Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Worst Book Ever? Raphael Lataster's "No Jesus, no God."

If you are about to order this book, STOP! Think of your loved ones! Think of your cat! You will die of embarrassment for having fed this young man's purse and ego. Especially if you are Australian, or have any affiliation with the University of Sydney.


 Or maybe,


 Or perhaps,


OK (remember, you were warned), now for some of the ugly details.  Here's how to write, against stiff competition, The World's Worst Book on the ("non") Historical Jesus.  (And a potential contender for overall worst book, ever.)

Step One: Mess with your readers' minds, and reveal your own limitations, in the bibliography.

First, you must begin by being innovative with your bibliography.  So list some books beginning with the last name of the author, like this:

Carrier, Richard. Not the Impossible Faith . . .

Then for variety, reverse the order of the author's names for the next or previous book:

Richard Carrier. "Proving History! . . . "

To keep the reader guessing, in fact, go ahead and list three of Carrier's works the first way, and four the second.  Then mix around Robert Price's writings, too.  Then while we're trying to keep readers on their toes, throw in a bunch of references that seem at first glance to totally fall outside the alphabet.  Thus between "Droge, Arthur J" and "Ehrman, Bart D" we get, "The Huffington Post. 'Did Jesus Exist'" and then "NPR. 'Did Jesus Exist?'"  Make the reader notice for herself that the next eight books are by Bart Ehrman, and then intuit that the two previous works, listed by site instead of author, are also by him.

But what, you ask, does the quality of books cited tell us?  To write a truly awful Historical Jesus book, you must reference numerous books.  (Given that the genre you are satirically aiming at is the "pseudo-scholarly mythical Jesus panegyric.")  A few books by people who actually believe in Jesus can be included, so long as your notes weigh heavily towards fringe figures.  More established scholars who attack Christianity can be presented as your "conservative" opponents, so that you can slip in statements like, "Even Bart Erhman admits that the gospels are pretty bogus," as if you had to water-board him to make him say that.

Aside from seven works by Richard Carrier, five by fellow Jesus mythicist Robert Price, two by Hector Avalos, and two by Earl Doherty, we thus find ten works by Bart Ehrman cited.  We find a liberal smattering (fittingly) of Jesus Seminar scholars -- Borg, Crossan, Funk, Meyer.  We find Karen King, James Robinson, and Elaine Pagels.

What of Christian scholars, you ask?  Philosophers William Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne are named.

The only conservative Christian New Testament scholars I noticed in the bibliography are Richard Burridge, who writes on genre, John Dickson, and Edwin Yamauchi.  There is no mention of such major figures as NT Wright, Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington, Craig Keener, Craig Evans (aside from a bibliography), or Craig Blomberg.

This latter omission is telling.  On page 13, Lataster cites Richard Carrier as saying "Craig Blomberg argues that one should approach all texts with complete trust unless you have a specific reason to doubt what they say" (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, p.240-54.)

Knowing Dr. Blomberg well enough to doubt that was really his position, I checked Carrier's source.  Sure enough, while one could snatch a single sentence out of context and make it seem to support that view ("Unless there is good reason for believing otherwise, one will assume that a given detail in the work of a particular historian is factual" [240]), read in context, Blomberg certainly did not mean "one should approach all texts with complete truth unless you have a specific reason to doubt what they say."  His issue, rather, is burden of proof.  Blomberg describes three approaches to historical sources, and argues that historians most often place the burden of proof upon those who deny the factuality of a given claim.  This being at the end of Blomberg's book, he also reminds the reader that he has given numerous reasons why the gospels have earned "an overall presumption of reliability." (242)

So what does that show, in regard to Lataster's bibliography?  Simple.  Blomberg is absent from it.  In other words, Lataster simply took Carrier's word for what Blomberg said, apparently without checking the original source.  And by doing so, he grossly misrepresents Blomberg, as did Carrier.
Which shows the reader that we have a bad satire on scholarship here, not the real thing.

Step Two: Write abysmally poor English

I used to find it a bit mystifying when my professor, who was head of the History Department at the University of Washington, took some of his precious time to mark in red mere lapses in spelling on my part.  What does that have to do with the substance of my argument?  I used to wonder.  Why does a scholar who records the fate of millions under the evil Joseph Stalin, bother to correct something so trivial as a letter or two out of sequence?

