Another Review of “Is This Not the Carpenter?”

Hamby provides a review of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ here: http://www.examiner.com/review/is-this-not-the-carpenter-examines-the-historical-jesus

Some brief info about this review.  First, this is a book review written by a layperson for laypeople.  So he is coming from a nonacademic stance and reviewing it for the common person, who has no real background in these issues.  And I’ll demonstrate how this has an impact below.  First, a snippet:

….it’s a great book. I will be using my copy as a reference, probably for years to come. I’m glad I read it. The problem for Thompson and Verenna, the book’s editors, is that they are fighting an uphill battle on two sides. On the one hand, they’re bound to appeal to scholarly readers precisely because “the establishment” doesn’t take minimalism and mythicism seriously. So they have to make this appeal to the establishment — except that the establishment is likely to dismiss it without reading it, since they’re already convinced that these sorts of scholars are melodramatic hacks not worthy of attention.

On another hand, the problem of consensus is exacerbated by the public’s lack of interest or knowledge. It’s very easy for establishment scholars, when they do leave their ivory towers, to wave their hands dismissively and haughtily espouse the “obvious” nature of Jesus’ historicity, which everyone knows. And, of course, everyone thinks they know that Jesus obviously existed. But ask the average American to explain even the basics of the case for historicity (or mythicism, or agnosticism), and there’s about a 90% chance they’ll get it completely wrong. The average American — whose religion is founded on the certainty of Jesus’ existence — needs to know what real historians say about it, but they have no idea. They need a book like this. Desperately. Only… if this book were written at a layperson’s level of scholarship, scholars wouldn’t take it seriously, which would only reinforce the layperson’s belief that the scholars were right.

The belief in the certainty of Jesus’ existence on earth is a juggernaut. Publicly, it is accepted by millions in America and billions world-wide, mostly through circular logic, in which the Bible says Jesus existed, and the Bible is therefore true because Jesus obviously did exist. In the towers, “consensus” and the longevity of the belief that Jesus must have existed rule the day, often without question, for fear of academic censure or ridicule. The problem is that there are significant challenges to this belief, and they require more than a sermon or a pamphlet to understand. For any readers who want to be better informed, and at least give all sides of the question a fair hearing, “Is This Not the Carpenter?” is one of the best compendiums covering the widest range of topics available to the public. Except that it’s prohibitively priced, so the public will be very reluctant to buy it.

The criticism he raises, like Carrier, comes down to price.  I do believe that there is a strong interest in this subject among nonacademics that the publisher may be missing (so I hope to eventually see a paperback), but if that is the only criticism, I think I’m okay with it.

But some parts of the review need to be corrected.  First and foremost, this statement is incorrect:

Every American should own a copy, and should read it cover to cover, if for no other reason than to have an accurate idea of where actual scholars stand — not pastors, not pundits, and not theologians — but actual scholars, whose job is to understand the intricacies of historical narrative.

While every contributor (with me being the only exception) is an ‘actual scholar’, there seems to be a general misconception among laypeople that theologians are somehow not scholars.  This could not be further from the truth.  Theologians make up some of the most critical scholars out there–including the co-editor, Thomas L. Thompson, who taught OT Theology for years.  Theology is not the same thing as ‘apologetics’ and I believe that Hamby meant to say ‘apologetics’ instead of ‘theologians.’

It is also wrong because Jim West, while also a scholar, is a pastor.  In fact he is a Baptist pastor!  But what this demonstrates is the broad range if contributors who come from different backgrounds to discuss this very relevant issue.  That Jim West is also extremely critical (he is a minimalist, after all) proves something of what I wrote about earlier today–that we fabricate mythological constructs and place people under them without giving them their due.  I owe both Joel Watts and Michael Halcomb for pointing this out for me as I seem to have glossed over it my first read-through.

Also worthy of note is the complaint about Emanuel Pfoh’s paragraph in French.  It is important to note that Pfoh is not a native English speaker (in fact, many of the contributors aren’t), and his grasp of language is impressive–almost impressive as his article, which is downright spectacular.  Granted, some laypeople will not appreciate this, which is why this book is geared towards scholars and is published academically.  I can understand Hamby’s frustration with this, but chances are that someone who purchases this volume will expect this level of academic nuance and should appreciate, above all else, Pfoh’s desire to preserve the value of the quoted text by giving it in the author’s original language, rather than butchering it by translating it into English (through the lens of his native language).

That said, I do appreciate Hamby’s review, even if it contains some minor problems (which are easily correctable).  I’m not sure I approve of his use of my book to establish some political point (as with his last few paragraphs), but I do find the review, for the most part, fair from a perspective of a layperson.

