Thursday, December 13, 2012

Are the Biblical Scholars Partly to Blame For the Shortcomings of the New Atheists?

As I've mentioned before on this blog, Bart Ehrman is wrong to associate people who question whether Jesus existed with people who question the overwhelming consensus of meteorologists when they say that global warming is catastrophic, getting rapidly worse, and caused by humans; or with people who think aliens landed in Roswell in 1947; or even with people stupid enough to doubt that the Holocaust happened. Meteorologists and serious historians and journalists have gotten through with great ease to these people who aren't sure Jesus really existed; with tremendous ease compared to Biblical scholars who seem, the very great majority of them, to be sure that Jesus existed. Perhaps the problem isn't really so much that the doubters are terribly uninformed or resistant to reason, but that the Biblical scholars are, quite simply, unconvincing.

Perhaps even worse: maybe the Biblical scholars aren't even particularly interested, when push comes to shove, in sharing their findings to a broad public in a convincing way. If there is a general lack of a feeling of pedagogical responsibility in this academic field vis-a-vis the general public, an ivory-tower mentality, then it should surprise no one if that general public is more poorly-educated about the background and creation of the Bible than it is about most subjects.

Yesterday, online, I came across someone whose tagline reads "question everything," and who expressed the opinion, which is widely found among New Atheists and people who question Jesus' historical existence, that the Genesis story of Noah and the flood was "obviously directly plagiarized" from the Epic of Gilgamesh. I responded to this person that apparently the assumption that this "plagiarism" had not only occurred but that it was obvious and direct did not appear to be included in the "everything" of the person's tagline. This person hasn't gotten back to me yet. I've been wondering whether the response, if and when it comes, will include the assumption that I am a Christian interested in upholding a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Such assumptions are quite common when I make such remarks. I'm so often prematurely labeled a Christian by New Atheists that I've been getting quite weary of correcting them on that point. Some friends of mine don't usually bother to make such corrections. Yesterday I thought for a short while about joining them in that respect, when I had a, you will please excuse the faddish expression, come-to-Jesus moment. Why had I bothered to communicate with this person at all? Was it only for the sake of making them look (even) sillier to a small onlooking group of my friends and admirers? Or was I actually trying to make them question whether their assumption about Gilgamesh and Noah might be, not necessarily wrong, but perhaps hasty?

It was the latter. I was actually trying to get through to them and convince them not to believe everything they read at or, and not to mistrust everything said by an academic Biblical scholar other then the famous (in our circles) few who are skeptical on the Jesus question.

I have a feeling that the mainstream of today's Biblical scholars, who are so annoyed with all of these New Atheists for showing their scholarship so little respect, indeed so little heed whatsoever, have themselves brought about this state of affairs, by the lack of the will to make themselves and their work understood. Let's not forget, the New Atheists, who make the Biblical scholars cringe with their constantly-showing lack of competence in Biblical scholarship, include, indeed to a great extent are led by, Richard Dawkins. Who is about as far from a tinfoil-hat-wearing, global-warming-denying conspiracy theorist as one can be, so much for Bart Ehrman's thesis, with a mention of which I began this essay. Dawkins and many other New Atheists are in fact superbly well informed about global warming, aliens etc. The Biblical scholars are right that the New Atheists, even including Dawkins, are appallingly ignorant about fields of inquiry involving and overlapping with theirs. But how long are they going to stand pat with explanations of this state of affairs such as that the New Atheists are former fundamentalists who still apply fundamentalist preconceptions to the study of the Bible, and smile at the others in their little clique about how ignorant those people are who criticize them, before they actually decide to take responsibility, some responsibility, for the public being so ill-informed about their specialty? In the final analysis, whose fault can this be except the specialists'?

It's certainly easier simply to find fault and shake one's head and tell one another in the clique how learned and misunderstood you are.

Let's take the historicist/mythicist fooferah. 1) If on the one hand the number of specialists in the New Testament who are not strictly historicist is actually higher than the public perceives, whose fault could that mistaken perception possibly be except the specialists'? 2) If on the other hand the firmly-historicist position is so obviously correct to anyone with a basic grasp of the evidence as Ehrman, Crossan, Smith et al have insisted, whose fault can it possibly be that this obviousness has yet to be disseminated among people bright enough that they have no trouble understanding a consensus of meteorologists or evolutionary biologists?

I've been continuing to read the standard works of New Testament scholarship. And over and over I've been reading about how, although it's now agreed that the New Testament can tell us little if anything about what Jesus did or said, it has nevertheless by now been so firmly established that Jesus did exist that mythicism has been relagated to the realm of extremists and cranks, to tinfoil-hat territory -- wait wait, what?! Where was that firmly established? And how exactly? Yes, I missed it too, this convincing evidence they all insist is there. (WHERE?! Why TF can't any of them just point it out to me, or summarize, as the case may be, the dizzyingly-complex process by which clarity was achieved?) Gentle readers, I promise you, as soon as I gain the faintest glimmer of what these people are talking about when they say it's firmly established, if and when I ever have that come-to-Jesus moment, I will let you know.


  1. Great article. I was getting frustrated that you seemed to be taking the stance that Jesus' existence was a given and I was really confused as to what your position was, but that conclusion really nailed it. I was whipping myself into a lather, ready to comment that there really is no evidence other than the Bible that Jesus existed at all, and you turned around and captured it. I generally get semantic arguments that there was a man named Jesus (or some variation of Jesus), and that there were prophets (well, people that the masses believed were prophets), so if a and b are both true, then c (there was a man named Jesus who was regarded as a prophet or scholar of some kind) must also be true. These questions have gotten me into some of the most ludicrous arguments in which I have ever participated. Thanks for a sharing your wonderful insight.

    1. I'm completely on the fence, don't know whether to believe Jesus existed or not. It is a given for many New Testament scholars that he existed. And these are very often atheists, who don't believe in anything supernatural, and who seem to be very sincerely dedicated to serious scholarship, wherever that scholarship might lead and whatever conclusions it might eventually lead to. And they're highly trained in ancient languages and textual criticism and archaeology and so forth. And so when they say it seems obvious to them that there was a real person who inspired the New Testament stories, I feel I have to give that some weight. On the other hand, not one of them yet has made the case for me. On the contrary: what they claim to be convincing arguments that Jesus existed look to me, over and over again, like refusal to discuss the issue. Like I said in the blog post, if that changes, if I see something that looks like convincing evidence to me, I'll blog about it right away.

  2. Maybe it's in part money. If more scholars said, no he didn't exist, fewer universities might hire them.

    And, in response to your comment on my blog, I've extensively updated it, including linking to a previous post about "Pauline priority," the Greek verb apodidomi and the Eucharist, on the one hand, and how Hoffmann has fused battles over "mythicism" with battles over Gnu Atheism in the past. (There's personal and professional bad blood between him and Carrier, for example.)

  3. First a small point. Your "question everything" person obviously did question something: the apologists' claim that the story of Noah's flood in the bible was historical. They overstated the case with "obviously directly plagiarized" from Gilgamesh, but nothing more. For an amateur polemic against apologists, which I'm guessing is the reason for the comment, it works fine. And you should provide a link if it's online. Will get back to the main point later.

    1. This low-information atheist did more than overstate the case: his remark was completely inaccurate. It did not "work fine" for me, it didn't work at all. I fail to see how our standards for our own statements should be lower when we're debating with apologists; if anything, our standards should be higher then. Replying to superstition with misinformation isn't an improvement over the superstition, it's a lateral move. Unless we're not actually trying to convince the apologists of anything, but just to look good to other low-information atheists. Websites like and seem to welcome that sort of thing. They're echo chambers. It's not for me.

  4. Steven, first the disclaimer: as I'm sure you know I believe there is a strong historical case for the existence of Jesus but absolutely no possibility based on current evidence that we can ever recover an "historical" Jesus beyond the fact that he was part of a Jewish renewal movement, possibly an offshoot of John the Baptist's movement, and who was executed under Pilate. But I'm not going to argue that point here. Instead I'm gonna mostly agree with you, and then I'm going to tell you, from an academic's standpoint, why it isn't changing.

    Almost every piece of scholarship on the "historical" Jesus has started with the premise of finding the "real" guy that Christians later turned into a God. Then there is a set of scholarship that presumes a real dead guy and then discusses the process of deification. I can think of only three modern scholarly books (I'm sure there are a few articles and I am excluding Richard Carrier because I do think his work is crap) that seriously question the existence of an historical Jesus. One is G A Wells and the other two I honestly can't remember their names right now. Point being here is that you're correct that nobody is actually soliciting or publishing work that questions his existence, and there should be.

    But there aren't, for three reasons: (1) is that scholars are trained by other scholars in graduate programs and 90% of the Biblical scholars aren't even interested in the Historical Jesus question so there are no mentors, no stimulation of the topic, and a casual disdain for the "amateurs": (2) nobody (including G A Wells or Carrier or the other two I have mentioned) has written even a prima facie convincing work to connect the creation of Christianity without an historical Jesus that connects to the documents we DO have; this actually takes a hell of a lot of thought (far more than I can sketch here) and while it is certainly possible to do, nobody has ever done it and provided motives that (for example) either explain Paul's correspondence or why anybody would have credited this risen nobody; and (3) in scholarly circles this is thought of in the same way as evolutionary theorists think of people dabbling in Intelligent Design--it's not a real inquiry, it's a blind for people pursuing an ideological agenda under the guise of scholarship. So they are left with this huge blind spot that only a relatively intrepid historian who already has decent credentials could fill. And what would happen to them professionally is what happened to Frank Tripler after he published "The Physics of Immortality."

    Having said that, I've often thought about writing that very book, because I am intellectually curious as to whether I could make a case for creating a new religion for a non-existent guy. Unfortunately, while I'm a professional historian I have no real credentials in that area.

    As a final long-winded note I will tell you why I think Carrier's work is rubbish. He postulates a quantitative way of assessing historical probability, and published this long equation to be used. Trouble is, his equation has one variable that you can literally define as you please that controls the entire outcome of the process. Therefore the process is meaningless. But to get that you'd have to read the entire book very carefully like I did and actually try to work the equations (which I did).

    Great post if I didn't already say so, and good luck with "haz Nobel"