Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Jesus Wars

Those among us who remember the old Richard Dawkins forum will recall the ‘What can we possibly infer about the historical Jesus?’ thread; a near thousand page epic which outlived the demise of its host and gained a new lease of on the – inaptly named – rational skepticism discussion site. The exchange featured an assortment of ‘cut n paste’ cranks, goggle-geniuses and their hangers-on being given a vigorous and sustained intellectual beating by a Tasmanian Devil (the author of Armarium Magnum and historyversusthedavincicode.com). The general thrust of the thread was one side arguing that the historical Jesus never existed and that the Gospels describe an essentially fictitious person. This has never been a very popular theory in academia. In his ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ for example, the historian Maurice Casey remarks:

‘This view is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. This is not merely worse than the American Jesus Seminar, it is no better than Christian fundamentalism. It simply has different prejudices. Most of its proponents are also extraordinarily incompetent.’

Despite its perceived shortcomings the Christ Myth theory appears to have found widespread popularity on the Internet and among the New Atheist movement. As a result the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has authored a book entitled ‘Did Jesus Exist?’, answering very much in the affirmative.

This seems to have gone down like a lead balloon among the dawkinsia and his views have been criticized by, among others, Richard Carrier, Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, Eric McDonald and P Z Meyers (who proclaimed ‘Carrier cold-cocks Ehrman’, ‘It’s simply bad history to invent rationalizations for an undocumented mystery figure from the distant past’- which, as a principle sounds like it would invalidate most of the field of Ancient History). Some of these, like Ophelia's are fairly mild critiques which take Ehrman to task for making statements that are too unqualified. The weirdest comes from Jerry Coyne who attacks Ehrman for being greedy for putting his blog behind a paywall (it's for charity stoopid!). The most vehement and hard hitting attacks have come from Richard Carrier - both here and here. Ehrman has begun to respond on his blog here and in his latest posting has linked to a rant by historian of religion and humanist advocate Robert Joseph Hoffman. Hoffman writes that:

This little rant (and it is a rant, I acknowledge and I do not apologize for it: somebody’s got to do it) will be followed next week by three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas: The first by me, the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher a specialist in Q-studies. We will attempt to show an impetuous amateur not only where he goes wrong, but why he should buy a map before starting his journey. Other replies will follow in course, and we invite Carrier, his fans, and anyone else interested in this discussion to respond to it at any stage along the way.

I have to say I am glad to see academics using the Internet to reach out to the general public and engage in debates like this. The fact is that that with the growth of the world wide web there has been a democratization of information. As a result, the type of fringe theories that would previously have been confined to obscure sections of the bookstore or self published works flogged at public events are now easily available and can  proliferate with astonishing speed. In an environment like this we need much more input from the real experts. The alternative is a public forum dominated by amateur crank-pots. 

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