John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life (Oxford: Lion Books, 2012).
The edition of John Dickson’s book, ‘Jesus: A Short Life’, that I read, published in 2012 was subtitled ‘Jesus: A Short Life – The Historical Evidence’. However, I notice that the first edition of this book, published a few years earlier in 2008, seemed to omit part of the subtitle referring to “The Historical Evidence”.
This is actually quite fitting, because, despite this added subtitle, Dickson himself omits to include much historical evidence supporting the biographical details he presents in the book.
Instead, Dickson relies heavily on what is referred to as the ‘appeal to authority’ or ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’ fallacy – albeit with a touch of the ‘argumentum ad Populum’ fallacy thrown in too for good measure.
Thus, he repeatedly insists that ‘all serious scholars agree’ on a certain aspect of Jesus’s biography, with the clear implication that that this is reason enough for non-expert readers like myself to agree as well.
Unfortunately, he only very rarely actually takes the time to explain why all serious scholars supposedly agree on this aspect of Jesus’s life or present the actual evidence that has led the experts to agree.
Instead, he seems to imply that the reader should simply defer to expert opinion rather than taking the time to actually look at the evidence for themselves and make their own judgement.
For example, he observes that the claim that Jesus was publicly baptised by John the Baptist is “doubted by no one doing historical Jesus research” (p49).
However, he neglects to explain in the main body of his text why no serious scholar doubts this, or why the evidence is so compelling.
Only in an accompanying endnote does he bother to explain that the main reason all experts agree is that this episode supposedly satisfies what New Testament scholars refer to as the ‘criterion of embarrassment’.
In other words, because it seems to cast Jesus in a role subordinate to that of John, the opposite of the impression the biblical authors presumably intended to convey, it is hardly the sort of thing the gospel writers are likely to have invented (p137-8).
Incidentally, I am not entirely sure whether the so-called ‘criterion of embarrassment’ is unambiguously satisfied with respect to the claim that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. After all, Jesus is portrayed as humble throughout the gospels and often adopts a subordinate role – for example, when he is described as washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–17).
Indeed, given that Jesus’s philosophy represents, in Nietzsche’s philosophy, both the genesis and primary exemplar of what Nietzsche called the ‘transvaluation of values’ and ‘slave morality’, whereby what was formerly seen as a source of shame and embarrassment is instead elevated into a positive virtue, the entire concept of the ‘criterion of embarrassment’ seems to of dubious value, at least with respect to questions regarding the historical Jesus.
Thus, Jesus’s entire life, from his obscure origin in Nazareth, through his baptism by John, to the ultimate failure of his ministry and his ignominious death at the hands of the Romans, would seem to be an embarrassment from start to finish, at least for a figure who claimed to be a saviour and ‘Messiah’, who would free the Jews from subjugation at the hands of their Roman overlords and usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, for Christians, all of this, far from being embarrassing, is reinterpreted as perverse proof of Jesus’s divinity and omnipotence.
Elsewhere, in rebutting the assertion of Richard Dawkins in ‘The God Delusion’ that “it is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all”, Dickson again resorts to a combination of the argumentum ab auctorita and argumentum ad Populum fallacies, insisting “no one who is actually doing history thinks so” (p21).
Actually, although it remains very much a minority, maverick position, some researchers, who certainly regard themselves as “doing history”, have indeed championed the so-called ‘mythicist’ thesis that Jesus never existed, including, for example, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty and Robert Price.
Perhaps Dickson regards these authors’ work as so worthless that they cannot be said to be truly “doing history” at all. If so, however, then this is an obvious, indeed almost a textbook, example of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.
Thus, Dickson asserts:
“Not only is Jesus’ non-existence never discussed in academic literature… but most experts agree that there are… ‘no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life’” (p10-11).
The actual evidence he cites, however, seems rather less than compelling.
“There is a consensus among scholars that Mara bar Serapion‘s ‘wise king’ was none other than Jesus. It simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description of Jew, law-giver, king and martyr by his own people” (p19).
Perhaps so – but unfortunately Jesus himself doesn’t fit the bill all that well either.
After all, Jesus may indeed have been ‘wise’. This, at least, is debatable.
Neither does he appear to have been killed by the Jews, as claimed of the figure described in Mara bar Serapion’s letter, but rather by the Romans. Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution.
Moreover, Dickson himself admits “Jesus of Nazareth was not the most revered religious figure of the period”, even in Palestine (p109). Might not these other religious gurus fit the bill better?
Moreover, although Dickson asserts “it simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description”, actually there appears to be nothing in Mara bar Serapion’s letter that actually says anything about this “wise king” necessarily having resided “in first century Palestine”. This seems to have been entirely an invention of Dickson’s own.
