“Follow the Money”: Guest Blog by Michael Alter on Faith-Based Education and Publishing

81aZyu05ClLBelow is a guest blog by Michael Alter, author of The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which is a 912 page tome offering one of the most important contributions to challenging historical apologetics for the resurrection. During his research, Alter learned a great deal about the vast amount of resources that are invested in Christian apologetics–spanning universities, organizations, and publishers–which eclipse the scattered authors and handful of organizations that engage in counter-apologetics. In this post, Alter provides a researched summary that offers just a glimpse at the tip of the iceberg for how much money and resources are invested in Christian apologetics. 

I’ve been talking about problems with how faith-based universities distort critical biblical scholarship for years now, due to doctrinal statements that their faculty are required to sign, which force them to adhere to predetermined conclusions that are friendly to Christian dogma. As someone who works in Classical Studies, researching ancient texts from the same historical period, written in the same ancient languages, and using the same historical methodology, I am not aware of any Classics department or university that requires professors to sign doctrinal statements asking them to affirm tenets of Pagan theology or Greco-Roman religion. The fact that the Christian religion is treated in an abnormal manner in this regard is very disturbing, therefore, and a bad sign for the health of higher education.

As a note, while the essay below discusses faith-based universities with doctrinal statements, not all institutions of higher education that have a Christian affiliation fall into this category. While the University of Notre Dame has a Catholic affiliation, for example, the school still fosters a secular research environment and its religious affiliation is more traditional. While I do not think that a religious affiliation is beneficial for the structure of any university (even if it can be relatively innocuous), it should not be assumed that a loose religious affiliation based on a school’s history implies that it belongs to the apologetic-type campuses discussed below.

The phrase “Follow the money” or “Follow the money trail” (the later was a catchphrase popularized by the 1976 drama-documentary motion picture All The President’s Men) is a credo that has been popularized in movies, politics, investigative reporting, and political debates. The sage advice to “Follow the money” is also true in the arena of religion. Yes, it is about the money. The objective of this article/blog is to discuss the importance of those “silver shekels” as related to Christian evangelism, and more specific, apologetics. Opponents of Christian apologists, whether they be theists, agnostics, or theists of other faiths face definite challenges. And, as previously stated, the odds are often stacked against these skeptics, regardless of the theistic aisle they find themselves.

TOPIC I: Apologetic Grad Programs

Let’s assume that you are a committed Christian and you want to seek a graduate degree in apologetics. Where would you go to earn that degree? What type of degree could you earn? How much would it cost to earn an appropriate degree? What can you do with your earned degree? One partial source of information that discussed some of these issues was located at TheBestSchools.org. This organization states:

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Dialogue with Classicist Trevor Luke on Roman Imperial Ideology and the Miracles of Jesus: Part 1

About two years ago I met Classicist Trevor Luke (Associate Professor of Classics, Florida State University) at the Society for Classical Studies national annual meeting in San Francisco. Luke was presenting a paper at the time on his research regarding the healing miracles of Roman emperors. It is a common misconception that only the emperor Vespasian was associated with an isolated incident of healing a blind and crippled man in Alexandria (Suet. Vesp. 7.2-3). But Luke’s research demonstrates that there were actually several Roman emperors who were reputed to have performed miracles. As Luke explains (“A Healing Touch for Empire,” pg. 78 n. 5):

“Titus attempted to end a plague (Suet. Tit. 8.4). Pliny the Younger (Pan. 22.3) writes of sick people’s belief in Trajan’s healing power. Hadrian ended drought in Africa (SHA Hadr. 22.14) and healed two people (ibid25.1–4). Marcus Aurelius was credited with lightning (SHA Marc. 24.4) and rain miracles (Dio Cass. 71.8.10; SHA Marc. 24.4).”

In addition to the miracles discussed above, it should also be noted that the emperor Augustus, like Jesus after him, was attributed with a divine conception (which Luke discusses further in the blog post below). Likewise, Roman emperors were associated more broadly with the ancient Mediterranean trope of divine translation after their death, which likely influenced the formation of the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as Richard Miller discusses in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity.

What follows is the first post in a dialogue that Luke and I will be holding as part of a blog series to explore why Jesus gained a reputation as a miracle worker, and how this repute was influenced by Roman imperial ideology, as well as both Jewish and Greco-Roman motifs about miracles. I’ll be writing the next post in this exchange, in reply to Luke’s observations below. One of the points that I will be incorporating is a response to Craig Keener’s observation that Jesus, in comparison to Roman emperors like Vespasian, has a greater number of miracles attributed to him (something that I discuss in this previous book review here).

