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Mar 03 2014

Critical Review of Maurice Casey’s Defense of the Historicity of Jesus

Cover image of Mauruce Casey's new book About Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?So far only two contemporary books have been written in defense of the historicity of Jesus (nothing properly comparable has been published in almost a hundred years). They both suck. Which is annoying, because it should not be hard to write a good book in defense of historicity. And to be “good” I don’t require that it be successful, or convincing (though I would welcome that!), just worth reading, honest, accurate, informative, well-organized, well-sourced, giving mythicism the best shot possible, and being as self-critical as anyone would want mythicists to be. But alas, what we have are two travesties.

I already exposed all the egregious errors of fact and logic in Bart Ehrman’s sad armchair failure at this. Which evidently provoked him to repeatedly lie about what happened, which I then also documented. I consider him disgraced as a scholar. If you have to tell lies to save face, rather than admit a mistake and do better, you are done in this business. Or certainly ought to be. Anyway, I’ve already summarized that sorry story, with links and summaries (Ehrman on Historicity Recap).

Now we have Maurice Casey’s book defending the historicity of Jesus, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (T&T Clark, 2014…if you want to spend less or have a searchable text, it’s also available on kindle). It’s hard to compare the two books. Ehrman is at least a talented writer and mostly coherent thinker. In Jesus, Casey is neither.

The best way to describe this book is to imagine a rambling weirdo running into a grove of orange trees with a hammer and in a random frenzy smacking half the low hanging fruit, and then beating his chest and declaring proudly how the trees are now barren. Indeed. This book consists of a wandering, disorganized stream-of-consciousness of half-intelligible pontificating that very much reminded me of Eric Jonrosh. Except Jonrosh was eloquent. Indeed, the first two chapters almost read like a junior high schooler’s meandering rant on a sleepover, a total he-said-then-she-said gossip fest, where for long bouts all he does is clutch a fluffy pillow and trash talk people and obsess over Stephanie Fisher, while waiting for his friend’s mother to bring the smores. You might think that surely I am being unfair. No. Seriously. Read it.

(And BTW, when I say obsessed with Stephanie Fisher, I mean obsessed. He references or quotes this wholly unpublished graduate student seventeen times. He also copiously fawns on her in his Preface, which by itself would have been sweet.)

Here I’ll first summarize my more in-depth take on the book in a few more paragraphs, then catalog some common themes that render the book simultaneously amusing, insufferable, and useless, then analyze its contents in greater detail. Those who don’t want to labor on through the more detailed analyses may be satisfied with only the following summary…

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Feb 28 2014

On the Delay

So sorry I’ve left comments in the queue a whole week. Apart from all the stuff keeping me busy to the very wire (as I noted a day or two ago), I really, really wanted to get my review of Maurice Casey’s anti-mythicist’s book posted tonight. So I’ve been reading and annotating it nonstop every spare moment this week and most of today. And now I just realized the time. And alas this terrible book is driving me crazy. I can’t endure the tedious stream of consciousness awful of it any longer. I need to put it down and do other things for a bit. I have my weekend free so I’ll try to get it done by Monday or sooner. But I thought I’d throw this up to at least explain what’s going on. I’m going to try and clear the moderation queue tonight. So any good comments you’ve been waiting forever to see post, at long last they shall!

P.S. The last half of the proof for OHJ didn’t arrive as promised, so I’m hoping that will come early next week. Want. That. Done.

Feb 25 2014

Secular Sobriety Program in Crisis: Lend a Hand

Do you like living in a world where there are definitely sobriety programs without god in them? Then help save pretty much the only one there is. Read this post buy Ophelia: Secular Organizations for Sobriety / Save Our Selves. That will give you the links and info to check them out, and to help donate so they can hit their target to stay funded (and it’s a steep target, so help is needed–please consider it).

Meanwhile, I’m in studio again this week to finish audio for Hitler Homer Bible Christ, and just completed two chapters for John Loftus’s final anthology in the trilogy (Christianity Is Not Great, which completes what we began with The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity, both awesome volumes, and I have seen the content for this last one, and it’s even more awesome still).

And I just turned around the corrections for the first half of the proof of On the Historicity of Jesus, and Sheffield promises the second half is coming this week, so we’re on the final slalom on that project.

And I have a talk Thursday to a Christian youth group led by Josh McDowell’s son (no kidding) and a doctor’s appointment Friday (a follow-up–I’ve been sterilized!–so, have had and will have a sore crotch this week to supplement my still-healing innocuously broken toe, so I have that on top of all the tasks this week enumerated above).

And…drumroll…I am hoping to have my review of Maurice Casey’s anti-mythicism book done and up by this Friday evening. (I’ve already been impressed with the critiques at Vridar, which I’ll be citing.) I’ve had his book for over a week now, I just have been too busy to get to it!

