uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Classical, Biblical Scholars Come to Ehrman's Defense Amid Attacks

Sometimes, watching those rare occasions when your academic discipline is thrust into the public light can be quite fun, even if frustrating at the same time. The last time I remember the community of scholars from antiquity speaking in such a unified voice was after the release of Mel Gibson's awful "Passion of the Christ" in 2003. We all knew it was awful, all knew it contained some glaring historical problems (like having those in the Greek east speak Latin), and we all pointed this out, ad nauseam, in newspaper letters, in blog posts, in radio and television interviews, and to our no doubt less-than-thrilled students, friends, and spouses.

Fans of the film (mostly conservative Christians) responded with typical narratives about how academics were all liberals who just couldn't stand a "positive movie about Jesus."

A similar phenomenon, albeit not quite as widespread, has occurred with the publication of Bart Ehrman's latest book last week, "Did Jesus Exist?" I wrote a short blog post about the book's launch and drew the ire of at least one of these "mythicists," those who, outside of the scholarly community, insist that Jesus was a myth invented by early Christians and thus never existed as a human being.


What has been truly unfortunate are the number of academics in other fields, like the biologist P.Z. Myers in my own home state, gleefully joining the mythicist attacks on Ehrman. In their defense of evolution against internet cranks, Myers and others rightfully note the scientific consensus on the matter of evolution, and the flawed methodology and evidentiary problems of those who attack it. But no such courtesy is apparently being extended to the academic disciplines of Biblical and classical studies, scholars of which have been almost unanimous in their conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth (whatever he might have been or claimed to have been) existed.

The reason for the attacks and the dismissal of scholarly consensus is quite obvious: most of those who subscribe to the mythicist position or find it attractive are ardent atheists and anti-Christians. Fair enough. But they are so devoted in their animosity toward Christianity that they are willing to reject scholarly consensus regarding Jesus' existence. In other words, they hold a fervent belief and reject or undermine all evidence to the contrary, the very thing they criticize creationists and die-hard supernatural theists of doing each and every day.

Indeed, they have used many of the same narratives used by creationists and climate-science deniers: arguing that this represents a massive scholarly collusion, that we are afraid or somehow not allowed to concur with mythicist opinion or we otherwise would, or even that Ehrman is somehow financially invested in the historical Jesus (as though a book with his opposite conclusion wouldn't sell boatloads).

Rather, the real reason is this: the methodology used by the mythicists, a bizarre combination of skepticism and speculation, would be disastrous and unworkable if applied to the rest of antiquity and its source material. This is such a basic point that several of us, accused of elitism or arrogance in response, have noted that debunking mythicism for a trained scholar of antiquity is largely effortless.

Still, the attacks on Ehrman (and anyone defending him), keep coming. This was perhaps most evident when, on Myers' blog, a brave classicist ventured to set the record straight about Jesus and was attacked for everything from her typos to imagined or subconscious religious beliefs she must necessarily have to take such a position (despite the fact that she identified as an atheist in her first post). Myers himself at one point chimed in with:

"Ho hum. James MacGillivray and Walt Disney existed, therefore Paul Bunyan was a historical figure.

"I am not at all impressed with people who claim the historicity of a legendary figure in the total absence of any primary documents, and when all the sources are tainted by the self-interest of a religious cult, and the stories are loaded with supernatural bullshit."

Aside from making it clear that we desperately need to add a classics department at the University of Minnesota-Morris, Myers shows his thorough ignorance of the ancient material in general. For on very few occasions do we have "primary documents," and I'm not sure what he would mean by that. Contemporary documents? Very rare. Original documents? Non-existent. This is the case for any of our literary material in the ancient corpus (there are, I should point out, some neat shopping lists and other run-of-the-mill "original" documents among the papyrus collections though).

Likewise for his other shoot-from-the-hip criteria: All of our documents are tainted by "self-interest" of one form or another. One problem with studying any of the Roman emperors of the early imperial period (or even later), for example, is that virtually all accounts of them are by aristocrats hostile to the principate. So we have to sift through these with a wary eye.

"Loaded with supernatural bullshit"? Well, if that's a problem, a heavy majority of our sources must be deemed untrustworthy. As much as many rationalists would love to make the ancients into proto-versions of themselves, most did not think the way modern people think. There were a great many who were skeptical of magic or other aspects of the supernatural, but they still were not skeptical in the way we might be, and in general these things permeate most works we have in one form or another.

The Huffington Post article Ehrman wrote in anticipation of the book's publication was still drawing comments as of my writing this, with 4,673 currently. There, also, a few brave classicists were trying (largely in vain) to explain the methodology of our discipline. 

The most strident attack on Ehrman came from Richard Carrier's blog, to which James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, ably responded. McGrath's response of course sparked even more mythicist push back, and it was here that I joined the conversation. You can read my comments for yourself. Most of them are simply (and frustratingly) laying out the basic methodology philologists use.

Philology is tough work. It is difficult to learn ancient languages, difficult still to learn them well enough to pass proficiency exams in them; difficult still more to know them well enough to pass one's general exams and then apply the very critical, meticulous study of these languages to scholarship. Philology was proving parts of the Bible to be inconsistent and ahistorical long before scientists with an ax to grind starting paying attention to them. Indeed, most of these folks have been avid fans of Ehrman's other books, which point out these problems. But now he has gone and burst their bubble - a bubble created in large part by an elaborate cottage industry devoted to their own fervent belief in the mythical Jesus, despite the massive consensus to the contrary. And so now he finds himself the pariah of not only Christian apologists (who were still publishing critiques of his work as recent as this week), but also anti-Christian polemicists, all for refusing to go where the evidence simply doesn't lead.

Such is scholarship.

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