Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth

I received this book in the mail a few days ago courtesy of Frank Zindler:

Yeah…

Frank Zindler even signed it:

zindler

As much as I appreciate the gracious sentiment from Frank, I am not sure I deserve such an accolade.  He may feel differently after he reads this review.

Let me say that Frank and Bob Price did a decent job as editors.  The book, published through the American Atheist Press (2013) is, at 567 pages, a collection of 21 essays compiled into four sections and  a concluding chapter. The 21 essays are divided, rather unevenly, between seven contributors: Frank Zindler, Bob Price, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, D.M. Murdock (Acharya S), Rene Salm, and Earl Doherty (Zindler has the most with nine essays, Earl Doherty comes in next with five essays).

My only gripe as far as editing goes is that there are no indices.  Having an author index, at least a select bibliography, would have been valuable to the volume and at least added some gloss of academia to the volume.  Instead, the lack of an index of any kind only adds to this book’s woes.  More on this in a moment.

At a stock price of over $30 for a paperback that isn’t published through an academic press, I found it wanting for more (or to use Zindler’s words, ‘left…in a state of stunned perplexity’). While I was not a fan of Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist? (I even wrote a paper which was published last year in the online journal Bible and Interpretation), he is still a scholar–a professional, in fact–who has produced some extremely valuable resources for students and textual critics.  Even if he is misguided, even if he is wrong (his arguments are flawed, but whether or not his conclusions are wrong has yet to be proven in any respect), he earned the right to be treated in a manner that befits his position in the academy.

Some may disagree; that’s fine.  There are ways to attack an argument with passion without resorting to a personal attack.  Instead this volume is, essentially, nearly 600 pages of polemics and rhetoric.   This book should have been a collection worth taking seriously; the last thing mythicism needs is yet another self-published volume full of venom and disgust.  Even if those emotions are justified (and I’m not saying they are), if the mythicist wants to be taken seriously–should they not approach this polarizing and controversial subject in a manner different than the way Ehrman had?  If Ehrman had done nothing else in his volume but demean and belittle every mythicist, does that mean that the mythicist should do the same?  I don’t think so; especially if one wants to have their arguments considered.

The title of this volume bespeaks the purpose: it is a series of essays with the intent to character assassinate.  Price makes no secret of this; he states in the introduction that this book represents a ‘counter-polemical’ because Ehrman started it (seriously).  And Price’s attempts to link the contributors of the volume, in all, and those who support the so-called ‘Christ Myth Theory’ with minimalism is a void one.  While I do argue that I am a sort of ‘New Testament minimalist’, the difference in all of this is that I’ve not made any anti-academic claims or any statement of certainty.  While Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies may be called minimalists, they don’t agree on everything (from dating texts to who may or may not have been historical); the analogy is flawed as what Bob and others are arguing in this volume is that Jesus is a myth, as in lacking any historical function.  And one cannot simply combine Thompson and Davies (or Lemche and Pfoh, etc…, into a comparable ‘David Myth Theory’, now can we?  To my knowledge there exists no volume published by minimalists arguing against Bill Dever or Gary Rendsburg (as much as they might deserve it).

Price also gives D.M. Murdock too much credit.  He is guilty of inflating her credentials in many respects and, while they are friends, it is distracting.  He writes, for example, that ‘her chief sin in Ehrman’s eyes would appear to be her lack of diplomas on the wall’, but that is an oversimplification of what Ehrman argues.  In fact, her ignorance of modern historical methodologies and current studies in various fields is painfully obvious to any of her readers.  She makes mistakes for which she rarely apologizes and continues to argue in the same flawed manner regardless of whether or not she is wrong.  When she feels threatened, she directs her horde of minions (devoted followers–many who have been spammed or trolled by these minions will know what I mean) against the target in an attempt to dissuade (bully) him/her from arguing against her again.  It is distasteful and unwarranted; I am quite surprised that Ehrman was able to keep his composure while speaking of her work as well as he did–a testament to his professionalism (even if the arguments he makes in the book are not).

Also there is a surprising amount of personal correspondence.  Frank produces some 75 pages for his first contribution and more than half of it consists of various email exchanges between Ehrman and himself.  This troubles me as I am not so sure that such a move is ethical.  Certainly Ehrman is busy, as he has actual scholarly work to do (at a prestigious academic institution no less), like teaching students, chairing committees, being a department head, reviewing grad work from students, appearing on doctoral panels, and so on.   When I respond to emails, I am vague and type quickly, especially when I have a lot of them and other pressing matters on my mind.  I can not imagine what Ehrman’s inbox looks like and I cannot begrudge him for being curt or limited or even appearing confused or disgruntled!  The man has a lot to do.  In my humble opinion, it is wholly unwelcome that Zindler dedicated so much space to these emails and also formulated a polemical argument around them; it is quite unfortunate that this appears in this volume.

Another issue I have is the obvious anti-Christian (pro-Atheist) theme that runs through most of the articles.  I get it: published through the American Atheist Press; Frank Zindler, Bob Price, Acharya S, and so on, are atheists; but the whole point–I would imagine–is to not burn the bridges between you and your potential readers.  Additionally, painting Ehrman has someone who wags his finger while, incidentally, allowing ones polemical paper to include finger-wagging against Christians seems to me to be counter-productive.  Especially since one of Ehrman’s arguments is that mythicists are merely angry atheists hellbent on destroying Christianity.

For those interested in owning this volume, I suppose it has one or two redeeming qualities that make it worth owning.

