The Humphreys Intervention

All I knew about a man named Kenneth Humphreys is that he is regarded as the clear loser in a debate with Christian apologist Gary Habermas.  He enjoys this reputation not because a bevvy of evangelical zealots cheered Mr Habermas to victory on the topic of Jesus’ Resurrection (Yes: people are still talking about that) but because his own cheerleaders found him badly prepared, inarticulate, and just not up to the job.  Intrigued, I wondered if Mr Humphreys was not just having a bad night so I decided to find out more about him.

It is difficult to find out much about Mr Humphreys.  –Apparently even for the sponsors of the debate.  This is what his side provided for a curriculum vitae:

“Some people want to know where I’m coming from: I’m an ex-college lecturer, ex-photographer, ex-computer salesman – but not an ex-Christian, Jew, Moslem or Nazi! I had a religion-free childhood and from the youngest age acquired an interest in history. In turns I was both fascinated and appalled by the history of the ‘Christian Faith’ and have made its legacy and crimes a life-long study, not because – as Christian apologists often imagine, I was ever ‘hurt’, abused, or rejected by the Church or Christians – but because humanity’s fate has for so long been held captive by this pernicious creed. But all religion is inherently dangerous.”

Like some of the pernicious New Testament figures—or rather figments—Mr Humphreys likes to discuss, the literary evidence for his existence is therefore pretty scant. He says he is on a mission to rescue people from the clutches of imaginary friends.  And if you ask me, that is a significant thing to want to do.

Of course, in an important mission like this, even insurgency and misinformation are justifiable. A visit to Mr Humphreys’ panoramically rich and colourful website welcomes the superstitious masses with the amusing  greeting “Welcome to Enlightenment!”

Here in a carnival of choice you will find answers to the questions Pastor Bob never asked.  The sample menu:

  • Christianity was the ultimate product of religious syncretism in the ancient world. Its emergence owed nothing to a holy carpenter. There were many Jesuses but the fable was a cultural construct.
  • The nativity yarn is a concatenation of nonsense. The genealogies of Jesus, both Matthew’s version and Luke’s, are pious fiction. Nazareth did not exist in the 1st century AD – the area was a burial ground of rock-cut tombs.
  • With multiple authors behind the original gospel story it is no surprise that the figure of “Jesus” is a mess of contradictions. Yet the story is so thinly drawn that being a “good Christian” might mean almost anything.
  • The 12 disciples are as fictitious as their master, invented to legitimise the claims of the early churches. The original Mary was not a virgin, that idea was borrowed from pagan goddesses. The pagan world knew all about virgins getting pregnant by randy gods: The Mythical “Virgin Mother”.
  • Scholars have known all this for more than 200 years but priestcraft is a highly profitable business and finances an industry of deceit to keep the show on the road.
  • “Jesus better documented than any other ancient figure”? Don’t believe a word of it. Unlike the mythical Jesus, a real historical figure like Julius Caesar has a mass of mutually supporting evidence.
  • The case for a mythical Jesus – Nailing Jesus.

Nailing Jesus.  Lol.  Scholarship is a dry and thankless business.  I see nothing wrong with sexing it up a little, and nothing (except maybe the NaturallyNaughty Toy Store) is as sexy as Mr Humphrey’s salvation emporium.  Try this:

“The trail-blazing Christian missionary and apostle, St Paul, appears nowhere in the secular histories of his age. Ironically, though supposedly in Jerusalem at the right time, he can give no witness to a historical Jesus. But was Paul himself a genuine historical figure? Viewed without the rose-tinted spectacles of Christian faith, the first voyage of Paul is as fanciful as the first voyage of Sinbad….” 

Still, for all his enthusiasm and a menu that rivals Zabar’s Online for variety, I am a little unhappy with Mr Humphreys.

Our modest project called the Jesus Process has got his attention and he seems to think it doesn’t answer any of the questions he has already answered with different answers.  He is understandably annoyed and has gone to a lot of trouble to bring the subject back to Jesus and Paul never having existed–and of course, the conspiracy that keeps the fiction alive and the yahoos on their knees.

Click to visit the original post

First we are told that “Alarm bells have sounded in the ivory towers.” I am a pretty light sleeper, yet I have heard nothing.  But granting that Mr Humphreys may be referring to mythical bells, I am somewhat worried about what fire escape to use when the forces of reason, as Mr Humphreys assures us they will, drive the priests from our temple. I’ll say one thing though: it is a good thing that Mr Humphreys is an ex-lecturer and got out while the getting was good.

Mr Humphreys then goes on to quote me and my colleague Maurice Casey as saying,

“One of the most remarkable features of public discussion of Jesus of Nazareth in the twenty-first century has been a massive upsurge in the view that this important historical figure did not even exist.” – Maurice Casey

“The endorsement of amateurs by amateurs is becoming a rampant, annoying and distressing problem for biblical scholarship … The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense … the popularity of the non-historicity thesis … now threatens to distract biblical studies from the serious business of illuminating the causes, context and development of early Christianity.” – Joseph Hoffmann

I apologize for my error: I should have known better—and I do.  Buggers do not spread disease.  Probably an autocorrect for ideas.

Jesus of Nazareth: Self-portrait, 32 CE

But Mr Humphreys is not through with me yet.  When you are fighting against people who believe in ghosts and apparitions, say what you need to say because, after all, the Truth will set you free.  Before letting me off the hook after a long time out of the water, just to keep the metaphor, Mr Humphreys notes that I am, in no particular order

(a) Opposed to the tactics and rhetoric of the new atheists (true–or rather, guilty).  Nothing is more important to my scholarship than this bit of information, which makes it possible for me to move seamlessly from being pro-God to pro-Jesus;

(2) A lapsed Catholic (guilty again, depending on what lapsed means: does it mean I have acquired the self-confidence to snigger through my father’s funeral Mass?);

(3) A fan of Alvin Plantinga, or maybe Alvin Plantinga or even William Lane Craig,  based on a reposted review of Plantinga’s recent book by Chris Tollefsen,  and a quote therefrom which I did not write but which is positioned, curiously enough, as though I said it.  In this battle, one depends on the philosophy of “dynamic representation” rather than real quotations–I get it (but false: I am not Alvin Plantinga).

(4) Finally: that I have been indecisive about the existence of Jesus. I think Mr. Humphreys likes the term “flip-flop”, but that would involve turning over and over without purpose, and I am pretty one-directional in this regard, having moved from diffidence in Jesus outside the Gospels to mild skepticism to the view that there is no reason to think Jesus did not exist. But as to the charge, true!–to the point where I would enjoy reading a coherent and convincing argument from mythicists that would challenge the standard view in place of the twittery and absurdity that in my flipfloppy way I regard as useless and unintelligible.  I am not saying Mr. Humphreys’ arguments and research are absurd.  I haven’t really had time to check them, since I am busy working on my finely nuanced, fully loaded views.  But I have high hopes that when I look at them my mind will be changed in a flash, a little like the figmentary Paul’s mind was changed about the non-existent Jesus in the road to Damascus.

And there is this, which I find somewhat puzzling–that “having lived with Jesus as man and boy, Hoffmann, like Ehrman, finds it’s too difficult to dismiss his beloved Jesus for good.” I am from a small family and I would have noticed if Jesus had been at Thanksgiving dinner.  I can’t of course speak for Bart Ehrman, but I would be surprised if this isn’t also true of him.  Besides, pre-lapsed Catholics knew where to find Jesus: in the tabernacle on the altar at St Mary Immaculate on Broadway. Lapsed Catholics may have noticed that the church is now a restaurant.

I am not quite sure what the word “dismiss” means. But it seems to mean dismissing the idea that Jesus was a real human being rather than dismissing the belief that Jesus was God. Many of the people I cutely refer to as mythtics think that the latter entails the former, though for the life of me I can’t see how what third and fourth century Christians believed makes the existence of a first century Jesus improbable.  This is the kind of thing I am going to learn when I read Mr Humphreys in more depth.

Or maybe it means believing what Mr Humphreys believes in his massively construed 510-page revised edition of the self-published Jesus Never Existed! Tipping the scales at around 5,000,000th at I cite this statistic not with malice but because Mr Humphreys has written that

“Hoffmann has long flip-flopped between believing there was a Jesus and believing there wasn’t. No crime there. But he wants to project something masterful and profound about his enduring uncertainty by using obscure language, tortuous argument and an avalanche of complex, pretentious sentences. Someone should tell him that people have stopped listening.”

I am grateful for this warning because it will save me a lot of trouble.  I can now choose whether to work on my complex, pretentious sentences or buy a bigger sound system.  But the warning does worry me,  because if my books are doing a little better after so many years on the cart–not as well as Bart Ehrman’s but then who’s counting?–who is listening to Mr Humphreys, the man with the real answers?  On the other hand, he can be cheered by the fact that he has proof Christianity didn’t spread quickly. Unchristianity can be expected to spread even more slowly, I reckon.

Sadly, there isn’t much I understand in the redlined sections, meant to be the substantive portion of  Mr Humphreys’  blog, which follow directly from the therapeutic sections (is he an ex-lecturer in psychology, I wonder?) when he gets around to it.  He has clearly thought much more seriously about how Christianity really began than I have. –One of the problems living in an ivory tower is that you don’t meet the right people, on the ground as it were.  I will have a long hard look at what I have written, especially the meat of his suggestion that

“Paul’s ‘lack of interest’ in a historical Jesus is quite bizarre support for the existence of a historical Jesus. Perhaps Paul’s lack of interest – and he was ostensibly in the right place at the right time – was because there was no Jesus of Nazareth to be interested in! Hoffmann’s “finely nuanced” argument here will be lost on most of humanity – as it surely should be – but my guess is that our irate academic grand master doesn’t give a damn and even remains unaware that his ambivalent and tortured message is not passing through to his confused readers.”

Damn–the ambivalent and tortured message-thing again.  But (and I am embarrassed to say so) I am slightly confused.  I especially want to know why this explanation is nuanced and the explanation bizarre.  I guess what I need to know is why something as well known as Paul’s neglect of the Jesus of history can only be explained as there being no Jesus of Nazareth to be interested in, when Paul was clearly interested in something called Jesus.  A real Paul would have been a jealous Paul, competing with real apostles for the palm of authority conferred by a real Jesus.  Naively, to me, that is what comes through in the letters. Even in the gospels. It shows you how, even though my sentences are ‘finely nuanced’, they are really contrived to hide my utter confusion about these things.

Also, it shows what clever forgers and charlatans the gospel-writers were when they invented Christianity, and how smart the inventor of Paul was, throwing him into the mix just to confuse us. It would never have occurred to me, based on a straight reading of Galatians and the Corinthian letters,  that Paul is a figment  interested in a figment who went by the name of Jesus.

But I can’t know everything, and even if I did I couldn’t squeeze it into 510 pages.  Thank God for a sane, straightforward approach to puzzles that have perplexed me for a long, long time.  As Mr Humphreys says, “Welcome to Enlightenment.”

The Jesus Process

“Born of a Woman”: Paul’s Perfect Victim and the Historical Jesus

by R. Joseph Hoffmann

One of the more absurd aspects of Christ-myth studies is the suggestion that the “neglect” of  the historical Jesus by Paul is at least indirect proof that Jesus never existed.  This absurdity is sometimes compounded by the suggestion that Paul did not exist, creating a kind of literary dittograph of Russell’s famous teapot argument  as it is sometimes argued in the philosophy of religion: If the fate to be avoided is Aquinas’ infinite regress as it applies to finite causality, then What created God?  In this case the question has to be,  Who created Paul, and why?

Implicitly the answer would be, So that “Paul,” in a singular act of farsightedness, could create Jesus (who might have lived at any point in time except when he is supposed to have lived), who would then precipitate the mischief or malice of gospel writers, who may have thought (or not) that he really existed, thus causing the church.  All of these figments live together in a little crooked house.

The myth theory does not get more cowboy than this, shooting at anything that comes across its path with the unarguable logic of a bullet. Mythicism is not so much a conspiracy theory as a mass of cobbled  improbabilities that can only be compared to explaining the existence of a discovery by postulating that the scientist credited with  formulating it was really created by a mad scientist who invented the first and a  third who created the one who created him.  This is comparatively easy to do when all you have is the theory and an opinion about it.  After a dozen mad scientists have been postulated, however, you must ask where reality lies.  For mythicists, it seems, it doesn’t really exist anywhere. It certainly doesn’t exist anywhere near where the evidence points, and to think otherwise sullies your credentials as a skeptic.

In a previous and more formal contribution to the Jesus Process, I gave what I consider to be the strongest reason for Paul’s imputed “silence” concerning the historical Jesus: namely, Paul’s psychological predicament. He is a man obsessed with the death and resurrection of Jesus, not his life and teaching.  That is clear from his earliest letters:  “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come to you proclaiming the mystery of God in obscure words of wisdom.  For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2.1-2.; cf 1 Cor 1 cor 1.23).

It is superficially clear that Paul understands this crucifixion as a real event, not as an historically ambiguous “moment” that happened once upon a time—his time, or someone else’s time.  Insofar as Paul cares anything about real time, it is God’s time in relation to a historical event he cares about, the pleroma tou kronou (Gal 4.4-7).

As far as we know, or he tells, Paul himself was not affected directly by the death of Jesus.  It was not an event of his biography. When he enters the picture—perhaps as early at the 40’s of the first century—interpretation and meaning have replaced anxiety and disappointment.  So has a rudimentary and developing church structure replaced the informal network of followers and believers.  A rationalized eschatology that borders on uncertainty—and in some cases trespasses on uncertainty–has already arisen in various Christian communities (1 Thes 4.13ff.)

One effect of this is that resurrection has replaced the urgent eschatology of the first several years following the unanticipated death of Jesus, and the “hope” of resurrection has been extended to include a belief that is not highly developed in the gospels:  that all believers who believe in the saving effects of the death of Jesus will experience a resurrection like his ( 1 Thes 4.16; 1 Cor. 15. 1-58; but cf.  Mt 27.51-53).  It is clear that belief in the fate of a believer being linked to belief in the resurrection of Jesus is Paul’s distinctive and appealing contribution to Christian theology.

In effect, eschatology has been turned on its head between the writing of the earliest of Paul’s letters,  which sees Jesus returning in a flurry to finish his messianic mission, and the belief that resurrection of the dead “in Christ” will bring  all those who have died to a new life. Put bluntly, while Paul does not say that the coming of Jesus is not to be expected (cf. 1 Cor. 16.22, Gal 4.1-11 ), the primary expectation is not that but the coming of the resurrection (1 Cor 15.51f).  The “historical” return of Jesus is not what he would prefer to talk about, even if it is on the minds of his (and other) congregations (1 Thes 2.19; & cf. 2 Ptr  3.4)

Paul is obsessed with this “problematic”— something which both theologians and New Testament critics used to emphasize more than they do currently.  The promise of resurrection is the bright side of the threat of judgment, but the death and resurrection of Jesus typifies both (Rom 6.5-11). There is nothing within the gospel tradition, such as it was in his day, that could have solved the problem for Paul–and nothing “biographical” concerning Jesus that would have served his political purposes in relation to the wayward congregations he is trying to keep in tow.  He is reticent to use the phrase logos tou kyriou and when he does (1 Thessalonians 4:15, for example) it seems to refer to dominical tradition rather than to Jesus himself.  The question is not Why does Paul not quote Jesus more?, but whether Paul quotes Jesus at all.

Paul does not exactly “invent” the idea of a general resurrection of the dead—Pharisaism and its outgrowth, rabbinical Judaism,  floated the idea in conjunction with belief in a messianic age—but as far as we know he is the earliest writer to use the belief as a mechanism for shoring up the flagging faith in the immediate return of Jesus, such as we find it expressed in the “half way return” concocted in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, a peculiar blend of traditional apocalyptic based on an otherwise unattested word of the lord (4.15) and equivocation (5.1-8), but bolstered by the belief that “Jesus died and rose again” (4.14), which is for Paul an unshakeable historical occurrence.

Paul says all anyone might expect a man with a special agenda to say about a man he knows only by report, considering (a) his evangelical purpose–to interpret the gospel in his own way and  (b) his professional agenda, to defeat the interpretations of others (who may or may not have lived through the events described eventually in the synoptics).  It is not at all clear what more he might say if we grant his own admission that he did not know Jesus according to the flesh, that it is not important to have known Jesus according to the flesh, on his interpretation, and that the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection must necessarily transcend the need to know Jesus according to the flesh. Paul’s disuse of historical tradition while deliberate rather than passive or uninformed, leads him to criticize both the temporal and geographical limits placed on the movement by the superior apostles (Gal 5.12; 2 Cor 11.13ff.)  For Paul the focus is almost entirely on the next performance, not the drama as it was performed the previous evening.


In my previous essay for the Process I said that Paul’s neglect of Jesus is motivated by a more sinister reason: jealousy.  Jealousy is a human emotion. Its normal coordinates are older-younger, wiser-less wise, power-powerlessness, and precedence-dependence. Those coordinates could easily be a map of Paul’s motifs in the authentic letters.

Paul’s jealousy is not a well guarded secret:  He is transparently jealous of his missionary rivals, who may or may not have known the historical Jesus (but there is no reason to suppose they did: Gal 1.6-10); obviously antagonistic towards those who “were apostles before [him]” (Gal 1.17); spiteful towards what he perceives as the precedence and subsequent hypocrisy of Cephas (Gal 2.6-10; 11-14); and bitter towards the “men from James” who “spied out his freedom” (which may or may not have been rubber-stamped by the superior apostles (Gal 2.12; 2 Corinthians 11.5-20), and even eager to say his preaching is not especially impressive: 1 Cor 4.10; 1.20, apparently directed at his more consequential opponents.  No one who was not really suffering under a yoke of inferiority could have produced such exquisite rancour as the Paul of 2 Corinthians, and it is difficult to imagine why anyone would want to manufacture a record of this fracture in the (later) vaunted unity of the apostolic community as it appears, originally, in Acts.  As if these were not thorns enough to bear, the apocryphal tradition about Paul  was that he was ugly to boot,  “[He was] a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long” (Acts of Paul and Thecla).

The mythicist opinion concerning Paul’s “silence” crumbles before the apostle’s puling self-defense of his mission and right to be an apostle on the same terms as those who followed Jesus according to the flesh.  The Paul of 2 Corinthians is at the end of his rope, suspicious of competitiors, insistent on his role, his legitimacy and the specifics of mission—and obvioiusly aware of where the trouble is coming from: the vaunted, self-aggrandizing, intrusive, men of so-called repute in Jerusalem who cause Paul to resort to “boasting”:  “Are they Hebrews? So am I; are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am  a better one” (2 Cor 11.22-23).

It is a general trait of mythicism to cry foul (or interpolation) in those few instances when they cannot prove a point by silence or misuse of analogy.  If this requires overturning by random fiat or uneducated guesswork the conventional wisdom of two centuries of critical study, all the better.  We have already explored the passages where mythicism breaks its bones on the rock of texts that show, beyond any serious doubt, that Paul was aware of the life of Jesus, as much as he was aware of his death (Romans 6.5-6), the manner of his death (1 Cor 1 .23; 11.23-24) and reports and visions of the risen Christ (1 Corinthinas 15.5ff), which he uses strategically to insert himself into the tradition—but within an explicitly historical context that includes Peter, the eleven, and James.  It makes infinitely dim sense to explain that Paul was not aware of an historical Jesus but was at war with those he knew were relations and followers of Jesus and witnesses to his teaching.

Despite the enhancement of the story of Paul’s “conversion” by the author of Acts (9.3-6, 22.4-16; 26.9-18), the conversion itself marks the transition—at least in Paul’s mind and language—between history and meaning (Gal  1.15-16). This “bifurcation” is not especially novel:  Just as there would be no pressing reason to discuss the biography of Plato in order to discuss his ideas, it is not unusual that Paul chose interpretation over details to discuss Jesus–except insofar as the choice to omit the details was forced on him by his own historical situation, by the jealousy he felt, and by a certain petulant quality that made him, probably, one of the most active early missionaries.

I am not suggesting therefore that Paul’s silence means “nothing” in terms of the historical Jesus but that  it means something significant.  Paul’s jealousy, his need to protect and defend his mission, his contempt for rivals and intruders, and finally his verdict on the “ historical” apostles and claims of Jerusalem are not hidden in his letters.  The sheer density of Paul’s theology has tended to obliquate these personal struggles and  their historical derivation.  For mythicism this has made it possible to focus merely on what Paul doesn’t tell us with a resounding and repetitive “Why not?”  For traditional theology, it has meant something nearly as unimpressive: that all we need to get from Paul is his message of faith, grace, love and salvation—or, on the Catholic side, how these things are made available within the Christian church and the sacraments, especially baptism and the eucharist. Paul’s real-life struggles are inconvenient to the former camp, as it brings them to a reckoning with the immediate followers of a historical Jesus, and embarrassing to the latter because Paul’s theology, instead of inspired and authoritative, begins to look contrived, petulant, and exceedingly personal.


Mythicists have special antipathy for Galatians 4.4:  ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναῖκος, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον, since there is no serious suggestion that it is interpolated or “unoriginal” to the letter.  Its reference to the mother of Jesus as “a woman” (γυνή) rather than a virgin is tantalizingly removed from the nativity and virgin birth legends of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which seem to have been unknown to the writers of John and Mark; indeed, in John 2.4, Jesus addresses his mother as “γύναι” –“Woman.”  As it is generally agreed that Paul has no special interest in arguing any particular doctrine about the birth of Jesus, this single phrase is unparalleled in his genuine letters.  The question is, Why does he mention it at all?  It will take until the time of the fourth gospel in the late first or early second century before the birth of Jesus acquires theological stature as the “incarnation” of God. With Paul, we are probably two generations away from that shift in thinking.

But we are not far removed from another  theme that would have been relevant to the finer points of Paul’s sacrificial view of the death of Jesus as a “price” for sin.  “Sonship” is on Paul’s mind in Galatians 4, so he seems to permit himself a digression on the birth of Jesus as he knows it.

By the fifties of the first century, Paul’s Jewish opposition included the well-known slander that Jesus himself was illegitimate, that his mother had been a prostitute.  I discussed some of this tradition a number of years ago in a small anthology (primarily designed for the convenience of undergraduates) called Jesus Outside the Gospels.  In even shorter form, the core of the report is contained in  Rab Shabbath, 104b, repeated in almost identical words in Bab. Sanhedrin, 67a. The report reveals confusion over the parentage of Jesus and a bowdlerized tradition that he had been known as “one who had gone astray” (or the son of one who had gone astray from the teachings of Judaism), as the son of an adulteress and a gentile known simply as “Panthera.”

