Some New Thoughts on My Book Project

In an earlier post I discussed some of the plans that I had in mind for my anticipated book project, which will be inspired by this blog. Since writing that post, however, I have decided to take the book in a new direction (there may be more posts like this down the road, depending on how things unfold). So, here is the new idea that I have in mind.

In the last post, I talked about writing a book titled Counter Apologetics: An Introduction, which would be designed as a guide to connect people with secular scientists, philosophers, and historians, who hold to non-apologetic (and usually far more mainstream) scholarly positions on issues of cosmology, epistemology, ethics, the historical reliability of the Bible, and Christian origins.

Such a book, I still think, is highly needed. Very often, when religious apologists target people with arguments, they shoot out of a shotgun of points relating to a wide range of issues. Apologists can always fill in the gaps with “goddidit,” whenever they stump someone on an arcane question (whether it be explaining the origins of the Big Bang, the basis of normative ethics, or why the resurrection belief emerged after Jesus’ death), but getting serious academic answers is usually far more difficult, especially when they pertain to such a wide range of academic disciplines. That is why a book that connected people with Sean Carroll, for example, on issues of cosmology, Shelly Kagan on issues of ethics, and Bart Ehrman on issues of Christian origins, would be very helpful. You can seldom find a secular resource that addresses all of these issues at once, and instead one has to consult multiple resources to “run the gauntlet” of questions that apologists will often target people with.

That said, I also think that the scope of such a book would be rather broad, and it is a rather large project to commit to while I am still completing my PhD program. I still think that it would be a good book for me to write down the line, but it’s probably not the best project to begin as my first book. As such, I am going to put Counter Apologetics: An Introduction on hold, and revisit the idea when it fits better into my career plans.

Instead, I think that my first book should focus primarily on historical apologetics, and debunking the attempts of Christian apologists to justify their religion on the basis of “historical evidence.” As a Classicist, who studies the 1st century CE, this subject area would be more directly related to my current graduate research. I also think that it is especially helpful to counter historical apologetics from a Classical perspective, since my graduate research involves not only studying the historical Jesus, the New Testament, and Christian origins, but also other historical figures, literary texts, and religions from the same time period. Through this lense, I have especially been able to identify many of the inaccuracies, misrepresentations of scholarly consensus, and special pleading that underlie most historical apologetic arguments, as I have been writing on this blog over the last three years.

Since I am going to readjust the scope of the book, I am going to have to write up a new draft ‘table of contents,’ when I find the time. I’ll also need to think of a new tentative title. Feel free in the meantime to propose any topics or issues in the comments below that you would be interested in having me cover in the book. The scope of the book will deal primarily with the historical apologetics, so try to keep suggestions within that scope.

My anticipated timeline for completing the book is still 2015-2018, so this will be a long-term project that I will be balancing over the next years with my graduate work. I’ll post updates as progress is made.

-Matthew Ferguson

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30 Responses to Some New Thoughts on My Book Project

  1. David Austin says:

    Hi Matthew,
    Still a worthwhile book to write.
    My suggestion for title –
    The unhistorical Jesus or The non-historical Jesus.
    Regards
    David Austin

    • Hey David,

      Thanks for the suggestion, but the book will be taking the position that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. Not only do I hold to this position, but it is also the mainstream view in current academia, and the book will be sticking to consensus positions like this.

      That said, I will still be discussing Mythicism, and likewise the problems behind how we establish the historicity of any person (whether it be Tiberius Caesar, Socrates, or obscure peasants that crop up in Egyptian papyri).

      I’m also going to note that there are a few scholars who are sympathetic to the Mythicist position. Not only Richard Carrier, but also Arthur Droge, who was actually a professor in the Classics Tri-Campus program that I belong to. I’ll also be discussing their arguments, where I think they have merit, and where I disagree.

      • David Austin says:

        Hi Matthew,
        I was not meaning “mythical” by my title suggestion of “unhistorical” or “non-historical”, I was more implying that we have no verifiable historical source for any of the events described in the gospels. I am about 90% satisfied that Jesus existed, but we really have no extra-biblical information about his life or mission, He was probably a wandering rabbi who thought the end-times were coming as Jews had turned away from the “true” faith

        In terms of details of his birth death etc we really have nothing. John the Baptist is better attested to than Jesus as we have sources outside the Bible that mention him.

