Topic - Getting at Jesus: A
Comprehensive Critique of Neo-Atheist Nonsense about the Jesus of History,
January 29, 2019.
Williams: The so-called
New Atheists are an influential propaganda movement interested in “getting at”
Jesus in the sense of attacking belief in him, but they don’t put much effort
into thinking about how we “get at” Jesus historically speaking. I wrote Getting at Jesus to demonstrate that
thinking carefully about how we “get at” the historical Jesus shows that the
New Atheists are unreliable guides on the subject.
the one hand, neo-atheists generally claim that scientific, empirical evidence
is the only way to know anything, and their attacks upon the historical Jesus center
around claims to the effect that there’s insufficient evidence to support the
Christian interpretation of Jesus. On the other hand, neo-atheists generally
excuse themselves from an examination of the relevant historical evidence by
appealing to purely philosophical objections to miracles. This is a double
counter the New Atheists’ philosophical objections to miracles and proceed to
examine the evidence for the existence of Jesus and the reliability of the
Christian understanding of him. I review evidence demonstrating the existence
of a so-called “high Christology” (belief that Jesus was divine) among the very
first generation of Christians. I examine how the New Atheists fail to
consistently grapple with the question of Jesus’ self-understanding. I look at
the credentials of the New Testament gospels. I spend one chapter looking at
the historical evidence relevant to the resurrection of Jesus and another
looking at how best to explain that evidence. I close by listing statements
about Jesus and the historical search for Jesus that have been made by
individual neo-atheists with which I agree. Surprisingly, these statements
outline an apologetic for the Christian view of Jesus!
to The Concise Oxford Dictionary
(Oxford, 1999), something is “comprehensive” if it includes or deals with “all
or nearly all aspects of something,” or is at least “of large content or
scope,” being “wide-ranging.” In this sense of the term, my book is a
“comprehensive” critique of neo-atheist views on the historical Jesus (it’s over
445 pages long, with 2057 footnotes and 45 pages of references!). The term “comprehensive”
can also be applied to winning a victory “by a large margin.” Hence my book is
also “comprehensive” in the sense that it demonstrates “by a wide margin” that
the New Atheists’ overall treatment of the historical Jesus is, to borrow a
phrase from Jeremy Bentham, “nonsense on stilts.” Finally, an archaic meaning
of “comprehensive” is “of or relating to understanding.” I hope readers will
not only understand and reject the insubstantial presuppositions and mistaken
beliefs that lead the New Atheists to espouse such nonsense about Jesus, but
that they will gain a new, evidence-based understanding of the sublime figure
at the heart of my discussion.
TB: I find it interesting that you use the term
“neo-atheist” in your title. Please briefly explain the difference between
an “atheist” and a “neo-atheist.”
Williams: An atheist is
someone who believes God doesn’t exist. As Gary Wolf, who coined the term,
writes: “The New Atheists… condemn not just belief in God but respect
for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; its evil.” (Gary Wolf, ‘The
Church of the Non-Believers’, Wired Magazine, November 2006, 184.)
typically combine their atheism with a scientistic
theory of knowledge (which claims that science is the only way to know
anything) with a materialistic
account of what exists and a moral
opposition to religion in general and monotheism in particular (it’s worth
pointing out that this set of beliefs is internally incoherent, scientism
excludes objective moral knowledge and materialism excludes both objective
moral values and moral responsibility). In other words, the so-called “new”
atheism amounts to a contemporary re-packaging of Bertrand Russell’s essay “Why
I am not a Christian” from 1927.
been galvanized by the 9/11 attacks on America, the ‘new’ atheism burst onto
the scene with a series of best-selling books, starting with Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), swiftly
followed by Richard Dawkins’ The God
Delusion (2006). Leading representatives of the movement include biologists
Richard Dawkins and Jerry A. Coyne, chemist Peter Atkins, physicist Lawrence M.
Krauss, neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosophers Daniel Dennett, A.C. Grayling
and Michel Onfray, and the late Christopher Hitchens (journalist) and Victor J.
Stenger (physicist and philosopher).
TB: When I think of some of the most
nonsensical claims about the Jesus of history, the idea that Jesus never existed
immediately comes to mind. Do you address the idea that Jesus didn’t
actually exist in your book?