Ben Stada was Ben Pandera. Rab Chisda said: The husband was Stada, the lover Pandera. (Another their own said): The husband was Paphos ben Jehuda; Stada was his mother’ (or) his mother was Miriam the women’s hairdresser; as they would say at Pumbeditha, S’tath da (i.e., she was unfaithful) to her husband.

In JOtG I remarked that clues concerning the “multiple Mary” conundrum of the gospels might be found in seeing the confusion as an effort to write around (or write out) the tradition that it was Jesus’ mother rather than a woman acquaintance—Mary Magdalene—who had the scarlet reputation (keeping in view that the floating tradition of the woman taken in adultery, usually assigned to Luke, is unnamed).   Miriam, “the women’s hair-dresser,” seems to be simply another name-play of the Ben Stada and Ben Panthera variety as we know it from the rabbinical sources.  Miriam, “the women’s hair-dresser,” is in the original Miriam, “megaddela nesaiia”; and Miriam Megaddela, or Mary Magdalene seems to derive  from this murky tradition.

For a Jew the combination “Miriam of Magdala” was equivalent to saying Miriam the harlot, as Magdala Nunayya (near Tiberias and the  sea of Galilee) was notorious  for the looseness of the lives of its women. As far as rabbinical tradition goes, it is likely that we have in the symmetry between the Magdalene and Megaddela tradition the origin of the otherwise strange combination Miriam the women’s hair-dresser and Mary the mother of Jesus.

While the references to this tradition are scattered and at times linguistically ambiguous, our earliest gospel makes no reference to Jesus’ father, and Paul does not mention the name of the mother—if he knew it. Matthew on the other hand seems to struggle against reports that Mary’s pregnancy is a source of scandal and humiliation (1.18), a tradition he obviates by saying that before the couple consummated their marriage Mary was pregnant ‘by the holy spirit,’ but that Joseph was (naturally) skeptical of her story; and that divorce was only averted by a vision that ensured Joseph she was not promiscuous.   Luke turns this scenario, whether independently or not, into a Hellenistic tale of a virgin birth, without any trace of scandal or suspicion.  While Matthew’s focus is on pedigree and legitimacy, Luke’s is on divine sonship.

It is my view that Paul is referring to this contentious tradition in  Galatians 4.4.  Jesus is born of a woman, according to the law ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον.  This also establishes the  identity of Jesus as a Jew, a fact necessitated by Paul’s distinctive view of the atonement.—What the effect of the death of Jesus is on the power of sin and death depends on his legitimacy and the role of the law. But for this calculation Paul requires a spotless victim, and for that reason it becomes necessary that Jesus is born according to the law, untainted by “unusual circumstances.”  In effect, it is not Matthew or Luke who create the paternity of God, but Paul when he writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.”

But the crucial thing for Paul is to dispose of the historically inconvenient tradition that Jesus was born outside the law–a tradition that would have made his entire theological enterprise suspect:  Only a victim who was born according to the law could die in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3; Romans 12.1-2; Rom. 5:12-21), erase the encumbrances brought on by “the first man” and serve as a model for the “resurrection life.”

This almost spasmodic reaching into and beyond history for meaning is one of the more difficult aspects of Paul’s theology, but it seems to me that there is no other explanation for why the “birth” of Jesus intrudes, in just the way it does,  into his letter to the Galatians.

Far from being ignorant of the Miriam-tradition, Paul needs to deal with it.  It is possible, in fact, since he does not reflect anything like a developed apologetic stance toward the polemical Jewish tradition, that the only bit of historical information he knows is the Jewish side.  Paul, in this case, becomes the inventor of the “fatherhood of God”-motif later exploited in the gospels   This however is sufficient to explain why Paul refers to Jesus’ legitimacy “under the law” as a fact believed by Christians, denied by Jews, but absolutely vital for his theological agenda.   If I am right, it means that the notion Paul knew “nothing” about the historical Jesus tradition is false; it means that not only did he know a strongly antagonistic tradition that remained a live issue for the gospel writers, but that his early theology pivoted on sweeping it aside. It is also rather explicit proof of the way in which Paul could dispose of problematical historical tradition in the interest of getting on with his work.

The New Oxonian

by admin Posted on January 1, 2012

UPDATE: Apologies are due to Greta Christina who was in fact ranked by an atheist website as one of the top ten popular atheist bloggers. rjh


Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

The Missouri boy in Connecticut


WHO remembers their Huckleberry Finn? In chapter 19, Huck, Tom and Jim, afloat on the Mississippi River, meet up with two grifters, the Duke and the Dauphin, who claim to be exiled European royalty.

Their scam is going from town to town performing makeshift “scenes” from Shakespeare’s plays, then escaping with their lives when the rube public hear declamations like this:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do…

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Movement Humanism

Movement Humanism (2011)

by rjosephhoffmann

What makes “organized humanism” different from the humanism that evolved philosophically out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment era is that it didn’t evolve out of the Renaissance or Enlightenment era. Not really.

Anyone who has travelled through the liberal arts curriculum of a European or American university in the last century has experienced the benefits of a benign, docile, unangry form of humanism: a curriculum free from church dogma and supervision, a reverence for scientific inquiry, systematic approaches to the study of literature, history, society and an emphasis on critical thinking.

Once upon a time, theology was called queen of the sciences. That was once upon a time. If you really want to know how the liberal arts (a slightly misleading name in our historically impoverished culture since “liberal arts”–the studies that “set your free”– include mathematics and sciences), fought and dethroned theology for the title, you really only have to look at the history of the American university—not counting, of course, those private and parochial ones that are paid for and managed by religious institutions of various stripes. In general, the modern university is built from the bricks humanism provided. It’s a product of intellectual evolution and learning and constructed to focus on the things that, as humans, we can know about rather than on the things that, as humans, we can’t possibly know.

Sometimes secular humanists want to claim that their brand of humanism shares a common pedigree with the humanism of the university. But that’s not true. Its origins, while respectable are not intellectually apostolic: French salon discussion, satire and tractarianism, German political movements, especially the Left Hegelians (like Marx in economics and Baur in philosophy and theology), anti-clericalism, frontier pragmatism in America, and above all a village atheism and hardheadedness that can be traced back to Tom Paine, Darrow, Ingersoll, and a dozen lesser lights. Many, though by no means all of these bargain basement illuminati never saw the inside of an ivory tower–though it’s a credit to Oxford that the university awarded an honorary doctorate to the cantankerous Midwestern skeptic, Samuel Clemens, in 1907.

As in Britain and Europe, freethought went hand in hand with politics: in England, spinning off the free-churches movement that was allied with Unitarianism and the “chapels,” it was tied to disestablishment— the end of the prerogatives and protections given the Church of England. In the United States, it was tied to First Amendment principles, civil liberties, a certain naive belief in “democratic values” (that did not take into account that the democratic values of the masses were dominantly intermixed with and confused with the Bible), and an occasional envy of the more robust socialism and communist tremors of an evolving secular Europe.

Clarence Darrow

I have never thought of myself as a secular humanist, or a big life-stance British Humanist Association sort of Humanist. The minute you start qualifying humanism you are no longer talking about humanism but the conditions under which you can think of yourself as a humanist. Humanism is humanism. Movement humanism can be a variety of things–like ice cream or Christian denominations.

The danger in my view is that movement humanism is not innocuous. George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.

I have no trouble with anyone calling himself a humanist of this or that colour. But for the word to retain its “denotative” sense, it’s important to distinguish between “movement-humanism” and humanism.

