Bible scholars: the degeneration continues

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by Neil Godfrey

If I were a biblical scholar I hope I would be ashamed to be associated with peers who descend to the level we see in the latest blogpost by Michael Bird. I hope I would publicly dissociate myself from their puerile level of discourse and make efforts to speak out for a professional standard at all times both in public and scholarly engagements. After calling anyone who denies the historical existence of Jesus a “crank” or “bad historian” and in effect hitting on them to pay around $40 to read an article in a subscription-only journal, Bird concludes with

Finally, let me add, for all those former Jesus Mythicists out there who suddenly feel their bowels becoming loose because this Jesus thing just got “real,” don’t worry, even if Jesus existed, you can still be an atheist, just not a dogmatic dumbass one.

Very profoundly Bird begins his post with the same shocking information that Larry Hurtado was recently presenting to the public. Did you know that mainstream biblical scholars on the whole do not accept the Jesus myth view? Hard to believe, I know, but that is the message that these scholars seem have thought is so badly needed lately that they have posted claims to just that effect. No doubt many readers will now be better informed and no longer believe the contrary!

If Jesus mythicism were such a crank, fringe notion then one does really have to wonder what prompts such scholars to make such a fuss about it. And why, oh why, would a peer-review journal run by editors who all think the Jesus myth notion to be arrant crankery publish a 37 page review by a scholar critical of its latest publication?

These constant insulting attacks on anyone who thinks or writes the wrong things, and even a 37 page review by a scholar who admitted he did not understand key sections of the argument of the book he was reviewing and who failed to explain to readers the significance the author assigned to the arguments he was criticizing in his review, all of this looks to me like a circling of the wagons, as Earl Doherty used to say.

It is treating the public, or any outsider, who dares to question the scholarly claims with disdain. It is sheer elitist snobbery among a field that even a good many scholars from other disciplines suspect ultimately has little serious academic legitimacy. Of course biblical studies has a vested interest in the historicity of Jesus. By declaring that they have Jews and atheists in their ranks doesn’t change that one whit.

Oh yes, they always add that they have a few (though they rarely say it’s only a few) atheists among them. That’s odd, because one of the regular ad hominem arguments against Christ Myth suspects is that they are mostly atheists and atheists are supposed to have a vested interest in the nonhistoricity of Jesus.

Rubbish. Atheists in internet land and the publishing world that I have encountered are very divided on the mythicist question. Many in online forums are well known to flatly reject mythicism. Many express nothing more than curiosity over the question. Atheists like John Loftus who are dedicated to attacking and undermining Christianity have said that the stupidest way they can imagine trying to attack Christianity is by promoting the idea that Jesus did not exist! They would lose their audience from the get-go with such an approach. Atheists have no such vested interest — as the existence of atheists among biblical scholars ought to demonstrate!

But if Richard Carrier, for example, tries to explain that as an atheist he has no vested interest then he is merely dismissed as “protesting too much“, that is, as being at worst a hypocrite or liar and at best of being naive, and his own unjustifiable penchant for personal attack is even identified with his historical methods!

And so the personal insults continue to serve as the front-line forces. The debate is not about the arguments. It is about the persons who write them and the persons who express an interest in them. They are to be so harshly abused that hopefully all witnesses will see and fear the condemnation handed out by the professional elite.

As Albert Schweitzer said of his day,

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. (Albert Schweiter, p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest) — and ditto for the 21st century!

In his day Schweitzer put the blame for starting that degeneration on the Christ Myth proponents. I think today that the primary responsibility lies with the other side.




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19 thoughts on “Bible scholars: the degeneration continues”

  1. As an aside, the ABC’s Religion & Ethics Department seems keen to publish anything submitted to it by Christian apologists Michael Bird and John Dickson. As a “religion” site/broadcaster, it is heavily weighted towards Christianity and apparently recognises these two as the “go to” guys when a “scholarly” slant on Christianity is desired in its programming.

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed. It’s worth pointing out as you have done. The few times I’ve listened to Radio National’s religion and related programs leaves me with the sense that belief has a well entrenched niche in that broadcaster. It would be interesting to learn of the networks involved, both within the ABC and connecting the ABC to certain religious figures outside.

      We are going to miss Phillip Adams of Late Night Live when his time comes to depart the scene. I would not be surprised if the “equal timers” demand a more conservative (and even believing) replacement.

      By the way, I collected John Dickson’s books some time ago expecting to review and discuss them here. Somehow the exercise seems to be so trivial and meaningless compared with other things to focus on. But I’ll have to get around to those posts some day.

  2. “Biblical Scholars are the insiders”

    — Arnaldo Momigliano, 1987

    Chapter 1:
    Biblical Studies and Classical Studies
    Simple Reflections upon Historical Method


    “Principles of Historical research need not be different
    from criteria of common sense. And common sense teaches
    us that outsiders must not tell insiders what they should
    do. I shall therefore not discuss directly what biblical
    scholars are doing. They are the insiders.”

  3. One of the characteristics of anyone whose delusion gets threatened is to descend into abuse, lashing out with any frivolous argument that comes to mind, including ad homs. That`s why you will never get a reasoned debate with those out of touch with reality. Facts mean nothing. If they were so strongly convinced of their position, one would expect to be challenged with points that would be irrefutable. Instead, all we get are nasty little slurs which contradict the image they say their religion delivers. Far better to have a civil chat with someone prepared to yield ground. As we always do. 🙂

  4. I see the position of Biblical scholars as quite similar to that of white males. They have enjoyed a privileged position for so long, that the see demands that they play by the same rules as other historians to be discrimination against themselves. They have been forced to yield on so many of their claims and the denial that Jesus really existed just seems like the final insult. So yes, they are circling the wagons and preparing to make a “last stand”.

