Jerry Coyne Gets Rather Upset. Again.
Jerry Coyne is a professor of biology. Given that he is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, the author of many papers on evolutionary biology in esteemed journals like Nature and Science and is the co-author of the key text Speciation, it’s fairly clear that he is a very good biologist. And, as such, just the kind of guy to write the popular science book Why Evolution Is True and to debunk the ridiculous pseudo science that is Creationism. What Jerry Coyne is definitely not, however, is a historian.
But this last fact has not kept Coyne from opining long, loud and often on his Why Evolution is True blog on matters historical, usually indulging in some ripe New Atheist Bad History in the process. Unlike virtually every scholar with any background in the relevant historical training, Coyne has fully embraced the fringe Jesus Myth thesis – the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all. While being happy to note the overwhelming consensus of biologists on evolution, Coyne scorns the equally overwhelming scholarly consensus that a historical Jesus most likely existed. As a professor of biology, he knows better than all those silly historical scholars.
So he recently got highly agitated about a brief article from the BBC entitled “Jesus ‘not a real person’ many believe”. You’d think that, as a Jesus Myther, Coyne would be delighted by an article reporting that according to a recent Church of England survey “four in 10 people did not believe Jesus was a real person, with a quarter of 18 to 34 year olds believing he was a mythical or fictional character”. And initially he was. But further reflection led to this odd outburst:
But then I realized that I was probably wrong about what the article was saying. Those 40% weren’t mythicists who had considered the evidence, I think, but simply people who don’t REALIZE that Jesus was a real person, and haven’t thought much about the issue. That is, they didn’t consider the writings of Josephus or of mythicists like Richard Carrier, and then made a decision that there was no historical Jesus-person. Rather, they are just oblivious.“
Exactly how Coyne came to this conclusion I have no idea. It’s probable that few of the 40% had done any in-depth research and very few are likely to have read the works of Coyne’s favourite fringe pseudo historical theorist, the notorious Richard Carrier. But why this would be a problem and exactly what “oblivious” is meant to mean here is a mystery. After all, they’d obviously arrived at this position somehow. But not the “right” way (i.e. reading Carrier), according to Coyne.
His dander up (as, it seems, it often is), Coyne then turns his scorn on the BBC:
“What’s more galling is that the BBC is taking what “many scholars believe” as the gospel truth—pardon the pun—despite the fact that close scrutiny gives virtually no extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus.”
This is an even more strange set of claims. All the rather brief BBC article does here is state a perfectly unremarkable fact: “many scholars agree that Jesus was a real man”. And this is true. If anything, it would be more accurate to note that “most scholars” agree this, not just “many”. To be absolutely correct the phrase should be “virtually all scholars, apart from a tiny fringe of contrarians”, though the phrasing the Beeb uses is both generally factual and fairly neutral. But like many zealots, Coyne sees opponents behind every bush and lurking in the most benign of sentences.
And like many Jesus Mythers, Coyne loads great weight on the amount of “extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus”, concluding that the fact that there is “virtually no” such evidence (because there is some) means he can’t have existed. Actual historians, on the other hand, assess the weight of such evidence by looking at how much we would expect to have for a given figure and then assessing how much we have in the case in question against this. When we compare the historical Jesus to analogous figures – other early first century Jewish prophets, preachers and Messianic claimants – we actually find we have slightly more extra-Biblical references to him than we have for others of his kind. And the Biblical references to him that people like Coyne enthusiastically dismiss out of hand actually look far less like a mythic or celestial being being given a historical and human story and in fact show tell-tale signs of a human Jewish preacher being shoehorned, rather awkwardly, into the role of Messiah, with mixed results and success.
