David Marshall: “What Should an Atheist Do About Jesus?”

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I’ll blog about Chapter 7, “What Should an Atheist Do About Jesus?”

Paradoxically, this is my favorite and my least favorite chapter in this book.  It’s my favorite because it really allowed me to highlight to myself what I know, what I don’t know, what I merely think I know, and what I probably should know after my years of academic study in religion.  And it’s my least favorite because I’d prefer for Marshall to be wrong, since evangelical Christianity with its exclusivist God of conditional love (or so it comes across to me) is a nightmare for me, and I found some of Marshall’s arguments in this chapter to be a challenge.  I’m biased, in my own way, but hopefully I can still evaluate strengths and weaknesses of arguments.  I’m sure that there are plenty of atheists or New Testament scholars who would consider them easy to refute, and I welcome their comments, only I will not publish any comments that put down me or anybody else as stupid.

Marshall’s argument is that the biblical Gospels are historically-accurate.  I’ll use as my starting-point something that Marshall says on page 119:

“Not only were the Gospels written while eyewitnesses were still alive, they sound like eyewitness reports.  Read a few paragraphs at random.  You can cut the tension with a knife.  Jesus is subject to nitpicking, entrapment, barbed comments, and catcalls.  ‘Is not this the carpenter” (Mark 6:3).  He’s accused of low status, sin, breaking the law, failing to pay taxes, lack of education, madness, and black magic.  Find me a hagiographer who writes like this.  As [M. Scott] Peck put it, most of the Gospels ‘reek of authenticity.’…How does [Richard] Dawkins know that the four evangelists never met Jesus?  Mark and John implicitly claim to have.  The dates work.  John knew first-century Israel, for he describes objects from the Jerusalem before A.D. 70.  When the author implicitly claims to have met his subject and would have had every chance to do so, and the text breathes immediacy and realism, why contradict him so dogmatically?”

On page 127, Marshall refers to author A.N. Wilson’s argument that the Gospel of John manifests authenticity: “John is full of ‘little details’—-the five porticoes at the sheep gate, the name of the town in Samaria where Jesus met the woman at the well, the name of the slave whose ear Peter cut off, the sponge full of sour wine—-odd and compelling vignettes, not quite in sync with later theology, that bring us face to face with a real person.”  And, on page 119, Marshall mentions details about the pool of Siloam and Jacob’s well, which “only an inhabitant or archaeologist would know…”

There’s a lot there!  I’ll make some points.  First of all, I don’t know as much as I should about ancient biographies and hagiographies, although I’ve read some about them (and even some of them).  Consequently, at this time at least, I cannot comment on whether other ancient biographies and hagiographies show realism or immediacy, in comparison with the Gospels.  I can envision a literary reason for realism and immediacy—-to draw the readers or hearers into the story.  And what is a good story without antagonists?  At the same time, come to think of it, perhaps there even were antagonists against Jesus while he was walking the earth.  The Gospels may get a lot of things right.  But does that mean that their worldview is true?  A narrative can contain correct details, but that doesn’t necessarily validate the narrative’s ideology.

Second, others have had a different impression of the Gospels from that of Marshall, one that looks at them and does not think that they read like eyewitness accounts.  John Shelby Spong is not a scholar, and so I am not citing him as such.  But I do remember him making an interesting point about Jesus’ words on the cross, as he wondered how the Gospel authors even knew what they were.  Spong asked if there was someone at the foot of the cross listening to Jesus speak those words.  Some of the Gospels present the disciples fleeing from Jesus at his dark hour.  (Well, come to think of it, the Gospel of John says that the disciple Jesus loved was at the foot of the cross with Mary, but John presents Jesus saying different words on the cross from what we find in the synoptics.)  Spong did not think that an eyewitness heard Jesus speak those words, but he concluded that those words that were put into Jesus’ mouth were literary, not historical.

Third, Marshall may be correct that the Gospels, on some level, manifest a knowledge of first-century Israel.  Maybe some of the Gospels even originated from there.  Or perhaps the Gospels contain earlier traditions that are aware of what first-century Israel was like.  But that’s not consistently the case.  Paul Achtemeier in his Anchor Bible Dictionary article on the Gospel of Mark states that one reason many scholars believe Mark was written outside of Palestine is that the one who wrote it gets certain details about the region wrong: “His confusion about Palestinian geography (the Greek of 7:31 shows the author assumes Sidon is south of Tyre, and that the Sea of Galilee is in the midst of the Decapolis, inaccurately in both cases) and his fluency in Greek make it likely he grew up in an area outside Palestine.”

