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The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Part 3: In Defense of the Historicity of the Resurrection

This is the first reply in a formal written debate between Stuart McEwing and Malcolm Trevena. The question of the debate is “Is the resurrection of Jesus fact or fiction?”

Preliminaries

I would first like to thank Malcolm Trevena for his opening statement responding to my defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I am grateful for the importance he places on the truth of the matter and that he chose to attack my arguments without attacking me. I hope to replicate this gentlemanly manner.

Introduction

To begin I would like to look back and recall my opening statement.

In support of my first contention that there are at least four facts which any adequate historical hypothesis must explain, I offered four facts, namely, the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion, the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and that the disciples radically came to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and also outlined the reasons why each of those facts are commended to us by the majority of experts in the relevant fields.

In support of my second contention, the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead  is the best explanation of the aforementioned facts, I assessed that hypothesis using the conventional criteria historians use for determining the best explanation.

I concluded that Trevena, in order to establish that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, in the absence of some overwhelming proof of atheism, must propose an alternative naturalistic explanation of those facts which exceeds the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling those criteria.

Read more

The Jesus of History: The 2nd & 3rd Quest (part 3)

The Period of No Quest

The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of the dialectical and existential schools of theology represented by Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann. For these men the quest for the historical Jesus was well over. Barth ignored the New Testament criticism of Jesus, for what mattered to him was the Christ of Faith proclaimed by the Church. The historical Jesus was, besides being inaccessible to investigation, theologically irrelevant and distracting. Bultmann’s project of demythologization was characteristic of those who preceded him, but this time with surprisingly transparent naturalistic presuppositions.[1] For this project he developed the “form critical” method, to uncover the oral traditions that lay behind the earliest scriptural writing. To him the hope was to show that the gospel’s picture of Jesus was largely an invention of the early church. Of the historical Jesus he wrote “In my opinion, of the life of and personality of Jesus we can now know as good as nothing.”[2] It did not matter to him though, for what was important was the truth expressed by the Christ-myth in the kerygma.[3]

The Second Quest

A new quest began with the disciples of Bultmann who were not content with the mere fact of Jesus’ existence as a ground for the Christian faith. The launch of the quest was a lecture delivered in 1953 by Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998) to his fellow students in Göttingen. There he selected sayings of Jesus he believed to be assuredly authentic and asked the question what impression do we get of Jesus’ proclamation and character. Redaction-criticism was born: its aim to discover the theological and literary tendencies of the authors of scripture. Others soon joined him in the quest.[4]

James Robinson (1924-) distinguished between the Jesus of history and the historical Jesus. The first was the actual person who lived, and the second was the person who could be proved. The new quest, he says, was only concerned with the historical Jesus. Because of the presence of theology in the gospels, Robinson believed the burden of proof belonged to the one who would ascribe some attribute to Jesus, and not the one who denied it. Thus, if some feature of the historical Jesus could not be proved to be authentic, we should regard it as inauthentic. This presumption has been sharply criticized[5] but lies behind much of New Testament scholarship today. More will latter be said on Robinson’s presumption and its effect on the criteria for authenticity.

John Meier, professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the massive and ongoing series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, makes a distinction similar to Robinson. To him the Jesus of history or the historical Jesus is a modern abstraction and construct of what can be recovered and examined using ‘the scientific tools of modern historical research.’[6] He uses those terms interchangeably, and contrasts them with what he calls the real Jesus, which is “a reasonably complete record of [his] public words and deeds.”[7] On final analysis however, this is just another modern abstraction and construct: not a living, breathing person that is the subject of historical research, but a list of propositions. Craig notes a “third abstraction in the wings” [8] which Meier calls the total reality of Jesus. This is “everything he . . . ever thought, felt, experienced, did and said.”[9] He concludes that assigning Jesus’ proper name to lists of propositions only leads to confusion, and muses that “one cannot help but wonder what has happened to the actual person Jesus of Nazareth.”[10]

