Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020
Getting at Jesus: A Comprehensive Critique of Neo-Atheist Nonsense about the Jesus of History
Peter S. Williams, Wipf & Stock, 2019, 454pp, £17.95 (Amazon), £7.64 (Kindle)
Peter S. Williams is based in Southampton, England, and is a Christian philosopher and apologist who has published several books on apologetics and philosophy. The subtitle of this book is very deliberate and intentional as one might expect from a philosopher. The book is intended to be “comprehensive” – which following the dictionary definition means that it includes or deals with “all or nearly all aspects of something” (xi). He intends to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that neo-atheists’ treatment of the historical Jesus is, in a phrase borrowed from Jeremy Bentham, “nonsense on stilts”.
Neo-atheists, or the new atheist movement, arose after the twin towers terrorist attacks of 9/11. They expound an aggressive form of atheism that does not merely disagree with belief in God, but despises such faith. The key players are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger and others. Williams points out that although “they generally reject moral objectivism and/or libertarian free will”, they manage to “portray themselves as engaging in a heroic moral struggle to defend civilisation against the evil irrationality of religion” (9). They are not interested in writing academic articles, but in producing best-sellers aimed at commanding cultural attention.
Williams’ strategy in this book is frequently to quote one of the new atheists and then to take apart the quote phrase by phrase and point by point. A good example is the quotation used on page 1 from Victor Stenger:
Physical and historical evidence might have been found for the miraculous events and the important narratives of the Scriptures. For example, Roman records might have been found for an earthquake in Judea at the time of a certain crucifixion ordered by Pontius Pilate… In fact, there isn’t a shred of independent evidence that Jesus Christ is a historical figure.
Williams proceeds to dissect these claims and to critique the logic of insisting on “independent evidence”. What was new to me at least was the recently published geological evidence for an earthquake in Judea around the time of the crucifixion which was published in an academic geology journal (5). This serves to illustrate how up-to-date this book is in its citations and arguments.
The book is structured in five chapters. Chapter 1, “Getting at Jesus” introduces the new atheists, sketching who they are and their perspectives. It then moves on to focus on the denial of miracles in a thorough analysis of the question of whether miracles can ever be believed or even allowed in discussions about religion.
Chapter 2 moves on to the historicity of Jesus and thoroughly rebuts the ridiculous statements of neo-atheists that Jesus was “not historical”, or even that he was “probably fictional” (87). This may be a ridiculous thing for an academic to say, but surveys show that 25% of 18-34-year-olds in the UK believe that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character (88).
Here is another illustrative statement from Stenger that Williams demolishes point by point:
There is not a single piece of independent historical evidence for the existence of Jesus or the veracity of the events described in the New Testament. Even the much-touted statement by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is now accepted by almost all scholars as a forgery. The paragraph in Antiquities that mentions Christ, his “wonderful works”, death on the cross, and appearance three days later does not appear in earliest copies of that work and not until the fourth century. (92)
In fact, of course, citing Gary Habermas, “at least seventeen non-Christian writings record more than fifty details concerning the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, plus details concerning the earliest church” (93). Williams summarises this evidence and then proceeds to explain that Stenger has also misrepresented the evidence from Josephus. The fourth-century citation of that Antiquities paragraph is in fact the earliest of any citation of Antiquities. The overall textual evidence for that passage is as good as for any passage in Josephus. Williams then demonstrates with multiple quotations that the scholarly consensus today is that the passage is substantially authentic.
Also included in this chapter is discussion of the “James Ossuary” as evidence for Jesus, and analysis of whether the divinity of Jesus was a late development. This includes images of ancient wall paintings depicting Jesus in ways that imply divinity. The chapter concludes by examining the trilemma “Lord, Liar, Lunatic”, and Dawkins’ attempt to turn this into a quadrilemma.
Chapter 3 is about the historicity of the Gospels, looking at archaeological, geographical and other evidence for them being accurate reports of what happened at the time. The dates of each of the Gospels are extensively examined, as well as how they were transmitted.
In Chapter 4 Williams looks at evidence for the resurrection. He follows the usual procedure of establishing that Jesus died by crucifixion, that he was buried, and then that the tomb was empty, and that he appeared to multiple people. All of this is done with multiple quotations from academics on both sides of the debate. He shows how each of these historical events match multiple historical criteria for authenticity.
Finally, chapter 5, “Getting at the Best Explanation”, rebuts various proposed theories to account for the historical facts without accepting Christianity. These include claiming that Jesus didn’t die, and various conspiracy and delusion theories. The conclusion to the book challenges the neo-atheists to obey their own exhortations to seek the truth in an objective unbiased fashion. Christianity makes truth claims that are open to historical investigation; neo-atheists should follow their own advice and not avoid or distort the evidence in their writings.
This is a 7”x10” book with over 450 pages of text, including over 2,000 footnotes and 45 pages of references. It contains a huge amount of valuable information. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index, and there are only five chapters, each of which is over 50 pages long. There is no outline showing the overall structure of the book and its arguments. This means that it is not easy, at least in hard copy, to search for the relevant information on a particular topic.
That said, in my judgment Williams has succeeded in his aim of providing “a comprehensive critique of neo-atheist nonsense about the Jesus of History”. Where this book really excels is the multiplicity of quotations from academics and other prominent authors. A substantial portion of the book consists of quotations which are all properly referenced. For example, I was struck by seven robust quotations from atheist philosophers dismissing the arguments and writings of the new atheists (16). In addition, chapter sections frequently conclude with Watch, Listen, and Read recommendations which reference YouTube videos, podcasts, internet resources, journal articles and books for further elaboration on the questions raised.
If you are looking for a one-stop comprehensive and up-to-date critique of the new atheists, look no further – this is it. I just wish the publishers had also included an index or at least an outline to make this more useful as a reference work.
Head of Public Policy, Christian Concern