One argument that I will be proposing is that it actually makes a lot of sense that Jesus has more miracles attributed to him than Vespasian. A Roman emperor like Vespasian had a large resume upon which he could boast his reputation, which included such feats as quelling the uprising in Judea and bringing a victorious conclusion to the Roman civil war of 69 CE. For Vespasian, therefore, a couple of miracles were only a fraction of his propaganda. For Jesus, however, without his miracles, he would have been a nobody, itinerant peasant in the small region of Galilee who ended his life ignominiously by crucifixion. One or two miracles attributed to him wouldn’t have cut it, therefore, to demonstrate why the early Christians should have transferred their loyalty from Caesar to Christ.

A whole range of miracles needed to be claimed about Jesus, especially ones which modeled him on Jewish figures like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, in order to demonstrate that the Christian Messiah had fulfilled promises in the Old Testament. Likewise, by fashioning Jesus as a miracle worker on steroids, the Gospels could depict him as a figure above and beyond that of Roman emperors, which suited their apologetic purposes of promoting a counter-cultural movement quite well. Finally, whereas Vespasian was a figure in the public spotlight, for whom it would have been more difficult to invent stories that could be fact-checked, almost nobody in the broader Greco-Roman world knew anything about Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had far more creative license, therefore, in getting away with whatever miracle stories they wished to tell about Jesus, which could have very easily inflated the numerical count of miracles that are attributed to him.

I’ll be discussing these points further in my next post. For now, Trevor Luke’s first blog in starting our exchange follows below:

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Guest Blog by Michael Kok: The Tradition about the Apostle and Evangelist John

Below is a guest blog by Michael Kok (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield) on the topic of his new book regarding the identity and reception of the “Beloved Disciple” in the Fourth Gospel, and how the text came to be associated with the apostle and evangelist John in the centuries following its composition.

Kok is a friend and colleague of mine, whom I first met in person two years ago at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta. Kok is a Christian, and although we don’t always share the same views, I’ve found his research on the authorship, reception, and canonization of the NT Gospels to be highly relevant to my own studies. Kok also runs an academic blog–The Jesus Memoirs–which you should all check out!

Thanks to Matthew Ferguson for the invitation to discuss my book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist. The content below is reproduced by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. http://www.wipfandstock.com.

PrintThe Galilean fisherman John dropped his fishing nets and got out of his boat to become a disciple of Jesus. He was part of the inner circle of Jesus’s twelve apostles and a “pillar” of the Jerusalem Christ congregation (Mark 1:19–20; 1:29–31; 5:37–43; 9:2–9; 13:3–4; 14:33; Acts 3:1, 3, 4, 11; 4:1, 6, 13, 19; 8:14, 17, 25; Galatians 2:9). The religious establishment heaped scorn on John as an untrained layperson (idiōtēs), as literally “unlettered” (agrammatos) in Acts 4:13, but the church tradition enshrined him as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who published the Fourth Gospel and four other New Testament writings. In my work, I have attempted to answer the following questions about the church traditions:

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Guest Blog by Tyler Huson: Jotham’s Fable or Aesop’s Fable? A Discussion of Textual Relations

I’ve been pretty busy teaching in the UC Irvine Humanities Core this academic quarter, and so I have been soliciting a number of guest blogs from friends and scholars, in order to keep up regular posting activity on Κέλσος. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, shoot me an email to let me know. I welcome posts on related topics in both history and philosophy, as well as book reviews.

Below is a guest blog by Tyler Huson (an alumnus of Claremont School of Theology), on the topic of literary inter-textuality between the Book of Judges and Aesop’s fables. Since my own dissertation topic deals with generic parallels between the NT Gospels and the Life of Aesop, Huson’s research is highly relevant to my own. I greatly appreciate Huson’s contribution, and hope that readers of this blog will find it interesting and informative.

First I must say I am very pleased to contribute to this blog! I came to know Matthew Ferguson while conducting research on Dennis R. MacDonald, my NT prof at Claremont School of Theology. When googling some reviews on MacDonald’s work, Matthew’s was one of the first names that google search showed me. Matthew’s blog invited people to add him on Facebook, so I did. I appreciate Ferguson’s critiques of MacDonald because of his background in classics and his work on Greco-Roman biographies.

Although my primary research interest is Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, I have a heart for Greek literature as well. MacDonald introduced me to the world of classical literature and showed me the importance of having a Greco-Roman lens when reading the Bible. This is commonly accepted and expected with the New Testament, but it is a much more controversial for the Old Testament since the narrative within the Old Testament ends during the Persian era and the original language of the OT is Hebrew and not Greek.

