This is the final part of a series that is in response to an article that was sent to me via Twitter entitled Leading archaeologist says Old testament storeis are fiction. (Yes, that’s the actual title of the article.) That article was sent to me in the midst of a Twitter firestorm of responses to an article I shared entitled 5 Uncomfortable Facts Atheists Need To Hear by Barak Lurie, a former atheist. (You can read my responses to the firestorm here, here, and here.)
The opening sentence of this article, posted on Sunday, March 28, 1993, says: “ABRAHAM, Jacob, Moses, King David, and King Solomon in all his splendour, never existed, a 15-year study of archaeological evidence has concluded.” The first post in this series addressed the question Is There Archaeological Evidence for Abraham?. The next post addressed the question Is There Any Archaeological Evidence for Exodus? The last post addressed the question Is There Any Archaeological Evidence for King David?.
There was another line in the article that got my attention that I felt was worthy of responding to:
The study – by Professor Thomas Thompson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on biblical archaeology – says that the first 10 books of the Old Testament are almost certainly fiction, written between 500 and 1,500 years after the events they purport to describe.
Reading something like this makes me wonder who this person is, in honest curiosity, to better understand where he is coming from. Spending a brief time Googling him, I wasn’t able to find any evidence that he was “one of the world’s foremost authorities on biblical archaeology,” but he is indeed an archaeologist who has written several books. So maybe he is one.
Wikipedia’s page on him says that he is “part of the minimalist movement known as the Copenhagen School, a group of scholars who hold that the Bible cannot be used as a source to determine the history of ancient Israel, and that “Israel” itself is a problematic concept.” Interestingly, several scholars have written rebuttals to his claims.
In regards to his claims in archaeology (specifically in a review of one of his books), associate professor Charles Isbell writes this (emphasis mine):
Two things in particular characterize the work of Thompson. First, he has a penchant not only for dismissing in cavalier fashion anyone who might disagree with him either at present or in the past, but also for impugning his or her personal integrity as well…
Other Thompson hallmarks are the tossing-off of self-evident statements as if they were completely new thoughts and the ascribing to “all scholars” positions that few if any of us hold…
I do not believe that I will be the only scholar unhappy with the results of Thompson’s work. But let it be noted that our discontent is not because we all are guilty of the sins of which we are accused as a guild, and it is not because we still believe in a flat world. It is because we understand that tearing down is easier than constructing something better than the old which we have demolished.
I also discovered that Professor Thompson is in the Jesus Mythicist camp, which is the belief that Jesus never existed.
On the topic of Jesus Mythicism, Dr. William Lane Craig, in his debate with Jesus mythicist Richard Carrier, says this:
This is a position which is so extreme that to call it marginal would be an understatement. It doesn’t even appear on the map of contemporary New Testament scholarship.
Atheist Tim O’Neill’s blog History for Atheists “regularly features responses to and critiques of Jesus Mythicism” (twelve in-depth articles so far, including 2 directly responding to Richard Carrier), adding this:
Despite this being a thesis with little academic support and accepted by no more than a handful of fringe scholars, it is enthusiastically supported by many atheists, particularly of the New Atheist variety.
Agnostic (leaning towards atheism) scholar Bart Ehrman himself says:
This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity…. The reason for thinking Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources…. If you want to go where the evidence goes, I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism, because frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world. If that’s what you’re going to believe, you just look foolish.
Dr. Michael Licona, in an interview with Mike Winger called “Real Historian Responds to “Jesus Was a Myth” Claims“, was asked:
Mike Winger: I get the impression that by and large, they’re [the relevant scholars] not really wanting to even talk about this issue [of Jesus Mythicism] because they feel that in even addressing it publicly they’re they’re legitimizing it somehow.
Mike Licona: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it’d be kind of like scientist entertaining the Flat Earth theory, you know what I mean? Or other historians entertaining the hypothesis that the Holocaust never occurred. I mean, it’s really on that level. Or now you know someone from NASA engaged in a debate on whether we actually went to the moon.
