Let me preface this by stating clearly and directly that everyone, regardless of who you are or what you study, has a bias towards the evidence. This includes me, this includes Godfrey, this includes James McGrath. We all are approaching the evidence from a position of bias. It is the goal of each of us–at least I know it is for me and it should be for everyone else–to limit the effect of that bias upon our conclusions. We do this by trying to come up with sound methodology and we try to apply this methodology rigorously and critically, even against our own conclusions (at least we should), so that we can come up with an interpretation of the evidence that is as free of our own will as we can.
First, my biases: I am a humanist, but I am also a metaphysical naturalist and I see the world through a secular lens. I am critical of the Biblical narratives, though I appreciate them and have a fond respect for their history and place in that diachronic scale, but I have no vested interest in the narratives being true. I lean towards a mythical figure of Jesus (that is to say, I doubt such a figure existed historically), but I am agnostic on the question since I don’t believe an answer can be found just yet. But even if it turned out that the figure of Jesus was historical, it would change nothing for me. He would still be that guy (no, not that guy) who died a few thousand years ago. It might change how I evaluate the New Testament (in that I would have to reconsider the value of Paul’s letters towards the question of a historical Jesus) but such occurrences happen often in scholarship (I am constantly adjusting my interpretation of the evidence based upon new data–even if it conflicts against opinions I have held for a while). So I really have no bias at all towards the idea that Jesus was a mythical construct. Myth or historical fact, it troubles me not. I just happen to feel that the evidence may more strongly weigh down on this side of the debate.
I am not so sure that the same can be said for either James McGrath or Neil Godfrey. This troubles me because they have both been at each others throats now going on three or more years. They continue to talk past each other, producing a dialogue which is full of vitriol. It is neither helpful not productive. I sit back and watch at a distant and shake my head. Both are committing errors that need to be rectified if this slugging match between them has hopes of turning into anything fruitful.
Neil is constantly coming down upon James’ credibility as a scholar and his credentials. He attacks James personally and then gets upset when James does the same. He is not always cordial, he can be careless when making points, or relies too much on his own wit without taking into consideration how his post will come across. But more than this I believe that Neil has an emotional investment in the ahistorical arguments of the figure of Jesus.
I believe strongly that this is the case; Neil gets way too defensive when James comes after him and forgets his sense of humor. That to me is indicative of a person who has too much of himself involved in his perspectives. I can completely relate because I used to live in Neil’s shoes (on this issue, I mean). There was a time when I was emotionally invested in the arguments against historicity. It wasn’t that I was ignorant (much), but I failed to see the larger picture. There is a point when one has to pick their battles and I was far, far too ideological for my own good. Neil might not see this in himself, and he might disagree with me, but the evidence really isn’t that conclusively in favor of his arguments (even if I think he often makes strong arguments that fall upon deaf ears).
But Neil isn’t the only one responsible for this failed dialogue. James has his own share of problems that I believe desperately need to be addressed. And I want to be clear here: I have nothing but respect for both parties. I respect Neil for his forthrightness, that he is well-read, and for his clarity (though it is extremely under-appreciated by others) and I respect James on multiple levels–as a blogger, a scholar who has earned his credentials and his position, and as a person I consider a friend.
But perhaps that is why I am so disappointed. James is the professional–a point he continually makes. We can almost forgive Neil for his antagonism; he is not in the guild. But James is, and people look to him as an authority. As a professional he should be taking more of a leadership role in these conversations; unfortunately at times–and I hope he takes what I’m saying and merely a gentle nod and not as an attack–James came come across immature. His comments can be snide, sarcastic, antagonistic, petty, and unreasonable. This is expected by those who are untrained and outside the Academy, but we ask more of our own. There are examples of this throughout his blog on these subjects.
First and most importantly, James makes constant comparisons between creationism and mythicism, but he does so falsely. I suspect that most of this is antagonism and a lot of tongue-in-cheek. But if any of his comparisons are said in seriousness, he is patently wrong. For starters, comparing a hard science which is deductive to a field like history where the evidence is extremely interpretive and inductive is just plain silly. The evidence for the figure of Jesus is scarce and what we have is limited to ones evaluation of the data. A hard science like evolutionary biology relies upon thousands and thousands of pieces of data which are supported by thousands of other pieces of data–which are continuously observable. History isn’t observable at all. So his comparison is unfair and unrealistic on even the most basic of levels.
But there is more to it than that. Evolutionary theory and the origins of the universe, our plant, and our universe were not conjured up from matters of faith but of science (as those who believe in creationism will tell you). And science is not a product of faith but a product of critical-thinking Greeks (who gave us science)–those who we would consider today to be atheists or deists (at best). Yet the figure of Jesus does not come from science. It comes from a book, which contains a collection of books, which were written by multiple men who were most probably very pious (I would not use the term ‘religious’ since ‘religion’ is a modern construct), for the purpose of having a ‘canon’ upon which a church of faith was built. The figure of Jesus does not come from critically-minded people but from a series of books from which, as it stands, are are a part of the same collection of god-fearing texts that creationism stems! The difference for James is that evolution and the big bang (or string theory; whichever) doesn’t interfere with his positions a ‘Progressive Christian’. So James does not have a problem with ridiculing other Christians who, from the same collection of books, draw upon an irrational belief based upon faith while ignoring the conflicting evidence.
