After assuring the reader of his superior scholarly background in comparison with “modern scholars” of the Jesus Seminar, Evans goes and undoes all the intellectual confidence he has sought to establish by falling into the most astounding logical fallacies when he attempts to explain why 4 scholars in particular are no longer fundamentalist believers.
A tired and common condescending put-down so often leveled against anyone who drifts away or turns against a tight-knit group of any kind is to accuse them of never having understood or been truly with the group from the beginning. The group-defensive-arrogance is almost too hot to approach. “No-one who really understands what we are about could ever possibly disown us.” Those remaining true to the original cause reflect and look for past signs of faults in those departed to explain why they left. Those who do leave or dissent are never taken at their word when they try to explain their reasons. It is some sin or missing key element that is the “real reason”. A letter in the Bible says the same, and Craig Evans says it of scholars whose studies have led them away from their fundamentalism:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; . . . 1 John 2:19
Erhman’s struggle with faith — and I feel for him — grows out of mistaken expectations of the nature and function of Scripture, mistaken expectations that he was taught as a young, impressionable fundamentalist Christian. (p.31)
The condescension reeks. In both passages. Evans “feels for” the lost sheep who was wrongly set up from his days as an “impressionable” youth. We are listening to a pastor of superior learning and experience (according to his Preface) informing his other children why their erstwhile colleague no longer plays with them. The message is religious and moral, not scholarly. It is about the True Faith. It is not scholarly except in some of its language and in relation to a few branches growing out of Ehrman’s views.
Like the author of the first epistle of John, Evans seems to think it enough to propose his personal “insights” into the spiritual flaws of the scholars Robert Funk, James Robinson, Robert Price and Bart Ehrmann. He opts to spiritually condemn rather than offer a synopsis of scholarly arguments that would, when unpacked, hopefully challenge to their views of the Bible. A reader wanting to discover what is actually wrong in scholarly terms with the basic arguments of these scholars will find nothing here. Certainly Evans does give a few contradictory views of specific points of their arguments, but this is only tackling the odd twig or branch of one of the sceptic’s arguments, not their fundamental conclusions.
I should clarify at this point that I am not supporting here any of the arguments of Funk, Erhman et al, but am discussing Evans’ religious sermonizing approach posing as scholarly critique in relation to them.
I have studied in depth various strands of history, educational philosophy and English literature but until I began reading a few of the Christian fundamentalist apologetics I had never come across scholars rebutting one another with barbs like “misplaced faith” or “misguided suspicion”. Suspicion is, of course, the antithesis of faith, so the two complaints are really the stamp of the one coin.
Rather than take up critical debate and challenges on their own terms, as is done in every other discipline I know, fundamentalist scholars seem to insist on applying special rules of their own: one must have “faith” in the gospel and the texts that bear witness of that gospel, and failure to take the texts at face value is somehow deemed “a hermeneutic of suspicion”, that is, “unscholarly”. Reasons and evidence for a fundamentalist interpretation need not be a factor. The failure to adopt the “right” interpretation, the “face value” fundamentalist interpretation, is enough to invite the charge of “misguided suspicion”.
“Rigid fundamentalism” — never the Bible — is mostly to blame!
This is a continuation of my comments on Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus (first post is here) — am making here some introductory comments on his book with special focus on his Introduction.
Craig Evans lays out what he sees as the context of book in its Introduction. As he writes passages like
We live in a strange time that indulges, even encourages, some of the strangest thinking. It is a time when truth means almost what you want to make of it. And in these zany quests for “truth”, truth becomes elusive. (p.15)
Modern scholars and writers, in their never-ending quest to find something new and to advance daring theories that run beyond the evidence, have either distorted or neglected the New Testament Gospels, resulting in the fabrication of an array of pseudo-Jesuses (p.16)
one can hear the clear echoes of
But we know this, that in the last days perilous times will come, for men will be . . . always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:1-2, 7)
For the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but telling or hearing some new thing. (Acts 17:21)
O Timothy, guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge — by professing it, some have strayed concerning the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)
For false Christs . . . will arise . . . (Matthew 24:24)
And when he later speaks of his puzzlement and amazement (pp.27, 29) at how some scholars have abandoned their fundamentalist beliefs and moved to unorthodox views of Jesus and the New Testament, one hears the resounding biblical text:
I marvel that you are turning away to . . . a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. . . (Galatians 1:6)
Craig Evans has tossed in the dog-whistle words that his fellow believers will register and that will recall the above passages to mind as his real message. Dog-whistle words and phrases like: “we live in strange times”, “a time when truth means almost what you want to make of it”, “in these quests for truth, truth becomes elusive”, “their never-ending quest to find something new”, “pseudo-Jesuses”.
