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“History for Atheists”!

November 27, 2017

Last week an acquaintance introduced me to a particularly interesting blog site:  History for Atheists (for information on the purposes of the site see here).  The author (Tim O’Neill) describes himself as an atheist, but produces the blogs to correct the dubious historical claims made by those he calls “new atheists” (by which he means people who are more concerned with attacking theists, especially Christians, than simply declining to believe in a god).

I’m particularly interested in the author’s blogs addressing the recent revival of the “mythicist Jesus” view, e.g., giving some background to the view here.  (I’ve occasionally commented myself on this curiosity, here, and here, here.  In a subsequent posting, O’Neill engages in an extensive critical examination of “mythicist” claims about Tacitus’ reference to Nero’s pogrom against Roman Christians, a particularly useful posting here in the extended discussion of Richard Carrier’s attempt to dodge the Tacitus reference.  And the many comments (with response from O’Neill) are also worth the time.

For another critical engagement with a view popular in some anti-theist circles (NB again, “anti-theist,” not “atheist”), see O’Neill’s extended discussion of the claim that Christians destroyed the Library of Alexandria here.

In another recent posting, O’Neill tackles the oft-echoed claim that Christianity destroyed ancient classical learning wholesale, as wildly claimed in the recent book by a Catherine Nexey, The Darkening Age (the strapline:  “A gripping account of how the early Christians annihilated the art and teachings of the Classical world from a brilliant young historian”).  With impressive patience and industriousness, O’Neill produced a detailed examination of the evidence of the library of Photios of Constantinople (ca. 810-893 CE) here.  The results:  Photios’ library include many, many non-Christian, Classical texts as well as Christian ones.  And noting those that survived and those lost, O’Neill shows that the rough percentage of loss was the same for Christian as for non-Christian (Classical) texts.  That is, learned Christians such as Photios continued to read and hold Classical texts; and the chances of Classical texts surviving seems to have been on average about the same as the chances of Christian texts surviving the varied effects of history.  The silly claims of Dawkins, Hitchens, Nixey, et alia notwithstanding.

Given that there is sooooo much nonsense on the internet parading itself as “unmasking” or revealing “secrets” supposedly suppressed (sometimes by practically the entire academic community!), O’Neill’s site is a helpful contribution.  I mention particularly those postings that address questions about early Christianity.

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16 Comments
  1. Professor Hurtado,

    Just out of burning curiosity, for people who are not in the field of New Testament/Christian Origins like myself, what criteria would you recommend that we use to evaluate the quality of a person’s work on the subject? How do scholars in this field evaluate their own works?

    To avoid the impression of ad hominem, perhaps it is worthwhile addressing this general question first, before delving into specifics in Carrier’s claims. After all, it is written in the Old Book, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.”

    P.S. Speaking of answering a fool, I was afraid to ask the question for fear that my folly will not be tolerated by a highly respected scholar, but I’m hoping against hope for a helpful answer.

    • Dear Nemo (your real name? We use real names on this site): You’re not a fool, and your question isn’t foolish.
      People who aren’t in a given field can only depend upon the judgments of people who are in the field. I can’t evaluate myself medical things, and so I have to depend upon what medical experts think. That isn’t foolproof, but it’s about all I have.
      Scholars in the field that Carrier addresses will readily see that he makes claims that have no basis and are in fact readily refuted: e.g., a supposedly Jewish angel named “Jesus”, a misunderstanding of Euhemerism, the false claim that many Roman-era cults involved gods becoming historical figures, his contrived attempts to dodge the force of Pauline texts, et alia.

      • Professor Hurtado:

        You wrote, “Dear Nemo (your real name? We use real names on this site)”

        I explained my use of the name in a separate message, but I’m not sure whether you received and accepted it.

        You wrote, “People who aren’t in a given field can only depend upon the judgments of people who are in the field.”

        The thing is that it takes an expert to recognize an expert and to spot a fraud. From the perspective of an outsider, the subject of the historicity of Jesus and origin of Christianity seems to be filled with so many contradictory scholarly opinions, that an outsider like myself is almost at a loss who to listen to. The most outspoken “experts” are not necessarily the most trustworthy, for they often have an agenda to speak out in public, and as you say, many scholars would rather spend their time doing research than addressing controversies.

        I’m appealing to you, not so much as an acknowledged expert, but as an excellent educator, to help us understand the discipline better, understand how scholars in the field approach the subject, what criteria they use when discerning the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. For example, I find your post titled The Jesus Discussion: Let’s Move On and reviews by James McGrath and Dale Allison very helpful. The three of you explain your approaches in language that a lay person can understand, though not necessarily agree with your conclusions.

        Here are the basic criteria I try to use to evaluate an author: whether the facts he presents are accurate by checking the primary sources, whether he is making valid inferences from those facts, what his explicit and implicit assumptions are, and whether his arguments are logically consistent. For example, a blogpost by Dr. Michael J. Kruger, a former PhD student of yours, corrected a misconception I had about the NT Canon. His argument was an eye-opener to me, because he showed that I was making invalid inferences from (alleged) historical facts – a type of mistake students of history often make. He argued convincingly that illiteracy or expectation of end times do not mean lack of “textuality”, or “bookishness” in early Christianity.

        I’m wondering whether there are other such pitfalls in the field of study of historicity of Jesus and early Christianity that we should be aware of.

      • There are various assumptions that we may make that just don’t serve to understand ancient texts such as early Christian ones. For example, there is the notion that a sense of eschatological urgency/nearness would mean a lack of interest in texts, or ethical teachings. Actually, that’s a non sequitur.

