The state of biblical scholarship, philosophy, and atheism

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-Christina 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.

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  1. Great answer- thanks!

  2. Chris Hallquist

    You welcome!

  3. “Most book of Mormon scholars think that Joseph Smith really discovered golden tablets.”

    QED :razz:

  4. The arguments given by Christians have all been refuted–but that does not stop them from repackaging them and giving them away at debates and such—which is why I began posting refutations to people like WL Craig on the web.

    As an atheist, and a professor of religion and philosophy, I go by the arguments and the BEST explanations. “Goddidit” has never been one of the best.

  5. From what I’ve read, it seems like the best scholars favor the jesus as an apocalyptic prophet position.

    It is pretty obvious when you read quotes like:

    “some of you will not experience the taste of death by the time the kingdom of heavan comes”
    (rough wording)

    So far, the best explaination to this is that it referred to the vision of heavan Jesus and his few disciples saw during the transfiguration. However, when we look at this line in retrospect- we can see how strange this alternate explaination is. I mean- why did he predict this? I don’t know enough theology to claim the transfiguration wasn’t an important event- but surely if it was, it would appear in more of the gospels?

  6. This is great. BTW I was watching the debate between WLC and Ehrman- and found his theory for the ressurection very original and with a lot of explanitoy power.

    Any good, scholarly books on theories on how the ressurection tradition started? (other than Chris’ book since I already know of its existence) Oh- and books on hallucinations would also be great.

  7. Chris Hallquist

    @Andyman: After Ehrman, my favorite Biblical scholar is probably Dale Allison, whose book “Resurrecting Jesus” contains a long chapter (really a book-within-a-book) on the resurrection. It’s aimed more at a scholarly audience than is my book or Ehrman’s books, but it’s still very good.

    Allison is also an advocate of the “apocalyptic Jesus” view. You might look him up for that, if you’re really into that topic.

  8. Yeah, I recall seeing his name in the bibliography of “Jesus- APOFM”

    Oh yeah, another interesting thing I noticed- Didn’t Bart debate Craig in 2009? Because, if I recall correctly, in 2003 Bart considered the empty tomb story historical. And- since Bart states in the debate that he thinks the the empty tomb story was fictional- does that mean that Bart is getting even more liberal with his views?

    Anyone want to comment?

  9. *2006, not 2009

    And BTW thanks for the suggestions.

  10. I heard on WLC’s website, tho, that Dale uses a lot of “old” arguments concerning proofs for hallucinations. It’s a little strange, tho, because there are such well attested instances of hallucinations in history (like the woman in the mansion family claiming she saw Jesus).

    However, it seems like, according to Dale, that the pro resurrection theories are only “slightly better”. Than again, I think he accepts the historicity of the empty tomb. Anyone know?

  11. Chris Hallquist

    I don’t think Ehrman changing his mind on one question provides much measure of his overall liberal-ness or conservative-ness.

    On Allison, again, “old” does not mean “wrong.”

    Also, I’ve read Craig’s article on Allison, and I found his description of Allison’s arguments misleading (yeah, I’ll stick with that euphemism). Craig says that Allison “tends to accept all reports uncritically” including stories from “New Age popular books.”

    But Allison clearly doesn’t “accept” all these stories in the sense of taking them at face value. The point is that reports like them are made all the time even though we have little reason to take them at face value.

    Piece of advice: never trust Craig to give an accurate account of what one of his opponents has said.

  12. “I don’t think Ehrman changing his mind on one question provides much measure of his overall liberal-ness or conservative-ness.”

    No- I thought this was a GOOD thing- that he now no longer believes that the empty tomb story is historical! To my knowledge, he used to believe itwas. Now, wouldn’t it be cool if he were to write a book on why he thinks the epty tomb is ahistorical? I mean,, if you watch the debate against Craig, you’ll notice he actually uses a really sophisticated version of the no empty tomb argument:

    1) Firstly, he compares the nature of the resurrection appearances to the nature of other resurrection appearances.

    2) He minimalizes the amount hallucinations by claiming that the disciples would exagerate them.

    3) He is qucik to note the possible literary purpose of the women. This theory (Carrier popularized)was meant to justify why the story of Jesus in this w=one was so odd. I mean- for one thing- why the hell does Judas betray himafter seeing his miracles? Also, why are his disciples so damn stupid? As a whole, the story just doesn’t look like it can actually play out in realiy- so this theory works well in terms of explaining why that would be the case.

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