  5. As I’ve said and written before, there are no guardrails on the right. As long as these scholars toe the party line, they have a gig for life. They can say whatever they want and still maintain the respect of their peers. Gulllotta actually mentions Maurice Casey’s last book, thoroughly trashed and debunked here and elsewhere. You might think he made a mistake, but then you would recall that, as I said, there are no guardrails on the right.

    In Biblical Studies, there is no penalty for being factually wrong, but there are infinite rewards for being doctrinally right.

    These are the public intellectuals we’re stuck with. It’s difficult to blame them — imagine having impostor syndrome, and really being an impostor. I try to remind myself that deep down they know their severe limitations, and so any prodding from the outside is bound to meet with verbal violence. And yet every time it happens, it comes as a bit of a jolt.

  6. Of course ‘biblical scholarship’ is degenerating – everything in archeology, paleography, comparative literature, etc keeps stripping away the facade of biblical ‘truth’. When there is no up then only down is available.

  7. The label of “mythicism” is absurd.
    I was a believer once, until I realized the Jesus stories are not even myths, only diverse stories or sagas about an imaginary person who was described as having been either (A) descended from the sky in the form of a human (John, Paul); or (B) just a person wandering around and getting converted and baptized for his sins by John the Baptizer, and declared a newly adopted “son of God” (Mark); or (C.1) born in a stable of animals (Luke) or (C.2) in a house with a star overhead (Matthew), to a virgin impregnated by God or an angel.
    All these are conflated in people’s minds who don’t even realize how inconsistent these stories are.

  8. It is of course extremely discouraging to see “professionals” act like this. No doubt if they saw King Arthur scholars talk like this about each other over the question of the historicity of Arthur, they would probably lose all respect for King Arthur scholarship without even recognizing the hypocrisy.

    But I think we have to recognize that there is a huge difference between theologians and Biblical scholars. Now, this division I am proposing may not completely correspond to their actual degrees. Bird, Crossley and Gullotta may have degrees in New Testament studies, but they first and foremost theologians. I think the job of theologians is more social than academic so they should pretty much just be ignored by people who are interested in the question “What should secular history say about Jesus?”, regardless of whether they use the term “historical Jesus” in their department name or not.

    Like theologians, Biblical scholars take the historical Jesus for granted, but they are far from “professional liars”. I think Biblical scholars are still important to secular scholarship because they are still experts of the text. Negating some of the more ridiculous personalities like N.T. Wright who would argue for the historicity of the resurrection, the majority of the famous ones had either accepted that Jesus was a deluded apocalypticist or a “liberal”/Cynic wisdom sage. I may not agree with Biblical scholars like Rudolf Bultmann, B.H. Streeter, Helmet Koester, John Dominic Crossan, Randel McCraw Helms, and Delbert Burkett about the historical Jesus but they’re still extremely important in reconstructing the history of the New Testament. I can understand why Richard Carrier attacks Biblical scholarship as a profession because, despite his professed expertise with statistics, he was duped by Mark Goodacre into dismissing form criticism based on that illogical Occam’s Razor argument. So really the only thing he has in common with any of them is the belief in Markan priority and you don’t really need a lot of textual criticism to go that far. But I don’t think we should follow Carrier down this path of disregarding the entire profession.

    Frank Zindler suggested that if there was only one profession to tackle the question of the historical Jesus, it should really be anthropologists, but I would think it should be historians, not theologians or Biblical scholars, who should get the final professional say as to the likelihood of the historical Jesus, but in reality it seems to me that most historians have simply punted on the question, assuming his historicity without looking into the question. If mythicists want the greater public to have respect for their ideas, the fight really should really be focused on professional historians, not the professional Bible readers.

    1. I’d say a Venn diagram with circles for [Christian] ‘theologian’ and for ‘biblical scholar’ would overlap quite a lot; almost to the point of being complete overlap. There may be a need for a third circle for non-christian scholars of Christianity or the NT, such as Daniel Boyarin, and perhaps Géza Vermes or Paula Fredriksen, etc.

      1. As I understand him, Boyarin doesn’t think Judaism and Xtianity were distinct from one another before the Fourth Century. Vermes and Fredriksen espouse minimal Jewish Jesuses of the “Goldilocks” variety. To all intents and purposes it’s circles within circles, not a Venn diagram.

        1. As I understand him, Boyarin doesn’t think Judaism and Xtianity were distinct from one another before the Fourth Century.” –

          ah, that is interesting. I think that’s more likely than not. Origen spending so much time and energy on the Hexapla suggests he was more Judaism-centred than Christian [-centred], and Irenaeus and other ‘church fathers’ seem to be pontificating or philosophising as much as anything.

          I too was wondering if ‘circles within circles’ would be representative.

  9. no vested interest in the mythicist position?
    I would have expected the proclamation in book form that Jesus never existed ought to have caused greater controversy and should have generated higher sales.
    This hasn’t been the case.
    I don’t think OHJ has sold many copies (which is a pity) and I believe Dr Carrier is considering launching it in a more concise commercial form.
    Potentially,a revised edition could become a best-seller.
    There’s a global audience out there who would enjoy getting to grips with this astonishing/outrageous theory.

    1. Carrier’s new book is titled “Jesus From Outer Space.” That seems a little childish and a turnoff to me. I don’t know how many copies of OHJ sold but I was hoping his new revised book of OHJ would be a best seller. That title seems laughable to me. People, IMO, may think some quack wrote it. Hope the title has been vetted by people who do such things.

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