The Churlishness of a Christian Soldier Scholar

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by Neil Godfrey

John Dickson
John Dickson

I was appalled to read the following on Raphael Lataster’s Facebook page just now. Raphael Lataster, we recall, was the author of the Washington Post article questioning the existence of Jesus. The article was also on the scholarly blog, The Conversation. See The Jesus Myth Question Comes to The Washington Post. John Dickson is a reasonably well-known Australian Christian evangelical apologist who once taught Raphael in a class on “The Historical Jesus to the Written Gospels” at Sydney University.

Incensed, John Dickson wrote a piece for the Australian national broadcaster, It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas … Mythicism’s in the Air.

In response James McGrath predictably jumped on the opportunity to fan more flack against mythicism with A Professor on His Mythicist Former Student. He singled out this little misleading piece:

As his former lecturer, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that Raphael’s 1000 words on Jesus would not receive a pass mark in any history class I can imagine, even if it were meant to be a mere “personal reflection” on contemporary Jesus scholarship. Lataster is a better student than his piece suggests. But the rigours of academia in general – and the discipline of history, in particular – demand that his numerous misrepresentations of scholarship would leave a marker little choice but to fail him.

Misleading? Raphael was not writing a “history” essay and he was not so much addressing “scholarship” as he was unaddressed questions relating to the evidence. But Tertullian-like misrepresentation is par for the course in this business. (I have read two of Dickson’s books on “history” and have found them too shallow and trite to bother posting about here. Maybe I should.)

Anyway, this is the disturbing development I have just read on Raphael’s Facebook page: [* 8th January 2014 I was notified the following was a misunderstanding; John Dickson had not defriended Raphael as it appeared. See comment by Andy.]

Raphael Lataster
December 26 at 8:13pm ·

John Dickson surprisingly (we have always been very friendly) defriended me after he wrote a (grossly inaccurate) reply article to my own on Jesus’ possible ahistoricity, and continues to refuse to debate with me on Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. the Jesus he actually believes in). I would think that believers would relish the chance to show their courage and defend their faith. I’m not that scary… If anyone would like to see this debate happen, do let John and I know. John’s contact:


So this is how mythicism is combatted. Misrepresent then run and hide.

It’s a shame. I recall Stephanie Fisher going to great pains to insist that all bible scholars are very friendly when they get together, even attempting to assure us that even sceptics like me would be treated cordially in person. Not long afterwards one sceptic whom her mentor Maurice Casey criticized did advise me that he was met with the cold shoulder by Stephanie at a scholarly conference. I’m tempted to say “Christians!” in conclusion, but I do know that there are some good people who also happen to be Christians, too. They are a refreshing breed when encountered.

Maybe everyone interested in a genuinely scholarly discussion on the historicity of Jesus/Christian origins could write academics like Dickson and express their disappointment over their lack of civility and professionalism.

John Dickson is a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.


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42 thoughts on “The Churlishness of a Christian Soldier Scholar”

  1. Most of thetime, I observe. Dickson’s ridiculous reaction brought me to write a response to it,which Gavin Rumney linked to over on OTAGosh on the 25th: http://otagosh.blogspot.com/2014/12/prof-dickson-has-hernia.html — in case you’re interested; not exhaustive, but hit the “low” points, I think.

    What scholar isn’t up for a debate? You’d think he would jump at it to secure the integrity of the historical Jesus scholarship. Most of us can easily answer that, with respect to Dickson.

    1. We are well used to such responses here at Vridar. Several scholars well-known across the web used to happily comment on and commend posts here. There was no problem with my being a layman. Then I moved to post positive remarks about mythicist arguments. The reaction was immediate — McGrath was only one of those who turned around 180 degrees. Then the blog made the “top 10” biblioblog list and the silent response was deafening. Soon afterwards the entire structure of eligible blogs was redrawn to exclude Vridar.

      We also sadly observed one atheist and mythicist appear to succumb to pressure to “belong”: was it mere coincidence that he was being favourably welcomed by those scholars who had once been hostile to him at a time he murmured he was no longer an atheist and was more ambivalent about the historicity of Jesus than previously?

