Shifting (Some of) the Emphasis on the Blog

These last several months, starting around Fall 2016, have been a heavy spiral of thoughts, emotions, and self-reflection, which have given me a good deal of consideration into what I want to do with my career, how I want to live my life, and the personal philosophy with which I approach this blog. I have also discussed some life events that have likewise had a major impact on me recently. I want to share a bit about how all of this will relate to my blogging, as well as my dissertation.

Celsus Screen

My recent period of reflection has led me to the decision to re-brand Κέλσος a bit, which now has a new URL–Celsus.blog–and to shift some of its emphasis more toward exploring secular views of the Bible, theology, and philosophy (a positive approach), rather than framing what I do as “counter-apologetics” (a negative approach). This change in emphasis will not drastically affect the arguments that I make (I still plan to be critical of the arguments of Christian scholars), but it will involve framing things less adversarially. I was involved in Classics and the study of the ancient Mediterranean world long before I interacted with the arguments of religious apologetics, and all of the research that I do and the arguments that I make can continue to be done, within the less antagonistic context that I originally started.

Below I will discuss some of the ways that I think I can present the writing that I do on this blog in a more positive light, along with a number of the factors that made me reach the decision to re-brand:

First, there was helping to teach my first Religious Studies course at the beginning of this school year. It was a very interesting experience, especially since we were asked not to divulge our religious beliefs to the students, and to allow students of all religious backgrounds to express their opinions about the scriptural and theological issues that we discussed (I was surprised at how many Muslim students I had in my class, who about equaled the number of Christians). You might think that the class became hostile, but it really didn’t. Since the goal of the course was not to teach that any one view was “correct,” but rather to explore different perspectives, it was more about dialogue than anything else.

On the last day of the course we discussed atheism, and it was only then that I told the students that I am an atheist and am active in writing about atheist philosophy (I even encouraged them to Google my name, if they wanted to read my critics). Afterward, students of various beliefs thanked me for running an interesting discussion section, in which they were allowed to voice their beliefs and hear those of others. It was a highly valuable teaching experience for me, and it made realize that there are ways to discuss religious differences with each other that need not be so combative (something that was less clear to me from my interactions with apologist Cliffe Knechtle at the University of Arizona). Since I plan to continue to do work in Religious Studies, I think that this class can serve as a good model for how to engage in dialogue in the future.

During that Fall quarter, there was also the 2016 presidential election. As I have discussed previously on this blog, I think that the outcome of the election was a complete and total disaster. I don’t need to repeat the reasons why here, but I will say that the election brought to the surface just how much division there is in this country. The debates and statements on the campaign trail got pretty ugly, and things haven’t been terribly positive since. This country has a long road ahead toward healing, and my only hope is that Trump and his administration lose influence as quick as possible. Hopefully he’ll get impeached, and at the very least, we need a major revolution in the 2020 election. But either way, the process of healing will require uniting, not dividing people, and that will require a positive message, not a negative one. Since religious division was one of the major issues underpinning the election, I think that I have to do my part to reach out to the Christians who voted for Trump, and that will require a less negative approach toward religion, which I think can be achieved through framing my stance as secular, rather than anti-religious.

Then there was my sister’s death at the beginning of this year and my battle with finally fixing my insomnia. Those were both extremely strenuous and emotional experiences to go through. I realized during the pain, grief, and difficulty that negativity is something, simply for my own sake, that I can no longer live with. Particularly when I am battling with falling asleep, I can’t make things worse for myself by creating needless aggravation through a philosophy of conflict. During my time in treatment, I just about bottomed out from my frustration due to being away from academic work and blogging. It’s pretty rough to reach the very nadir of one’s own negativity, but it taught me that the only path forward is upward, through embracing a positive outlook and a constructive philosophy.

