VEL – The Contemporary Heretic's Reviews > Jesus: A Short Life

Jesus by John Dickson
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Christian Apologetics Masquerading as History
My edition of the book is entitled “Jesus: A short Life - The Historical Evidence”. However, the first edition of the book, published in 2008, seemed to omit part of the subtitle referring to “the Historical Evidence”. This is fitting, because the author often omits to include much historical evidence supporting the biographical details he presents.

Instead, Dickson relies heavily on the Appeal to Authority or Argumentum Ab Auctoritate fallacy – with a touch of the Argumentum Ad Populum fallacy thrown in for good measure.

Thus, he repeatedly insists that ‘all serious scholars agree’ on a given detail of Jesus’s biography, implying that this is reason enough for the reader to agree as well.

Unfortunately, as often as not, he doesn’t actually explain why all serious scholars agree on this matter or present the actual evidence that has led them to agree. Instead, he implies that the reader should defer to expert opinion rather than look at the evidence for themselves.

For example, he observes that the claim that Jesus was publicly baptised by John the Baptist is “doubted by no one doing historical Jesus research” (p49). However, he neglects to explain in the main body of the text why no one doubts it.

Only in an endnote does he bother to explain that this episode satisfies what scholars refer to as the criterion of embarrassment (p137-8) – in other words, because it seemingly casts Jesus in a role subordinate to that of John, it is hardly the sort of thing the gospel writers would have invented.

Incidentally, I am not sure whether the so-called ‘criterion of embarrassment’ is satisfied. After all, Jesus is portrayed as humble throughout the gospels and often adopts a subordinate role – for example, washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–17).

Similarly, in rebutting the assertion of Richard Dawkins that “it is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all” (The God Delusion), Dickson insists, “no one who is actually doing history thinks so” (p21).

Actually, although it is a minority position, a few authors, who certainly regard themselves as “doing history”, have indeed championed the so-called ‘mythicist’ thesis that Jesus never existed, including, for example, Richard C. Carrier, Earl Doherty and Robert M. Price.

Perhaps Dickson regards these authors’ work as so worthless that they cannot be said to be “doing history” at all. However, if so, then this is an obvious, indeed almost a textbook, example of the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

Thus, Dickson asserts:
“Not only is Jesus' non-existence never discussed in academic literature...but most experts agree that there are... ‘no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life’” (p10-11).
The actual evidence he cites, however, is less than compelling.

Beside the gospels themselves, one of the few other sources he cites is a letter from a Mara bar Serapion referring to the Jews killing their “wise king”.

Dickson claims (note the ‘Appeal to Authority’ once more):
“There is a consensus among scholars that Mara bar Serapion's ‘wise king’ was none other than Jesus. It simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description of Jew, law-giver, king and martyr by his own people” (p19).
Perhaps so – but Jesus himself doesn't fit the bill all that well either.

He wasn’t, after all, a “King” in the ordinary sense of the word. Neither does he appear to have been killed by Jews, but rather by Romans. (Crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution.)

Moreover, Dickson himself admits, “Jesus of Nazareth was not the most revered religious figure of the period”, even in Palestine (p109). Might not these other religious gurus fit the bill? Or perhaps Mara bar Serapion was just mixed up and confused.

Who Mara bar Serapion was referring to seems, at best, a mystery. Certainly, his letter hardly represents definitive proof of Jesus’s historicity.

Should we Trust the ‘Experts’?
The Appeal to Authority is perhaps a method of argumentation appealing to religious believers. They usually appeal, of course, to the ostensible authority, not of ‘experts’ or ‘reputable scholars’, but rather of God and of the Bible.

Of course, appealing to the unanimous opinion of scholars in a given field is sometimes legitimate. If, for example, we do not have the time or inclination to research a topic for ourselves, it is prudent to defer to majority opinion among qualified experts.

However, in a book subtitled “the Historical Evidence”, one is surely entitled to expect more.

Moreover, the field of study in which the experts are said to be expert must itself be a reputable field of study. If all ‘reputable homeopaths’ or all ‘reputable astrologers’ agree on a particular aspect of homeopathic or astrological theory, I am entitled to disagree because the entire fields of homeopathy and astrology are pseudo-scientific and there is simply no such thing as a ‘reputable homeopath’ or ‘reputable astrologer’, only quacks, cranks, charlatans and professional damned fools.

Similarly, I submit that there is reason to distrust the so-called ‘experts’ in the case of historical Jesus research – because those who have devoted their lives to the study of Jesus’s life have typically done so precisely because they are devout Christians.

Given then that their whole philosophy of life is predicated on the existence of a Jesus resembling the one described in the gospels, it is hardly surprising that they have concluded that such a figure existed.

Most researchers investigating the historical Jesus seem to come from backgrounds, not in history, but rather in theology, seminaries and New Testament studies. Few seem to have researched other areas of history, and they are therefore presumably relatively unaware of the standards of evidence demanded by historians researching other periods of history and other historical questions.

