Islam is intolerant – but so is the Old Testament

Robert Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion. Regnery Publishing, 2007.   

But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee” (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). 

The passage quoted above represents a more overt call for genocide than anything in contained within the pages of Mein Kampf. Yet it comes, neither from Mein Kampf, nor, for that matter, from the Quran or Islamic aḥādīth. Rather, it is a direct quotation from the Christian (and the Hebrew) Bible (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). 

The next book of that same Bible, that of Joshua, describes the titular character fulfilling this very command: 

He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40). 

Meanwhile, another biblical passage from another book of the Old Testament or Torah extends these sentiments to yet another ethnic group, strangely omitted from the previous passage: 

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (Samuel 1 15:3). 

In ‘The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion’, Robert Spencer argues that the teachings of the Quranaḥādīth and Islamic law are barbaric, illiberal and intolerant – in short, wholly incompatible with contemporary Western values. 

In this enterprise, he is entirely successful and, I believe, wholly correct. 

Indeed, it is hardly surprising that the Quran and aḥādīth are wholly incompatible with contemporary western values, since these works were authored, not in the contemporary West, but rather in the Middle East some thousand years ago. 

However, where I part from Spencer is in his implicit assumption that the Christian Bible is somehow any better. 

On the contrary, as I see it, the Old Testament of the Bible is, if anything, even less compatible with contemporary western values than is the Quran and aḥādīth – again, unsurprisingly since it was written, again in the Middle East, long even before the Quran. 

True, the New Testament of the Christian Bible is rather more pacifist in tone. So perhaps Christianity may have a claim for qualifying as a ‘religion of peace’ – at least if you regard parts of the Old Testament as somehow overruled or repealed by the New Testament or New Covenant.[1]

However, the same is surely not true of Judaism

Indeed, the Old Testament always strikes me as something akin to a racially-supremacist tract. The Jews, it repeatedly tells us, are God’s ‘Chosen People and everyone else is, at best, a second-class species of human, at worst, as seen in the passages quoted above, fit objects of genocide.[2]

Yet these verses have not prevented Jews and Christians, many of them devoutly religious, some even self-described Biblical literalists, from living together peaceably in western polities without significant numbers among them feeling the need to regularly suicide-bomb one another or fly planes into buildings, or, for that matter, massacre Hittites, Canaanites and Jebusites

However, there is clearly a difficulty in integrating Muslims into Western society, as various terrorist atrocities committed by citizens of the Muslim faith born and raised within the borders of western liberal democracies amply yet horribly demonstrate. 

The problem is not simply that Muslims have, in general, not fully reconciled themselves with such ostensibly ‘progressive’ notions as feminism and transsexual bathroom rights. After all, the same is true of many ChristiansJews and heathen secularists like myself.[3]

Rather the problem is that significant minorities of Muslims within the West (but certainly not of the West) engage in terrorism against the West. 

True, terrorists represent only a small minority of the Muslim population. However, they are not so small a minority as not to be able to wreak considerable havoc, causing much injury, loss of life and economic cost. 

Of course, historically, Christians and Jews have had their own share of ‘holy wars’ and religious bigotry, both against themselves, one another and outsiders. 

There were the Crusades, the burning of heretics, blasphemers and witches, countless wars justified in the name of God, plus the persecution of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, of Jews by both Catholics and Protestants and, today, of Palestinians (themselves the probable descendants of the biblical Canaanites) by Jews, not to mention that whole nasty business with the holocaust. 

In short, liberal democracy and religious toleration came only relatively recently even to the West. 

Moreover, it is surely no coincidence that increasingly liberal and tolerant attitudes and laws have arisen hand-in-hand with the process of secularization

In short, liberal democracy and Western civilization have come about despite Christianity rather than because of it. 

Yet, nowadays, Catholics, Protestants and Jews resident in most of the West, together with various assorted secular heathens and infidels like myself, all live together in relative toleration. 

This holds out the prospect that, in the long-term, Muslims might learn to do likewise. 

However, it is unlikely to be a rapid transition, and nor is it necessarily an inevitable one. Therefore, we have every reason to be cautious about admitting more Muslims into our countries as migrants or asylum seekers. 

However, given that the holy books of both Christianity and Judaism contain passages that rival anything in the Quran or aḥādīth when it comes to draconian bellicosity, I contend that the reason for the current unassimilability of Muslim minorities in the West must be sought at least partly in factors external to the content of the Islamic scripture itself. 

One factor is perhaps that Muslims have come rather late, if at all, to Western modernity. 

