2019-01-09

What concord hath Christ with Inquiry?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I suppose a professional writer has to select a topic and style that is going to attract readers and an editor is paid to lure those readers with alarmist headers, so we should not be too surprised to read in this month’s Christianity Today

How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence

Questions about their reliability deserve better than sheepish mumbling

https://www-images.christianitytoday.com/images/85811.jpg?w=700
Image from Pixel Creative / Lightstock. The header calling for a “bold defence” is accompanied by worshipful, praying hands.

Attention all readers who need to defend the reliability of the Gospels boldly. Can it really be that 250 years after Voltaire and Hume people still see themselves in need of honing their defences against . . . .?? Against what, exactly?

The article begins:

Last month, Harvard psychologist and atheist public intellectual Steven Pinker posted this provocative tweet: “As any Jew knows, there is controversy (to put it mildly) over whether Jesus was the messiah. But did he exist at all? A new book by R. G. Price argues, ‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.’”

So that’s it. Against “provocation” in the form of a tweet.

Synonyms for provocative:

adj aggravating

challenging disturbing exciting inspirational insulting offensive outrageous  annoying  galling  goading heady incensing inciting influential intoxicating provoking pushing spurring . . .

So that’s it? For someone to publish their that Jesus may not have existed is considered…. disturbing, insulting, offensive, inciting…?

But it gets worse. The author holds a doctorate from Cambridge University:

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University as well as a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Worldview, will be published by Crossway in 2019.

Part of me thinks, “I did not think it possible for a Cambridge educated PhD to consider different viewpoints about Jesus “provocative” or “insulting” or “disturbing”.” But then I am reminded of my own past life living in a double-bind, in cognitive dissonance, so I know it can and does happen.

Notice something, though. The next paragraph says

This comment garnered well over a thousand likes and 600 shares. This, despite the fact that the book Pinker highlighted was self-published by someone without the relevant scholarly credentials. Its thesis is historically laughable. But the takeaway is one that even a highly educated atheist like Pinker will gladly swallow and propagate. Posts like this reinforce the popular idea that Jesus is a flimsy, semi-mythological character—wearing sandals for sure, but without any clear historical footprint.

We Christians know better. Or do we?

Ah. There it is. The “we-them” world-view. And what was the offence? It was a thesis that is described as “historically laughable”. There is no reference to any particular argument behind the thesis. One may fairly assume that Rebecca McLaughlin has not read the book Pinker found interesting enough to  tweet about. The arguments are clearly so irrelevant that they are not worth looking at. All that is needed is a few disparaging words about the author and scoffing way of telling readers that the thesis cannot be taken seriously.

From that paragraph McLaughlin segues into a review of a book titled Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams.

This is a PhD from Cambridge, a full 250 years after the heyday of the Enlightenment, telling a flock she fears may be overly “sheepish” to laugh mockingly (or “historically”, whatever that meant in context) at a different view and respond not by understanding the arguments for the “provocation” but by reading good arguments that can be used to strengthen one’s “defences” against “the other”.

As for myself, when I read R.G. Price’s book (the subject of Pinker’s tweet) the last thing on my mind was how believers would respond to it. I presume believers have no interest in such books. I never for a moment saw the book as “provocative”. I simply saw it as a presentation of an interesting argument for a new way of reading the gospels. To have a new way of understanding what the gospels were all about is something I normally find interesting. I certainly don’t see the exercise as part of some warfare against believers.

It seems that not all believers view new ideas the same way.

Anyway, what did McLaughlin have to say about this book that equipped believers to boldly defend their faith in the gospels?

There is the usual (tiresomely predictable) introduction with Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger and the “would have beens” (as in Jesus family would have been known by Church leaders….

I have finally concluded that apologists who continue to write such nonsense about late first and early second century historians have no interest at all in what historians of ancient Rome have to say about such sources, even less what those of us on the “other side” have to say about them, and that the reason for repeating the same dot points in a new publication is to maintain a ritual. Rituals are comforting, I suppose.

Then there is this other piece of irrelevance:

Turning to the Gospels themselves, Williams argues that Jesus’ life produced more detailed and better-attested accounts than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius, “the most famous person in the then-known world.” While the earliest surviving manuscripts describing Tiberius’s life date from the ninth century, the earliest surviving incomplete copies of the Gospels are from the second and third centuries, and we have complete copies of all the Gospels from the fourth.

