Friday, March 13, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Break Out the Marshmallows

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

This is an interesting take. The Independent brings us the story of Joseph Atwill, who has written a book entitled Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus.

Atwill says Christianity is actually a “system of mind control” developed by the Romans to “produce slaves that believe God actually decreed their slavery.”

Tom: Who knew, Immanuel Can? Our whole faith is nothing more than the product of a first century propaganda campaign. Fortunately someone finally figured that out for us. Or not.

Carried Away

Now, Atwill is a bit of a divisive figure even within the atheist set. Richard Dawkins tweeted a link to Atwill’s press release, suggesting it “might be worth a look”, but the equally godless Richard Carrier has panned the book sight unseen, complaining that Atwill’s thesis (short version: the life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels and epistles is actually fiction patterned on the life of Titus Flavius) is “unclear” and not remotely persuasive.

Carrier says this, much to my amusement:
“The Roman aristocracy was nowhere near as clever as Atwill’s theory requires. They certainly were not so masterfully educated in the Jewish scriptures and theology that they could compose hundreds of pages of elegant passages based on it. And it is very unlikely they would ever conceive of a scheme like this, much less think they could succeed at it (even less, actually do so).”
When the spiritual opposition starts beating on each other, I think it’s time to kick back, roast some marshmallows and enjoy the bonfire. What do you think about all this, IC?

Immanuel Can: What do I think? “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” This line of nonsense has been done to death.

The Conspiracy Theory That Won’t Go Away

Back about a hundred and fifty years ago, a group of anti-Christian sociologists, anthropologists and historians were ferreting away at the job of undermining public confidence in the biblical record. They said the Bible was a compilation of borrowed mythology; that many of the events it records never happened; that the manuscripts from which it had been drawn had been edited … and so on. For a bit, they were taken seriously; but time and time again over the last century, the substance they so abundantly generated has simply hit the fan and blown back on them. But it seems some people can never get enough of it.

Tom: Yes, as I looked at Atwill’s so-called “revolutionary” thesis, I discovered it had actually surfaced a few times before. Dorothy Murdock argued a similar position in 1999. RationalWiki has a section on something called the “Roman Piso Theory”, which is presumably what you’re referring to. That theory was proposed by Bruno Bauer in Christus und Caesaren (Christ and the Caesars) back in 1877.

Everything we need to know about the credibility of that particular theory is summed up in the fact that you can find it written up in RationalWiki but not Wikipedia. In other words, it’s so bizarre, and contradicts even the secular narrative of current scholarship in so many ways that even the supreme organ of progressivism (if we leave out Twitter) won’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Having Caesar’s Messiah for Lunch

That is to say, we don’t need Bible scholars to logically eviscerate Atwill. His own crowd is doing it for him.

IC: I was actually thinking of old guys like Strauss, Durkheim and Frazer. And there were some later guys, like Eliade, Paden and Baigent et al, and of course, Dan Brown. Their theories are so varied and preposterous that they have only one common element: that they don’t care what is true, so long as by some twist of narrative they can end up saying Christianity isn’t true.

Tom: Well, yes. That’s really the part that interested me. I mean, we could go line by line through Caesar’s Messiah and have it for lunch, but we’d be wasting our time. It’s all out there online already. Richard Carrier is only one of the many secularists to have shredded the book, and some of them actually read it. Robert Price did, and finds it “incoherent”, though Price himself agrees with Atwill that Jesus Christ is a myth. Carrier and Price have this in common: that they think Atwill has gone about deconstructing the myth in a fashion that is insufficiently scholarly for their tastes.

In these circles, it’s almost as if you’re not allowed to critique scripture unless you get yourself a doctorate in something theological first.

IC: These things — the “scholarly” articles critical of scripture, I mean — are rarely of any substance in themselves; but they quickly become a kind of legend. I think back to secular friends I knew who had a passing acquaintance with the Easter Plot theory or the Knights Templar legend, or just the rumors about the alleged — now debunked — Tomb of Christ thing. Once they had accepted one of these conspiracy theories, they were induced to believe that anything a Christian said must be part of the conspiracy. And after that, they just had a “won’t-get-fooled-again” attitude to all things Christian.