Addendum: 

I believe that this book is worth the money.  Consider that over a dozen scholars contributed their time to this book. That means that instead of writing their own books, or submitting their papers to other journals, they submitted them to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’.  All the work put into this book amounted to four years worth.  That is a lot of time, from the first draft of the proposal, to the abstracts, to the collection of drafts, to revising submissions, to the copy-editing and typesetting, to the indexing (that shaved off ten years of my life for sure), to the final review of the manuscript, to the changes in Greek font (unicode originally, then to SPIonic because that is what Equinox uses), to the drafting of the cover design–the marketing, the distribution, it all takes time.  And it all takes money.

As it stands, the price won’t change and there is nothing that can be done about it. The price is comparable with other books Equinox has published (cf. any book over 250 pages hardback) and hopefully it will go to paperback, where we will see a significant decrease in price (like Muller’s book which recently went to paperback, also James Crossley’s book which released in both)–making it affordable for others.  The best thing that can be done is to recommend this to your local library and university library.  Personally, compared to Brill or some other European publishers, I think Equinox’s prices to be fair–in fact they are priced on the low end of the spectrum, where some publishers sell the same sized book for $175 or more.

 

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7 Responses

  1. …there seems to be a general misconception among laypeople that theologians are somehow not scholars.

    Well, to be fair, some of the most influential theologians of the 20th century defined “theology” in such a way that you couldn’t practice it unless you were a believer, and that sounds very non-scholarly. So when someone who calls himself a “theologian” is actually doing something that’s more like historical studies, one could claim that he isn’t functioning as a theologian because what he’s doing isn’t actual theology.

  2. I said this in a comment: (Paraphrased) To say one is a theologian is not to say that one is a historical scholar, in the same way that saying one went to a Christian school in Louisiana does not imply even rudimentary knowledge of evolution.

    And yeah… my biggest gripe is price. And I do hope it was clear that *my opinion* is that this subject is politically relevant, not that the book was politically motivated. I believe, for the layperson, the biggest practical impact of the topic is socio-political. Certainly, I want no political bias from the scholars doing the actual work.

  3. Thanks for replying Hamby. My problem with people that complain about price is that they are essentially restating what is already known, and it seems to me–the more I think about it–that what people come across as saying (not that you actually said this) is that ‘well, the book was great, but it isn’t that great’ and thus ‘don’t waste your money on it’. And I think that is what people come away with when they read about that. Complaining about how expensive academic books are is something best left for another post–I think academic prices ARE outrageous, but I wonder if perhaps it is better to leave those complaints for a different venue than to include it in a book review, where it seems to have different connotations than what you meant (i.e., that it is just out of reach of most people; but I don’t even think that is the case. I imagine a good amount of people are capable of saving $10 a week for 11 weeks to afford the book–or purchasing it somewhere else cheaper).

    As for the theologian issue, I don’t think you understand what a theologian is… I may not be understanding your point here, but I think you’re suggesting that a theologian doesn’t have a grasp of historical knowledge, but that is irrelevant anyway since the Gospels and Epistles aren’t historiographies, they are theological works.

  4. Yes, I think we’re talking about apples and oranges. What I’m saying is that a theologian has training in theology by definition, but not the various subjects involved in establishing the historicity (or non-historicity, or mythic nature) of Jesus. Theologians *claim* that their expertise in the field of God’s effects on the universe qualifies them is rather irrelevant. To say something about Jesus from an empirical, factual, contextually valid position, one must have training in fields other than strict theology. If a theologian has training in, say, comparative ancient literature, then that’s fine. But it’s not necessary for acquiring a theological degree. (Indeed, many people with “Masters of Divinity” and so forth have never had a class even approaching the kind of textual analysis you and the other contributors have done.)

    So when someone says, “I am a theologian, and I say that Jesus must have existed,” my first question is, “By what academic experience are you qualified to opine on the subject?” Because just knowing that they’re a theologian does not necessitate or even imply that they are a historical scholar.

    On a side note, I recognize that there is a discussion in scholarly circles about whether or not theology in and of itself has something to contribute to these kinds of discussions. It is my opinion that theology does not, but theologians with backgrounds in various related fields can certainly contribute.

    As to the price, I do think it’s an issue for my audience. As a layperson writing for laypeople, I feel like I have an ethical obligation to mention the price, since (as I mentioned in the review), the price will throw the cost/benefit ratio out of whack for a lot of people who (like me) are interested in the Jesus question, but not *that* interested. I also think that it’s important for laypeople to make their voices heard, so that academic publishers are at least put under some pressure to make certain books available in affordable price ranges. Quantum mechanics? Sure. Price it high. QM does not have a direct impact on people’s lives, and no more than 1 in 100 science geeks would actually read the thing. But as I said in my review, I believe the question of Jesus is intensely relevant to every American’s life. That doesn’t mean scholars have to be politically motivated — exactly the opposite, in fact. But when a subject is important, and the average person is prohibited from obtaining accurate information, that’s a real problem.