Again, the words are ritually republished, and ritually re-read, generation after generation.

Where Williams’s book comes alive for a more seasoned reader is in sections showing how the Gospels drip with local detail.

Detail! Such detail. There is even a subheading:

Dripping with Detail

Just like detail-dripping works Homer, and Virgil, and Juvenal, and Petronius…. and Vardis Fisher:

The first course, the gustatio or appetizer, included oysters, eggs, mushrooms, all saturated with a sauce of sweet wine mixed with heavy amber honey. Among the tidbits were tongues of flamingoes and other birds, the flesh of ostrich wings, breast of dove and thrush, livers of geese, and a concoction of sow-livers, teats and vulva in a thick syrup of figs. Of the main dishes he managed to taste chicken covered deep with a sauce of anise seed, mint, lazerroot, vinegar, dates, the juices of salted fishguts, oil and mustard seed. There were many kinds of fish, all heavily spiced, rich and dripping; thrush on asparagus; a pastry of the brains of small birds; sows’ udder floating in a thick jelly that smelled of coriander; roast venison, pig, fowl and hare; and innumerable sausages and pickled or spiced meats. A dish in great demand was a jelly of sow-livers that had been fattened on figs, an invention of Apicius, a famous gourmet under Tiberius.

Now that’s dripping with detail. It is from the opening pages of a modern novel set in imperial Rome.

The gospels are so “very Jewish”, so that adds to their reliability for some reason. And the fallacy laden (“dripping with logical fallacies”) book of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is called in as an expert witness, as seems to be routine nowadays among gospel apologists.

McLaughlin suddenly seems to become a little “sheepish” herself when she seems to be suggesting that Williams even argues for the historical truth of the virgin birth. She doesn’t say it outright, but what else are we to conclude when she “sheepishly mumbles” something about Williams’ claim that such a detail could not be introduced into the church in the early days because Jesus’ family, mother in particular, no doubt, were still alive to refute the claim; but then it couldn’t be introduced later, either, because by then all the traditions had been settled and set so anything new at that stage would be suspect.

The part that disturbs me about Rebecca McLaughlin’s article is that the sentiments she expresses, the scoffing at an idea combined with disregard for finding out anything about its arguments, the ad hominem denigration, ….. they are not confined to lay people or clergy, are they. One might just as easily think one is reading something by a biblical scholar in a theology or divinity department at a public university. Now that’s a thought ought to be provocative.

 


McLaughlin, Rebecca. 2019. “How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence.” ChristianityToday International, January. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/january-web-only/peter-williams-can-we-trust-gospels.html.

Fisher, Vardis. 1956. A Goat For Azazel: A Novel of Christian Origins. Testament of Man 9. New York: Pyramid.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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17 Comments

  • proudfootz
    2019-01-09 08:56:18 GMT+0000 - 08:56 | Permalink

    I can’t escape the feeling that when someone’s first reaction to new information is a call for ‘us’ to circle the wagons against ‘them’ it signals a niggling fear that one’s beliefs are uncomfortably vulnerable.

  • MrHorse
    2019-01-09 10:30:46 GMT+0000 - 10:30 | Permalink

    McLaughlin wrote ”Its thesis is historically laughable” but does not address r.g. price’s book’s thesis and then denigrates it by calling it a “takeaway” … “that even a highly educated [person] will gladly swallow and propagate.”

  • 2019-01-09 10:37:36 GMT+0000 - 10:37 | Permalink

    I was amused by the article, because it’s so clearly incompetent. Wow, what are PhD’s worth these days? From Cambridge no less!

    But again I reiterate, theology degrees are NOT a qualification for authority on the historical validity of the Gospels, they are in fact the opposite, an indication that one had been indoctrinated against facts.

    On another note, someone left a comment on the book’s Kirkus review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/r-g-price/deciphering-the-gospels/

    “neither the reviewer nor Price seem to have read Paul’s statement in his first letter to Timothy that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus”. How much clearer does it have to be that Paul did not deny the humanity of Jesus?”

    Indeed…

    I replied. What’s so disheartening is just how feeble the opposition is. Thus far, from every single negative reaction to the book, and the same can generally be said of course for the reactions to Doherty and Carrier, etc., not one person has brought up a valid point or even said anything that can’t simply be refuted from a quick glance at wikipedia.

