The Poetics of Unbelief

riting about not believing is not easy.  We are accustomed to poems about neurotic seizures, personal crisis, lost love and suicidal consequences, but the big questions of belief and religion have more commonly been objects for satire.

Let me call attention to two exceptions.

Philip Larkin (d 1985) was a soft-spoken intellectual, quietly angry young and middle-aged man, who hated the limelight and preferred ridicule and mild eroticism (he was a defender of soft porn) to the intellectual poetry of his era.  He was encouraged in what he liked to do best– jabbing at the hypocrisies of religion, politics and family life–by writers like Kingsley Amis and imitated Yeats and Hardy before developing his own mid-century “symbolist” vocabulary:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself. (“This be the Verse” 1946)


As for religion he lamented among other things the debasing effect of worship on Christian believers:

[who] kneel upon the stone,

For we have tried

All courages on these despairs,
And are required lastly to give up pride,
And the last difficult pride in being humble.  
(“Come then to Prayers,” 1946)

The atheism in Larkin’s work gives free rein to the despair and fatalism of 1970’s British politics:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
(Aubade 1977)

As a matter of taste, I have never liked Larkin’s poetry because it seems stuck in its era: damp London streets in November and the smell of hard- coal fires that seep back into the parlour and leave their traces on coats and scarves.  It is the poetry of a uniformly asthmatic post-war generation. What Larkin ridicules probably deserved his wit, and his attention.  But just when he catches you with jape or his tone, he disappoints you with his low view of human nature:

”And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up/Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.” (Administration, 1986)

y personal choice for the best poet of unbelief is the incredibly lyrical Katha Pollitt, who manages to write clear and concise essays, magazine, and op-ed pieces with an unfailing sense of language.

In “Cities of the Plain,”  (New Yorker, 27 Februrary 2004) Pollitt looks on as God decides to eradicate Sodom and Gomorrah.  She assumes the role of a casual observer, recording the event like an “embedded” reporter. Only at the end does she comment on the nature of the primary actor: “…being God, he wouldn’t permit himself regrets.”

The poem is an extended synecdoche.  This one happening says everything that needs to be said about the justice of God, making doctrine, theology and explanatory preaching unnecessary:

After he vaporized the pleasure gardens,
The temples of Luck and Mirrors, the striped
Tents of the fortune-tellers,
After he rained down sulfur
On the turquoise bathes, the peacock market,
The street of painted boys,
Obliterated the city, with all its people,
Down to the last stray cat and curious stink,
He missed them. Killing them
Made him want to kill them again —

How cleverly they escaped him,
Hiding in the corners and laughing
Just out of sight!

Being God, he wouldn’t permit himself regrets.
There would be other cities, just as wicked.
But none like Sodom, none like Gomorrah.
Probably He has been angry ever since —
Angry and lonely.

The difference between the two poets is partly tonal, but I think Larkin is the product of  a lonely and antisocial period where religion could not make things better—has it ever?–and so had to be discharged in the only way a poet can kill anything–with words.  Pollitt–as Harvard as Larkin was Oxford–takes higher ground:  The people are not lonely, defeated and miserable–they are clever, they hide, they laugh, and God is a murderer (“Killing them made him want to kill again”) who has been angry and lonely ever since.

It is the juxtaposition of cruelty and intellect, Prometheus and Zeus all over again.

News from the Freethought Ghetto

Over at the FTG, for anyone who missed it, Dick Carrier has written a flatulent fact-free reply to Bart Ehrman’s reply to him in which he alludes to something called Hoffman’s [sic] Madness.  If you don’t want to read all ten thousand words, here is the bottom line: (1) Ehrman pretending to be nice to him is an attempt–a “deflection tactic”–designed to hide his manifold errors (cf. Courtier’s Reply in the Atheist Sure Fire Response Manual) (2) Hoffmann is Crazy: I can prove it and Ehrman better keep his distance if he doesn’t want to catch it;  (3) I am going to write more about this but am hung over from a gig at the Madison Freethought Festival.

