Three Skeptics Write Lousy Bible Scholarship

On April 25, 2017, in GNU/Linux, Religion, by prosario2000

Note:  I’m NOT a Bible nor a New Testament scholar, just a philosopher who has an amateurish interest on the New Testament. For the longest time I was Catholic, but, as many of you know, I declared myself a Religious Naturalist a few years ago, and committed myself to skepticism and Science (meaning both Natural and Social Sciences, which includes History).  I think that New Testament scholars can respond a lot better than I will about this subject, but my complain is as a member of the skeptical movement.

I wanted to write something different in my personal blog regarding stuff that have nothing to do with the historicity of Jesus. Yet again, as a member of the skeptical movement, I’m often frustrated when prominent figures in the skeptical movement succumb into old fashioned mythicist views on Jesus. These are the article of psychologist Valerie Tarico, David Fitzgerald, and that of the neurologist Steve Novella. I have to say that I’m a big fan of Novella, and I never miss Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, which is my all-time favorite podcast. In many ways, I consider him a role-model of how to be a genuine skeptic.

Before I begin my arguments, may I remind you that with the exception of Robert Price and Richard Carrier, and perhaps a few more, there is no one else in academia who supports this view regardless of whether they are Christian or not, whether they are believers or not. YES, I do recognize that the discipline of New Testament scholarship is overrun by Christian scholars.  There is no question about it, and in many ways is a problem. But let me give you a better picture of the state of affairs:

  1. A portion of scholars are fundamentalists … but this is a minority group and generally they do not engage in more serious scholarly material. Often, their production is directed at reconfirming their own faith, and that is not doing history.
  2. Another portion of Bible scholars are pretty conservative, who want to promote a maximalist view of the historicity of Jesus (that is, most of what we see in the New Testament actually happened or is close to what actually happened, and that the claims of the NT are mostly reliable). These are not fundamentalists, and do serious work, but often they engage in apologetics. In this group, we could include Simon Gathercole, Craig A. Evans, Michael F. Bird, Bruce Chilton, Dan Wallace, among many others. I want to point out that, despite the fact that I’m not close to this particular group of scholars, that does not mean that their work should be dismissed for being religious, Christian, or conservative. Hence, I agree with Novella regarding his concerns about Gathercole’s responses as apologetic. Yet Gathercole’s, nor Evans’, nor Wallace’s work can thrown down the toilet. We should note that all of them have made very valuable contributions to the field.
  3. Another portion of them is more moderate and/or minimalistic:  they consider that our sources are basically flawed, that a lot of the content needs to be qualified taking into account, which include: the almost 500,000 variants we find in our manuscripts (remember that about 80 to 90% of those variants don’t matter at all for scholars), the Christian interpolations we find in the manuscripts, the diverse traditions we find all over the New Testament, the unreliability of eye-witness reports, theological biases, literary constructs, etc., etc., etc.  In this group you may find a LOT of people: John P. Meier (whose multivolume work A Marginal Jew should be considered a must read if you want to at least deal with the subject in a scholarly manner), Raymond Brown (whose introductory work on the New Testament and his colossal work on John’s Gospel is a must read for scholars), John Dominic Crossan, Joachim Gnilka, Joseph Fitzmyer, Bruce Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, James McGrath, Antonio Piñero, Fernando Bermejo, Eldon Jay Epp, Harry Y. Gamble, Günter Bornkamm, R. J. Hoffmann, John S. Kloppenborg, Wayne A. Meeks, Gerd Thiessen, Jonathan L. Reed (his archaeological work is medular for any study on Galilee along with Mark Chancey’s), Mark Goodacre, Jürgen Becker, E. P. Sanders, Maurice Casey, and so on. This group constitutes the majority of Bible scholars.  Some are Christians, others are theists of another sort, and others are agnostics and atheists. All I can assure you is that as a norm they do not compromise their research due to their own personal religious or non-religious beliefs. Take for instance, Catholic priest Raymond Brown: he wrote a very explosive book called The Community of the Beloved Disciple, which is one of the best studies on the ecclessiological history of the congregation which originated the Gospel of John.  Yet, despite the Catholic Church’s and other denominations’ disdain for that book, today it is widely regarded as one of the most important contributions to New Testament scholarship.  Why was it controversial?  I’ll leave it to your reading.  You don’t want me to spoil the fun, do you?!  We can hold the same opinion about Catholic priest, John P. Meier’s work, whose content does not exactly endorse the perpetual virginity of Mary or the infancy narratives.
  4. Then there is a minute insignificant sector of Bible scholarship:  mythicists. Contrary to what people hold, there are some versions of mythicism that should be regarded as a trying to engage in serious debates with other scholars. The problem is that after more than a hundred years, none of their theories pan out. Of those in the field who have the actual degree in New Testament specialty there is only one (that I know of): Robert Price. If we extend it to the field of Ancient History and Classics, I know of only one more: Richard Carrier.  I know that there are six or seven more academics that endorse this position (because Carrier mentioned this number in one of videos, but not their names).  Given that they have been unable to convince more people in the academy about it, nor want to limit themselves to struggle for their position academically, they also seek cheerleaders in the skeptical movement.  So, they treat skeptics the same way Creationists do, or partisans for Intelligent Design do, or climate change denialists do, or anti-GMO activists treat the rest of the public.

