The Historical Jesus Goes To University

The Historical Jesus Goes To University July 7, 2015

I recently had a mythicist troll ask for evidence that Jesus is taught as a historical figure at any secular university. I could have merely offered Butler University and been done with it – and perhaps added the University of North Carolina for good measure. But despite the question coming from someone who was clearly a troll, it seems to me worthwhile not just presenting some of the relevant evidence, but also discussing the trick that some mythicists use to avoid accepting the relevant evidence and its implications.

The troll in question quickly tried to avoid the implication of some of the examples of courses and syllabuses I offered to him, by saying that courses in Classics or Jewish history did not count. The individual seemed not to know what Classics was, and that it covers ancient history. Moreover, it is obvious that universities do not usually offer lots of overlapping courses. If there is no program which focuses on early Christianity, then Jesus might be given more space in a course on the ancient Roman world than he might be in a school that has a whole department devoted to Biblical/religious/Christian studies. If there is a department of Jewish history, Jesus will more probably appear there, and be largely left out of the Roman-focused courses. In some universities there may be a program in Near Eastern studies, changing the division of labor again. There is a lot of material for historians to cover, and some areas have become quite specialized and narrowly focused. But those various areas intersected and overlapped, in ways that are again obvious. Jewish history, for instance, overlaps with Assyrian and Babylonian, Greek and Roman, Ottoman and European history. If a university has a separate program in Jewish studies, then there may be much less focus if any on the Jews in the context of Greco-Roman, Ancient Near Eastern, or other history programs. That is not an indication that Jews are not thought to have existed in those times and places. And they will almost certainly get a mention – but may not get a separate topic entry.

The deceitful mythicist tactic of looking at a specialized volume, ignoring what it actually says about Jesus, and focusing only on whether Jesus got a separate entry, was recently used by Harry McCall on the blog Debunking Christianity, to which John Dickson has responded in a post about “why internet skepticism is sometimes really dumb.”

I’m not sure that mythicists like McCall are stupid. They may, in fact, be quite clever and dishonest. Surely no one could fail to understand (could they?) that universities divide up content areas in different administrative groupings, and so looking at one department and ignoring another will inevitably miss things. And surely looking at syllabuses – which only give an outline – is intentionally chosen because one can always insist that a name listed on a course schedule does not in fact presume historicity. Is this mythicist tactic founded on devious deceptiveness, or a complete failure to understand what universities do?

At any rate, while it would be a time-consuming task to compile a comprehensive list of secular university courses which treat Jesus as a historical figure, finding a small representative sample is easy. Here are a few that provided information easily via Google and/or university website searches:

If a troll asks you for evidence of this sort, feel free to direct them here. And when they fail to accept that the evidence does clearly indicate that Jesus is taught as a historical figure in mainstream secular universities – including prestigious ones – please do let me know what tactic they resort to next. It might deserve a blog post. And if you happen across other syllabuses, online courses, or for that matter any resources which reflect modern secular historical approaches to this subject which might be useful to offer to mythicists who claim there are no such things, please do share them in the comment section.


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