Why Believers Ought Not To Get Involved in the Christ Myth Question

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Raphael Lataster article that recently appeared in The Washington Post as well as The Conversation opened with these words:

Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

Christian evangelist scholar John Dickson saw red and responded:

No student – let alone an aspiring scholar – could get away with suggesting that Christians “ought not to get involved” in the study of the historical Jesus. This is intellectual bigotry and has no place in academia, or journalism.

I read Raphael’s words as a bit of common-sense advice. How can anyone whose faith commits them to believing in the divine Jesus who walked on water possibly approach the question with a truly open mind? One would expect from such people little more than hostility and insults. And that’s exactly how two believers have responded in print to Raphael’s article.

John Dickson has very little to say (at least honestly or accurately) in response to Raphael Lataster’s alerts to various problems with both the evidence for the historical Jesus and the methods Bible scholars have generally used to study him but he does have a lot of good old Christian and scholarly invective to vent:

“Mythicists” are the historical equivalent of the anti-vaccination crowd in medical science. They are controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!” This is precisely what Raphael does . . . . It is as if he thinks he wins the game by declaring all its rules stupid and inventing his own path.

And later we read this:

[Lataster’s article] underlines the impropriety of a student in religious philosophy, whatever his faith perspective, assuming the mantle of academic historian.

Of course Raphael nowhere even hints the word “conspiracy” nor does he “assume the mantle of an academic historian”. In fact what he does is bring to the public attention what every critical scholar knows about the state of evidence and problems with traditional methodologies in relation to the historical Jesus.

John Dickson is a Christian evangelist who attempts to argue in his various publications that sound historical methods leave the objective inquirer in no doubt about the fundamentals of the Gospel narratives about Jesus. I suppose he therefore has good reason to fear a publicizing of the the simple facts about the problems with the evidence and methods that critical scholars know only too well. As a believer he can hardly be expected to seek to argue against Latater’s article solely on a rational level.

Raphael has in fact sought to publicly debate John Dickson without success:

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:


Michael Bird, too

Meanwhile a colleague of John’s, Michael Bird, (editor and co-author of How God Became Jesus, a response to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God), joined the fray on Euangelion with Taking on the Jesus Mythicists. I didn’t think anyone could surpass JD for ad hominem, distortions and blatant inaccuracies in a response but Michael Bird certainly did. 

Here’s how the good Christian and gentleman Michael Bird begins his response:

[Lataster’s] article turned out to be just another attempt to propound the ideological holy grail of fringe atheist groups, namely, that Jesus never existed. Now I am normally a cordial and collegial chap, but to be honest, I have little time or patience to invest in debunking the wild fantasies of “Jesus mythicists”, as they are known.

That is because, to be frank, those of us who work in the academic profession of religion and history simply have a hard time taking them seriously. They are the equivalent of climate change deniers or 9/11 conspiracy theorists. None of them are bonafide academics with tenure at a respected institution in this field, have peer-reviewed publications, and are recognised as experts in their area.

The Jesus mythicists are a group of enthusiastic atheists who through websites and self-published books try to prove the equivalent of a flat earth.

Have you ever heard the likes of McGrath and Hurtado challenge mythicists to publish in the standard peer-review journals if they want to be taken seriously? And have you ever heard them snort “Conspiracy theorist” if a mythicist says no such journal would publish a mythicist work? Well you might be interested to see the next thing that Bird wrote in his little diatribe:

I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.

Need we have any more doubts about guild pressure on anyone who entertains doubts about Jesus’ historicity to keep quiet. Perhaps Thomas Brodie was not being paranoid after all when he said he would have to retire once he made his own doubts public.

Bird’s entire post is little more than wave after wave of personal attack without any attempt to seriously address a single point in Lataster’s article. (I don’t consider logically fallacious and flippantly inaccurate assertions “serious” or scholarly responses.)

What I find absolutely flabbergasting is that Mr. Lataster rejects the account of Jesus by secular and non-religious historians like the late Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman in favour of the conspiracy theories of amateur atheist historian Richard Carrier. . . . 

Mr. Lataster’s article clearly emerges out of his self-published book, There Was No Jesus, There Is No God – a title that unveils his purposes. Lataster is not writing an independent and unbiased account of Christian origins; he seems to be writing an apologetic tract for his tribe, providing solace to his atheist friends who are concerned that this Jesus thing might be a bit too real for their comfort. To them I say, relax. There are substantial reasons why one might choose to reject Christian belief; but the question of whether Jesus existed is not one of them. Even if there is no God, there was still an historical Jesus.

I was surprised to see Bird advertizing his article on his blog because from the comments readers added it appears that most saw right through his polemics and insults. Even our fellow amateur historian Tim O’Neill and apologist for Christian apologists was exposed posing under another name pretending to give public support for his own comments!

In his blog Bird actually accuses Raphael of “attacking” Bart Ehrman.

I privately emailed Bart Ehrman, who was attacked in Lataster’s piece, to get his view, and he shared my exasperation about having to deal with fruit loops like these.

I did not recall Raphael attacking anyone so I went back to his article. Here is Bird’s idea of an “attack” on Ehrman:

So what do the mainstream (and non-Christian) scholars say about all this? Surprisingly very little; of substance anyway. Only Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey have thoroughly attempted to prove Jesus’ historical existence in recent times.

Their most decisive point? The Gospels can generally be trusted – after we ignore the many, many bits that are untrustworthy – because of the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them.

Who produced these hypothetical sources? When? What did they say? Were they reliable? Were they intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions?

Ehrman and Casey can’t tell you – and neither can any New Testament scholar.

Now that’s why believers ought not to get involved! Dickson, Bird, McGrath, Hurtado — they can talk to their choir and do all they can to warn their peers that this question is utterly forbidden — but the more they do so the more the neutral bystanders will see their tactics for what they are.

Is there anyone who is willing to take Schweitzer’s advice and address the question in a scholarly manner?

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Why Believers Ought Not To Get Involved in the Christ Myth Question”

  1. Christian apologists commenting on the historicity of Jesus are the equivalent of Intelligent Design apologists commenting on the science of evolution. It’s a mismatch of types and the former will never be credible in the discussion of the later.

  2. A rationalization for a believer to risk…risk getting involved:
    …To do Jesus one better:
    John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s [immortal soul] for one’s friends.

  3. Don’t forget that the debate within “the academic profession of religion and history” is between the huge majority of theologians who actually believe in the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, and the minority of theologians who do not. Those are the only accepted parameters of the debate. These sides are sometimes as contemptuous of each other as they are of so-called “mythicists,” and I’m sure that privately, at least, the secular Jesus professors are quite content to view their supernatural colleagues as the equivalent of 9/11 Truthers and so forth.

    I’m coming more around to Lataster’s view that “mythicism” should just be a debate between atheists, not one between theologians and atheists. The parameters of their side are too narrow and entrenched to see any real breakthroughs for the next 50-100 years. Anyone who does break through, like Brodie, is studiously ignored, “rebutted,” fired, hushed off stage and out of theology.

  4. Michael Bird is co-author (with James Crossley) of How Did Christianity Begin?: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence (Baker Academic, 2008).

    Just to be clear, Bird is the “believer” in the title.

    1. Such dialogue may be interpreted as an indication that in the field of Christian origins studies some non-religious practitioners have bought in to the soft methods of their religious counterparts rather than following the methods historians apply to source material in other historical fields.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading