This is the last of three posts covering news in the historicity-of-Jesus debate (for the first see Thallus et Alius and for the second see Notable Books). Here I will discuss two significant developments in the Jesus historicity/mythicism debate, and one more tangentially related.
The biggest news is that the renowned biblical historian and New Testament expert Thomas Brodie (author of The Birthing of the New Testament  and Director of the Dominican Biblical Centre, in affiliation with the University of Limerick, Ireland) has just come out as a Jesus mythicist. He has a new book that explicitly argues that Jesus never historically existed: Thomas Brodie, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Memoir of a Discovery (published by the respected academic press Sheffield-Phoenix). This is a huge development. His conclusion: “it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual.” Certainly I will review this book as soon as I receive a copy and get through it.
At the same time, Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, England, published an article with the online journal The Bible and Interpretation, entitled “Did Jesus Exist?,” in response to Bart Ehrman’s book of the same title (which my more avid readers will know I tore up as a total hack job) and the opposing view represented in Thompson & Verenna’s Is This Not the Carpenter? and the subsequent mistreatment of Thompson over this. Davies affirms that he believes in the historicity of Jesus. But he is alarmed by Ehrman’s rhetoric and his implied threats against the professions of anyone who would dare question the historicity of Jesus, and the treatment of Thompson in particular (most chilling given how all this had happened to Thompson before, in the most appalling way: see my next news item below).
Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic [the Old Testament] anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.
And then concludes:
I don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.
Davies defends Thompson’s work on this matter, and argues the whole debate should be taken seriously and not condemned as the work of amateurs. He acknowledges that in fact the evidence for historicity is rather weak and extremely problematic, and not at all cut-and-dried, and in no way warrants the kind of rhetoric coming from the likes of Ehrman. He says, in fact, that admitting it’s possible Jesus didn’t exist is the only way the field can maintain academic respectability.
This is almost as huge a development, as Philip Davies is a renowned scholar and (now emeritus) professor specializing in Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls (author of Behind the Essenes: History and Ideology in the Dead Sea Scrolls  and Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures ). It is a major turn of events for someone like him to admit that doubting the historicity of Jesus is respectable, and that the rhetoric coming out against it from the likes of Ehrman is an appalling redux of the same nonsense minimalists suffered through in the 70s, high on hyperbole and dogmatism, low in humility, and more concerned with attacking the qualifications of its advocates than actually interacting honestly with their arguments. Amen.
Combine this with Brodie’s defection to mythicism, alongside Thompson’s, and (like Thompson’s) the publicly professed “historicity agnosticism” of Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, and Ehrman’s argument that only amateurs and outsiders take the Jesus Myth theory seriously is now in the dust. There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars. And they need to be paid attention to, not dismissed and mistreated, their arguments straw manned or ignored.
Lastly, Thomas Verenna also just published an article for The Bible and Interpretation, “On Academic Integrity and the Future of Biblical Studies in Confessional Institutions” (October 2012), discussing a recent blowup in the academic community over the attempt to censor (indeed, to materially punish) a noted scholar of biblical antiquity (Christopher Rollston) merely because he made a well-reasoned and well-researched argument that some of his colleagues didn’t like–namely, that the Bible marginalizes women in a way that is not an admirable “biblical value” we should want to follow (a shocking notion, apparently, to some of his Christian peers). His article makes many progressive statements about the struggle for women’s equality as well as very interesting scholarly observations about the Biblical text: see Christopher Rollston, “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About,” Huffington Post (8/31/2012).
So here we have a poignant current event touching on institutional sexism (a problem of recent interest here) and academic freedom (the latter of relevance to the historicity debate). Thomas Verenna gives more than just this latest example of the use of the ad baculum fallacy by religious academic institutions to keep scholars in line. It’s deplorable. We certainly don’t want secular scholars using the same tactic. For further links and discussion on the Rollston affair, see Verenna’s blog [here] and [here].
It’s also worth reading Thomas Thompson’s past account of how vicious the deployment of this fallacy was in the 1970s against his work establishing the ahistoricity of the biblical patriarchs (which is just one step away from Jesus mythicism), exhibiting a good series of examples of how scholars across the board can try to destroy your career (tactics that every scholar knows can be used against them now if they should admit to the ahistoricity of Jesus, for example, which can explain why so few have weighed in on the debate publicly–in fact I would take good note of every detail of his story, for example how even institutions can be punished for supporting an unpopular scholar, and thus can be intimidated against hiring them: the same could be done again). And yet now (as Davies pointed out) Thompson’s view is more or less mainstream (just read The Bible Unearthed). Jesus Mythicism could one day follow in the same footsteps. But maybe not for lack of attempts to prevent it. Let’s see.