Carrier calls it “Round One” showing us that he is a scrappy guy and won’t let scholarship, civility or temperament keep him down for long.  You’re alright in my book, Dick. Carrier the Terrier.  Hey, in round two it won’t be the trouser leg he goes for:

Steph Fisher, a real New Testament scholar, has cited Carrier verbatim, though Carrier in his latest post professes not to have said any of the things he said: Carrier’s criticisms include “He [Ehrman] not only sucks as a writer but can’t even tell that he sucks as a writer”, “it [Ehrman’s book] officially sucks”, “he screwed up”, “like some Christian apologist or the whackiest of mythers” “Ehrman’s book is so full of egregious factual errors demonstrating his ignorance, sloppiness, and incompetence in this matter, it really doesn’t even need a rebuttal. It can be thrown straight into the trash without any loss to scholarship or humanity. It is, quite simply, wholly unreliable”, “I have no choice but to condemn this thing as being nothing more than a sad murder of electrons and trees….”

This comes from a man who compares himself to Aristotle and Hume, thinks the scholarly establishment is out to get him, and that the whole discipline of New Testament scholarship, in his word, is “fucked.”  If you have never heard if him, this is what he writes about hiself on the basis of two never reviewed books, two vanity published:

Richard Carrier is the renowned author of Sense and Goodness without GodProving History, and Not the Impossible Faith, as well as numerous articles online and in print. His avid fans span the world from Hong Kong to Poland. With a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University, he specializes in the modern philosophy of naturalism, the origins of Christianity, and the intellectual history of Greece and Rome, with particular expertise in ancient philosophy, science and technology. He has also become a noted defender of scientific and moral realism, Bayesian reasoning, and the epistemology of history. For more about him and his work visit

–That and being Aristotle.

I would write more about my psychiatric state but as you can see from my picture (above) me and the Apostles have work to do in Jerusalem before I die.

[Since posting this, Carrier has entered round two.  I hope Ehrman won’t, but basically the gist is this: “Notice. I did not say he [Ehrman] was completely wrong, but that he was mostly right, and was only misleading readers by giving the impression that mythicists were on their own here. I also did not mean that this particular incident makes the book crap.”  Other things then?  because you did call it crap.  Actually this is a squirm, a niggle, a bad witness talking after his lawyer has said to shut up. ]

The Death of the Gentleman Scholar

The Death of the Gentleman Scholar
by ADMIN posted on OCTOBER 22, 2011
“Wisdom crieth aloud in the street; she uttereth her voice in the highways” Proverbs 1,22

Recent events have made me remember that one of the reasons I dropped out of law school was that lawyers seemed just like businessmen to me. They told the same jokes, drank the same beer and ogled the same girls while they sat smoking the same cigarettes (when you could smoke cigarettes on a university campus, a hundred years ago) between classes. I had chosen “the law” (notice the phrase) because I’d seen A Man for All Seasons twenty times and thought if it ever came to it I would willingly die for justice, which had become in my head a worthy substitute for God. I’d left him behind at the end of my freshman year and there was an intellectual and moral gap that needed filling.
But I did not want to end my days among the sons of peanut farmers in lower Virginia, so I escaped and joined the ranks of the liberally artsy. I defended my choice by telling my parents that wisdom was as good as justice any old day, even if it didn’t pay as well. My Black’s Law Dictionary for years was a doorstop in my bedroom, reminding me of this early vocational recalibration. For their part, my family were still recovering from the time, at 14, I had absconded by night from a Roman Catholic minor seminary in Baltimore after deciding I lacked the right stuff to be a priest.