Thus, the tools to judge the veracity of gospel claims used by researchers into the historical Jesus (e.g. the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of multiple/independent attestation, of dissimilarity) do not seem to be widely used in other areas of history when assessing the trustworthiness of sources – or, at any rate, the same terms are not used.

One finds them only, as far as I am aware, in the index on books on dealing with historical Jesus studies – not in general books on methods of historical research, nor in works of history dealing with other times and places. Certainly, analogous principles are employed, but the standards of proof seem to be higher.

I would have preferred it if Dickson had announced at the onset that he was a Christian, in the same way that politicians and lawmakers are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before joining a debate or voting.

Although there is no such declaration, Dickson is open about his own faith. Nevertheless, he insists that he approaches the facts of Jesus's life as an historian rather than as a Christian.
“The presupposition that the Bible is God’s word and therefore entirely trustworthy is perfectly arguable at the philosophical level. But…I intend to approach the New Testament as an entirely human document” (p13).
To play Dickson at his own game of appealing to expert opinion in lieu of actual argument, I am not sure many philosophers would agree his claim that the Bible is God’s word and hence infallible is “perfectly arguable at the philosophical level”. Certainly not Daniel Dennett for one.

But, leaving this aside, we surely have reason to doubt whether a devout Christian can ever perform the sort of ‘mental gymnastics’ necessary to approach a topic such as the life of Jesus with the disinterest and objectivity required of an historian.

The Gospels as an Historical Source
At the heart of Dickson’s account of the life of Jesus is his contention that the gospels are legitimate historical sources.

They are, he contends, more trustworthy than the apocrypha because the latter generally date from a later period (p25). This is, indeed, one reason why the latter were rejected as non-canonical.

This seems to be true, and is the one useful thing I learnt from Dickson’s book – since it is indeed true that many skeptics and atheist authors imply that the choice of which books were were included in the New Testament canon was entirely arbitrary or else reflective of the theological or political agendas of later Christian leaders.

True, Dickson acknowledges, the gospel writers were Christians, and sought to convince readers of the divinity of Jesus – but all ancient sources, he observes, have some sort of agenda.

This is again true.

However, given their plainly ahistorical content and preposterous elements (i.e. miracles, the resurrection), the gospels are surely an unreliable source.

Are there no other contemporary sources on the life of Jesus to provide balance? What about anti-Christian writings by adherents of other faiths?

Moreover, call me naïve, but from a book subtitled “the Historical Evidence”, I expected something more than another repetition of the gospel stories so many of us were so cruelly subjected to in Sunday School from earliest infancy – albeit this time supplemented with occasional references to Josephus and, of course, ‘the unanimous opinion of all reputable scholars’.

Dickson concludes:
“History... demonstrates that the story at the heart of the Gospels is neither a myth nor fraud, but a broadly credible account of a short first century life” (p129).
However the primary (indeed virtually the only) source he has used to construct this so-called history is the gospels themselves. No other sources (e.g. Josephus) provide anything beyond the most general details.

To establish that “the story at the heart of the gospels” is “a broadly credible account” surely requires an independent source external to the gospels themselves against which to judge them.

To claim that we can be certain of the gospels’ historical veracity because they are consistent with all the available contemporary historical sources simply won't do when the only contemporary historical sources available are the gospels themselves.

This is simply to state the self-evident tautological truism that the gospels are consistent with themselves!

Jesus’s Birthplace
In reality, however, the gospels are not even consistent with themselves, or indeed with one another.

Take, for example, the matter of Jesus’s birthplace.

Against the arguments of sceptics such as Richard Dawkins, Dickson argues in favour of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus.

Dismissing the claim that Luke and Matthew only relocated the nativity to Bethlehem so as to accord with Old Testament prophecy, he demands:
“What is the evidence that Matthew and Luke put him there out of some necessity to make him look messianic? None. The argument dissolves” (p37).
Instead, he argues:
“Just as important as the fact that Bethlehem is not mentioned in Mark or John is the fact that it is mentioned in Luke and Matthew. Surely the silence of two of the gospels cannot be louder than the affirmation of the other two” (p37).
Yet he does not mention that the two gospels relocate Jesus to Bethlehem by quite different, and apparently contradictory, means – one has the family based in Bethlehem then leaving to escape the wrath of Herod; the other visiting Bethlehem to register for a census.

Moreover, both stories are historically doubtful.

Whereas there is simply no evidence for the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ outside of the Gospel of Matthew itself, the story in Luke is positively contradicted by the historical record.

The first census did not occur until AD 6 after the death of King Herod – but Dickson has just claimed, just two pages earlier:
“The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born while Herod the Great… was still alive… All this leads to a broad consensus among scholars that Jesus was born around 5 BC” (p35).
It also goes without saying that Mary and Joseph cannot have arrived in Bethlehem for a census, and then fled the wrath of Herod when the first census did not occur until after Herod’s death – unless, of course, time travel was among the infant Jesus’s many remarkable miracles!

