Guy with a Hobby Versus an Airline Pilot

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by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne is at it again, posting stuff guaranteed to upset certain theologians fervidly hostile towards mythicism.

Peter Nothnagle: No evidence for a historical Jesus

Reader Peter Nothnagle sent me the transcript of an Easter talk, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”, that he gave last March to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. I was much impressed with Peter’s success at distilling all the scholarship around the historical “Jesus” (he’s read all the relevant stuff) as well as his ability to present it in a reader (and listener) friendly manner.

Peter’s conclusion is that there is no evidence for a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted—something I’ve thought for a long time. . . .

Peter Nothnagle (who describes himself in his presentation as “just some guy with a hobby”) forwarded Jerry Coyne a covering note in which he writes:

I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.

Such blind dogmatism! :-J

Coyne himself comments:

One of the things that’s always puzzled me is the rush to judgment about the historical Jesus by Biblical scholars, nearly all of whom, including Bart Ehrman, are eager to say that a historical (not a divine!) Jesus is probable, despite the woeful lack of evidence. This includes Biblical scholars who aren’t religious. It often seems that they’re being tendentious: trying to arrive at a conclusion that splits the difference between secularists and religious people, trying to offend neither group.

The paper itself, or a Why Evolution is True (WEIT) version, is downloadable at here. (I have not yet read it but will probably comment when I do.)

Interestingly this post appears hard on the heels of staunch anti-mythicist James McGrath comparing Christ mythicists with hypocritical and smug airline passengers who think they can pilot their aircraft better than the trained pilot. He attacks their “hypocrisy” . . .

the hypocrisy of it, as though figuring out what is happening with the climate, or the history of biological organisms, or what happened in the past, involves less training and expertise than flying a plane or performing surgery. All these different skills share in common that there is training and specialization required, and while plenty of people think that they can do them without training, the evidence doesn’t support such assertions.

In stark contradiction to this assertion that anyone doubting the historicity of Jesus is way out of one’s untrained intellectual depth, only 48 hours earlier the same author claimed the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus was so obvious or clear to everyone (by inference even to “just a guy with a hobby”) that mythicists were “morally reprehensible” for rejecting it:

denying that which we have adequate evidence for is more irrational – and more morally reprehensible – than believing that for which we do not have adequate evidence.

(My emphases in the quotations)



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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Guy with a Hobby Versus an Airline Pilot”

  1. Well when the pilots announce to the passenger cabin, “We’re LOST,” and then “We’re making extra fast time,” what bloody well does ‘e expect the passengers to think?

  2. If the evidence is so clear and so incontrovertible, why does one need training? And if it isn’t clear and incontrovertible, why isn’t it?
    One would think that if god had a message for us, he wouldn’t make it so obscure as to require a college degree to discern it… unless, of course, he doesn’t really want us to understand and follow his instructions, in which case why does he bother?

  3. I wish that McGrath would actually post some of this incontrovertible evidence. It would be good to grapple with. Instead everything he posts is either an argument from authority or a handwave or an insult.

    I would LOVE to see some evidence for a historical person that the stories of Jesus were built around or came from. I’m open to it – but everything that McGrath especially posts makes me less convinced that the Biblical Studies Academic Community should have a position beyond agnosticism in a historical Jesus. There seems to be less evidence for Jesus than there is for Socrates, and agnosticism about the existence of a historical Socrates is not some crazy thing at all.

    1. Yes, I had the same experience. It was my reading of the arguments FOR the historicity of Jesus that led me to realize there is no unambiguous evidence at all. From my own personal exchanges I would expect McG to continue to insist that he has already set out the evidence many, many times and rebutted the mythicist arguments just as often — but as you say, it is all done by handwaving. He will rarely identify a particular post.

      1. Well then why not make that the point. Does James McGrath actually have any legitimate credentials at all? A degree in theology from the best school in the world is about as credible as a degree in business administration from Lithuanian Sports University.

        Over on Debunking Christianity they always tangled with this guy named David Marshall, a complete nobody with no credentials waiving a fancy titled theological degree backed by nothing yet with virtually the same level of intellectual response as McGrath. We just have to stop interacting with these particular pseudo-academic snots entirely.

        If someone isn’t bringing either evidence or legitimately original insights, just ignore them. That’s the only way to get above the popular myth that atheists are the strident ones and allow the label to settle where it belongs.

        And maybe he’s riding the coattails of people confusing him with Alister McGrath. Alister McGrath is very near the top search results if you google James McGrath theologian (since the name by itself is so common) and I certainly heard of and confused mention of “McGrath” early on as a well known critic of Dawkins.