One of the things you learned quickly in graduate school was that you could not always be right. In high school it had never seemed to matter if I was wrong: everyone was wrong, much of the time. In college it mattered a little more, but in “major public universities” the cloak of anonymity helped to deliver you from discernible error. Their opposite, “the small liberal arts college” was where people with money went to be told, in the nicest way, that they were wrong, but that it didn’t matter because they were going to get a good job anyway and what really mattered was that they weren’t being taught by graduate students but suckled by grossly underpaid PhD’s.

But graduate school was different—primarily because error was conspicuous. It mattered. The twelve people sitting around the table with you all wanted to be right– to show that they’d done the reading, translated the passage, mastered the method better than their chums. Facts mattered when they mattered, but ingenuity and imagination mattered more, more than anything except sleeping with the professor.

So did civility. The quickest way to the bottom of the heap in every class and every seminar was to call a colleague (and mean it) crazy, wrong, pathetic, or dickheaded. In my over-long graduate school career, I probably encountered all of the known subtle equivalents of calling somebody hopelessly stupid, but never directly. You relied on market pressure and quiet consensus to make the case. You relied on what was beginning to be called discourse. Only once do I remember a student breaking under the pressure of this consensus and telling a professor, a woman professor as it happens, to go fuck herself. That student is now a lawyer.

What I remember most, however was artful disagreement: “You may be right that Shakespeare was an alcoholic, but have you considered that by our standards everyone in Elizabethan England was?” or, “I do take your point about the importance of classical grammar; but I think I’m with F.R. Leavis on this one.” It was always good to be with F.R. Leavis on anything, especially if the professor was with him as well. Cheap disagreement was citing expert opinion and footnotes in your own defence. Good disagreement was learning how to make a case of your own. Once, in the world, we had professors who knew the difference between the two.

The sensible pattern of those days stuck with me: in my own small classes and seminars, I don’t permit students to begin sentences with “You must be kidding,” “What a load of crap,” “Get over yourself” or “I can’t believe you just said that.” That’s for the mall, or a disagreement over drinks or Thanksgiving dinner. Treasure a space where it’s not allowed. And there is a small, cowed part of me that regrets that the free speech impetus of my college generation, thirty years on, seems to have inspired mainly linguistic muck and the artifice of quick put-downs.

Graduate students, if they are lucky, become something called “academics.” They write book reviews to pad their resumes, then articles made from chopping their dissertations into tiny bits, and then recombine the bits, with invention, into new books. The smart ones never budge more than an inch from the research they did for their dissertation because, usually, it has meant a job, tenure, and intellectual territory. It has also meant, in some cases, a degree of celebrity–though the reality is that most academics will die in shadows gray, even if tickled pink at the number of hits they get on a Google search.

Anonymous or not, the scholar has always been a citizen of a larger world—the world of ideas. He is no longer confined to the seminar room, nor even to a particular “employer.” The academic world is wide and scary. Teeming with people just like the ones you knew when there were twelve of you around a table waiting for you to crash and burn so that they could rise and fly. It is Olympic, and full of people who sniff error the way hounds sniff for rabbit.

The profession of scholarship as it was inherited by my generation of scholars still possessed an element of chivalry. It is easy to scoff at chivalry, because it has been bruised, battered and left for dead in free speech wars, gender and sexual revolutions–and by fiat in the literary critical verdict that no discourse is privileged over any other and its marketplace corollary–that teachers are, first and foremost, industry service providers, and students are clients and paying customers. (Change that C- to a more comfortable B+ for you, John? My pleasure. Blanket?).

All chivalry is slightly artificial, based on the ancient idea of Do ut des – giving what you expect to get. But to say you were a “scholar” was also descriptive of what you were as a servant of knowledge, someone who would always be, in a socratic kind of way, a subordinate of the wisdom you were trying to communicate to students in the classroom and colleagues reading you in libraries.

