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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  • Meredith Warren

    McGill University also has such a class, called Jesus of Nazareth:

  • Kris Rhodes

    I am sympathetic to mythicism, but I really hope the person you were dealing with is not indicative of any kind of trend, as the idea that Jesus isn’t taught as historical in secular universities is really ludicrous. (Not to mention oddly counter to the usual mythicist counter-establishment tone.)

  • Anthony Lawson

    I read McCall’s article awhile back and was, in all honesty, embarrassed. This is the type of thing that keeps me from identifying with any particular skeptical group or community. Nice collection of links BTW Dr. McGrath.

  • Jonathan Bernier

    Not only is the troll wrong, he’s actually arguing the exact opposite of reality. I cannot actually think of a single university wherein Jesus’s existence is seriously questioned in either class or research.

    • Pretty much. Mostly serious non-historicists like Godfrey and Carrier frequently complain Jesus’s historicity is all too readily accepted in academia without thorough examination.

    • Jim

      No the troll isn’t wrong. Sure the voices in his head might not actually be real, but he’s pretty confident that they know a lot.

  • Tom MacLeod

    The University of Toronto is apparently looking for someone to teach “Jesus of Nazareth”: “An examination of the historical Jesus based on a critical study of the
    earliest accounts of Jesus, with intensive study of the Gospels to
    determine what can be said about Jesus activities and teachings.”

  • Gary

    Teaching the Historical Jesus: Issues and Exegesis, edited by Zev Garber
    Page 209

    “17 Jesus, the Pharisees, and Mediterranean Manliness


    S. Scott Bartchy

    For almost three decades, I have enjoyed the privilege and challenge of teaching about Jesus of Nazareth in the distinguished Department of History of a major public (secular) university, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).”

  • David Evans

    The comments on that Harry McCall article are distressingly bad. Dickson makes civilized points and McCall and his fans make ad hominem replies.

    I have some of Loftus’s books on my shelves. I’m beginning to wonder if they justify the space.

    • Matthew78

      David, I would toss them. Although I cannot prove this, I am convinced that Loftus plagiarized from two blog articles that I wrote. I wrote blog articles about discrepancies in the gospel stories surrounding the birth of Jesus and discrepancies in the resurrection stories. Loftus used both articles (for his book *Why I Became an Atheist* )and didn’t give me any credit for them. He only knows of first discrepancy because I notified him of it and he was amazed. He not only used three examples of discrepancies but even used the exact wording I used on my blog article on the resurrection. I am not the only person that Loftus plagiarized from. My best friend, Christopher told me that he had a phone conversation with Loftus and Loftus told him of the importance of integrity and the need for proper source attribution. Christopher made the mistake of sharing an argument he was working to develop and Loftus included it on the pages of *The Christian Delusion*. I am no longer friends with Loftus and I will never endorse any of his books.

      • David Evans

        Thanks for that. It must be extremely annoying for you. They will join my discard pile today.

  • Jim

    Geez, the OCD 3rd edition is totally out to lunch. Its article on Christianity fails to mention the well established fact that early Christians taught Jesus did everything in outer space including his sub-Luna crucifixion. You’d think that with all the info at their disposal, Oxford would have at least mentioned that in their article on Christianity, not to mention all the catapults that Christians were probably building for their pilgrimage to Jesus’ burial site. Surely a lot of these followers were being treated for broken bones, and this certainly wouldn’t have been under the radar.

    • Jim

      Apologies, meant *OCD 4th edition* … but that’s ok, together I can beat schizophrenia. 🙂

  • Just out of curiosity, how many of those courses are offered within history departments or as part of history majors?

    • I seem to recall that at least a third to half were, if not more than that – you can count them if you like. The rest are in religious studies or Jewish history for the most part, and so reflect the secular study of religion. As I point out in the blog post, ancient history is covered within a range of departments and programs, not always in one labelled “History.”

  • Several other schools were pointed out on Facebook: University of Virginia, San Jose State University, and Florida State University. The person who offered the last one added, “but this exercise is rather like naming coffee shops that sell lattes.”

    • Andrew Schefe

      Maybe that’s a perfect analogy, an espresso is to history what a latte is to religious studies, kind of the same thing but one with much more froth.

  • Arthur Killings

    There are also faith based universities that teach this subject too but the Jesus mythicists will rejectthat as proof by saying “They’re biased” Well, everyone has a bias. That claim is not a “reason” to reject it. That’s not a reason at all, that’s a piss poor excuse to reject it because of their anti-religious views.