Fourth, even if the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, does that prove Christianity is truer than other religions?  Marshall implies that the miracles are signs that Jesus was telling the truth about who he was.  But Tacitus refers to eyewitness testimony that Vespasian did miracles (see here and here, along with Christian apologist Glenn Miller’s response, which is quoted in the latter post).  Herodotus talks about eyewitnesses to other miracles (see here).  Granted, there may be reason to doubt Tacitus, and even secular scholars have thought that Herodotus is not really drawing from eyewitness testimony, but is claiming to do so to buttress his case (see here).  But this only shows that not every claim to eyewitness testimony is valid.

On a related note, I’d like to link to two different articles on Jesus and miracles in the first century, for my own benefit and that of anyone interested.  The first is by skeptic Richard Carrier, and the second is by Christian apologist Glenn Miller.  My impression is that a significant part of the debate concerns how widespread miracle claims were in the first century, for Carrier wants to present Jesus as just one more legendary figure who supposedly did miracles, whereas Miller tries to argue that miracle claims were rare back then.  Marshall weighs in on this issue on page 123, where he states: “Many efforts have been invested in finding legends that look like Jesus.  The search has come up spectacularly empty.”  There is much for me to learn about this debate, but I’ll mention two things: first, there’s Morton Smith’s argument that Josephus’ reference to Jesus is authentic because Josephus said that Jesus did miracles, and Josephus talks about miracles that were supposedly done by others, so why would his statement that Jesus did miracles be inauthentic (see here)?  Second, there is Jesus’ acknowledgment in Matthew 12:27 and parallels that even the Pharisees cast out demons. 

I guess where Marshall challenges me is that there were eyewitnesses to Jesus who were still around when the Gospels were written (even according to the dating that liberal scholars ascribe to the Gospels), and some of them would have claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.  Would the eyewitnesses seeing and interacting at length with the risen Jesus validate Christian claims about him?  One could argue that the story grew over time—-that a mere hallucination came to be told in secondhand stories as the disciples interacting at length with the resurrected Jesus, who showed them proofs that he was really alive.  But couldn’t eyewitnesses invalidate any falsehood that would come up?  My hunch is no, but atheists have told stories about how events with telling and retelling can get blown out of proportion within a short period of time.

One could respond to my question of “Would the eyewitnesses seeing and interacting at length with the risen Jesus validate Christian claims about him?” by asking “Which Christianity”?, since there were different Christianities in the first few centuries C.E.  Marshall addresses this in this chapter and other books, and it is a subject that I should research some more.  I do know about the Gnostics and the Ebionites, etc., etc., but do scholars who make a big deal about the diversity of early Christianity (i.e., Karen King, Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman) seriously believe that Jesus could have been a Gnostic?  I probably should read more of these scholars’ works, but much of the New Testament scholarship that I have read takes the Gospels in the New Testament as their starting-point, even if they debate which details in those Gospels are historical and which are not.

Marshall makes other points in this chapter that I did not cover, but what I discussed were the areas in which he most caused me to struggle.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to David Marshall: “What Should an Atheist Do About Jesus?”

  1. “Not only were the Gospels written while eyewitnesses were still alive, they sound like eyewitness reports.”

    Something sounding like an eyewitness report doesn’t make it one. And even if they were, sometimes eyewitness reports are not good enough evidence. Just look at all the eyewitnesses of alien abduction for an easy example.


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your comment, NotAScientist. Marshall addresses that point, but I doubt you’ll be convinced by it. Essentially, he says on page 129 that the Gospels present the distinctiveness of Jesus’ voice, and we do not have the same thing with aliens.


  3. “he says on page 129 that the Gospels present the distinctiveness of Jesus’ voice”

    Which means what, exactly? How can we determine what makes Jesus’ voice distinctive?

    And does one’s distinctive voice mean that we should believe claims by non-eyewitnesses that this person performed miracles and other supernatural acts?


  4. James Pate says:

    I think he means such things as what Jesus was like—-his personality, his mission—-and he believes that the Gospels convey someone real, as opposed to a flat or an obviously made-up character. It would be like someone writing about you, and communicating your distinctive personality in the process. Marshall thinks that a distinctive personality shines out in the Gospels, whereas we don’t see that with reports of UFOs.

    I think I know what he means, on some level, but not enough to define it in a crisp, precise manner. But perhaps his criteria is not crisp and precise. If it’s all the same to you, I probably won’t get into a debate with you on this, because I don’t want to be trapped in some situation where you’re attacking Marshall, and then I look like I’m defending him, when actually I’m just saying what he said, especially since I have reservations about his arguments. So I’ll let you have the last word, if you want it.


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