Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Descent of Jesus Criticism

Ours is an age of demogogues in both politics and scholarship.  What counts in a media-saturated era, which has lost patience for substantial debate, and has been infantalized by pop culture, is the sound bite, the crudely startling meme.  Thus a man with no accomplishments, a left-wing ideologue who beats up on America's allies and kisses up to her enemies, is elected to the presidency twice, despite the utter failure of his policies.  But he possesses a voice of smooth modulation and pitch, and speaks with confident, "coolly" derisive tones.  The scum rises to the top on the other side of the aisle now, with a demogogue who (among an endess list of taudry untruths) falsely accuses the former president of his own party of deliberately lying to get us into a war with Iraq -- without a hint of evidence to back up that accusation.  Such antics have put him at the top of the polls. 

Jesus Skepticism has followed a similar downward path of devolution, enabled by Internet memes and self-publishing, along with the sheer bravado and emotional power of the empty bluff. 

The Jesus Seminar was bad enough.  As I showed in my 2005 book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, the scholars who constituted that colloquium committed twelve systematic errors which degraded their scholarship.  They also overlooked numerous qualities in the gospels that make them historically-persuasive texts.  Still, the work of Funk, Crossan, and Borg (less Mack) contained a great deal of value, too: recognition and a keen description of Jesus' spirit of celebration, his fondness for people on the margins, the background of social revolution and oppression in the Roman Empire, even Borg's concept of a "spirit person."  Such scholars were grossly mistaken on many counts, and subject to systematic blindness, but still, they were largely serious men and women who while they misplaced the historical Jesus, did find traces of his footprints in the sand along the Sea of Galilee. 

Then Richard Carrier came along, an Internet sensation and a self-published author.  Carrier earned a doctorate in the History of Ancient Science from Columbia, and talked an academic publisher into printing his twin works on the historical Jesus.  As Machen predicted long ago, liberal scholarship was bound to give rise to extreme skepticism -- the Jesus of the Gospels is simply too much for atheists to take even in small doses.  Carrier thus overlooked not the elephant in the room, but a whole thundering herd of elephants of fulsome evidence within the gospels, in his determination to overthrow the scholarly belief that Jesus was a real person, if nothing else. 

Carrier is at least intelligent and well-read.  His thesis seems, however, to depend on his readers never picking up the books he refers to, because they often simply do not say what he represents them as saying.  His work is perfect for an Internet Age, an age in which original texts are widely available, but few are bothered to read them.  Thus today a lie gets all the way around the world (not just half-ways, as before) while truth is putting her boots on. 

Reza Aslan then wrote the Number One Best-Seller in America, a hatchet-job on Jesus that revealed the "best-selling scholar" not as merely a rookie, but as a phony.  Aslan claimed to have done 20 years of research on the historical Jesus, though there was little evidence of any previous work from him on the subject.  Aslan showed that he didn't even know that the Sea of Galilee was made of fresh water -- among other remarkable whoppers in his best-selling book.

Still, Aslan can at least play a serious scholar on TV.

Yet another step down this slope is Matthew Ferguson, whose scholarly failings I have chronicled here and here.  Even worse was Raphael Lataster.  These young men are graduate students who seem to be learning wrong lessons about scholarship, from the wrong people.  Ferguson compares the Gospels to an obscure work called The Contest of Hesiod and Homer -- an embarrassing and silly comparison, which I skewered here.  In the process of implying that The Contest is a more credible work of history, Ferguson fails to so much as mention that the work was written most of a millennium after the "facts," or that unlike the Gospels, it doesn't even pretend to be historical!  Failing to mention two such game-changing facts is scholarly malpractice of the highest order.  Not to mention dozens of other differences between the Gospels and The Contest which demonstrate why the former are believable and the latter are not -- including some which even members of the Jesus Seminar recognize.  But my most basic criticism of Ferguson is that, for all his study, including in Greek and Latin, he does not seem yet to have really learned how to read and understand what he is reading well

Ferguson at least seems to me to show more intellectual promise than Lataster.  In my critique, I therefore spoke at times as a teacher correcting an errant younger scholar.  Ferguson seemed offended by my tone, no doubt feeling that I was striking an artificial posture.  But as an experienced teacher, I do see the immaturity of Ferguson's work, as well as his potential.  So this was no mere rhetorical posture: were he to learn from the criticism I offered, I believe Ferguson could become a better and more potent critic.   