To be fair, I know that I did not start my own negativity toward religion. Religious conflict existed for thousands of years before I was born, and it was first put upon me during my childhood, as I grew up in a church that threatened hell fire upon unbelievers in Trona, CA. Then when I later left religion I was repeatedly confronted with hostility from Christians who could not accept my decision. Many would judge my character, but then I had my run in with Christian apologists, who would try to bombard and overwhelm me with a rapid fire of arguments (using the fallacious Gish Gallop debate tactic), often with condescension and snide remarks, in order to overwhelm me with claims that I wasn’t able to fact-check or respond to. Eventually I did, in fact, slowly take down every claim and look into each and every one of them (such as the inaccurate 10/42 apologetic), and I found that all of them were either inaccurate or built on faulty logic. I also found that the people making these claims often had no idea what they were talking about, and hadn’t done research themselves, but where merely relying on apologetic manuals of “what you are supposed to say to skeptics.” It was a highly disingenuous rhetorical exercise, and it naturally made me very resentful toward religion, which unfortunately bred negativity on my own part.

When I found that there were far fewer secular resources for educating ordinary people on these issues, even though the majority of experts in secular academia do not accept apologetic claims, I decided that I had to take action to help others. So, I started Κέλσος as a resource to help share the research and arguments of secular scholars, along with my own original scholarship. But, I’m afraid that my approach, when I first started, was too negative. I came in with too much bitterness (even if understandably so), and it was reflected in my early writing. Over the years I have edited a lot of this out of the earliest material (I still need to edit some of the first blogs), but even recently I was bothered that the blog’s URL was “adversusapologetica,” which framed it negatively as “against apologetics.”

Now, to be fair, when I first started my blog on the old server, the URL had been “celsus.blog.com,” but “celsus.wordpress.com” was not available when I moved over here. It’s still a little negative to have the name of the philosopher Celsus, who was the first Pagan critic of Christianity, as the title for this blog. But it’s also simply a common Greek/Latin name, and likewise Celsus himself was coming from the perspective of his own positive beliefs in Platonism (not that I share those views); hence the title of Celsus’ work was The True Word, not The False Word. I did think that it was a hilarious pun on Origen’s Contra Celsum to name this blog Adversus Apologetica, but as I have said, I don’t want to frame this blog negatively as “against apologetics” anymore.

And so, the new blog URL, as I have said, is now Celsus.blog. For people who have links to this blog on their blogroll under the title Adversus Apologetica, I would also appreciate it if you could update the title to Celsus or Κέλσος. I have also changed some of the page titles on the top menu. And so, for example, my “Counter-Apologetics FAQ” is now a “History & Philosophy FAQ.” The only reference to counter-apologetics that I have kept on the top menu is for my page “Why Do Counter-Apologetics?,” but that page explains that I am particularly opposed to aggressive apologetics that seek to paint unbelievers as dishonest or ignorant for not converting to Christianity, which is a commitment to opposing negativity among apologists, rather than seeking to be negative toward religion myself.

Despite the name change and the shift in emphasis, I won’t be changing much of the work that I do or the substance of the arguments that I make. My hope in my career is to fill a niche that feel is currently missing between ancient history and philosophy. I have always liked the work that Bart Ehrman does in educating the general public about mainstream biblical scholarship. But, if Ehrman has any weakness, it’s that he does not have a strong background in philosophy. This came out in his debate with William Craig (which I otherwise thought he did well in), where he did not know how to respond to Craig’s Bayesian argument. Now, to be fair, I think that Craig knew that Ehrman wasn’t a philosopher, and so he deliberately tried to ambush him with something that he wasn’t prepared for (I have noticed over the years that apologists frequently rely on the element of surprise, rather than going up against opponents who are the strongest and best prepared on each issue), but at the same time, to respond to resurrection apologetics you need to have a background in both history and philosophy, since it encompasses issues of not only NT Studies and Christian origins, but also the epistemology of miracles.