The academic profession was a collective full of idealists who actually thought they were combating the ignorance that is the natural state of youth and society. They were the front line of defence against a return to barbarism and Hobbes’s first stage of Me-ism

Any academic is lying who tells you she hasn’t spent the last ten years in committee meetings being reprogrammed to know that the primary role of a university is not the dissemination of knowledge but the retention of students, frantic for self-esteem. This almost imperceptible insertion into academic life by the educationist theory factories will have had some innocent title like “The Changing Face of American Education” or “Managing Student Persistence.” But basically, the program to be got with was about how your ivory tower has been converted into a condo association. –And just to drive the point home, your performance reviews will be done by the customers every 16 weeks, and they do count.

I miss chivalry. I miss the cozy, feathered protection of Oxford common rooms, quiet tutorials where tea is served and two-hundred count formal lectures where students take notes instead of covert text messages . I even miss calling my students Mr and Miss, already quaint in my day when socialist professors insisted on their right to be called Jerry.. But in his heyday, madly perhaps, the scholar “behaved” as though he knew what he was: a servant of knowledge, a master of arts, a professor of wisdom–of some sort–an unworthy midwife who “got” the Socratic thing about knowing nothing being the first step in knowing.

But one thing that did not change until much more recently was the discourse, at least not substantially. In the reviews you wrote, you tried to imagine the scholar whose work was in front of you and sharing your predicament. If you rose in the ranks, and he hadn’t, you felt the tug of generosity in knowing that a good word might make the difference between tenure and failure. In the books you wrote and edited, you were careful to give full and fair credit in footnotes (which seemed to grow inexplicably longer than your paragraphs as you created your case or argued your point).

I have seen trenchant, damning reviews of my work and undeservedly generous ones. The damning ones did not call me a fool and the good ones did not call me a genius. Once upon a time, the world of ideas was more about the ideas than the advocates. Now, a political model rules in which killing the advocate is the fastest way to get rid of the idea. If Barack Obama is a communist, how can anything he says be right? If Professor Lewis is a Jew, of course his opinions about Islam and terrorism can be ignored, negated—nay, vilified. Judging a book by its cover, a scholar by his race, politics or religion, is nothing new of course; except that scholarship itself is supposed to be about correcting this predilection, not buying into it wholesale.

Based on my conversations with colleagues over the last year, I’m sad to say that the gentleman scholar is as dead as a doornail. What G B Shaw once said about Christianity (“The conversion of the savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery) is more profoundly true of scholarship, where the popularization of ideas makes it difficult to distinguish between good ideas and atrocious ideas since all have equal standing in a world of flash and hyperlinks.

It means that many scholars, including scientists, can use the “authority” they have earned in a particular area and apply it to areas in which they have no expertise at all. Amateurs who failed as job-getters, teachers or authors can find a new life as experts in virtual classrooms in which the only responsibility is to themselves. (I speak of blogs.) Self-taught experts can cavort with real experts in the great democracy of ideas where no one is better and so no one is, really “right.” In short, the chastening experience of criticism that might have led to self-criticism, humility and a keen sense of wrongness just doesn’t happen. What does happen is a style and language that makes rightness more difficult, makes “knowledge” so negotiable that it becomes indistinguishable from darkness. ”Learning” (awful, archaic idea) becomes affectation—pomposity and arrogance. Late-breaking news and myth-busting become the current wisdom.

In a world dominated by the twin opposites of sham authority and rank amateurism, the first casualty is real scholarship.

غار حراء

You are as dark as your name

but is there something more?

What of the one who’s not the same

minute to minute, for

You specialize in being unknown–

Except for your shoulders or

Your breasts cupped, or a frown

That melts into a self-approving smile

When I am caught speechless

In beauty’s glare and bravery overtakes you.


I thought I loved your neck the most–

It has a fleshy resonance, a certain style–

But now, I think, I like the rest

Of you.  I have become a connoisseur

Who hopes like Moses for a sign

And waits, expecting you to lure

Samson from his sleep with naked thighs.


And will it come, this final vision?

Will you make my life dance

Like so many dervishes in fast

And furious step, until they chance

To say, Listen! The music’s done, at last.

