Inviting Jim West to read Schweitzer

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by Neil Godfrey

Baptist Pastor and Professor of Biblical Studies Jim West posted the following recently:

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Jim is a faculty member of the Quartz Hill School of Theology that advertizes itself as

an academic institution designed to train believers for more effective ministry, both in and out of the church. QHST affirms that each believer is a priest before God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, not needing any human intermediary to reach God and competent to judge spiritual matters for him or herself. Quartz Hill School of Theology is a ministry of Quartz Hill Community Church, a very small Baptist congregation which is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

But has Jim himself really read Schweitzer? Although very much a believer in the historicity of Jesus Schweitzer wrote some interesting words about the implications of mythicism and historical methods that I suspect Jim would not like one bit. Jim certainly does not believe in emulating Schweitzer in this area.

Perhaps he has only read the first edition, from 1910, of Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus. There we read the famous insight that has been repeated by many a scholar ever since, that in searching for a historical Jesus each scholar has found a Jesus in his own image:

As formerly in Renan the romantic spirit created the personality of Jesus in its own image, so at the present day the Germanic spirit is making a Jesus after its own likeness. (p. 309)

But the historic Jesus and the Germanic spirit cannot be brought together except by an act of historic violence which in the end injures both religion and history. A time will come when our theology, with its pride in its historical character, will get rid of its rationalistic bias. This bias leads it to project back into history what belongs to our own time, the eager struggle of the modern religious spirit with the Spirit of Jesus, and seek in history justification and authority for its beginning. The consequence is that it creates the historical Jesus in its own image, so that it is not the modern spirit influenced by the Spirit of Jesus, but the Jesus of Nazareth constructed by modern historical theology, that is set to work upon our race. (p. 312)

Jim West is a model of faith-based scholarship. I say this because of his ability to recognize the circularity of much that passes for research into the historical Jesus while not allowing such unstable intellectual foundations wobble his insistence that there really was a historical Jesus.

Jim is also a very unpleasant and dishonest character when he broaches the subject of mythicism and here he and Schweitzer stand poles apart.

Perhaps the reason Jim promotes disinformation about mythicist arguments and makes the effort to excise any hint of a reference to a mythicist site (see his response to being informed of inaccuracies in Casey’s book; his editing to remove a reference to a scholar’s comments on Vridar; and his churlish treatment towards one solely on grounds of suspected mythicism) is his deep-down recognition of this methodological vacuity at the heart of his faith-based scholarship.

Contrast Jim West’s language with Schweitzer admonition:

The tone in which the debate about the existence or non-existence of Jesus has been conducted does little credit to the culture of the twentieth century. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

Schweitzer squarely laid the blame on the “mythicists” of his day: they gratuitously provoked “mainstream biblical scholars”, and the latter in return “generally answered in an unfortunately similar manner.” Today the situation is the reversal of Schweitzer’s portrayal of it in his own day. No-one can accuse the one who has probably done most to revitalize today’s interest in mythicism, Earl Doherty, of publishing “gratuitously provocative” works about “mainstream biblical scholars”. Yet one does read outrageous falsehoods about what Doherty has actually written along with malicious character attacks against him by professional scholars. (Maurice Casey’s book is one long lying and slanderous diatribe against anyone he chooses to brand a “mythicist”.)

Schweitzer lamented the over-zealous and poorly prepared responses to mythicist arguments in the early twentieth century:

As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low. . . . 

In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

Today Earl Doherty has introduced a new standard of research and argument into the mythicist argument as a number of scholars (e.g. Price, Avalos, Carrier) have acknowledged. We have yet to see a response from the historicists of comparable quality.

Schweitzer did not slander mythicists but pinpointed what he saw to be their main intellectual failing:

The fact that in the debate so far these problems have all been confused is chiefly the fault of those who deny the historicity of Jesus. They have followed no pre-conceived plan in the presentation and development of their theories, and have been more concerned with the effective marshalling of their criticisms and assertions than with a real exploration of what is involved or the principles underlying it. It is remarkable that none of their opponents put an end to the confusion by pressing for a distinction between these two different aspects of the problem. Scholarly discussion is possible only when first the more general and then subsequently the more particular issues are considered. (p.396)

Carrier has echoed the same complaint and his own work is a pioneering attempt to redress this weakness.

Schweitzer deplored the propensity of anti-mythicists to dismiss mythicists arguments as patently absurd. He understood the fundamental methodological problems.

More than once in the writings directed against [a mythicist] it is stated that even what is self-evident can nevertheless be made clear only if the will is there to be swayed by the evidence available. The writers call on ‘sound judgment’, a ‘sense of reality’, or even on the ‘aesthetic feeling’ of the man whose views they are opposing, that is, if they do not console themselves with the idea that nothing can be revealed to him who will not see.