See?  Yes!  I went there! Furthermore, most of these pro-mythicist statements come from some of the most brilliant defenders of the Natural Sciences, but they know next to nothing about how History as a field proceeds (especially when it comes to Ancient History, and particularly New Testament scholarship). Both of the articles in question are great examples of this.

Let’s take a look at both of the articles, but I confess I won’t be as exhaustive as I want to.

Tarico’s and Fitzgerald’s Article

In her small article published by Raw Story, titled “Evidence for Jesus Is Weaker than You Might Think“, the psychologist Valerie Tarico and David Fitzgerald (a writer… but not a New Testament scholar either) try to show what the title of the article proposes to do.

The article begins with what I call the Thomas Jefferson-scissors methodology to find the historical Jesus, which is complete non-sense. WHO today proceeds this way? No one. Not ONE scholar does this, and whoever tries to do so would looked down upon by the rest of the scholarly community. If everyone is clear that this method doesn’t quite work, what is it doing in this article?  AAAAAH, because Jefferson was intelligent, and this is an example of an intelligent person trying to separate fact from fiction in the Gospels. The problem is that Jefferson was no historian, did not have the level of sophistication developed by historians in general or New Testament scholars in particular: he had no knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the archaeological discoveries in Palestine/Israel, or the new most rigorous qualifications of current documentation carried out by serious philologists and specialists.

Of course, this small anecdote is a rhetorical (not actual rigorous) preamble to then say:

In the two centuries that have passed since Jefferson began clipping, scores of biblical historians—including modern scholars armed with the tools of archeology {sic.}, anthropology and linguistics— have tried repeatedly to identify the “historical Jesus” and have failed. The more scholars study Jesus, the more confused and uncertain our knowledge has become. Currently, we have a plethora of contradictory versions of Jesus—an itinerant preacher, a zealot, an apocalyptic prophet, an Essene heretic, a Roman sympathizer, and many more —each with a different scholar to confidently tout theirs as the only real one. Instead of a convergent view of early Christianity and its founder, we are faced instead with a cacophony of conflicting opinions. This is precisely what happens when people faced with ambiguous and contradictory information cannot bring themselves to say, we don’t know.

Every time I see this argument (and believe me, I have heard it too many times, even from people who should know better), I wonder if someone is joking, or if they are willingly ignorant of the discussions in the field. Actually, the situation is the reverse. We know today more about the historical Jesus than in the past, and ever since the early twentieth century, scholars all over the spectrum have converged in general terms on the profile of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet or as an apocalypticist, who was very close to a pharisaic way of thinking. Virtually all of our early independent sources agree: Mark, Q, M, L, and Paul’s genuine letters.

