Daniel Gullotta followed up his Miami Valley Skeptics podcast discussion with another podcast interview, this time on Logicast. The Logicast page and Daniel himself speak of the discussion as a “debate” with David Fitzgerald.
This week I was invited to join the Logicast podcast to share my thoughts on New Testament scholarship, Biblical history, and talk about my recent debate with amateur historian David Fitzgerald over the topic of Mythicism.
That sounds like a wide-ranging discussion but as readers will see the theme throughout was the mythicist controversy. I found these two podcasts, especially this one on Logicast, most interesting for the understanding they shed on the attitudes of the various parties — scholars, atheists opposed to mythicism, and mythicists themselves. I’ll share what I have learned in a future post.
Again, this is not strictly a transcript. Much is my own paraphrase/precis. Sections in inverted commas are generally the verbatim bits. Corrections welcome.
Same colour code as in previous post. Interviewers remarks are in italics.
The discussion starts at 7:10
“You did a phenomenal job for your first real mythicist debate.”
DG: It was interesting in that we did not talk much about historicity of Jesus but that it was more a discussion around the origins of Christianity.
DG: I think the issue [that we did not get down into a real debate on historicity per se] is that I’m not the Christian apologist and the mythicist topic is framed in those ways.
“Oh right, so his [DF’s] regular stuff didn’t really work on you.”
DG: David realizes I am not the enemy and I know he’s not the enemy. And the fact that this topic is framed in those ways is problematic.
DF’s arguments would be framed for Christian apologists.
On the Objectivity of the Scholars
DF said secular historians are really the only ones doing any work. My mouth almost dropped – and DG almost had a heart attack, too.
DG: DF’s comment was that he only pays attention to secular historians because Christians are circling wagons and I took umbrage to that. My bookshelf — “I look at all the names staring down at me very intimidatingly” — I don’t know what most of them do on a Sunday morning.
Because they’re doing history! (Laughs)
DG: Some go to synagogues earlier in week. “This isn’t just a field divided by atheists and Christians. There’s also Jewish voices and there’s also people you wouldn’t know if they were atheist or Christian. They don’t engage in podcasts like this. . . . There’s plenty of people I know for a fact are religious and they are doing wonderful work.” e.g. Chris Tilling [says Thiering but pretty sure he means Tilling] and his new book Paul’s Divine Christology; Larry Hurtado; N.T. Wright — “is such a powerful voice in NT scholarship that he needs to be engaged with” despite disagreements with him. We need to acknowledge that there are many wings of scholarship like many denominations of Christianity. My favourite HJ scholar is a Roman Catholic — he won’t touch the resurrection because that’s theology.
Complains about those who say you cannot do certain academic work because of what you do on a Sunday. Yes there are those [apologists] who don’t do real scholarship but they don’t show up at a historical symposium in the first place. You can’t discount somebody because of their religion. They are there because of their work. And I don’t understand what they’re circling the wagons against.
DG: The conservative evangelical branch of scholarship don’t typically appear at American Academy of Religion or Society of Biblical Literature but have their own conferences. But some of their seminars are nonetheless really interesting. e.g. Michael Bird and Douglas Campbell do attend SBL. So even some conservatives engage in the mainstream.
On the Objectivity of the Atheists
Nonreligious atheists, agnostics, sceptics tend to view biblical studies as Christianity as a whole being against the rest of us free-thinking, rational people. But that’s not how the field is framed.
A problem with this issue [i.e. mythicist debate] is the idea that being an atheist somehow makes one objective, unlike the religious believers. They use this claim of supposed objectivity to promote “their own kind of bullshit.”
When DF comes in here we get the message that he’s saying “thank god the atheists are here” because “we’ll protect your history, your scepticism, etc.
But there are so many things in the atheist community that are touted as fact, like the complete nonsense that all wars have been caused by religion — which is “just fucking absurd.”
“I ask mythicists repeatedly, If there was a contemporary does that mean by default that you would consider Jesus to be a real person? And what they always say to me, almost always, is (essentially) No.” — and I wonder why they spend so much time arguing over this point against those who are actually practising history as experts.
On Scepticism and Authority
DG: It becomes like a doubting Thomas question. They [i.e. mythicists] are saying, “Unless I see the wounds and put my fingers in his side I won’t believe.” It does remind me of this “level of scepticism” and doubt “where no-one and nothing is trustworthy anymore”. And it does become difficult for someone like me who has a blog and trying to communicate with people like yourselves in the lay community. I’m always careful to ask others to introduce me as a ‘budding scholar” because I’m not there yet, and I don’t claim to have enough expertise to represent the academy. But as one who does engage with scholarship far more than the average lay person, someone who is going into a considerable amount of depth…”
Yes, you are paying for that. What you are doing is serious.