In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even be raised so high as positive probability.

So nothing is achieved by calling on sound judgment or on whatever else one likes to ask for in an opponent. Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. (p.402, my bolding and formatting)

Schweitzer addressed the many mythicists arguments of his own day without the personal insults routinely spat out by Jim West. And having addressed the arguments in some detail he concluded that scholars should not be so highly strung about any mythicist challenge. If they sought to protect their faith they were advised to do so with more sophistication than slinging insults at mythicists and lying about their arguments:

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . . (p.402)



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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Inviting Jim West to read Schweitzer”

    1. For a long time I could never take Jim seriously. I was convinced he had to be joking. How else could I understand other serious scholars appearing to welcome him in their company. No truly educated person could possibly carry on like that. It took me a long time to see and accept the fact that he was serious. Now I am bemused that other scholars ever seriously engage with him at all.

  1. One of the reasons I started blogging this year is because of what appears to be a deteriorating quality of dialogue among so-called biblical scholars these days. Guys like Jim West seem to spend a lot of time on personalities and superficial treatment of questions like historicity. I am still, after many years of ups and downs with so-called “truth in religion,” of a mind that disagreements can and should be handled in a framework of reason and respect. The nonsense from John Dickson ripping Lataster compelled me to write a response that Gavin Rumney published on OTAGOsh Christmas Day. http://gsneil.com
    Vridar will be added to my blogroll, for its robust approach and rich amount of good discussion. Thanks for acting like adults in some very important conversations about the human experience.

    1. Thanks for the link to your blog. It looks interesting. I see you are another former fundamentalist. I’m beginning to think that one is more likely to find open and rational minds among those of us who have known and left the dark side than among biblical scholars who have never forsaken some form of their faith. I’m not saying that’s a rule or anything — just that it sometimes feels like it, sadly.

  2. “…not allowing such unstable intellectual foundations wobble his insistence …”

    did you mean

    “…not allowing such unstable intellectual foundations *to* wobble his insistence …”

  3. Why is the first recourse of historicists in the main ; is to sling ad hominem attacks and insults?
    Why not just deal with the material at(or not) hand?
    Theologian McGrath seems to be the “go to guy” or is most times being acknowledged as such on many Biblioblogs. Janus like, a face of a professional scholar is presented at conferences and seminars etc; but when it comes to mythicists and their arguments the other face of Janus is revealed. This struck me while perusing a blog that Neil had commented on. If one follows the blogroll on this site, they invariably contain a link to the cake mix. Following the links further, Time Lord is also in there.

    I so wish Time Lord or Theologian McGrath would publish a book rebutting the arguments of mythicists! If only they would be brave enough to stare into the abyss(ala Ehrman) and not recoil.
    What they are able to get away with on blogs is not so easily done in a book. The scrutiny would be piercing and focused in the way that Ehrman and Casey found out.

    End of rant:)

      1. I should have added to the post some reference to Jim West’s follow up to his OT minimalism article with his NT “minimalism” as published in “Is this not the carpenter?”A (Very, Very) Strange History of Minimalism”.

        In the case of Jesus theology and “historicism” are the same. The theology itself is about God entering history so the two are merged. Faith creates “history”.

        1. Sure. But when you look at somebody like William Dever, who objects to Minimalists because of what their method does to his theology, you realize the “history” of Jesus is central to Christian theology (certainly, Catholic theology). Dever’s objection that Minimalists are nihilists demonstrate rings false when you recognize that minimalism is seeking to understand history, not destroy it, and that their quest only endangers Christian theology to the extent that it rests on the historicity of the Old Testament. West is in no better a position than Dever except in that West’s brand of Christianity does not care about the historicity of the Old Testament. But once you accept that the Old Testament is fallible and may not be history, you are a minimalist (yes, Dever is an unwitting minimalist). West, as a minimalist, accepts the possibility that Jesus was as mythical as Moses, David and Solomon. He just doesn’t realize it yet. That’s what cognitive dissonance is all about . . .

    1. Good points. Unfortunately I fear that if McG ever did write a book he would fill it with vague references to reader to go consult his blog files from years back to see what he means. In other words he’ll have no evidence to support his claims that anyone has treated him “atrociously” apart from showing publicly how incompetent he is as an intellectual and he’ll have no more idea of the mythicist arguments he’ll be attacking than did Casey and Ehrman.

      One could dismiss him for his repeatedly demonstrated incompetence but the real problem is that he is taken seriously enough by his peers to lead a conference session on mythicism. His peers treat him as an authority. That tells you a lot about the professional standards of bible academics.

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