One reason that I was interested in the work of Richard Carrier when I first started this blog is because Carrier has, indeed, written a lot on both history and philosophy. But I have my reservations about Carrier, as well. Richard is a personal friend of mine and a very sharp guy, and he has been great to collaborate with over email on a number of issues that have helped with my research. But, I haven’t always liked the tone on his blog, where he frequently cusses and gets overly polemical toward the people whom he criticizes. Carrier says that he likes to talk with a “blue collar” manner of speaking (which is odd to me, since I don’t really think of him as blue collar, but whatever). It’s his choice to write that way, but I would never do so, since I think it creates the effect of poisoning one’s own well.

I also do not agree with Carrier’s Christ Myth hypothesis (even though I do grant that he has been the first to present peer-reviewed scholarly research on the matter). I’m not against the idea of reopening the debate about Jesus’ historical existence, in principle, even though I would approach the issue somewhat differently, by framing it as investigating whether new arguments can be brought forward for ahistorcity, or whether old arguments for historicity can be questioned, rather than seeking to start right off the bat with making a case for ahistorcity. (For the record, I’m not sure that any good new arguments can be brought forward, I’m just saying that reopening the debate is perhaps a more palatable way of discussing the issue with scholars who might not like the idea, than immediately arguing that 150 years of scholarship has been wrong). I do think that Carrier’s Bayesian approach has brought forward some new methodology to the debate, but I don’t think that it will resolve it, precisely because scholars can reach a wide range of conclusions using Bayes’ theorem, depending on what they factor in as statistically significant.

Overall, though, what I disagree with Carrier most on, in regards to the Christ Myth theory, is the manner in which he criticized Bart Ehrman, which I found to be too polemical. Now, again, it’s Carrier’s choice to write in that way, but personally I think it was counter-productive to his purpose. Had he responded to historicity defenders in a less verbose manner he would probably have less enemies in the scholarly community and perhaps more readers of his book. And so, the example that he has set forward in that matter is one that I would certainly never follow.

I do quote a lot of Carrier’s writings on this blog, when I agree with them, but it is important to remember that simply quoting one article, book, or argument by an author does not constitute endorsing everything he or she says. A number of apologists like Nick Peters, who I think lacks nuance, have been prone to play up my connection with Carrier as a form of ad hominem attack. Whenever I interact with apologists who bring this up (such as here, at point 4), I ask them to identify which arguments or positions of Carrier’s they have a problem with. This requires understanding my citation of his work with nuance.

My hope in my career is to fill something of a gap between Ehrman and Carrier. I like Ehrman’s more moderate tone and the work that he has done educating the public on mainstream biblical scholarship. I like the work that Carrier has done bringing a naturalist philosophical angle to the study of ancient history. I’m not sure whether I will be able to get an additional degree in philosophy (though I would love to!), but I have taken multiple seminars in philosophy over the course of my graduate studies (particularly in epistemology, which is especially relevant to miracles), and I hope to take more before I graduate. I have also presented papers on philosophical topics at academic conferences. I think with a background in secular philosophy and ancient history I can bring an original approach to Biblical Studies that will be especially helpful in contemporary debates about the historical Jesus, Christian origins, miracles, and the resurrection, in particular.

I will close by saying something about my dissertation. When you write a dissertation in higher education you are asked to pick a narrow and original topic. This is because your dissertation is expected to be something that “no one has ever said before.” This can be somewhat limiting for a general audience that has questions about a wide range of issues, but it is a necessary step to proving your scholarly stripes. So I would like to say something below about what I think will be the positive benefits of my dissertation.

When I first studied Classics I was highly interested in ancient biography, particularly Suetonius’ biographies of the Roman emperors, which I later wrote my master’s thesis on. I was thus naturally interested when I found scholars like Richard Burridge and Dirk Frickenschmidt comparing the Gospels to other ancient biographies. I think that their studies have some merits (especially for broad criteria), but I also think they are off the mark, particularly because they focus too much on elite and historiographical biographies.