        James McGrath isn’t actually that well known outside of a few atheist blogs and doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. He’s basically just a troll of atheist blogs and deserves to be ignored.

  4. I’d have been more impressed with the ‘WEIT’ summary paper if it didn’t needlessly repeat the Carrier/Vridar thesis of Bayes as the Golden Road to Reasoning. I’m suspicious of all ‘movements’. Bayes is quickly becoming a talking point.

    1. I don’t see Bayes as “the golden road to reasoning”. I simply see it as a symbolic representation of golden road reasoning that we seek to follow without the slightest awareness of any mathematical formula. At most the formula may serve as a reminder not to overlook vital steps in any sound reasoning process.

      I particularly liked “The Theory That Would Not Die” and was interested in Aviezer Tucker’s discussion (which I read long before Carrier discovered it, by the way) of its application in historical inquiries.

      1. You’re quite correct. Three beers in, I misread the comment on evidence to be another exhortation for all of us to become Bayesians. In part, it’s because the paper overlaps with Carrier on other points – e.g. Carrier’s pet example of Roswell – and mentions Matt Dillahunty.

        So I’ll replace and refine my comment: I think Christ mythicism has a chance of becoming *less* viable if it identifies too strongly with the atheist movement or with any particular faction. The paper gives a good account of why mythicism has been gaining big traction on the internet: democraticizing scholarship has shown that the theory of Christian origins offered by New Testament scholars has been simplistic and leans too heavily in the direction of old Sunday school notions of the canon, etc. The apple of New Testament scholarship has only fallen scant inches from the tree of apologetics. But if today’s more sophisticated theorizing about Christian origins becomes too strongly associated with a particular group using (and repeating) certain lines of argumentation, it’ll be seen from the outside as their ‘thing’ just as the historical Jesus is increasingly seen as ‘their’ thing (Ehrman types) without any particular claim to truth.

        An example in the paper of an argument in danger of becoming a talking point: the historical Jesus as guarantor of apostolic succession. I think there’s doubtless a high degree of truth to this as so much early Christianity was obviously caught up in factional disputes, assertions of authority, etc. But there’s more than that. There was also the expectation in the ancient world that any religion must have had a founder. Founders of ‘religions’ were read retroactively into these religions by outsiders even without internal disputes generating them. A sort of cognitive bias, if you will. So like everything else the creation of a historical Jesus probably took place because it satisfied a number of needs, the construct functioning a number of different ways. … Research will have to remain open to the fullest picture possible if it is to remain viable and not become a ‘school’ centered around a core set of theses.

        1. In an online discussion that included Richard Carrier I did point out that I thought linking mythicism and atheism was a mistake and counterproductive. What room does that leave for the Thomas Brodies? Richard’s reply was that my point “did not work” for him. If the anti-mythicists are going to be associated with personal religious bias then atheists are falling into the same bias trap if they use mythicism as a tool to advance an anti-Christian agenda.

          I agree with your point about the need not to identify with any faction. It should be a strictly historical question — and that is why I prefer to frame the question as “How to explain Christian origins”. Already there are a number of mainstream scholarly arguments that bypass any need for a historical Jesus.

          Of course philosophical positions are inevitable in any historical inquiry, but the more professional scholars can admit their biases and make allowances for them and still conduct a meaningful exchange.

  5. Try this:
    1″At his death, man in his divine essence,can, because he ‘knows”, circumvent those demi-gods responsible for the crowded order and ascend to the purely divine realm where he really belongs’ [Intro xix]

    2.”If one asserts, as Bultmann does, that Christianity actually “borrowed’ the myth of the descending and ascending redeemer from Gnosticism, it does suppose that Gnosticism was already a well-developed kind of thought by the time Christianity came on the scene……” [Intro xx]

    3.”The answer lies in realizing that the Corinthians had come to understand what happened to Jesus after the crucifixion as an exaltation or translation rather than as a resurrection in the Jewish sense….the Corinthians could claim that, whilst Christ is risen, there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead…” [Intro xxiv]

    Each of these are quotes, obviously sorely out of context, are from this recently acquired 2nd hand book [cost me 3$!]

    “Paul’s First letter to Corinth” by John Ruef, Pelican New testament Commentaries Pub. 1971.

    I’ve only just started to read it but it struck me that the author, by mentioning Bultmann, Gnosticism as a movement of uncertain chronology, and referring to varying perceptions between Paul and his Corinthian audience as to what constitutes a ‘risen christ’, is flirting with or exploring ideas very close to Jesus Mythicism. And he was writing this 40 plus years ago.

    It’s a totally different attitude than that which Jesus Historicists generally adopt – it will be interesting to see where it leads Ruef who was at the time of writing Professor of New testament at Berkely Divinity School USA.

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