Why is he not an “Essene heretic”? Precisely because he did not share an Essene way of thinking, his focus was more pharisaic. Why wasn’t he “a zealot”? Because despite indications of a bit of the use of arms by Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels, his real plan consisted in expecting the Son of Man to arrive on Earth to judge individuals and nations. A similar view was held by Jesus’ teacher John the Baptist, and was held by the Early Church (in its case, the resurrected Jesus would be the Son of Man). “A Roman sympathizer”? Really?! A Roman sympathizer? You mean like an apocalypticist attacking the Temple where the Sadducees, the Roman allies, dominated? And what do you do with the Roman crucifixion of someone who preached about the termination of the current order (i.e. of Roman domination?) in order to establish Yahweh’s Kingdom?  I mean, one who would pretend to be “King of the Jews” would actually be historically crucified by a Roman prefect … no questions asked!

Since the times of Albert Schweizer (1906) until today, the historical theory that Jesus was an apocalypticist has dominated the field, and it is still the current state of affairs. Other alternatives are extremely rare and considered fringe by historians and New Testament scholars. To argue that the studies of the historical Jesus is a mess because of diversity of opinions without evaluating the consensus areas and their quality, it would be like me saying that Neo-Darwinian evolution “is a mess” because there are now people who hold gene-centered selection (digital Darwinism), or group selection, or a mix of both, or a more preponderance of endosymbiosis, and many other areas that are currently genuine mysteries for evolutionary biologists. I’m not kidding! Partisans for Intelligent Design have made a field day out of these differences.  In the end, their arguments are bogus, because Darwinian evolution is nowhere near being a failure. In the same way, Tarico’s and Fitzgerald’s statements are non-sense.

But this is not all. It goes on saying that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, and that they copied from one another this way:

While the four gospels were traditionally held to be four independent accounts, textual analysis suggests that they all actually are adaptations of the earliest gospel, Mark. Each has been edited and expanded upon, repeatedly, by unknown editors. It is worth noting that Mark features the most fallible, human, no-frills Jesus—and, more importantly, may be an allegory.

They omit the fact that the very same “objective scholars” that Tarico and Fitzgerald talk about, do not have Mark’s Gospel as the only independent source.  Those very same scholars (with very few exceptions, such as Casey or Goodacre) hold that there was a lost document or a “source” called “Q” which provided a set of independent traditions of Jesus’ sayings.  There are also traditions that only appear in Matthew’s Gospel which scholars call “M”, traditions that only appear in Luke’s Gospel which scholars call “L”, separate early traditions in the Gospel of John, and the traditions found in Paul’s genuine epistles. There is even one more source that sometimes scholars use which appear in the Gospel of Thomas. Both John and Thomas are the most unreliable traditions. I’m not saying that all of these early sources are unproblematic. Quite the contrary, there is a lot to say about all of them, and even with the consensus, there is serious scholarship that questions Q’s existence. Yet, describing Mark as the sole root tradition is misleading.

Another problem is, again, that our authors have no idea how much of the scholarly discussions is evolving.  For example, Josep Rius-Camps has published a work where, using the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Bezae, he has been able to identify various layers (or stages) of redaction of the Gospel of Mark. He hypothesizes that the first stage originated probably in Palestine (in Jerusalem), so it may contain eye-witness reports from some of its earlier members. Of course, I concede that eye-witness reports are notoriously unreliable and cognitive science has given us plenty of reasons to doubt it. Yet, if he persuades scholars with his theory, we are in a much better position to determine (depending on the stage) which words or deeds of Jesus are more likely to be historical than not. I’m not trying to say that Rius-Camps is correct, he has been criticized. All I’m saying is that Tarico and Fitzgerald are basically presenting a gross caricature of a very serious field, whose process is actually progressing as historiographical methodologies and criteria are refined.  And again, all of these advances point at the historicity of Jesus: an apocalyptic prophet of next-to pharisaic way of thinking who died crucified.