The Third Quest

The energy with which the second quest was taken up had deflated by the seventies. But not for long. Jesus scholarship in the eighties and nineties received a burst of new life. A convergence of factors is thought to be responsible for the growing confidence that the historical Jesus can be known. In part this is due to the application of new methodologies from other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and linguistics. It is also due in part to the inclusion of non-canonical literature as evidence,[11] a relaxing of the prohibition to mix theology and history,[12] and scholarly renderings of historical portraits of Jesus being made accessible to the general public. Beyond these generalizations, Martin notes, it is difficult to identify which schools of thought individual scholars belong, so diverse and popular is historical Jesus scholarship.[13]

Distinctive features of the Third Quest have been to place Jesus in a Jewish context, and the jettisoning of the gospels as mythology: an idea that waxed so large from Strauss through to Bultmann.[14] Since the release of Richard A. Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco- Roman Biography in 1992, somewhat of a consensus among scholars has emerged, such that the gospel’s literary genre is thought to be that of ancient biography. Many Jewish scholars have made their mark by interpreting Jesus as fitting within the first century Israeli cultural-milieu,[15] particularly as a teacher of ethics, an eschatological prophet, miracle worker and exorcist.[16]

Today, the quest for the Jesus of history is alive and well; a marked contrast to the miserable state of historical Jesus research at the opening of the twentieth century. From here we will leave our survey of the historical background and go on to examine some of the philosophical dilemmas that have surrounded this search.


[1] In his essay entitles “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” he argued that while scholars should not presuppose their results, there is nevertheless “one presupposition that cannot be dismissed” – that “history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects.” Bultmann explained that, “this closed-ness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers and that therefore there is no ‘miracle’ in this sense of the word.” R. Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” Existence and Faith: Short Writings of Rudolph Bultmann, ed. and trans. S. M. M. Ogden (New York: World, 1966), pp. 289-291. Cited in The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 42.

[2] Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1951), p. 11.

[3] Kerygma: The proclamation on the church.

[4] G. Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth (1960), J. Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise to the Nation (1958), The Proclaimation of Jesus (1971), E. Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1979).

[5] See Morna Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 (1972): 570-81.

[6] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 25.

[7] Ibid., 1:22.

[8] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 291.

[9] A Marginal Jew: vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, p. 21.

[10] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 292.

[11] Such as the Gospel of Thomas

[12] Martin describes it as a “a reluctant admission that theology and history are not mutually exclusive categories” The Elusive Messiah, p. 45

[13] The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 45, 209.

[14] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 294.

[15] Spearheaded by C. G. Montefiore (The Synoptic Gospels, 1909), Israel Abrams (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1917, 1929) Joseph Klausner (Jesus of Nazereth: His life Times, and Teaching, 1922), and contemporary scholars such as Samuel Sandmel (We Jews and Jesus, 1965), Schalom Ben-Chorin (Bruder Jesus: Der Nazarener in Jüdischer Sicht, 1967), David Flusser (Jesus, 1969, Pinchas Lapide (Der Rabbi von Nazereth, 1974), Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew, 1973; The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993). Non-jewish scholars with similar projects are E. P. Sanders (Jews and Judaism, 1985), Birger Gerhardsson (Memory and Manuscript, 1961) and Rainer Riesner (Jesus als Lehrer, 1981).

[16] Leaving aside the question of the miracles supernatural character, it is now generally regarded as acceptable for the historical portrait of Jesus to include miracle working and exorcisms. See Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 295.

The Jesus of History: The First Quest (Part 2)

Historical Background

Most historians credit Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) as the person to initiate the quest for the Historical Jesus.[1] He was a German historian who sought to re-write the story of Jesus’ life in a naturalistic framework rather than the prevalent super-naturalistic one. Reimarus, however, was not without predecessors to lay the groundwork.