        We can probably say that Jesus was born in Galilee, had a small circle of followers, was probably executed for sedition around 30CE, and a belief that he was resurrected was held by some of his followers, but that is about all we could say and even that with very little confidence.
        Regards
        David Austin

        • Hey David,

          Thanks for clarifying. Strictly speaking, the book won’t just be about Jesus, since I also want to discuss some other apologetic arguments that come up regarding the Old Testament. For example, I want to address the arguments that Paul Copan and Clay Jones use to deny genocide in the OT, by showing parallel cases of genocide in Greco-Roman literature. Basically, I will be arguing that the Greeks and Romans described genocide very much the same way as the book of Joshua does, for example, so that one cannot be consistent in denying genocide in that book without also denying obvious examples of Greco-Roman genocide.

          So, the title of the book will have to be about more than just Jesus, though a very large part of the book will deal with Jesus and countering apologetic arguments for the resurrection.

  2. ratamacue0 says:

    All sounds sensible.

  3. sotlane says:

    Topics I’d like to read about.

    1. The authorship of the gospels. I know this has been done to death, but you already have material on it, and I’d like your take. Ehrman and Tim McGrew recently had a discussion about it on Unbelievable, with McGrew offering some new arguments for traditional authorship that I haven’t seen addressed before (though I imagine they are somewhere in the literature). Basically, it’d be great if you could go deeper into the subject than Ehrman does in his popular works.

    2. We have more evidence for Jesus than X arguments. Discuss what counts as evidence, how we rank evidence. There’s probably a title in there somewhere, but nothing comes to mind immediately. “More Evidence for Jesus?” “More Evidence for Jesus than Tiberius, and other Historical Howlers.” These aren’t very good. Play around with them.

    3. Along the same lines, how do the Gospels rank as evidence against other histories.

    4. Do you buy this stuff about the Gospels being partly or entirely midrashes on Old Testament passages? Im’ honestly curious. I’ve been reading some of Price’s work on this, and I’m extremely skeptical.

    5. A Bayesian explanation for why we treat resurrections different than Rubicon-crossings, or whatever else.

    • Hey Slotlane,

      1. I am going to be doing a lot of work in both the near and long-term future expanding on the issue of the Gospels’ authorship. My anticipated PhD dissertation topic, in fact, will be about comparing the authorial traditions for Classical texts (e.g. Tacitus, Martial, etc.) to the authorial traditions for Christian texts, in order to demonstrate that there was a massive amount of forgery and misattributions in early Christian communities (the Gospels belong to the latter category).

      2. Always a classic. So far I have done Tiberius, Alexander the Great, and Socrates. But, this new book will probably have a section on establishing the historicity of other ancient Jewish messianic pretenders and prominent rabbis, since they will be the reference class that I argue Jesus best belongs to.

      3. I’ll of course have seperate chapters on both genre and historical-critical methodology to address this.

      4. I think that there is a huge amount of Midrash in the NT, which means that their authors were indeed mythologizing their subject and inventing stories. However, that does not convince me that the people they were mythologizing were not historical persons. I think the direction of Midrash goes “history -> myth,” whereas Price thinks that it goes “myth -> history.”

      5. Always good, and I am in touch with no less than 3 Bayesian experts right now, so I am going to get some good help on this 😉

      • You can even cite Evangelicals on the midrash question…

        Gundry is an Evangelical who wrote a commentary in which he explained that the beginning of Matthew probably consisted of midrashic tales, not to be taken literally. He was ousted from the Evangelical Theological Society for presenting such arguments and views: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/novemberweb-only/11-17-42.0.html And in 2013 many in the ETS wanted Gundry to be reinstated!

        Also, speaking of midrash in Matthew, the Evangelical apologist Michael Licona has argued that the “raising of many saints” near the end of Matthew may also be midrash.