Dr. Licona even issues a challenge a little over the halfway mark:
I mean, it just flies in the face of the facts. Anybody can just go to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and hang out with thousands of scholars that are there, probably…eight to ten thousand scholars who attend it…and ask them if they’re Christians, ask them if they believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and rose from the dead. And then for all those who say no, which are going to be a significant number of them, ask him if they believe that he was a historical figure and I’ll bet you just about every last one of them will say yes. So if a mythicist wants to find out, let him spend the money, go to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, it’s in San Diego this year, rent a hotel room, you can go on the SBL website, sign up for the meeting, purchase your ticket to it and go talk to some scholars…and you’ll be enlightened about that immediately.
Professor Thompson is one of several (including the aforementioned Richard Carrier) that Bart Ehrman addresses by name in his book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, a book written as an answer to Jesus Mythicists. In the introduction, on the skeptical literature of Jesus mythicists, he says:
I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.
Specifically, on Professor Thomspon, Ehrman says:
Thompson is trained in biblical studies, but he does not have degrees in New Testament or early Christianity.
What is the scholarly consensus about the historical Jesus?
“Despite the enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea” (p. 12).
How seriously is mythicism taken in the academy?
“It is fair to say that mythicists as a group, and as individuals, are not taken seriously by the vast majority of scholars in the field of New Testament, early Christianity, ancient history, and theology” (20).
“The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus” (96).
I would add this quote:
I hardly need to stress what I have already intimated: the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet. That in itself is not proof, of course. Expert opinion is, at the end of the day, still opinion. But why would you not want to know what experts have to say? When you make a dental appointment, do you want your dentist to be an expert or not? If you build a house, do you want a professional architect or your next-door neighbor to draw up the plans? One might be tempted to say that in the case of the historical Jesus it is different since, after all, we are just talking about history; experts have no more access to the past than anyone else. That, however, is simply not true. It may be the case tht some of my students receive the bulk of their knowledge of the Middle Ages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but is that really the best place to turn? So too millions of people have acquired their “knowledge” about early Christianity – about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the emporer Constantine, the Council of Nicea – from Dan Brown, author of the aforementioned The Da Vinci Code. But at the end of the day, is that such a wise choice?
Serious historians of the early Christian movements – all of them – have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field…It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure.
Of course, Thompson responded to Ehrman, which James McGrath called An Odd Diatribe and says:
And so it is not clear why anyone thinks that the points in Thompson’s book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus.
I will be very surprised if anyone who is not already a mythicist finds the piece to offer any sort of positive contribution to scholarly discussion.
Towards the end of Mike Licona’s interview with Mike Winger (referenced above), Dr. Licona concludes:
Scholars really look at Jesus deniers as mythicists to be on the on the same level as conspiracy theorists who think that we never walked on the moon, the Holocaust didn’t occur and these kinds of things. So it would mean if Jesus actually existed…and you’re falling for this, then that means you’re gullible and that could also mean that you have a tendency to go for these kind of conspiracy theories.
Still, as is clear from the avalanche of sometimes outraged postings on all the relevant Internet sites, there is simply no way to convince conspiracy theorists that the evidence for their position is too thin to be convincing and that the evidence for a traditional view is thoroughly persuasive. Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing – whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of presidents, or even a presidential place of birth – will not be convinced. Simply will not be convinced.
(DJE pg 5)
I’ve written on the Nature of Conspiracy Theories as well as the 5 criteria that need to be in place for a conspiracy theory to be successful (What Every Christian Needs to Know About Conspiracy Theories, + part 2, and part 3), which are:
1. A small number of conspirators.
2. A short conspiracy timespan
3. Excellent communication
4. Strong “Familial” Relationships
5. Little or no pressure to confess.
The apostles did not fit these criteria.
Years ago, I was asked by a very dear friend of mine, who is not a believer, on what’s the difference between believing in Jesus and believing in Thor. My answer to him was that I was not aware of any scholar who thought that Thor was a real person in history, while even unbelieving relevant scholars believe that Jesus was a real person in history. In fact, you can make a compelling case for the resurrection of Jesus just on the evidence that the atheist scholars accept.
Skeptics like to say that Jesus was based on myths like Horus and Mithras but that argument fails when you really think it through. In fact, you can use some of the same arguments that Jesus mythicists use to argue that Tiberius Caesar never existed.