Free Inquiry into the Mythical Jesus? Doesn’t Look Like It


In the process of preparing for my talk about the historical Jesus and the Jesus myth hypothesis, I considered bringing up the difficulty in talking about the subject in an academic setting. Since there is a preponderance of Christians in this area, and they believe in a historical Jesus, which also is at the base of their religious convictions, then that can produce a bias. But that seemed a bit of an ad hominem and a genetic fallacy. But perhaps I should reconsider.

As I have been alerted by Neil Godfrey, who links to an article in the Irish Sun, there has been a significant event in the life of Thomas Brodie. As I had mentioned in my book review of his autobiography, he came out in public for the first time on the side of Jesus being a myth and the Gospels all being fictions. He also called into question the authenticity of all the epistles. Now it seems that he has been removed from the Dominican Biblical Institute, a center which he helped create for research purposes. Brodie is also, according to The Sun, not allowed to lecture, teach, or write while a probe in his order, the Dominicans, is under way, an investigation that is said to possibly be done and known by the end of next week. Brodie was not successfully reached for contact by the journalist. [Update: see here]

So, quite literally, Brodie is being shut up by his order. The book caused a stir, and now he is forced out. This is utterly disgusting. Brodie has been publishing for decades in peer-reviewed journals, has produced academic monographs, and has worked with other scholars such as Dennis MacDonald in advancing the use of memesis and intertextuality in understanding ancient literature, especially Christian literature. He was no hack, and he seems to have been respected by others in his field. He also had students, basically being a good professor.

So is this how institutions are going to deal with ideas they don’t like? Well, unfortunately, that may be so. Bart Ehrman last year when promoting his book Did Jesus Exist? said that the view that Jesus didn’t exist was so wild and against the consensus that no one having that view could get an academic position; it would be like giving a young-earth creationist a university post in biology. As if the evidence for Jesus was anything even comparable to the evidence for evolution and the age of the Earth (and Ehrman’s research was unfortunately poor at best, making his position on Jesus as unfounded as any mythicist’s). James McGrath seems to side with Ehrman and considers the call for academic freedom a creationist tactic. That creates intimidation for anyone who may be persuaded that Jesus was mythical to come out at say so, making an apparent consensus that Jesus was real according to academics, feeding the ridicule of anyone who says otherwise.

And so it seems in the case of Brodie, that intimidation is real. He took a risk in coming out as a mythicist to the public (something he otherwise only intimated in private, according to his memoir), and how he has been kicked out. A disgrace.

But this isn’t the only relatively recent purging of the unwanted. Last year there was the story of the removal of another scholar, Christopher Rollston. He is not mythicist, but a mainstream scholar, respected by his peers. But apparently he was removed from his position. Why? Apparently, it was because the seminary he was at wanted a large monetary donation, and part of the deal was the removal of Rollston. What had he done that was so troubling? Supposedly his article about women in the Bible was not what the donors wanted (it made the Bible look bad), and that was the trigger. He has gotten support for his peers, but he was removed nonetheless.

If we go back just a little further in time, I had talked about another case of witch hunts in biblical studies, though here it was confined to evangelicals/fundamentalists. In that case, Mike Licona was kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society because he wouldn’t without doubt say that the dead saints coming to life in Matt 27 were really, really, REALLY real. That was enough for Norman Geisler to push for his removal, which was successful. Licona did have supporters, but some would not help him publicly lest they also be the target of persecutions. In that same blog post, I talked about another evangelical removed from his position because he believed in genetics and thus the impossibility of the human population ever being down to a handful of people, as suggested by the Adam and Eve (or Noah) story.

Add all this up, and it looks like there are powerful forces in biblical studies that actively suppresses the views it does not like. Instead of having papers written to rebut claims that are against the consensus, we have the crushing of academic freedom. From the harassment of comparing Jesus mythicists to creationists or Holocaust deniers, to the removal of funds to seminaries not saying the right things, to the actual removal of dissenting voices, there are institutional problems.

This isn’t totally new, either. Back in the 1970s, Thomas Thompson was hounded for arguing that the patriarchs of the Old Testament were not historical, and he could not get a job anywhere (he had to become a house painter for some time). This is a point made by Philip Davies, noting the striking parallels between now and how Thompson’s beliefs were treated (and how it seems to be repeated at Thompson concerning Jesus!). Go back further to 19th century Germany, and you had skeptical biblical scholars like David Strauss losing his professorship; Bruno Bauer, an early mythicist, was also kicked out of his profession. Return to modern Germany, and Gerd Luedemann loses his post for not believing in Jesus.

I think this should bring up the call made by Hector Avalos in his The End of Biblical Studies: the way the study of the Bible is currently done has to change if it is to be a respectable, academic discipline rather than a wing of religious institutions. In the mean time, when the scholars do come to some consensus position, such as on the historicity of Jesus, can we really trust that the reasoning process if valid if we have evidence that dissenters will be hounded and removed? Unless the academy can get its act together, it will lose their authority.

