07 January 2007

Dr Phil's House of Blunders

Posted by at 3:25 AM Read our previous post

I was just listening to a lecture spoken by one "Dr." Phil Fernandes in an online archive of sermons (the lecture can be heard here). The lecture is a critique of the Jesus Seminar, an organization that came to some notoriety in the eighties and nineties, not just in New Testament scholarly circles, but in the popular general media. It was devoted to making the public aware of contemporary historical Jesus scholarship. Some highly acclaimed scholars have been members of the Jesus seminar. Among the most notable are John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Karen Armstrong.

I was compelled to write this post because I found Doc Fernandes to be such a poor apologist that even I, a simple autodidact listening along at home, can easily show him out to be clueless about what he's talking about, which is unfortunate, as he seems to do a LOT of lectures in this archive. Oh, I'm sure he's read a lot and has written a lot in order to get a ThD, or whatever it is they call them (sic - they don't just hand those out, I suppose), but he says things that are so demonstrably false that I wonder how someone who considers himself an expert can be so blatantly wrong about his references. My guess is that, when one has a horse in a race, it's easy to be blinded by one's passionate zeal into saying really stupid things.

I will allow him to demonstrate this with his own words. He begins the lecture thus:

How many of you have ever heard of the Jesus Seminar? It's kinda hard not to [...] because they receive so much media attention [...] and as we are going to see, it's rather unfortunate that they receive so much attention because they do not represent New Testament scholarship as a whole, let alone the traditional view of scriptures and of Jesus [...]
This is just silly whining. To complain that the Jesus Seminar got too much media attention is to completely miss the point of its foundation, its very raison d'etre, in fact. They set out to be media whores from the git go, dude. One of their primary functions (you can read their mission statement here) was to bring the findings of current thought in NT studies into the public spotlight. I can only imagine what a welcome surprise the huge sales of John Dominic Crossan's and Marcus Borg's works turned out to be to their respective publishers and editors.

Of course, Doctor Phil is surely entitled to think that the methods and conclusions of the the Jesus Seminar are completely off the mark if he so wishes (and Gosh love ya for it, man!) My objection, rather, is that, in making his case against the JS, he is prone to utilize disingenuous arguments which his audience of young impressionable and already zealous would-be missionary undergrads will actually take to heart and even believe to be truth.

An example:
First, he attacks the legitimacy of the seminar as a scholarly entity:

"First, I wanna talk about what it is, then I wanna talk about what's wrong with it. [...] What exactly is the Jesus Seminar? [...] First, it's a group of New Testament scholars that began to meet in 1985. Umm [...] the word "scholar" ... okay? [...] "scholar" can mean almost anything [...] "scholar" just means, really, "a student" ... okay? ... but we use the word "scholar" today in the sense that a student of a particular subject has become such an expert in the subject that the experts refer to this expert. [...] the guys who write the textbooks or [...] the guys that the textbook writers quote would be considered scholars [...] the experts among the experts... okay? [...} and [...] using that definition, about half of the guys in the Jesus Seminar are scholars and the rest are really[...] their scholarship has never been established; they really haven't published in their field [...] they haven't engaged in any major sense that has been scholarship-wise accepted"(sic)
This is a false mischaracterization.
Doctor Phil's language seems to suggest that "half" of the members of the seminar are really not experts in the field in question at all.
What do they know about Jesus or the history of the primitive Christian movement?
In fact, however, did you know that in order to be considered to be a fellow of the Westar Institute (the parent organization of which the JS is but one project), one must first have attained an advanced academic degree (i.e. a Ph.D. or its equivalent, from an accredited university) in theology, biblical studies or a cognate discipline? To hear Doctor Phil tell it, the JS is instead a renegade bunch of "radical far left" neophytes. That's just way off the mark. Oh, and by the way, Doc, some of the "guys" in the seminar are ladies, just so you know.

Another example (and a doozy at that - what prompted me to write this post, in fact):
In making his case that the Jesus Seminar relies too much on the Gospel of Thomas as a source of information about Jesus (an arguably defensible criticism of the JS's methods, I think), he makes a tragic error which betrays the fact that he doesn't really know what the Gospel of Thomas actually is at all. That text, he says ...

[...] was really a perversion of the true Jesus of history. In fact, in the Gospel of Thomas (blogger's emphasis) Jesus throws a tantrum as a little baby and, you know, like [...] wipes out half the town, supernaturally [...] turns clay pigeons into real ones, just because he felt like it
OK . . . stop right there. This is an equivocation so common, apparently, that I've encountered it before elsewhere, which in itself is a fact that testifies to how misinformation can proliferate if unchecked. What's wrong with this picture so far, you ask? Well . . . he is talking about stories in which Jesus is depicted as a spoiled brat. In one of these stories, the excitable and capricious boy Jesus becomes very vindictive and even downright violent when angered. As punishment for a boy (one of his playmates) messing up the little fishing pool that Jesus has just made, he causes the kid to instantly wither like he did the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem in the synoptic Gospels. Then, after the townspeople complain to Joseph and Mary about what Jesus has done to their kid, Jesus reluctantly restores the boy to health (although he sadistically leaves one of his hands withered, as a warning). Later in the same chapter Jesus makes another kid drop dead for bumping into him in the street and anyone who has a problem with his doing so he then turns blind (at which point it is recorded that Joseph pulled Jesus sternly by the ear for his behavior, an image I've always found rather amusing - "Joshua!!! you naughty, naughty boy!!!"). If one is not familiar with the early extra-canonical Christian texts, it might come as a shock that these kind of stories were actually quite common once upon a time, but the fact is that these stories do exist and they do go way back. The trouble though is they are not in the Gospel of Thomas (GTh) as Dr Phil explicitly claims in this lecture.