    • MrHorse
      2019-01-09 11:24:36 GMT+0000 - 11:24 | Permalink

      Rebecca McLaughlin’s Ph.D. from Cambridge is in English literature and she has a theology degree is from Oak Hill Seminary in London,“ via https://www.rebeccamclaughlin.org/, not that matters much, but it would have been nice to see her comment about your views about the Bible’s literature.

  • Robert Jase
    2019-01-09 11:51:21 GMT+0000 - 11:51 | Permalink

    And the non-canonical & Gnostic gospels are true too right? O/w they wouldn’t be gospels. Funny how apologists are willing to admit the majority of gospels are frauds except for those they’ve been taught to likr.

  • db
    2019-01-09 12:46:47 GMT+0000 - 12:46 | Permalink

    • I once pointed out to a historicist that Bauckham holds a non-majority position for dating the gospels. The response was: “Well yeah, he is the tip of the spear in new scholarship.”

    Hahn, S; Scott, D, eds. (2007). “Reviews & Notices: Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses“. Letter and Spirit: The Hermeneutic of Continuity Chrit, Kingdom and Creation. Emmaus Road Publishing. pp. 225ff. ISBN 9781931018463.

    [Per Richard Bauckham] all four gospels were written on the basis of carefully prepared and preserved eyewitness accounts. In the case of John, he believes the gospel was written by an actual eyewitness. Further, he maintains that all the gospels were written within “living memory” of the events they describe. “The texts of our gospels,” he concludes, “are close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus.”

  • Aaron
    2019-01-09 15:17:01 GMT+0000 - 15:17 | Permalink

    Thank god she published that apologetic take-down, now I don’t even need to be bothered to read Price’s book.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2019-01-09 17:33:27 GMT+0000 - 17:33 | Permalink

    “… the book Pinker highlighted was self-published by someone without the relevant scholarly credentials.”

    Carries as much weight as a complaint that a refutation of the existence of subluxations was made by someone without without the relevant chiropractic credentials.

    • James Barlow
      2019-01-12 19:56:07 GMT+0000 - 19:56 | Permalink

      Good one.

  • 2019-01-09 17:34:28 GMT+0000 - 17:34 | Permalink

    I have come to the conclusion that the major purpose for “having faith” is first to inoculate oneself against doubt and second to blind oneself to one’s own biased preconceptions.

  • Leigh Sutherland
    2019-01-09 17:35:23 GMT+0000 - 17:35 | Permalink

    That Apologetic write up reminds me of the rebuttal by Matthew Ferguson over at Celsus concerning the use of Tiberius by apologists that ultimately Mike Licona apologised for.

    https://celsus.blog/2015/06/19/tiberius-caesar-the-christian/

  • JP415
    2019-01-10 02:19:19 GMT+0000 - 02:19 | Permalink

    From the original article:

    “He argues that the presence of family members in the early Christian movement would have made it hard for additional beliefs about Jesus (for example, his virgin birth) to be fabricated early on, and he critiques the idea that “novel beliefs arose later” on the grounds that “by then, Christianity had spread so far and so fast that it would have been difficult to introduce innovations.”

    That’s a feeble argument for the Virgin Birth of Jesus. It rests on a string of unproven assumptions:

    Assumption 1. That the Virgin Birth was part of the earliest tradition.
    Many historians believe that the Gospel of Mark was the earliest Gospel, so why does it say nothing about the Virgin Birth? Did “Mark” find it too trivial to mention?

    Assumption 2. The relatives of Jesus were alive when the Gospels were written.
    They might well have died of natural causes by then or been killed in the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 69.

    Assumption 3. The relatives of Jesus knew about the Virgin Birth story.
    If the Gospel of Mark had been written outside of Judea (say in Rome or Antioch, as some historians speculate) then they might never have heard of it.

    Assumption 4. The relatives of Jesus would have debunked the story of the Virgin Birth.
    Such a story would have given them great status as relatives of the Savior of Humanity. Would they really have felt a burning need to refute it?