Before the Quest

Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) argued against miracles to lay the foundations of a thoroughly naturalistic approach to the study of history. In his view, the historian bought to the study of history the certain knowledge that no miracles have ever occurred, rather than it being his/her task to discover if there has been a miracle. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), the French philosopher and critic was renowned for his skepticism of historical religious claims. English Deism was also making its mark through such people as Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), John Tolland (1670-1720), Anthony Collins (1676-1729) – who was a friend and disciple of John Locke, and others whose influence extended into France and Germany in particular.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher and historian, was composing his arguments against miracles about the same time as Reimarus. He conceded that miracles could occur, but argued that even if one had occurred we should never be entitled to conclude one had. As the Humean in-principle argument “has left an indelible impression on modern biblical scholarship”[2] we shall have to return to discuss further Hume’s arguments. For now it enough to note that as a result of his writing, it is believed that no one is entitled to conclude that a genuine miracle (including fulfilled prophesy) has occurred on the basis of the evidence alone.[3]

The milieu of the Enlightenment conspired to create a situation where a Reimarus was the natural consequence.

The First Quest

Reimarus’ “Fragments” were published posthumously by G. E. Lessing from 1774-8. In them he sharply distinguished between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.[4] For him the Jesus of history was a real person, who lived in Palestine as a teacher of rational, practical religion. This Jesus did not think of himself as divine, but may have thought of himself as a political messiah, teaching the coming of the kingdom of God and Jewish liberation from Roman rule. The Christ of faith on the other hand was an “intentional, deliberate fabrication”[5] created by the disciples who were motivated primarily by financial gain. His hypothesis was that the disciples stole the body of Jesus away from the tomb, invented stories of the resurrection and his imminent return, and attributed to Christ a theological significance Jesus never once claimed for himself. Much later they made Christ the Savior of the world.

The main thrust of this quest was to uncover whom Jesus supposedly really was, without the supernatural legendary accretion that supposedly developed after his death. Many different lives of Jesus were discovered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, including; the eleven volume work of Karl F. Bahrdt’s Ausfuhrung des Plan und Zwecks Jesu (1784-1792), [6] the four volume work of Karl H. Venturini’s Naturliche Greshichte des grossen Propheten von Nazareth (1800-1802),[7] the two volume work of H. E. G. Paulus’s Das Leban Jesu (1828).[8] Each to varying degrees sought to explain away Jesus’ miracles with clever naturalistic explanations, such as he was a medicinal healer, Lazarus was actually in a coma, and the disciples mistakenly thought Jesus was walking on water when he was actually only walking on a sandbank in the shallows.

It was D. F. Strauss that ended this school of thought with his book Das Laben Jesus, kritishe bearbeitet (1835).[9] He dismissed the miraculous accounts as non-historical on the basis that they were inconsistent internally or else with other equally credible accounts, or contradicted by known natural laws. He went one step further however by rejecting the naturalistic explanations offered for them as well. For him, the shear number of miracles and the contrived explanations given to them, as well as the irreconcilable contradictions and unhamonizable chronologies, could best be explained with the idea that the gospels were never intended to be historical accounts. Rather they were sacred history that were meant to convey deep spiritual truths. The miracles were mythological, developed by Jewish messianic expectation and applied to Jesus for theological reasons. There was a virulent response to Strauss’s views in Germany at the time, but despite this the miracle-working Jesus of history was largely abandoned in academia.

Liberal theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century turned Jesus into merely a great moral teacher who was the model for humanity. Optimism that the man behind the myth could be found persisted until William Wrede published The Messianic Secret (1901). New Testament criticism had developed the two-source hypothesis, and by the turn of the century most scholars accepted the priority of Mark. Wrede succeeding in convincing others that even Mark, the earliest source where the historical Jesus was supposed to be found, was coloured with theological concerns. Thus, a biography of the historical Jesus was deemed futile.

Albert Schweitzer, the historiographer of this interesting period, says historians set out to find the historical Jesus believing they could bring him into our time as Teacher and Savior. He concluded, “He does not stay; he passes by our time and returns to his own.”[10] William Lane Craig writes,

“. . . apparently unaware of the personal element they all brought to their research, each writer reconstructed a historical Jesus after his own image. There was Strauss’s Hegelian Jesus, Renan’s sentimental Jesus,[11] Bauer’s non-existent Jesus,[12] Ritschl’s liberal Jesus, and so forth. To paraphrase George Tyrell, each one looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom.”[13]


[1] Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000) p. 29.

[2] Charles Sanders Peirce, Values in a Universe of Chance: Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958) p. 293. Cited by Timothy McGrew in “Miracles,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, forthcoming Spring 2010.