As a teacher myself, I begin to understand.  He or she who writes sloppily, usually thinks sloppily.  If you cannot present your thoughts on paper grammatically, there is a strong chance your thoughts are not yet worth presenting.

Lord, please send Raphael Lataster such a professor.  Don't let him earn his doctorate (I was working on my BA), before he learns how to write well in English.

We begin at the beginning, with the title and first sentence:

Title: "There Was No Jesus, There Is No God."

Page One: "Is is not my job, intention, or desire to prove atheism true, whatever that means."

But what atheism means is the title Lataster chose for his book: "There is no God."  If it isn't your intent to prove your title is true, Raphael, why did you pick it?  Were you trying to fool your readers with a tease, and now you are disavowing the goal your title clearly sets forward?  Or do you not know what you are doing?

And if you don't know what the first twelve words in your book MEAN, or that they directly conflict with the title of your book, why did you write them?

We're in trouble already.

"As a scholar working in the academic field of Studies in Religion who specializes in the arguments for God's existence . . . it is my job to examine the evidence / arguments presented by various religious apologists and to share my analysis with all who will hear it . . . "

Experienced readers recognize when an author is trying to drumbeat his readers into submission.  That seems to be the case here.  The subtitle of the book is "A Scholarly Examination of the Scientific, Historical, and Philosophical Evidence & Arguments for Monotheism."  A few words into the book, and the author is already repeating the word "scholarly" and adding the word "academic."
A young author who does not have his PhD yet ought to realize that such a heavy-handed drumbeat is likely to draw the readers attention to his youth and inexperience, relative to the scholars he intends to debunk.  Phrases like "with all who will hear it" underscore the bathetic tone of preachiness he thus establishes.  This will not be a dialogue, apparently, but a sermon, by a writer who does not know how to disguise his didacticism.

Also, in written English, we use the symbol "or" or the symbol "and," or the symbols "either . . . or" when we present two possibilities, one or both of which we want to deny is realized.  It is bad English to use the symbol "/" instead.

On page two, we find that Lataster plans to capitalize the word "god" even when it refers to a generic supernatural being: "They wish to argue for their specific God."

One page three, Lataster unexpectedly inserts his author bio.  Even more strangely, in the first two of three paragraphs of this author bio, Lataster writes about himself in the third person ("A former fundamentalist Christian, Raphael Lataster is a professionally secular PhD researcher . . . at the University of Sydney.")  He then switches without warning to the first person ("Please note that this is not an appeal to (my) authority.  The qualifications, intelligence, character, popularity, sexual appeal, etc, or the arguer is (sic) not what is truly important . . . ")

Aside from the larger confusion of this switch, the use of the lame noun "arguer," and the use of a singular verb with a plural subject in that last sentence, Lataster commits a basic and gross grammatical error in the second of these two paragraphs.  (One that I warn my Chinese SAT students against, and they learn to avoid in a foreign language at the age of 16.)  Watch the verbs carefully:
"For his doctoral work, Raphael is analyzing the major philosophical arguments for God's existence (as argued by [Craig, Swinburne, Plantinga, and Aquinas], attempts to demonstrate the logical implausibility of the monotheistic concept, explores the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, considers the plausibility of pantheistic worldviews, and ponders the sociological impact of certain sophisticated apologists, such as Craig, whom he dubs the 'New Theologian.'"
Heaven help Sidney University.

First of all, any competent supervisor ought to have squashed the notion of taking on such a meandering, ephemeral program of studies, that purports to add to human knowledge in philosophy, theology, and sociology, within the first week of Lataster's study, if not sooner.  A doctoral study requires clear focus, a coherent research question to answer.  That is not in evidence here.
But back to grammar.  If all these verbs are describing the same program conducted at the same time, why aren't they all in the same tense?  I see no grammatical reason for switching from "is analyzing" to "attempts."

And how can anyone speak of "the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion?"  How did this fellow reach college, let alone grad school, without someone informing him that real scholars do not "explore tendencies" of an entire, vast field -- that's like telling NASA "Apollo 15's mission is to explore the moon's surface" -- good enough for vague PR, maybe, not good for a government grant, or description of a serious research project.