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11 thoughts on “Free Inquiry into the Mythical Jesus? Doesn’t Look Like It

  1. Hello,
    I’m just curious. What are the top 3-5 reasons why you are an atheist/agnostic. I apologize I don’t know which you are and I didn’t search your blog to find out if you’ve discussed your worldview before.
    -zan (zusings.wordpress.com)

    • Hi. I haven’t really made a case for why I think there are no gods, but I can summarize my thinking. First, it seems the properties of a god are initially highly improbable because of our background knowledge. I tried to make an estimate of this here.

      As for evidence, the other coin you have to look at to see if something is true, there are several things. One is that a being that has as a priority of making the world one as good as possible for other beings has failed. I don’t consider this (usually called the Problem of Evil) a proof against gods, just a probability argument. There is also a lack of confirmed miracles, something expected if there were supernatural beings popping around and doing things as most believers think. The universe is pretty much as we expect to see it if it ran on just physical laws and chance encounters; we don’t see an ultimate goal for it, other than its eventual heat death billions and billions of years from now (read that in a Carl Sagan voice 😉 ).

      I haven’t defended my premises here, but those are the general thoughts I have about why I don’t believe. Hope that helps.

  2. Pingback: Free Inquiry into the Jesus Myth–A Follow-up | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  3. Cool, the argument of “there can’t be a God because of the problem of evil” actually self destructs. Because if there is evil then there must be good. Then there must be a way to distinguish between good and evil. Then there must exist a moral law. And finally there must exist a personified moral law giver. The moral law giver implies personification versus nature(pantheism) because the direct object in question are people.

    I’m interested to know: how do you differentiate between good and evil now?

    • Note that with the Problem of Evil, I don’t say that there ought not to be any evil, just that the level of pain, suffering, etc. is beyond that which is necessary to make the best possible world. A more desirable world is imaginable than our current state, thus we are not in the best possible world. As for moral laws requiring a moral law giver, that goes into the self-destructive Euthyphro dilemma. Does God say X is good because it is good, or is X good only because God says X is good? Take the former, then goodness is independent of God’s decree; take the later, and the good is arbitrary. Rape, murder, and the like could be good, and only an independent mode of thinking on morals gets us out of that. In this way most philosophers do not go with the divine command theory. Plato pretty much destroyed it 2400 years ago.

      As for how one determines right from wrong, there is a lot published on that, and philosophers disagree a plenty. However, the best theories seem to consider the consequences of actions, and goal theory appears to me to be the most justified. The best version I have seen comes from Richard Carrier in his chapter of moral realism in the book “The End of Christianity”. There you can see the nitty-gritty of what an “ought” statement means, and how to get what you ought to do give the facts of the universe and your desires.

    • On the view I take, morals are not relative. They depend on the facts of the universe. The only part that could be relative is the desires of people. However, there does seem to be one goal that all people have: happiness/contentedness. Since all people have the same ultimate goal, and all humans have pretty much the same brain stuff and same things that will make happiness (at least from a statistical point of view), then the same “oughts” will be applicable to all people. Hence the morals are pretty much universal. This is even true for psychopaths; they want to be happy as well, and they are actually not happy being devious in the long run. Studies on such people find that they are actually profoundly sad, in part because they don’t have the ability to empathize with others, so they cannot share in the happiness of others.

      As for what things make us all happy: social activities, helping others, things like that. Pro-social behaviors not only make other people happy, they make ourselves happy. Therefore, you ought to do these things. Anti-social behavior, such as stealing, assaulting, etc. not only will get you into legal trouble, but you will be socially reprimanded and feel terrible. Again, thieves and murderers are not the happy people of the world, far from it.

      Again, I suggest the literature I mentioned earlier since it lays out its case in logical deductions and really takes the best of virtue ethics, utilitarialism, Kantian ethics, and relativism.

      But for now, consider the proposition: why ought you listen to the moral dictates of God? The crass way of answering that is do them, go to heaven; don’t do them, go to hell. But you see, the ought of “obey God” has two premises: 1) doing what God says will get you to heaven and avoid hell, and 2) you want to go to heaven and avoid hell. However, neither premise can be shown to be true (the existence of heaven is not demonstrated, for example), so the conclusion “obey God” cannot follow. Christians can give other reasons, such as do what God says and you will be happier, but that only means that there are things that will make you happy, and you ought to do what makes you happy. God is not necessary to know what will make you happy, so the divine command theory fails again.

      Sorry if this is long-winded, but I wanted to be clear. Have to run now. Take care!

  4. Have fun!

    Relativism cannot be true. We cannot say “it’s absolutely true that some things are sometimes true” . If it includes itself then we are saying the relativism is relative. If it doesn’t include itself then we are throwing out the very idea of truth. Your examples of what should make everyone happy are still from your worldview. They are not transcendent absolute rules that will fit into every culture and socioeconomic background.

    Without God, morals are relative but relativism cannot be true. This is a challenge in today’s postmodern society which challenges absolute truth, the meaning of words and rejects classic reasoning, empiricism, religion and has left man to rely on his existential experiences.

    I believe in God and his son Jesus because he has made faith reasonably approachable and he has proven himself over and over again to be someone worth loving in return.

    I wish the very best for you on your journey and since you’ve read tons of other things why not humor this: http://tinyurl.com/b9aadj3

    -zan

  5. Pingback: Update on Thomas Brodie | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  6. Pingback: Pope Benedict on the Way Out | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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