[3] And even if it could be, no one can establish if it was truly a result of super-natural agency. In many circles the miraculous is considered to be outside the domain of historical investigation.

[4] Reimarus: Framents, ed. C. H. Talbert, trans. R. S. Frazer (Philadelphia: Fortress Ress, 1970), See also Reimarus, “The Intention of Jesus and His Disciples” 1788

[5] Ibid., p. 151.

[6] An Explanation of the plans and aims of Jesus

[7] A Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth

[8] The life of Jesus as the Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity

[9] The Life of Jesus Critically Examined

[10] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Strudy of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1957 [1906]), p. 26.

[11] E. Renan, The History of the Origins of Christianity (1863)

[12] Bruno Bauer, Criticism of the Gospels and the History of Their Origin (1850-1851)

[13] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003) p. 218 See also, George Tyrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longman, Green, 1910) p. 44

The Jesus of History: An Introduction (Part 1)

An Introduction

The scandal of Christianity is that it is a religion grounded in historical events, which if they can be demonstrated to be false, would empty it of meaning and all power. Chief among those historical events is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul declares, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”[1] Michael Green was right when he wrote, “Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards.”[2] If Christians are to maintain that faith is reasonable, it will be crucial to establish that not only the events of history in general can be known, but also specific events of the past are true.

Most people when they come to Christ do not do historical research or consider things like the problem of historical knowledge. Rather, they come to know the great truths of the gospel, such as Christ’s atoning life and death, and his resurrection from the dead on the basis of their experience of the Spirit of God. This experience I take as veridical, and a fully legitimate grounding of knowledge.[3] So although the Christian is warranted in believing what happened 2000 years ago without studying history or philosophy, the following entries in this series will concern themselves with exactly that. I will be summarizing the search for the historical Jesus, then assess some of the search’s surrounding dilemmas. It will not be a thorough treatment. Whole books have been written, and still could be, on any one of these issues. I seek only to summarize, explain and briefly offer what refutation can be given. Included will be an assessment of Historical Relativism, the Problem of Miracles, imposing Methodological Naturalism in the study of history, and three methods for establishing historical descriptions.

I begin this journey with a goal in mind: to establish the description of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel narratives as truly historical. The pen of John Stuart Mill eloquently expresses the same conviction.

“It is of no use to say that Christ as exhibited in the gospels is not historical . . . Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee, still less the early Christian writers.”[4]


[1] 1 Cor 15:17 (NASB)

[2] Michael Green, Runaway World (London: Inter-Varsity, 1968), p. 2.

[3] Philosophers call these beliefs properly basic. They need not have arguments to support them, for they are bedrock beliefs that are wholly sensible in and of themselves, from which we argue to other things.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Nature, the Utility of Religion and Theism (London: Longmans, 1874).

Brian Bruce on CloseUp: Not close enough

Mike Hosking interviewed Brian Bruce on CloseUp this Easter Friday for 10 minutes on the question Who killed Jesus, and why? Bishop Patrick Dunne, head of the Catholic Church in Auckland was there to represent “a more orthodox view.”

Brian Bruce looks like a conservative iconoclast; a fair-minded, respectable intellectual. He, in fact, is not an authority in biblical or historical Jesus scholarship. He is a film-maker whose research in the historicity of Jesus extends as far back as one full year.

What he argues for is that the Jews were not responsible for killing Jesus, but that it was Pilate. He builds his case on the idea that the gospel narratives are unreliable, hearsay and stories spun with an agenda. His words are the gospels are “war-time propaganda.”

What can we say in response to this? First and most importantly, what he presumes is that the gospels do in fact blame all the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion. Bishop Patrick Dunne was hampered by the time constraints and the pressure of being put on the spot, so any short comings of his response are easily forgiven. He did well to quote Tom Wright in response to a particular qualm of Brian Bruce’s about a verse in John blaming the “Jews” for Jesus’ death. His mistake though was to only counter the example Brian Bruce used to illustrate his claim, rather than attacking the claim itself.