DG: …. And it become disheartening when “my word means absolutely nothing” and it’s worse when someone like Bart Ehrman, when his word “means absolutely nothing” “It frames it in a very difficult way to even have conversations. . . . Which is why I think my discussion with David was helpful because we could at least talk openly and candidly which I think is something that has been lacking on this discussion.”
Complaints about those who think their opinion is as good as anyone else’s and who suggest expertise doesn’t exist anymore. Comparing mythicists with the anti-vaccination movement. They say that vaccinations are not safe because of what someone said on a blog or what a neighbour says. But the experts do this for a living and understand it in the way lay people don’t. People say “I have a right to my opinion” as if that makes it valid,and act as if the experts don’t exist or don’t matter. I don’t understand that at all. They spend years studying so they DO know more about it than lay people do.
On Mythicist Reception History
Mythicism is only being talked about in one subgroup and it’s an atheist subgroup. That’s the only place where we’re having this conversation.
DG: This is the place where the mythicism discussion is most dominant …
“In my studies of mythicism” I fail to see any explanatory power at all. And the leaps and bounds and forced readings on to the text and sources — at times it frankly it baffles me.
So I’m not interested in mythicist theory as such.
DG: But i find mythicist reception history quite fascinating …..
- Its birth in the 18th century Enlightenment
- and through the 19th century
- and then on into the Dutch Radical movement,
- and then picked up in the Soviet Union.
- then it reappears in the ’70s and ’80s in the New Age form.
- and now it has re-emerged in the atheist sceptic community.
Watching its evolution is like watching the evolution of the Quest for the historical Jesus. We see how that
- moved from a stained glass Jesus
- then rediscovering Jesus was a Jew after the horrors of World War 2
- and reconsidering Judaism in the NT
Both quests — for mythical Jesus and historical Jesus — are interesting: “who these people are, where this movement comes from, and how they conduct themselves is quite fascinating.”
On the Way They Behave
Maurice Casey was a nonbeliever. [As if he been interviewed on Logicast, too?]
DG: Yes, Maurice Casey, like Burton Mack and Michael Goulder, were “self-declared non-religious” scholars. It was then “and it still is entrenched in Christian circles” that to be anything other than a Christian or Jew was to be “quite different”. And “typically the way they behaved”. You wouldn’t see people like Casey or Goulder at places like Skepticon. Both Casey and Goulder preface themselves as “non-aggressive” — Goulder on BBC interview said he was a “nonaggressive atheist” and Casey said he was “not against religion.”
“And James Crossley who was one of Casey’s greatest pupils” said similarly he is not against religion. The anti-religious voice that we face now — the prominence of this anti-religions stance is new, it’s much more vocal. Its loudness is “quite new and we’re still trying to figure out how to deal with it.”
One of the problems I have is that religion is treated as being anti-progress. That’s historically inaccurate. We’ve had to deal with these people. We agree with many bad ideas about religion, but there are many other systemic issues we face that have nothing to do with religion. We won’t get rid of religion by logical arguments with believers, and I don’t agree with the idea of eradicating religion at all . . . Every time I hear someone say something like that, I think, You “fucking fascist shit head” for thinking you can just go around controlling what people believe, you’re a fascist. And there are atheists who believe that.”
Other interviewer: “That word [“fascist”] gets used wrongly all the time but that’s the correct way to use it.”
DG: At the University of Newcastle (Australia) I did course on critical religion and “was able to do a research project” on Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of people. What I found fascinating was the way people in today’s drug culture interpret that to mean that religion is a dangerous drug. What I found fascinating was that religion is good at finding the world’s problems; religion is able to see that there is a problem with justice etc and the way people treat each other. But the issue with Marx was that the solution of religion “wasn’t good enough”. In the modern world someone said religion is the heroin of the people, it makes us junkies, it’s the crystal meth. When same-sex issue was debated the conservative religionists opposed it but the liberal churches were jumping up and down excited to be part of it. So religion doesn’t dull people but it energizes and motivates and excites people to do good things. And as someone who used to be religious I can relate to that.
DG: I have a chapter in a book coming out (in the distant future) about the leftist, liberal, progressive Jesus and what sort of historical Jesus scholarship that is drawn from. (That’s a bit of self-promotion.)