But all this butters no parsnips for the biologist Coyne – he has an emotionally-based, ideologically-driven fringe position and he is as sure of it as any fundamentalist. Of course, exactly what the survey the BBC reports on tells us about belief in a historical Jesus is rather hard to tell. The questions are simply not specific enough for us to guess what the respondents were thinking. One asks respondents to Agree/Disagree/Don’t Know to the statement that:
“Jesus was a real person who actually lived”
Which seems straightforward at first, but which “Jesus”? The figure in the gospels and the one at the centre of Christianity or a historical Jewish man on whom that figure was based? Personally, I’d agree a historical Jesus “actually lived”, but I’d disagree that a Jesus who walked on water and rose from the dead did so. So which Jesus was in the minds of the respondents? Who knows? The same goes for the next statement:
“Jesus is a mythical or fictional character”
I’d happily agree that the “Jesus Christ” of Christianity was, in several senses of the words, “mythical” or perhaps even “fictional”, but that doesn’t mean that a historical Yeshua bar Yosef doesn’t lie behind that character. How much of this distinction were the respondents making, if any? Again, who knows? I suspect the results of the survey actually do reflect the way the Jesus Myth thesis is beginning to permeate popular culture, especially the high response to the “mythical or fictional character” question among younger respondents and atheist/agnostic respondents. And this is due to exactly the New Atheist Bad History I’m highlighting in this blog and the strident historical illiteracy of Jesus Myth boosters like the biologist Jerry Coyne.
Larry Moran Asking the Wrong Questions and Not Understanding the Answers
Larry Moran is a biochemist. Given that he is currently professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, the author of many papers on biogenetics in esteemed journals like Gene and is the co-author of the text Principles of Biochemistry, it’s fairly clear that he is a very good biochemist. What Larry Moran is definitely not, however, is a historian.
This last fact did not keep Moran from leaping to the defence of fellow non-historian Jerry Coyne when the latter’s odd post referred to above was briefly criticised by New Testament scholar (and someone who actually has historical training) James McGrath, who called Coyne a “denialist” – a term he later defined (quite reasonably) as someone “outside of the field who latch[es] on to a fringe view and use[s] it to dismiss an overwhelming consensus”. Which fits Coyne and his Jesus Mythicism like a glove.
But Mythicists hate nothing more than being reminded that they are off on the semi-lunatic fringe and Moran decided he would use his training as a biochemist to sort all this silly historical nonsense out.
With scornful tones and Lewis Carroll quotes, he wades into the fray, smiting left and right. He begins by quoting Coyne saying “I’m still convinced that the judgement of scholars that ‘Jesus was a real man’ comes not from evidence, but from their conviction that the Bible simply couldn’t be untruthful about that issue”, at which Moran bravely declares “There’s nothing particularly wrong with what Jerry says”.
Well, actually, there is. We are talking about scholars in a field that revolves around questioning the veracity of pretty much every word, phrase and sentence in the Bible and who have been doing this in minute detail for about 200 years. The idea that all of these scholars could simply have waved the idea that Jesus existed through and then gone on to question and analyse everything else is absurd to anyone who has any understanding of the field. Like most complex academic fields, New Testament Studies has a history and early in it, the Jesus Myth idea had a brief vogue. So undergraduates in the field study why early scholars in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries like de Volney, Dupuis and Bauer argued no historical Jesus existed and why the rest of field has since concluded that this is not a viable position. So the biologist Coyne may be “convinced” that scholars in the relevant field simply haven’t considered this idea enough, but he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The biochemist Moran also defends the biologist Coyne on his claims that the general lack of “extra-Biblical evidence” means the idea no historical Jesus existed at all is most likely, despite this being a denialist position:
“As far as I know the evidence that Jesus actually existed is not strong and, even more importantly, there’s no independent evidence that he rose from the dead or performed miracles.”
At least he had the sense to begin that sentence with “as far as I know”. As noted above, the evidence that Jesus actually existed is equivalent to or slightly greater than that for analogous historical figures of the period and is the most parsimonious read of the data. So it’s the one that scholars accept as most likely – which is how the field of history works. But notice how Moran makes a little skip and a jump from one question (“Did a historical Jesus exist?”) to another (“Did this Jesus perform miracles and rise from the dead?”). These are two separate questions, but one which denialists like Coyne and Moran muddle consistently and, sometimes, when convenient. He then goes on:
“[McGrath] doesn’t present any evidence that Jesus existed and he certainly doesn’t present any evidence that Jesus did any of the things that are reported in the Bible.”
