Tag Archives: Albert Schweitzer

How and Why Scholars Fail to Rebut Earl Doherty

Dunce cap in the Victorian schoolroom at the M...
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Anyone who is familiar with Earl Doherty’s site will probably find this post superfluous.

The mysterious origin of R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views of Doherty

Dr Jeffrey Gibson is on record as saying he has no intention of reading any of Doherty’s books but that did not prevent him from pulling out a critical line from Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann’s preface to a publication reissuing Goguel’s rebuttal of mythicism, and placing it in a Wikipedia article.

A “disciple” of Wells, Earl Doherty has rehashed many of the former’s [Wells’] views in The Jesus Puzzle (Age of Reason Publications, 2005) which is qualitatively and academically far inferior to anything so far written on the subject. . .

To call Doherty a “disciple of Wells” who has “rehashed” many of Wells ideas actually indicates that Hoffmann has never really read Doherty’s books at all. Maybe Hoffmann was relying on something he read by Eddy and Boyd who in The Jesus Legend very often append Doherty’s name to that of Wells when discussing the argument that Jesus was fiction. But read what Wells says about Eddy and Boyd’s confusion:

Earl Doherty belongs unequivocally in category 1 of Eddy and Boyd’s 3 [categories — category 1 includes those who think Jesus perhaps entirely fiction], and they make it easier for themselves to suggest that my ideas seem at first sight strange by repeatedly grouping me with him, even though they are in fact aware that I differ from him significantly. Doherty argues that, for Paul, the earliest witness, Jesus did not come to Earth at all, that, under the influence of the Platonic view of the universe, salvic events such as his crucifixion were believed to have taken place in a mythical spirit-world setting. I have never espoused this view, not even in my pre-1996 Jesus books, where I did deny Jesus’ historicity. (p. 328 of Cutting Jesus Down to Size by G. A. Wells)

So if Wells finds little in common between his arguments and Doherty’s, what does he say about Doherty’s work?

“In spite of our differences, Mr. Doherty has appraised my work generously, and for my part I regard his book as an important contribution…” (From Wells’ summation of a couple of give-and-take articles appearing in the British magazine “New Humanist” 1999-2000)

And again in Can We Trust the New Testament? G. A. Wells writes of Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle:

In this important book [Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle], the whole of this chapter on these second-century apologists repays careful study. But I find his conclusion too radical . . . (p.202)

Anyone who has followed Wells’ books over the years may well come to the conclusion that it is Wells who has come to rely quite heavily on Doherty in some aspects of the mythicist case — particularly the second century apologists. As for the work being “academically inferior”, again one wonders if Hoffmann ever did read the same book that . . .

Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University, Stevan Davies, read. Davies said of Doherty’s work:

But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come across anywhere. . . .

Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn more? (See Crosstalk #5438 for the full quote)

— Or that Professor of Biblical Criticism with the Council for Secular Humanism’s Center for Inquiry Institute, Robert M. Price, read. Price has the strongest praise for Doherty’s books, especially his recent one in the Youtube video linked at my earlier article on Robert Price’s view.

— Or that Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos, read. Avalos writes:

Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. (See earlier post Legitimacy of questioning)

Reading Doherty and Wells: the essential difference read more »

Contrasting methods: “nonbiblical” historians vs “Jesus” historians

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

I have argued (repeatedly) — and demonstrated — that mainstream historians of “the historical Jesus” do not follow the basic procedures in evaluating evidence practiced by regular “nonbiblical” historians. Here is another specific case that illustrates this fact, and demonstrates once again the validity of Thomas L. Thompson’s claim that “historical Jesus” scholars have “always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.” I came across this particular case when doing some background reading on a nonbiblical historian, Eric Hobsbawm, whom James Crossley draws upon in his study of Christian origins.

The point of the following quotations is to demonstrate that “mainstream historians of nonbiblical topics” understand the basic premise that a narrative cannot be assumed to be based on historical persons or events. In all cases there is a need for external attestation or “controls” to establish this.

Yet “Jesus” historians have ignored this basic principle and assumed there is a historical Jesus to describe. They then proceed to assess what parts of the Gospel narrative are more plausible given plot analysis and reference to ancient customs, etc. This is called “digging beneath the text” to find its “historical core”. This is NOT how renowned historians like Eric Hobsbawm have worked when handling both the literary evidence and first hand reports in their attempts to understand the historical nature of bandits, or any particular bandit, in South America.

In all cases we need independent evidence

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Exactly like “the minimalists” (& Schweitzer & Schwartz) said

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Three approaches to researching the mythical Jesus phenomenon

Here are three methodologies used by mainstream biblical scholars for enquiring into the arguments for the historical Jesus with which I have had some direct contact.

The first is by an early twentieth century scholar of some repute even today; the second by an “reverent agnostic” scholar; and the third by a liberal Christian scholar (guess).