And finally, how can one write of the "sociological impact of certain apologists, such as Craig, whom he (sic) dubs the 'New Atheists?'"  What, is Craig possessed by a legion of devils, that we refer to him in the plural?

And now we're up to Page Four, and you've understandably run out of patience with my review.  So what if the man can't write?  This book is supposed (according to its cover, anyway) to refute God and Jesus.  Lataster does not claim to be William Shakespeare.

But scholarship also bares norms and stipulations for the writing craft.  I am presently reading sociologist Rodney Starks' new book as well.  When I turn from this clumsily-spilled series of ink stains to Stark's clear and stimulating prose, it is like stepping out of a playground and entering a symposium by a philosopher.  Poor writing may not always go with weak thinking.  But what are the odds that a young Aussie student who can barely write, and who has not bothered to read much yet on the subject he is writing about, nevertheless solves a problem that has taxed the minds of such thinkers as Origen, Blaise Pascal, Ernest Renan, C. S. Lewis, John Crossan, William Lane Craig, and N.T.Wright, and shows that they are all dead wrong?

One in a million?

One in 5.3 trillion?

Either way, don't waste that dollar on this dodo.

Step Three: Be Bombastic, Dismissive, AND Gullible

"Before we begin our sober and scholarly investigations on Jesus, we shall consider the scholars, their methods, and why their claims are based on foundations of sand." (9)

Wow!  So much, in 27 pages?  "The" scholars?  All of them?

"Sober and scholarly?"  Lataster doth protest over-much.

"The minority non-Christian Biblical scholars (generally taken more seriously by secular -- ie 'real' scholarship) -- rejects the Biblical Jesus, and tend to champion the historical Jesus." (9)

Oh, OK.  So Christian scholarship is "not real."  Glad we have that out of the way, already, on page 9.  Who can stand in the face of such sober analysis?

"Many top scholars will be referred to, with three modern scholars in particular: New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, theologian and former minister Robert Price, and historian Richard Carrier." (10)

Bart Erhman is arguably a "top scholar," though most of his writing is popular.  But Richard Carrier and Robert Price are in no serious estimation or reasonable measure, "top scholars."
"Carrier then uses Bayesian methods to show that the authenticity criteria used to authenticate sayings and deeds of Jesus are either invalid, inappropriately used, or superceded by Bayesian reasoning . . . " (16)

Carrier attempts something like that, but does not succeed.  A sober scholar should keep his distance from such wild claims, until he has given strong reason to think they are true.  Lataster thinks he does this: he does not.  Neither does Carrier.  (See my Amazon review of Carrier's book.)
". . . the ridiculous supernatural claims made about Jesus . . . " (26)

In a book debunking religion, shouldn't "miracles are ridiculous" be a conclusion, rather than a premise?  I mean, if we all begin by knowing miracles are ridiculous, why are we arguing about Jesus in the first place?

"Furthermore, using the Gospels to argue for Jesus' existence is to use circular reasoning.  Arguing from external (non-Biblical) sources produces a much more convincing case." (26)

Huh?  The gospels are the four earliest sources, all from the First Century, which tell about Jesus' life.  Is Lacaster seriously trying to tell us that we should just toss them out because they were written by Christians?

This is not, in fact, how historians work.  If they did, they'd have almost no history to write, since ALL sources are biased, including good and essential sources.

Scientists are biased, too -- for one thing, they generally make money from their work.  For another, as Kuhn showed, they can be very pig-headed about their own theories.  So should we toss out scientific reports, as well?  In an effort to undermine the gospels, Lataster seems to be asking world scholarship to commit intellectual suicide, here.

"Believing Bible scholars who are often seen as lay people with a few letters after their name, by 'real scholars.'" (28)

Yes, Lataster often is that childish.  He doesn't even seem to KNOW any "Biblical scholars," or at least not the main ones, yet he declares them all frauds, including those vastly more experienced and competent than himself.

"Miracles are by definition the most improbable explanations.  They are considered to be miracles because they overturn scientific laws." (31)

This is uncritical Hume worship, without a hint that Lataster has ever even heard of any of the many philosophers who have long since debunked this reasoning -- which really is circular.  Tim McGrew gives a good overview in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on miracles.

"We can only speculate why (most of) the more liberal scholars do not allow for the possibility that all of the gospels could potentially be dismissed as unreliable.  This may have to do with personal motives, ego and job security . . . " (32)

"Ehrman is clearly confused.  Christian believers or not, these Bible scholars don't always come off as logical and level-headed." (33)

Pot: "Gee, that kettle takes on a dark shade in this light."  It is sleazy, as well as intellectually illegitimate, to dismiss the scholarly consensus by questioning the motives of mainstream scholars.  But if mythicists insist on going down that road, if they ever get any traction -- and reading this book, that seems unlikely -- then they should expect the same sorts of "arguments" to be thrown back at them, and they will have no cause to complain when their motives are assumed to be devious, as well.

Step Four: Argue Poorly

Bad arguments are inevitable here, given the apparent fact that Lataster has not read opposing arguments, at least not by Christians.  It turns out he cites Burridge just to make the point that no one really knows for sure what genre the gospels belong to.  (Even though Burridge argues in great detail, and with force that has persuaded many eminent scholars, that the gospels are typical Greek bioi or biography.  I show in more detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus that for many reasons, they are more credible than most other bioi.)  Lataster dismisses Plantinga -- that's Notre Dame's highly esteemed Dr. Alvin Plantinga -- with a wave of his hand, by crudely paraphrasing his argument even by his own admission.  So it appears that even those very few books by Christians that Lataster has read, he has not read well.

But his arguments here are bad, even given the author's patent ignorance.

Typically, Lataster will make Claim A.  He will support Claim A with a scoffing comment from a fringy mythicist "scholar."  He will add a few of his own scoffs.  He may also add a "supporting" comment from a liberal scholar like Ehrman or one of the Jesus Seminar crowd, often taken out of context and ill-defined, sometimes adding, "Even Ehrman / Crossan / Borg admits," as if they were hostile witnesses from whom the truth were being painfully extracted by the rhetorical magic of Perry Mason.  (He never addresses Christian counter-arguments, even to the most elementary and banal claims, since he doesn't know what they are.)  Then later he will refer back to that mess of an "argument" by saying "I proved A earlier," and add another snarky comment or quasi-supporting quote.  Lataster continues "supporting" his opinions this way, in dribs and drabs, like fronds on a pond for a frog to hop around a bit, without ever putting his webbed feet anywhere near solid empirical earth.

Step Five: Repeat old skeptical clichés about the gospels, as Gospel. 

Make it sound like you discovered them yourself.  Do not, of course, ask if they are true, still less inquire of opposing scholars about that truth.

"Younger (sic) than the earliest Pauline writings, the gospels are (sic) written around forty or more years after the supposed death of Jesus, which could also eliminate the possibility of them being written (sic) by eyewitnesses, long after the fact (considering life expectancies in the first century)." (48)

For my own mental health, let me begin by translating this mess into better English:

"The gospels were written later than the Pauline letters, at least forty years after the alleged death of Jesus.  This fact precludes the possibility that they were written by eyewitnesses, especially considering the short life expectancies people of the First Century experienced."

Lataster has not apparently read any scholars who think Mark (or even John) were written before 70 AD, though the former are thick on the ground.  But let's leave that one alone for the moment.
Jesus died, and rose, at a young age.  His disciples would have been mostly younger than he, given that peripatetic revolutionary movements tend to consist mostly of young people.

If a disciple was born in 10 AD, how long could he be expected to live?  Is there anything improbable about early Christian reports that Peter's memoires were recorded in the Gospel of Mark, or that John's disciples recorded his account in his waning years?

Let's see.  70 minus 10 is 60.  70 minus 15 (some of Jesus' disciples would have been that young) is 55.  95 minus 15 (John was supposed to be the youngest of the Twelve) is still only 80.  My grandmother was writing poetry at 95 or so.  My father-in-law recalls events at the end of World War II in Japan, which are now almost 70 years ago -- that would correspond to 100 AD!  By analogy, it is probable that SOME of Jesus' first disciples would still have been around to be interviewed, if one could find them in the close-knit Christian community (shouldn't have been that hard), decades AFTER the first gospels were written.

But what about life-expectancies in those days?

Short life expectancy was largely (not entirely) due to infant mortality.  If adults died off too quickly, the human race would not have been able to self-propagate, still less grow naturally.  (Especially given abortion, infanticide, war, and sadistic "games" in the Roman Empire, that artificially kept the population down.)

Indeed, when one checks the biographies of scientists whom Richard Carrier, Lataster's favorite scholar, names as important in this era, one finds that many of them lived lives long enough to write gospels, had they been among Jesus' early followers.

So baloney on this old cliché, which Lataster repeats ad nauseum.

"The  New Testament Biblical books all appear several decades to a century after the alleged events of Jesus' life.  None of these sources are contemporary, nor can they be assumed to be penned by eyewitnesses." (39)

False.  Some of Paul's epistles were written a mere two decades after those events.  Two is not "several."  At which time, of course, some of Jesus' first followers would still have been in their 30s!  And no NT books was written as late as 130 AD.  (One might technically excuse Lataster here by supposing he was talking about the birth narratives, but that interpretation would make the final sentence above a non sequitur, since the authors of the gospels could still have been contemporaries or even eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, which is the main focus of the gospels.)

"One of the most curious problems the historian faces when researching Jesus is not posed by the sources, but by the lack of sources. There are no extra-Biblical references to Jesus that are contemporary and by eyewitnesses." (37)

"Another popular defense against the argument of silence may be that modern historians cannot reasonably expect primary sources.  Various scholars reject this claim, asserting that if Jesus was a historically significant figure, someone would have written about him, in a time when there were ample historians and authors (such as Philo of Alexandria), and especially considering the Biblical claims of Jesus' fame, controversies, miracles, and other great achievements." (42)

This is an astoundingly stupid argument, whoever made it.  (It is telling that Lataster is not able to name the scholars who debunk it, and is apparently not even sure if anyone has done so, while appearing unwilling to name the alleged "scholars" who offer it.  Earl Doherty?)

Of course when trying to think of "historians" who should have mentioned Jesus, the best Lataster can come up with is Philo.  Surviving works by Philo say almost nothing about contemporary Israel.  They are mainly philosophical in character.  If Philo barely even names contemporary Jerusalem, why in the world should he be expected to name one particular popular preacher, who mostly preached up-country in the Lake District?

How often do modern historians like Paul Johnson or even Philip Jenkins mention even famous preachers like Mark Driscoll?  Almost never.  If two thirds of their works were lost, the chances of finding references to one particular modern preacher would become insignificant, even if he was famous and controversial.

In fact, I agree with Bart Ehrman, whom Lataster quotes and then childishly derides, when Ehrman writes about how amazing it is that we have such wonderful sources for Jesus:

"Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind." (38)

It really is astonishing, how many early sources we have for this one particular Jewish preacher.  Their quality and historical force are even more astonishing, for reasons I give in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.  Of course this amateur does not even seem aware of any of my positive reasons for trusting the gospels as generally credible sources.  Still less does he lay a finger on those arguments.

So back down from the ledge! Your life still has meaning! Your cat loves you, in as much as cats can love anyone! Don't do anything rash, like buy this book!  Buy a book about the mating habits of porcupines.  Christmas ornaments glazed with sand from Mount Saint Helens.  Futures in a Martian colony.  Anything.

This book is not dangerous to your soul -- but it may well cause you terminal cringing.


Crude said...

Hey David. Just wanted to welcome you back - you were gone a while, and I'm glad to see you are yet doing well.

Good post as well. Sounds like a rotten book.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Crude. Good to hear from you. Might get one or more posts in, then I'll be back to China again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks David,
Really enjoyed your review. Perhaps Mr. Lataster will read your review and then do the research that he should have done before he wrote this debacle.

Sounds like he's trying to make a quick buck by selling to his fellow atheists who are also unwilling to do the research.


David B Marshall said...

You're welcome. Honestly, I'm just not sure Lataster has it in him to do proper research yet. I almost hope he doesn't read my review, knowing how painful this reality, if it gets through to him, would be -- one hopes he has other talents.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Thanks for this review. I read the introduction to his new book and vomited about halfway into the 2nd page. Now I know its not just me. Guys a joke and is possibly mentally ill in my opinion.