Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado is a well respected scholar who has made significant contributions to his field. I have read four of his books (How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? — which I have discussed favourably on this blog; One God, One Lord; Lord Jesus Christ; and The Earliest Christian Artefacts) and have a fifth (“Who Is This Son of Man?”) on my shelf waiting in line to be read soon. I have learned a lot from Professor Hurtado. I especially love to follow up footnotes and I have learned much from other readings to which Hurtado’s works have led me.
However, I also have some differences with the Professor. That’s only to be expected. Probably none of will ever find anyone with whom we agree on everything. In an exchange some time ago I realized just how deep our differences were when I asked him for what he considered the bare raw data that any historian of Christian origins needs to be able to explain. His reply demonstrated that he is fails to distinguish data from interpretation. (I described this interaction and illustrated Professor Hurtado’s confused reply in Who’s the Scholarly Scoundrel? — Do excuse the editorial choice of heading. I do not believe Larry Hurtado is really a scoundrel. I once almost had the opportunity to visit the university where he resides and had looked forward to shaking his hand had the trip come off.) I found this confusion of data and interpretation/conclusions drawn from data alarming in someone who claims to be a historian. But then long-term readers of this blog will know how I have often pointed out the stark differences between the way historians of other fields when at their best employ methods that are unlike anything found in theology departments. Richard Carrier is not the only historian to point to Bayes’ theorem as a tool that can help historians monitor their biases and lapses in valid analyses of data and prod them towards more reliable results. Historians of the New Testament have a lot of catching up to do.
But there was another exchange with Professor Hurtado that shook me even more. He appeared to declare that one is only qualified to make a sound judgement on whether Jesus existed if one spends years in the studies of ancient languages and textual analysis and more:
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? (Larry Hurtado’s Wearying Did Jesus Exist? Encore)
Professor James McGrath has said the same:
Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally(and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)
I won’t repeat here what should be the very obvious counter-arguments that I have spelt out in the related posts linked above, especially Can A Lay Person Reasonably Evaluate A Scholarly Argument?
Professor Hurtado’s latest blog post repeats this point:
But if you do want to engage the issues, you’re just going to have to do some serious reading . . . in books, and articles, and in the original sources on which scholarly work is based.
Scholars of theology engaged in the study of the historical origins of Christianity are not meant for this world. They can impart their knowledge; they can drop their pearls of wisdom into the laps of those who ask; but unlike scholars in less ideological disciplines (evolutionists, for example) they cannot engage the public in serious questions for which they really want answers.
One does not need to become a doctor in microbiology or palaeontology to understand the arguments for evolution. One does not need a doctorate in history to understand the arguments for (or any debates over) the existence of Socrates. But when it comes to the history of a faith that is founded and grounded in a theological view of history pointy little lay heads are told they need to master advanced studies in Aramaic and Koine Greek and probably Syriac etc. before they can understand.
In other words, they need to become indoctrinated by osmosis into the correct way of thinking and the correct way to ask and answer questions that the academy requires for survival and success. That’s the real bottom line.
This is a sad state of affairs. It’s not one to gloat over and it does not require anyone to make savage personal attacks — or even to make quite disingenuous snide remarks as some professors unfortunately do very well. I have no doubt that Professor Larry Hurtado is very sincere. He seems to me to have had a very successful career and made some significant contributions to his field. Some of his views (even ones he considers his most important ones) may be questioned but that doesn’t detract from Hurtado’s work. The act of engaging critically with some works like those of Hurtado guarantees a significant advance in overall knowledge and understanding if done professionally.
The fact is there for all to see, however, that Larry Hurtado simply does not understand or know much about the grounds for questioning the historicity of Jesus. The very question is intellectual heresy to him. One regularly reads (or at least I used to read on his blog) Hurtado making mockery of mythicists with accusations that only highlighted his ignorance. General sweeping statements — the sort made by others like James McGrath and Jim West — unsubstantiated, visceral, unprofessional.
The extent of Hurtado’s knowledge of mythicism appears to be Herbert George Wood’s Did Christ Really Live? I recall Hurtado recommending this book that he had read years ago and informing his readers that it pretty much covered all the basic arguments. One can see how well the arguments really are covered and how informed Hurtado is about the whole business in my post reviewing Wood’s book.
So what has Larry Hurtado said this time that has prompted this post? Here are some excerpts. I begin with his second paragraph. Notice the way the first sentence is a complete red herring. No-one is asking any theologian to break new ground or have an impact in his field through blogging. People are simply asking for a scientist to explain the tricky questions about evolution for them that they know the scientist can answer.
Scholarly work intended to have an impact on the field isn’t done in blogging. The amount of data, its complexity, the analysis and argumentation involved, and the engagement with the work of other scholars that forms an essential feature of scholarly work all require more space than a few hundred words of a blog-posting, or a few paragraphs of blog-comment. So, it’s rather unrealistic (not to say bizarre) for some commenters to assume otherwise.
So in case you didn’t get it, Hurtado makes it clear that he will not engage with the public who ask radical questions that go to the very core assumptions of theological studies. Theology is not so easy to defend as evolution. It’s meant for the sympathetic mind.
This particular blog site is intended to disseminate the basic results of scholarly work (particularly my own) to a wider public, directing anyone interested in further study to the publications where matters are discussed more fully. Of course, I can’t expect that the “general public” will necessarily have read my publications or those of other scholars in my field. This blog site, therefore, is intended to alert interested readers to developments and to the publications where they can follow up matters.
And if you don’t like this, then keep reading till you learn to think the same way as the other theologians in the field and then you can join them in telling others to do the same when they ask you those damn awkward questions that hit the layers of assumption that have scarcely ever been exposed to the light of day before.
So, to underscore the point here: Blogging (at least this blog site) is for disseminating basic results of scholarly work, and alerting interested readers to publications where they can pursue matters further. But if you do want to engage the issues, you’re just going to have to do some serious reading . . . in books, and articles, and in the original sources on which scholarly work is based.
Damned internet. . .
The Internet and the “blogosphere” hasn’t really changed that.
For the full post see Scholarly Work and the “Blogosphere”.
Finally, one last word from the most quoted living individual today (so one more quote won’t hurt him):
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.
And I can scarcely think of more ideological subjects than theology and history.
Or maybe theologians are always preachers and called to spread their seed and not be waylaid by agents of Satan along the way.
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