And for all that, I’m sure I’m even forgetting something.

This is a hectic week for me.

Feb 19 2014

Bad Science: No, Atheism Does Not Cause Suicide

More innumeracy for today: this religious apologist is claiming atheism causes suicide, and he cites a study that supposedly proves this, but both s/he and the study’s authors suck at numeracy and basic logic. I warned about this before (Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix). This is another example of that.

Just excerpting from the study citation and abstract as reported by this author:

METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.

RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were [also] younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects [also] had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.

CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.

From: Kanita Dervic M.D. et al., “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” American Journal of Psychiatry 2004.

There are a number of things wrong with both these scientists’ stated conclusions (and study design) and this religious apologist’s use of it to argue atheism causes suicide. I’ll just focus on a few:

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Feb 14 2014

Komarnitsky: Required Reading on the Resurrection of Jesus

Cover of Doubting Jesus' Resurrection by Kris Komarnitsky, subtitle "What Happened in the Black Box," tagline "An Inquiry into an Alternative Explanation of the Christian Origins," second edition, dark brown cover with a black box in middle in 3D aspect with a question mark on it and an arrow moving into it from the left with the words "Jesus Crucified" and an arrow moving out of it to the right with the words "Resurrection Belief."Five years ago Kris Komarnitsky produced a well crafted book, Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? He has now extensively revised and updated it for the second edition, and that new version is now available, taking into account developments and new publications in the field, as well as newly examined comparative evidence that sheds light on why naturalistic explanations of the resurrection belief and empty tomb tales make far more sense than anything else. The big news is that it’s free on kindle this weekend (possibly only in the U.S.). [Update: apparently only Saturday; there will be another free offer on some future Saturday.]

Even though Komarnitsky is an amateur historian, his book is well researched and actually required reading on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus. I consider it an essential item to include on your reading list if you ever plan to debate that topic, formally or informally. He makes his reasoning clear and cites sources and scholarship, so you don’t have to rest on his authority. Anything you want to use from his work you can adapt to the purpose, and cite the underlying evidence and scholarship directly. I don’t agree with everything he concludes or assumes, but one of the merits of the book is that you can decide for yourself. He provides the evidence and reasoning, and doesn’t expect you to take him at his word.

I have often cited his book in my own work. And I was sufficiently impressed by it that I wrote the following promotional statement on its behalf:

Rare is it when a lay author puts in the effort of wide research, gathers the references to every point together, interacts with the leading disputes, and offers something soundly argued that hadn’t been so well argued before. Komarnitsky does all of that and presents a surprisingly excellent demonstration of how belief in the resurrection of Jesus could plausibly have originated by natural means. Though I don’t always agree with him, and some issues could be discussed at greater length, everything he argues is plausible, and his treatise as a whole is a must for anyone interested in the resurrection.

This new revised edition is even better. The improvements are substantial and more than warrant buying the new edition even if you already have the old one. Others have similarly been impressed by it, including Robert Price, even the infamous James McGrath. With fourteen customer reviews on Amazon it still averages five out of five stars (I must conclude the fundamentalists haven’t noticed it yet, so as to give it bad marks for no sound reason as they often do).

The basic thesis Komarnitsky explores is not to examine all the plausible natural explanations for the evidence, but to focus on only one coherent explanation and see how well even just that one theory holds up against the Christian alternative. He is aware that other explanations exist that are also far more plausible than the supernatural, and that this makes his ultimate conclusion (that Jesus did not really rise from the dead) even more probable (since the probability of that equals the sum of the posterior probabilities of all plausible alternatives, of which his is only one, so if even his is more probable than the supernatural, the supernatural is far less probable than even the converse of that).

One of many major improvements in the second edition is his adaptation of the anthropological work of professor Simon Dein of Durham University, who also endorses Komarnitsky’s book, and in the process explains this aspect of the new edition:

In this book Komarnitsky provides a compelling and convincing account of how the early Christians came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Building on my own research and documentation of a modern-day Jewish movement that rationalised their dead Messiah would resurrect from the dead, Komarnitsky argues clearly and concisely that the same basic cognitive process could have given birth to the Christian resurrection belief two thousand years ago. This book contains a wealth of biblical and social scholarship, and it is an important contribution to the study of early Christianity.

In addition to drawing on well-documented analogs like that, this book also surveys cite-worthy evidence regarding burial customs, legendary growth rates, and a great deal else. Even veteran experts will find it a handy source of references and ideas.