1. Albert Schweitzer’s method for researching and addressing the arguments for a mythical Jesus

  1. Read all the mythical Jesus publications that have been printed.
  2. Present an annotated bibliography of this mythical Jesus literature.
  3. Discuss in some detail the full mythical Jesus arguments of each author, and the development of each argument across an author’s career, and the relationship of the arguments to one another.
  4. Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each of these arguments.
  5. Admit the logical premise on which all historical methodology is based, and go two steps further and admit that the study of Christian origins is doubly problematic since all its sources are themselves Christian: there are NO external controls in order to enable even a statement of “positive probability”.
  6. Argue that the Church ought to build its foundation on a metaphysic, and not on any historical datum. Seriously admit the theoretical possibility of having to abandon an historical Jesus.
  7. Lament the insulting tones in which the debate has been conducted.
  8. Appeal for civility and reason, and an acceptance at least of the legitimacy of the mythical Jesus arguments and questions.
  9. Concede that the evidence of Josephus and Tacitus is worthless for establishing the historicity of Jesus.
  10. Disagree with the mythical Jesus arguments in a civil and professional manner, and even advise what mythicists need to do to establish their case more persuasively. This advice is constructive in terms of type of argumentation needed, and not sideways putdowns such as “getcha self a peer review!”

That was in the early twentieth century. By the end of the century and at the turn of the new, Dr Jeffrey Gibson offered his research and rebuttal methodology.

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Schweitzer’s comments on the historical-mythical Jesus debate

Albert Schweitzer argued against those who denied the historicity of Jesus, but he also had a few things to say about the way in which the debate between mythicists and historicists was conducted in his day. This post lists some of those thoughts that I believe are still relevant. His advice about what mythicists need to do also resonates well with my own reflections that I have attempted to express at times in this blog and on other discussion boards.

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. (p.394, the 2001 Fortress edition of Quest throughout)

Schweitzer squarely laid the blame on the “mythicists” of his day: they gratuitously provoked “mainstream biblical scholars”, and the latter in return “generally answered in an unfortunately similar manner.” Today the situation is reversed. It is mainstream scholars who have initiated the bloodletting today. I witnessed this around ten years ago on the Crosswalk discussion list when Earl Doherty made an appearance, and then some time later, René Salm.

But even then on that first Crosswalk discussion list there were academics who did their profession more credit. As in Schweitzer’s day, it is true to say

However, there was no lack of attempts to establish a peaceful and worthy discussion. (p.395)

Dilettantes and Fathers

It is not surprising that the dilettantism of the [mythicists’] presentation received full, indeed sometimes immoderate, coverage in the debate . . . .

Refutations were almost too prompt and numerous.

For impartial observers it was all most instructive. The proceedings gave them some notion of the Gnostic battles of the middle of the second century AD. The mentality of many free-thinking theologians began to reveal a strange and bitter resemblance to that of the fathers who battled against heresy at that time. Like them, they felt themselves called upon to protect the spiritual welfare of the defenceless masses who were in danger of being craftily deluded.(p.395)

One might see the same happening today also in relation to agnostic and atheistic bible scholars who feel a need to protect the “intellectual integrity” of their audiences.

Thus H. Weinel added a ‘practical appendix’ . . . to his book Is the Liberal Picture of Jesus refuted?, which was intended to instruct clergymen on the logic and facts with which they could best confound Drews and his companions at public meetings. (p.395)

This has its modern counterpart with the abundance of web pages professing to give their readers lists of counter-arguments against Doherty’s web and print publications.

Superficial responses

As the polemical works for and against the historicity of Jesus were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low.

We again see this so often today. So often a “mainstream scholar” will dismiss an argument from a “mythicist” with a reply that he would surely never dare expect to share with his peers. Arguments and presumptions that are widely treated as working hypotheses are presented as absolute facts. As a layman I came to learn that when I read a scholarly article apologizing that a particular point had not been extensively researched, it as often as not seemed to mean that it had not been researched at all. I also came to see how certain interpretations changed in line with more general social and cultural developments through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not hard to see that some assumptions and interpretations reflect wider political developments rather than any new evidence or methodologies. Many scholars know all this, of course. But some among the field of biblical studies seem to overlook it all when it comes to exchanges with “mythicists”.

When I was studying in depth the Jesus passages in Josephus, I sought out scholarly articles in the literature, both new and old, and read all I could that offered any sort of depth to the discussions. When on Crosstalk I pointed to a fallacy or weakness in a common argument for “a Josephan core” reference to Jesus, I was advised by one good doctor of biblical studies to seek out and read Bruce’s single page dot-point summary of the “core” argument. This, I was assured, would bring my knowledge of the discussion up to the required standard to participate in a discussion with the learned ones. In other words, one had to have the correct conclusions to participate.

One also reads arguments that declare without qualification that there was a widespread and single form of popular Jewish expectation of a messiah at the turn of the century in connection with these discussions. Yet such scholars surely know that such a concept is nowhere to be found or repeated in their literature that deals specifically with this question. (Fitzmyer included, aspects of whose work I have discussed here and on other sites.)

