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

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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.  Continue reading “Why Believers Ought Not To Get Involved in the Christ Myth Question”


Temple Mount Ruins: Fulfilled Prophecy or Fourth Century Earthquake?

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor Shimon Gibson at Western Wall; Photo by Emil Salman. From http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.635160
Professor Shimon Gibson at Western Wall; Photo by Emil Salman. From http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.635160

Those stones that so many Christians and Jews point to as the sacred remnants of Herod’s Temple destroyed in 70 CE may really be the refuse of an earthquake that hit Jerusalem in 363 CE.

Since the uncovering of these fallen stones in the 1970s the consensus has been that they are definitely the signs of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

“Not one stone shall be left upon another,” goes the prophecy of Jesus, and there is the evidence. Jews see them as the tangible link to the moment when they were believed to have been exiled from their city.

The January 4th 2015 edition of Haaretz publishes a challenge to all of that:


Main points of Professor Gibson’s thesis that was presented at Bar-Ilan University. I summarize them here:

1. How could they leave debris in the middle of a rebuilt city?

Since the discovery of these stones in the 1970s archaeologists have learned much more about Roman Jerusalem after that fateful year 70 CE.

Recent archaeological digs taught us that Roman Jerusalem (which became known as Aelia Capitolina) was a functioning city with a rich population, sturdy homes, a commercial life and wide, elegant streets.

It makes no sense to think that such a thriving city would leave the rubble from the year 70 lying in in its civic heart. Jerusalem was rebuilt. Stones from the previous destruction are the most likely to be the first to be used in that rebuilding.

2. Why would anyone build a bakery business beside a damaged wall and fallen stones?

 A Roman era bakery has been discovered next to the rubble.

You don’t build next to a four-storey ruin. 

3. The anachronism of the Temple Mount pillars 

Continue reading “Temple Mount Ruins: Fulfilled Prophecy or Fourth Century Earthquake?”


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)

Continue reading “Inviting Jim West to read Schweitzer”


Culture Wars: Do Non-Human Animals Have Cultural Behaviours?

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by Neil Godfrey

culturallivesAn interesting discussion has appeared in Salon.com. It’s an excerpt from The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Whitehead and Rendell. Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

There are now, however, enough solidly demonstrated examples . . . for the study of social learning to be accepted as a valid and growing field within mainstream animal behavior science. . . While behavioral ecologists may question the evidence and suggest alternative explanations, they are generally not appalled by the very notion of chim­panzee or whale culture.

The fiercest critics come mostly from anthro­pology and psychology. Here, it is the very concept of animal culture that is anathema, not the nature of the evidence. It is part of the paradigm in most of the social sciences, insofar as the social sciences have paradigms, that humans are unique in having culture or, at least, in being overwhelmingly cultured. Culture in other species, if it exists, is an epiphenomenon, not ter­ribly important. It is the challenge to this paradigm that is being resisted.

And finally

We have got ourselves an idea of what we mean by “culture.” We have seen how controversial the notion that nonhumans might have culture is in some quarters. We have also seen how quickly things are changing in the way we understand these issues. Continue reading “Culture Wars: Do Non-Human Animals Have Cultural Behaviours?”


Was Jesus Another Charismatic Holy Man? The Evidence according to Geza Vermes

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by Neil Godfrey

Geza Vermes
Geza Vermes

Some scholars today say a major work of Geza Vermes first published in 1973, Jesus the Jew: a historian’s reading of the Gospels, has “stood the test of time”. From my own recollection of Vermes’ book I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing.

Here are some of the more recent accolades:

Indeed, some of Vermes’s distinctive contributions have been extremely influential and so far stood the test of time. In addition to the general view of Jesus the Jew, placing Jesus in the same category of charismatic Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa has proven to be particularly popular and the overall thesis has not been refuted, even if various details have been challenged. (See earlier post on Why Christianity Happened, p. 29. My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

Chris Keith cites Crossley approvingly:

[James Crossley’s] lecture emphasized two other things for me as well.  First, the work of really appreciating and articulating the influence of Vermes’s 1973 Jesus the Jew is perhaps still only starting.  Obviously, most people in historical Jesus studies know that Vermes’s study was important, even a watershed.  But I have heard several lectures here lately where scholars are emphasizing just how revolutionary it was.  This position is not just because of Vermes’s emphasis on seeing Jesus against a Jewish background, which deservedly gets attention, but also for his noted dislike of structured “methodology.”

Let’s see what happens when Vermes discards “structured methodology” in relation to just one of the points, though a key one, in Jesus the Jew.

Placing Jesus in the same category of Jewish holy men 

jesusjewWe see above Crossley singling out Vermes placing Jesus in the category of charismatic Jewish holy men like Hanina ben Dosa. Let’s look at Vermes’s justification for this.

(Note: I cannot in this one post cover all of the details and nuances of Vermes’s argument. I touch only on key points. Anyone who has read Jesus the Jew may well raise some objections to specific points I make here. I believe my points can withstand more extensive discussion but please note that I would not want anyone quoting what follows as my “final word”. Take what follows as my tentative disagreements with Vermes’ interpretation of the evidence.)

The term “charismatic” is used because Jesus is said to have drawn upon “immediate contact with God” for his supernatural abilities. While Vermes tells us that such individuals were found throughout “an age-old prophetic religious line” he does not, from what I can recall, offer evidence for this age-old line. In fact, he seems to me to be forcing the evidence associated with two names to provide proof of the existence of this “line” in the time of Jesus.

Hanina ben Dosa

Vermes tells us that Hanina ben Dosa was

one of the most important figures for the understanding of the charismatic stream [of Judaism] in the first century AD.

In a minor key, he offers remarkable similarities with Jesus, so much so that it is curious, to say the least, that traditions relating to him have been so little utilized in New Testament scholarship. (p. 72)

The sources are from the later rabbinic writings. These tell us that he lived near Sepphoris, a major city otherwise noted as situated close by Nazareth.

I enjoy reading and learning new things. So my first question here was to ask how we know this Hanina ben Dosa lived at this time and place. Continue reading “Was Jesus Another Charismatic Holy Man? The Evidence according to Geza Vermes”


Biblioblog Commendation: Apocryphicity

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by Neil Godfrey

Tony Burke’s blog Apocryphicity is a first rate blog for anyone interested in critical studies of early Christianity and its literature. Coincidentally the blog has been running as long as Vridar (since November 2006) yet I only discovered its treasures a day or two ago.

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Here’s what I have gained from reading it in just that short time.

Tony Burke played a significant role in the translation of The Story of Joseph and Aneseth so central to the popular controversial publication this year of The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (Harper Collins, 2014) by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson.

lostgospelHe explains his role, the reasons he undertook the task and his experience of peer pressure to refrain in Translating Joseph and Aseneth: My role in Jacobivici and Wilson’s “Lost Gospel”. I found this paragraph quite a refreshing read at a number of levels:

Throughout the process Barrie and Simcha warned me that I might be criticized for working with them on the book; other scholars have shied away from participating on Simcha’s projects out of fear of damage to their careers, others because they worry that their views will be misrepresented, as often happens in documentaries. I think Barrie and Simcha’s decision not to tell me about their argument was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to prevent my scholarly reputation from being damaged.

I am not one to shy away from controversy and believe that no argument—even if it is highly speculative, even if it is presented outside of scholarly circles—should be silenced. It has been frustrating to see other scholars and the media dismiss the book without having read it or fully engaged with its arguments. I don’t expect Barrie and Simcha’s position on Joseph and Aseneth to convince many on the origins of this text, but there are aspects of their work that are of interest for the study of Syrian Christianity. (my bolding and formatting as in all quotes)

Why do so many scholars seem to think that rubbishy and ignorant dismissals of ideas they find offensive will teach and inform anybody? Why do so many public intellectuals treat the public with contempt?

Tony Burke sounds like someone you can talk to, who will defend his views and who will give you something substantial and valid to think about that may lead you to revise your own thoughts.  Continue reading “Biblioblog Commendation: Apocryphicity”

Morality: Why and What Is It? (And more blog serendipity)

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by Neil Godfrey

New Morality
New Morality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think morality was a distinctively human attribute but no more. To tell the complete story I really believed morality was unique to humans and divinities or spirits of some kind. This led to unresolvable problems that hurt my head, such as:

  • Why does a good sleep or healthy diet have such a profound effect on moral behaviour of so many of us?
  • Is not our morality supposedly a non-physical phenomenon we can control by our means of strong character? It’s because we are responsible for our actions that we punish those who do bad things, isn’t it? But what do we do with research that shows bad behaviour is related to chemical imbalances or other nasties in our bodies?
  • How does God judge wicked deeds and motives if they could be avoided or change by a simple tinkering of a chemical balance in the brain?

Would a more rational list of Ten Commandments include things like

Thou shalt not eat meat sacrificed at MacDonalds. I will utterly blot out the remembrance of MacDonalds from under heaven.

Thy hoary heads shalt nap at noon for the Ancient of Days napped at noon.

We change. I no longer think our “moral nature” sets us apart from other animals at all. I’ve posted on this a few times now. One of my recent posts referred to Steve Wiggins’ review of Moral Animals on his Sects and Violence in the Ancient World blog. Love the title.

Another blog that I’ve discovered and enjoy exploring is aperi mentis. It’s Latin for “open your mind”. Another great title. Its byline:

a blog dedicated to the exploration of science, humanism & rationality (with a scattering of history and linguistics)

Lots of my favourite goodies there! He also has a post on the gospels: Continue reading “Morality: Why and What Is It? (And more blog serendipity)”