The same day I also heard from a disciple of the famous Christ-mythicist, Acharya S (D. M. Murdock), who claims that Jesus never lived.
The title "acharya" is defined by Wikipedia in part as follows: "In Indian religions and society, an acharya . . . is a guide or instructor in religious matters; founder, or leader of a sect; or a highly learned man or a title affixed to the names of learned men."
Bhagwan Rajneesh was also called Acharya Rajneesh. I don't know if that's what he called himself, or if he preferred "Bagwan Rajneesh," that is, "Lord Rajneesh."
Anyway, I get something of the same feeling, reading Murdock's web-site. A photo of Ms. Murdock appears in a kind of aural glow. Hindus often place high value on such photos, which are often worshipped as images of the guru. (I learned this years ago from the panic the devotee of another guru expressed when I misplaced the photograph she lent me of her guru, to publicize a coming conference in which I had invited him to speak. She tried to explain to me how important such photos are for devotees. I eventually tracked the photo down, and got it back to her, to the relief of both of us.)
Under the glowing photograph of Acharya S appears the legend, "Great Minds of Our Time: D. M. Murdock."
Who says that about themselves? Of course we all THINK it, especially those among us who are cats.
My one fleeting contact with Murdock came when I was teaching in Japan. I had been taking part in an ecumenical on-line discussion, involving some pretty bright atheists, Christians, and New Agers. Someone brought her into the conversation, she made some nasty comments about someone, dismissed the whole group rather abruptly, in a way that told me more about her than a mere refutation of her arguments might have. Sometimes people open the doors to their souls, and let outsiders peak in: so it seemed at that moment. Everything I have seen of her since, has reinforced the impression that she is not a person with an intense (if amateur) interest in ancient history, but the leader of a cult. She reminds me of a woman I met in Taipei who told me her home was the New Jerusalem, and (while chain-smoking and ranting), she the only pure one. As Kenny Rogers put it, you got to know when to walk away, and know when to run, and I kept my "mouth" shut at the time.
Nevertheless, my recent exchange with her disciple -- a much nicer person, as disciples often are -- made me think how character often reveals itself in first impressions, and how stubborn people can be in belief.
The disciple (let us call him Mr. L) linked me to an article Murdock from Tueday responding to Bart Ehrman's new book, which rebuts "Christ mythicism." Mr. L repeated many of the effusive blurbs on Murdock's site, where she is called, for instance, "The ranking religious philosopher of our era!" "A shining light of truth in a sea of deceit!" "The voice of reason!" "Hollywood Jesus" also claims (for Lord knows what reason) that her scholarship is better than that of a triple PhD!
But this is how, on Monday, that genius revealed itself:
In his recent interview with NPR (April 1, 2012), Did Jesus Exist? author Bart Ehrman comments:
"Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible... According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archeological evidence that Jesus ever existed. Even Christian sources are problematic – the Gospels come long after Jesus' death, written by people who never saw the man.... Most importantly...these mythicists point out that there are Pagan gods who were said to die and rise again and so the idea is that Jesus was made up as a Jewish god who died and rose again.... The mythicists have some right things to say... The Gospels do portray Jesus in ways that are non-historical."
The odd thing about this quote, is that Murdock apparently expected her readers to accept it at face value, and not even bother clicking on the link, to verify that she cited Ehrman accurately.
She did not.
Here's how the paragraph actually reads, on the site Acharya S links to:
Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible, Ehrman says. According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archeological evidence that Jesus ever existed. Even Christian sources are problematic – the Gospels come long after Jesus' death, written by people who never saw the man.
Do you see any quote marks, here? I don't. It's not because the article doesn't use quotes -- in fact, it quotes Ehrman directly many times, and indicates those direct quotations, per convention, with quote marks every time. But Murdock has added quote marks to the passage above -- they are not in the original.
And what do the three dots in the first sentence of Murdock's version of this citation represent? ("Mythicists' arguments are fairly plausible... According to them, Jesus was never mentioned in any Roman sources and there is no archeological evidence that Jesus ever existed.")
Those are the little dots where "Ehrman says" used to be.
That's right, Murdock actually takes the words "Ehrman says" out of that sentence here. She then inserts the quote marks, to make it sound as if these words were Ehrman's own, rather than the reporter's second-hand summary of what Erhman actually said.
Does that make a difference? Obviously, it makes a world of difference, which is precisely why she did it. The whole weight of her post rests on these words being accurately ascribed to Ehrman himself. Good scholarship depends heavily on accurately ascribing sources. But these are not his words. Murdock is not engaging in scholarship, she is engaging in a rather silly form of fraud. Murdock simply lies to her readers, by misquoting the target of her wrath.
