Flame War On! A Response to Cameron English
My Christian friend and fellow writer Cameron English is living proof that believers and nonbelievers can disagree with one another on fundamental worldviews and still argue our beliefs without being shrill douchebags about it. So I was very happy when he offered to read and review my book Nailed, and was interested in starting an online dialogue about his take on the book - which he has, here. I can't guarantee how long or how often we'll be able to maintain this conversation, but in any case it should be interesting. So, game on!
To begin, I should note that Cameron does make some positive comments about Nailed, and even recommends the book (sort of), which is nice to hear. Especially since for a Christian, there’s not a great deal one can say about the thesis that their personal Lord and Savior never actually existed.
Before getting to specifics, I have to call him on one problem with his critique: the repeated assurances that, although he can’t provide the refutation just now, all my arguments have been disproven - elsewhere... for example:
“What follows isn't a comprehensive refutation of all Fitzgerald's arguments. That's been done elsewhere, and it seems that doing so would be redundant and even unhelpful at this point.”
“Bart Ehrman, who Fitzgerald cites many times throughout the book, has taken a few swings at the mythicists for their special pleading...”
“... both Phillip Jenkins and Ben Witherington III destroyed Fitzgerald's arguments years before he decided to start making them.”
Actually, it would be helpful for Cameron to provide them - any of them. But let’s start with what he does have to say.
Bucking the Consensus
Cameron rightly notes that skeptics like me freely attack creationists for denying scientific consensus. But when it comes to the Christ myth, he declares “snubbing the consensus is problematic,” and feels it’s blatantly hypocritical:
“They don't hesitate to throw around the consensus argument in that context. But when it comes to biblical history, tossing aside the consensus point of view is acceptable, because (conveniently) the evidence is on their side.”
But Cameron has just answered his own dilemma: it’s precisely because Mythicists have evidence that we challenge the current majority opinion - just as the evidence for natural selection challenged the dominant paradigm in Darwin’s time. Creationism isn’t wrong simply because it’s in the minority, and Evolution isn’t true just because the overwhelming majority of scientists say so; it’s true because it’s multiply attested by strong and compelling lines of evidence and has withstood, and continues to withstand, all rival theories. By contrast, there is nothing in Biblical studies that stands confirmed on anywhere near the level of certainty we get in any other branch of science.Repudiated?
“Even if we were to throw out the work of evangelical scholars, the experts without a religious ax to grind, including those openly hostile to Christianity, have repudiated the Christ myth. For example, Bart Ehrman, who Fitzgerald cites many times throughout the book, has taken a few swings at the mythicists for their special pleading and suggestions that the early church would invent such an unpalatable messiah like Jesus.”
First of all, I don’t “toss out” anyone’s work because they’re evangelical, or any other religious persuasion. In fact, as I mention in the book, I rely on the work of historians from all across the theological spectrum. For example, Bruce Metzger has done brilliant work on the formation of the New Testament canon, which I cite frequently (see ch. 7 of Nailed) - even against some of his own conclusions.
Secondly, no one has “repudiated” the Myth Theory arguments, least of all Bart Ehrman. For such a staunch non-Mythicist, few historians have done as much to point out the flaws in majority biblical opinion as Ehrman. That’s why I continue to recommend his books, and am even looking forward to his next one that will present his case for why he thinks there was an actual historical Jesus - albeit one who was only a failed apocalyptic prophet. And as for the idea that the early church would never invent such an unlikely messiah as Jesus, our mutual friend Richard Carrier has more than debunked that notion in his book Not The Impossible Faith by demonstrating that there were first century Jews who expected precisely such a messiah.
Jesus Inconsistant? So What?
Cameron’s reaction to the chapter asking "Is the Image of Jesus Consistent?" is:
It's undeniable that the evangelists give diverging accounts of the life of Jesus. Most apologists will grant this, too. But this same "problem" affects a lot of history. In fact, if you were to read four different accounts of any historical figure, chances are that they'd contradict each other in similar ways the Gospels contradict each other.
No rational individual would conclude, then, that those biographies are worthless, or that their subject never actually existed. Why reach such a conclusion when we're talking about the Gospels?”
This is why: because the ways our four canonical Gospels contradict each other are not at all typical of other historical figures. To begin with, these are not independent accounts; all are based off of Mark, who is a neither an eyewitness nor claims to be, writing a generation or more after the events he describes, descriptions that are completely uncorroborated historically, filled with unhistorical mistakes and inadvertent anachronisms, and which by every indication appears to be written not as a biography at all but as an allegory for a Jewish version of the pagan mystery faiths.
What’s worse, the later gospel writers who reworked Mark added information of their own without regard for if it contradicted their original source or each other (and in the case of the second century writings of Luke and John, any of the myriad other non-canonical Gospels that were also written around that time). And if that weren’t already enough, for the first 300 years of Christianity we have abundant evidence that rival Christian factions had no compunctions to routinely alter scripture and did so. For the first 150 - 200 years we have nothing but tiny scraps and much later, partial chapters of NT manuscripts, and therefore no way to verify how much our texts matched the originals. And for the entire first century, we have no manuscript evidence whatsoever.
So there is no “biography” to reconstruct from the Gospels in the first place, and any reconstruction we attempt to make from them - and there have been dozens - would be completely disconnected to anyone who lived at all. As Rbt. Price has pointed out, even if there had been a real Jesus at the core of Christianity, there isn’t one any more.
Christianity or Christianities?
My friend Cameron also says the best I can do is point to the diversity among early Christians as proof that the religion didn't start with Jesus, but this isn’t quite right either. To begin with, the diversity of early Christianity is truly astounding already if Christianity is meant to have begun with a founder of a small group in Jerusalem. In addition to the problematic textual evidence for Jesus himself, there’re plenty of other problems: the equally sparse and conflicting info on the Twelve apostles, the curious geographic distribution of early Christianity, the identity of all the “other Christs” mentioned in both Paul and the Gospels are all just a few. Another more fundamental problem are the differences between the first generation of Christianity and post-Gospel Christianity (See my essay “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” for more all these issues)
That seems plenty to get us started. Over to you, Cam...