Moreover, the census applied only to Roman citizens, not Jews in Galilee (then a client state not directly under Roman rule), and even Roman citizens were not required to return to the homes of remote ancestors, a positively preposterous proposition in the days before modern transportation (see The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible: p27-32).

Finally, given that Dickson acknowledges that Jesus was born into obscurity and only attained what little prominence he did achieve within his own lifetime as an adult, anything about his birth is likely legendary.

Therefore, Dickson is right to claim “one cannot prove that Jesus was born in Bethlehem”.

However, given the incentive to make Jesus's birth accord with Old Testament prophecy and the contradictions and ahistorical elements in the accounts given of how Jesus of Galilee (alias Jesus of Nazareth) could have ended up being born in Bethlehem – some seventy or eighty miles from Galilee and Nazareth – the weight of evidence is surely against the notion.

Supernatural Events, Miracles and the Resurrection
Dickson claims:
“The best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field produce the unexpected – and, for some, embarrassing – conclusion that the paradoca erga [i.e. miracles] are, as Professor James Dunn admits ‘one of the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts with which we have to deal’” (p77).
Dickson does not mention for whom this fact is “embarrassing”.

It ought to be embarrassing, not for skeptics, but rather to biblical scholars themselves, since, if indeed “the best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field” suggest that events such as the feeding of the five thousand and the turning of water into wine are “firmly established... historical facts”, this seems to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “sources and methods employed by leading scholars” in the field to such an extent that the entire field is called into disrepute.

Of course, the reliable historical attestation of Jesus performing miracles could be interpreted differently. It might suggest simply that Jesus performed conjuring tricks, involving psychological suggestion and other chicanery of the sort employed by contemporary ‘faith healers’ and similar charlatans, which, together with the well-documented Placebo Effect, together explain the similarly “widely attested and firmly established” eye-witness testimony regarding the ostensible miracles of these contemporary charlatans and cult leaders.

Similarly, resorting again to the Appeal to Authority, Dickson lists various scholars who have investigated the historicity of the resurrection, all of whom:
“Agree that there is an irreducible core to the Jesus story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit… [because] from the very beginning, numbers of men and women claimed to have seen Jesus alive after death…[which is] a fact of history” (p110-2).
Of course, large numbers of men and women also claim to have been abducted by aliens. However, most of us do not therefore regard this as evidence for the occurrence of alien abductions.

Disclaimer: I am an atheist.

Unlike Christian readers or researchers, it does not challenge my fundamental beliefs whether Jesus existed, didn’t exist, lived a life roughly similar to that described in the gospels or something very different.

Certainly, if the occurrence of miracles were proven, then this would indeed challenge my beliefs, since it would suggest that the laws of physics as they are currently understood are somehow mistaken, incomplete or capable of temporary suspension on demand. However, it is inconceivable that miracles performed some two millennia ago could ever be proven today.

However, I am in principle entirely open to the possibility that – miracles aside – the rest of the gospels is largely accurate as a description of Jesus’s life. However, on reading Dickson’s account of the “historical evidence”, it just seems to me that the evidence isn’t really there.

Certainly it is possible that (excepting miracles, virgin births and resurrections etc.) Jesus's life did indeed take roughly the same path as that described in the gospels. Indeed, since the gospels are the earliest detailed accounts that we have of the life of Jesus, I am even willing to concede that this is perhaps the best supported scenario.

However, it also seems possible that the course of his life was very different and that the gospels themselves are largely mythical and invented after the fact.

It seems more likely than not that someone called Jesus on whose life the gospels are based existed at around the time he is alleged to have existed, was probably crucified and provided a basis for the stories later told of him. However, I suspect that, given his relative obscurity, it is doubtful much can be known about him today.

Moreover, even the most extreme form of the ‘mythicist’ thesis, namely that the gospel stories are entirely mythical, hardly seems to be a preposterous crank theory, roughly on a par with holocaust denial, as it is portrayed by Dickson and other Christian apologists.

It just seems that there is so little reliable historical evidence regarding the life of Jesus that even extreme positions remain tenable – or at least cannot be definitively disproven. This is why attempted reconstructions of the historical Jesus are so notoriously divergent.

Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in Dickson’s thesis. On the one hand, he contends, surely rightly, that Jesus was, during his own lifetime, only “a marginal Jew” (a phrase Dickson explicitly approves: p17), who achieved historical importance only after his death.

However, at the same time, he contends that there is abundant reliable evidence regarding the life of this ‘marginal Jew’. Yet, if the Jew in question was so marginal, one would hardly expect to find abundant documentary evidence regarding his life.

In short, perhaps the reason so few secular scholars and historians have studied the life of Jesus and the field remains the preserve of ‘true believers’ like Dickson (plus an assortment of eccentric, non-credentialed ‘independent scholars’ and anti-Christian cranks and conspiracy theorists) is precisely because there is so little to study.

Only those with an emotional commitment to belief in Jesus, precisely those whose emotional commitment renders them unfit to undertake a disinterested and objective investigation, take it upon themselves to embark on the project in the first place.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 3, 2018 – Shelved

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