      Not all scholars have responded so childishly. But there surely can be little doubt that if ideology is rife in the social sciences and humanities then its place in biblical studies must be near tyrannical.

  2. Wow! Did Dickson really claim that the Gospels were written by people called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

    No wonder McGrath thinks Dickson is a real scholar!

    1. From McGrath’s matrix:


      “There is really little justification for thinking that the Gospels are anonymous in the sense that they are either later forgeries in the names of people who did not write them and whose true authors are unknown, or that their authors were a complete mystery to the communities for whom the works were written. And so in that sense, referring to the Gospels using the term “anonymous” can be misleading.”

      And from the comments:

      “What I am suggesting is that the name of the actual author circulated with the documents at those times and eventually found their way into the titles given to them. One or two of them may be mistaken, but I am not persuaded that all four titles were.”

      1. I don’t understand why such effort is invested into arguing against what most critical scholars have long concluded. I wonder if it has anything to do with the criticisms that sometimes emerge from “mythicists” (most recently from Raphael Lataster) that it is difficult to validly assess the value of any text if we have no idea about the identity of the author.

        Just tagging a name to the gospels hardly overcomes this problem. So a Matthew wrote a gospel. So what? Who was this Matthew? When did he live? What class, what background did he have? For whom did he write, etc, and why and what were his sources? Those are the important questions.

        Many do try to go one step further and examine the gospels to see what they can learn about their authors. But that is confusing narrative voice with the true author voice. The “voice” of a text, all literature students soon learn, cannot be automatically equated with that of the real author. To use the gospels to inform us about the authors and then to claim knowledge of the authors to verify the gospels is, of course, circular.

        But I imagine if McGrath thinks he can argue a case for a name, like Matthew, as the “identity” of the real author, then technically he can say the gospels are not anonymous so mythicists can go suck eggs. Never mind that the author might just as well be named A.N.Onymous for all the good that does.

        1. I suspect it’s just contrariness. If a suspected Mythicist said the sky was blue, McWrath would argue against it – though always trying to reserve plausible deniability.

        2. As many scholars have pointed out, Mark was the most popular name in the empire at that time. So suppose you conclude the second gospel was written by “Mark.” It’d be like finding out that an anonymous diary from World War II was really written by “John.”

          It reminds me of that bit by Steven Wright:

          The other day I got on an elevator and this old guy got on with me. I was going to the fourth floor and pushed ‘4’. I asked him, “Where are you going?” He said, “Phoenix.” So I pushed ‘Phoenix’. When the doors opened, two tumbleweeds blew in, and we stepped out into downtown Phoenix. I said, “You’re really the kind of guy I like to hang around with.” He said, “Well, I’m going out to the desert, do you want to go?” I said, “Sure.”

          So we hopped into his car and drove out to desert. He told me that he had spent most of his life working on a research project for the government trying to find out who financed the Pyramids. He worked on it for 30 years, and they paid him an incredible amount of money. He told me he was pretty sure it was a guy named Eddie.

  3. John Dickson is one of the few theologians to have gone the extra mile and achieved a second PhD in Ancient History. So he is at least qualified to speak on the subject, unlike McGrath, Ehrman, et al. However, if he thinks that virgin births and resurrections can be defended historically, “the rigours of academia” must have given him a free pass.

    1. It’s looking like Ph.D. (or two) isn’t going to suffice anymore, as closure on a person’s credibility. I mentioned in a comment recently that it seems some of these so-called scholars do very hard work and earn the achievement, yet still manage to lapse into unscholarly reading, thinking and analyzing. Remember the saying “a gentleman and a scholar” ? There is something to the notion of self-constraint and gentility of thought that should accompany a degree in order to keep a person a true scholar, in my opinion.

      1. Well it’s the quality of education these days, that is, the extremely poor quality thereof, particularly in the public and less expensive private schools, especially here in the United States. It is before college (university) that one is supposed to be able to learn to think, and oftentimes do not, but only learn how to be good test-takers.