Craig Evans makes it no secret that one of his concerns is “the times” and conditions that have led to scholarly divergences from orthodoxy. As I will demonstrate, he at best attacks twigs of arguments that are debated even among “sceptics”, or sometimes oversimplifies the position of some sceptics to the point of straw-man caricature. But the main focus of his book is an attempt to explain biblically and in biblical terms — while only marginally addressing the real positions and arguments themselves — why so many have departed from orthodox faith. Hence his main target will be the “misplaced faith and misguided suspicions” that the scholars had and that led to their fall from grace.
So even when he addresses points such as “questionable texts from later centuries”, or “failure to take into account Jesus’ mighty deeds”, or “cramped starting points and overly strict critical methods”, etc. it is from the perspective of a spiritual failing, a lack of correct faith. The dog-whistle words here, though are “suspicion” and “overly sceptical”. It seems enough to dismiss some questions as borne of an “overly sceptical attitude” when one seeks to avoid grappling with the actual arguments and reasoned assumptions underlying the methods of some of the “modern scholars”.
Ironically though not surprisingly, in some cases Evans even fully embraces the arguments the most liberal of sceptics himself — when that sceptic is arguing for a particular conclusion that he likes. So Evans is clearly not really opposed to the methods of the sceptics at all — at least not when they come to the “right conclusions”. I will discuss an example or two in the appropriate place in a future post.
But this apparent contradiction clearly explains why he does not grapple with the methodologies of sceptics, and why this book is really a religious tract born of his “love to lecture . . . love to preach . . . love to tell the stories of the Gospels . . . love to see the look in the faces of people in the congregation when they first understand what Jesus meant — what he really meant . . .” (p.13).
So who is the book for? Evans writes:
for anyone confused by “wild theories and conflicting portraits of Jesus”
for anyone interested in wanting to learn more about Jesus and the Gospels but is confused by the “strange books” available
“for skeptics, especially for those prone to fall for some old nineteenth-century philosophical hokum that almost no one today holds”
for the scholarly guild in hopes of lifting the “standard of scholarship”, that is a “scholarship” “which doesn’t presume that skepticism equals scholarship”
“Finally, this book is written to defend the original witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.”
to reassure the flock that they don’t have to take any notice of scholarly enquiries that depart from orthodoxy
to reaffirm the orthodoxy
for those without faith who are likely to fall prey to fatuous ‘hokum’
“true scholarship” is one in which the rules insist that faith always trumps skepticism; that is, it serves the interests of the prevailing orthodox fundamentalist ideology
as an apology for the orthodox Christian faith
So the introduction makes it clear that Evans is only looking for any arguments (no doubt cherry picked from scholarly tomes, or from cherry picked scholarly tomes) that will be found to support the conclusion that his religious faith from his youth has not been misplaced. He has paid good heed to those who warned him, when he entered Claremont, “that critical study would not be good for [his] faith.” (p.13)
One is reminded of Soviet science serving the ideology of the Soviet state, of Catholic scholarship serving the Catholic orthodoxy, of Nazi intellectuals being bound to bolster the claims of Nazi ideology, and the often subtler forms of political pressures in many academic and research fields today. Unfortunately it is left to the outsiders, or those looking back from another time, to see most clearly the fallacies that must inevitably abound in the interests of preserving the ideology, whatever its brand.
Given the high praise so widely given Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans, and given the book’s subtitle, How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, I had hoped to find a scholarly engagement, albeit accessible to a lay audience, with the methods and arguments of “modern scholars”.
The book generally avoids doing anything like this. Rather, it is a strong statement of the correct views and interpretations according to Craig Evans, mixed with sermonizing laments that some Christians have made shipwreck concerning the faith because of their misguided learning and enquiries. If books like Fabricating Jesus are held up as “powerful and persuasive” arguments — that’s the description by Lee Strobel on the dust jacket — for fundamentalist faith then fundamentalists are betrayed. They do not have in this book anything like an understanding of the issues required to engage a sceptic in debate. They have nothing more than a book that makes strong noises supportive of their faith, that gives strong assurances that they don’t have to worry, or even think about, or honestly investigate the issues for themselves. They have only an empty illusion that here is an authority that demolishes the “distortions” of “modern scholarship”.
Will try to explain here for any fundamentalists relying on the wisdom contained in Fabricating Jesus why they will fail completely to engage a student of a “liberal modern scholar” or Bible sceptic.
But first, I wonder if this book was able to win a few of its accolades, such as “exposes the misinformed nonsense that has confused the reading public over the past few years”, by including a discussion of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh and their The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in the same volume he discusses the Jesus Seminar. I haven’t yet bothered to read his critique of those authors since the nonsense they have peddled (and even had to concede is fiction in order to make a copyright challenge against Dan Brown) has been amply demonstrated by journalists in the mainstream media.
“Jesus at the MOMA” Kathy Moniot art, http://web.archive.org/web/20080828122756/http://www.kmoniot.com/art2.html
Craig Evans opens his Preface by lightheartedly comparing his “journey” to the Christian faith with that of Paul. He was diverted from a career in the law to a life of faith while at college.
But the apparent intent of this Preface is to inform the reader that he is more learned in areas that matter than many of the Jesus Seminar scholars, and that the latter are misguided dilettantes by comparison.
In college he “majored in history”, and the reader soon sees the significance of this datum when he reads several times that Evans states categorically that virtually no scholar trained in history would ever come to the conclusions of some of the sceptics he discusses.
The biting sermonizing tone of the book is felt early:
Professor Mack was in those days . . . at that time a warm-hearted Christian scholar. . . . Times change and so do some people. (p.10)
Evans claims that his background studies in “the Greek and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls and early rabbinic literature were an enormous asset in the study of Jesus and the Gospels.” He believes “the oddness of much of the work of the Jesus Seminar” is to be blamed on too many New Testament scholars lacking the same depth of knowledge of “early rabbinic literature and the Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture” (this particular deficit is repeated for emphasis on the same page), of deficient “training in the Semitic background of the New Testament”. He even complains that only “[f]ew have done any archaeological work.” I wondered about the relevance of this latter point, but on page 220 Evans writes that the archaeological “evidence for the existence of Jesus . . . is overwhelming” (p.220).
Regrettably I did not see any instance in Fabricating Jesus where Evans demonstrates where his superior understanding or practical experience in these areas was used to undercut the methods and arguments that have led some scholars to question the veracity of the Bible.
Interestingly, Evans says that his studies in biblical criticism challenged not the essence of the Christian message but “the baggage that many think is part of the message.” And of what does this baggage consist?
views of authorship of the gospels (e.g. that they are written by the apostles)
view of the dates of biblical books (e.g. that they are early)
assumptions regarding the nature of biblical literature (e.g. gospels are history only)
assumptions about the nature of Jesus teaching (e.g. that Jesus taught only new things)
The examples Evans offers for each bit of “baggage” are important. He is using those examples to narrow the real meaning of what he thinks is baggage in each case. He will not concede, for example, that whoever wrote the gospels was doing anything other than relying on orally transmitted memories of the eyewitnesses of Jesus. Nor will he concede for a moment the possibility the nature of the gospels could be something quite apart from anything truly historical. Nor that the assumptions about the nature of Jesus’ teaching could embrace sayings and proverbs from other sources put into his mouth.
In other words, despite the apparent disclaimer, Evans is, it must be said, playing word games. These four items of baggage are only baggage so long as they stay within limits that nonetheless support the conservative Christian message. In other words they are not baggage at all to Evans. They are really the container of his faith with a built in limited elasticity. He speaks of “baggage” but really means “limited elasticity”.
“Fabricating Jesus is a book that takes a hard look at some of the sloppy scholarship . . . that [has] been advanced in recent years. . . . Some of it, frankly, is embarrassing.” I’ll have a look at chapter one of this book and see how Evans begins his treatment of some of this “sloppy” and “embarrassing” scholarship.