The New Oxonian

Atheism is badly served by the likes of a stammering David Silverman, recently made mincemeat by an intellectual third-rater on Fox News.

Richard Dawkins & Co. invented the term “Brights” to describe non-believers in general. A price on their head for those of us who have been disgraced by this episode.

Now we are confronted with a new phenomenon: Atheist Dims. –Spokesmen [sic] who think an adequate description of religion entails the axiom that all people who take the idea of God seriously actually believe in a great Watchman in the sky who takes an interest in my personal hygiene. They don’t speak for atheists, and they don’t speak for me.

No wonder the billboards are so wasteful, not only conforming to a ‘fifties Impeach Earl Warren aesthetic, but simply dumb, as they degenerate from “You Know its a Myth,” American Humanist Association message to “You Know its a Scam,”…

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In celebration of yet another atheist sect, Atheism Plus, this ….

The New Oxonian

Most atheists have never read H. Richard Niebuhr. That’s too bad. Because now that unbelievers are fighting with each other about how much of God not to believe in, they have a lot to learn from the battles fought among God’s people for primacy of position.

Niebuhr was primarily an ethicist and while influenced by philosophers and theologians as far apart as Barth, Troeltsch and Tillich, he was solidly grounded in the reality of social change. He knew that since the Protestant Reformation Christianity had become restless and incoherent. When monolithic belief in God’s holy church and her sacraments was demolished by the phenomenon of “fissiparation” (churches quarreling over picayune differences about inconspicuous doctrines and forming into ever more minor sects), the stage was set for a religion that could hardly claim to be what Christ had in mind when he expressed the wish that ‘all may be…

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The Voodoo Gynecology of the Jesus Perverters

Jesus heals the bleeding woman…

When Missouri representative Todd Akin commented honestly that he thought a woman’s reproductive system shuts down in the case of “legitimate rape,” the outcry from the Republican party was nothing short of stunning.  Everyone who was anyone wanted his head, because that’s where his mouth is: Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, and of course, candidate Romney, and his younger-brother Handpuppe Paul Ryan.

None of these people disagree with Mr Akin.  But Mr Akin spoiled their party. The idea was to run on economic issues, resuscitate the familiar once-lucky Reagan zinger (“Are you better off now than you were four years ago”), and see to the social and moral engineering repayment to the evangelical cohort that elected them later on.

That repayment would surely (or will) have included a bill to criminalize abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, and possibly even in the case of immediate endangerment to the mother.  The Republicans know that there is no likelihood that the Supreme Court will revisit Roe v Wade anytime soon. And that’s a problem, especially for Catholics and Evangelicals.

But in this great and liberal democracy, there are other ways to get what you want. And the easiest way is leglislative action.  It is unlikely that a Supreme Court of this complexion would find such an act of Congress unconstitutional. And it is certain that the evangelical-retro-Catholic-banking-gun-rights-and libertarian coalition that has been incubating like a wee antichrist since the 1980’s is now a fully formed person.

Too bad it could not have been aborted in its first trimester. The devil now walks among us.

It’s not that Mr Akin is merely stupid.  It’s clear that he simply spilled the beans.  It’s also clear that he represents a hideous, monstrous perversion of Christianity, one whose other heads are Mormonism, with its anti-contraception theology going back to the prophet Joseph Smith, Neoconservative Catholicism, which ranks the ‘right’ to life above belief in the Trinity, and fundagelical Christianity, which jumped on the anti-abortion bandwagon (it used to be the preserve of Roman Catholics) after 1972 and got louder in the 1980’s.

In the Republican monster that has been formed from this cross-fertilizing, we have at the center Mr Romney, a Mormon who has been a bishop of his church and who has five strapping boys to show for his theology. Paul Ryan, his wonkish marionette, is there for the Catholic traditionalist, rosary-saying crowd (not as ardent at Rick Santorum, who brought his wife’s miscarriage home in a bottle so that the kids might ‘get to know their brother’). And in Mr Akins, now both a knave and a fool for spilling the beans and refusing to clean them up and go home, the evangelical Jeremiah. The prophet is always the inconvenient one and Mr Akins is a prophet.

I haven’t seen much on the topic, but Mr Akins is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary of  the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (which later merged with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America to form Reformed Presbyterian Church-Evangelical Synod), who believed that their denomination was being infiltrated by liberal theology.  Think Calvin. Now think of conservative Calvinism, and then of a movement that was to the right of that.  That is Covenant Seminary.

The hydra that is now the Republican leadership thought that by chopping Mr Akins’s head off the beast would be saved and grow a new one.  But that’s not likely.  Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and the platform committee of the RNC believe exactly what Mr Akin says he believes. Listeners blanched when Akins said he “had heard from doctors” that a woman’s body shuts down during a rape, thus explaining why “so few rape victims become pregannt.” But the expert whose opinion he was thinking of, Dr Jack C. Willke, wrote in 1992 that the emotional traumas suffered by a woman in an assault rape “can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.” By his calculations “assault” rape pregnancy is extremely rare at about four cases per state per year. Statistics are fugitive however because he does not adjust for illegitimate rape cases or women who are only partly traumatized.

Jesus intervenes in a stoning….

Mitt Romney’s 2007 campaign embraced Willke as “an important surrogate for Governor Romney’s pro-life and pro-family agenda”, and Romney expressed his pride to “have the support of a man who has meant so much to the pro-life movement in our country.” Akins’s views cannot have been a surprise to him. They cannot have been a surprise to Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored legislation with Akin for a complete ban on therapeutic and voluntary abortion, in all cases.  It cannot have been  a surprise to the Platform Committee of the RNC, which even while the story flew around the internet, was setting Mr Akins’s policy in stone–indeed, even while the amazingly spongey Mr Romney was declaring that his views are “not those of Congressman Akins.” What was a surprise is that Mr Akins was honest: he let the world know what was on his mind, and in so doing let everyone in on Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s medieval understanding of sex and gender.

But as we have come to expect of Mr Romney–of any Republican politician in this monstrous new form–what would you want him to do–tell the truth? Give it to the American people straight? Or hide behind the curtain of job-creation and economic flat-lining and save the surprises until after November, when along with new-old social and ethical doctrines, they can reestablish the failed economic theories of the Bush regime. This is not the argument Romney wanted. All the more reason not to let him escape from it by chopping off only one of the three heads spewing the same poisonous ideas.