Or will you, thighs clad,

Retreat into my lengthening past,

Like my shadow, like your mad

Ideas, by what this love will cost?


Mythtic Pizza and Cold-cocked Scholars

Over at the Freethought Blog Ghetto, Atheist blogger and part-time Jesus-denier Richard Carrier has recently been applauded by atheist blogger and full-time loudmouth P Z Myers for “coldcocking” New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman.  This suggests that the sewer of internet-facilitated nastiness that exists, among other places, in the US Congress is also fully flowing into what used to be called academic discussion.

Except this isn’t discussion and it certainly isn’t academic.

The reason for the cheering?  Professor Ehrman had the audacity to suggest that Jesus actually existed.

For those of you not paying attention, the New Atheism has a new postulate:  Not only does God not exist but Jesus didn’t exist either.  It is a theory that zips past Planet America every fifty years or so, like a comet, then fades away until a new generation of nutters tries to resuscitate it.  Lucky us: We are living at the right time.

Just to give you the flavor of the discussion—header: Richard Carrier Coldcocks Bart Ehrman

 This is great: Richard Carrier Blogs totally destroys Bart Ehrman’s argument for the reality of a historical Jesus.  Jesus is a legend, like King Arthur or Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan. There may have been some individual in the past who inspired the stories, but he’s not part of the historical record, and the tall tales built around him almost certainly bear little resemblance to the long-lost reality. It’s simply bad history to invent rationalizations for an undocumented mystery figure from the distant past.

I’ll make a deal with PZ Myers: I don’t try to lecture him on grasshoppers and he doesn’t lecture anybody on Jesus and “bad history.”  I can’t quite imagine that the combined religion faculties at Harvard, Claremont and Tuebingen are awaiting further instruction on Bayes Theorem from Richard Carrier or packing up their offices, having been served notice that an associate professor of biology at the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota has discovered that Jesus is just like Robin Hood—and Paul Bunyan.  I know it gives the mythtics a rush to think that the scholarly establishment discourages revolutionary ideas but in fact it is designed to discourage error and non-revolutionary discredited ideas. Like these.

Piltdown Man Discovered

On the other hand, this had to happen: the coalescence of God deniers and Jesus deniers I mean.  After all,  if God is a “story,” like Robin Hood and King Arthur then it stands to reason (inarguable Carrier might say) that a story about a god’s son is just a myth—EZ, PZ.  But more to the point, the endorsement of amateurs by amateurs is becoming a rampant, annoying and distressing problem for biblical scholarship—one that apparently others in my discipline think will go away by assuming, as I do not, that saner heads will prevail. We can just ignore the provocative ignorance of Myers, Jerry Coyne, Neil Godfrey, and Richard Carrier et al. like so many mosquitoes.

Except mosquitoes are tough to ignore, and some carry Dengue and Malaria.  If the last two years has proved anything, it is that the spawn of the new atheist movement, like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, will not be ignored. Insult works. Spew works.  Faitheist baiting works. What works works.

The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense. They are the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion, touting the scientific method as their Mod Op while ignoring its application to historical study.


When you reach the conclusion that Jesus did not exist before you start your journey, everything falls neatly into place:  after all, the ancient world is populated with gods and every god has his myth.  And as the new atheists have so deftly shown (though without footnotes) the fact that none of these gods has ever existed, increases the probability that the one in the Bible has to go too.  Jesus is in the Bible, isn’t he? He has to go.  Covers shut, case closed.  Now all we have to do is “cold- cock” scholars who think otherwise and jerry-rig new methods to make their work look like the baseless, faith strewn twaddle it really is.

It is almost cruelty to begin picking on the methodological wowsers implied in the reasoning of the mythtics–the Jesus- deniers, who conflate God denying and Jesus denying as though they were on the same level of discussion and susceptible of the same kinds of proof.

