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A kick in the shins of Christian ‘Internet Bloggers’ too

As I referenced in my review (located here) of Strobel’s book ‘The Case for the Real Jesus” I found it ironic that Internet writers and popular audience writers would be speared in a book written by a journalist and written for a popular audience. I assume that since Strobel is specifically seeking out scholars that he feels that the book is in a different class even if it was written for a popular audience. That is probably a valid point.

There are a couple of issues I need to raise here. From the perspective of a Christian apologist that depends on using reasonable argument, I can’t help but think that many skeptics will read in this book constant ‘arguments from authority.’ Now, as a logical fallacy, arguing from authority is really only a fallacy when the authority can’t be considered to be a credible spokesperson on the matter. One presumes that well credentialed scholars would meet such a standard. But look at the title of the first challenge: “Scholars are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels.”

Thus, the first chapter of the book is actually a hard look at what scholars themselves are perpetrating on the Historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is mentioned of course, and then of course some scholars by name, like Karen L. King (pg 25), “Award-winning scholar Morton Smith of Columbia University” (italics mine, pg 26). Elaine Pagels is mentioned, and, of course, Bart Ehrman and Dominic Crossan (pages 27-28). In other words, when Craig Evans- who certainly is a well-credentialed scholar- begins to express his exasperation with his fellow scholars, saying, in response to an inquiry by Strobel as to where these scholars begin to get it wrong,

“Here’s the rub,” [Evans] says, “These scholars can read the Greek in which the New Testament is written, but Jesus didn’t speak Greek, except perhaps occasionally. Most of his teaching was in Aramaic, and his scriptures were in Hebrew or Aramaic paraphrases. Jesus and his world were very Semitic, yet most New Testament scholars lack adequate training in the very languages that reflect his world (pg 30).”

I certainly agree that you need to understand that Jesus and his world were very Semitic, but the astute skeptic might say that a key word here would be ‘most’ as in “Most New Testament scholars.” The skeptic might say, “Well then, I’m sure I can find a scholar who knows their Aramaic who will still entertain the same notions dismissed by Evans.” And the skeptic is probably right. It would basically boil down to a “My scholar can beat up your scholar” scenario.

Strobel’s whole book (indeed, his other books on the same pattern, too) depends on the reader who is not a scholar being able to decide for themselves which scholar is being reasonable or not. But it is just this sort of capability that the scholars in Strobel’s book seem to think does not exist.

For example, if Evans says we need to know Hebrew and Aramaic, does he also think we all need to know Hebrew and Aramaic to reflect on his arguments? I could give a couple of more examples from Evans, but how about the attitude expressed by some of the other scholars?

In chapter three, when Michael Licona is interviewed, Michael Baigent’s credibility is not-so-subtly attacked, and Richard Carrier is described as having two master’s degrees from Columbia University-and we’re left wondering if that is a point in his favor or not. Shortly after, Licona takes aim at arguments made by Jeffrey Jay Lowder. Lowder and Carrier are bigwigs at Infidels.org. Fortunately, Licona does address the substance of these arguments, but then we are confronted with a statement regarding an argument by James Tabor:

“Second, Tabor gets his information from a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, [Licona] said, his eyebrows raising. “Think about that! If Christians based their theory on what a sixteenth-century Christian reported, we would laugh at that person- and justifiably so. Now believe me, I’m not laughing at Tabor- he’s certainly a credentialed scholar. But you can’t blame people for rejecting his theory.” (pg 147)

Well, actually I think we should be laughing at Tabor. The fact that he’s a credentialed scholar doesn’t make his argument any less stupid, and I don’t think one needs to wait for another scholar to identify it as stupid before one reaches the same conclusion. One does not want to read into the text, but this bone he throws to Tabor seems to be made in the context of insinuating that Carrier and Lowder, on the other hand, could be laughed at.

Given how many of the claims forcefully mocked by Strobel’s selected scholars were first made or argued by other scholars, one wonders how confident we can be that if we hear an argument by a ‘credentialed scholar’ that we are actually hearing something worthy of consideration. One can easily see how this sort of attitude can be used by skeptics against Strobel’s selected scholars. And if such matters can only be comprehended and evaluated by another scholar, should we suppose our only solution is to defer mindlessly to other scholars until we ourselves are scholars? Skeptics will rightly point out that they have ‘credentialed scholars’ on their side. How do we handle this situation?

Though I could pull from other examples illustrating this issue, a very vivid example occurs on page 161 where we again have Licona being provided an opportunity to speak to the substance of skeptical claims, in this instance the claims that Jesus’ resurrection has the same credibility as other so called ‘pagan stories of dying and rising gods.’ Licona cites T.N.D. Mettinger, adding that Mettinger is a ‘senior Swedish scholar, professor at Lund University, and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities of Stockholm.” Licona recaps Mettinger’s argument, and then Strobel continues on.

Mettinger concludes that ‘there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods s vicarious suffering for sins.” [Licona said]

I [Strobel] later obtained Mettinger’s book to double-check Licona’s account of his research. Sure enough, Mettinger caps his study with this stunning statement: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.” (italics his)

In short, this leading scholar’s analysis is a sharp rebuke to popular-level authors and Internet bloggers who make grand claims about the pagan origins of Jesus’ return from the dead.” (page 161)

Now, there is no doubt that such claims are being made by (here unnamed-I wonder who they might be?) Internet bloggers, but Strobel presented this argument by pointing out that it was initiated by scholars themselves! Named are Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, and Hugh J. Schonfield! Who exactly is ‘this leading scholar’s analysis’ a sharp rebuke to exactly? It looks to me like the context should suggest Strobel here call out other scholars, but instead he singles out “popular-level authors and Internet bloggers.” Granted, some of these authors were popular level, but these all have some credentials. But what Internet bloggers were referenced exactly? It wouldn’t be-Carrier and Lowder, would it?

Now, I have no great love for Richard Carrier or Jeffrey Jay Lowder. I’ve never found their arguments to be compelling, but having read some of their essays I can see why people find them persuasive. And I certainly don’t have a problem giving scholars their due weight. They’ve worked hard, and it is true, I don’t know Aramaic. I don’t have access in most cases to primary sources. I depend on them to bring me the data. It does not follow though, that I depend on them to interpret the data. No, my real concern here is that the attitude expressed in my quotes (and a handful of others) does two things: 1. It undercuts thoughtful and hard-working Christians striving on the Internet to further the cause of Christ and 2. It does not appreciate the fact that the democratization of the Internet is an asset for us, and even if we preferred that people defer to sober scholars (that we agree with) the fact is that people are going to turn first to sources on the Internet, and only later will they possibly consult some of these more scholarly works.

Now, I personally believe I am such a person undercut in #1. I do not have the credentials, that’s true, but I have been an apologist for more than ten years. I do have a bachelor’s degree at least. In fact, I am currently pursuing my Masters in Philosophy and Apologetics. But I did not need a scholar to tell me that Mithraism post-dates Christianity, nor did I need a scholar to explain to me the significance of that fact. I have thousands of hours of reading, research, and writing behind me. Aware of the problems associated with the “My scholar can beat up your scholar” issue, I have constantly tried to cut through to primary sources whenever possible. And I certainly can thank the scholars in many cases for making those sources available. But why should this be about me?

Let’s take an example right from the book. Near the end, Strobel highlights a number of recommended websites and mentions Tektonics.org. Well, what is interesting about this is that Tektonics, though a very successful apologetics site (Alexa Rank: 280,000-Lee Strobel’s site’s Alexa Rank: 344,000), is maintained by a gentlemen who ‘only’ has a Masters-and the Masters is in Library Science.

What do subtle shots at ‘Internet Bloggers’ and what can be found on the Internet do to JP Holding’s credibility? What is to keep the skeptic from reading this book, getting the distinct impression that only the views of credible scholars should be considered- and by credible is it really meant ‘they agree with me’?- and seeing Holding’s site referenced, from learning Holding’s credentials and applying the very same attitude to Holding as Strobel’s book holds against other ‘Internet Bloggers’?

One doesn’t have to be a credentialed scholar to see that these comments are a kick in the shins of folks like Holding who have been investing tons of time and resources into their ministries and are doing a good job. The fact is that the scholars are doing important work but you are going to need competent Christians on the Internet who, despite not being credentialed in the same sense as the scholars, apply the findings of the scholars to the individualized circumstances that arise when you sit down and converse with the average skeptic. We need these people, and Strobel and his scholars generally concede the need for a more well-informed population (of Christians, too). But don’t pull the rug out from underneath them at the same time.

Now, my second point was that people are going to the Internet for information long before they consult the works of scholars. This is just a fact of life, and it isn’t going to change. Kids start getting interested in these issues as early as 16, 17, and 18. They aren’t going to drop $40.00 for a copy of Metzger’s “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance” or “The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.” It just isn’t going to happen. So, besides the need for having individuals who have made the investment (I’m looking right at my copy of the Canon of the New Testament as we speak) to apply that material for seekers entering the Internet Highway, we need a general change in our tactics and strategies in our modern setting, and simply dismissing what is found on the Internet isn’t going to cut it.

In the first place, while I know this is a problem to the bottom line, one thing I would suggest is that scholars put more of their own work right on the net. Take all of the innards of all the journals and just spill them for all to see. If you don’t like the quality of what is on the Internet, work to improve the quality of what is on the Internet. Another thing that scholars can do is to personally engage skeptics and seekers on the Internet. I know how much time is involved and I know they have a lot on their plate. But look at a person like Peter Kreeft who has awesome material, some of which is even online already, but who posts on the site that he just can’t respond to emails. No doubt, he can’t keep up-perhaps we could better structure how we go about our business so that he can.

I have put these concerns in an article separate from my review of Strobel’s book because I didn’t want the review to become clouded.  Strobel has produced a fine book and it will make a great primer and resource for those exploring these issues. Nonetheless, I think we need to better address the changes in how people are getting their truth. We can’t just personally express that we don’t like how they are getting their truth and hope that folks will turn to our own methods.

We shouldn’t forget that it is scholars themselves that have initiated and instigated all of the crazy claims that we hear on the Internet. The Internet, after all, has only been around for less than 20 years and all of the issues addressed in Strobel’s book existed- in the mouths of scholars themselves- long before the Internet came about. What we need to do is equip the Christian population so that they can effectively filter what they hear and pass on these tools to our youngsters. We should also realize that while we should respect what scholars can give us, they can also deceive us, and if we are unable to figure out for ourselves when we are being deceived, God help us.

In conclusion, we must remember that what makes one a credible and credentialed scholar can vary widely on the subject. For example, Michael Licona (chapters 3-4) is described as being mentored by Gary Habermas, the head of Liberty University’s apologetics department. But what did Richard Dawkins say about Liberty University? In his journal recounting a presentation he did attended by a number of such students, he said, “I said that my advice to all Liberty students was to resign immediately and apply to a proper university instead.” Source.

Dawkins does not apparently think very highly of the credentials of those associated with Liberty U, which would include Licona and Habermas, referenced by Strobel. What’s a gent to do? Where can we go to find credentials that will matter to everyone, or will assure us that we can be quite certain that the person is not stating something ‘laughable’? The answer obviously is nowhere. Wherever the solution to this problem lies, it isn’t simply to knock those without credentials or give undue weight to those with them. All sides of this debate believe that there are scholars on the other side that are nuts. In light of this fact, I propose that focusing on credentials will get us to exactly the same place we’re already at.

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    • thom waters on April 14, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    One of the great mistakes made by all parties, both those properly credentialed and those not so, is that they simply fail to read the documents before us. Most people already have a particular hypothesis that they are seeking to verify or promote, and they look for “evidence” that they feel does that. For example, when Mark records that Pilate was unbelieving to the death of Jesus, what might that suggest to us concerning both the type of scourging he actually received prior to the crucifixion and to the possibility that Jesus did not die on the cross as most believe. Mind you, I’m not here taking any position, I am simply reading the document and wondering how it might help to fill in any holes or questions we might have concerning what actually happened historically. We would all do well just to read the documents without passion or prejudice.

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  2. […] common in certain circles.  Academic circles are filled with it.   You find it among the ‘professionals.’  The argument seems to be that unless something comes out of scholarly ‘peer […]

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