When the NT scholars that make up the Jesus Seminar (indeed, even beyond the JS - it is a standardized text) refer to the Gospel of Thomas, you see, they mean a very specific text. They are talking about a collection of one hundred-fourteen supposed sayings of Jesus of which a complete copy in Coptic was finally unearthed in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. We also have two fragments of this same work, but in Greek, which were discovered in 1898 and which have been determined by various scientists to pre-date the Nag Hammadi copy. The GTh is believed to have been written by a community of proto-gnostic Christians. It is a sayings gospel. It contains nothing at all about the acts of Jesus. There are no signs in this gospel, no wonders, no virgin births, no passion, no resurrections, and no bratty temper tantrums (our focus); the Gospel of Thomas is just a list of sayings reportedly spoken by the "living Jesus" (vs 1). Well, if the story is not in GTh, then, where does the story about the brat Jesus come from? Good question. That particular story comes from another book altogether, a book traditionally called The Infancy of Thomas (or Infancy II -- to distinguish it from the Protevangelion, or Infancy of James, and as if that wasn't confusing enough, there's even another Infancy Gospel, Infancy I, which, curiously enough, is also attributed to Thomas, but that being irrelevant to my point, I'll leave it for another time). The Infancy of Thomas has been dated to the mid-third century. Only a fragment of it has been preserved. The Gospel of Thomas (the book whose acceptance by the Jesus Seminar Dr Phil is protesting against) has been determined by research and scholarship since its discovery to have been written in several stages, the earliest layer coming from the early second century (some scholars even go as far as proposing, rather persuasively, that some of the sayings in GTh are the more primitive versions of some of Jesus' sayings that appear in the canonicals as well, and may in fact pre-date even Mark's versions).

Now, I'm not advising Doc Phil to accept the Seminar's conclusions, not at all. One is entitled to argue whether or not the Gospel of Thomas deserves to be on par with the canonicals as an early source, but (I must stress this) one is not allowed to lie to one's students as part of one's apologetic style (more polemic than apologetic to my eyes, actually) in defending one's point.

Mind you, I am not splitting hairs on some matter of opinion here. I am, instead, calling the good doctor out for passing on bogus information to his students. Those students pay you to lie to them? Shame!

Maybe this will help your confusion a bit, sir (amazing what a little googling can do!).

This is the Gospel of Thomas


this is Infancy II.

As anyone can plainly tell from the merest cursory glance at each of them side by side, they are two different books. I will give you, or anyone else, $5 million (Canadian) if they can find any story in the Gospel of Thomas in which the child Jesus "wipes out half the town". It's simply not there!

I can't help but wonder why a professor at an institute of learning would be engaging in this kind of dishonesty. Two possiblities spring to mind:

1- the good doctor has never really taken the time to actually read any of the primary sources himself and is rather getting his information second-hand from some other polemicist idiot.


2 - he is lying deliberately, figuring it's okay to do so, as long as the aim is the strengthening of faith by such deception
He is either ignorant or a liar. I pray it is the former.
Whichever the reason ... Please stop it, sir.

This lecture has a LOT more blunders in it, actually, but this single obvious case of gross misinformation should suffice to illustrate my point. It's a doozy.

There's nothing quite like lying in the name of the Lord. Is there?



This is post #100 . . . yay!!!!!


  1. Hi. Out of curiosity, did you ever find out whether P. Fernandes is a liar or simply ignorant? (I wouldn't be surprised if both. Anything in the name of Lord...)
    You probably knew that Infancy II was called Evangelium Thomae in the Middle Ages?

    I find this issue and your blog in general very, very interesting.


  2. Having heard him in other contexts, I am inclined to believe that he is just ignorant, as he is generally gentle in manner.

    Yeah, that's part of the problem, until there was a standard catalogue reference to all of these disparate peripheral works, almost anything could be called a "Gospel". But anyone who is even cursorily informed about the Jesus Seminar's use of GTh (the very things he is presuming to critique) would never make such an equivocation with Infancy II. This is primarily what makes me believe that he is just someone who attacks the Seminar's work out of some sense of obligation to some sense of orthodoxy in his superego (that's my guess) and NOT out of any informed opinion of any kind. I can spot an apologist disguised as a historian from a mile away.



  3. i assume anyone even remotely interested in the subject would not get confused with those two after a bit of studying. even me, and i am certainly not an expert, nor a historian..

    my interest on the subject has (re)woken up only resently and am now reading anything i can find in the library and book shops in this part of the Tellus.

    your blog has given me a few fairly good ideas what to read. thank you.



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