The Gospels are not corroborated by outside historians. Despite generations of apologists insisting Jesus is vouched for by plenty of historical sources like Tacitus or Suetonius, none of these hold up to close inspection. The most commonly-cited of these is the Testimonium Flavianum, a disputed passage in the writings of ancient historian Flavius Josephus, written around the years 93/94, generations after the presumed time of Jesus. Today historians overwhelmingly recognize this odd Jesus passage is a forgery. (For one reason, no one but the suspected forger ever quotes it – for 500 years!) But Christian apologists are loathe to give it up, and supporters now argue it is only a partial forgery.

And yet, they neglect to say that virtually almost all historians agree that the textus receptus has at its core, real information on Jesus of Nazareth. Why is that? Because even if you do the mere exercise of excising the questionable phrases of the text, you end up with something that resembles both in content and style what Josephus would have said. I’ll strike the content that has been questioned by virtually all scholars (source of translation):

And there is about this time Jesus, a wise man, [if indeed it is necessary to say that he is a man]; for he was a doer of miraculous works, a teacher of men who receive true things with pleasure, and many Jews, and also many of the Greek element, he led to himself; [this man was the Christ]. And, when on the accusation of the first men among us Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first loved him did not cease;[for he appeared to them on the third day living again, the divine prophets having said both these things and myriads of other wonders concerning him]. And even until now the tribe of Christians, named from this man, has not been lacking.

Of course, the issue is more complicated. Why? Because we have an Arab version (Agapius’ Arabic Testimonium) of the text which also contains information on Jesus and can give us a bit more of reliable information. As it turns out, it includes information about Jesus’ resurrection and messianship… but in a very interesting, non-believing, way:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders (my emphasis).

This also sounds like what Josephus might have said. The originality of the text is ardently being debated now among scholars (very few actually proposing that the whole passage is a fake). Personally, I lean more towards Fernando Bermejo’s view about the textus receptus (but this is my own non-specialist subjective opinion, and I may be wrong), who hypothesizes that the original text had negative connotations towards Jesus. This could explain why Origen (before Eusebius of Cesarea) stated that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. It would also explain so many years of silence both before and after Eusebius (the “suspected forger”). Besides, this text is also assumed when Josephus tells us about the death of James, Jesus’ brother.  Many have called attention to the fact that Josephus did not appreciate Jesus being called the Messiah (talking about James the brother of Jesus, the “so-called” Messiah).

There is also a Syriac version of the text and a Slavonic one, the former, similar to the textus receptus in many aspects, the latter an extremely extended version.  Yet, what is peculiar about all of these texts is that they all appear in exactly the same place. That is, most historians think that most probably there was an original text where Josephus clearly talks about Jesus of Nazareth. For these and many other reasons, it is very rare to find a scholars who doubt that there was no original unbelieving text behind the textus receptus of the Testimonium Flavianum.

Our authors proceed:

Either way, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out, the Testimonium Flavanium merely repeats common Christian beliefs of the late first century, and even if it was 100% genuine would provide no evidence about where those beliefs came from. This same applies to other secular references to Jesus–they definitely attest to the existence of Christians and recount Christian beliefs at the time, but offer no independent record of a historical Jesus.

In sum, while well-established historic figures like Alexander the Great are supported by multiple lines of evidence, in the case of Jesus we have only one line of evidence: the writings of believers involved in spreading the fledgling religion.

I agree. Yet, this confounds the issue.  If the issue is: “is there any external attestation to Jesus historicity by historians?”, supposing that the Testimonium Flavianum is 100% genuine, then yes there is.  This is the point that is missed:  most of what is attested from Antiquity by professional historians come from earlier writings or traditions. They are not from the original sources of information themselves. Yes, Alexander is greatly attested because of the huge impact he left on society, and historians wrote about him, the same can be said of Julius Caesar.  Yet, if we had no Gospels with us, and we only had the Testimonium Flavianum at our disposal, chances are that historians would take this as historical information, given that there are lots of historical people Josephus mentions of which we have no external validation anywhere else from the first century. Most probably too, current historians would have thought (as many think now) that there were traditions and writings from which Josephus is basing his information from. If they intend to argue external attestation as understood in these restrictive terms as a absolute requirement for historicity, then we would throw a lot of Ancient characters we consider historical down the drain since we have no original writings of their own, but are totally based on what has been said written about them, sometimes in mystified forms: Thales of Miletus, Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Spartacus, Heraclitus, Apolonius of Tiana, etc.

