Sandwalking with Jesus

Sandwalking with Jesus November 5, 2015

Larry Moran posted on his blog an excerpt from a conversation we had on Facebook. The conversation showed that he is confused about what historians investigate, because he (like conservative Christians) thinks that “the Jesus of the Bible” – the one who performs miracles and so on – is the only one that matters.

I am surprised how many people who are well-educated in other areas seem to stumble in relation to this basic point. There is no good evidence that anyone has ever done a miracle. But there is very good evidence that some of the people about whom miracle stories are told were genuinely historical individuals. For goodness sake, the Catholic Church continues to canonize people and alleged miracles are a part of that process.

Click through to read more of the discussion on Moran’s blog, Sandwalk.

Sandpeople


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John MacDonald

    Has the Catholic church ever failed to canonize someone they wanted to because of a lack of miracle? Lately, they seem to have been pretty good at finding miracles when they wanted to canonize people. lol

    • Neko

      While Tradition holds there must be two miracles to warrant canonization, Pope Francis fast-tracked evangelizer/oppressor Junipero Serra to sainthood with only one. Slippery slope!

      • Warren

        The second miracle was that he got himself canonized with only one miracle.

  • Ian

    The problem is always the same. “Jesus” means a different thing to a HJ scholar than to most lay people.

    Coyne wasn’t wrong. Jesus wasn’t a real historical figure.

    Carrier, I think, is wrong. Because he uses Jesus in a very specific way – and I think the evidence is convincing that that Jesus did exist.

    But most people don’t care a hoot about ‘HJ’. They care about Jesus Christ, and mainstream scholars do a pretty poor job, I think, of being clear that they agree that Jesus is a mythical figure.

    It’s fine to draw the comparison with historical figures who have legendary stories, but the examples normally given (Socrates, Julius Caesar, etc), aren’t primarily known for their legendary bits. If the thing that the vast majority of people associated with Plato was that Apollo was his father (in fact the only thing that 99% of people cared about), then saying ‘Plato was a historic figure’ would have exactly the same issue.

    That’s why I’m always at pains to describe the argument in terms of mainstream scholars thinking that early Christianity came about from “the mythologization of a failed Jewish messiah”, where the ‘denialists’ claim that it originated from a “mythical being who was given a biography as an executed rebel”. It isn’t a debate about whether Jesus existed, or whether Jesus was a historical figure – putting it in those terms is willfully confusing unless you’ve established what you mean by Jesus.

    I think you’d have more success if you responded always with “I agree Jesus is mythical – but that’s not the point of contention – the judgement of scholars is that the documents we have from early Christianity are best explained by ….” Instead of stoking the confusion.

    • But isn’t the problem rather that people like Moran insist on a false dichotomy, either the Jesus of the Bible existed miracles and all, or he did not, without leaving room for other options? Wouldn’t agreeing that “the Jesus of the Bible did not exist” risk simply reinforcing their confusion?

      • Ian

        But isn’t the problem … people like Moran

        It depends whether you think he has taken that position based on malice or misunderstanding. If the latter, then aiding understanding would help. And starting from the common ground he shares with scholarship would be more fruitful, I think.

        Wouldn’t agreeing that “the Jesus of the Bible did not exist” risk simply reinforcing their confusion?

        I think the opposite, by not being clear that you think the Jesus of the Bible is a mythical construction you are confusing people who find it self-evident that he is. The reason it is so confusing is because there are legions of people who do want people to be confused about that. Not just evangelicals, but many liberal Christians too, who aren’t quite willing to give up on miracles, and who find the ambiguity between the scholarly Jesus (widely acknowledged to be historical) and their preferred Jesus+ to be convenient.

        In terms of the public understanding of historical scholarship, you’re losing, I think. There are those on both sides who want you to lose, because it would be easier for them ideologicially if you were wrong. So if the strategy is to push those who’d naturally agree into opposing you in increasingly rancorous terms, then I don’t think you’re going to turn that around.

        • Neko

          I think “legendary” would be preferable to “mythical,” what with the mythicist non-existence thing and all.

          Also, I don’t get the impression that liberal Christians, at least liberal Catholics, have much interest in “confusing people.” They’re primarily concerned with modernizing and reforming the church and tend to remain private about their views of Jesus’s putative miraculous powers. They’re also receptive toward historical Jesus scholarship. It’s the conservatives who get really exercised over historical criticism.

          • Ian

            I agree about term. “I refer to Jesus as legendary, rather than mythical, only because mythicism is a jargon term referring to a particular fringe theory. But in general, yeah, either term works, if I use a different word, I’m not trying to stuff a miraculous rabbit into my hat.” would work.

            I also agree there’s a massive difference in liberal and evangelical attitudes. But in my experience the uniqueness of Jesus as in-some-way-supernatural is still important to many (but not all) liberal Christians. The average liberal Christian’s idea of Jesus is not the same as the average HJ scholar.

          • Neko

            The average liberal Christian’s idea of Jesus is not the same as the average HJ scholar.

            To be sure! Neither, in my experience, is the average liberal Christian’s idea of Jesus the same as the evangelists’ Jesus/s. Gone is the puritanical Jesus of sexual asceticism, the narrow gate and Gehenna. On with the ever-merciful and gracious lover of humanity. And that is all to the good, as far as I’m concerned.

          • Ian

            I agree 100%.

    • arcseconds

      I dunno, Ian, it seems to me that people who are at all well read and even vaguely informed about history make reasonable sense of “did King Arthur exist?” and accept that there might have been a 6th century British war-leader that prompted some original set of stories as an answer to that.

      I’ve come across plenty of people with this kind of opinion who are not at all historians or philologists or similar, not even very amateur ones.

      So the ability to cope with the idea that a historical figure can lie behind myths (and this fact being an interesting one, or at least legitimately interesting to some people) is widespread. And in the case of Arthur, one could much more reasonably argue that such a historical figure is too different from the myths for the myths being in any sense ‘about’ him (he wasn’t king, didn’t have a wizard advisor called Merlin, no round table, no Lancelot, no Grail, lived at a different time (the mythical Arthur doesn’t even seem to live at a a particular time at all), etc.), Kripke notwithstanding.

      So I don’t think people like Moran get an ‘out’ here. They are behaving significantly clumsier than ordinary well-read people do about Arthur.

      I suppose it’s possible that Moran and other people who say this are just very tone-deaf about the possibilities here, and would say the same thing about Arthur, but I think it’s pretty clear it’s because Jesus is an ideological football in the way Arthur isn’t.

      (Maybe they’ve read too much Bertrand Russell and understand things too much in terms of bivalent truth and definite descriptions? (there probably is something to this actually, but I think the ideology is the primary driver))

      I loosely agree that biblical scholars haven’t succeeded in communicating that they are not talking about the mythical figure complete with miracles. And you’re right that there is an ambiguity that’s exploited by apologists.

      But I think James is very clear about what he is talking about if you listen with half an ear. It may be a good rhetorical strategy to accept that ‘Jesus’ means the character in the Gospels and agree that he doesn’t exist to take the wind out of their sails, but it really shouldn’t be necessary. And I agree with James that it leaves them with an unhelpful and crude idea about what it means for an attested figure to exist…. I don’t think an evolutionary biologist would like leaving someone with a similarly crude and unhelpful idea about evolutionary biology.

      • Ian

        But historians aren’t countering this by claiming Arthur was a historical figure or claiming that people who think he is a myth or legend are denialists.

        I think the analogy is good, but it seems it makes my point, not yours.

        If you did want to try to make a case for a historical figure behind Arthur, you’d have an uphill battle to say “Arthur was a historical figure.”

        I think James is clear if you listen in detail, but I think it is naive to counter people who haven’t listened in a way that is likely to confuse, or reinforce their misunderstandings. The solution is simpler: historians just need to be clear that Jesus Christ is a mythical figure. It’s easy to then talk about the process of Christian origins which probably included an executed messianic pretender.

        There’s a reason they don’t, though, which is to do with losing a different chunk of public opinion.

        There are a good number of people who claim to know information about the historical Arthur. Every one I’ve read has been firmly in the fantasy and myth camp. Are there serious historians who want to recover biographical details of a historical figure behind the myth? How many. Because it seems to me, for the same reason, that to start a conversation making the point that Arthur is a mythic figure is the best first approximation. If you start saying one thing, say the least wrong thing, and then you can go from there.

        • arcseconds

          The purpose of mentioning Arthur wasn’t to make an analogy with Jesus, and I don’t think the cases are analogous.

          The purpose was to point out that ordinary people are capable of the kind of nuance about Arthur that we want people to have about Jesus. So there shouldn’t be any need for a crude first approximation.

          And in fact I don’t think very many, if any, people are actually confused about what’s being claimed, at least, not for very long. I’ve remonstrated with people with a mythicist-shaped axe to grind, who weren’t very smart, and it usually only takes two or three goes to make it clear what the claim is. Their response is usually to say either “So? who cares about a non-miraculous Jesus?” (just because you and Mr. Ford think history is bunk doesn’t mean everyone else does) or to deny that even a non-miraculous Jesus existed (or at least can’t be proven) (cue mythicist roundabout). Both responses indicate that the claim has been understood.

          There’s enough that’s considered historical with Jesus for the statement ‘Jesus was a historical person’ to be an unproblematic one. ‘Jesus is a myth’ without qualification suggests strongly that he did not exist, and I think we should be unwilling to proceed with a rhetorical strategy that stops one sort of gross misunderstanding by encouraging another.

          (Given that biblical literalists exist in great numbers, of course in practice you probably need to add something to indicate you don’t accept the Gospels uncritically, and you don’t believe the miracle stories, but the statement itself unproblematically represents an almost certainly true proposition in my view.)

          • Ian

            I don’t agree, but I understand your point.

            Perhaps it is a question of audience. I’ve found discussing this with the atheist blogosphere, the confusion is much more often that ‘Jesus was a historical person’ is heard as ‘the Gospels are true’. Which was what happened in the conversation behind this post. For addressing people without that self-selected ideological identity, I’d be much easier to convince.

          • arcseconds

            Well, maybe the difference is that I’m unwilling to tailor messages specifically to cater to this sort of pigheadedness. Of course I’m happy to explain that ‘Jesus was a historical person; this does not mean the Gospels are true’, and point out that many atheists believe exactly this (and are otherwise indistinguishable from other atheists), but if this is still heard as ‘the Gospels are true’ then that’s where the pigheadedness comes in… or maybe we should call it hysteria or something.

            One consideration here is that mainstream scholarship, and in fact ordinary conversations about Jesus (among say nones and non-atheist-blogosphere atheists) are not going to phrase this as ‘Jesus was mythical’, so if someone insists on reading ‘the Gospels are true’ for ‘Jesus was historical’ then they’re going to find a lot of outrage-inducing credulity everywhere that just doesn’t exist. I suppose the hope is that you can eventually guide them into being comfortable with ‘Jesus was historical’, but this seems like a long-term project. And mildly deceitful and patronizing? Also I guess I’m just pessimistic about the possibility of getting someone to understand this when they aren’t open to a plain language discussion about it and apparently really just don’t want to understand it.

            However, I’m certainly interested in alternative communication strategies. Have you actually tried this, and had any success?

          • Ian

            Yes, though on a very small sample of occasions, I’ve found it goes better. It doesn’t trip the knee jerk assumption that you’re a fundamentalist or literalist, and allows for a simpler segue into discussing mythicism as a fringe theory of Christian origins, rather than a position that denies the Christian Jesus. Whenever I’ve entered a conversation with “you’re wrong, Jesus was a historical figure”, the accusations fly, and clarity is longer coming, if at all. As I observed in the initial exchanges with Larry Moran on Facebook.

            Isn’t foolproof, I didn’t get very far with the folks on Jerry Coyne’s blog, for example. Jerry in particular, I know is aware of the actual point of discussion, yet will misrepresent it without nuance. So yes, there are plenty of people who are too far gone.

            But in general, conversations that start by rehearsing the things you have in common are more fruitful, imho.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    When asked, “Why are there marks in the sand as if tentacles of great weight were dragged alongside me?” the angel replied, “That is when Cthulhu was stalking you.”

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    If we consider the comparison between Jesus and the saints to be valid, then a very interesting possibility opens up. We seem to have a new reference class – and not just a new reference class but a much larger one than the class used by Carrier. If Jesus can be placed in this class, then clearly, there must be a very high prior probability that he existed.

    But is the classification valid? One might doubt whether the Gospels can be compared to the hagiographies of the saints. In fact, there is one unimpeachable authority who has declared that the comparison is valid. He has stated that the Gospels belong to the same genre and were written with the same purpose as the lives of the saints:

    http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/lecture.html

    I should point out that I don’t take this too seriously, but if one wishes to play epistemological games, then what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    • Actually, he only seems to be likening the gospels to the life of one particular saint, Genevieve.

      The point you’re trying to make seems a fairly obvious stretch of logic to me. it would be like saying: stories about the lives of kings are all equally authoritative accounts, whether the king is Midas, Arthur, or George III.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        He said that the biography of Genevieve and the Gospels belong to the same genre of literature. They are both, supposedly, hagiographies.

        The point you’re trying to make seems a fairly obvious stretch of logic to me.

        That is always the danger when you try to fit someone or something into a reference class. And I don’t see that the danger is any greater when comparing Jesus to the saints than it is when comparing him to Zeus and Hercules.

        • Well I would agree with the literary comparison. But his point in this essay is that hagiographic literature is a type of propaganda, designed to glorify a religious ideology through the idealization of a person, not that hagiographic literature consistently represents persons that actually existed. As the scholar Timothy David Barnes states in “Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History”:

          “Fictitious hagiography, however, has flourished alongside the genuine article and bogus saints have been invented at least since Jerome created Paul the proto-hermit out of his own imagination.”

          He gives several other examples. The classification of hagiography applies to those whose subjects actually existed and to those whose subjects did not exist. So such an objective classification does not imply the existence of the subject.

          Whether or not comparisons between Jesus, Zeus, and Hercules are “dangerous”, such comparison seemed obvious to one the earliest (2nd century) Christian apologists, Justin Martyr:

          “when we say also that the Word, who is the first-born of God, was created without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing new from what you believe about those you consider sons of Zeus”

          I’ll add here that I am not a mythicist. I find it likely that there was an actual 1st century apocalyptic rabbi named Yeshua, whose followers formed the earliest Christian communities. And I would agree that there are unscholarly attempts to “parallel” Jesus to other ancient religious traditions in ways that don’t add up. But this does not make all comparisons illegitimate. Historians use such comparisons constantly.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I am aware that Carrier wasn’t discussing the saints as a potential reference class; that was the idea which I decided (somewhat facetiously) to pursue. Let us assume for a moment that those who are the subjects of hagiography constitute a legitimate reference class.

            The classification of hagiography applies to those whose subjects actually existed and to those whose subjects did not exist. So such an objective classification does not imply the existence of the subject.

            That misunderstands the kind of argument that Carrier is making. What we would need to know is the percentages of those in the class who existed and those who didn’t. Let’s say that 90% of them existed. This would mean that there is a 90% prior probability that a particular member of the class existed. If we encountered evidence that outweighed the prior probability, then we would conclude that he or she didn’t exist in spite of the high prior.

            I should point out that I find all of this extremely dubious, but this is exactly the kind of thing that Carrier is doing; so he certainly couldn’t object to my argument in principle.

            Carrier’s own reference class consists of various characters such as Zeus and Hercules. On the basis of Jesus’s membership of this class, Carrier estimates that there is a 94% prior probability that Jesus never existed.

          • Yes, I find it quite dubious, though I don’t think that all of Carrier’s arguments depend on such reference classes.

            I do find it interesting, though, that Justin Martyr used such classifications for the reverse effect in the second century. He basically argues that the miraculous tale of Jesus was just as probable as the miraculous tales of the sons of Zeus (Hercules, for example).

            Again, I’m not a mythicist; but comparisons such as this are hardly new.

  • Just Sayin’

    “There is no good evidence that anyone has ever done a miracle.”

    What do you consider “good evidence”?

    • John MacDonald

      If it was “repeatable” in a “scientific experiment,” it wouldn’t really be a “miracle” any more.

    • Great question! I would say good evidence would lead a skeptic to think “Something happened here that I not only cannot explain, but don’t think I could ever explain based on my current worldview.”

      • John MacDonald

        Sounds like the way you describe the experience of the numinous you had when you were younger.

        • Wow, it is a very good point that, at the time, I would have said something along those lines, whereas now I am not inclined to think that cathartic spiritual experiences of this sort must lack a psychological explanation. Perhaps I need a better definition, but perhaps at the time I was insufficiently skeptical?

      • charlesburchfield

        but that puts the skeptic in charge of the defining what a miracle is doesn’t it?
        .:((((|)))):.
        >©.|.©<
        '•¡(°)/¡•'

        • What do you think a miracle is?

          • charlesburchfield

            The craving for alcohol is gone. I’m sober & happy being sober almost 13 yrs. For a last stage alkie that is daily miraculous event beau. AAers will almost universally tell you that being sober and content is not natural for us. We should all be getting wrecked every day & THAT is natural for an alkie.

          • That’s wonderful for you, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rain on your parade.

            The first definition for a miracle in Webster’s reads “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs”

            The second definition reads “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment”

            I have no doubt that your experience (like my father’s thrilling recovery from a triple by-pass) qualifies for the second definition. I think skeptics usually have the first definition in mind, and find no evidence for the “divine intervention”.

  • Lutesuite

    Larry Moran has clarified his position at the link below. It’s not quite as described in this article:

    http://sandwalk.blogspot.ca/2015/11/was-jesus-real-person-see-what.html?showComment=1446757100009#c8297309156653432294

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Some historians think there’s evidence outside of the Bible for the existence of someone named Jesus who lived around 30 AD in Palestine.

      Moran seems to be implying that only evidence from outside the Bible should be considered. What makes him think that?

      Other historians disagree. As far as I know there’s no universal agreement although I’m told that the majority favor evidence for a real person

      That implies a far greater degree of disagreement than there actually is. Only a tiny minority of experts in the relevant fields doubt the existence of a historical Jesus.

      As far as I know, all historians agree that there’s no independent evidence of a Jesus who is anything like the Jesus described in the Bible.

      Leaving aside the misleading mention of “independent evidence”, one would say that it depends on what you mean by a Jesus who is anything like the one described in the Bible. Even when the reports of miracles are set aside, there may still be at least some similarity between the real Jesus and the biblical version. The real Jesus may have taught in parables, for example.

      In addition to addressing the charge of “denialism” I’m raising a question about whether it’s meaningful to talk abut a “historical Jesus” who has none of the attributes of the Jesus that Christians worship.

      It is meaningful to talk about a historical Jesus if the movement for whose existence we have ample evidence can be traced back to an actual person, and in particular, if two of the key figures in this movement, James and Peter, were, respectively, the brother and close associate of Jesus.

      • Lutesuite

        Moran seems to be implying that only evidence from outside the Bible should be considered. What makes him think that?

        No. Just that if the only evidence is that contained in the Bible, then that’s a very weak case. So are you admitting that is the only evidence?

        That implies a far greater degree of disagreement than there actually
        is. Only a tiny minority of experts in the relevant fields doubt the
        existence of a historical Jesus.

        Which may say more for the degree of scholarship in this field than about the strength of the evidence. If Jesus scholars are overwhelmingly Christians with an emotional investment in the existence of Jesus, that might affect the academic rigor of these investigations.

        Leaving aside the misleading mention of “independent evidence”, one would say that it depends on what you mean by a Jesus who is anything like the one described in the Bible. Even when the reports of miracles are set aside, there may still be at least some similarity between the real Jesus and the biblical version. The real Jesus may have taught in
        parables, for example.

        That’s like saying a person is a lot like Superman if he can’t fly, doesn’t have X-ray vision and isn’t particularly strong BUT he has a job at a newspaper.

        It is meaningful to talk about a historical Jesus if the movement for
        whose existence we have ample evidence can be traced back to an actual person, and in particular, if two of the key figures in this movement, James and Peter, were, respectively, the brother and close associate of Jesus.

        “Meaningful” how?

        • John MacDonald

          I think church would be a lot more popular if the pastor would restrict his or her sermon to what is universally agreed upon by scholars as describing the historical Jesus. This would take about 2 minutes of one sermon, and the rest of the year the church could party like it’s 1999.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          So a Jesus without the miracles is like Superman minus everything except a job at a newspaper? Given that analogy and the smear on biblical scholars, I can see that you have no interest in serious discussion.

          • I can see how someone who has never given this issue serious thought might make a statement like that. But if you are looking into a historical question of any sort – let’s say a family history investigation – and you discover that your great great grandfather was named Clark and worked for a newspaper, you wouldn’t say “That’s completely worthless information – he’s like Superman but without the strength or ability to fly.” Many historical individuals have things in common, but our knowledge of the past is so piecemeal that any detail is usually worth discovering.

            It is as though Larry spends all his time debating people who are, in essence, making claims about Superman, and so he can’t understand why historians would be interested in ordinary people with no superpowers. But that is precisely what historians investigate.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            That’s a very good point. The historian is interested even in scraps of information.

            What I find remarkable in this discussion is the implication that even the teachings of Jesus would be too trivial a remnant to be of interest.

          • Neko

            As do I. The Jesus movement changed the course of history. The person who inspired this cult isn’t interesting if he didn’t actually walk on water? It seems to me that indifference betrays a profound lack of curiosity.

          • Ian

            I agree, but I think the answer is ‘yes, they have a profound lack of curiosity for the biography of the historical Jesus’ for the vast majority of people. I suspect if you asked most of these people about biographical details of Mohammad, they’d not get much beyond “Erm, something about Mecca and Medina – he was Arabic, wasn’t he?” or Confucius “He was Chinese, I’m pretty sure.” etc for countless other religious figures through time who the vast majority of the world aren’t much interested in. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, once you get beyond a few key figures.

            Part of this whole problem is that scholars of all kinds tend to overestimate how interested people are in their work. HJ scholars suffer particularly, I think, because so many people purport to be interested in Jesus. But adjusting to the existential crisis the rest of us go through during our PhDs that literally only a few hundred people in the world care about our field, is harder for them, I think. 😉

          • Lutesuite

            The Jesus movement changed the course of history. The person who
            inspired this cult isn’t interesting if he didn’t actually walk on
            water?

            There is no question of whether he is interesting. The questions are regarding the strength of the evidence for his existence.

          • Neko

            Yes, I’m aware “questions have been raised.” My understanding is that by the standards of antiquity the evidence is strong enough to support a persistent scholarly consensus that Jesus existed.

          • Lutesuite

            “Scholarly consensus” =/= “Fact”

          • Neko

            Thank you, Mr. Obvious.

          • Lutesuite

            It may be obvious to you. But the distinction seems to escape Dr. McGrath when he equates a) disagreement with scholarly consensus and b) “denialism.”

          • Neko

            Hardly. From what I gather, by denialism Dr. McGrath refers to the tactics deployed by individuals ideologically motivated to challenge the consensus, of which the presumption that experts in the field are idiots is an example.

          • Lutesuite

            I can see how someone who has never given this issue serious thought
            might make a statement like that. But if you are looking into a
            historical question of any sort – let’s say a family history
            investigation – and you discover that your great great grandfather was
            named Clark and worked for a newspaper, you wouldn’t say “That’s
            completely worthless information – he’s like Superman but without the
            strength or ability to fly.”

            I don’t know why you’re so defensive. No one is saying it is worthless to investigate the question of whether Jesus lived. The point at issue here is whether the historical evidence in favour of his existence is so conclusive that anyone disagreeing with that position can only be considered a “denialist”. If that’s the case, Jesus scholars are doing a poor job of communicating that to the general public, as the survey that prompted Jerry Coyne’s article demonstrates. I can’t say you’ve yet to produce any examples to counter that.

          • Larry Moran was saying precisely what you claim that no one is saying. He explicitly said more than once that a mythologized or mythical Jesus is the only one that counts.

            It does seem that historical Jesus scholars, like biologists, face struggles in certain circles of the general public in getting mainstream secular scholarship known and understood. I spend a lot of time defending both on my blog. Can you understand why someone who ought to understand these challenges, deciding to dismiss my field of scholarship, seems like a surprising betrayal of the collective academic enterprise?

          • Lutesuite

            Can you understand why someone who ought to understand these challenges, deciding to dismiss my field of scholarship, seems like a surprising betrayal of the collective academic enterprise?

            I don’t see him as dismissing your field. I see him rejecting some of your particular claims about the findings of that field, but surely you are not the only Bible scholar who must be believed.

          • If my views were not the consensus, then he and others as outsiders ought to reject them, until such time as I persuade at least enough of my peers that there is no longer a meaningful consensus. It is the rejection of what an entire field of scholarship concludes that is the problem. And presumably if you or he do not know that there is an overwhelming consensus, isn’t that the sort of thing one ought to find out before pontificating outside one’s area of expertise?

          • Lutesuite

            If my views were not the consensus, then he and others as outsiders ought to reject them, until such time as I persuade at least enough of my peers that there is no longer a meaningful consensus.

            So, to use the example I raised in our discussion on Sandwalk: When Barry Marshall MD first raised the idea that gastric ulcers were caused by H. pylori bacteria, his views were not accepted by the consensus of medical opinion. He was eventually proven correct and won a Nobel Prize.

            According to what you are saying, if a non-MD read his work and found his arguments persuasive, you would label him a “denialist” until Marshall managed to persuade the rest of his colleagues he was correct. That is simply an absurd position. How can one be a “denialist” for believing what is, in fact, correct?

          • Denialists also point to the fact that consensus has changed in the past as though it justified simply selecting any view that one wishes, however implausible and unpersuasive from the perspective of the overwhelming majority of experts in a field. I don’t think that is helpful. Scholars spend their time trying to break new ground. Most of our attempts will not pan out and do not merit assent from the public.

          • Lutesuite

            That’s another problem you’re having, Dr. McGrath: You’re conflating the position “Historicists have not made their case” with “Mythicists have made their case.” Those mean different things, I hope I do not have to tell you.

            My position, based admittedly on limited knowledge of the field, is one of skepticism that anything can be known about Jesus with enough certainty that would justify labelling disagreement as “denialism.” If someone was saying it is a fact that Jesus was entirely mythical, I would be making much the same arguments against him.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I don’t know how instrumental the public were in getting Barry Marshall’s work accepted by the medical establishment, but they were very keen to champion the cause of another doctor – Andrew Wakefield, who supposedly discovered a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and is now banned from practising medicine.

            The problem with encouraging the public to challenge a consensus is that there is little chance they will back the right horse.

          • Lutesuite

            Yes. So what’s your point?

          • Lutesuite

            So a Jesus without the miracles is like Superman minus everything except a job at a newspaper?

            No. He’s like Superman w/out the superhuman powers. It’s hard to see in what sense such a person could be called “Superman”, even if we know Clark Kent actually existed.

          • But the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” is not a title like “Superman.”

          • Lutesuite

            But the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” is not a title like “Superman.”

            So if Clark Kent was actually called Superman, in what sense would it be accurate to say “Superman existed”, when “Superman” is commonly meant to refer to the guy in the red cape who can fly and has superhuman powers?

            The problem I and, I suspect, Larry have is that when you say the scholarship supports the existence of Clark Kent Jesus, you don’t explicitly say that the scholarship also rejects the existence of Superman Jesus. You just waffle around and say it’s beyond the remit of the study of history to comment on the occurrence of miracles. I don’t think it is overly suspicious of me to read a hidden agenda in that. But I welcome your correction if I am mistaken.

          • You are mistaken, and I think that is because Larry deliberately took a small snippet of a Facebook conversation and tried to spin it against the grain of what I, his conversation partner, have said repeatedly. My point was not to claim that Jesus was born of a virgin – he wasn’t, and one of the results of historical study is to highlight that that idea is contradicted in our earliest Christian sources. My point was that, even if Jesus had been virginally conceived, one could not use historical tools to “prove” it, because history deals in probabilities, and it will always be more likely that some people did what many did in ancient times, namely ascribe a miraculous birth to someone they considered important, than that those stories reflect historical reality.

  • Gakusei Don

    It looks to me like Prof Moran took a walk along a beach with Logic as his companion, and when he looked back he only saw one set of footprints.

    Moran writes: “I’m raising a question about whether it’s meaningful to talk abut a “historical Jesus” who has none of the attributes of the Jesus that Christians worship… It provides no support whatsoever for the Jesus that really counts.”

    The “historical Jesus” is the one who later inspired Christianity. In that respect, it doesn’t matter whether or not he had the attributes of the Jesus that Christians worship. (In fact, the “failed apocalyptic prophet” model that is popular among scholars is definitely not the Jesus that Christians worship!) It’s hard to understand how Prof Moran misunderstands this. My guess is he is focussed on “the Jesus that really counts” rather than the bare-bones Jesus described by scholars.

    • Gakusei Don

      And how on earth does Prof Moran get from Dr McGrath’s responses that “I think [McGrath] means that historian can’t investigate miracles so we have to assume they exist as long as someone says so.”

      Has Moran been attending the Neil Godfrey School for Debate? Seriously, where does that come from?

  • Chris Eyre

    I’ve responded at some length here:- http://eyrelines.energion.net/?p=871
    Needless to say, I’m entirely on the side of assessing evidence dispassionately rather than making apologetic arguments in either direction…

  • You may find my analysis of Coyne and Moran’s historical incompetence interesting:

    “History for Atheists – Scientists and ‘Rationalists’ Getting the Historical Jesus Completely Wrong”