Topic - Getting at Jesus: A Comprehensive Critique of Neo-Atheist Nonsense about the Jesus of History, January 29, 2019.
TB: You have recently written a book titled Getting at Jesus: A Comprehensive Critique of Neo-Atheist Nonsense about the Jesus ofHistory (Wipf & Stock, 2019). Please tell me about the book and why you wrote it.
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.
On 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 standard.
I 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!
According 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.)
Neo-atheists 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.
Having 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.
TB: For 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.
Turning to 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 (Clarendon, 2004).
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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