        The colleges and universities’ mission is to train you to think like a practicing member of the profession / career you’re aiming for; and to that end, they bury you under a tsunami of rote work and test you on it to see if you are learning the body of knowledge required for your field. Sometimes it works in training you to think according to your selected career path, but all too often it does not. It is no surprise that this is evident also in the schools of theology, particularly so, because most theologians are believing Christians!

    2. John Dickson has one PhD through the Dept of Ancient History at Macquarie University (a very Christian dept) & Dickson’s PhD is on the Pauline epistles.

  4. Dickson: “Taken together, though, Raphael Lataster’s arguments amount to an unfortunate disregard toward mainstream scholarship and highlight a worrying trend in new atheist literature generally: the tendency to pontificate on topics well outside one’s area of expertise.”

    That’s a laugh. Christian and Jewish theologians “pontificate on topics well outside [their] area of expertise” as a matter of course.

  5. The first thing that caught my eye was the caption under the picture:

    “Mythicists, who claim that Jesus didn’t exist, are the historical equivalent of anti-vaccinationists. They are controversial enough to get media attention but are regarded by scholars as outliers.”

    creationists,intelligent “designists”, anti-vaccinationists, mythics, conspiracy……I wonder what next!

    1. You also left out “climate change deniers.” Of course RM Price is one, but that’s only because he’s been trained to look askance at certain sciences where there’s a public dissensus, even if it’s between actual trained scientists and pseudo-scientists, thanks to the experiences he received at the hand of the theologians.

  6. You’re right, this behavior has almost nothing to do with Christianity. Everyone is biased. But when most people think of bias, they think of some minor mental shortcut that’s easily assessed and overcome. But bias is a fundamental aspect of our cognition; it’s not like we’re in some sort of Cartesian theater being temporarily distracted by cognitive biases. Those cognitive biases are the building blocks of our brains.

    Human beings are social animals. So social, in fact, that some hypothesize that the magnitude and intricacy of our social interactions is what drove our intelligence. A sort of evolutionary arms race of who could win the most friends and influence the most people. In that respect, we are all lawyers. We don’t use our intellect to find out “the truth”, but to gain favor with others or influence others to act in ways that benefit us. Of course we can’t openly admit that, so we are all sort of hypocritical in a way; we have sort of a press secretary that speaks to the outside world that puts a good spin on the decisions and motivations of our internal Congress.

    Because our brains are so geared towards the social, the most pernicious biases we have are those that confer a social advantage. Things like in-group favoritism. We subconsciously favor our perceived in-group over the out-group. This is made obvious when pointing out religious differences, but it happens in all groups we identify with (e.g., the Robbers Cave experiments). Due to our modulated brains, we have subconscious reasoning for things that our conscious mind is unaware of. One of the first experiments to demonstrate this was Michael Gazzaniga’s split brain patients.

    In his experiments, when communication is physically severed between the two halves of the brain, each side of the brain gets different information. Yet, the part of the brain that does the speaking might not be the part of the brain that has the information. So you end up with rationalizations like split brain patients grabbing a shovel with their left hand (since their left eye was shown snow) while their right eye sees a chicken. When asked to explain why they grabbed the shovel, they — well, the side of their brain that only sees the chicken — make up an explanation, like the shovel is used to scoop up chicken poop.

    While this happens in split-brain patients, it also happens to everyday people. One experiment had people tasked to pick their favorite pair of jeans out of four (unbeknownst to them) identical pairs of jeans. A good portion of the people picked the jeans on the right, since they looked at the jeans from left to right. But they were unaware that that was their decision algorithm, and they rationalized their decision by saying they liked the fabric or the length or some other non-discriminating fact about the jeans. Liking the fabric of one pair of jeans more than the others was demonstrably false since the jeans were identical, yet that was the reason they gave. Other experiments where people don’t even realize that the music playing in a wine shop has a massive influence on your choice of wine. But they were certain that the music didn’t affect their choice.