Points 4 and 5 I want to dismiss as being entirely irrelevant to the subject:

4. Early Christian scriptures weren’t the same as ours….

5. Christian martyrs are not proof (if they even were real).

Agreed on both counts…  and they are irrelevant. There are documents considered sacred scripture, but which are forgeries or offer nothing to our subject at hand, and documents that were not included in the canon, but which could tell us something historically (for example, the Didaché’s portrayal of the Eucharist could tell us about the original sense of the Last Supper).  About Christian martyrs not being proof of Jesus’ historicity, I totally subscribe to Candida Moss’ superb scholarship on the matter (Ancient Christian Martyrdom, The Other Christs, The Myth of Persecution)… and it is irrelevant regarding our subject. Yes, I know that in both cases they are trying to respond to usual Christian argument that the Apostles would lose their lives for “the truth”. Still, their argument and the response is irrelevant to the issue we are discussing.

Finally, point 6 I feel is a caricature of the discussion:

No other way to explain the existence of Christianity?

If someone holds this as a scholarly view, then I agree that it must be challenged. Strictly speaking, there are many other ways to explain the existence of Christianity, and several mythicist hypotheses could explain it.  Yet, the problem is not one of possibility of explanation, but of complication and special pleading. For example, it is more complicated to explain why does Paul call James “the brother of Jesus” (in the mythicist sense) while not calling Peter with that name; or why he makes a semantic distinction between “brother of the Lord” (as in James and at least one other) and “brothers in Christ” (i.e. baptized). To claim that specifically James “being the brother of Jesus”  does not actually mean he was his sibling when everything seems to point that he did (especially when the Gospels actually attest to this, and mentions the names of Jesus’ brothers) is a case of special pleading.

Yes, bigfoot did not exist, but Baal Shem Tov did; and in Puerto Rico, Elenita de Jesús (who claimed to be the Virgin Mary, whose incredible legends were forged around her for years) did indeed exist. And yes, it is harder to explain the emergence of Christianity (especially the earliest traditions about Jesus and the Gospel narratives) without a historical Jesus. Ockam’s Razor anyone?! If you include some of the theories as outlandish as to claim, contrary to all available evidence, that Jesus began as a celestial being who was historicized, to then being mystified once more, or that Paul’s genuine letters were being written in the second century …  these hypotheses add even far more difficulties, and create far more problems than they historically can solve!

About Novella’s Statements

As I already said, I completely agree with Novella’s skepticism regarding Gathercole’s apologetics. Yet, I can agree with Gathercole that no one close (both in place and time) of Jesus’ time doubted that Jesus existed. I want to focus a bit more on this.  How do I know that there was no claim that Jesus didn’t exist if the documents of that time of Palestine and nearby are lacking?  Simple … reading the Gospels.  From a literary point of view, the Gospels are not just stories that some people wrote out of the blue. But they are responses to what people were saying about Jesus or Christianity in general. For instance, ever since Wilhelm Wrede’s work on the Gospel of Mark, we notice a literary motif regarding Jesus messianship:  absolutely no one heard Jesus publicly say that he was the Messiah. Yet, Christians were claiming he was. How does Mark explain this? By stating that Jesus ordered people to shut up and say nothing about it. Hence, it was not Jesus, but other people who said it. Other factors come into play: How does Jesus, being the Messiah, accept being baptized by John if his baptism was for sinners?  Mark’s answer: actually the baptism was carried out as a form of “anointment” as Messiah, Son of God (only Jesus sees the Holy Spirit and hears the words). Historically, though, this is doubtful … most probably Jesus was baptized because he considered himself a sinner, hence becoming the disciple of the apocalypticist John the Baptist. Matthew deals with it adding an odd response by Jesus saying that it was “God’s Will” (so to speak).  Luke deals with it by making John arrested before Jesus’ baptism. John’s Gospel deals with it by eliminating the whole baptism scene altogether.

