly sniffs that the real Jesus remains untouched by the book – the Historical Jesus that he claims all real scholars accept: the “Jewish preacher (that was) the point of origin for the Jesus story simply because that makes the most sense of all the evidence.” First of all, as one might have guessed from the subtitle, or heard me say repeatedly in the book, Nailed was written to debunk the Christian myths that prop up the official story of Jesus. So perhaps O’Neill shouldn’t be too surprised that the main focus of the book is exactly that: the Jesus of rank-and-file Christianity.
And still, that’s not to say I don’t have anything to weigh in on the Historical Jesus! O’Neill should know that the “Historical Jesus” he touts as being the real Jesus is on no firmer evidentiary ground than the “Jesus of Faith,” something I do focus on in my upcoming book Jesus: Mything in Action. In fact, there is no single “Historical Jesus.” There are scads of various hypothetical and contradictory historical “reconstructions” of him – and none of them based on anything remotely like what an objective observer would consider reliable evidence. This wide variety of secular Jesuses and the problematic historical sources for all of them are symptomatic of the very predicament that prompted me to write Nailed in the first place. But more on that in my guest post on Freethought Blog, “Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”
|But this dichotomy is not in my imagination, it’s right there in the part of the book I cite in my review (pp. 15-16). He contrasts Christian apologists, naming and quoting Josh McDowell, F.F. Bruce and Otto Betz dismissing the idea Jesus never existed, and then contrasts them with “critics who have disputed Christian claims” beginning with (you guessed it) Richard Carrier. Nowhere in this passage is there any acknowledgement of the vast number of critical scholars who “dispute Christian claims” and also dismiss the Jesus Myth theory.
More importantly, there is no acknowledgement of this middle ground of scholars anywhere in his book, despite the fact they make up the overwhelming bulk of the scholars in the relevant fields. A naive reader who was unaware of the academic state of play on the question of a historical Jesus would have no idea this wide middle ground even existed if Fitzgerald’s book was all they read on the subject. Even in a popular treatment of a scholarly topic, that smacks heavily of wilful distortion. It certainly doesn’t indicate wholesale academic honesty. What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis, but Fitzgerald does not even acknowledge this middle ground position – that of a historical Jesus who was not miraculous and does not conform closely to the Jesus of the gospels – even exists.
His claim that he cites these non-Christian scholars “including several of the ones he claims I’m ignoring” does not blunt the criticism above – when he does so, he usually cites them to support a specific point of critical analysis, with zero acknowledgement that the scholar in question fully accepts a historical Jesus. This is something like the way Creationists love to pepper their work with scholarly footnotes and citations of real scientists, without noting that these same scientists think Creationism is nonsense.
And his claim that he does this with “several” of the scholars I mentioned is typical Fitzgeraldian exaggeration, unless we can find a way to make “just two” stretch into “several”. The only scholars on my list that he cites are Bart Ehrman (8 times) and Hyam Maccoby (3 times). Maccoby is cited via endnotes to support three unremarkable statements about Jewish culture in the period.
The citations and quotes of Ehrman are generally to support widely accepted conclusions about the nature of Christian scriptures. Again, a reader not familiar with this material would have no idea that while Ehrman, like most scholars, rejects the idea of a Jesus based on a face value reading of the New Testatement, he vehemently rejects Mythicism to the extent that he has written a whole book debunking it. This is like the way Creationists merrily cite and quote Stephen Jay Gould when convenient, despite Gould’s vehement opposition to Creationism.
The others I mentioned as representing the middle ground of Jewish and other non-Christian scholars – Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Ludemann, Mark Nanos, Alan Segal, Jacob Neusner and Geza Vermes – get no mention at all in Fitzgerald’s book, despite including several of the biggest names in the field. The people mentioned in the parts of the book where he argues against the idea of a historical Jesus are not these neutral, objective scholars but apologists, fundamentalists and conservatives. These include Josh McDowell, Otto Betz, F.F. Bruce, Douglas Geivett, Lee Strobel and Craig Blomberg, many of whom are not even scholars at all. Far more prominent than anyone cited in his work is a grab-bag from the Mythicist fringe, including Earl Doherty and Frank Zindler (2 times) and Robert Price (3 times). Even the highly obscure early Twentieth Century French Mythicist Paul-Louis Couchoud is citied (2 times). But the “authority” Fitzgerald turns to over and over again is not any leading scholar or acknowledged professional expert in the field but none other than his “hero and mentor”, the blogger and anti-Christian activist Richard Carrier, who is cited and quoted and otherwise put on a pedestal a whopping 13 times in the text (even more in the endnotes).
A scholarly analysis of a question strives to account for all serious arguments and deals with them in detail. Even a popular treatment makes a point of paying due acknowledgement to relevant positions on a given issue. But nowhere in his book does Fitzgerald even hint that there is a substantial middle ground between the gospel Jesus of people like McDowell and Strobel and the non-existent Jesus of his Mythicist friends. When that middle ground is the scholarly mainstream and held by the leading scholars in the field, this omission ceases to be merely amateurish and sloppy and becomes actively and deliberately tendentious.
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