Make the Lie Bigger

Tom: Was it Joseph Goebbels who is credited with saying, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”? I think there’s a certain amount of truth in that, notwithstanding the source — especially when your target audience is made up of those without spiritual instincts and those too lazy to go and look up facts for themselves.

As we all find out eventually, it is not merely the interpretation of history that is hotly disputed, but frequently the facts themselves. If you are determined enough, you can probably find a “historian” somewhere to support almost any hare-brained theory. But getting at truth is more about WHO you choose to believe rather than simply WHAT you choose to believe. For Atwill, that would be Flavius Josephus. But for the Christian, our faith is based on more than a particular set of historical facts set out by Matthew or Luke.

IC: Quite so. Ultimately, our faith is staked on the veracity of a person, Jesus Christ himself. And he did not merely tell us the truth with his words or even merely show us the truth with his actions: rather, by coming to know him, we have discovered him to be comprehensively The Truth, just as he said. This is quite different from what those pseudo-historians are doing. They offer us only their words, their ideas, their wishes … their guesses, even, and that without any personal testimony or living relationship behind it. So for Christians, they’re not offering much; but for those who are still searching and have not yet met The Truth, they present themselves as a stumbling block.

But The Truth will be known. And I would not for all the world be them; would you, Tom?

A Very Personal Thing

Tom: Absolutely not. Here’s the thing: secular scholarship does not attack the New Testament because its manuscript tradition is poorly attested or because the relevant documentary evidence appears to them to contain more errors and contradictions than its contemporaries, but because the New Testament makes moral demands on the reader and produces spiritual conviction, which necessitates getting rid of it at any cost. So you get people like Mr. Atwill coming up with theses so ridiculous they would not be indulged under any other circumstances, and someone like Richard Dawkins will say, “Hey, this might be worth a look”, not because it’s good scholarship but because he’s desperate for something … ANYTHING … to bolster his own case and ease his conscience.

It’s a very personal thing. It’s not about “science” at all.

IC: Yes. I’ve discovered that once a person has found a theory that allows him or her to live without feeling conviction of sin, something that makes possible the sidelining of Christianity potentially permanently, he or she becomes extremely reluctant to give that up. It becomes a kind of “house” in which he or she lives; and they don’t thank you for setting fire to it.

Tom: I’m sure they don’t.

Documentary Evidence and the Heart

I don’t know if you experience what I experience when you read scripture — and I don’t want to get all subjective and touchy-feely about it — but honestly, my faith in Jesus Christ is not based primarily on the quality of the documentary evidence. That is to say, it’s not the facts about the New Testament that are most compelling to me, it’s the facts in the New Testament. It’s the story itself and the way that story is told. It’s the way that Paul and John and Peter write about their Lord and Savior, and how that feels when I read it. It commends itself to me as authentic, not because I am a scholar of history, but simply because I can feel as well as think. The heart as well as the head is capable of distinguishing truth from error, goodness from badness, forthrightness from evasion and authenticity from the cheap religious counterfeits found elsewhere.

And that is not simply my experience, but the experience of millions of people over thousands of years.

IC: The person. For me, it is the person of Christ.

Now true, that’s been given to us in documentary evidence. It’s also been manifest as a particular set of historical facts. It’s also been given to us as a set of rational propositions and manifestations of truth in verbal form. But all these contribute to just one thing, for me: to see through and beyond this body of reliable evidence a real person standing.

To know him this way is to know Truth. Not to know him is not to have the central hub that makes the wheel of truth turn straight and true. It’s to have only broken spokes and a useless hub.

With him, we have “all things for life and godliness”. Without him, we have only fragments of truth, interspersed with our own broken imaginings, and nothing that reconciles it all together.

No One Ever Spoke Like This Man

Tom: Amen. At one point in John’s gospel, the officers sent to arrest Jesus come back empty handed, and when the chief priests and Pharisees ask, “Why did you not bring him?” they reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” So what do the intelligent unbelievers of the day do? They appeal to elitism and to their own authority:
“Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.”
Multiple degrees in Old Testament studies were no help in recognizing The Truth when he stood right in front of them back then, and they’re no help today. Nobody ever spoke like the Lord Jesus, period. Nobody ever did what he did. Nobody lived like he lived, and nobody ever died like he died.

That’s the bottom line for me: You can’t tell me Jesus Christ is a fictional character. Nobody could make him up.

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