These and other similar personal experiences eventually led me to wonder if some academics themselves rely merely on such summary tracts or undergraduate introductions when referencing supporting assumptions to their main works.

In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus point out the many and profound weaknesses which the thoughtless popularism of modern theology has displayed for ears and which have made theology particularly vulnerable; the defenders of the traditional view fasten on the shortcomings of the philological and historical hypotheses of their opponents. But on both sides, as in the Gnostic struggles, only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question. (pp.395-6)

One bible scholar has repeatedly pointed me and others to chapter 2 of Weaver’s book, The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950, to read when and where the “mythicist” case has been repeatedly rebutted and is no longer worth discussing. It seems that such a scholar is satisfied that so long as someone has published a counter argument, and so long as the question has been effectively ignored by the mainstream, then the case has been “rebutted”, and that long ago and ‘many times’. When I respond with actual citations from Weaver and some of those so-called rebutters themselves, and some of the responses their arguments have elicited, and with these citations open his assertions to question, the discussion invariably comes to an end and he withdraws for a time. A reply and a bypass do not equate with a rebuttal. (I know there have been several “replies”, but I also see that they are in the main echoes of one another, and are substantially the one reply that for most part addresses twigs, straw men and red herrings.)

Addressing the complexity of the problem

The complexity of the problem is such that there are four main questions to be considered: these concern the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, the history of doctrine and the history of literature. (p. 396)

1. Philosophy of religion question

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The legitimacy of questioning the historicity of Jesus

To argue for a nonhistorical Jesus has been ignorantly compared with arguing “Creation Science” (“Intelligent Design”).

So it is interesting to read the following from one of the foremost public critics of Creation Science:

Of course, there are scholars who are more openly secular humanist, and are willing to depart from the religionism that permeates historical Jesus studies. One example is Robert M. Price, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who provides a devastating critique of historical Jesus studies in Deconstructing Jesus — and we share many of his conclusions. Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. Burton Mack and Gerd Ludemann also have done much to erode our confidence in the more religionist versions of historical Jesus research. Our purpose is not to slight them, but rather to show that the predominant schools of historical Jesus research in academia have still not superseded Reimarus, who had a perfectly reasonable hypothesis centered on empirico-rationalism.

p. 197, The End of Biblical Studies (2007) by Hector Avalos.

And who is this Avalos?

From Wikipedia, Avalos “is also one of the most prominent secular humanist biblical scholars today.”

As for his credentials in detecting genuine studies from fraudulent ones like Creation Science, again from Wikipedia:

“Avalos has become an internationally-recognized critic of Intelligent Design, and he is often linked with Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, the advocate of Intelligent Design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007. Avalos co-authored a statement against Intelligent Design in 2005, which was eventually signed by over 130 faculty members at Iowa State University. That faculty statement became a model for other statements at the University of Northern Iowa and at the University of Iowa. Gonzalez and Avalos are both featured in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008).”

And from another:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.

p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson

So who is this Thompson?

Also from Wikipedia, Thomas L. Thompson was a theology professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1993 to 2009.

[He] has held positions at the University of Dayton (Instructor in theology, 1964 – 65), University of Detroit (Assistant Professor: Old Testament, 1967 – 69), Tübingen Atlas of the Near East (research associate, 1969 – 76), École Biblique (visiting professor, 1985 – 86), Lawrence University (visiting associate professor, 1988 – 89), and Marquette University (associate professor, 1989 – 93), and was professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993-2009. He was named a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 1988. He is general editor for the Equinox Press monograph series Copenhagen International Seminar and associate editor of the Scandinavian Journal for the Old Testament, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Holy Land Studies and Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift.

He has written 14 books, one of which, The Bible in History, is widely used as a set-text in undergraduate courses in biblical studies.

And one more for luck:

Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus.

p.402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

Who’s Schweitzer?


Added 14 Feb, 2010:

I had thought that the heading of this post was sufficient to contextualize the quotations above. (I certainly thought it was enough not to give the biographical detail on him as I gave on the others — I assumed my concluding quip was enough to set the tone and context.) But I have recently learned that one person (here) has interpreted my reference to Schweitzer as an attempt by me to get others to think that Schweitzer is a mythicist sympathizer. That is, of course, ridiculous. I took for granted that readers who know anything about Schweitzer would know his position on this. This was, of course, my point — that even one who argued comprehensively against mythicist arguments should concede certain facts about the argument that enable it to endure.

To repeat part of my response on that blog here:

Michael Shermer is able to quite comfortably pull apart Creationist arguments in a civil, courteous and professional manner and tone. I have demonstrated it is quite possible to pull apart in an informative and clear way something as “fringe” as Atlantis theories.

It is perhaps sadly instructive that quite a number of biblical scholars appear to find such processes beyond them when confronted with mythicist arguments, and they feel a need to resort to ridicule and misrepresentation and insult.

Albert Schweitzer — and this is a key point of my references to him — would not be impressed.

You are public intellectuals and I would consider that you have a responsibility to your publics to give them more than examples of prejudice and uncivil responses when faced with a radical difference of view.


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