What then of Jewish religious leaders, or better still actual “kings” (in the familiar sense of this word) from other periods?
Or perhaps Mara bar Serapion was just mixed up and confusing the Jews with some other people.
Should we Trust the ‘Experts’?
The ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’, or ‘appeal to authority’, is perhaps a method of argumentation that naturally appeals to devout Christians. After all, they usually appeal to the ostensible authority, not of ‘experts’ and ‘reputable scholars’, but rather to that of God himself, or of ‘holy scripture’ or ‘the Word of God’).
Of course, appealing to the unanimous opinion of scholars in a given field is sometimes legitimate. If, for example, we do not have the time or the inclination to research the topic for ourselves, it is prudent to defer to majority opinion among qualified experts.
However, in a book subtitled “The Historical Evidence”, one is surely entitled to demand rather more.
Moreover, the field of study in which the experts are ostensibly deemed to be expert must itself be a reputable field of study in the first place.
Thus, if all ‘reputable homeopaths’ or all ‘reputable astrologers’ agree on a particular aspect of homeopathic or astrological theory, I am entitled to disagree simply because the entire fields of homeopathy and astrology are pseudo-scientific and therefore there is simply no such thing as a ‘reputable homeopath’ or ‘reputable astrologer’ in the first place and all are no more than charlatans or professional damned fools.
Similarly, I submit, although the case is nowhere near as clear cut as with astrology or homeopathy, that there is reason not to trust the so-called ‘experts’ in the case of historical Jesus research.
This is because those who have chosen to devote their lives to the study of the life of Jesus have typically done so because they are themselves devout and committed Christians.
Given, then, that their whole philosophy of life is predicated on the existence of a figure of Jesus resembling the one described in the gospels, it is perhaps hardly surprising that they tend to conclude that the story in the gospels is more or less accurate.
However, this is largely an anachronistic remnant of origins of the European university system in Medieval Chrisendom, when religious scholarship was a key function, perhaps the key function, of the university system.
However, this should not fool us into mistaking them for serious, secular historians.
Few, then, seem to have spent any time researching other areas of history, and they are therefore presumably unfamiliar with the standards of proof demanded by mainstream historians researching other periods of history or other historical questions.
Thus, the tools used by researchers into the historical Jesus to judge the veracity of gospel claims (e.g. the ‘criterion of embarrassment’, the criterion of multiple/independent attestation) do not seem to be widely used in other areas of history when assessing the trustworthiness of sources – or, at any rate, the same terms are not used.
One finds these terms only, so far as I am aware, in the index on books on dealing with historical Jesus studies – not in general books on methods of historical research, nor in works of history dealing with other times and places and other historical questions.
Certainly, analogous principles are employed, but the standards of proof seem, in my opinion, to be rather higher.
I would have preferred it if Dickson had announced at the onset that he was a Christian, in the same way that politicians and lawmakers are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before they venture an opinion during a debate, let alone cast a vote regarding a decision.
However, although there is no such explicit declaration in the opening paragraphs, Dickson is, to his credit, open about his own religious belief. Nevertheless, he insists that he approaches the facts of Jesus’s life as an historian not as a Christian.
Thus, Dickson insists:
“The presupposition that the Bible is God’s word and therefore entirely trustworthy is perfectly arguable at the philosophical level” (p13).
To play Dickson at his own game of appealing to expert opinion in lieu of formulating an actual substantive argument, I am not sure how many contemporary philosophers would agree this statement. Certainly not Daniel Dennett for one.
Nevertheless, Dickson insists in the same paragraph:
“I intend to approach the New Testament as an entirely human document” (p13).
However, we surely have reason to doubt whether a devout Christian, whose beliefs are surely at the very core of their philosophy of life, can ever perform the sort of ‘mental gymnastics’ necessary to approach a topic such as the life of Jesus with the necessary disinterest, scholarly detachment and objectivity required of a serious historian.
The Gospels as an Historical Source
At the heart of Dickson’s account of the life of Jesus is his contention that the gospels themselves are legitimate historical sources in their own right.
Thus, they are, he argues, more trustworthy than the apocrypha, because the latter are less contemporaneous and they generally date from a later period (p25). This is, indeed, according to Dickson, the main reason why the latter were rejected as non-canonical in the first place.
On researching the issue, I discovered that it does indeed seem to be generally true that the canonical gospels date back to an earlier time-frame than do the New Testament apocrypha. It is indeed perhaps the one useful thing I learnt from reading Dickson’s book – since it is indeed true that many skeptics and atheist authors do indeed seem to imply that the choice of which books to be included in the New Testament Canon was either entirely arbitrary or else reflective of the theological or political agendas of the later Christian leaders responsible for the decision.