Movement or “organized” humanism, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of certain currents that came together in a strand in the mid twentieth century, especially driven by the frenzy of intellectual change after two world wars. The movement was never fully coherent and for that reason appealed to political liberals, people who sincerely believed that religion (equated with superstition, supernaturalism and dogmatism) was responsible for the world’s ills and others who had been injured by religion and needed catharsis and (perhaps) non-violent revenge. Some of these people were intellectuals. Some were nurses and folksingers and ex-seminarians. All were a little angry.

In terms of its constituency and mood, secular humanism was entirely compatible with atheism; in fact, many recognized that the phrase was simply a circumlocution for atheism or agnosticism, in the same way some Evangelicals equate their doctrinal stance with being “Christian.” The percentage of secular humanists in America or Humanists in Britain or India harboring any “religious” sentiments must be painfully, infinitesimally small.

Other additives of American-style movement humanism included a belief that ethics were man-made and not dictated by a supreme being or mediated by dogma. Secular humanism became wedded to this fairly obvious proposition just when the best theology in Europe and America was teaching much the same thing. The theologies of Hartshorne and Whitehead, and to a certain degree Gilkey and Tillich, with their panentheistic view of God and idealistic view of man, were fully humanistic in the proper sense of the word, but could not be acknowledged by movement humanism with its constricted view of human reality and facile equation of religion and supernaturalism. Indeed, the greatest error of the movement was the simple association of religion with superstition, and the the working assumption that, like superstition and magic, religion could simply be debunked as a system of ritualized hoaxes.


The commitment to “godless” and anti-religious ethics made good sense for an atheist program of action as a kind of self-help course for unbelievers, but could never achieve the intellectual benchmark of an ethics based on the totality of human experience and reflection.

That’s not to say that one needs to believe in God to be moral. It is to say that an ethic that is not grounded in some actually existing infinite reality, such as God is presumed to be, must first state clearly what the grounds and perimeters of values are before proposing them as normative or significant: without such a calculus, it is no more relevant to say that an action is moral because it is human than it is to say that an action is moral because it is something Jesus would have endorsed.

I drink no more than a sponge...

In the realm of ethics, especially, movement humanism became habituated to oversimplification. To make religion more depraved than it seemed to most sensible people, the movement humanists stressed that religion was the sum total of its worst parts. Christianity, a religion of Bible-believing nitwits who meddled in politics, aspired to mind-control and hated Darwin. Islam, a religion of twisted fanatics who loved violence and hated progress and the proponents, mainly western, of progress. There was no equivalent narrative for Jews or Buddhists—not really—or the irrational components of secular movements: democratic socialism, communism, and (within limits) civil libertarianism could be forgiven their excesses precisely because they had their theodicy right if sometimes they got their tactics or outcomes wrong.

While often claiming the protective cloak of science and reason as their aegis for intellectual rectitude, movement humanism was really all about creating straw-men, stereotypes and bogeymen and unfortunately came to believe in its own anti-religion discourse.

To have capitulated, at any point, to the most humane, uplifting or learned elements in religion would have been seen as surrender to the forces of ignorance and superstition. For that reason, by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic church, will do.

God is Not Great

Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

Unfortunately, the tactics are all wrong because they demonstrate the movement’s almost complete lack of understanding of the “total passion for the total height” that validates religion for most Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—a huge slice of the earth’s population. To read Sam Harris’s extended fallacy, The End of Faith, or Richard Dawkins’ screed, The God Delusion, or any of the clones that have appeared since 2006 is to enter a world of misapprehension and illogic that can only be compared to a child trying to fit the contents of an overstuffed toy chest into a shoebox on the premise that both are boxes that can hold toys. But the logic did not originate with the new atheists; it originated with movement humanism.

What organized humanism lacked from the beginning of its career, as a circumlocution for robust unbelief in God, is a sense of the dignity of wo/man combined with an indulgence and appreciation of human frailty, including the limits of reason. In renaissance humanism, the thought belongs to Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How Noble in
Reason? How infinite in faculty? In form and moving
how express and admirable? In Action, how like an Angel?
In apprehension, how like a god? The beauty of the
world, the Paragon of Animals.

At the beginning of the renaissance, the humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was censured by Pope Innocent VIII for “certain propositions” contained in his Oration on the Dignity of Man—the first true humanist manifesto.

In the Oration, Pico extolled human achievement, the importance of learning, the centrality of the quest for knowledge, and the primacy of man as the knower of the order of universe (which he associates with the faculty of reason and not divine revelation). He gives this speech to God as an imaginary dialogue after the creation of Adam:

“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Innocent VIII

Innocent VIII was no fool. This was not the Genesis story. It was a re-writing of the whole creation myth. It makes Adam’s choice of the earth over his own “divine” potential all the more tragic, a squandered opportunity. But it also makes the choice free, unfettered, fully human and the consequences–which lead after all to smart people like Pico writing smart books–all the more impressive. Divine is as human does well: that was the message

An authentic humanism to be inclusive of all people has to be inclusive of all possible human outcomes, including the possibility of failure. The story of the first human being, in the religious context, is the story of a bad choice. I suspect that that is why the story of Adam has staying power and instructional weight.

Maybe the failure of movement humanism really goes back to how we read Adam’s saga. It has always struck me that the word simpleton can be used to describe both the atheist rant against the creation account in Genesis and the fundamentalist’s preposterous attempts to defend it. Beyond the Scylla and Charybdis of that divide are millions of people who think the story is really elsewhere, that it really doesn’t begin with sticking the sun and the moon in the primordial darkness but with Adam, and more particularly with the curse of reason that Pico describes in his Oration.

Curse? Yes, I think so. The “gift” of reason (no, I do not really believe that we are endowed with reason by a divine being) is both the gift to be curious and the ability to make choices, to act. The tension we experience, like Adam, is that natural curiosity sometimes outdistances a third element—reflection.

The humanist understanding of reason doesn’t magic it into a faculty that, used correctly and with the best application of science, will protect us from error. Religion had such a faculty once: it was called faith and it got you saved from sin.

To be blunt, movement humanism with its straw men and reductive techniques, its stereotyping and bogeymen, is not just stuck in the past but stuck in a religious past of its own making. It is a past that an authentic and fully inclusive humanism would want to reject. It is a past that many religious thinkers have already rejected.

Short repast from Blasphemy days past, alas. Sometimes you just can’t help feeling nostalgic for the new atheism…. a feeling similar to the withdrawal comedians must have felt when W. left the White House.

The New Oxonian


What do you get when you cross a new atheist with a Jehovah’s Witness?
Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.

This will be brief. Blasphemy Day, God love it, has come and gone. Soon the giggling will stop. Dogs, horses and Episcopalians will be left wondering what the point was. The few Pentecostals who can read a newspaper will say, “See, told you so,” and head for the basement before the anti-Christ rides through town.

I was musing yesterday why, as a pretty fervent Roman Catholic in the 1960’s, I fell on the floor in paroxysms of laughter when a friend (also Catholic) played Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” for me for the first time. I still laugh when I hear it, even though most twenty-first century Catholics don’t know what a kyrie eleison is or bother to stand in line for confession. In college, a…

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The Bloody, Awful, Horrible Catholic Church



The Bloody, Awful, Horrible Catholic Church

by rjosephhoffmann

The following originally published January 2012 @

N ELEMENTARY school my class watched Robert Frost stammer through part of a poem he couldn’t quite read on a snowy and bitterly cold Washington day.

The occasion was the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States. Choosing Frost, then in his eighties,  to lend dignity to a ceremony so prosaic  it can only be compared to buying stamps, was a stroke of genius–a tribute to Kennedy’s New England roots and the liberal protestant tradition that went with it.  Even Presbyterian schoolteachers in Raleigh loved his poetry.