The biographical texts that Burridge and Frickenschmidt discuss are far more prone to cite their sources, include discussion of eyewitness experiences, use direct speech and dramatic dialogue sparingly, utilize far more subordinating as opposed to coordinating conjunctions, apply more diegetic as opposed to mimetic narrative techniques, and exercise more authorial control in not borrowing large amounts material from earlier texts (as do the Synoptic Gospels), than what is seen in the canonical Gospels. In contrast, popular-novelistic biographies, which I will be comparing to the Gospels, seldom discuss their literary or historical sources, contain little overt discussion of eyewitness experiences, are replete with direct speech and dramatic dialogues, utilize parataxis and coordinating conjunctions far more often, apply more mimetic as opposed to diegetic narrative techniques, and are written highly anonymously in borrowing large amounts of material from earlier narratives, as ‘open texts.’ As such, on the broad spectrum of ancient biography, I think that the Gospels far more resemble popular and novelistic biographies than they do elite and historiographical biographies.

One misconception that I wish to dispel, from the get go, however, is the notion that the purpose of my dissertation is to “disprove the Gospels.” My dissertation is far, far more nuanced than that. To begin with, much of the data that I am amassing, comparing popular biographical texts like the Life of Aesop, the Alexander Romance, the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, and the Life of Secundus to the Gospels is simply objective, regardless of how one chooses to interpret it. Furthermore, I will be drawing a number of literary-critical conclusions from this data about the narratology of the Gospels, their process of composition, their intended audience, and their major themes, which I think will be palatable for even moderately conservative Christian readers (and will no doubt be quite harmonious with liberal Christian beliefs). I would still draw these conclusions, even if I were to (somehow miraculously) reconvert to Christianity. I do think that my dissertation will have certain historical-critical implications, but they will be limited in scope, as is natural for a dissertation. Genre is a guide for historical-criticism, but there are many other factors that go into assessing historical reliability, such as dating, as well as archaeological and sociological data. Even if my dissertation were to have no detrimental implications for the Gospels’ historical reliability (which I think is unlikely), I still think that it will generate a number of original insights that will advance scholarly discussion on the Gospels, which is the purpose of a good dissertation.

Over the years on this blog, despite a number of combative interactions with certain Christians, I have also had constructive dialogues with Christians on all ends of the theological spectrum. On the more liberal end, I have had positive interactions with James McGrath (here), Erlend MacGillivray (here), and Michael Kok (here). On the more conservative end, I have had disagreements but still positive discussions with Don Camp (here) and Micah Tee (here). I think these dialogues show that people of different religious beliefs can still have constructive engagements on such issues, and I have come to believe that negativity and polemics get in the way of that (and, personally speaking, I certainly no longer have a taste for such things).

And so, that is why I have decided to re-brand the blog somewhat. For those of my readers who have liked my “counter-apologetics,” I don’t think that it will change the substance of any of my arguments, and so I think that you will all still like my arguments and analysis. But, I also think that the new approach will broaden my appeal and will make my style more agreeable to a wider range of readers. I’ve also decided to start doing occasional guest posts on John Loftus’ blog, particularly in responding to certain apologetic criticisms. I’m still recovering a bit from everything that has happened lately, and I have a mountain of graduate work ahead of me, but I plan to start posting new content on Κέλσος at some point in the near future. When I get around to it, I hope that everyone enjoys the new, more positive direction for the blog.

-Matthew Ferguson

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10 Responses to Shifting (Some of) the Emphasis on the Blog

  1. Arthur says:

    Hey Matthew, good to see you back.
    I’m really excited for the future of this blog. I got attracted at first to the “more negative” topics you mentioned, but I think that moving towards a more positive, more scholarly plane is best, just like you’re doing.

    You have a chance to really contribute in an area which I to agree is really lacking in voices and research.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  2. supdep says:

    Matthew, it’s good to hear of your (slightly) different direction and I’ll look forward to seeing where it takes your writing. The earliest origins of Christianity is something I think about alot, from a secular standpoint, so I’d be interested to see if you write on that. I haven’t read (nor have I come up with myself) a model of nascent Christianity​ that is fully coherent.

    I agree with your assessment of Carrier. Ehrman I admire the clarity of his writing and generally agree with him, but find he is quite set in his thinking and can be quite hubristic towards alternative views. I’m wary of John Loftus, but then there are sound people like Hector Avalos that contribute to his site.

    Good luck with it all, your blog is a valuable resource.

  3. Jon says:

    I have been, and will remain, a fan of your work.

  4. ratamacue0 says:

    If Trump leaves or is removed from office, you get Pence. As I understand it, he’s a fundamentalist Christian and a dominionist – and he’ll probably be more effective at getting things done. Are you sure you want that?

    • Celsus says:

      Well, I think it depends on the nature of Trump’s impeachment. Ford was not a very effective president after Nixon. If Trump was removed for a scandal that besmirched his whole administration, it could damage Pence’s effectiveness as well. That, and the Republicans in Congress don’t seem to be able get much done these days, anyways.

  5. Stoic77 says:

    I have always enjoyed,as well as respected your approach. Keep doing what you do, we will support it. You are a genuine, honest and sincere scholar and I appreciate and value all the knowledge you drop! For someone such as myself,who was a victim of the psychological manipulation and fear that the JW’s instilled in me, it’s people like you, Carrier and Price, that have helped free this caged mind of mine.

    I live fearless and free Matthew. My suffering is gone! My practice of Stoicism has also helped me greatly ( I owe so much to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) as well. I live a clean, sober and ethical life. A Christian coworker today, told me that’s not good enough I’ll still go to hell, oh well.

  6. Wise words Matt! And great little summary concerning the differences in ancient biographies and why the Gospels are not nearly as close to ancient historical biographies as they are to those lying on the more fanciful side of the scale. Carrier also made a similar point, if I may paraphrase what he wrote:

    Comparing the Gospels with say, the works of an ancient historian like Herodotus, note:

    Herodotus challenges conventional legend; the gospels make no challenges.
    Herodotus names sources; the gospels do not.
    Herodotus weighs evidence; gospels do not.
    Event in Herodotusʼs city; Gospel accounts not in authorʼs city.
    Herodotus consciously wrote history; Markʼs Gospel is more akin to a hagiographic bios.

    Also, I was saddened to hear about your loss of a sister, and your insomnia. And I agree that too much debate can lead to despair and even heartache once personal jibes start flying. Keep your eyes on the prize of your Ph.D. Every apologist and argument will still be there after you complete your Ph.D. And take time to have friends in real life as well. Ideas are not everything. Appreciating music is also important, or even learning to play a bit of music. It does something special to the brain, body, heart, something trancelike, drug-like, in a healing manner that only music can do.

  7. JP415 says:

    Matthew:

    I think you’re right about Carrier — he makes good points, but his combative tone alienates people who might have been receptive to his arguments otherwise. I keep thinking of a line of poetry I read somewhere: “A man convinced against his will / Is of the same opinion still.” It’s interesting to contrast Carrier’s approach with that of Kris Komarnitsky in *Doubting the Resurrection*; Komarnitsky writes with a calm, measured tone, always avoiding ad hominem attacks or loaded rhetoric. He’s confident enough in his own arguments to renounce any appeals to emotion. In a different context, Paul Graham wrote somewhere that “if an idea is false, the worst thing you can say about it is that it’s false.”

    In any case, I think you’re on the right track and I look forward to seeing more articles — or a book, if you ever get around to it!

  8. Hi Matthew. I’ve added a link to your March to Martyrdom post in a recent post of mine after it was recommended by your friend Steve: https://rejectingjesus.com/2017/03/27/the-disciples-would-not-have-died-for-a-lie-part-two/.
    It’s an excellent post (yours that is) if I may say so.

  9. Beau Quilter says:

    Well done, Matthew. Your move to a more positive, less polemical approach is admirable; I confess to taking the negative approach far too often myself.

    Keep writing! The world needs your pen!

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