True, Dickson acknowledges, the gospel writers were Christians, and sought to convince readers of the divinity of Jesus – but all ancient sources, he observes, have some sort of agenda, and there is therefore, he argues, no reason to give any less credence to Christian sources than to any others.
This is only partly true.
Dickson is right in so far as he asserts that most, if not all, sources, ancient or indeed modern, have some sort of bias. Thus, we should not regard any source as completely infallible, in the same way that Christians have traditionally regarded the Bible as the infallible ‘Word of God’.
But, if no source is completely trustworthy, this does not mean that all sources are equally trustworthy.
On the contrary, some sources are much more accurate and reliable than others, some of which are completely worthless as history.
Are there no other contemporary sources on the life of Jesus besides the Christians gospels to provide balance? What about anti-Christian writings by adherents of other faiths?
Moreover, call me naïve, but from a book subtitled “the Historical Evidence”, I expected something more than another repetition of the gospel stories so many of us were so cruelly subjected to in Sunday School from earliest infancy – albeit this time supplemented with occasional references to Josephus and, of course, ‘the unanimous opinion of all reputable scholars’.
Dickson therefore concludes:
“History… demonstrates that the story at the heart of the Gospels is neither a myth nor fraud, but a broadly credible account of a short first century life” (p129).
However, the primary (indeed virtually the only) source he has used to construct this so-called ‘history’ is the gospels themselves. No other sources (e.g. Josephus) provide any details whatever beyond the faintest of outlines.
To establish that “the story at the heart of the gospels” is “a broadly credible account” surely requires an independent source external to the gospels themselves against which to judge their veracity.
To claim that we can be certain of the gospels’ historical veracity because they are consistent with all the contemporary historical sources available simply won’t do when the only contemporary historical sources available are the gospels themselves.
This is simply to state the self-evident tautological truism that the gospels are consistent with themselves.
Actually, however, the gospels are not entirely consistent with themselves – or at least not with one another.
Take, for example, the matter of Jesus’s birthplace.
Against the arguments of skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Dickson argues in favour of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, in accordance with Christian tradition.
Instead, Dickson argues:
“Just as important as the fact that Bethlehem is not mentioned in Mark or John is the fact that it is mentioned in Luke and Matthew. Surely the silence of two of the gospels cannot be louder than the affirmation of the other two” (p37).
Yet Dickson does not mention that the two gospels manage to relocate Jesus to Bethlehem by entirely different, and mutually inconsistent, narratives. Thus, Matthew has the family based in Bethlehem then only fleeing to escape the wrath of Herod; whereas Luke has them only visiting Bethlehem in order to register for a census.
Nor does he mention that both stories are historically doubtful.
“The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born while Herod the Great, the Rome appointed king over Palestine, was still alive… This leads to the broad consensus among scholars that Jesus was born around 5 BC” (p35).
Moreover, even Roman citizens were not required to return to the hometowns of their remote ancestors merely for the purpose of a census – an obviously preposterous proposition given the expense and difficulty of long-distance travel during this time-period and the huge disruption and chaos such a requirement would impose (see The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible: p27-32).
Finally, given that Dickson acknowledges that Jesus was born into obscurity and attained what little prominence he did achieve within his own lifetime only as an adult, anything about his birth is likely to be legendary and made-up long after the fact. At the time of birth, on the other hand, hardly anyone was likely paying much attention.
Dickson is therefore right to conclude “one cannot prove that Jesus was born in Bethlehem”. However, given the incentive to make Jesus’s birth accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), the apparent embarrassment associated with his originating in the obscure settlement of Nazareth (e.g. John 1:46) and the contradictions and ahistorical elements in the accounts given of how ‘Jesus of Galilee’ (also known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’) could ever have ended up being born in Bethlehem – seventy or eighty miles from Galilee and Nazareth – the weight of evidence is surely strongly against the notion.
Supernatural Events, Miracles and the Resurrection
Yet perhaps the strongest evidence against the notion that the Gospels can ever be considered reliable historical sources is the fact that they contain many supernatural elements (e.g. miracles).
However, Dickson, being a Christian, obviously does not see this as a problem. Instead, he maintains:
“The best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field produce the unexpected – and, for some, embarrassing – conclusion that the paradoxa erga [i.e. miracles] are, as Professor James Dunn admits ‘one of the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts with which we have to deal’” (p77).