In the Gospels we find all sorts of signs of struggling with other groups.  John’s Gospel for instance, argues against “the Jews” (called sons of the Devil – 8:44) because they refused to recognize Jesus’ messianship; they argue against the followers of John the Baptist, given that THEY were arguing that their master was the messiah (e.g. 1:6-8,15; 2:19-23);  they argue against other Christians regarding Jesus’ own identity ; about the interpretation of the Eucharist, etc. This is just an example. Yet, nowhere in the Gospels, nor in Paul’s letters, nor in the Pseudo-Pauline epistles, or the universal epistles, is there any hint that they had to deal with the argument that Jesus didn’t exist. On the contrary, it seems that Christians and non-Christian opponents pretty much agreed he existed. The disputes usually centered on who he was, what he said, and what should be interpreted from his words and deeds (as remembered).

I think this alone is strong evidence that he most probably existed. Novella quotes several passages we have criticized above as showing that the evidence for Jesus is “extremely thin”. Still, he goes even further saying:

Another compelling argument that Tarico touches upon but others have more fully developed is that Christian mythology did not emerge from nowhere. The basic elements of the myth all existed for centuries in that part of the world. As I discussed previously, prior myths differed in exact details, but the main themes were all present. Horus and Mithras, for example, were also miraculously conceived or born, were half god- half man, and were saviors who had to make an extreme sacrifice.

I couldn’t believe that I was reading this argument which has been discredited by scholars.  The stories being said about Mithras came from the Roman version of the religion, and it evolved since the end of the first century well into the fourth. Horus was conceived magically, yes….  but Isis was not a virgin in the moment of conception. And even if she was considered virgin, Egyptian mythology did not focus on that at all … in fact, it is never mentioned as something believers should focus on. Neither Horus nor Mithras died or suffered for “anyone’s sins” as a form of salvation, and any ritual pertaining to blood spill for purification appeared much later.  For goodness’ sake … he knows this! Novella wants to advocate for extremely general vague pattern of heroes who save humanity, yet this position is unscientific. I could use that same pattern and go to any mythological group anywhere in the world and I could find it.  What could make the discussion on the subject are precisely the specific detailed patterns that we can legitimately adscribe as being borrowed or assumed in some ways by Christianity or by Paganism.

And what about the possible influence of Christianity in Pagan religions? Pagans in general and mystery followers in particular were far more synchretic than Judaism and Christianity were at the time. I want to state for the record that I do believe that there was some Pagan influence on primitive Christianity, especially through Judeo-Hellenistic thinking!  But it puzzles me that most skeptics don’t consider the possibility of cases where the causal arrow seems to go the other way, given that Pagans were highly synchretic.

NOTE: The reasons why in Matthew and Luke presented Jesus as being born of a virgin are very well understood. The Gospel of Matthew wanted to focus on Jesus being the Messiah because he fulfilled all of the prophecies written about him. Since his Greek version of Isaiah said that Emmanuel would be born from a virgin, then Jesus mother had to be a virgin.  In Luke’s case, there are signs that he originally intended to begin with chapter 3. Yet, apparently, he decided to include the infancy narratives later in chapters 1 and 2. In his case, the reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin is totally different from Matthew’s. For Luke, Jesus was the Son of God, because He was literally his Father, that His spirit would cover and impregnate Mary. The literary structures of both stories are solely based on the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) and has next to nothing to do with any mystery religion or with Pagan sources.

Novella further states:

Another analogy might be the Arthurian legend. King Arthur probably did not exist, and the level of evidence for him is about the same as for the historical Jesus. Again, the main difference being that the main canon of the King Arthur legend was presented as fiction, not as a gospel of faith.

Really? Can he point at a letter from someone who actually met King Arthur’s brother, much like Paul met Jesus’ brother, James? Can he point out traditions about Arthur that are three to four decades from the supposed events, instead of centuries old?

