From the archives: The state of biblical scholarship, philosophy, and atheism

This was originally written in April of last year. It’s a response to a long question that I had gotten in a blog comment. Note that even though the question included a lot of mistaken assumptions, it was still a very useful springboard for writing a post, in part because it gave me an idea of what misconceptions are out there. So please, people, ask me more questions like this!

A comment signed Deisticially asks about a whole bunch of things I haven’t written about recently (if ever), so I’m using this as an excuse. Comment edited for spelling:

Firstly- why do atheists claim that the majority of biblical scholars believe that Jesus was an endtime prophet? To my knowledge (and according to Wikipedia), the view of Jesus being a “good teacher” is accepted by 3/4 to 3/5 of all critical historians. That means that the “end time prophet” and all other theories are accepted by only a quarter of the member of the field.

According to the preface of Bart Ehrman’s 1999 Jesus book, the “apocalyptic Jesus” view was taken “probably by the majority of scholars over the course of the century, at least in German and America.” Now it’s important to point out that Wikipedia itself doesn’t make the claim you attribute to it. Rather, it says Marcus Borg says that. Based on the Google Books link Wikipedia provides, Borg isn’t disputing Ehrman’s statement. He’s claiming that there was a shift in historical Jesus scholarship at the end of the 20th century.

I can’t find a hard copy of the Borg book cited to check his endnotes. Absent that, I’m wary. Sharp observers of Biblical scholarship have noted that sometimes, both sides in a debate will claim to have a majority on their side. Wikipedia links to another book which says Borg “spoke to soon.” It’s tempting to twist your definition of “critical scholar” in whichever way will best suit you. In the case of Borg, I have to wonder if he defined “critical scholar” as “member of the Jesus Seminar” (which some advocates of the “apocalyptic Jesus” view have complained about being excluded from).

That said, it’s possible that in the past, I or other atheists have been sloppy about “majority view in the 20th century as a whole” vs. “majority view right now.” Do you have examples? The closest thing I can find is John W. Loftus’ essay on the subject from The Christian Delusion, which says that there is no longer a consensus in favor of apocalyptic view, but quotes James Charlesworth as saying it is still accepted by “leading scholars.” (“But how many leading scholars?” one wonders.)

Secondly, why are so many atheist historians so confident with themselves. I have read essays on the secular web and what there critics have to say, and they both seem to be equally unimpressed by each other. It leads me to wonder why some Christians leave the Christian faith (Like Ehrman). The arguments and consensus are on their side. Why did they leave. I mean, considering how many refutations I’ve read of “Jesus Interrupted”, I don’t know why he is so confident with himself. And why he makes so many consensus calls (which aren’t always accurate).

Overconfidence is a universal human vice. That said, just because someone claims to have refuted Ehrman doesn’t mean they have, or that Ehrman’s confidence should be undermined by their reply to him. I haven’t read many reviews of Jesus, Interrupted, but I did read quite a few reviews of Misquoting Jesus and their criticisms were pretty lame, amounting to, “Ehrman is right about everything, but he is a bad man for writing the book because it might give non-scholars the wrong idea.” For the record, Ehrman did respond briefly to criticisms of Misquoting Jesus in Jesus Interrupted, and I don’t think most critics of the former book deserve any more than that.

Also, I’m surprised that you would say–without any support, as if it were uncontroversial–that Christians have the arguments and consensus on their side. I certainly don’t think Christian arguments are any good, and I’ve written an entire book explaining why. It’s possible that a majority of Biblical scholars take pro-Christian views (for some value of “Christian”), but if so that’s only because hardly anyone enters Biblical scholarship without being a Christian or a Jew.

You should be aware that some Evangelical apologists have gotten very good at selectively quoting Biblical scholars on the things that seem to support their brand of Christianity, while simply keeping silent about things that are less favorable to their case. Maybe that explains your impression of a pro-Christian consensus?

Thirdly- which theory do you think is the best one and why? What books/reasons/evidence led you to your beliefs and, more importantly, reject every other one.

Personally, I think the “apocalyptic Jesus” view is likely but not certain. This isn’t because I think it’s what the majority of “critical scholars” think. Historical Jesus studies strike me as suffering from a lack of low-hanging fruit; people’s desire to know about the Historical Jesus greatly exceeds the available data, and that leads to quite a bit of silliness IMHO.

I support the “apocalyptic Jesus” view because an awful lot of the things attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels suggest it, and I think it makes for a very plausible story of how Christianity got started. From what I can tell, arguments for the “wise teacher” view tend to depend on trying to use subtle clues to pick out which little bits of the gospels are historical and which aren’t, and that doesn’t strike me as a credible methodology.

Fourthly- The state of atheism is not looking very good. Atheist philosophy started to decline recently with the advent of religious philosophy returning; Mythicists are ignoring criticisms and looking inept; Apologists are answering atheists with even more veracity than before and lastly, that high quality atheist resources are becoming harder and harder to find.

I’ll start with mythicism, because I don’t have much to say about it. I’m not impressed with most defenders of mythicism, but Richard Carrier is a very good historian and I’m eagerly awaiting his forthcoming book (two books, really) on the subject. In Carrier’s case, any lack of interaction with his critics is probably the result of putting his energy into the books. To his credit, he’s said he doesn’t expect anyone to be persuaded by the things he’s written so far.

I have, to put it mildly, worries about the current state of academic philosophy in general. Like historical Jesus research, it suffers from the low-hanging fruit problem. Because of this, I don’t want to say “atheist philosophy” is in great shape.

On the other hand, I can’t see that it’s in any decline. If “atheist philosophy” just means “philosophy done by atheists,” then the fact is that academic philosophy (in the English-speaking world, at least) is dominated by atheists who don’t take philosophy of religion seriously. If most of your philosophy reading is philosophy of religion, wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t realize this. There are, for example, plenty of philosophers of mind/philosophers of science/whatever who think that the problem of evil is a great argument, so much so that it would be a complete waste of their time to rehash why it’s a great argument in Faith and Philosophy.

Furthermore, if “atheist philosophy” means “philosophy of religion done by atheists,” I’m not seeing the decline there either. Luke’s list of Best Atheism Books of the Decade contains four monographs and two anthologies by respected atheist philosophers of religion. I don’t know that any previous decade produced a comparable batch of books.

I’d also cite Luke’s list as evidence against the suggestion that good atheist resources aren’t being produced anymore, though its possible that the fact that there’s so much atheist literature out there now has made it hard to sort through it all to find the really good stuff. In my opinion, other great resources include Bart Ehrman’s books, Luke’s blog, and Richard Carrier’s Internet Infidels writings. I also think Sam Harris’ writings are generally first-rate, even if I wouldn’t recommend them as “resources.”

I agree that Christian apologetics isn’t as bad as it used to be. Just about everything I’ve read before 1980 or so comes across as completely clueless about what a non-Christian would say in response to the arguments being offered. This is no longer true. This doesn’t mean that the arguments Christian apologists are currently offering are all that good, though, and I certainly don’t think today’s Christian apologists are suffering from any excess of veracity: see almost anything I’ve written about William Lane Craig or Lee Strobel.

Which leads to fifthly- It just seems like most of the things that hit the shelves that are critical of Christianity are just poorly thought out resurfacings of arguments that carry no weight among serious scholars. I know I sound like Craig when I use appeals to authority- but it is stupid to think that you can make the best judgments of arguments when you know nothing of ancient history. I’m sorry, but if a large amount of experts disagree with something (ID), than maybe there is something wrong with it.

I agree that experts in physics, chemistry, biology, history, and so on generally deserve to be taken seriously on the subjects they’re experts in. In the case of philosophy and historical Jesus studies, though, I think I have good reason to take what the “experts” say with a grain of salt. In addition to reasons already given, it’s funny that you should mention “resurfacings of arguments,” as if good arguments have to be shiny and new. This is actually a problem with academia–academics gain status by doing new things. When there isn’t any low-hanging fruit that hasn’t been grabbed yet, this can lead to some major-league nonsense… a theme I plan to write on more in the future.

  • CJO

    Appeals to majority or consensus views in Biblical scholarship are worthless. The trends and shifts in scholarly emphasis are determined more by the exigencies of the JesusBooks Industries publishing combine than they are by new evidence or novel analysis. The theses of these books are all essentially reactionary, because a new book in this ridiculously bloated category is not going to sell unless it can be pitched as a revolutionary new interpretation of the same old evidence we’ve had for ages. As you point out, Christians and Jews make up the vast majority of this stable of authors, and as such, a shared agenda limits the scope of this continuous “revolution” to a rotating set of hypotheses. The apocalyptic prophet is one of the allowable boxes to put one’s imaginitive portrait of the historical Jesus into, and if it, or any other, acheives ascendancy, it won’t be long before a new crop of books comes out with the sole selling point precisely of toppling what will be described as “the received judgment of scholars” or “the traditional view” (formerly known as last decade’s revolutionary reconstruction). Round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows!

  • David Evans

    “Pro-Christina views” in your 6th paragraph is nice, particularly on this site, but possibly not what you meant.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Fixed it.

      (If only!)


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