In this passage, Dickson admits that this conclusion is “for some, embarrassing” (p77). However, he does not mention to whom it is supposedly embarrassing.
Yet it ought to be embarrassing, not, as implied by Dickson, to skeptics, rationalists and atheists, but rather to biblical scholars themselves – since, if indeed “the best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field” suggest that events such as ‘the feeding of the 5,000’, ‘the turning of water into wine’ and Jesus healing lepers by touching them are “firmly established… historical facts”, then this seems to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “sources and methods employed by leading scholars” in the field to such an extent that the entire field is called into disrepute.
Of course, the reliable historical attestation of Jesus performing miracles could be interpreted differently. It might suggest simply that Jesus perhaps performed conjuring tricks, involving psychological suggestion and other chicanery of the sort employed by contemporary ‘faith healers’ and similar charlatans, which, together with the well-documented ‘placebo effect’, together explain the similarly “widely attested and firmly established” eye-witness testimony regarding the ostensible miracles of these modern-day charlatans and con artists.
Similarly, resorting again to the argumentum ab auctoritate, Dickson lists various scholars who have investigated the historicity of the resurrection, claiming “All of these scholars agree that there is an irreducible core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110) – because “from the very beginning, numbers of men and women claimed to have seen Jesus alive after death” and that this is “a fact of history” (p111-2).
Of course, large numbers of men and women also claim to have been abducted by aliens. However, most of us do not regard this as evidence for the occurrence of alien abductions so much as it is evidence for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and either the deceit or delusion of those making the claims.
I have complained that I would have preferred it had author John Dickson admitted at the beginning of his book, or, better yet, on the back cover, that he is a devout Christian and hence far from impartial with regard to the matter of the life of Jesus, just as politicians are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before casting their ballots or participating in a Parliamentary debate.
Here is my own belated disclaimer: I am an atheist.
However, I make this belated disclaimer, not so much to ‘declare an interest’ as it is to declare a lack of interest, or rather a disinterest.
I am obviously interested in the subject of the historical Jesus – otherwise I would not have taken the time to read Dickson’s book, let alone to write this review.
However, unlike Christian readers or researchers, I have no vested interest one way or another regarding the biography of Jesus. It does not challenge my fundamental beliefs whether Jesus existed, didn’t exist, lived a life roughly similar to that described in the gospels or a life very different.
Certainly, if evidence of the occurrence of miracles were discovered, this would challenge my beliefs, since it would suggest that the laws of physics as they are currently understood are somehow mistaken, incomplete or capable of temporary suspension on demand.
However, given that it is inconceivable that miracles supposedly performed some two millennia ago could ever be conclusively proven to have occurred some two thousand years after they are alleged to have happened, this is not really a problem.
Apart from this, I am in principle entirely open to the possibility that – miracles aside – the rest of the gospels is largely accurate as a description of Jesus’s life. However, on reading Dickson’s account of the “historical evidence”, it just seems to me that the evidence isn’t really there.
Moreover, since the canonical gospels, though obviously unreliable, do indeed seem to be the earliest surviving detailed accounts that we have of the life of Jesus, I am even prepared to tentatively concede that we must provisionally accept this as the most likely scenario.
However, it also seems quite possible that the course of Jesus’s life was very different and that the gospel stories themselves are largely mythical and invented after the fact.
It certainly seems probable that there existed a religious leader called Jesus who lived and was crucified by the Romans at around the time and place he is alleged to have lived and died and who provided a basis, howsoever minimal, for the stories and myths that subsequently came to be told about him.
However, I suspect that, given his relative obscurity in his own lifetime, it is doubtful much can ever be known about him today some two millennia later.
Moreover, even the most extreme form of the so-called ‘mythicist’ thesis, namely that the gospel stories are entirely mythical and no person called Jesus upon whom the stories were based ever existed in the real world, hardly seems to be the sort of preposterous crank theory, roughly on a par with holocaust denial, as it is portrayed as being by Dickson and other Christian apologists.
It just seems to me that there is so little reliable contemporary historical evidence regarding the life of Jesus that even extreme positions remain tenable – or at least cannot be definitively disproven. This is why attempted reconstructions of the historical Jesus are so notoriously divergent.
Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in Dickson’s thesis.
On the one hand, he contends, surely rightly, that Jesus was, during his own lifetime, only, as Dickson himself puts it, quoting the title of another book about the historical Jesus, ‘A Marginal Jew’, who achieved prominence and historical importance only after his death.
However, at the same time, Dickson contends that there is abundant reliable evidence regarding the life of this marginal Jew. Yet, if the Jew in question was so marginal, one would hardly expect to find abundant documentary evidence regarding his life.