  4. Jeremy Ledger says:

    Matthew,

    My two cents on this, for what it’s worth…
    Christianity is founded on a lie. The lie is not that God exists, or that Jesus is his Son, or any other piece of dogma, since all of these could be true and hence cannot be lies (although I would argue they are vanishingly unlikely).
    No, the lie is that it is unreasonable, and even immoral, to deny the “Truth” of core Christian doctrines (e.g. that Jesus was crucified and then rose from the dead) given the evidence available to us. Christian orthodoxy requires belief in such doctrines, and such belief is necessary and sufficient for someone to be saved (e.g. see John 3:16-18).
    But this is turn implies that it is unreasonable to reject Christian doctrines about real historical events. And this is where folk like you, Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier come in. While it is possible that we non-believers are wrong, our position is not unreasonable based on the historical evidence that is available. There’s no way anyone could legitimately say, for example, that there is compelling evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus. But in the absence of compelling evidence it makes no sense to condemn non-believers (rendering John 3:18 nonsensical).
    This is precisely why apologists such as Mike Licona and WLC try to argue that there is clear historical support for Christian doctrines. And it is precisely why it would be so valuable for someone with your background and expertise to write a definitive refutation of historical apologetics.
    Jeremy

  5. Kevin Wilson says:

    I think you have made a wise decision and I look forward to reading your book when it’s published.

  6. Pofarmer says:

    This new book sounds pretty close to “Not the impossible Faith” by Carrier.

    • Hey Pofarmer,

      Yes, I did have Not the Impossible Faith in mind when I thought of this new book topic. The difference, however, is that I plan to interact even more with the arguments of apologists, especially some of the new arguments that have come up recently (e.g. undesigned coincidences, new arguments in defense of the Gospels’ traditional authors, etc.). The book will be designed to show not only that there can be a natural account of Christianity’s origins (and thus, Christianity was not an impossible faith), but also to expose the agenda-driven and faulty arguments of religious apologists trying to convert people to their religion under the pretense of historical evidence. I’ll also be surveying dominant scholarly trends in both Classics and Biblical Studies, and explaining how apologetics is outside of mainstream academia.

      • Might I suggest breaking down your work into separate e-books? That way the title of each e-book would list the topic you are debating and provide great internet indexing so people will run into that book via searches more easily and probably more frequently as well. Also, it gives the you a bit of respite between tackling arguments so you can focus on each argument in a separate e-book, and take time off between them.

        For instance, one e-book could be titled, Is There More Historical Evidence for Jesus than Tiberius Caesar, Alexander the Great, or Socrates?

        Another e-book could be, Do Undesigned Coincidences Constitute Evidence That The Gospels Are Based on Eyewitness Testimony?

        Each book could be part of a series, such as What Are Christian Apologists Saying Today?

        You could get others to contribute to the series, and be the series editor rather than the sole creator of all the books.

        Also, you should wait until Lydia McGrew’s book on undesigned coincidences appears before writing your rebuttal. Maybe even ask to see an advance copy. Some scholars gave me peeks at their works prior to publication because I had my own deadline on that chapter I wrote for Loftus on The Cosmology of the Bible. All you have to do is ask.

        • Hey Ed,

          That’s an interesting approach to consider when writing the book. It may be easier to publish one chapter at a time (giving a little more instant gratification, as well as rest in between), and then to later compile the chapters into an edited volume. I’ll have to think about it, but right now I won’t be starting the writing until at least after November anyways, so it is a decision that I’ll have to make down the road.

          • Individual e-books for each argument are also easier to re-edit and republish if a new or better argument arises. Would be nice to concentrate on one apologetic argument and get a separate chapter from several scholars replying to the same apologetic argument, all in one handy volume. Kind of like the Lowder book on the resurrection. The Empty Tomb.

          • Yeah, I am hoping for the book to be something of a cross between The Empty Tomb and Not The Impossible Faith, as well as being enhanced likewise by some of the Κέλσος knack for counter-apologetic FAQs and comprehensive rebuttals to shotgun arguments.

  7. jdhomie says:

    I look forward to hearing about the new book. Best of luck on doctoral advancement!

  8. I am working on a similar project, collecting evidence of gospel trajectories from Mk to Mt/Lk and Jn. I will also be rebutting the “undesigned coincidences” argument from the mid-nineteenth century that Timothy McGrew and his wife Lydia are currently attempting to resurrect, and showing how such “coincidences” also demonstrate the truth of the trajectories aforementioned.