I saw much less potential in Raphael Lataster's first book, self-published and crude to an extreme degree, but shockingly popular. I don't think I found a single impressive English sentence in the entire book -- or as much as I could stand to read of it.  Even his footnotes were a mess.  His thesis was repudiated emphatically by his own professor.  Yet he managed to get published on the Washington Post website. 

The decent continues, unimpeded it seems by any self-critical sense on the skeptical side. 

A couple weeks ago, I posted a somewhat slap-dash critique of one R Carmona, who posts on a blog called Academic Atheist.    Despite the title of his blog, R. Carmona, an undergraduate student aiming to go on to graduate studies, did not appear in the post to which I responded to have done much if any original research on the historical Jesus.  There was little sign that Carmona had read much ancient material for himself.  I found no original thesis or carefully thought-out methodology.  Rather, Carmona had scanned Ferguson's blog, and taken his arguments as "gospel." as they say.  (Along with some readings, again, from Carrier.) 

Carmona's biggest error was to describe his site as "academic," yet parrot the work of immature, untested, and fringe "scholars" with barely a trace of critical inquiry. 

In short, Carmona wrote an old-style, pre-reform SAT essay, which I am trying to teach my 17 year old students to grow beyond.  He cited two marginal and unproven scholars who think, like Trump, that because they stand outside the "establishment," their motives must be pure, and they alone have found the truth.  He offered a thesis and some slap-dash "evidence" to support it, without worrying about opposing arguments or evidence that might undermine that thesis.  Attack the right enemy with sound-bites that sound good, and the merest patina of what looks at a glance vaguely like scholarship, and many young fools predisposed to your biases seem eager to buy your thesis hook, line, and sinker. 

Real scholarship addresses boldly and fairly the best in opposing positions.  It seeks truth in work that is not personally amenable.  It tests one's thesis not with ad hoc observations, but with an objective and pre-determined set of criteria.  (As I did in critiquing Carrier and Ferguson -- my criteria for doing so were published already in 2005, long before I had heard of either gentleman.  I took on the best of liberal scholarship in doing so, and respectfully pointed out what seemed valuable in the work of Borg, Funk, and Crossan, as well as what I saw as mistaken.)

So I posted 47 criticisms of Carmona's argument on this site several weeks ago. 

Carmona responded at first with outrage.  He began with an obscenity and by misunderstanding my interest in Matthew Ferguson's on-line articles. 

Now he has posted a longer rebuttal, gentler in tone but of little more value in substance. 

I will not pretend to treat Carmona as a debate partner.  He is even younger that Ferguson or Lataster, and looking at his "arguments," I don't find any that are intellectually interesting, still less represent an educational challenge.   He seems to be under the silly impression, for instance, that "arguments from authority" are logically fallacious or inappropriate, a bias that would prove deadly to scholarship in general (and to the Law, not to mention Medicine, and therefore to patients) were it to be accepted.   ("What do you mean, Dr. Crockpuss says I have malaria?   Don't you know it is a logical fallacy to appeal to authorities?") 

Carmona attempts to answer, it appears, even one of my points, without admitting anything or learning anything.  I have no intention of going over them all again.  But I do wish to point to five comments that illustration this general trend.  It is not that Carmona is stupid (as I am afraid Lataster may be), but that atheism has taught him to be arrogant, to assume that his status as a "bright" makes up for his palpable ignorance and lack of skill -- neither of which would be unbecoming in a student, were it not for that error-forcing arrogance. 

(1) Carmona insists, after reading my demurral, that "If the Gospels are shown to be historically reliable, this does not imply that Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is historical."

Of course it does.  If Arrian's account of the death of Alexander is historically-reliable, then it does follow that Alexander's death, as depicted by Arrian, is historical.  In fact, this is a tautology, and it is hard to know what Carmona means by denying it.  He doesn't explain.

(2) I say "there is a great deal of evidence (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and just wait for my new book!) that the gospels DO present eyewitness accounts."

Carmona responds at length:

"What evidence? Give me something to field, something to consider. What are his arguments? How does he support them? Does he engage with scholars who disagree with him? This is essentially a Courtier Reply. This is the same thing John Loftus called you out about. You claim to have read so much and yet you never prove to have any understanding of what you read–even in cases like this one where an understanding of your sources would help to strengthen your presentation. This just looks as though you’re citing Bauckham because the title of his book agrees with your view. It adds no force to your “rebuttal.” Also, there’s no need for self-promotion here. If your book is that great, let it speak for itself when it is published.

"I’m sure Christians think the consensus says otherwise, since many of them seem to have done nothing but indulge their confirmation bias and read what conservative Christian scholars have had to say about this matter. Like the evangelists and first readers, these scholars want to confirm the Christian faith. They never intended to conduct honest research."

How tedious, and how utterly childish. 

I am briefly listing 47 errors in Carmona's article in an informal blog post, between more important projects.  I am not going to spend the time to prove every point I offer: I have better things to do with my time.  But what I say here is true, and it is Carmona's thus-far rudimentary education alone that makes my comment appear false to him. 

Carmona claimed that "the gospels do not present eyewitness accounts" of Jesus' life.  That is a shoddy claim, because it fails to take into account or deal with an extensive work by a major scholar that has won plaudits from (and seems to have convinced) other leading scholars, arguing with a great force of evidence to the contrary.  Mature scholars don't or shouldn't make such glib remarks.  If their claims are contested by leading scholars like that, they should deal with or at least admit the controversy. 

I am not obliged to prove Bauckham's point, to show that Carmona is writing carelessly.  If Carmona wants to know what Bauckham argues -- and he should, if he deigns to write on this subject -- he should read his book, as of course I have, despite Carmona's sleazy insinuation that I merely "claim" to "have read so much" without having any real understanding, and throw out a helpful-sounding title to support my case. 

Indeed, if Carmona were more careful (a scholarly virtue) and did a few moments worth of research (research for scholars is fun, like eating almonds mixed with chocolate for other people), he would have found that exactly four years ago, I reviewed Jesus and the Eyewitnesses on Amazon in enough detail to demonstrate that I had actually read the book.  (Winning, so far, 14 out of 14 "helpful" votes from other readers, one of whom posted to say he bought the book on my recommendation, and found my representation of it accurate.)  So Carmona's snide insinuations about my lazily citing a book I probably had not read because I liked its title, only suggests that Mr. Carmona is himself at present something of a lazy fool.  (A combination of conditions which I sincerely hope he overcomes.  I wish the best to his teachers!) 

Again, Carmona sleazily accuses "these scholars," apparently including me, of never even "intending" to conduct "honest research," which apparently (the boundaries of the accusation are puffy) means we Christians generally don't read opposing points of view.

Yet I met "Carmona" on John Loftus' blog.  John complains not that I don't read his books, but that I do, and post devastating (not that he uses that word) reviews of them on Amazon.  He even tried to "buy me off" by offering to delete one of his reviews of my books, if I would delete my review of his new book. 

The claim that I "never prove to have any understanding of what  I read" is just more childish nonsense.  My reviews on Amazon, largely critical reviews of some of the most important books by writers of many persuasions (including numerous atheists), have received some 13,000 "helpful" votes so far.  Reviews of my books by informed scholars have gone out of their way to say that I describe opposing positions fairly -- even Loftus has admitted that, once or twice.  (While, admittedly, saying the opposite at other times.) 

(3) "Curiously enough, you allude to something important: “they were written when Christians were persecuted.”  That says much about their allegorical style.  Also, your insight meshes better with the idea me and Matthew endorse, namely that the Gospels were written to confirm Christian faith.  More specifically, they were written as means of communication between believers and not as histories to be passed down the centuries."