Frost, reverting to “The Gift Outright” 

Yes, the new guy was Catholic, the thinking went, but he was also a product of New England’s finest Yankee institutions,  Choate and Harvard.  Some of that must have had a civilizing effect, though few south of Maryland or west of Pennsylvania had heard of Choate and what they knew of Harvard they didn’t like much. They still don’t.

In that era, when there was still a “Catholic vote,” there was also little disagreement between Catholics and protestants over issues like abortion (illegal), contraception (risky, no pill), and  divorce (heinous for Catholics but not recommended for others with political designs, either).

The fear of protestants was not that Catholics would impose a socially conservative agenda on the country  but that America would become a colony of Rome and that the pope would rule in absentia.  Kennedy put a hole in that senseless idea in a famous speech in 1960 when he said,

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

How things have changed. The Catholic church is now as loud and politically obtrusive  as Kennedy required it not to be to win an election.  Though Catholics and protestants come out nearly even in surveys concerning prevalence of  ”pre-marital” sex (I know:  it sounds quaint, doesn’t it?), birth control and even the incidence of abortion in cases of unintended pregnancy (Protestants account for 37.4% of all abortions in the U.S.; Catholic women for 31.3%, Jewish women  for 1.3%, and women with no religious affiliation, 23,7%), the Catholic church has decided to make abortion its cause celebre in its battle for social and moral relevance.

HE Gospel of Life -obsession of the official Church is largely based on traditional Catholic moral teaching as expounded by the bewildering and now blessed John Paul II.  Along with its pre-modern understanding of human sexuality it carries with its sanctity- of -life prescription a European- friendly condemnation of capital punishment and anti-war bias, as well as a totally incoherent ban on contraception as a way of reducing the instances of unwanted pregnancy. –Call it the Mother Theresa Ultimatum.

The contraception phobia, which dates back to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (and the birth-control hysteria of the 1960′s) had nothing to do with a consistent sexual “moral theory” but with a theory of human nature formulated by St Augustine in the fifth century, based on the notion that pleasure was never intended by God as a part of human good.   The equation between pleasure and sin is so firmly entrenched in Catholic psychology that it has to be seen as the root of orthodox Catholic moral theology: a celibate priesthood, the veiling of women religious  (nuns), a virgin birth, an immaculate conception, and a sexless apostolic community are just the doctrinal excrescences of an institutionalized fear of the flesh.

Curiously, alongside this partially disguised abhorrence of fleshly fulfillment the Catholic church still retains its admiration for the productivity of marriage and opposition to divorce.  But when you consider that Ted Kennedy, John Kerry,  andAndrew Cuomo, to name only prominent political figures, are forbidden (and with variable consistency have accepted that they are forbidden) to receive  the Church’s most revered sacrament, while ghoulish mock-Catholics like Rick Santorum and parody-Catholic, spouse-abandoning, thrice married Newt Gingrich get the Church’s seal of approval for their extreme “pro-life” commitments, it is high time for The Catholic Church to declare itself a mouthpiece for the Tea Party.

As if this isn’t bad enough, Santorum has decided to break ranks with the Kennedy legacy by repudiating JFK’s robust appeal to the First Amendment as the guaranty that religion plays no role in the affairs of state.  Calling the 1960 speech by Kennedy a “great mistke,” and a “radical statement that did much damage,” he said in a recent speech in Newton, Massachusetts:

We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process. Jefferson is spinning in his grave.

Which of course is true.  At the ignorance of Rick Santorum.  Rob Boston says mildly and to the point,

Look, it’s bad enough that you run around talking trash about Kennedy, but adding Jefferson to your Festival of Ignorance is just too much. Leave the man out of it.  You apparently know nothing about him.  Jefferson spent his entire life opposing government-mandated religion and fought every member of the clergy who supported that foul idea. Here’s a famous example: During the election of 1800, presidential candidate Jefferson knew that many New England preachers were yearning to win favoritism for their faith from the federal government. He also knew that they hated him because they realized he would never let that happen. That’s why they spread wild tales about Jefferson being a libertine who, if elected, would burn Bibles.


The social and moral “conservatism” of the Republican field is primarily an appeal to the ignorance of the American people.  It’s the ugliest kind of alliance between the Church’s need to remain relevant by appealing to uteral issues and the political need of soulless office-grubbers to appear moral.  Both are appeals to ignorance, to the Faithful, on the one side,  who are often willing to refer  moral responsibility to higher authorities and to The American People, on the other, who can usually be counted upon to follow their gut and are often shocked when their gut takes them in the wrong direction as it did in the 2010 congressional runnings.

HAT is even more depressing is that the ignorance of a Rick Santorum is probably real rather than Machiavellian.  He is as dumb about the history of his Church as he is about the history of his nation. And the machinations of the Catholic church–his church–while Machiavellian, are tragically self-centered and manifestly wicked.

Ever since the Jewish priestly class invented the story of cloddish Adam and compliant Eve, the hierarchy has known how to use an idiot to make a point: Do what you’re told.  Don’t ask too many questions.  Believe us:  you don’t want the responsibility of knowing the big picture.  Given those marching orders, it doesn’t matter what Jeferson really said or thought; it’s enough that there is an interpretation of him as a believing Christian who would spout, basically, the same things the Tea Party is saying if he were around today.    There is no difference between history and delusion in Rick Santorum’s world.

Kennedy ended the speech that Santorum calls a big mistake with the following:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

In a scant fifty years, how have we come so far from regarding this kind of rhetoric as fundamental, rational and wise to seeing it as radically mistaken? And how much guilt does the Church bear for encouraging this treason against the first principles of American democracy by egging on the clods?

Self-made God?

I will blog about this at length: But I do find it amusing that the mythtic fringe seem to have no trouble defending an emperor known to exist as a god and want to deny simple existence to a Galilean outlaw who achieved the same status without a Vergil or a Plutarch to influence the vote.

This, I am made to believe, is because (wait for it) the gospel writers wrote fiction but the Roman historians were models of sober and scientific reporting.

Hmmmm.  I wonder what they used to buy bread.  Did it look anything like this?

This is the kind of coin that Jesus used to make his point about giving to Caesar what is owed to Caesar, and to God what is owed to God. The Latin around the head (Tiberius) reads TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS, or Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus, in English, Augustus Tiberius Caesar the Son of the Divine Augustus, so the son of god.

I do wonder why the mythtics don’t talk more about context–real, verifiable, in your face, you can bite it because it’s a coin context. Maybe this coin doesn’t exist. Maybe Tiberius is made up.  Certainly certain things about him are made up.

They seem instead to be wedded to their own myth of Christian beginnings.  And this includes the belief that the Romans didn’t believe extraordinary things about historical persons.

Atheism and Evidence: Where the Conflict Really Lies

The Conflict Really Lies within New Atheism

[Reprinted from Public Discourse, by Christopher Tollefsen]

In his new book “Where the Conflict Really Lies,” Alvin Plantinga levels a devastating critique against the “new atheism” espoused by thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, collectively known as the “new atheists,” embody one of the most aggressive recent manifestations of both “scientism” and ”naturalism.” This new atheism is characterized by extreme forms of both scientism, a view about knowledge that holds that only what can be demonstrated scientifically deserves to be considered knowledge, and naturalism, a view about reality that holds that only the material world is real. Hence it is hostile to religion in all forms, viewing it as merely a kind of superstition; it is likewise hostile to much “folk” understanding, including traditional claims about the nature and source of morality.

