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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Jesus Inquest

[Update: I emailed the atheist biblical (among other things) scholar Richard Carrier via email to ask if he ever reviewed this book. He nicely responded, as he did some time back, but unfortunately did not. Carrier was not overly impressed with the work but noted the author cited him accurately, if in an rather incomplete fashion. As I always, I appreciate such assistance from perfect strangers; it underlines the wonders of the Internet that such things are so possible.]

While looking at comments and information about the Christian historical romance Love On A Dime (free Kindle download), I discovered the "Book Sneeze" website. It is a chance to get free copies of basically Christian titles if you provide an online review. Over at Amazon and elsewhere such reviews have this:
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
The first book was The Jesus Inquest: The Case For and Against the Resurrection of the Christ by Charles Foster. The book is an attempt to provide both sides of the case though the author himself is a Christian barrister, if not a professional theologian. He is upfront about possible bias but notes that he has done the best he can. As someone on the "nay" side, plus someone in a society where the question is not merely some sort of thought experiment, I can't be free of bias either. But, I don't think he quite is bias free enough. Let me add that "bias" often can be unintentional. We all have limited experiences that make it hard if not sometimes impossible to view things in a certain way. "Givens" in 1500 and now, e.g., were quite different in various cases.

Let me start with my basic philosophy. My basic philosophy is that you usually need not go all the way to join a side and it's best to be somewhat temperate about it as a whole. It might work if you go at it differently and the passion involved might actually get you pretty far. But, the end result seems less successful as a whole. The "X" (anti) side here doesn't seem to agree. "X" includes various fantasy scenarios less likely than the gospels and is cocksure about some of them, when being cocksure of much about the gospels is not what a true scientific approach merits. To be "sure" Jesus' actual tomb was found (amazingly few know about this fact) or that such and such happened when we only have a bunch of after the fact slanted religious texts to work with is silly. Or, that various discrepancies prove that it's a fraud, often when they really don't amount to much.

I don't think "Y" (pro) was totally fair here. Too many strawmen. The idea is great and the journey provides lots of interesting material. It also is written in a smooth way that is brisk reading. That's great. But, there was too many "oh come on" moments. For instance, the idea that Jesus or someone else plotted beforehand to save him from the cross and/or take his body is deemed ridiculous given time restraints. Later, we are told Jesus knew ahead of time that he would be betrayed. He had no friends in high places. But, two such people (see John) buried the body. Such and such had to be true, since if it was, people would point out it was not. As if many were around decades beyond the events reading the gospels as if they were on national television or something.

Overall, we have limited source material, material that in various cases (putting aside later gloss or editing) probably have hidden context that we have no way of knowing about. Even Foster admits a few aspects (like Matthew saying people rose from dead when Jesus died) are likely not true. Damning admission! A much less credulous people signed on to the Church of Latter Day Saints and many other faiths that was based on dubious (at best) information in various respects. This doesn't mean it couldn't have happened, but the fact a small group believed Jesus rose from the dead (but many if not most even there at the time didn't join in though -- again note the source problem -- we simply don't have any contemporary accounts of their views) is not shocking. And, even quite unlikely things are more likely than such an event. The burden of proof is way on the side of "Y."

More examples can be added. Like the fact Mary Magdalene is well off is denounced though other accounts that she came from a well off area, successful for its salt industry, are readily found. Comment on Jesus being married not being an issue if true. Jesus' message was that the disciples had to leave their families to proclaim God's word and because the Kingdom of God is near. The fact some iffy stuff is included doesn't always help -- true believers often put their own gloss on things that others see as damning. It is not actually clear that the end of Mark is lost. These sorts of things make me question his judgment. Repeatedly, I wanted "X" to have a chance for redirect.

The book would have been better, therefore, if the tone of assurance on each side was cut back several degrees. Finally, a basic assumption is one I don't agree with: "If Jesus is a fraud then Christianity is dead." [To quote a review.] Is it? Shades of Jefferson's New Testament, I truly think that Christianity on the whole does not rise or fall on Jesus rising from the dead. It rests on a community of believers (God does play a role here, if not always an essential one) who accept something bigger than themselves should guide their lives. On the other hand, if Jesus truly rose from the dead and nothing truly amazing happened, just how important was it? Seems more amazing when a human sacrifices his/her life for a single person or a cause than when "God's son" does so with some assurance beforehand (human martyrs can't do miracles to assure themselves).

A major religion, eventually, formed. The reason it succeeded was not really based on a few people early on believing. Many others at the time believed other miraculous things. The basic principles, such as support for the poor and universal salvation over selective membership in cults, was not reliant on Jesus rising from the dead. Islam became a great religion in another context without that. A sacrifice of a deity's child is really old school mythology. It underlines why pagan Romans were often more likely to accept it than Jews. The fact that the majority of the Jews, to early Christians' annoyance really, rejected it is a telling point. Jesus' message and willingness to die for it is worth a great religion on its own. Christianity is not a big lie if he didn't rise.

I respect this effort and learned some interesting things in the process, but do wish it wasn't as much of a stacked deck. This includes what comes off as sarcasm or sneering at times, when more humility is warranted on both sides. "X" comes off too much like some kneejerk atheist, which might be how a few act, but is not the only way to go. Given "Y" a bit too often has his own problems, mixed bag. One of those "it's good enough that it's a shame it couldn't be better" deals.