Thus, whereas the ancestors of contemporary Ashkenazim and Sephardim settled in Europe centuries ago, and have therefore, like Christians themselves, been an integral (and, indeed, a disproportionately influential, and disproportionately secular and liberal) part of the secular, liberal West for at least as long as the West has had any claim to being secular and liberal, the presence of Muslim immigrants in Western polities is, to my knowledge, largely a recent phenomenon. 

Women as ‘Booty’ 

Spencer condemns “the treatment of women as war prizes, with no consideration of their will” as “from a twenty-first-century perspective… one of the most problematic aspects of Muhammad’s status as ‘an excellent model of conduct’” (p133-4). 

He likewise condemns the Quran for allowing Muslims to “have sex with slave girls (‘captives that your right hands possess’)” (p173). 

There are three problems with this argument.

First, the practice is by no means restricted to Islam. Indeed, as Spencer himself acknowledges: 

This phenomenon has manifested itself to varying degrees in all cultures and societies” (p134).[4]

Indeed, many evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists would contend that the capture of fertile females for breeding purposes is the ultimate purpose of warfare and reason why warfare evolved in the first place. 

However, Spencer nevertheless maintains that: 

In the Islamic world [this practice] is particularly hard to eradicate because of the prophetic sanction it has received” (p134). 

Yet, despite his apparent background in Christian theology, Spencer seems blissfully unaware that the Christian/Hebrew Bible also sanctions the exact same practices. Indeed, the Christian/Hebrew Bible gives even more explicit sanction to the taking of women as booty during war than does Islamic scripture.  

Thus, whereas Islamic teaching only gives implied “prophetic sanction” to forced concubinage by describing the Prophet himself as participating in such practices, the Christian/Hebrew Bible not only sanctions such behaviour, but explicitly commands it. 

Take, for example, the following passage, taken again from the Old Testament: 

When the LORD thy God hath delivered [a city that has refused to surrender peacefully] into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee” (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14). 

This phraseology, taken from the King James Version, seems to be an only mildly euphemistic incitement to mass rape. Here, “the women and the little ones” along with “cattle” are explicitly equated with “the spoils”, and the Israelites are commanded to “take unto thyself; and… eat the spoil of thine enemies”. 

Some prudish Christian apologists might affect to be blissfully unaware of what this passage alludes to, but I suspect all but the most naïve and innocent (or perhaps simply uneducated) among them would be being disingenuous. 

Or take this verse: 

Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Numbers 31: 17-18). 

Again, one does not have to be a cynic with a ‘dirty mind’ to guess for what purpose one is being commanded to “save for yourself” all these young virginal maidens, and I doubt it is purely because one wants help with the housework. 

After all, if it were for any purposes other than the obvious sexual ones, then why are only girls being taken as captives while the men and boys are being killed?[5]

Who Gets Killed? 

But let us look a little further at these decidedly ‘gendered’ Biblical commandments. 

If female infidels are commanded to be taken as booty and possibly used as concubines or sexual slaves, then male infidels defeated in war were typically killed outright. 

Therefore, far from evidencing the oppression of women under Islam as contended by Spencer, the practice of taking captured women as spoils is actually a prime example of female privilege

Indeed, this represents a classic case of what Adam Jones aptly terms Gendercide.[6]

Why, then, are we not talking about how both Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) discriminate against men

Thus, just as the biblical passages quoted above (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14Numbers 31: 17-18) order massacres of all adult males, but the sparing of women and girls, so Islamic scripture is similarly ambivalent regarding the treatment of enemy females. 

Spencer mentions an Islamic ḥādīth that seemingly excuses the killing of females, at least in some circumstances: 

The Prophet passed by me at a place called Al-Abwa’ or Waddan, and was asked whether it was permissible to attack A/- Mushrikun [unbelieving] warriors at night with the probability of exposing their women and children to danger. The Prophet replied, ‘They (i.e. women and children) are from them (i.e. Al-Mushrikun)” (quoted at: p97; Sahih al-Bukhârî: 3012). 

However, to my recollection, Spencer conveniently neglects to cite two other aḥādīth with a quite contrary message, namely Sahîh al-Bukhârî: 3015 and Sahîh Muslim: 1744

Here, the killing of females is specifically forbidden by Mohammed. The prophet is described in these aḥādīth as finding the dead body of a woman after a battle and reproving those responsible. 

In short, Islamic law seems rather contradictory on the question of whether women can ever be killed in war. 