It is thus good news for everyone that Alvin Plantinga, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has addressed and, I should say, systematically dismantled, the claims of the new atheists in his recently published book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Plantinga’s book, generally written at a level accessible to any educated person, is essential reading for anyone concerned not only with the claims of the new atheists and what can be said contrary to those claims, but also, as I shall discuss below, with their way of making those claims, for they have adopted a style hostile to the very idea of public discourse, a style that now threatens almost every area of contested moral and political discourse in our country.

Plantinga defends two claims throughout his book. One is that there is “a superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science;” the other is that there is  “a superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.” The bulk of the book is devoted to the first claim. Plantinga begins by discussing the conflict between theism’s claims that God acts in the world as a creator, sustainer, and guide (claims common to at least the three Abrahamic religions), and Darwin’s claim to have discovered the means—random mutation plus natural selection—by which later species, including human beings, have evolved from earlier species.

The claim of the new atheists is that Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” as Dennett calls it, proves that there is no divine agency responsible for the world. As Dennett explains, “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” But the claims of Darwin show no such thing: even if Darwinism accurately identifies the mechanism by which evolution has occurred, Plantinga notes, “it is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

Moreover, there is a very good reason for thinking that the world as it is would not have been possible but for God’s agency, and that is the existence of creatures with minds. Theists believe, as Locke put it, that it is “impossible to conceive that ever pure incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being.” Mind, theists believe, can only come from mind (or Mind). So, on the basis of this argument and several others, Plantinga concludes Part I of his book by claiming that the conflict between Darwin and theism is only apparent.

The conflict is somewhat greater as regards other scientific claims; in particular, many claims coming from evolutionary psychology and historical biblical criticism are, as far as they go, incompatible with some or all aspects of, for example, Christian belief. That all human action is a result of mechanisms selected because they enhance the power of one’s genes to reproduce is clearly incompatible with Christian normative demands to love one’s neighbor: one is not doing that if one’s actions are really undertaken for the propagation of one’s genes. And to varying degrees, the claims of historical biblical scholarship are either in conflict with revealed religion, if those claims deny straightforwardly the possibility of supernatural action in the world, or fall far short of the claims of religion, if they methodologically abstain from using any but naturalistic assumptions.

Yet none of these claims, argues Plantinga, provides defeaters for religious belief; and the reason for this is that the evidence base against which a Christian, for example, assesses the claims of evolutionary biology or biblical scholarship, includes claims that cannot be known only by science’s methodological naturalism.

Most prominently, Christians hold that some truths are known by faith, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; faith, like knowledge, is thus aimed at the truth. Plantinga writes, “My evidence base contains the belief that God has created human beings in his image. I now learn that, given an evidence base that doesn’t contain that belief, the right thing to believe is that those mechanisms [of faith] are not truth-aimed; but of course that doesn’t give me any reason at all to amend or reject my belief that in fact they are truth-aimed.”

In other words, if we take evidence gathered only from one source of truth, we will fail to have a defeater for a claim that appears true on the basis of all of the possible sources of truth: so even though the witnesses say they saw me slash a colleague’s tires (perceptual evidence), if I remember being out of town that day (memorial evidence), then the witness claims do not defeat my belief that I did not slash the tires.

But can’t the new atheists simply help themselves to the premise that science is the only source of knowledge? We might wonder on what basis they could: surely it is not a claim of science that science is the only source of knowledge. But this, as we will see, is only one way in which extreme naturalism threatens to be its own worst enemy.

In the third part of the book, Plantinga turns to the question of whether in fact theism might be in concord with contemporary science, rather than in conflict. After looking at, and giving a fairly weak endorsement to, some arguments in support of intelligent design and fine-tuning, Plantinga argues that in fact the theistic worldview is as a whole deeply consonant with the goals and successes of contemporary science.

This is because theism holds, as atheistic naturalism denies, that God has created us in his image, as rational beings. But as rational, yet finite, beings, we are truth-seekers, and for the theist it makes perfectly good sense to think that God has also created a world that is available to us to know: “God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties.”

Plantinga then identifies a number of features of our world, and our cognitive relationship to that world, that are much more likely, and make much more sense, on a theistic than on an atheistic picture: the reliability and regularity of nature, and its working in accordance with law; the role of mathematics in the understanding of nature; the possibility of induction; the appropriateness of theoretical virtues such as simplicity; and even the empirical nature of science, which Plantinga argues is underwritten by the contingency of divine creation. In all these respects modern science is deeply compatible with theism, a fact that renders unsurprising the further fact that all the great founders of modern science were theists, working from a deeply Christian background.

So the conflict between science and religion is, Plantinga shows, largely bogus (and I have only scratched the surface of his arguments here). But things are even worse from the standpoint of naturalism, for on the naturalist account, there is no good reason to think that our cognitive faculties are truth-tracking. After all, it is not because those faculties contribute to true beliefs that they are selected for in the Darwinian account; it is because they are likely to contribute to survival.

Can the naturalist expect, as the theist clearly can, that her cognitive faculties are reliable, i.e., that they lead to true beliefs? Since natural selection does not select for truth, or truth-tracking faculties, but for other unrelated properties, we have no reason to expect so given naturalism. Of course, we have very good reason to think our beliefs are reliable; so this claim should not bother most people. And non-naturalistic theists will believe that even if evolution is true, God has overseen evolution with a view to the reliability of our cognitive faculties. The naturalist cannot rely on any such claim.

But since the inability to rely on cognitive faculties as reliably truth-tracking is a defeater for any belief whatsoever, it is a defeater also for naturalism; accordingly naturalism turns out, on Plantinga’s argument, to be self-defeating, and cannot be rationally accepted.

So Plantinga gives a wealth of argument for the theist to use against the claims of atheism. And in this, it must be said, he exercises considerably more intellectual virtue than his opponents. Plantinga’s early chapters are devastating in revealing that the prime architects of the new atheism almost inevitably gravitate toward straw-man characterizations of their opponents’ views, attribute venal motives to their opponents, and fail to investigate the intellectual sources of Christianity, giving no weight, for example, to the classical arguments of Aquinas and Locke, or the arguments of contemporary theists such as Swinburne and van Inwagen. Their rhetoric is inevitably condescending, as the development of the recent cult of the “flying spaghetti monster” makes clear.

But what is worse, some of the new atheists seem to have adopted this strategy deliberately. Plantinga quotes from a blog post of Dawkins in which he says that those unconvinced by the new atheists “are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.”

Plantinga speaks of the “melancholy” with which one should view this spectacle; yet it seems increasingly characteristic of an important strand of intellectual, if the word is appropriate, approach to the most contentious issues of the day. Those who dissent from academically “respectable” views about religion, evolution, global warming, sexual ethics, the nature of marriage, and the value of unborn human life are increasingly addressed with scorn and public shaming rather than intellectual argument and reasoned discourse; and their opponents are often unwilling even to acknowledge their good will and good faith. This is not a strategy compatible with a love of truth or a love of neighbors, and those on its receiving end should not, of course, respond in kind. The wealth of argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies points to an altogether better path.

While equally hard on mythicism and credulity in this 2010 post, I adopted a position that some readers called :Jesus agnosticism’; a more appropriate label would have been “Jesus Fatigue”. I now would argue, qua the Jesus Process, that the historical existence of Jesus is the only reasonable postulate based on the material we now possess; but for reasons I will discuss in further essays, I do not believe that this postulate has been adequately articulated by recent defenders of historicity. A recent attempt by a well-known NT scholar is exceptionally disappointing and not an adequate rejoinder to the routinely absurd ideas of the Jesus-deniers. For that reason, like it or not, I have had to abandon my indifference and get back into the fight–on the side of the son of man.

The New Oxonian

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.

In this essay, however, I will focus on why it is not a total waste of time.