This is how scholarship goes downhill.   Ferguson may think that a book written during a persecution is likely to be "allegorical:" I haven't seen that particular argument, but I have seen many of a similar confused nature from him.  Allegory is a genre, which can be written under any set of political circumstances: C. S. Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress, for instance, was written in England between the wars, when Christians were not persecuted severely.   But Carmona has picked up some claim of a link between the literary genre and the political condition from Ferguson, it seems, and forgotten that he needs to at least explain, if not defend, this rather magical and not-at-all-obvious link.

Young scholars often make that mistake: they forget that their readers can't read their minds, and don't see the links they think they recognize as self-evident. 

The gospels obviously are not "allegorical."  As an authority on allegory (yes, this is an appeal to authority), Lewis scoffed at that absurd claim.  But wide reading in various genres will affirm (for those who undertake it) Lewis' point.  Read Pilgrim's Progress, or Regress, and then the gospels, and most minimally-literate people can recognize the mountainous differences between these genres.

Ferguson compares the gospels to "histories," but that is his error.  Scholars often now describe the gospels as bioi, or Greek biographies, not as histories.  Of course they were written to confirm the Christian faith: they are public depositions, as they say themselves.  The fact that someone writes to say something is true, obviously does not by itself imply that it is not true. 
(4) Now notice this sneaky little gambit.  First, Carmona quotes Matthew Ferguson:
The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ, to confirm the faith of their communities.
Then he says in his own words:

"Even conservative scholars like Craig Blomberg accept this conclusion, so if you’re the type of Christian to bypass that and say the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might as well continue in your delusions."

I expressed my doubts about this quote:

"What, the author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and The Historical Reliability of John?  I think Blomberg's true views are being misrepresented here. A direct quote would help."

Carmona now provides such a quote:

Craig Blomberg states:

“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous.” Strobel’s The Case for Christ (p.22)

This is the sort of game I hope this young man will learn not to play, so the world can have another honest scholar, rather than another cheap trickster. 

What does "this conclusion" in his first line in blue above refer to?  That the gospels are anonymous?  That their anonymity is widely accepted?  Or that the gospels were written "in distant lands" after a "substantial gap in time" and all the rest that lies in the paragraph after the claim to anonymity? 

Carmona doesn't seem to realize that the most likely referent for his claim about Blomberg's opinion is not the first claim in the prior paragraph, but the whole bloody paragraph.  And the quote he now offers in no way even begins to support that whole paragraph as something Blomberg would accede to. 

Carmona also doesn't seem to recognize the relevance here of Bauckham's demonstration that the gospels used exactly those names archeology shows were most frequently in use in Palestine during the time of Jesus, with remarkably exact coincidence in frequency.  He shrugs that fact off elsewhere in his "rebuttal," arguing (in effect, not an exact quote), "that just shows that people were using those names at that time."  But if the gospels were written in other languages, as he (and Ehrman, for instance) claim, and in lands distant from that in which Jesus lived, why would these fifth or tenth generation copyists manage to reproduce the exact same NAMES used in 1st Century Palestine among Jews of that time and place, in almost precise mathematical frequency? 

The whole scenario goes up in smoke.  Clearly, the gospels were closer to the facts than either Ehrman or Carmona insinuate. 

And (having read and had interaction with him), I think Blomberg agrees with that fully.

Carmona should also know that "strictly speaking" implies even by itself that Blomberg does not think the gospels really are anonymous in a less-strict sense.  If Carmona wants to be a scholar, he should get in the habit of representing opposing views accurately, and not quote-mining and ignoring what Blomberg says next . . . and what is that?  Come on, man, be honest even if you DON'T keep on calling yourself a scholar.  Cite sources fairly and in context.   What did Blomberg say next?  And read my criticism the same way, not culling one early sentence out of the full paragraph to which Blomberg's comment would most naturally refer.

That is what happens when young pups rely on other young pups like Matt Ferguson, who themselves rely on the likes of not-quite-so-young-anymore pups like Richard Carrier, who perceive themselves as radical rebels against an already radical status quo represented by sloppy liberal scholars like Bart Erhman and the Jesus Seminar. 

None of these men need be fools.  But all of them, IMO, need at this point to take active steps to arrest their slide into the mire, the feet of one pushing the back of the next and sending the whole troop cavorting down the slope into intellectual (at least) ruin. 


Unknown said...

Like all other self-proclaimed apologists, you bypass a number of things. A) The blog is titled Academic *Atheism*, not Academic *Atheist*. Thus, I am not calling myself an academic or a scholar; I am merely referring to the kind of content I'll share: atheism that is driven by scholarly arguments and research. B) I never once stated anything about being a Jesus critic or a Jesus scholar. My About page says as much as anyone can see that my major is *philosophy* and not New Testament Studies, for instance. So this idea of a "descent" in Jesus criticism falls apart because I never once claimed to being a Jesus scholar. What I have done is cite Jesus scholars in order to form a narrative counter to that which Christians, like yourself, take for granted, as incontrovertible truth. Yet I ignore that your claim about consensus has everything to do with the kind of people who are interested in these topics: Christians. There aren't too many atheists who go to college for a degree in New Testament studies or theology, and the lot of atheist Jesus scholars are mostly former Christians. Go figure. So the consensus is comprised of people who already believed and went into these fields because they believe and wanted to prove or find proof for their beliefs. The fields are front loaded with Christians who already presume to have located something they never sought: the truth. So it's a default consensus rather than one won by evidence, better arguments, and so on. Pity.

My academic aspirations are in philosophy and anyone can see that if they were to read my Introduction to the Philosophy of Time--a chapter-length intro that's more comprehensive than anything you've ever written on this blog, definitely more comprehensive than that short appraisal you call a book review. So what if 14 Christians found it helpful.

You prove further that you're disingenuous. You get the title of my blog wrong on purpose--to drive a point, a bad one at that. You gloss over valid criticisms. Summarize Bauckham's points. Prove your "scholarly" acumen. Do what you claim I haven't done--a familiarity with the material we are discussing. Unlike you, I don't take it as a mark that I can't read Greek or Hebrew. In fact, you have no formal training in those languages, so your criticism of me not reading the material falls flat because you yourself are incapable of reading the extant manuscripts in their original languages. You parrot what Christians say as much as you accuse me of parroting what atheists say.

Unknown said...

All things considered, you're simply not worth another response. You're disrespectful. You keep using inflammatory language and insults at every turn. You're asking for a pissing match with someone with a fuller bladder. If I obliged, I would drown you in whit and insults from here to your last breath. Don't ask for what you can't handle. Let's all accept that you're too senile to get a blog name correct, too short of memory to remember a book you purportedly read four years ago, too incompetent to write and behave like an actual scholar, and too dishonest to admit that you have no relevant and accredited degrees in the fields you talk about. My focus is philosophy and then atheism. Look at the content on my blog, Academic ATHEISM, and you'll see that most of the content deals in philosophy. Unlike you, I have a degree in philosophy and I'll be pursuing an actual Masters in the field. I can assure you, I won't get my degree from a degree mill that's actually a church.

You're so incompetent, Carrier, Ferguson, and most certainly Ehrman give you no attention whatsoever. You're a fringe enthusiast, a hack, and a crank, and you aren't worth their time, so to puff up your ego, you go after a self-proclaimed non-expert who runs one of the literal hundreds of atheism-related blogs in the blogosphere. I'm virtually a nobody as of now attempting to make a name for himself in a field wholly unrelated from the fields in question. All of this to pursue a dishonest narrative down a rabbit hole to nowhere.

You want to give your audience a certain impression and after my comment, they will know that you failed miserably. Your narrative is false. There's no descent. There's just the animosity and utter contempt you have towards non-traditional Jesus scholars and atheists generally speaking. Go ahead and indulge in your vainglory; puff out your chest, beat it a few times, and proclaim your imagined victory. You will receive no further reply from me and you should accept it and go on your merry way. I believe a crippling, superior whit has already been hinted at here; I'm not a Jesus scholar with some reputation to uphold, so I will pull the gloves off quickly and lay into you, since you're some kind of online sadist who craves verbal abuse. John Loftus observed that as well; you just can't be insulted enough and you love brining the worse out of people simply because they disagree with your precious predilections. How very Christ-like of you. You're one failure of a Christian. :)

Andreas said...

" up on America's allies and kisses up to her enemies..."
- Which ally did he beat up? Which enemy did he kiss up to?

Scott said...

David B Marshall said...

Andreas: Pretty much all of them. Israel and Iran, for starters.

David B Marshall said...

Reynaldo: Your comments about "academic atheism" vs "academic atheist" seem to strike up a flag and declare, "I'm here to contest everything, no matter how trivial, no matter how far I'll need to stretch a point." If your blog were called "organic fine dining," and contained pictures of Big Macs and tooty-fruities, who cares whether or not you claimed to be an experienced chef? There's a disconnect, which I perceived and commented on, as someone alive to the presence of irony in the world.

I wasn't commenting on your philosophy of time paper. It may be wonderful, for all I know. Of course comprehensibility is not my goal in this blog, though I'm wondering how much of it you have read to offer the comparison you offer.

Your cheap shots about my alleged "incompetence," etc, are, I understand, the normal fuming one expects from the silly author of a silly series whose little rubber raft has been shot full of bullet holes from a passing Zero.

You say I have no "formal" training in Greek. How do you know that? (Answer: you don't.) Why do you say things when you don't know if they are true or false? This is deeper than scholarly acumen: it's about integrity.

It is also a false dichotomy to suppose one must either read in the original language directly, or "parrot what Christians say." In fact, if you cared about truth -- your essential problem is that it appears you do not -- you'd know that even in this blog, my arguments almost never merely "parrot" or repeat arguments made previously, by anyone. Look, for instance, at the top ten blog pieces listed here. I defy you to find any parallels to those arguments, anywhere on the web, or in print.

Don't get mad. Care about truth more than you care about being right, or having your dignity undermined. A little shame as a young scholar is better to bare, than growing up a fool, in the long run. Take my challenges seriously, endure the embarrassment, and in the long run, you'll be better off.

David B Marshall said...

Aside from empty,angry vitriol, there's practically no intellectual content to your second post. You clearly have a bit of growing up to do.

Here is one exception -- an actual claim in that rant, which is, of course, false:

"There's just the animosity and utter contempt you have towards non-traditional Jesus scholars and atheists generally speaking."

That's a certifiable falsehood. In fact, many of my reviews on Amazon of books by atheists give those books four or five stars. How can I have "animosity and utter contempt" for "atheists generally speaking" when I give books by SOME atheists warm praise? (And, indeed, some atheists give MY books warm praise, including atheists with whom I have been friends for many years?)

This is your problem. You need to learn to love truth.

It is also untrue that I have "animosity and utter contempt" for "non-traditional Jesus scholars." I am one myself, and I don't feel contempt for myself.

What I do feel, not animosity (I am glad Carrier wrote his books! It's FUN to refute them!), but yes some contempt, is BAD scholarship, especially bad scholarship which itself disrespects good mainstream and proven scholarship, as do both Carrier and Ferguson. For them to complain about being disrespected, when disrespecting is what their house sells wholesale, would be like Donald Trump whining about being insulted!

As for the crack about "Carrier, Ferguson, and Ehrman" not giving me any time. Ehrman, of course, has never heard of me. Carrier and Ferguson are both fringe cult figures who have been exalted to stardom on the Web, whose works I either have thoroughly debunked, or will be debunking (easily) in my coming book -- not because their work is of much intrinsic value (my books have better reviews than Carrier's, by better scholars, and rightly so), but because the debunking proves highly instructive. Which is the reason I deigned to notice any of your posts -- though were you wiser, you could find the lesson taught in the post above helpful,if painful.

Andreas said...

is this a joke?

David B Marshall said...

Andreas: Your pronoun is ambiguous.

Andreas said...

is this "Pretty much all of them. Israel and Iran, for starters."
a joke?

David B Marshall said...

I think you know the answer to that question.

Andreas said...

no, not really. If it isn't a joke, this would be an obvious and quite extreme instance of Obama Derangement Syndrome.