Embarrassing–really–because these same folk who hold up the scientific method to religionists want to walk past the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies as though it weren’t there.  “Hermeneutics” for them is just a word theologians like to throw around to impress seminarians: how can it be useful in forming assumptions that lead to premises that force foregone conclusions?  Like God-denying, Jesus-denying is tidy, simple and efficient.

In their own areas, it would be as though the supporters of flat earth theory and spontaneous generation were given equal time at the podium and a spotlight to scoff at astronomy and biology, but—the impoverished reasoning seems to run—this is Biblical studies—how serious do you have to be?  “Atheist biblical studies” as it is represented by Carrier and company is nothing more than a conspiracy theory in search of respectability.  Since that isn’t forthcoming through the normal channels of recognition—scholarship I mean—it has to rely on trivializing the settled or nearly-settled conclusions of modern scholarship itself, and if that doesn’t work, bashing the scholars.  For some very strange reason, they like to quote Schweitzer.  But Schweitzer famously refused to give up the historical Jesus.  Prove me wrong and divide an extra hundred dollars.  The likelier result is that I can prove to you that the mythtics don’t read complete verses in the texts they quote from.

The free thought rabble have chosen Carrier as their standard bearer, without any reason to put their trust in his inane conclusions and methods—a man who has never published a significant piece of biblical scholarship, never been peer reviewed (peers?), never been vetted, and never held an academic position.  His “reputation” depends on deflecting his mirror image of himself as a misunderstood, self-construed genius onto a few dozen equally maladroit followers. This billboard for poor method, we are now asked to believe by freethought’s bad boy, PZ Myers, has cold-cocked a senior New Testament scholar for saying something as reasonable as “Jesus existed.”  Only in the age of instant misinformation and net-attack is this kind of idiocy possible.  Only in the atheist universe where the major premise– “religion is a lie so the study of religion is a study of lying”—infects everything is this kind of lunacy possible.  Unfortunately, we have Richard Dawkins to thank for the original formulation of that premise.

Carrier is committed to making up methods as he goes along and pretending that he has found an evidence-based way of approaching the biblical books.  He is about to re-publish (he had vanity published it already) his “research” on this subject with Prometheus Books,  and scores wait with bated breath for his results, though from what I have seen of it so far, he could have saved us all the trouble by simply telling us what we already knew: that the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and King Arthur are all figments of the teenage imagination and never really existed. If they had, presumably, they would have studied grasshoppers.

In any case, Carrier has had plenty of time to build up the suspense of this little drama:  he blogs about himself, frolics at other sites that tout the fact that he has a PhD in ancient history, and disses the work of any one who disagrees with him, which leaves him both a very lonely and a very busy man.

Sticking to the main point however—the cold-cocking of Bart Ehrman: let me say straight off that Bart and I have a difference of opinion about many things.  We disagree especially on the influence of Marcion (a second century “heretic”) on the shaping of the New Testament canon.  I have always been ready to accept that I may not be right about Marcion, and other scholars have been gracious enough, including some very conservative ones, to say that although I am probably wrong there is a thin chance that I am right.  In the push and tug of historical scholarship, you take what you can get if you can’t sell it for the price you ask. That is the way the game is played.

But Carrier’s challenge is not about “How the New Testament canon was shaped.”  I suspect that prior question is of comparatively small interest to him as a meat and potatoes sensationalist.  It is about a fundamental question that I and my critics have answered positively:  While there is some very slight chance that Jesus did not exist, the evidence that he existed is sufficiently and cumulatively strong enough to defeat those doubts.  To get around this evidence, you have to begin by excluding second- order questions which can be answered, and have been answered for a hundred years negatively— questions, which up until recently Carrier was focused on: Did Jesus rise from the dead or perform miracles?  Was he born of a virgin, or at Bethlehem, or say all of the things ascribed to him? Then there is the perennially dull question that was laid to rest in the writings of the French triumvirs almost a century ago—Loisy, Goguel and Guignebert–who were not strangers to radical conclusions: where was the Nazareth that Jesus was supposed  to be from?