First, Richard Carrier’s online content has been reedited and is as devastating as ever.  But Carrier makes sure to include the caveat that he disagrees with many of the claims made by the rest of the contributors of the volume–so the one of only two individuals in the lot (Bob Price is the other) who has credibility (according to academic standards) has essentially already buried the hatchet in most of the volume.   Obviously, read it and judge for yourself whether his caveat is appropriate (I think it is).  That said, Carrier’s is one of the best that this collection of essays has to offer–but if you’ve read his blog then you really don’t need to buy this book.

Second, I do appreciate Price’s explanation that mythicism is not so easily definable.  But he is also wrong in some respects.  While ten people may have the same conclusion, it does not mean they all reached that conclusion the same way.  Some may have reached the conclusion based on academic curiosity, but some may just have been curious (and also ignorant), others may be conspiracists, others still educated laypeople who have an interest but no real academic discipline or proficiency with the languages.  So what one has are a few people with legitimate work in the field, and most with zero credible work in the field but with lots of speculation and (dis)organized arguments that don’t always show signs of being self-aware of their own limitations.

Third, Doherty has some rather cleverly-written articles in this volume.  But if you want to read Doherty–read him.

In conclusion, I was disappointed.  This book represents the very thing you should never do, not even if you feel it is justified.  This book lacked everything and what it had in abundance was unnecessary polemics.  It was published through a house owned by (or at least in part) one of the coeditors, most of the articles would not make it into an academic publication (e.g., none would pass peer review) due to the careless language or lack of verifiable claims, and what good was said throughout is lost on the flippancy of the rest of the content.  This book actually makes me want to openly apologize to Bart Ehrman on behalf of the contributors–even though I do not count myself among them.

But these criticisms of mine, while they are harsh, can be corrected.  This is the bright side.  If Frank Zindler, et al, felt slighted by Ehrman, why didn’t they do what I did (or Thomas Thompson)?  One need only write a paper and submit it to a journal.  The goal should be to circulate criticisms of the book, respectfully written with valuable contributions to the institution, to the people who need it–scholars.  This has been my biggest complaint about mythicists: they demand to be taken seriously but refuse to do what is necessary to earn that respect.  Alas, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth is just the most recent example of such a blatant refusal.

UPDATE:

For those looking for a thorough and more academic treatment of Ehrman’s Did Jesus exist?, see my published article Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship found at the online journal Bible and Interpretation.

Also Philip Davies excellent treatment here: http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml

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10 Responses

  1. I’m fairly familiar with D.M. Murdock, and she is basically the Giorgio Tsoukalos of religious studies. That she somehow keeps being given a level of recognition in the field of Jesus studies is, quite frankly, pretty damning of Jesus studies as a field wanting of respect. There are hack frauds in other fields, yes, and there are scholars of religion which give her work the contempt it deserves, yes… but I never see, e.g. astronomers mention Immanuel Velikovsky as a credible researcher nearly as often as I see scholars of religion mention Murdock.

    I hope her inclusion in an anthology with Richard Carrier doesn’t speak ill of the latter’s credibility, as I’ve been wanting to check out some of his stuff.

  2. No one really ever mentions her in Biblical Studies except when they are being refuted. Her books are not nearly that influential, precisely because they are terrible. Not sure what your meaning is in that regard. No credible scholar I know would cite her as a source (except perhaps how ‘not’ to argue a point).

  3. Regarding what the first comment said about D.M. Murdock, as far as I can remember, I have never *ever* seen Murdock cited in a journal article, academic book essay, or scholarly monograph on the topic of early Christianity (not saying it never has happened, but I am somewhat clued up on the subject of Christian origins). I would honestly be surprised if D.M. Murdock was ever cited in such publications, even as an object of derision (because her works are not even remotely germane to the field of inquiry).

  4. Quite so! And that was my point; she is utterly ignored because she fails to live up to even the most modest of historical methodologies. What she writes is just wholly untrustworthy.

  5. Richard Carrier’s scholarship is beyond reproach; he’s an excellent scholar.

  6. Absolutely.

  7. [...] Tom Verenna reviews Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. [...]

  8. [...] Tom Verenna drew a new book to my attention, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. He has now written a very negative review of the volume. [...]

  9. [...] post is a response to Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. I read this review before I received my own (Kindle) copy of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the [...]

  10. When I say she is given too much credit, much of what I mean is simply that she is given ATTENTION. The thing about Murdock is, she is not a scholar with an unpopular opinion, she isn’t even a fringe kook– she’s some random person who has opinions and somehow gets mentioned by other authors, even defended (as in the latest post on vridar.wordpress.com, for example).

    The problem with treating Murdock as though she is even worth responding to, is that it gives people the wrong impression. This is precisely what people mean when they object to creationists talking about “teaching the controversy”– there is no controversy of that sort! There is no reputable school of biology which still buys into young-earth creationism, just as there is no reputable school of religious studies that believes Solomon represents the sun because his name comes from Latin sol, “Eastern” om, and Egyptian on… which is one of Murdock’s arguments.

    Let me try to explain myself with a mini-analogy: if I were to say “Susan can’t do graduate-level mathematics because she doesn’t know differential equations”, then what I am saying would be correct. But it gives you the entirely wrong impression, because there is something else I’m not telling you: Susan is 2 years old. Susan can’t do grad-level maths, because Susan can’t COUNT– the bit about not knowing differential equations is true, but also disingenuous and misleading.

    So it is with D.M. Murdock. For the record I’m not saying she’s not entitled to her opinions, or that she shouldn’t be allowed to write and publish books. But the school of religious studies even acknowledging her– like how Ehrman, Price, and Godfrey do– is like a botanist “acknowledging” an internet blogger who thinks all plants are man-made and are part of a conspiracy to get people to buy pesticides.

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