In short, perhaps the reason so few serious secular scholars and historians have studied the life of Jesus and the field remains the preserve of ‘true believers’ like Dickson is precisely because there is so little to study in the first place.
Only those with an a priori emotional commitment to belief in Jesus as ‘messiah’ (or sometimes an a priori commitment to disbelief in this same concept), precisely those whose emotional commitment renders them unfit to undertake a disinterested and objective investigation, take it upon themselves to embark on the project in the first place.
 Actually, at least in so far as the accounts of his teachings as reported in the gospels are accurate, Jesus’s teachings do not appear to have been at all ‘wise’ in my opinion. On the contrary, they appear quite foolish. Thus, advising people to ‘turn the other cheek’ when they are victims of assault (Matthew 5 39-42; Luke 6: 27-31), and to give up their worldly possessions (Mark 10:21; Luke 14:33) seems, to me, not ‘wise’ counsel, but rather very foolish advice. Corroboration for this interpretation is found in Jesus’s ultimate fate: If he had indeed been ‘wise’ perhaps he would not have ended up nailed to a tree.
 Another supposed early textual reference to Jesus sometimes cited by New Testament scholars, but curiously omitted by Dickson, seems similarly spurious. This is the reference by the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars to disturbances during the reign of Claudius supposedly conducted “at the instigation of Chrestus”. After all, quite apart from the fact that ‘Chrestos’ was in fact a common name at the time, at least among Pagans, if not among Jews, the word is also the same, or very similar, to the Greek word, ‘Khristós‘ (‘Χριστός’), which is itself the translation of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’. Given that it was widely anticipated among the Jews that a ‘Messiah’ would appear among them, overthrow Roman rule and restore independence in Judea, and Jesus was only one of many claimants to this mantle, this reference to a ‘Chrestus’ or ‘Chresto’ could easily have referred to one of these other candidates for this title.
 The fact that the western university system traces its origins to medieval Christendom, when Christian dogma was almost unopposed, results in the paradoxical irony that, whereas many new universities often no longer even bother with courses in theology and Bible studies, the older, and hence generally more prestigious, universities often maintain a large number of professorships in these fields, and have long-established, entrenched and well-endowed Schools of Divinity.
 The idea that simply because someone has an impressive-sounding professorship at a prestigious university this must mean they are authoritative is, of course, another version of the ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’, or ‘appeal to authority’, that features so heavily in Dickson’s book, and the criticism of which is a major theme of this review. In fact, however, today as in the medieval age, there are many tenured and well-credentialled professors at ostensibly prestigious universities who are little more than ‘professional damned fools’. In a former age they were mostly theologians; today, meanwhile, they are mostly professors of ‘women’s studies’, ‘gender studies’, ‘cultural studies’, ‘black studies’, and other aspects of what has been aptly termed the ‘grievance studies’ industry. These fields, indeed, arguably represent the modern ‘cultural Marxist’ equivalent of what theology represented in the medieval age, and are today even more entrenched in academia.
 Of course, this may depend on the area of history in question. Obviously, sources are more abundant for certain historical periods than for others. Thus, as a crude generalization, ancient history tends to be more speculative than modern history.
 Had Dickson began with a declaration to this effect, then, I must confess, I would probably never have bothered to read his book in the first place. This might perhaps be dismissed as a prejudice on my part. However, as explained above, I simply do not believe that a devout Christian can ever be capable of investigating the historical Jesus with the necessary scholarly detachment, disinterest and objectivity required for such an endeavour.
 Indeed, it is bizarre to read Christian apologists like Dickson pouring scorn on mythicism as a kind of crankish, kookish conspiracy theory or form of pseudo-scholarship, while at the same time insisting that miracles are among “the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts” about Jesus (p77), and that there is “an irreducible [historical] core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110). Is Dickson really trying to have us believe that the idea that Jesus never existed is more preposterous than the idea that he cured lepers by touching them and later rose from the dead?
I am reminded of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2006 Easter Sermon, where he dismissed The Da Vinci Code book and film, then just released, as a preposterous conspiracy theory (as indeed it was), contrasting it with what he had the audacity to call “the prosaic reality” – the latter presumably a reference to the gospel accounts with all their virgin birth, resurrection and miracle stories. The phrases ‘pot calling the kettle black’ and ‘people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones’ very much spring to mind in both these cases.
 These ‘true believers’ include, it must be acknowledged, not only Christians like Dickson, but also many virulently anti-Christian cranks and conspiracy theorists, who often seemingly have almost as strong an a priori commitment to their own pet theories (e.g. mythicism) as the Christians do to the veracity of the gospel stories.