To counter the claim itself one could point out anti-Semitism in the gospels is ridiculous. Jesus was a Jew, and all the writers of the New Testament – including the gospels – were Jews themselves. The majority of the earliest Christian converts were Jews. Paul’s missionary mode-of-operations was to first preach in the synagogue to the Jews in hopes they would turn to Christ. The Bible in the past may have been used later to justify anti-Semitism, but it was used wrongly. There are no grounds theologically for blaming the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion. A close reading of the gospels will reveal that Jesus always remains in control of the situation: a masterful manipulator in the storm of controversy stirring about him. Jesus willingly submitted himself, in obedience to the will of God, to crucifixion. At any stage of the unfolding drama he could have escaped had he wished it.

Bruce thinks it ridiculous that the judicial murder of Jesus was orchestrated by the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night on one of the most holy days of the Jewish calendar when such an act was forbidden in Jewish law. He thinks it unbelievable that the only person to stick up for Jesus in the crucial hours of his trial was Pilate. This and evidence like it leads him to suggest that the gospels have it wrong – the Romans actually were responsible for Jesus’ death.

One could easily deal with the examples he uses to undermine his case. A little bit of knowledge of the religious and cultural backdrop would take the legs he stands on right out from under him. One could point out (1) the serious reason why Jesus was on trial in the first place – for claiming to stand in the place of, and be equal with God, (2) that no Jewish person would stand for something like that, or (3) the religious politics involved that made Jesus a stone of contention for the religious elite, or (4) the danger of siding with Jesus in such a volatile situation, etc.

It is easier however to remove the floor his legs stand on. A moderate position that Brian Bruce could have taken is this; the lack of information is insufficient to render these events plausible (i.e. we can’t know if these things were the actual things that took place). Instead of remaining unconvinced of the veracity of the gospels claims regarding who actually was responsible for the death of Jesus, he argues from what information he can garner that these events are implausible, and that something more plausible happened instead (i.e. we shouldn’t believe it because we can’t imagine how it could be true, instead we should believe something completely different which we can imagine). A philosopher of history would wrap him over the knuckles.

He makes other mistakes. He says basically that the gospel narratives cannot be trusted, for they were written between 40-80 years after Jesus’ death. Brian Bruce apparently does not know that in cultures with strong oral traditions that three generations of telling and re-telling is not enough for legendary accretion to wipe out the historical core. Neither does he appreciate that 40 years, a very late estimate of the gospel’s date of authorship, is still a very early source of information on the historical Jesus. In terms of ancient history, a source 40 years removed from the events is to die for. To have four such detailed accounts, so closely matched in their details, is unprecedented.

It seems as if he does understand that the earliest evidence for Jesus does not come from the gospels but from Paul, writing no more than 25 years after Jesus’ death. But he adds that it is suspicious that Paul didn’t know about such things as Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper, yet he apparently spent several days with Peter and John, checking and investigating the details. Now, raise your hand if you find it suspicious that Brian Bruce is an expert on what Paul didn’t know. What’s more, these may be details that are not demonstrable true, but they are details which we have no reason to disbelieve if they are true.

Further, even if Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper are not true, these are details that do not effect the veracity of the historical core of information regarding Jesus’ death, burial, post-motem appearances, and the disciples belief that God raised Jesus from the dead. You get the impression that apart from key facts such as there was a person called Jesus, he did something wrong, he got killed for it, that Brian Bruce is calling the whole Easter story a fiction. If that is true he finds himself not only outside the broad mainstream of historical research concerning Christ, but far-and-away to the extreme right of the most liberal Liberal.

Even the most dedicated sceptic has to admit that something happened to those disciples that was powerfully transformative. For fishermen, after the disaster of seeing their Rabbi crucified – what they would have understood to mean he was literally accursed by God, condemned as a blaspheming heretic – to then go on, and in the face of tremendous persecution preach the gospel – that Jesus is God – shows that something very unusual took place that first Easter Sunday.

There are other mistakes of Brian Bruce’s that could be countered. In fairness he didn’t have much time in the interview to develop a strong and convincing case, such as the one he apparently presents in his writing. But such a poor interview bodes not well at all for the quality of scholarship in Brian Bruce’s investigative reporting of Jesus.

You can see the interview for yourself here.