What difference does such a mis-attribution make? The unnamed reporter may not be an authority on this subject. She may summarize Ehrman's views inaccurately, as perhaps happens more often than not, among journalists who seldom understand the nuances of a subject as well as the experts they interview.
In any case, those are not Ehrman's words, and Murdock deceives her readers by representing them as such.
What did Ehrman really say here? One can only guess. But it could be that he said something like, "Mythicists arguments seem plausible enough, at first glance, but . . . " That would jibe with the rest of his comments in the interview, and the argument he makes in his book.
If Murdock can't be trusted to accurately quote even an article she has just linked to, why should we trust any of her other quotes -- say, the fawning blurbs her disciples supposedly give, or the credit various scholars, journalists and pastors are cited as giving her? Maybe those quotes, too, are misattributed. Or her own citations of obscure ancient authors on the allegedly ahistorical Jesus? Why should we trust them? (Indeed, many of them, too, seem to be fake.)
Engage in fraud once, and there's a good chance you'll do it again.
Acharya S tries to leverage this phony quote for all it would be worth, were it genuine:
When I passed along that excerpted quote to Dr. Robert M. Price, another mythicist who, like me, was the subject of Ehrman's wrath in DJE, Bob exclaimed: "Wow! That sounds like a retraction!"
Is it? Did Bart Ehrman retract his hastily composed screed, in which he tosses out calumny that could be construed as libel?
It may sound funny to accuse of a mythicist of this, but really, Dr. Price ought to be more skeptical of his sources.
With the word "libel," perhaps, we come to the heart of the matter. Ehrman dismisses Acharya S in no uncertain terms in his book. The sting, obviously, hurts. It might be an interesting trial, to see Acharya S make the claim that Bart Ehrman has ruined her scholarly reputation!
The gospels were written long after the purported events by people who never saw Jesus - on that fact Bart Ehrman and I concur wholeheartedly.
And on that "fact," or rather two alleged facts, both would be mistaken. (I say "would be" rather than "are," because S has demonstrated that her citations should be accepted only with great caution.) The Gospels were, almost all scholars concede, written within the normal life-span of Jesus' first disciples. The distance in time between Jesus' ministry, and the authorship of the first Gospels, is according to virtually all scholars, about the same or perhaps less than that between, say, the invasion of Normandy and when accounts like Band of Brothers were written from first-hand eyewitness, in the early 1990s. (And first-hand accounts of World War II could still be written today from people in my circle, and no doubt in yours, as well, 20 years later.) The Gospel of John was almost certainly based on an eyewitness account, and the Gospel of Mark, on the testimony of St. Peter. Luke apparently interviewed a wide variety of witnesses for his gospel. So "long after" is not true in any relevant sense, and probably neither is the claim that none of the writers of the gospels ever saw Jesus.
In any case, as I show in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus from diverse patterns of internal evidence, the gospels are clearly based on early and substantially accurate testimony.
Acharya S goes on to dispute Ehrman on points that would require actually reading her books to evaluate. I tried that once, and am loath to try it again -- like touching a slug in the garden, one wants to not only wash one's hand afterwards, but scrape it with steel mesh. So I pass on further details.
At the end of the post, someone says -- I am not sure if this is from Murdock, or from one of her disciples:
Bart Ehrman has just ruined his reliability and credibility with this book and he will pay for it for a very long time. Shame on him.
This is the first time I have heard of someone "ruining their reliability." The usual claim is that someone proves less reliable than supposed, reliability referring to the character of what is reliable, rather than the attitude one who relies on it adopts.
But the language of "paying for it" seems to get at the heart of the matter. Admittedly, debate often functions as a kind of substitute for armed battle. A critical comment against something you write may feel like an "attack," and you may be tempted to respond as if it were.
But ideally, scholarship is about seeking truth, not about protecting one's "hide" from "assault." In the best of worlds, a true philosopher can never lose an argument, she can only learn something she didn't know, and praise God for what she has gained by "losing." That's how arguments that are worth anything to begin with, are made stronger.
Of course, being human, real-world scholars often defend their territories as fiercely as wolverines. But recognizing the ideal, they tend to couch shafts and barbs as something less primordial, in terms of objective concern for intellectual verities and cogent reasoning, which unfortunately one's opponent seems somehow to have transgressed.
"Scholars" like Murdock reveal themselves, not just with bad arguments, or erroneous data, or even by cultivating a cult of obsequious followers, but with the snarl that comes when confounded or rebuked. "You will pay!" This is not wit or reparte, it is more like a threat from a wounded beast.
What should one do when confronted with an Acharya S? Generally speaking -- the wisest course might be to keep one's distance.
But also, for those looking on and who don't recognize the character of the cult leader, making clear why one does so.