Thursday, August 23, 2012

Richard Dawkins: Biblical Scholar

In a recent interview with Playboy, the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, answered a few questions. Couched among the dross of the merely banal or lame was this gem of absurdity:

DAWKINS: The evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky. The earliest books in the New Testament to be written were the Epistles, not the Gospels. It’s almost as though Saint Paul and others who wrote the Epistles weren’t that interested in whether Jesus was real. Even if he’s fictional, whoever wrote his lines was ahead of his time in terms of moral philosophy.
PLAYBOY: You’ve read the Bible.
DAWKINS: I haven’t read it all, but my knowledge of the Bible is a lot better than most fundamentalist Christians.

Let's pass over the breathtaking hubris of declaring one's self sufficiently knowledgeable of a book that one hasn't even read in its entirety in withering silence. Well, not in silence.

On one level, it's flatly absurd to suggest that Paul "wasn't interested" in whether Jesus existed -- as somehow evidenced by the Epistles being written before the Gospels -- since Paul's entire ministry is founded on the reality of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, as anyone who has read Paul attentively knows. Everything Paul teaches hinges on this. Over at Uncommon Descent they have an effective little riposte to Dawkins on this count.

On another level, Dawkins is intuiting something true, but not what he thinks. Namely that Paul isn't greatly concerned about proving Jesus' existence because it wasn't in question. Neither in his own mind nor in that of the churches he was writing to. Paul didn't know he was writing something that would come to be called "the New Testament", which would be a document modern inquirers, millenia in the future, would use to examine the "truth" of Jesus' existence -- a truth he took for granted, as did all of his hearers. He was preaching and expounding on who Jesus was, the true nature of the Faith, calling out the errors of misguided followers of Jesus, spreading the Gospel, pastoring Christ's flock etc. Contrary to what Dawkins seems to think, it's not at all surprising that this would be the first order of apostolic business, rather than documenting the narrative of Christ's life which was everywhere around in oral form or in first-hand experiences.

These are exactly the conditions we would expect to be present if there was no question about Jesus' existence because it was taken as a given. How would it come to be taken as a given so widely, so assuredly, and so quickly unless -- at the very least -- Jesus existed?  Of course, even to this day in virtually all serious first-century historical and Biblical scholarship -- even that of a strongly secular bent -- Jesus' existence still isn't questioned -- as it wasn't in the first century -- precisely because such a theory doesn't comport with reason and the evidence at all. You know, reason and evidence, those things that Dawkins follows unwaveringly, wherever they may lead.


  1. Excellent post! One almost expects these kinds of blunders from Dawkins these days.

    He apparently doesn't even know anything about the parts of the Bible he HAS read. Paul was not interested in Jesus' existence? Hmmm. "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." Gee, it almost sounds like Paul actually thought Jesus was, like, alive. Appeared appeared appeared. And oh hey, Mr. Dawkins, why does Paul bother to tell us that most of the 500 brothers are still alive? What's the relevance of that information? Oh...maybe so that they can be consulted? Asked about their eyewitness experience? Hmmm.

    Let's not forget to point out, while we're at it, that even if we didn't have the New Testament at all, we could still confirm the existence of Jesus from secular historical writings. The Talmud, Josephus, Cornelius Tacitus, Eusebius, Pliny the Younger. Oopsie, Mr. Dawkins.

    1. Great point, Andrew. You've made me regret not including a paragraph similar to yours about the confirming extra-Biblical evidence. Puts a nice emphasis on the depth of Dawkins' ignorance.

  2. I didn't realize Playboy was conducting serious biblical studies.

    What a change of heart!