Today I would like to share with you a unique case where there are clear parallels between Judges 9 and one of Aesop’s fables called “The Trees and the Olive.”

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Fictional Characters Who Appear Even in Historical Literature

This quarter I am busy teaching as part of the Humanities Core at UC Irvine. The course is inter-disciplinary, and covers literature, film, philosophy, history, and visual art. It’s a great teaching experience, especially since we have our students writing their own academic blogs about the material we cover. The theme of the curriculum is “Empire and Its Ruins,” and we are currently covering the Roman Empire, including discussion of the Roman historian Tacitus. During lecture last week, professor Andrew Zissos (who is also my dissertation advisor) discussed the speech of Calgacus, which is depicted in Tacitus’ Life of Agricola (29-32). Calgacus is described as a chieftian of the Caledonian Confederacy (which was an alliance of tribes in modern day Scotland), who fought against Rome around 83 CE. Prior to the Battle of Mons Graupius, Tacitus has Calgacus give the following speech, which voices a scathing critique of Roman imperialism:

“To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defense. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvelous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

Calgacus’ speech is famous for providing one of the most negative depictions of Rome in ancient literature. The Roman Empire cannot be satisfied by conquest either east or west. They rob the rich, and even rob the poor. Most distinctive of all, however, is Calgacus’ characterization of the Pax Romana. What the Romans call “peace” is not really harmony and prosperity, but rather a desert which has been stripped of life, so that it is no longer a threat to their rule.

During Zissos’ lecture a question arose about how Tacitus knew Calgacus’ words. He had neither witnessed the speech, nor discusses knowing anyone who had. Zissos’ response came as a surprise to many of the students: Tacitus probably imagined and invented the whole thing. Not only that, but we have no other ancient source that even mentions Calgacus. Zissos explained that Calgacus is quite possibly a fictional character. This is remarkable, given that Tacitus is even a historical author. If a historian like Tacitus could invent fictional characters and speeches in his narrative, what does this say about the possibility of fictional characters in the Gospels and Acts?

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More of the Same: Eric Bess Reviews Sean McDowell’s “The Fate of the Apostles”

Below is a guest post by my friend Eric Bess, in which he reviews Christian apologist Sean McDowell’s book The Fate of the ApostlesExamining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. McDowell defends the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection, which I have discussed in this previous blog essay. Bess critiques both the relation that McDowell draws between the persecution of the apostles and the resurrection, as well as McDowell’s interpretation of sources.

This recent book by Christian apologist Sean McDowell attempts a defense of the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection. McDowell’s overall thesis is pretty much standard fare in apologetics. As he puts it (pg. 259):

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.20.13 PM“The consistent testimony of the New Testament and the earliest sources shows that the apostles were witnesses of the risen Jesus and willingly suffered for the proclamation of the Gospel. No evidence exists that any wavered in their faith or commitment. Of course, this does not mean they were necessarily right, but it does mean they really thought Jesus had risen from the grave, and they bet their lives on it.”

McDowell devotes individual chapters to examining the evidence for the martyrdom of 14 chief apostles and assigns various levels of probability to the reliability of the traditions concerning each. Only five apostles receive relatively high probability ratings for their martyrdoms (that is, dying for their beliefs, not merely being killed), one apostle’s martyrdom is concluded to be improbable, and the remaining eight receive ‘plausibility’ ratings. Of those eight, one’s martyrdom is judged ‘more plausible than not,’ while the rest are rated ‘as plausible as not.’

There are two main problems I found with McDowell’s argument:

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Bayesian Analysis of Craig Keener, “Otho: A Targeted Comparison”

Recently I received feedback from ancient historian Richard Carrier about my previous review of Craig Keener’s article–“Otho: A Targeted Comparison of Suetonius’ Biography and Tacitus’ History, with Implications for the Gospels’ Historical Reliability”–which is chapter 6 of Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?.

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Carrier uses Bayes’ theorem to make an inductive critique of Keener’s analogical reasoning that, since historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius state that they consulted eyewitness and documentary sources, we can infer that they did so, and yet, even when the Gospels don’t cite such sources, we can make the same inference, based on other similarities shared with these biographers. Carrier’s analysis can be read here:


I’ve posted it on the sister-blog of this site, Civitas Humana, due to the emphasis on probability theory and epistemology.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Ancient Biography, Ancient Novel, Apologists, Classics, Guest Blogs, Historical Jesus, History, Philosophy, Reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments