Sunday, February 17, 2008

Paulos's Inelegant Non-Argument Against Jesus

John Allen Paulos's "Irreligion" contains a chapter on Jesus. I find it so inadequate that, at most, it serves as autobiography.

Paulos is, not surprisingly, unaware of current Jesus-scholarship. Jesus - scholarship is done by scholars who dedicate their lives to studying Jesus, like a mathematician studies and knows mathematics. Paulos is, it seems, a very good mathematician who is unschooled in the serious, academic study of Jesus. Who can study everything, right?

But Paulos "debunks" Jesus, which would be like me debunking some area of his expertise. Put simply, while Paulos seems like a very interesting and fun person (I'l love to have coffee with him), this is a really bad chapter.

Paulos's chapter is called "Remarks on Jesus and Other Figures." He mentions Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Why? It's not entirely clear to me. Paulos expresses skepticism re. our ability to get at the actual historical events and details of Jesus. We find it hard, e.g., to even reconstruct the events of Kennedy's assassination. How much more difficult is it to reconstruct the life of Jesus. This is Paulos's Humean skepticism coming out. He writes: "There is little, if any, external historical evidence for the details presented in the somewhat inconsistent biblical versions of the Crucifixion. Unless we take literally and on faith the New testament accounts of Jesus written many decades afterward (between 70 and 100 C.E.) we simply don't know what happened almost two millenia ago, at least in any but the vaguest ways." Then Paulos says this is part of the reason Dan Brown's The Da Vinci code was such a best seller.

OK. What to do with this? Here's a few thoughts.

1) Read, e.g., Greg Boyd, Richard Bauckham, (and here, re. John) and N.T. Wright for starters, re. the historicity of the synoptic gospels.

2) Watch out when Paulos refers to historical figures such as, e.g., the "evil Caligula." On Humean historical skepticism, how could we say such things? This is the kind of historical analysis that could cause persons to question the Holocaust. (Paulos, to me, is like the person whose only tool is a hammer, this he sees every problem as a nail. His mathematical-probableistic approach to historical studies is severely limited.)

3) Beware of sensationalist writing. Anyone making "remarks" about Jesus who has to bring in Mel Gibson and Dan Brown should be not taken seriously.

4) Watch out for red herrings, such as saying "even if all this were the case, does it not seem hateful, not to mention un-Christian, to blame contemporary Jews?" Well, yes it does.

Paulos says we ought to "put aside the obvious biological absurdities of Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection." This preaches well to the choir. Remember, Paulos confesses to having "an inborn disposition to materialism (in the sense of "matter and motion are the basis of all there is")." So, it seems, Paulos cannot think otherwise. Thus, the historical cases N.T. Wright and others make for the historical plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus could not be true in principle.

As I now look at the blurbs on the back of the book jacket I see the choir singing Paulos's praises, and stand amazed. This book is "another virtuoso performance?" For me this chapter hits a very, very bad note. "No one knows how to dissect an argument better than Paulos?" If that's true, then this chapter shows we're all in deep, deep trouble. Paulos gives "new ways of looking at both old and new arguments?" Not here. "Irreligion is an elegant and timely response to the manifold ignorance that still goes by the name of "faith" in the twenty-first century?" But if this chapter is an itself unelegant and ignorant of the actual issues. Paulos takes us "on a journey of flawless logic?" As one who teaches logic, it's hard to see it happening in this part of his book.