Since watching Tim O’Neill’s 28-minute video Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably) I have been toying with the idea of bringing out lessons I learned from my teaching days and try making short podcasts or video clips in response. Why I think they need a response is, well, if this particular video is any guide, — almost everything he says in it is either factually wrong or logically fallacious.
Take the above quotation. That is made at about one minute in. The point is that if Jesus mythicism had any reasonable case at all then the academic environment would logically make significant room for it because, after all, academics are in an environment where it pays to present ideas that disagree with traditional or majority views.
That is wrong. Academics work in an environment where it pays to advance knowledge by testing and building on prior research. Think “shoulders of giants”.
But does it pay “to find reasons to disagree”? Recently I posted here some of the ideas of prominent economist, one who worked at the University of Sydney and later became a prominent Greek and then European political figure, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis was a left-wing economist, one who disagreed with the relevant ideological status quo — though this was not known to the hiring committee at the university. He wrote of his appointment as an academic to the University of Sydney:
When I chose the subject of my doctoral thesis, back in 1982, I deliberately focused on a highly mathematical topic within which Marx’s thought was irrelevant. When, later on, I embarked on an academic career, as a lecturer in mainstream economics departments, the implicit contract between myself and the departments that offered me lectureships was that I would be teaching the type of economic theory that left no room for Marx. In the late 1980s, I was hired by the University of Sydney’s school of economics in order to keep out a left-wing candidate (although I did not know this at the time).
Note that. Ideological conformity was a key criterion in his academic appointment. And that’s in Economics. Imagine Biblical Studies!
Within academic disciplines, knowledge-claims are socially validated through negotiation and eventual consensus among experts, with recognition and esteem accruing to those scientists who, in Merton’s words, “have made genuinely original contributions to the common stock of knowledge” (1957/1973: 293). Writing in the field of biology, Myers (1990) shows how knowledge-claims are negotiated and, thus, socially constructed through the peer-review process, with its characteristic exchange of referee comments and author revisions. He illustrates this by analyzing the transformation and ultimate denouement of two manuscripts, each of which was revised multiple times in response to referees’ criticisms before being accepted for publication. In doing so, he describes the negotiations that unfold as the manuscripts’ authors try to make their claims to originality as strong as possible and the referees attempt to place the authors’ assertions within a body of existing literature. Myers documents that such negotiations are flexible, but only within limits. Authors must claim some minimum level of novelty (or have their work dismissed as unoriginal). At the same time, however, if they venture too far beyond a discipline’s established knowledge structure, they risk the charge that their work is irrelevant to existing research and, thus, unworthy of publication.
Let’s bring in an example directly relevant to Jesus mythicism. Here is what Mike Bird, one of the editors of the academic Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus wrote:
I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.
That’s as blunt as can be. No caveats to allow for an original or methodologically sound argument. Just a big red No sign on the door. (The remainder of Bird’s article is riddled with blatant misrepresentation of Lataster’s book but that’s another story. He makes it very clear that mythicism is to be excluded from any academic discussion without any acknowledgement that there could possibly be anything new to say about it since it first appeared over 100 years ago.)
Or is that example too extreme? What about Thomas L. Thompson’s thesis that the patriarchal narratives in Genesis had no historical basis, a view that challenged the consensus of the day (mid-1970s)? The view has since become the consensus but not because TLT “worked in an environment where it paid to disagree.” He explained:
During the whole of this period, the reaction in the States to my dissertation, both from within the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature, was consistently negative, with a large number of review articles, criticizing and rejecting my work, my competence and my integrity.
If challenging the historicity of the Genesis patriarchs met with such a determined response what can we expect to be the response to questioning Jesus’ historicity?
Past posts have covered the same problem in biblical studies from the perspective of other scholars “who disagree” with a consensus:
- The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)
- Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins
Academics work in an environment where they must “publish or perish“. That means submitting their work to peer-review. Peer reviewers elect to review work that is relevant to their interests. The system favours building on and advancing research work. Where there are flaws in previous research that can be uncovered in a methodical manner a researcher will do what is required but that is not the same thing as “disagreeing” because it somehow “pays” to do so.
If you are wondering if things have improved since some of the above instances, look no further than a concern you have probably heard about very recently — what academics say in social media like Facebook or Twitter pose a real threat to their careers:
So why are social media considered so dangerous? Unlike other media, Twitter and blogs allow profes sors to reach the public directly, without having their voices mediated by an editor. In the uncensored realm of the Internet, faculty can say anything they want, and in the eyes of the regents that freedom is a threat to universities. . . . Academics can express things on Twitter (or other social media) that are verboten in peer-reviewed journals.
Academics will disagree with each other but what pays is not the disagreement but the ability to defend a case in the context of rival cases and have one’s arguments accepted among a significant sector of the profession. The range of views may be wide but in the realms of politics and religion certain views really are forbidden on ideological grounds as Varoufakis testifies and as Bird openly admits.
Some readers may be thinking, “No, the exclusion of mythicism is not on ideological grounds; it is because the arguments are so poor.” Tim O’Neill regularly throughout his video presentation refers to every possible counter-argument to his claims as “highly convoluted” or “contrived” or “highly strained” or “fringe”. In other words, classic poisoning the well stuff. That’s exactly what Mike Bird does to justify his assertion that mythicism is beyond the pale. Read the Tactics of Conservative Scholarship post to see just how far this sort of thing goes in the field of biblical studies.
And that’s just into the first minute of O’Neill’s presentation. Much, much more could be brought out to illustrate the point, especially in the fields of history and political science — before we even return to biblical studies. But I’ll try to keep these posts shortish. There is much more to cover in the remaining 27 minutes.
Bedeian, Arthur G. “Peer Review and the Social Construction of Knowledge in the Management Discipline.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 3, no. 2 (June 2004): 198–216. https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2004.13500489.
Bird, Mike. “Yes, Jesus Existed … but Relax, You Can Still Be an Atheist If You Want To.” On Line Opinion, December 30, 2014. http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=16974&page=0.
Thompson, Thomas L. “On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire.” The Bible and Interpretation, April 2011. https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/opeds/critscho358014.
Varoufakis, Yanis. “Yanis Varoufakis: How I Became an Erratic Marxist.” The Guardian, February 18, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist.
Wilson, John K. “The Changing Media and Academic Freedom.” Academe 102, no. 1 (2016): 8–12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24643068.
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