However, perhaps the different passages can be reconciled if female casualties are to be regarded as, to use two anachronistic contemporary terms, not legitimate targets’, but nevertheless excusable incidental collateral damage

Again, this is reminiscent of the Old Testament, which contains similarly contradictory prescriptions regarding female captives. 

Thus, in the passage which I quoted at the beginning of this review, deliberate massacres of entire cities, women and children included, is explicitly commanded (Deuteronomy 20:16-17). 

However, elsewhere, for example in the passages quoted in the last section of this post (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14Numbers 31: 17-18), whereas Israelites are order to kill all adult males, they are advised to spare (or rather instead merely rape and enslave) certain classes of female captive. 

Actually, however, Deuteronomy is not inconsistent; it is simply racist – in addition to being sexist. 

In short, all non-Hebrews must be conquered, and all (non-surrendering) males of enemy groups must also be massacred. However, only among particularly objectionable racial and ethnic groups (“these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance”: Deuteronomy 20:16-17) must the women and children also be massacred. 

In contrast, Mohammad’s justification for the killing of women and children (“they are of them”) actually seems eminently practical, especially in the context of modern warfare where, with the use of relatively indiscriminate weapons like missiles and bombs, let alone weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons, civilian casualties are almost unavoidable. 

Yet, while nuclear escalation may be avoidable, to forsake the use of weapons like missiles and bombs altogether would be suicidal in any conflict with any enemy not willing to similarly handicap themselves. 

Moreover, feminists in particular ought presumably to welcome those Islamic aḥādīth (and biblical passages) which advocate the killing of women alongside their menfolk, since this is surely the logical conclusion (or perhaps the reductio ad absurdum) of what feminists have for so long so noisily and incessantly demanded – namely, the equal treatment of men and women alike. 

Who Fights? 

There is moreover another related form of sex discrimination implicit in so much Islamic teaching – namely, it is only males who are expected to sacrifice their lives in jihad or holy war

Spencer himself reports that, before a planned raid on Tabuk, a follower came to Mohammed asking to be excused. In response, “Muhammad granted him permission, but then received a revelation from Allah, counting people who made such requests among the Hypocrites” (p154: Qur’an 9:489). 

Spencer reports: 

Allah even rebuked his prophet for excusing Muslims from the Tabuk expedition (Qur’an 9:43). He told Muhammad that true Muslims did not hesitate to wage jihad, even to the point of risking their property and their very lives. The ones who refused to do this weren’t believers (Qur’an 9:4445)” (p157). 

However, it goes without saying that these injunctions applied only to men. 

I am reminded of the build-up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when the British and American media sought to justify the invasion by telling us incessantly how terribly ‘oppressed’ women supposedly were in Afghanistan, because, apparently, they were forced to wear burqas and cover their faces. 

Meanwhile, however, all able-bodied men in Afghanistan were being forcibly drafted into the Taliban armed forces, including the elderly, some dragged from cars or their homes, and every household expected to provide at least one male to sacrifice in the coming war (Harding 2001). 

Yet, strangely, no one in the western media ever said anything about men being oppressed in Afghanistan. 

Likewise, one heard little about the almost endemic and institutionalized sexual abuse and sexual enslavement of young boys in Afghanistan, known as bacha bāzī or dancing boys

Instead, it was women, forced to wear burkas, who were the only ones deemed to have been ‘oppressed’ – though I suspect it is precisely the enforced veiling, seclusion and other protections accorded women in Islamic societies, together with the effect of a polygynous mating milieu in denying reproductive opportunities for low-status males, that leads so many Afghan men to turn instead to young boys (bacha bereesh, literally ‘boys without beards’) as an alternative sexual outlet.[7]

Indeed, far from opposing the practice, US troops serving in Afghanistan were specifically ordered not to interfere with the systematic sexual abuse of boys, on the grounds that “it is a part of their culture” (Goldstein 2015).[8]

Yet the wearing of burkas is also a part of Afghan culture – and indeed of Islamic culture in general. It is moreover surely a less objectionable part of that culture than the systematic and widespread sexual abuse of young boys

Indeed, just how trivial and comparatively trivial and unobjectionable is the requirement to cover one’s face has been revealed to most of Britain, America and the west during the recent corvid hysteria, when we were all legally obliged to wear face masks when in public places.

Many people, myself included, thought that this requirement unnecessary and an overreaction. Nevertheless, it was, at most, a minor inconvenience and hardly a major violation of human rights and civil liberties. Those who protested the masking laws as a horrendous and tyrannical infringement of basic civil liberties were rightly ridiculed for their overreaction. 