    The most dangerous bias is the one where you think you’re not biased: We have an introspection illusion bias after all. It’s the reason why James McGrath can think he’s being an objective scholar when he reviews mythicist works, when he’s really just defending his in-group against a perceived group that lies outside of the Overton Window that Tim talked about. Over at this psychiatrist’s blog that I read, he points out that we can tolerate anything except the outgroup. Like I said, this behavior has almost nothing to do with Christianity or religion per se. It’s just the way we were designed by evolution.

    1. Yes, an interesting comment, especially the part about the jeans. That tells me that people in general are simply not observant. And as always I question the assumption that “evolution” is the cause of man’s aberrant behavior re: the rest of life on this world. Surely educated people can do better than simply accept something still completely unproven as classic evolution, that animate life evolved spontaneously from inanimate; that evolution designs. Adaptation, oh sure, lots of that, but evolution? Or divine creation? What? Can’t imagine any other alternatives that would make more sense?

      1. “Animate life evolving spontaneously from inanimate life”, “Evolution is completely unproven”, “Evolution doesn’t design”, “Things only adapt”, … Where would I even begin? I will say that I think this pretty much sums up J.Quinton’s comment.

          1. My apologies. Those weren’t direct quotes from the comment above, just the gist of what she was saying. I think the “as always” part says it all.

          2. I read Kearns as sarcastically pointing out the Sha’Tara though putatively referencing Quinton’s comment, instead used her (presumably) comment to spam the comment stream with anti-evolution drivel.

    2. So social, in fact, that some hypothesize that the magnitude and intricacy of our social interactions is what drove our intelligence. A sort of evolutionary arms race of who could win the most friends and influence the most people.

      Can you recommend names, books?

      1. There’s nothing specific, it’s kind of an osmosis from a variety of evolutionary psychology I’ve read.

        Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurtzban
        Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
        Kludge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus
        The Psychological Foundations of Culture by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby

        Besides that psychiatrist Scott Alexander’s blog I posted above, I also read economist Robert Hanson’s blog where he also discusses some evolutionary psychology research.

  7. What scholar isn’t up for a debate?

    Evolutionary biologist for instance. Richard Dawkins (for all his faults) has a point when he refuses to debate creationists, since it only gives them “the oxygen of attention” – it’ll look good on their resumes but not his.

    Not that Historical Jesus studies have anyway near the rigour or certainty of biology, but generally scholarly questions aren’t settled in debates but in the literature.

  8. I find all of this embarrassing and a sad state of where we are at in biblical scholarship at this time. “Scholars” and “non-scholars” both know the state of the evidence for a historical Jesus and “God”. The “scholars” love to talk about Ph.D.’s and credentials, yet their credentials many times are not used as a basis for their opinions and beliefs, which makes their credentials meaningless.

    What weight do the credentials of a Christian “scientist” have if they admit that they believe in God because they were amazed at something they saw in nature, while ignoring the scientific method? What weight do the credentials of a biblical historian hold if their beliefs are based on things “outside” the realm of normal historical practices and logical fallacies?

    I have no doubt that at some point these “scholars” won’t be able to hide behind their credentials anymore and will be forced to rely on the weight of their arguments. The fact that these “scholars” tend to stick their heads in the sand and refuse to respond to “mythicist” responses to their hollow arguments lines up perfectly with the actions of people who can’t support what they believe. They ignore, divert, use violence, fear, deceive, misrepresent, …

    The “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” routine only devalues their credentials and their intellectual honesty and the “stick your head in the sand” technique just means that they won’t see their fate when it devours them.

