In December 2014, there was a little kerfuffle in the sphere of bibliobloggers around Jesus as myth vs. Jesus as historical figure. It is one of the areas of investigation into early Christianity that is guaranteed to raise more than a small amount of emotion, especially for more conservative scholars but even among those who consider themselves upstream of fundamentalist identification (for example, James McGrath).
Raphael Lataster, of University of Sydney, wrote a piece questioning traditional historicist evidence and conclusions — a piece that made it into the Washington Post. Upstaged by his former student, John Dickson composed a scathing response against Lataster.
I have a distaste for violence. Here, I must remind the good reader that violence is not strictly a physical phenomenon. Violence to a person’s ideas and reputation are harmful, just as other forms of violence are harmful to body and property. In the world of scholarship, violence is done by uncivil discourse and ad hominem attacks, to name just a couple of ways. And this is not only a modern development. It goes back a long way (just spend a little time reading the so-called saintly church fathers and you’ll see what I mean). The violence is not in simply challenging another person’s idea — it’s in why and how it’s done. We don’t always know why, even though we sometimes have a good idea, since none of us is always able to know a person’s motivations without confession. But we can see how it’s done by the way criticism is delivered through writing.
Whether you believe in Jesus as a historical figure or doubt (or care either way), it seems more than obvious to say that scholars in the field of biblical studies do no justice whatever to our case when we rush to generalities and misrepresentations — failing to tackle claims and arguments — publishing petty and half-baked rebuttals instead of thoughtfully and patiently exercising scholarly skills to “correct” one another. Besides having a violent spirit to it (my definition for it), Dickson’s piece also appears irrational and plainly wrong in several places, and did not offer a fair answer to what Lataster actually wrote. But you can judge for yourself, if this debate interests you.
If you have read both Lataster’s and Dickson’s pieces linked above, you might be interested in reading my response, published by Gavin Rumney at the OTAGOsh blog, along with his own remarks on Dickson’s cringe-worthy missive.