    Assumption 5. The family of Jesus could have prevented false beliefs about Jesus from spreading, and a rebuttal from them would have quashed the growth of legends and rumors.
    Examples from recent times show the weakness of that assumption. Look at the spread of silly legends like the Bermuda Triangle or the U.F.O. crash at Roswell. They’ve been painstakingly refuted many times, and yet thousands of people still believe them. People who are emotionally committed to a belief often cling to that belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Another historical analogy: in the 1880s, the fraudulent spiritualist mediums Catherine and Margaret Fox confessed that they had hoaxed their clients and followers, but found to their amazement that many of their hardcore followers refused to believe their confession.

    Was human nature any different in antiquity? Are we supposed to believe that everybody in those days was more sane and honest than the people of today? (Or only the ancient Hebrews? Were they somehow less susceptible to fraud and delusion than other people?)

    Assumption 6. Religions (or at least Christianity) never change after their inceptions. (i.e. “it would have been difficult to introduce innovations.”)
    This is the silliest assumption of all. If it’s true, then how do we explain Gnosticism or Montanism? Also, consider the analogies of Buddhism and Islam: within several generations of their founders’ deaths, they split apart into various sects with differing theologies. The Gnostics and Mahayana Buddhists even wrote their own scriptures. If you examine the history of any religion, you’ll see that it rarely stays the same generation after generation. Religions are continually mutating and fracturing over time. Why should Christianity be an exception?

    Williams is just engaging in special pleading, and using methods of inference that wouldn’t be accepted in other fields of historical study. If that’s the best evidence that Christian apologists can marshal for their case, then we shouldn’t be surprised that so many young people have stopped going to church.

    • Steven Watson
      2019-02-07 06:56:44 GMT+0000 - 06:56 | Permalink

      Never mind Gnosticism or Montanism; the New Testament consists almost entirely of texts rejigging and retconning earlier texts right back to Paul, who rejigs and retcons Peter and the Pillars (When does the album come out? :-)), of whom he doesn’t think terribly much. Will the real Early Christianity please stand up! /s

  • Klaus Schilling
    2019-01-10 07:08:11 GMT+0000 - 07:08 | Permalink

    Introducing new rites and liturgical structures would have been difficult; whereas changing dogms and etiological myths happened on a daily base.

    Already William Robertson Smith, in Religion of the Semites, emphasized thus the necessity of considering the ritual practice over the myths which explain them.

    “So far as myths consists of explanation of ritual their value is altogether secondary, and it may be affirmed with confidence that in almost every case the myth was derived from the ritual, and not the ritual from the myth; for the ritual was fixed and the myth was variable, the ritual was obligatory and faith in the myth was at the discretion of the worshipper”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-01-11 05:45:34 GMT+0000 - 05:45 | Permalink

      There seems to have been something of a chicken and egg argument re myths and rituals. I plan to catch up on the debate and especially the background to more recent ideas.

  • James Barlow
    2019-01-12 19:52:57 GMT+0000 - 19:52 | Permalink

    “…. such a detail could not be introduced into the church in the early days because Jesus’ family, mother in particular, no doubt, were still alive to refute the claim; but then it couldn’t be introduced later, either, because by then all the traditions had been settled and set so anything new at that stage would be suspect.”
    Doesn’t this rather unwittingly argue for no birth at all?

  • Steven Watson
    2019-02-07 06:38:08 GMT+0000 - 06:38 | Permalink

    “…a Ph.D. in ENGLISH LITERATURE from Cambridge and a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary in London.” (My caps). Fuck me! Never mind the degree in astrol… sorry, 🙂 theology (Her non-caps); with a Ph.D in LITERATURE you would think someone would know literature if they fell over it; but, not only that, be able to read critically and without preconceptions at a level of the first years of grammar school. I’ve read enough actual frocked seminarians, bishops even, to know they get actually get taught the critical stuff, even if it doesn’t surface at the pulpit or in their pastoral duties. Those that don’t take Orders seem to come away from seminaries with even more addled brains than those that do. A pox on the lot of ’em; such is even more derisible, if it were possible, than the latter day non- subjects now routinely awarded in what passes for academe. (No, I’m NOT channeling Victor Meldrew; he channeled me! 🙂 )

    A suitable riposte…

    https://www.youtube.com/attribution_link?a=VfMjs84uNpo&u=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D78bsM7RbK0A%26feature%3Dshare&fbclid=IwAR3JDaXBkr5iNTPHaUtj06NpBbS3eUPBaQNIQXPuY3gAN2Ii43t50ahKkic

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