One final interesting tidbit is that creationism, so rooted in a historical Adam and Eve, and fundamentalism–rooted in the historical accuracy of other Old Testament characters–appear to be contrary to James’ beliefs, yet not too long ago, within the past four decades, many of those figures we now consider to be fictional characters were accepted as historical figures by the majority of scholars. That is to say, it was unthinkable at one time that scholars would ever doubt the historical Moses and the historical Patriarchs. Now the consensus has shifted. It is not that these books are not a part of the same collection as those books from the New Testament. Of course they are from different times, different socio-cultural systems, different people–but this does mean that consensus can be overturned by a small fringe group.
That said, James is not ignorant, by no stretch of the imagination, and clearly he compartmentalizes his faith well since his historical Jesus is a far cry from that of the walking-on-water Jesus Christ of the Gospels. But James is mistaken if he doesn’t suffer from the same faith-based bias that do Young-Earth Creationists. It is one thing to humanize Jesus and another to remove him completely from history. It is hard to be a Christian, even a progressive one, if there is no Christ at all. There is no denying the fact that James has a vested interest in a historical figure of Jesus. This analogy that James draws between mythicists and creationists is a projection. And nothing makes this more clear than the way he reads (or pretends to read) and responds to posts on the subject of the historicity of the figure of Jesus with which he disagrees.
James responds like someone with an emotional investment in the material. It is not for want of professionalism, for even when James is lambasting someone he does so politely. But he is incautious (more than he should be if he were critically analyzing the data), and speaks too soon before thinking carefully about what was said to him. As a result he ends up eating his own foot, which is a real shame because when James posts on other subjects he is insightful (if not brilliant).
An excellent example of this is when Richard Carrier, a noteworthy mythicist, posted up a blog on a method of historicity. Without realizing that Carrier’s point as it was written actually provided some support for historicity (because he didn’t read it carefully enough), James McGrath responded with a ‘see how silly mythicists are’ attitude as if he were responding to a post arguing against historicity. What’s more, he missed a critical explanation of a source mentioned and James went about “correcting” Carrier, even though James had been wrong–had he given the post more time, looked at it like a critical scholar should instead of skimming (and assuming the conclusion), he would have avoided having to apologize. Though to his credit, James did indeed apologize–a sign that James is an honest person.
But James’ honesty is not in question here; neither is his integrity. The question becomes does ones bias affect the way they handle new data? Clearly the bias that James has does affect his willingness to consider opposing views. He cannot deny this, for if it didn’t affect him in this manner we would see much more engaging and useful posts from James about the subject. We would not see James pressupposing the arguments for mythicism–like we see constantly–instead we would see James actually critically engaging the arguments given. And sometimes he does, but even during those instances, James does not fully consider the opposing arguments.
I would add here that there is not much difference between a fundamentalist and a normal Christian–even progressive Christians–when it comes to faith. Faith is faith. The difference may rest upon the dogma one places their faith in, but I would argue that in terms of emotional investments, the difference between the emotional invest of a fundamentalist in the young-earth mythology and a normal Christian’s emotional investment in a historical Jesus is negligible.
The many ‘yes-men’ on both sides do not help, but are like kindling on a fire that has been burning for far too long. That is to say, many of those who comment on these blogs egg these two on in a manner which promotes diatribe and not discussion. Despite what many in the field believe, the question of historicity is still open. And James is wrong to suggest that there is no evidence for it, since the evidence that mythicists use is the exact same evidence that James uses. That is the real tragedy in all this. Between the bickering and the name calling and the challenges, real information is being ignored on both sides. That James still does not grasp the basic and fundamental arguments of mythicists after all this time and that Neil still does not grasp the fundamental arguments of historical Jesus scholars is a prime example of the problems of this discussion. One side just assumes the other is wrong without recognizing that the positions re just varied interpretations of the exact same evidence. It really is nothing more than that.
The final question that must be asked: can either of them overcome their bias against the views of the other or will it continue to consume them both? Many watching from the sidelines like me–many in the Biblioblog community–wonder if we will ever see sensible posts on the subject. And that is the real tragedy here. Because both James and Neil have something to offer scholarship in their own ways. We may disagree with them at times, but disagreements don’t necessary mean that what they offer is irrelevant. It is my hope that they both come away from this trying to find that spark of relevance in each other.
As an Addendum, I suspect that following this post I can probably forgo applying to Butler for graduate studies. ;-)