Williams: I address this
issue directly in my second chapter, though much of the book would stand as an
implicit argument against the thesis that Jesus didn't exist. I examine
Christian and non-Christian evidence from the first and second centuries AD,
including not only written testimony but inscriptional evidence from
archaeology. The existence of the historical Jesus is accepted by the vast
majority of scholars in relevant disciplines, regardless of their worldview. Bart Ehrman, who is well-known as a
skeptical New Testament scholar, writes that: “Whether we like it or not, Jesus
certainly existed.” (Here.) In the end, even several neo-atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lawrence
Krauss) admit that there was a real,
historical Jesus. This is one of those points of agreement with specific
neo-atheists that I highlight in the conclusion of Getting at Jesus.
TB: Skeptics such as Robert Price point to
the variety of views within scholarship on Jesus in an effort to argue that we
can’t really know much about the historical Jesus. Why is Price wrong?
Williams: It is of course true to say that there’s a wide variety of views
about Jesus within scholarship, but it doesn’t follow that we can’t really know
much about the historical Jesus. On the one hand, different views can overlap,
and variety at one level may include agreement at another. On the other hand, such
disagreement highlights the need to think carefully and critically as we seek
the truth about Jesus.
Plenty of scholars would agree on certain
data about the historical Jesus despite having widely different worldviews, but
they go on to reach widely different conclusions about how best to interpret
that common historical data to produce an overall understanding of the
historical Jesus. Many atheist, agnostic, Jewish and liberal Christian scholars
would agree we can know that Jesus existed and preached about the kingdom of
God, that followers and enemies alike believed he worked miracles and exorcised
demons, that he was crucified, that various people believed they encountered a
resurrected Jesus soon thereafter, and so on. Where these scholars differ is
when it comes to their overall portrait of who Jesus was, and this portrait
will of course be one they believe squares with their own worldview. The
question is, I think, whether a scholar’s worldview is open to being re-shaped
by an encounter with historical evidence.
If a scholar approaches the historical Jesus whilst
dogmatically excluding a Christian
understanding of Jesus on a priori
grounds (as the New Atheists do), it’s not surprising they end up with a non-Christian
understanding of Jesus! Hence, scholarly disagreement forewarns us that, as we
try to get at the historical Jesus, we need to think carefully about 1) how we
establish and adjust our worldview expectations,
2) how we arrive at what we consider to be the relevant historical evidence to take into account, and 3) how
we establish and adjust what we take to be the most plausible explanation of that evidence in a
dynamic critical dialogue with our worldview.
those who are interested in learning more about the Jesus of history, apart
from your book, what other works would you recommend?
Williams: I’ve given two
lectures on themes from Getting at Jesus
that are available online: ‘Getting at Jesus: A Critique of Neo-Atheist
Nonsense About the Jesus of History’ (Veritas Norway, 2018) is here & ‘Responding to Neo-Atheist
Nonsense about the Jesus of History’ (FOCL, 2016) is here.
Your readers may
like to know that I curate YouTube playlists, many of which cover historical
Jesus issues. This resource can be found here.
books, Peter J. Williams’ Can We Trust
the Gospels? (Crossway, 2018) is a short volume summarizing cutting-edge
arguments for the reliability of the canonical Gospels. Two recent books
arguing for a Christian interpretation of the historical Jesus are Brant
Pitre’s The Case For Jesus: The Biblical And Historical Evidence For
Christ (Image, 2016) and Robert J. Hutchinson’s Searching For Jesus: New
Discoveries In The Quest For Jesus Of Nazareth – And How They Confirm The
Gospel Accounts (Nelson, 2015). Lydia McGrew revives a venerable argument
for the historical reliability of the New Testament in Hidden In Plain View: Undesigned
Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (DeWard, 2017). Excellent for clearing
away the a priori objection to
miracles is Robert A. Larmer’s The
Legitimacy of Miracle (Lexington, 2014). Two older works well worth reading
are ancient historian Paul Barnett’s Finding
the Historical Christ (Eerdmans, 2009) and New Testament scholar Craig L.
Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of
the Gospels, second edition (Apollos/IVP, 2007). On the key issue of Jesus’
resurrection, I recently contributed two chapters to Carl Stecher and Craig
Blomberg with contributions by Richard Carrier and Peter S. Williams, Resurrection: Faith or Fact? (Pitchstone, 2019). I also recommend the many relevant
works by William Lane Craig, Gary R. Habermas, Michael R. Licona, Richard
Swinburne and N.T. Wright. Finally, I find much to appreciate in C. Stephen
Evans’ The Historical Christ & The Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History
To order your copy of Getting at Jesus: A Comprehensive Critique of Neo-Atheist Nonsense about the Jesus of History, go here.
To learn more about Peter S. Williams and his outstanding work, see here.
I would like to publicly thank Peter S. Williams for participating in this interview. As a long time fan of his work, it was an honor.
Courage and Godspeed,
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