Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #1

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by Neil Godfrey

But the fact is this huge consensus exists. So in history, that means something. After all, academics work in an environment where it pays to find reasons to disagree with each other. — Tim O’Neill

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!

Academic Arthur Bedeian explained how it works — the academic environment that “pays”:

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:

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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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #1”

  1. Excellent article. “Academic freedom” is as much of an oxymoron as is “athletic scholarship.” Tim O’Neil is a big baby. His ‘Comments’ column should be renamed ‘Compliments’ column as the slightest disagreement with little Timmy gets one kicked off.

  2. I wonder why so many of the protagonists in this debate have to be so, I was going to say ‘acerbic’, but I think I really mean a strong form of ‘rude’. Richard Carrier does not conduct himself well and this Tim character appears a deeply unpleasant person. I was wondering how he managed to find such a ready audience, among atheists (apparently), with his message ‘you can just trust the Christian scholars, now don’t ask any more questions’ delivered with all the social grace of a drunken racist uncle.
    Then I realised, that for many people, the unpleasantness, the rudeness, the side-picking, the dogmatism and the Jesus-is-still-there-for-you comfort is what they came for.
    Thank you Neil for always writing thoughtfully and respectfully!

      1. People claiming this (incorrectly IMO) typically give the following as exhibit A:


        • Ehrman, Bart D. (20 March 2012). “Did Jesus Exist?”. HuffPost.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (21 March 2012). “Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (21 April 2012). “Richard Carrier on The Huffington Post Article (1)”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.
        • Ehrman, Bart D (19 March 2012). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperCollins–HarperOne. ISBN 9780062206442.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (19 April 2012). “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (22 April 2012). “Acharya S, Richard Carrier, and a Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”)”. The Bart Ehrman Blog (reproduced: “Author Bart Ehrman post”. Facebook).
        ‣ Fincke, Daniel (22 April 2012). “Ehrman Evades Carrier’s Criticisms”. Camels With Hammers.
        • Hoffmann, R. Joseph (23 April 2012). “Mythtic Pizza and Cold-cocked Scholars”. The New Oxonian.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (24 April 2012). “Response to Carrier”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (27 April 2012). “Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round One)”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (25 April 2012). “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (29 April 2012). “Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round Two)”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (24 July 2012). “Ehrman on Historicity Recap”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (21 April 2014). “Attacks from the Other Side: An Ill-Tempered Richard Carrier”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (3 May 2014) ap. “Bart Ehrman Freedom From Religion Foundation Lecture”. YouTube. Scott Burdick. 13 August 2014.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (11 July 2014). “On Bart Ehrman Being Pot Committed”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (18 February 2016) ap. “Bart Ehrman at Fresno City College”. YouTube. Paul Gilmore. 20 April 2016.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (25 April 2016). “Bart Ehrman Just Can’t Do Truth or Logic”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        • Ehrman, Bart D. (21 October 2016) ap. “Dr. Robert Price & Dr. Bart Ehrman Debate: Did Jesus Exist?”. YouTube. Mythinformed. 21 March 2017.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (25 October 2016) ap. “Did Jesus Exist? Price/Ehrman Debate- Who Won? Who’s Next?”. YouTube. Mythinformed. 5 November 2016.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (28 October 2016). “The Ehrman-Price Debate”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
        ‣ Carrier, Richard (6 October 2018) ap. “Richard Carrier Vs Bart Erhman: Did Jesus Exist? (Re-edited)”. YouTube. MythVision Podcast. 24 November 2018.

      2. Hi Gilbert. I have read and enjoyed Richard Carrier’s book OHJ. If you read his blog (which I do less and less), from time to time he goes on these long tirades where he accuses his detractors of lying. He says they are deliberately trying to deceive. Even where I agree with Carrier’s point, which is much of the time, I don’t agree with his uncharitable reading of the other side. O’Neill, for example, is dead wrong about his argument from the academic consensus – and really ought to be able to recognise this fact – but he probably isn’t deliberately lying. If anything, his faith in Christian scholarship shows an almost touching naivety.

        1. Geoff wrote: “[O’Neill’s] faith in Christian scholarship shows an almost touching naivety.”

          Many people have a visceral resistance to accepting that authority can simply make things up and have them believed. Along with this feeling, the idea that an individual could be right while “everybody” is just wrong—is both arrogant and frightening. It smacks of craziness to them. They openly call it crank. It strikes them as conspiracy thinking.

  3. Why are so many of these academic historians (and their hangers on like O’Neill) so enraged that people have different on certain matters than their clique’s consensus? They lack any sense of humility, as if somehow their PhDs give them a near-supernatural discernment into the truth of any claim that comes within their purview. Beneath this bluster, I suspect insecurity: they know that a PhD is really nothing special but they must maintain the illusion by rhetorically beating into submission any “layman” who thinks differently that what is deemed acceptable by their guild. It’s really a power struggle and not a search for truth.

  4. OP: “But the fact is this huge consensus exists. So in history, that means something . . . — Tim O’Neill”

    At this point, common sense expects O’Neill to now list some of the leading scholars and their works that are the basis for this “huge consensus”. . . [Crickets Chirping]

    How could anyone say the same for evolutionary theory and not immediately list at least one (or what decadent luxury, even two) current leading scholar(s) and their works.

  5. I’ve noticed on Facebook, lately, that if you wish to be part of a group you have to join “group think”. Group think is the admin’s thinking and acting over you process. You must conform. The group admin has decided that as long as you are a group member, s/he owns your brain and you can’t say anything that interferes with the “confluence of strategic stimuli” s/he daily injects into your brain to keep you in their group supporting them. As soon as you shut the door on their control, walk away from the group, their control over you stops and it’s as if they don’t exist anymore. It’s that clean of a cut.

    1. Ooh yes! I’ve experienced it myself. There was a Facebook forum for discussing history of New Testament times that I was welcomed to. But at one point I attempted to suggest that there was no indisputable evidence for early first century messianic movements and that the evidence we have can be interpreted other ways. The moderator just went ballistic, couldn’t contain himself and expelled me. He later let me back — at urging of some others, I think — but the same happened again. It was quite bizarre.

  6. “But the fact is this huge consensus exists.”

    That’s huge – Huge – ya, know (well, if ya don’t: ya should)

    Oh, Neil – can’t believe you’ve clearly missed that fact!

    If ya ‘d picked up that fact ya wouldn’t have been so contrary, would ya?

    Such a mistake – a HUGE mistake 😉

    1. I have addressed that claim of O’Neill’s at least once before. One of the responses it invites is: How many scholars belonging to that “consensus” have actually investigated the question of Jesus’ historicity. Bart Ehrman, after all, said he believed he was the first to do so in any sort of “serious” way. Of course, the “consensus” of which O’Neill speaks is really nothing more than what can be described as “social knowledge”. “Everyone knows” this or that as part of our basic educational and cultural background. Everyone knows Alfred ate cakes and David slew the Philistines and Julius Caesar said Et tu, Brute, and everyone used to think the world was flat.

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