Robert Price’s New Book: A Comment

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by Neil Godfrey

HistoricalBejeezusIn my previous post I made the following note:

Daniel Gullotta has a more conventional background and approach and recently reviewed Robert Price’s latest volume, Review: The Historical Bejeezus: What a Long, Strange Quest It’s Been. He gives 2 out of 5 stars.

Daniel Gullotta expresses his disappointment over Price giving as much space as he does to some of the more bizarre (and generally obscured from the wider public’s consciousness) Christ myth theories extant today:

Some of these people [reviewed by Price] are household names to Bible geeks, such as John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, and James D. Tabor, but others are for more obscure and less known. This is where the main problem lies with The Historical Bejeezus.

Some of the writers and theories that Price tackles are simply so minor, so fringe, and so insignificant it is hard to imagine why Price wasted his time and energy writing on them. Some of the chapters that were extremely difficult to finish were the ones related to the works of Hugh J. Schonfield, Joseph Atwill, and Charlotte Allen. . . . 

[D]espite the outlandish claims of Atwill’s conspiracy theory about the origins of Christianity and Price’s own criticisms of Atwill’s work, Price nonetheless calls Atwill “an innovative thinker” and says that Atwill’s theory “does not sound unreasonable on the face of it.”

By contrast, writes Gullotta,

Even Richard Carrier is willing to distant himself from figures like Atwill and Murdoch with far more hard hitting reviews and criticisms, despite their shared overall thesis.

I think I can understand where both Gullotta and Carrier are coming from but I also think it is worth taking note of Price’s own explanation for why he “wasted his time” with such “fringe” authors. From Price’s Introduction:

I take quite seriously even works considered eccentric by the (often dull) mainstream of conventional scholarship. It is only by taking such books seriously, rather than offering facile mockery and disdain, that one can tell the difference between nonsense and brilliant new theories. But I have no wish to defend nonsense, and my book’s title pretty well indicates that I find a good bit of it in several of the books I review. And, again, it is my job to show why they are nonsense if indeed they are. . . . (My bolding)

Personally I like that. I find the sentiment far more useful and in the public interest than what we too often find in ivory tower scholarship.

I have made the point myself several times now about my own efforts to research and explain patiently, clearly, and with the support of verifiable evidence, why popular belief in Atlantis is nonsense, why belief in paranormal phenomena such as “auras” and strange methods of healing are nonsense, why stories of sightings of Noah’s ark in Mount Ararat and reports of alien abductions are nonsense.

Nothing is to be gained by “offering facile mockery and disdain”. In fact, there is much to lose. Those offended or scoffed at can only be all the more alienated and dig deeper into their delusions. Fence sitters are as likely to abandon what they will justifiably see as the arrogance of the academy.

As for appealing to the example of Richard Carrier, one should note that Richard is censured for his “hard hitting reviews and criticisms” of scholarly peers like Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey and James McGrath, and censured savagely by some of those same scholars who are his targets, for his hard hitting bluntness. If such bluntness is considered inappropriate for the academy I don’t believe it should be excused for those who have not had the same educational opportunities and demonstrate professional scholarly skills.

I side with those who believe public intellectuals (or anyone who has accrued more than the average share of benefits of modern society) have certain public or social obligations.

Earlier, in his opening paragraph, Price also writes:

Indeed, I have found the works of scholars of all stripes and shades of opinion enlightening and fascinating. There is always something to learn even from works with which one feels forced to disagree. Even works whose extravagant speculations scare the Bejeezus out of you. 

Here he is primarily speaking of scholarly works but I have found it generally true of most works — even if what is learned is not always what the author perhaps wished a reader to learn.

I have sometimes expressed a wish that critics of mythicism would do what Schweitzer did and follow his advice — especially in relation to “the tone of the debate”. Price, interestingly, tells us he is attempting to follow Schweitzer’s example:

By compiling reviews, I am seeking to emulate the great Schweitzer who, as I say, spent chapter after chapter of The Quest of the Historical Jesus in what amounts to detailed book reviews. I like that approach. One reason I prefer it is that it has always helped me to compare notes with scholars about major scholarly works of which I seek to do my own evaluation. For instance, if I can compare my reading of Bultmann with Tillich’s understanding of him, I stand to understand the work of both men better.

Likewise, I hope that you will read some of the books I treat here, not taking my word as gospel but rather so you can compare notes with me as a fellow scholar.

And that is always my goal: not to create disciples of my own, but to facilitate my readers’ forming their own syntheses. If I can proved new information and perspectives, I have done my job. (my formatting)

I like that, too.


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Neil Godfrey

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