The British radio show Unbelievable is a reliable source of good material for further reflection, and this past week’s episode pitting young apologist Sean McDowell against Jesus mythicist Ken Humphreys was no different. That’s not to say it was an even match, not even close. McDowell was excellent: crystal clear, consummately cordial, and coolly collected. And he ably defended his claim that we can have some degree of historical knowledge on the martyrdom of some of the early apostles including James, James the brother of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Andrew.
By contrast, Humphreys adopted a truly fringe position by resisting even the modest claim that the apostles were historical persons. Rather than respond to McDowell’s points, he griped about receiving unfair treatment from the host (Justin Brierley). As Humphreys complained, he wasn’t getting equal time to make his points.
Whining about equal time?! Give me a break. That’s like an invited guest in your home complaining that the person next to him at the table got a larger piece of chicken. Hey buddy, just be thankful you got invited in the first place and eat your chicken with a smile, you ingrate.
Anyway, back to the episode. McDowell appealed to several sources drawn from the New Testament documents to support beliefs in the apostles’ martyrdoms. He made clear, however, that he was appealing to these documents as historical sources rather than inspired religious documents. Thus, for example, McDowell readily conceded that the documents evinced “bias” and he never appealed to a theological category like inerrancy or inspiration.
But Humphreys would have none of it. He dismissed all these documents simply because they were part of the Bible. And so he kept demanding that McDowell should provide non-biblical documentation.
And this brings me to the subject of this post. As McDowell repeatedly pointed out (to no avail, it would seem), historians don’t work like that. They don’t exclude entire classes of documents a priori. Instead, they consider all materials available to them, carefully examining them for any value they may offer.
I get that Humphreys doesn’t agree with Christians. But that provides no justification for such a bizarre method. Imagine a WW2 historian who states that he refuses to use any Nazi materials as he seeks to reconstruct the events of WW2. That would be a truly bizarre self-imposed limitation. On the contrary, a real historian would consider all materials available including Nazi materials — letters, propaganda flyers, flight manifests, etc. — as valuable resources at reconstructing the past. The historian does not shun the historical value of materials simply because he deplores the Nazis. But Humphreys is apparently so opposed to Christianity that he will not even concede that much.
So what is the issue, exactly? Is it that Humphreys believes the early Christians are biased? So far as I can see, that isn’t really the nub of the issue for him. Rather, his objection is that the New Testament documents are part of a religious text, the Bible. Apparently in Humphreys’ mind, simply being included as part of a religious canon is sufficient to render these documents verboten for historical analysis.
Humphreys’ reasoning becomes even clearer when McDowell points to the document of 1 Clement to make his case. Humphreys effectively counters the appeal to 1 Clement by pointing out that the document was included in some early lists of New Testament canonical books. That rebuttal makes it clear that the disqualifying marker for Humphreys is inclusion in canon (or, apparently, even mere consideration for canonical inclusion).
This isn’t a new prejudice. Many decades ago F.F. Bruce made the following observation:
“Somehow or other, there are people who regard a ‘sacred book’ as ipso facto under suspicion, and demand much more corroborative evidence for such a work than they would for an ordinary secular or pagan writing.”
Indeed, Humphreys takes the matter even further. In his mind sacred books aren’t merely “under suspicion”. Rather, they’re disqualified, period.
It isn’t hard to demonstrate that Humphreys’ reasoning is nothing more than a bizarre prejudice. After all, canonicity is a declaration which was made decades if not centuries after the composition of the works in question. Consequently, whether a work is recognized as canon or not simply has no relevance to the historical status of the work. How could anybody think that a church council declaring some writings inspired could somehow retroactively negate the historical value of those writings?
While I can’t defend the rationality of Humphreys’ reasoning, I do think there is a plausible psychological explanation for his behavior. Picture the fifteen year old who discovers Led Zeppelin for the first time. Then as he is playing one of their albums suddenly his extremely uncool dad bursts into the room. “Houses of the Holy!?” the old man says. “I love this album!” Then as the boy looks on aghast, his dad starts singing along and doing an impressive Jimmy Page air guitar.
That’s it. As soon as the elder leaves, the boy immediately deletes the album from his computer and goes back to listening to Bruno Mars.
What’s going on here? After all, the boy loved Led Zeppelin mere moments ago, so what changed now? Simple: at this point the boy has such a need to disaffiliate from his father that the discovery that the old man likes a particular group is an immediate reason to disqualify that group from his playlist.
In a similar manner, it could be that Humphreys has such an aversion to Christianity and its founding document, the Bible, that the inclusion of any text within the Bible is an immediate reason to disqualify it from historical consideration.