What seemed to be an endlessly fascinating question in the nineteenth century among a few Dutch and German radical theologians (given a splash of new life by re-discoverers of the radical tradition, such as G A Wells, in the twentieth) now bears the scent and traces of Victorian wallpaper.

Theologians in the “mainstream academic tradition” have always been reluctant to touch the subject because, after all, seminaries do not exist, nor for that matter departments of religious studies, to teach courses in the Christ Myth. For that reason, if the topic is given syllabus space at all it is given insufficient space and treated…

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The Case: 13 Key, Unarguable Principles

The train crash that is modern mythicism is built on the train crash that was earlier mythicism. The chance of the crash happening twice in just the same way?  About 50%.

In a previous post I reproduced chapter three of Shirley Jackson Case’s 1912 study, The Historicity of Jesus, which is a fair account of the state of the question in his day. At the end of his book, Case writes,

 “If the possibility of his non-historicity is to be entertained at all it must be brought about by reconstructing, without reference to him, so strong a theory of Christian origins that the traditional view will pale before it as a lesser light in the presence of a greater luminary. Will the radicals’ constructive hypothesis stand this test?”

The new mythtics (some anyway) have claimed that their argument can be won by the application of Bayes’s theorem.  Confronted with arguments about why the theorem is useless in deciding a question like this, their recourse has been to repeat two assertions: (1) It is too useful; and (2) People who say it isn’t useful don’t “get” it.  Whereupon they usually invoke some parallel as distant from what they are trying to prove as Herakles is from Jesus.

The rush of excitement that greeted Richard Carrier’s suggestion that the Jesus question could be settled with relative finality has been offset slightly by the failure to recognize that the first step in using Bayes’s Theorem is to establish plausible assumptions.  A few bloggers at Vridar have suggested that proving Jesus is like proving a case at law: after all, we’re trying to reach a verdict on whether Jesus existed, so, since a trial deals with events that happened in the past, and Jesus existed in the past, you could say that the application of probability to the Jesus question is like determining guilt or innocence.  All you need to do is compile the evidence,  plug it into your probability machine, write the equation, and you’re home free.

Except you’re not.  In a law case–let’s make this one a murder so we can use DNA–the variable to be decided is not the event (E), the crime, but the cause (C) of the crime.  Let’s make it a ghastly murder, a murder most foul (they like to quote Shakespeare over at Vridar– just trying it on).  You postulate a murderer. Good job.  You discover a bloody knife.  A glove–shades of OJ–fingerprints, crime scene, probable time of death. It is a linear progression of data that points to Mr. Jones as the perp: the right man in the right place at the right time with the right motive and the right DNA.  What has not changed in all of this?  (E) has not changed: the murder itself is not in doubt. It raises the speculation and creates uncertainty about (C).

In the case of Jesus, as the mythtics frame the case,  we are doubting an event (E) has taken place at all: the mythtics are not asking whether Jesus rose from the dead (= dealt the fatal wound causing E) but whether there was an E.  They are saying all the reports of E–what he said and did are falsifications of an historical occurrence.

To prove this contention (the groundwork of the assumptions that will then be used to establish probability) they offer not evidence but a succession of increasingly more tortuous challenges to the only available evidence, thus trying to prove through improbability what a linear progression of known, envalued variables (the sort of thing that makes statistics useful in law cases)  cannot readily establish.

In no particular order, individually and conglomeratively mythicists have argued:

1.  The evidence for E is hopelessly tainted and unreliable, proving that E did not occur.

2.  The sayings and deeds attributed to E are the work of a single author or the “church” and were intended to propagate a cult.

2.  The so-called evidence for E was mostly written in the second century by unknown authors, forgers, or copyists.

3.  It is based on a combination of myths and stories familiar to the forger or copyist or his naive imitators. These range from ancient stories like the Gilgamesh to first century tales about the death and apotheosis of Hercules, and everything in between (“A myth is a myth, like a rose is a rose”).

4.  Elements of the record that appear to be “historical” are decoration provided by the fabricator to create a veneer of authenticity–especially the use of place names and Aramaic, the language E is alleged to have spoken.

5.  The original second-century document was probably composed in Rome where myths and mystery religions circulated freely and a copyist could make a living and use the libraries.

6.  Prove postpositive that the gospels are fabrications is provided by the  inexplicable silence of someone [Paul] who “should have”  known him but doesn’t say much about him.

7.  References in Paul’s writings to both Jesus, his brothers, his most important followers, their interference with his mission, the existence of churches that worship him and believers who supervise them, and the correlation of names between the gospels and this writer’s references to Jesus and his circle are not dispositive because they do not fit the pattern of what this writer actually believed.

7.  Some of Paul’s letters are forged.  Those that are “authentic” and seem to speak of an historical individual are tainted, like the gospels, with additons, corrections and interpolations.  All passages that seem to speak of an historical figure are interpolations.  All references to historical-biological relatives of Jesus are figures of speech referring to the church.

8. It is plausible that this writer did not exist at all.

9.  If he did not exist, it is stronger than average proof that Jesus did not exist either. It is not necessary to explain who wrote Paul’s letters or explain what he was talking about if he did not write them.  (In all likelihood, the church wrote them too.)

10.  The fact that the gospels do not differ substantially from many Graeco-Roman historical writings concerning known historical figures, except in length and subject, is of no importance to the case.

11.  The fact that miracles, healings, miraculous births and ascensions to heaven are attibuted to historical figures in the Roman world has no bearing on the case.

12.  The external sources are completely irrelevant to the case, as they are either silent, clearly forged or heavily interpolated.  Sources almost uniformly agreed to be authentic like Tacitus are of no relevance to the case.  Sources that require more judicious treatment–like Josephus–are clearly fabrications.

13.  The fact that no ancient writer questioned the historicity of Jesus and the fact that no church writer felt compelled to defend it is of no relevance to the case.

et cetera…

The anti-evidence continues until the mythtics are satisfied that their demolition has proved the non-occurrence of E.  To challenge this brutually unsatisfying logic is to be a fundamentalist, or to use a word they are trying to make current as a counterpoint to the word “mythtic” and “mythicist,” an “historicist.”  There is a strong implication that not believing in Jesus is the rational complement to not believing in God.  As a rule, most mythicists are atheists.  As a rule, most people who subscribe to mythicism are not biblical scholars, trained in biblical studies but regard such training as a kind of “brainswashing” in the methods that have been used for the last century and a half to investigate the origins of Christanity and the context of Jesus.  To know something about human anatomy is good for a doctor.  But to know something about the technical aspects of biblical studies is a liability to knowing anything about this subject.

It seems to me that this latest and less impressive incarnation of mythicism has tried and failed to satisfy Case’s 1912 challenge to them, which, frankly, in the wake of substantial advances in New Testament scholarship, makes their work much more difficult than it was at the opening of the last century.  Salvation by Bayesth alone will not really help: they are stuck precisely where the formidable Morton Smith left them in 1986:  “The myth theory is almost entirely based on an argument from silence, especially the ‘silence’ of Paul….In order to explain just what it was that Paul and other early Christians believed, the mythicists are forced to manufacture unknown proto-Christians who build up an unattested myth . . . about an unspecified supernatural entity that at an indefinite time was sent by God into the world as a man to save mankind and was crucified… [presenting us with] a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels.”

They are not likely to create the plausible reconstruction demanded by their task from the debris they leave behind when they are done with their work.  In fact, there is no indication that they acknowledge or are capable of meeting that challenge.  They are puzzlingly content to locate the answer to how did it happen?in their belief that it did not happen at all, at least not in the way the only available evidence asserts.  And that is a very curious position for people who are looking for “reasonable” solutions to adopt.