Feb 13 2014

Magical Earthquake Ray Beams Caused the Shroud of Turin

Oh, yeah, baby. Someone pointed out to me in a comment on another post that people are circulating a story now that some Italian scientists have “proved” that the Shroud of Turin is authentic because its carbon date was altered by neutron radiation from a giant earthquake in Judea in exactly 33 A.D. (which they also know to have been exactly 8.2 on the Richter scale, thanks to, uh, ancient Roman seismometers or something). This claim even appears, without any skepticism, at Science Daily. And somehow, upending the whole world order, the duly skeptical report on this tale comes from Fox News! The original study claiming these absurd things is A. Carpinteri, G. Lacidogna, and O. Borla, Is the Shroud of Turin in Relation to the Old Jerusalem Historical Earthquake? Meccanica (February 2014).

That is either a joke article, or these Italians at the Politecnico di Torino are some of the goofiest cranks in human history (it appears to be the latter, but it’s hard to tell–if this is a Poe, it’s pretty good; whereas the paper’s lead author appears to be an established crank). Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 12 2014

On Bermejo-Rubio’s Dispassionate Plea for a Historical Jesus

Fernando Bermejo-Rubio is one of the most impressive new scholars in biblical studies. His work on the “quests” for the historical Jesus is paradigm-challenging and superb (see The Fiction of the Three Quests). It is thus no surprise that he would publish the only defense of the historicity of Jesus against its opponents that is actually worth reading. Usually such tracts are awash with errors, distortions, a substitution of assumptions for facts, or blatant fallacies, or bundles of all of these–even when coming from experts who ought to know better (like Erhman, McGrath, and so on and so on and so on–and on and on–even Goodacre, a little, who otherwise did the best job I know short of Bermejo-Rubio, and indeed the two together make the strongest case overall).

Biblical scholars often read the online trade periodical The Bible and Interpretation (I have published with them myself, and have cited other articles there on my blog before). It’s somewhat informal, but run and read (and usually only contributed to) by serious scholars. Respected bible scholar Phillip Davies (himself a historicist) published his plea to take the question of historicity more skeptically there. Now, Bermejo-Rubio has published his best defense of historicity there: Prolegomena to a Dispassionate Plea for the Historicity of Jesus the Galilean. It’s not the best conceivable (since it isn’t comprehensive in the way I’d want the best defense to be), but it commits far fewer errors than any others I know.

I had read this months ago, but could only find time now to write about it (evidence of my backlog). But for anyone keen on hearing my response to his case, here you go.

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Feb 11 2014

Slowly Spinning up the FTL again…

I was on forced hiatus from my blog for over a week after FtBCon 2, due to a number of tech difficulties on the site and my being in studio all week recording (an exhausting and time consuming business). And then all the chores that were left undone (e.g. a major shop; business correspondence; taxes–which for us are pretty complex, a two-day operation) had to be done. And so on. So just this moment I finally got to and through my whole backlogged moderation queue for comments and finally cleared everything and replied where needed. So anyone who was waiting forever for their comment to post or to see what I or other people said (e.g. on my latest FtBCon 2 posts about the Philosophy panel and Bible Study), now you can go check that out.

I will be in studio again next week, but for fewer days. But also Valentines Day is coming. And I have a ton of other work to do. So although I have a lot of things I want to blog about, I’m going to have to put most of them on a to do list and slowly trickle them out. And some will seem already to be coming late (since they’ve been on the back burner for awhile).

Just FYI.

Feb 02 2014

FtBCon 2: Bible Study (or Taking the Bible Seriously as Fiction: A Read-Along)

At noon today, California time (2pm Central) I’ll be drinking fine scotch, while teaching the people about the literary weirdness of the New Testament, in Bible Study (or Taking the Bible Seriously as Fiction: A Read-Along). Please grab your bible, tune in, and read along with me. (The link to the video feed is the “Official Session Page,” down the right margin of the Lanyrd event page.) I will not be taking questions during the show. But any questions you do have, post them here, and I’ll get to them all eventually (but please heed my comments policy).

Here is a select reading list for anyone who wants to dive further into this kind of thing:

And for beginners in New Testament Studies:

Enjoy!

Feb 02 2014

FtBCon 2: Philosophy for Everyone

At 10am PST today (noon Central) I’ll be hosting the panel Philosophy for Everyone. Please tune in and watch. (The link to the video feed is the “Official Session Page,” down the right margin of the Lanyrd event page.) Questions can be directed to us by using the Pharyngula chatroom during the show. If you have questions that don’t make it into the program, post them here if you want to hear my reply–or if you want to ask a question of one of the other panelists that didn’t get answered on the show, follow the links in their bios to find their websites or twitter addresses. Please be polite and productive in your queries!

Of relevance to the subject of this panel is the talk I gave for Skepticon just last year, “Is Philosophy Stupid?” To delve even deeper into philosophy, see my recommended readings (especially, for beginners, the first page). Check that out for more on what philosophy is and why it’s important (and how academic philosophers are often doing it wrong). After the show, if the panelists have suggestions for further reading or additional resources, I will also add them here.

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