    I hope that astute readers will notice that aside from a gripe about paragraphs in French (which, as I said, would have been fine at $39.95), I was nearly completely complimentary. It is a wonderful book, and my recommendation in print and in person is this: “Find it at a library. It’s a great read, but $110 is too much.”

  5. Yes, I think we’re talking about apples and oranges.

    Gah, I hate oranges.

    What I’m saying is that a theologian has training in theology by definition, but not the various subjects involved in establishing the historicity (or non-historicity, or mythic nature) of Jesus.

    I’m not sure that is true; likewise I’m not sure the premise of that claim is valid, since no one has an established training in the subject of historicity with the exception of, perhaps, historical Jesus scholars or New Testament scholars–but even then it gets fuzzy (because your average New Testament scholar may not have any training in theology and will simply presume that certain events are historical because they lack a clear understanding of the message). So the danger in your logic is that it presumes something that isn’t necessarily so.

    Theologians *claim* that their expertise in the field of God’s effects on the universe qualifies them is rather irrelevant.

    Again, I don’t think you know what a theologian is, given your definitions. I think you are confusing apologetics for theology again. And this is a common misunderstanding because apologists use ‘theology’ incorrectly–that is to say, they have bastardized it to a degree where people not familiar with Theology proper confuse the two. And they want the credibility that comes with being a theologian, without recognizing that theologians tend to be very critical of the texts historical value.

    To say something about Jesus from an empirical, factual, contextually valid position, one must have training in fields other than strict theology.

    Half-False. Because again we’re not talking about analyzing historiographical documents. If we were talking about, say, the historical value of Caesar’s account of his campaigns in Gaul, then we would require historians–but the Gospels are not histories, biographies, or accounts of the past, per se, as they are theological documents. As I said, Theologians are more equipped to deal with the reception history of these documents. That isn’t to say historians aren’t of any value in New Testament, but Theologians have their rightful place in the field and are quite necessary.

    If a theologian has training in, say, comparative ancient literature, then that’s fine. But it’s not necessary for acquiring a theological degree. (Indeed, many people with “Masters of Divinity” and so forth have never had a class even approaching the kind of textual analysis you and the other contributors have done.)

    I think you have some strained impressions of theologians. I believe another issue is that you are confusing what is known as confessional theology with academic theology. But even some confessional theologians have important things to bring to the discussion. Believe me when I say this. I hate to use Wiki but, for the sake of simplicity:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology

    So when someone says, “I am a theologian, and I say that Jesus must have existed,” my first question is, “By what academic experience are you qualified to opine on the subject?” Because just knowing that they’re a theologian does not necessitate or even imply that they are a historical scholar.

    I am not sure many theologians care about historicity, Hamby, since many are more concerned about the structure, the value, and function of the text.

    On a side note, I recognize that there is a discussion in scholarly circles about whether or not theology in and of itself has something to contribute to these kinds of discussions. It is my opinion that theology does not, but theologians with backgrounds in various related fields can certainly contribute.

    I’m certainly glad you’re not deciding this for the field!

  6. Well… with the caveat that I think we’re splitting hairs with regard to my audience (whose comprehension is my ultimate goal)… Let me see if we can ferret this out a little bit more, and then I’ll probably be happy to call it ferreted…

    “In some contemporary contexts, a distinction is made between theology, which is seen as involving some level of commitment to the claims of the religious tradition being studied, and religious studies, which is not. If contrasted with theology in this way, religious studies is normally seen as requiring the bracketing of the question of the truth of the religious traditions studied, and as involving the study of the historical or contemporary practices or ideas those traditions using intellectual tools and frameworks that are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition, and that are normally understood to be neutral or secular” — Wiki

    By the very wording of the first sentence, it seems clear that if *my* contemporary context is one in which theology is contingent upon religious belief, which is an unacceptable bias when considering Jesus’ existence, then my context is at least acceptable within certain boundaries.

    And returning to the audience, my readers have friends who go to churches where people have degrees — sometimes doctoral level degrees — in “Insert-appropriate-word-to-convey-learning-about-how-to-be-a-preacher-and-sound-intelligent-while-preaching” and call themselves theologians. I am perfectly respectful of the distinctions you are speaking of in your area of academia, and I think it’s very appropriate for you to defend those theologians who are part of the discussion for good reasons.

    Part of my job as a “Joe Plumber” atheist writer is to present ideas in ways that are relevant and appealing to non-scholars. I may be wrong about this, but I think most of my audience agrees with no less than Richard Dawkins, who is on the record saying that theology should not be considered an academic degree. So I think it’s fair for me to at least say the debate is not settled on all fronts, and I’m not well out of bounds by including theologians in the group of people who are not necessarily qualified to comment on Jesus’ historicity.

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