01 August 2009

nitpicking Religulous . . .

Posted by at 4:05 PM Read our previous post

Two of the bloggers that I sometimes read (Greg Boyd and James McGrath) have done reviews of the film Religulous recently. I watched the film soon (a couple of weeks) after it was released in theaters. I thought it was funny. Nothing special, really, but a decent enough film. That will be the extent of my critique of the film itself here.

I write, however, because I see a certain pattern in both of the reviews of the film that I think deserves a little highlighting. I like both of the bloggers, by the way, and find them both to be honest and smart men—they are well-meaning and are generally pretty good thinkers .

The focus of their main complaint regarding the film is an interview in the film where Bill Maher asserts some parallels between the Horus legend and the Jesus legend. The claims that Maher makes are indeed erroneous (specifically, that both were supposedly born to a virgin on December 25th and had wise men visit them as infants. And that both supposedly had 12 disciples, walked on water, raised people from the dead and were themselves raised from the dead.) I am not here to defend Maher’s blunder.

But I can’t help but think that the severity of the bloggers’ critiques of this error (particularly Boyd) is making trees out of mustard bushes, so to speak. It’s kinda funny.

Bill Maher is a secular Jewish comedian. Like most human beings, he is at best but peripherally informed about both Egyptology and Christian origins. While it is true that what he actually said was just plainly wrong in this case, his mistake is a layman’s slip. Somewhere along the line, he read somewhere that there are parallels between Jesus and several other mythical figures in antiquity. In the heat of extemporaneous performance, he makes a silly mistake. It reminds me of an argument I once had with an older gentleman who mistakenly referred to the Protevangelion of John. Mistakes happen.

But the root of Maher’s argument in the passing comment is actually correct, there ARE parallel between Jesus and some of the other ancient legends. Had he brought up one of the valid ones (not silly born-on-25-December things, but some of the parallels with Apollonius and with the Mithric cults), I doubt that Boyd and McGrath would have been so critical. Too bad you can’t do a do-over with a film once it’s released.

I think it’s funny that Boyd would get so upset, especially since such parallels DO exist.

McGrath, in his review, calls attention to an important aspect of all this, “we are all prone to claim to be critical, but it is extremely difficult to actually be self-critical, regardless whether you are religious or not,” he says, and I agree. But it’s funny to find him in the same soup in this case. Ironic.

In his case, I think that he sees himself as being fair and consistent. After all, he once wrote a scathing critique of Ben Stein’s “Exposed” where he intimated some of the same thinking into his verdict (he also did one on one of Spong‘s books). And rightly so.
But I think there is a big difference. Bill Maher made a layman’s passing blunder at worst.
Ben Stein’s entire film was a systematic set of arguments that defiantly flew right in the face of the scientific method.

Again, don’t get me wrong . . . I think that Bill Maher needs to be corrected.

But I can’t help but wonder where Boyd and McGrath are when an “expert” like Ben Witherington III says that Origen explicitly mentions Josephus’ mention of Jesus. Or when he claims that Josephus and Suetonius and Pliny explicitly mention Roman records of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Or when Wm Lane Craig says that there are four “irrefutable facts” about Jesus’ resurrection. Or Phil Fernades not knowing the difference between the Thomas Infancy gospel and the Gospel of Thomas.
I could go on.

Where is the consistency there, though? And these guys are “experts”!

(That said, I appreciate McG’s review of Bauckham’s book — great job)

I understand that there may be professional repercussions to making waves against a “colleague” in the field, and as such, I don’t much blame anyone, but I just think it’s cute.




  1. I must make a confession: in spite of the cartoon near the bottom of my blog, I don't scour the internet looking for errors to correct.

    I do think there is a reasonable chance that Origen found in Josephus something like the hypothetical original version of the Testimonium Flavianum reconstructed by Meier and others, and now given some textual support by Agapius. When Origen refers to Josephus not having been a Christian, it seems plausible that Origen had some reason to think that. Of course, it could just be something that was generally known or thought, apart from anything specific that Josephus wrote. But any claim that Origen "explicitly" mentions it is obviously wrong. And just as you or I might correct Witherington on this point, I myself expect to be corrected on many errors I have made and will make in the future.

    That was the heart of my point. We all have a tendency to pride ourselves in how open minded we are. And yet we have blind spots where we buy into things that are pseudo-critical rather than critical. Even the antievolutionists proclaim how willing they are to be "critical" even of the scientific community and their consensus. I thought Religulous served as a useful illustration of how someone can be critical, but not consistently. And let's face it, criticism of religion served in Maher's case to justify a dislike that was already there - we often have ulterior motives for our views. I really liked Dale Allison's recent book, in which he manages to apply to his own publications the same critical gaze he applies to others.

  2. I just thought of another example.

    Should we scold the author of the Gospel of Matthew for having written Chapter 27:9–10?




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