At any rate, even in Afghanistan, the requirement that women wear burkas to cover their faces when in public was paralleled by an analogous admonition that men also cover their faces, whether in public or not, by not shaving and instead growing a beard

Yet both forms of sex discrimination are wholly trivial when compared to both the obligation to sacrifice oneself in war, and the sexual enslavement of boys

In short, the idea that the right to wear high heels, short skirts, lipstick and sexually provocative clothing is a fundamental human right says more about the self-absorbed, overprivileged lifestyles of western women, feminists very much included, than is does about real oppression, which remains, in both Islam and the West, a largely male preserve

Inheritance and ‘Mahr’ 

So are women oppressed under Islam as Spencer contends? 

It is true that, under Islamic law, women are seen as possessions of their husbands, and commanded to be subservient and defer to them.

But, in return, men were expected to provide for their wives with food, clothing and housing. This is not a mere implicit assumption, but a specific religious obligation imposed on Muslim, known as nafaqah. There is no equivalent obligation imposed on wives. 

Thus, Spencer rebukes the Quran for insisting that a son’s inheritance be twice that accorded one’s daughter (p273). 

However, he neglects to mention two parallel forms of discrimination against males which also represent obvious rationales for the greater inheritance for males – namely the obligation that boys, if they wish to marry at all, must:

  1. Provide food, clothing and housing for his wife, and perhaps her retinue of servants as well (nafaqah); and
  2. Pay the Islamic bride price (mahr). 

The latter is, mahr, is not a mere nominal formality. On the contrary, it is often extortionate and, unlike other forms of bride-price in other cultures, is payable directly to the bride herself, not to her family. Men in Iran are often imprisoned for failing to pay this sum on demand (see Mehraspand 2014). 

Clearly it makes more sense to leave more money to your son than your daughter when your son is commanded by scripture to pay a bride-price should he wish to marry (mahr), and is then expected to provide for his wife during marriage (nafaqah), whereas your daughter is likely to receive such a payment on marriage and thereafter be supported, protected and provided for by her husband. 

This, then, is rather analogous to the familiar complaint that, in Islamic societies such as Afghanistan, girls are not permitted to go to school. But this merely reflects the fact that women are not expected to earn a living in a traditional Islamic society, but rather expect to be supported and provided for by their husbands (nafaqah), and hence have no need of education or vocational training. 

Far from evidencing the oppression of women, it is therefore an indirect reflection of female privilege.  

Proving Rape 

Indeed, even the infamous supposed requirement for four male witnesses in order to convict a man of rape is revealed as a myth. 

Actually, this applies to other sexual offences, such as adultery – but not to rape. 

Indeed, Spencer’s own account reveals that the requirement of four witnesses was actually introduced by Mohammed to protect women in general, and his own wife in particular, from allegations of adultery (p66-7; Quran 24:11-13). 

Moreover, this requirement of four male witnesses also made adultery a dangerous crime to accuse a woman of – since any man who made such an allegation without the requisite four male witnesses was himself punished by eighty lashes. 

In contrast, women could evade punishment for adultery by claiming to have been raped, positively incentivizing false allegations

Indeed, given that sexual relations usually occur in private, and adulterous sexual relations in some secrecy, the requirement of four male witnesses actually made allegations of adultery almost impossible to prove in practice, unless a devout Muslim wife were foolish enough to shoot a porno or attend an orgy. 

Who Then is Oppressed? 

Are women oppressed in Muslim societies? Despite what I have written, the answer remains very much a ‘yes’ – albeit with one important caveat, namely that men are oppressed in Muslim societies as well. 

Islam is oppressive of all humans, male and female alike. 

Indeed, oppression is virtually the defining principle of Islam, the very word ‘Islam famously translating as ‘submission’, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person”. 

Again, however, much the same is true of Christianity and Judaism. In both religions, adherents are expected to worship, obey, prostrate themselves in the presence of and sing songs in praise of, and sometimes even offer sacrifices to, or sacrifice themselves for, an allegedly almighty God

This is, of course, directly analogous to how a subject under totalitarianism or despotism is expected to bow down before, obey and pay homage to an absolutist monarch or dictator. 

Heil Hitler and ‘Praise be the Lord God’ are, as I have written before, essentially analogous forms of salutation. 

So all Judeo-Christian religions are oppressive. However, when men and boys are expressly singled out for massacre in holy scripture, while women and girls are spared, and when men are expected to fight and die in holy wars, if not martyr themselves with suicide bombs, for the glory of Allah, while women happily sit at home, perhaps wearing a burka, then there is no doubt whatsoever which sex is getting the better deal.