The  beast in the Book of Revelation (13) has seven heads, not only three, so the Republican party has some head growing to do before is is a fully fledged tyrant who, haughtily and blaspheously “breathes deceit and is allowed to make war on the saints.”  I have faith that they will grow the other four. I am not sure the saints will persevere.

I do know that what the evangelical, the Catholic, and the Mormon have in common is not just a contempt for women, not just a disdain for the Constitution–which they constantly want amended–but for the Christian religion they claim to represent.

The sickening hypocrisy of this group  may be the foulest perversion of Christianity since Naziism or the Inquisition: by any other name, it is unrecognizable as Christianity, and what they preach is unrecognizable as the gospel of Jesus Christ.

They have forfeited the right ever to speak about the evils inherent in this society or the deficiencies of other faiths–for example, the degradation of women in Islam–when they advocate the degradation of women in America and are willing to enact legislation that will canonize violence against women and disallow remedies for that violence.  Nevermind that what they are doing has no warrant in the gospel. But it strikes me as odd that not more people see what they are doing as a perversion of the gospel.

There is no other way to put this: these are dangerous, deluded, and (to use a word I use sparingly) metaphysically evil men. They will make America not just far worse in the eyes of the world, but essentially sicker in its soul.

Slay the beast.

The case of the spiritually challenged Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri calls for more discussion of the issue of rape: what it is, what is is not, and what laws need to be framed to protect the victims.

The New Oxonian

O  the woman God said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3.16)

“If a husband calls his wife to his bed and she refuses and causes him to sleep in anger, the angels will curse her till morning.” (Bukhari v.4, b.54, no.460).

“Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (St Paul, I Corinthians 11.3)

Marital or spousal rape is now illegal in most of the developed and much of the developing world.  But it is one of those subjects that came late in the discussion of women’s rights and criminal sexual abuse.

As the West tries to redefine “traditional” marriage in a way that respects the concept of a consensual relationship…

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Liberal Scarecrows, Shadows, and Atheist Internet-Experts

eorge Rupp, former president of Columbia and before that the dean of Harvard Divinity School wrote in 1979 that “Christian theology is in disarray; it has neither a goal nor a purpose,” trends follows fads with such dizzying speed, he wrote,  that the discipline is more like a carousel gone wild than an academic discipline.  If Rupp were observing the current state of New Testament scholarship in 2012, he might have written just the same thing.

Why has this situation arisen?  While generalizations are always more convenient than precise, I think it’s safe to say that three overlapping trends explain the current crisis in New Testament studies.

irst, of course, New Testament studies is simply a mess.  It is a mess because many otherwise conscientious scholars (many of them either refugees from or despondents of the Jesus Seminar) had reached the conclusion that the New Testament should be regarded as a theory in search of facts.  Accordingly, the “facts” were arranged and rearranged in sometimes ingenious ways (and sometimes absurd) to support personal theories. The harsh truisms of 100 years of serious “historical-critical” study (not atheism or scholarly extravagance) were largely responsible for the rubble out of which the scholars tried to build a plausible man, but the men they built could not all be the same character as the one described in the gospels.  They differed from each other; they differed, often, from the evidence or context, and–perhaps vitally–they differed from tradition and “standard” interpretations, which had become closely identified with orthodoxy–which in turn was identified with illiberal politics and hence ludicrous and bad. Having left a field full of half clothed and malformed scarecrows, the theorists packed their bags and asked the world to consider their art.

ECOND: the rescucitation of the myth theory as a sort of zombie of a once-interesting question.  The myth theory, in a phrase, is the theory that Jesus never existed. Let me say for the hundredth time that while it is possible that Jesus did not exist it is improbable that he did not. For the possibility to trump the probability, the mythicists (mythtics in their current state of disarray) need to produce a coherent body of evidence and interpretation that persuasively challenges the current consensus.  No argument of that strength has been proved convincing.  Moreover, there are serious heuristic questions about why many of the mythticists want the theory “proved,” the most basic of which is that many are waging a kind of counter-apologetic attack on a field they regard as excessively dominated by magical thinking.

Bruno Bauer

And the “proof”  is unlikely to appear. As someone who actively entertained the possibility for years, I can report that the current state of the question is trending consistently in the direction of the historicity of Jesus and partly the wishful thinking of the mythtics is responsible for the trend. The myth theory, in its current, dyslectic and warmed over state,  has erected the messiest of  all the Jesuses in the field, constructed mainly from scraps discarded by the liberals and so startling (perhaps inevitably) that it looks more like an Egyptian god than a man, less a coherent approach to its object than an explosion of possibilities and mental spasms. Like all bad science, its supporters (mainly internet bloggers and scholarly wannabes)  began the quest with their pet conclusion, then looked for evidence by alleging that anything that counted against it was false, apologetically driven, or failed the conspiracy smell-test. A survey of the (highly revised and hideously written) Wikipedia article on the Christ Myth Theory shows its depressing recent history–from a theory that grew organically out of the history-of-religion approach to Christianity (which drove my own work in critical studies) to a succession of implausibilities and splices as limitless as there were analogies to splice.

The prototype of the Jesus story?

Yet the myth theory is explained by the woeful history of liberal scholarship: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is a direct result of the mess liberal scholarship made of itself.  If the problem with “liberal” scholarship (the name itself suggests the fallacy that guides the work) is that a flimsy, fact-free, wordless Jesus could be a magician, a bandit, an eschatologist, a radical, a mad prophet, a sane one, a tax revolutionary, a reforming rabbi (anything but Jesus the son of God)–the mythical Jesus could be Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, a Pauline vision, a Jewish fantasy, a misremembered amalgam of folk tales, a rabbi’s targum about Joshua. In short–the mirror image of the confusion that the overtheoretical and under-resourced history of the topic had left strewn in the field.  If the scarecrows concocted  by the liberals were made from rubble, the mythtic Jesuses were their shadows. If the bad boys of the Jesus Seminar had effectively declared that the evidence to hand means Jesus can be anything you want him to be, there is some justice in the view that Jesus might be nothing at all.