On Josephus – Testimonium Flavianum
David Fitzgerald said “I don’t know what a forgery is”. [Untrue. See my comment below.]
[Other interviewer laughs.]
Stop laughing, I’m not wanting to be rude. Daniel, can you explain Josephus to us, the proper context, so we never have to have this conversation again.
DG: [Gives background details of Josephus.]
DG: In Josephus’s Antiquities is the Testimonium Flavianum. Undoubtedly this was not (all) written by Josephus. The scholarly debate is over how much of it is an interpolation. A lot of scholarship says if you take away the Christian friendly language it sounds a lot like Josephus. Others look at the manuscript tradition and see we have no inkling of the passage until Origen. Origen says Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and some scholars think this is a reference to this passage. Eusebius was the first to report the passage as we know it so some suspect he is the forger. I’m not a Josephus scholar. I’m undecided though lean somewhat to it having an authentic core “because that’s what the experts have led me to believe” — though I have heard some good arguments on the other side.
On Josephus – the James Passage
DG: The other Josephan passage, “this time it’s in the Jewish War volume”, refers to Jacob/James as the brother of Jesus. “The only people in the ancient world who were brothers of somebody were if they had a famous brother” because that would help distinguish them. So “when he says James the brother of Jesus we know who we are talking about”. Most people think this is a very straightforward reading and this is “James the leader of the Jerusalem church in the 40 and 50s”. Not only mythicists but a certain French scholar think the passage is corrupted by scribes, that it is an accidental interpolation. The scribe read the manuscript a certain way and thought that that can’t be right so made him the brother of Jesus.
I disagree with Carrier on the Jesus being Jesus Damneus because I don’t think the manuscript is as corrupted as he thinks it is. I think a more natural reading of the text is “James the brother of Jesus known as the Christ”. I think that’s the more natural way to read it. But I’m not a Josephus expert.
Interviewer: It’s not a slam dunk but it’s a pretty good indicator that Jesus was the real deal.
On the Irony of the Mythicists
DG: One of problems I find with mythicist arguments in ALL its forms (and there are many varieties) is that ironically mythicists complain about a lack of consensus within scholarship
Interviewer laughs, “That is kind of funny.”
DG: Ironically there is a lack of consensus (among mythicists). On my website I break them down. They have the fictional Jesus, the conspiracy theory Jesus (Atwill), the celestial Jesus (the most popular one amongst atheists — first by Doherty and then picked up by Carrier).
On the Problems with Mythicism
DG: My problem with this is when you go into the second century, late first century, is if these passages in Josephus and Tacitus and the gospel traditions, if they’re all somewhat reliable and even if not 100% completely eyewitness accounts — these people are promoting Jesus as a man in recent memory etc. It’s not as if he is a figure of the distant past like Hercules. He is contextualized in the recent past in recent history.
Even in the gospels if Jesus is in the 30s and the first gospel is in 70 then that is still recent history. That’s still in the local memory. And he’s not a celestial figure.
“Mythicists complain a lot about the lack of contemporary sources”, but something I find interesting is the lack of their contemporary sources. We don’t have a Pliny the elder or Pliny saying there’s this stupid religion where people claim this man comes and visits them only in their dreams. No, what we find is this weird superstition of this guy Pilate crucified in Judea and is now a living god. They’re not telling a mythicist story.
Mythicists are basically saying that the historians have not met the burden of proof. They make the scholars suddenly go through hoops to raise the burden so high even barely heard of figures from the first century. Usually there’s some resemblance to modern science, then they start making these weird straw man arguments. They say there are no contemporary sources so obviously he didn’t exist. One thing in DF’s book I found jarring is saying there’s all these people who should have been talking about Jesus. But that’s not really the argument (of the classical writers.) I don’t understand the “this should have happened” argument.
DG: What I find is that mythicists are not immersed in the scholarship. But this is lay people generally.
DG: I’m only 26 years old but this situation reminds me of the quest for the historical Jesus in the 50s and 60s. The idea was that if only we peel back the layers, peel back the theology we would get to the historical Jesus — without interpretation. We would have Jesus the photograph.
A lot has changed. James Dunn who is also a Christian in his great book Jesus Remembered — he and those influenced by him like James Crossley, Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne — have talked about this misguided quest to find a Jesus tradition without interpretation. But every history has interpretation. There is no videotape.