Endnotes

[1] Interestingly, various different heretical Christian sects, including the Marcions, Gnostics and Cathars, have converged in rejecting the authority of the Old Testament altogether and regarded the God of the Old Testament as a malevolent deity, different and lesser than that featured in the New Testament. This view would seemingly reconcile the very different tone of the two collections of texts. However, it is a view held by few Christians today, and obviously introduces no few additional theological problems of its own.

[2] It ought to be noted that many modern religious Jews, and Jewish ‘apologists (in the religious sense), insist that the notion of the Jews as God’s Chosen People does not entail any connotations to racial supremacy, but rather actually involved the imposition of greater responsibilities and obligations on Jews, hence the familiar notion of the Jews as a light unto the nations. Judaism certainly does purport to impose greater obligations and responsibilities on Jews, and many contemporary religious Jews may indeed interpret the concept of ‘chosenness’ in this way. However, reading parts of both the Old Testament and the Talmud, it is clear that there was also an element of supremacism in the notion of being ‘chosen’. Indeed, even today, many Haredi Jews are quite overt in their Jewish supremacism (see for examples Israel Shahak’s co-authored Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel).

[3] Indeed, when confronted with such absurdities as feminism, critical race theory and transexual activism, one is well able to understand the hostility of many Muslims to contemporary western culture, and perhaps even capable of envisaging Islamic fundamentalism as a preferable alternative. Thus, today, the ostensibly secular pseudo-religious faith of political correctness arguably demands of its adherents beliefs quite as preposterous those those of any religious fundamentalist. 
However, it must be noted that Islamic fundamentalism is not necessarily incompatible with such preposterous ‘progressive’ notions as the right of transexuals to be considered as the being of the opposite ‘gender’ to their biological sex. On the contrary, in Iran, while homosexuals are famously persecuted, transexualism is strangely tolerated, even perversely promoted. Indeed, it is even claimed that gay males are forced to undergo surgery in order to escape persecution as homosexuals. This may be why Iran is, somewhat surprisingly, said to have the second highest rate of sex change operations relative to population size behind only Thailand.

[4] This pattern is cross-culturally recurrent. Thus, Jared Diamond writes:

The wars of the Greeks and Trojans, of Rome and Carthage, and of the Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians proceeded to a common end: the slaughter of the defeated irrespective of sex, or else the killing of the men and enslavement of the women” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: p265).

For example, Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue reports that, on conquering Melos, the Athenians put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves. Similarly, in his recent comparative biography of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II of Macedon, author Ian Worthington reports that on capturing the Greek city of Sestus:

“[His troops] killed all of its male citizens and sold all of its women and children as slaves – one of the more gruesome punishments that civilians suffered in warfare” (By the Spear: p57). 

[5] If, for example, the captives were to be enslaved and used for non-sexual purposes, then presumably it would be the male captives who were of greater value to the conquerors, since men, being generally bigger and stronger than women, are superior at most forms of manual labour. During the period of the transatlantic slave trade, for example, male slaves were preferred and commanded a higher price, whereas, in the Islamic worldfemale slaves tended be preferred and to command a higher price because of the greater acceptance of concubinage in the Islamic world as compared to puritanical America. Thus, although the Old Testament of the Bible certainly approves the sexual exploitation of female slaves, puritanical eighteenth and nineteenth century North American culture certainly did not. Nevertheless, it certainly occurred, as is apparent from the genetic composition of contemporary African-Americans. Indeed, according to Pierre van den Berghe in The Ethnic Phenomenon: which I have reviewed here): 

Concubinage with slaves was somewhat more clandestine and hypocritical in the English and Dutch colonies than in the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies where it was brazen, but there is no evidence that the actual incidence of interbreeding was any higher in the Catholic countries” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p132). 

Van den Berghe does not directly compare the prevalence of “concubinage with slaves” in the Muslim world with that in Christian colonies, either Catholic and Latin or puritanical North America.

[6] Edward O Wilson instead terms this recurrent pattern of conquerors massacring conquered males while mating with conquered females ‘genosorption’. The phenomenon is so widespread that it is even apparent in the DNA of contemporary populations. Thus, geneticist James Watson reports that, whereas 94% of the Y-chromosomes of contemporary Colombians are European, mitochondrial DNA shows a “range of Amerindian MtDNA types”. Thus, he concludes:

The virtual absence of Amerindian Y chromosome types, reveals the tragic story of colonial genocide: indigenous men were eliminated while local women were sexually ‘assimilated’ by the conquistadors” (DNA: The Secret of Life: p257).

