Oct 082013

notovitchOver at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath brings our attention to a sensationalist (to put it mildly) press release from Joseph Atwill to the effect that “ancient confessions recently uncovered now prove, according to Atwill, that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.” Could this just be nonsense trumped up to sell a book documentary? Say it isn’t so!

Certainly I have to agree with McGrath that the popularization of outlandish made-for-media headlines “makes the work of scholars that much harder, as we try to come up with scholarly reconstructions, float new ideas to their peers, critically evaluate evidence, and offer nuanced conclusions.” Or, at least, that it does make it harder for that work to penetrate the public consciousness.

One can read the subtext, however, made explicit here, that such nonsense “has many similarities of approach to that of Earl Doherty and other mythicists,” meaning to tar any writer disbelieving in a historical Jesus with the same brush. With a book from Richard Carrier forthcoming On the Historicity of Jesus, we can expect that a wide range of polemics will be applied liberally to him as well, with similar injustice.

Certainly, however, any number of books have come out of la-la land under the rubric of the study of the historical Jesus. And I’m not just talking about the apologetics industry (e.g.,  the tombs of Jesus and the Shroud of Turin). There are books telling us that Jesus sojourned in India or that Jesus faked his death and lived on in Rome. Or the latest oeuvre from Bill O’Reilly, as a simple case in point.

Having the “right” conclusion (in this case, that there was a historical Jesus) is no magic talisman against nonsense, and neither does having the “wrong” conclusion mean that you’ve come to it by illegitimate means. Disagreement happens among scholars every day on any number of issues. Sometimes it’s hard to take a step forward in New Testament studies without stumbling over some point of disagreement among bona fide researchers on the subject, writing in all good faith.

The Synoptic Problem is just one famous example. Just as proponents of the Two Source Hypothesis or the nascent Farrer Hypothesis do not get smugly superior when debating their opinions between themselves, or as against less-popular rivals, why should this bone of historical contention strike such a deep nerve in academics of Christian origins? (Okay, maybe a little smug, when their guard is down, but not with the same kind of viciousness on display against the idea that there was no historical Jesus and the softer neutral position, the idea that we can no longer know whether there was.)

Could it be for less than professional reasons?

Say it isn’t so!

(And the discussion continues in the comments.)

PS – Tom Verenna gives us a quick review with his post No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus, and Joel Watts adds to the discussion here.

PPS – To obsess over the identity or motive of a person putting forth an idea (operation insult and insinuate) is petty, unimpressive, and just plain illogical as a way to rebut it; see Tim Widowfield and Neil Godfrey on Vridar for some much-needed corrective commentary.

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