A lot of it [the old quest] was motivated by liberal progressives and a felt need to get back to the historical Jesus and his authentic teachings. There was a spiritual element there under the surface. Lots of scholars have a Jesus who shares their values. Like looking in the well to see one’s reflection. Something I’m going to be pointing out in my chapter is that the liberal Christians of the left, anti-establishment, against rules, dogma have a Jesus who also hates the rules, was for giving God’s forgiveness freely.
Robert Mills has written on this.
Notice also how the Jesus Seminar voted for the pacifist Jesus and against the authenticity of the apocalyptic material. They voted pink on these in the 80s.
So in the history of the quest it is interesting to see these things.
Now the issue is how much we can know about Jesus, not whether or not he existed. E.P. Sanders (he has a new book coming out soon by the way) but in his book Jesus and Judaism he says that to formulate a consensus view we need to find what we can agree on and he comes up with 13 points. I don’t feel like people understand that’s not a lot (only 13!). He thinks most scholars could agree only on these.
DG: The problem is we are dealing with a person remembered by his earliest followers as a resurrected glorified figure seated with God, and without this we wouldn’t have a historical Jesus at all. It was only because they believed he was risen from dead that we even notice the historical Jesus. It was because he was resurrected that he is worth remembering — no other reason.
He only gained notoriety at brief period of his life, with a limited message, and only made a brief splash at end of life. History is not made to remember someone like that. He’s not a famous general or anything.
Imagine my program [Logicast] is recorded then stopped and lost and 2000 years from now we are regarded as the smartest people who ever lived. That’s pretty much what happened to Jesus.
It’s amazing we have this illiterate guy who has millions later come to worship him. It’s amazing.
Yes, it is sort of chilling to think about. I wouldn’t mind not knowing who he is but only from perspective of having laws imposed based on him.
DG: Constantine was converted and became a trinitarian though he was baptized by an Arian.
On the Criteria of Authenticity
A scholar who was speaking about the criterion of embarrassment and asked a question that pulled me up: Why would God need to be baptised? Arguments like that add a whole lot of weight to the historical Jesus case.
DG: There are flaws in the criteria. Now is an exciting time in historical Jesus studies. Multiple attestation does not mean it happened. Did Jesus walk on water? We have multiple attestations, both independent, so it must be true?
It’s not that simple.
Right, it’s not that simple.
DG: But most scholars think the one criterion that can be saved is the criterion of embarrassment. The earliest we get about Jesus is that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. This is as early as Paul and he is with the first christians.
Paul gives us a few other details about Jesus, like the last supper and Jesus not liking divorce. But Paul rejects what Jesus says.
Regarding the crucifixion — why would you come up with that? It is so Roman in character. We know it happened to lots of messianic pretenders. So why would Carrier say Jesus is crucified in outer space by demons? Paul had to work very hard to makes sense of it.
Then it finally makes sense in the early gospels: In the early gospels Jesus is struggling with death. Then in John he handles it willingly. Then in gnostic gospels he disappears off the cross and laughs at himself; and we have a Jesus who has the ability to vanish — and then with gospel of Thomas he gets rid of the cross altogether (so it was a problem).
Why would you make that [the crucifixion] up? And it also makes so much sense in the context.
A Digression on Paul
DG is asked about Paul and his earlier remark above re Paul contradicting Jesus.
In 1 Cor. 7 Paul changes gears. (I actually did my thesis at University of Newcastle on this chapter.) The Lord = Jesus, and Paul contradicts Jesus on divorce. In verse 10 the Lord (Jesus) is clear: “Don’t get divorced”. But then Paul starts to put limits on that: “I say you can do something else…”
From day one there are disputes. Jesus’ disciples are interpreting him/his teachings. What did he mean by that? So in Paul there are disputes about kosher, circumcision….
How did Paul end up being the boss?
DG: But did Paul really end up the boss? Paul is not the big deal…He’s always on the fringes. That he has to defend his status by saying his authority came not from men but from Jesus, then people are invited to ask, “Who’s this guy?” Wherever Paul went there were “counter-missionaries” behind him countering whatever he was saying (Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers)– In his letter to the Galatians he mentions a big fight at Antioch. In his later letter to the Romans notice that he does not ask to send a greeting to Antioch anymore. He is no longer welcome in Antioch.
Douglass Campbell (Duke University) shows us that Paul is writing in panic mode because he is being kicked out wherever he goes. Also his followers. Notice those he omits from his greetings.
But notice (and this is what David Fitzgerald got into discussing): Paul and these rival apostles agree Jesus is the son of god. Paul says this means the new age is upon us, and therefore the Torah is useless now. Others are saying, No, Jesus was a Jew and did not teach the end of the law. So they are debating not about Jesus but about practice.