      1. Apologies if my off-the-cuff remarks about evolution started spam comments: not my intent at all. But just thinking out loud: if it was scientifically, historically, definitely proven that Jesus did exist, or conversely, if it was scientifically, definitely, historically proven that he did not exist, considering the condition of the planet with its 7+ billion Earthian creatures eating it up at this moment, would the conclusions actually change anything? Yet I would not advocate packing your bags, but tackling issues that matter with the aim of educating man to take better care of his one and only world. Christians will NEVER consider any facts that did prove their savior didn’t exist, even if they totally ignore every one of his more pertinent commandments and teachings. Just got that assurance from an evangelical Christian friend who discounts any studies about Jesus not done from a “Christological hermeneutics” perspective. I had to look that up! Oh, but take heart, he feels deeply sorry for non-believers – how can they ever survive their passage through the dark night of the soul? No kidding.
        As for non-theists, well they don’t need proof that Jesus did not exist since that should be irrelevant to their daily concerns. Which leaves, whom? To whom could it matter? To those who debate how many angels can dance on the head of pin? That’s been done. I think there was no actual consensus. Some said three, some seven. Can’t remember how that particular debate ended. Maybe they came to blows and the referee sent them all to the penalty box.
        Quote from a church billboard (internet source) “If your faith is strong enough, facts don’t matter.” You have to have been immersed in fundamentalist Christianity and lived in a Bible Belt to realize how true that is. Enjoying the discussion – and don’t mind me, I see the world somewhat differently than most people. Yes, I tried new glasses: didn’t help a bit.

      2. We can’t just pack up and go home because we are humans (most of us anyway) and raw logic alone does not drive us. Understanding how the world works does not prevent us from attempting to make it a better place, futile creatures that we are.

  9. The characters real or imagined described in Vridar are looking for something.
    I have looked,too. I also looked at what I thought was scientific, materialist, and or determinist.
    Science actively deals with everything except “me” post-mortem.
    After 13.6 BY, why am I here? My proto-homo ancestor, whom I greatly resemble, had not the data or means of expression that I have to formulate the question as well as I fancy I presently can.
    Carl Sagan ended “Cosmos” saying “we” were all unique. He must have meant some otherwise indifferent potentially adaptive molecular variation; otherwise “Who is, we?”
    One cannot “be” dead. Conceivable post-mortem venues for me would very probably exclude rigorous genetic and social parameters.
    All I can say for myself is that “self-awareness” is based on combinations of matter…

    1. {“self-awareness” is based on combinations of matter} James, what about mind? Some see “mind” as simply the “cloud” maintained by brain activity. I see it as being the real me, totally independent of brain or any other combinations of matter – and totally independent of any interference by any god or spirit entities (which exist for me, I’ve met quite a few, and no, I do not use drugs, not ever). Mind is the sacred, in my paradigm. My mind is what truly evolves and expands, feeding on knowledge from experiences. Mind is the creative center, what has the potential to take us through space and time. Ever wonder about “past lives” for example? Nothing weird about that in a mind being. Self-awareness without mind, what is that? Just sayin’… and stopping here.

      1. Looks like we may be able to come up with a better word for Sheilaism.

        In another blog the following comment was posted today:

        “But in the big picture, the need to challenge religion is based in the fact that it is the primary context for reinforcement and refinement of the natural tendency toward blindly and loyally guarding beliefs of preference. Once well habituated, this leads us to deny anything we don’t like… no matter what the evidence says. Thus many deny, without exploration, understanding, or evidence, the whole of climate change. Many jumped right onto the band wagon of invading Iraq. The bottom line: if we’re going to problem-solve well, we’ve got to be willing to change our minds, to respect evidence, to admit when we were wrong. Beliefs of preference, best exemplified in religion, fight against that.”

        The whole idea behind Sheilaism is non-evidenced non-reasoned “beliefs of preference”.

        I have spent the last 20 years doing my best to expunge “Lowenisms” from my belief system.

  10. I’m Facebooks friends with Raph (we use the same Gym, so acquaintances really).

    I’m not involved in the scholarly side of this debate at all, but actually this was a result of a misunderstanding.

    He wasn’t de-friended, it turns our Dickson deactivated his Facebook page over December because he was away from the internet for some time, which Raph assumed was a de-friending given the context.

    Raph has since acknowledged the misunderstanding!

    I can shoot you a screen shot if you are interested. Perhaps a note at the end of the article will suffice.

  11. Oh hi Andy! And yes, John and I have sorted that and, after quibbling over whether I am a scholar or not and if that really is relevant when we have arguments to deal with, finally started discussing relevant issues. Like the anonymity of the Gospels. He still says I’m wrong on this, which to me, says all it needs to say about his capabilities for objective research.

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