Monday, January 27, 2014

What Happens When You Assume

I've been wasting time poking around the Intertoobz lately when I should be writing here, but occasionally it pays off.  There was a post at The Atlantic the other day about an ancient cuneiform tablet inscribed with a version of the Deluge myth, in which a Mesopotamian god gives instructions for building a boat to save a few humans and representative animals from the coming flood.  The hook for the article was that the boat would be round, a coracle.  "Coracles were used in ancient Iraq as river taxies. They were, given their construction materials, light to transport. Their shape gave them stability against shifting currents and, when necessary, floodwaters."  So, not all that surprising, but still a nice light piece with some intriguing information.

The comments to the post largely focused on the relation between the biblical version of the Deluge myth, starring Noah, and other ancient versions.  Some commenters objected to the story using the story of Noah as clickbait, "which obscures how interesting the discovery is on its own merits. It shouldn't need to be tied to the Bible to make it interesting."  I quibbled mildly: 
I agree with you, but it seems unlikely to me that anyone in the modern West (even atheists like me) could hear about this story without thinking of its similarity to the Noah's ark story. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And there's a lot of lore about the history of religion floating around the atheist communities which is just as received and half-understood as anything you find in evangelical Christian circles. (I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?, so that's on my mind at the moment.)
This morning I found that someone else had answered me:
DUNCAN!! I've got something for you. go to get into the books ask for "The Case for Christ; a journalists personal investigation for the evidence for Jesus " by Lee Strobel. There's the 'Look Inside' can only look at the cover and the beginning. click on beginning and scroll down to 'FROM DIXON TO JESUS' start reading there. AND, look up "More Than a Carpenter" by Josh McDowell. I mean, really. If you're not going to believe, you ought to know what you're not believing! Nez pah?
I found that this same person had posted several other comments on the same post, writing from a fundamentalist, inerrant-Bible viewpoint that has become familiar to me over to the years from reading and from interaction with people who hold it.  It fits with the books the person recommended to me, and with the assumptions about me they evidently made.

In fact I already have a copy of Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, because other fundamentalists recommended it to me.  I've leafed through it and it appears to be basically the same fundamentalist apologetics that I've encountered before -- in Josh McDowell's More than a Carpenter, for example, which I read about thirty years ago when I was studying up on the subject.  McDowell was, with C. S. Lewis, the go-to guy for a lot of campus evangelicals in those days, best known for a book called Evidence That Demands a Verdict, originally published in the 1970s but reissued and "updated" several times since then.  Every time an evangelical would engage me in conversation to try to win me for Christ and discover that I knew a lot more about the Bible than they did, they'd tell me I should look at McDowell's Evidence, which, they said, answered a lot of the points I raised.  This was one reason I set out to write an anti-apologia in the 1980s, so that unbelievers faced with Christian misisonaries could simply say to them, "Have you heard of Duncan Mitchel's book Like Father, Like Son?  It answers a lot of the points you've raised."

Evidence That Demands a Verdict is not a book so much as a data dump of debater's notes, arranged topically as an outline.  Much of the material is testimonials from numerous people to the excellence and credibility of the Bible, the perfection and authority of Jesus, and the like.  Most of these testimonials are irrelevant, but even more notable, they are mostly from Christian thinkers of the 1800s and earlier.  A great deal has been learned about the Bible and its background in the ancient world that was unavailable to scholars and theologians two or three centuries ago, and even when McDowell includes twentieth-century archaeological and historical material, it's often outdated or misquoted.  But McDowell, like most apologists, relies on his audiences (whether they're Christian or not) being even less knowledgeable than he is.

McDowell is an evangelist and motivational speaker who travels to many college campuses for Campus Crusade for Christ, so I once had a chance to ask him a question when he appeared at IU.  I asked him about one of the factual errors in Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and (obviously flustered) he replied that he'd dealt with that in More Evidence That Demands a Verdict.  So I tracked that down and found that he hadn't dealt with it.  I wrote to him and told him so, and he wrote back saying, not altogether unreasonably, that a man can't remember everything he's written and thanks for writing.  When I checked later editions of Evidence in the late 1990s, the same misinformation was still in it.

More Than a Carpenter, originally published in 1977, really is a book, a relatively short argument for the divinity of Jesus.  As I say, I read it thirty years ago and don't remember any details about it; maybe I should reread it and do a blog post about it, since evidently it's still being recommended.  What I do remember is that it was standard popular fundamentalist Christian apologetic, and since McDowell is not a particularly reliable source anyway, it didn't require a lot of attention from me.  (By "popular" I mean to imply that there are more scholarly apologetics out there, such as the work of the late F. F. Bruce, whose The New Testament Documents -- Are They Reliable? was first published in 1943 but is still in print seventy years later.  It's better than More Than a Carpenter, but it still rests on some of the same untenable arguments used by McDowell.)

I don't know what assumptions my interlocutor at The Atlantic made about the fact that I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?  She or he couldn't have known that I've read not only More Than a Carpenter but quite a lot of Christian apologetics, plus a shitload of scholarly and popular writing on Christianity from a wide spectrum of theological positions.  I'm reading Did Jesus Exist? not because I expect to learn much from it (and so far, about halfway through, I haven't: the material Ehrman is covering is mostly familiar to me) but to see where the debate on the existence of a historical Jesus stands nowadays.  I've encountered the Jesus-myth position before, mainly in G. A. Wells's The Jesus of the Early Christians (Pemberton, 1971), and found it intriguing but not convincing, nor do I think it's all that important.  Some of the "mythicists," as they call themselves, make some good arguments, but they also make some really flagrant mistakes.  It would be interesting if someone could prove that Jesus was a purely fictional person (as opposed to the legend-embroidered person depicted in the New Testament): it would eliminate the problem of distinguishing fact from fiction in the gospels.  But so far no one has, and given the difficulty of proving a negative no one is likely to; and I find it annoying when some of my fellow atheists declare dogmatically that Jesus demonstrably and certainly didn't exist, with no more basis than fundamentalists have for declaring dogmatically that Jesus demonstrably and certainly was the Christ, the Son of God.