I won’t ponder further about the specifics of this discussion, because I made my point. Yet, there is one more issue I wish to discuss. Novella states:

In the end we are left with, I think, two main conclusions. The first is that we simply do not know if Jesus was an actual person who existed. The evidence for a historical Jesus is thin, but there is no specific evidence refuting his existence.

The second conclusion, however, is that it doesn’t really matter. Even if a prophet named Jesus lived at that time and some of Christian mythology is based on his life, the core of Christian mythology is not. As Tarico argues, any actual history is muddled by mythology.

First, mythology is present in all of Ancient History, in all of medieval history, and in all modern history. From fantastic claims regarding emperors, to the lives of Alaric the Goth, Vlad the Impaler, or Francis of Assissi, to figures like George Washington, Paul Revere, or Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. Historians must do the very hard job of disentangling the historical from the mythological in every case. In the university where I work, I’m surrounded by historians, and they are dedicated to do this for the history of Puerto Rico with every single research. Bible scholars are doing no different from your average historian.  So, being “muddled by mythology” is very a poor excuse to reject Jesus’ historicity.

Secondly, YES!  It DOES matter! But in a different sense!  … Maybe knowing about the particulars of the Big Bang or the question of whether quarks are simple or composed may have no impact in every day life. Knowledge regarding these specific issues, I bet, will not make in my life any difference whatsoever.  How does knowing about the first second of the Big Bang contribute one inch of wealth to a Puerto Rican inserted into the economic chaos he or she lives in?  I bet none.

And yet …  these issues ARE important! Their value is of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  It has to do with asking questions regarding what was our real past: how did the universe come to be? How did things evolve? How did I end up here sitting in a Starbucks with my Caffé Latte writing this post?  Part of that Grand Narrative (Big History, The Great Story) is filled by History.  Christianity has touched everyone’s lives for better or worse, and we deserve to know how it originated.

Bible scholarship is a legitimate branch of history, and as such, it should be respected. As in the case of Medicine, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and so on, historians like the ones I’ve mentioned has inherited the wisdom of previous historians and scholars.

I admire Novella’s work in neurology and his amazing defense Science-based Medicine, and admire Gorski’s remarkable work, DeGrasse Tyson’s, and many more. I also admire the tough, slow and painstaking job that scholars in general have to go through to give us the very best high quality historical narrative they have to offer.

I remember when I used to believe in plasma cosmology and dismissed the Big Bang as another form of creationism. Yet, there was this one time when I went to a bookstore and opened a Physics book, and I told myself: “Pedro, if you don’t understand these equations, you have no business in telling physicists that they are wrong.” Guess what? As a good skeptic, I corrected myself, and decided to trust the best minds in the field, and that they were going to give humanity the best astrophysical theory they could offer regarding the Big Bang. I did the same in the case of GMOs. It’s intellectually humble to do that.  In the same way, all I ask from skeptics (especially those in the Natural Sciences) is to at least trust a great deal of the very best and brilliant New Testament scholars in the field, and know that if they do not accept mythicism, is probably because some of what they propose makes no historical sense, as has been shown again and again in and out of academic circles. That it is because maybe they are wrong. That to notice why they are wrong, you really have to be trained in the field in order to address the technicalities involved. That if  they are right, we must ask mythicists to fight their fight in the academy and peer-review … not in the public sphere where non-specialists prevail (even in skeptical circles).

Please, note that I’m not saying that historians should not be questioned, but if their statements are rejected, that person should actually learn the field and do the proper research to substantiate his or her position, and do what is necessary to form a consensus. Skeptics ask the same in the case of scientists. Like them, historians are not infallible, and it may well be that in fifty years, some form of mythicism will become a respected proposal. Maybe in twenty years, the view that the entirety of the Testimonium Flavianum is a forgery will become the consensus. Yet, these battles must be fought in the academy!

Doing otherwise, is to behave exactly like Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, anti-vaccine propagandists, climate-change denialists, anti-GMO activists, etc.

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