    I really like the way you took down Licona’s argument concerning the evidence for a particular Roman Emperor vs. evidence for Jesus. There have been a variety of such arguments attempted by apologists in the past using different figures in ancient history compared with the evidence for Jesus. Have any of them been more than boasts based on ignorance? Here’s an example of a piece from my blog: http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/06/christianity-raises-as-many.html

    • Hey Ed,

      I have actually been in correspondence with epistemologist Evan Fales (University of Iowa) on how to debunk the “undesigned coincidences” argument, and it will be a topic that I address in my book too. It’s not a good argument (and can easily be addressed by demonstrating the Gospels’ extreme interdependence in their source material), or else scholars would be discussing it at the Society of Biblical Literature this year, rather than it merely surfacing in apologetic YouTube videos. I’m glad that you are working on it too though, since it seems to be one of the few new angles that apologists are able to take these days, as they mostly just rehash old arguments (then again, undesigned coincidences is an old argument too).

      I’m also going to deal more with the “we have more evidence for Jesus than historical figure X” arguments in the book. Through doing that, I am going to illustrate multiple degrees between having an abundance of evidence for a person (e.g. Tiberius Caesar) to having very little evidence for a person (e.g. a peasant mentioned only once in a papyri tax receipt). I’m going to argue that we have a lot of ancient literature about Jesus, but that the vast majority is recognized to be unreliable even by apologists (e.g. early Christian apocrypha). I will also be focusing on the general facts about Jesus’ life that historians find to be more reliable, and explaining how these minimal biographical details are considerably less than what we know of for many other people from the same time period.

      • Let’s chat together about the undesigned coincidences argument sometime. Am working on a lot of comparisons at present, textual data, Gospel trajectories. And have read several books just on the feeding miracle alone since it’s the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels, so you can compare all four takes on it (including the duplicate feeding miracle in Mark and Matthew, making six takes!). And the undesigned coincidence argument videos I have seen place special emphasis on that example since they claim the coincidences go “both ways” from earlier to later Gospels and vice versa, and in this case it the coincidences are related to a major miracle. So I would concentrate on analyzing that particular coincidence and miracle tale above all. Here’s how Dr. Peter Williams uses the undesigned coincidence argument to try and get his audience to accept the feeding of the multitude miracle. Start viewing from minute 45 onward, section 4 of his lecture, “On the feeding of the five thousand,” very much worth looking at if one is going to respond fully to such arguments: http://youtu.be/r5Ylt1pBMm8

        • Hey Ed,

          I would be happy to talk more and share our thoughts. If you wouldn’t mind, could we hold the discussion around late-November? Right now I am focusing more on graduate work and some projects that I need to complete over the next couple months. But, I would be happy to discuss this more down the road.

  9. Leigh Sutherland says:

    Hi Matthew,
    A chapter on parallels between dying and rising gods and the Jesus narrative would be most welcome, do they predate Christianity and do they contain enough similarities to bring them into the debate ?
    Please keep up the excellent work.
    Leigh.

    • Hey Leigh,

      I’m not sure that I agree with the arguments of Robert Price, for example, about parallels between Jesus and dying and rising gods, though I will need to do more research into that as I move forward.

      What will be valuable to discuss, though, are parallel examples of Pagan miracles, as well as miracle workers and holy men (in addition to other Jewish parallels). In particular, Richard Miller’s new book on resurrection and reception, I think, will be valuable for countering the argument that Jesus’ resurrection was theologically radical or unique:

      http://www.amazon.com/Resurrection-Reception-Christianity-Routledge-Religion/dp/1138822701

      • This is one scholar I would definitely go to when it comes to parallels: https://mdavidlitwa.wordpress.com/ He’s doing a lot of recent work that is very cross-cultural when it comes to Hellenistic ideas of divinity.

      • Miller’s book is finally completed? Cool! I remember reading his article, Richard C. Miller’s “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 129, no. 4 (2010), and also read some of the conservative Christian reactions to it. In fact he emailed me his responses to those early critiques from conservative Christians, I still have his emails in case you are interested.

  10. Grant Mohler says:

    I like this blog a lot more than other bloggers. I lost a lot of respect for Carrier with his extremely rude and unprofessional interactions with a man I respect greatly, Bart Ehrman. I think it’s sort of like atheists who want to read books by Christians but are afraid they will be lied to and won’t have the knowledge to call bs. That is how I feel especially. I’ll buy your book for sure and look forward to more discussions on who wrote the gospels..

    • Thanks! I wish I had more time to work on the book, but I am extremely busy right now with graduate work, so I have had to keep postponing it. Either way, I’ll get to it eventually. This is my career after all 😉

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