[7] Interestingly, I have subsequently discovered that Edward Dutton makes the same connection in his provocatively titled book, Why Islam Makes You Stupid … But Also Means You’ll Conquer the World. Here, like myself, Dutton argues that the widespread sexual abuse of boys Afghanistan and other Islamic countries results from the combination of polygyny and female seclusion, which leaves a glut of sexually-frustrated, horny incel-bachelors in need of some alternative form of sexual outlet. Thus, Dutton cites evidence that, despite the theoretical prohibition on all homosexuality under Islam:

Pederasty [i.e. sexual relations betweeen an adult man and an adolescent boy] is effectively acceptable in many Isamic countries, though homosexuality between two grown men is strongly taboo and severely punished… [and] pederasty is far more common in Islamic societies where women are heavily secluded than it is in those where they are less secluded” (Why Islam Makes You Stupid … But Also Means You’ll Conquer the World: p121).

Similarly, Dutton suggests that the similar widespread practice of, and toleration for, pederasty in ancient Greece also resulted from the supposed seclusion of women in some Greek city states. By analogy, he observes that otherwise heterosexual males in other environments where females are either absent or unavailable sexually (e.g. prisons and boarding schools) also often resort to homosexuality (i.e. so-called ‘situational homosexuality’).

[8] In fact, rather to their credit, the Taliban had sought to eliminate the practice of bacha bāzī, seeing it as contrary to the tenets of Islam. Therefore, in seeking to overthrow the Taliban regime, and ordering their troops not to interfere with such practices, the US seem to have been promoting the practice, which was indeed said to have reemerged during the American occupation (Abdul-Ahad 2009).

References 

Abdul-Ahad (2009) The dancing boys of Afghanistan, Guardian 12 September
Goldstein (2015) U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies, New York Times, September 20. 
Harding L (2001) Taliban forcing thousands into armyGuardian, 4 October.
Mehraspand A (2014) Indentured servitude for men in Iran: The myth of patriarchal oppressive divorce, A Voice for Men August 13.

John Dickson’s ‘Jesus: A Short Life’: Christian Apologetics Masquerading as History

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 what Nietzsche called a slave morality, whereby what would usually be 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.

In short, at least as applied to historical Jesus research, the so-called criterion of embarrassment seems to represent something of an embarrassment in and of itself.

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.

Aside from the gospels themselves one of the few other sources he cites is contemporary letter written by one Mara bar Serapion referring to the Jews killing their “wise king”.

Dickson claims:

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.[1]

However, he certainly does not appear to have been a king’, at least in the ordinary, familiar sense of the word.

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.

Who Mara bar Serapion was referring to seems to be, at best, a mystery. Certainly, his letter hardly represents the definitive proof of Jesus’s historicity.[2]

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.

Admittedly, unlike homeopaths and astrologers, many of these researchers have important-sounding professorships at apparently reputable, sometimes even prestigious, universities.

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.[3]

However, this should not fool us into mistaking them for serious, secular historians.[4]

Thus, most researchers investigating the historical Jesus, at least in universities, seem to come from backgrounds, not in history, but rather in theology, seminaries and Bible studies.

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.

The Christian gospels, with their plainly ahistorical content and frankly preposterous elements (e.g. miracles, the resurrection), are clearly unreliable.

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.

Jesus’s Birthplace

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.

Dismissing the claim that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew only relocated the nativity to Bethlehem so as to accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), Dickson demands petulantly:

What is the evidence that Matthew and Luke put him there out of some necessity to make him look messianic? None. The argument dissolves” (p37).

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 incompatible means. 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.

Whereas there is simply no evidence for the so-called Massacre of the Innocents outside of the Gospel of Matthew itself, the story in Luke is positively contradicted by the historical record.

Thus, the first census did not occur until AD 6 after the death of King Herod. Yet, just a couple of pages earlier Dickson himself has concluded:

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).

At any rate, a census, even if it occurred, would apply only to Roman citizens, not Jews in Galilee, then a client state not under direct Roman rule. 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 Nazareth (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 Bethlehemseventy 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.

Conclusions

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.

Certainly it is possible that (excepting miracles, virgin births, resurrections and other such patent nonsense) Jesus’s life did indeed take roughly the same path as that described in the gospels.

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.

Endnotes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.