  2. Davit Magaldadze permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I am not a mythicist, but I have read a lot of responses to Carrier’s peered reviewed work, On The Historicity of Jesus and watched debates with him. I have to say, none of critics of Carrier produce anything that can be taken as debunking his views: most of them haven’t even read his work, they reiterate arguments which Carrier addressed many times in the book and elsewhere, they straw man his arguments, resort to ad hominem attacks (quite often), or at best, they ‘remind’ everyone, that vast majority of historians agree that Jesus exists.

    What do you think is the most detailed and valuable critic of the only peer reviewed work on Jesus’ non-historicity?

    By the way, I have read all your articles on this topic.

    • It’s difficult to find reviews or critiques of Carrier’s books by scholars in the field of New Testament/Christian Origins, but the reasons are (from talking to colleagues in the field) largely that Carrier’s whole approach and his major claims on which he rests his “alternate” vision of things are so evidently wrong. Similarly, it’s difficult to find critiques of flat earth theory in science journals. I’m not being ad hominem here, just stating the fact that Carrier is so erroneous in major claims that scholars find the task of writing up a critique as a distraction from doing their own serious work. I’ll perhaps blog some critique, just because readers without familiarity in the field sometimes think that he’s made some impressive case. He hasn’t. It’s not his field, and it shows.

    • timoneill007 permalink

      You will find a fairly detailed critique of Carrier’s book here, which homes in on some of the key problems with his argument. Don is not an academic, but actual academics have a bit more to do with their time than respond to the work of unemployed bloggers.

      I’m also writing a series of articles on the main Mythicist arguments on “History for Atheists” which will appear every couple of months over the next year or so. Inevitably, these will engage with Carrier’s book (which I can assure you, I have read).

      I should also note that “the experts haven’t responded to my book, so I must be right!” is an argument that is usually used by crackpots.

      • Tim: Your link doesn’t seem to work. Could you try again, and/or give the URL?

      • Thanks, Tim.

      • Davit Magaldadze permalink

        Thanks for the information, Tim. I will have a look at that.

        **but actual academics have a bit more to do with their time than respond to the work of unemployed bloggers. ** – Carrier has a Ph.D. in Ancient history and although not a Biblical Scholar, he was able to put together the only peer reviewed work on “ahistoicity” of Jesus. The fact that he is “unemployed” is irrelevant here.

        (To avoid possible misunderstanding, I know you meant Don as “not an academic”).

        ** I should also note that “the experts haven’t responded to my book, so I must be right!” ** – but nobody’s saying that.

      • timoneill007 permalink

        “Carrier has a Ph.D. in Ancient history and although not a Biblical Scholar, he was able to put together the only peer reviewed work on “ahistoicity” of Jesus. The fact that he is “unemployed” is irrelevant here.”

        While gaining a doctorate is admirable, it is the very lowest level of academic achievement. I can assure you that there are thousands and thousands of history PhD graduates out there – many of them with things that Carrier has not been able or has chosen not to accumulate, like an academic position and an extensive publishing record. I work in academic recruitment and Carrier’s CV would not even make it into the “maybe” pile. He is cited by no-one, his few publications have no impact and his H-index rating is zero. He is a nobody.

        So, yes, actually, the fact that he is an unemployed blogger IS relevant. If a book arguing against a historical Jesus had been produced by a prominent scholar, or even just a junior scholar who had been able to secure a position and took part in the discourse of scholars at relevant conferences etc., other scholars would be more inclined to pay some attention. But he is a failed academic and total nobody, and so it’s hardly surprising that few have bothered to pay him any attention.

        By the way, the “peer review” of his book was also highly dubious. Contrary to normal practice, it was Carrier himself who chose the reviewers and then sent them his manuscript. Most didn’t respond, but two did. Who? No-one knows and Carrier has never said – which is suspicious. He then passed their comments on to his publishers who decided to go ahead with the book. This is all very strange. Usually it is the publishers who choose the reviewers and the author is blind to the whole process. When Sheffield Phoenix Press were contacted and asked about this strange form of “peer review” they gave a response that was rather snippy and very evasive. So I’m afraid I don’t find the “peer review” of this book terribly impressive.

        ” … but nobody’s saying that.”

        Carrier implies it very strongly quite regularly. See above for why few real scholars are bothering with this failed academic’s book.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    When he says a lot of Christian works were lost too I wonder what he means. Does he mean heretical texts like the gospel of the Hebrews? If so, doesn’t that simply show that orthodox Christians had equal disdain for heretical Christian texts as they had for pagan classical texts? Not that Christians are Innocent in respect of the loss or neglect of important works from antiquity.

    • ACtually, the evidence suggests that the texts that were actively suppressed were more likely to be Christian texts that were deemed (by those in a position to do so) heretical. There’s no evidence of an attempt by Christians systematically to suppress classical texts and so to “darken the ages”. That’s just a tired old false charge laid to rest a long time ago . . . except in the popular mind of some.

    • timoneill007 permalink

      “Does he mean heretical texts like the gospel of the Hebrews? ”

      No, I’m referring to the fact that we know of plenty of entirely orthodox Christian works by reference to them in works like that of Photios, but which don’t survive. The point is that ALL works in the pre-printing era had a precarious existence and all were in danger of not surviving.

      ” If so, doesn’t that simply show that orthodox Christians had equal disdain for heretical Christian texts as they had for pagan classical texts? ”

      Wrong – see above.

  4. YES! I’ve been reading and loving History for Atheists for some time, very happy to see an endorsement.

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