Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Nouveau Atheists on the Historical Jesus

A paper given at the May Conference by Dr JOHN DICKSON, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, www.publichristianity.org


The last three years have witnessed a host of robust, intelligent and highly successful books critiquing religion in general and historic Christianity in particular. Collectively, the authors of these books have been dubbed ‘the Nouveau Atheists’. They are learned, rhetorically exciting and media savvy. Three of the more prominent new atheists are Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford and author of The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens, Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School University in New York and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and, finally, Michel Onfray, a professor of philosophy at the Free University of Caen in France and author of the Atheist Manifesto. Each of these writers seek to dismantle what they all see as the superstition and anachronism of religion.

I have no intention of engaging with the broader argument of the Nouveau Atheists concerning the non-existence of God. I think most of us would agree that careful study of early Christianity should be able to proceed whether or not one is an atheist—and whether or not there is a God. What does interest me, however, is the new atheists’ foray into matters historical and, in particular, into the historical Jesus. Dawkins, Hitchens and Onfray all deemed it necessary to devote significant space to critiquing Jesus as an historical figure and the biblical text as an historical source. They are quite open about their motivation. By demonstrating the confused and feeble nature of the data we have about Jesus, they remove one of the perceived foundations of Christianity itself. Hence, Hitchens concludes his chapter on the topic:

‘The case for biblical consistency or authenticity or ‘inspiration’ has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no ‘revelation’ can be derived from that quarter’ (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 122).

None of the above authors claim to be professional historians, yet they make very confident historical claims that need to be investigated.

Minor Historical Errors

The first thing that strikes me as I delve into this literature is the abundance of minor historical errors—the sort of thing you might expect from first year History students but not from authors with research degrees and professorships. I will offer just four examples.

1.1. The Gospel of Thomas. On page 96 of The God Delusion Dawkins mistakenly attributes to the Gospel of Thomas stories actually found in another document. In his discussion of why the four New Testament Gospels made it into the canon and the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Philip and Mary Magdalene didn’t, he suggests it is because these other Gospels contained stories that were ‘even more embarrassingly implausible’ than the canonical ones. He writes,

‘The Gospel of Thomas, for example, has numerous anecdotes about the child Jesus abusing his magical powers’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 96).

The Gospel of Thomas, of course, has no such stories—it is a sayings source only. Dawkins has confused the Gospel of Thomas with the very different, non-Gospel document known as the Infancy Story of Thomas.
1.2. Matthew’s Magi. A similar faux pas is found on page 94 where Dawkins puts the story of the magi worshipping the infant Jesus in the wrong Gospel. It seems to be more than a typographical error because his argument at this point is that Matthew invented stories that would appeal to Jews (descent from king David and birth in Bethlehem), whereas

‘Luke’s desire [was] to adapt Christianity for the Gentiles, and hence to press the familiar hot buttons of pagan Hellenistic religions (virgin birth, worship by kings, etc.)’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 94).

However, the Magi story is found in Matthew chapter 2.

1.3. The Q document. Christopher Hitchens likewise stumbles over a basic feature of Gospel studies. He gets confused about the Gospel source Q. He writes,

‘The book on which all four (Gospels) may possibly have been based, known speculatively to scholars as ‘Q’, has been lost forever’ (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 112).

He goes on to point out how careless that was of the deity who allegedly inspired the Gospels. That theological question aside, I hardly need to point out in this forum that Q cannot be a source for all four Gospels. By definition, Q refers to the material which is to Matthew and Luke but which is not found in Mark (or John, for that matter).

1.4. Barren Galilee. On par with these small errors is Michel Onfray’s argument in the Atheist Manifesto that the hope for an afterlife in the three monotheistic faiths was born of the barrenness of the desert:

‘I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. ….. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat’ (Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, xi).

I will leave it to philosophers of religion to discuss the logic of Onfray’s broader argument. What strikes me here is his obvious ecological blunder. The area around Lake Galilee, including Nazareth, is—and has been for three millennia—renowned for its rich and productive soil, not to mention its thriving fishing industry. Josephus, who spent a lot of time in Galilee in the middle of the first century, writes of the region: ‘For the land is everywhere so rich in soil and pasturage and produces such a variety of trees, that even the most indolent are tempted by these facilities to devote themselves to agriculture’ (Josephus, Jewish War 3.42-43).

The first followers of Jesus, all of them Galileans like their leader, did not need to fantasize about a place where ‘water flows cool, clear and free … where food and drink are abundant.’ They lived there already.

Significant Historical Misrepresentations

So much for the trivial. More serious are the significant misrepresentations of historical fact and of the discipline of history we find in the new atheist literature.

2.1. The existence of Jesus
Several times in The God Delusion Professor Dawkins suggests that Jesus’ very existence is still a matter of dispute among the experts. He writes:

‘It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 97).

Having sown this seed of doubt in the reader’s mind, he later remarks:

‘Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn’t) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 250).

Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray follow suit. Hitchens speaks of

‘the highly questionable existence of Jesus’ (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 114)

and Onfray goes a little further:

‘Jesus’s existence has not been historically established. No contemporary documentation of the event, no archaeological proof, nothing certain exists …… We must leave it to lovers of impossible debates to decide on the question of Jesus’s existence’ (Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto, 115-116).

In the final paragraph of his chapter on Jesus Onfray appears to have resolved this impossible debate for us:

‘Jesus was thus a concept. …. Certainly he existed, but not as a historical figure ..’ (Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, 129).

These statements l seem incredible . In fact, I doubt that any of us could name a professional biblical or ancient historian who thinks Jesus’ existence is still debatable. Much more representative of the state of the question is the comment of Professor Ed Sanders of Duke University, one of the leading historical Jesus scholars of the last twenty years and no friend of Christian apologetics: ‘There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity.’ I think this sentiment would be endorsed by virtually everyone writing in the field today.

But this highlights something about the strategy of the new atheists, at least in respect to historical matters (I could not judge whether they do the same thing with their science or statistics or philosophy). They employ the arguments of marginal writers on the topic and present them to readers as part of the mainstream scholarly conversation.

Richard Dawkins inadvertently proves the point. His one example of a ‘serious’ historical case that Jesus never lived is that of ‘Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 97). What Dawkins does not mention—but which is well known to many of us in this room—is that George Wells is Professor of German Language at London University. Imagine the response from the new atheists if someone were to argue that a serious scientific case can be made that evolution by natural selection has never occurred and then offered as the sole authority a language professor.

2.2 Gospels as Fiction

Once Jesus’ existence is thrown into question, the new atheists are at liberty to try their hand at all sorts of confident historical commentary. Consider Dawkins’ comparison between Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the New Testament Gospels:

‘It is indeed fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction. In that respect, it is exactly like the gospels. The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 97).

Similar statements are found in Onfray (Atheist Manifesto, 125-126) and Hitchens (God is not Great, 112-115). But I doubt there would be any scholar in the field today who believes the Gospels are works of fiction.

A consensus has emerged in the last few decades—from Graham Stanton’s work in the 1970s through to Richard Burridge’s acclaimed book in the 90s—that the Gospels are, in fact, best read as a peculiar Jewish-Christian form of the Graeco-Roman Bios or biography. But leaving that aside, even scholars like Michael Goulder with his Midrash theory of the Gospels or John Dominic Crossan who believes the Gospels contain much that is ‘prophecy historicized’, still accept the basic Gospel narrative that Jesus was a celebrated Galilean teacher and healer who heralded the ‘kingdom of God’ and died by crucifixion in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. This is the bedrock of historical discussion about Jesus today. The new atheists are either ignoring it or deliberately misrepresenting it.

2.3. Jesus’ out-group hostility

Another example of Richard Dawkins’ misrepresentation of historical discussions is his quite strange claim that Jesus advocated ‘out-group hostility’ toward non-members. In a section titled ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ Dawkins tries to show that Jesus was nowhere near as kind and loving as Christians make out. He assures us that ‘Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews, in which respect he was following the Old Testament tradition, which was all he knew.’ Moreover, ‘Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality – coupled with out-group hostility – that was taken for granted in the Old Testament’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 257).

This will come as a real surprise to those of us who have followed Jesus scholarship over the last decade or more. Not only does it seem likely that Jesus, like many Jews in his day, looked forward to the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations, one of the more secure conclusions of Jesus scholarship today, from Sanders to Borg to Theissen to Dunn, is that Jesus explicitly overturned what Dawkins calls ‘out-group hostility.’ The ‘friend of sinners’ tag recorded in Q (Luke 7:34 / Matthew 11:19) and embodied in numerous stories across the Gospel sources is regarded as rock solid by scholars today. Dawkins is led astray at this point by an eager dependence on an article in the Skeptic magazine by a certain John Hartung, whom Dawkins enthusiastically describes as an ‘American physician and evolutionary anthropologist’ (The God Delusion, 253). How an evolutionary anthropologist is qualified to comment on what the historical Jesus thought and taught is not clear to me, especially when his conclusions run counter to the sizable consensus of historians working on the topic.

We see here again the strategy of the new atheists to employ marginal writers—in this case, in a marginal magazine—and present them to the public as part of mainstream scholarship. I mean, on this particular question Dawkins could easily have consulted his Oxford colleague, Professor Geza Vermes, who has written on this theme as a Jew and concluded that Jesus’ social practice and love ethic were radical so that now love was to be shown beyond just your neighbour—to sinners, to enemies, to outcasts.

2.4 The Improbable Crucifixion

My final example of a misrepresentation of history in the new atheist literature comes from Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto. He lists what he calls the ‘incalculable number of contradictions and improbabilities in the body of the text of the synoptic Gospels’ (Atheist Manifesto, 127). He arrives at this one:

The comment about the crucified never receiving a proper burial is obviously an exaggeration of a partial truth. Many crucifixion victims were, of course, thrown into shallow graves or left to the wild animals. But Philo, writing about the time of Jesus, tells us that sometimes the Romans handed the bodies of crucifixion victims over to family members for proper burial. Josephus even remarks: ‘the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset’ (Josephus, Jewish War 4.317).

But more striking than Onfray’s exaggeration is his assertion that the crucifixion of Jesus is improbable because, as he says, ‘at that time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death.’ This amounts to a clear historical blunder. Josephus alone provides plentiful evidence of Jewish crucifixions (even leaving aside his reference to Jesus’ execution). Varus, governor of Syria, crucified 2000 Jews involved in the rebellion of 4 BC (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.295). In the late 40s AD the sons of Judas the Galilean, named James and Simon, were crucified by order of Tiberius Alexander (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.102). In the final weeks of the siege of Jerusalem, according to Josephus, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day, stationing the crosses in full view of the city walls: ‘The soldiers out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; and so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies’ (Josephus, The Jewish War 5.451).

We even have evidence of Jews crucifying Jews. A century and half earlier Alexander Jannaeus, the ruler and high priest in Jerusalem, crucified 800 rebel Pharisees in full view of their wives and children. As the men hung there dying their families were then slaughtered in front of them. Jannaeus’ actions are utterly condemned in Josephus Jewish War 1.97 but a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls seems to justify this harsh treatment. A passage in the Temple Scroll also justifies crucifixion on grounds very similar to the charges laid by Jannaeus against the Pharisees.

But perhaps the clearest evidence of Onfray’s mistake is the discovery in 1968 of archaeological remains of a crucifixion victim in a Jewish tomb. The tomb, just north of Jerusalem, contained numerous ossuaries (burial boxes), one of which bore the inscription ‘Jehohanan and Jehohanan ben Jehohanan,’ meaning that the box contained the bones of a father and his son of the same name, ‘John’. Analysis of the bones revealed the remains of a male heel bone which had been pierced through by an iron nail. The nail, which was 11.5cm long, was badly bent and so had never been removed from the foot. A plaque of wood from an olive tree was still attached. It was a remarkable find and has taught us quite a bit about crucifixion, not the least of which is that Jews were certainly crucified in the first century and some of them were properly buried.

Conclusion: Too Many Hostages to Fortune

There are numerous other historical exaggerations and misrepresentations in the Nouveau Atheist literature. There is Dawkins’ contention that the four New Testament Gospels ‘were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 95); or his claim that Paul mentions ‘almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life’ (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 93) and was the perverse originator of the theme of Jesus’ death for sins (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 252); or Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that ‘many a life was horribly lost’ in the debates over which Gospels were canonical (Hitchens, God is Not Great, 113); or Michel Onfray’s statement that the charges against Jesus were improbable because ‘Rome could [not] have cared less about this business of messiahs and prophecy’ (Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, 128).

But let me conclude with a final reflection. One of the best pieces of advice I received during the writing of my doctoral thesis came from Professor Judith Lieu, my supervisor here at Macquarie at the time (now Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge). After reading an early draft of my work Judith said: ‘Beware of taking too many hostages to fortune.’ That is, be careful you don’t diminish your main argument by trying to win a host of minor and tangential arguments that leave you open to criticism. The advice was appreciated and resulted in my pressing the Delete button on quite a number of vulnerable paragraphs and footnotes.

My main thought about the new atheists is that in their effort to debunk God and Christianity in particular, they have overreached; they have attempted to take too many hostages to fortune. And some of these ‘hostages’—whether the arguments involving minor historical errors or the ones containing significant misrepresentations—leave the Nouveau Atheist project looking strained and idiosyncratic. Perhaps there could have been a bit more pressing of the Delete button.

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