McGrath doesn’t actually need to present any evidence Jesus existed to note that Coyne is someone “outside of the field who latch[es] on to a fringe view and use[s] it to dismiss an overwhelming consensus” – because that is just a fact. Moran may agree with his fellow non-historian’s denialism, but denialism it remains.
Moran then quotes from an exchange he had with McGrath on Facebook, which he seems to think makes him look good. It doesn’t. He begins well by stating “I’m not familiar with this field”, but goes seriously downhill from there by immediately conflating the Jesus of history with the Jesus of faith and presuming that arguing for one is automatically arguing for the other:
“[W]hat is the best historical evidence of the existence of a man called “Jesus” who could perform miracles, rose from the dead, and was the son of god?”
McGrath tries to note his error by countering that evidence that Plato was not actually the son of Apollo does not mean Plato didn’t exist. Similar examples from the ancient world could be multiplied to make the same point. The evidence for the existence of the Divine Julius who was a son of Venus and who ascended into heaven after his death is poor in the extreme, but this does not mean the historical Julius Caesar didn’t exist. Similarly, the evidence that the Divine Augustus was conceived when Apollo visited his mother Atia in the form of a snake is not good at all, but this does not mean the historical Emperor Augustus didn’t exist. Likewise, it would be hard to argue that the Divine Vespasianus actually did miraculously heal the blind and lame in Egypt, but this does not mean the historical Emperor Vespasian didn’t exist. Ancient people told miracle stories about both mythic figures and historical ones, so the existence of such stories about any figure tells us nothing much about the figure’s historicity. So it is not just possible but entirely sensible to set aside the equivalent miraculous conception, healing and heavenly ascenion stories about Jesus when examining whether he existed. And it is not sensible to point to those stories and conclude no historical Jesus existed at all. That’s a classic non sequitur.
Thus McGrath tries valiantly to get the biochemist Moran to understand that miracles are so unlikely as historical events that they are put aside as most likely fantasy elements in any story, with historians concentrating on elements which are not automatically unlikely to determine their historicity. As he puts it:
“But in general, historians do not bother doing that, because historical study deals in probabilities, and so historical study is not going to find an improbable event to be probable anyway, and so it makes more sense to bracket out such claims rather than to waste time investigating them merely to confirm their improbability.”
This is a perfectly sensible summary of how historians of the ancient world, who encounter miracle stories all the time, deal with them when trying to assess what is most likely to have happened in the past. We can filter out Augustus’ miraculous conception without filtering out Augustus. But Moran is having none of this. In response he splutters:
“You’re actually serious, aren’t you? According to historians, what is the probability that Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo? Is it a low probability so historians bracket out the claim of a Wellington victory and don’t waste time investigating it?”
The stupidity of this is staggering. What is the probability that Wellington won at Waterloo? Extremely high, given that (i) battles are known phenomena that happen all the time, unlike miracles and (ii) the Battle of Waterloo and the War of the Seventh Coalition is rather well documented and multiply-attested, unlike any ancient miracle story about any figure, mythic or historical. Not surprisingly, McGrath notes that Moran has not grasped his point at all. Then Moran decides that the perfectly sensible point that McGrath is making is somehow just gobbledegook, states “I feel a little bit like how Alice might have felt when talking to Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass” (really?) and decides that quoting that sequence from Carroll is some kind of fine rhetorical flourish. As a historian, Moran is a moron.
I’m sure Jerry Coyne is a fine biologist. And I’m certain Larry Moran is an excellent biochemist. But when they stray, staggering drunkenly, into the field of history they demonstrate that a combination of near total ignorance of both the field and the material along with a wall-eyed anti-religious bias makes for vast embarrassment to both. Yet these seem to be the people from which many atheists are getting their grasp of history – from historically incompetent scientists championing denialist fringe theories.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the problem.
(For those for whom the scholarly consensus on the historical Jesus genuinely needs explaining, I give a fairly detailed summary of its basis here, along with explanations as to why the fringe Mythicist alternative is not considered suitably likely).