he Myth Theories, in some respects, but not every detail,  are the plus ultra of the old liberal theories rooted in the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Kant and Schleiermacher, abetted by the work of Strauss and his sympathizers. Perhaps that is why New Testament scholarship is so eerily quiet or so lazy towards them, and why the proponents of the theory feel betrayed when scholars who point them to their own scarecrows  suddenly say that while the scarecrow exists, the shadow doesn’t.  That is what happened (unmysteriously) when the very liberal Bart Ehrman, thought to be a “friend” to atheists and mythtics, decided to draw a ring around his neck of the field and say that a makeshift Jesus made of doctrinal rags and literary plunder is better than no Jesus at all.  It is not nice to be driven into a field, invited to choose the most appealing strawmen to reject, and then told that only scholars can reject scarecrows. New Testament scholarship defends its nominal field with a No Trespassing sign that invites the suspicion that there is very little to protect.

inally, the New Atheism.  In a minor scholarly rhapsody called Of Love and Chairs, I tried to suggest that not believing in God is not the same as not believing in Jesus.  In fact, it is only through making a category error that the two beliefs can be bought into alignment.  It is true that both God and Jesus are “discussed” in the Bible (though Jesus only in an appendix).  And it is true that later theology understood the Bible to be saying that Jesus was a god or son of God. But of course, very few scholars today think the Bible actually says that or meant to say that.  It is also true that the God of the Hebrew Bible walks, talks, flies through the sky, makes promises, wreaks venegance, gives laws and destroys sinners. And surely, that is a myth–or at least, extravagantly legendary. Thus, if God and Jesus occupy the same book and his father is a myth, then he must be a myth as well.

This reasoning is especially appealing to a class of mythicists I’ll call “atheoementalists,” a group of bloggers who seem to have come from unusually weird religious backgrounds and who were fed verses in tablespoons on the dogma that all of the Bible is, verse for verse, completely, historically, morally and scientifically true.  To lose or reject that belief and cough up your verses means that every one of them must now be completely false.

The New Atheism comes in as a handy assist because it came on the scene as a philosophical Tsunami of militant opposition to religion in general but biblical religion in particular.  NA encouraged the category error that the rejection of a historical Jesus was nothing more than the logical complement of rejecting the tooth fairy, the sandman, Santa and the biblical God. Conversely, believing in the god of the Bible, or Jesus, was the same as believing in (why not?) a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The NAs were less driven by the belief that religion was untrue than that religion was all bad, that God is Not Great, that it is toxic, hostile to science (the true messianic courier) and a delusion, a snappy salute to Freud’s diagnosis.

While the books of all four NA “Horsemen” were roundly thumped in the literate press as hastily conceived and shoddily reasoned attacks–largely provoked by the anti-religion and anti-Muslim rage of the post-9-11 world–they became canonical, and strategic, for large numbers of people who wanted to take Dawkins’s war against religion from Battleship Mecca to Battleship Biblicana. It is intersting for example than in the Wiki article on the Christ Myth Theory referenced above, where almost anyone who has floated the notion gets a mention,  someone has felt it necessary to insert Richard Dawkins’s irrelevant opinion that “a good case can be made for the non-existence of Jesus,” though he “probably did” exist (God Delusion, 2006, 96-7).  –Irrelevant and non-supportive.

IBERAL scarecrows, mythicist shadows, and atheist internet-experts who argue history as though scholarship was a polticial slanging match of opposing “opinions.” That is not the end of a story but the description of a situation.  I do not believe that “professional” New Testament studies, divided as it still is, especially in America, by confessionally biased scholars, fame-seekers, and mere drudges, is able to put its house in order. Their agendas only touch at the Society of Biblical Literature conclaves, and there c.v. padding and preening far outweigh discussion of disarray and purpose.  I think the situation in New Testament studies has been provoked by a “Nag Hammadi” generation–myself included–who weren’t careful with the gifts inside the Pandora’s box, so greedy were we for new constructions of ancient events.

But as part of a generation that thought it was trying to professionalize a field that had been for too- long dominated by theology, Bible lovers, and ex-Bible lovers, it is disheartening now to see it dominated by the political interests that flow from the agenda-driven scholarship of the humanities in general–attempts to see the contemporary in the ancient.  The arrogance of the “impossibility of the contrary” has displaced the humility of simply not knowing but trying to find out.

I have to sympathize with the mythtics when I lecture them (to no avail) about the “backwardness ” of their views and how New Testament scholarship has “moved beyond” questions of truth and factuality–how no one in the field is (really) talking about the historicity of the resurrection any more. How the word “supernatural” is a word banned from the scholarly vocabulary, just as “providential” and “miraculous” explanations are never taken seriously in assessing the biblical texts. They missed the part where we acknowledged it wasn’t true, and so did the people in the pews. They want to know–and it’s a fair question–where it has moved to.  This is not a defense of mythicism; it a criticism of the stammering, incoherent status quo and failure to do what a discipline is supposed to do: look critically and teach responsibly.

Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar

I do not think, either, that the voices of dissent have much, if anything to offer.  I’m well aware that many of my colleagues are grossly ignorant of the history of radical New Testament criticism.  That being so, they are unlikely respondents in the defense of sound method. Perhaps that is why they are  unresponsive, in an era where non-response is always interpreted as a sign of weakness–especially in the gotcha culture of the blogosphere.

If the challenge to mythtics is to come up with something better than the more cognizant radicals had produced by 1912, the challenge for liberal and critical scholarship is to recognize that the mess that made the mess possible–the scarecrows that created the shadows–need to be rethought.  That’s what scholarship, even New Testament scholarship, is meant to be about: rethinking. That is what the Jesus Process is all about.

See also: “Threnody, Rethinking the Thinking Behind the Jesus Project,” The Bible nd Interpretation, October 2009.


Dumb America and Smart Islam

There is a common western–or perhaps typically western–misperception that the Islamic world is lost in a theological fantasy that does not permit it to exit the 12th century into the 21st.

When I wrote the introduction to Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim (which oddly, for its brief compass, received almost as much attention as the book itself) I tried to explain to non-historians why Islamic history is, so to speak,  backwards: a golden age only a few centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 that corresponded to the Christian “dark ages,” followed by a dark age of religious protectionism and dynastic quarrelling that corresponded to the European renaissance.  It’s an irony, of course, that religions thought to have so much in common did not run parallel tracks in terms of doctrinal development and intellectual achievement; but it is a fact that after the Renaissance  religious authority in the West was in for a long, bumpy and finally catastrophic ride, while Islam (like the Judaism of the 6th century BCE, or Christianity on the brink of the Council of Nicaea) built a hedge around its laws, customs, and holy book.  For lots of reasons, it has never been fully successful in negotiating or rationalising its isolation.

At the far end of the European renaissance, Islam encountered a West different from the West it had outlasted in the Crusades–largely as a well-equipped miltary and political overlord: colonialism was the natural result of European feelings of global entitlement and paternalism towards “other races.” The feeling of imperial superiority–especially but not exclusively British–was combined with a certain fascination with the sights, smells, and exotic beauty of the subordinated lands and people–the perspective Edward Said tried to describe in his sometimes (but not always) compelling book, Orientalism.

To this day, Islamic historiography is taught as a teleology of founding, fighting, expansion, dynastic competition, protection and usurpation.  These themes are not alien to Judaism and Christianity–or to Hindusim and Buddhism for that matter–but Islam is unique among the religions of the world–excepting only a few born-again science-despisers in the Bible Belt–in feeling its faith is at intense and constant risk from secularism, irreligion, and foreign values.  This feeling has always characterized “separatist” groups ranging from the Puritans of old and New England to the Mennonites in Europe and America.  But Islam is unique in being a culture, and a very populous and successful culture  rather than a band of persecuted renegades from a  mother religion. Its success is in its numbers: 20.12% of the world’s population is Muslim.

There is no need to explore the way in which Islamic insecurity plays itself out.  Its epochal moment was 9-11, and like the Holocaust or the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, it is tempting to think there will never be another quite like it.  To the extent the west has iconized it as “proof” that something is rotten in Mecca (and the extent of that belief has only widened since 2001, and not only in America), the West is now directly guilty of not having learned more about Islam and not having done enough, beyond fighting two utterly useless, costly wars and killing thousands of men and women, some soldiers, to make it stop hurting.  The West has not tried hard enough to study causes rather than effects.  Instead it has promoted the same sort of paternalistic, culturally indifferent solutions that created the problem of Angry Islam– the disinherited Ishmael looking on as Isaac takes all the goodies.

It’s one of the great underanalyzed moments of the brief bonding that occurred between normally feuding allies Britain, France and America that the overlords were not stricken by the grief that arises from personal responsibility for their sequential roles in the humiliation of Islam, but united by a desire for “justice” and payback: Dan Lohrman recalled on the tenth anniversary of the event,

 [We] watched President Bush’s historic speech [before Congress] …Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sat in the crowd during the speech that was watched around the world. And yet, the events didn’t transform our foreign friends in the same way that we were impacted. Our country became more introspective, self-absorbed, determined for justice. Our new battle-cry became: the terrorists will not win.

Then, of course, the talk turned from immediate retribution–a good old fashioned biblical virtue– to security; the term “homeland” was invented to describe a government department, because the term “nation” seemed too abstract, perhaps even philosophical. (You defend your home, not your neighborhood). In a country that had no agenda, the agenda quickly became protecting the country.  If a few church groups and interfaith do-gooders preached the essence of Christianity being the practice of forgiveness, it was easy to read the code: “We are not like these Monsters and they are monsters because they are not Us.” It was scarcely helpful to say, Not all Muslims are killers.

A decade later, it is very difficult for America, or its allies,  to sustain the view that Islam, compared to them,  is the violent, backward cousin of progressive, secular, liberal modern culture.

For one thing, the country most vocal ( if not always public) in that claim is more regressive, educationally backward,  and illiberal than any country in Europe and many nations in the Islamic world.  The Hollywood successes of American science notwithstanding (because these achievements are scarely recognized, or understood, by the populace in general, and operate as an underfunded, costly and suspect subculture), the gross ignorance of Americans and their elected representatives is the nation’s greatest political and cultural liablity. As Fareed Zakaria argues in The Post-American world, it is no longer necessary to talk about the decline of America; that is obvious. It is time to acknowledge the rise of everyone else.  The burning question is not why, but when a country that was once imaginative lost interest in just about everything but food designed to make it fatter and television programmed to keep the audience at roughly the same educational level as their pets.

Its political candidates know next to nothing about physics and astronomy–areas that Muslim scientists like al-Khwarizmi pioneered in the 9th century. They appear to know very little about the circumstances under which the American republic was formed, the dumbest of them claiming that America is a Christian nation founded by Christian men with Christian ambitions for the new country. They collectivize “the American people” in a way that is unparalleled outside 1930’s Germany’s use of the phrase Das Deutsche Volk or appeals by pan-Islamicists to the Ummah in the formative days of Islam.

As to violence, taking Pakistan as a test case, the number of major suicide attacks in 2010 stood at 662, inflicting a total of 6,088 fatalities.  How does America size up? There were 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States in 2000. The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States were suicides, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007 due to suicide, while 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths. In 2009, according to the UNODC, 60% of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm.  In 2007, 872 Americans were killed in Iraq, a figure that does not include Iraqi military and civilian casualties (on both sides), and those who suffered irreparable injuries from which they died later.  Moreover, deaths from guns in the United States is persistent; 8,775 gun deaths were reported in 2010 (a decline from previous years) but there were nearly 13,000 murders from all causes, suicides not included.  It seems unnecessary to say that Christian America is an unlikely lecturer on the topic of other people’s violence.

I’ve often argued that one way to “sensitize” people to the problems of social and global ignorance is to teach them something about other people.  A country that likes to throw around words like “multiculturalism” and “pluralism” and “diversity” as a badge of broad-mindedness has never been more ignorant of the implications of what it means to be an open society or a global citizen–this despite the border-busting properties of the internet.

Open to what, to where and to whom? In the 2010 National Report Card in Geography  (a test given to 4th, 8th and 12 graders at embarrassingly infrequent intervals), over 70% of students could not score at basic proficiency level.  70% of Americans do not hold passports: There were 61.5 million trips outside the United States in 2009, down 3% from 2008, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. About 50% of those trips were to either Mexico or Canada, destinations that didn’t require a passport until 2007.

If Americans cannot find Pakistan on a map, it is unlikely that they will care very much about what people there have for dinner, what kind of music they listen to, or what they believe. People who don’t know much about other people will always find it easy to rationalize their ignorance as wisdom and their lack of information as justifiable indifference to what just doesn’t matter.

I cynically disbelieve that the information Americans lack can be provided at the level of “interfaith”dialogue and interdisciplinary seminars at a community level. Liberal Christians and Jews don’t need the lessons and the 51% of deeply muscular evangelicals don’t want them.  What is left are the ‘Nones”–neither atheists nor believers, ensconced in their oversized sofas between a bag of Cheetos and five look-alike remotes for bringing in 280 HD menu items. For them, the motto is the less you know the happier you will be.

I am even more pessimistic that this information can be offered  by undertrained graduates of the farcical entities we call “colleges” of education. The proof of their impermanence is that in the US almost 72% of students who major in education teach for less than four years. They also tend to be the lowest scoring students on standardized tests at entry level and the weakest in subject-area tests at exit.

This is not true in the Arab world. It is not true in the UK and most of Europe. It is not true in China.  We do not see education as a remedy for our geographical ignorance, our limping economy, our national indifference to other people, other ideas and other faiths for good reason.  Americans see wealth and strength as the primary indices of status, and these things are expressed not in a classroom or in a hospital but in military adventures and political swagger. America’s indifference to learning now borders on contempt for any success that cannot be measured in warheads or capital.  The nation is unhappy that it is poor (in deficit) and jobless, but apparently happy to spend  711 billion dollars (2010) on defense.  -America’s closest competitor, China, weighs in at 143 Billion, the UK at 62 billion, Russia at 72 billion.

Guns and money, power and wealth,  will eventually drive education out of Dodge, but before that it will be driven out of New York and Chicago and  LA. Perhaps by that time we will be too fat to care–like the orbiting population of earth in the Pixar film Wall-E. Or perhaps we will be too  dumb to notice.

Why I Think The New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster

Reprinted from BeliefNet,  (c) 2009  by Michael Ruse

By Michael Ruse.*

In my seventieth year I find myself in a very peculiar position.  Raised a  Quaker, I lost my faith in my early twenties and it has never returned.  I think  of myself as an agnostic on deities and ultimate meanings and that sort of  thing.  With respect to the main claims of Christianity – loving god, fallen  nature, Jesus and atonement and salvation – I am pretty atheistic, although some  doctrines like original sin seem to me to be accurate psychologically.  I often  refer to myself as a very conservative non-believer, meaning that I take  seriously my non-belief and I think others should do (and often don’t).  If  someone goes to the Episcopal Church for social or family reasons, or because  they love the music or ceremonies, I have no trouble with that.  Had I married a  fellow Quaker, I might still be going to Quaker meetings.  But I have little  time for someone who denies the central dogmas of Christianity and still claims  to be a Christian, except in a social sense.  No God, no Jesus as His son, no  resurrection, no eternal life – no Christianity.  As it happens, I prefer the  term “skeptic” to describe my position rather than “agnostic,” because so often  the latter means “not really interested” and I am very interested.  Like Thomas  Henry Huxley, I am deeply religious in a total absence of theology.  Unlike his  grandson Julian Huxley (and others like Edward O. Wilson), I am totally  uninterested in a “religion without revelation.”  I loathe the term and the idea  of “humanist.”  One religion in this lifetime is quite enough thank you.

Without burnishing my halo too much, I think – and I warned you that I am a  very conservative non-believer – that the most important parable is that of the  talents and that in this lifetime, although never succeeding (thanks to my own  moral frailty), I have tried hard to use that which has been given to me.  In  particular, I have striven to move beyond the comfortable life of a university  professor – and I have been a full-time philosophy prof since I was twenty five – to engage in the public sphere on issues that I think morally important.   Specifically, I have engaged in the science-religion debate – more precisely in  the Darwinism-Creationism debate – for over thirty years.  I have written on the  subject, I have lectured regularly on the subject (on average, I give a talk  about every two weeks and many are on this topic), and I have appeared as  witness in a court case to defend the US separation of Church and State.

That the Creationists and fellow travelers, notably proponents of Intelligent  Design Theory (IDT), would dislike my views I take as axiomatic.  They should  dislike my views for I spend my life fighting against these people.  I say this  notwithstanding the fact that, at the personal level, I have good and friendly  relations with many of the leaders, including Duane T. Gish, Phillip Johnson,  and Bill Dembski.  I do not consider these people to be evil or motivated by  money – anything but this latter, Gish could have made millions in the  motivational speaking arena – although I deplore their beliefs and think them  deeply dangerous.  I will say however that I was disappointed that when Ben  Stein tried to make me seem foolish in his movie Expelled, not one of  them sprang publicly to my defense.  Anyone who did not condemn that gross piece  of distortion of the issues should feel really ashamed.

Which brings me to the point of what I want to say.  I find myself in a  peculiar position.  In the past few years, we have seen the rise and growth of a  group that the public sphere has labeled the “new atheists” – people who are  aggressively pro-science, especially pro-Darwinism, and violently anti-religion  of all kinds, especially Christianity but happy to include Islam and the rest.   Actually the arguments are not that “new,” but no matter – the publicity has  been huge.  Distinctive of this group, although well known to anyone who studies  religion and the way in which sects divide and proliferate, is the fact that  (with the possible exception of the Catholic Church) nothing incurs their wrath  than those who are pro-science but who refuse to agree that all and every kind  of religious belief is wrong, pernicious, and socially and personally dangerous.  Recently, it has been the newly appointed director of the NIH, Francis Collins,  who has been incurring their hatred.  Given the man’s scientific and managerial  credentials – completing the HGP under budget and under time for a start – this  is deplorable, if understandable since Collins is a devout Christian.

I am not a devout Christian, yet if anything, the things said against me are  worse.  Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, likens me  to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Hitler at Munich.  Jerry  Coyne reviewed one of my books (Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) using  the Orwellian quote that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I  believe in.  And non-stop blogger P. Z. Myers has referred to be as a “clueless  gobshite.”  This invective is all because, although I am not a believer, I do  not think that all believers are evil or stupid, and because I do not think that  science and religion have to clash.  (Of course some science and religion  clashes.  That is the whole point of the Darwinism-Creationism debate.  The  matter is whether all science and religion clash, something I deny  strongly.)

Let me say that I believe the new atheists do the side of science a grave  disservice.  I will defend to the death the right of them to say what they do – as one who is English-born one of the things I admire most about the USA is the  First Amendment.  But I think first that these people do a disservice to  scholarship.  Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the  point of non-being.  Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any  introductory philosophy or religion course.  Proudly he criticizes that whereof  he knows nothing.  As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I  felt sorry for the ontological argument.  If we criticized gene theory with as  little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly  indignant.  (He was just this when, thirty years ago, Mary Midgeley went after  the selfish gene concept without the slightest knowledge of genetics.)   Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins,  Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Secondly, I think that the new atheists are doing terrible political damage  to the cause of Creationism fighting.  Americans are religious people.  You may  not like this fact.  But they are.  Not all are fanatics.  Survey after survey  shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on  social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science.  They want  to be science-friendly, although it is certainly true that many have been  seduced by the Creationists.  We evolutionists have got to speak to these  people.  We have got to show them that Darwinism is their friend not their  enemy.  We have got to get them onside when it comes to science in the  classroom.  And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of  fanaticism, is just not going to do the job.  Nor is criticizing everyone, like  me, who wants to build a bridge to believers – not accepting the beliefs, but  willing to respect someone who does have them.  For myself, I would like America  to have a healthcare system like Canada – government run, compulsory, universal.  It is cheaper and better.  But I engage with those who want free enterprise to  be involved in the business.  Likewise I engage with believers – I don’t accept  their beliefs but I respect their right to have them.

Most importantly, the new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to  keep Creationism out of the schools.  The First Amendment does not ban the  teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools.  It bans the teaching of  religion.  That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its  side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science.  But sauce for the goose is  sauce for the gander.  If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion?  Obviously it  is teaching religion.  But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply  that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism  specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.  Perhaps indeed teaching  Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism.  This is the claim of the new  atheists.  If this is so, then we shall have to live with it and rethink our  strategy about Creationism and the schools.  The point is however that the new  atheists have lamentably failed to prove their point, and excoriating people  like me who show the failure is (again) not very helpful.

I think that P. Z. Myers and his crew are as disastrous to the evolution side – and people like me need to say this – as Ben Stein is disastrous to the  Creationism side – and the Creationists should have had the guts to say so.  I  have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an  atheist.  Let me say that again.  Let me say also that I am proud to be the  focus of the invective of the new atheists.  They are a bloody disaster and I  want to be on the front line of those who say so.


* Michael Ruse teaches at Florida State University. His latest book, published by Cambridge University press,  is Science and Spirituality

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The Canonical Historical Jesus

Reprinted with additions from The Sources of the Jesus Tradition (c) 2010 R. Joseph Hoffmann

Christ Pantocrator (Deesis mosaic detail)

The Canonical-Historical Jesus

R. Joseph Hoffmann

With the thunderous exception of the canonical version of Luke’s gospel, the historicity of Jesus is not a question for the New Testament writers.  I suggest that his historical existence cannot be established and cannot be confuted on the basis of the literary remains we possess from the late first and early second century.  Both the radical myth- school of the 19th century which advocated non-historicity and the view that serious scholarship is no longer interested in the question mark the extremes. However, the question that dominates early Christian discussion, the question through which the question of the historicity of Jesus emerges in later discussion, is fundamentally theological: It is the question of his humanity.

My argument in this modest essay is that while we cannot know for certain very much about a historical Jesus, not even for certain whether he existed, we can reconstruct fairly exactly the theological conditions under which his historical existence became indispensable for Christian theology.  This being so, the question of the selection of books that were useful in the pitched battles between two views of Jesus–call them spiritual and earthly–is central, not anterior,  to the question we call historicity.

When we think of the chronology of events that lead to the development of the New Testament, we usually think of the canon in final position.  The making of the church’s book is regarded as the last act, so to speak, in the compilation of letters, short stories, an apocalypse and gospels that make up the collection.  The way scholars and theologians have traditionally spoken about the canon suggests that it has almost nothing to do with the subject matter of the whole, but that its wholeness determines the permissible limits of the subject matter. That it is, in some sense, an executive decision imposed on unruly members. If Jesus is the protagonist of the gospels, the saving presence that inspires Paul’s letters, the heavenly king of revelation, he is, in some strange way, missing from the concept of a canon. That is because a canon is a selection of books thought to be authoritative and complete.  In Greek the word implies a hard and inflexible instrument used for writing, and its closest Latin equivalent is regula, from which we get words like ruler and rule—a standard against which other things must be judged.  The canon as it is traditionally understood, regulates what can be regarded as trustworthy, or to use a term manufactured by the church fathers, apostolic.


The theory that has dominated NT scholarship until relatively recently has run something like this.  The historical Jesus was enshrined in memories about his life, words, and work.  This would have happened before his death and the process would have accelerated following his death, especially if his death was interpreted as a martyrdom, or otherwise thought to have significant consequences.

Of these memories (without prejudice to their historicity), the event of his resurrection was the most prominent, for obvious reasons.  The memory, embedded in oral traditions about Jesus, was not fixed and final; it moved from mouth to ear, community to community.  It became affixed to local traditions—the Jesus of Rome was not in every detail the Jesus of Antioch or Anatolia.  The Jesus of Mark is not the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel.  Scholars for the last century have described the variance in these memories as trajectories or lines of tradition rather than as a single tradition arising from a single source. Various Jesus quests and other Jesus projects have made it their business to bring the trajectories as close as possible to a defining event, and this defining event is assumed to be historical.

In time, recorders of the traditions arose. We think they worked in the service of a movement (communities of believers), not as simple biographers, and that their work was closely attached to preaching and propaganda.  They recorded things Jesus was said to have said, and said to have done.  Their words were not coherent biographies, but more of the order of aides memoires or collections of sayings, reminiscences.  They were not, as far as we can determine, transcriptional—that is, based on direct knowledge, though later, for apologetic reasons, the concept of witness and successions of witnesses becomes prominent.  The assured authority these writings lacked at the point of their composition is imposed by later writers in debates about what constitutes right belief or orthodoxy.

Some early communities seem to have possessed a class of prophets—women and men believed to be able to recall the words of Jesus on a number of topics, ranging from divorce to paying taxes to the unimportance of worldly goods and duties towards neighbours and enemies. Other strands envisioned Jesus pronouncing on the end of days and God’s judgment. Others envisioned him as a teacher of aphoristic wisdom and a revealer sent by God to preach, essentially, a message about his heavenly origins.  This last strand tended to portray Jesus as a relatively obscure figure whose sayings were mysterious and limited to a kind of spiritual elite, as in the Fourth Gospel.  But even in the so-called synoptic gospels, this strand is present with the role of the elite being played by apostles whose minds have been clouded by earthly concerns.  Since the mid 20th century it has been convenient if not exact to call this strand “Gnostic.” Gnosticism was not one thing however but many things; even Irenaeus who made bashing Gnostics a fine art, compares them to weeds.

To be brief, however: At some point at the end of the first century and continuing well into the second, gospels appear, as do letters from missionaries, apocalypses both Christian and adopted, books of oracles, stories of the apostles and their miraculous feats.  One of the remarkable things about this development is the sheer increase of letters ascribed to “the apostles” and women followers of Jesus’ day, some 75 years and more after the death of Jesus.  It is hard to hard to avoid the impression that the historical tradition began to erode in conjunction with competition between communities and their indepednent claims to possess “fuller” or more detailed representaions of the Jesus story.  It is equally difficult to ignore the fact that the work of some missionaries–Paul being the outstanding example–was so hostile to historical tradition that  it risked sacrificing it entirely to eccentric theological interests and the desire to out-perform  rival teachers.

As in the study of secular literature, scholars recognize these variant literary forms as genres or types, each type serving a slightly different confessional purpose but all tending to support the interests of Christian communities in knowing who Jesus was, what he said, what he had come to do.

Different communities said different things, however.  The most heavily gnosticized of them possessed a theology of such Pythagorean complexity that it sometimes verges on what Joseph Fitzmyer once described as crazy.  The ones we recognize as “orthodox” or canonical, for the most part, are familiar if unresolved blends of the historical and supernatural, the pedagogical and the mysterious: words about the poor, or advice about adultery, stand next to stories about raising a widow’s son from the dead, and being transfigured alongside Moses and Elijah.  The effect of this blending was to create a god-man of uncertain proportions.  How human was he?  How divine?

The literature itself did not provide the percentages, the definitions, but the questions nagged and would finally result in official decisions about the divinity and humanity of Jesus in the fourth and fifth century.


Between the second and the fourth century however is the making of the New Testament. And this is where the canon—the process of winnowing and selection–comes into view. It is important to remember, as we look at the canon, that no one who wove the web of sayings and deeds into the form we call gospel wrote with the intention of having his work anthologized.  –Think back to those literature-survey courses you may have taken in college—Shakespeare wrote what he wrote; he did not design it to be included as a unit in the section before the Metaphysical poets and Restoration Drama. “Mark” likewise wrote what he wrote; his editors edited what they edited, and the canon-makers chose what they chose.

The canon gives an impression of consensus, evangelical uniformity, as if a vote had been taken, with all members present, to certify that what’s written is their contribution to the “authorized version” of Jesus.  This is of course the impression the proponents of canonicity (though not with one voice or at one time) wished to convey when they linked the canon to the defense of a growing body of doctrine, or teaching about Jesus, and the origins of that doctrine to another idea, belief in apostolicity.

To oversimplify this process: certain beliefs about Jesus, including above all the matter of his humanity and divinity were at the center of second and third century discussion.  This discussion does not take the form of theological point and counterpoint in its earliest phases. In its earliest phases, it must go back to the way the Jesus-story spread, or was understood, in places like Antioch, Ephesus, Rome and Sinope, or was communicated by missionaries like Paul, whose references to the historical Jesus, if there are any intentional ones, are not prominent.

What we possess are documentary traces of the discussion before it becomes an official debate by early church leaders, who will make each other orthodox and heretical in the course of the argument. In its formative stages, including the composition of the individual New Testament books, Christianity did not seek uniformity of doctrine because the shapers of the Jesus tradition did not imagine their works would be forced into alignment.

The idea of a fourfold or tetramorph gospel goes back to ancient harmonies like Tatian’s and were still being produced for use in Sunday schools, like McGarvey’s 1914 Fourfold Gospel “Resulting in a complete chronological life of Christ, divided into titled sections and sub-divisions, with comments injected in the text.”  It is too much to say that individual writers thought they had a monopoly on the whole story—an author of John’s gospel for example expressly puts his story forward as a collection, a partial one—or that individual writers wrote in order to produce a final version, though an editor of the gospel called Luke writes with an intention to sequentialize versions of the sources he knows.  That is all we know.  Because of the way in which sources were used and refashioned, however, it is tempting to think that the cache of materials that could properly be desribed as ‘historical’ (in the sense of being thought to originate very close to the time when Jesus lived) was quite small.  John’s contribution stands outside this matrix, though it presents some tantalizing possibilities.

In terms of other kinds of NT literature, Paul may have had a “canonical intention,” but the collecting and canonizing of his letters and the creation of new ones, is an event of the early second century, of a Paul-devotee known to history as a heretic—Marcion–not of his lifetime.

The canon does not arise as a spontaneous development, any more than Christian orthodoxy emerges as a single deposit in a bank account–to use an image from the second century. The canon is the regulation of sources that supported a growing consensus about who Jesus was, or rather, what was to be believed about him.  If not a majority, then a significant, well-organized, and powerful minority of voices found his complete and total humanity a non-negotiable criterion for believing the right thing about him.  They found their support for this view in a fairly small number of sources that they believed dated from apostolic times.

My argument here is that it is impossible to discuss the historicity of Jesus simply on the basis of the individual sources available in the church’s selection of books, or by parsing their contents, and equally difficult to advance the argument much further on the basis of gnostic and apocryphal sources that did not make the final cut. I am certainly not saying that research into the sayings of Jesus and attempts to construct a prototype gospel are useless.  But the endeavor is bound to be incomplete unless the theological motives for defending a fully historical Jesus are brought into the picture.  The early church, the framers of the canon especially, were not interested in an historical Jesus per se but in a fully human Jesus.  Indeed, it is partly their concern and stress on this overt humanness with no accompanying mitigation of other claims—e.g., that he ascended into heaven, calmed seas, rose from the dead—that fuels speculation about whether such a man can have existed historically at all.  The canon is not the proof of his historicity therefore but the earliest theological matrix out of which suspicions about it arise.

In any consideration of the historical Jesus , the following propositions about the canonical and human Jesus need to be weighed:

1.  The gospels make no explicit argument for the historicity of Jesus.  In the gospels, his historical existence is assumed.  In the letters of Paul—while I agree that Paul is profoundly silent on many of the historical markers—it is in the background.  In late letters, such as 1 John, acknowledgement that Jesus has come in the flesh is made decisive—those who deny it are antichrist (4.3). I regard Galatians 4.4f.  completely helpful as a “proof” of Paul’s conviction as to the existence of an earthly, flesh and blood, Jesus. ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναῖκος, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον, 5 ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον ἐξαγοράσῃ ἵνα τὴν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπολάβωμεν. It is also significant that Paul is not willing to go much further with this claim, even though he offers it as a way of establishing Christians as the inheritors of “sonship” on the same axis he uses to establish the Abrahamic succession through Isaac.

2.  If there is a litmus test for the “physical historical” Jesus in the gospels, it is the crucifixion.  Secondarily it is his bodily resurrection—which may sound odd, but in a significant way qualifies the kind of human existence his believers thought he possessed.  In time, stories of virgin birth, fabulous details and genealogy are appended to complete the story.  The birth stories however are designed to illustrate Jesus’ exceptionality, even to correct the impressions of his human ordinariness.  Any indifferent reading of the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke see them as epiphany stories whose closest analogies are accounts of the birth of Hermes in the Homeric “hymn,” or of Augustus’ in the account of Atia’s pregnancy. That miraculous components from biblical sources are intertwined with these allusions is equally plain and as far as I can tell uncontroversial.

3.  I believe that by the early second century a certain comfort level concerning the humanity of Jesus was being achieved among significant teachers—the names we now group under designations such as apostolic fathers, the apologists, heresiologists—men like Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian.  At the risk of being outrageous, I would add Marcion to the list even though he was not destined to become a church father but rather an arch-heretic.  They had settled on the idea that Jesus was “truly” or “wholly” human.  In the Creed it would run,    ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς Παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα.   Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα.

4.  Beginning with Polycarp, that is prior to 155 or so, the practice of proof-texting or citing scriptural passages to teach doctrine and win arguments, becomes a standard method in Christian theology. This presupposes a process of selection of sources useful to root out teaching thought to be false, or to use the word that becomes fashionable by the end of the century, heretical.  The canon therefore arises in the process of these debates with false teachers.

5.  The key element in this process—which is not always explicit: that is, not a simple list of books decreed to be canonical such as the so-called Muratorian fragment or the decree of Pope Gelasius in the fifth century—is to affirm against the teachings of docetists and assorted Gnostic groups, that Jesus of Nazareth has come in the flesh (truly born and truly died).  This is the doctrinal motif of canon formation.  It also establishes once and for all the conjunction between canonicity, historicity, and humanity—three ideas now so closely interwoven theologically than they cannot easily be separated phenomenologically.

6.  But there is a second motive:  with the exception of Luke’s belated construction of an apostolic college in the book of Acts, the apostles do not fare well in the gospels.  To be kind, they are slow-witted students. Without exploring the many interesting guesses about this characterization, early Christian writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian were obsessed with their rehabilitation—especially since teachers like Marcion preferred to leave them in the mud or at the bottom of their class. The true reasons for this characterization had been lost by the second century, indeed even by Luke’s day, though there is ample reason to believe it was not historical accuracy but pedagogical necessity that sealed their reputation in Mark’s gospel. By the time Irenaeus writes his treatise against the heresies at the end of the 2nd century, the idea of a continuous tradition of truth, transmitted by faithful, inerrant followers, and a faithful passing down of teaching from apostle to later teachers (John to Polycarp and Anicetus for example) has become standard.  Canonicity has been tied to apostolicity.

7.  Irenaeus is really the first to make this motive explicit around the year 180, though an earlier church leader (how much earlier is hard to decide) named Papias hints at something of the same logic.  Actually Papias is remembered by the historian Eusebius as a man with limited intellectual powers (3.39.13), but the germ of an idea of unbroken tradition extending from Jesus to the apostles to the presbyters is present in his journalistic approach to sources.  His criterion is oral tradition handed down to presbyters; in fact he says he doesn’t put much stock in “books” and rejects the voluminous falsehoods they contain—whatever that may mean—but prizes the living “voice of truth.”  Papias’s reference to “books” is odd, and even what he says about what he says he knows, for example, about gospels like Mark and Matthew is improbable.

However that may be, Irenaeus exploits the idea of unbroken male succession to offer a fourfold attestation of truth, corresponding he says (3.11.8) to the four principal churches, the four winds, and the four corners of the earth. “It is impossible that the gospels should be greater or fewer in number than four.”

Irenaeus argues tradition as a natural principle: using his predecessors’ assumptions, he finds denial of the humanity of Jesus the benchmark of false teaching, and in a famous scene depicts his own teacher Polycarp as rejecting Marcion in a bathhouse in Ephesus calling him the first born of Satan (AH 3.3.4).  The key to overcoming the spiritualized Jesus of Gnosticism was to insist on an unbroken tradition that required his material, physical existence. An earthly, fully historical savior is the presupposition of the historical process he uses as the basis of his argument.

The historical Jesus is therefore not inherent in any gospel, nor even in the canon, but in a process.  That process was slow to develop and developed in response to specific threats, the teachings of men and women who rejected a mundane understanding of salvation and the role of Jesus in the process.  The historical Jesus was not necessitated by the gospel, but by the need for an authoritative teacher who selects and commissions other teachers, and in a self referential way, who are able to select those books where the approved story is told.  It follows that only by deconstructing that process from its canonical end-point will it be possible to reconstruct the question of Jesus.  This process is largely the opposite of Schweitzer’s approach, with his post-Enlightenment protestant faith in documentary sources in their “original” form, and conviction that the Jesus who emerged from such investigation would stand in marked opposition to the Jesus made by the church’s theology.    Important as his insights were for their era, they were based on an epistemology that now belongs to the history of biblical studies and cannot serve as a template for future research on the question.

[to be concluded]