In search of Paul by Crossan and Reed — even though I don’t agree with all he says, this is a good lay introduction to Paul.
“I’m done trying to tell mythicists they’re wrong”
DG: I’m not really done with mythicism. The reason I say I’m done is that I’m done trying to convince mythicists they are wrong. If someone asks me what scholars think I’ll discuss, but I’m done trying to tell mythicists they’re wrong.
I think it’s a good question, “Did he exist?” It’s ancient history. It’s a valid question. But it has a very very valid answer. And then once done answering the question, then the next question is how much can we know about him. That’s the really interesting question. That’s where the tough question lies, where the challenge lies and why I’m at Yale – to pursue that question.
I’m not going to waste my time trying to convince mythicists they are wrong.
On the Importance of Knowing Our Proper Place
This was where we crossed with David Fitzgerald. He seemed to take the question of historicity as my question but it’s not my question. I don’t know anything about it– it’s the scholars’ question. And the scholars who study all this know it’s a stupid question. I’m not the expert, I don’t know Aramaic, — I don’t have access to any of that stuff. I don’t understand enough about first century Judean culture to get contextual things that are hugely important.
Other interviewer: David Fitzgerald is in the same position but on the other side. He’s saying none of the arguments are his own but come from others and he’s just getting these ideas out to the public. The problem with that is there is no real scholarship going on on that side. Maybe they’ll get Carrier rarely, and Price hasn’t done any work in last couple of years I think. They get people who are not qualified to have this conversation — like Doherty, Zindler, Fitzgerald, Murdock. They are not qualified to assess their work and it is already wrong but they are communicating that to the public.
Let me finish. Daniel sent me this really great video last week of Bart Ehrman explaining the importance of becoming a seasoned expert in your field before ever trying to explain the content you study to a lay person. You not only need to be smart enough to know your place in academia but also creative and intelligent enough to be able to explain all those really complex concepts to the lay public who usually suffer from basic illiteracy.
DG: Ironically enough even though I sent you that video I’m now on this podcast.
It’s important now — at this year’s SBL there will be McGrath and Ehrman on a panel talking about biblical scholars and blogging. Some scholars think it’s inappropriate for a student to have a blog — I but won’t name names. I disagree obviously. I think it’s important to wear your credentials on your sleeve and admit when your view is in the minority. Mark Goodacre graciously admits he’s in the minority.
What’s frustrating is the almost biblical language of the other side (mythicists/historicists), “Oh if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear.”
There are reasons for rules in scholarship so people can communicate and learn from each other. (Casey talks about this in his book.) You address their point civilly. I actually don’t understand why Carrier does that…. He’s a smart guy so it doesn’t make any sense to me.
DG: I have a journal article coming out on Carrier and “I’m terrified” what Carrier will say about me.
We are lay people. We are not the audience of Ehrman’s top scholarly books. But you (DG) are on a different playing field and we are learning lots. For example what you said about Paul we had no idea about. I wasn’t trying to suggest you shouldn’t be blogging. You’re not out there trying to present an expert opinion.
And you’re not claiming you’re trying to be an expert yet. It’s good to have someone like you (DG) who is not way up there like Bart Ehrman and who can communicate with us while being open about your credentials.
One of the biggest problems we have with David Fitzgerald is his claim to be a historian. He basically explained that away by saying other people were giving him that title. That’s not excusable. And David still doesn’t stop others calling him that. David called Nailed a peer-reviewed. And we tore his arse up and down on the show over that claim. [Untrue. See my comment below.]
There’s a lot of ambiguity regarding credentials inside the mythicist camp and they do what every other form of pseudo-scholarship in the world does. They have these amateurs out here communicating these topics they don’t understand. And they are coming with the one or two experts and basically trying to obfuscate and obscuring the real importance of going the whole distance and going on the journey and becoming an actual scholar, “and that really pisses me off and I know it pisses [co-interviewer] off too”.
Interviewer 2: It’s part of this “very depressing, My opinion is just as good as yours if I’ve read a, b and c. You don’t even know what you don’t know and so that’s the point. And I don’t either.” — So I read this stuff with interest but also knowing I’m not going to get all of it. I don’t have the background to get all of it. — That’s the big difference.
DG: You can get some of it (time for some shameless self-promotion) if you come to my website …..
I’m excited by Daniel’s start. Awesome to be at Yale …
DG: I’m very happy to come back.
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