The study of the gospels is often the study of the lacunae of ancient history: we know less than we would like to know to form a coherent picture of Jesus, and the sources for knowing as much as we know are not disinterested reporting but the writings of believers propagating a certain message about him.  This is not new.  This is not radical.  This is where discussion starts.

By the same token we know more about Jesus than we know about a great many figures that we think existed, from far fewer sources—often from faint allusions in the work of only one ancient writer. Did Diogenes exist?  Cincinnatus? Outside the gospels, Pontius Pilate is virtually unknown except for a reference in Tacitus and mentions in Philo and Josephus, if we discount the so-called Pilate stone

Does his central role in the gospel nullify these sources or corroborate them?  Alexander the Great believed he was the son of Ammon; Plutarch believed that Alexander’s mother gave birth after being penetrated by divine lightening, and was seen in the embrace of a giant snake. In the gospels, Caiaphas and Augustus are also mentioned in the historical frame, and they are well known outside it; do we assume that they were merely added to a gospel as historical ornamentation, while names like Joseph of Arimathea and Simon of Cyrene, or the “Sons of Zebedee,” or James the Lord’s brother, are made up in the writer’s head?  How would we justify that assumption? The difficulty of being certain should not lead to the conclusion that nothing can be known, and the fact is, we know a great deal more for certain, especially of his historical context, than we did a century or two centuries ago.

Given a literary tradition that begins with statements of belief from Paul and his associates rather than the tantalizingly difficult accounts called gospels, can we be sure of anything a gospel has to tell us about Jesus?  These are all fair questions, and questions that New Testament scholars, including scholars like Bart Ehrman, have thought about for a long time.

You can cold -cock them if you want to, but they will still be there to haunt you.

This little rant (and it is a rant, I acknowledge and I do not apologize for it: somebody’s got to do it) will be followed  next week by three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas:  The first by me, the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher a specialist in Q-studies.   We will attempt to show an impetuous amateur not only where he goes wrong, but why he should buy a map before starting his journey.  Other replies will follow in course, and we invite Carrier, his fans, and anyone else interested in this discussion to respond to it at any stage along the way.

The Improperia: For Good Friday

Popule meus, quid feci tibi? Aut in quo constristavi te? Responde mihi.


Why do you look away?

Look at me: you put me here—

Is it the sight of a man alone,

Injured beyond repair,

Bones cracked, flesh flayed

That makes you turn away?


What drove you to it?

Old habits, too much wine,

A careless remark,

Or because I said the poor

Are happier than you

And the lovers of peace better

Than the lovers of war?

Or because I said a rich man

Will sit on a stool

And a humble woman

On an ivory throne

in my house.


You want me dead.

You want me out of the picture–

The rock strewn way

The hard truth

The inconspicuous life:

Not for you, no.

Ah! Now you are looking at me.

Any minute now, you say.


You hated me

As soon as I opened my mouth;

You tried to kill me then.

And now my mouth is dry

And the words come slowly

And all I can say

Is forgive them,

Forgive them

Forgive them.


I gave you bread,

You give me vinegar.

I taught you mercy,

You give me justice.

I led you across a desert,

You packed me off to die.


Would you kill God

By killing me?

Or truth by siding with a lie?

You check the hour.

You must not miss your supper.


It is growing dark:

My mother is weeping

And my brothers

cannot console her.

She does not understand.

Her love is simple,

Pure, like your hate.


Soon, it will be finished

And I will say, My God

Why did you forget me?

I loved you

With a full heart

And you brought me here

To slit my side

And hold me to ransom–

Not like a son

Who could buy his way

Out of trouble

But like a goat, a lamb,

A thieving servant..


Are you satisfied

With the outcome?

Are these smirking strangers


Have we reached

The conclusion?

Answer me!